| DURHAM, England
DURHAM, England Oct 15 Rock and roll is full of
cautionary tales - of excess, break-ups and missed
British indie band Ultrasound, touted as the "next big
thing" in the 1990s only to sink without trace following bitter
bust-ups, reports of in-band infidelity and "creative
differences", fits the bill neatly.
But in the case of the quintet led by the imposing Andrew
"Tiny" Wood, the tale may yet have a happy ending.
Ultrasound has just released a second album "Play for Today"
13 years after its ambitious yet poorly received double-CD debut
"Everything Picture" proved the beginning and the end of an act
that record labels had fought each other to sign.
This time around there are no six-figure sums, no flights to
the United States to be wined and dined, none of the hype
generated by record company A&R departments whose influence has
waned with the arrival of the internet.
Instead there is a 10-song, single-CD album which failed to
trouble the charts in Britain on its release last month, a
series of small gigs and decidedly modest hopes for the future.
"It would be nice if we could earn enough so that we could
do this," Wood said during a recent interview in Durham,
northern England, close to where he now lives.
"Tiny", who is anything but small, has been singing in other
bands and to help make ends meet spends two days a week washing
dishes in nearby Newcastle, while principal songwriter Richard
Green is a delivery man working "ridiculous hours.
"If we could earn enough so that each of us could be
comfortable then that would be great. I don't think you should
have any more," Wood added.
Ultrasound's manager Andy Macleod said he too, was not
getting carried away.
"We can't compete with the squillion-pound marketing spend
of the majors (labels) so we are taking one step at a time and
seeing how far it can take us," he said ahead of the band's
biggest comeback gig to date in front of 600 people in London.
"So hopefully it's a slow-burn to world domination ...
around 2021. Pink Floyd meets The Who - Punk Floyd!"
Even in the late 1990s, when Ultrasound signed with Nude
Records for 250,000 pounds ($400,000) and were on the covers of
music magazines, Wood did not get ahead of himself.
"I was in my mid-30s then," he explained. "I wasn't in some
kind of bubble or anything ... I've seen bands come and go, I
know how it works."
Wood, who is "48 or 49" - he says he can't remember which -
recalled the heady days of bidding wars and big contracts which
the music industry is still recovering from.
"There was still that sense of take a band, throw a lot of
money at it and you've got another Oasis," he explained,
referring to the industry's search for someone to fill the void
left by Britpop's decline at the end of the 1990s.
"It doesn't work that way, really. You've got to take bands
that you believe in and build them up."
In the case of Ultrasound, he blames the band for being
naive and the label for failing to offer enough guidance when
Everything Picture came out.
He and his fellow musicians, including Green and Vanessa
Best on bass guitar, could have negotiated a significantly
bigger contract, but wanted "artistic freedom" above all else.
What they created was an album that baffled the music press
at the time and flickered briefly in the British album charts
where it rose to no. 23 in 1999, but which has since come to be
regarded as a "lost" classic of progressive rock.
"If any criticism could be made, I suppose it would be that
we do that with everything - you try and make a nice little pop
song and you always start adding things in to make it big and
joyous. If there's a criticism, it's that," Wood said.
"We get criticism for being over-ambitious. So what? It's
good. It's better than not being ambitious at all."
Their dramatic rise and fall is not new. The hugely
influential Sex Pistols released one studio album in 1977 before
a tempestuous break-up the following year. Subsequent comebacks
have been jeered as "sellouts" as much as cheered by fans.
Liverpool's The La's took around four years to complete
their eponymous debut album in the early 1990s, only for
volatile group leader Lee Mavers to instantly disown it and the
band to drift into relative obscurity.
BAND THRIVES ON STAGE
NME magazine called Ultrasound the "most underrated band" of
the 1990s - it flourished briefly at the time Coldplay were
starting out - and described Everything Picture as a "perfect,
bloated double album of endlessly ambitious guitar rock."
Wood said he had wanted to produce a three-CD album, but
compromised and stuck with two.
"We didn't know how long we were going to last," the
soft-spoken singer explained. "We thought, well, let's put
everything in this because this might be the only chance we get.
It wasn't necessarily made for 1999, it was made for the
Ultrasound's biggest draw was their live shows. Wood's stage
presence and the drama of the band's big, punk-infused sounds
make for an arresting spectacle and one that could fill far
bigger venues than they have of late.
In its heyday, Ultrasound played music festivals like
Glastonbury and T in the Park, although Wood also recalled
performing in front of two or three people in the early years.
Surprisingly, Wood is not a big fan of performing.
"I'm good at doing it, I know I am. But it doesn't
necessarily mean I enjoy doing it. (But) I'm quite happy to do a
lot of gigs because I know that's where we excel and that's how
we can sell records."
Most reviews of the new album, out on the Fierce Panda
Records label, have been positive.
"Play for Today is above all else a collection of
consistently fine-tuned anthems, suffused with passion,
intelligence and a kind of heroic, life-affirming despair,"
wrote Paul Whitelaw on the BBC's music website.
The Drowned in Sound website gave a more mixed review,
calling the album "fine" and the live shows "still incredible"
but adding that Play for Today was more a trip down memory lane
than a "reclaiming of the flame."
Play for Today opens with "Welfare State", a brazen, angry
comeback featuring the lines "We crashed and burned but we
return/ To claim our stake."
"Nonsense", about self-loathing, is jaunty and harmonious by
comparison, "Between Two Rivers" is a mournful take on Wood's
vision of belonging while in "Long Way Home" he lets loose his
romantic side, singing of a "flamingo pink and powder blue" sky.
Now Play for Today is out, the hard work begins.
The band has begun recording new music, including an
extra-long "prelude" to their next album, and has eight
confirmed gigs starting at York's Fibbers on Nov. 22.
"I'm a little bit cynical myself, and I always take
everything with a pinch of salt, but the response that I have
noticed has been very positive," was Wood's typically blunt
assessment of the comeback so far. "We'll see."
($1 = 0.6216 British pounds)
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)