Twenty five years ago today – 21st November 1991 – The Field Mice played their final gig at the Dome in London before splitting up. Huge Field Mice fan and regular contributor to the EIO40 website, Rob Morgan asked us if he could write an article to celebrate their music and what it meant to him. We didn’t need to think about it twice. So have a read as Rob reflects upon the Field Mice songs and albums, how they have impacted on his life and how they introduced him to the world of Sarah Records and indie pop.
Like so much great music, it was John Peel who introduced me to The Field Mice. In fact it was the listeners rather than Peel himself, as the first time I heard the Field Mice was on the 1989 Festive Fifty. It was their second single “Sensitive” and the first time I heard it I thought “Yes that’s good, I like that…” In fact my diary states “Heard a song which was like the Wedding Present, only a thousand times better”. But it took me a while for the song to worm it’s way into my heart.
I’d taped the Festive Fifty and kept returning to that song, there was something there which drew me in. Was it the wall of guitars which punched through the song? Maybe it was the shy yet powerful words? Or the singer’s lack of forcefulness, which made him sound like me? It was a combination of all of these things – and the fact “Sensitive” was a bloody good song – that won me over. Then there was something else Peel said – “The first Sarah Record to make the Festive Fifty” – what was the significance of that? I should have known this, I read the music papers every week, didn’t I?
During the early Summer of 1990 I started to do some research into what Sarah Records was. At this point, I should mention, I was quite dismissive of the majority of indie pop – sure I loved a lot of the music on Creation Records like MBV, Felt and Ride but most of the C86 music and the jingle jangle nonsense that followed it had passed me by. Indeed the phrase “jingle jangle nonsense” was often quoted from my diary at the time. I loved all the Factory Records acts – especially the more obscure ones like Stockholm Monsters and The Wake – that was more my scene.
But now I wanted to know about Sarah Records. Most of what I found in my stacks of music papers rubbished the output of the label and seemed to back up my prejudice. However my brother had a pile of the fanzine Bucketful Of Brains and lo and behold there was a half page article in there on Sarah, which told me more than the combined knowledge of the music papers. This piqued my interest, and then I noticed that Sarah had issued a compilation called “Temple Cloud” which included “Sensitive”.
I bought the LP early in August 1990 and it opened up a whole new world of music for me. Each of the sixteen songs was brilliant and the three songs by The Field Mice stood out. “Sensitive” was there, sounding loud and proud, while “If You Need Someone” was a perfect pop song, chiming guitars and a lyric I could identify with, and “Song 6” felt like all my thoughts about the beery blokes I was unlucky enough to hang around with and how they treated their girlfriends. These songs spoke to me like few songs I’d heard before.
And I wanted more.
The day after buying “Temple Cloud” I hurried back to Cardiff and bought the first two mini albums by the Field Mice – a ten inch called “Snowball” and a twelve inch called “Skywriting”. I can still clearly remember getting the records home and examining them on my bed before playing them. “Snowball” was purple, very purple – nothing at all on the front, the barest of details on the reverse. This was as minimal as my beloved Factory Records, and in places it sounded like The Wake or New Order too. Opener “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” pulsed for seven minutes on a bed of sequencers and drum machines while closer “Letting Go” could have come straight from “Harmony”, the debut album by The Wake – the mournful air, the mumbled vocal, the bass leading the way.
Between those two were six songs which veered between Byrds-y jangle pop (“Everything About You” and “Couldn’t Feel Safer”) and deeper more thoughtful songs – “End of the Affair” is tinged with sadness, arpeggio guitars and oboes sighing while “White” is astonishing – a wall of noise guitars, hammered drums and words which cut me deep. Then the lyrics shocked me.
“Time and again I dream about you, I haven’t seen you for so long…do you ever think about me? Where are you now? Wherever you are I hope you are happy and that life is being good to you”.
That lyric would just about sum up how I felt about a number of members of the opposite sex by that point, all those unrequited loves I’d had. And The Field Mice had put it in a song! As if to prove the futility of those thoughts, the singing stopped and huge waves of distorted flanged guitar overtook the song. What a thrilling song, yet so close to my heart.
If “Snowball” was great, then “Skywriting” was stunning. Every song was different but every song was fantastic. The opener “Triangle” spread out for ten minutes across all of side one and sounded like “Let’s Kiss and Make Up”‘s older brother, more pulsing synths, more drum machines, the bass like Peter Hook, those loud flanged guitars were back, and the minimal lyrics were perfect, lovelorn and hopeless.
