I’m going to go on and on, at great length, about an album you’ve never heard of. I think it’s fair to warn you of this before we start.
Simon Warner’s Waiting Rooms is one of my favourite albums. It’s big, brash, unashamedly romantic, sentimental, massively opulent, and extravagant to an almost operatic degree. In the right hands, it would make a fantastic musical. And nobody else likes it, other than me.
There’s something very appealing about an album no-one else gets. Do you have an album which you love, and nobody else does? Is it something that has other people completely baffled, and yet you’ll get passionate about (up to, and possibly including raining a flurry of insipid blows on someone who dismisses it)? Sometimes it gets to be a bit frustrating: I recognise a particular album’s unique qualities, only to have people say “pooh-pooh!”. As a result, I have stopped tying people to basement chairs and forcing them to listen to Waiting Rooms. It gets me nowhere and loses me friends.
Simon Warner had been floating around the periphery of the music industry for some time when he released his debut – and to date his only – album in 1997. He had released a single on EG records in 1986; the bright and cheerful, Aztec-Camera-by-way-of-Julian-Cope-with-big-shiny-ugh!-80s-drums, Perfect Day Baby:
[Warning: it hasn’t aged well, nor is it particularly amazing.]
He wrote some string arrangements with his collaborator, Richard Benbow, and, according to a forum post by his ex-bassist, spent years crafting his material before releasing Waiting Rooms. Unsurprisingly, it seems he was a perfectionist.
Please understand, this album was a catastrophic failure. It sold nothing. It must have cost the same amount as a large terraced house. And it sold so little it cannot even qualify as a cult record. There aren’t enough Waiting Rooms fans to make a cult. Possibly a dinner party, and by God it would probably be a boring one. Finding any details on the internet about it is nearly impossible. A couple of posts on forums, and that’s it. It’s probably quicker to find donkey porn.
The Facebook page for Simon Warner has fewer ‘likes’ than the pages of even the bands I play in, including the band that hasn’t gigged yet. I can dig up reams of information, fansites, opinion and critique about supposedly obscure-to-the-mainstream acts like Jandek, Electric Wizard, US Maple, Nurse With Wound, or the Wizards of Twiddly. Can I find out anything about Simon Warner? Like fuck I can.
It was released in 1997, when every be-suited pretentious Gauloises-chuffing idiot claimed to have direct ancestry to Jacques Brel… just as every British finger-picking troubadour claimed allegiance to Nick Drake, every Britpop band hailed the Small Faces, and everyone – everyone – said that Pet Sounds was the greatest album ever made. The 90s was a decade of people dropping the same names, and having the same reference points. Warner was no exception when it came to dropping Brel into every (and there really weren’t many) interview he did.
At the time, there was a curiously pleasing and prolific outbreak of Scott Walker-indebted acts with big orchestral arrangements. The most mainstream of these acts – The Divine Comedy – were heartily embraced by certain elements of Britpop-era Britain. Warner sat quite comfortably amongst this weird, anti-fashion glut of string-laden ballad-driven albums that were practically wreathed in fag smoke: Nick Cave, Tindersticks, Divine Comedy, Jack, Scott 4, My Life Story, etc. Of these, Cave has gone on to become a mixture of serious literary figure and rock legend, rubbing comfortable shoulders with the Cohens, Costellos and Morrisseys, yet still remaining significantly outside the remit of contestants on The X Factor (although it’s only a matter of time).
There will always be a groundswell of love, particularly on the continent, for Tindersticks and their wonderful fags-n’-trenchcoat-club-singer rumblings. The Divine Comedy showed up in the higher echelons of the charts, and composed theme tunes for TV shows (Father Ted, of course, and Tomorrow’s World). And their Britpop contemporaries were certainly not averse to cranking out massive ballads drenched in John Barry/Wally Stott arrangements. Suede‘s second album, Dog Man Star, had a shabby elegance indebted to Bowie and Walker. Pulp managed a pretty good attempt to marry the inspiration of Lee Hazlewood and Scott Walker with powerful rock dynamics, and managed to convince Walker to produce their 2001 album We Love Life. Blur nodded in this direction with songs such as The Universal and To the End. And Radiohead – no slouches when it comes to glorious ballads such as on The Bends – later edged into darker, more avant-garde corners with epic, string-laden works such as Pyramid Song and How To Disappear Completely at the turn of the millennium. Scott Walker himself re-emerged in this period from his cicada-like hibernation to make a gloriously bizarre album in the shape of his masterful Tilt. Simon Warner should’ve nailed it. He came along at the right moment, and yet he was invisible. He stood out from the rest by being better, harder, more authentic and more clever-clever than almost all of them, apart from Cave and Tindersticks. He should’ve been as huge as his voice.
