Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Comsat Angels - Waiting For A Miracle

The Comsat Angels
Waiting For A Miracle

Released 1980 on Polydor
Reviewed by welbourn TEKH, 17/09/2004ce

Whilst recently listening to ‘Waiting for A Miracle’ by The Comsat Angels, my girlfriend entered the room, paused for a moment and said, “This isn’t very good is it?” I was surprised by her comment and was compelled to embark on a declamatory rant, which advocated this lost, classic. The essence of that rant has been rationalised and expanded upon here in this review of what I consider to be a most influential, post-punk masterpiece.

The title of The Comsat Angels’ first LP was very apt, for prior to its release the band had struggled for years in the recession hit city of Sheffield during the early Thatcher era of the late 1970s. Like many northern towns and cities at the time, the spectre of unemployment had cast a dark shadow over the lives of the working classes and no more so than the children born at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950s.

During these bleak, dark post-punk days, a depression hung like a cloud over the disenchanted youth. The vibrance and colour of the punk explosion was but a distant memory. Music that had set out to change the world, had been filtered, watered down and re-packaged and the ghosts of punk hung like a weight around a generation’s neck. Many, like The Comsat Angels, were literally waiting for a miracle to happen, to whisk them away from the lengthening dole-queues and into a world that most of us can only dream about.

I had known The Comsat Angels from their early beginnings(1) when they were then known as Radio Earth and I had been lucky enough to catch them live at Grantham Guildhall in the late 1970s. At the time, the band had jazz-rock inclinations, which publicly I couldn’t be seen to be approving of, but secretly – I was immediately a fan! However, with the emergence of punk and new wave, the band intelligently re-invented themselves as post-punk contenders.

Throughout their career, the Comsat’s suffered from inconsistent production, no one ever seemed to capture on vinyl, what they were all about. Unlike Simple Minds, who deliberately flitted from style to style in a vain attempt to remain fashionable, the Comsat’s were never fortunate enough to find a producer who could define on record their unique style. Each subsequent album they produced was almost like listening to a different band. It was a union they desperately sought and deserved. I liken them in a way to Be Bop Deluxe, in that their music always seemed to be somehow out of time with the current trends. This was not a failing on their part, but a failure of their record companies to capitalise on this original talent.

The band consisted of four friends; Stephen Fellows, who in my opinion had one of the greatest post-punk voices ever. Throughout their recording career, Stephen’s voice was always the consistent factor. His words were always autobiographical, although he often cloaked them in sci-fi metaphors, which, with hindsight, reveals a youthful coyness. The album commences with ‘Missing in Action’ and the first words we hear are “Hello daily life, I don’t want to fight today…”, revealing to us a submissive cry from the recession hit steel city. Fellows’ voice is laced with natural, honest emotion and was not contrived like many of his peers.

Mik Glaisher, was a totally unique drummer, tribal, explosive and minimalist – he was, in my opinion, one of the most original drummers of the ‘anti-rock’ movement of the day. I recall the NME once mischievously stating that, should an opportunity arise, his drumming wouldn’t go amiss in John Lydon’s P.I.L. The key to Glaisher’s drumming was that he knew the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow band members and this was indeed their collective strength. The drums are well and truly walloped on this album, but Glaisher never just ‘fills in’, all of his drum parts are carefully considered, revealing an imaginative and disciplined drummer in the mould of Bill Bruford.

Andy Peake was a great keyboard player and a talented musician who, like many of the Krautrock musicians of yore, had the confidence to hold back and use his skills only when required. His methodology was simple, to apply sonics that complimented Stephen Fellows’ words. Many bracketed ‘Waiting For A Miracle’ with XTC’s ‘White Music’, but this collection of songs has more ‘soul’ than all of those early XTC album’s put together(2). I guess this comparison was prompted by some of the keyboard sounds used by Peake – reminiscent to those used by XTC’s Barry Andrews, but Peake’s use of the keyboard was always subtle and never ‘in your face’.

