I gotta admit, I am sort of embarrassed. Until now in this column that is almost two years old, I still haven’t talked about a female fronted band. And except for Michelle Shirelle from the Steinways and Heather Tabor from Teen Idols, the bands have been all dudes. I could say that in my defense that half of my “Records of the Year” list is made up of female fronted bands, but that would just be a lame excuse. I figured it was time to do something about this. So the band I’m going to write about in this article will be the great British band Shelley’s Children. Shelley’s Children played catchy Pop Punk, sometimes with anarchic and feminist political lyrics, but also love songs and they also touched on personal topics. They also did a lot of covers, especially from the 50’s/60’s era, and that’s where they’ve taken most of their musical inspiration from. They are probably one of the greatest, hidden secrets that Punk or Pop music have to offer. Like so many bands, I first came aware of them from the Pop Punk Message Board and I was blown away right away, even if I waited two years (2012 to 2014) to order the Everything compilation. The band formed in Reading in the late 80’s and they had several members in their relatively short-lived career. The internet is quite slim when it comes to finding Shelley’s Children trivia, and most of the time the band members are only mentioned with first names (as well as in the album liner notes), so I hope the names are correct! Early on Tracey Curtis and Coral shared vocal duties, Greg and Neil played the guitar, Martyn Oakland played the bass and Wig played drums. Imogen Gunner joined the group later on violin, and later Steph joined on vocals together with Coral. After they split up in 1991 a couple of the band’s members formed, a new band called CuckooLand and Tracy Curtis released new material in the new millennium as a Folk singer and made the beautiful, satirical Folk Pop sensation, “The Vegan Police”, a piss-take aimed at the “vegan police” seen from a vegan point of view. She released the album Thoughts in the Dark in 2013.
This article will be a little different from earlier ones as Shelley’s Children never put out a full-length album, but two mini-albums (Everytown might be seen as an EP), so I’m going to write about both of them; The Mask of Anarchy and Everytown! The former was released in 1990; the latter in 1991 and both were released on the label Peasant’s Revolt, the band’s label, named after an uprising in England in the 14th century. The Mask of Anarchy is a reference to a pacifist poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Shelley was married to the great Mary Shelley, who wrote the gothic masterpiece Frankenstein. The name of the record makes it obvious that the band name and their anarchic ideology has established my view that the band took their name after Shelley, being not the offspring of the Shelleys biologically, but ideologically. The album cover is black with a yellow mask that in many ways resembles a child-like image of the modern perception of the Frankenstein monster, making the cover symbolically honor both the band’s “parents”. A fun fact that I found is that the vinyl version of the record supposedly makes it so that the A-side should be played at 45 RPM and the B-side at 33 1/3. The Everytown cover is a picture of a little boy, probably another reference to the band name (children). The compilation Everything has the same cover as Everytown, and was released on Damage Goods in 2005 with demoes and goodies.
“The Mask of Anarchy”
- “Doesn’t Matter”: The record starts off with a classic Pop Punk song called “Doesn’t Matter”, it’s damn catchy and the two lead vocals go together very well. I couldn’t find the lyrics to any of these songs, except the covers, so I tried to transcribe them. “Doesn’t Matter” was difficult to make out most of the time. It seems like a pretty standard love song. One of my favorite parts is the pre-chorus that goes “Sometimes I wish that I could bury my head in the sand”, the bridge is also really melodic and spreads joy into your heart like a puppy eating cotton candy at a barbecue.
- “Fair Enough”: The second song “Fair Enough” makes a departure from the Pop Punk sound and goes into a more Indie oriented sound with a New Wave-ish bassline. The melody reminds me a bit of The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me”. Maybe Brandon Flowers is a fan, or it’s just a coincidence. The lyrics are a bit confusing, the verses consists of someone (we) apologizing, and the chorus is someone else (I) apologizing. The “I” person seems to be a bit more sincere (“I didn’t mean it to sound like that, but if it did I apologize”. While the “we” people seem more like hipsters who wants to put their judgement on someone else’s intellectual capacity and if they don’t like it then, “Fair enough”(“We want to know the number of the books you’ve read if you don’t mind, what we may find, fair enough”). It sounds like a nonsensical conversation of people being sorry for not being sorry. DJ-legend John Peel apparently played the song on his show on the BBC on the 11th of June 1990.
- “Elvis Says”: And the hits continue! “Elvis Says” starts up with an acoustic guitar playing a catchy three chord into, until the bass jumps in the third time, waiting for the electric guitar, drums and vocals to make their arrival. From there it’s slow paced Pop Punk all the way. I’m always baffled why none of these songs were major hits or got more recognition than they did. This would have been a top 20 in a just world. The song is sung from the point of view of someone who’s afraid their significant other is cheating on them (“Every time you call me on the telephone, I wonder who’s there in your flat with you”). It’s unclear whether the suspicions are unwarranted or if there are pre-existing episodes that the listener is not aware of that make the protagonist’s worries legitimate. The chorus references Elvis Presley songs (hence the title) like “All Shook up”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, “That’s All Right Mama” and “Love Me Tender” in which the protagonist tries to use Elvis to get the potential cheater to end their faulty ways.
