Catherine Wheel was a rock band from the UK. (They have disbanded since this writeup first appeared, and have shown no indication that they will reform, sadly enough.) They produced amazingly complex, straightforward rock and roll, though not without a touch of influence from the British shoegazer/Madchester scene from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The band has a loyal, if not rabid following, and though they've received moderate play on mainstream radio and on music television channels, and have toured Europe and North America extensively throughout the 1990s, they only ever seem to sell about 100,000 copies of each album and then nothing until their next album is released, which does exactly the same thing. This has proved a source of endless frustration for the band, their record label and their fans.
Catherine Wheel started out in the town of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in 1990. The original lineup, which endured for most of the 1990s, consisted of Rob Dickinson¹ (originally the drummer; switched to rhythm guitar and vocals early on), Brian Futter (lead guitar), Dave Hawes (bass guitar) and Neil Simms (drums).
Influenced by the likes of Talk Talk and The House of Love, the four formed a band and entered the recording studio. They recorded the singles "She's My Friend" and "Painful Thing" and found a record label, Norwich's Wilde Club Records, to release them. The small buzz these singles generated drew the attention of world-renouned Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who played them incessantly and brought the band into his studio for a Peel Session broadcast. This, in turn, caught the attention of one Brian Eno, who had just formed Opal Records and had a mind to sign the band. The band refused, however, as Opal, while influential, was too small for the plans they had for themselves, plans which some have said they reached but the band has said they failed to achieve.
Eventually, the band signed to Fontana/Mercury Records and went into the studio once again to record their first album, 1991's Ferment. For the recording of the album, Talk Talk producer Tim Friese-Greene was brought in. Already a fan of the band due to the singles they released, he had a fairly good head about what the band wanted to do and was eager to work with them from the start. (He went on to produce the rest of CW's studio output.) Ferment gave birth to the sonically twisted single "Black Metallic," which was also made into a music video and was put into rotation on MTV's 120 Minutes in 1992, and found a home for the previously released "She's My Friend." The album sold well in the UK and did alright in North America, though it never really produced the sales figures it was expected to, a theme that would continue to haunt the band well into the 2000s.
Chrome followed in 1993, along with its token single "Crank." The album, while it was musically a dazzling, heady masterpiece, performed exactly the same as Ferment had -- it seemed that the band was pandering only to their cult following, despite attempts to become more accessible by writing more infectious songs. The same thing happened with the next album, 1995's Happy Days, which featured Rob singing a duet, "Judy Staring at the Sun," with the beloved American indie rock icon, the former Breeder, former Throwing Muse, and more recently former head of Belly, none other than Tanya Donelly. Happy Days also contained the song "Eat My Dust, You Insensitive Fuck," which was made into a video. It's great song, but of course MTV and MuchMusic wouldn't touch it because of the word "fuck" in the title. A number of larger, prudish music retailers (mostly in the USA) refused to touch it because of this as well.
The band's worst commercial failure was 1996's Like Cats and Dogs, an album-length collection of B-sides and cover songs. It tanked almost immediately after its release and produced no singles. The band followed it up a few months later, in 1997, with the epic Adam & Eve. Upon its release, they embarked on a major tour of Europe and North America. This album also ended up like their previous releases -- adored by fans, ignored by everyone else.
Mystified by the whole thing, the band took a couple of years off after the tour. During this time they fired bassist Dave Hawes, much to the chagrin of their fans, as Dave was the most accessible and most visible member of the band -- he answered the band's fan mail/email (indeed, he replied to an email I sent!), was always the first to greet you if you found yourself backstage at a Catherine Wheel show, and was basically the band member most favoured by the fans. When 2000's Wishville was recorded, Rob, Brian and Tim took over the bass parts in place of the unfortunately sacked Dave. The rest of the band say they have personal reasons for letting Dave go, but won't elaborate. Dave also won't elaborate. He was replaced for the Wishville support tour by Ben Ellis.
Wishville spawned the single "Sparks Are Gonna Fly," which received relatively good promotion on both sides of the pond and went into heavy rotation at a lot of "alternative" radio stations for a few months during the summer of 2000. Predictably, Wishville was also unsuccessful in the long run. After this realization, the band went on hiatus and finally broke up in 2004. I really hope they continue to record; they're one of my favourite bands and despite the fact that they're underappreciated by the mainstream public, I hope they realize that a lot of people really are enjoying their music. Hell, music critics have traditionally adored them, they've got a major-label record deal (they moved to Columbia Records prior to the release of Wishville), and they're one of the most musically interesting rock bands since the shoegazer movement ended around 1993.
