One evening in 1986, Oxford economics student Amelia Fletcher approached a stranger at a concert and asked her if she wanted to be in a band; In this girl’s Pastels badge she recognized kinship, community, and shared taste. At the time, Elizabeth Price, an art student who would later win Britain’s splashy Turner Prize, had no idea how to sing or play an instrument. No matter. The music Fletcher and Price would create as part of a group they named Talulah Gosh did not prioritize formal skill. Combining C86 jangle with girl-group swooning, Talulah Gosh’s songs were gloriously scrappy. As if to emphasize the band’s informality, they never released a proper full-length; two years after forming, with a handful of singles to their name, Talulah Gosh dissolved. After briefly toying with the idea of solo pop stardom, in 1989, Fletcher started a new band called Heavenly.
During their seven years of existence, Heavenly released four studio albums, but a recent singles collection, A Bout De Heavenly, makes the case that some of their most magical work existed in smaller formats. At first, Heavenly might have appeared to be a continuation of Talulah Gosh under a different name. After all, the two bands shared nearly identical lineups: Fletcher, her brother Mathew, Peter Momtchiloff, and Robert Pursey (a few years later they were joined by Cathy Rogers). But as suggested by the project’s early singles, “I Fell in Love Last Night” and “Our Love is Heavenly,” Heavenly would (for the most part) iron the punk wrinkles out of their songs. Built around upbeat melodies, ’60s pop harmonies, and a staunchly optimistic view of love (purely romantic, rarely sexual), these new songs were tighter than any of Talulah Gosh’s offerings. It was only fitting that Heavenly would sign to Sarah Records, the beloved Bristol label known for releasing music made by introspective wallflowers.
Like other Sarah bands, Heavenly’s style—both music and aesthetic—was polarizing. In its earliest days, indie pop was a parallel movement to punk. Both scenes touted the belief that anyone could make music on their own terms, that mistakes were something to be celebrated. But punk was associated with fearlessness, or at least the facade of that confidence. So maybe if you identified with the punk spirit but weren’t angling for anarchy, you became an indie pop kid. Instead of wearing a T-shirt held together with safety pins, you rocked anoraks and cardigans; you were probably a bit dweeby.
Critics reviled indie poppers for their “shambling” songs about crushes and heartache, grade school outfits, and embrace of “girly” qualities like sensitivity or softness. In Heavenly’s case, the criticism easily and often veered towards sexism. In a particularly cruel review of the band’s 1992 album, Le Jardin De Heavenly, Melody Maker writer Simon Price accused Fletcher of spending “her entire adult life pretending she doesn’t menstruate,” painted her bandmates as developmentally challenged, and used a variety of other lazy insults to describe the group as infantile. (A much more interesting criticism of indie pop could have been about the scene’s overwhelming whiteness, a point that was unlikely to be explored by the majority-white music press.)
So while it’s true that Heavenly songs often framed the world through a childlike lense, their choice to do so was likely not rooted in a desire to escape or regress. “I spent from age 13 to age 17 trying to act like I was 25 and trying to prove to boys I knew all about sex and I didn’t and trying to prove I was cool and no one could hurt me when they could,” Fletched explained in a 1995 article about cuddlecore. “At 18, I thought ‘fuck it, I don’t care anymore. I’m just gonna be what I feel like being.’”
In retrospect, it seems like Heavenly’s critics were too preoccupied with twee to consider the darkness that lurked in the shadows of Heavenly’s songs. In the early singles featured on A Bout De Heavenly, these glimmers of pain tend to arrive as a result of heartbreak: “I’m Not Scared of You” aches with betrayal, while “Wrap My Arms Around Him” struggles to move past a manipulative relationship. On the other end of the spectrum, 1991’s chipper “Escort Crash on Marston Street” imagines the entire band’s death or injury in a horrific car crash. But as Fletcher cheerily notes, “The kids are happy/With no more boring Heavenly tunes.”
Beginning with Le Jardin De Heavenly, Heavenly’s records were distributed in the U.S. by K, the Olympia, Washington-based label run by Calvin Johnson, whose own band, Beat Happening, faced similar criticisms about amateurism. Through their connection with K and friendships with bands like Bratmobile and Huggy Bear, Heavenly were exposed to the burgeoning riot grrrl movement, whose feminist, DIY spirit struck a chord with Fletcher. Quickly, Heavenly’s songs began to incorporate more nuanced narratives about sexual politics and gender roles. On the fiery “Atta Girl,” Fletcher and Rogers offer overlapping perspectives on smothering, unrealistic relationships. “No, I could never live up to all your dreams/I don’t have to be cute right through,” an exasperated Fletcher shouts early on. Like Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” the bubbly “P.U.N.K. Girl” pays tribute to a complicated female figure whose honesty and insularity can be misinterpreted as off-putting.
But the most poignant of these tracks would turn out to be a B-side called “Hearts and Crosses.” The song follows a young woman named Melanie as she imagines how the companionship and affection of “some cool boy” could “make things right.” Melanie’s excitement is sugar-coated by bouncy keys, zippy bursts of guitar, and Mathew’s delightfully all-over-the-place drumming. But like it so easily can in real life, the narrative turns on a dime and suddenly, Melanie’s fantasy becomes a nightmarish depiction of date rape. “It was all so different from in her dream,” Fletcher murmurs as her pep collapses into a traumatized monotone. “He never smiled, he never whispered/He bit her hard, but never kissed her.” Heavenly follows this anecdote with a chaotically joyful keyboard solo; a casual listener could be forgiven for missing the horror. Arguably, “Hearts and Crosses” is the band’s best song. Inarguably, it’s a powerful example that pop music—even at its most outwardly precious—can be a vehicle for addressing issues like sexual assault.
While the band’s subsequent record, 1994’s The Decline and Fall of Heavenly, continued to explore these ideas, their fourth and final album, 1996’s Operation Heavenly, embraced a goofiness unseen since the Talulah days. With a more straightforward rock sound, “Trophy Girlfriend” and “Space Manatee” nod more towards Britpop than twee, despite references to rocket ships and granny dresses. For a moment, the world seemed like Heavenly’s oyster.
Sadly, Heavenly’s course ended in tragedy. Right before the release of Operation Heavenly, drummer Mathew Fletcher took his own life. Continuing to make new music under the Heavenly moniker felt wrong, so the group eventually reconvened under the name Marine Research, which later evolved into Tender Trap. These days, Fletcher and Pursey continue to make music together as a couple under the name the Catenary Wires. While the sound itself has shifted into more laid-back territory, the communal desire to explore the world through music that inspired Talulah Gosh back in the ’80s remains.
Buy: Rough Trade
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