‘The Back Of This Beyond’ – Secret Music, And The Joy Of The Lost LP

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Secret music. Always secret music…

The facts: 1987, Scottish musician Hamish Mackintosh – Dundee based, if memory serves – and an album called The Back Of This Beyond, released under his Fuel moniker. Vinyl-only. Perhaps an unfortunate name to record under, considering the later (and very much uninteresting) American rock act, who sat down one miserable afternoon and picked a band name already taken, forever despoiling a casual Googling in the process. There’s a Herman Hesse quotation on the back cover. Words, music and mistakes, say the sleeve notes (tongue-in-cheek– there are no mistakes) – a line that never fails to makes me smile. Hamish is on Twitter (@McBuddah); you can go say hello should you wish.

And that would be where the story ends, were it not for secret music. Ritualisation, fetishisation – I bang on about the sacrosanct relationship between record and listener incessantly… and I’m not of a mind to apologise for any repetition because it underlines who we are, what we are about, and did I mention that there’s a long-forgotten album entitled The Back Of This Beyond? I didn’t buy this LP in 1987 because I was young, and foolish, and listening to too much synth-pop (plus my first forays into the Bowie back-cat) after school without the slightest idea that a Hamish Mackintosh was even possible. 

No; it wouldn’t have been until the early ’90′s that I first heard Fuel. A track on a compilation, squirrelled away between a decidedly ropey Happy Mondays mix and something from Bettie Serveert’s first album. And Jesus wept – what a song. Produced by Cocteau-in-chief Robin Guthrie, its fragile beauty and enigmatic lustre had what students of the oeuvre call an impact. Such an impact that I’ve attempted to write about that one particular track on quite a few occasions, only to discover that I’ve never held the words in my arsenal.

It would have been that original listen when the desperation to hear more Fuel became corporeal. Was this track a one-off, or demonstrative of a back catalogue of such over-arching grace that hunting it down was obligatory? What – there’s an album or two? Seriously? Only, this being nineteen-ninety-something, and that back-cat already on the obscure side, I lacked both wherewithal and the sheer blind luck to get my mucky paws on anything subsequently released. It seems bizarre, in this era of instant gratification, where records – rare records, deleted records, unreleased records, or those pressed in highly limited numbers – are only the click of a button away, whether legitimately of via those websites of dubious provenance. But yes, picking up a copy of a The Back Of This Beyond (once I’d discovered rumours of its existence) became a task of significant proportions back then. And the longer I failed to locate a copy – all those record store orders, and letters to distributors, and scouring the For Sale pages of this magazine or that – the more the album became secret music. A quest through which my music fetishisation could be qualified.

It wasn’t until quite a few years later that I finally clutched this album to my chest; to listen felt like affirmation. And that’s not where the story ends, either. Of the many, many, stupidly many albums that I own, The Back Of This Beyond is something I can’t help but repeatedly turn to. For not only is this secret music, the thrill of the chase, but even now a definite set of words to describe eludes me. I love the way in that album opener ‘Age And Present Past’ dares to lead with its jangly guitar hook, only to subvert notions of the late-eighty indie aesthetic by venturing off-kilter, refracting the sound, layering the sound, using hackneyed effects such as soft-peddled vocal and backwards taping in new and interesting patterns. I love how the album never resorts to the disposable lyric, and how it positions its dreamy inclinations against the musical firmament delicately, so that you’re never certain if you’re listening to Echo And the Bunnymen, Vini Reilly, Win, anything released on 4AD, or all of the aforementioned simultaneously. Hamish has one of those voices – vaguely reminiscent of a lower register Billy MacKenzie – that’s full of expression (however low in the mix or – as on side 2′s ‘Charon’ – bounced about with on the mixing desk), and when taken as a whole, the LP exudes a warm, enfolding eeriness. A late at night listen, with wine, and wind at the windows.

But above all, I love how even now, in the year of our Lord 2014, The Back Of This Beyond implicitly works.

That’ll be the secret music, then.

Fuel / Sacred Blue

Hamish Mackintosh’s bandcamp = here. Physical copies of The Back Of This Beyond are only available second-hand as far as I can tell; a new pressing is well overdue (I’m even tempted to finance it myself). 

Hunkering Down With Turntable And Bottle Of Whatever

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Certain elements of popular music are just so wonderful that I don’t have the words. The trumpets on Scott Walker’s version of ‘Mathilde’. The solitary, exorcised chord around which Spiritualized’s ‘If I Were With Her Now’ is constructed. ‘Just Make It Stop’ by Low – you catch my drift.

These words are being written on the type of afternoon where hunkering down with turntable and bottle of whatever is the only thing that makes sense. Dusk at half-past two. The wind. The rain. Clouds so low you could reach out and touch. Reflective, I think the mood is called; I’m not currently listening to Disintegration by The Cure, but it would fit. Snugly.

There are, of course, people out there for whom the above paragraphs make no sense whatsoever. I don’t understand these folk – just as I’ll never comprehend voting Conservative or why Mark E Smith isn’t allowed to read out the soccerball scores every Saturday afternoon – but their existence is legion. Even the kids are at it; the shrug, the vague look, the fidgeting as the first Broadcast LP is lovingly transferred to the machine that plays records. “Can I go do something else now?”

Combining parenthood with even a semi-serious record collection is to wish the magic rubs off. It’s not necessarily a conscious determination – little ears a conduit through which vital records become equally as loved by the next generation – but it’s there, all the same. For various reasons I’ve pretty much failed with my offspring. They’ve displayed scant affinity toward jangly guitars, odd-angled beeps and buzzes, or Slade’s rather fantastic 1975 Old New Borrowed Or Blue album. I’ll keep working on it of course – Reproduction by The Human League wasn’t dismissed out of hand – but I kind of get where this musical distance originates. There’s a lack of context present. A barrier to empathy. They’ve never had to queue up outside the Left Legged Pineapple in Loughborough or Vibe in Bournemouth whilst the racks were filled with that week’s Wedding Present single – in part because those record stores no longer exist, and in part because the 7” looks to them like something that belongs in a museum. The “Wow, you used to listen to music on that?” moment.

The flip-side, I guess, is that however old fashioned and irrelevant my fetishistic consumption of recorded sound may appear to those less schooled in C86, it’s exactly the stance I took (and no doubt continue to take) with my own parent’s record collection. That I know all the words to Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer album (for instance) is less a reflection upon me than a legacy of long-term exposure at a formative age. The music my mother and father listened to say nothing to me about my life (to borrow a phrase). The lack of context and a barrier to empathy, etc.

And the moral of this tale? Strictly speaking, there isn’t one – I’m merely sat at the keyboard with a tumbler full of port, listening to records and thinking abstract thoughts at 33rpm. But if you do require a moral – as if you haven’t had enough of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life – it’s…erm… listen to more Wedding Present singles. That Slade remain criminally under-rated. And that, were I to resubmit my 2013 Albums Of The Year, Low’s The Invisible Way might just make the Top Ten.

Low / Just Make It Stop