(1980) ‘Start!’ was the first single I purchased new, as opposed to second-hand, which accounts for me being able to say that both it and ‘Here comes the summer’ by the Undertones were the first singles I ever bought. First records are supposed to be embarrassing, necessarily purchased before taste of any kind has been acquired. But somehow I managed to land on two gems. Perhaps it was that there just wasn’t the money for me to fritter it away on pop or indeed novelty records before I reached the age of 12. The shop was an old-school type in West Byfleet which also sold cameras and sports goods and had its vinyl shelved behind the counter. ‘Start’ had been a number one; I was buying it a while after it had dropped away from that height. Famously it borrows bass and guitar riffs from the Beatles’ ‘Taxman’, though the vocal melodies and ultimately the song are Weller’s own. At this distance, the perfection of the music is slightly undermined in places by the youthful intensity of the lyric. But back then ‘if we communicate for two minutes only / it will be enough’ and ‘knowing that someone in this world / feels as desperate as me’ was exactly what a boy about to become a teenager wanted to hear. SWITCH (1984) The Ipswich Gaumont, for the Our favourite shop tour. The Style Council supported by Billy Bragg and the Questions, with Weller and Mick Talbot playing Funkadelic’s ‘One nation under a groove’ as well as the Impressions’ ‘Meeting over yonder’. He opened up worlds, with those choices, among others. SWITCH (1985) My General Studies AO level required an essay-length review of a cultural artefact. Mine was of The gift LP; it borrowed heavily from review excerpts quoted by Paolo Hewitt in his book about the Jam, A beat concerto – lines I had read with sufficient frequency and obsession to be able to recall verbatim. SWITCH (1987) A sharp-suited and consequently somewhat overdressed Weller and D.C. Lee are at the head of a youth CND march as I come towards it to join it. It ended with a concert in Kennington Park headlined by not the Style Council, but the Mighty Lemon Drops. I remember nothing of that, though, just the sight of those two exotic creatures leading a procession of rather more drably dressed students. SWITCH (1992) What a revelation the first solo Weller LP was. Gone were the conceptual excesses of the Style Council, and in their place, a renewed emphasis on his craft, which made for a crop of songs both as great and as humble as any he has written before or since – ‘Above the clouds’, ‘Amongst butterflies’, ‘Remember how we started’, ‘Clues’, ‘Into tomorrow’. But I must have dreamt that I went to see the comeback Paul Weller Movement gig at Dingwalls in Camden in 1990, as I thought I had; I can’t find any record of it – no notebook entry, no preserved ticket, no sense of the occasion. I guess I very much wanted to be there, but wasn’t. SWITCH (1995) At the Blue Note in Hoxton, when my friend Jack’s band was supporting Ocean Colour Scene, Weller was there, in the upstairs bar. Did he watch Jack in action? I don’t suppose he did, but in a way it was enough that he was simply in the building. SWITCH (2004) On my lunch break, who should I see skipping over a zebra crossing on Marylebone High Street? He is smaller than I remember, elfin almost, but again, immaculately dressed. Possibly he is on his way to visit with his mate Noel G., who lives down the road and round the corner from my office. But my day is made, a sighting of the lesser-spotted Weller being nearly as auspicious as, say, seeing a heron rise into the air from a riverbank. SWITCH (2009) Writing for the first time about Weller since that AO level effort, this time focussing on ‘Tales from the riverbank’ for my B sides blog. As ever when I read a piece back, there are sentences which would be better for being more simply phrased, but in it I think I got at something about the relationship between avid listeners and their musical heroes, and also about the friction between musical realism and escapism: ‘At the time, and throughout the eighties, the decade which saw new heights of political conflict within modern Britain, no fan of the Jam or the Style Council would be likely to admit that Weller’s songs as much as [Duran] Duran’s were an escape from precisely the reality that he often wrote about, or at least the intimation of the reality that was waiting for you upon leaving school. Even as he reeled off his list of doubtful delights in ‘That’s entertainment’ – ‘sticky black tarmac’ and ‘slashed-seat affairs’ – we dwelt not so much on the portrayal of reality as on Weller’s wordplay, his melodic gifts, the liberty espoused by his vocal delivery, the heights that his guitar could reach when set against the solid foundations of Bruce’s bass and Rick’s drums. These were things which on one level had nothing to do with external reality, nothing to with the world. They were cerebral, and of the heart. Consciousness and emotion – the essence of what it means to be alive. They set many of us dreaming of a time when we would have the confidence to express ourselves in the same way; about what, it almost didn’t matter.’ SWITCH (1982) So I’ll finish this journey back through my life at 45 revolutions per minute using the words with which Weller signed off his sleeve notes on the back of the cover of the live Dig the new breed LP, the one that brought the curtain down on the Jam after his shock announcement that he was disbanding the group. SWITCH What have I learnt? BELIEF IS ALL!