Waiting Rooms is very much an album of the 90s, with all the decadence and attendant irony (and pretentiousness) that dripped from so many of the louche albums of the period (Suede, Divine Comedy, etc), but it lacks the giggling track-suited Britpop nonsense that seemed to believe that The Italian Job is something more than an overrated heist movie with an abrupt ending.
It contains three stunning ballads, Jamboree, Hiding, and the track Waiting Rooms, which is the tentpole around which the album hangs; and is my favourite ballad of the 90s, along with Tindersticks’ Tiny Tears, and Aerosmith’s I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing (no really. Shut up and fuck off).
It also contains, in amongst the whirling strings, and frantically strummed guitars, some properly thrilling balls-out moments of excoriating indie-rock.
The album could not have worked without the contributions of Richard Benbow, who co-wrote two of the songs, Jamboree and Waiting Rooms. Unlike Warner, he has gone on to be a prolific artist, and an in-demand arranger for the likes of Sneaker Pimps, Jewel, and Beth Gibbons. And it’s the arrangements on the album which surround Warner’s voice and lyrics, and give them even more of a faded-red-velvet-and-tatty-brocade character. They’re dramatic, witty, sweeping, and bombastic, with a Puckish sense of joy. Not as stark and cutting as Dickon Hinchliffe’s arrangements for Tindersticks, or as deliberately retro/cheesy as Joby Talbot’s for The Divine Comedy; Benbow’s arrangements are wonderful, Wagnerian, pleasingly detailed and distinctive in their own right. I can think of several TV shows and films which would benefit from an orchestrated score from him.
The album is a depiction of London (although never referred to by name, London so pervasive it is almost a character on the album) in the early-to-mid 90s: Untidy shared houses, rain, shabby clothes, and other people having a better time than you. It’s in the same way that Scott Walker’s Big Louise, Two Ragged Soldiers and The Amorous Humphrey Plugg depicted a grim and shitty London in the 60s, where post-war austerity was only a few years ago, where the freak-outs and happenings occurred somewhere else to a very small group of the elite, commuter trains were full of men wearing bowler hats every morning, and the cratered scars of the Blitz were evident on every suburban street. The London of Waiting Rooms is recognisable to anyone who has read Kenneth Williams’ diaries, or has a passing awareness of Polari. It romanticises the ennui of bedsit urban living; of dark stairs, ripoff landlords, laundrettes, wet streets, crap central heating, cheap fags and booze from a sticky corner shop, in the shite-end of the city, whilst the effortlessly hip and successful snort vast bags of cocaine within a mile of our protagonist’s lonely bedroom. And like all romanticised depictions of a miserable existence, it somehow makes the grim scenario it describes somewhat appealing. Hell, Tom Waits has built an entire career out of it. It’s no bad thing.
Waiting Rooms is an album built around a sense of place and the stories kept within. Even the preposterous sleevenotes brag about it (“And of course, the stories…”): The flirty neighbour in Mrs Zaniewski, the early-morning city joy that figures in Wake Up the Street, the simmering row between our hero and his girlfriend in Moody, the old flatmate who shows up in the middle of decorating a flat to have a row with the author, accusing him of previously shagging the flatemate’s girlfriend in Decorating. There’s some booziness on this album (“Feel like a drink, get drunk”). There’s quite a lot of sex, some of it kinky (Doggy). Occasional laddishness, and a faint whiff of misogyny. Maybe that’s why my wife only quite likes the album, whereas I unashamedly love it.
There are fleeting bursts of spoken word, snatches of dialogue, and even some moments where Simon breaks from singing and recites a letter or a phone call, makes a sarky comment, or engages in conversation as if talking to someone out of view. There’s a shriek of outrage and a slammed door in the intro to Moody, and at the very beginning of the album, there’s a wonderful squawk of blue-rinse intolerance (“If you must do this sort of thing, go somewhere else!”). The whole thing feels like a play broadcast on Radio 4. Experimental, daft, eccentric and mannered: British, rather than Britpop.
It’s a funny LP. The lyrics have a wry sense of humour – particularly in the slight caddishness of it all. Kitchen Tango, with its passive-aggressive conflict concerning shared-house dynamics (“This washing up… HIS washing up is laughing at me, Christ, when he gets in, I won’t say a word”). The bare-faced fibbing to a born-again Christian girl he wants to deflower in The Wrong Girl (“She reads thick books. ‘Oh yeah’, I lie. No, my groans aren’t quite prose she’d like”). There are snarky laughs in the flouncing outrage and smart-arse word-play of Ticket Collector:
The passionate Ticket Collector
Got the better of me by a SECTOR!
A capped bad-news vector, a ‘Hector’
To the letter, he’s a miserable… ticket collector
What a passion, what a miserable BUGGER.
