In 1986, amongst the explosion of exciting lo-fi indie pop sounds that would become known as the ‘C86 sound’, a debut single was released by a Brighton band with a peculiar name. 14 Iced Bears had signed to the local fledgling Frank Records label and released, what I thought on first hearing was a classic pop song. ‘Inside’ starts with a rough, jagged, twee yet angst-ridden guitar, before pounding tribal drums precede an ear-bleeding barrage of treble-heavy distorted guitar noise that fills the room and my head, simultaneously. The cacophony of noise has me slightly wincing with ear-aching pain and pleasure. The assault is lessened only by the fact that it was predated by The Jesus & Mary Chain and Meat Whiplash debut singles on Creation Records – ‘Upside Down’ and ‘Don’t Slip Up’, respectively.
‘Inside’ delivers a short, sharp shock of intense indie pop music noise as singer/songwriter Rob Sekula delivers a gentle, naked vocal that collides beautifully with the energy & rush of music. The song comes and goes far too quickly. No time for a middle-eight. No room for a self-indulgent guitar solo. The 14 Iced Bears were one of hundreds of lo-fi exponents that had sprung up in opposition to over-produced commercial twaddle, and the dry ice and pomposity of Goth music.
As with any period in music history, where there’s a sea-change music journalists will tag a name to it. By 1986 the UK was certainly awash with new groups, small record labels and clubs that across the country appeared to have rekindled the ‘do-it-yourself’ punk ethic and in the process formed an uprising from…. somewhere.
The 14 Iced Bears were lumped in with the indie pop ‘scene’. In many ways they were a perfect fit. Their sound, both live and recorded was heavily influenced by twee, jangly treble-heavy guitars and a sense of lo-fi amateurishness. But 14 Iced Bears also had a psychedelic edge; and by the time of their debut album, they had erred further towards psychedelia and with hindsight, clearer to see they were forerunners of what became known as the ‘shoegazer’ scene.
But before the debut album, they released the exceptional ‘The Importance of Being Frank’ 12” EP & the equally absorbing ‘Come Get Me’ 7” single. The 12” included no fillers just four brilliant tracks – ‘Balloon Song’, ‘Train Song’, ‘Like a Dolphin’ & ‘Lie to Choose’. For me, this cemented 14 Iced Bears as one of my favourite bands of the moment. They already had more great pop songs than most of their contemporaries. ‘Come Get Me’ was released on the much coveted Bristol-based Sarah record label. But because of the labels ‘no albums’ policy they were forced to release their eponymously titled debut album in 1988 on a third label, Thunderball Records.
By now the C86 ‘thing’ had passed and the UK indie music scene had dissipated. Some groups signed for major labels in search for commercial success and other copycats & hangers-on simply fell away or changed their colours (The Soup Dragons!). But with the release of their debut album, the 14 Iced Bears sound had simply evolved and taken on new brighter, more elaborate colours.
“I genuinely think 14 Iced Bears’ eponymous debut album is a bit of a lost psych classic.” – Alexis Petridis, The Guardian
Over the course of their career, 14 Iced Bears had a pretty fluid line-up. But always at its centre was singer/songwriter Rob Sekula. The original noise pop and C86 twee had been superseded by a heavily-influenced 1960s psych pop sound that was always present but sometimes hidden amongst the noise, pop and distortion. The album is indeed a lost and by many, forgotten classic. ‘Take It’, ‘Spangle’ and reworked versions of ‘Train Song’ & ‘Cut’ were quite possibly overlooked as nothing more than a release out of time with shifting tastes and trends.
The influence of West Coast psychedelia continued to influence the band’s music as 14 Iced Bears continued to err closer towards psychedelic ‘shoegazer’ space releasing a further two EPs in 1989 and a second album, Wonder in 1991.
Hitherto, I was unfamiliar with the second album and listening to it afresh in 2014, it includes some great songs that still hold an essence of what I first fell in love with, coupled with a clear evolution that is clearly demonstrated when listening to this whole compilation. Through this later period they enjoyed more success on the college circuit in the US than they received in the UK. However, the band split in 1992 and lay dormant until 2010 when Sekula resurrected the band for some live dates following a resurgence of interest.
There have been a couple of noteworthy 14 Iced Bears compilations over the past 20 years, the best of which is Hold On Inside – Complete Recordings 1991 – 1986 on Cherry Red Records. In reverse order it contains both albums and all the singles, starting with ‘Hold On’, the last track on the second album and closing with their debut single ‘Inside’. Hence the title!
Listening to this album brings back good memories. How I met Rob and arranged a gig in Chatham. How the band came back to mine for dinner; and most of all how good the songs were and still sound so good all these years later. As I listen to this double album I wonder why the 14 Iced Bears didn’t leave more of a mark and bigger impression on more people than they did.