For day four of my ’90s Musical Memories challenge I have gone with a band which was one of the first I saw live, and one I hated for a really long time. They’re a band who negotiate their own twisted furrow, and one almost universally critically adored, yet criminally undersold. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Crow, one of the few bands to have seen the word ‘angular’ appear in almost every write-up they’ve received.
This song opens their much-delayed (and frankly brilliant) album Li-Lo-Ing, a dark behemoth of half-heard lyrics. Those that are discernible are menacing and great, particularly this pair:
I shepherd a flock of ghosts
Gonna sic ’em on the soul of the world
Yeah. That’s on top of the music: ocean-size bass, spiky guitars and skittish drums that combine to create some kind of tidal nausea. It’s a deep, lush production job; Warren Ellis’s guest violin has escaped the flock, scratching around, echoing. Vocals seem to come from a place beyond, and everything feels weighted, portentous. It’s a hell of an opener for an album that has furrowed brow written all over it.
They were a band it took me a while to come around to. I first saw them as supports at the long-gone Phoenician Club when You Am I launched Sound As Ever. It was a great night, but I didn’t know what to make of Crow. They were extremely fucking loud, seemed to be in the midst of hating each other on stage, and certainly didn’t write the kind of songs I’d expected at a YAI show. I didn’t get it.
I saw them a couple of times, incidentally, but generally bunked off when they played, which was strange as in my early gig-going days I didn’t drink (because I was a) driving and b) certain that alcohol would turn me into the arsehole I really was as opposed to making me a Cool, Fun Guy) and would watch anything. I was the kind of kid who turned up at the door and read a book down the front in between sets because I was petrified of talking to anyone. Even so, I’d miss them.
That was, until another You Am I gig. This time it was at the Holme Refectory. Crow were on before, and I decided I wanted to get a good down-front position, so I settled in to suffer the set. And then, a couple of songs in, I had my road-to-Damascus moment. I heard ‘Opal’.
It was everything I’d wanted: walls of crushing, wailing guitar, a doomy bassline. An assault of noise, until suddenly! Those slightly dissonant chords, seasick pause before the assault came in again. I didn’t understand the lyrics – and still don’t – but it didn’t matter. I was in from that moment. The next day I stopped at a record store in Kings Cross and picked up the EP it appeared on. (The Helicon Days, and it’s excellently stump-legged and ghostly.)
I soon ended up buying whatever else I could get my hands on. From there, I really was That Guy with this band. I nabbed setlists, lurked at gigs and, at an instore at Waterfront Records, swallowed my inherent arts-boy shyness and asked singer and guitarist Peter Fenton what the chords were for ‘Opal’ were. Though tired, he graciously opened his guitar case and showed me both the tuning and the chords, and I was too awestruck to remember them.
It’s still a mystery.
(To his credit, he didn’t look at me oddly when I stammered the equivalent of “I thought your band were shit until I heard that song” and instead noted that it generally takes people a couple of years to start liking Crow. Disarming in the face of embarrassment, it seems!)
I never figured out how to categorise the band, because everything I read about them seemed to refer to either Flying Nun bands or reference their angularity. I guess I preferred the term wonky. I mean, listen to the bass on ‘Light’, a song based on Wilson’s Afterlife, which presents an abrasive figuring of life after death, one guitar a tolling bell, the other spiritual sandpaper. Or, more spaciously but no less dramatic, the bad times afoot in ‘EJ’. I guess there’s a kind of awareness of the general instability of the human condition in their work which appeals to me. This is maybe best encapsulated in songs like ‘LHLH’, with its awareness of the limits of emotion and the wearing of alcohol, set to a narcotic bass and reverent, then triumphant guitar.
Learn that to hate is the best form of defense.
Love hate, love heart.
Jesus, as if that wasn’t a maxim I took to heart for years. (How very arts student of me.)
Crow featured on a couple of soundtracks worth digging out. They contributed a couple to Praise‘s accompaniment (which seems only fair as Fenton played the lead) but one of their best tunes, ‘Halo’ is a standout on the Idiot Box soundtrack. Given that one of album curator Tim Rogers’s best tracks, ‘Gasoline For Two’ features here, that’s a big call. But there is is, and here is it: and how many songs feature a subject that’s naked, covered in piss?
The song still shows up in band and solo shows, and still gives me the same chills it did the first time I heard it.
Crow broke up after their third album, and had a series of farewell gigs. I went to both the Sydney shows – one at the now-defunct Globe and one at the Annandale – and it was like being at a wake, really. A wake full of good songs, but a wake nonetheless. The Annandale show ended with ‘Old Blue Rockpile’ thrashed out with a choir of pissed fans, a fitting kind of sendoff. It’s recorded here, though be warned – if you’re not wearing beer earmuffs you may find it a little off-key.
After that, I’d catch singer Peter Fenton playing shows with a backing band called The Slinky Moonlight Revue. They played his songs, as well as covers, and were a good time – though I must admit part of my attendance was because I did have a bit of a crush on his bassplayer, because of course I did. But of Crow there was no news, and would be none for a number of years.
Strangely, though, I had an amount of Crow-related action in the intervening years. Peter released a solo album called In The Lovers Arms and I wrote a copious review of it for a website I used to write for. (Which you can read on this very site.) Though I was absolutely shit-scared of looking like a dick in front of someone I admired (assuming he’d forgotten the Waterfront thing) I interviewed him about the album, Crow, politics and more. We also discussed the word ‘cumudgeonly’ which readers will know I favour; Fenton had used it in a song on the disc. I challenged him to use the word ‘lugubrious’ in a song, and he did so – it appears in the opening line of ‘Stray Leanne’, a tune which would, in a couple of years, turn up on Crow’s we’re-back record Arcane.
Here’s a live version of it: I remain chuffed whenever it’s played. I remember this gig well, despite the red wine drunk thereat.
The interview went well: so well that when I was once married, Peter played at my wedding. That’s not a straight causal link, but it was a lovely thing to do and is a good memory. We stayed in touch through the years and eventually the idea of Crow reforming came up, after enough time had passed. I remember it being discussed one evening upstairs at the Annandale, and I hoped it would happen but didn’t want to jinx it by believing it.
Eventually, it happened (as I may have indicated with the whole Arcane namedrop – eh, this is a blog, so fuck pacing) and I was thrilled. I saw the band’s first show back, at a tiny venue in Marrickville, and it was pretty much everything I’d hoped it would be. I also took this boss picture, of which I am rather proud even though I know it’s all the camera’s doing.
And they continue today, sporadically. I can’t wait for them to release more stuff, plumbing the human depths.
With Crow, you never really know what the fuck they’re on about. Or, sometimes, why it sounds good. But that’s the appeal. It’s the knotwork in the carpet, the flecks of paint that look kind of like a field, but may be something else entirely. It’s the sound of stressed metal. It’s a conundrum, slightly off-kilter and possibly about to fall apart.
But the period just before the center gives out is delicious indeed.