In the early to mid ‘90s, when I first started seriously listening to music, I had two great loves. Aerosmith were always my number one favourite band, but my favourite British band was the Wildhearts. Aerosmith were always a distant prospect, they didn’t tour the UK very often – although I did see them three times in the ‘90s – but the Wildhearts were always much more accessible and easy to see perform live. Always on tour – even when they didn’t have any releases to support – I quickly lost count of how many times I saw them in and around Manchester between 1993 and 1997.
The Wildhearts had great songs and great fans. I was once let into Rio’s, a rock club in Bradford, for free, simply because the doorman, presumably a fellow fan, appreciated the fact that I was wearing a Wildhearts t-shirt. Ah, those were the days.
In 1994, while recording the band’s second full studio album, P.H.U.Q., the Wildhearts’ leader and chief songwriter Ginger fired guitarist C.J. due to personal differences. C.J. responded by forming Honeycrack with guitarist Willie Dowling who had contributed piano and keyboards to the Wildheart’s debut record, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts, and its follow-up, the fan-club only mini-album Fishing For Luckies.
Honeycrack didn’t fit the usual mould of a rock band. Willie Dowling had an androgynous look, to the extent that he looked like a girl I went to school with, and C.J.’s Guyanese and Seychellois descent stood him apart from the – usual – white twenty-somethings ranking among most rock bands. Two other band members were black – third guitarist Mark McCrae, formerly a member of Rub Ultra – a band I saw support Headswim in the same venue I would later see Honeycrack, and a band that would lend its name to a party game among my circle of friends – and bass player Pete Clarke. The only member of the band who looked like a normal white guy was drummer Hugo Degenhardt.
The band’s record company, Epic, tested the waters with a pre-album single, Sitting At Home, in late 1995. I bought this on the strength of C.J. and Dowling’s history in the Wildhearts, and I wasn’t disappointed. Essentially a re-tread of the Wildhearts’ T.V. Tan, the song is similarly written around an upper-register earworm guitar riff, with lyrics evoking the guilty pleasures of staying in.
But it was the b-sides to Sitting At Home that got my attention – If I Had A Life, which would be re-used on the album, the awesome 5 Minutes, which sadly wasn’t, and a bouncy cover of the Beatles’ Hey Bulldog. These were the days when I used to listen to a band’s b-sides as much as I would their album tracks. I was happy to see that right from their very first release, Honeycrack seemed to be as proficient at releasing decent b-sides as the Wildhearts were.
[I often regret the fact that I more or less stopped buying records in the mid-‘90s. I did buy the odd thing on vinyl, but in general like most music buyers I mainly bought CDs (until I switched back to records around 1998). However, if I had restricted myself to only buying records, I would have missed out on a heap of CD-only material – particularly b-sides, and let’s not forget that a lot of contemporary albums were only released on CD. Case in point: in 1994, I was quick enough to order the Wildhearts’ Fishing For Luckies mini-album. Rejected by their record company, it was offered to fan-club members only as a throwaway release in limited quantities. Pre-internet, I wrote a cheque and posted it away, hoping that I had acted quickly enough. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later – probably ’28 days or more’, as everything seemed to take by mail order in those days – a jiffy-bag turned up on the doorstep with the 6-track CD inside. If I had purchased only vinyl back then, I would have missed out on this – such a milestone album during my teens.]
I played Honeycrack’s Sitting At Home single repeatedly until I heard that the band were to play at the Hop & Grape in Manchester (now the Academy 3) in February 1996. I bought tickets and went along with friends. One of the best things about the Hop & Grape is that the room is so small, the band usually enters the venue through the same door as the audience. Arriving early to check out the support band and drink beer, I was sat against the windows on the stage-left side of the room when Honeycrack walked in, making a bee-line for the green room. Seeing no other way around, C.J. stepped over my stretched out legs, to get past me. This blew my mind as a 15-year old – I had just come into close contact with a Wildheart!
I remember the gig well – they played all four songs from the Sitting At Home single, and the rest of their set was filled with songs from the as-yet unreleased album. Prozaic eventually saw the light of day in May 1996 and, as was customary back then, I purchased it on release day.
The album is a much poppier affair than I was expecting. Where the Wildhearts always straddled the line between metal, rock and pop, Honeycrack were a bit easier on the eardrums. It’s still a rock album, but not quite as heavy as the Wildhearts’ output. The imprint of C.J. and Dowling’s former band is easy to hear though – lot’s of stream of consciousness vocals, à la Caffeine Bomb, multiple sections to each song (it’s as much prog-pop as it is rock-pop), and harmonies galore (each of the five members contributed vocals).
The band seemed to have a bit of a push behind them. Epic got them spots on Top Of The Pops and TFI Friday, but the album didn’t go anywhere, peaking at an unremarkable #34 in the UK charts. I went off to University and sort of forgot about them, given the amount of new bands I was exposed to there. After they parted with Epic, they released a single, Anyway on EG Records – the last thing I bought of theirs – before disbanding. In 1997, Anyway would be re-recorded by Dowling and used as the theme tune to the Channel 4 show Armstrong & Miller – the last piece of Honeycrack genius I remember before I closed that chapter of my life.
Dowling and C.J. continued to form several other bands following the demise of Honeycrack. C.J. eventually re-joined the Wildhearts in 2001, and it was great to see that classic Earth Vs. line-up play in the Manchester University Debating Hall (now the Academy 2) in 2003. Weirdly, Honeycrack drummer Hugo Degenhardt got more exposure anybody elsee from the band, joining the Bootleg Beatles and touring the world as Ringo Starr between 2003 and 2016.
Hit: Sitting At Home
Hidden Gem: Animals