A piece of vinyl passed down the family line, and – despite it also being something of a piece of kitsch – a song I never tire of hearing. An enduring piece of kitsch, then, at the very least. It brings back memories of my twenties in Bristol, when the two LPs made by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood ( ‘the crooner sporting the finest cookieduster in all of history’, as @craftho put it recently) were never far from a couple of friends’ turntables. Their double act was all born out of this single, with Lee taking on the restoration of Nancy’s flagging career at father Frank’s behest. I doubt either of them mentioned to the old crooner that Lee’s vocal coaching for ‘These boots are made for walkin’’ amounted to instructing Nancy to ‘sing like a 14-year-old girl who fucks truck-drivers.’
Penned and produced by Hazlewood, the song never lets up. Nancy stomps into action with a cowgirl strut, while the bass marches in unrelenting spirals. The brass is understated until the last, when Nancy tells her boots to start walking. Vengeance is Nancy’s. Or Lee’s, possibly. His lyric is a little masterpiece of a short story; but it’s Nancy who gives the song character, who makes it convincing beyond the narrow remit Lee suggested with his vocal coaching. And that’s why the song took off, and became such a huge hit.
A single that to my great and enduring shame cost me nothing. I happened to be round at my friend Robert’s house while he was sorting through his record collection, deciding what he could part with to raise some much needed cash (this being not long after our student days). He’d recently had his head turned by Talk Talk’s Laughing stock and was more quickly making his way into stretched-out avant-garde jazz and electronica than I was. So when I voiced incredulity that he was parting with it, and that I’d have it if he didn’t want it, I guess I gave him no choice. Rob being Rob, he wouldn’t take any money for it – that is, if I offered him any; my memory’s somewhat shaky on that point.
From its intro onwards, the song echoes down the years like the memories remembered within it. ‘And the waste – memory wastes…’ sings Grant McLennan, poetically and clinically crystallising with that play on words what it is about recollecting our pasts – and in particular our childhoods – that is so affecting. There’s a performance of the song on the That striped sunlight sound DVD, and in the context of Grant’s death the following year, it’s heart-breakingly poignant. Grant’s not properly miked, so you have to strain a little to hear his vocal, but to see them playing this truly great song in the living room of one or the other of them, Robert Forster relaxed and urbane, Grant wry and ever so slightly on edge – to see the depth of their understanding and mutual admiration – well, it’s testament to a great friendship and a great band. Faced with the first song of Grant’s to best his own efforts, Robert describes his epiphany: ‘He’d done childhood… why didn’t I think of that?’
Until I read David Nichols’ excellent book about the Go-Betweens, it had always seemed something of a mystery to me as to why Grant would allow Robert lyrical room within one of his most personal, deeply felt and memorable songs. Here’s how Grant, speaking to Virginia Moncrieff in 1983, explains it:
‘I don’t like the word nostalgic, to me it’s a sloppy yearning for the past, and I’m not trying to do that in that song. I’m just trying to put three vignettes of a person, who’s a lot like myself, growing up in Queensland, and just juxtaposing that against how I am now, and that’s the reason why at the end of the song I asked Robert to do four lines, of his impressions, of me and what the song’s about, and that’s why his voice comes in at the end of the song.’
So the singing of the song is not just a telling of the memories of childhood, but a sharing of them, and sharing leads to conversation, and Robert chips in with what he recalls, and it serves to give the song still more emotional weight, and to induce you to remember your own childhood, your relationship with your own father, and to want to share that too.
I recall… the week he came back, the house was filled with unfamiliar smells, it had been so long. In the mornings, aftershave and marmalade on toast. In the evenings, cigarettes extinguished in the toilet and whisky and dry. It seemed a miracle that he was there at all, given all the previous, the fortnightly Saturday afternoon wrangles. It lasted no longer than a week…
In one of the vignettes, Grant famously sings about leaving his father’s watch in the shower. The early death of his father is the unspoken and haunting subtext of the song (and of another song on Before Hollywood, ‘Dusty in here’), and the heft of its sadness has only broadened as a result of Grant’s own early death. But it’s not simply a sorrowful song; there’s warmth in there too, which adds to its unique and enduring appeal. Written in London on Nick Cave’s guitar in 1982, it forcibly brought Australia to mind for its writer. As he says on That striped sunlight sound, ‘it carried sunshine in it’.
