As told in the introduction to this blog, I would write articles about my three biggest passions: travelling, football (soccer), and music. And as the title of my blog indicates, the articles will cover from the mainstream to the obscure and all in between. Both famous places, teams and bands, but also those that few have heard about or that risk to be forgotten. Two days ago I was in a CD store and saw a nice little gem of which I thought it’d be very hard to find: a collection album (a so called "best of") of Echobelly. I am glad at least some other people have not forgotten about this amazing band. Here is an introduction to one of the bands often tagged as Britpop, but standing out for a variety of reasons.
Even without having listened any tone of the sound Echobelly produced, you could see this was not your everyday band. Formed in 1992 by Sonya Aurora Madan (vocals and main lyricist) and Glenn Johansson (guitars), the band was a rare multinational and multi-ethnic collective: Sonya Madan was born in Delhi, India, although she moved to the UK at the age of 2. Still, the Indian appearance is still somewhat there, which gave her a lot of extra attention in the media. Glenn Johansson, who briefly dated Sonya (they remained close friends after the break-up and were actually the core of Echobelly), is a native of Sweden. In Sweden he had the rather dodgy job of editing an adult magazine. Obviously tired of such career, he took his bags and took off to London with the hope of finding a band. Echobelly was totally formed with the addition of Alex Keyser on bass guitar and Andy Henderson on drums. However, the band took an even greater diversity with the addition of Debbie Smith on guitar from 1994 on. Debbie Smith, previously in a band called Curve, was a rarity in many ways in the rock scene those days: she was a female, black and lesbian guitar player. She has actually been named very often as a core role model for women in similar situations, and has become a local icon for those reasons. But above all, she was a quality guitar player. When Glenn had injured his hands, Debbie fill in for him and did so well that "de facto" she became a permanent member of the band.
Echobelly were always somewhat the different one when the Britpop scene was booming and female-fronted pop/rock bands were big. There was Elastica, there was Republica (remember the hits "Ready to go" and the extremely catchy "Drop dead gorgeous"?), there was Sleeper, … I am probably forgetting some more. However, Echobelly (who by the way seem to have invented the term as I cannot find it in any dictionary… the band explained the name as a metaphor for "Hunger for change" or "Desire for a change") were much more openly political than the other named bands who lyrically never went too far on thin ice. Echobelly never shunned politically outspoken lyrics, even when the band and lyricist Sonya Madan said that she didn’t want to be a politician or try to force her views on people. Nonetheless, the debut album "Everyone’s Got One" (1994) had some tracks with a clear society-critical undertone, tackling subjects such as feminism, alienation, boredom. The song "Insomniac" with its kitch-esque video (Sonya wearing a blonde wig and some others wearing Union Jack-shirts) became somewhat of a hit.
The band caught attention and a lot of praise, up to the point that even nobody less than former Smiths frontman Morrissey was impressed enough to personally invite Echobelly to open for him during a tour. Sonya’s vocal style has some slight similarities with Morrissey’s style of singing, leading to some press dubbing her the "female Morrissey".
1995 saw the release of the band’s second album "On". This does contain my favourite Echobelly songs, so I would be keen on considering this the moment when Echobelly really lifted themselves way above the other female-fronted British rock bands that were rising in the mid-nineties. "Great Things", an anthem dedicated to taking risks and experiencing everything in life as much as you can, even became a smash hit that won a trophy for best video. The lines of the song are pretty self-explaining: "Oh, what do I know? There’s gotta be so much I don’t know… I wanna do great things, I don’t want to compromise. I wanna know what love is, I wanna know everything". Ambitious, but catchy and with determination enough in the vocals that the song became very uplifting. It is an anthem of ambition and always aiming higher, injecting a fresh dosage of positive energy right into the veins.
Another highlight on this album is the song "King of the Kerb". Just like with Great Things, the song is based on a great vocal delivery from Sonya combined with some amazing guitar riffs. Especially the part right before the chorus, while Sonya sings "He turns it on" repeatedly, is an amazing part as a screaming guitar riff combined with pounding drums make a very full-of-energy song. The lyrics are a bit more abstract:
"Sugar smile savvy, the king of the kerb, got his temper in the style of a bomb.
All his friends in the pockets or safe behind bars. All the locals boys know what he’s done.
He turns it on, he turns it on, he turns it on, …
Some boys doing it for themselves, there’s somebody out there doing it for you.
Safe while you’re paying out for your health. They’re the kings of the kerb. And everybody knows what they’re worth"
Probably the greatest highlight however is the haunting ballad "Dark Therapy". While lyrically again leaving room for a lot of interpretation, the song is less heavy and catchy but instead drifts upon a haunting slower sound, forming the perfect ballad in which the guitars only get a bit heavier during the chorus. The video shows Sonya wearing an ice mask in what appears to be a tank of water. The song and video are somewhat abstract, but the hauntingly dark atmosphere are entrancing.
"On" was clearly a great album, and that reflected in the charts, reaching nr 4 in the UK Album Chart. Afterwards things became more troubled for the band. Sonya had some health issues, Alex Keyser left the band and new bass player Jamie Harris also didn’t last very long (would eventually be replaced by Ruth Owen) and shortly before the release of the third album "Lustra" (1997) Debbie Smith would also leave the band. Lustra nonetheless had its good moments (while the single "The World Is Flat" is quite mediocre, "Here Comes the Big Rush" was more interesting by far) but the success of "On" did not get repeated.
The band more and more saw themselves overshadowed by other female-fronted British alternative rock bands, and would continue on a self-formed label releasing two more albums: "People are Expensive" (2001) and "Gravity Pulls" (2004). The latter was the swan song of the band, although two "best of" compilations have been published as well. Nonetheless, Echobelly never received the credit they deserved, and their split-up was quite unnoticed.
The band members are nonetheless still in music. Sonya and Glenn still form a duo music-wise and work on a new band called Calm of Zero. A few songs were already performed with some media attention, and should be released on an album which apparently will be titled "I Seek Identity". Debbie Smith would be a member of the supergroup Snowpony, and became an iconic DJ in the gay scene in London.
It is questionable weither the new projects will ever receive the attention Echobelly got at their best moments. What I mainly wish is that the band won’t be forgotten. Especially on the album "On", there is some great guitar orientated rock, a few more haunting songs, and some lyrics that will keep you busy trying to analyse them. So go to a record store nearby, and try to find if you can get their albums. I am not sure if they are out-of-print or not, but surely their compilation album should still be for sale, or can be imported. Those hesitating can find most videos on YouTube (some published by a person who used to work on the fanzine), give them a listen and hopefully you also will be convinced enough that this band was nothing like most other bands tied to the alternative rock or Britpop scene of the nineties. Buy an album, you won’t be disappointed. If even Morrissey claims that he truly rated this band highly, then for sure that indicates there’s a lot of quality in there.
The band has an official website www.echobelly.com, however the site seems more an archive than a site that is expected to be updated (unless a non-expected reunion of the band would ever take place? No harm in hoping, I guess)