The term 'perfect pop' could be applied to a whole swathe of bands, from the Human League through to the Pet Shop Boys, but one band is critically revered for producing some of the catchiest, happiest and downright celebratory pop songs of the last ten years. That band is the Lightning Seeds.
Developing from a one-man studio experiment to a touring hit machine, the Lightning Seeds might not have become international stadium fillers, but their brand of sassy pop is a delight, and their compilation Like You Do is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys the lighter side of life.
The Story of The Lightning Seeds
The Lightning Seeds have always been focussed round one person, Ian Broudie. Born in Liverpool in 1958, Ian obviously soaked up the peculiarly potent pop vibe that pervades the home of The Beatles, and the first band he played in, Big in Japan, now reads like a who's who of Merseyside pop. Despite releasing only one single and a demo EP, Big in Japan were highly regarded, mainly because of where its members went from there. Guitarist Bill Drummond went on to form the highly-successful KLF; keyboard player Dave Balfe joined the Teardrop Explodes before founding Food Records, home to acts like Blur; drummer Budgie went on to work with Siouxsie and the Banshees; bassist Holly Johnson left to form Frankie Goes to Hollywood; and Ian Broudie formed the Lightning Seeds. That's quite a pedigree for one band, one single and one EP...
After Big in Japan split up, Ian joined the Original Mirrors and started getting interested in production work, producing the first two albums for Echo and the Bunnymen and moving on to produce albums by the Fall, the Icicle Works, Wah! and Frazier Chorus. In 1983 he teamed up with Paul Simpson (ex-vocalist of the Wild Swans) to form Care, who released three singles but didn't crack the big time, thus splitting the partnership; however these three beautiful pop singles had given Ian a taste for writing, and in 1989 he started penning the songs that would eventually end up under the Lightning Seeds moniker.
Ian viewed his solo project as a sideline, though his hope was that it might one day develop into a band. Choosing the name Lightning Seeds, Ian recorded an album's worth of material (playing almost all of the instruments himself) and set about picking a single to release. The initial choice, 'Upside Down', was rejected in favour of a happy little pop song called 'Pure', which climbed to number 16 in the UK, and stayed in the singles chart for eight weeks. The album Cloudcuckooland was released and reached number 50 in the charts, staying there for two weeks, but the follow-up singles 'Joy' and 'All I Want' failed to break the top 100, and Ian turned back to production work.
After producing work for bands such as Northside, the Frank and Walters, Sleeper and the Primitives, in 1991 Ian turned his efforts once more to the Lightning Seeds. Again a number of songs were produced with Ian playing a large chunk of the instruments, but significantly some of the songs saw Ian sharing the writing credits with Terry Hall (previously with the Specials, Fun Boy Three, and the Colour Field) and Ian McNabb (the mercurial leader of the Icicle Works), collaborations that would continue throughout the Lightning Seeds' career.
The songs were recorded in Ian's brother's front room using tape loops for the percussion, and the result was Sense, an album of more wonderful pop. The perky 'Life of Riley', written about Ian's son Riley who was born halfway through the writing of the song, was released as a single and made number 28, while the follow-up single 'Sense' managed number 31. The album, released in April 1992, jumped in at a lowly number 53, stayed there for one week, and then disappeared.
The charts were proving a hard nut to crack, and at the same time record company changes were threatening the future of the Lightning Seeds. Before the release of 'Life of Riley', the band's record company Ghetto had sold the Lightning Seeds to Virgin, but given the poor performance of Sense in the charts, Virgin rapidly lost interest and dropped the band. The Lightning Seeds weren't exactly making it big, even in Japan.
The Epic Years
Despite the problems breaking into the charts, the Lightning Seeds weren't ignored by everyone. The record label Epic started taking an interest in the band towards the end of 1992, but the condition for signing the band was that Ian would have to stop regarding the Lightning Seeds as a side project to fit in between production work, but would instead concentrate full time on recording and, significantly, touring.
Before hitting the road, though, the band had another album to record. Again Ian played most of the instruments and teamed up with Terry Hall and Ian McNabb to write a couple of the songs, but this time the album was less of a homespun affair and more of a professional studio production. The album, Jollification, was slated for release in September 1994, and in the summer months Ian started rehearsing with a band, ready to promote the album on the road. The line-up featured drummer Chris Sharrock, whose previous bands had included the La's and the Icicle Works, and bassist Martin Campbell from the Liverpool band Rain.
