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.
This was another tough call – was I to pick one of my favourite ever charity shop finds, the very first self-financed and I suspect quite rare McCarthy single, ‘In purgatory’, or their third, the majestic ‘Frans Hals’, with its brilliant lyrical conflation of the painter exacting artistic revenge on his mean-spirited subjects and life on the dole in eighties Britain? Or indeed one of their excellent later singles, ‘The well of loneliness’ or ‘Should the bible be banned?’ Or should I go for their second, which made everyone in a small circle realise that McCarthy were special?
The latter, I think. ‘Red sleeping beauty’ is a swirl of musical exuberance and lyrical pessimism which the Manic Street Preachers – initially inspired by McCarthy as much as anyone – took on themselves in 2007, not entirely successfully. The original is played quite brilliantly by the group. In Tim Gane they had a melodic genius, and Gary Baker was a drummer so far above run of the mill indie that he was on a different planet. Which brings us to Malcolm Eden. Not naturally blessed as a singer, his weedy, reedy voice is somehow perfect for the songs he chose to write – dry, arch, full of double bluff. Back then, you soon attuned to Malcolm’s voice, and stopped thinking of it as a weak link. Unlike Bob Dylan, with his perfect not-perfect voice, Malcolm never became the voice of a generation, but he was nevertheless hugely important to the people in that small circle whose lives McCarthy touched, including mine.
These two pages from Pantry For The World are the continuation of the piece comparing and contrasting Momus and McCarthy (which began here), with dollops of Billy Childish, Wings of desire, Jeanette Winterson and Malcolm Lowry thrown in for good measure. Laying my text over an interview with Nick Currie from French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, this is just about the best laid-out page I ever pasted together. I love the photo of McCarthy, obviously taken around the time they were releasing ‘Get a knife between your teeth’.
But my verdict on The enraged will inherit the earth was extremely harsh – ‘Sitar-y guitar sounds and meek mediocrity’! It’s a much better album than this suggests, and as one of only three McCarthy made, it has to be cherished, though it’s true it’s not quite at the level of their first and third. But it contains some of Malcolm Eden’s most striking lyrics (‘What our boys are fighting for’ neatly aligns soldiering and football hooliganism) and some of his most devastating, unsettling and arch attacks on the liberal left (‘I’m not a patriot but’ skewering those who lent their support for central American ‘freedom fighters’ while simultaneously withholding it from the ‘terrorists’ ‘not far away’ from Britain). And Tim Gane’s melodies are as lovely in essence as Laetitia Sadier would make them on Banking, violence and the inner life today and later with Stereolab.
To continue the compare and contrast theme here in the 21st century, let’s pair one of those lovely Gane melodies in the form of ‘An address to the better off’ with Momus’ Stock, Aitken & Waterman parody ‘Lifestyles of the rich and famous’ from his Don’t stop the night LP. Plus the video of ‘Keep an open mind or else’ for its rarity value.
The second page has Momus’ explanation of who Momus was. En français.
Though he tried, Wim Wenders could never top Wings of desire. Never mind the wonderful German actors – Nick Cave! And Peter Falk! In the same movie!
- McCarthy – An address to the better off
- Momus – Lifestyles of the rich and famous (via UbuWeb Sound)
- McCarthy – Keep an open mind or else
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!
I’ve been enjoying Littlepixel’s ongoing and eclectic series of album covers turned into Pelican books. They recall Andy Royston’s Faber-esque ‘paper covered edition’ sleeve for McCarthy’s ‘The well of loneliness’. Thanks to Bimble, you can compare and contrast that cover with the Pelicans – and download the still rousing five song 12 inch while you’re there.
The third stage of my journey from fun-loving pop fanatic and tractor boy to misery pop fanatic and psychogeographic depressive, Pot Plant Pantry appeared in late 1987 and saw me retreating from the throwaway stuff. Stung by a rebuke meted out to me in response to Too Much Hanky Pantry that I should ‘fuck off back to [my] brat-pop’, I got serious. As I’ve often said, these were days when arguments with your closest allies were likely to be far more ferocious than those with your most reviled opponents. In this respect it helped that I was embarked on the second year of a degree that paired philosophy and sociology under the laughably erroneous moniker of ‘Modern Studies’; being voluntarily and increasingly under the influence of those now well-known French jokers Debord and Vaneigem hardly held me back in the furrowed brow stakes. I never did develop Raoul Vaneigem’s capacity to consider the revolution of every day life as quite the unbridled joy he would have you believe it to be.
Not that you can work out any of this from the cover, which featured a wonderfully pretty line drawing by my friend Robert Aspland, multiplied Warholistically and ever so slightly wonkily by me. Showing his versatility, Robert (now busy landscape-designing the Olympic park ready for 2012) also produced a caricature of Graeme Souness for the cover of the fourth issue of When Saturday Comes.
On receipt of Pot Plant Pantry, Malcolm Eden of McCarthy sent me a ‘keep your pecker up!’ postcard, saying ‘you seem to have become almost as solemn as I am…’
So that’s something for readers to look forward to as I post pages from Pot Plant over the coming days and weeks.
From the deliberately saccharine sweetness of ‘An MP speaks’ to the Byrdsian jangle and drone of ‘Write to your MP today’, McCarthy held firm conceptually. Across their three LPs and nine singles or EPs, the music jangled and the words jarred. And then that was that, the concept perhaps inevitably exhausted. Malcolm Eden resurfaced briefly as Herzfeld while Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier went on to form Stereolab, staying true to McCarthy’s melodic foundations but introducing Germanic rhythmic influences and a more abstract lyrical palette. Which is not to say that McCarthy did not progress, for they were always trying out new settings and subjects.
