The Pastels, despite a prolific recording career dating back to the 1980s, remain little known outside the circle of independent rock. Nevertheless, their presence has proven important to both the alternative set and to the mainstream. In addition to furthering the careers of more popular bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Vaselines, thereby also drawing attention to Scotland's vibrant musical community, the Pastels in their early days helped start a musical movement known as "shambling" or "anorak" pop, a style recognizable for its playfulness and technical simplicity. The band's two greatest influences include the Swell Maps and the Modern Lovers, two bands known for endearing simplicity and a sense of adventure, respectively. Groups such as Nirvana, Teenage Fan-club, and Belle and Sebastian have considered the Pastels a significant inspiration.
"For those in the know," wrote Jonathan Selzer in a performance review for Melody Maker, "the Pastels represent a particular kind of timelessness, as engaging and insulated as a soap opera. After more than a decade, Stephen Pastel doesn't look a day older, but their idyllic, saying rock 'n' roll is still too open to sound regressive. Instead, they give way to a distracted sense of freedom, like the soundtrack to a daydream."
Based in Glasgow, the nucleus of the band consists of songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Stephen McRobbie, also known as Stephen Pastel; songwriter, vocalist, and bassist Aggi Wright; and songwriter, vocalist, and drummer Katrina Mitchell. This lineup has remained stable since 1990. Initially, upon the band's formation in 1982, the Pastels included guitarist Brian Taylor—also known as Brian Superstar—and drummer Chris Gordon alongside McRobbie. Soon after the group's 1982 debut on Whaam! Records with the single "Songs for Children," Gordon exited. Bernice Simpson next took over drumming duties, while Martin Hayward joined on bass.
The Pastels have acknowledged that they lacked ambition and a sense of band unity at this point. Taking a nonchalant approach to music-making, they performed and recorded sporadically on various record labels. These works included the singles "I Wonder Why," released in 1983 on Rough Trade, and "Something's Going On" and "A Million Tears," both issued in 1984 by Creation Records. They released one more single for Creation in 1985, "I'm Alright with You," before signing with the small Glass Records label. The following year, the magazine New Musical Express included a Pastels song, "Breaking Lines," on C-86, an influential compilation of many of the so-called "anorak" groups. As a result, the Pastels received instant media attention. But the group, especially McRobbie, did not see the terms "shambling" or "C-86" as particularly complimentary.
McRobbie later remarked, as quoted from a Melody Maker interview at the band's website, "I honestly believe that artists have got a duty to interface with popular culture. I just could never be satisfied with selling 200 records and getting a good review in The Wire. To me it's meaningless. I hate a certain kind of arrogance—self-belief is important but I hate that arrogance that sees yourself above everything. You've got to get in amongst everything in popular culture and f**k things up totally."
Insisting the Pastels could do better than many of the trendsetters surrounding them, McRobbie recruited Aggi Wright, the former keyboardist for the group the Shop Assistants. The band released three more singles in 1986: "Truck Train Tractor," "Crawl Babies," and "Comin' Through." The following year saw the release of the band's first full-length album, Up for a Bit with the Pastels, and in 1988 an album of previously unreleased material entitled Suck on the Pastels arrived. For their next album, 1989's Sittin' Pretty for Paperhouse Records, the Pastels invited former Vase-line frontman Eugene Kelly and former Shop Assistant member David Keegan to participate. This session also marked the final recordings with Superstar, Hayward, and Simpson.
In 1990 McRobbie and Wright enlisted Katrina Mitchell, a fan who had taught herself to play drums, to join. Four years later, the Pastels participated in the collaborative effort Jad Fair and the Pastels—This Could Be the Night. Mobile Safari, released on Domino in Great Britain and Up Records in America, surfaced in 1995. This lo-fi pop album, containing such songs as "Mandarin" and "Token Collecting," earned positive reviews for its cohesiveness and seemingly effortless quality. The year also brought forth Sandy Dirt, recorded with Al Larsen for Domino Records.
The Pastel's 1997 album Illumination proved their most ambitious and compositionally complex effort. "You can't keep making the same record over and over again," said McRobbie to Andrew Perry for Select magazine. "We're really anti-complacent, we're eager to keep learning. That doesn't happen very often with pop music. Filmmakers like Buñuel made their best films when they were in their seventies. Same with Miles Davis. We're trying to leave more space and learn from electronic records and jazz records."
Consequently, besides guitar, drums, and bass, the recording also features such instrumentation as flute, melodica, and piano, as well as guest appearances by member of Luna, My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fan-club, Tortoise, and Stereolab. "It's an intensely romantic album, busy with the imagery of nostalgia and once-felt love," wrote Jade Gordon of Melody Maker, "but it also eats itself up wearying over the impossibility of a wholly righteous universe…. Angry and assertive, it's as much a political record as it is a touching ode to beauty and friendship."
Illumination was followed two years later by Illuminati, a collection of remixes inspired by the 1998 album. Participants in this endeavor included Ian Carmichael (formerly of the band One Dove), Future Pilot AKA, Kid Loco, Stereolab, and groundbreaking jazz musician Bill Wells. But "don't expect speed garage mixes," as Stevie Chick of Melody Maker explained. "The songs are reshaped, sculpted into new forms, rather than shoehorned into styles that wouldn't suit."
For the Record . . .
Members include Chris Gordon (left group, 1982), drums; Martin Hayward (group member, 1982-88), bass; Stephen McRobbie (born
Stephen Pastel), vocals, guitar; Katrina Mitchell (joined group, 1990), vocals, drums; Bernice Simpson (group member, 1982-88), drums; Brian "Super-star" Taylor (left group, 1988), guitar; Aggi Wright
(joined group, 1986), vocals, bass.
Group formed in Glasgow, Scotland, 1982; released Up for a Bit with the Pasetels, 1987; released Sittin' Pretty, 1988; released breakthrough album Mobile Safari, 1995; released critically successful Illumination,
1997; remix album Illuminati released, 1999; released film soundtrack The Last Great Wilderness, 2003.
Besides playing in the Pastels, Wright works as an illustrator, McRobbie is a freelance writer, and Mitchell studies psychology. The Pastels recorded a film soundtrack, The Last Great Wilderness, in 2003. They have also recorded a John Peel session with My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and plan to work again with Wells.
Up for a Bit with the Pastels, Glass, 1987.
Suck on the Pastels, Creation, 1988.
Sittin' Pretty, Chapter 22, 1988.
Truckload of Trouble, Paperhouse, 1994.
Mobile Safari, Domino, 1995; Up, 1995.
Sandy Dirt, Domino, 1995.
Illumination, Up, 1997.
Illuminati, Up, 1998.
The Last Great Wilderness, Domino, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1999, p. 3.
Entertainment Weekly, January 30, 1998, p. 65.
Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1998, p. 25.
Melody Maker, October 18, 1997, p. 50; November 22, 1997,
p. 36; February 14, 1998, p. 31; November 28, 1998, p. 44.
Select, November 1997.
"The Pastels," CMJ, http://www.cmj.com (August 29, 2003).
"The Pastels," Up Records, http://www.uprecords.com/artists/thepastels/ (August 29, 2003).
The Pastels Home Page, http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~jona than/pastels.html (August 29, 2003).
"Pastels: Illuminati, " Pitchfork, http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/p/pastels/illuminati.shtml (August 29, 2003).
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