Kevin Bacon’s bass playing is the rock and the root of the songs on this album. Co-produced by the band and Pete Wilson, the sound on this recording is deliberately thin and sparse as if in defiance of the thick rock sound that had dominated before the arrival of ‘new-wave’. Bacon’s bass keeps it all together, his often dry, quirky, but always imaginative, patterns bridge the spaces between Glaisher’s volatile and sporadic drum patterns and Fellows’ searing guitar.

The band released their first single ‘Red Planet’(3) on their own Junta label which was marketed by Lincoln based ‘Company Records’(4), before they were signed to Polydor in 1979. The following year saw the release of their first album ‘Waiting For A Miracle’(5). The album kicks off with a Diamond Dogs drone and contains, possibly their most famous track ‘Independence Day’. It still amazes me how this vicious circle of a song was never an enormous hit. It contained all of the ingredients that the chart at the time was gagging for. Polydor should hang their heads in shame at their inability to successfully promote this single.

For me, there are two standout tracks on the album the first being ‘Total War’, surely the most un-commercial single ever released. This brilliant, disjointed love song hangs together by the skin of its teeth, its ‘uncomfortable’ spaces stretch like an eternity, reinforcing the separation between lovers in a failing relationship. “We walk the streets together…” sings Fellows, reflecting on the end-game of a dying love affair. A brave choice of single, but whoever at Polydor believed that Simon Bates et al. Would play this track on national radio, must surely have been living in cuckoo-land.

The chaotic mind of ‘Monkey Pilot’ still gets me to this day. Fellows uses the simile of a space-monkey pilot to portray a mind at the edge of its tether. For three minutes or so, we become that monkey pilot, “Sometimes I forget what some of the dials do…” he reveals. This would be a brave admission for many, but for one whose demise is imminent – what the fuck does it matter! Throughout this dilemma, the world lazily slips by, “The sun casts black shadows on the Pan-Am roof and an airport detective rolls over…”. Genius!

Often overlooked, this album deserves to be up there alongside The Sounds’s ‘Jeopardy’, Wire’s ‘154’, The Cure’s ‘Seventeen Seconds’, The Gang Of Four's 'Entertainment' and Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’…. My girlfriend’s dismissal of the album can be understood, for listening to the album out of time, is like dismissing a painting in a gallery, only later to discover that its been painted by someone using their feet or even a child. When the work is placed into context, it all becomes clear – like light streaming in through the windows of an abandoned church. In those murky, post-punk days, many chose the solemn, Joy Division style path, whilst others, like The Comsat Angels chose a more optimistic route and held out for their own miracle(6). For that reason alone, surely they are to be applauded, for bringing light to those dark, dark days.

1. Keyboard player Andy Peake was originally from my home-town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. His father Tony, played piano in a local jazz band ‘The New Olympians’ alongside my late father Claude.

2. I am not criticising XTC here, for I believe that ‘White Music’ and their follow-up ‘Go 2’ were deliberately ‘mechanic’ and soulless.

3. ‘Red Planet' c/w ‘I Get Excited'/'Specimen No. 2’ (Junta 1). If I remember correctly, the initial pressing was on black vinyl and the second pressing on red.

4. I was attending Lincoln College of Art at the time with Andy Peake’s younger brother Bill and we shared a house with Company Record’s boss - the late Chris Hall. I guess this was how The Comsat Angels/Company Records association began. Unfortunately, it was a relationship that would end acrimoniously and ill-feeling simmered between the band and the label up until the Comsats were eventually signed by Polydor in 1980.

5. I recall being told a story that Polydor originally pressed up initial copies of the LP with the name of the band miss-spelt as ‘The Comsat Angles’!

6. It must be added, that possibly due to the lack of chart success, the band’s second Polydor album ‘Sleep No More’ was a brilliant, but grim and somber affair. Long gone was the optimism that prevailed on ‘Waiting For A Miracle’, what we are we left with here, is a grim reminder of the steel city reality that they had temporarily escaped from.

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