Rewind And Unravel These Layers

It’s bloody weird right now. The weather is meant to be cold but it isn’t, it’s just wet. The rain hasn’t stopped for days around here, not hard but a constant presence, a light drizzle one day, occasional showers the next. It’s not cold enough to snow. But I’ve not seen the actual sky for days. Oh and it seems the park is flooded so Malpas Road is closed. The return of Kimberley Park Lake. Strange times.

Nobody releases music in January. The post Christmas lull. Blue Monday and all that. Unless of course the record company want to launch a new artist at a quiet moment to attract attention. Or some labels are just constantly productive and the passing of time doesn’t mean anything. In a way both Subjangle and Skep Wax are like that – bucking the system and bucking trends, continuing traditions and making constant progress.

The latest releases on both labels have been my constant companion for the past few weeks, soundtracking a period of rain and decorating, both records now remind me of emulsion and grey skies. You may find different memories.

Subjangle have issued a new CD compiling two previously digital releases by The Sundries, “Full of the joys of Spring” was released last Autumn and “Magic Johnson” was released in 2020. The eight songs are now packaged together and there’s an exclusive track to entice you to purchase the CD. Or even digitally because the CD is a limited edition and may well be sold out by the time you read this. The Sundries are a curious band, in a good way. All their references go back to the eighties and nineties – the song titles such as “Triumph Herald” and “Janet Ellis” give them away. The sound of the band is also a throwback to the Nineties – the jangling upbeat guitars and clear female (and occasional male) vocals evoke memories of bands like The Would-Be’s, The Fat Tulips, Strawberry Story and the Haywains. If this music had been made in 1993 it would be on a 7 inch EP in a plastic bag, a simple two colour sleeve and an insert note written by Richard Coulthard. You could say “Rob, this is your music” and I wouldn’t deny it.

There’s some sly wit at work within the Sundries’ songs. The lyrics are sharp and memorable, certain phrases pop out and make the listener take notice. Whether it’s the allusions to drink driving in “Five and drive”, the besotted / unrequited conversation within “David Letterman” or the place names included on “Triumph Herald”, these are small hooks to catch attention. But there is darkness and personal pain there too – sometimes you need to read between the lines to see it, but there is a general air of not quite rightness within the songs. Memories of journeys, old friends, old relationships, places… There’s a glimpsed past here which gives them further depth. What is the relationship in “David Letterman”? “Janet Ellis” seems like a cypher for something else – the memories of schoolyard crushes come flooding back. What exactly are “Hospital corners” and why would you need to hide in them? The photos acting as memory triggers in “22”? The contrast is made more apparent by the brightness of the music – repeated lead guitar figures, gentle keyboard melodies, the janglesome tunefulness of it all. It’s odd, I don’t know who the band are but I feel like these songs are written by someone my age (early 50s), looking back on their past and seeing themselves and others in a retrospective light of recognition for what they truly were. No rose tinted nostalgia here.

If the Sundries are like driving out into the bright low sun of a January morning, blinding yet blissful, a hint of the Spring somewhere in the distance, then Marlody are the enveloping dark of a January evening, the crisp cloudless night, crepuscular thoughts and feelings – an oddly uncomfortable warmth of a bottle of red wine and some harsh home truths.

Marlody has just released her debut album “I’m not sure at all” on Skep Wax records, a label already gaining a good reputation for continuing the good works of Sarah Records with excellent releases from the Orchids and Swansea Sound already under their collective belts. Marlody’s music isn’t comparable to much else on the label though.

The music is mainly piano based and largely rhythm-free. Drums occasionally break the surface on some songs but are used for colour and variety rather than standard patterns. This isn’t music for dancing, this is music for self expression, music for reflection. Note clusters, arpeggios and chords are repeated, there are some synthetic drones sometimes, but there is nothing to distract from the words and the vocals.

And it’s those words and vocals which push the album into another territory, something very special. There are layers of harmonies – sometimes not perfectly in tune but humanly emotive – which sugar the medicine of the words. There’s hints of David Crosby’s layering of his voice on “Orleans” or “I swear there was somebody there” (RIP Croz)

Vocally I hear hints of Kate Bush, Alison Goldfrapp, Kirsty Yates and in places Maddy Prior, Dory Previn and Sandy Denny. There are hints of the English folk tradition within the melodies – particularly on “Change” and “These doubts” which sounds oddly familiar to me. And the words are sung so sweetly, without force or passion, in a soft voice sometimes barely above a whisper.

And the words… Imagine the soul searching honesty of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bob Wratten, Dory Previn (again) and Kirsty Yates (again) rolled into one. It’s akin to listening to someone on a psychiatrist’s couch, spilling their innermost secrets. Almost too hard to absorb, too intimate, intruding on a private grief. The lyrics of “Summer” and “Change” could be ripped from a diary, words unguarded, unfiltered and scarily honest. These are deep dark thoughts for deep dark times.

The final three songs are – for me – the fulcrum of the album. “Words” starts quietly, layers of wordless vocal melodies and harmonies as the music expands from piano into light synth sequences. The words are brutally honest and almost uncomfortable to listen to, but end with the hope “And I don’t want to be this way”. “Friends in low places” apologises to friends for not being there, then becomes more universal – chasing ghosts, a willingness to remove one’s own existence, the need for company, the empathy of knowing others are having the same struggles. The music also builds, the rhythm here insistent and pushing forward. “Otherly” is one of the most disquieting songs I have heard in a long time, yet spellbindingly beautiful. There’s a loop of a tiny rhythm, the synthetic drone has returned and the layers of harmonies are richer, with strange notes not quite within the scale unsettling the scene. The words match the music too – looking at someone with faith, wishing you had something to believe in, even if from the outside it seems it holds no comfort, closing with death and decay yet “believing somehow everything will be ok”. I’ve failed miserably to capture just how odd this song is – you just need to hear it. Utterly bewitching, performed so calmly and gently. The song has haunted me for days.

The Marlody album is unique. The comparisons I’ve made don’t really come close. And yet I feel like there is a link to the Sundries too. If the Sundries songs are analysing a distant past, then the Marlody songs are written from the centre of the emotional whirlpool as it happens. The distance from the hurt from the past does not dull the power of the emotions within the Sundries’ world, one hopes that Marlody can gain that distance in the future. It will be interesting to see how both acts develop in the future, and what directions they take. But for now, both are creating excellent intriguing music which deserves to be heard.

Endless Summer

So far, this year – to put it bluntly – has been weird. You don’t need me to tell you how weird, you know what’s been happening. Either that or you’ve been living in a cave for the past nine months in which case hi how are you and have I got news for you…

Anyway, this year. I’ve not been listening to much new music this year. Lockdown hasn’t been conducive with music for me. I think subconsciously I didn’t want music to be associated with what was happening. The exception to this rule at the start of lockdown was “Head Sounds” by Super 8, an album of homespun jangle pop from the heart and soul of Paul Ryan aka Trip. Somehow his gentle version of “Across the universe” became a totem of normality under the strangest of circumstances. “Nothing’s gonna change my world” indeed.

Now a few months on from that release and Super 8 have another album on the blocks, this time a collaboration between Trip and Lisa Mychols, a California native who has been creating sun drenched power pop for nearly two decades. The musical marriage of Trip and Ellie (as Lisa is known to her friends) is made in pop heaven.

The music has a ramshackle charm all of its own, and the mix of Trip’s casually brilliant musicianship and Lisa’s spot on harmonies and both their songwriting skills merge perfectly – it’s as if the Free Design had a collaboration with Emitt Rhodes (RIP) Sun baked California soft pop with a Beatles-ish lilt. Perfect.

The album kicks off with two theme songs – “What will be?” will be familiar if you’ve listened to Beth’s Indie Lounge while “Trip and Ellie’s Music Factory” has the feel of a children’s TV show theme tune (this is in no way a criticism, think of a theme song from a kid’s show in your childhood, see how well you remember it…) I could be wrong but it may have a homage to “Fakin’ it” too 😎 “Timebomb” – their initial collaboration from last year – is a groovy rocker, somewhere between “Bohemian like you” and “Rocks” but with plenty of charm alongside its bite. “You and me, me and you” is sweet as candy and instantly catchy too, as is “Honey bee” (love the reference to a cherry red Gibson 335 – my dream guitar).

There are two covers on the album which fit perfectly into the flow. “Peaceful” by Kenny Rankin is a long time favourite song of mine and I’ve yet to find a bad version of the song (I can recommend Bobbie Gentry’s version alongside the original). Trip and Ellie make it their own, building from acoustic guitar to a full on arrangement and back again, a lovely performance. “Witchi Tai To” is beautiful too – highlighting Lisa’s vocal skills, and is a match for the gorgeous version by Harper’s Bizarre. These covers are respectful and show their influences on the music. The West Coast soft pop vibes continue through the latter half of the album with “Laguna nights to remember” and the dreamy “Your summer theme”.

The two highlights of the album are what would have been the side closers if there was a vinyl equivalent – “Flying close to the sun” and “The arms of water”. Both songs extend the sunshine pop into a more psychedelic experience – the songs are expansive and take swerves in odd directions and Trip throws in some sound effects, field recordings and backwards guitars. These songs highlight how perfectly Trip and Lisa work together – you’d never guess they created this music thousands of miles apart. The album is full of sunshine and the perfect music for slowly emerging from lockdown, hanging out with friends you’ve not seen for ages and chilling out. Put your worries behind you, relax and let Trip and Ellie soundtrack this weird summer.

The Super 8 and Lisa Mychols album is available now via Wally Salem’s fantastic label The Beautiful Music.

Wally has impeccable taste – witness his ongoing project of Television Personalities covers – and TBM has issued great albums by Dot Dash, Armstrong, The Irony Board, Skytone, The Yellow Melodies and many more. Wally was kind enough to send me an advance copy of a forthcoming album his label will be releasing in August, thinking I would enjoy it and he was right, I loved it.

I must admit I’ve not come across Exploding Flowers before (and a quick Google tells me about the photographic process to explode a flower) but it seems the members of this four piece band have been around the LA underground scene for many years. All this experience shows in the music on “Stumbling Blocks”. If Trip and Ellie’s album is the sound of two musicians bonding over a long distance internet connection, Exploding Flowers is the sound of four musicians playing together in a room as a band. That might be quite an old fashioned idea in the 21st century but it does create some timeless music.

