Perfect Sound Forever

CHORCHAZADE:
MADE TO BE DEVOURED


The story of the record that shouldn't be, and almost isn't
By Jakob Battick
(February 2012)


"When it came to deciding on a name for the group we couldn't agree on one... we couldn't agree about anything in fact... so we each wrote three names down and had a kind of horse race using 12 plastic horses on a cardboard racecourse and throwing dice. It was pretty exciting actually. We were all jumping up and down and cheering our own horses on. The horse called Chorchazade came in second. A horse called Mum's Drum won by a mile, but we all finally agreed on something... that Mum's Drum was a shit name for a group."
Chorchazade's Made to Be Devoured (1985) is a music geek's wet dream. It's a record so deep, so lost, and so obscured by the passage of time that one could be easily forgiven for writing it off as an odd curio, or a perverse byproduct of the post-punk days and an eccentricity at best. However, for the few who do know of this band, and of this LP (surely their crowning achievement), the words 'Made to Be Devoured' carry a heavy significance, the kind of significance that few other records could solicit.

The simple fact of the matter is that you will never hear another band quite like Chorchazade and, by the same token, you will never find another record quite like Made to Be Devoured. There may be entries in the latter 20th-century lexicon of rock weirdness that come close, albums that scratch at the surface of similar territories, but few will do it with such curious ingenuity and natural, unfiltered inspiration. And, in turn, few of these analogous records will seem so startlingly out of their own place in the chronological scheme of things. The kicker, to my ears, has always been the way Chorchazade managed to make rock music simultaneously so haunting and gorgeous, but without pandering to the usual modes of sound-making that conjure up those feelings. Their sound comes far out of left field, perhaps even out of alien territory, to be at once cerebral and moving. In my four or five years as a fan, nearly every person I've played Made to Be Devoured for has been shocked, amazed, and won over in the course of its first six or seven minutes. And, in all honesty, I've made it a point to play this record for a lot of people.

To fully understand the ridiculousness that is Chorchazade (drummer Keith Bailey, guitarist Jack Hunt, bassist Noel Lane, guitarist Chris Williams), and to grasp their minute and precious place in England's post-punk history, one needs to be told a bit of their story. I first heard of the group in one of MOJO's 'Buried Treasure' features years back, and was so struck by the description therein that I started tracking down every detail I could find about them via the Internet. To tell the truth, I almost think there was more information out there then (circa 2006 or 2007) than there is now. The MOJO column sparked a brief resurgence of interest, albeit a tiny one, that has since waned somewhat, leaving only a few random blog features and message board postings behind. A blog by the name of Mutant Sounds did an excellent post of their discography, and Swan Fungus (another similar blog) also covered the band in some detail in 2008, but that's pretty much the fullest extent of Chorchazade's coverage out and about in the wide world of the Internet. Some fuzzy facts could be found here and there: that the band was based out of Bristol and had founded in or around 1977, that they'd released a few EP's and one full-length, and that they'd played a 1988 show with Pulp long before the latter group found their fame. It seemed however, that shortly thereafter Chorchazade vanished into total obscurity. That is, until MOJO had the courage to dedicate one single, but absolutely monumental, glossy page to the band.

I myself was blindingly and foolishly lucky enough to get straight in touch with Noel Lane (aka Bunny Dees), the singer and guitarist at the core of Chorchazade. How I did this was bafflingly simple. Why I should have been fortunate enough to make this contact, and to secondly obtain a physical copy of Made to Be Devoured (in both excellent shape and for absolutely free), is still one giant and hilarious mystery to me. All I know is that I possess this so-priceless-it-appears-worthless-to-everyone slice of secret rock magic, and that I need to tell people about this band and this record.

There is a humble YouTube video, of questionably shitty quality, made of old footage of Chorchazade rehearsing, set to the audio of Made to Be Devoured's kick-off track, "Piemaker." Thankfully, this crypto-musicological document is still in existence, readily found in a YouTube search for the song's title and bearing the charming (because it remains undeleted and untampered with) stamp of 'Uploaded on November 18, 2007' (ED NOTE: sorry, not anymore). You can imagine how elated I was, after reading about the group and desperately tracking down their music in the blogosphere, to see that someone out there, some odd soul, had known the group, had seen the group, had filmed the group, and had preserved this cold, hard proof of Chorchazade's existence. I had no idea at the time, from the tiny amount of information out there, that 'Bunny Dees' was the musical and literary pen name of Noel Lane. I also had no expectation that I would ever get a response when I messaged the uploader's account about how, where, and why he or she had gotten this footage (something I had never done before this instance, and something I have never done since.) Even still, much to my amazement, I received a kind and brief message back from Noel explaining his position in the band. He also asked me, and this is where it gets ridiculously bonkers, if I would like copies of the band's music, free of charge. Of course, I said yes like any sensible music freak would do, and I vividly and fondly remember opening a mailer sent all the way from England weeks later only to find a gorgeous, intact, and free copy of Made to Be Devoured inside, along with CD copies of the rest of the group's work and even some of Lane's more recent musical efforts.

