I first heard Prefab Sprout on a cassette that a school friend made for me. Tibor put Swoon on one side, and the Pale Fountains’ Pacific Street on the other. Songs Written Out Of Necessity soon became songs listened to out of necessity. I used to sit next to Tibor in maths; he was of Hungarian origin, and his family ran a restaurant in town called the Silken Tassel. I don’t know what became of him after we left school. He could almost be a character with a walk-on, walk-off part in one of the more nostalgic songs on Swoon; ‘I never play basketball now’, say.
Today, I more readily associate the Swoon-era Prefabs with the word-heavy, melodic alternatives provided by early Del Amitri and Microdisney than with the Paleys. Because of the relative maturity of Paddy McAloon’s song craft, you could tell that the Prefabs had greater commercial potential than any of those groups, and eventually – four years down the line – Paddy’s ship did indeed come in, in the form of ‘The king of rock’n’roll’. But there were three long players before that moment, two released and one rejected. After all these years, and prompted by a friend who’s been retrospectively puzzling over Swoon like a dog gnawing away at a bone, I think it’s time for me to square up to each in turn, starting with that first LP.
What I like about Sondheim is that he can put a set of precise emotions into a song lasting a certain number of minutes. If he had an odd shaped sentiment, he would construct an odd shaped melody to accommodate it. There was never any sense of it being a happy accident. – Paddy McAloon, 1983
That absurd, prog-sounding name. It’s like those early automatically generated internet passwords which paired two random words. Yet at the same time, it suits, as does the fact that the group contained a pair of McAloons, brothers who appear to have lived a rather Danny the Champion of the World childhood a little way outside of the cathedral city of Durham.
The album opens with ‘Don’t sing’. Not ‘Sing’, but ‘Don’t sing’. A negative right there at the start (give or take the two preceding singles), a negative immediately disregarded. Some might say that comprehensibility is disregarded too. ‘An outlaw stand in a peasant land / In every face see Judas / The burden of love is so strange.’ Individual lines and couplets make sense, but put it all together and it’s hard to elicit or discern what Paddy’s driving at. We seem to be in the southern states of the US, or possibly Mexico. Too much is being asked of someone, the outlaw, presumably; a guise for Paddy himself? It could almost be a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel, but in fact these are scenes from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose central character is a self-destructive ‘whisky priest’. Paddy had obviously read widely – in early interviews, he mentions Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Nabokov, and Thomas Hardy – and it’s clear that imaginative worlds were informing his songwriting just as much as the real one around him. In 1984, I was immediately captivated by how singularly crafted the whole of Swoon was, in comparison to pretty much everything else around. The lyrics for every song on the album were rich in allusion and poetic intent. I may have been puzzled by the lyrics, but it seemed complete, a perfected work, with nothing out of place, and no redundant embellishments. The imagery, the melody, the odd arrangements and structures, the dulled funk of the subdued but equally melodic bass, the contrast between the amateur sheen of the cheap keyboards sounds and the complex proficiency of temporary member Graham Lant’s drumming; it sounded like nothing else. Despite all the lyrical questing and questioning, the songs and the way they were sung was assured; a benefit I would guess of their long gestation period, but also of Paddy’s seemingly gargantuan self-belief and confidence in his own abilities, as this unguarded quote from an early interview suggests:
It might sound a bit pompous, but I really am ambitious to be acknowledged as the best. It’s not that I think I’m as good as the real greats – people like Steven Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney – but when I look at the competition around at the moment. I don‘t really see anybody to fear. – Paddy McAloon, 1983
It’s no accident that ‘Cue fanfare’, which is gently nostalgic in the verse, tips into a bright and blaring celebratory chorus about chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. When Paddy sings, ‘He’ll take those Russian boys and play them out of town’, he is surely signalling that it is his ambition to be a songwriting grandmaster. And who could deny that he became one?
On ‘Green Isaac’, the singing takes centre-stage, as Paddy’s grown-up choirboy is ably and ethereally echoed by Wendy Smith’s complementary backing vocals. Not just on this album but those to come, Paddy’s vocals would habitually be lain on the soft mattress of Wendy’s, as she double-tracks many of his lines. The song seems to concern the lot of a songwriter naively setting out on his journey ‘to be someone’. Perhaps Paddy is looking back and seeing himself as Green Isaac, ‘still wet behind the ears’.
For ‘Here on the eerie’, presumably Paddy meant to play on the word eyrie; the title works either way. He voices the dilemma faced by any artist – by any person in so many walks of life – between choosing what is safe and comfortable and unthreatening and normal, or deciding to take the first in an ongoing series of risks, and put yourself out there where there is no safety net, no comfort blanket, and always plenty of threat; a place where you decide what is normal for you. ‘A universal prescription continues to elude… Face yourself or give it away.’ The complexity of the dilemma is underscored by the choppy challenge of the music, and the plangent, questioning critique posed by Paddy’s lead guitar late on.