Exploding Flowers tip their collective hats towards some intriguing music. Sure, the twelve strings chime like the Byrds in flight as you would expect but there’s a plainly chorded organ harking back to the Chills and numerous US 60s garage bands or even the early sides by the Sea Urchins (think “Sullen eyes”). There’s hints of psychedelia too and not just the 60s variety – some songs here could easily fit onto the renowned New Psychedelic compilation “A splash of colour” and there’s a Paisley Underground vibe as well. Third hand psych? Not at all. The sound is fresh and vivid, and the songs are superb too. Highlights include the rollicking title track – that insistent guitar lick drives into your head and sticks there – and the perfect pop of “Far but never gone” (some cool backing vocals on this) and “Billions just like you here today”. There’s almost a ska feel to some of the organ parts on these songs, filtered through a New Wave sensibility.

As great as the uptempo songs are, my favourite songs here are when the band slow down a little and stretch out on midtempo songs. “Timing is everything” is 100 seconds of bliss, leading into my two album highlights. “Imagine all the possibilities” is a minor key gem, 12 strings chiming, descending chords and some beautiful unexpected melodic swerves. You would hardly notice the lyric sung so sweetly is a political diatribe worthy of Stereolab. The following song “Amongst burnt out stars” is just as good, descending arpeggios of guitars in the verse leading into a forceful verse, with more melodic swerves (regular readers will know I love a good melodic swerve). Towards the end of the album “Mirror to mirror, face to face” makes the most of its two chords and stretches out with a sax solo at the end, while “Are we so disposable?” is a melancholic closer, built on tympani drums and toy piano – not so much a Wall Of Sound as a Partition Of Sound. Basically if you cherish albums by the Barracudas, the Liquor Giants and Diableros then this album will fit nicely in your collection. The music will draw you in and the lyrics will intrigue you and you will sing these songs all summer.

Both the Super 8 and Lisa Mychols and Exploding Flowers albums have different takes on how to soundtrack these strange times with jangling guitars and melodies and thought provoking words. Both albums will repay repeated listens with great rewards and are well worth your time. Give them a chance to soundtrack your endless summer.

Both albums are available at and Wally will probably throw in some other goodies for you if you order through him. Tell him a goldfish sent you 😎

Days of waking, phantoms in branches

Thoughts on “The World Is A Bell” by The Leaf Library

How quickly can you fall in love with music? I mean… Is it an instant reaction sometimes or does it take time? I suppose it’s like all kinds of love, there’s instant attraction and then over time you explore depths, highs and lows, and find out what lasts longest, what will endure, and that is true love.

The Leaf Library have created an album which will instantly attract the listener, but has so much depth that the listener can wallow in it for hours, days, months and not get bored. And once the exploration days are done, the true beauty of this music will be shown.

Am I making sense? I doubt it. This is how “The world is a bell” makes me feel. Confused, but pleasantly confused, and willing to be confused again and again until the puzzle is solved. Over time, the music here has sunk into my life, the melodies worming their way into my subconscious, appearing when I don’t expect them. There’s so much beauty in this music it’s almost unbearable.

Some facts (take one). I don’t know many facts about The Leaf Library. I first came across them when they recorded an introductory jingle for Pete Paphides’ radio show on Soho Radio. He may have played their music too, I’m not sure. But that 30 seconds of lightly arpeggio-d guitar, in the style of Vini Reilly, made me notice them. I was intrigued. That’s all the facts I know about The Leaf Library. Maybe I should do some research? They have a very British sound, if that helps. It doesn’t, does it? British is such a tainted word at the moment. Sorry. Do you need facts to enjoy the music? Do you need to know where they’re coming from or where they’re at? No. You need to use your ears and listen.

Some facts (take two). “The world is a bell” is the second full album by The Leaf Library, after many variations on their debut album “Daylight versions” in 2015. It will be released on 25th October 2019. This album features collaborations with a number of people of whom I’ve never heard of. You may have heard of them, I don’t know. So much for facts. Facts don’t do what I want them to. Thanks David. Still waiting.

I have said this many times before and I will probably repeat it many times again, but I am a great believer in the idea that music reflects the seasons, somehow the musicians know instinctively when the music will be issued and it becomes seasonal. “The world is a bell” is autumnal in nature, greens turning to burnished orange, gold, red and brown, nights drawing in, wondering which day we will turn the heating on for the first time since April. It starts bright, like a crisp Autumn morning. “In doors and out through windows” could be a calmer less guitar centred Bark Psychosis or a clearer late period Talk Talk – a 7 / 8 rhythm keeps the listener on their toes, slow layers building up, drums, a muted brass section, vibes and piano before the bass arrives for propulsion after two minutes. There’s dots and loops here (and maybe a hint of “Dots and Loops”) but all naturally created. Or if they are looped well it’s incredibly skillful because it does sound very natural. “Hissing waves” is an early favourite, definitely echoes of Insides here (not a problem at all, new Insides music would be most welcome around Goldfish Towers). Whereas Kirsty Yates whispers of truths and secrets, Kate Gibson and Melinda Bronstein’s multitracked harmonies maybe point to the album’s own creation – “An endless looping cycle” – or a more abstract thought. Afternoon shadows, days on fire…. Relentless and building, a song which could happily go on forever. “Whatever I say, we are”. An early highlight.

“Patience” builds up from a simple synth sequence – as simple as the opening on “I hear you now” – while drums roll and guitars jangle, and again the slow build is beautiful, a melody snaking around the song. A chord change comes as a shock ninety seconds into the song. There’s no hurry about the performance, again a brass section grounds the song like a colliery band, while Gibson and Bronstein’s multitracked vocals trail off – “So long, see you tomorrow”. Beautiful. “Larches eat moths” is a more ambient track, eerie droning noisescapes, echos and cries, spooked and tense, a voice in the distant. And … Er…. I know I gave up biology in the third year but don’t moths eat larches? Is there some backwards logic there? It darkens the flow of the album, but it works well as a palate cleanser for a two part masterpiece.

“The world is a bell” resounds around a bell-like electric piano figure of a G note played across an octave, while pizzicato strings become harshly bowed, increasing in quiet fury. (Quite first album PCO, this one, I’d say, or early Rachel’s). This flows into “Bright seas” where that G note repeats but now there’s percussion and deeper instrumental textures, rolling tom tom drums and heavenly vocals are sung into a reverb haze. It’s lovely indeed, memories of Virginia Astley at her most pop-like, pastoral and pure. Again layers upon layers build almost without the listener noticing (where did that string section arrive from?), until finally cocooned in the music’s flow. The centrepiece of the album and one of my favourite pieces of music this year.

“Bodies carried off by bees” – it depends how small the bodies are, I suppose – is another ambient diversion, found sounds and fog, not a piece of music to whistle along to, but to feel and appreciate like “Sulliday” on “69”. (Simon Reynolds on “Sulliday” – “it is a piece that should be listened to not as a musical or lyrical sequence but as a succession of moments… Be supine before it” – that’s how I feel about “Bodies carried off by bees.”) Again the build up is subtle yet dramatic.

“An endless” is motorik electro passed through a post-rock filter, the insistent snap of the drum machine and rumble of bass, a haunting vocal melody, and again more layers and layers, vocals call and response, guitars and synths and pianos, each element beautifully adding its own melody. So rich in texture. Maybe I was wrong, maybe this is a highlight. Around five minutes everything stops briefly before real drums take over, more sequences and that bell chiming like a clock, a glorious build up again. Fabulous. I never want this to end and it never overstays it’s welcome. “An Endless” is perfect. I could get lost and swept up in its ebb and flow forever.

“More than half asleep” is a quiet short piece reminding me of an Eno short on “Music for films” or the second half of “Lauft…heisst das es Lauft Oder es kommt bald” by Faust and is a prelude to the final song here, the 20 minute “Paper boats on black ink lake”. A slowly tapped cymbal (or gong perhaps?), slow chord changes on bass and guitar, as tense as Mogwai, again a slow build, a string arrangement to die for, four chords circling and building, so lovely. Around seven minutes, the strings hold on to a static chord, the percussion drops away, it’s holding on for something, the tension is unbearable. And then an clarinet (?) sings in the distance, a fog horn through the mist of strings and static. And finally the tension is broken by feedback, bass and drums, like Swans on holiday in the Lake District. A final release for the tension across the album, grinding onwards and onwards to the close. Dramatic and fulfilling.

What exactly is “The World Is A Bell”? Music to wallow in, music to soak up, music to explore without a map, music to enlighten, music to spook, music to darken the day, music to think about, music to wash away the world. This is beautiful music. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, sometimes I wasn’t even sure if it was my cup of tea, but persistence has prevailed. There are so many moments of absolute beauty here that you, dear reader, need to listen to. It may take time but the effort is totally rewarded.

“The world is a bell” by the Leaf Library is available here…

Fifty At Fifty

In case you had missed the teaser campaign on TV, the billboards and the hour long tributes across all BBC Radio stations, today (24th May 2019) is my fiftieth birthday. Admittedly it’s also Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 50th birthday too, so you’re more likely to read about his half century of achievements than mine, but let’s leave the ghost of a Victorian workhouse owner out of these celebrations.

So yeah, my fiftieth birthday. A time for reflection, a time for looking ahead (at last, I can sort out a Sun Life Over 50s Plan), and a time to… I dunno. There should be something there but my brain is turning to mush and I’m getting forgetful. I’m 50, yet I feel about 25 in my head. I’d like to thank everyone who got me here (friends, family, workmates, bands) and especially those who say I don’t look 50. Well I wasn’t until today anyway so…

Originally I planned to put together (because “curate’ is a stupid word) a Goldfish Radio show or two with a song from each year, but I didn’t really have to time for that. Instead I’ve made this 50 song Spotify playlist which does indeed have a song from each year. There were rules, of course. Each song has to be from the year, and must have been part of my life in that year… Let me explain… It would have been easy for me to pick a song from “Another green world” for 1975, but I wasn’t listening to “Another green world” in 1975, it was still ten years before I heard it. This invalidated a few choices along the way – I had “Tubular Bells” a year after it was released, ditto “Keep on Wombling” (I’m not joking, I would have happily included music from both these albums if possible). So now you’re looking at the playlist thinking “So how come “Get back’ is there then?” Well firstly it was number one when I was born and as my parents were both Beatles fans it was part of my life at that point, though technically it wasn’t part of the Morgan household until 1970 when they bought “Let it be” but rules are there to be broken… So yes the early songs on the playlist are more my parents taste than mine, but each song here had a specific memory attached to it, whether it be “Misty Roses” and staring at the cover of “One Year” in the front room in Leeds, or “School’s out” being my “Starman on TOTP” moment (it’s my first memory of watching the show)

So the 70s have me listening to my parents’ music and enjoying it, and towards the end of the 70s starting to develop my own taste, hence the synthesised sounds of “Magic Fly”, and “Are ‘friends’ electric?” (TOTP performance forty years ago today, fact fans!). By the early 80s I had my own radio / cassette player and was listening to Radio One constantly, and by 1983 I was buying my own records and well you can read the old Goldfish posts for that story. Some – if not all – of these songs have specific memories attached, happy times, sad times, drunken times, weird times, uncertain times, hopeful times. I could go through each of the 50 songs, but some memories aren’t for sharing. I wish there was a wider spread of genres but then I’m kinda limited in my tastes, and those tastes have become narrower over time. It’s a fair reflection, I suppose. Unsurprisingly two songs are 17 minutes long.

