THAT PETROL EMOTION – ” Every Beginning Has A Future: An Anthology 1984-1994 “

Posted: January 16, 2023 in MUSIC

A new 7CD That Petrol Emotion anthology is on the way from Demon Music. ‘Every Beginning Has A Future’ contains all the studio albums and loads of bonus material. 

Edsel will release “Every Beginning Has A Future” in November, a 7CD band-curated Anthology that bookends the decade in the spotlight of That Petrol Emotion.

The band were London based but originally from Northern Ireland and had an American singer in Steve Mack. They never quite had any hit singles (1987’s ‘Big Decision’ came closest stalling at #42) but their second album “Babble” was criticallly acclaimed at reached number 30 in the UK album charts.

A career-spanning retrospective box sets cause you to reassess an artist’s career, some merely reaffirm what you already thought about them. “Every Beginning Has A Future: An Anthology 1984-1994” – seven CDs and a booklet; five albums, a live set and enough b-sides, rarities and remixes to satisfy the most die-hard fan – causes the listener to ask questions, or rather one pressing question, over and over again: why weren’t That Petrol Emotion huge?.

They were that rarest of things, a band influenced by Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu (the box set contains covers of the former’s ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ and the latter’s ‘Non-alignment Pact’), who seemed to have genuine commercial potential: they were noticeably edgier and more overtly political than the O’Neill brothers’ former band The Undertones, but the pop smarts that had underpinned their previous outfit’s progress through punk and post-punk were still audibly intact, no matter how angular and scrabbly the guitars got. They had a great frontman, Seattle-born Steve Mack (discovered, it turns out, working in a London pizza restaurant that was managed by soon-to-famous comedian Jack Dee) and were, by all accounts, fantastic live. Despite being recorded in the band’s 90s death throes, the final CD in the set, taped onstage in London and Dublin, bears this out.

They were prescient and forward thinking. Fans of Beefheart and Pere Ubu they may have been, but they were also intent on fusing guitar rock with hip-hop, sample culture and dance music before the arrival of acid house’s Summer Of Love and the ensuing indie-dance movement: they weren’t the only band thinking like that at the time – there was Pop Will Eat Itself, Big Audio Dynamite and the pre-Mr C Shamen, as well as a host of more dimly-remembered names including Age Of Chance and Das Psych-Oh! Rangers – but That Petrol Emotion’s experiments in that field have aged noticeably better than most of their peers’.

Scattered throughout “Every Beginning Has A Future”, you hear tracks that sound remarkably like hit singles – ‘It’s A Good Thing’, ‘Big Decision’, ‘Sensitize’, ‘Hey Venus’. But none of them were: for some reason, That Petrol Emotion were condemned to what “Every Beginning Has A Future’s” excellent sleeve notes – by John Harris – calls “commercial underachievement”.

Manic Pop Thrill

They started strongly. Their 1986 debut album “Manic Pop Thrill” was rapturously received, topped the indie charts, and still sounds fantastic today: the propulsively urgent ‘Can’t Stop’ and the tender ‘A Natural Kind Of Joy’ and ‘A Million Miles Away’.

That Petrol Emotion’s scintillating debut reminds everyone, first and foremost, what an incredible musical alliance the O’Neill brothers can be. Following a succession of independent singles, they settled on Demon Records for this inspired debut release. “It’s a Good Thing,” “Mouth Crazy,” and “Circusville” are typical of the contents — relentless pop hooks married to surging guitar chords, underpinned by hints of swamp blues and nods to garage rock and other mutant strains of the rock & roll animal. As naked, bold, and impassioned a record as had been heard in years. The title says it all.

There was something hugely impressive about their ability to render some defiantly left-field  influences – not just Beefheart and Pere Ubu, but Can and Television – into songs with killer hooks and soaring choruses.

Babble

Its success led to a major label deal: presumably it was the ensuing increase in funds that allowed them to dramatically develop their sound on 1987’s “Babble”, augmenting the swampy riffs with then-cutting edge electronics which they were smart enough to use subtly, not always the case when a rock band of the era got their hands on a sampler.

Following the split of John O’Neil band’s former band the Undertones, the guitarist and principal songwriter returned to his hometown of Derry and teamed up with friend and fellow guitarist Raymond Gorman (ex- Bam Bam And The Calling) the two formed first a new songwriting project and then a new band, playing a couple of gigs with a drum machine and Gorman’s then-girlfriend as a singer. Another friend, drummer Ciaran McLaughlin (formerly with The Corner Boys), but who had also played a few Undertones gigs covering for an absent Billy Doherty) was the next member to join.

In autumn 1984, the nascent That Petrol Emotion relocated to London, where the existing three members were joined by John’s brother and former Undertones lead guitarist Damiel O’Neil who turned down an invitation to join Dexy’s Midnight Runners in order to work with TPE). Seattle- born American singer Steve Mack (at the time, on a year out from his studies and working in a pizzeria ) completed the lineup. In 2020, comedian Paul Whitehouse revealed that he had unsuccessfully auditioned for the band during this period.

