‘Shit happens, brother’

Ok so this is the pitch, a true life story of an imaginary Manchester band. The inside history of the albums, the stories, the bust ups, the tours and more. A story that ranges from the late 1970s to 2011. All of it true. But fictional. The story of The Greatest Band That Never Existed.

I am aware that jumping straight in loses context but hope it can be enjoyed as a fun, whimsical read to give a sense of the full picture.

Most chapters cover an album (they have a lot of albums!) This is the chapter that covers their 2001 album, Slave Relay.

Chapter 32: Slave Relay (2001)

a.k.a Metal Fatigue

a.k.a All Hail The Mayor of St Kits and Nevis

  1. Justice Is Best Served Hot                                                  3.49
  2. ‘Mercy Me’ Cried the Southern Belle                                3.33
  3. This Riff Is For You                                                               3.22
  4. Lost in Room [Cover: Alternative TV, Jason]                     –.–
  5. I’m Counting On You                                                            3.41
  6. Give It All You’ve Got                                                          3.27
  7. Locked And Loaded                                                            3.38
  8. The Inca’s                                                                             3.02
  9. Great Wall of China                                                             3.04
  10. Psychokinesis                                                                      2.23
  11. Go Live Your Life                                                                  3.46
  12. Pins In Maps                                                                         4.15
  13. Dogfight                                                                                 3.59
  14. Instruction Manual Not Provided                                      3.50
  15. The Long March [Cover: Manicured Noise]                      –.–

There it was, the sequel, and we all knew it was good. (Adam)

I decided to do something very different for us, I thought it would be best if we did the same as the last album. Normally this is never even on the cards but we had done two very successful albums and having been through the mistakes we’ve committed before, I decided to play it safe, which is very strange cos I don’t consider music to be a place to play safely; you try to be safe crossing the road. But to be quite frank I was dying to have three albums that sold well on the bounce so I was thinking right from the off about doing a sequel to Pop Your Head. There was still a lot of mileage in that sound we had been using and there were plenty of ideas knocking about, we could get straight into. (John)

I must admit I was pretty shocked when John said we’ll be doing more of the same. I was very glad though, Pop Your Head had been a great remarkable experience and I was delighted with the end results so I happy to be doing another tour of duty! (Mitch)

Mood in the band was sky-high at that point, we were doing well, selling out shows and being generally flavour of the month, we had already broken new ground by having two do well on the bounce but we were desperate to do it again. I loved getting back to playing more funk based stuff, hard-edged but danceable, there were times in the ‘90s when it had felt like I was just doing a job but now I just wanted to make pounding songs again. (Andy)

Songs were formulated swiftly, and just like its predecessor, it would revolve around the loose theme of video games to evoke near distance nostalgia, mixing in idiosyncratic humour and whimsical charm. The music would again be a mix of dance orientated rock ‘n’ roll and power pop.

In an astonishingly short time an album had begun to come together, ‘Justice Is Best Served Hot’ and ‘Southern Belle’ kicked the album off with two fierce blasts of punk funk which seemingly united the passion and fervour of their formative years with the skill and production of their later career. The tunes were highly reminiscent of the B-52’s at their best, using guitars to make songs incapable of not dancing to.

The middle section follows the power pop angle with jaunty rhythm guitars, breezy lyrics and vocals and effervescent keyboard lines, spry middle eights and adorable brass sections.

‘Dogfight’ and ‘Pins In Maps’ recalled the war themes of Tres Dangereux and the music dips its toes into the layered keyboards of that estimable record, while Jason’s drum solo in ‘Dogfight’ is vicarious and thrilling.

To continue where ‘One Life Left’ left off, ‘Go Live Your Life’ and ‘Instruction Manual Not Provided’ proffered two acoustic songs about having to leave fantasy worlds behind and enter the real world.

John might claim that Slave Relay was the title right from the off but then I remind him of the famous alternative titles that were scrapped:

Oh yes, that’s right, let’s see, long before this one maybe before Fox… I had the frankly crap idea of doing something Latin jazz flavoured, a bit A Certain Ratio style, if we’d ever done that it would have gone by the awful name of All Hail the Mayor of St Kits and Nevis. When it became a straight sequel my first idea was to call it Metal Fatigue but that lasted ten minutes cos Mitch pointed out that you can’t have the word ‘fatigue’ in your album title cos it’s just bad word association, which is absolutely right. Sometime later Slave Relay appeared which is a phrase I like, but it also works as a cheeky innuendo. (John)

How many names does this fucking album have? (Andy)

Again, it was nice to be playing keyboards on some really nice songs with some trumpets here and there, not the most creative of albums for me but I had a good time, which Jason would undoubtedly say is the most important thing! (Adam).

Following on from the previous year’s lone cover, the policy was expanded and Slave Relay would incorporate two songs by other artists: ‘Lost In Room’ by Alternative TV and ‘The Long March’ by Manicured Noise:

We covered the ATV song cos its fucking great! It’s amazing; it just makes you want to pogo like a loon. The way its gets faster is just brilliant, if you’re not verging on a heart attack by the time it’s over not you’re not doing it properly! It was cool to do the vocals for the studio version. I’m fucking good on that track it has to be said (Jason)

He fucking isn’t. (Andy)

Just like the year before they covered Manicured Noise, this time choosing ‘The Long March’ presumably also to make a point about the Serpents’ longevity and seemingly endless comebacks.

Instead of releasing a single to pre-empt the album both were released at the same time. The sharp, anthemic ‘This Riff Is For You’ was chosen and did moderately well, though was overshadowed by the album, especially considering the song was on the album. And due to an administrative cock-up at Flame Records, it was the only single of the year. Jason shrugs: ‘shit happens, brother’.