But hey, enough of my yakkin’. Whaddaya say, let’s boogie…

Rhymes of goodbye

A few years ago, BBC Four broadcast an old episode of “Top Of The Pops” from late 1981. The Teardrop Explodes were making their second appearance to promote “Passionate Friend” which was obstinately stuck in the mid 20s of the chart, even though it sounded like the most perfect pop song ever, an endless climb of melody tied to words which made little sense, unless you knew the singer was singing about having a secret affair with the sister of his arch rival. But even so this was a very different Teardrop Explodes to the band who had appeared on the first performance of “Passionate Friend” a few weeks before. That first performance has become legendary simply through the telling of it in Julian Cope’s first volume of his autobiography “Head on”. Cope is off his head standing on a white grand piano, played by Jeff Hammer, while bass player Alfie Agius does his nerdy bop dance which always got the teenybopper girls squealing. But that was then, Agius and Hammer had gone, now Dave Balfe was playing bass, and for some reason Cope was away from the rest of the band – singing from a stand across the audience from Balfe, Gary Dwyer and Troy Tate. And Tate here was the revelation – a perfect mop top of tousled hair, shades and an enigmatic smile, while playing Cope’s beautiful cherry red Gibson 335-12 guitar. In fact Tate looked like he had been beamed in from the future – three years from this performance Johnny Marr would show the same mix of attitude and cool on the same stage. And don’t forget that Marr and Tate worked together – Tate produced the first version of the Smiths’ debut album in 1983, almost all of which was dumped and rerecorded.

But before the Teardrops exploded onto the TOTP stage, the show’s host Mike Read introduced the band with the line “It’s always nice to have a fellow Scott Walker fan on the show….” This is of course a reference to Cope and his much heralded fondness for Walker… by this point he had licenced some Walker songs for “Fire Escape In The Sky – the godlike genius of Scott Walker” on Zoo, which introduced Walker to the post punk audience who had either forgotten him or ignored him. However Mike Read also had participated in some kind of Walker revival. As a regular listener to Read’s breakfast show I had heard him spin a few Walker Brothers tunes along the way, though I remember him enthusing more about “l’ll keep on holding on” by The Action more. He also played “First love” by The Walker Brothers a lot, as part of a feature on first loves he had on his show and I knew that song because my mum had the first Walker Brothers album . By 1982 Midge Ure had hit the charts with a synthetic cover of the Walker Brothers’ mid 70s hit “No regrets” which itself was a Tom Rush song. And I didn’t know it at the time but Ultravox’s “Vienna” bore some resemblance to “The Electrician”, the highlight of The Walker Brothers’ final album “Nite flights” from 1978. Even without reading the music papers, I had the impression that Scott Walker was this maverick hermit who made some great records in the sixties and then disappeared. He was a genuine legend and he never issued any music at all.

So I was a little surprised when he issued a new album in 1984. I was an avid reader of Melody Maker by then, and devoured every page of every issue every Wednesday. Even if I didn’t know anything about the acts I just read it anyway. So I read “Julian – a suitable case for treatment” – an interview with Julian Cope to support “World shut your mouth” which mentioned Scott Walker. I was intrigued. And then the man himself turned up on “The Tube” interviewed by Muriel Gray, both looking uncomfortable. The video for the new single “Track 3” was shown too, but it didn’t sound like a hit single. Mike Read played the single too, but only once, and returned to playing “The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore” because that was what he expected Scott Walker to sound like. The album “Climate of hunter” came and went, to a puzzled review in MM, and then life moved on and nobody seemed to care. It was like a ghost from the past, dropping by, saying hello and disappearing again.

But the name Scott Walker kept being dropped all the time. Certainly by Julian Cope, but also by others too. Cathal Coughlan of Microdisney mentioned the album “Scott 4” as one of his favourites yet that album didn’t appear in my copy of “Guinness Hit Albums” besides Scotts 1, 2 and 3 which were all top three albums. How had 4 disappeared? The mystery deepened and so did the myth. There were rumours of Scott working with Brian Eno and that intrigued me even more.

Finally I bought a Scott Walker album. During the long grim silent summer of 1986 I chose “Climate of Hunter” from that quarter’s Gema Records list and hoped for the best. Gema Records was a peculiar mail order record store – every few months they’d send out a closely typed list of all the records available, we would pore over it with my magnifying glass, picking out gems and adding them to our order then post it off with a cheque and wait and hope and wait and hope. It was all a bit random, sometimes I’d get an avalanche of records, sometimes I’d get nothing at all. There’s a lot of Gema Records orders which had significant moments attached to them and I’ve mentioned them before on Goldfish (see the Durutti Column and Dalek I Love You entries). And again on 19th August 1986 a Gema Records parcel arrived smack in the middle of another dramatic day.

It was the day I returned to school to get my grade for my additional Maths “O’ Level, a halfway point through the two years of sixth form before moving onto my A Level in the upper sixth. Not a lot was expected of me, I’d had a dreadful report in July and had fallen into a deep dark hole of isolated depression, seeing no-one, writing and recording miserable songs and plotting … At school friends were picking up their results and saying “I got a U” or “I got an E”. I was expecting the worst. Don’t forget a week before this my brother had picked up his A level results and failed all three quite dismally.

So I nervously opened my envelope and read my result. I had a ‘C’. I looked again to check it wasn’t a mistake. No, definitely a ‘C’. I couldn’t believe it. I’d passed. I was over the moon. I returned home like a conquering hero. Then my brother said “Oh Brud the Gema Records order has come” and handed me three records – “Banal” 12″ by Bill Nelson, “Da Capo” by Love and “Climate of hunter” by Scott Walker.

It looked strange, to begin with, even before placing the record on my turntable. Scott with his hand in midair, as if in mid conversation with a friend (or the listener), and on the reverse a long list of credits, mostly names I didn’t recognise except for two – Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler. At the time, the former was having hits like “When the going gets tough” and “Caribbean Queen” and the latter was leading Dire Straits around the world on the back of the multi platinum “Brothers in Arms” album. And they were working with Scott Walker? A genuine What The Fuck moment. And the song titles…. Half the songs don’t have them, just “Track 3”, “Track 5″… And opener “Rawhide”…. Will Scott really start singing “Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin'”? (Hat tip to the Froncos here, which will make at most two readers laugh)

No, he wouldn’t. A cowbell saunters across the stereo field as if a solitary cow is walking around the studio and then… it just starts. And stays there. So much of the album is static. Not white noise static, but stationary. The music hovers in midair, like Scott’s hand, never landing or ascending higher, a permanent statis. Strings don’t soar, they hum. The bass couldn’t be more mid 80s, sliding like Pino Palladino (but it isn’t, I discovered the other day the bass is played by the bass player in Ice, a late 60s Decca act who made two melancholy organ led psychpop beauties. Oh and he played in other bands too like Affinity. But Ice, man!) And then Scott sings at last, his voice sonorous and rounded. “This is how you disappear”. Yes Scott that’s my summer in five words. I’m not going to analyse the words too much, because whatever sense they achieve is beyond me. They have their own internal logic and it’s not for me to comment. Is he singing about a cow? Does it matter? Considering the piss taken out of Cope for his cow metaphor on “An elegant chaos”… Yeah but this is Scott. Slowly the song builds up, the tempo increases, the strings stir up but there’s no crescendo, it just returns to its initial hover state.

And that’s how most of the songs on the album progress. Hover to lift to hover again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Dealer” hovers in mid air for five whole minutes. Drugs? Who knows. The only movement comes from the bass guitar. The first chord change appears after 90 seconds. Strange trumpet noises from names I didn’t know then. What the hell was going on? “Track three” was the single, so it’s kind of fast, but starting with a synth discord which runs through the whole song… Scott and Billy Ocean (a colleague from the mid 70s Brothers reunion – they were on the same label) harmonise, but Ocean’s harmony is so sharp and desperate and painful. A single? Are you kidding?

The side closes with “Sleepwalkers woman”, and this is probably the closest to what I was expecting a Scott Walker to sound like. Sumptuous strings and a harp and Celeste playing slow arpeggios, but still static – rising so slowly and changing so slowly. But the voice, oh the voice, oh the voice. It sounds gorgeous, even if I couldn’t work out what the words meant. It’s beautiful. Tears? Oh of course. Then and now.

Side two and three tracks without titles. “Track five” seems to encapsulate the whole album in one song, starting slow and moody, guitar harmonics and brushed percussion, uneasy synths, focusing on the vocal. After a minute the drums and bass burst in and while the song has propulsion the chords don’t exactly move far, Scott is almost shouting, it seems to link back to “Rawhide”. At two minutes strings and horns arrive, and suddenly there’s chord changes every four bars, which is a surprise giving everything else so far.

“Track six” is more uneasy listening, slow and dark. Actually I’ve just realised this album is.balanced – the songs on each side balance each other in mood and tempo (this applies to “Loveless” too if you ignore “Touched”). And at the first chord change what sounds like a flotilla of seals start chattering and continue to annoy. I’m presuming this is Evan Parker’s saxes (if Marcello is reading, please confirm). “Track seven” begins like background music for “Bergerac” – moody synth chords, before the gated drums kick you into the mid 80s, chugging guitars, and a wailing guitar solo. This is pure 80s. Even chord changes. It drops back and forth but this is probably the most normal song on the album. Still a mile or so from whatever else was happening in 1983. Ray Russell’s guitar wails as the song fades.