Over on side two, The Field Mice swung through country (“Canada”), perfect wistful guitar pop (“Clearer”), tense post punk (“It Isn’t Forever”) and more. The final two songs were a shock. “Below The Stars” was a gorgeous weightless ballad, drifting over six minutes while the singer extrapolates the feelings from “White” – thinking of a lost love, wondering where they are – in a poignant way. If I didn’t have a tear in my eye on that first listen, I’ll say that I’ve listened many times since with tears rolling down my cheeks. Finally “Humblebee” is just odd – a guitar jangles in the distance while a barrage of spoken word samples make a deafening cacophony, it’s like “Revolution #9” for the Indie set, replacing the loop of “Number Nine” with “Chocolate Love Sex” – very disquieting and slightly unnerving.
My clichéd ideas of what a Sarah Records band would sound like were shattered. The Field Mice seemed to be capable of all kinds of music, but with a heart and lyrical honesty that touched my soul. These were songs I’d been wanting to hear – had been trying to write even – all my life, and there was a clear headed, plain speaking honesty which struck a chord with me. The Field Mice were my new favourite band.
Of course I wanted more records by them, so a week later I took another trip to Cardiff and bought the two part “Autumn Store” singles as these seemed to be all that the record shops of Wales’ capital city had at the time. While the five songs across the two singles weren’t the revelation that “Skywriting” had been they still still had their moments. “The World To Me” was a whirlwind of jangles and trumpets, “Anyone Else Isn’t You” tiptoed along the line between twee and sickly while “Bleak” painted a portrait of someone hiding themselves away from life which sounded scarily familiar. Yes, that sounded like me.
By now I was scouring through the music papers for any information on the band, and I didn’t find much. They certainly weren’t on the front page of the NME or Melody Maker. Scanning through back issues I found a few reviews and a very small article on The Field Mice but generally the music press didn’t give them much attention. Around October 1990 Melody Maker made their new EP “So Said Kay” single of the week and that was the first I knew of the new release.
I bought it that day, a big pink ten inch five song EP and gasped in wonder at the new songs. Gone were the sequencers, it was all guitars and occasional string synths, plus percussion, but oh the songs were so good! “Landmark” was slow and resigned and my interpretation of the song was completely different to the MM version. “Holland Street” was an instrumental which built and built to a glorious climax. “Indian Ocean” was hopeful of finding love, which gave me hope.
But there were two outstanding songs – “Quicksilver” and “So Said Kay”. The former had some beautiful heart stopping spine tingling chord changes and a lyric which could have been ripped straight out of my diary and worked well as the final part of a triptych with “White” and “Below The Stars”. On the other hand “So Said Kay” built up slowly from acoustic guitar and oboe, to include a melodic bass, piano, string synth and a lyric which sounded like a cut up conversation, leading to the repeated line “She reached in and placed a string of lights around this heart of mine”. I didn’t know then the lyric was excerpts from the film “Desert Hearts”, I just knew it was special. I taped the EP three times onto a C90 and played it constantly.
There must have been some problem with distribution of records around the winter of 1990 (probably the collapse of Rough Trade Distribution) because it took me ages to find the first two Field Mice singles, finally locating them in March 1991. “Sensitive” was as great as I knew it was, having played it on “Temple Cloud” and the b side “When Morning Comes To Town” was a bittersweet duet about the point a couple start to realise their relationship is over.
Meanwhile the Field Mice’s debut EP was bedroom pop pure and simple – so spare, so stark, the guitars ringing out and the cheap drum machine holding down the beat, and yet again lyrics which cut deep. “Emma’s House” had the same yearning melancholy I heard in their later songs, while “Fabulous Friend” had more heart stopping lyrics – “I’m not brave, I’m not special, I’m not of those things”, that could be my mantra.
By now I was fully immersed in The Field Mice, desperate for any information on them, and making compilation tapes for friends, trying to convert them because I like to share, I wanted confirmation from other people that The Field Mice were as great as I thought they were. After all the music press were still sniffy about them, the Melody Maker review of their new single “September’s Not So Far Away” was ridiculous nonsense which said nothing about the song itself.
“September…” was wonderful, the band suddenly sounded like a band, the drum machine had been packed away and the song now had a real drummer, and there were more twelve string guitars and male female harmonies – The Field Mice had grown up and turned all their Byrds dreams into reality. On the b side there were only two guitars and two voices but it was just as lovely, memories of love and that yearning again. Around this time I bought a fanzine with a Field Mice interview which started to put some of the pieces of their story into context. The last line was worrying though – asked what their hopes for the future were, lead singer Bob Wratten replied “I hope we make an album before we split up”.
Summer 1991 brought the release of a Field Mice compilation “Coastal”, fourteen songs from their previous records which were starting to sell out. It was great to have some Field Mice on CD – Sarah Records were very much a vinyl label, I think the CDs of their early albums were made through a distribution deal with France. And it was also nice to see “Coastal” receive good reviews in the music press, and for it to reach number one in the Indie album charts. It looked like the Field Mice were more popular than I thought.
