‘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.
‘He was woken by music. It beckoned him, lilting and insistent; delicate music, played by delicate instruments that he could not identify, with one rippling, bell-like phrase running through it in a golden thread of delight. There was in this music so much of the deepest enchantment of all his dreams and imaginings that he woke smiling in pure happiness at the sound. In the moment of his waking, it began to fade, beckoning as it went, and then as he opened his eyes it was gone.’ – Susan Cooper, The dark is rising
How to pick one Clientele single above all the others? They might have had four or five entries in my chart of 45 45s. Which should I go for, from my shortlist?
‘What goes up’ perhaps, because it was their first, and mine, and could consider itself rather harshly done by in being left off the UK version of the Suburban light compilation?
‘(I want you) More than ever’ for being one of the best of their strand of supremely melodic, yearning pop songs?
‘(I can’t seem to) make you mine’ because a lovely song is made lovelier through the sharing of the vocals with Pam Berry, whose mahogany tones contrast perfectly with the ivy-bedecked oak of Alasdair’s voice?
‘Since K got over me’, being the culmination of Alasdair’s uniquely philosophical song-writing, around about the point at which it matured into a world-view quite apart from any other lyricist? (Not to mention how the group’s music mirrors the lyric’s existential malaise perfectly.)
Or ‘Lacewings’, with its mind-bending slide guitar, iridescence and smoke-hazed lyrical high?
The last of these, I think, because the approach the Clientele took on ‘Lacewings’ underpins why I and many others like them so much – melodic spontaneity coupled with a gift for timeless or transcendent music, set against words which while being kite-high (or in other cases, lead balloon-low) anchor the group in a specific time and place. These have a lacewing tenderness which make them particularly special.
‘Only my words are real tonight
We’ll get high and we’ll go watch the lacewings fly’
Admiration doesn’t lessen to know that Alasdair’s slide guitar part – to my ears taking its cue from the playing on Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ – was improvised at the point of recording the song, and done in one take. It’s quite something to have bottled those moments of translucent invention so immediately, and for all time.
‘Yeah, well, you write these little playlets or something. It’s the same as if you were writing a script or a book. You have to put yourself in the place, and if you can draw on any of your experiences – I mean, I did paint pictures, I did carve wood, and the parents of my girlfriend, who then became my wife, did tell me I was no good. In fact, they used to call me a “jumped-up, tuppenny, ha’penny ticket writer”!’ – Andy Partridge discusses ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ with Todd Bernhardt
Andy Partridge is one of the great storytellers of pop, English or otherwise. As with Ray Davies before him, the narrative technique took a while to appear in his work, but – stung into action as a result of the success of Colin Moulding’s ‘Making plans for Nigel’ – by the time of Black Sea it was beginning to show in earnest in the form of songs like ‘Towers of London’ and ‘Respectable Street’. After that there was no stopping him. Think of the Under Milk Wood-esque ‘The everyday story of Smalltown’, in which Andy plays the roles of both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton, detailing lives in a town not unlike the Swindon in which he still lives.
‘I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more
and I’ve sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
and as payment they make love in me
in squeaky old beds, in bicycle sheds
inside of their heads, as singles and weds
as Tories and Reds, and that’s how I’m fed’
But before that, there was ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’.
The third single from the appropriately named Mummer LP, it remains my favourite of all of Andy Partridge’s many story songs. After the wiriness and experimentalism of earlier records, a new pastoral, lyrical and acoustic side to both Andy’s and Colin’s writing was coming through, exemplified by the latter’s ‘Wonderland’, and by ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’, Andy’s re-imagining of his own financial hardships. Despite being in a group which the year before had had a top ten single, money was not coming their way. No accident then that Andy’s idea for the sleeve was to reproduce his wallet, which he had specially embossed with song title and group name. (Subsequently he was too embarrassed to pull the embossed wallet out of his pocket in the pub, and so retired it from use.)