‘Cruel’ somehow manages to walk the line between archness and sweetness, iced as it is with Paddy and Wendy’s sugar-coated sixties ‘ba ba ba’s. It also manages to address the confusion of a desirous male feminist and the seeds of what came to be called political correctness with the lines ‘But I don’t know how to describe the Modern Rose / When I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes / With the fever of purple prose.’ Made politically aware by punk and all that followed in its wake, this was a bind that many of Paddy’s listeners might also have felt themselves trapped within, over-sensitive and straight-jacketed by a reaction against the blithe and casual sexism of the age, and left unsure as to how to voice their yearning. The song’s archness undoes Paddy’s assertion that ‘There is no Chicago urban blues / More heartfelt than my lament for you’; he seems rather more concerned about the theory and niceties of love than the love itself. This is how he attempted to explain it back in 1984:
It expresses a very down to earth sociologists’ approach to rock, expressing a very basic human feeling. Music can do little more than tell narrative tales about things that are happening. I think you can go beyond that — the difficulty is when it starts to become too vague. You can describe things in another way from that journalistic/sociologist approach. I like to score between the two — I like things that leave you with a strong emotional sense. The correspondence between the words and the real world. Our songs don’t have a definite message — you have to look much deeper.
Just how odd is the intro to ‘Couldn’t bear to be special’, with its choral ‘bo bee’s? Again, it’s like nothing else before or since. Paddy’s vocal goes on to be gently argumentative, until suddenly he unleashes a whole load of pent-up angst that on top of ‘Cruel’ gives you to think that, at the time he wrote these songs, to love or be loved did not come easy for the songwriter. The song also features the line ‘Words are trains for moving past what really has no name’ which only adds to the feeling that despite all of his undoubtedly erudite efforts, what Paddy is reaching for is frustratingly out of his grasp, as by definition the ineffable must always be.
‘I never play basketball now’ starts in a deliberately humdrum fashion before bursting to life with inspired chord progressions and changes of pace. Lyrically, it’s a slam dunk elegy for lost youth, and an evocation of what we all lose as we move from childhood into adult life. Basketball ‘joins the list of things I’ll miss like fencing foils, and lovely girls I’ll never kiss,’ sings Paddy, and we may never have fenced, Paddy himself may never have fenced, but we instinctively know what he means, and I certainly knew and felt it then, in 1984, a time when I was starting to make my own transition from childhood to adult life.
A cheery, whirling Wurlitzer keyboard line meets a bubbling, burbling bass in the uptempo of ‘Ghost town blues’, where listlessness meets meaninglessness and death, and ‘we’re all caught in history’s web’. The prolific songwriter concludes, ‘Perhaps I should learn to shut my mouth.’ No chance of that.
‘Elegance’ is the very definition of its title, with its piano (rather than the cheaper keyboard sounds elsewhere) and its clipped, killing couplets; elegance here is aligned with ownership of the world, while, in contrast, kid, you own nothing – but don’t be seduced by silver service or salvers, because real life and real loving happens out of the purview of those with money and property.
Meanwhile, the narrator of ‘Technique’ appears to have lost out on a woman’s love to the astronomer she has married, and he’s upset because scientists’ eyes ‘don’t fill with wonder when you speak’, and yet at the same time, he’s all too consciously aware of his own intellectual limitations when in her presence. The scientist is unmoved by beauty, and the artist, too moved to make sense. Despite this dim view of scientists, I think we can infer both from this narrator and subsequent star-referencing releases that if he was not intent on being a songwriter and perhaps a pop star, Paddy would have liked to be an astronomer. If we add that his schooling was within the cloisters of a Catholic seminary, then we could say that he chose art over both science and religion. Art which he saw as a craft; a technique, indeed. With the choice resulting in songs as beautifully realised as this – propelled particularly by Graham Lant’s brilliant drumming – music’s gain is God’s and science’s loss.
Proceedings conclude with the second part of ‘Green Isaac’ and in this coda, there is a warning: only fools reach for the moon or the stars. But our sense is that the singer is bound to shoot for the satellite anyway, in what appears to him to be that necessary attempt still ‘to be someone’.
Thirty-odd years after its release, the album leaves me with two abiding (and not unconnected) impressions. One is of a character who has already discovered that love is rarely simple and often imbalanced in some way; the songs feature characters who want to love, but fear failure, and perhaps are struggling to admit anyone to the fortress of the heart, finding fault with an elegant woman for being too elegant, a loving one for loving too much, a beautiful one for being too beautiful, and so on. The second is of a powerful and complex artistic intent. Swoon is definitely a statement, although it voices too many doubts and contradictions to be taken for a manifesto. Someone with that kind of artistic vision is likely to find love difficult, because both are states which attempt to subsume and subdue everything else that might be deemed important. Swoon is the sound of art and love clashing.
On Steve McQueen, a more relaxed songwriter would emerge, one less troubled by the anxieties to be found within Swoon’s grooves. And I would hazard a guess that like many people at a similar age, it was not that Paddy stopped having more questions than answers, but that he began to accept that such answers as he had were good enough to work with, and that perhaps some questions weren’t ever meant to be answered in the first place.
