What’s not to like about a band made up of three guitarists, bass, drums, a singer who doesn’t sing, and a classically-trained interpretive dancer? Bristol, England’s Blue Aeroplanes had put out several well-received independent albums in the 1980’s but it was their 1990 major label debut Swagger that gained them their first large hearing. I first heard of them when I saw the video for the song “…And Stones” on MTV and liked it instantly, struck by the combination of guitar drive with a dance beat. A short time later I purchased the album on cassette (one did that in those days, being unable to sample records ahead of time) and soon realized that I had run across a new favorite, one of those rare albums that didn’t have a single track that I disliked. Not long after that I bought the CD, and kept the cassette to play in the car.
By the end of the 1980’s fans of guitar-led rock didn’t have much to get enthused about, given the prominence of synth bands throughout that decade. In the early to mid-80’s there were a few “big guitar” bands (Big Country, The Chameleons, and The Sound come to mind) but they were a minority, and unless you liked heavy metal or arena rock there just wasn’t much good guitar music floating around out there. This began to change in the late 80’s with the rise of “shoegaze” in the U.K. and “grunge” in the U.S., but neither of these really got a lot of attention until a couple years later and if you weren’t paying close attention early examples of those were easy to miss.
Swagger, on the other hand, was not only guitar-driven, but guitar-led: throughout the album it was the guitars that carried the melodies, not the voice, and even so the tunes were quite catchy. The instrumental mix featured both the jangly guitar style prevalent in the 80’s and the “chiming” approach featured in some of the post-punk bands, a somewhat unusual combination for the time.
Lead man Gerard Langley sang/spoke his lyrics with the rhythms of the songs, which were often very melodic. But it was the guitars that moved the songs along melodically. There was nothing else at the time that sounded anything like this.
After hearing only the one song on MTV, I can still remember listening to the opening of the first song, “Jacket Hangs,” for the first time. For the first 25 seconds or so you might think you’ve mistakenly popped some Southern rock disc, but as soon as the vocal starts all bets are off. Langley does not sing, as I’ve said, but the lead guitar line continues alongside the vocal after the intro is done. Lead guitarist Angelo Bruschini doesn’t drop back and revert to rhythm playing as would happen in a typical rock song. That one memorable guitar riff continues throughout. But notice how many times the guitars change what they’re doing. So much is going on that it makes the song seem longer than its short 3:43 length.
(The guy in the white shirt is Wojtek Dmochowski, a classically trained dancer, who is an official band member and who dances onstage with the band during every show. He’s still at it 25 years later, but not surprisingly doesn’t quite have the moves he used to, alas.)
The track I first heard on MTV, “…And Stones,” is a faster number, much more of a dance song, but still has that same basic guitar-led structure. The guitars carry both the chord progression and what serves as the melody, with Langley speaking the accompanying lyric. On the album this song runs to five-and-a-half minutes and is preceded by one of my favorite segues in all of pop music, but the single version cuts it back to about 3:20 here. The guitars on this song are excellent, as are the bass and drum work.
On the two or three quieter songs the same basic pattern holds:
If you like these three songs I can almost guarantee you’ll like the rest. Another highlight is a setting of the Sylvia Plath poem, “The Applicant,” performed as a rocker and spoken by Langley with the perfect amount of bite.
The Blue Aeroplanes never quite matched the level of Swagger on subsequent albums, although the following two, Beat Songs and Life Model are still pretty darn good. But this one remains in my opinion one of the best albums of the 90’s, and I’ve listened to it dozens of times over the past 27 years, and have never grown tired of it.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.