This series is all about the albums I might have included in my end of year Top Ten for 2016 had I got to them in time. The weird thing is, I did buy Ultrasound's Real Britannia the week it came out and because I love their previous two albums, 1999's Everything Picture and 2012's Play For Today, I fully expected to be writing about album #3 in my year end list.
The problem is, it came out in early December, which didn't really give me time to properly listen to it. I'll admit, I panicked and shoved it into rotation in the car, then became frustrated when it didn't immediately leap out screaming LOVE ME, LOVE ME, LOVE ME. I resigned myself to the fact that if I did include it in my list, that would be more down to past glories that current adoration, and I pushed the album to one side.
Then came the January wilderness when I often get time to catch up on music I've not given enough time to in the pre-December crush. That's when I found myself revisiting Real Britannia and discovering its hidden depths. It might not be as immediate a record as its predecessors, but there's a hell of a lot to love... even if it is only 6 tracks long.
The album kicks off with a roaring indie guitar anthem about cross-dressing (something of a recurrent theme for the band), extremely timely in its suggestion that the era of tolerance and acceptance is at end for anyone remotely different: "there's a twister on the way".
Up next, a direct reaction to that: God's Gift, a Jarvis Cocker-esque rallying cry for mis-shapes and misfits everywhere...
A complete change of pace follows with a slice of righteous Riot Grrl action, Soul Girl, composed and sung by bassist Vanessa Best: giving regular lead singer Tiny both a rest... and a run for his money. No Man's Land channels 80s nuclear war paranoia (also timely now Trump's got the briefcase) and then comes Asylum, where music is the perfect escape route for us all...We feel the need before we come to the danceWe come in peace, we fall to piecesWe smash and grab and then we smoke some fags and leave
Everybody's got an axe to grind in my town
They'll steal the light out of your eyes if you let them
So I just put my headphones on
Surrender to the song
All of which brings us to the final track... or Side 2, as it would once have been known. I've seen Blue Remembered Hills called a "prog Epic" and compared to the latter half of Abbey Road because of its length (over 20 minutes) and the fact that it's made up of more than 6 different tunes, seemlessly woven together in Tiny's autobiographical confessional which starts thus:
I feel like a boy band feels
As crippled as Mel C’s Tears
Mum and Dad
Save us from the secrets of love
And after that, it gets really good. Supposedly inspired by both Dennis Potter and Ken Loach, Tiny recalls the childhood of a "big fat cuckoo" from Wakefield (a town I pass every day on my way to work). It starts happily enough with "Shorts and scuffs and beans for tea" until his father has a nervous breakdown and heads down south, never to return, leaving Tiny feeling "just a waste of space". Bullying, drugs, nascent sexual encounters, more cross-dressing, Noggin The Nog: it's all here, yet the raw honesty of Tiny's words never become depressing. There's actually something hugely inspirational in it, even when the lyrics turn from personal woes to the poisoning of the outside world.
And those who thought they were innocent times
Nostalgia made them go blind
For all those modern lovers
And now we view the world of Top of the Pops
As something falling like rocks
On Savile’s shit stained covers
Yet despite this, Blue Remembered Hills is a song about not letting our good childhood memories be destroyed by darkness. Its message seems to be not to give up on nostalgia. There were good times, amidst the bad. There always are.
The endless sun
Cross country runs
The glam rock beat
The 3 day week
The waist high grass
The P.E. class
The Oxford bags
The woodbine fags
The past is a shining sea that’s drowning me
So I get my kicks from those who fall like me
Into the deep blue
You know what, Real Britannia might not be as immediate as Ultrasound's first two albums. But give it a little bit of time and it reveals its true identity: it is their masterpiece. It's Real and it Rules. I just wish they hadn't released it in December, because this really is one of the best records of 2016.
Buy it so Tiny can buy some more fetching onesies.