Scratch The Surface: The Jasmine Minks – Scratch the Surface (Creation Records, 1989)



Formed in Aberdeen in 1983 by Jim Shepherd (guitar/vocals), Adam Sanderson (vocals/guitar), Martin Keena(bass guitar), and Tom Reid (drums/vocals), The Jasmine Minks were a staple on the 80s indie scene, and after sending a demon to Melody Maker, were gobbled by Alan McGee’s fledgling Creation Records.

From there they released four albums and four singles for the label, filled to the brim with these classic postcard meets buzzcocks like tunes and melodies which not only stand up today but stand out. Luckily they sporadically play and record, so once you’ve been reminded or converted (yeah, I’m that confident), go find out more and jump on board.

We caught up with Jim Shepherd from the band, who gave us the lowdown on the bands final Creation album, and title of the feature, Scratch the Surface. There’s no playlist on spotify or YouTube, but the band do have a liberal posting of both, including some songs from the album, so until they do, go check all their stuff out.

If you have the album, cue it up, and read on.

BACKGROUND: 

Jim: We had been going for 4 or 5 years by 1988 and rarely got above being support act for some of Creation’s bigger bands like Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Jazz Butcher. We had some great gigs around the country (and mainland Europe) with those absolutely brilliant bands. We had previously played with The House of Love and, even at one point, supported The Violent Femmes and James. We played some small-time headline gigs, including some in Belgium and France. There were a few memorable one-off gigs too, including one with Velvet Underground legend Mo Tucker in Leeds.

The Happy Mondays supported us around then and, after that, I knew things were changing and beyond my control. They were awesome, funky and raw, but cool and slow, not frantic like the funky post-punk bands. We were still Mod-ish and seemed quaint in comparison. My intuition must have been right because the gigs got fewer and it did seem like there was a new feel coming into the Indie scene – a scene which we had been in from the start but had not managed to find a niche that would sustain us, as much as I wanted to continue with writing, recording and performing music live. 

We had started off as a rough-and-ready Postcard-ish band with a punk-ish sound and matured into a Power Pop band which was extended when Ed de Vlam joined the band.  But this sound was losing ground hugely to the newer bands like Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. Ed was born to a Dutch father and English mother. He grew up in Rye on the south coast of England, near Hastings. He first came to our attention when a friend of ours, Michael, who had put us on at his Indie club in Bristol, brought him along to a gig we played in Islington, London. We were a pretty tight foursome at that time with drums, bass, organ and guitar. But it was quite an empty sound when I took a solo. Michael introduced us to Ed and the next day I went over to his house in Leyton in the East End of London and we clicked straight away. Ed was, by far, the best musician we had come across. He played along to a few, new songs that I had and he played a bit like Tom Verlaine. He joined the band and very quickly became a strong fixture at gigs with his flowing locks, his good looks but most of all his great guitar work and powerful vocals. Around this time we would play football on tour with other bands, Primal Scream, APB and even challenged Jock MacDonald’s Bollock Brothers to a game. Most of the Minks started playing football for our good friend Pat’s team, Syon Wanderers. It was a Sunday morning pub team (as we used to call it) and our home ground was Clapham Common. We travelled around south London to play other teams and even, in a knockout cup, to Hackney Downs. We would often play Charlie Gillett’s team as they were in our division (one of the lowest in the league). We were normally hungover but we loved it and Ed joined that too and could run like the wind if he got a bit of space. The perfect Jasmine Mink!

I thought we could ride the storm but circumstances forced our hand. We did manage to record a final album for Creation Records, Scratch The Surface, in late 1988. But we were rapidly becoming an anachronism. Scratch The Surface contains what I consider to be the best group of songs I’d written. In fact I was on fire creativity-wise, writing about 30 songs for the album. This got narrowed down to a dozen or so and we rehearsed in an upstairs room of an office block in the East End of London for the coming recording session at The Greenhouse Studios. I was listening to Big Star non-stop and that comes across in the group sound. 

Photos: Unused promo pictures original slated for use with the Scratch the Surface album. Used with permission of the band

TRACK BY TRACK:

Lost and Living – I used to think I had ripped this song off of Big Star’s When My Baby’s Beside Me, although when I listen to Big Star now I don’t really hear it. It’s funny but at the time I was so convinced that I’d ripped them off that I would introduce it live, in jest, as an Alex Chilton song. We did a demo of it at Bark Studios (famous for being the home of the no.1 hit Star Trekkin’) and it was a live favourite from the start. In those days we wrote songs and played them at live concerts straight away, so this was played for about 6 months before the album came out, as were lots of the songs on this album. Some great stomping drums – in fact the drums are amazing across the album.  