Many bands and musicians have been influenced by Catherine Wheel over the past decade, though none, perhaps, so obviously as Chris Martin of Coldplay. Apart from the fact that he and Rob look so alike they could be brothers, their voices are remarkably similar in tone if not inflection.
Rob released his first solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses, in 2005. It features former CW bandmates Brian Futter and Neil Sims on a couple of songs, and on the whole it is much more mellow than most of CW's work.
UPDATE 2020: While a whole host of their contemporaries have reunited, gone on tour and/or released new music, Catherine Wheel has remained gone, twenty years after the release of their last album, Wishville (2000). Here's what I've been able to ascertain about what became of them:
- Rob Dickinson (vocals, guitar): Rob released a solo album in 2005, as mentioned above. In 2009, he founded Singer Vehicle Design in Los Angeles. It is a specialty business that restores Porsche cars for rich people. Rob is reportedly very happy having realized a lifelong dream of operating such a business. He still plays at shows once in a great while but seems to be retired from recording.
- Brian Futter (lead guitar): As mentioned above, Brian appeared with Neil Sims at some of Rob's solo shows to provide instrumentation. Other than that, Brian appeared on 50 ft Monster's 2007 release Life After Debt, and hasn't been credited on anything since. 50 ft Monster is Brian and Neil's on/off side project.
- Neil Sims (drums): Neil's entire recorded output fully encompasses his time in Catherine Wheel and 50 ft Monster's only album. There's nothing else to find, publicly.
- Dave Hawes (bass guitar): Likewise, Dave hasn't appeared on any recordings since the penultimate Catherine Wheel record, 1997's Adam and Eve. He does, however, appear to maintain the band's unofficial Facebook page.
- Ben Ellis (bass guitar): Dave Hawes' replacement played only on Wishville before working with Serafin for one album.
1991 She's My Friend (single, Wilde Club Records)
1991 Painful Thing (single, Wilde Club Records)
1991 Black Metallic (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1992 Ferment (LP, Fontana/Mercury)
- 01. Texture
- 02. I Want to Touch You
- 03. Black Metallic
- 04. Indigo is Blue
- 05. She's My Friend
- 06. Shallow
- 07. Ferment
- 08. Flower to Hide
- 09. Tumbledown
- 10. Bill and Ben
- 11. Salt
- 12. Balloon
1992 Balloon (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1992 I Want to Touch You (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1992 30th Century Man (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1993 Chrome (LP, Fontana/Mercury)
- 01. Kill Rhythm
- 02. I Confess
- 03. Crank
- 04. Broken Head
- 05. Pain
- 06. Strange Fruit
- 07. Chrome
- 08. The Nude
- 09. Ursa Major Space Station
- 10. Fripp
- 11. Half-life
- 12. Show Me Mary
1993 Crank (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1993 Show Me Mary (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1995 Happy Days (LP, Fontana/Mercury)
- 01. God Inside My Head
- 02. Waydown
- 03. Little Muscle
- 04. Heal
- 05. Empty Head
- 06. Receive
- 07. My Exhibition
- 08. Eat My Dust, You Insensitive Fuck
- 09. Shocking
- 10. Love Tips Up
- 11. Judy Staring at the Sun (feat. Tanya Donelly)
- 12. Hole
- 13. Fizzy Love
- 14. Kill My Soul
1995 Waydown (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1995 Judy Staring at the Sun (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1996 Like Cats & Dogs (LP, Fontana/Mercury)
1997 Delicious (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1997 Adam & Eve (LP, Fontana/Mercury)
- 01. ...
- 02. Future Boy
- 03. Delicious
- 04. Broken Nose
- 05. Phantom of the American Mother
- 06. Ma Solituda
- 07. Satellite
- 08. Thunderbird
- 09. Here Comes the Fat Controller
- 10. Goodbye
- 11. For Dreaming
- 12. ...
1998 Ma Solituda (single, Fontana/Mercury)
1998 Broken Nose (single, Fontana/Mercury)
2000 Sparks Are Gonna Fly (EP, Columbia)
2000 Wishville (LP, Columbia)
- 01. Sparks Are Gonna Fly
- 02. Gasoline
- 03. Lifeline
- 04. What We Want to Believe In
- 05. All of That
- 06. Idle Life
- 07. Mad Dog
- 08. Ballad of a Running Man
- 09. Creme Caramel
1: Rob is a cousin of another British musician -- Iron Maiden lead singer and famed fencer Bruce Dickinson.