How quickly the fickle finger of fame points away from posterity. The Shop Assistants had several claims to their fifteen minutes, but now even their exact line-up seems unsure. The Shop Assistants topped the indie charts with Safety Net, appeared on the highly influential NME C86 cassette, recorded three sessions for Radio One and featured in John Peel's Festive Fifty with double entries both in 1985 and 1986.
Their jangly indie pop sound fitted exactly with the times, and they were often likened to fellow Scots the Jesus and Mary Chain - honey-drenched wall-of-sound guitars and reverb over unexpectedly melodic tunes. Unlike the Reid brothers, however, the Shop Assistants were female, with the exception of guitarist and tunesmith David Keenan. The key ingredient that distinguished their sound was their principle lead singer, Alex Taylor, who had joined the band in 1985 after they had released one single as Buba and the Shop Assistants with another singer (called Aggi - not Buba as you might expect).
As well as Chain-esque songs such as the singles All Day Long, Safety Net and I Don't Want To Be Friends With You (which also owed something to the Ramones), which characterised their sound, the album The Shop Assistants featured some softer songs, including the lovely Somewhere In China, where Alex's vocal sounds reminiscent of Bridget St John from some years earlier. It's a classic, at least in my home.
When this, their only album, was released in late 1986 such was the snobbery of the time that they were accused of selling out, since it appeared on Blue Guitar, regarded as a major label since it was a Chrysalis subsidiary. Three of the tracks, though, had previously appeared on their first two EPs, released on the tiny Subway Organisation and 53rd & 3rd labels, the latter run by David Keenan. A look at the producer credits in the small print further reveals that at least two of the other tracks date from sessions with John Ryan, as early as April 1985, and I doubt if their decriers could tell from listening which those were. They disbanded a little later, though there was a brief resurrection in 1990 with a somewhat altered line-up.
Most of the album was home grown, but there were nods to their sixties pop sensibilities with two songs - The Train From Kansas City, originally by the Shangri-Las, and What A Way To Die, first recorded by the Detroit band the Pleasure Seekers, featuring Patti and Suzi Quatro. At some time the album acquired an alternative title, Will Anything Happen, presumably a reference to the Blondie song.
As well as Alex and David, the album credits Sarah Kneale on bass guitar and Laura McPhail (drums), their line-up at the time of release. However the EPs from which the earlier tracks derive also name Ann Donald as their second drummer, and as she played on their first John Peel session in October 1985 to promote the Safety Net EP, and seems only to have left a little after that to join the Fizzbombs, it seems likely she is to be heard on many of these tracks. A session for Janice Long from February 1986 records another second drummer, hiding under the mantle Joan Bride. Who she, and is she/he on the album? Two album tracks feature the trumpet playing of Jon Hunter, then a member of the June Brides, whose drummer was Martin Pink. Was it him? We'll probably never know, but should be told.
Whilst social historians of the future tie themselves up in knots trying to fathom all of this out, we can enjoy this exuberant and sometimes winsome antidote to glum Thatcherism. This reissue also includes two bonus tracks, originally appearing on the B-sides of I Don't Want To Be Friends With You.