With thanks to Sproutology for its comprehensive archive of interviews.
Ever wondered whether there might be a cache of unreleased Del Amitri songs dating from the seemingly fallow period between the release of their eponymous debut album in 1985 and their reinvention as the rather more adult-oriented proposition which culminated in their second LP, Waking hours, in 1989?
Well, there is. Not so long ago, I came across a reissue of Del Amitri’s first single, ‘Sense sickness’, in my local record shop. The artwork included a set list with titles to a couple of songs I’d not heard before. Online research led not to those songs, but to a blog post from 2010 by my Firestation Records friend Uwe about the Dels’ lost second album, and a link left in the comments to an extremely low-fi download of the songs he mentions, plus one or two more. And then, on a hunch and a quick google to – miracle of miracles – much better quality YouTube uploads of the songs.
Even if the songs don’t quite match up to those on the debut album (which I wrote about here), its admirers will find much to like and perhaps even love in this lost second album. In fact, the more I listen, the more I think these unreleased recordings merit comparison with the (once) lost early demos of Hurrah!, or the shelved post-Steve McQueen Prefab Sprout album which finally saw release as Protest songs, after Paddy and the gang had temporarily become the kings of rock’n’roll.
Save for ‘Nothing goes accordingly to plan’, which crept out at the time on the ‘Abigail’s birthday party’ cassette-only compilation, they’re roughly recorded and nothing like as detailed or filled out as the songs on Del Amitri, but the sparseness serves to differentiate these recordings, and makes you wonder what might have been had they been taken into the studio proper. That they were not quite of the same refined quality, or that they didn’t move the group forwards quite enough might be reasons why that never happened, but this cache still feels like long-lost treasure now found.
The ever-shifting guitar lines and vocal melodies of Del Amitri remain a key ingredient. ‘I am here’ starts messily with a mish-mash of double-time instrumentation before settling into something as plangent as anything on the debut, including ‘I was here’, to which with its present tense title this song is surely a sequel. Featuring a vocal full of yearning and a lyric about standing your ground – ‘I am here, right where I wanted to be’ – it shows that singer and songwriter Justin Currie still had an excess of words and emotion to spill.
On ‘My curious rose’, a quiet groove is established between the weaving lead guitar and sticks tapping out the rhythm on the side of a snare, a groove from which the chorus joyously bursts forth. ‘Tall people’ is slightly odd lyrically (‘Walk into a hospital and give yourself up…’), but is still another wonderful confection of melody and intricately woven guitar. ‘Tears And Trickery’ concerns ‘an impossible girl’ and features fabulous falsetto and guitar lines quite as jaunty as those on the debut’s ‘Hammering heart’.
The set of ten songs ends with ‘The wind in the wheels’, which has the breeziest of choruses and would have made a great double A side with a number apparently not slated for inclusion on the lost album, ‘Out in the wind’. The latter song did in fact see the light of day at the time, though somewhat hidden away on a subscription-only Record Mirror EP. Cleanly recorded, and with initial restraint giving way to a stormy chorus, it offers the best insight into just how good the-album-that-never-was might have turned out to be.
With my taste far broader and more accommodating than it was when I was a ferociously intense and militant teenager, in retrospect I like much of what Del Amitri went on to record in their mature guise, especially the sequence of grown-up love songs that they put out as singles. But if you stipulated that I had to make a cut-and-dried choice between the debut and this lost second album on the one hand, and all of what came after on the other, the teenager in me would still insist on keeping hold of the Dels’ precocious juvenilia every time.
February 5th sees Firestation Records’ release of A retrospective by Emily, on both double CD and vinyl. I was asked to pen the sleeve notes, and happily obliged, what with ‘Stumble’ being among my favourite ever singles, and Rub al Khali one of my favourite ever LPs. It’s the first time on CD for both the single and the album.
Expertly transferred from vinyl (as opposed to inexpertly by me, which had initially threatened to be the case) owing to the master tapes being lost, the three songs from the ‘Stumble’ single sound fantastic, better than I could possibly have hoped. Rub al Khali also benefits from the absence of snap, crackle and pop, and remains a thing of wonder, as timeless and out of time now as it was when it was released 25 years ago.
If that weren’t enough, A retrospective additionally includes a selection of demos of varying sound quality and excellence, ranging from the group’s earliest recordings through to ‘You don’t say you need that’, a song which dates from long after Rub al Khali and gives a sense of what might have been had the album – not to mention singer-songwriter Ollie Jackson’s talent – garnered the attention it deserved. A number of otherwise unrecorded live favourites also grace the compilation, including ‘Merri-go-round’ in both its early and mature forms, the latter version having been scheduled as Esurient’s follow-up to ‘Stumble’. The track which closes the second CD is another highlight – a beautiful acoustic version of ‘Rachel’, one of the ‘Stumble’ B sides.
