The Blue Aeroplanes
The Blue Aeroplanes
The Blue Aeroplanes, a loose-knit, ever-changing collective, became one of the most acclaimed artinspired rock groups of the 1980s and 1990s. The vision of lyricist and sole original member Gerard Langley, the Blue Aeroplanes employed some 30 people, including full-time dancers in addition to musicians, over the years. Despite an unconventional approach, critics agree that the group’s talent justified its artsy pretensions. Langley not only created absorbing poetry but also maintained a band of solid musicians to back him up.
Although intricately woven, the Blue Aeroplanes’ epic songs were nonetheless accessible, enabling the group to enjoy greater success than most art-rock ensembles. The group’s overall sound has been likened to that of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, the Velvet Underground, the Sisters of Mercy, Fairport Convention, and others. The Blue Aeroplanes disbanded in 1996, with Beatsongs, released in 1991, standing as their most compelling album. That set exemplified the Blue Aeroplanes’ ability to combine power pop, conventional rock, and psychedelia with meaningful words and wired guitars.
“Our sets go from loud, thrashy stuff to quiet acoustic stuff to things that build and swell,” Langley explained to Erik Hamilton in the Los Angeles Times during a 1990 tour. “That sort of thing seems to be rare in rock music at the moment, but it’s something that’s quite natural to us. We’re the sort of band that can tour in smoky rock ‘n’ roll clubs or large venues, then turn around and quite comfortably play in an art gallery.”
In Bristol, England, in the early 1980s, the Blue Aeroplanes emerged through the dissolution of two little-known bands: Art Objects and Exploding Seagulls. The Blue Aeroplanes’ original concept featured the marriage of tight, angular guitar pop with the poetry and prose of Langley. For live performances, the band supplemented the music and words with backing tapes, slide shows, performance art, and dancers. Compared to other performers, whose shows sometimes decline in energy as the years pass, the Blue Aeroplanes consistently proved stimulating. In a review in 1990 for the Boston Globe, staff writer Jim Sullivan concluded that the Blue Aeroplanes “took the crowd for a careening, thoroughly unaffected, joy ride, an improbable and wholly frenzied cross of the Ramones, the Velvet Underground and the Byrds.”
In 1984 the Blue Aeroplanes made their full-length debut with Bop Art, followed by Lover and Confidante and Other Stories of Travel, Religion and Heartbreak and Tolerance in 1986 and Spitting Out Miracles in 1987. Throughout this period, the core of the group included, in addition to Langley, Langley’s brother, John, on drums, Nick Jacobs on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Dave Chapman, Richard Bell on guitar and piano, Ruth Cochrane on bass guitar and mandolin, and dancer Wojtek Dmochowski. However, Spitting Out Miracles, for example, listed a total of 16 collaborators. One participant, the emerging Texas-born performer Michelle Shocked, subsequently became a darling of the British folk-rock scene.
In 1989, after the release of a 1988 compilation album entitled Friendloverplane, the Blue Aeroplanes secured a recording contract with a major label, Ensign, and joined R.E.M. on a tour of the United Kingdom. This supporting slot provided the Blue Aeroplanes with mainstream exposure and launched two new songs for the band: “… And Stones” and “Jacket Hangs.” Both songs became hits in the United Kingdom, appearing on 1990’s Swagger alongside other notables such as “The Applicant,” “Careful Boy,” and “What Is It,” which features discreet guest vocals by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
Earning exceptional reviews from critics and introducing the talent of guitarists Angelo Bruschini and Rodney Allen and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Lee, Swagger was quickly followed by World View Blue, a footnote of sorts to Swagger’s release in the United States. It contained the single “You (Are Loved)” as well as “Razor Walk,” covers of songs by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Richard Thompson, live tracks, and an acoustic version of the title song.
By now, the band had moved beyond their cult following at home, gaining fans in the United States as well. However, Langley explained that audience preferences, rather than musical changes, led to his band’s success. “We’ve been doing this kind of music all along,” he told Hamilton in the Los Angeles Times. “But
Members include Rodney Allen, guitar; Richard Bell, guitar, piano; Angelo Brtischini, guitar; Dave Chapman, various instruments; Ruth Cochrane, bass guitar, mandolin; Wojtek Dmochowski, dancer; Nick Jacobs, guitar; Gerard Langley, lyrics, vocals; John Langley, drums; Alex Lee, guitar, keyboards; Andy McCreeth, bass guitar; Paul Mulreany, drums.
