Christmas 1986 and I’m seventeen, halfway through my second year of A Levels and quietly happy. The reasons for feeling contented will be explained more in the next Goldfish post but for now just accept that for once life seems to be swinging my way for a change. As Christmas swings around I’m happy and not worried about anything and for once didn’t write a long and detailed Christmas list of what records I wanted and where to find them, which I had for the previous few years. This meant that my presents would actually be a surprise and I wouldn’t spend Christmas Eve predicting what I was going to receive the following morning. Genuine surprised face all round then when the presents were opened.
OMD “Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” video
Echo and the Bunnymen “Pictures on my wall” video
You know how some people make the wrong choice every time? Well that’s me and my family. Remember how Lancia gained a reputation as rust bucket death traps in the late 70s? We had one. I bought a Blackberry phone just as they stopped being good, ditto Windows Phone just as Nokia and Microsoft ditched the idea. Oh and we had one of those Vauxhalls which caught fire. And one of those Hotpoint tumble dryers which also caught fire. But the biggest wrong decision made by the Morgan household was the purchase of a Betamax video recorder in the summer of 1984. Even then we knew it was the lesser option. We would pop into the video rental shop at the top of Plassey Street next to the chip shop, gaze at the walls of videos to rent, pick one up, take it to the desk and ask forlornly “Have you got this on Betamax?” The shopkeeper would laugh and reply “Nah, only got these on Beta” and point to a small display of outdated films. Yes the sound and picture quality was fantastic, yes I had tapes which still looked great 20 years on (I ditched my last Betamax machine about ten years ago, I just had too much good stuff to lose it all) but bloody hell it was hard enough to find videos for Betamax in 1984, so how the hell did I end up with two of them for Christmas two years later? I still don’t know really.
As for the contents of these two videos they can’t really be faulted. The OMD video was reissued as part of a package with “Architecture and morality” in 2007, a CD and DVD package which was nice to see again, except that was the sixth time I had bought that album (and the fourth time on CD). As a concert experience it’s great. It’s OMD in December 1981, just cresting their wave of popularity and playing songs from their first three albums. It was the only chance I could get of seeing them perform “Statues” live and probably still is. Then there’s “The new stone age” and “Mystereality” and “Stanlow”…. There’s also some odd announcements from Andy McCluskey, some comment about “Just because the royal family come here doesn’t mean we can’t come here and have a good time” (the Royal Variety Performance had taken place in the same theatre a few days before the OMD show) He also sniffily announces “Enola Gay” as “a pop song”. Ouch.
It’s a fantastic historical document really. The audience is fascinating. The men wear suits with skinny ties and dance very awkwardly (McCluskey introduces “Motion and heart” saying “This is for those wearing thin ties”) The women have Princess Di hairstyles and wear a lot of frilly blouses. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Watching the video in 1986 was odd, I had seen OMD twice by this point and it was a far more professional band I had seen – lots of Emulators and a Fairlight on stage, a brass section and some chunky jumpers to replace the skinny ties and shirts. Back in 1981 everything looked like it was held together with sellotape and string, hardly any kind of stage show, the focus on the music and McCluskey’s dancing. Looking at it now is like stepping into a time machine. But bloody hell the band put some energy into these performances, tempos are high, they tear through “The new stone age” in the middle of the set, this electronic music is really quite human.
The Bunnymen video is somewhat different to their Liverpudlian neighbours. It’s a compilation from 1984 and contains a variety of music and forms – there’s some live footage from “Shine so hard”, their debut Top Of The Pops performance with “The back of love” from 1982, some promo videos and more. The major difference is that the Bunnymen have a mystique that was there right from the start and they’re going to maintain it no matter what. Will Mac smile at any point? Hell no. There’s lots of smoke, camouflage netting, lights from behind, shadows, coats, misery, serious and important stuff. The early live footage is great, the impressionistic film for “The puppet” and “A promise” is a little boring. The TOTP performance is fascinating – Mac can’t decide if he wants to mime or not, Pete De Freitas drums like a demon and the audience look bewildered. There’s moody videos from the Iceland trip which gave “Porcupine” a cover image. There’s a few songs from the Royal Albert Hall Concert in 1983 and a few videos from “Ocean rain” to finish with. All fine and dandy but there isn’t much personally being projected other than an aloofness which sometimes seems unfriendly. The glimpses of the audience during the RAH footage shows a very different crowd to OMD – a lot of serious young men, one female fan dancing crazily while everyone else ignores her. But the vibe given off by the whole video is “We’re special, we’re dark and moody, we’re serious” and frankly I may have enjoyed that when I was seventeen but thirty years on it’s a bit tedious. OMD seem to be having a lot more fun.
“The Smiths” – The Smiths
Now this came as a surprise. Someone must have looked at my record collection and realised that I didn’t have the debut album by the Mancunian miseries. I hadn’t told anyone I had wanted it, remember, but this was a welcome addition to the collection, even if it seemed quite old fashioned already two years after its release. After all, The Smiths of 1986 were a huge rock monster,.Johnny Marr playing a Les Paul, a second guitarist (who had just been sacked, as it turned out) and anthems like “Panic” and “The Queen is dead” filling up the Festive 50. So listening to “The Smiths” would be a reminder of those more innocent times. But it just wasn’t like the old days any more.