PS Rob, if you’d like the record back, it’s yours the next time we meet up. Might be worth a bob or two more now.
This is who I was. This is the boy I was, instinctively, but also under the tutelage of John Peel. Who – listening on headphones in the dark of a small bedroom which used to be a pantry – thrilled to hear Beefheart himself put through a blender, and fiery personal-is-political, political-is-personal words which resisted espousing the tenets of any discernable ideology (though of course they leaned heavily to the left).
The music to which we respond shows us the multiplicities within ourselves. Where once I might have argued (and did, and lost, to someone who understood this at an earlier age than me) that I loved music because it was authentic, and spoke to the authenticity in me, now I would say, I am all the people who listen to the music I do. The apparent authenticity of, for example, Mark Eitzel, connected with the me I was at that point in my life. I’m no longer that person, but I still carry that Mark Eitzelness within me. That desperation, that mix of wry and black humour. Likewise, Big Flame. That anger, that hair-raising excitement and joy. I am multiple, plural, shifting, indefinite, and (unless you map directly on to me) essentially unknowable, as a whole. Even back then, I was becoming multiple. Being single-minded and dead-set on authenticity will get you so far; but being open to the world and all that makes it up will take you a long way further. Just ask Bob Dylan.
So the boy who liked Big Flame is one of my multiplicities. The boy who at the same time swooned to Prefab Sprout and the Pale Fountains, another. And from between those nominal ends of a spectrum came so many other kinds of music, so many other ways of being, all enlarging a boy’s sense of what it meant to be alive (though at times that expansion may have plateaued as I fixated on one thing or another: jangling guitars, or later, drum and bass). But if your ears were open to Big Flame, then they might equally well be open to Archie Shepp or Public Enemy. From the elegant song-craft of Prefab Sprout to the inveterate wordplay of Dylan isn’t such a leap; still less so, from the Paleys to Love and the whole world of psychedelia. But one thing leads to another and before too much water has passed under Waterloo Bridge, you are a long way from home.
I loved the exhilarating rawness and obtuseness of ‘Man of few syllables’, and of ‘Debra’ and ‘Sargasso’ on the flipside. Though I am no longer that boy, I still do. The single-minded vision of a trio who called their EPs Rigour, Tough! and Cubist pop manifesto and were only ever going to do and play things their way, or not at all. If you liked it, so what? If you didn’t, so what?
When I came to London to study, one of the acts put on during freshers’ week at my college was, amazingly, Big Flame. Came to London to study? I came to London to immerse myself in music. Even at my notoriously left-wing institution, students not raised on a Peel-heavy diet must have been bewildered by the raucous attack of Big Flame. My recollection of that night is that I was one of the few to show them appreciation. It’s hardly surprising. Big Flame were explosive. They were never going to last. After five sevens, four Peel sessions, and a ten inch EP – bang! – they were gone.
‘The greatest’ comes from the album of the same name, where it keeps company with several other songs that I number among my favourites of the last ten years – and another handful which aren’t quite so accomplished, despite the alchemical presence on the album of alumni of the Hi Records rhythm section. In effect the LP is an illustration of what the song is about, namely coming to terms with your limitations; with not as it turns out being the greatest, despite having had the surfeit of ambition and chutzpah to suggest that you could be.
Ironically of course, with this song, as well as ‘Living proof’, ‘Lived in bars’, ‘Could we’ and ‘Love and communication’, Chan Marshall proved that undoubtedly she is great, an idiosyncratic and gifted singer mining a seam of soulful blues for the 21st century. These songs should easily stand the test of time, and find themselves played and sung by many others down the coming years, in just the way that earlier songs recorded in Memphis have, and will. Coming for Cat Power after six LPs which didn’t quite manage that achievement signals that there’s hope for erstwhile failures yet.
