21 May 2005

The Three O' Clock - Baroque Hoedown


I loved The Three O’ Clock. Like the classic mid-period stuff by The Jam, they take 60s pop and give it post-punk muscularity with psychedilic tinges. Teenagers making bright shiny intelligent Rickenbacker pop, sparkling textures shimmering with superb 60s harmonies, and always something slightly uneasy and occult swimming under the surface.

The darker side is referenced in their name, taken from an Aldous Huxley quote, 'in the darkest corners of the mind it's always three o'clock in the morning'. Them and The Doors; anyone else taken their name from a Huxley quote?

Lumped in as part of the brief 'Paisley Underground' scene of 60s-influenced alternative pop, a subgenre from which only one band ever made it big.

The Bangles were signed up by Columbia and given a shiny corporate makeover, knocking off the edges of weird and making them palatable for mass consumption. The Three O'Clock's guitarist and half of the songwriting team, Louis Gutierrez, also co-wrote Walking Down Your Street, The Bangles follow-up to Walk Like An Egyptian.

The Three O'Clock, by contrast, sank without trace everywhere outside the USA. There were several more albums, including a production job by Ian Broudie and a release on Paisley Park, but the shine and bounce of their first two releases mean they remain my favourites by far.

The discrepancy between their US and UK popularity left me a little unsure what tracks to put up here. Do I go with a couple of the best tracks? Or is that too obvious for people who’ve already heard of them?

I’ve got a couple of very rare tracks, but if the band are new to you I want to show them in a representative light. So I found a middle option; the opening two tracks from their debut mini-LP Baroque Hoedown.

In America in the early 1980s there was a great but sadly short-lived format for music; the EP or mini-LP. The fact that it had two names sort of describes what was so good about it. It was a five track 12” - more than a single but less than an album.

Before this, you’d had to buy either a single or an album. A single is just the one song, it’s no proof of the artist’s vision or worth. A good single could be a fluke, and the B-side was no way to test it as flipsides were often just dustbins for half-arsed material.

But to go out and buy a whole album by an artist you’re unsure about? What if that good single really was a fluke?

The rise of the CD and decline of the 7" single put paid to this dilemma. If you like a song on the radio you have to buy the album, which may well be a turkey. In effect, you’re being sold a £10 single with 12 B-sides.

Unfortunately, the increased playing time on CDs meant artists expanded their albums to fit the space allotted. As someone who grew up on punk and 60s pop, I hold concision among the top virtues in popular music. I remember wading through the 60 minutes-plus of PM Dawn’s And Now The Legacy Begins (yeah, right guys - it pretty much ended there too, didn’t it) becoming deeply fearful for the future of albums.

Things got even worse in the 1990s with the complete death of the single, which is why downloading became so popular. For all the record industry’s complaints about downloading stealing from artists, it’s often CD sales that are stealing from punters.

A big part of downloading’s popularity is the same reason singles were popular. The basic unit of pop music is the song. People want the song. If they like that song, they usually want to know more by the artist.

The mini-LP gave you a real taste of an artist. With five tracks, there’s space to do something a bit weird that on a single would leave you wondering which of the two tracks was the real direction. Yet on a mini-LP it still had to be tight, to the point, and the punter hadn’t had to splash out the time or money on a full album.

North America never shared the UK’s passion for the 12” as a standard format for every single. Also, the UK has always loved non-album tracks on singles (in the UK it was seen as making the single good value, whereas in the US putting the tracks on the album was what made that good value, The throwing on of UK non-album material is why the Beatles released several ‘extra’ albums in the US).

This meant that British artists had enough tracks around from singles from which good mini-LPs could be easily compiled (as with, say, The Jam or The Alarm). Alternatively, American record companies could test the Stateside water for a new British artist by trimming their debut album down to a mini-LP (as happened with The Waterboys).

New American artists specifically recorded mini-LPs. The first proper releases by many bands of the time were in the format. REM’s Chronic Town is a masterpiece example.

In these days of CD reissue, mini-LPs present a problem. REM tucked the brilliant Chronic Town away as bonus tracks on a compilation of 80s B-sides. Another of my favourite bands, The Church, only got around to reissuing their wonderful 1982 Sing Songs mini-LP in 2001. Many bands simply leave them deleted.

Baroque Hoedown is available as the bonus on the CD of The Three O'Clock's first album-proper, Sixteen Tambourines (for a couple of years in my mid teens that was my favourite record). The album continues in the vein set out on Baroque Hoedown, so do go get the whole thing if you like what you hear here.

If these tracks get a positive response in the comments (or if there's people saying 'I've already got this, gimme something I've not heard') I’ll put up the rarities as well.

[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]


Anonymous said...

Been meaning to get to this..Thnaks for the Great tracks..I've their original Salvation Army album before they were forced to change names and was fortunate enough to catch them open for REM on their Fables tour...Thanks for the 'trip' down memory lane

Anonymous said...

Just saw this,as a fan of the band,you might be happy to hear there will be a CD of hard to find and unreleased material from the Frontier years.
Danny Benair

merrick said...

Wow Danny! Really excited and flattered that you've posted here!

Of all the Three O Clock stuff it's the Frontier stuff I love most, it has such a sprightly keenness to it.

Please do let me know when it's out and I'll plug it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you got that quote from Huxley but I believe it is being misquoted and wrongly attributed. Are you thinking of the quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that says, 'In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day.'?

merrick said...

Just wondering: I'm not being so literary as to be thinking of the F Scott Fitzgerald quote. I'm thinking of some record review I read ages ago.

I stand corrected (don't you love the way the internet does that so easily?).

Can you give me a source for the Fitzgerald line?