Dubstar – Cathedral Park
I’ve never been fickle when it comes to pop music – all anybody ever needed to say to me during the 80s and 90s was “have you heard about this new group? Synthesisers and female singer, she sounds a bit bored -” and I’d be halfway to Woolies before they could finish their sentence. This obviously led to some very poor purchasing decisions, but I’m pleased to say that the 99 pence I spent introducing myself to Dubstar was not one of them.
Oh, Dubstar, how I loved thee. From the second I first played Not So Manic Now I was captivated. Totally unaware that it was a cover version (originally a Brick Supply tune) and living in a council high-rise in Glasgow at the time, all that talk of the “monotony of the tower block” and the “wind whistling” felt exactly like my life. I too was terrified of the doorbell ringing, but not because of an unwanted salesman – at that point it was more likely to be bailiffs or the kids next door asking for cigarettes.
With Stars also being brilliantly miserable and the Disgraceful album containing mostly ace numbers, it seemed like I’d found a new favourite band. This is always the point where I start worrying, because I seem to have a knack for picking acts that spend much of their lives circling the dumper – and so I began to fret about the prospects for a second Dubstar album, and as it turned out, with very good reason.
It’s difficult to know who to blame when a second album flops. More often than not I tend to find they’re not quite as good as the first one, but if you’re on a bit of a roll that doesn’t especially matter, particularly if the singles are good – it will more likely have consequences for the third one. There are, however, certain things you can do to give your new LP a fighting chance – off the top of my head I’d suggest having a cracking first single (if necessary save the best song you wrote for your first album for this, though obviously that requires a bit of forward planning), don’t throw away what you’re good at just because you’re a bit bored of it (*cough* ABC *cough*), and don’t write songs about being on the road because that’s all you’ve done for the last eighteen months.
The band managed to sidestep all of these quite nicely, but then they went and called the album Goodbye, a title which I’m sure you’ll agree is not particularly welcoming and only works if Geri Halliwell used to be in your group and suddenly isn’t any more. First single No More Talk was a lovely few minutes of expertly-done Euro-pop (sounding to me slightly reminiscent of a highly strung Save a Prayer), but it did sound a bit – to use a Scottish term – crabbit. Today, I think it’s completely brilliant, but at the time I recall wishing that Dubstar would cheer up a bit.
Of course in some respects none of this matters a jot, because the prevailing pop winds were not set fair in Dubstar’s direction in 1997. When No More Talk came out in July 1997, Oasis were arsing about at no.1 with that awful song with helicopters at the start, and the rest of the top 40 was taken up with a lot of rock, r&b, hip-hop, and club tunes. Lovely old synth-pop barely got a look-in, and No More Talk nipped in to the chart at no.20 and quickly spiralled out again. I don’t know if this under-performance delayed the release of the album, but I’d be willing to bet it did – so in September came the second single, Cathedral Park, which is noticeably more chirpy, but unfortunately also sounds like a bit like a brand of cheese.
This, I thought, was a lot more like it. Managing to come across a bit like what the Cocteau Twins would sound like if they were asked to write a football anthem, Cathedral Park still retains Dubstar’s trademark lyrical glumness (the marvellously affronted “of all the ways to hit me / of all the things to say”) while still bouncing along in quite a jolly fashion thanks to some perky trumpet work and nice stabby guitar. But the absolute best thing about it is the chorus, in which the guitars go all spangly and jangly and twinkly (like they do in St Swithin’s Day from the first album) and bring out the goosebumps – and of course the other best bit is Sarah Blackwood’s voice, in all its slightly bored school choirgirl, flat-vowelled magnificence.
Despite being Dubstar-ish enough to keep me happy and having enough swagger about it to satisfy the TFI Friday crowd in a week when Dodgy didn’t have a single out, Cathedral Park entered at no.41 and was out of the top 100 within two weeks – which meant that Goodbye was released on the back of a proper flop instead of a minor hit. And while it wasn’t quite goodbye from Dubstar, the next album didn’t chart at all and that was kind of it for one of my favourite nineties groups. Sarah, though, went on to form the really rather good Client. So not a complete disaster then.
Entered chart: 20/09/1997
Chart peak: 41
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Gosh, what a struggle. There’s no one really doing this sort of thing at the moment is there? Perhaps Voice UK runner-up Cody Frost could make a slightly more threatening version (while retaining the vowels).