- The Jam – Start! (Polydor, 1980)
2011 was the first year since 1979 in which I did not buy a single piece of seven inch vinyl. Subsequently I’ve made a point of putting that right, but it’s indicative of how the format has inevitably been marginalised by mp3s, and also of how my shopping habits have changed; until 2009, I had ready access to stores selling seven inch vinyl, whereas since then, I have not. Just as when I started buying records on independent labels in the mid-eighties, seven inch singles are once again arriving via mail order, only now with download codes included.
‘Moon’ is one such example, pressed on lunar white vinyl. And the most recent single in this selection of 45s also happens to be one of my favourite songs from recent times. It’s flawless, as perfect a miniature as you’d find in a glass-case collection of netsuke. The songs of Kate Stables are that exquisitely crafted, and she sings wonderfully windblown, ululating melodies in as fine and unblemished a voice as you’ll find this side of Sandy Denny. The words are haiku-like in their capturing of an essence: ‘We had the moon, we had the moon, me and you.’ The album from which ‘Moon’ comes, Wriggle out the restless, is similarly fluid and beautiful; each of its songs has either a lilt and a calming air, or a swell and a rush of wind about it.
As magical as the satellite itself, refusing to outstay its welcome, ‘Moon’ has demanded endless repeat plays of me, and I imagine it will carry on doing so for a good long while yet.
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.
Where once I might have chosen Paul Handyside’s ‘Hip hip’ as my favourite Hurrah! 45, now it’s his ‘Gloria’ which has greater emotional sway. ‘Hip hip’ is necessarily celebratory, excitable and exciting, the adrenaline rush of poetic youth, but it’s also tinged with nostalgia and melancholy, for the many memories it conjures, for the distance which has opened up within me between the man I am now and the boy I was then. Perhaps inevitably at this distance, the lyrics read as and sound somewhat adolescent. And that’s fine, because if ever songs caught the rush of feeling that being young involves, the confusion and exaltation and cloud nine highs and dismal pressure drop lows, the happiness shot through with sadness and the sadness shot through with a refusal to be beaten, then it was the early songs of Handyside and Taffy Hughes, the Geordie Lennon and McCartney.
‘Gloria’, with its Cyrano de Bergerac gallantry and transposition of a serenading or star-crossed lovers balcony scene to twentieth century Newcastle, is perhaps no exception, but it seems tempered by both a feeling of duende and a dreamlike quality; the dream that starts when you want it to. While the yearning edge of Handyside’s voice filled so many of his songs with a sense of melancholy and things not quite working out as he might have hoped and planned, here he manages to convey a sense of certainty and destiny that pervades waking and sleeping, night and day.
It doesn’t hurt that musically, it’s a classic-sounding song which in my mind twines about Procol Harum’s ‘A whiter shade of pale’ like ivy or wisteria, the Hammond organ line of which was itself famously lifted from Bach. ‘A whiter shade of pale’ in turn makes me think of the Clientele’s ‘Isn’t life strange?’, and how’s that for a trio of timeless songs?
‘Trust in me, things I tell you…’ Hurrah! were a group of infinite importance to a small, select number of people; folk took the trouble to testify to this when I wrote about the group over at Backed with. Implored to do so by the collective persuasion of both Hungry beat and Are you scared to get happy? fanzines (the latter named after the rousing challenge in the chorus of ‘Hip hip’), I bought a copy of Boxed: long-shot pomes from broke players, which collected together Hurrah!’s early singles for Kitchenware, including ‘Gloria’. The title was borrowed from Charles Bukowski, whose novel Factotum I would have read around the same time, following up every suggested lead. Back then I never saw the delightfully silly and presumably somewhat satirical video for ‘Gloria’ featuring a dippy New Romantic-looking girl dancing (surely not the Gloria in question?) and bass player David Porthouse cross-dressing (now, if he were the Gloria in question, that would certainly give the lyrics some swing); all of which doesn’t quite undermine Handyside’s earnestness nor the enduringly affecting nature of the song.
Image of Longshot pomes for broke players via bukowski.net.