And finally after all the electricity, a plain acoustic guitar. Unmistakably Mark Knopfler, sounding tentative but deliberate if that’s possible. “Blanket roll blues” is the only song ever written by Tennessee Williams, and Scott and Mark make it their own. It’s quite beautiful. And today it’s making me cry. Is it the memories of the day? Or the song itself? Or the knowledge that Scott has crossed the river now? Even just ending the song on that discord is perfect and links back to the other discords on the album…

So that was “Climate of Hunter” – inscrutable, strange and oddly alluring. A puzzle within an enigma. No wonder the reviews were dismissive, even though it’s barely 30 minutes long it’s an album it could take a decade to fathom out. Thirty three years on it still baffles me, but I still love it. For one thing it reminds me of that August day, an unexpected glimmer of hope, and what would come after it. Even in my diary I mention it as “weird and great”.

I wanted more Scott Walker and in September 86 I found two albums in Kelly’s Records in Cardiff market but only had enough money on me to buy one. On one hand, an original mono copy of “Scott”, looking a bit battered around the edges. On the other hand “The best of Scott Walker”, an early 80s attempt by Philips to capitalise on the renewal of interest in Scott after Julian Cope had compiled “Fire escape in the sky” for Zoo Records. What did I choose? Fucking hell I chose the wrong one, didn’t I? Leaving “Scott” in the racks and hoping it would still be there the next time I looked (hint – it wasn’t) I took “The best of Scott Walker” home and gave it some in depth listening, while also checking the credits and getting confused.

You see back in those days there wasn’t a lot of information around on Scott Walker. The general story went Walker Brothers Scott 1 2 3 4 flop disappearance Walker Brothers reunion disappearance again Climate Of Hunter. There weren’t books or biographies around, and if the NME had profiled him then it was way before I started reading the music press. So I was mightily confused by the credits on “The Best Of Scott Walker”. If he had disappeared in the 70s how come “The me I never knew” had a copyright date of 1973? Also presuming Scott 1 was 1967, 2 was 1968 and 3 and 4 were 1969…. Were “The impossible dream” and “If you go away” (dated 1969) on 3 or 4? I did not get it, not one bit at all. Great music, great songs, but was this the Scott Walker I expected or the Scott Walker that the record company wanted me to think was Scott Walker? I mean… Some of these songs were like show tunes. How did the brassy glare of “Will you still be mine?” fit in? And how come Scott drops in little hints of his own in there, about Julie Christie and a self-mocking reference to singing in tune? It’s like he’s playing to an audience…. Of course not long after I bought this album I found “Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Series” and realised there were gaps in the discography and that’s where some of these songs came from.

Even still there was enough on “The best of Scott Walker” to make me beg for more. Even if the tempos are generally slinky and low, the arrangements obvious and a bit middle of the road… But then that was the dichotomy of Scott Walker, he may have been striving for importance and moving his music forward but he still had an audience of teenage girls and a weekly BBC show to produce. And probably a record company and manager breathing down his neck, as they always do. So “The Best of Scott Walker” is more Jack Jones than I expected. But I still loved it. Don’t forget that this was the period I was also delving into the Andy Williams back catalogue too. In fact I distinctly remember comparing Andy’s version of “The Impossible Dream” with Scott’s version and found Scott’s wanting. But that’s another story and I must not get distracted.

The best songs on the compilation were inevitably the songs I would eventually find on Scotts 1 to 4 (or 1 to 3 as it would turn out). “Montague Terrace (in blue)”, ‘Jackie”, “The lady came from Baltimore” and “If you go away”. “Baltimore” was weird, it sounded like country rock, but with Mellotron flutes. I only knew one other Tim Hardin song at the time, Rod Stewart’s version of “Reason to believe”. Or Andy Williams’ version. Don’t get me started again on that. But somewhere there was a kernel of truth throughout the songs which struck me in my situation of leaving something huge behind (see other Goldfishes). September 86 was empty like that. Of course the one song which hit home the hardest was “If you go away”, and that song ended up on so many compilation tapes for friends. And yes I did suppose it must be on “Scott 4” based purely on its brilliance and copyright date. Yes I was a fool, but only as good as the limited knowledge I had at the time. Jesus that song chills the heart.


As the 80s became the 90s, Scott’s name was dropped more frequently. His absence was just considered to be normal. Would he return? Who knew? Meanwhile Scotts 1 to 4 increased in value and scarcity, legendary albums you never heard but heard a lot about.

Then Phonogram under the Fontana label began a reissue programme for the CD age. First of all were two compilations – “Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel” (all his Brel covers, obviously) and “Boy Child”, concentrating on his self written material across his first five solo albums (if we ignore the BBC album). For a start this was a surprise, there were more albums? But this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise really. I had come across a CBS cassette of his 1973 “Stretch” album on a market stall in Leeds in 1989 (I didn’t buy it, I bought a tape of “Crumbling the antiseptic beauty” and “The splendour of fear” instead) and was confused again… This wasn’t on Philips, he was smiling on the cover… And it was 1973. But “Boy Child” put the spotlight back onto Scott and his songwriting.

Now this is where it gets odd. My brother bought “Boy Child” around the same time he bought a new hifi in the summer of 1990, and I remember listening to it, but honest to God I didn’t take the blindest bit of notice of it because I can’t remember any of it actually engaging with my brain. Admittedly I had other things to think about musically that summer (I’m looking at you “Temple Cloud”, “Snowball” and “Skywriting”) but either I didn’t listen properly or … I dunno. It just passed me by. I wasn’t ready for it.

But the next summer I was totally ready for it. My brother’s copy had disappeared with him back to wherever he was at the time (somewhere between Hull and Stockport) and it was the best summer ever, a combination of perfect weather, an easy job, a ton of money to spend on a ton of records and finally a place in town to feel at home and oh yeah there was someone else too who I was trying not to crush on because it was going to spoil a good friendship. And in the middle of that I bought “Boy Child”.

Was it the revelation I was expecting? Yes it was. I won’t go through it song by song here because I will be repeating myself. But what I will say is that “The Bridge” hit me like a ton of bricks. So slow, so taut, so graceful… Even listening now takes me straight back to that summer. The surge into the chorus always brings tears, and the “before the bottle dulled my eyes” lines too. It was that kind of summer. In amongst all the great new music I was listening too (and summer 91 was great, don’t deny it) this music struck chords and pulled heartstrings and somehow felt totally relevant and part of that era. And there were connections too… Hearing the opening of “The war is over” – “Everything still, everything silent, as after the rain…” and realising that Eyeless In Gaza stole the entire line for “Lie still, sleep long”. And later that year hearing “Reprise” by Moose and realising it’s an amalgam of loops from “The war is over”, “Such a small love”, “Boy child” and many more.

The first four Scott Walker albums were finally reissued on Fontana in 1992, in groups of two if I remember correctly. Or I may be wrong in that one. I know there was quite a bit of publicity around them, and they received good reviews from the music magazines who cared or noticed. Maybe I think the albums came out in twos because that’s how I bought them that summer, and they fitted into my life quite snuggly.

Because the summer of 1992 was a time of great change. I’d finally found a decent job – a computer programmer in the Stats Office in Newport – and was one of two groups of trainees, one bunch of ten started in June, the second in July. I was in the first batch, and immediately started crushing on one of my fellow trainees. (I should point out that I have a tendency to crush on people when I’m in a new situation, like a new workplace or something like that. Of course it doesn’t happen any more) Then once the July trainees arrived I started crushing on one of them too, slowly but surely…. I’ve mentioned this before, right? Anyway that summer was finding my feet in a new town in a new job spending 90 minutes travelling back and forth and listening to a lot of music. And it was in the early stages of this that Scotts 1 to 4 arrived.

“Scott” – as I’ve already said – was his debut album from 1967 and he was already chafing at the chains of stardom around him. What other album cover from that psychedelic year would feature a black and white photo of the singer, hiding behind shades and a scarf, looking downcast? It looks like a surveillance photo, through a long telephoto lens. And in a way the album feels like that too, glimpses of Scott from far away, not quite in focus yet.

“Mathilde” is a rollicking opener, setting the stall with blasts of trumpets in a fanfare and an uptempo jog, the first of Scott’s Brel covers, and a perfect fit. He sings like he’s already at the end of his tether – “Mama, can you hear me tell? Your baby boy’s gone back to hell” is such a moment. There’s a brilliant clip of him performing this on the Dusty Springfield show where he seems to collapse exhausted at the end of the song. Already the listener knows he means it, maan. The first sign of Brel. “Montague Terrace (in blue)” is lovely, Scott’s own pen sketching glimpses of fellow tenement residents stomping and shagging and dreaming, exploding into a chorus where hopes and dreams seem so close. A beauty. “Angelica” is another favourite, even though it seems nobody mentions it, Scott sings this heartbreaking tale with all the passion it deserves, he really inhabits the forgetful yet regretful lover, and I love it. “The lady came from Baltimore” is country rock before such a thing existed. “When Joanna loved me” is Scott doing Tony Bennett, he’s still the consummate entertainer. And then the second Brel song “My death”. And … Cough .. I don’t get it. It’s all very dramatic but it doesn’t move me. It’s a bit hammy, overacted and overplayed.

Side two then kicks off with “The big hurt” and frankly this sounds more like it. Even the arrangement has some nice touches, and Scott sings beautifully. “Such a small love” sees the arrival of a Scott trope, the hovering static string arrangement later seen on “Sleepwalkers woman”, and the song is great too. Images of a friend’s funeral (I presume), and the song only enlivens towards the end when happy memories start to swirl around the narrator. “You’re gonna hear from me” and “Through a long and sleepless night” are fine enough but nowt special, Scott’s vocal can make anything worth listening to, but these are just fine. They pass the time. Scott’s final self written song “Always coming back to you” is better, more memories of a past love, glimpses of happiness in rainfall, always in rainfall, and tossed off asides vocally, slowly building to the crescendo of loss. Finally “Amsterdam” and Brel and I still don’t get it. Sorry, Brel lovers, and Scott singing Brel lovers. But for now this does nothing to me. But bear with me, dear reader, because (spoiler alert) I promise I get some Brel eventually.

So that was the debut. About as unpsychedelic as you can get. It still reached the top three in the album charts. That was good enough to carry on, and “Scott 2” emerged a year later. This time the front cover is a shot of Scott in action, on stage (presumably), while on the reverse there are moodier shots of Scott looking pensive, and a sleeve note from “his friend” which we shall return to after examining the album itself.