What the compilation sadly lacks is the Irony EP which Emily recorded for Creation Records in 1988, but ‘Mad dogs’ at the foot of this post stands in part to remedy that absence. To further whet your appetite, you’ll also find an outtake version of ‘Foxy’, the majestic opening song from Rub al Khali.
I’m proud to have been involved with the putting together of this release, but even if I had not been, I would still be wholeheartedly recommending it to you. Every (Pantry-reading) home should have one.
- Foxy (outtake version)
- Mad dogs (from the Irony EP)
- Really mad dogs (dance mix 1) (from the Something Burning in Paradise compilation)
- Pre-order A retrospective by Emily from Firestation Records (NB The Rub al Khali tracks are not included on the vinyl version of the release)
An evening with Robert Forster
Over the three decades preceding this one, I was lucky enough to see the Go-Betweens in a variety of different venues, ranging from a nose-to-fretboard experience in the Rough Trade shop in Ladbroke Grove to a sit-down affair with strings at the Barbican. But this Robert Forster show is a live performance first for me – he’s playing a Quaker meeting room, specifically the one in the centre of Oxford. The plain, wood-panelled hall is lit only by a chandelier which has eight of its twelve bulbs missing, but tonight it’s packed with Friends of a different kind than those to whom it usually bears witness.
Wearing a dark v-neck and a white shirt, Robert Forster enters the room from stage right and studiously addresses the microphone. ‘Tonight I’m going to be speaking about anthropology.’ Then he gathers himself with a deep breath, and proceeds to play ‘Spirit’, the first number in a set of twenty songs which is never less than captivating, and comes absolutely alive as both the audience and perhaps the man himself realise that he’s still got it, sometime between the end of the first song and the start of the second. Though he modestly intimates that the audience should pipe down rather more quickly than they do, Robert nevertheless responds to the effusive warmth shown him, relaxing into a performance marked by its perhaps surprising range and diversity, given that it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. And they are performances of the songs, nuanced and emphasised in the expressive, actorly fashion that we’ve come to know and love, but which is far more apparent in the context of a one man show.
‘Head full of steam’ is the earliest of his songs given an airing, while ‘The house Jack Kerouac built’ is also delivered to great delight during the encore. Naturally a good half of the songs from Songs to play feature, including its lead-off track ‘Learn to burn’, which Robert tells us was the last he wrote for the LP, adding ‘I didn’t know I could still write a song like that’. Then there is my favourite from the album, ‘Let me imagine you’, whose punchline he delivers with immaculate timing:
‘I heard you went shopping and bought such beautiful things
Let me get calculator and add up the cost of all those things
Otherwise the songs are picked largely from the second phase of the Go-Betweens and the first phase of his solo career, with nothing from The evangelist (somewhat surprisingly, given the setting), perhaps because those will have been the songs that Robert has leant on when performing live over the seven years between it and Songs to play.
The penultimate number is the cartoonish but touching nostalgia of ‘Surfing magazines’, and as Robert strives to do the impossible and simultaneously sing both lead vocal and the ‘da-daaa, da-daaa, da-daaa’ chorus, the audience softly, gently comes to the rescue, gaining in confidence when Robert says, ‘You could go a little louder,’ and so we do, and they’re not an untuneful bunch, his fans. In fact it sounds great, even if I do say so myself, an instance of appropriate harmony in this religious meeting room, a sending up of joyful noise to the heavens. The end of the song is greeted by rapturous applause on both sides.
Robert closes with ‘Rock’n’roll friend’, and as he has intimated, subsequently reappears behind the stall selling LPs and CDs, there to greet a long line of admirers who hang around to have Songs to play signed and be snapped with the great man. I am one of these, managing to be more or less coherent when my turn to chat to him comes around. After he has signed a copy of his book, The ten rules of rock’n’roll, with a dedication to my daughter, he sets himself into a comedic pose for our photo, using those pensive eyebrows to great effect, and (seeing them out of the corner of my eye) making me laugh. I’ve met one of my rock’n’roll heroes. Oh my!
Let me imagine you:
Let me imagine you – fragment of solo live performance at the Quaker meeting house:
This blog would probably not exist were it not for the Clientele. Their music has sustained me long past the time when I imagined I might still be writing about music in this broadly review-ish sort of way. And this despite the fact that the group once saddled me with an expensive bill – not that they ever knew they had (until now). Out and about in my car one fine spring day in 2007, with the freshly released God save the Clientele playing rather louder than it ought to have been on the stereo, I backed out of a parking space and didn’t spot an already battered Merc doing the same. An unholy alliance of insurance company and the Arthur Daley driving the Merc subsequently saw me stitched up like the proverbial kipper. Masterpiece though it may be, the album ended up costing me considerably more than the £10 I was comfortable spending on it.