‘These small black discs are the first things that are truly mine; my choice, paid for with my own scraps of cash, reflecting my own stubbornness. In a dream, I watch them spin and spin, calling out, pointing the way. These are the days when very few people collect records, so therefore whatever they might buy defines their secret heart.’ – Morrissey, Autobiography
I blame Morrissey.
An ordinary school morning on a Friday in the year before I took my A levels. I am confronted on the turn of the stairwell by the deputy headmaster. Lately my hairstyle has become increasingly extravagant and upright, held aloft by blue Naturelle gel, chemically incendiary hairspray, and sometimes even soap; it seems this morning we have reached the tipping point. The deputy head, whose face, grey curls, glasses, suit and tie I remember, but whose name I now forget, says, ‘Comb it down, or I’ll have to suspend you.’ Emboldened as I had been by the effects of styling my hair in a way that in those days and in that part of the world was taken as a challenge and an affront to authority – girls had for the first time taken notice of me – I refused, and so was stood down from active schooling, if only for the day. (Rather more meekly I returned the following week with a less gravity-defying hairstyle, and so authoritarian wrath was assuaged.)
Although it might have been over the most superficial thing, I had learnt how to say no, and though there were many contributing factors influencing that act of defiance, Morrissey was certainly among them.
More than once in the early pages of Autobiography, Morrissey puts forward the proposition that a collection of seven inch singles is essentially a psychological (or perhaps even a psychiatric) profile. Of course he’s not wrong, but the singles he mentions in the telling of his upbringing, and the ones he chooses not to, will inevitably have been as selective as my choice of 45 45s has been here. I’ve weighed a number of old favourites and found them wanting, both in terms of doing less for me now than they did when I bought them, and in that some have not allowed me to present the self I want to present, or tell the stories I want to tell. Indeed, some just don’t seem to have a story associated with them at all, are just songs that I love, or like, or liked.
And then there’s ‘This charming man’, and its immediate effects on both my exterior and my interior. I was fifteen years old when it was released, when I saw Morrissey flailing around the Top Of The Pops stage for the first time. It was for me and many others a defining moment in British pop music, just as T. Rex and David Bowie’s first appearances on TOTP had been for Morrissey and his contemporaries. Paul Morley talked about ‘This charming man’ as one of half a dozen key songs illustrating the greatness and (im)perfection of pop in his 2008 TV programme, Pop! What is it good for? That vision of a gladioli-wielding handsome devil fronting a band playing perfectly melodic pop was instantly transformative. In just under three minutes, I became a Smiths fan, simple as that. As an admirer of the Jam and the Style Council, I had, I think, already chosen sides, but Morrissey’s appearance – call it an intervention if you like – seemed to make the battle lines harder, and faster. He polarised. (That at least he had in common with one of our mortal enemies, Margaret Thatcher.) And Johnny Marr’s guitar playing was as dazzling as Morrissey’s persona and wordplay. In Autobiography, Morrissey writes of his excitement and sense of destiny once his and Marr’s paths have crossed – ‘It is a matter of finding yourself in possession of the one vital facet that the other lacks, but needs.’ While that sounds like an arranged marriage, in Morrissey’s hands their relationship subsequently reads much more as an undying friendship than the (severed) alliance Johnny Rogan suggested it was in his, the first book about the Smiths.
I may have come to be dazzled by Morrissey’s wordplay, but of course, when I first heard ‘This charming man’, I don’t think I had much if any immediate sense of what he was on about – the sly, faux-innocent homoeroticism – but I definitely responded instinctively to him on both conscious and subconscious levels. I became a follower in a way I have otherwise rarely allowed myself to be, assiduously exploring the literary, political and pop cultural leads that his lyrics and interviews suggested.
Growing up in rural Suffolk, it was Morrissey’s difference that was key more than his sexuality. He egged on me and my best friend on to dare to be different too – to wear more flamboyant clothes, to gel and spike up our hair, and so on. In a small town whose only notable and noticeable outsiders were a handful of punks and skinheads gathering outside Woolworths on market days, it really did feel like it was us (weirdo freaks who liked the Smiths and/or goth music) and them (everyone else). The differences may or may not have been superficial; we were young, and our sensibilities (not to mention our grasp of sexual politics) were decidedly at the formative stage. Morrissey led me by the nose, but at least he lead me somewhere, allowing me in time to swim clear of the prevailing currents.