The first single from Jollification, 'Lucky You', was released in August 1994, and only managed a lowly number 43 in the chart before disappearing after two weeks. The album was released the following month to excellent reviews, but it also failed to dent the charts. It looked like the Lightning Seeds' luck hadn't changed a bit.
However, the tour started preaching perfect pop all over the country, bolstered by two new members: guitarist Paul Hemmings, again from the La's, and keyboard player Ali Kane. The tour proved popular, and in January the second single from the album, 'Change', gave the band their second ever Top 20 hit, peaking at number 13. The success of the UK and European tours and a healthy run of singles chart positions - 'Marvellous' (number 24), 'Perfect' (number 18) and a re-released 'Lucky You' (number 15) - pushed the album to number 12, and by the time it fell out of the charts, Jollification had gone double platinum. The Lightning Seeds had, at last, found the commercial success the critics had predicted.
Stopping only to buy a recording studio on a barge in Twickenham from Pete Townshend of the Who (the studio, Eel Pie Studios, is still there), Ian started writing songs for the next Lightning Seeds album. A new single was put out, 'Ready or Not', in March 1996, which featured the live band on a recording for the first time, and reached number 20. Virgin rushed out Pure Lightning Seeds, a pointless compilation of songs from the band's first two albums, but the sporting event of the year (at least, as far as Europe was concerned) got in the way.
Euro '96 was the football1 event of the year, and the Football Association asked Ian if he would like to write a song for the England team. Ian agreed only if the lyrics could be written by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, two English comedians who had a TV programme called 'Fantasy Football' at the time, and the result was the single of the summer, Three Lions. It reached number one and became the nation's unofficial national anthem until England got knocked out of the competition.
After footy fever had subsided, Ian turned back to the Lightning Seeds' new album, which was finally finished and released as Dizzy Heights in November 1996, after a number of the recordings from the beginning of the year were discarded or re-recorded. The album showcased some brilliant material, and the singles 'What If...' (number 14), 'Sugar Coated Iceberg' (number 12) and 'You Showed Me' (number 8) pushed the album to number 11.
Tours and Tilts
1997 saw the band touring and capitalising on the success of Dizzy Heights. Angie Pollack, who had provided backing vocals on the album, joined the band as the permanent keyboard player, and when Chris Sharrock left in mid-1997 to join World Party, the drum stool was first filled by Dodgy's drummer Matthew Priest, and then by Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey.
In November 1997 Virgin released Like You Do... Best of the Lightning Seeds, which collected together all the band's singles (except, sadly, the wonderful 'Joy'), along with two new songs, 'Brain Drain' and 'What You Say', the latter being released as a single (it reached number 41). The album rocketed to number 5, and the following tour continued to push sales of the Lightning Seeds' back catalogue.
1998 was a quiet year, though the release of 'Three Lions '98' with re-recorded lyrics netted the band a number one, yet again due to footy fever (this time the World Cup). The band also headlined two major summer festivals - Glastonbury and V98 - but the rest of the year was spent away from the spotlight, though rumours surfaced that Ian was having marital problems (which he subsequently denied to the tabloid press).
November 1999 saw the release of a new single, 'Life's Too Short', which reached number 26 and heralded a new album, Tilt. The sound on Tilt demonstrated considerable maturity, as the saccharine pop of the previous four albums melted into dance beats, sampling and some excellent songs. The band rounded off the year by playing at the Cream 2000 Festival as the millennium rolled over, and released a new single, 'Sweetest Soul Sensations', in February 2000. This peaked at a disappointing number 67, partly due to Radio One failing to playlist the single, and the large music stores failing to stock it.
Meanwhile Ian made his television debut on BBC Choice, hosting a sports and entertainment programme called The Sin Bin, while denying rumours that Epic were planning to drop the band. Other rumours followed, including one that the Lightning Seeds were splitting up, but in reality the band had simply decided to take a break from the recording studio.
After a very quite 2000 and 2001, the band is projected to release a new album in summer 2002, with the working title Bitter Lullabies.
Lightning Seeds Websites
Official Lightning Seeds Site - The band's official website isn't a great deal more than a vehicle for Tilt, though no doubt this will change when new material is released. As it stands there's a short article about Tilt, a discography, some links to Real Media versions of the songs, a mailing list, and apparently some discussion forums (though these don't seem to work). Not terribly great, really.
The Lightning Seeds Fan Site - The pick of the many Lightning Seeds fan sites around, this site is still being finished off (so some of the navigation doesn't work), but what is there is great, and the news is bang up to date. Keep your eyes on this site as the band prepares to release its next album...