In that selfsame MOJO column, the story had been related how the entire original edition of Made to Be Devoured somehow ended up lost in a trash bin for years and years, warping in the rain and being slowly destroyed from exposure to the elements. It was only because of the kindness of one connected friend that the records were ever saved and returned to Mr. Lane himself, all in varying conditions (the group's official MySpace says most copies were so warped as to be "like shallow black bowls"), and I knew all of this back story when I unsealed that mailer a handful of years ago. So, needless to say, I was totally speechless. Here was a holy grail of record collecting, an incredible and one of a kind album nearly lost to the annals of time, and I was the lucky slob who had gotten his hands on a copy at absolutely no cost or inconvenience. I span the record occasionally, not all day everyday, but with a frequency and significance that was almost ritualistic, showing it to my friends and fellow music obsessives in the hopes that they might be turned on to this unbelievable album that, by all rights, shouldn't have even existed anymore. And, much to my excitement, nearly every person I played the record for demanded that I play it for them again, and often they'd often return just to hear it again.

Eventually it got to the point where I felt I had to get in further contact with Noel. And, thankfully, I did. YouTube messages were exchanged, which led to e-mails being exchanged, and then questions were asked, all with the intent of one day publishing some sort of document of the exchange. In 2008 I had literally no means of getting the transcripts of my interviews with Noel Lane published anywhere, so they literally sat inert on my computer's desktop until now. About a year or so ago I felt the sudden urge to get back in touch with Noel, to let him know that I still had every intention of sharing the questions he had so patiently and thoughtfully answered, and that I was still spinning Made to Be Devoured in total and utter disbelief after all that time. But, I'm sad to say that I have lost all contact with him. To be honest, I'm not sure if he's still out there, puttering and working away in his own humble way, or if he's now perhaps missing in action (heaven forbid.) Either way, what follows is a record of my correspondence with Noel. It's the not whole story, I'm sure, and it's not the most mystifying conversation you've ever read, but it's something. And, considering how little exists out there on the topic of Chorchazade, I'd like to think that this will mean a whole lot to some of you folks out there.

A brief note. There was talk of a CD reissue of Made to Be Devoured around the time I spoke with Noel. I'm not sure where the story ends there, as nothing ever came of these plans, but I sincerely hope that someone out there is still going to repress or reprint the album. You can find a rough vinyl rip available to download on the internet but, as the few souls that have heard the record in person know, the mp3s don't even begin to compare to the true sound of the songs themselves spiraling off of the turntable and into your ears. One day I plan to make a rip myself, with the lower register and all of those boatloads of odd ambience intact, but if anyone out there reads this and has both the means and inclination to revive this spellbinding musical corpse, I have the record sitting right downstairs safe and sound, waiting for its day to come.



PSF: Where was Made to be Devoured recorded?

NOEL: It was recorded in SAM studios, Bristol, which was on the third floor of a large building that had a night club on the ground floor. The room was vast. It had a big dumbwaiter thing, like a small elevator, to take the equipment up in.


PSF: Who produced it?

NOEL: It was produced by a man called Colin Larn, a friend of Keith's (our drummer), who was also a drummer himself. He had a tiny studio in the basement of his house in Manchester and I'm pretty sure he offered his services for free. The only thing he'd produced before were novelty singles by comedians. We played the music live on the first day and then I stood in a glass booth and recorded the vocals in one continuous take. We mixed it on the following day. Colin and Keith spent most of the time mixing the drums, both having an interest in that department. The rest of us amused ourselves by going up and down in the dumbwaiter. They also kept playing, for some reason, a Tears for Fears cassette as a kind of sound guide. Tears for Fears were a famous pop group at the time, but they were of no interest to us and I don't know why they kept referring to the production on it.


PSF: At what point in time did this fall in the Chorchazade lifespan?

NOEL: We recorded the album after we'd been together for about a year. The money came from a royalty payment mistakenly sent to Keith, full name Thomas Keith Bailey, that should have been sent to Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins – a successful pop group of that time.

The tape wasn't long enough to fit the song "Out of This World" on it, and we didn't have enough money to buy another one. I changed the whole structure of the song, so it didn't matter if the tape ran out and cut the song dead at the end. I'm glad I did this.