Lyrically it has no intention of dumbing down. This is, as the lyrics say, “that existentialist stuff”, running a very real danger of being unbearably pretentious. I rather like its boldness, its total arrogance and literary allusions. I like that it’s about a young, romantic, intelligent, disillusioned man beset by 20-something angst, while fronting a great big fuck-off symphony orchestra. This is not Oasis, or trying to appeal to the everyman, and these are not songs for the football terraces. This is deliberately highbrow, and doesn’t care whether you think it is poncey or not. Warner is the Anti-Gallagher. In his rare live appearances, he wore an elaborate dress; his androgyny (the few contemporary photos showed Warner to be tall, thin, with impressive cheekbones, and a thick mane of wild blonde hair) probably rubbed some people at the Camden Barfly in 1997 up the wrong way. Good for him.
But I’ll admit it has some flaws. Frankly, the album is too long – maybe by just one song (maybe two). It could probably survive removing Proper Job which is the only song on the set that sounds perfunctory. The drums sound dated and a bit weedy (high-pitched, compressed, and very 90s sounding). On first listen, there’s too much going on, what with the lyrics at breakneck speed, and especially when the strings, brass and woodwind all get terribly excited and frantically compete with one another. Everything is incredibly ornate and detailed. There are only rare moments when the music is allowed to breathe freely. I can’t really find any moment which does not feel pre-arranged and a little overwrought. No improvisation, no moments which allow for musical levity. It’s overwhelming. The orchestrations are massive, which can be overbearing. To listen to it in one sitting for the first time is a heavy experience… all that sturm und drang theatrics is bludgeoning after three-quarters of the album is done. First-timers be warned: This album is looking for a long-term relationship.
The intentional smart-arseness of the lyrics can grate if you’re not in the mood for it. The verses are ornate and verbose (why use one word when a more flowery turn of phrase will suffice, darling?). They’re as florid and overwrought as the orchestral arrangements can be, and they’re not to all tastes. The litmus test is the line in the first song on the album (Keep it Down): “One’s bored with being British. Worn out with cynical, subtle and sparse”. That’s the moment you either embrace the manifesto as a whole, and its plummy and outrageous Charles Hawtreyness, or you think “Fuck off…” (bearing in mind, it’s a line from the very height of the Britpop era, when Britain and its culture was being celebrated by its rock stars for the first time in more than a decade. Warner, bless him, was gleefully out of step). And then there’s his voice.
It’s a throaty beast. A contemporary review used the phrase “his 20-Rothmans-a-day voice”. It’s a wonderfully expressive instrument, but it’s very in-yer-face and aggressive. It’s either whispered close-mic, all intense and shivery (as on Jamboree); or, more typically, a sort of throaty roar, fuelled by cockspurt. Listen to the way he bellows the line “Once we were friends, ERRRREEEECT young men…!” in Kitchen Tango. It is typical of Warner to word-paint phallic allusions. But it’s this very rough quality that puts people off, this leonine roar of his. I like it, yet I can totally see why people are turned off by it.
His voice is a rare thing, Of his contemporaries, only Stuart Staples of Tindersticks rivalled him for musky-tinged sexual swagger, except Staples was more considered, more louche, less belligerent and intense, and more seductive. Stuart Staples aside, can you imagine the rest of the Britpop fops being so priapic with their material as Simon Warner? Neil Hannon was always a little bit more mannered, aloof, and chippy when he addressed sex in his songs. He managed camp irony very well, but could not match this aggressive raw lustiness.
It’s refreshing when a style of music is so often stereotyped as being pretentious, foppish and wet, and yet here’s a dandified balladeer who might very well nick your girlfriend, shag her roughly and noisily to her great delight in the next room, and then come back into the front room of your flat where you’re watching telly and pretending not to have heard anything, and scab a fag off you. And, what’s worse (or best perhaps) is that you don’t seem to mind, she certainly doesn’t mind, and he, Simon, really doesn’t give a fuck.
I’m blind to the flaws of Waiting Rooms now. I love its crushed-velvet untidiness, and every unnecessary musical and lyrical flourish. I don’t care that the album could probably do with some judicious editing. I like it the way it is: Overwrought, preposterous, unnecessary, arrogant, and totally, totally self-centred. It’s a rare album that has such personality and character. There have even been times in my mid-20s when I wanted to be the album, so seduced have I been with its romantic vision of tarnished glamour, and an undoubtedly grimy existence in a huge city, concealing a melancholy loneliness and dark, sad past. I love its wit, its aggression, its courage. Is it possible to want to be a bunch of songs? I do. I’m weird.
