Happy 25th Anniversary to Catherine Wheel’s second studio album Chrome, originally released July 20, 1993.
Radio may never again be what it once was, but I’ll forever celebrate it. Growing up without MTV in our simpler world before the internet, radio was my go-to source for my newfound love: music. And thankfully, my FM dial gave me ready access to a font of ‘80s and ‘90s “modern rock” brilliance: San Francisco’s one-and-only LIVE 105.
While playing a fair share of New Wave favorites and newly popular alternative, grunge and Britpop tracks, LIVE 105 also proudly showcased more obscure songs and artists, many of which I still adore today. Catherine Wheel is one such glorious treasure.
Their 1992 debut Ferment offers many beautifully fuzzy moments, a commendable, textural entry into the crowding shoegaze canon. But where Ferment cocoons the listener in mellifluous mysteries, their 1993 sophomore effort Chrome sheds the debut’s abstract trappings. It barrels past any hypnagogic vagueness, with crystalline focus, into a bigger sound that’s more visceral and immediate. With Chrome, Catherine Wheel showed the world they didn’t quite fit that shoegaze label they were so quickly filed under.
This was a band that knew how to rock.
Vocalist/guitarist Rob Dickinson, guitarist Brian Futter, bassist Dave Hawes and percussionist Neil Sims formed Catherine Wheel in Great Yarmouth, a small seaside town on the east coast of England, for one simple reason—to make music. Laser-focused on their craft and devoid of rockstar ego or ambition, Catherine Wheel were refreshingly authentic. They had no interest in manufacturing a look or sound to become more commercially viable.
“It was all about the noise…the sweet cacophony that we could create without having to have the usual paraphernalia of a rock band, which none of us liked,” Dickinson recalled during a 2008 interview.
Steering clear of artifice and employing a more direct approach to production (versus Ferment), the band pulled in Gil Norton, studio mastermind behind many 4AD bands, including the Pixies, Throwing Muses/Belly, and Pale Saints. Despite this change, Chrome still drips with the balmy atmosphere of Ferment—testament at least partly to the ongoing influence of Tim Friese-Greene, producer of Ferment (and electric organist on Chrome).
Spurred by the success of their debut, Catherine Wheel grew more confident in their rich, guitar-driven sound and booked recording time at London’s infamous Britannia Row Studios. Built by Pink Floyd, the storied space undoubtedly fueled the band’s determination to make a record that stood out.
Chrome takes off with an adrenaline-lifting, soul-baring jolt of reality. In album opener, “Kill Rhythm,” Rob declares, “Shout—the secret’s out.” Continuing the sentiment, “I Confess” follows. And it begins to seem this album is all about facing those skeletons in the closet.
But “Crank,” the album’s powerful first single, reminds us that reality is subjective and we can’t help but create shelter in our minds—“I build my canopy of steel / It fulfills my sense of real / A chrome protection.” Twenty-five years have passed since I heard this electric gem on LIVE 105 and it still tickles my brain to unpack the meaning of that compact statement.
Feeling much fuller and epic than its under-four-minute runtime, “Crank” represents the kind of radio-friendly crescendoing rock perfection that few bands actually attain. Intense, emotional and memorable, “Crank” is the song that baits, as any single should.
It would be unjust, however, to suggest that the rest of the album follows in the same vein.
Slower tracks like “Fripp” and jangly dreampop moments (“Strange Fruit” and “Show Me Mary”) reveal the breadth of Catherine Wheel’s songwriting abilities. “The Nude” is another one that earned LIVE 105 play—and, again, rightfully so. The crushing yet seductive single sends my heart soaring before letting it sink. But, I’ve rode this comedown so many times, I assure you it’s worth it.
While it’s true that Chrome bears many of the hallmarks of early 1990s rock, I’d argue it’s a quintessential rock album that holds its own, independent of time. Some bands focus on the formula of commercial success. Others pay mind to their craft. For the fortunate few who know Catherine Wheel, we’d tell you it’s the latter that lasts.