- “Circle Line”: One of the most Pop Punk sounding songs is definitely “Circle Line”, it’s catchy, fast and clever and has a two string guitar riff. The bassline in the chorus also sounds Pop Punk as fuck! The Circle Line is a service that runs in the London Underground network. The peculiar thing about the line is that it goes around and around. The song describes someone sitting on a bus stop waiting for bus nr, 49 (that runs in the middle of London) and thinking of, what most likely is, their significant other on the other side of town who’s looking for a job in the classifieds. The song talks about the general problem of communication, both in a relationship and in the world at large. The Circle Line is used as a metaphor for broken communication that is a circle that never stops (“The talk goes on and on and on again”). The first verse explores the communicational issues in a relationship that isn’t going too well (“We don’t say much to each other anymore, we don’t say anything at all”). The second verse seems to be more about general communication when it comes to public transport, the protagonist wants someone to talk to, but there isn’t anyone, and claims, “And I don’t have all the answers, sometimes I don’t even know the question”. The Circle Line metaphor gives a bleak, almost Beckettian image of repetition and every day being the same. And the sad conclusion to the song is somewhat contradictory to the metaphor: “We’ve reached the end of the line”
- “Ginny Come Lately”: Even if the band wrote superb original material, they also did some really good covers and “Ginny Come Lately” is one of them. American 60’s Pop singer Brian Hyland, famous for “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed with a Kiss”, sings the original. Shelley’s Children’s version would probably be on my list of best covers ever, it’s pretty much perfectly done. Not only are the regular instruments and vocals Pop music at its best, but the handclaps and tambourine in the choruses just adds delicious details to a gourmet musical meal. The band also always sing the original lyrics to the songs they cover and never change the pronouns. The song is a cute little story about newfound love at first sight. I just found out that a Ginny is an attractive, lovable and kindhearted woman, but can also be used as derogatory term for Italians. I’m guessing the song is about the former.
- “Wedding Bells”: The love at first sight serenades didn’t stop with “Ginny Come Lately” and “Wedding Bells” is a Shelley’s Children original and expresses seeing someone for the first time and immediately knowing they are the one. The song uses wedding bells as an image for the feeling related to this kind of infatuation where you just by looking at someone know that they make you happy (“Thinking of you makes me feel good”) and that you will get married and live happily ever after. The chorus goes; “Whoah ah those wedding bells, wedding bells are ringing in our ears/Whoah ah those wedding bells and we our vows in front of God”. The song has actual church bells and opens with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”. The guitar solo is also a 60’s inspired solo that sounds like it comes straight from the British invasion.
- “Born too Late”: When I ordered the Everything CD I did not only get to hear brilliant original Pop Punk and Indie Rock tracks, but I also came aware of new groups and artist that were lustrously covered by Shelley’s Children. “Born too Late” is a 50’s Doo Wop hit recorded by the group the Poni-Tails in 1958. The Poni-Tails were an all-female Pop/Doo Wop group in the late 50’s. Except the song “Que la Bozena”, which the group penned themselves, the songs were usually written by old men and most of the songs were dealing with teenage trouble, and a lot of the songs were about older men (especially “Born too Late”). Reading about the group made me baffled, teenage girls with ponytails singing songs written by old men about older men, just made me realize how messed up the 50’s were. Then I was reminded about Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and there really isn’t much of a difference, is there? The bottom line is that the Poni-Tails’ somewhat short discography is pretty amazing and most of the songs are wonderful Pop songs (and the songs “Father Time” and “Early to Bed” weren’t as creepy as the titles suggested). The Shelley’s Children cover is great too and feels a bit less creepy. The cover also appeared on the comp Fuck EMI from 1989, which was an Indie, metal and Punk comp with covers of Pop songs. Chumbawamba’s cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Snuff’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” were also on the comp. Shelley’s Children were listed as “Whothehell” on the comp, similar to The Four Season, who called themselves The Wonder Who? when they covered Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” in 1964.
- “Rawfolds”: The only really standout political song on the record is “Rawfolds”. The song is also a very classic Pop Punk song and the lead guitar sounds like something straight out of a Screeching Weasel record, and The Mask of Anarchy was released before My Brian Hurts. It starts up with “Listen to the tale I have to tell”, almost like an old Woody Guthrie-esque Folk ballad. The song seems to be about an attack on a mill known as the Rawfolds mill in 1812. The attack was done as a protest, by Luddites, followers of weaver Nedd Ludd, against the industrial revolution and modern machinery. The first chorus states “the machinery we suffer from will probably terminate in war, or something more”, while the last chorus concludes that the machinery will probably just go on and on and on, which resembles “Circle Line” in many ways(“The talk goes on and on and on again”). So, in that manner, the record ends with a repetition and the idea that things will just repeat itself.