Coming on top of all Morrissey’s yearning for a significant other (whether male or female), the celibacy and asexuality angles confused and counteracted whatever remained of the sexual revolution in the early eighties (with the equally asexual Thatcher in power), leaving me and no doubt others in an ambiguous sexual middle ground; desperate for sex and love but cripplingly introverted, our oddity and shyness validated by the powerfully charismatic and necessarily extrovert presence of Morrissey. These are issues brilliantly covered, contrasted, and indeed contested from a female Mancunian perspective in a piece on the Mancky website called ‘The Smiths in 1983’.
A quiet, petite girl in the year above me at school taped me the Smiths’ first LP, and it was only later – too late – that I realised I might have made something more of that, had I been less secretly obsessed with girls blatantly out of my league. As soon as Hatful of hollow it was released, I bought it from a record shop in Newmarket (after an afternoon playing snooker with a friend, uncharacteristically enough for a Smiths fan, showing that I was still in the process of changing from being a boy whose main preoccupation was sport into a youth who lived for and through music). Today, listening to Hatful in particular, I feel the same adolescent ache for the life yet to come as of old. It’s somewhat unnerving to find myself back there, to feel that Morrissey’s words and Marr’s music still have the power to return me to that state. I spent my twenties shrugging off the last vestiges of the Morrissey worldview – which at decade’s end I believed to be nostalgic to the point of backwardness, extremely introverted, randomly intolerant, and a mental straitjacket not only for his fans but the man himself. In as much as it has softened that critique, a reading of Autobiography has also confirmed my opinion of the Morrissey worldview. But for all his negative impact on my attitudes as a young man, and despite the fact that he is now as much laughing stock as icon, I continue to admire his wit, wordplay and all-round oddity, and remain thankful for the whirlpool of excitement and possibility which he and Marr generated, which is of course the reason why I ended up calling this web-based resurrection of my hard-copy fanzines A jumped-up pantry boy.
- The Smiths – This charming man
- Paul Morley and Simon Armitage dissect ‘This Charming Man’ on Pop! What is it good for?
When the Oldsmobile has got the top down on it /
When the catamaran has got the drop down on it /
When the flat of the land has got the crop down on it /
What I now proclaim is sorta hard to name /
But that summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life
For a time Jonathan Richman was the musical laureate of childhood and lost youth. He strove so hard to celebrate it that often he seemed a Peter Pan figure, perpetually young and refusing to grow up. But if you listened closely as he went along, you began to hear a world of melancholy behind all the goofing, japery, and naivety. ‘That summer feeling’ is perhaps the moment when Jonathan’s bittersweet side rose to prominence, the song being (I think I’m right in saying) the first on which he voiced that decidedly adult ache for the lost child or teenager within, not to mention the cast of spirits peopling the hot, shimmering summers of the past; how it can both cut and raise a smile to remember those virgin experiences in fledgling lives – first kisses, first cars, perhaps even the dawning realisation that the land at your feet, the seas you look out over, the air that you breathe, all are yours, if only you determine to reach out and take them. (And now look where you are.) It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen let alone driven an Oldsmobile, or sailed a catamaran off the coast of Maine, that instead your summers featured battered old Citroëns and (once) a yacht race around the Isle of Wight, that the details are different – you know the feeling Jonathan’s talking about, that summer feeling, and you know he’s nailed it when he sings that it’s going to haunt you the rest of your life.
Originally released on Jonathan sings! in 1983, Richman chose to re-record ‘That summer feeling’ for 1992’s I, Jonathan. The later acoustic version adds an additional verse, stretching out the song across six minutes rather than the original four. It’s a wiser, somewhat wearier Jonathan who sings this version; the passing years have only made him mourn the loss of those endless summers of youth all the more. Both takes have that mysterious essence which leaves you in no doubt that you’re in the presence of a great song – one imbued with a bottled and stoppered magic that you are happy to sniff and let pervade the air of your own life on a regular basis – but for me the earlier version still has it by a head. Somehow it feels more summery, less affected by the wintriness of Jonathan’s later outlook. Mimicking that haunted feeling seems to work better than observing it from two seasons distant.
It’s tempting to follow up this 45 45s entry with the Rockingbirds’ breezy 1992 tribute to Richman, ‘Jonathan Jonathan’, and I would do so, were it not for the fact that I have it on 12 inch and therefore it’s disqualified according to my rules of engagement (I will also think the Rockingbirds’ ‘Gradually learning’ unlucky if it similarly fails to make the cut). Coincidentally or otherwise, ‘Jonathan Jonathan’ appeared in the very same year as Richman’s affectionate tribute to his own chief inspiration, the ‘Velvet Underground’. The great thing about pop is that you can choose your lineage (though perhaps it chooses you), and as long as you are not a slave to it – as neither Jonathan nor the Rockingbirds were – in time you can be seen to merit your place in such an esteemed musical family tree.
