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Loved And Lost: Whirlpool Guest House

November 17, 2010

I wrote this piece as the introduction to the booklet for Whirlpool Guest House’s Rough Digs CD, a compilation of their single, album and four previously unreleased songs. Most of the world hasn’t yet bought the CD, and I thought their music merited a wider audience. True, most of the world also doesn’t yet read this blog, but add the two together and we’re getting somewhere.

Stockton-on-Tees in the mid to late 1980s was a hotbed of musical activity. Walk down the high street – allegedly the country’s widest – and within a couple of minutes you’d bump into several of the mainstays of the local band ‘scene’ – personnel who would often crop up in each other’s line-ups when not starring in their own. Every week the town’s Dovecot Arts Centre unveiled the newest, uppest-and-comingest indie phenomenon as well as showcasing the cream of the local talent, of which there was plenty. If you liked – or especially played – music, it was the place to be.

On these sturdy foundations Whirlpool Guest House was built. Formed in disillusion by singer/songwriter Carl Green, it was a last-gasp attempt to break free from the shackles of futile touring – of playing the same set over and over in sparsely populated pubs and clubs, chasing ever-diminishing returns and ever-receding record deals (and indeed hairlines). Green had had some success with power-pop combo Carl Green and the Scene who had morphed into Rules of Croquet, but frustration had set in, and he hit on the novel idea of making music for fun again: a band that needn’t even exist in live form.

Roping in ex-Scene and Croquet cohort Andrew Davis on bass and Davis’ wife Sallyann, who had discovered an unexpected talent for ethereal vocals and spicy harmonies, the band set to work. Soon they had an embryonic single and album ready. One of the bonuses of recording at Graeme Robinson’s GDR Studios, Darlington, was that you got a top drummer, GDR himself, thrown in as part of the package. Robinson’s massive drum sound, mixed well to the fore, gave the band a harder edge and fuller feel than their modest line-up suggested.

Whirlpool Guest House was to be a minimal, anti-music-business set-up, whose live performances would be home-made Super 8 films projected to tapes of their songs and interspersed with zany introductions and wacky comments. Singer Green handled projection duties rather than fronting the band, and the rest of the group were on hand to sign autographs. In the late 80s this was hardly the classic template for promoting your music, but nearly 20 years later Green was able to bring his original vision to fruition with cartoon band The Close-Ups, created specifically for an internet age.

When not directing Whirlpool Guest House, Green was earning a crust as a print distributor, photographer, poster designer and mobile disco proprietor – a veritable jack-of-all-trades, a career choice celebrated in the song of that name, and in others. The songs don’t mess about and come straight from the heart – a risky strategy which sometimes reveals naivety and an occasional awkwardness, whilst more often hitting the emotional bullseye. A mix of the heartfelt and the quirky, the subject matter bypasses the standard boy-fails-to-meet-girl fare of fey indiepopdom, covering instead a diverse range of topics from hairdressing to random violence, ageing to abandoned infants. Much of the scenery will be recognisable to anyone who knows Cleveland, north east England.

The 1987 single The Changing Face, 1989 album Pictures On The Pavement and four unreleased songs are all that Whirlpool Guest House left behind, although as Shandy Wildtyme the same people, now playing live too, released an album, Luminous, in 1995. The last four songs on Rough Digs were always meant to make a CD single, but somehow it never quite happened. Then the band’s lifespan was up, and Green quit to form Gaberdine and latterly The Close-Ups.

We released this album to make Whirlpool Guest House’s music available to an audience who missed it first time round – usually by virtue of being unborn at the time. And also for those who did get it on vinyl but whose turntables have long since stopped spinning. Great songs, a cherished place, memorable days – Rough Digs is the record of a special time for the people who made the music, and for many who enjoyed it. For me it’s also the testament of an artistic collaboration and personal friendship which has lasted, on and off, for 25 years.

Welcome to the Guest House…and enjoy your stay.

PS Thanks to Graeme Robinson for finding the tapes, and to John Spence for getting the bastards to play.

Whirlpool Guest House/Shandy Wildtyme discography

From → Loved And Lost

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