By using their influences as a mere launching pad and consistently developing their many strengths, Catherine Wheel was able to outlast all of their early peers. With their initial singles and first album, the band from East Anglia fit snugly with the remainder of bands that the British press eventually labeled as shoegazers, a short-lived sub-scene of bands that were characterized by an inactive stage presence, loads of effects pedals, and buried vocals. However, the always tuneful Catherine Wheel survived by refusing to repeat themselves and remaining accessible to their constantly swelling fanbase through touring like dogs. The band's extensive discography plays like a how-to guide for bands that aspire to do most things imaginable within the domain of bass/drum/guitar/vocals with enthusiasm and sharp skill. They might not have reached the level of popularity that they aimed for, but their career was one that most bands would commit felonies to experience.
Formed by Rob Dickinson (vocals and guitar), Brian Futter (guitar), Dave Hawes (bass), and Neil Sims (drums) in 1990, Catherine Wheel debuted on the tiny Norwich independent label Wilde Club with the She's My Friend and Painful Thing singles. Though inspired by the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen and the House of Love, even the band's earliest recordings strayed from being derivative. Those singles earned them a spot on John Peel's BBC show. One listener was famed producer and "non-musician" Brian Eno, who was delighted enough by what he heard to phone the band's manager up and express admiration. Eno, who had his Opal label at the time, threw his hat into the ring of people wanting to release the band's future material. Since the tiny Opal imprint didn't fit into the big plans the band had for themselves, they declined to sign on with the bald wonder. Creation boss Alan McGee was another interested major figure. Since McGee was about to become knee-deep in debt, thanks to the extensive costs of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the band passed on the pre-Oasis label. Fontana had the ability to market the band on a wider scale and the label's licensing deal with Mercury in the U.S. made them more attractive.
Signed to Fontana, the band set about wrangling a producer for their debut full-length. Being huge fans of Talk Talk's sonically expansive records, they contacted the band's associate, Tim Friese-Greene. To their pleasant surprise, Friese-Greene had bought the Wild Club singles and needed no convincing to work with them. Friese-Greene became the fifth Wheel as much as he was the fifth member of Talk Talk, playing a crucial role in sound development, production, and adding his trademark keyboards when necessary. Ferment gained the band a small following in their native land and abroad on the strength of the epic "Black Metallic," which remained the band's most recognized song throughout their career.
The cinematic Chrome followed in 1993, toughening the band's sound and providing increased exposure on U.S. alternative radio through "Crank." Dickinson's increased confidence as a singer allowed them more emotional depth. Another strong alliance was forged with engineer Gil Norton during the recording sessions. As always, extensive touring ensued and the band's heavier edge on stage was captured on 1995's Happy Days, which hardcore fans dismissed for being too flat-out rock for their tastes. Neo-metal single "Waydown" was the radio staple in the U.S., giving the band more exposure than ever. At this point, the band was criticized for abandoning Britain, which was something of a fallacy. Although they would routinely circle the U.S. multiple times while touring, only in relative terms did it appear that they were neglecting their homeland.
Meanwhile, Catherine Wheel had been stockpiling spectacular B-sides that only rabid collectors and those who would listen to their tales of depleted wallets knew about. To provide a stop-gap between albums, Like Cats and Dogs was released in 1996, which only contained a small fraction of those extras. Ingeniously, those that were selected were sequenced in a manner that resembled a regular studio album; the immediacy and experimentalism of the hodgepodge made for the band's best full-length in the eyes of several fans.
Peeling back from the aural onslaught of Happy Days, the band exposed more of their atmospheric knack for 1997's Adam and Eve (released by Chrysalis in the U.K.), which was also designed to play as a single piece. Frustrated with the current generation's aversion to listening to a single record through its entirety, they went so far as to bring in Bob Ezrin to give it a classic front-to-back feel; they obviously liked the result of Like Cats and Dogs and the result of Adam and Eve was just as pleasing. Despite having numerous radio friendly songs on the album, sales for the record stalled outside of the usual pack and those catching on by word of mouth and more gigging. Not pleased with Mercury, Catherine Wheel abandoned ship prior to the bloodshed that ensued when Mercury's distributor Polygram merged with Universal.
Creatively stalled by not knowing where to go next, it took a while for Catherine Wheel to come up with 2000's Wishville, which found release through the band's new label, Columbia. Dave Hawes was relieved of his bass duties prior to recording sessions; since he was the most accessible and affable member of the group (and an excellent musician), the announcement of his departure was met with much scrutiny by their fans. The band had their reasons in sacking Hawes and the bass lines for Wishville were handled by Dickinson, Futter, and Friese-Greene. Ben Ellis was eventually brought on as full-time bassist. Wishville gained noticeable play on alternative radio, but it translated into the usual amount of sales that the band was accustomed to. Frustrated with having all the tools to be a huge platinum act for nearly a decade, the band went on hiatus after touring. ~ Andy Kellman