45 45s #38 Orange Juice – L.O.V.E… love (Polydor, 1981) / Al Green – L-O-V-E (Love) (Hi / London, 1975)
Sadly I don’t have any of the legendary Postcard singles; they came out before my record buying habit properly took root, before in fact I was aware of their existence, and so sought after were they subsequently, and pricey when you did come across them, that I never felt able to go back for them. So in a way Orange Juice’s more readily salvageable first single for Polydor is standing in for their own ‘Falling and laughing’, Josef K’s ‘Chance meeting’, the Go-Betweens’ ‘I need two heads’, and Aztec Camera’s ‘Mattress of wire’, but as the closing tune on side one of OJ’s debut LP You can’t hide your love forever, ‘L.O.V.E… love’ has long been a favourite in its own right.
It’s a choice which puts me in mind of Edwyn Collins teaming up with Paul Quinn for their take on the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale blue eyes’. It shoots into the future to Edwyn’s later triumphs, ‘A girl like you’ and ‘Make me feel again’, and to his work with Vic Godard on his The end of the Surrey people LP, released on the reactivated Postcard. Vic, whose wonderful ‘Holiday hymn’ Orange Juice had spiritedly covered, and who made so many great singles himself that there really ought to be one of his in my selection of 45s. When I saw him play at the Town and Country Club in London in 1992, his band included Edwyn on guitar, Martin Duffy from Felt on keyboards and former Sex Pistol Paul Cook on drums. I saw Edwyn perform in his own right with just an acoustic guitar for company to a select gathering on a boat in Bristol in 1993 (it was the following year that ‘A girl like you’ became a surprise hit). He was as charming that night as you would hope, and both shows remain treasured memories.
The most direct connection is of course to Al Green’s original, which I also have in my box of seven inches, though I came to it via a rather more circuitous route. Released just six years before Orange Juice’s version, it has everything you want from Al Green at his best – that ability to modulate his voice from the softest whisper to the fieriest passion, the ease of the Hi rhythm section, the bass bubbling and popping with melody, as well as sweetening strings and judiciously deployed horns. Vocally Edwyn gives Al’s song his own twist, although it’s striking that the (subtly altered) lines have that same conversational quality as his Orange Juice lyrics. While the gospel backing vocals are intact from Al’s version, the horns have it over the strings in Orange Juice’s, and in James Kirk’s hands, inevitably the guitar only twangs all the more.
Pop music can be seen as a concatenation of connections, of influence and inspiration and kindred spirits and career resurrections, and for me ‘L.O.V.E…’ embodies a few of those links in the chain. As the title of a new film about Edwyn has it – drawing on one of the few phrases he was able to say after suffering major cerebral haemorrhages back in 2005 – the possibilities are endless.
The trick that Tim Gane first practiced alongside Malcolm Eden in McCarthy (whose ‘Red sleeping beauty’ was number 17 in this series of 45 45s) is here brought to its culmination – for surely there could be no finer mix of melody and anti-capitalist economic analysis than that contained in the grooves of ‘Ping pong’.
Having briefly been a member of McCarthy herself, in Stereolab Lætitia Sadier took on and refined Malcolm’s role. It helped that she has a voice which is dark continental chocolat, an intriguing mix of guile and guilelessness. On ‘Ping pong’ she offers lyrics such as ‘There’s only millions that lose their jobs and homes and sometimes accents / There’s only millions that die in their bloody wars, it’s alright’ dressed in such a sugary, summery melody that the average listener might not so much miss the message, as overlook or believe they misheard it. Undoubtedly that’s what Stereolab hoped would happen – that the song would be played on daytime radio because of its deceptively sweet melody, and by stealth the political insinuations would be smuggled into the ears of millions of listeners, more or less subliminally, like blipverted words imprinted on a table tennis ball being spun and smashed back and forth between two evenly matched players from opposing parts of the ideological globe, as we the spectators of the spectacle swing our heads from side to side, unable to break free of the hypnotic spell of the rallying. ‘Don’t worry, be happy, things will get better naturally’.
