Melody Maker, 1989
by Simon Reynolds
The Cranes are one of the precious few truly unusual
groups to emerge during '89's protracted creative drought.
Unusual in that their sound owes next to nothing either to
last year's formations or this year's recapitualation
Their debut album Self-Non-Self confounds the critic's
impulse to categorise. Imagine a sound and a feel somewhere
between Joy Division's stark staring space and the
prostration of Black Flag's Damaged. Between Skinny
Puppy's sonic abbattoir and the ruinous catharsis of
Einsturzende. And then imagine that combined with a
disconcerting female voice, that's been likened by their
publicist to "Sinead O' Connor's foetus"; a voice that
stretches from a secretive, sickly whisper to a banshee wail
of uterine anguish.
There's definitely something regressive about The
Cranes. It's as though the 'everyday' woes that inspire the
lyrics have triggered a disproportionate amount of distress,
because they've somehow echoed earlier traumas that can never
be healed. Songs like "Focus Breathe" and "Fuse" have
treadmill rhythms that drag you along endless cloisters of
dread. "Beach Mover" is unusual for them because it's
static: it's an enormous dungeon of sound, all scabrous
death-rattles and chain-gang clinks. It sounds like the
dustbowl that could conceivably have been left after the
inferno of the Birthday Party's Junkyard.
When I run through the list of all the things they
vaguely remind me of - European electro-trance, American
hardcore, Black Sabbath - Alison and Jim Shaw (brother and
sister, and creative core of The Cranes) look puzzled. When I
mention the word "Gothic", Alison frowns.
"We don't like all that spooky stuff, though...
Jim adds: "We're happy people!"
It's my turn to look puzzled. Cranes music is oppressive, surely. Claustrophic.
"Oppressive, yeah, but always with a way out, a light at
the end... It's not doomladen."
Self-Non-Self, it seems, was born of a predicament so
extreme that Alison and Jim thought they'd never disentangle
"It started when we got our loan. It was the beginning
and the end of us, cos we got into a lot of trouble with this
debt, but it enabled us to do everything that we're doing
now. We took out a loan to buy an eight track studio. We
thought that we'd have written so much great material that
the world would flock to our door, and we wouldn't have to
pay off this three thousand quid we'd borrowed, when we were
both on the dole. Then we had another loan on top of that,
for the extra gear we didn't buy the first time. We didn't
ever miss a payment, but we missed out on everything else."
Alison: "We got into a terrible state. The real starving
artist syndrome. We had to sell everthing, absolutely
everthing: television, records, clothes... And then starve."
They hooked up with local Portsmouth label Biteback,
recorded Self-Non-Self, and immediately received another
self-inflicted blow when they accidentally wiped half of the
master tape, by recording over it at a gig.
"When we re-recorded the erased songs, the tape recorder
broke down so we couldn't mix the album. And we were
completely stuck for months on end, cos we couldn't afford to
get it repaired. It was a nasty time, and we reacted to it by
going further and further into the music. We just did nothing
else. At that point, that was all there was. We used to have
this little shed, with no heating. And we used wrap our legs
with blankets to keep warm and sit there and record and
record. We lived on potatoes for months. Jim's got this
great recipe for the needy..."
Jim: "Get a spud, boil it. Get some Bisto gravy granules,
mix up a cupful, tip the gravy on it... and then pretend
it's the end of a meal. It don't half work, I tell you!"
Alison: "I used to have 90p a week left after I'd payed
my debts and my rent. All I could get was potatoes and a pint
of milk. So for months all I had was potatoes and salt. When
I was sick of them, the only thing to do was not eat anything
at all for three days until the thought of a lovely potato
was really great."
Hence the album's feel of being trapped...
"It brought everything we were writing about into focus,
intensified it... But we never wanted to wallow in it and
What were you trying to get at with the title Self-Non-
"You could take it as the idea that there's various parts
of yourself that you can project at different times, but
they're all you. They're very different, but they're all
one. Not so much the split between the unconscious and
conscious, but between the emotional self and the everyday
self. But what we do is a real thing, not a spooky thing,
it's not about ghosts, and the uncanny..."
