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Crispy Ambulance

Underrated in their prime by everyone from the cutting NME to post-mourning JOY DIVISION disciples, the enigma that was CRISPY AMBULANCE have since attained cult status – despite some misguided hacks giving them the title of worst Factory Records band ever! One suggests one listens to the greatest Crispy track – “Deaf”! Maybe – as in the profound words of Factory boss, Tony Wilson (R.I.P.) – they were certainly the worst (or weirdest) named band of all time; stemming from the guy who initially signed ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK and QUANDO QUANGO; the words kettle, pot and black come to mind.
Formed toward the end of ’77 in Manchester, England, Messrs Alan Hempsall (vocals), Robert Davenport (guitar), Keith Darbyshire (bass) and Gary Madeley (drums), were said to be more than inspired after attending an early SEX PISTOLS gig at their local Free Trade Hall. Taking further inspiration from HAWKWIND and the newly-formed MAGAZINE, the bass-heavy miserabilists of CRISPY AMBULANCE were certainly groomed from the classic Mancunian mould. The quartet played their first gig at Spurley Hey Youth Centre on the 1st of January 1978, and progressed to the Band On The Wall and the Cyprus Tavern venues by the following year. Having been turned down by Rough Trade and Factory Records, it was indeed irony that JOY DIVISION manager Rob Gretton gave them their first break with the release of their debut platter, `From The Cradle To The Grave’ (b/w `Four Minutes From The Frontline’) on his own Aural Assault imprint, in April 1980. A juggernaut dirge with Hempsall sounding as if he was singing from the bottom of a particularly deep well after a particularly heavy dose of Mogadon, the track(s) established the dark combo as one of Manchester’s most promising acts alongside kindred spirits, JOY DIVISION; in the same month of its release, Hempsall even stood in for absentee frontman, Ian Curtis, after he’d suffered an epileptic fit. One fan was the aforementioned JD manager, Gretton, who secured the band a contract with Factory (albeit from Belgium’s Benelux outlet) when, sadly, the tragic suicide of Curtis blighted the indie world.
As resilient/attendant Factory act NEW ORDER (and others) were also surfacing on Wilson’s foreign equivalent, so too were CRISPY AMBULANCE, as easily-accessed 12” imports of `Live On A Hot August Night’ started to filter into indie retailers. Comprising two complex, prog-length studio suites led out by the sublime and seminal, `The Presence’ (all 13 glorious anti-punk minutes of it!) and the not-so-perfect, `Concorde Square’ (at 9 minutes), Hempsall and Co were at least filling a void left by the doomed Curtis. NEW ORDER weren’t exactly fitting the bill – and quite rightly so!
The first (and only) CRISPY AMBULANCE release to appear on the Factory label proper, was the 10″ single, entitled `Unsightly & Serene’, a similarly experimental effort with Hempsall adopting a more throaty gloom-meets-punk-style growl alongside his trademark moody mongering; `Not What I Expected’ was indeed overshadowed by the colourful explosion of absolute punk blast: `Deaf’ – the Crispies defining three+ minutes and a primer for the band’s solitary album, the Chris Nagle-produced THE PLATEAU PHASE (1982) {*9}.
With the addition of understated synths and the use of even more repetitive rhythms, the effect was akin to a kind of goth psychedelia that bizarrely enough recalled HAWKWIND at their jam-fest best. With no previous singles/EP tracks to boast of, opening salvo `Are You Ready?’ was atmospheric as it was simplistic and funky. The deep and delightful, `Travel Time’, was transfiguration personified, while off-kilter drum beats couldn’t waylay the effectiveness of `The Force And The Wisdom’. `The Wind Season’ was pummelling PiL-like rock without the squeal of a punk icon to lead us into a “Death Disco” cul de sac. Okay, there were a few droning, “Krautrock”-ish imperfections that bled through an intravenous, THROBBING GRISTLE-like drip, but the apocalyptic beats of `We Move Through The Plateau Phase’, `Bardo Plane’, `Chill’, `Federation’ and `Simon’s Ghost’, melded post-punk and post-prog into one – for the first and only time ever(!); when one adds CD re-issue versions of “Hot August Night” tracks and the group’s swansong single, `Sexus’, can one actually give a set more than {*10}.