Twenty years on, it remains an infectious and atypical Molotov cocktail chucked at the mainstream from behind the barricades of independent pop.
It’s not something which really merits a declaration of interest, since this selection of 45s is in no way objective – but I should probably explain that Another Sunny Day was Harvey Williams, who is an old mate of mine, so I listen to his music with the ears of a friend rather more than those of a music critic, though I like to think that I’d have chosen one of his records even if I didn’t know him at all.
Listening to London weekend, which gathers together Harvey’s singles for Sarah, the energy of ‘What’s happened?’ really stands out for me, along with the characteristically lovelorn yearning (both lyrical and melodic) of the later ‘Rio’. ‘What’s happened to you, my dearest friend?’ (to give it its full title) brashly tells the tale of two friends grown apart. Charmingly, given this was more than twenty-five years ago, the first line is ‘We were both young once…’ It’s the somewhat black and white worldview of a young man looking back on boyhood, and in that regard it typifies the kind of cultural ‘which side are you on?’ that I and many of my other friends also espoused at that age. Things were black and white in both our eyes and Harvey’s early lyrics, as they were in the emotional landscapes of so many young men of independent (and often introverted) leanings. Though I’ve always suspected that Harvey might to some small extent have had his tongue ever so slightly in his cheek when penning his subsequent single, ‘You should all be murdered’.
I distinctly remember seeing Harvey for the first time, talking to Bob Stanley at a Hurrah! and Jasmine Minks show at Bay 63 in west London in November 1986; he stood out rather, with his as-if-bleached blonde hair. Given that we thereafter kept turning up to the same gigs, we were bound to get to know each other, but I first met him the following year in his native Newlyn in Cornwall, in the company of my Devonian friends Tim and Christian. Inevitably now when I hear Another Sunny Day, I think of four lads running an indie kind of amok in Penzance and St. Ives, revved up on Newquay steam beer and a diet of listening which included Harvey’s own demos, the Stockholm Monsters and Pet sounds.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Harvey had a flat overlooking Ravenscourt Park in west London, where I and a couple of other friends stopped one night after watching him play as part of the Hit Parade in tubeless Harlesden. The following day turned out to be the first properly warm one of 1990, and Harvey decided to lead us out onto his (in theory inaccessible) flat roof, so that with the park below us, he and Michael could play guitar, and we could all drink wine and listen to music over the odd game of Scrabble. Looking at the photos, I suspect we’re lucky we lived to tell the tale, but it remains a golden day in my memory, a ‘one day like this a year would see me right’ kind of day. Despite everyone else’s intention to make a second night of it, I left in the early evening, feeling obliged to show my face at a local protest against the poll tax in north London, and so soon found myself in among a starling-like flock of rioting anarchists running away from hawkish shield and baton-wielding cops. I recall I frequently paused to reflect that I might have been having a far pleasanter evening back in Ravenscourt Park, but nevertheless, you can understand why the notion of some of the music to which I listened being cited as ‘twee’ by the music press used to get under my skin a little.
Sometime after his run of Sarah singles, I remember Harvey suggesting that I try writing some words for him. Music he could conjure, no problem, but although he wrote some good ’uns, lyrics by his own admission came less easily. Having then tried half-heartedly to write some myself, I could understand that better. It seemed not to be a form I was suited to, despite all my many thousands of hours of listening and singing along to pop songs. Or perhaps at that time I didn’t have very much to say; or rather, that I wanted sung. I wish I’d tried harder now, because a Williams/Williams credit would have looked great on the label of a seven inch or an LP. As it turned out, later it was my other half’s name which graced the sleeve of Harvey’s California LP, she having played clarinet on a couple of songs.
So there are lots of memories tied up in Harvey’s records, perhaps more than in any other music I listen to. Harvey trying to teach me guitar, while we were stranded broken down by the side of a French motorway, and wondering, as I always did when I listened to it, which of his friends his song ‘Green’ was about (he would never let on). My childhood home and another game of Scrabble feature in the sleeve notes for London weekend, written by our mutual friend Alistair, the pair of them having visited for a weekend once; not entirely coincidentally the weekend that I had what was by far the worst hangover of my life. And when I hear Harvey’s cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘Kilburn towers’, I think of that perfect day on what the Scrabble board spells out as being ‘THE ROOF OF LOVE’, looking out across Ravenscourt Park and the high-rises of west London. And although of course it’s not about us, ‘What’s happened?’ makes me think of the young men we were, and what a long time ago it all seems now.
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.