It could be any old unknown dude on the cover, bearded and with his twelve string acoustic guitar pointing out at you, almost accusatorially.
But it’s not. It’s Oliver Jackson of Emily, once part of the roster on not one but two of the most fiercely independent record labels of the 1980s, Creation and Esurient. They made a masterpiece of a single, Stumble, for the latter, then a near-masterpiece of an album, Rub Al Khali (for the aptly-named Everlasting label) before fading from view.
South Foreland ranges from the Westway to the white cliffs of Dover, before finally setting its sights on America. It’s impressionistic, elliptical, and not easy to pin down, giving it the feel of a work in progress which necessarily had at some point to be surrendered to fixity. But that also gives the eight songs collected here an air of timelessness. It doesn’t hurt that they are as characteristically melodic and melancholic as Emily’s were, at times hauntingly and sorrowfully so, although I concede I might be getting at least a portion of that feeling from the great many years which have passed since I used to stand two twelve string acoustic guitar-lengths away from Ollie in the audience at Esurient’s special nights of action. There was always a blue and a blues sensibility to Ollie’s baritone, and it seems only to have become more pronounced with the passing years, even as he strains for notes higher up the register and makes you think of Bon Iver (though Justin Vernon may well never have listened to Emily, and likewise Ollie to For Emma, Forever Ago).
Synthetic keyboard washes add to the sound picture, inviting comparison to the feel and tone of Cat Power’s more recent work. There’s also a gently shuffling groove to many of the songs, and you can imagine the Emily of old performing them as they used to, dramatising and improvising away from the core of a song until it was something other than what it began life as. The same restless spirit is evident here.
It’s a welcome return, and I hope it proves not to be a one-off. Who knows, when we have live music back, it might even be possible to stand two twelve string acoustic guitar-lengths away from Ollie once again.
- Ollie Jackson – South Foreland (Bandcamp)
When I read them back, I can’t help but be more than a little embarrassed by the stories and music criticism I wrote twenty odd years ago. I wince at the callowness of the pieces, their fixed view of the world. But there were readers who liked what I did, and I know this, because they occasionally tell me so even now. The people they have become still hold within them that youthful application of affection, and I expect if they were to read back what they liked then, they would be reminded afresh of the characters they were, and accept that though they might now think their tastes then flawed, it was at least taste. It came from somewhere and meant something and stood for something, even though the grounds upon which they read – or listen – have almost certainly long since changed.
This is how I feel when I listen to ‘All fall down’. It’s definitely callow. Certainly it betrays a fixed interpretation of the musical world. Sure, out of context, you could find the feyness of Bobby Gillespie’s voice just as irritating as his later mid-Atlanticisms. But on the other hand, it remains a great tune, a perfect aesthetic statement delivered in a little over two minutes, and both my mind and my heart still warm to those not inconsiderable achievements for a debut single. Perhaps Bobby and his co-writer Jim Beattie look upon it now with a greater degree of fondness than they would publicly admit.
There were four pillars which supported the somewhat shaky edifice of 1980s indie-pop – not that we called it that then, being resistant to any label and preferring to spell out that the groups we liked were ‘punk rock’; independent rather than indie. And ‘pillars’ is probably too grandiose a term for what was held up by these four aspects. Regardless, they were:
- Sixties pop
- Seventies punk
- Animosity towards the prevailing culture and standard fare of the eighties
- An adolescent take on love
The best groups of time transcended these pillars, and built structures and a musical world of their own (thinking of say the Go-Betweens, McCarthy, Felt) but as ‘All fall down’ shows, it was still possible to make a great record using the above model, which after all, was newly minted at the time, despite some of the retrospective tendencies it espoused. Simon Reynolds to mention just one critic has lambasted the genre and the period for its slavish devotion to the past, but I think this is a problem of degree. No music is created in a vacuum; there are always nods to what has come before. Certainly indie had strong fixations, but there were plenty of groups whose vitality lifted them clear of the worst excesses of imitation (Biff Bang Pow!, Big Flame, the Wolfhounds).
