“Wait, I’ve got some stupid shoes I could wear. They’ll be a laugh.”
My photoshoot with Martin Coogan, ex-frontman of The Mock Turtles, was as entertaining as I’d hoped. I’ve known Coogan for many years and, with a new/old album having just been released, this was a terrific opportunity to chew the fat and to get him to channel his inner Iggy Pop in front of the camera. But the main order of the day was to discuss music.
Formed in 1985, The Mock Turtles became inexorably linked with the ‘Madchester’ scene, their psychedelic 60s-sound combined with a dance sensibility to epitomise the musical renaissance which took place in late 80s and early 90s Manchester. Their debut album Turtle Soup was released in 1990 on the Imaginary label, and has recently been reissued as an ‘expanded’ edition, with a whole raft of additional re-mastered material – 41 tracks in all.
It’s not an anniversary release, so what prompted this labour of love?
Coogan explains: “I was approached by Cherry Red Records who were interested in releasing our indie back catalogue. The tracks on this album are from before the time we had a major deal, and also include demos from after we got dropped – so tracks from before ’91 and demos from after ’93. Our contract with Imaginary Records had timed out, so this meant that all the tracks had been deleted. You could only get them on eBay for silly money.”
A quick look on a leading retail website and I am two clicks away from buying a vinyl copy for a mere $128. Cashback.
So, was it tricky to pull all the tracks together? “Some of it was lost,” says Coogan. “I unearthed some DAT tapes from the cellar but the damp had got to some masters so they were lost for good. There was a lot of phoning around other band members, with some tracks cobbled together from CDs.
“I even lifted a couple of tracks from vinyl. On the Hendrix cover Are You Experienced? you can hear the pops and crackles, the needle on the record. I could’ve removed them but I quite like it.”
When compiling the additional material on the release, were there any he wished he’d had another swing at? “Haha! All of ‘em! I’m much more of a studio boffin now.”
I should hope so, too. Once owned by New Order, Vibe recording studio in Cheetham Hill has been owned and run by Coogan for several years. I, and countless bands, can confirm his boffin credentials.
“I know a lot more of the processes that go into it,” says Coogan. “If I started pulling one track I wasn’t happy with, I’d have to pull all of ‘em.”
Wasn’t that incredibly frustrating? “Well, yes and no. At the time, we didn’t have anything like auto-tune or any way of correcting bum notes. There was no cut and paste or any kind of tweaking. It was what we were capable of at the time and in that way, I think it’s really honest.”
I’m interested to hear what Coogan remembers of the recording session for Turtle Soup.
“It was recorded piecemeal, in dribs and drabs,” he explains. “And you could hear this in the album – the EQ, the voices – it’s a credit to the mastering that it all came together. The album was actually made over the course of two or three years. All of it was recorded at night because it was cheaper, and we were all working during the day anyway. Because studio time was so tight, most tracks were first take. It was quite organic in that way – bang bang bang. Keeps it fresh. We didn’t have the luxury of experimenting but what you lose in that respect you gain in energy and momentum.
“John Pennington (producer/sound engineer) worked so quickly, I was able to say stuff like ‘I think this one needs a backwards piano sound and then we should mangle it’ and we’d have it in seconds. I’d have these ideas in my head, ways of punctuating parts of a tune with a sonic event, and John made it work.”
So, more than 25 years later, how does Turtle Soup taste? Well, rather good, actually. The album proper has stood the test of time, in particular the Byrds-esque Head Run Wild and Oh Helen How? with the latter song reminiscent of a late-70s John Lennon, both in chord structure and with Coogan’s vocals. The delicate Willow Song provides a folk-based interlude – a companion piece to Madchester peers The Stone Roses’ Elizabeth My Dear. The original Can U Dig It? is a far sparser affair than the Fat Boy Slim remix we’re more familiar with but it’s still the stand-out tune of the album. One of the bonus tracks, however, John O’War, runs very close. Pure Bowie, it rattles along complete with string section, blistering guitar solo and even a cheeky collapse into an Irish jig at the end. Wonderful stuff.
In terms of the additional tracks, the added b-sides and demos, there’s plenty of meat here too, in a variety of styles. I’m pretty sure Noel Gallagher must’ve heard Angel and stuck it in his back pocket for later. Opening chords and guitar effects are pure early Oasis – although I’m struggling to think if any of their tunes were written in 6/8 time. One Eyed Jack is simply a stone-cold bone-rattler, and See Saw wouldn’t sound out of place on Suede’s eponymous debut album, which came three years later.
“Well we all have the same reference points,” says Coogan. “Suede were massively influenced by Bowie. Mick Ronson’s one of my favourite guitarists. I have no problem with a band wearing its heart on its sleeve and showing what inspired them. There’s a bit of T-Rex in there, Sparks, Iggy Pop – all big influences on me and on the bands who came later.”
As Coogan puts it, this reissue, “tells the story of a band’s journey, of a band evolving”. It does that and no mistake. It also feels like a potted history of musical influences, not to mention signposting what the following decade of indie music was to bring.
Is there any great desire to get back on the road, play a few gigs? One last hurrah?
“Not really. It’s too much of a palaver. Apart from the cost, two of the band members are now teachers. Going from zero to gigging is a massive amount of work, and it’s the same amount of practicing for one gig as it would be for a major tour. It’s just not worth it.”
Not even for an excuse to wear those shoes again?
Interview and images by Chris Payne
The Mock Turtles, Turtle Soup: Expanded Edition is available now from Cherry Red Records.
The Northern Soul podcast featuring Martin Coogan can be found here.