Ever since, I have superstitiously refrained from playing the Clientele’s music in the car. So I’ve been listening to Alone and unreal: the best of the Clientele only while safely sitting at my desk at home, much as I would like to take it with me everywhere I go. When I first saw the track listing, I wondered if the group had been a little parsimonious in selecting only 11 songs – surely it could have been twice as many, and still have given any Clientele admirer acting as compiler headaches as to what to leave off? But upon listening, it becomes clear what has been done, which is effectively to programme a new album out of songs their fans will have played so frequently that they know them inside out. The music from the group’s different phases flows together, individual songs cast light on their neighbours, and the overall effect is to create both a journey through their output and a recognisable narrative. Having realised this, it wouldn’t be fair, would it, to carp on about this track or that being left off. But bloody hell, no ‘Lacewings’? No ‘Porcelain’? No ‘My own face inside the trees’? No ‘I hope I know you’? No… Stop that. Now.
The compilation picks a chronological path, which suits their development from songs recorded in a seriously lo-fi fashion to the aurally perfect productions of more recent times. It begins with ‘Reflections after Jane’, which sees the Clientele at their softest; for me, the song is redolent of London in the late nineties. The mood of minor melancholia, the resignation rather than racking sobs at the loss of Jane make for a beautiful piece of music, particularly when a middle eight of a kind arrives and takes this listener through the permeable glass panels of memory and into the precise mood engendered by a turn around Waterlow Park in Highgate, north London, 1999.
On ‘We could walk together’ we are again in a submerged, aquamarine sonic world of the Clientele’s own devising. This was the period in which Alasdair used to part-sabotage, part-enhance his vocals by putting them through a guitar amp, making it sound like he was ringing them in from a red public call box (put your nose to the air of these early songs, and you catch the faint smell of piss rising from the concrete floor to mingle with cigarette breath on the receiver). The guitar is crystalline, picking up glints of both sunset and moonlight, and then there are those gorgeous words borrowed from French poet Joë Bousquet: ‘like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart’, a line which fits so well with the rest of the song that you wouldn’t know it was an appropriation unless it had been pointed out to you.
The mood again returns to absence, loss, and weirded-out isolation for ‘Missing’, the only choice from the group’s first album proper, The violet hour. The song slowly and subtly unwinds, with accents picked out on an acoustic guitar; what for many groups would be a run-of-the-mill album track is transformed through sheer loveliness into a song which can justifiably feature on a ‘best of’.
Now comes what I think of as Alasdair’s lyrical and the group’s musical tour de force – ‘Since K got over me’. Musically, it’s the closest we get on this collection to the dynamism that they could generate merely out of guitar, bass and drums in a live setting. Alasdair’s guitar clangs and twangs, James ferments another of his ever-melodious bass lines, and Mark’s drums are as bouncy as the trampoline Alasdair refers to in the lyric. Although this is on the surface a song about the aftermath of a relationship, I’ve often wondered whether the initial ‘K’ was deliberately chosen as an allusion to Kafka’s ‘Josef K’, and so to existence as the author of The trial and ‘Metamorphosis’ painted it. ‘I don’t think I’ll be happy anyway / Just scratching out my name’, Alasdair sings, entirely believably. Then ‘There’s a hole inside my skull with warm air blowing in’ gives us a Buñuel-esque vision of a character continuing to sing even though he’s been shot in the head, to the point that you feel he is actually enjoying the curious feel of the air rushing through the hole, past the remaining bone and matter. The end result is both philosophically provocative and an incredible pop song.
‘(I can’t seem) to make you mine’ marks the moment when the group expanded its palette to include strings arranged and conducted by renaissance man Louis Philippe. The result is the Clientele at their most refined, elegant and stately – you could imagine an airing of this song in Bath’s Pump Room not leading to too many tea cups rattled in horror. Once again, the strings evoke the loss, or rather, the never having gained, as well as ‘the ivy coiled around my hands’.
On ‘Losing Haringey’ Alasdair performs a spoken word lyric over more gorgeously melodic music, which somehow enhances the sense of disquiet, lassitude and plain weirdness
of his story. Once again, London is a strongly depicted character, and as I listen, my own feverish wanderings about Haringey and Islington become jumbled up with his character’s: ‘I found myself wandering aimlessly to the west, past the terrace of chip and kebab shops and laundrettes near the tube station. I crossed the street, and headed into virgin territory – I had never been this way before. Gravel-dashed houses alternated with square 60s offices, and the wide pavements undulated with cracks and litter. I walked and walked, because there was nothing else for me to do, and by degrees the light began to fade.’
Lyrically, what is gradually being revealed through this particular choice of songs are the existential battles and romantic adventures of the persona inhabited by the group’s singer. Alasdair has consistently espoused a philosophical as well as literary view of the world via the medium of pop music, and Alone and unreal’s trajectory only serves to hammer that point home, both through the choice of those words for the title of the collection, and through the themes which keep on surfacing from first note to last, themes which have also informed the sequence of Clientele cover art which began with Belgian artist Paul Delvaux’s ‘The viaduct’ for Strange geometry and is maintained with John Whitlock’s faceless, de Chirico-esque collage for Alone and unreal.