Unusually, the man who sold me my copy of The greatest wrote a note on the order slip, and it feels right to quote it here verbatim:
‘Like cats in general Chan Marshall may be wilful, unpredictable and – shall we say – of a mind of her own. But irresistibly lithe and charming, almost intoxicatingly so. In her languid Southern way she extracts nuances that are far beyond mere mortals – the Egyptians would have worshipped her…’
I like it when purveyors of second-hand goods go beyond their remit.
A bedsit in Holloway, circa 1991. Dave Arnold, guitarist from Kentish four piece the Claim, has made the journey into London from his village bordering the Thames estuary to talk to me. He wants to ask me about something; I can’t imagine what. Once he has cuppa in hand, he springs it on me. ‘We’d like you to be our manager, Dan.’
‘Blimey,’ I probably said in reply, and then almost certainly began to um and ah. I’m not sure what’s prompted it, other than my loyal support, writing about the group and turning up to most if not all of their London shows; that and the thankless task of representing themselves, perhaps. They could not have asked a less Svengali-like figure. I was unemployed, depressed, prone to tension headaches, and introverted to the point that even making a phone call to a friend held a degree of challenge for me.
So like a eejit, I turned Dave and the group down. With responsibility for their success in my hands, perhaps I would have pushed myself, and more through dedication than guile, managed to forward their cause a little. Grown with the role. But at that stage of my life, I feared it would be too much for me, and that I would have to resign as soon as it got like that, or find myself sacked when they saw I wasn’t coping. And then there was my own dream – of writing, literary greatness even – which I believed at all costs I ought to be pursuing.
But I always felt honoured to have been asked, and if I had my time again, I like to think I would say yes, and worry about the worries and time for writing later. Say yes to everything, kids, that’s my advice. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Don’t be afraid of failure. And if you are thinking of being a writer, live some life before you sit down to write. That’s as important as finding the time to practice the art of it.
I still love the Claim’s music. It’s simple, yet surprisingly sophisticated. It’s heartfelt, yet lyrically speaks so often of doubt. It mixes the bloodlines of the Jam and English folk song long before Paul Weller thought to himself, and much less consciously than that might suggest. You should all buy a copy of the retrospective compilation, Black path. I can say that without declaring an interest, because not having become their manager, I’m not on a cut or anything.
Initially when it came to picking a 45 of theirs, I was going to go with ‘Birth of a teenager’ – which I could with a degree of right claim as my own because scratched between the run-off grooves of its delightfully funny spoken word B side ‘Mike the bike’ (featuring Vic Templar) is ‘FOR DAN PANTRY’ – but to be honest I much prefer this song, a kitchen sink fantasia and homage to the dubious joys of the day of rest. It shares the same bleak Goffin & King vision as the Monkees’ ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, only with an enhanced sense of melancholy which no doubt results from the dismal nature of enduring Sundays in Britain in the 1980s. Lyrically Dave Read ventures beyond the view from the kitchen sink to daydream Walter Mittyishly as to what he’d answer if he were interviewed by the Sunday supplement he is thumbing through, a conceit that’s doubly rich for being handled straight within the context of the song, but also telling in terms of the Claim’s own inability to grow an audience to and beyond the point where he might have expected to be interviewed on a regular basis. Instead, he is the captive big cat featured on Alistair’s cover, caged and prowling, dreaming of the Serengeti.
Melodically it’s perfect, so that if Dave Read had merely hummed his way through the song, you would still experience the same emotion of feeling ensnared within a suburban dream while real life happens elsewhere. It’s also beautifully played by the group, something fans came to expect of the Claim, having seen so often with our own eyes what a high-functioning, single-minded quartet they were.