Little Things – another live favourite from about a year before. One of the earliest definites for the album. It started off as a country-tinged guitar song but became quite organ-heavy on the album. One of my favourites – a positive lyric too.

I’ve Lost Her – one of the many songs I wrote about having a gnawing feeling inside me that something huge was missing in my life. My mother died when I was sixteen, so it was partly that for sure, especially lines like “I see you dancing in the bustling crowds down in the city” as I was convinced I would see her in a crowd, then she’d be gone again. Augmented by some terrific guitar work by Ed, a great solo with lovely notes then frantic chopping chords. 

Marcella – I had read the marvelous book, Ten Men Dead, about the IRA hunger strikes of 1981 and was fascinated by it. The fact that the British Government were negotiating with the strikers in private, while saying in public that they weren’t, was illuminating to me – I tended to trust people in positions of responsibility, so this dented my faith in government. Marcella was the nom-de-plume of the most famous striker, Bobby Sands, when writing secret, heartfelt letters to his family, which were smuggled out of the H-block in Belfast. The song itself has a strong melody but very simple chords, supplemented by searing guitar work. Demoed at Bark and re-done at The Greenhouse. 

Misery – sometimes I come up with lyrics that just don’t grab me – when I’m writing , the words just flow out of me like water from a burst pipe so they are hit and miss. I asked Tom if he’d like to sing it and he made a great job. The guitar riff is very similar to Tom Verlaine’s Postcard From Waterloo, something I didn’t realise until after we had released the album. 

Can you hear me? A nice riff to open the song in a, very un-rock, ¾ timing. We played this live a few times. A frantic song which races along nicely and ends up being a bit of a Tommy-era Who style at the coda.

Take – to this day the only Jasmine Minks recording I haven’t played on. I did a home demo for it and it sounds pretty much like the finished article, except Ed added some nice guitar harmonies near the end. A 60s-style instrumental, organ-heavy with nice syncopation on the drums and bass.

Reaching Out – another one done at Bark as a demo. But the demo was power pop guitars. Instead of that we went for an acoustic and organ-heavy version at The Greenhouse. Some of my best lyrics too – a song about being homeless and walking the streets during the day, looking for company. Played many times live – probably for a year before the album came out. 

Too Young (My Home town) – originally called Junkie City, I decided to change the title and chorus. I should have stuck with the original – it told the sordid tale better about the decline of our port cities in Britain under Thatcher. Nice tune but would have been nicer with lighter drums and played a bit more sparse with piano and guitars. 

Shiny and Black – a strange song written after a dream where I was hanging round some railway viaducts with a pal waiting for the sun to rise. A nice Spanish guitar intro by Ed and a good build up to a Julian Cope-style ending. 

Scratch The Surface – a wee ditty which has a solid rhythm section. By this time Tom and Martin were doing fairly simple stuff, less frenetic and just trying to be strong and tight. It shows in this recording. Tom had been taking drum lessons and his playing is strong and steady. 

Playing For Keeps – Ed had been showing me some of his own songs and this one, in particular, was a stand-out. It could have been a full-length 3 minute song but I encouraged him to keep it short and have it as a hidden track. My idea was that we could gradually introduce more and more of Ed’s songs and he could bring his character more and more into the group. But he left to live in Spain not long after the album came out and our, once strong, enthusiasm finally began to wane. I managed to get a place in a teacher-training college for teaching woodwork and metalwork to teenagers and we faded away for about 10 years…  

RECEPTION:

In retrospect, the sound was never going to go down well with the British audiences. The engineer Steve Nunn at Greenhouse Studios worked hard to record us well but we ran out of time for mixing the album so it doesn’t have the right balance of instruments, although remastering has certainly improved that.

LOOKING BACK:

I think we could have done well with that album worldwide (especially in the USA where bands like The Smithereens sounded a lot like we did) if we had the opportunity to get over there and promote it. But we were a small band with no real backing and it seemed like an impossible task. The album bombed, Ed left not long after and we went into a steep decline. But I am very proud of the songs on Scratch The Surface

NOW:

We have reconvened a few times since then, once for an album on Alan McGee’s Poptones Records and, since 2017, releasing a few 7” singles. Our BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel and Janice Long from 1986 have just been released on double 7” eps on a new reissue label, Precious Recordings of London and we are working on our first full album since 2001. I am doing my first solo album at the moment and I’m very excited to have help from friends of bands I know going back to the early days of Creation and the scene which came from that.

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