Well now, but here’s a change in the mood, a twist in the plot. ‘Bookshop Casanova’ breezes in with a lyric best summed up by the lines ‘ah come on darling / let’s be lovers’. The strings, the strident drums, and a guitar solo half-inched from the Isley Brothers’ ‘Summer breeze’ only go to enhance the fabulous seventies disco mood. In intent and effect, the end result is not dissimilar to Whit Stillman’s literary take on Studio 54 in his film The last days of disco.
By the time ‘The queen of Seville’ comes round, and in spite of its blue lyric, it’s starting to feel like this just might be a tale with a happy ending; the music has a palpable yearning quality to it, and even if ‘it’s gonna be a lonely, lonely day’, at least ‘she sends me roses’. Gentle piano figures and slowly stretched-out limbs of pedal steel underscore the waiting, as do the verses sung under Alasdair’s breath, as if to himself, or his lover, before he lifts his eyes and his voice again to curse his luck.
‘Never anyone but you’ is a thing of perfection, simultaneously sinewy and musically delicate. The character’s mind is still haunted by his surroundings, by phantoms and imaginary choirs – presumably singing these very harmonies, prompting Alasdair to take them down verbatim – but now a chorus line of ‘I can only see you’ continually rings out, giving the song an overriding feeling of almost stalker-like obsession.
‘Harvest time’ manages to be plangent, spooked and spooky – ‘Bats from the eaves go shivering by / Scarecrows watch the verges of light / I hear a choir on the heath at night / But no one’s there’ – and yet somehow also celebratory, in a hallucinogenic, heat-hazed way. An actual choir in the form of backing vocals from Mel and Mark softly and beautifully reinforces this sense of the cyclical nature of life, as well as the philosophical acceptance that ‘Everything here has a place and a time / We’re only passing through’.
The most recently recorded song, ‘On a summer trail’, brings the album to a close. To these ears, it does feel a little like an added extra – while it’s a good Clientele song, it’s perhaps not exceptional, like the rest. That said, it may well grow on me the more I hear it, as so many of their less immediate songs have, and besides, it also fits the narrative, concluding the story on the positive, forward-looking note that ‘Bookshop Casanova’ first heralded.
The CD comes with a free download of The sound of young Basingstoke, formative recordings which date from 1994, although the group were by then sufficiently inspired to have already come up with early favourites like ‘Saturday’ and ‘Rain’. Anyone who already has a copy of It’s art Dad might be a little bit underwhelmed by Basingstoke, as there are a number of tracks in common, and nothing which really bests the early gems captured on Suburban light. That said, songs like ‘The evening in your eyes’, ‘When she’s tired of dancing’, and ‘From a window’ are well worth hearing again.
I can’t help envying the listener who comes to Alone and unreal having heard little or nothing of the Clientele before, because if they like what they hear, then the pleasure of discovering their five albums – so selectively plundered for this compilation – remains open and ahead of them. I’d love to be able to take that journey again, but equally, I’m happy I was along for the ride in the first place.
I don’t really need another copy of my favourite ever LP – The magical world of the Strands – but it seemed only right to purchase the reissue of the Head brothers’ unforced, unrushed masterpiece, recorded between 1993 and 1995, and originally released in 1997. The reward (aside from putting a little well-deserved sterling in the bank account of one Michael Head Esq.) is once again to listen closely to the exquisite detail in the music, to hear Mick’s voice in perhaps the best nick it ever was, and to read the lovely little sleeve note from the man himself, describing the magical nature of the conditions under which the album was made:
‘Like when you were a kid sitting on the kerb, putting your fingers on the tar bubbles. A parked car pulls away and the residue of oil makes little oceans of wonder. And for that moment you don’t have a care in the world.’
If it was magical to make, it has always been magical to listen to. This is what I wrote about the record in 1999:
‘A German label had come to the rescue of Waterpistol; now it was the turn of French label Megaphone… The magical world of the Strands was the result, and it underpins this whole story, making it worth the telling. If Zilch was Mick at his most socially concerned, then The magical world of the Strands sees him in about as other-worldly a state as it’s possible to record. The echoing, raining, hollow sonic quality is matched by songs that come from another age, and tender singing that is without a trace of vanity or self-reverence. That it’s a record apparently made in the sub-aqueous depths of heroin is a fact that you shouldn’t hold too near the front of your mind when you’re listening to it. The magical world is beyond the substances that sustained it. It’s an instrumentally beautiful record, totally idiosyncratic, rightly titled magical – alluding to a fantasy world beyond reality, or of heightened reality. Songs such as ‘Something Like You’ and ‘Fontilan’ are liquid, sleepy, and impressionistic. Others – ‘Queen Matilda’, ‘Hocken’s Hey’ – are folk songs in the truest sense, mythical and timeless; they give you a notion of the Head brothers hanging out with Robin Hood beneath the canopy of Sherwood Forest, or standing with their noses to the breeze off the Mersey long, long before there was a Liverpool to give birth to them.’