Having chosen consciously or otherwise to operate somewhat outside of the times, the Claim never did garner the audience they deserved. Perhaps they might have, had they had been as hip to the sounds of now as Damon Albarn’s Blur were, but since the Claim possessed more insouciance than swagger, it wasn’t to be.
‘He was woken by music. It beckoned him, lilting and insistent; delicate music, played by delicate instruments that he could not identify, with one rippling, bell-like phrase running through it in a golden thread of delight. There was in this music so much of the deepest enchantment of all his dreams and imaginings that he woke smiling in pure happiness at the sound. In the moment of his waking, it began to fade, beckoning as it went, and then as he opened his eyes it was gone.’ – Susan Cooper, The dark is rising
How to pick one Clientele single above all the others? They might have had four or five entries in my chart of 45 45s. Which should I go for, from my shortlist?
‘What goes up’ perhaps, because it was their first, and mine, and could consider itself rather harshly done by in being left off the UK version of the Suburban light compilation?
‘(I want you) More than ever’ for being one of the best of their strand of supremely melodic, yearning pop songs?
‘(I can’t seem to) make you mine’ because a lovely song is made lovelier through the sharing of the vocals with Pam Berry, whose mahogany tones contrast perfectly with the ivy-bedecked oak of Alasdair’s voice?
‘Since K got over me’, being the culmination of Alasdair’s uniquely philosophical song-writing, around about the point at which it matured into a world-view quite apart from any other lyricist? (Not to mention how the group’s music mirrors the lyric’s existential malaise perfectly.)
Or ‘Lacewings’, with its mind-bending slide guitar, iridescence and smoke-hazed lyrical high?
The last of these, I think, because the approach the Clientele took on ‘Lacewings’ underpins why I and many others like them so much – melodic spontaneity coupled with a gift for timeless or transcendent music, set against words which while being kite-high (or in other cases, lead balloon-low) anchor the group in a specific time and place. These have a lacewing tenderness which make them particularly special.
‘Only my words are real tonight
We’ll get high and we’ll go watch the lacewings fly’
Admiration doesn’t lessen to know that Alasdair’s slide guitar part – to my ears taking its cue from the playing on Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ – was improvised at the point of recording the song, and done in one take. It’s quite something to have bottled those moments of translucent invention so immediately, and for all time.
‘Yeah, well, you write these little playlets or something. It’s the same as if you were writing a script or a book. You have to put yourself in the place, and if you can draw on any of your experiences – I mean, I did paint pictures, I did carve wood, and the parents of my girlfriend, who then became my wife, did tell me I was no good. In fact, they used to call me a “jumped-up, tuppenny, ha’penny ticket writer”!’ – Andy Partridge discusses ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ with Todd Bernhardt
Andy Partridge is one of the great storytellers of pop, English or otherwise. As with Ray Davies before him, the narrative technique took a while to appear in his work, but – stung into action as a result of the success of Colin Moulding’s ‘Making plans for Nigel’ – by the time of Black Sea it was beginning to show in earnest in the form of songs like ‘Towers of London’ and ‘Respectable Street’. After that there was no stopping him. Think of the Under Milk Wood-esque ‘The everyday story of Smalltown’, in which Andy plays the roles of both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton, detailing lives in a town not unlike the Swindon in which he still lives.
‘I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more
and I’ve sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
and as payment they make love in me
in squeaky old beds, in bicycle sheds
inside of their heads, as singles and weds
as Tories and Reds, and that’s how I’m fed’
But before that, there was ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’.
The third single from the appropriately named Mummer LP, it remains my favourite of all of Andy Partridge’s many story songs. After the wiriness and experimentalism of earlier records, a new pastoral, lyrical and acoustic side to both Andy’s and Colin’s writing was coming through, exemplified by the latter’s ‘Wonderland’, and by ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’, Andy’s re-imagining of his own financial hardships. Despite being in a group which the year before had had a top ten single, money was not coming their way. No accident then that Andy’s idea for the sleeve was to reproduce his wallet, which he had specially embossed with song title and group name. (Subsequently he was too embarrassed to pull the embossed wallet out of his pocket in the pub, and so retired it from use.)