September 1991 brought with it “Missing The Moon”, an actual twelve inch single though sold for the price of a seven inch. The title track was everything I had hoped – a huge glowing pulsing indie dance crossover, the kind of song New Order would kill to make, a perfect mix of guitars and electronica, and the song itself was still yearning and beautiful. I bought it three days before “Screamadelica”, so the two records are always entwined in my head. “Missing the moon” got a fabulous write up in the NME, an unexpected surprise. By now I was on the Sarah Records mailing list and a postcard dropped through my letterbox advertising the single, their album “For Keeps” and their tour. They weren’t playing anywhere around South Wales, but I persuaded a friend in Basingstoke to see them in Reading and to buy me a t shirt.
But before that was the new album. “For Keeps” had specific memories attached to it, buying it from Cardiff and borrowing a Martin Amis novel from the library on the way home, so the first listen that October day was the soundtrack to the opening pages of “London Fields”. I soon stopped reading though.
“For Keeps” was wonderful, with only the occasional mis-step – and frankly that’s the last song so you could always consider the penultimate song as the closer… Or was that just me? But when it’s good, “For Keeps” soars. “Star of David” has more heart stopping chord changes and actually dynamics which only a full band could generate – the move into the chorus is so dramatic and so perfect it hurts. “Coach Station Reunion” is the epitome of joy, jangling twelve strings, whoops of pleasure during the guitar solos. “Tilting At Windmills” is a dreamy drift of hazy melody and wordless harmonies. “Willow” was a lovely acoustic ballad whose words were almost too raw and too honest to listen to, uncomfortable truths.
“For keeps” received some good reviews, particularly from the Melody Maker who also ran a full page article on The Field Mice, so now I knew a lot more about them, how they were more influenced by the Factory aesthetic than the C86 aesthetic. Everything seemed to be going their way at last – good press, good sales, a nationwide tour….
My friend saw them in Reading and said they were brilliant, which was high praise from him as he was a Sub Pop nut – in the letter which accompanied the “Chocolate Love Sex” t shirt he sent me, he bemoaned Nirvana selling out and thought “Nevermind” wasn’t a patch on “Bleach”. There had been good live reviews too, and there was another new song issued on a compilation CD, the song was called “Other Galaxies” and was eleven minutes long, building from a gentle love song of comfort and hope into a huge juggernaut of distorted guitars and feedback. It was a glorious noise, and it was the last song the Field Mice would record.
I can remember the day as vividly as the day I read about The Smiths splitting up. It was a live review of the last gig of the tour in London, and it implied that this was truly the end of The Field Mice, love had brought them together and love had torn them apart. I couldn’t believe it – they seemed on the verge of success, maybe a move to a larger label, it just seemed to wrong. I didn’t know the full story until years later, the sleeve notes to “There and Back Again Lane” and “Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?” – he tensions in the group, the problems… It’s not for me to comment, to be honest. I just enjoyed the music.
It’s now 25 years since The Field Mice split up and I still consider their body of work to be pretty much perfect. The records and production are timeless, not limbed to the 80s / 90s crossover by baggy beats or dated instrumental touches. The songs stand up to repeated scrutiny, still reminding me of times past and unrequited loves that really I don’t care about any longer.
The Field Mice were incredibly productive, a large amount of music in a short time scale – and there’s outtakes on reissues and online if you look hard enough. Their influence is more far ranging than it seemed at the time – bands such as The Drums and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have been influenced by them and the Sarah Records style. There’s been a book and a documentary film on Sarah – something which would have been unthinkable twenty five years ago. And to me, The Field Mice are still one of the most important bands I’ve loved – for creating such gorgeous music, for the words which are poignant and true, for opening up the world of Sarah Records and indie pop to me… Those records will always be special to me, and I hope I’ve given some idea of why that is here. The majority of their back catalogue is on Spotify and is definitely worth hearing, the double CD “Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?” is great, but if you want a simple introduction to the Field Mice, here’s a dozen of my favourite songs by them.
Author: Rob Morgan
For further reading please check out our interview with Anne-Mari Davies of The Field Mice HERE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob writes about music and other less important subjects at his blog A Goldfish Called Regret (agoldfishcalledregret.wordpress.com) and also creates podcasts for Goldfish Radio (https://m.mixcloud.com/robmorgan589).
He never achieved his ambition of making a Sarah Record.
Thank you to Rob for sharing that and for his valuable contribution to the EIO40 community. If you would like to contribute to our Indie Encounters feature and share your indie moments please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM us on Twitter