Assorted scribblings of a dog-eared music journalist

Melody Maker | Sidelines | 3 January 1987 | Photos: Phil Nicholls

THE SHAMEN
featshamen

RAGA ROCKIN' OUT


The man has become the bane of my life. He telephones me every day, usually more than once. I meet him in the haze of frivolous nightclubs and on the vermin-infested platforms of the London underground. He haunts my dreams. His name is Charles but sometimes, when I'm feeling wicked, I call him Charlie.

Charlie understands the power of The Shamen. He is a believer. It's the only way to explain why he works so diligently on their behalf.

Listening to The Shamen's new EP, "Young 'Til Yesterday", released on the Moksha label, it's not difficult to comprehend Charlie's convictions. It's a compendium of vivacious, fuzz-buzz guitars and vicious pulsebeats, spiced with spinning keyboards courtesy of the band's latest recruit, Pete Stephenson, a man fresh from the journey to the East. Each track is a luxurious, electrifying trip.

Apart from a few exceptions, Derek McKenzie (vocals and guitar) and Colin Angus (vocals and bass) have a definite distaste for the sounds of recent times. Their own preferences lie in the 1960s and it's an interest that has led to an invitation to appear on the forthcoming "Beyond The Wild Wood" compilation, an LP of Syd Barrett songs covered by representatives of the current indie crop.

Colin: "We're all big Syd fans, so it's a pleasure to be involved. He's been living with his mother in Cambridge until very recently, because he's been ill for years and years. But he's a bit better now and he's got his own place. Maybe this album will inspire him to make some more recordings."

It's an interest that has also resulted in an annoying – if to be expected – over-simplification of what The Shamen are all about.

Derek: "We're branded as a psychedelic band and I only hope that's not misconstrued. We don't want to be lumped in with Doctor And The Medics and that sort of rubbish. There have been several dodgy psychedelic revivals that have simply ripped of the Sixties rather than taken it as an inspiration to do something new and exciting."

Colin: "Around the time that I started school, I can remember hearing The Beatles, The Monkees and The Mamas And The Papas on the radio and I still like a lot of that stuff. It was pure pop music, catchy and commercial and you could sing along to it, but it had some seriously weird things happening as well."

Derek: "In those days, people were experimenting a lot more and bands had several members who were creative. Now there's a shortage of groups where different members are all important to the sound."

Colin: "There should be a certain ruthless quality about doing anything creative. As we've all got intense personalities, there's often quite a lot of friction in The Shamen."

In recent months, The Shamen have been sharpening their musical intensities, developing the promises clearly outlined on their "They May Be Right" debut. Sweeter melodies, more Eastern-sounding scales and chord progressions, acoustic instruments and the further use of vocal harmonies are now sliced into a series of neat pop twists.

Colin: "Charles calls us raga rock, a phrase once applied to The Misunderstood. There are some disturbing parallels starting to emerge between us and them and also The Soft Boys. Both of those bands had an unusual sound, psychedelic yet modern, and they had good reactions from the critics but never really fulfilled their potential. I only hope that doesn’t happen to us."

But The Shamen have precisely the wrong sort of clothes and haircuts – the scissor work of drummer Keith McKenzie – to fit most people's perception of a psychedelic band. Their heads are not in the clouds and their feet are firmly rooted in Thatcher's Britain, often giving rise to a lyrical (dis)content which they see as a display of common sense rather than political posturing. It's a stance that has prompted praise and occasional disapproval, with one unhappy punter at a recent gig giving Keith a black eye as he packed his drumkit away.

For the purpose of live work, when the vocals are sometimes not as clear as they might be, the band use slides projected onto a backdrop to illustrate their lyrics. Alternating pictures of assorted pills and sweets and Sun front pages, combined with swirling oils, are the only form of lighting required by The Shamen. This visual element is something they hope to improve with the addition of more projectors and a closer co-ordination with the words.

Colin: "Sometimes we don't use the house lights or the oils, we just show the slides – bright blocks of images behind the band. We're usually really static onstage when we do that. Being bent over a guitar is not a contrived thing with us, we're not pretending that we can't quite do it, we're genuinely trying to see what the hell is going on."

Derek: "It makes each gig more exciting. And if people don't like our music, they can look at the pretty pictures."

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