Sonya Aurora Madan is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical pop or rock star. She’s so far removed from the typical that she probably can’t even be placed on the same cultural continent. She’s a genuine original. Just think about the sorts of bands who were making it big in the 90’s when she burst onto the music scene…blur (four middle-class lads from Colchester), Pulp (a gaggle of Sheffield based outsiders with a female keyboard player), Oasis (four legitimately working class lads from Manchester), Suede (four foppish chaps). “I see where you’re going with this”, I hear you wail, “You’re going to argue that Madan railed against the machine because she was a…woman. But what about Sleeper and Elastica or Kenickie?”. You are right but it wasn’t just her sex that set her apart she was also a rare person of colour in a largely white music scene and was also Asian, born in India.
Now, I’m no social justice warrior type or someone who sees everything through the prism of identity politics but it’s ridiculous not to acknowledge how significant seeing an Asian female fronting a guitar band and singing about feminism, abortion and the rest of it was in the early 1990s…especially, I would think, for other young Asian people. Only the equally fabulous Cornershop were putting Asian faces into indie kid bedrooms. That’s quite the cultural barrier to be knocking down. It wasn’t just Sonya who was a bit “different” from the indie norms, the band also included Debbie Smith (eventually) on guitar, an openly gay, black, woman and a Swedish lead guitarist in the form of Glenn Johansson. What brought such a disparate group together? The Swedish guitar maestro himself says;
“The only thing we had in common was our love of music and the fact the we were all Londoners. (Actually, most britpop bands came from outside London although a few adopted a mock-cockney swagger). We were not that easily definable, visually because of our backgrounds, but that ironically, also made us a perfect example of a multi -cultural capital city melting pot.” And what about those other female fronted bands, did Echobelly feel they had anything in common with them? “No we did not find any common ground whatsoever with the so called female fronted bands, it was just a wet dream for wimpy journalists. None of those bands had anything remarkable to say in their songs and I always thought it was only Sonya who dealt with some real issues, hence the only one to get the lyrical thumbs up from Moz I suppose! ”
The “bellyache e.p” was the bands calling card. It arrived late in 1993 just a few months before Britpop became a “thing”. Earlier in the year blur had released “Modern Life is Rubbish” and Suede already were a “thing” but nobody knew what an Oasis was or that Pulp even existed. Even the “Shagging in the Streets” e.p which was the calling card of the New Wave of New Wave (Britpops punkier older brother) wasn’t released until the next year. So this release was a crucial moment in the history of a major popular culture movement.
I bought my copy from Stereo One in Paisley. Situated behind Gilmour Street train station this was a safe haven for me during my years studying at the university there. I spent hours browsing the shelves and spent a large chunk of my student loans in there too. I bought my first Pulp record there (“Lipgloss”), “Stay Together” by Suede on 12″ and “For the Dead” by Gene too. So many others too.
The title track was a clear indication that this was not a band happy to dwell on the frivolous. It’s a dark and deeply intimate portrait of love gone wrong…with very real consequences.. “It’s more than a bellyache, there’s something alive in here”. It’s a far cry from what the likes of Shampoo would be serving up just six months later on “Trouble”. “Uh oh we’re in trouble, something’s come along and it’s burst our bubble”.
It opens with a Bo Diddley riff that was reworked in a style reminiscent of “How Soon is Now” by The Smiths. That, and the lyrical content, saw lots of comparisons with those Mancunian masters of mope and misery being drawn by lazy journalists. The truth was much more complicated. Echobelly were a rare beast, a band that arrived fully formed and with their own sound. It really wasn’t easy to say who, if anyone, they reminded you of.
