1991’s Grand Union should by rights be lauded as a masterpiece of alternative rock, however Frank Tovey’s reclusive persona ensured that this overlooked gem has slipped through the net. Produced with PK (Paul Kendall), the album is both musically and lyrically enveloping. Something of a ‘concept’ album, Grand Union is ostensibly a collection of skiffly, folksy and vaguely country tracks accompanied by Tovey’s East End stories of the old, the new and the salient. There are many themes here, but one gets the impression that Tovey’s vision of a re-developing East End, with Canary Wharf’s landscape-altering construction in full swing, and the docks that made Britain what it once was turned into luxury restaurants and appartments invoked in him some sort of passion to head back in time and preserve the dirty Docklands spleandour of old in song.
At times melancholy (the WW2-recounting tale on ‘Bethnal Green Tube Disaster’), at others joyful in a ramshackle fashion (the opener ‘Bad Day In Bow Creek’), the album is largely subtle and blissfully easy on the ear. Semi-acoustic guitars, banjos and clever percussion evoke all manner of moods, and when they head into indie-rock territory, as on the Morrissey-esque ‘Cities Of The Vain’, The Pyros – Paul Rodden (banjos and guitars), John Cutliffe (bass and acoustic guitars, plus strings on the closing track ‘The Great Attractor’) and Charlie Llewellyn (drums, percussion) – more than prove their adaptability around Tovey’s poetic lyrics. Additional contributions come from Steve Smith on various keyboards, Tracey Booth (bodhran on ‘IKB (RIP)’) and Elliot Carnegie, who plays Jew’s harp on the opener, ‘Bad Day In Bow Creek’. Somewhat more unusual, Tozie Lynch is credited with ‘bones’ on the same track. One imagines those bones may be among the detritus dredged up by the great Thames on a daily basis.
It is actually quite fantastic to hear just how well some primitive music forms lend themselves so well to Tovey’s Cockney vocals. His vocal is somewhere between Wreckless Eric and James’ Tim Booth, both folk and punk at the same time. His hero-worship of the great pioneering British engineer Isembard Kingdom Brunel on ‘IKB (RIP)’ is one of this album’s many high points, a time-travelling trip that leaves the grey towerblock-dominated modern London skylines far behind to witness at first hand the master engineer’s many achievements. And while we’re on the subject of masterful achievements, Paul Kendall’s excellent productions deserve a special mention. Best known for his electronic production for many Mute artists, PK brings a depth and precision to these tracks, using occasional effects with considerable restraint, but pushing the rhythm high up in the mix in an echo of his work with Nitzer Ebb.
With Grand Union, I continue to be impressed by the quality of songwriting, playing and production on display here. Intensely captivating and wonderfully unique, it is difficult to hear it without feeling some great sadness over the fact that the erstwhile Fad Gadget is no longer with us. A truly emotive gem, filled with grief, joy and a yearning for simpler times. Ironically, I wrote this while heading glumly toward my own shiny modern City offices on a train wildly rushing through some of the tunnels that Brunel’s colleagues were famed for.
First published 2003; re-posted 2018
(c) 2003 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence