Understated Classics #3: The Circle & The Square by Red Box
When is understated not understated?
The trouble with writing a series of articles all themed somehow is that eventually you might find something that sits naturally in the sequence but at the same time goes against the grain a little. Et voila, I give you “The Circle & The Square” by Red Box. An album that hardly anyone has heard containing two top 10 UK singles that probably everyone has heard. Don’t get me wrong, it is a complete and utter classic - but it is definitely not understated: it is pompous, pretentious, ornate, artistic, all-encompassing, weird and awesome. I could continue but some innate inner law prevents me from using any more adjectives than that in one sentence. It is a chimeral entity standing way apart from its time, timeless and beautiful. The fact that it sold sod-all copies means that holding a CD remaster makes you feel as if you were clutching a cuddly dodo and thinking “if only, if only…”. So this barking, bonkers, beautiful album gets its “understated classic” status because it just isn’t stated often enough just what an amazing record it is.
Truly, TC&TS is a wonderful object to hold in your hands. My parents own the original gatefold vinyl that folds out in all its glory in which each song is represented by some artwork and the lyrics are incorporated too. As with all great albums of the past you only have to examine the LP in its sleeve to realise that there is something else about this particular record, something special; think of “Tubular Bells”, “Dark Side of The Moon” or “Led Zeppelin IV”. This is something that is unfortunately getting lost in the progression to CDs and downloads: the quality increases but the surrounding mystique is evaporating. The other nice bit of “recordness” with TC&TS is that it is structured as two sides - five songs and a short snippet on each side - about a forty-six minute runtime. The sides are obviously labelled “the circle side” and “the square side”; if I were pushed I would say that the “squarer” songs are on the square side but I am sure that was not their intention. Note: Band leader Simon Toulson-Clarke said in an interview that there were a tribe of native Americans who symbolised their people as circles; when the Europeans came along with their square paddocks and square houses and (then) square money, they were represented by squares. This does actually make more sense in terms of the themes of the songs on each side of the album.
The album begins with the top 10 single “For America” (1986), apparently written as a sardonic reply to the record company who did not believe that the album was commercial enough. It certainly wears a smile with a tongue in its cheek and is an incredible earworm. I still hear it on commercial radio occasionally and it brightens up the room with its swirling drum beats and majorette backing vocals. This is followed by “Heart of the Sun”, essentially the title track and hardest for me to get when I was nine or ten years old. It does that pop lyric trick of inventing something philosophical and meaningful in searching for words that rhyme. If that sounds flippant, it isn’t, the lyric has obviously been slaved over in order to give it its proper due but every time I tried to reproduce a snippet of the lyric it looked incredibly pretentious!
Next comes “Billy’s Line” which always creeped me out and upset me when I was younger. I loved the keyboards and effects. The lyrics kind of touched me too: “Born in nineteen seventy seven / Will die in ninety five / A modern day statistic in collateral damage / Billy prays not to survive”. As someone born in 1980 and all too aware that 1995 was not far away, even though it seemed like the future, I think that really hit home.When I was younger, I used to want to meet a version of myself from the future (a bit like that Flaming Lips track) and learn about what life was really going to be like, to be told that every thing was going to be alright. All those things that I was supposed to do with my life: leave home, go to university, get married, get a job, have children and nurture them to adulthood. All of that seemed so far away and scary back then, some of it still does now. Those echoing synthpads, skeletal rhythms and haunting lyrics always accentuated that feeling of otherness within me, and when I listened to this song I always felt sad, but also special and different.
Closing out that first side are “Bantu” and “Living In Domes”, two completely different tracks and yet somehow of a piece. I don’t how you would describe this kind of music really - it just seems to complex and intense to be mere pop music. These songs are immense and lovingly constructed, as much akin to a three minute pop single as a Ferrari is to a Kia hatchback. You can tell that both are cars, but the fact that one is so much better than the other does not necessarily mean that it can be universal. The songs on TC&TS don’t do whatever the musical equivalent of a trip to Tesco Express is.
A case in point is the first song on side two “Chenka Tenka (Io)”, which is accompanied on the reissue by the version issued on an independent label recorded about two years before TC&TS. The album version is full of chants, dreamy piano lines and violin across a break towards the end of the song that is genuinely (and not sentimentally) tear jerking. On the other hand, the single version is very much more energetic and is very much how you would imagine the song performed live, there’s slightly less of an elegiac tone but it definitely gets to the shops and back in its shorter span. The next song is their biggest hit “Lean On Me (ah-li-ayo)”, which you almost certainly have heard. It’s an awesome pop song (but maybe a dependable Golf rather than a Kia, to further stretch that ropey car metaphor) and appeals to that football chant mentality that makes you remember the words, with a chorus that’s as sticky as velcro. This probably succeeds better than any other on the album the sheer joy of singing in a group together that the so-called Box Vox must have felt while making this album. After that there’s a breathy near acapella rendition of “Saskatchewan”, a song originally recorded by Buffy Saint-Marie, who I keep meaning to track down more music by. This was the one song I don’t like when I was younger but it has definitely grown on me over the course of 22 odd years. I think there might be a Cherry Red version of this too.
Into the final straight there are two great closing songs, it must have been hard to choose the order to put them in on the record. It is the classic mix-tape dilemma to my mind: sinister, then elegiac; or elegiac then sinister? They chose, wisely, to plump for the latter. The first of the couplet “Leaders In Seventh Heaven” has a brass band marching through it and is filled with a sadness for the passing of I don’t know what, it is quite beautiful and probably the most English of all the tunes on album. Perhaps it is the soundtrack of a wake for the empire, which would be beautifully ironic and bitter-sweet given the other songs on the album. That wonderful wavering line of “Aaaaand in between, all the things we might have been, oh let me, oh get me, thro-ooo-ough” - I dare you not to shiver! And so then, as the brass band and their snare drums trail away, we come to “Walk Walk”, a part sinister, part life-affirming choral plus synthesizer track. This is probably the one track with a real pulse and sense of the future within it. It definitely tries to rouse the listener and point the way towards walking and breaking into a run, that no matter what terrible things we might do, there is always some small decent part that prevails and survives: “We sing and we dance and we kiss each other!”
In the time that I have taken to write the praises of this album, I’ve tried to think about why it is so good, but also why you as a reader may not have heard of it. Was it simply a case of injustice, the record company unable to properly promote an album that was maybe a little ahead of its time? This might be the case, record companies have a history of chasing the lowest common denominator, while ignoring the highbrow and the slow burning. These days in the age of the internet (piracy aside), it is probably easier to make money from niches than it was back then. In the end though, there are no love songs on TC&TS - at least not love songs that describe love on a personal one to one level - and maybe that leaves it a little cold, perhaps a shade more brain than heart. All that can be said for certain is that even after the rush has ended and the conquistadors are gone, in the dust and under the stones, some gold remains.