Looking back on the English band’s classic penultimate album
There aren’t many bands whose career arc traces the trajectory of alternative rock in the 1990s more concisely than Catherine Wheel.
Hailing from a seaside town on the east coast of England, the band formed in 1990 and hit the brakes without officially breaking up in 2000, spanning the decade almost exactly. There’s also more to it than their timeline. Their discography is a partial map of the alt-rock landscape as it shifted throughout that era, from their 1992 shoegazing debut, Ferment, through the aggressive irony of Happy Days in 1995, and on to the post-Britpop bridge they built in 1997 with Adam and Eve.
Catherine Wheel appeared at times to be caught in the middle of it all. This didn’t always serve them well, but on the other hand their music did not go unheard. Especially in regions of the U.S. like the Northwest where Brits translated well, Catherine Wheel songs were fixtures on college radio and commercial alternative stations. The band may have never reached star status, but they were consistently visible, and back in those pre-digital days musicians could make a living on the sales numbers of a mid-tier major label act. The downside of staying at that level, which by 2000 was undermining their motivation, was that it was possible to maintain a respectable fanbase but still be perceived as underperforming and overlooked.
That fate could easily leave a bitter taste in an artist’s mouth, but in the long run singer-guitarist Rob Dickinson took it in stride. “It is kind of cool,” he told the Toronto Star in 2007, in an interview about the second chance his 2005 solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses (which was reissued for Record Store Day last year), was receiving at the time from Universal Music Canada. “We were the band that didn’t quite make it but that everyone still loves, and in many ways it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Bands that inspire long-term dedication like that go deeper than the surface of trends and scenes, and the core of Catherine Wheel was their songwriting, led by Dickinson and guitarist Brian Futter and supported by bassist Dave Hawes and drummer Neil Sims. Even on their final album, Wishville, when they were running out of gas and writing songs about “Gasoline,” they could still be counted on to make a few sparks fly with an accessible single like “Sparks Are Gonna Fly.” Throughout the ‘90s, as their sound incrementally hardened from Ferment to Happy Days, and then broke open anew with Adam and Eve, the band’s melodic instincts allowed them to comfortably evolve.
In the midst of that, was there one version of Catherine Wheel that was the most authentic? Hawes joined the group by answering an ad for a bass player that cited House of Love, My Bloody Valentine and the Stone Roses, and they established their name with dreamy atmospheric rock. The opening chords of “Black Metallic” or “I Want To Touch You” would echo over the airwaves and felt naturally worn-in, like they had been around for years. It’s a mode that some remember them most for, but one that they never fully returned to after Ferment.
Then there’s the curious case of Chrome, their sophomore LP that followed a mere year after. In one sense it’s a transitional record, a tougher version of Ferment’s shoegaze and a step toward the hard rock riffs of Happy Days. In another sense, Chrome is Catherine Wheel’s most original album, and presciently pointed twenty-plus years into the future to a time when heavy shoegaze would have an identifiable presence in the fractured-genre world of modern indie rock. No other album from 1993 sounds quite like it, but it bore a dozen enduring tracks including the shoulda-been-a-hit “Crank,” and a number of bands that came afterward, such as Death Cab for Cutie and Mineral, would cite it as an influence.
VIDEO: Catherine Wheel TV Compilation
Chrome being a damn near perfect album, one might think Catherine Wheel made a mistake not to repeat it. In a 1995 interview with New York New Rock TV, responding to a question about the stylistic contrasts within Happy Days, Futter said that the band approached writing the album as if it was their last, in the sense that “…it was purely to please ourselves, we didn’t care about anybody else.” Given the stakes of being even a modestly successful major label band back then, this is only somewhat believable. There is a lot of subtext that isn’t exactly “sub” on Happy Days, particularly in the first half of the album, indicating that the band was nudged toward harsher tones, a change similar to Smashing Pumpkins going all aggro on the first half of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that same year.
The key lyric comes in the second track, “Waydown”: “Take this huge expanse of sound/And wrap it in these rags I found.” Dickinson’s frustration at being compelled to soil Catherine Wheel’s widescreen shoegaze with grunge is clear. The resistance continues on “Empty Head” (“You feel you sing for something real/I can tell you it’s no deal so don’t bother”) and “My Exhibition” (“I can be, I can be what you want me to be”), after which the band defuses the tension with the spacey “Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck,” and from there the mood on Happy Days lightens. The band’s feelings about the state of mainstream rock in 1995 may also be laid out right there on the cover designed by Storm Thorgerson: an image of a grown man in a giant crib screaming like a baby. (Thorgerson, of the famed art design crew Hipgnosis, did every Catherine Wheel album cover except Ferment.)
Whether or not Happy Days was an artistic protest concept album, it gave a lot to chew on and has held up well. Still, one side effect was that they pursued the attention of Americans at the expense of connecting with their homeland during a time when Britpop was approaching its peak. Adam and Eve isn’t necessarily a pivot back toward the UK, but its lead single, “Delicious,” was an upbeat change of mood. Catherine Wheel’s trend toward aggression was halted, but they also didn’t retreat back under obfuscating layers of delay and reverb.
“As the wisdom runs/A boy should know his limitations” goes Adam and Eve’s first (full) song, but the band were feeling as limitless as they ever had. “Future Boy” is a patient and airy anthem, with Dickinson pleading over a spare strum, out on a limb more than ever before. In between verses the band builds swells of pretty noise. “It was very much a conscious decision to strip down the instrumentation,” Dickinson told Guitar Player when explaining how Adam and Eve was written on acoustic guitars. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t have to set our guitars on stun every time or fill in every hole in the music to get our message across.” This approach put the focus on melody but didn’t soften the impact of “Delicious,” dizzy and sticky with new love, or the driving “Broken Nose” that followed with indirect jabs like “Hey you/You with your public displays of pain/You’ve been painful for too long.”
VIDEO: Catherine Wheel “Delicious”
Big themes and Pink Floyd gestures – not only did Thorgerson handle their art, but around this time they covered “Wish You Were Here” and also hired Floyd producer Bob Ezrin to oversee Adam and Eve – turn up on “Phantom of the American Mother.” The song, which hinges on the question, “How you gonna feel?/If Superman and Sonic Youth are fairy tales,” switches back and forth from going on the offensive to the defensive. Like “Broken Nose,” it only vaguely describes its target, but if there’s one song here that hints at a cynicism toward US culture after the intended breakthrough of Happy Days didn’t fully materialize, “Phantom of the American Mother” would be it.
Stripping things down in the middle of Adam and Eve is “Ma Solituda.” It opens with a few gentle chords and Dickinson contemplating the loneliness of December, and then rises to a chorus that can catch you off guard even when you know it’s coming. Elevating that chorus is a backing vocal that certainly sounds like the inimitable Andrew Montgomery, singer for the Scottish band Geneva, another group from that era who should have been bigger. While the liner notes don’t credit anyone else on the song, suffice it to say that Montgomery did perform it live with Catherine Wheel on occasion.
Adam and Eve never wanders, but it does stretch its legs in the second half. “Satellite” brings boyhood tales and a bridge reminiscent of “1979,” and it’s mystifying that such a hook-laden tune isn’t one that every alt-rock listener from back then knows by heart. “Thunderbird” tempts the Pink Floyd comparisons again but earns its seven-minute length. There’s a touch of Manchester band The Charlatans in “Here Comes the Fat Controller” with its warm wall of trilling organ and some friendly frayed guitars. The title is either a reference to the Thomas the Tank Engine character or Will Self’s 1993 novel My Idea of Fun. The latter may be likely given that the liner notes also oddly give “Thanks to Nick Hornsby for his book High Fidelity,” but there’s no telling for sure.
“Goodbye” and “For Dreaming” end Adam & Eve with a pair of seven-minute slow burns. By this point seven would appear to be the band’s lucky number, but considering the lengths of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” and half the songs on Oasis’ Be Here Now, it doesn’t feel so excessive in the context of the times. Catherine Wheel had occasionally gone that long ever since “Black Metallic,” and their use of space is less self-consciously epic and more about feeling through a song’s potential in an organic way. At the same time, there were ways in which Adam and Eve was purposely conceived and constructed.
“A lot of it is about temptation and lust and where that leaves the modern man,” Dickinson explained to Billboard close to the release date, “but it also considers friendship and childhood memories and disappointment and many experiences that are reasonably close to each other.” Dickinson went on to say that the band “set out on this project to make an album in the classical sense of the word,” and that they had a year to make it, which allowed them the time to choose songs that would form a meaningful whole. This as opposed to how Happy Days had been “a more disparate collection of songs,” even if that had been partly by design as well.
Catherine Wheel may not have recognized that they’d already written a classic cohesive album with Chrome, but they did it again with Adam and Eve. Among their devotees there are more or less three different camps who regard either Ferment, Chrome, or Adam and Eve as the band’s high-water mark. Considering they released five studio albums and one B-sides collection in total, that’s a testament to their versatility. Many of those devotees also continue to hope for a reunion tour. There was a bit of buzz to that effect a few years ago, but any secret plans were surely waylaid by the pandemic. At the time of this writing, the band’s Wikipedia page says an Instagram account was created earlier this year, but it’s unclear what came of that.
“After ‘Adam And Eve’ I think the wind in our sails had been deflated from what could be seen as ‘plateauing’ from a record sale perspective,” Hawes told The Big Takeover in 2018. “It’s all well and good being proud of your body of work but deep down you always want to keep going forward sales wise.” It’s a shame that such practicalities could take them down. The album was well received by big music magazines on both sides of the Atlantic (it got a three-star review in Rolling Stone that reads like at least a four-star review), but from there they sputtered out with the decent Wishville (during which they made the unfortunate decision to let Hawes go), and it took Dickinson the first half of the ‘00s to make Fresh Wine for the Horses, the cover photo of which features his customized Porsche in the distant background, telegraphing what would soon become his second career as the founder of Singer Vehicle Design.
There’s something to be said for knowing when to call it a day, if that’s what it ultimately came down to for Catherine Wheel. That “what if” feeling may always follow them, the idea that a huge hit was one more trip to the studio away, but how many more units sold would have been sufficient validation? Every YouTube video of Catherine Wheel attracts numerous comments about how underrated they were, to the point where it feels like that’s part of their appeal. They’re a secret known by many and hiding in plain sight.