The song is beguiling in its simplicity, and the instrumentation perfectly chosen to flesh out the pastoral picture. Drawn in by it, the listener empathises with – perhaps would even like to be – the farmboy or his girl, despite their struggle to make ends meet, to earn money enough to marry. The beauty of a story song with a just-so amount of detail is that you can extend outward from it, imagining – for example – the girl sitting on a five bar gate, the kind of five bar gate the tall and muscular boy might easily swing himself over were it not for the fact that she is atop of it. But there she is waiting for him, as he strides home across the fields where he has been wild-oating, or burning the stubble after harvest. He knows how her skin will smell – warm-ripe from the sun, with a damp earth scent at the nape of her neck. Her tongue will be apple-sweet and greedy. All this is in the song, and not in it.
Perhaps the song means as much to me as it does because at the time that ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ was released, and for several summers, winters and springs afterwards, I really was a farmboy, trying to earn enough to pay my way. Also, I had a girl who waited for me atop a five bar gate, though we did not go on to marry. But that is not to diminish the inventive songwriting craft which make this one of my very favourite 45s.
Let’s just pause right there, and linger over that word – esurient, meaning greedy or voracious. 17th century in origin, derived from the Latin esurire, and meaning to be hungry. What a beautiful word, and what a great name for a record label.
Esurient was run by Kevin Pearce, whose previous activities included the sharp, exceedingly literate fanzines Hungrybeat and The same sky. His view of pop music and any particular artist’s position in or outside its pantheon was, it is fair to say, uncompromising. To quote his own slogan, Kevin was ‘Esurient for change’. In my own fanzine of the time, writing about ‘Stumble’, I was unable to stop myself employing the phrase ‘the parturient Esurient’. Yes, for better or worse, we had both swallowed dictionaries in our youth.
I played this single so much – Oliver Jackson’s baritone booming out at all hours – that the Jamaican guy in the bedsit next door asked me if I was into opera.
Nearly every time Emily or label mates the Claim and the Hellfire Sermons played, I went along to see them. For the last Esurient event that I attended before leaving for a long sojourn in France, Kevin had managed to track down a copy of ‘Au revoir Daniel’ by Mireille Mathieu, and played it between the acts that night. It was that kind of gesture, that attention to detail which made Esurient special (and in those days to source a song wasn’t anything like as easy as typing in ‘Au revoir Daniel’ into YouTube either).
In 2008 I wrote in rather long-winded fashion about ‘Stumble’ and its B sides, ‘Boxing Day blues’ and ‘Rachel’. I quoted myself there from a 1998 piece on the Hellfire Sermons for Tangents: ‘‘Stumble’ is one of the best singles ever, and ‘Merry-go-round’, the greatest single never released.’ In 2003, 14 years after its release, Leonard Roberge of the Washington City Paper said that ‘Stumble’ was ‘Astral weeks in four minutes instead of 47’. The song has travelled and stayed with me and a few others through time. I have imagined putting together a compilation consisting of different takes of ‘Stumble’ – from the initial demo to the innumerable versions captured and recorded live, which ranged from acoustic with congas to ferocious four piece savagings. I’ve heard the song in my dreams. Dammit, I’ve even played it in my dreams; and in waking hours, I don’t play the guitar.
At this distance I can hear the odd flaw – occasionally straining for effect, Ollie shows himself to be the young, relatively inexperienced singer that he was, while the emotional psychodrama of the lyric leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to who is doing and who is being done to (is the wail of ‘Let me see you’ the plaint of the spurning or the spurned lover – a surprise ending or effectively reported speech?) but nevertheless, were I to be foolish enough to make such a shortlist, ‘Stumble’ would be right up there in the top five of this selection of 45 45s, and I still believe it deserves to be far better known than it is.
