Popdose Flashback: The Lightning Seeds, “Cloudcuckooland”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '90

When the Lightning Seeds sprouted on modern rock radio in the spring of 1990, their songs felt (as much as anything on modern rock radio could feel) like a comfy old pair of shoes — a six- or seven-year-old pair, to be specific. Indeed, to extend another metaphor to its breaking point, Ian Broudie’s bouncy, synth-laden pop enveloped listeners like a Seed-ed cloud that had been waiting quite a while to burst – yet once it did, it became the sunniest thing on radio for most of the year.

The Lightning Seeds were Broudie, for all intents and purposes, when Cloudcuckooland appeared in the U.K. in 1989 (and in the States on MCA in March 1990). A Liverpudlian who had teamed with the future Frankie, Holly Johnson, in a late-’70s punk band called Big in Japan, Broudie by 1990 was a well-traveled producer of albums for Echo and the Bunnymen, the Fall, the Colourfield and others. Interestingly, his productions were credited to “Kingbird” – and when he decided to record his own music he shielded himself behind a group name, though he had no “group” to speak of.

At least the name was catchy. So were the songs. The Lightning Seeds’ calling card was “Pure,” a delightful sing-along on which he sounded like a mellowed-out Neil Tennant fronting late-period Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. (No wonder, since the track’s trademark synth hook was provided by OMD’s Andy McCluskey.) The giddy, rapid-fire chorus sealed the deal, cementing the enormous appeal of a song that begged to be featured over the denouement of a John Hughes movie.

“Pure” made the British Top 20 and the American Top 40, in addition to climbing into the Top 10 on modern rock radio. It was followed quickly by the album’s leadoff track, “All I Want” – a song whose chorus (“Stop what’s going on / Stop what’s going wrong / You’d better listen from now on”) might have been more demanding had Broudie not sounded so damn laid-back about the whole thing. Another gorgeous track, this time more guitar-driven (but with a subtle but nifty synth underlay between lines in the verses), “All I Want” might have served as the Third Wheel’s theme song in that same Hughes film – Duckie’s, perhaps, in Pretty in Pink: The College Years.

Alas, Hughes was no longer making such movies by 1990 – and radio, for the most part, had moved on from synth-laden pop by that time as well. As a result, the hits from Cloudcuckooland seemed anachronistic from the moment they arrived – irresistible throwbacks to the sound that had enlivened radio a few years before, but throwbacks just the same. Happily, radio focused on the “irresistible” part of the equation – “All I Want” top-tenned at modern rock as well – but Broudie did take some critical knocks for the lack of innovation, indeed of anything expressly new at all, to go with those hooks.

It didn’t help that the dropoff in quality was rather steep from the singles to the rest of the album, or that even some tracks that weren’t so dominated by McCluskey’s keyboards hearkened back to earlier (and greater) ’80s glories. “Sweet Dreams” brought together the drum sound Broudie had achieved for Echo and the Bunnymen’s early LPs with New Order-ish guitars (think “Love Vigilantes”) and more than a touch of the Jesus and Mary Chain in the melody. The echoing guitars on “Don’t Let Go” offered, well, echoes of Feargal Sharkey’s “A Good Heart.” And the jaw-droppingly odd “Control the Flame” sounds, at certain moments, like a Thompson Twins track gone horribly wrong. Broudie didn’t wear his record collection so obviously on his sleeve on Cloudcuckooland’s slower numbers, but neither did his aesthetic lend itself particularly well to sincere balladry.

Despite these flaws, the brilliance of the singles sent the album into the top 50 in the U.S.; in fact, its placement in the States topped its performance in Britain. Unfortunately, Cloudcuckooland was the only Lightning Seeds album to attain anything like that level of success on these shores, even though Broudie kept cranking out delightful singles through the ’90s: the New Order-ish “The Life of Riley” and “Blowing Bubbles,” “Sense,” “Lucky You, “Change,” “Life’s Too Short.” (Broudie even got his John Hughes movie – sort of – when “Change” was featured on the Clueless soundtrack in 1995.) As the Lightning Seeds’ chart fortunes waned in the U.S., they eventually spiked in the U.K. with the group’s third album, Jollification (1994), and particularly with the football chant “Three Lions.” Written for England’s ’96 European Cup squad, the song (co-written with a couple of Brit comedians) topped the charts that year and again two years later, in time for the World Cup; it has re-charted during each World Cup since then, and we can expect another appearance this summer. His dotage thus well-funded, Broudie & Co. (multi-instrumentalist Simon Rogers has been a full member since Sense) took a decade between albums before returning last year with last year’s Four Winds.

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