SHOP ASSISTANTS: SAFETY NET (53rd & 3rd) 1986
This week a group whose evolution began in 1981 in Newtonmore, a town in Inverness-shire better known for its shinty team than for its independent bands.
This was a relatively short-lived version of the band that later gained some success as Shop Assistants, but who, according to the fanzine Groovy Black Shades, played live for the first time under the name – wait for it – The Crispy Crunchies.
Now there’s a show I would likely have avoided like a Coldplay convention.
Mercifully, the music was far superior to the moniker.
Fast forward a few years and main songwriter and guitarist David Keegan sent a demo tape of the band (which again according to GBS was now known as Only the Worst) to Stephen Pastel in exchange for a Pastels tape. Stephen was mightily impressed by the songs on the tape and so started a long musical alliance between the two bands.
As Buba and The Shop Assistants, they recorded only one single, Something To Do, with David, Aggi (Annabel Wright from Juniper Beri Beri fanzine), Moray and John supplying the music together with a guest appearance from Stephen Pastel, who also produced the record and designed the sleeve.
The single may have been a pretty limited release but it displayed plenty of promise and was championed by Peter Easton on his Radio Scotland show Beat Patrol and also played by John Peel.
Buba and the Shop Assistants are an experience akin to, no I don’t know, being trussed up naked and thrashed with barbed wire by Clare Grogan. You want sex? Violence? This band have got it all. And beauty. As well as chainsaw classics they have some really nice ballad type songs about things like people “Somewhere in China”.
The Buba and the Shop Assistants Story. The Underground #3 (A Subway Organisation fanzine)
Not long after the release of that debut single in the summer of 1984, Aggi left the now Edinburgh based band to join The Pastels – replaced on vocal duties by Alex Taylor, Alex and David forming a new nucleus of the band, ditching the Buba part of the name and losing their rhythm section.
That autumn Sarah Neale joined their ranks as bassist and the following spring a pair of drummers came onboard, Laura McPhail and Ann Donald.
August 1985 saw the Shopping Parade EP featuring All Day Long released by the Subway Organisation. Neil Taylor, reviewing the single for NME, praised the band as ‘easily the most original post-Mary Chain pop group’ and the Shoppies’ profile was boosted greatly when indie king Morrissey named All Day Long as the best single of the year (again in NME).
‘Not only are they the best, most important, and loveable independent band in Britain today but they double up as the most likely lad and lasses too.’
Lawrence Watson. NME. March 1986
Significantly John Peel’s support for the band grew and grew – they were given two Peel sessions and featured four times in his Festive Fifty, Safety Net being voted #8 in 1986.
This was their sole release on 53rd & 3rd, a label set up early in 1986 by David and Stephen Pastel with help from Sandy McLean. Named after the Ramones classic, the imprint proved highly influential across the globe with releases including singles by BMX Bandits, The Vaselines and Beat Happening. This is Safety Net:
Shop Assistants quickly moved again, this time signing to Blue Guitar – a subsidiary of Chrysalis with an A&R input from Geoff Travis and Mayo Thompson of Texan cult band The Red Crayola – where they issued their sole album before falling apart, although, with a changed line-up they did re-emerge for a while, signing this time to another Scottish independent, Avalanche – with David Keegan afterwards going on to perform a stint with The Pastels.
This is the frenetic version of All Day Long (although I prefer the slower version myself):
Nowadays, Shop Assistants usually get lumped under the C86 category, a (sub)genre description I’ve never been that comfortable with, albeit it beats terms like shambling, cutie or anorak.
And, no, I never scored very highly on any tweeometer, so no oversize cardies, anoraks or duffle coats for me let alone a bowl haircut – and no real nostalgia either for that innocence of childhood thing beloved by many of the independent acts of the time, although in the age of Thatcher, Reagan and AIDS, I suppose it’s easy to understand the impulse behind some musicians and fans wanting to retreat back into a more innocent world.
Neither was I ever someone guaranteed to get excited by that many so-called ‘C86’ acts.
A frenetic and fuzzboxy, Buzzcocks meets The Velvets rudimentary sound like Shop Assistants, then fuck yeah!
But a bunch of wilfully amateurish wimps with trebly guitars who saw it as an achievement to remain underachievers, nah, no thanks, although, saying that, nine times out of ten, I would still take that over the big and bombastic, super slick post-Live Aid commercialism of the era.
More Shop Assistants in 2017, folks.
Trivia: The catalogue numbering system employed by 53rd & 3rd, AGARR, was a nice touch in the 1980s independent world often accused of lacking any real ambition and where chutzpah from anybody outside Morrissey or the Mary Chain was often frowned upon, AGARR standing for ‘As Good As Ramones Records’.