Group formed in Bristol, England, early 1980s; signed major-label contract with Ensign, toured with R.E.M., 1989; released Swagger, 1990; released Beatsongs, 1991; signed with Beggars Banquet, released Rough Music, 1995; disbanded, 1996.
people in England were more into novelty and noise, until recently, and now what we do has suddenly be-come acceptable. I really think it’s a case of us having waited around long enough to become fashionable.”
The Blue Aeroplanes’ next album, Beatsongs, solidified the band’s reputation. “Intense and dreamy, acoustic and electric,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Sullivan in 1991, “Beatsongs is yet another fine effort from a fringe ‘alternative’ band, one that deserves a major push and breakthrough.” By now, the group’s core included Langley, Bruschini, Allen, Lee, bassist Andy McCreeth, and drummer Paul Mulreany, with eight additional artists listed on the album credits.
Standouts from Beatsongs include jangly pop songs like “Yr Own World” and “Fun,” the folk-inspired “Cardboard Box” and “Colour Me,” the art-rock numbers “Sixth Continent” and “My Hurricane,” and a revealing version of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble.” But despite the album’s rave reviews, seeming commercial appeal, and unique mix of pop and psychedelic sounds, Beatsongs went largely ignored by fans in the United Kingdom. At the time, like many fans in America, young Brits were caught up in the grunge-rock sounds resonating from Seattle. Nevertheless, the musicianship of the lineup was further demonstrated with 1993’s Friendloverplane 2, a cohesive set of B-sides and outtakes from the Swagger and Beatsongs period.
After Beatsongs, the Blue Aeroplanes were less visible. During the layoff, the group switched to another label, Beggars Banquet, and also witnessed the departure of some key personnel. Consequently, the band’s 1994 effort Life Model, recorded with Langley and two different lineups, lacked the richness of previous material. Critics agreed that, at best, Life Model was a transitional moment for the band.
But the Blue Aeroplanes’ next effort, 1995’s Rough Music, proved more impressive. Here, Langley supplemented his current lineup with appearances by former band alumni. At least 20 instrumentalists participated in the recording, resulting in songs such as “Whatever Happened to Our Golden Birds” (co-written with the Jazz Butcher), the rock numbers “Detective Song” and “Contact High!,” and softer tracks like “A Map Below” and “James.” Other standout tracks include the pop number “Sugared Almonds,” which sounds reminiscent of the band’s Beatsongs days, and the experimental, saxophone-driven “Secret Destination.” The Blue Aeroplanes disbanded shortly thereafter, in 1996. That year, one of the band’s former labels, Fire, issued Fruit, a live album of Blue Aeroplanes’ performances from various periods.
Bop Art, Abstract (U.K.), 1984; reissued, Regeneration (U.K.), 1994.
Action Painting and Other Original Works (EP), Fire (U.K.), 1985.
Lover and Confidante and Other Stories of Travel, Religion and Heartbreak, Fire (U.K.), 1986.
Tolerance, Fire (U.K.), 1986.
Bury Your Love Like Treasure (EP), Fire (U.K.), 1987.
Spitting Out Miracles, Fire/Restless, 1987.
Veils of Colour (EP), Fire (U.K.), 1988.
Friendloverplane, Fire (U.K.), 1988; reissued, Fire/Restless, 1989.
Swagger, Ensign/Chrysalis, 1990.
Loved (EP), Ensign (U.K.), 1990.
World View Blue, Ensign/Chrysalis, 1990.
Beatsongs, Ensign/Chrysalis, 1991.
YrOwn World (EP), Ensign (U.K.), 1991.
Friendloverplane 2: Up in a Down World, Ensign (U.K.), 1993.
Broken & Mended (EP), Beggars Banquet (U.K.), 1994.
Life Model, Beggars Banquet (U.K.), 1994.
Up in a Down World (EP), Fantastic Plastic (U.K.), 1994.
Detective Song (EP), Beggars Banquet (U.K.), 1994.
Rough Music, Beggars Banquet, 1995.
Sugared Almond (EP), Beggars Banquet (U.K.), 1995.
Fruit (Live 1983-1995), Fire (U.K.), 1996.
Buckley, Jonathan, et al., editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Billboard, June 4, 1994.
Boston Globe, November 9, 1990; November 14, 1990; September 5, 1991; November 21, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1990; November 14, 1991; June 5, 1992.
Rolling Stone, May 31, 1990.
Washington Post, November 3, 1989; November 7, 1989.
“The Blue Aeroplanes,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 19, 2002).
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