- “Everytown”: The first time I heard the band was in 2012, I had just finished my English Bachelor’s degree and written a thesis on Shelley (Percy) and the romantic imagination and madness. I was reading John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent and listening to Bob Dylan a lot. And hearing a band called Shelley’s Children reference the winter of our discontent and Bob Dylan (the times they are a-changing in every town) was interesting at the time. Of course, “the winter of our discontent” in the Steinbeck book is a Shakespeare reference. There’s also an Elvis reference in the song (“Someone’s playing Elvis on the radio, but do they mean it?”) The chorus of the song is really touching and somewhat sad: “You Didn’t have to say a word, I could see it in your face/This is the winter of our discontent and tomorrow is just another day…the first of May”. The feeling of something that used to mean a lot suddenly doesn’t mean much anymore. Whether it’s about a relationship (the first of May could be a special day) or political activism (May Day). An old review of the EP says the song is about the Hungarian revolution in 1956, but there’s not much in the lyrics that to me emphasizes that. One of the best lines of the song is in the bridge “Chains of hatred breed and fear/and the faithful still quote the bible and the resolution and the revolution stops“. I’ve tried to find out what the title means, but all I can find is that it might be a Robin Hood reference. Musically, It’s basically a perfect Pop Punk song and I still think it’s the band’s best track.
- “Jack”: Even if she had left the band Tracy still sang guest vocals on “Jack”, which is made up of references to two old British nursery rhymes found in the Roud Folk Song Index: “Jack and Jill” and “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” The song centers on siblings Jack and Jill and reflects on gender roles and how children turn out when they get grow up. Jill is the apple of her father’s eyes and does housework, while Jack tries to be tough and “the typical boy”, Jill is now happily married and it seems Jack is messing up in life hanging out with the wrong people. The chorus goes “Oh Jack, will you ever see the error of your ways? Be more like your sister”. The nursery rhyme sound to the song gives it a childlike feel and it fits the theme of the song perfectly.
- “Waiting for the Weekend”: Shelley’s Children’s most serious and heartbreaking song (at least on these two EP’s) is definitely “Waiting for the Weekend”. The song is about domestic violence and is about an abusive husband that beats his wife. The first line of the song is “Falling down stairs and walking into doors”, which are excuses she makes up to hide the fact that she gets abused by her husband, she also wears sunglasses in autumn and she always tries to excuse his actions (“It’s only when he’s drunk, it’s only when he’s lost control”. The song is incredibly poppy and catchy, which is weird knowing the lyrical subject. They also did a slower, prettier indie-esque song on the same subject called “Face in the Crowd”, that’s a great song too! “Waiting for the Weekend” ends with a Folk/Country inspired part that’s seen from daughter having watched her mother get beaten’s point of view and how it’s affected her view of relationships: “I don’t wanna play house, I know it can’t be fun/ I’ve watched mummy and daddy/ If that’s the way it’s done/ I don’t wanna play house, my mother said goodbye/ Cuz when she played house/ My daddy made her cry”. It’s the most heartbreaking part of the song, because it also shows domestic violence also hurt children. “I don’t wanna play house” is most likely another Elvis reference (Like in “Elvis Says” and “Everytown”) “Baby, Let’s Play House” is a song by Arthur Gunter that Elvis covered.
Bonus: “Summerlove Sensation“: As a bonus track I’ve added their cover of “Summerlove Sensation” that appeared on a compilation released by Peasant’s revolt. The comp was called Greatest Hits: A Benefit for the Trafalgar Square Defence and supported the Trafalgar Square riots against the new Poll Tax introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tax was a fixed tax payment every adult paid to their local authorities and replaced the old tax system where property owners paid tax rates by the value of their homes. The album cover is a written political statement rather than a picture or regular cover art. In spite of the album being severely politically charged, Shelley’s Children covered a Bay City Rollers song. The song is about a summer flirt and the cover is Pop music at its finest. The cover also shows that political activism and shameless, sugary Pop music are not mutually exclusive and destroys the boundary between anarchic, political Punk rock and mainstream Pop music without breaking into the mainstream itself. The compilation was also, like mentioned earlier, released on the Peasant’s Revolt label, and the riots themselves were often compared to the 14th century uprising. The actual Poll Tax were a disaster and eventually lead to the end of an over ten year Tory reign in the UK.
I’d like to say that I really recommend and encourage everyone to check this band out or get the Everything collection from somewhere, because it’s one of the most underrated and wonderful released that exist. From a female fronted band, I will in the next article talk about a band that females like, apparently: From Scene to Shining Scene by Chixdiggit.