PSF: If you can recall, what guitars, to the best of your recollection, were used on Made to be Devoured, and through what brand or make of amps?

NOEL: Aaah… not something I took much notice of, I'm afraid. I think I had a Fender bass. It was black anyway. I played it with a metal plectrum. No idea about the amp. All the amps were pretty small, nothing over 50 watts. I gave my bass and amp to the group's manager when I left, because he paid for the record and I thought he could sell them to get some of the money back. Chris had a red and white Tokai guitar, a Telecaster copy perhaps? Julian had a red jazz kind of thing, like a semi-acoustic. It was always breaking and practically impossible to keep in tune.


PSF: What was inspiring you at that time? What influences were you operating under? Were there any definite influences or was it more self-contrived at that point? Basically, where was this singular and bizarre music coming from?

NOEL: Practical limitations played a major part in the song writing. Chris couldn't really play the guitar and Julian, our other guitarist, wasn't very confident. This meant that the main structure had to come from the drums, Keith was a brilliant drummer, and the bass. I was, before Chorchazade, a rhythm guitarist so I played the bass like a guitar. The actual guitar parts had to be very simple to play.

The initial influences came from 1977, when I'd first taken an interest in music and started to write songs. This was punk music of course, especially The Clash and Wire. Keith, Chris and I did our first gig together on November the 8th, 1977, while we were still at school. After 1979, I didn't really take much notice of other groups, being self absorbed and stubborn by nature. I have never owned a record player. I like to watch television. I first heard the Fall and Captain Beefheart in 1982, and the Velvet Underground a little later. When I met Julian in 1984, he played me Ennio Morricone soundtracks and Ska records. I'm sure it all got absorbed somehow.

Mostly, I was a doodler though. I made up tunes on the guitar that had a certain mood to them and just took it from there. If a batch of songs were fast, I'd write a slower one to mix it up a bit. If one sounded happy, I'd make the next one sad. There was no conscious plan to create an overall sound or direction. For me, it was all part of a journey that started in 1977. I was always disappointed by what I wrote, so I was simply trying to make the next song better than the last.


PSF: About how many shows, would you say, did Chorchazade play during its lifetime? How did audiences react to your music?

NOEL: Getting gigs was always very difficult, even after the records were released. Although we'd get good reviews from the few critics who wrote about us, I'd say the average audience attendance was rarely above 30. The complexity of the music also made us pretty erratic live. Sometimes, we'd get it just right and the people would enjoy it and say nice things afterwards. But a lot of the time, it felt like trying to get some enormous bird to take off... running and flapping and stumbling and flapping without actually getting off the ground. I always sang with my eyes closed. When I opened them after the last song, quite often there'd be nobody there.

I think we did about 40 gigs in 4 years. If we played outside Bristol, we'd have to hire a van and a driver, and because we didn't really get paid anything it meant that we could only afford to do this when we'd saved up enough of our unemployment benefit.


PSF: What groups did you play with?

NOEL: We supported, or were supported by, a lot of different groups that went on to have various degrees of success: James, A Certain Ratio, Marc Riley and the Creepers, The Blue Aeroplanes. When we played with Pulp, Jarvis Cocker really did call across the alley and say that I was a genius for writing such brilliant sounding music for guitarists who couldn't play.


PSF: Out of sheer curiosity, where did the name Chorchazade come from?

NOEL: Just a word I made up to describe the noise a thousand starlings make when they're all singing in the same tree. You know, having poetic pretensions and all that. When it came to deciding on a name for the group we couldn't agree on one. We couldn't agree about anything in fact. So we each wrote three names down and had a kind of horse race using 12 plastic horses on a cardboard racecourse and throwing dice. It was pretty exciting actually. We were all jumping up and down and cheering our own horses on. The horse called Chorchazade came in second. A horse called Mum's Drum won by a mile, but we all finally agreed on something... that Mum's Drum was a shit name for a group.


PSF: Made to be Devoured exists at this odd point, musically, where dissonance and strange tonalities butt up against gorgeous dreamy melodies. A lot of the most beautiful segments on the record are also the strangest ones, formally. What approach were you taking musically, and composition-wise?

NOEL: I don't know anything about music of course, beyond how to play a major, a minor and a seventh. Like I said, it was all about moving my fingers around sort of absentmindedly and squeezing out a mood. I have never really learned to play other people's songs, apart from a few Sex Pistols and Clash songs and a couple of Christmas carols.

I think the drone notes come from the fact that I sang and played bass, which meant it was easier to play with an open string, so a lot of the songs were probably in E or A or D. They were written on an un-amplified bass or electric guitar, so I had to concentrate on the actual notes and tunes rather than the sound. Most things sound good when they are belted out at high volume, and I suppose I wouldn't have had to experiment and work at it so much if I'd had an amplifier in my bedsit and was allowed to make some noise. I'm glad I had to operate under these restrictions.

