19. That Petrol Emotion, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
In my memory, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues sounds a little different. That’s because I have one particular track off the album that I faultily use to define the entirety. During the summer of 1989, I sat with the Station Manager of WWSP-90FM, where I was the Program Director, and we hashed out the fall schedule. Like most student-run stations, we typically took whatever programs came our way and shoved them in the schedule in a way that best accommodated the time availability of our volunteer disc jockeys. We wanted to approach it a little differently, especially on the weekends, when most of our specialty shows filled the program day. We built the schedule the way we thought it should be, then committed to finding the right DJs for the slots. It’s not all that daring, as we were mostly preserving an existing weekend schedule, but we did need to invent something for the vacant Saturday evening slot. What was required, we were sure, was a dance music program. Once we settled on the format, the next step was giving it a name, so I cast around for electronica and other disco-fied songs I’d played during my first year at the station, figuring one of them might provide a title worth nicking. We settled on “Groove Check,” which was also the title of a song on That Petrol Emotion’s third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, originally released the previous fall.
Listening to “Groove Check” now, it hardly strikes me as the sort of song that a true aficionado of electronic dance would have picked for the name of such a show, or even to play on it. (It’s entirely possible the Station Manager and I celebrated the conclusion of our scheduling task by putting on a Hüsker Dü album and grumbling about how only music that sounded at least a little like that could be considered remotely cool.) It’s hardly the kindred of music by bands like New Order, Erasure, or others suitable for left of the dial playlists who had some level of legitimacy on the dance floor. It’s funky and driving, but it sounds more like geographically misplaced Oingo Boingo that something that might help launch rave culture. Beyond that, it’s an aberration on the album, which mostly skews toward fairly straightforward guitar pop.
That Petrol Emotion was a London-based band with an American lead singer (Steve Mack) and a deeply-rooted Irish sensibility, the latter quality largely attributable to the contributions of songwriter John O’Neill. Formerly a member of the Undertones, O’Neill’s creative lineage meant that most considered That Petrol Emotion to be his band, even though the songwriting credits were dispersed among the whole membership. When End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues was released, for example, there was a lot of attention given to “Cellophane,” an O’Neill-written song that directly addressed the Irish “Troubles” (with the recurring line “I can only find the murder machine”). There was a certain subset of his fan base (or at least a certain subset of music critics) who’d been waiting years for O’Neill to address the topic, as if U2 made it mandatory for Irish bands to be political. Compounding the interest in O’Neill’s contributions to End was the announcement he made that he intended to leave the band after the album. It was tempting to hear the album as a final statement.
Listening now, though, the album sounds less like a final statement that a prescient push into the near-future. Released in fall of 1988, it sounds more like the brand of Britpop that would dominate college radio briefly in early nineteen-nineties, before grunge pummeled it into submission. Album opener “Sooner or Later” wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the earlier, gentler Blur albums, “Candy Love Satellite” has a pogoing exuberance, and “Here It Is…Take It!” is awash in the Madchester rubbery backbeat that would be desperately familiar soon enough. If the album had totally locked into this sound, then maybe it would be considered more foundational. Instead, it’s all over the place in a quietly thrilling way. “The Price of My Soul” is one of those intensely earnest, pop-laced ballads that bands felt empowered to take regular cracks at thanks to the colossal success of Tears for Fears in the mid-eighties, and “Goggle Box” has a buzzy freneticism that ties it to bygone post-punk without resorting to retro neediness. While all of this can sometimes give End of the Millennium Psychosis the feel of album made by a band without an identity, the unmoored qualities more often mark the album a product of admirable exploration.
O’Neill did indeed leave the band, but they continued on, releasing two more studio albums before packing it in sometime in 1994. As is now inevitable, there were reunion gigs years and years later, though I can’t really imagine there was all that much clamor for them. As opposed to other bands who have only grown in stature during the last quarter-century or so, That Petrol Emotion is largely forgotten. They’re certainly not given credit for how interesting they were, even from those who once used them to fill out their college playlists. Or even drew inspiration from them when it came time to bestow names on Saturday night radio programs.