It starts, as did “Scott” with a galloping Brel song. “Jackie” was already quite infamous, Scott’s debut solo single from 1967 and banned by the BBC, though I presume it was played on whatever was left of pirate radio. And he appeared on the Frankie Howerd show on ITV. But generally it wasn’t a huge hit so placing it at the start of the album was either a misguided attempt at selling it again, or a reminder of what could have been. All of which distracts from the song which is a wild romp. Though of course really he should have called it “Scotty”. (Momus got this right with his version “Nicky”). It’s still a breathless and rather funny tale. Straight into “Best of both worlds” which gives an idea of how a 60s Scott Walker Bond theme would sound. The arrangement here is lovely, there’s already progression from the debut album, more subtlety, and the song suits him well. “Black sheep boy” is another Tim Hardin song and has a similar feel to “The lady came from Baltimore”, and another tale of outsiderdom. Quite lovely. “The amourous Humphrey Plugg” is the first Scott written epic and moves gracefully, some verses narrated by the protagonist’s partner (I think) while others are the protagonist’s own words or thoughts or fantasies. An escape from the humdrum drone of life, dreams of seduction and sin. “Pavements of poets will write that I died in nine angel’s arms” is such a great line. And where is Channing Way? Bradford??? “Next” comes – er – next and suddenly I realise why I’m not fond of some of these Brel songs. It’s down to my brother playing Bowie’s “My death” and “Amsterdam” over and over when I was younger (and I never really had that Bowie moment everyone else had has, but I did have the Scott Walker moment …) And “Next” of course is my brother playing the Sensational Alex Harvey Band version at me over and over. And I can’t get past that. Scott does his best and screams and hollers but I still don’t like it. Maybe I’m a prude. Hmm. “The girls from the streets” almost makes up for it, another night of sin, being led astray… Admittedly from this distance it’s a bit dodgy. Even so, “don’t look sad, things aren’t so bad, they’re just more wrong than right” remains relevant under any circumstances. The move from thumping verse into the waltzing chorus is glorious. There’s a lack of morality amongst these songs, no denouncement of what happens, another outsider viewpoint on life, making no judgements but observing.

“Plastic Palace People” used to be disturbing, it certainly was for a long time until I realised… Billy is the balloon, isn’t he? The gentle rise and fall of the verse is lovely but slightly unsettling. God I still can’t listen to this, it’s still making me tear up. You see I can’t do metaphor, analogies and personification. I take everything at face value. The chorus is more traditional, those high static string lines again. And then at the end of the chorus it goes even more unsettled, Scott’s voice gets a delay effect and the song collapses… No, I can’t listen to this still. I do like how the song swirls into its own kaleidoscope of sound as it fades out, a hint of psychedelia, which hasn’t been touched at all so far in Scott’s music. “Wait until dark” is quite lovely after that, a gentle breeze of a song. Notice how the orchestrations have become richer but also there’s slightly more emphasis on guitar and drums. “The girls and the dogs” is my favourite Brel song so far, partly for the joyous music and the tongue in cheek lyrics, even with some quite terrible rhymes. And Scott absolutely smashes this one, his singing is so spot on and funny, as is the arrangement, as noted by Tim Worthington as “the Terry Scott Falls Through A Chair comedy trombone” at the end of the song. (Read Tim’s excellent Scott post here)

The change over from the jocular to the serious then for Bacharach and David’s “Windows on the world” is quite something. This song is one of my favourite Scott covers actually, the arrangement is sympathetic and quietly paced, Scott doesn’t over-emote, and the delicate glockenspiel figures which conclude each chorus are heart stopping. And the song itself is quietly stunning too – are there references to the call up in America in the second verse? And the third a reference to Vietnam? That it is followed by “The Bridge” – another emotional song for me – this final trio of songs killed me. (Have I mentioned I split 12 song albums into 4 groups of three songs?) Yes “The Bridge”… Sudden thought, is the name “Madeleine” an oblique Proust reference? Oh lord this song kills me. “Come next spring” is a hopeful end to the album, which needed to be after the last two songs.

In the sleevenotes written by his friend, Scott says of the album “it’s the work of a lazy self indulgent man. Now the nonsense must stop and the serious business must begin”, and in a way I feel he was right. At this point his songwriting has stepped up a gear, and the song choices are better but there’s still an angle of all round showbiz entertainer on the album, even if the emotional depth of the songs – original and covers – is greater. The next album would be self written, with three Brel songs at the end.

So “Scott” and “Scott 2” arrived in my life on the same day, and I loved them so much I wanted 3 and 4 as soon as possible. I ended up buying both in August on a trip to Bristol, where I also bought the first single by Medicine and a Jasmine Minks album (I’d bought “Creation Soup vol 3” the week before and was so impressed by “Cold Heart” that I wanted to hear what an album of theirs was like). By now the crush was establishing itself, slowly and surely and I was quietly besotted. Not that this has any relevance to Scott Walker, but it might have had an impact on how I listened to these songs.

“Scott 3”, a close-up of an eye with Scott looking pensive in the eye of the storm. And a pretentious sleeve note. Let’s just look at the music…

“It’s raining today” and the static dissonant strings hover, gentle strummed guitars… Loves lost and found and lost and memories of “summer and you”. Those strings don’t bloody move. Scary. A sudden stop and the song turns … Normal, Scott remembers and moves on, but the static returns and nothing is changed really. Let the rain fall. “Copenhagen” is more hopeful, built on harps and pizzicato strings. The surges are ecstatic, the music falls like snowdrops. Again the song stops before the chorus, and Scott feels innocent and warm and in love, the children’s carousel at the end feels light headed and giddy. “Rosemary” is already heartbreaking in its sadness, even though the music is upbeat, a savage string arrangement. Remembrances of a dalliance, memories of a incipient dream which have been dashed… The final lines where Rosemary speaks herself are so true. So true. “Big Louise”… I mean I know it’s about a transvestite but Christ almighty it’s so much more universal than that, is it just me who empathises with this song? Jesus I can feel myself welling up on the lines “because the world’s passed her by”. Christ this song HURTS. So many chord changes which twist and turn and hurt like hell. Sorry, I think “Scott 3” will be like this. Didn’t time sound sweet yesterday? That line. Absolutely slays me every time. How can people listen to this and not be moved? “We came through” is a strident blast of hope, though there’s so much death and despair in here. A fatalism worth fighting for. The fireworks at the end are surely ironic. (Whispers) I don’t really get this one. We’ll come back to this soon. “Butterfly” is a gentle song, a happy interlude here. I can hear Andy Williams singing this. Lovely. “Two ragged soldiers”, oh here we go again. Tears again. Thumps the bed with his fist. So many twists of the musical knife. Memories and the past shared by two. The last verse again is a killer. This could be the tale of any two friends. I can’t see the screen I’m typing on. Sorry. Stunning. I’m not doing well here. Sorry. “30 Century Man” is such a shock after all the strings and drums – just Scott and his guitar. Play it cool. I actually find this quite funny, but am I meant to? “Winter night”… Here we go again. Tears. There are so many little parts of the arrangement which kill me. He’s singing about someone who is frozen and it should be me. It should be me. I’m supposed to be the rock, the Asperger’s making me unemotional, but this stuff KILLS ME, absolutely kills me. I can’t explain it either. It just hits nerves, the music and the words… Even the surge around the minute mark turns to melancholy with “But I’ll never light them up again”. After this “Two weeks since you’ve gone” is just as bad, frankly. More heartbreak and pain and yes tears and haven’t we all been here? And those chord changes. “And if I walk these streets long enough will you happen to me once again?” The move to that section is amazing, the introduction of bass and distant piano. And the change from “walk these streets” to “close my eyes”, just the remembrance and hope is there, and the song fades out on the piano and strings waltzing into the distance. And here is one of the most perfect song changeovers ever, as “Sons of” starts with almost the same waltzing piano in just about the same key and it’s perfect. Now we are into the three Brel songs and fuck me if I’m not already in tears by the end of the first verse of “Sons of” and I didn’t know why then and I think I do know why now. I think it’s called growing up. “Sons of” builds up beautifully, a perfect arrangement, and so gently sung. Fantastic. An ending which still surprises. “Funeral Tango” is dark humour at its finest, and considering how I didn’t like “Next” I think this is far better. Well I think it’s funny. And to follow this with “if you go away”, amazing. Have I mentioned how this song kills me too? Yes? It’s an emotionally draining performance at the end of an emotionally draining album.

“Scott 3” is such a huge leap onwards from the first two albums, the Brel songs match the darkness of the original songs and there’s a consistency across the arrangements and performances. Just ignore the sleeve notes. “3” was issued in March 1969, while Scott’s TV show was on the BBC, and songs from the album were performed on the show – “Winter night” and “We came through” surrounding two Dudley Moore Trio songs on the 11th March, “Big Louise” and “Funeral Tango” surrounding “Girl talk” by Maynard Ferguson on 1st April. But the exposure must have helped the album which reached the top five again in March. It was followed in July by the “Songs from his TV series” LP and then “Scott 4” was issued in November and disappeared almost immediately.

“The Seventh Seal” sets out the album and already there’s a difference, the mariachi trumpet, spaghetti western feel and emphasis on thumping bass and drums and guitar show this is a different Scott to the orchestra led numbers on his previous album. Sure there’s a string arrangement here but it’s not foregrounded, and the insistent tambourine leads the way, along with the Russian boatmen chorus. And Scott basically provides a synopsis of the film, with numerous key changes. And .. oh god…. I’m not really that impressed. Again, we will get to this later. “On your own again” is a beautiful miniature, gentle acoustic guitars and Scott singing close and intimate, and the surge at 50 seconds is quite gorgeous. What exactly is going on here I’ve never figured out, really. There’s so many personal pronouns involved it makes it hard to follow, you and ours, he and I… Still the final line is a killer “I was so happy I didn’t feel like me”. Yep, know that feeling. “The world’s strongest man” is Scott at his most vulnerable, a bed of wobbly organ and a soaring string arrangement on the chorus and oh look the tambourine is back. Of course Scott isn’t strong, and that makes the song more human, and it brings shudders – “And I need your love, you know, I can’t pretend it any more”. Scott scats away as the song fades. “Angels of ashes” is stunning, it just is, and it’s another song to induce tears. I have no idea what it means, but sometimes you don’t need to have meaning, you can just feel the emotional resonance. So many great lines here, I’m not going to quote. Oh my. It’s beautiful. Sometimes I feel like I’m a fraud writing this stuff, you’ve waded through thousands of words and I can’t even tell you what the songs mean, but I can tell you what they mean to me. Or maybe I can’t even achieve that. But I try. Is that ok? I hope so. “Angels of Ashes” is perfect. Is that ok? Oh damn, I’ve got “Boy child” next. “Boy child” is like “Sleepwalkers woman”, static and silence, spaces and emotions, you don’t need me now, do you? It’s just heart stopping. Emotionally exhausting. The lyrics seem metaphysical, I suppose. Vague but close enough for the listening to make their own interpretation. “Hero of the war” at the start of side two is quite a change, rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, tribal drums and that tambourine again. There’s a lot of bass guitar on “Scott 4”, you notice. Is this deliberate? Scott of course was the bass player in the Walker Brothers. I do like the phased string arrangement. All of which diverts from the fact the lyric is a bit heavy handed and obvious. Scott scats again. “The old man’s back again”… Listen to that bass again. Oh I feel bad about this, you know.. I love so many songs on “Scott 4” but this and “Hero of the war” and “The seventh seal” aren’t my favourites. I think I find them too obvious, I don’t enjoy them as much as the more personal songs. Maybe it’s because I want escapism, I want something which touches me on a personal level, not someone talking about a film or a news story. I guess I’m just simple really, I’ve not read the books, seen the films, got the references. But sing about love or a relationship and it touches my soul. Case in point – “Duchess”. Absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking. It’s almost Dylan-esque, just around the corner from “Sad eyed lady of the lowlands”, and with as much florid language. And of course the final four words turn the whole song on its head. “Get behind me”. Who, the devil? The past? It’s whatever you want to escape. It’s some strange AOR music, female backing singers must be wondering what the hell they’re singing about. The queasy minor to major changes shift beautifully and the bizarre bass jumps up and down and fuzz guitar soars. Sounds like “Throw down a line”, in a way. “So we won’t feel the gravity of time” – trying not to grow old, trying to move on. Passionate performance regardless. And finally “Rhymes of goodbye”. Another song which can bring me to tears and I don’t know why. It just kills me.