A totally sentimental and possibly even a soppy choice, this one – a song from my childhood which I rediscovered when I found it in a charity shop in the form of a 1990 reissue. The UK theme tune to Slovenian and German TV co-production The white horses, it brings back my earliest televisual memories, although I can’t honestly say I remember all that much about the series. Written by Michael Carr and Ben Nisbet, it was performed by Irish singer Jackie Lee, who among other things was a member of sixties vocal quartet the Raindrops, had a song of hers covered by the Beatles circa 1962, and (credited as Emma Rede) sang ‘I Gotta Be With You’, beloved of Northern Soul aficionados. Not only that, but as a session singer she provided backing vocals for both Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’.
‘White horses’ has a lovely, cantering melody, sung breathily and with beautiful restraint by Jackie, who double-tracked her voice and added some gorgeously perfect harmonies. I’m not the only one who’s sentimental and soppy about it, for among those who have covered the song are Cerys Matthews, Kitchens Of Distinction, the Trashcan Sinatras, Dean & Britta, Sophisticated Boom Boom, and Trixie’s Big Red Motorbike, the latter two both for Peel sessions. Which makes the choice seem less soppy, or microcosmically characteristic at least of a certain generation of indie-pop. I guess they all grew up with it too.
Ah, the problem of still being kids when you call your band what you call your band. And then growing up and being saddled with it. Gorky’s were still at school when they released their first record, and only in their mid-twenties when they split up eight or nine albums later. ‘Gewn ni gorffen?’ – which translates as ‘Let’s finish’, or ‘Shall we give up?’ – is the work of old heads attached to young bodies. Euros Childs turned twenty the year it was released.
It’s something I rarely allow to be visible, but I often feel like giving up. Not just on this series of 45s, or that series of lipogrammatic stories, but all my writing endeavours. I ask myself what’s the point; surely I’d be happier if I let it all drop away, and lived, rather than fell into the trap of alternating between a half-life of living and a half-life of writing. Sometimes, temporarily, I do give up, especially when I’m between ideas. More frequently than anyone who knows me might imagine, and for a variety of reasons, I find myself thinking – despite the careful reading and kind words of a handful of folk – why do I fucking bother. It would be so easy to slip under the waves; it seems so seductive that I might just let myself. Or at least, lie on the beach a good long while.
But no sooner do I think that, no sooner have I turned my back on words, than the initial relief of letting go dissipates, and the urge to express myself again creeps over and scratches away at me, and unless I succumb to it, unless I itch it, I feel irritable and unhappy and not myself. For good or ill, I have habituated myself to living as a writer, just as a musician gets accustomed to the daily need to pick up a guitar or settle their fingers on the keys of a piano, and make or make up music.
Some of this tendency of mine – both tendencies perhaps, the writing and the giving up – may well come from the Welsh part of me, though of course Wales doesn’t have a monopoly either on melancholy or writing. But there are Celtic genes and blood in there, and I like to believe that they govern both my need for song and the need to express myself in words. I don’t speak Welsh, so I can’t be sure exactly what Euros Childs’ lyric means, but I think it’s clear enough from the mood of the music, the tone of his vocal. In and of itself, the Welsh language gives the song an appealing air of acidic-druidic mystery which is also suggested by the group’s cover art, drawn by producer Alan Holmes. It’s as if Gorky’s had tapped into something ancient or even preternatural, a call which preceded (or even prompted) the human need for sorrowful music and for language which attempts to capture the ineffable.
So ‘Gewn ni gorffen’ is a feeling I’ve often felt, but somehow each time I rally, and the way I rally is to write, with music providing support and giving solace. I’d wager that Euros Childs has always played and written his way out of his lows too; certainly he’s been prolific enough as a solo artist to suggest that he just can’t help it, that it’s what he was born to do.