Chris and Julian were also happy to play the chords and notes that I suggested - different from the bass and different from each other - which made it quite musical, in a strange way. The songs were always scratched out in this manner, almost in total silence, before we plugged in at a rehearsal.


PSF: Talk to me about the lyrics for Made to be Devoured. Are they akin to word games, or are they something much more personal and expressionistic? The titles, too, are very bizarre...

NOEL: I'm afraid I can't remember what I was thinking about when I wrote them. I always found the words the most difficult thing of all. I just made noises for the first few months of each new song, even when we played them live, like rolling syllables off my tongue and making screeching noises. I usually only wrote proper lyrics on the week before we were going to record them in a studio.


PSF: What about your vocals? They're very atypical, halfway between a whisper and an oddly melodic shout. Where was this coming from?

NOEL: I can't sing. There you go. My natural voice will not carry a tune. I have to squeeze something up through my throat to make it sound anywhere near acceptable. It is an uncomfortable, painful, unnatural experience. But I tried to make it go with the music somehow.


PSF: The strange production of Made to be Devoured is an interesting facet of the record. Your vocals are always buried underneath everything, mix-wise. Additionally, there are a lot of points where the vocals become distant and draped in heavy reverb, was that an intentional choice?

NOEL: I sang a guide vocal, with the microphone plugged into an amp, when we recorded the music live. The room was huge, so I suppose the reverb effect is due to that. Then they rewound the tape and I sang the ‘proper' vocals into one of those square microphones that you see attached to walls during police interviews. The final thing is a mixture of both. The producer and Keith really did use 6 hours of the 8 mixing the drum sound, so the rest was just a matter of sliding up the sliding whatsits and hitting the record button on the master reel.


PSF: How did Made to be Devoured fare as a commercial enterprise? How exactly did all those records end up deserted for years?

NOEL: It was a disaster. It didn't get played on the radio, not once, not even John Peel played it. We had 1,000 pressed. 10 years later a friend of ours who worked in the distribution warehouse found about 700 of them in a skip (like a large metal dustbin, you'd call it a dumpster?) in the car park. He is a very nice man and he rescued as many of them as he could. A lot of them were warped and rain damaged, but a few survived.


PSF: What do you think of the way you were received as a group, or perhaps why you were not more well received?

NOEL: I am perfectly satisfied with the way things worked out for Chorchazade; the sparse gigs, the sparse audiences, even the records being found in a skip. I really thought it had all been forgotten about, so it's a pleasant surprise to be contacted by kind people such as yourself. It doesn't happen very often, but it's always nice when it does.


PSF: How is life now?

NOEL: I live a simple – and cheap – life. I only work 3 days a week, which gives me plenty of time to potter about on my own. England has become such a strange and squashed down place to live, but maybe it's the same everywhere.


PSF: What are the other members of Chorchazade doing now? How is your writing going?

NOEL: Keith is still involved with groups. He's never stopped. He drums with the Experimental Pop Band, plays saxophone with his jazz band Spaceways, does percussion for Fuzz Against Junk, plays guitar and writes songs for a group called Astronomer. He owned a shop that sold drums until a few months ago. To make a living, he works in the same profession as me, on the same team in fact, although I rarely see him. We are part time care workers. We support people with learning disabilities.

Julian also played with Astronomer until recently, but he's just packed it all in. He works for a cycling charity called Sustrans.

Chris became Thornton Cricklewood, the singing cowboy, after Chorchazade split up. A kind of comedy act... kind of. People didn't get it and he was mostly booed off the stage. When he met his future wife, she told him: ‘Either the guitar goes, or I do.' Now he is a supply teacher but spends most of his time bringing up three kids. He makes screen prints too.

I'm still trying to write short stories. I like doing it because it involves no other people and no equipment of any kind. I had 8 stories published in 2008. Only one in 2009. They appear in obscure magazines and I don't get paid, but they are magazines from the United States, the UK, Australia, and Ireland, so I consider myself obscure on an international basis. It's a bit like the music in as much as I like to write but I don't, and never have, read very much. I think I like the struggle.


PSF: How does it feel to listen back to the record after all these years? Do you listen back to the record?

NOEL: I didn't listen to Made to be Devoured until I started the MySpace page. It was an odd feeling hearing it again after 15 years. We were always disappointed by the sound of it, which was weak and tinny in comparison to what we sounded like playing live. Looking back on it now, those days were the unhappiest of my life, which adds another layer of unease. I don't listen to it any more, but I rarely listen to music.


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