Soon to come is The olde world, unreleased songs and outtakes from around the time The magical world was recorded. The uninitiated should buy the latter; the initiated, the former. But I don’t need to tell them that.
Available to listen to now is Michael Head’s most recent solo outing, at the appropriately named Old Church in Stoke Newington. It’s a captivating performance, even for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be there that evening.
Perhaps you won’t actually know his name, but if you’ve any interest in the jazz, soul, pop, folk, blues or Brazilian music of the 1960s and 70s, then you will almost certainly have heard either the songs or the piano playing of Bobby Scott. Take ‘A taste of honey’, recorded by the Beatles for their first LP – that’s one of Bobby’s. ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’, another.
Following on from his previous book, A moment worth waiting for, which focussed on the early 1980s and took the equally adventurous Vic Godard as its touchstone, here Kevin Pearce traces an insightful and alternative path through the music of the two previous decades – alternative in the sense that Bobby Scott and many of the singers and musicians with whom he worked have not been anything like as celebrated as they deserve to be.
Bobby Scott’s approach was genre-blind if not genre-busting, illustrative of the plurality, interconnectedness, and cross-pollinating tendencies of a certain type of musical adventurer. He was, in the best sense of the word, a mastermind, but one who never lost sight of the gifts which individual singers possessed.
This was a man who packed a lot of living into too short a life. From precocious and energetic youth to grey-bearded patrician, Bobby composed, arranged, conducted, produced, sang, and played on countless sets of music, working with an amazing cast of fellow musicians and singers, including Bobby Darin, Jackie Paris, Chet Baker, Roland Kirk, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Timi Yuro, Nana Mouskouri, Esther Ofarim, Catherine Howe, Luiz Bonfá, Eumir Deodato, Marvin Gaye, and Dionne Warwick – and just as many less well-known performers, each treated by the writer on the merits of the work they left behind rather than plaudits gathered along the way.
It’s a journey which You know my name maps in meticulous detail and with great affection, building a portrait of a gifted, fascinating, and generous man, as well as a rich and enlightening history of the music of the times. Among others, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Gary McFarland and Lalo Schifrin all also feature prominently in the story as it diverges from its central character to record the influential effect that Brazilian bossa nova had on music in the United States from the early 1960s onwards.
The book becomes an evocation of the depth, breadth and staying power of the great American and Brazilian songbooks, and in so doing, an extended treatise on the art of singing. Bobby Scott – himself a vocalist of raw emotional power – is rightfully rescued from the cracks in history down which he has fallen, and along with him, dozens of fine singers and musicians worthy of far greater attention than they received at the time.
I may not have been writing here much of late, but while I’ve been away, there’s always been at least or song or two in my heart. Songs I would like to talk and write about, songs I want to share. I think it’s time I started doing so again.
My 45 45s series which ended last year reminded me how much I enjoy focussing in on a particular song, without the need necessarily to tell a fuller story, or set it in the context of the artist in question’s musical progression (or regression). This new (and inevitably irregular) ongoing series will follow the same lines, but instead of limiting myself to the recto surface of 500-odd 45s, I’m going to allow myself to choose discrete songs or pieces of music from any format, genre, and time. Which already feels like blissful freedom in comparison.
Some songs you keep coming back to, wanting aurally and mentally to gnaw at them much as a dog does a bone – because they in turn gnaw at you, get inside your head and your heart, and give you glimpses of life as lived by others, glimpses which may or may not chime with the life you’ve lived yourself. In a way, they are glimpses of perfection – untidy life tidied up into the coherent structures of chords, melody, verse and chorus, the messiness of emotion rendered clear as spring water by thinking, feeling minds – or left deliberately or subconsciously full of that glorious messiness, that disorder or flight of the spirit which reminds us listeners how fully alive it is possible to be.
The Lucksmiths’ ‘Fiction’ is one such song. I remember seeing the group play live a couple of times around the turn of the millennium, and found them engaging and enjoyable because of the sunlit Australian warmth they exuded, together with their perhaps nationally atypical tendency towards being understated. I don’t recall them playing ‘Fiction’ on those occasions; I’m sure I would remember if they had, because it’s the kind of song which sticks in your head after just one listen. Coming across it not so long ago, alongside the equally compelling ‘The chapter in your life entitled San Fransisco’, I was immediately struck by its beguiling mix of clever story-telling and wistful sense of what might have been. The song inhabits its title to such an extent that when you are done listening, you feel like you’ve just read the most perfectly crafted short story, a previously unread gem by your favourite short story writer (William Saroyan, say, or Janice Galloway).
Sung by Tali White, with lyrics written by Marty Donald, and played by a group whose lyrical sensitivity had been fine-tuned over many years, I feel sure the four and a half minutes of ‘Fiction’ will worm its way inside your mind and heart too, if it hasn’t already.
The image at the head of the post is of a Flannery O’Connor quote and was included among ‘25 stunning literary tattoos from books by your favorite female authors’.