After this song and Bwyd time, the LP on which it appeared, Gorky’s did not in fact give up. Instead and improbably, they signed to a major label, got dropped, signed again, and soldiered on a while, but to my ears could never quite recapture the youthful heights they scaled with the wonderful Llanfwrog EP. As well as self-penned melodies for which others would kill, the EP also contained their cover of Soft Machine’s ‘Why are we sleeping?’ and so served as my introduction to Kevin Ayers – a lead I followed up and have often since felt grateful to Gorky’s for. Now there too was a man who I suspect often asked himself why he bothered, but having given up, couldn’t quite ever stay in that beached state. Once developed, the will to say or sing what’s on your mind is an irresistible one.
His albums may be a bit hit and miss, but when he gets it right, Damon Gough is up there with the best in terms of marrying words and music. With this song, he does that to perfection, as musically it mirrors its title, and takes you round and round the block, the cycling harmonies acting as the breeze at your back, and for one stretch of the square, the wind in your face. The lead guitar has a jazz feel, as do the brushes across the drum kit and the vibraphone which enters the song late on, but taken as a whole it’s perfectly confected pop. Perfectly confected pop which just happens to break all the rules, because there is no chorus, no middle eight, just that ever-cycling, minutely varying round and round. It’s like a train of thought you can’t get off, and nor do you want to. ‘Take a left, a sharp left, and another left, meet me on the corner, we’ll start, again.’ A dog-chasing-its-tail of a song, the dog being perhaps something as immortal as your long-dead four-pawed childhood companion, chasing through the blue sky summers of memory.
Without this song, the Pogues would surely not be anything like as celebrated as they are. The first two LPs – Red roses for me and Rum sodomy & the lash – had about them a rich air of mystery as well as an unfettered wildness; while each included a handful of songs that were a match for this, their biggest hit, none of them were of the type to race up the charts. At the time what set ‘Fairytale of New York’ apart was its unexpectedness – a Christmas song by the Pogues! – but also how they managed to blend the qualities of those first two LPs with a kind of populist sentimentality that made it hard to resist the urge to sing along with Shane and Kirsty MacColl.
The song’s got the lot. It manages to be both melancholy and rousing – all the blues but also all the cheer of the season. Hope trades blows with cynicism. MacGowan’s immigrant character has been lured by the mythological bright lights of the city, of Broadway, but then he and the girl whose hand he takes face hard-bitten reality – struggling to make ends meet, money being gambled, drunk or shot up before it could otherwise be spent, and ultimately dreams and happiness dashed. Shane conveys a gruff drunkard’s maudlinism with his vocal, but somehow there is a deeper shade of blue in the scornful sharpness of Kirsty’s, the bite of her ire softened by the beauty of her voice. It’s as if even as she airs her stinging put-downs, really she can’t help still loving him, while despite all evidence to the contrary, he carries on insisting that all his dreams are built around her. Both play their parts to perfection, but perhaps it is Kirsty’s presence which turns a great song into a magical, canonical one.
A friend of mine once told me that as he was growing up, his family developed a tradition of singing the song on Christmas morning as the fire was lit, and that they do so still. Nowadays it serves to clear away the mental cobwebs left over from the previous night’s drinking, gets the airing of any lingering sense of grievance dramatically out of the way, and sets up a celebratory tone for the rest of the day. It’s a tradition to match the best that Christmas has to offer; and when the language is as choice as ‘you scumbag you maggot / you cheap lousy faggot / happy christmas your arse / I pray god it’s our last’, which growing child, which teenager – which adult with even coulda-been-a-contender dreams behind them – wouldn’t want to join in and sing those lines at least once every year?