However, with the Crispies finally snapping, crackling and popping from the rock world soon afterwards, the band were destined for obscure cultdom. The Ambulance alumni did duly re-form as Ram Ram Kino, releasing a lonesome 12” EP (`Advantage’) on arch-weirdo GENESIS P. ORRIDGE’s Temple imprint in ‘85.
Spurred on by timely re-issues of their back catalogue and appearances of a number of exploitation releases over the wilderness years, all four original Crispies reunited for a one-off gig on Guy Fawkes’ night 1999 at Manchester’s Band On The Wall. The sheer anticipation led to a great atmosphere, CRISPY AMBULANCE still managing to blow the knowledgeable crowd away with aforementioned classics, including a re-vamped version of THROBBING GRISTLE’s `United’; a companion album, ACCESSORY AFTER THE FACT {*7} was made available the following year.
Mancunian bands were going through something of a revival and CRISPY AMBULANCE were no exception. Finally, the comeback was complete when Darla Records of America delivered their long-awaited studio follow-up, SCISSORGUN {*7}, in spring 2002. Augmented by old friend Graham Massey (808 STATE) at the mixing desk – he used to do the band’s artwork – the quartet pulsated all the way, tracks such as `Loupgarou’ and `Step Up!’, reminiscent but not retro-fied of their past glories.
THE POWDER BLIND DREAM (2003) {*7} was probably delivered a bit sooner than expected; the doleful group turning a harder-edged and claustrophobic mantra-metal. While one still thinks of Hooky and the boys on a couple of dangerous ditties (by way of `Quarter Caste’ and `Protocol’), the CRISPY AMBULANCE wheeled out adrenaline rushes such as the left-field `Chimera’, `Pain And Pleasure’ and `Lucifer Rising’.
Just when things looked ominously bleak for a return to the fray, the four steadfast band members – and now immortalised in the HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT chant-astic `You’re Going On After Crispy Ambulance’ – reconvened in April 2014 for live gigs with SECTION 25 and MINNY POPS. This indeed inspired Hempsall and Co to re-record several older cues and outtakes with Graham Massey for the limited-edition vinyl-only, COMPULSION (2015) {*7} – a re-imagined `Nightfall Ends The Ceasefire’, `Lucifer Rising’ and `Choral’ (alongside `At The Sounding Of The Klaxon’ and `Rainforest Ritual’) basking in misfired memories. With additional pieces, it made made its appearance on CD as a bonus disc on their fully-fledged “comeback” record…
It’s true that the Crispies had to move into another sphere to break free from the shackles of “the poor-man’s-Factory-band” and, with Hempsall willing to forsake his role of doom-monger singer for that of synth-player in an almost wholly instrumental CRISPY AMBULANCE, tracks could be written with a soundscape angle. But for the “street-preacher” aspect of the GODSPEED-like ditty `Four Bank Man’… and, in turn, `Drifter’, 2016’s RANDOM TEXTURES {*8} was as funk-driven as A CERTAIN RATIO or the aforementioned SECTION 25 in their heyday; proof in the pudding `Baku’ and `Karpadia’. All had been unveiled that June when the Crispy ones showcased their freshly-formulated multi-media attributes at their “Subliminal Impulse Review” gig at the Dulcimer in Chorlton. As eerie and as spine-chilling as a GOBLIN soundtrack, `Red Texas’ and `Peripheral Vision’ had all the hallmarks of the old band, while the two opening cuts of `Integra’ and the Formula One-intro’d `Allegro’, were on the other end of their sonic spectrum. Encore!
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD / rev-up MCS Aug2013-Sep2016

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