Are you talking about the way having an identity
necessarily entails suppressing all these other potentials,
all these other selves? In many ways, an identity is just a
collection of scars, possibilities that have been closed off,
dead ends that have been reached...
"Some things are suppressed, some are unnaturally
focused on and developed... I think you could say we've been
over-developed in certain aspects. Certain things like
personal lives have gone out the window for the music."
Self-Non-Self makes me think of the way schizophrenics
turn elements of their personality they can't deal with into
into voices or demons...
Alison: "No... No ... I'm not invaded by anything.
We're shaped by normal experience, and we turn it into sound,
So why does it come out in such a dramatic way? After
all, a lot of people write confessionally, but in a prosaic,
kitchen sink sort of way, to the accompaniment of a strummed
acoustic guitar... Your songs are abstract, heightened not
"Maybe some of our experiences have been ... a bit
more disturbing than other people's."
That's as far as Alison will go tonight in opening up
her wounds to the public. She's very wary of claiming to have
undergone anything special. But clearly the pair are driven
to make music. Why else would they have landed themselves in
penury, why else persevered through years of subsisting on a
standard of living lower than even a Rumanian peasant?
Perhaps a clue lies in their fraught childhood. Their
mother and father split up after five years of "hellish war"
when they were ten or so... Each of them lived with a
different parents as teenagers, and got back together only
Jim: "But then just about everyone I know in music comes
from a discordant background... It's a real factor behind
Certainly, early exposure to conflict and a sense of the
irreconcilable, can endow you with a tragic sensibility, a
natural predisposition towards morbidity or poignancy.
I try a different tack. A lot of people have commented on
the childlike quality of Alison's voice. But if it's
innocent, it's an innocence that's marred, damaged in some
"I thought the child-like thing is just my stupid,
squeaky voice... I just don't know how far I want to go into
talking about specific things."
Do you know what specific songs are about? How about
"Starblood" (the Cranes' outstanding unrecorded song, a
bloodcurdling staccato dirge that's mostly voice and drums).
"You could take it on a lot of levels. I do know that the
day I wrote the words Jim and I had had the most screaming
row... I can remember the mood I was in when I wrote it, but
not why that word came into my mind."
I thought it might be about stars, about how pop and
film stars live out their dreams for us, and how they can
sometimes almost get crucified in the process. Or that it
might be a star bleeding might be an ultimate image of pain,
in the way that the 'Black Sun' has been for centuries this
ultimate image of melancholy. Alison shakes her head softly.
How about "Joy Lies Within", then?
"I don't know exactly. But one of the things that was
happening at the time was my mum was in hospital, in the
intensive neurological section, having an operation done to
her spine. And all the other people in that ward, it was like
hell. People dying from road accidents. People having
epileptic fits. Every time we visited our mum, someone else
had died. What I think I was trying to say was ... well,
when I wrote it, I was looking at a really beautiful sunny
sky... Oh, I don't know, it's just impossible to explain. I
probably could if I was more clever. Or together."
We struggle for a while with other songs, Alison
trailing away in half-sentences, then agonised half-words.
By the end, she has her face buried in her hands, as though
contemplating a future of endless interrogation and self-
exegesis. "We know, but we can't say", she offers, finally.
And that's what you feel when you listen. You're in the
presence of something that's appallingly intimate, but alien.
You understand, without being able to articulate it.
"If you're a human being, a voice is a really small
thing. But it's all you've got. And if you can make it into
the sound of your existence, it can be very powerful. Just
speaking something can be a a way of getting over it. And
unless you make a sound, no one will know you're there."
It certainly seems to have worked for The Cranes. Only a
few months after Jonathan Selzer's trumpeting of their name,
The Cranes find themselves being hotly pursued by several of
the bigger indies. 1990 could very well be their year.