Christmas 1979, or very shortly after; my memory’s not clear on that point. Nor on exactly how we come to be staying with the housekeeper for a Tory MP at a time when thick drifts of snow are making the country roads all but impassable. And where are my brother and sister in this picture? I’m not entirely sure about that, either. What I do remember is the long linoleum corridor that led from the kitchen to the warmth of the living room, and there playing Operation by candle and firelight with the housekeeper’s daughter, a girl a couple of years’ older than me. In memory I see her still softly adumbrated by the flickering flames behind her; of course I fell straightaway a little bit in love with her. It didn’t hurt that she liked music too, and so we sat in front of the fire and listened to the cassette I had received as a present from my mother that Christmas: Ronco’s Rock’n roller disco, a pre-Now that’s what I call music compilation of hits. Just look at the track listing:
A1 – The Gibson Brothers – Ooh what a life
A2 – Kandidate – Girls, girls, girls
A3 – Dollar – Love’s gotta hold on me
A4 – Bill Lovelady – Reggae for it now
A5 – Flying Lizards – Money
A6 – The Jags – Back of my hand
A7 – Voyager – Halfway Hotel
A8 – The Real Thing – Boogie down
A9 – Jimmy Lindsay – Ain’t no sunshine
A10 – Jasmin – Amadeus theme
B1 – The Buggles – Video killed the radio star
B2 – B.A. Robertson – Bang bang
B3 – The Boomtown Rats – I don’t like Mondays
B4 – Sparks – Beat the clock
B5 – The Jolly Brothers – Conscious man
B6 – Heatwave – Always & forever
B7 – Dollar – Who were you with in the moonlight
B8 – The Ruts – Babylon’s burning
B9 – Public Image Ltd – Death disco
B10 – Racey – Lay your love on me
There are some good things on there, for sure – unbeknown to me, my first dose of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in the form of ‘Conscious man’, for example – and others that are maybe not so good, but I think I’d treat them all with affection if I heard them again (the tape is long since lost). What most strikes me about it now – aside from the two portions of Dollar (late seventies pop’s perfect couple) – is the random nature of the sequencing, as random as which hits you would hear alongside each other while listening to the Top 40 countdown early on Sunday evenings. With the last quartet of songs, however, you can’t help surmising that the compiler was having some fun – Dollar into the Ruts, then PiL followed by Showaddywaddy copycats Racey? Maybe the thinking was that ‘Death disco’ was too much of a downer to end on, so why not pep up the boys and girls with a little bit of Racey? The other striking point is the fact that ‘Death disco’ is included at all; it’s hardly music for a roller-disco. Perhaps the compiler felt obliged to acknowledge the existence of punk, or maybe they could get it cheap from Virgin.
Musically I didn’t understand ‘Death disco’, as I understood ‘Bang bang’ or ‘I don’t like Mondays’ (the song that will have encouraged my mother to buy it for me, knowing how enthralled I was by the Boomtown Rats), but I was fascinated in it, drawn in by it. I worked on it like a puzzle as it worked like a puzzle on me; it was the same with ‘Flowers of romance’ two years later, though by the time of ‘This is not a love song’, I had caught up, or perhaps it was that John Lydon had dropped back.
With ‘Death disco’ – a song which I now know came out of watching his mother die of cancer, and her asking him to write a disco song for her funeral – the transformation of Johnny Rotten back into John Lydon was complete, leaving listeners ever since to reflect on just how amazing it is that he should have been the driving force behind not one but two of the most influential groups of his times; two groups whose only commonality was that bug-eyed leer and warbling, sandpaper voice.
And this is the point where memory plays tricks, when it turns and runs away, laughing. Because later on, nostalgic, I tracked down a vinyl copy of ‘Death disco’, and realised that I’d already become reacquainted with the song through the retrospective purchase of PiL’s Metal box a.k.a. Second edition, on which it appears in an alternate version titled ‘Swan lake’, Keith Levene’s guitar hook being an accidentally arrived at, misquoted version of the ballet’s theme. A song I had listened to so much many years before had somehow slipped from my mind to become at best a distant echo or an instance of déjà vu. But now, whenever I listen to either take, I think of playing Operation by firelight and a housekeeper’s daughter.