The song is beguiling in its simplicity, and the instrumentation perfectly chosen to flesh out the pastoral picture. Drawn in by it, the listener empathises with – perhaps would even like to be – the farmboy or his girl, despite their struggle to make ends meet, to earn money enough to marry. The beauty of a story song with a just-so amount of detail is that you can extend outward from it, imagining – for example – the girl sitting on a five bar gate, the kind of five bar gate the tall and muscular boy might easily swing himself over were it not for the fact that she is atop of it. But there she is waiting for him, as he strides home across the fields where he has been wild-oating, or burning the stubble after harvest. He knows how her skin will smell – warm-ripe from the sun, with a damp earth scent at the nape of her neck. Her tongue will be apple-sweet and greedy. All this is in the song, and not in it.
Perhaps the song means as much to me as it does because at the time that ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ was released, and for several summers, winters and springs afterwards, I really was a farmboy, trying to earn enough to pay my way. Also, I had a girl who waited for me atop a five bar gate, though we did not go on to marry. But that is not to diminish the inventive songwriting craft which make this one of my very favourite 45s.
Let’s just pause right there, and linger over that word – esurient, meaning greedy or voracious. 17th century in origin, derived from the Latin esurire, and meaning to be hungry. What a beautiful word, and what a great name for a record label.
Esurient was run by Kevin Pearce, whose previous activities included the sharp, exceedingly literate fanzines Hungrybeat and The same sky. His view of pop music and any particular artist’s position in or outside its pantheon was, it is fair to say, uncompromising. To quote his own slogan, Kevin was ‘Esurient for change’. In my own fanzine of the time, writing about ‘Stumble’, I was unable to stop myself employing the phrase ‘the parturient Esurient’. Yes, for better or worse, we had both swallowed dictionaries in our youth.
I played this single so much – Oliver Jackson’s baritone booming out at all hours – that the Jamaican guy in the bedsit next door asked me if I was into opera.
Nearly every time Emily or label mates the Claim and the Hellfire Sermons played, I went along to see them. For the last Esurient event that I attended before leaving for a long sojourn in France, Kevin had managed to track down a copy of ‘Au revoir Daniel’ by Mireille Mathieu, and played it between the acts that night. It was that kind of gesture, that attention to detail which made Esurient special (and in those days to source a song wasn’t anything like as easy as typing in ‘Au revoir Daniel’ into YouTube either).
In 2008 I wrote in rather long-winded fashion about ‘Stumble’ and its B sides, ‘Boxing Day blues’ and ‘Rachel’. I quoted myself there from a 1998 piece on the Hellfire Sermons for Tangents: ‘‘Stumble’ is one of the best singles ever, and ‘Merry-go-round’, the greatest single never released.’ In 2003, 14 years after its release, Leonard Roberge of the Washington City Paper said that ‘Stumble’ was ‘Astral weeks in four minutes instead of 47’. The song has travelled and stayed with me and a few others through time. I have imagined putting together a compilation consisting of different takes of ‘Stumble’ – from the initial demo to the innumerable versions captured and recorded live, which ranged from acoustic with congas to ferocious four piece savagings. I’ve heard the song in my dreams. Dammit, I’ve even played it in my dreams; and in waking hours, I don’t play the guitar.
At this distance I can hear the odd flaw – occasionally straining for effect, Ollie shows himself to be the young, relatively inexperienced singer that he was, while the emotional psychodrama of the lyric leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to who is doing and who is being done to (is the wail of ‘Let me see you’ the plaint of the spurning or the spurned lover – a surprise ending or effectively reported speech?) but nevertheless, were I to be foolish enough to make such a shortlist, ‘Stumble’ would be right up there in the top five of this selection of 45 45s, and I still believe it deserves to be far better known than it is.
A totally sentimental and possibly even a soppy choice, this one – a song from my childhood which I rediscovered when I found it in a charity shop in the form of a 1990 reissue. The UK theme tune to Slovenian and German TV co-production The white horses, it brings back my earliest televisual memories, although I can’t honestly say I remember all that much about the series. Written by Michael Carr and Ben Nisbet, it was performed by Irish singer Jackie Lee, who among other things was a member of sixties vocal quartet the Raindrops, had a song of hers covered by the Beatles circa 1962, and (credited as Emma Rede) sang ‘I Gotta Be With You’, beloved of Northern Soul aficionados. Not only that, but as a session singer she provided backing vocals for both Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’.