The adolescent take on love is hardly surprising, given that the music was being made largely by people fresh from or still in the midst of adolescence, and likely as not more obsessed by pop music than pursuing relationships. The animosity towards the prevailing culture ranged from groups turning their backs on the times to others fronting up against what was going on politically in the eighties. There are arguments for trying to put yourself outside of the times, just as there are for engaging with them. In 1985 Bobby wanted out, in the same way the Byrds did in 1965. By the time I saw Primal Scream play in 1987, the Byrds influence was fading and that of the Stones was gathering, and I suspect as much to Bobby’s frustration as ours, they had somehow managed to misplace or lose what was magical about those early recordings.
After that, for me they faded in and out of view, peaking with Screamadelica (simultaneously managing to transcend and pinpoint the times) and grounding themselves at the bottom of the Atlantic with Give out but don’t give up. Their subsequent more politically motivated stuff has always seemed simplistic to me, holed below the waterline by being the lyrical equivalent of the Stooges’ noise, and far worthier of ridicule than that everlasting trio of perfect miniatures, ‘Velocity girl’, ‘It happens’ and ‘All fall down’.
Because it’s everything a 45 should be, from the tinted Xerox art-pop cover to the run-out groove (which reads ‘PUNK ROCK’ – scratch that into your mp3). Because it clocks in at under two minutes. Because it burst forth from Peelie’s show one night and left me breathless. Because I bought it via mail order from Small Wonder of Sudbury. Because it’s on the Creation label, and back then Alan McGee understood how seven inch singles had retained their the potency from the days of punk. Because the label which adorned the centre of every Creation label 45 was a ball bouncing into and knocking down a pile of bricks. Because I took it to the one club in town when I was seventeen and the DJ played it in among the standard fare and I and four or five of my friends danced wildly to it among the coloured flashes of light and glitterball silver. Because whenever I hear it, I am seventeen again and in love with two of those friends. Because the song itself is about being young and in love (though not necessarily with two people at once). And because it reminds me that however old we get, we carry our youth inside us.
At the foot of Pantry For The World’s editorial page, I wrote ‘Some days I listen to but one song, once. That song is “Stumble”…’ That song, as regular readers of Backed with will know, is by Emily, and is available for download here. The words led into the next page, which reported on ‘Doing it for the Kids’, the Creation all dayer at the Town and Country Club (as the Forum in Kentish Town was then known).
‘That day, six minutes stood apart from the other six hours…’ This hyperbole is a bit harsh on Felt and the Jasmine Minks, who also played that day, and on Momus, whose thing was in no way comparable with anyone else’s. But I was right about Emily, and I’m glad I captured my excitement in print around the time they were taking off.
I was heading for a fall, pooh-poohing high pitch bleat-squealing sax. It wasn’t long before I was listening to Coltrane, Coleman and, in Archie Shepp, the high priest of high pitch bleat-squealing sax.
With surprisingly neat sequencing, the ‘Doing it for the kids’ piece was followed by one called ‘Doing it for God’, which compared and contrasted Momus and McCarthy, about whose second album, The enraged will inherit the earth, I was incorrigibly harsh. There’s just no pleasing some people.
My innovative design feature for Pantry For The World was to insert a portrait A5 page between the A4-sized pages 2 and 3, with the same layout at the other end of the magazine. The two photos of Emily were positioned one above the other so as to create a flick-book effect if you quickly raised and lowered the A5 page: see Emily play!
Has Alan McGee ever given us his considered thoughts about his group Biff Bang Pow! from the vantage point of the 21st century? Some essential and usually hidden core of modesty has probably prevented him from ever mentioning them in his Guardian dispatches. My suspicion is that he reckons his own records aren’t up to much when set alongside those multi-million selling Oasis albums, but I still beg to differ. His voice may have lacked the kind of rock’n’roll character he heard in Liam Gallagher’s, but Alan, Dick Green and the group’s rhythm section made up for this by juxtaposing fragility and attack, and by recording some memorably desperate songs. The fierceness of the feeling comes from the commitment to the attitudes of love and hate, a punk rock credo developed out of pulpit sermons from the Clash and the Jam but significantly strengthened by the antagonisms of the Thatcher years. In Alan McGee’s case it gave rise in to a perverse puritanism, or a puritan perversity. He had both the youthful, arrogant chutzpah to declaim ‘there’s no love in this town except for me’ and the self-loathing to sing ‘I don’t matter I don’t matter I don’t matter much’.
