CLINIC – ” Wheeltappers and Shunters “

Posted: October 9, 2021 in MUSIC
Clinic: Wheeltappers and Shunters album artwork

In 2019, what are the chances of not one, but two new records, released in the same week, referencing mid-1970s variety series The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club? The show was one of those dimly remembered phenomena you could pull out in order to underline that the Britain of 45 years ago was barely recognisable as the country we currently live in now.

And yet, nearly half a century on, we find ourselves in an unexpected situation. Days after Noel Gallagher released a video for his new single cut with footage from the show to suggest his band is performing in the titular social club, Liverpool quartet Clinic release an album named after it, on which the first sound you hear is a fuzzy recording of its co-host Colin Crompton.

It’s a rare moment when what Clinic does intersects, albeit accidentally, with something happening in the mainstream. They’ve been nominated for a Grammy – for 2002’s Walking With Thee – and shortly afterwards, the American viewing public was treated to the sight of the band, resplendent in matching collarless Beatle suits and their trademark surgical masks, powering through its title track on the Late Show With David Letterman. But Clinic have spent most of the past 22 years in a world of their own, ploughing a peculiar furrow on the margins, offering up a grimy, very northern English take on psychedelia.

As well as the initial sample from The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, the warped surf-rock guitars and distorted keyboards of opener “Laughing Cavalier” are overlaid with snatches of what sounds like an old advert for a coach trip to Blackpool, conjuring up an infinitely more sinister-sounding mystery tour than that once offered by some fellow Liverpudlians. In fact, Clinic’s most obvious antecedents, at least spiritually, might be the phantasmagorical, psilocybin-fuelled visions of the northwest offered up on the Fall’s early albums, or the work of the Blue Orchids, the band formed by former Fall members who boasted their music was “completed under extraneous influences working on the psyche”. But their sound stirs garage rock, primitive synthesiser experiments, dub and glam, among an array of other influences, into a fizzing, idiosyncratic mix: two tracks on Wheeltappers and Shunters are driven by the kind of antiquated drum machine pattern that powered Blondie’s Heart of Glass, while “Disciple” offers a fair imagining of what Suicide might have sounded like, had they come from Bootle.

Wheeltappers and Shunters arrives seven years after Clinic’s last album, “Free Reign“, on which they collaborated with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin (they later reworked the album, included more of Lopatin’s work, and released it as Free Reign II), and stretched their sound into lengthy, droning jams. By contrast, Wheeltappers and Shunters represents something of a return to core values. Its 12 tracks are done and dusted in under half an hour; nothing is allowed to linger much over three minutes.

What’s striking is how much Clinic can cram in to such a tight schedule. Despite their brevity, their songs tend to gradually reveal themselves over repeated listens: there’s a real complexity and depth lurking behind the initial distorted punch of their sound. The brilliant “Flying Fish” is a case in point. At first, it sounds like there’s almost nothing to it beyond a metronomic rhythmic pulse, a simple bass line and an echoing vocal, but on closer inspection, it’s packed with distant sounds subtly shifting in and out of view: whispering voices, ghostly shimmers, something that might be a harpsichord, little accents of guitar and keyboard. The overall effect is eerie and compelling. The closing “New Equations (at the Copacabana)”, meanwhile, shifts from sounding like a hotel lounge band playing underwater – overlaid with the clack of a typewriter – to an insistent garage-rock thud, to a dense, Sister Ray-ish climax.

It’s music that manages to be both taut and immersive. The latter sensation is heightened by the enigmatic weirdness of the album’s lyrics, which conjure up a fragmented vision of Britain’s past, at odds with the cover image of a delightful thatched cottage: grubby fairgrounds and holiday camps rubbing shoulders with town criers – one of whom makes an appearance at the end of the disquieting Be Yourself/Year of the Sadist – and sinister evocations of rural life. “The good old days, the good old ways … flags are flying,” sings frontman Ade Blackburn on “Complex“, as if implying that the glorious, sunlit version of our country’s past regularly evoked in the age of Brexit is a myth and that the fag smoke, racist gags and manmade fibres of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club might tell you more about UK history. But if there’s little to celebrate there, it’s still fascinating to explore: out on the margins, Clinic sound as enthralling as ever.

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