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.
As we head into the time of year at which the Festive Fifty was unveiled, thoughts turn to our old Uncle John. Actually he’s never far from my thoughts – all sorts of associations trigger his memory. The thread of Peel’s influence is stitched throughout five decades of popular music’s development, after all. In all the emotion surrounding Terry Wogan’s semi-retirement this week – as far as I have heard or seen – no-one has thought to make the connection between two of the Corporation’s greatest broadcasters, especially in terms of the connection with listening publics. I imagine Terry spent a fair portion of time responding off-air to letters from listeners. John certainly did. The letter I received from him in about 1985 is a treasured possession. It’s the one I mention it in this piece, written shortly after his death in 2004.
The two groups whose contact details I was after were Sudden Sway and the Popticians. I was intending to interview them for my first fanzine. It never happened, because – possibly even before I received a reply from John – Creation Records had become the centre of my musical world. Having grown up in NHGs – National Health Glasses – I was a sucker for John Hegley’s poems and songs about spectacles and bullying. He would have been easy to interview. Heaven knows what I would have asked Sudden Sway, whose conceptual approach to music remains unique. I think I understood what they were up to, but I seriously doubt that at the time I could have elucidated it in the form of questions.
I never routinely voted for my three favourite tracks of the year, but here’s one I do remember voting for in 1985, alongside ‘What’s happening’ by the Jasmine Minks and a third now forgotten song. Big Flame’s ‘Debra’ remains a favourite, its conjunction of world and personal politics, wild abandon, tight structure and lo-fi hiss rarely if ever surpassed. Of course as a flipside it failed to make the Festive Fifty, though the lead song from the Rigour EP, ‘Man of few syllables’ was an unbroadcasted number 62 and the group’s subsequent A side ‘All the Irish (must go to heaven)’ pushed to 58. Minority tastes even then.
‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’
I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet. Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account. (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.) Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.
But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet. As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.
Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun. The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together. It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed. It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.
You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed. My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name. And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial? It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.
The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them. Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now? Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project. Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.
What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions. Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?