For the second issue of my fanzine, before the release of I am a wallet, Malcolm sent me three sides of foolscap in answer to some deliberately vague prompts – you could hardly call them questions. All I gave my readers of this was half an A4 page. Twenty-one years later, it’s time to put this injustice right and, for the benefit of McCarthy fans and anyone who happens to be researching eighties indie-pop and left-wing militancy, reveal more of the contents of that ‘interview’. In contrast to their image, the letter found them in light-hearted mode.
‘Thank you for your note. Tim did buy your fanzine at the Razorcuts gig, so we’d read it before. I’m glad you liked ‘Something wrong somewhere’. Maybe you think, like some people we’ve met, that everything we do afterwards is a falling off. It’s unfortunate that a song we wrote in 1966 in two minutes should be praised so highly.
Here are our loves and hates:-
GARY (he refuses to say which he loves or hates. But he will say that 5 are likes, 5 are dislikes, and 5 depend on his mood. What a difficult boy.): McCarthy, White Rabbit, Dogmatism, 1969, Blood simple, Jane, John, Malcolm, Tim, money, success, peanut butter, adverts, Five Star.
MALCOLM (Loves): Shelley, Bob Dylan, Samuel Beckett, Marx, Lenin, Freud, Joe Orton, Primal Scream, Shakespeare, The importance of being Earnest, the RCP, Cubism, Trotsky, Liz Fraser’s singing, ‘Panic’.
(Hates) Religion, mystification, bad P.A.s, moral panics, pop stars, landlords.
JOHN: (Loves): With the Beatles, The Jam: A beat concerto, William H. Cosby (comedian, dancer, doctor), the United States of America (the country), the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, J.D. Salinger, Colin MacInnes, Harpo Marx, Stephen King.
(Hates): White rock historians (the Presley, Beatles, Velvets, Joy Division theory), Jean-Luc Godard, designer violence (i.e. films Gary likes).
TIM: (Loves): The Byrds, David Lynch films, existentialism, Syd Barrett, Pop Art and art pop, ALF, Richard Dadd, absurdism, illogic and surreality, Dylan’s 3 electric LPs 1965-66, 1960s Rolling Stones and Beatles, green suede jackets, criminal history, Josef K, Felt, Primal Scream, Terry Thomas, Peter Cook, Psychocandy.
(Hates): work, rationality, computers, illness, logic and practicality, justifying your own actions, triviality, predictability, patriotism, insurance, meat, flares, bad haircuts, exercise, (most) comedians, religion, reactionaries, conservatism.
Q. ‘Sometimes bitter words’: [Malcolm] I don’t feel in the least bit bitter as a person, in fact I’m quite optimistic generally. But there are a lot of ideas, viewpoints and arguments around that I object to strenuously, and in many of our lyrics I’m trying to combat them, ridicule them, do them down. The nastiness of the lyrics isn’t I think attributable to me, to my being a horrible person, but to the nastiness of bourgeois, reactionary ideas.
Q. ‘Red sleeping beauty’: [Malcolm] The chords are E and A, and the odd F. It’s a very old song, two or three years old. It’s the only one of our old songs that we are willing to play nowadays, we’re sick to death of the others. I was reasonably happy with the way the song turned out on the record. The only thing is that, being on an independent label, we can’t afford to record in a very good studio. We’re not intending to bung synthesizers and horn sections on our records if we signed to a major, but the overall sound of an expensive studio improves the quality of the record dramatically. I think the songs we recorded in the BBC studios (the John Peel session) came out much better than anything we’ve done before or since, simply because they were better studios. Those songs sound more or less how I imagined our songs should sound, whereas the songs on ‘Red sleeping beauty’ and on the next 12” [‘Frans Hals’], although fab, were not exactly as I’d imagined them.
Q. ‘Gary’s drumming’: [Gary] I have found drumming to be a singularly unrewarding pastime, mainly because songwriters in general think drummer = lobotomy. However I must admit that nature has seen fit to bless most drummers with a below average intelligence just as it blesses guitarists and songwriters with an above average ego, and bassists with a very average style of dressing. Anyhow for influences I cite Cesare Borgia on ‘Red sleeping beauty’ and Ruth Ellis on the forthcoming ‘Frans Hals’.
Q. ‘Big live sound’ [Tim] None of us weigh more than ten stone.
Q. ‘Wolfhounds’ [Tim] Currently recording their first LP for Decca. ‘More songs about shrikes and warblers’. A savage exposé of trash ornithology produced by former Tweets’ (‘The birdy song’) bassist. (True!) ‘… makes the Byrds sound like the Eagles.’
Q. ‘Next’: [Malcolm] John buys all his jumpers there. That’s a fact.
[Malcolm] The gigs you’ve seen us at we think were awful I should warn you. Every ten years we deliver a stunning performance.
Barking is ugly ugly ugly. We attended Billy Bragg’s school. And the Tremeloes’. Not at the same time of course. It is a miracle that such a nice bunch of lads should have been produced by such a rat hole. (The Tremeloes I mean.)’
More substantial 21st century interviews with Malcolm Eden and Tim Gane, conducted by Tommy Gunnarsson for Penny Black Music
An unreleased McCarthy song (‘Who will rid me of these turbulent proles?’) and several live Wolfhounds tracks
Backed with on the Manic Street Preachers’ cover of ‘Red sleeping beauty’