The obvious problem with writing a series like this is that it is very hard to feature some of the most influential, most pivotal, more important acts in my personal musical history. How do I come up with a clandestine classic from The Smiths, for example, when 90% or more of this blog's readership is already very, very familiar with The Smiths' output? Ditto Morrissey solo. Ditto The Jam, The Style Council and solo Weller. Ditto REM. This is something I'll be looking to remedy in future posts (assuming this blog limps on), as it's important to me that the aforementioned all feature. And whilst I have managed to get Blur, Pixies, Gene, Travis, Pulp and The Wedding Present in, there are other important acts for me (Radiohead, Billy Bragg, Suede, The Blue Aeroplanes, The Small Faces, The Who and The Kinks) who are also notable by their absence. This became very apparent when I was preparing an index of all the tracks that have featured as clandestine classics thus far, in readiness for this, the landmark (!) fiftieth post in the series.
So a change is coming, of sorts. But not yet. For today's classic is by an artist you probably don't know, from an album you probably haven't heard, and a time (1990) that seems almost unimagineably long ago, despite feeling like yesterday in so many ways. 1990... a time when the great indie hopes of the mid-80s had collapsed under the weight of Stock-Aitken-Waterman chart dominance. C86 was long gone, done. The Smiths had left the building. Madchester and grunge had yet to bring hope to the indie kids. Blur and Suede had yet to pave the way for Britpop proper. Aside from the first Stone Roses' album, it was, generally speaking, a pretty fallow time musically.
Not for me though... in October 89 I went to university. A new city, a diverse campus, living in halls with new people from an array of countries, there was so much to experience, new music included. And then, in January 1990, a new person arrived on our hall for the remaining six months of that academic year. She was from the US, a crucial couple of years older than me and, if I'm honest, quite unlike anyone I'd ever met before (and seldom since). Maybe it was because we both had that six month deadline hanging over our friendship from the start or maybe it was simply that we clicked on a level that was unprecedented for us both, I think; whatever the reason, it very quickly became apparent that we were cut from the same cloth. A link was formed that persists even now, and a crucial part of that link, of that effortless commonality, was music. She introduced me to a lot of new music, primarily American, I reciprocated, on behalf of the UK, and there were some bands and artists that we already had in common. One such artist was the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg. Imagine our delight, then, on learning that he would be appearing on campus that May. In my cash-strapped first year, it was the only gig ticket I bought - that's how important it was for me to go.
Billy was touring to promote his new mini-album, The Internationale, still his most consistently and overtly political release in a lifetime of political releases, and worth picking up for the title track alone, let alone the brilliance of The Marching Song Of The Covert Battalions and the heart-rending My Youngest Son Came Home Today. But I digress; brilliant though he is (and was that night, especially), we're not here to talk about Uncle Bill. As I recall, there were two support acts that night - a band puntastically called The Coal Porters (which featured Sid Griffin), and a solo singer-songwriter with nothing but a guitar with which to promote her own mini-album. Caroline Trettine had, like nearly everyone from Bristol who'd ever held a guitar, previously featured in The Blue Aeroplanes but was now ploughing a solo furrow. Her debut album, Be A Devil (pictured above), had been released on Billy's short-lived Utility record label, and here she was to promote it.
On the album, Caroline is occasionally augmented by fellow Blue Aeroplanes-alumnus Ian Kearey but that night she played alone. Her voice soared faultlessly over a delicate acoustic finger-picking style and an uncommon hush feel over the venue. She was captivating, and a lot of copies of Be A Devil got sold on the merchandise stall that night.
I could have picked any of the tracks from Be A Devil, as they are all excellent, but I've gone for Sleep With Me. It's beautiful, heartfelt, intimate, direct - it presses a button somewhere in my chest. What never ceases to amaze me is that Caroline wrote this song, I once read somewhere, when she was just fifteen. What were you doing when you were that age? I know what I was doing, and it wasn't as good as this.
When I wrote about the gig some time ago, in my top ten gigs post, I gushed slightly by saying "support was great too, from Caroline Trettine, with whom I sort of fell in love for the duration of her twenty minute set." Hyperbole, maybe, but that button in my chest was pushed so hard, it never quite sprung back to its original position.
If you can hunt down a copy of Be A Devil, you should - you won't regret it. You can stream it from Amazon here, if that's your thing. I have it on Utility CD, which is pretty hard to find these days, so lucky me. But in the meantime, here's today's clandestine classic - it's so old/obscure/niche I had to resort to Myspace to find an embeddable version. I know, Myspace! Who even knew that was still a thing. In fact, hurry up and listen whilst it is still a thing...