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Welcome to the official Distractions website. We will be aiming to record the history of one of the greatest, but least heralded, of all Manchester beat groups.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

A touch of soul in the darkness of punk

The second part of Mick Middles' fine piece in the Quietus last year.  This focuses on the two 2010 Occultation EPs, Black Velvet and Come Home.

The Distractions 


 – Mick Middles, December 1st, 2010

Almost nothing has happened since the heady days of 1982... apart, that is, from a momentary reunion of a Finney and Perrin Distractions in 1995.  This remains important because recordings from that fleeting time have resurfaced as part of the first of two Distractions EPs on Occultation Records.  Indeed, 2010 sees the first Distractions releases of any kind since the early '80s.  So long... and what is new?

Occultation, who have just issued the two Distractions EPs reviewed here, are also to release an album's worth of the band's pre-Island material* and, beyond that, plans are afoot for a complete album of all new material.  A difficult process, given that Steve Perrin currently lives as a teacher in New Zealand while Finney enjoys the less exotic climes of Holmfirth, Yorkshire.  Nevertheless, the two would meet in the summer of 2010, to records at Liverpool's Parr Street Studios... just a momentary flash, with Perrin's guitar as precocious as ever, his gorgeous swelling melodies now complimented by a Finney voice that has gained a honey-tone during the barren years... and longingly unpretentious soul, simplistic lyrics that leave room to breathe.  Perhaps it is that sense of space that has always proved so magnetic to writers.  Charles Shaar Murray once proclaimed that "The Distractions are good for dreams."  Paul Morley once called them "...the perfect pop band for the '80s" while David Quantick always regarded them as "his band."

Well I concur, despite the rather awkward fact that at least two members of this band ran off with a wife of mine... ahhhh... now there's true Distractions rub.  For all their oikish cuteness, for all their wash of innocence... scratch the surface – in the old days at least – and there would lie a web of sexual intrigue that was rooted deeply within the Manchester early '80s scene.  Innocence with a sting that refused to play by the rules.

Today, things are more relaxed.  The first EP kicks of with 'Black Velvet', a track drawn from those lost mid-'90s demos and the precise moment when the band finally discovered the depth of sound they had been searching for back in the Island days.  'Black Velvet' is simple lost love and, like 'Time Goes By So Slow', is arrives from a place of heightened perception.  A man dreaming of a lost and fading love... wallowing perhaps but lifted by the rich Finney voice.  This is the music of a lost band, in a sense, as drummer Van Den Berg has been lost to the mysteries of South Africa while bassist Nick Gartside is now firmly encamped in LA, surfacing as mixer and polisher of the 2010 version of the band.  This truly international flavour has undoubtedly stretched the scope and is completed by the addition of a third songwriter in Nick Halliwell.  Confused?  Well, against the odds perhaps, The Distractions now sound more coherent than ever and these two EPs sit perfectly back to back... as a mini-album, perhaps.

The second track on Black Velvet, 'Still It Doesn't Ring' hails directly back to 1978 and yes, it is as obvious as the title suggests.  A touch of Undertones – always a close cousin, in so many ways – and a fresh attack at an aged tune.  A yearning pop blast... heartfelt although nothing... nothing in this ancient echo could prepare you for 'If You Were Mine', arguably Finney's greatest soulful moment... I do not know of technical perfection but, in terms of sheer howl and angst, this links deeply to the Otis Redding who always sat so central in Finney's record collection.  Odd thing, I have to say, during the Secret Seven phase this was a voice that appeared to be weakening... not so now.  Does Mike Finney own the great lost voice of modern music?

The second EP, Come Home furthers that outrageous claim.  Here Perrin's song-writing has gained the depth of age.  The downside is that this comes at the expense of that lovely old naiveté but, well, that's nothing if not a perfectly natural progression.  'Lost' is a pure pop gem, written by Perrin under the New Zealand sun.  Again there are huge blocks of silence built into the production.  If only Nobody's Perfect had been gifted such treatment.  The lyric will take you nowhere in particular – is a simple existential expression – but you can forgive that and ruminate on the fact that almost nobody is making pop music like this any more.  At least in 'Nicole', a girl is ushered swiftly to the spotlight.  Only in the glorious sprawl of Nick Halliwell's 'Oil Painting' are the realities of the band's advancing years appear to be approached.  "You may not be an oil painting..." sings Finney which, I strongly suggest is not something anyone wishing to retain manhood status should ever say to a lady of any age and, frankly, all is not retrieved by Finney's level admission "...and neither am I."  Nevertheless, and at the risk of encouraging the wrath of Steve Perrin, it is my personal favourite of the six songs on these two remarkable EPs.

For Mancunians of a certain age, witnessing the unlikely return of The Distractions will provide a touch of unexpected hope.  The fact that, despite the band being scattered around the globe, they have appeared in better shape than even warped nostalgia might allow, is simply stunning.

The hope is that Occultation can succeed where Island failed.  That is – to state the obvious – to link this to the audience that yearns for the touch, the warmth and, as we began, for the soul in the darkness of punk.  The great lost band of Manchester are back.

(c) Mick Middles / the Quietus

* Possibly not quite the case - watch this space for more details.


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