You get the feeling that Warner lived the album. Most pop artists claim to in the course of an album’s promotion, but it seems this recording was almost obsessionally pursued. Warner inhabits the album, wearing it like clothing, which is why all the songs have specific (presumably compositional) dates on the track listing; and why at the end of the album we hear a brief staged vignette of him coming home to an empty flat, keys jingling, ansaphone bleating out a lack of messages. He must have lived, breathed, ate and slept it for too long. I think that’s why it’s so pernickety, over-arranged, and thought out to the nth degree.
I’m not saying Simon Warner was a genius. The album is glorious, but I actually think to construct a Baroque pile such as this takes some elements of genius, but a lot more in the way of determination, fortitude, courage, a fuck-you attitude, ignoring a lot of people saying “you can’t…”, immense hubris, balls the size of Neptune, and a stubborn resilience and endless drive and motivation.
Simon Warner must’ve been a right pain in the bum to work with.
The album came out in 1997. It got some pretty rave reviews in the broadsheets muso-pages and some of the glossies (the one in Q magazine, mentioning it as one of their albums of the year, back when it was more interested in music than lists, was what initially attracted my attention and led to me buying the album). There’s a non-album b-side to the single release of Wake up the Street called Lost Keys, so clearly the man composed even more for the project (it is, of course, fully orchestrated. A tad excessive for a b-side? Oh, do be quiet). A couple of live appearances from Simon (wearing a dress? During Britpop? Oh, Simon…), he supported Tori Amos and Jewel on UK and European tours, and did some short interviews with The Independent and other broadsheets… and that’s it. It vanished. So did Simon.
Waiting Rooms itself can now be seen as an example of a vanished world. It was made in the very last exhalation of a music industry where a record company could afford (and be inclined) to let an artist create an extravagant folly. Nevertheless, Simon Warner must have fought a brave corner to have his vision realised. Who knows what compromises he made in order to finish the album? I like to think he got his way most of the time, and the record company – the always fascinating Rough Trade – allowed him plenty of leeway. How else could he have got away with the title track, a glorious sundown of a song, reminiscent of Scott Walker’s masterful Rosemary from Scott 3, capped with a startling mezzo soprano wailing over the chorus (the credits state a Daphne Warner. I like to think it was his great aunt, or his mum, or some other baffled female relative)? It’s from the same decade as the Macarena! It’s typical from an album which in the current climate wouldn’t get made now.
There are 44 credited performers on the album. Apparently, he recruited them from the pages of Loot. That’s one hell of an expansive sound. That’s why the only words to describe the album are ‘ostentatious’, ‘operatic’, ‘symphonic’. That’s big, eccentric, British ambition right there. It’s a ‘build an opera house in the South American jungles’ type of lunacy, except it was thrown together in London somewhere. And many other albums were recorded in the same way around the same time by Warner’s contemporaries. We’ll never see that happen again. Shame, really.
And the music industry is now a sadder place; because instead of taking punts on unknown artists, and allowing them relatively free reign to express themselves and create a singular vision, we are now served by an industry in total fear of its imminent demise. Original, raw talented songwriters are signed on the basis that they mould their demos with established songwriters, to produce commercially guaranteed product-albums, free from any risk. It’s a situation that probably won’t change for some time.
Simon Warner did a follow up, samples of which have popped up on Youtube in demo form and have received barely 300 views at time of writing:
From that evidence, album #2 would’ve been more slices of the same extravagant, wonderful cake. Google searches reveal a bunch of retrospective reviews of the album, some forum posts, some glowing comments on Amazon where the album is still just-about available (it has probably been ultra-deleted from almost everywhere else) and very few images of the man. There’s an academic musicologist in Leeds, a photographer, and a stage hypnotist, all with the same name, but none of them are our throaty-voiced boy. Where the fuck is he?
Actually, there are rumblings. I’ve heard from the Simon Warner facebook page (66 members! We happy few…) that MOJO are going to profile the album as part of their ‘Buried Treasure’ series of articles about great albums that have never received their due. According to a post by Richard Benbow, Simon Warner has apparently done a phone interview for it. This will be interesting. I often wonder what he now thinks of his one album, his one and only offering to the public.
Ironically, the rumours of Simon Warner’s post-album existence appear to describe a fascinating, tragic, yet romantic legend, all of which has been verified online by various eye-witnesses, collaborators, and hearsayers as being completely true, partially true, or complete bollocks (…and of course, the stories!): Driven unhinged by recording the follow-up album and subsequently institutionalised… was left homeless after being dropped by his label… last spotted playing bass in a covers band… wrote some music for theatrical productions… known to be a flamenco guitarist in West London restaurants… married with a kid, and leading an anonymous life somewhere in the commuter belt of London doing a very anonymous job (I wonder if he still wears the dress?)… He has become a character from one of his own songs. How wonderfully Simon Warner of him.