That said the second track on the e.p, “Sleeping Hitler”, does doff it’s cap to Morrissey with the line; “I wish I was blindly loved” which is similar to “I would sooner be just blindly loved” from the Morrissey song “The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye” from his 1991 album “Kill Uncle”. Legend has it that the Pope of Mope himself took quite the shine to Echobelly, so much so that he turned up at the abode of Sonya. Glenn Johansson remembers his interest well;
“It’s true, he did show up one day. He was very friendly and the cat liked him as well which was a good sign for us. Slightly embarrassing though since the cat was called Morrissey! He asked what the cat was called and we were put on the spot but managed to make something up. He said he really liked the band and was particularly impressed by some of Sonya’s song titles. He came to see us play a few times and always came backstage after the show for a chat. The Smiths were one of the reasons why I decided to move from Sweden to London, I was a huge fan but I don’t think Sonya was that aware of them at the time. I will always have a huge respect for Morrissey. He is brave enought to speak his mind, even if it causes controversy in a world that is full of political correctness. It has not changed our opinion about him. After all we’re living in a country with freedom of speach so he has the right to think what ever he likes.”
Oh…one more thing while we are on the Morrissey influence. The closing track of the e.p is “I Don’t Belong Here” which might, just might, be a subtle rebuke for the line in “Bengali in Platforms” from “Viva Hate” where Morrissey sings; “Shelve you’re Western plans…life is hard enough when you belong here”. It’s safe, I think, to assume that given the proximity to this song and the Morrissey “Flying the flag…flirting with disaster” debacle the year before it’s release it isn’t hard to see how both events may also be linked.
The debut album “Everyone’s Got One” arrived in October 1994. The NME gave it a positive review saying;
“A thoroughly decent inauguration to the world of albums, then, scattered with grand statements and shining ambitions. And why not? After all, if everybody else has got one, why shouldn’t Echobelly?” 7/10
Grand statements like “Father Ruler King Computer” which took it’s inspiration from the second wave feminism key text “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer. It’s odd but Greer and her writing play a minor role in the Britpop story with this track, S*M*A*S*H and their single “Lady Love Your Cunt” (and their giving a copy of the essay with another release) and Sleeper playing with the title of that essay with “Lady Love Your Countryside”.
Shining ambitions like the towering pop anthem “I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me” which could make claim for the top spot in any list of singles released during that era. The rolling, pounding, drilling drums. The aural treat of Madan yelling “…me, me, me, me, me…”. The sheer craft in the melody being delivered by Glenn Johansson. It’s a terrific pop single.
Magnificent though both of those tracks are and fantastic as the album as a whole is there is one moment that elevates the album and the band from being just a band to a band worthy of your love. That moment is “Insomniac” which, in a better world, would have been number one on release and would be number one still. It’s perfect. In every respect.
Lyrically the song deals with one of the dominant features of that time in British popular culture; cocaine. Let their be no doubt…Britain in the mid 1990’s was buried under an avalanche of white powder. It’s “influence” can be heard all over certain records from that time, most obviously “Be Here Now” by Oasis and “The Second Coming” by fellow Mancs The Stone Roses. Bombastic. Over produced. Dull. Occasional flashes of the old magic. That’s the truth of those records, and others, and it’s also true of the musicians responsible. “Whatever turned you on…you put it up your nose dear.” sings Sonya while Glenn and the gang provide a musical backdrop that was so clean, so crisp and so free from the influence of Charlie that it ranks as the toppermost of the pops for many connoisseurs of Britpop.
The following year saw the band rack up three top thirty singles, including two that broke the top twenty; “Great Things” (13), “King of the Kerb” (25) and “Dark Therapy” (20). The album that was home to all three was “ON” which itself reached number four in the album charts. It was obvious now that Britpop WAS the pop music scene in the UK. 5 years earlier and a band like Echobelly would have struggled to get airplay on Radio One and now they were on the A-list of every radio station in the country. Their success at this point is the clearest indication of the outsiders taking over the mainstream…if only for a few months. How do the band look back on that time?
