This is the second in an occasional series where I look back on forgotten gems or at least decent albums from the corners of my collection, giving me an excuse to listen closely to an album I may have overlooked for some years.
The history lesson
Benny Profane were formed from the ashes of The Room, who had split up in 1985 after a failed tilt at fame on a Virgin Records offshoot label. Singer Dave Jackson and bassist Becky Stringer got together with drummer/guitarist Joe McKechnie, formerly of The Passage and The Wild Swans, who had helped Dave and Becky out in The Room when their drummer was injured.
They also recruited Robin Surtees (ex-Shiny Two Shiny) on guitar, after Echo & The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant had taken charge of the six strings on their first demo. They were named after a character in Thomas Pynchon’s V, who is described as “a schlemiel and a human yo-yo”. For those who have never swallowed a dictionary, a schlemiel is defined as a stupid, awkward or unlucky person, which somehow seems to fit Jackson and the band quite well (at least the latter two adjectives, that is).
Their first gig was at a house party in Aigburth in south Liverpool in September 1985, and they soon landed support slots with the indie illuminati of the time such as The Woodentops, Hoodoo Gurus and, of course, the Bunnymen, as well as playing with other young local bands like The La’s and Walkingseeds, with their favourite venue apparently being the Monro on Duke Street.
A debut 12” called Where Is Pig? came out in 1986 on Subpop (not that one), with its follow-up Devil Laughing released on Ediesta Records the following April. The fine Stitch That was on the b-side of this, which John Peel picked up on.
Gigs continued, with guest spots for the likes of Hüsker Dü, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3. Another single, Parasite, was released in 1988, before a second well-received Peel session that summer.
They first came to my attention (down south) when they supported The Fall on their I Am Kurious Oranj tour, meaning I saw them two nights running at the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town (now The Forum). They bucked the usual trend of Fall support slots (i.e. they weren’t utter garbage), and I made a point of seeing them on their own tour in 1990 when they passed through Sheffield.
A deal was struck with Dave Haslam’s Playhard Records to put out their debut album Trapdoor Swing in July 1989, as well as the single Skateboard To Oblivion that was produced by the fingers-in-every-pie Ian Broudie.
The album dusted down
So to the album itself… which sounds like it ought to have fit quite neatly into the post-Smiths, pre-Mondays indie scene of the time. Peter Baker added some fine organ parts to many of the tracks, but not in an Inspirally 60’s-retro way, with Roger Sinek and Dave Brown drumming on some of the songs.
There is a country sub-text to the album, played up further in Jackson and Stringer’s future bands, and cartoonish imagery scattered throughout, with regular American cowboy references, for example the line “now I feel like Gary Cooper facing High Noon” on the excellently-titled Quickdraw McGraw Meets Deadeye Dick, which is then followed by the more parochial “now I feel like Tommy Cooper doing his last trick”.
That song starts off with the killer couplet “Oh when he grabbed the microphone he knocked his front teeth right out, and that was the last time he sang without dentures”.
The album kicks off with Man On The Sauce, with its melodically thrashing guitar and subtly wailing backing vocals. Then comes the single, Skateboard To Oblivion, whose flowing chorus could fit right in on Radio 2 these days, but unfortunately not so much back in 1989.
This is a highly consistent album, with the first side also including the dark and scratchy Pink Snow and the strum-und-drang A Handful Of Nothing complete with its packing-case-like drums, cowboy whoops, heroin references and winding ending.
Some slightly cheesy organ stabs on Rob A Bank start side two of the album, where Jackson threatens to “build a bomb and take 10 Downing Street with me” and the guitars ring out during the choruses.
The tuneful but forgettable Tear The Web is followed by the dense, driving and scrabbling Wall To Wall before the album ends with the double whammy of Stitch That and Hear [sic] Comes The Floor.
Stitch is a real slow burner, with a controlled explosion to match the violence in the lyrics at the end. Floor is an atypical track to close on, with its talking lyrics very much reminding me of It’s Immaterial, and its quoting from One For My Baby (And One More For The Road), the Arlen/Mercer tune made most famous by Frank Sinatra.
What happened next
The album received fairly good reviews at the time and although they gigged with the likes of Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and the much-missed King Of The Slums, Benny Profane never really fitted in with the Madchester scene that dominated the music press at the time.
The second and last album Dumb Luck Charm was released on Imaginary Records in 1990, with the CD very handily also including the whole of their first album (still easy to find on Amazon, and now with two demo songs also included), while a third Peel session was recorded at the beginning of the year.
The band split that summer, with Jackson and Stringer continuing to work together in Dust and then Dead Cowboys. The singer released his first (rather good) solo album Cathedral Mountain on Higuera in 2010, with a new album completed in 2013, but apparently still awaiting release.
I really enjoyed returning to Benny Profane after some years of them gathering (ahem) dust on the shelves, and I hope that enough people read this article to encourage me to do more similar ones.
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Here is the full album: