THE ROUGH GUIDE TO ROCK
Perpetual teenagers and perennial losers, The Pooh Sticks are the best-kept secret of the British indie scene. This is a band that swears eternal allegiance to the unholy trinity of the MC5 ("Back in the USA" era), 60s bubblegum music and mid-70s big pop. Girls are 'groovy' and, for the men, slouching and smoking in the boys' room are compulsory, as the sweet dreams of sussed but cute adolescence burn long and deep.
Formed by Hue Williams (vocals) in late 1987, the line-up was completed by Trudi Tangerine (tambourine/piano), Paul (guitar), Alison (bass) and Stephanie (drums) - they are loath to reveal their surnames. The early sound was a bizarre genre-hopping hybrid of two-minute jangle pop, 'enthusiastic' harmonizing, three-chord punk, girl-group cuteness and, beneath it all, a sharp wit aimed squarely at the po-faced indie scene of the time.
The band's first crudely produced single, "On Tape" (1988), parodied the indie trainspotter with such lines as: 'I've got Falling and Laughing - the original Postcard version/I've got all the Sky Saxon solo albums on tape!'. Tracks such as "Indie Pop Ain't Noise Pollution" and "I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well" kept up the parodic energy.
In the best spirit of marketing disasters (à la Moby Grape), early Pooh Sticks singles were released in a boxed set, prior to being transferred on to the debut album, Pooh Sticks (1988). Japery occasionally lapsed into tweeness ('Goody goody gumdrops, my heart is doing flip flops'), but generally The Pooh Sticks sidestepped smugness in favour of genuine charm and enthusiasm. Though undeniably derivative, the band owed no more or less debts to illustrious predecessors than did, say, Jesus and Mary Chain. The difference was that The Pooh Sticks were somewhat less hip - The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" rather than Lou Reed's "Heroin".
Undeterred by a failure to break through in the UK, the band toured the States in 1990, and their first proper studio album emerged in 1991. The Great White Wonder souped up the sound and reflected an ever-growing embrace of kitsch Americana, previous sleeve notes having praised The Partridge Family and the Banana Splits. Amongst the usual teen call-to-arms ("Young People") and pretty ballads ("Who Loves You"), the LP also featured more expansive guitar soloing, particularly on the fourteen-minute "I'm in You"- paying dues to 70s-styled AOR. Notwithstanding, success in the States eluded them, and with a UK scene in transit between Manchester and Seattle, things proved no better at home.
Undeterred, The Pooh Sticks managed to secure major backing for their next (and best) album, Million Seller (1993). A winning amalgam of Rundgren-styled 70s power pop ("I Saw the Light") and 60s light psychedelia ("Riding the Rainbow"), it should have been massive, but wasn't. Neither was l995's follow-up, Optimistic Fool, leaving the distinct impression that the band possessed an acute ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. With Britpop evolving into a distinctly English proposition, a band enthralled by American music found it hard to strike a chord. However, The Pooh Sticks' eccentricities and sweet wit may yet enable them to ride the coat-tails of other similarly knowing and awkward outsiders - Pulp, say - towards something approaching fame and fortune.
Million Seller (1993; BMG). Unabashedly melodious, pure pop released while grunge still held sway over the world's youth. To be reassessed as an 'overlooked gem' sometime in the next century.
ALL MUSIC GUIDE
The Pooh Sticks were rock's most inside joke, a monumental yet affectionate prank on the very mythology of pop music itself. Cloaked behind ridculously-overblown marketing schemes, made-up histories and cartoon-character images, the Welsh group punctured the industry's myriad excesses, freely pilfering from the entirety of pop's past by shoplifting titles, lyrics and melodies at will; wrapping their barbs in cotton-candy sing-a-longs, their subversions worked on many levels -- postmodern cultural criticism, retro-irony, slavish imitation, and power-pop manna among them -- to forge an identity as high-concept as it was low-brow.
The Pooh Sticks were led by frontman Hue Pooh (born Hue Williams, the son of former Man and Dire Straits drummer Terry Williams), who in October 1987 teamed with Swansea-area schoolmates Paul, (guitar), Alison (bass), Trudi Tangerine (keyboards) and Stephanie (drums) -- no last names, please -- and debuted with the single "On Tape," a witty jab at indie-rock fanboy mentality released on manager Steve Gregory's Fierce label. Alan McGee -- an ironically lavish box set comprised entirely of one-sided singles including the famed "I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well," a nod to the Creation Records chief -- followed in 1988.
The Pooh Sticks EP, a streamlined collection of the box set material, appeared later in 1988, trailed by Orgasm, a set "recorded live...in Trudi Tangerine's basement" including the wonderful "Indie Pop Ain't Noise Pollution." The 1989 mock-bootleg Trademark of Quality was next, compiling live material from a pair of recent club dates including a cover of the Vaselines' "Dying for It" as well as an early rendition of the group's semi-original "Young People." In 1990, they even finally recorded a proper studio LP, Formula One Generation.
In 1991, the Pooh Sticks added Talulah Gosh and Heavenly vocalist Amelia Fletcher to their ranks; the resulting LP, The Great White Wonder, was their masterpiece, a collection of ace pop songs built entirely around other people's ideas, from the Neil Young "Powderfinger" guitar solo at the heart of "The Rhythm of Love" to the liberal use of Stephen Stills' "Love the one you're with" credo right down to the record's title, borrowed from a legendary Bob Dylan bootleg. 1993's sublime Million Seller took the same path; Optimistic Fool followed in 1995.