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After a seven year break, Liverpool’s post-punk pop experimentalists return with album No 8. The unusual name is taken from the long-forgotten 1970s ITV variety show The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, compered by Bernard Manning, which recreated the smoky, boozy atmosphere of Northern working men's clubs for a sofa-bound audience.
“It’s been a pisstake thing between us for quite a few years,” reveals Ade Blackburn, Clinic spokesman, of the show that the album title references. “Whenever we’d talk about a song sounding too ‘cabaret’ or too nice, we’d say, ‘That’s a bit Wheeltappers and Shunters’. This album is neither a celebration nor a denigration of the culture of the era in which Blackburn and his collaborator-in-chief, Hartley, grew up. “It’s a satirical take on British culture - high and low,” explains Blackburn. “It fascinates me that people look back on the 1970s as the glory days. It’s emerged that there was a darker, more perverse side to that time. When you look back on it now it was quite clearly there in mainstream culture.”
The Great Britain that Clinic are evoking is not that ancient, bucolic past of village green cricket, half a mild and hanky-waving Morris Dancers that many seem so determined that the country should return to, but a rather more sleazy past. Clinic’s reverie is for a time when Blackpool was the pleasure capital of the kingdom and the public was kept entertained by travelling circuses and the dirty glamour of the funfair; tacky end of the pier merriment and enforced fun at Butlins; when bell-ringing town criers bellowed their nonsensical broadsides into the ether. For most bands about to enter their third decade as an entity the well would be running dry, but eight albums in and Clinic still retain the ability to surprise. This is not a band reborn, but refreshed and revitalised. Clocking in at just over 28 minutes, Wheeltappers and Shunters is an absolute blast, rich in detail and sonic intrigue, those precious minutes stuffed with ideas.
“We’d released albums like clockwork every two years, so it seemed natural to have a break,” Blackburn reveals. “It allowed everyone to do some quite oddball stuff, away from Clinic. I think we all wanted a bit more freedom.” When the band reconvened, Wheeltappers and Shunters came together quickly. Having taken “a fair bit of time” making 2012’s Free Reign, this time they worked spontaneously. “We didn’t want to dwell on ideas. Making sure there was an energy to it became the most important factor. A lot of the songs were recorded very quickly in a small studio set-up in Hartley’s house and then we’d edit from there. It was all about getting it sonically interesting. Dilip Harris (King Krule, Sons of Kemet) mixed the album. Dilip was great. He interpreted our ideas really quickly.”“We thought it felt right to make a fun, dancefloor album in these dark and conservative times,” Blackburn continues. “We didn’t plan it. Within the set of songs that we’d worked on for it there was a thread of it being a bit more rock’n’roll, a bit more UP! It had that sort of feel to it early on.”
Fun, sure, but this is Clinic – their brand of fun oozes with menace, with even the innocuous request to “Join in the circus” in the brief interlude ‘Tiger’ sounds vaguely threatening. And in Clinic’s world, the pleasure is illusory. "All the fun of the fair, lap it up without a care," Blackburn begins on scene-setting opener ‘Laughing Cavalier’, but the mood quickly changes: “All the fun of the fair, are you really all still there?” “One of my favourite things is those contradictions,” Blackburn says. “Having the rug pulled from under you. I think that’s exciting – where you think you’ve got the measure of something but then that shifts. It’s not just about the double meaning with a line, it’s also about the way it’s sung. You can interpret something in the opposite way just from the delivery.”
The music that the band were listening to before and during the recording “wasn’t down or morbid, it was stuff like Link Wray, old rock’n’roll, acid punk and disco – something that had an energy to it.” Link Wray is a good sonic reference point for Wheeltappers… ‘Ferryboat of the Mind’, which opens with a plaintive clarinet straight from the Acker Bilk songbook, expands with a shimmering, twanging guitar riff that Fred Lincoln Wray would be proud of, with cosmic effects and a haunting harmonica. Fifties rock’n’roll is the order of the day on ‘Rubber Bullets’ as Blackburn grunts “Neanderthal” over a twanging rockabilly guitar riff à la Scotty Moore.
The dancefloor element comes through in the low-slung grooves of ‘Mirage’, the Slade on mushrooms glam stomp of ‘Rejoice!’ and the breathlessly propulsive ‘D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.’, a throwback to the band’s earliest output, with Blackburn stuttering “D-D-D-D-IT’S EXCITING!” over a Suicide drum machine pulse. There’s even whimsy on the album’s closing song, ‘New Equations at the Copacabana’, that opens by pastiching Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’, has a melody that evokes Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park, and concludes with a sample of The Wurzels urging you to “Drink up thy zider!” Only Clinic could cram those three disparate sources into one three-minute song. Despite being influenced by the prevailing mood in the country, the band have been careful to steer clear of making direct references to Brexit or anything lyrically that would obviously date it. “It’s not just Brexit,” muses Blackburn. “It’s what Brexit has brought out in politics and the polarisation of it. That’s definitely had a knock-on effect on the lyrics. Leaving Europe was an issue that wasn’t really at the front of everybody’s minds, but it’s given people the green light to think that division isn’t such a bad thing. That’s seen as the norm now. That’s what feels really scary about it. It’s got this far so what else can happen?”
This sense of dread of what the future could bring is tackled in the unsettlingly woozy ‘Be Yourself/Year of the Sadist’, the latter title indirectly referencing Brexit. “It’s about how, on an interpersonal level, it’s made people more distant or more suspicious of each other. We’re definitely harming ourselves.” For Blackburn and his Clinic cohorts, Wheeltappers and Shunters is a “response to that overall feeling of things not seeming right in the world and the atmosphere being more tense. But rather than succumb to it you’ve got to try and enjoy yourself.” Sound advice. Listening to the latest musical emissions from Clinic’s house of fun is a great place to start."
Joe Clay, November 2018.