The Hit Parade "Pick Of The Pops (Vol.1)" (JSH Records)

The Hit Parade are a band who we've always been fond of, but (as has been the case with the Would-be-Goods) it's only been with each passing year of their increasingly august career that the true magnitude of their greatness has revealed itself. It's this sultry slow-motion strip-tease, revealing layer upon further layer of naked pure pop talent, which is captured exquisitely by the new career-spanning compilation on Julian Henry's own JSH label, a necessarily boutique concern which (by virtue of only serving Hit Parade platters) basically has the highest quality control known to music. This collection is no exception: documenting no less than twenty standout songs recorded between 1984 and 2011, it's the perfect Parade primer.

Our usual second-para war story, if you'll permit. The first time that our ears tripped across the Hit Parade was via a compilation LP, "Fruitcakes And Furry Collars", that came out with Record Mirror back in the 1980s. Side two of the disc, curated by Andy Strickland (the Loft, Caretaker Race), closed with "See You In Havana": his other picks included Edwyn Collins and some obscure outfit called Pulp (for years, "Don't You Know" was the only Pulp song we'd ever heard, just as "Havana" was the only Hit Parade tune we knew). That changed in 1991 - probably around the time the Hit Parade clambered aboard the Sarah Records roster- when we saw them opening for the Orchids and Brighter at the Islington Powerhaus, and listened to some of these songs for the very first time.

Before diving between the grooves, it's worth briefly dissecting some diverting legends that are emblazoned on the sleeve:

"Warning: This record contains tuneful melodies and thoughtful lyrics"

Indeed. Fair enough.

"London's No.1 Pop Group"

They've used this one before, but yes, quite possibly. (Let's reserve debate as to its precise geographical accuracy for another time).

"File under: C86 twee sarah sixties pop"

No. I know it's tongue-in-cheek, but no. Firstly, do not file under 'C86': the Hit Parade have no earthly connection with C86 or the C86 'scene' (much as we love them both), unless you count the fact that Cath Carroll, a longtime JSH collaborator, appeared on side two of the original tape. Secondly, do *NOT* file under 'twee'. You know our thoughts on twee, and the Hit Parade simply aren't twee. (No, nor were Sarah Records. If we do ever track down whoever is responsible for pretty much every Wikipedia entry on a Sarah band leading off with the t-word, there is gonna be DRAMA).

Hm. What of the record itself, you huff impatiently ? Well, some of you will remember when "The Story Of The Clash (Volume 1)" came out to sate the impatient desires of those old punks who had come into disposable income and bought these new-fangled CD players, but only had the likes of Dire Straits or Level 42 to play on them. Basically, it contained pretty much all of the Clash's hits, and especially given that the band had long since imploded we were all sceptical at the time that there could ever be a Volume 2 (there wasn't). It's a similar story here, in that "Pick Of The Pops (Vol.1)" is brimming with pretty much all the songs that we would cite in a heartbeat as Julian Henry classics, as dead certs for the 'greatest hits'.

Like "In Gunnersbury Park", a plaintive pearl of acoustic genius which made for a desperately touching Sarah 58; "See You In Havana" itself, which we like to think gave lead vocalist Cath Carroll a thematic taste for the jetset, a few years before she spent Factory Records money on the real thing; "The First Time", guitars sparkling like upmarket prosecco as Julian and Harvey's voices dovetail gorgeously (reminding us of once seeing them share a stage on the Thekla); the festive "Christmas Tears" duet - with somebody called Amelia Fletcher - which was on "More Pop Songs" but that we're sure we also recall from a Vinyl Japan comp CD; "House Of Sarah", a touching hymn to that label which lyrically updates "Emma's House" to be about the Upper Belgrave Road garden flat; the rocking "As I Lay Dying", with its ever-punchy guitar hook; the beautifully observed hommage "The Boy Who Loved Brighter", the song for Keris that thrilled and touched us last year; "My Stupid Band", maybe the best song about, well, being in a band since "Running Order Squabble Fest"; the slinky, cheeky and danceable "I Like Bubblegum" 7", which recently reunited Cath and Julian once more; and "Autobiography", the stunning later Sarah single, which may yet prove the most enduring of them all.

That's half the CD, but even then there's more, so much more: at the moment, we're finding ourselves particularly bowled over by the über-melodic, mid-tracklist hat-trick of "Huevos Mexicana" (new to us, but a revelation), Britpop-era belter "On The Road To Beaconsfield" and the delightful balladette "Sugar" (from their last album, "Return Of The Hit Parade", which was top ten in our 2006 charts and hearts).

Of our many personal favourites from the Hit Parade canon, perhaps only "Harvey" (just like "The Boy Who", a 7" B-side devoted to a Sarah labelmate), last year's overflowing-with-catchiness "There's Something About Mary" single and the last LP's "You're Bloody Rubbish", are conspicuous by their absence. They are, however, reason enough to hope that one day there will be a "Pick Of The Pops (Vol. 2)". And if there is, for its sleeve we'd tentatively suggest:

"File under: music. For fans of: music"

which might well be as good a descriptor of the general brilliance of the Hit Parade as we, at least, will ever muster.

In the meantime, internet rumour has it that at some juncture there should be an all-new long-playing record by the Hit Parade. Reflecting the seeming change in their centre of gravity from South Bucks to Cornwall, at least in terms of their lyrics, this may or may not be called "Cornish Love Songs" (or, indeed, "Cornish Folk Songs"). But either way, it's fair to say that we're looking forward to it immensely.


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