What a schizophrenic band Manicured Noise were. Christened by Morrissey’s friend and member of Ludus, Linder Sterling, they released a few singles and then imploded before being able to release an album. The person who formed the band, Owen Gavin, also their lead singer, was forced to leave the band after an argument about head attire (also the fact he couldn’t sing a note and was a megalomaniac could have had something to do with it). Taking over on lead vocals was Steve Walsh, a writer for Sniffin’ Glue and an original member of the infamous Flowers of Romance, which also featured Sid Vicious and members of The Banshees and The Slits. Because of Gavin’s vocal shortcomings, much of the band’s repertoire consisted of instrumentals often dominated by the saxophone of Peter Bannister, probably best exemplified by ‘Moscow 1980.’ It sounds like a mixture of Pigbag and The Contortions. If they have a best known song, it is probably ‘Faith’, probably because it was covered years later by Shack.
However, it is ‘Metronome’ which for me best sums up Manicured Noise. Its twisted funk bass and tense, nervous, can’t relax vocal recall early Talking Heads, specifically the songs on ’77’. If Talking Heads ever reform and David Byrne refuses to participate, in Steve Walsh they have a ready made replacement vocalist. From the military style drumming, seemingly played on a kid’s drum, at the very beginning to the sudden vocal interjection, this is music that you can’t ignore. Gone are the vague free jazzeries of the past and in their place a tight, coiled funk that demands your presence on the dancefloor. Just as James Brown’s lyrics often make no sense when analysed in the cold light of day, so too here. Walsh sings, “We don’t move / We don’t walk / We get caught / We get caught”, when in fact the music is impelling us to do the exact opposite. It is making us move and if we are caught, we are caught in the funk that is propelling us breathlessly onward. And when the chorus hits, even the singer seems to realise resistance is useless: “Metronome / Keep in time / Metronome / Hypnotise / It takes my breath away / It makes me feel alive” before a sax cools things down briefly before the next onslaught. By now Walsh is totally caught up, no longer able to remain detached: “Some people watch / And some people do / And some people are / Just like you / People are moving / People are moving / People are moving / Stop / Watch me!” There is a Van Morrissonesque losing of self, losing of composure, here. From being the detached observer at the start of the song, Walsh now wants to be the centre of attention with everyone’s eyes on him as he screams and whoops in abandon at the end of the song.
This is a single that “takes my breath away,” a song that “makes me feel alive.” It may have wanted to be metronomic but is forced into joyful exuberance. It is a noise that has been carefully manicured. In short, it is Manicured Noise.