The problem with “The Smiths” was the same in 1986 as it is now – the songs are great but the production is a little flat and grey, and there’s alternate versions on “Hatful of hollow” which are brighter, more sprightly and just generally better. Take album opener “Reel around the fountain” – on “Hatful” the song is in a higher key and slightly faster and Johnny Marr’s guitar shimmers like sunlight on water. On “The Smiths” the key is lowered, it’s a little sluggish and Paul Carrack adds Hammond organ and piano fills which are completely unnecessary and quite distracting. What should be the defining opening song of the debut album just drones a lot. “You’ve got everything now” also had these odd organ rolls which get in the way. On the other hand Carrack’s organ on “I don’t owe you anything” sounds more integrated into the song and works beautifully so I can’t dismiss Carrack’s contributions completely.
There are a number of elephants in the room really. There’s the lacklustre production for a start and there’s the lack of “This Charming Man” too. Yes it was on the cassette – I remember a friend showing me the tape in early 1984, as we were the only two people we knew who liked them then. And then there’s the material itself. There’s a lack of variety on offer, too many songs taken at mid tempo, too many arpeggios from Marr. You could flip the argument and make it a positive – a linear grey drizzle which is the perfect aural metaphor for the ennui and lack of drive of those lives stuck in Whalley Range and other parts of Manchester. At the time I didn’t know there was an alternate version of the album recorded with Troy Tate, and frankly if I had known I would have moved hell and high water to find a bootleg of it. As it is, the few songs issued with Tate at the helm (“Jeane”, “Pretty girls make graves”, “Reel around the fountain”) show he had a far better idea of how to layer guitars than John Porter. But then I was a huge Teardrop Explodes fan and was collecting up Tate’s excellent solo releases at the time so I would say that.
Er, where was I? Oh yes I suppose I should mention the actual album rather than what’s not there.
As always it was very easy for me as a teenager to associate myself with Morrissey’s lyrics. God damn it I would have killed for 15 minutes with whoever I crushed on at the time (again, more on that next time). There’s something very sexual about the early Smiths songs but a lot of it is thwarted by Moz’s awkwardness – he is impelled to give in to lust on “Pretty girls make graves” but he refuses, he’s too delicate for that and bloody hell yes I sort of identified with that too. “Still ill” feels like a manifesto of some kind, and I had to laugh many years later when I saw a preacher in church quote the first four lines of this song. I actually prefer this version of “Hand in glove” which must make me in a minority of one. “I don’t owe you anything” is wonderful and worth the price of admission alone.
Oh I don’t know…. I just find this album unsatisfying, a glimpse of a great album seen through a dark window. The songs are mostly great (only “Miserable lie” fails), there’s dark humour and dark thoughts and chilling thoughts and uncomfortable songs but it’s not as good as it could be. Better was to come, and even with a perspective of two years I knew they had done better. However I didn’t realise within another year they would no longer exist.
“Arthur Lee” – Arthur Lee
In 1986 I had bought “Forever changes” and “Da Capo” by Love and adored them both. I was quite happy with what I’d heard and was in no hurry to explore the rest of Love’s catalogue, or Arthur Lee’s solo work. Clearly my brother thought otherwise.
This album was recorded and issued by Rhino in 1981 and issued in the UK by Beggars Banquet. There’s twelve songs and intriguing notes from Lee himself on the sleeve. It’s an odd album this – I thought so at the time and even more so now. It’s an album out of time really. Knowing more now about Lee’s career trajectory from 1968 onwards the stylistic variety makes more sense, and I feel far more generous to this album now than I did back in 1986 when I listened a few times and consigned it to the “interesting” part of my record collection.
For a start, it’s better than I remember. “Happy me” and “One” would fit nicely onto “Four Sail” or one of the Blue Thumb albums Love made around the end of the sixties. There’s some delicate moments like “Do you know the secret?” There’s some ill advised reggae like “One on one” and “Mr Lee”… actually this album sounds like it’s been compiled from about four different recording sessions. There’s no need for Lee to rerecord “Seven and seven is” or to tackle “Many rivers to cross”. On the other hand “I do wonder” is an absolute gem, which isn’t surprising as the song was written and recorded for “Forever Changes” in 1967. It must have been hard for Lee to sit on a song as good as this for so many years.
I don’t think this album has been reissued since though I’m willing to be corrected on this. It’s a lot better (in places) than I remember. Belated thanks to Andy, only 30 years late.