Every three years I would make up a top 40 songs and put them on a tape, 1983, 86, 89, 92. September 9th, if you must know. “Rhymes of goodbye” was a top ten entry in 92 and it’s still up there in my favourite songs ever. Up there with “Statues”, “A winter’s dawn”, “All that love and maths can do”, this is hallowed company for me. I must dig out the tapes for 92, it’s a classic. But remember I’d only had the album less than a month and it made such an impression that it was a top ten song. It’s weird, it’s another song I don’t understand but I feel like I get comfort from it. A warmth, an understanding glow. This is my interpretation, it’s how it reflects on me. And it kills me. Absolutely every time.

It’s weird, looking back…. The songs on the four Scott albums had absolutely nothing to do with what I was going through at the time, how could they reflect that? And that’s what the Biff Bang Pow albums were for. And yes I’m over it all. A long time ago. Listen to “Past caring” and “Spoiling the grand design”. But the albums seemed to paint the atmosphere a dark shade of blue, infuse my life and thoughts with deeper meaning, even if they didn’t directly attach themselves to memories.

Of course “Scott 4” wasn’t the end of the story. At some point in 1992 my brother bought a battered copy of “‘Til the band comes in”, what could have been “Scott 5”. I was slightly less impressed. When it’s good it’s great – “Little things”, the title track, “Long about now”. I knew the latter from the Fatima Mansions version on “Bertie’s Brochures”. But the cover versions were ropey, and again Andy Williams does a better version of “It’s over”, Scott phoning it in while Andy makes you believe the world is over. Was I interested in lacklustre cover albums from the 70s? No. Was I happy to find a copy of “Nite flights” and finally hear Scott’s four songs there? Damn right I was.

But new music? That was a bolt out of the blue. “Tilt” in 1995 was so different, so strange, so alien… Again it felt like a lifetime’s worth of energy went into it, and it would take a lifetime to unfathom it. Scott appeared on “Later…”, alone with a guitar, passionate and deeply into his performance. And then disappearance again, though not fully. There was always music on the sidelines, on film soundtracks, Dylan covers. And like Halley’s comet a new album every so often, each time deeper and more serious and more impenetrable, but still that voice and that power. Always moving on to something new.

And now he’s gone. Two weeks since he’s gone and I feel like an idiot for not writing this before. I started this post years ago, actually the day after that 1981 Top Of The Pops broadcast. His music has touched my heart and soul like the best, most loved music in my life. The memories are there, the music is there. I may not be clever enough to understand it all, I don’t know my Camus from my Sartre, I’m as existential as a penguin. But when it cuts to the heart of the human condition, songs like “Big Louise”, “Sleepwalkers woman”, “Duchess” and “The Bridge” will always be there for me. Thank you Scott and goodbye, I trust the angels of ashes are taking good care of you.

Street scenes and absent friends

Thoughts on “Hex” by Bark Psychosis, twenty five years on

For me “Hex” is the sound of an unfamiliar town as a cold winter turns into a slightly less cold spring. Dark nights, catching buses which take odd turns into housing estates I have no idea about, feeling uneasy, paranoid – where ARE we going? I don’t recognise this street, can everyone see the panic on my face? I’d only been living in Newport for a month or so, slowly settling into my new house. I didn’t know the town, only how to catch a bus in to the bus station and a bus out to work. If anything happened differently I was lost. One day it snowed and all the buses stopped, I tried to walk to work and got completely lost and ended up having to ring in to work from a call box to admit defeat and say I wasn’t coming in. My parents brought my cat Bez to live with me and he hated it – he missed his three feline playmates in Penarth, he didn’t like being stuck inside the house all the time and spent most of his days sat on top of my wardrobe miaowing at me. He went back after a week. It wasn’t that easy for me.

And “Hex” by Bark Psychosis is that feeling put into music.

Released 25 years ago today (that’s Valentine’s Day 1994) “Hex” was a debut album which had been four years in the making, and in a way was a culmination of a trend in music, and for all the times it has been referenced since, it stands alone and outside of everything.

Bark Psychosis were formed by Graham Sutton (guitar and vocals) and John Ling (bass) in 1986 when they were both 14, and became more of a going concern with the addition of Mark Simnett on drums and Daniel Gish on keyboards. They started gigging in 1988, playing live sets characterised by noise and aggression, hence the band name. After an initial appearance on a flexidisc free with Clawhammer fanzine, they signed to Cheree Records – home of The Telescopes and Whipping Boy – to issue their initial singles in 1990. Debut single “All different things” defined an early template for them – quiet tension, deep reverb, haunting minimal vocals then loud explosions of noise to release the tension. “Nothing feels” / “I know” was quieter still, all hushed whispers, heartbeat drums and atmosphere in spades. They were noticed in the music press and the likes of Simon Reynolds waxed lyrical on them in Melody Maker.

After a move to Third Stone Records, a new EP was issued in 1991 – “Manman”. This was progress… There was more emphasis on rhythm, a solid bottom of throbbing bass on the title track, a propulsive movement. But the following songs were even better. “Blood rush” is far from that, gentle waves of tremelo guitars, lightly brushed ride cymbals, Sutton’s subtle vocals, and then slowly the song rises over seven minutes, before merging into “Tooled up”, a brutal rhythm, again more tension and threat. Again more kind words from the music press…

And then there was “Scum”, an absolutely extraordinary single issued late in 1992. It felt like music was constantly striving for something greater, longer, more expansive at the time – singles like “Avenue”, “Gravity grave”, “Lazarus” and “The Blue Room” were pushing boundaries, and “Scum” was right up there with those singles. It was recorded in a church and sounded like it, so much natural reverb, so much space… nothing happened for minutes on end, just sound. Then drums in the distance, then a strummed chord of guitar, baseline throbbing and those whispered vocals again…. “don’t tell me that we’re all free”… (A response to “Everybody’s free to feel good” apparently). And it kept on building to a crescendo over minutes and minutes before floating back to silence. Over twenty whole minutes. Stunning.

That’s where I picked up on Bark Psychosis. I was intrigued by the rapturous praise from Melody Maker and bought the single and it was as good as they said. I couldn’t find any of their old records though so I just waited and waited for something new.

The first and last single from “Hex” was “A street scene”, and I bought the ten inch red vinyl from Diverse Records – one of my first purchases after moving to Newport in January 1994. It was almost a normal song, had dynamics and a tune but the slowing down coda was beautiful. And the b side “Reserve shot gunman” was more rhythm and threat with a squealling guitar solo. What would the album bring?

I bought “Hex” on the day it was issued, Valentine’s Day 1994. Not that I had a valentine that year. When lovers everywhere indulged in meals and chocolates and huge inflated prices for roses, I spent the night listening to the new Bark Psychosis album.

It’s not a conventional rock album – it was after all the album that gave rise to Simon Reynolds’ term “post-rock” – but it is mainly played out on conventional instruments. it was recorded meticulously and sequenced in places using whatever now-primitive technology was available at the time, but it all sounds natural. It doesn’t sound synthetic at all. There’s lovely tremelo guitar, bass and drums, piano sometimes in chords and patterns, sometimes just notes. The music ebbs and flows naturally, quiet to loud to quiet, the drums are brushed rather than hit hard, spaces in the music… And Graham Sutton’s whisper of a voice telling secrets and truths – “It’s gonna work out anyway”, “You turn my world upside down”, “And that’s the biggest joke of all”. Everything about the album is perfectly placed, not a note or second jarring or spoiling the late night atmosphere. And it does sound completely natural, you’d be hard pressed to hear the technology at work, the year spent working on samplers and sequencers was worth it to make it sound so much like a group of musicians playing together in a room (or a church)

Somehow it feels wrong to take the album song by song, dismantle the magic there and try to describe what happens. “Hex” is such a perfectly formed piece that I don’t want to do that. Each song is magnificent, moving along the pace deliberately and carefully. Each song means something special to me, those memories, those times. How about highlights then? The entrance of the Duke Quartet over the piano on “The Loom”, the gentle deceleration in the coda of “A street scene”. The twinkling guitars and synths which take over the second half of “Absent friend”. The night drive around town of “Big shot”. Then the closing two songs. “Eyes and smiles” flows from one section to another, that guitar pattern, cymbals keeping time, occasional bass, keyboards like a sunrise, moving across eight minutes of logic and beauty, rising to a crescendo as the musicians slowly increase the pressure, the drums swing around, the bass juts in, wild Miles Davis style trumpets blatt in, the levels increase and Sutton finally lets loose, shouting “And you’ve got to go on!”. After that – no more words. “Pendulum man” is a nine minute drift of guitars and synth washes, making the most of the echoes in the church being used to record the album. A great closer, relieving the tension building up to that point.

