Originally posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2006
Despite managing to release five proper albums, Catherine Wheel was one of those bands that always seemed to slip past the mainstream rock crowd. Yes, they got some nice airplay in their day, but people seem to have forgotten about them. You may hear “Black Metallic” or “Waydown” on a “classic alternative” show on Sirius or XM or maybe even on terrestrial radio, but that’s about it. For me, they were one of most consistent rock bands of the ’90s, meandering through shoegazer, hard rock, space rock and pop rock, all while eluding mainstream pigeonholing.
Led by the smooth, warm pipes of vocalist/guitarist Rob Dickinson (cousin of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson), Catherine Wheel featured Brian Futter on lead guitar, Dave Hawes on bass and Neil Sims on drums. They weren’t a pretty-boy guitar band, but they weren’t a scuzzy bunch of ragamuffins either.
Though the band hailed from England, Catherine Wheel found itself more welcome on American airwaves for many years. Coming out at a time when shoegaze was at its peak and Britpop was just beginning to sprout, Catherine Wheel was more rocking than its fellow countrymen.
Forming in 1990 and debuting on record in 1991 with two singles, “She’s My Friend” and “Painful Thing,” there was considerable buzz by the time Catherine Wheel’s debut album appeared in stores in February 1992.
Once the drums kick in on the opener, “Texture,” the rush begins. Featuring open chords over a wash of distortion, the instant, easy comparison is to shoegazer rock — but with all due respect to bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel weren’t about creating a waterfall of melody and distortion; instead, they were about breaking through with sweet melodies and aggression.
Ferment would spawn two singles, both receiving plenty of airplay in the US: “Black Metallic” and “I Want to Touch You.” In a day when alternative rock was really making an impression in the mainstream as a viable format, chances were good that you heard these songs on a regular basis. While both singles are great, probably the dark horse of the album is nestled in the middle. “Flower to Hide” has this curling guitar melody that weaves over an ultra-melodic harmony. Plus, its chorus is a gem.
That said, I would not recommend starting with Ferment. Too much of the album is same-songy, leaving you with the notion that if you like the singles, that’s what you’re gonna get with the rest of the album. There isn’t a sense of adventure on this album. For that, I highly suggest checking out Ferment’s follow-up.
Gil Norton produced the second album, beginning an era that is often considered classic Catherine Wheel by many hardcore fans. Singles “Crank” and “Show Me Mary” add some fun to the mix, as well as a sense of general loosening from the material found on Ferment. Chrome feels clearer and more powerful, especially evidenced on “Broken Head.” Its opening atonal riff tears itself apart, only to be beautifully augmented by a catchy guitar line underneath.
Probably the quietest, yet most epic moment comes with “Fripp.” Starting off with a guitar line that recalls Blade Runner-era Vangelis, the song builds to a pretty satisfying payoff. This kind of soft and moody vibe would be heard again on future records.
Also of note is the album cover. Storm Thorgerson, the man behind so many classic album covers, including a number of Pink Floyd’s, designed the Chrome sleeve. Featuring cool blue underwater shots of two women and a man, the cover recalls a time when album artwork really meant something iconic and artistic, not just unimaginative advertising meant to get kids to empty their pockets. Catherine Wheel would work with Thorgerson from here on out, creating some of most eye-catching album sleeves of the ’90s.
Happy Days (1995)
Having toured with Smashing Pumpkins and scored a minor hit with “Waydown,” Catherine Wheel received even more notoriety in the press and on MTV with Happy Days. The band’s sound is even tougher, as noted with near-punk songs like “Kill My Soul” and “Little Muscle.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is the absolutely chilled-out vibe of “Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck.” Even after all these years, that title still rules.
Happy Days shows the band at some of its most prettiest of moments too, building a strong case for Happy Days as one of their best albums. “Shocking” may nick its chorus from the Mindbenders’ “Groovy Kind of Love,” but its strings and peppy guitar lines make it a great original track. “Heal” displays the amazing width of Dickinson’s vocal range, along with his penchant for writing simple, but incredibly dense lyrics.
Another standout is the single, “Judy Staring at the Sun.” Tanya Donnelly, of Throwing Muses and Belly fame, duets with Dickinson throughout the track and it’s an added bonus. “Judy” is a fun little love song, and Donnelly’s candy-covered vocals only make it even better. Worth tracking down is an alternate version featuring Donnelly singing lead on the second verse.
Like Cats and Dogs (1996)
Even at this point in the band’s career, Catherine Wheel had enough material for at least one full album of non-LP material. Though the covers of Scott Walker’s “30 Century Man,” Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know if You’re Lonely” and Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” didn’t make the cut, their covers of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio” did. While “Radio” is a tad on the sloppy and goofy side, their “Wish You Were Here” is one of the best covers of the song I’ve ever heard.
I’ve heard plenty of people argue that Catherine Wheel’s b-sides are as good as their a-sides, but I mildly disagree with what’s on Like Cats and Dogs. Songs like “Backwards Guitar,” “Tongue Twisted,” “La La Lala La” and “These Four Walls” show the same kind of spark found on their proper albums, but they just didn’t fit in elsewhere. That’s the beauty of b-side albums; the songs don’t fit anywhere else, but they work on a collection like this.
Adam and Eve (1997)
Happy Days' proper follow-up, with its nudes-in-compartments sleeve, is the band’s dark horse album. Lead single “Delicious” did receive some airplay and actually did very well in England, but more eyes were on other British acts like the Verve at the time. A portion of the band’s thunder was taken away; thus, a lot of people missed out on another great Catherine Wheel record.
The Pink Floyd influence is very evident on Adam and Eve, but that’s not the holdback. The main problem is that the album feels too labored over; that being said, songs like “Ma Solituda,” “Goodbye,” “Here Comes the Fat Controller” and “Broken Nose” are prime cuts. The band wasn’t at its rocking self on Adam and Eve, but in an evolution of sorts. Little did we all know that they were winding down to a stop.
On a new label and billed to The Catherine Wheel (word is they always wanted this), Wishville sounds like an attempt at a new start. Dave Hawes was out, and the band recorded the album as a trio with Futter and Dickinson recording the bass. Talk Talk member/Ferment producer/frequent guest keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene was back behind the producer’s chair, so why does Wishville just…not…work?
Opener “Sparks Are Gonna Fly” is mildly infectious, but it feels too calculated and mechanical. “What We Want to Believe In” is a lightweight pop-rock song, but after this, things feel even more disjointed. The album sounds like the band has straightjackets on and sadly, this would be its final release.
Though Catherine Wheel never officially broke up following Wishville, they’ve been on an indefinite hiatus ever since. Dickinson released a solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses, in 2005 and toured quite extensively behind it. In addition to solo tracks, fans were treated to stripped-down acoustic renditions of Catherine Wheel classics. Futter and Sims are currently in a band called 50ft. Monster.
Like their contemporaries Ride and Swervedriver, the door’s still not completely shut for Catherine Wheel. Modern bands like Secret Machines and Dirty on Purpose are great reminders of how this kind of rock is just as powerful today as it was back in the ’90s. No, they never enjoyed the record sales to show how “important” they are to a mass audience, but that’s not a reason to dismiss the music. Even though Catherine Wheel went out with a rather tepid album, they had a full cycle and explored all they could do over a handful of albums. That’s the goal of so many bands; Catherine Wheel actually did it.