Slave Relay went straight into the top five, exceeding even the bands expectations, and praise was universal, citing great tunes and choruses, hooked barbs for riffs, crisp production, another wonderful turn from John and admiration for following up Pop Your Head with style and verve. The album would hover around the upper echelons of the charts for a highly respectable time, each week establishing the bands reputation as an outfit that had finally lived up to expectation.

The album’s rise was helped by another landmark performance with Jools Holland, where they performed ‘Justice Is Best Served Hot’, ‘The Incas’ and ‘This Riff Is For You’. The twins were off the radar of cool for this one, Mitch picking at his red Stratocaster while occasionally flicking his foot onto an effects pedal while John, once again in retro 80s shades, teamed with a sharp lined blue mod suit, put in a performance so assured, skilful and cool it was reminiscent of Bowie.

Slave Relay manages to build and improve on Pop Your Head. The opening three songs of the album are utterly electrifying, the power pop section is superb and joyous, the war themed songs are splendid and it’s nice to hear them tip their hats to Tres Dangereux, the slower songs are wonderful compositions and all the covers are first-rate, ‘The Long March’ in particular is an excellent rendition of a brilliant song but its placing at the end of the album is a sentimental but not saccharine nod to the past while the Serpents’ build their future with this remarkable record.

A tour took them around the UK then mainland Europe. On stage the band continued the good form from the last tour, performances were sharp, bright and humorous. John was sensational as singer while Mitch and Andy stalked the sides looming over the crowd. Adam and Jason were clearly having the times of their lives. Interestingly, there had been a change in internal cliques. Before the personnel split, it has been John and Mitch in one camp, then Andy and Freddie in another. With Freddie gone, Andy realigned himself with John and Mitch, making it’ the original guys’ and ‘the young guys’. He did find that he had one thing in common with Jason though, spending most of the tour listening to the debut album by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at a deafening volume on the tour bus and both threatening physical violence to anyone daring to put something else on.

Just as Flame had supported Pop Your Head with a compilation to keep the tills ringing and the coffers flowing, they again decided to play the one-two. This time they would release a live album, the first official one for a very long time, especially as it had been planned for the year previously until the bootlegs idea took off. It would be called Vexation

Not our name but I really like it, it’s our kind of name. Flame got in touch and told us to do a live album and that they were going to go to town on it to capitalise on our current money-making capabilities. To be honest we didn’t really have much to do with it. (John)

So, a gig in Holland was recorded and a short while later Vexation was born, the show split over two CDs and featuring the majority of the last two albums plus various highlights from the back catalogue including a couple from The Band From Uncle, ending of course with ‘You’re So (Red) Square’ following hot in the heels of a dusted off and searing ‘(You Take Me To The) Edge of Insanity’[1]. Presented with a sumptuous red cover, it was a lovely package to behold.

I was well chuffed with Vexation I thought it was the dogs bollocks! I loved how it was two discs as well, the whole lot. It makes it more epic, more complete, closer to reality as opposed to the edited highlight, like watching the match as opposed to Match of the Day. Captured us on a great night too, we nailed all the songs from Pop Your Head and Slave Relay and the place had a great atmosphere. I was superb too, it has to be said! (Jason)

He fucking wasn’t! (Andy)

Just like last year’s Best Of… it was released in time for Christmas and unsurprisingly sold well, buoyed by positive reviews and riding on the back of another high-flying album.

Despite the presence of Vexation, two authorized bootlegs were released via the band’s website: Oversteer and Fun At The Pontypandy Dole Office, recorded in Leicester and Dublin respectively. Just like the official release, the former dipped its toes into Shoot Straight At The Heart, a firm favourite among the band, and the latter delved into 1987’s Exploding Cheese. Up until recently such retrospection would have been unlikely, now, thanks to their success the Serpents were shedding their fear of looking back for fear of becoming stuck in a time loop. Times certainly had changed.

To prove that this certainly was the year of Serpent releases, this year saw the start of Flame’s program of rereleasing all the bands albums after they acquired the rights to the complete back catalogue. This was possible due to Feierabend Records being long extinct and Tangent Remedy having gone to the wall following Marty Costanza’s shocking arrest and conviction for money laundering. The reissue scheme would carry steadily over the next few years. Each release was digitally remastered, garnished with bonus material and extensive liner notes and pictures. The reissue of It’s The Rave, Baby was a particularly lavish two CD affair which contained the ‘Manchester Manifesto’ single and two EPs as well as the chart topping version of ‘Too Sunny’.

There was a familiar face at various shows on this tour as Sulkin Serpents were supported by the embryonic Tiger Mountain, the new vehicle for Freddie Carlyle, joined by the flamboyant, angular haired, Harvey Flynn, whom it was already obvious, was a natural front man, even if the band was still clearly at a fledging state of development. The band was met with all round warm receptions by the fans for the former Serpent. Tiger Mountain would return to the Serpents’ sphere on numerous occasions over the following years. Freddie was back where he belonged: behind the drum kit.

[1] Track list: ‘Justice Is Best Served Hot’, ‘ “Mercy Me” Cried The Southern Belle’, ‘This Riff Is For You’, ‘Spare The Whip’, ‘Screw’, ‘Strap Him Down’, ‘Clean It up’, ‘Phalanx’, ‘Locked and Loaded’, ‘Give It All You’ve Got’, ‘The Inca’s’, ‘The Jet Age’, ‘The Vertical Man’, ‘Sign Per Nielsen’, ‘OK, People’, ‘Psychokenesis’, ‘Dogfight’, ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’, ‘The Volatile Man’, ‘Hours Away’, ‘Your Love Is So Vitriolic’, ‘Lost In Room’, ‘(You Take Me To) The Edge Of Insanity’, ‘(You’re So) Red Square’.

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