As I keep saying “Hex” felt like something ending and in a way it was. It was effectively the end of Bark Psychosis as a band, members were dropping out as the album was recorded, leaving only Sutton and Simnett as the members. But also it was the end of a trend in music too. Bands like Seefeel, Insides, Spoonfed Hybrid, Pram, Disco Inferno and Butterfly Child has been pushing the boundaries of music, integrating technology and sampling into their sound, and Bark Psychosis were part of this. When Simon Reynolds used the term “post-rock” when reviewing “Hex” he included all these artists in the same breath – there was a Melody Maker article on this around the same time. And somehow it felt by naming it the spirit of adventure was sullied in some way, and by 1995 post-rock was no longer what these artists had achieved but was moving towards America, towards Tortoise and La Bradford and instrumental textures. Nothing wrong with that, but the spirit of adventure in the British music was slowly dissapating. But that’s another tale. Bark Psychosis issued one more single “Blue” – a heartfelt and passionate New Order homage – before disappearing, Sutton moved on to jungle and Boymerang and a career as a producer with an incredible ear for space and sound. Bark Psychosis would return in 2004 with the album “Codename : Dustsucker”, an excellent follow up to “Hex” but it was a Sutton solo project.

But “Hex” has had an interesting afterlife. I always thought Scott Walker’s “Tilt” album had hints of Bark Psychosis in it. Certainly Slowdive were listening because “Blue skied an’ clear” on “Pygmalion” owes a lot to “Hex”. And as time has passed songs appear which are in thrall to Bark Psychosis, by bands like These New Puritans, Mogwai, Doves and Trembling Blue Stars. “Hex” became a touchstone for other artists or fans to mention in awe, alongside “DI go Pop”. A reissue and remaster two years ago was welcome. Of course now it’s seen in the lineage of experimental rock music alongside the later Talk Talk albums (whose own use of silence and noise must have had some influence on Bark Psychosis). It’s also an album which stands outside of time – nothing in the sounds datestamps the music to a particular year, no synths or drum machines to date the music. Timeless.

But let’s not forget the album itself and that moment in time – “Hex” was issued on Circa Records, a subsidiary of Virgin, and I clearly remember a lot of promotion going into it – the single discounted in shops, album displays in HMV and Virgin, posters all over Corporation Road for “Hex” (and that’s another memory I would rather forget), songs appearing on Virgin samplers – “A street scene” on “Signed sealed delivered” compilation, “Pendulum Man” on the 3rd “Ambient” collection. The label really pushed “Hex” and maybe there was a hope it could become mainstream. Who knows? A major label took a chance on such an odd record at such an odd time. Those days are long gone.

So turn off the lights, watch the night fall with the curtains open and let “Hex” weave its magical spell. Try not to get lost

Fear of an imperfect voice

Thoughts on “Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?” by Deerhunter

Sometimes it’s good to approach an album knowing nothing about the artist. Sometimes it’s better to approach an album having misconceptions about the artist which can be destroyed by listening to the album. I don’t know where I got the idea that Deerhunter were some weird Avant Garde act, I may have even confused them with Deerhoof, but I know it was based on a live review I saw in an old issue of Mojo many years ago and quite frankly I don’t see the point in investigating that one. But let me be perfectly clear on this – whatever I thought Deerhunter were, I wasn’t expecting this.

Ignorance is bliss too. I’ve tried to avoid as much information about the album so I can assess it just on how it sounds and how the words come through. You know, listen without prejudice. There are stories of inspirations for some songs, but I feel they get in the way of the songs. Do I need to know the genesis of “No one’s sleeping”? No, I can pick up the unease from a cursory listen to the song.

And so to the album itself, or rather a second attempt at the album. A first attempt was so pitiful that I binned it so I’m trying again…

You see, I’ve been making a case for this album that yes maybe it’s about darkness and death but you can’t really tell that from the music alone. But that’s a lie really. Of course you can pick that up. Maybe I’m just naive, or I don’t listen closely enough. As soon as I started to analyse the songs the darkness was overwhelming, I couldn’t help spotting the references. This annoyed me, not because it went against my own argument, but because listening to the music alone I didn’t pick up the darkness. Or maybe I’m just a bit shallow and don’t listen properly.

So yes lyrically there’s darkness and death and fear. “Death in midsummer” (death, Rob, death, it’s there right in your face) has Bradford Cox singing “Your friends have died… They are in graves now” and in the quiet coda he looks on sadly at the world “Look around and you’ll see what’s fading”. And that’s just the opening song. There’s more, a lot more. “Element” seems to be describing an apocalypse, “Threads” in a pop song (not an original thought, but nuclear dread is so 20th century). “Curtain call for all those lives spent surviving for that final day”. “No-one’s sleeping” due to a great unrest, and even the village greens aren’t safe any more. (I’m trying to avoid the subject matter on that one because it does touch nerves). “Futurism” seems to hinge on Cox almost stopping the song to deliver the final word on the line “Call it what you want dear, I call it ‘Fear'”. I don’t know… And what does happen to people? That’s a question asked on here, why do they change? From idealism to … What exactly?

But behind the darkness the music is rich, colourful and far from melancholy. “No-one’s sleeping” ends with a glorious instrumental coda, “Element” has Chamberlain strings and autoharps buzzing, “Futurism” and “Plains” are deceptively upbeat musically. This isn’t minor chord sadness, if it is apocalypse that Cox is facing, then he’s facing it with a grin on his face.

There’s a few detours along the way. “Greenpoint Gothic” is pure cusp of the 80s Gary Numan, those Vox Humana PolyMoog sounds are complimented nicely by gamelan piano and marimbas. “Tarnung” again points to the early 80s, a marimba pattern repeats with high and lonesome monosynths and pattering drum machines, an oriental tone. There’s hints of Japan, the quieter side of “Deceit” era This Heat and the clanking background noise on early Eyeless In Gaza songs. Spooked to say the least.

And then there’s “Detournement” which unsettles the flow of the album. Not musically, the slow build of layers of guitars, pianos and synths makes sense. But the vocal … It’s a spoken word piece, placed through some peculiar electronics to harmonise and pitchshift, to smear and smudge the words. And it still freaks me out. I don’t know what the words are trying to say, it seems like a travelogue around the world. But the effect on the voice unsettles me, I find it uncomfortable to listen to. I’ve always been this way, from “Fitter happier” backwards to “Radioland”, it sends shivers down my spine.

The closing song “Nocturne” has a similar effect. A slow crawl with electric pianos and a stumbling drumbeat, Cox’s vocal is cut up and smeared, dropping out here and there, making it impossible to understand (the lyric sheet is the same, missing letters and words). Again it’s uncomfortable, sense is abandoned, though Cox’s passion to express himself is evident. But the cut out vocal has an unfortunate effect of invoking the memory of Norman Collier, which probably isn’t the idea. So the voice is imperfect again but at least I can get past it now. Thankfully once the vocal is abandoned after two minutes, the tempo is doubled and everything rights itself – a piano thumps out a regular chord sequence, drums are clattered, and waves of synths add melody upon melody. Another 1981 reference – it sounds like an outtake from “Anywhere”, New Musik’s marvellous second album. And this continues for about four minutes, with a few changes along the way. It’s like sunlight after the rain, a joyous return to normality, or a final ascension to heaven. Either way, it’s a great way to close the album.

Does “Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?” reflect life? Depends how life is. Does anyone have this much to worry about? Probably doesn’t reflect Bill Gates’ or Theresa May’s lives. They may have other worries than those expressed here. But it may reflect life for you, if you think deeper than me. Maybe that’s why I’m a goldfish. Walk around and you’ll see what’s faded.

An album for a year

It’s the time of year when everyone gets their lists out and everyone else goes “Oh come on, what about …. And …. and…. ” We’ve all done it. Looked at lists and thought “I don’t know half of these” or “Half of these are shit” or “I swear they’ve made these up” or “But is the Low album that good?” (Answer – yes it is actually).

I’ve made up lists before and I probably will again, but this year I don’t feel like it. I’ve consumed as much music as last year but I don’t feel like it has nourished me as much as it did last year. Maybe that’s me, who knows? Music has gone in and gone out, and there haven’t been that many albums which have stuck around in my mind or my iPod or phone or whatever playback method I have chosen. There have been some, but not many.

But one album has remained constant this year from the moment I heard it. I’ve not removed it from my phone since the Summer, and I’m still listening to it now in December and still finding new corners and ideas and lyrics….

That album is “DejaVu” by Matty.

It’s all Colin Newman’s fault, to be honest. I wouldn’t have discovered the album if Newman hadn’t included it on his Bakers Dozen article in the Quietus in the summer, July 17th to be honest. Newman’s comments mentioning Todd Rundgrun, Emmit Rhodes and other 70s soft rockers piqued my interest and the next day I listened to the album for the first time, and immediately downloaded it. It certainly made an impression, I even remarked on my Twitter feed about one song going full on skronk at the end.

And then I kept listening to it. Not all the time, not obsessively, but every few days I would return to it, listen in full and start to recognise the songs in order, hear lyrics which resonated, and feel like I was knowing the songs more. That hasn’t changed from July to December. I’m still listening to the album every few days. A week certainly hasn’t past where I haven’t listened to it. I’ve probably banged on about it on Twitter to anyone and everyone and all my followers are probably sick of it, in which case this post is a chance to get Matty out of my system once and for all.

So who is Matty? Matty is Matthew Tavares, of Toronto. He is the keyboard player in Badbadnotgood, and I’m not going to pretend I know anything about them because I don’t. It seems that a year or so ago Tavares had some kind of burn out, took time away from the band to create “DejaVu”. There may have been some other things happening in his life at the time, the lyrics indicate some heartbreak and disappointment in relationships. But that’s just my reading. Whatever happened, he channelled his feelings into the album and it shows.

The album opens with “Embarrassed”, a midtempo loping song, already setting up the general parameters within which most of the album will operate. Simple drums and bass (played by other members of Badbadnotgood) anchor the song while washes of synth chords swirl around the listener, and an insistent keyboard melody makes an impression. Matty’s vocal seems to be about social embarrassment – “it’s why I keep the conversations small” – but as the song progresses it becomes clear the “other” voice – the “you” in the lyric – is his own inner voice, the one telling him uncomfortable truthes.

“Verocai” (I have no idea what that means) is the closest here to the Rundgrun / Rhodes 70s soft rock the album was billed as. The melody and chords are all piano based, the tune slipping and sliding with occasional dropped beats (there’s no percussion at all on this song), but as the chorus draws near, more instrumentation comes into view – a synthetic string arrangement which enriches the song immensely. I’m really not sure what the lyrics are trying to say here – harking back to a past before a relationship started maybe – “When things have gone too far there’s always a way to go backwards” – but the heavenly lift of Matty’s falsetto on the chorus, alongside the sudden string arrangement, brings an early album highlight. In a way this reminds me of early Plush, so it’s 70s soft rock third hand in a way. Still lovely though.