“Back in the DHSS” – Half Man Half Biscuit
Could I have received a more indie present that year? Maybe “C86” but then I hated all that jingle jangle shit which clogged up half of Peel’s shows at the time. Even if HMHB had appeared on that tape, nobody really considered them to be part of C86. Sure, they shambled and were as ramshackle as the next bunch of amateurs with three chords and a mistuned Telecaster but HMHB were different …
I’d first heard them on Peel of course, it was “Sealclubbing” which ended up on the tape from early 86 with the Yeah Yeah Noh and Microdisney sessions. Then there was an appearance on “Whistle Test” breezing through “Trumpton Riots” and rumours of them blowing out “The Tube” because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game – this band weren’t going to be playing the fame game by the usual rules. Then there was the strangely melancholic Peel session with songs like “I left my heart in Papworth General” and “Reasons to be miserable” – “And I don’t know anyone who puts peaches on their corn flakes either” – and a farewell single of “Dickie Davies Eyes” and they were gone, for four years anyway.
But “Back in the DHSS” was their debut album, recorded for £40 to test out a friend’s recording studio, according to the tale at the time, and frankly it showed. There’s rough around the edges and there’s this – tape hiss, a band playing live with no time or facilities to remove mistakes, but a lot of charm. And of course there’s the songs.
This album became a totem for me and my friends. We would learn the songs off by heart and sing the lyrics when we were drunk down the Railway or hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, checking out each others record collections – “Oh, you’ve got this too?” and then ten minutes of quoting lines to each other accompanied by raucous laughter. It wouldn’t take much to set this off. My friend Nigel would look at me in the Railway and ask me “What did God give us Rob?” to which I’d reply “God gave us life, Nigel” and off we’d go. This was our Monty Python, this was our Young Ones, this was our “The Jerk”, this was OURS. The songs were fermented in a mix of minor celebrities from crap TV shows and sports programmes, children’s TV, a life of idleness in front of the worst of seventies and eighties TV, while smoking rather good weed and waiting for the next dole cheque. It could have been dreadful, but the attention to detail was so right, the references were so spot on that it made it hilarious, and not just once but over and over again. There was a form of impotent rage about the shiteness of mid 80s life within these grooves, but with humour too. There was still melancholy – which is why “Reflections from a flat” is my favourite song on the album – but there isn’t much of a hint of what they would become, which is national treasures.
Of course my main memory of this album was Christmas Day itself. My dear old Gran was with us, she was living in our house while she waited to move into a nice retirement flat after selling her house in Canton. When I opened this album, she said “Oh that looks interesting…” and starts to read the song titles. I hastily grabbed it off her because I didn’t want her to see “Fucking hell, it’s Fred Titmus” on there…. sorry Gran, you wouldn’t have understood.
Gordon Wood was a work colleague of my father’s from BT, as far as I know they’d worked together for years. Maybe his family had made the same journey we had to find our way to South Wales from Leeds, I don’t know. (Maybe I should ask my Dad before I write these things). However in 1986 the Morgan family had met up with the Wood family a few times and every time we had ended up playing Trivial Pursuit. That’s how 1986 was.
The first time was in June. Andy had gone trainspotting and my parents were going over to visit the Woods in Whitchurch (I may be wrong there) and I was looking forward to a night on my own, but then I changed my mind and went along. The Woods had two daughters, one about the same age as me and one slightly younger, both of whom had the initial of M. And of course I sort of crushed on the eldest daughter M1 as soon as I saw her. Fuck knows what she thought of the thin geeky idiot trying to impress her. So I looked through their record collection and spun their original mono copy of “Help!” and after a few drinks had loosened everyone up, Trivial Pursuit came out and Mum and I got thrashed at it. It was deemed so successful we did it again in July when my penfriend was over from Germany and again we played Trivial Pursuit and again I got beaten quite heavily, but boy was I crushing on M1. I even made an obscure reference to her in the sleeve note to my album from September 1986.
Trivial Pursuit was the big new game of the mid 80s and everyone was playing it. Admit it, you’ve played it at least once. Maybe on a phone or computer, a DVD game or maybe on a pub machine. You could even play it on a ZX Spectrum. It’s expanded out a bit, this one. You know the score – dash around a board answering questions across six categories to win six cheeses then back to the centre to win outright. Everyone was playing it, there were lots of expansion boxes of questions and frankly I can’t think of much more to say about it. It’s a game, we all played it. End of story.
Naturally Trivial Pursuit was under our Christmas tree, not just the game but an additional question pack on entertainment. This would make us all very welcome at any parties because we could add extra questions into the pot…. oh whatever. It did come in useful as we made another trip to the Woods household for New Years Eve and yet again I crushed on M1 and yet again lost badly at Trivial Pursuit. I blame my team mate, of course. (Note, I know who my team mate was thanks to my diary but I’m not telling). Then we stayed up til midnight, toasted the new year with champagne and I fell asleep on a camp bed around 1:30 am. And that was the last time I saw the Wood family. Anyway, this was all a distraction….
And other stuff…
According to my diary there was a red jumper and some chocolates and other stuff. I know someone was hoping the chocolates were Harlequin but they were After Eights which were (and still are) my favourite. There were probably blank tapes (I was fond of the silver BASF chrome c90s) and stuff like that. My diary doesn’t record what we actually did on Christmas Day itself, I was probably hiding in my bedroom playing records. Was this the year of Dirty Den dishing divorce on Angie? Well I remember watching that. The rest of the day? Probably fighting for the video recorder and the TV. Happy days.
Next time – we have fled from disaster…