‘White horses’ has a lovely, cantering melody, sung breathily and with beautiful restraint by Jackie, who double-tracked her voice and added some gorgeously perfect harmonies. I’m not the only one who’s sentimental and soppy about it, for among those who have covered the song are Cerys Matthews, Kitchens Of Distinction, the Trashcan Sinatras, Dean & Britta, Sophisticated Boom Boom, and Trixie’s Big Red Motorbike, the latter two both for Peel sessions. Which makes the choice seem less soppy, or microcosmically characteristic at least of a certain generation of indie-pop. I guess they all grew up with it too.
Ah, the problem of still being kids when you call your band what you call your band. And then growing up and being saddled with it. Gorky’s were still at school when they released their first record, and only in their mid-twenties when they split up eight or nine albums later. ‘Gewn ni gorffen?’ – which translates as ‘Let’s finish’, or ‘Shall we give up?’ – is the work of old heads attached to young bodies. Euros Childs turned twenty the year it was released.
It’s something I rarely allow to be visible, but I often feel like giving up. Not just on this series of 45s, or that series of lipogrammatic stories, but all my writing endeavours. I ask myself what’s the point; surely I’d be happier if I let it all drop away, and lived, rather than fell into the trap of alternating between a half-life of living and a half-life of writing. Sometimes, temporarily, I do give up, especially when I’m between ideas. More frequently than anyone who knows me might imagine, and for a variety of reasons, I find myself thinking – despite the careful reading and kind words of a handful of folk – why do I fucking bother. It would be so easy to slip under the waves; it seems so seductive that I might just let myself. Or at least, lie on the beach a good long while.
But no sooner do I think that, no sooner have I turned my back on words, than the initial relief of letting go dissipates, and the urge to express myself again creeps over and scratches away at me, and unless I succumb to it, unless I itch it, I feel irritable and unhappy and not myself. For good or ill, I have habituated myself to living as a writer, just as a musician gets accustomed to the daily need to pick up a guitar or settle their fingers on the keys of a piano, and make or make up music.
Some of this tendency of mine – both tendencies perhaps, the writing and the giving up – may well come from the Welsh part of me, though of course Wales doesn’t have a monopoly either on melancholy or writing. But there are Celtic genes and blood in there, and I like to believe that they govern both my need for song and the need to express myself in words. I don’t speak Welsh, so I can’t be sure exactly what Euros Childs’ lyric means, but I think it’s clear enough from the mood of the music, the tone of his vocal. In and of itself, the Welsh language gives the song an appealing air of acidic-druidic mystery which is also suggested by the group’s cover art, drawn by producer Alan Holmes. It’s as if Gorky’s had tapped into something ancient or even preternatural, a call which preceded (or even prompted) the human need for sorrowful music and for language which attempts to capture the ineffable.
So ‘Gewn ni gorffen’ is a feeling I’ve often felt, but somehow each time I rally, and the way I rally is to write, with music providing support and giving solace. I’d wager that Euros Childs has always played and written his way out of his lows too; certainly he’s been prolific enough as a solo artist to suggest that he just can’t help it, that it’s what he was born to do.
After this song and Bwyd time, the LP on which it appeared, Gorky’s did not in fact give up. Instead and improbably, they signed to a major label, got dropped, signed again, and soldiered on a while, but to my ears could never quite recapture the youthful heights they scaled with the wonderful Llanfwrog EP. As well as self-penned melodies for which others would kill, the EP also contained their cover of Soft Machine’s ‘Why are we sleeping?’ and so served as my introduction to Kevin Ayers – a lead I followed up and have often since felt grateful to Gorky’s for. Now there too was a man who I suspect often asked himself why he bothered, but having given up, couldn’t quite ever stay in that beached state. Once developed, the will to say or sing what’s on your mind is an irresistible one.