Commented Catherine Wheel’s lead singer Rob Dickinson in a Web site interview with David S. Faris: “Believe it or not, we’re not dour-faced young men.” While it is true that this English band has been considered one of those “mope rock” or “shoe gazer bands”—full of angst and painful introspection—the band has moved away from those earlier descriptions as their music has developed. Dickinson added, “We spend most of our time having a reasonable amount of fun in this band. Musically, it’s still quite difficult for us to be chipper, but that kind of English sense of humour which is somewhat sarcastic has kind of appeared now, maybe for the first time. I’m glad, because I think it’s definitely part of what we are.”
For several years Dickinson and Catherine Wheel mate Brian Futter played in different local bands together around the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, England. While playing with the short-lived Ten Angry Men, the pair met drummer Neil Sims. Dickinson then left his drumming behind and started to learn guitar. He and Futter began writing songs that they recorded on an 8 track machine in Futter’s bedroom. Around June of 1990 the guys put an add in the paper looking for a bassist whose influences included bands like Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride. Dave Hawes answered the ad, they bonded, and Catherine Wheel was formed.
Right away the band found a gig at the Arts Center in Norwich, England. The band frantically began to practice and tried to think of a name. They don’t remember exactly what prompted Dickinson to suggest Catherine Wheel—the gruesome torture device that dates back to the fourth century—but they all liked the name.
It didn’t take long for Catherine Wheel to get noticed. Their first gig was in September of 1990. The promoter for the venue, who also ran an indie label named Wilde Club Records, signed the band and helped them put out their first EP, She’s My Friend. The album was released in January of 1991 and got rave reviews in various weekly music magazines. After one more EP on Wilde Club, the band was picked up by major label Fontana/Mercury.
In 1992 Catherine Wheel made their American debut with the album Ferment Rolling Stone’s Ted Drozdows-ki wrote: “Over that album’s iron-fisted back beat, guitarists Rob Dickinson and Brian Futter spray-painted a 3-D day-glo rainbow through songs like the android sex fantasy ‘Black Metallic,’ the cut that raised their band
For the Record…
Members include Rob Dickinson, vocals and guitar; Brian Flitter, guitar; Dave Hawes, bass; and Neil Sims, drums.
Band formed in 1990 in Great Yarmouth, England; released first EP, She’s My Friend, on Wilde Club Records, 1991; signed with Fontana/Mercury Records and released major label debut, Ferment, 1992.
from cultdom.” Chrome followed in 1993. Drozdowski commented that on this album Catherine Wheel “threw dirt on the palette to create bitter sugar like ‘Crank,’ a spray of tuneful noise with lyrics about isolation.” These first two releases generally led critics to place Catherine Wheel in the category of mope rock. In the Boston Phoenix, Drozdwoski called Ferment and Chrome “the best examples since Pink Floyd’s heyday of what a great band with a broad palette can do within the rock genre.”
It wasn’t until 1995 and the release of Happy Days that Catherine Wheel showed the world that they could not be easily categorized. Faris said that “Happy Days presents the group in a new state, one of unrestrained emotional expression, through their cranked-up, sped-up songs that pound out tight riffs rather than fueling their effects pedals into a distorted haze.” USA Today’s Edna Gundersen, who gave the album three and a half stars, explained: “The upbeat title doesn’t mean the brilliant British guitar band…abandoned its signature moodiness on this third and best album.” If anything, the music just got harder.
Dickinson told Drozdowski in the Phoenix, “We didn’t decide, The time is right—it’s fashionable to make a hard-hitting heavy record.’ I think it’s much more than that. We toured an incredible amount over the last few years. And the energy of the band live became this very tangible, powerful thing.” To Faris, Dickinson elaborated: “That’s how our music changes, and that’s how we change, through this touring process… we became radically different at the end of six months….I think that’s why there is a quantum leap between these records.”
The difference on Happy Days was immediately apparent. On the two albums before Happy Days, wrote the New York Times’s Jon Pareles, “many of Catherine Wheel’s songs floated into a dazed introspection and solipsism. But now the band gets angry as well as depressed.” Entertainment Weekly commented that “epic melodies merge with spiky punk and swelling pop, and the result is absolutely pummeling.” Regarding the single “Waydown” and its video, People’s Jeremy Helligar wrote, “It sounds like a tense nervous headache, but it’s catchy enough to send Catherine Wheel rolling right up the charts.”
In 1996 Catherine Wheel released Like Cats & Dogs, an album consisting of previously unreleased tracks and outtakes from the band’s relentless recording schedule. This interim release while the quartet began work on a new album was culled from a small portion of Catherine Wheel’s accumulation of extra tracks on their UK EPs. Like Cats & Dogs effectively highlighted the other side of the group previously known only to the most ardentfans and import collectors. I n his Mercury Records press materials, Dickinson recalled, “we were getting tons of inquiries from people in America who were frustrated about not being able to get hold of our singles from [England]…. These more subconscious tracks are just as important as anything on our three albums and just as much the heart of the band.”
In the Phoenix, Dickinson told Drozdowski, “For a rock band to have any sense of worth or substance, they have to have their own sense of place…. Now I feel very strongly that we have…. We’ve developed our own sort of entity, which is what any band is about.” With each new development in their sound, the media and the public have taken more and more notice of these hard to classify English rockers. Far from the frightening images of a plane crash in the video for “Waydown,” this band is just reaching cruising altitude.
She’s My Friend (EP), Wilde Club Records, 1991.
Ferment (includes “Black Metallic”), Ferment/Mercury, 1992.
Chrome (includes “Crank”), Ferment/Mercury, 1993.
Happy Days (includes “Waydown”), Ferment/Mercury, 1995.
Boston Phoenix, May 26, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, June 22, 1995.
Musician, September 1995.
New York Times, August 25, 1995; October 12, 1995.
People, June 12, 1995.
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995.
USA Today, June 6, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mercury Records press materials, 1996, and from the World Wide Web.