‘Breakin’ down the walls of heartache, baby / I’m a carpenter of love and affection / Breakin’ down the walls of heartache, baby / Got to tear down all the loneliness and tears and build you up a house of love’
Could there be any more effective tonic than this against heartache, or any other kind of sorrow? My crackly vinyl copy has never failed to put a spring in my step, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in a club, northern soul or otherwise, but if I ever did, I’d head straight for the dancefloor, no question, in just the same way that I used to when I was a boy and Dexys Midnight Runners’ number ones came on at the village disco. Dexys it was who covered the song on their first LP, Searching for the young soul rebels, and while their version is great, the original easily trumps it (predominantly through not suffering from Kevin Rowland’s somewhat histrionic singing). Though it was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell (who together also managed to come up with classics as diverse as ‘A lover’s concerto’, ‘Let’s hang on’, ‘Working my way back to you’ and ‘Native New Yorker’), vocalist Johnny Johnson makes the song his own. An American fated like Geno Washington to be more celebrated in Britain than in his homeland, Johnny’s voice was a perfect blend of rough and smooth, and his vocal on this is matched in its urgency by the driving combination of piano, percussion and brass – a combination which will surely energise both dance floors and mending hearts for decades to come.
You could, you know – see singer and songwriter Bobby Wratten alone forever. I remember him standing apart from everyone at a service station off the motorway coming back from a gig in Stoke, and he looked so thoroughly alone that I wanted to take a photograph of that two in the morning moment. Well, in a way I did capture him in that state, because it’s always stuck in my mind, and I am presenting it to you now. It looked like the sharper, harder, bristling kind of loneliness of someone parted from one they love against their wishes, rather than the make-do, self-sufficient, aloneness of someone habituated to being in their own company, though there may have been something of that in it too. Contrary to the theme of this song, Bobby was already busy detailing the starts and ends (but not so much the middles) of relationships, as he did across all the recordings made by the Field Mice, and beyond them. Self-evidently he was a loner looking – or pining – for love.
The Field Mice grew rapidly from a duo to a quintet. At the time of ‘I can see myself alone forever’, they were still a duo. Michael Hiscock is one of my all-time favourite bass players, habitually adding a layer of bubbling undertow melody to Bobby’s already highly melodic songs. They may have been the crown jewel in Sarah Records’ roster, but using a drum machine helped make it plainer that their lineage was rooted in the sounds of Factory Records as much as Sarah’s antecedents. The pair were south Londoners, though they seem to have grown up in almost the same kind of isolation that Welsh or Scottish groups used to, or that the original Flying Nun groups did in New Zealand. Bobby wrote from the heart, developing a trick of reversing grammatical parts of sentences to great effect, thereby giving his simple, thoughtful lines a complexity suggestive of the tangled knot of feeling.
I’m also picking this for its label, Caff, being Bob Stanley’s first go at the music business proper after co-producing a fanzine of the same name. ‘I can see myself alone forever’ and its B side ‘Everything about you’ were offcuts rightly rescued from the Snowball recording sessions. It may not be quite on a par with ‘Sensitive’, but somehow ‘I can see myself alone forever’ resonated more with me at the time. And Caff went on to release a string of notable limited edition seven inches, one or two more of which are likely to turn up further down the line in this series.
For appearing on a short-lived subsidiary – run by Patrick Moore (a.k.a. writer Philip Hoare) – of Les Disques du Crepuscule.
For the simple fifties-era line drawing of two boys in shorts chosen to decorate the cover of a record released at the height of post-punk.
For the parenthesis in the song’s title. I like parentheses in song titles. See also the Clientele’s ‘(I can’t seem) to make you mine’.
For the angelic voice of the young Michael Head. You should hear his live version of Bacharach and David’s ‘Walk on by’, surreptitiously added as a secret track to the Longshot for your love compilation on which this single also appears.
For the way the song begins at a canter and ends at a gallop.
For Andy Diagram’s wonderful trumpet-playing, and for the fact that he and Mick are still making music together thirty years later.
For the perfection of the sound and the strings – bittersweet rather than syrupy – so confidently included so early in a recording career. First time out, in fact.
For being better than the later version on Pacific Street, which is fine in its own way, but being longer somehow doesn’t have quite the youthful élan of the earlier single version.
For the fact that there’s always something on my mind too. It’s the perfect song for the natural born worrier who loves fluid, graceful, timeless pop music.