This, the band’s second album and major label debut (released in 1987) broke into the UK Album Chart and won universal acclaim, being voted as one of the albums of the year by Rolling Stone Magazine critics, and receiving an A- ‘grade’ from Robert Christgau. In the UK, the single “Big Decision” charted at number 42. This would be the band’s highest chart position for a single release.

Babble really should have propelled That Petrol Emotion to mainstream success. The failure of singles ‘Big Decision’ and ‘Genius Move’ to set the charts alight tells you nothing about their quality, or indeed their commerciality, and everything about the almost unbridgeable gulf that existed between the world of John Peel, the NME and ‘alternative’ music – even ‘alternative’ music signed to a major label

End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues

They sounded slightly rattled on Babble’s follow-up “End Of The Millennium Psychosis Blues”, perhaps by its predecessor’s failure, or more likely by chief songwriter John O’ Neill’s announcement that he would leave the band following the album’s recording and subsequent tour. By some distance their least focussed album, it kept throwing out musical ideas that frequently worked – the folky ‘Cellophane’, ‘Groove Check’’ drum machine driven funk – but somehow didn’t hang together.

Although he stayed to record the album, the sessions were fraught with tension and foreboding. Gorman has recalled “it was a complete bombshell. When I look back now, we should have thrown him out there and then and got on with the new recording ourselves. Instead we meekly accepted everything and he hung around for another three or four months. It was a toxic situation.

Chemicrazy

By the time of 1990’s “Chemicrazy“, the musical climate had changed: Madchester was in the ascendant, the airwaves and charts alike were ostensibly open to indie bands who’d discovered dance music. That Petrol Emotion, who’d discovered dance music before they’d actually formed – their roots lay in an eclectic club night John O’ Neill and guitarist Reamann O’Gormain had started in early ’80s Derry – should theoretically have capitalised.

Produced by Scott Litt Working with Litt, the band developed a more alt rock style than before, as hinted at on the final track of the previous album “Under the Sky”. Although the album’s song were more intense than previous work, “Chemicrazy” also maintained a pure pop heart, Frustratingly for the band, however, the massive predicted sales for “Chemicrazy” never happened.

That they didn’t wasn’t for want of trying. “Chemicrazy” was stacked with potential hit singles – ‘Hey Venus’, ‘Tingle’, ‘Sensitize’ – although it had substantially more to offer than that: the fantastic ‘Scum Surfin’’ and ‘Gnaw Mark’ offered a more muscular take on the sound of Manic Pop Thrill

Fireproof

Dropped from Virgin after years of critical acclaim had failed to translate into sales, That Petrol Emotion continued with this fine effort. But if singles like “Sensitize” had failed to make them pop stars, it was difficult to see how they were ever going to manage the trick. If by no means as compulsively listenable as “Chemicrazy”, “Fireproof” nonetheless has its moments. “Last of the True Believers” is one, as are the impassioned singles “Detonate My Dreams” and “Catch a Fire.” Yet without proper industry support, the game was up, and within a few months of release the members of That Petrol Emotion were variously back in the London dole queue or at home with their families in Northern Ireland.

1993’s “Fireproof” came out on their own label. It doesn’t sound remotely like the work of a band on their uppers – it’s potent and dark; largely recorded live in the studio, it junks the electronics and dance floor beats for a sound heavier than anything they’d previously released, although the pop inclinations that had been there all along still poke through on ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Detonate My Dreams’. But in an interview around the time of its release, the band mentioned they had recently received a bank statement informing them they had the grand total of £65 in their account. Clearly things couldn’t continue: they broke up in May 1994.

That Petrol Emotion “Fireproof” was their heaviest, most riff-laden album to date released in 1993 – which, like their debut, reached number 1 in the UK Indie Chart. However, despite the generally positive press coverage (and the loyal fan base they had garnered over ten years and five full-length albums), That Petrol Emotion were failing to attain the level of sustained commercial success, or popularity, enjoyed by contemporaries such as My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. As a result, the band split amicably in 1994.

That Petrol Emotion John Peel Session June 1985

This new 7CD set features all five albums (Manic Pop Thrill (1986), Babble (1987), End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (1988), Chemicrazy (1990) and Fireproof (1993)).

There’s a bonus disc devoted to “Chemicrazy” and the other albums offer extra tracks in the form of non-album B-sides, bonus tracks, remixes, live recordings and fan club only releases. A live album at the end completes the seven-disc set which in total delivers 121 tracks.

This comes with a 52-page book with sleeve notes by John Harris and rare images and photographed memorabilia supplied by the band.

“Every Beginning Has A Future: An Anthology 1984-1994” will be released on 25th November 2022, via Edsel.

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