Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown #3: Kingmaker, Sleepwalking

Over the past few days I’ve been producing a series of posts in which, inspired by the TV show Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown, I’ve been counting down my favourite albums of all time. So far I’ve revealed numbers seven to four (Eels’ Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, REM’s Up, Lightning Seeds’ Jollification and Chumbawamba’s Anarchy), which means that today ought to mark the start of my top three. And you know what? It does! My third-favourite album of all time is…

Kingmaker, Sleepwalking.

Album cover

Album cover

Released in 1993, Sleepwalking was the second album from Hull-based trio Kingmaker. [There’s also another band called Kingmaker that you might encounter online. They’re American, and play hardcore metal with a strong political message – intriguing, but definitely a very different kind of band.] The British Kingmaker’s Sleepwalking had a difficult genesis (see below), but became the band’s most commercially successful album, reaching number 15 in the UK charts.

Sleepwalking belongs to the genre known as indie rock, but from back in the days when that term indicated something specific (i.e., before it had been stretched to encompass any record that: (a) had a guitar on it; and (b) definitely wasn’t Whitesnake – I mean, The Lightning Seeds have been labelled indie rock, and their records are as poppy as pop gets). Anyway, this album is indie rock in the true sense because it marries the braggadocio and swagger of mainstream rock with the emotional literacy of 1980s indie music. It’s a collection of songs touching on both the intense privacy of personal emotions and the public world of social relationships – the ways we rub along together, and the ways we rub up against each other. It’s a record with a jaundiced view of the world that perfectly captures that twenty-something moment when wide-eyed innocence morphs into bitter cynicism (the cynicism is a phase, too). It’s a record filled with slinky, sexy bass riffs; supple, organic guitar parts; and – if you’ll excuse me getting all muso on you for a minute – astonishingly good drumming. And all of it delivered in support of songs that are as subtle as they are swaggering, and as aphoristic as they are intimate.

That “difficult genesis”, then. I feel almost sadistic for describing this as a great record, given how bitter an experience it was for the men who made it. It’s hard not to feel like that when a member of the band gives an interview years later describing how the record deal he signed aged 19 ‘systematically killed my deepest love of music’, and that the music industry and the music press between them ensured that his most cherished dreams were ‘shot down in flames’. In fact, Kingmaker’s whole career stands as a cautionary tale for what can happen to inexperienced bands: being praised to the skies by the music press before they’ve even released a proper record; signing with a big label in a deal that (without the band realising) hands creative control to businessmen who are only interested in money; releasing a debut LP which is critically acclaimed but doesn’t make megabucks; being forced by the record company to write more hits for their second album, only to be criticised for selling out by the music press; starting to fight amongst themselves under the pressure, and struggling to produce a third record that no-one wants to listen to; eventually falling apart and deciding to call it quits – only to find that they owe everyone money, and have to drag through some final, miserable gigs just to break even.

But, in Kingmaker’s case, that second album – complete with the record-company-demanded hits – is glorious. In fact, sad though it is to admit it, the record company had a point when they insisted on the need for a hit single. Without the drunken, last-song-of-the-night riffing of ’10 Years Asleep’ (and the way it got played at pretty much every indie disco and party I went to that year) it’s doubtful I’d have heard of the band, let alone listened to their album. In any case, they get their revenge in on the track, in the “riff you can whistle along to” that they actually whistle, and in the lyrics: ‘All the young dudes/ Work for all the old brutes/ In expensive suits’. It’s also a good song, and relates to one of the major themes of the album (drifting listlessly through life) – most people told to go away and write a hit would fail in the task, let alone manage to write a hit that slots right into the album like it belonged there from the start. The same can’t quite be said for the other hit, ‘Queen Jane’, which was slightly less successful despite having both a syncopated rhythm and a harmonica riff thrown at it. That song is more of a sore thumb on the record – although, as a thumbnail sketch of a recognisable character type, it’s not completely alien to an album that includes other thumbnail sketches.

The album opens with ‘Playground Brutality’, a short song with a clear debt to The Smiths that is also one of the most pithy and accurate summaries of bullying you’ll ever hear. The song is especially good in the way it captures the intense loneliness of the experience – ‘Is anybody there? Nobody in the whole world seems to care.’ It’s also a great introduction to the album: melancholic, intense and impassioned, it demands that attention be paid.

The album as a whole rewards that kind of close attention, most notably in songs like ‘Honesty Kills’, which in my opinion is – without a word of exaggeration – one of the most astonishingly brilliant songs ever recorded. It opens like it’s going to be an unsophisticated lament at being unlucky in love (‘What’s Richard got that I haven’t got? You say he’s funny, and he’s nice’), before indicating with savage humour why he might not be as ‘nice’ as he seems: ‘Remember Richard said/ The broken-hearted are easy to bed’. But it also morphs into something much darker, and more profound. There’s the quotable aphorism of the bridge (‘Honesty kills the best of us/ Liars like him control the minds of the rest of us’), which is a bleak but not inaccurate view of the way the world works, in everything from love to politics. There’s the brooding but still catchy chorus (‘The noose is all he wants you for, the noose is all he’s good for’), which takes the song into the darkest of registers. And then there’s the hard-won wisdom achieved by the end (‘People only see what they want to see’). From the most intimate of personal concerns to the broadest sweep of politics in slightly less than five minutes – and all of it done with music that fits itself perfectly to the shifting mood: by turns introspective, bleak and anthemic. This is a song that’s cinematic in its scope.

‘Honesty Kills’ is probably the most widely-ranging song on the album, but the others are equally good in a narrower focus. There’s ‘Sequined Thug’, with it’s insidious, lithe, slinking drum and bass parts, ideally suited to the subject matter of the song. There’s ‘Sad To See You Go’, a thumbnail sketch that achieves the grandeur of tragedy without ever sounding overblown or over-produced. There’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’, which is built round a stinging guitar riff, and envisages a last stand against a dull, empty future. And there’s the almost-title-track ‘Sleepwalking In The 5 O’clock Shadow’, which recognises that the dull, empty future has already arrived (‘And when you die, will you really die, or will you have been dead for years?’) and builds towards one of the most bleakly anthemic choruses there’s ever been. (Sorry no links for some of these songs – Kingmaker are a sadly neglected band these days, and a lot of their stuff just hasn’t been posted.)

Sleepwalking perfectly combines a dyspeptic, swaggering approach to life with an acute, baleful insight into what it’s actually like. It captures that moment in music when the underground sensibilities of the 1980s indie scene were meshing with the accessibility of the emerging Britpop scene. And it captures that growing up you do in your early 20s, and all the losses involved: loss of spontaneity, loss of vitality, loss of ambition, loss of that outraged sense that the world is so unfair it has to change, and loss of the certainty that you can make it change. It’s a sombre, reflective album with enough flashes of light to throw the darkness at its heart into high relief, and it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. It deserves to be better known, and better loved.

So, that was my third-favourite albums of all time – Sleepwalking by Kingmaker. Tomorrow it will be the turn of my second-favourite, an album in a rather different genre…

(Click here to read other entries in Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown.)

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