Alan was good enough to write me an encouraging note after I sent him a copy of Pot Plant Pantry, nobly overlooking my carping in favour of the positive noises I was making, and signing off ‘Keep the faith’. It got tested a few times over the years, but I like to think that I did.
So here are the opening and closing songs from Oblivion, whose green marble cover remains a favourite; the sweet – ‘In a mourning town’ and the sour – ‘I’m still waiting for my time’. Though I warm to it much more than I used to, the psychedelic – ‘I see the sun’ – will have to wait for another occasion.
An inside page from Lemon Meringue Pantry.
500 print run, paid for out of my student grant, and sold at a loss on every copy – very Tony Wilson. And yet, at gigs, in record shops and through the post – people bought the thing. As my writing and layout improved with each subsequent fanzine, so sales decreased. Had I carried on past four issues, I would have created the perfect, readerless fanzine.
Not sure why I had it in for Pete Astor, pasting him up as a crotchety old character from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. I loved the Loft, particularly the songs on the Creation compilations Alive in the Living Room and Wow! Wild summer; ‘Why does the rain’ and ‘Your door shines like gold’ being more mysterious beasts than the bull in a china shop charge of ‘Up the hill and down the slope’. Perhaps it was the transition from the elemental but intimate punk rock of the Loft to mature artiste and Weather Prophet that got my goat. Anyway, a few years later I spent a very pleasant evening with Pete, drinking Leffe at a bar on Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris till the early hours. He set me to reading The sportswriter by Richard Ford, which was no bad recommendation for an aspiring writer.
Following the tone set by the bright yellow cover, the inside pages of Lemon Meringue were alternately salmon and light green. What was I thinking?
The latest Shivers Inside takes as its cue the Jasmine Minks 1985 single, ‘What’s happening’, one of the most attacking, celebratory, anxious slices of vinyl released by Alan McGee. A perfect gem of sixties garage pop meeting punk rock at the grass roots of Creation, I took this record as a seventeen year old to my home town’s one ghastly niteclub on a night when for some forgotten and improbable reason they were letting in the likes of me, and twisted the DJ’s arm. None of my friends had heard the record before, but they all followed me on to the dance floor and orbited the glitter ball like exultant, fiery comets. Suffolk then was a little further away from the centre of things, and I never saw the Jasmines play while Adam Sanderson was in the group, but this remains for me a rarely matched moment of dance floor joy.
John Carney’s tale recreates those very moments of Creation, giving a unique perspective on the ‘riot’ during the Jesus & Mary Chain performance at North London Poly and the recording of what became the Minks’ ‘Cold heart’ twelve inch.
From Alphabet Soup to E-Z Rollers, the sheer range of the Shivers Inside series (and Fifty Thousand Reasons before it) is dazzling. One a week without fail or columnist’s holiday, it’s like it used to be listening to John Peel: you never know what’s coming next. The narrative tone varies from characters who are clearly inhabited to crafted memoir conflated with the vox pop oral history of youth first proposed in the original Generation X. I’d love to see both series in book form, with two front covers, readable both ways – that would be a double A side to match Shena MacKay’s debut Dust falls on Eugene Schlumberger / Toddler on the run. What chance of that, John?
As ever with Momus, the plot is a woman, but you also get his take on Tony Wilson:
‘It infuriates me when people say (as some have, even on the day he died) that Tony was a bad businessman. He was an amazing – and influential – businessman. Or should we say “anti-businessman”? His contract was a verbal one based on trust. He split profits with the band 50/50. I didn’t sign to Factory in 1982, but in 1986 I signed to Creation and Alan McGee was operating the same deal with his artists, directly inspired by Tony Wilson. No paper contract, a handshake deal, 50/50 profit split. I recorded cheaply, and made profits almost immediately. True to our deal, Creation split them. All my Creation releases made profits. It was enough for me to live on. I signed off the dole in 1989. Thanks, Tony!’