Ah, the Fire Engines. Twenty-five years since releasing the storming “art punk” nonsense of album Lubricate Your Living Room and suddenly they’re overnight bona fide legends courtesy of namechecks and support slots from the world’s 12th biggest band, Franz Ferdinand. Well, purists might not like it, but if it means leader Davey Henderson gets to pay his mortgage, I’m happy with that.
A potted history of the band would be: formed in Glasgow in 1980, they released one album (recorded in a day) and split in 1981. Renowned for doing gigs (captured on this album) which involved stopping halfway through songs to take stock, then starting up again with renewed vigour and yelping, they were courted by the same record label that Orange Juice were signed to (Postcard) but, by all accounts, refused to sign on grounds of it being too “establishment”. And thus history was made.
Codex Teenage Premonition has 15 tracks on it (not all of them songs and most of them the same) and lasts 38 minutes. That’s how punk they are. It is what might broadly be described as “a noise”. What might be perplexing about this release, though, is how anyone who “wasn’t there” (and I include myself in this number – I was only 10!) would “get it”. It sounds exactly like a bootleg, and the only people who care about bootlegs are fans – and how many of them must there be?
Nevertheless, we should all be grateful it exists. In this day and age, where punk credentials are worn like so many Vivienne Westwood suits, it is refreshing to be able to relive the times when music really was all about the attitude. Yet scratch the best punk rock and you’ll find those huddled melodies yearning to be free.
Songwriter Henderson, however, is never one to leave a bushel without a light under it. Rather like a beaten dog, he retreated from the brilliant pop of the “later” Engines’ Big Gold Dream and the best band of the Eighties, Win, battened down the hatches and made a virtue of writing difficult-to-listen-to music. As if in a big “Fuck You!” to the audience that refused to make him the pop hero he should have been, his current project, The Nectarine No.9, has increasingly put musical canyons between him and the mainstream, making it harder for the majority to listen to, let alone like, his music.
Henderson reformed the band (or “split together again” as he put it in Glasgow recently) last year to support The Magic Band (the Beefheart influence is easy to spot on every single Fire Engines and Nectarine No.9 song). To capitalise on this, he has decided to release this hackle-raising collection which is almost designed not to appeal to a new audience, rather than put out something which would connect immediately with Franz fans. A very Fire Engines thing to do, in fact.
Still, for this fan, it doesn’t get any better than this. There is a clip on Codex… which precedes the recordings from the first Fire Engines gig where Henderson is heard to say “We’re playing with this band called U2. Not really heard them yet. Not really bothered about them.” As he keeps the homefires burning for unconventional and difficult music well into his forties, this album is for all those who are not really bothered about U2 either.