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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Robert Wratten, and Songs As Map Of The Human Heart

The recent massive success of Adele has been a good thing for music, I think, as it has shown the popularity of the classic style of songwriting, away from repetitive dance tracks or talent show karaoke rubbish. The 6 weeks or so at Number 1 for 'Someone Like You' in particular should be applauded; a classic arrangement, superbly played, beautifully sung....a return to proper songwriting! But it's the lyrics, or at least the sentiments of the lyrics that I have a problem with.
In the song, Adele contacts her former boyfriend/lover whom she has obviously been madly in love with. He, however, has moved on and has gotten married and settled down with some new love. Adele can't seem to handle this and does a bit of 'What about me?' protesting to him, creeping back into his life. Now, it may just be me and my rather oversensitive views and feelings about love and relationships, but to me this is dangerous ground. This is borderline stalking. Think of former Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw, unable to accept that his marriage was over he took to heavy drinking and hanging about his ex-wife's new's pretty much the same thing. Sure, it's all very romantic when viewed with clear eyes, and I'm sure Adele doesn't advocate stalking a former lover in any way, but sometimes love has too strong a pull and it's actions can be viewed as a little odd.
It also reminded me a great deal of 'Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise' by Trembling Blue Stars; a song which pretty much covers the exact same ground. Have a listen and see.....

Trembling Blue Stars were the band formed in the wake of the demise of The Field Mice by it's principle songwriter and vocalist Robert Wratten; in my opinion a genius in the Morrissey/Brian Wilson mould.
Sometime last year on a cold hungover Saturday morning, Griff and I were discussing great British songwriters and how some songwriters often hailed as geniuses weren't as good as their reputation suggests; Shane MacGowan and Joe Strummer being our biggest culprits. We thought of who we would suggest as undervalued replacements to these; I first proffered Mark E Smith but had to concede that ranting over what sounds like an industrial cacophony doesn't constitute songwriting, genius though it may be. So I rather timidly put forward the suggestion of Robert Wratten as his songs were second only to The Smiths or The Beach Boys as being able to genuinely move me. Griff admitted he wasn't too aware of Robert's songwriting in any great quantity but accepted my argument.
So, even though we've covered The Field Mice before, let's take a look at why I consider Bob Wratten to be such a genius....
Say the words 'Sarah Records' to anyone and they almost immediately conjure up some ultra-fey floppy fringed twee music about heartbreak and Vimto. And it's The Field Mice who are often held up, by extremely lazy journalists, as the best examples of this. People who have clearly never heard any Field Mice songs. Likewise, Martin Strong's mighty tome 'The Great Alternative And Indie Discography' describes The Field Mice as having released a 'string of pastoral acoustic singles and EPs'...EH?? What the fuck are you blethering on about man? Acoustic?? All those shimmering Rickenbacker guitars and icy synthesizers....acoustic?? Try listening to the songs first next time!
Their 'The Autumn Store' EPs feature staccato Motownesque brass and Stax Record style guitar bursts. Their 'Snowball' 10" album features glacial Kraftwerkian electronic soundscapes of which St Etienne covered 'Let's Kiss And Make Up' as their debut single. Hardly twee and hardly acoustic.
Where Bob Wratten connects with me most though, rather obviously, is in his lyrics. I've never known any one to wear their heart on their sleeve so blatantly as Bob does. In fact, he practically wears his heart as a rather fetching three piece suit (of armour). Even Morrissey would probably advise Bob to reign in the confessional heartbroken approach a tad.
Maybe it's because Bob is virtually the same age as me (actually a year older) that he was able to articulate exactly the kind of things that I felt myself go through in affairs of the heart, or even just the beautiful agony of full-on unrequited love that makes his lyrics both uplifting and soul-destroying in equal measures. Listening to The Field Mice when in love is a joyous thing....listening to them while in the throes of heartbreak, well let's just say that you DON'T listen to them when your heart is broken, not if you want to retain your sanity.
Let's look at some examples of their songs then....

'So Said Kay' is one of my most treasured of all Roberts songs, probably because the song is based entirely on the narrative of one of my favourite films, 'Desert Hearts'. 'Desert Hearts' tells the story of a straight-laced woman whose marriage ends and she finds herself in a small town in 1950s USA where she begins a reluctant affair with a free spirited young woman. It's an absolutely beautiful non-exploitative film which should be required viewing for everyone. The song, such a gorgeous arrangement, captures the beauty and tragedy of the movie completely.....

'The World To Me' is from the aforementioned 'The Autumn Store' and is just an astonishing piece of music on it's own, so far removed from the perception that exists of them. The lyric too, such a yearning declaration of love is so heartbreaking that if you don't fill up when he pleads "Don't go// Don't go away" then you are obviously Anne Widdecombe....

'When Morning Comes To Town' is a huge song that begins with just the gentle strumming of an uneffected ELECTRIC guitar but builds into a huge multilayered symphony before regressing back all the way to the strummed guitar. The lyric sees two people, a boy and a girl, share one last night together, both knowing that their love and their time together will be over by the time the sun rises. Go on, let it all out, dear readers, you'll feel the better for it....

When The Field Mice split circa 1991 it was a sad day, a day of lachrymose mourning round our way. But thankfully Bob didn't leave us hanging round waiting for long. His new project, Trembling Blue Stars, began almost immediately. Now, there are cynics who will say that there is scant progression between The Field Mice and TBS, but again, those are the people who DON'T LISTEN!!! TBS applied a slightly grander, more muscular approach with Bob's vocals becoming less breathy and more forceful in the mix. The subject matter too, expanded away from just introspective moist eyed longing, taking in all life itself. But as we've seen with 'Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise', above, when he goes right to the root of the emotional complexities and the psychological damage inflicted by that crazy little thing called love, it can be too much pleasure and too much pain, and it can leave you giddy and ranting and contemplating Van Gogh like acts of self-mutilation....all for a beautiful girl!

'Letter Never Sent' is a song about the agony of not knowing if that all important relationship has indeed ended as you doomily suspect it has. The vocal, like that of the most emotionally satisfying Morrissey, Tindersticks or Beach Boys compositions, breaks and quivers at all the right moments. I often wonder if Bob really is as easily bruised as he comes across in his songs, or if he's actually as cold hearted and uncaring as I am(ppfffftttt!!!!)....

'This Once Was An Island' is possibly my favourite TBS song and proves (I think) that my theory that TBS's songs are more meaty and chunkier than those of his previous band. I'm not entirely sure what the lyric is about, but sometimes that's the best way....

'Abba On The Jukebox' is a song which ironically deals with the emotional pull of certain records or songs, something Bob has delivered in spades over the years. I had also hoped to bring you the similarly themed 'Doo Wop Music' but unfortunately there's no accompanying video....

So that's my eulogy for Robert Wratten, one of Britain's finest songwriters and one of my own personal favourite artists of all time. Quite how my lovelife would have been soundtracked without his wondrous songs is quite unthinkable.

Six weeks at Number really means nothing!


A catch-all of The Field Mice's output called 'Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way' can be downloaded here

There are too many Trembling Blue Stars albums to single out one but they are all worth investigating!


  1. What's he doing now? I find it hard to believe he will never release anything again, but I can't find any news after the last TBS album.

  2. Bobby Wratten is the best unknown singer and songwriter

    1. I totally agree, and the church together with trembling blue stars are the best underrated bands. I hope Bob brings us more beautiful songs. RIP TBS.

  3. Three years after thr field mice he had another band called northern picture library that lasted 2-3 years and after that he formed tbs.