Whatever the cause, the tragically early death of Nick Talbot at the age of 37 robs us of a gifted songwriter whose best work could easily have been ahead of him. The unblemished purity of his voice was a perfect foil to the penetrating, sombre intelligence he brought to bear on the songs he recorded as Gravenhurst. Yes, they were dark, but they were also highly melodic, and shot through with deft lyricism. He could both move you, and challenge what you took for granted. He will be missed and I for one will continue to listen to the songs he left behind.
Here are two of his finest. ‘Animals’, from 2005’s Fires in distant buildings, in which Nick imagines being both murdered and murderer, and ‘Bluebeard’, from 2003’s Flashlight seasons, which isn’t much less bleak, but is extremely beautiful.
(The title of this post is part of a quote attributed to the writer and critic Cyril Connolly on the sleeve of Gravenhurst’s 2012 album, The ghost in daylight: ‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West, and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.’)
My friend Kevin Pearce has just published A moment worth waiting for as an e-book. It has no subtitle, very possibly because there is no way you could even begin to sum up the book’s contents in half a dozen or so words. But perhaps if you did try, it might read: a young man’s peregrinations through the music of the early 1980s. Except that the young man in question doesn’t confine himself to the 1980s, instead time-travelling here, there and everywhere as he traces lineages back as far as Music Hall and anticipates futures yet to happen. Beginning with Vic Godard, ending with easy listening pianist Peter Skellern (whom Vic used to put ‘on his battered bone-armed record player’), and taking in along the way the ZE, Postcard, Rough Trade, Y and On-U Sound record labels, as well as any number of characters on, around and beyond those labels, it’s as much the mapping of the fruits of an individual voyage of discovery as a detailed account of how that individual made those discoveries – at times through a process of gradual absorption, more often by instinctively and gleefully seizing upon leads from music journalists, as well as the kind of chance encounters or intuitive leaps of faith which result from having a curious mind and a relentlessly hungry pair of ears. In this respect it reminds me of Rachel Cohen’s wonderful book A chance meeting: intertwined lives of American writers and artists, which espoused a similar interest in unearthing what you might call cultural interconnectedness in the pre-internet age.
It’s also very much the journey and work of a lifetime. The depth of the research – and / or recall – is amazing; key to the book is the contemporary music criticism upon which Kevin draws, so obviously influential in terms of his developing taste. But those well-remembered moments of discovery are merely the beginning, and it’s the lifetime of subsequent listening and exploration which adds lightly disguised layers of retrospective understanding to each instance of musical epiphany.
With a cast of thousands and a no limits approach to the genres of music covered, even knowledgeable readers are likely to feel somewhat bewildered from time to time – perhaps there are too many leads, too many clues for any one reader to follow up on – but the tone of the writing remains engaging, generous and sure-footed. The transitions backwards and forwards in time are likewise handled with ease, and the effect of the whole is to do what any great writing about music should – indeed, what those music journalists of the early 1980s did for Kevin himself – which is to make the reader wish to listen again with freshly syringed ears to the records they know, and make haste to track down those that have so far eluded them. I came away with a long, long list of those.
Anyone with an interest in not just independent music of the 1980s, but the entire history of popular music, will learn something from – and find fascination in – every chapter of Kevin’s book. Moments and words worth waiting for, indeed.
A Man Called Adam – Barefoot in the head
Broadcast – Come on let’s go
The Wolfhounds – The anti-Midas touch
Franz Ferdinand – Take me out
Berntholer – My suitor
Rockingbirds – Gradually learning
Hellfire Sermons – Freak storm
New Order – Temptation
Scars – Adult/ery / Horrorshow
Vic Godard – Stop that girl
Wedding Present – My favourite dress
Ultramarine feat. Robert Wyatt – Kingdom
Dexy’s Midnight Runners – There there my dear
Radiators From Space – Enemies
Felt – Something sends me to sleep
Close Lobsters – Just too bloody stupid
Yeah Yeah Noh – Prick up your ears
That Petrol Emotion – Keen
Pooka – City sick
Robert Forster – Baby stones
Teardrop Explodes – Passionate friend
The Fun Boy Three – Our lips are sealed
Kristin Hersh – Velvet days
Gruff Rhys – Candylion
Stockholm Monsters – Fairy tales
Shop Assistants – All day long
Isley Brothers – That lady
The Style Council – Speak like a child
David Bowie – John, I’m ony dancing
The Adult Net – Incense and peppermints
Shack – Al’s vacation
The White Stripes – Hello operator
Blueboy – Clearer
Nico – My funny Valentine
Fugu – F31
Kraftwerk – The model
Donna Summer – I feel love
Electribe 101 – You’re walking
Prefab Spout – When love breaks down
Movement 98 feat. Carroll Thompson – Sunrise
Scott Walker – Jackie
Farmer’s Boys – Apparently
Aztec Camera – Oblivious
Paul Quinn with Edwyn Collins – Pale blue eyes
A Man Called Adam – Bread, love and dreams
(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.