“I remember it as a really vibrant time”, remembers Glenn, “Not only for music but for British culture in general. There was a real sense of confidence and pride in the musical past. There were many higlights, our first sold out headline tour, touring with REM, private planes and meeting various artists that you admired but most of it is a bit of a blur (not the band) due to the hedonistic lifestyle that accompanied those times.! There was a lot of them about!“
There were three more Echobelly albums; “Lustra” (1997), “People are Expensive” (2001) and “Gravity Pulls” in 2004. All three are very fine albums and all three highlight the significant talents of the band. Success in terms of chart positions and sales was always going to be difficult at a time when the general public were voting for “Angels” by Robbie Williams as the greatest song of the last 25 years. The mood in the country had shifted. The vibrancy that Glenn mentions had been replaced by an acceptance that, contrary to what D-Ream and Tony Blair promised in 1997, things could only get, well, the same. A combination of cocaine, Blairite politics and the fickle nature of the industry meant that the death of Britpop could have been the end of Echobelly.
Sonya and Glenn continued to make music together as Calm Zero and they played live too. Very few people could have expected that 13 years after “Gravity Pulls” that Echobelly would return, even fewer could have expected that that return would amount to anything more than a few “greatest hits” live shows. Anyone who really knows the band and who really cared about them though would have known that any return would not come wrapped up in the tinsel of nostalgia or for the sake of milking a few dollars more out of the reunion scene. This was always a band who cared; about each other, about their fans, about their music and about the words. A return would have to be about something new. The question has to be asked though; why now?
“After Gravity Pulls, there was a lot of strain in the band, things weren’t going well, the whole britpop thing had died and we decided to call it a day. Sonya and I kept writing, as we always had done and I started to write some acoustic stuff which was a breath of fresh air for me at the time because we felt the need to get away from the whole echobelly thing. I started to experiement with open tuning on the guitar and became influenced by Indian music. We recorded two mini albums under the name of Calm Of Zero and toured in the UK and Europe. It was only after a chance meeting with an agent during the summer of 2015, who suggested that we play an Echobelly show in London. Having gotten a bit bored with the acoustic thing and missing the excitement of the electric sound again, we decided to go ahead with a show at The Scala in October 2015. The response was overwhelming, the show was completely sold out and there was so much love from the crowd that it made us realise that this is what we were here to do!”
Now, two years after those live shows Echobelly have returned with a new album; “Anarchy and Alchemy”. While certain people may never be able to see past any bands earliest work as their best the truth, in this instance, is that Echobelly have returned with an album that matches, and in several moments betters, any of those early records.
It’s easy to understand when listening to the album why iconic figures like Morrissey and Michael Stipe would have taken an interest in them. Madan and Johansson deserve their place alongside some other, more lauded but less talented, songwriting partnerships.
The opening track on the album is “Hey Hey Hey” and it’s a statement of intent. A message to the listener that while they may have dropped off your musical radar …they never really went anywhere, their absence was only ever temporary. A classic bluesy guitar riff, Madans voice soaring and dipping with all the strength and delicacy of a bird in flight, the rhythm section driving things along and all the time you are listening one question keeps popping into your head; how did I ever manange without this?
From that moment on its one glorious title after another (Morrissey was right, they do give good title), particularly the magnificently threatening “If the Dogs Don’t Get You my Sisters Will” and “Dead Again”.. Musically it’s pop, indie, blues with moments of ethereal shimmer that the Cocteau Twins would have cut off a limb to have written (just listen to the aforementioned “Dead Again”).
“When we decided to do a new record, we felt it had to be different from anything that we’ve done in the past. As a writer you grow, you discover new things all the time and that comes out when you write. We are very proud of the inclusion in the whole Britpop thing but we’ve continued to be influenced and grown as Artists and are in a different place now as writers.” says Glenn, he’s right…this is Echobelly but it’s not the same Echobelly.
Next up is a first UK tour in a long while which promise to be some of the best live shows of the year. After that? Who knows but my hope is that Echobelly decide to hang around, heaven knows I’ve missed them and I don’t want to have to deal with the trauma of them disappearing from view for a second time.
Huge thanks to the charming Glenn Johansson for taking the time to speak to the mild mannered army.
Echobelly are on tour in November at the following times and places;
November 23 O2 Academy, Newcastle
November 24 King Tuts Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow
November 26 Arts Club, Liverpool
November 27 Scala, London
November 29 Komedia, Brighton
November 30 Fleece, Bristol