“How can he be” is a breezy pop song which owes a hint towards “Hey Ya” (to my ears anyway), maybe it’s the snappily strummed acoustic guitar chords. The words however have a ring of bitterness – he’s seen her with someone else who looks like him and it’s tearing him up, possibly through his own lack – “the flames of love stifled through insecurity”. Two verses and choruses pass by before you even notice and the quiet coda leads nicely into the next song, but this may be the most instant song on the album.

“I’ll gladly place myself below you” is the heart of the album for me. So many contradictions and so much self doubt, it’s almost painful to listen to the words, and yet they are sung so sweetly in such a world weary manner too. The song itself is quiet, clanking sounds like partly working machinery around four repeated chords and minimal drum machine, but there are layers added as the song moves on – marimbas and more. The whole lyric is so heartbreaking, each line adding another shovel on dirt on a relationship which is clearly toxic, nobody is happy, nobody is getting what they need, lines end with a world weary “oh man….”. And in the middle a line so perfect it makes me gasp for breath each time I hear it – “Here in the mystery of what can make me content”. So much to unpack in those ten words, and yet they are followed by the coruscating “I guess the only thing that’s left to change is my intent …But I won’t“. Each line cuts deep. Around two minutes the song builds up, wordless high harmonies, more keyboards and drums finally appear, rolling onwards to a crescendo of painful truth, for everything to drop out after a final chorus, two keyboard parts weave around in the air, and an instrumental coda feels like the calm after the storm. A stunning song.

“Clear” is anything but, except for the music which is pure bliss. In a way, the music is close to yacht rock here – not too fast, a slight swing to the beat, but not to begin with – Matty sings the first verse over a bed of synth chords. He’s in a new relationship but there’s ghosts of the previous relationship hanging over him – “If you’re the one I needed / Why does her memory still creep in?” Yet the music is lovely, lots of wordless high harmonies and the second half has peculiar half sung vocals over the squelchy synths and stumbling drum fills.

“Polished” has a bass drum and hi-hat pulse rushing through it with softly strummed guitars and odd synthetic orchestral instrumentation. The lyrics seem to be about seeing the perfection in someone but there’s a distance here, a reflection, a vision once removed. Once the singing stops a sax of some kind wails away, starting in a melodic manner but getting more and more “out there” and skronky as it progresses, until a dead stop.

“Nothing, yet” is complicated yet simple. The music is uptempo in the verses before moving to half that tempo in the chorus, a bright and breezy little three chord tune, sung so sweetly. Yet the words take in so many aspects, moving through another dimension in death, personal philosophy on life, bitchy statements on other people…. It hurts but is sung so gently, even the work “motherfuckers” slips down easily. And in the middle of the second chorus “I’m too afraid of always bein’ rejected / Or accepted too“. In which case basically he can’t win, can he? Harsh.

“Butter” sees Matty stop looking inward and looking outward to his family. He gives glimpses of his mother, father and brother with small vignettes of their existence but none of them seem satisfied, “How can life be beautiful without it being pitiful?” But the chorus brings it into focus – “Life is always weird and hard” before a plea for love. But “Butter” is one of the loveliest songs here, I hear hints of “You showed me” by The Turtles amongst the bass guitar samples, strange noises clashing and a rich string arrangement, half pizzicato plucking. And it’s so ridiculously catchy too. Another highlight.

And finally the album reaches the title track. It starts with a simple bass drum pulse over which various layers of keyboards bang on one chord, and stay on that chord for nearly two minutes before hovering around to other chords, drum machines join in, piano chords add dissonant tones, yet the movement around the song is minimal… The pulsing gets more insistent even though the chord changes are few and far between, allowing the listener to focus on what different layers are being faded in and out. By four minutes it seems the chords have stabilised into one place and a rattling cheap little drum machine is slowly introduced, and finally at 5:30 it drops to just the cheap drum machine and a bass pulse. And Matty decides to sing, and it feels like he’s worked out his feelings at last.

I was kind to everybody
‘Cause I needed love so badly
That I traded happiness
At my own expense

Slowly layers are added, keyboards add melody here and there before dropping away to a piano playing three melancholy chords as Matty sings

So I guess this is goodbye
To my previous lies
Thanks for all the wasted time
Not that I was regrettin’

Has he found some solace? It’s ambiguous – he doesn’t regret wasting his time, but the music (now richer, repeating those melancholy chords) does not give resolution either, and in the wrong mood can induce tears in me. Don’t know why, maybe it’s the bittersweet nature of it all. Either way, the full eight and a half minutes of “DejaVu” have become my favourite song of the year, played on repeat, added to mixes, mixed in against other songs like “Heads” by Medicine which has a similar pulse and poise.

One other thing about the song… And I may end up sounding like an idiot here…. Have you ever come into a song halfway through a beat or a bar, so the whole rhythm sounds off kilter? Does this happen to other people? To start listening to a song on the third beat of a bar and your brain can’t quite process where the bar is supposed to start and the song takes on a new dimension of wrongness? Just me then. Oh. Anyway, this happens a lot with “DejaVu”, it’s easy to mishear the start of the bar and to be swept along in the song hearing it in the wrong way, and it’s only when the song drops down to drum machine at five minutes that the brain snaps back into the proper rhythm. Amazing when it happens.

So that’s “DejaVu” by Matty. It seems he has returned to Badbadnotgood now and it’s possible the album was a chance to express feelings felt at the time, and once the expression has been made there’s no need for a solo ‘career”. But this is still my favourite album of the year, a one off, a unique event. There’s touches of other music here – I’ve seen mentions for yacht rock and Tame Impala’s modern psychedelia, and Tavares coats his vocals in a double tracked reverb haze, and the music is suitably hazy in places. But this is refreshing, melodic, invigorating and with depths and layers within the music and the words. If Tavares produces no more solo material, I’ll be happy that he produced this one record and made my life better through it.

Well this has been fun, my first Goldfish post in over 18 months. Maybe I should do this more often. I may put together another playlist of my favourite songs of the year. Watch this space.

Kraftwerk – human after all

Regular Goldfish readers will know that I love Kraftwerk, I’ve written about them here and here and I’ve also written a Toppermost post on them. I have loved their music for over 30 years now and they are up there with The Beatles and The Durutti Column and The Kingsbury Manx in my pantheon of perfect music. New music from Kraftwerk is very rare so has always been greeted with much reverence and attention.

I can still remember that first listen to “Electric Cafe” in the Autumn of 1986, scouring the sleeve for clues, why did it sound so pared down, where were rich European melodies? There were hints – a moment in “Boing boom Tschak” where a counterpoint bass line appears two minutes into the song, and I thought “Oh this is where it gets going” only it didn’t. There was too much emphasis on rhythm tracks and not enough song craft for me back then, the balance between the two had slipped in the wrong direction.  Of course “The Telephone Call” was wonderful, and “Sex Object” had a peculiar grandeur to it, but my main memory of that first listen was the section of “Techno Pop” where Ralf or Florian play a sequence over and over while paging through presets on their DX7. Later I changed my mind, realised that the rhythm was where electronic music was heading and

When “The Mix” album was issued in 1991 it became part of the soundtrack of my finest summer, bought in June on CD, my first Kraftwerk CD, which then encouraged me to buy the rest of their catalogue in that format (it was “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine” bought a week later alongside “Cupid and Psyche 85” in a HMV three for twenty quid offer, my CDs still have the stickers on then). Even the “Tour De France” CD single all was greeted with joy, even if it didn’t contain the original 12” mix. “Expo 2000” may have been little more than a jingle but the remixes were special. By the time the “Tour De France Soundtracks” album had been issued in 2003, I was a member of an online music forum which went nuts on the album and I wrote some pertinent words which people seemed to agree with, which I found strange. People usually didn’t agree with me on music, now I was in a community which loved and cared about music as much as I did, and I still speak online with some of the people in that community thanks to Twitter, and consider them to be friends. You know who you are. But after 2003, new music was not forthcoming. They played live, the shows were spectacular, the live album “Minimum Maximum” was rather good, but there was nothing new. Even welcome remasters of the back catalogue in 2009 just brought more frustration – why the move away from the original sleeves? Why were the credits changing? After Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008, Ralf Hutter turned Kraftwerk into an artefact – playing their eight albums in consecutive concerts in art galleries and special places, such as the Museum Of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Even so, I never thought I would get the chance to see Kraftwerk live – the Tate Modern shows sold out ridiculously fast. I heard bootlegs and dreamt of the amazing 3D visuals.

I was surprised and excited then by the announcement of a proper UK tour during June 2017. Kraftwerk weren’t playing in Wales, well why should they? But Bristol is near enough for me. So when the tickets went on sale in October 2016 I was poised over the refresh button at 10am ready to purchase my dream ticket. But come the moment of reckoning, the tickets sold out within 10 seconds, the time it took me to choose where I wanted to sit in the venue and how many tickets I wanted. Those damn ticket buying robots had beaten me to it. Ten seconds and gone. I almost cried, my chance had been missed. A few days later my good friend Ray from Country Mile Records told me how he had purchased two tickets directly from the venue but again by the time I checked the Colston Hall website they were gone.

I settled for the next best thing – I ordered the “3D Catalogue” 8 CD set and waited for it to arrive two days after my birthday at the end of May. This box set was live recordings of their eight albums as they had been played during their “Catalogue” concerts, and I couldn’t wait to hear them, to hear songs from side two of “Autobahn” in the new format, or even the songs from “Electric Café” like “Sex object” and “The telephone call”. How would these songs be adapted? Would there be audience noise like on “Maximum Minimum”?

It has been tricky explaining the 3D set to people who don’t know or care about Kraftwerk. For a start, there are people who just don’t understand how important Kraftwerk are. How their visions of the future back in the seventies – totally electronic music, people communicating by computers, the robots in our lives, the man and machine in ‘perfect’ harmony – are now so commonplace that we don’t even think about them. Also how much influence they have had on music, from the electro pop of the 80s, through hip hop, techno and beyond. While Kraftwerk have not issued any new music since 2003, they have continued to reinvigorate their back catalogue, as the live shows have demonstrated, updating the songs to be played with the latest technology at their disposal.  It’s a hard analogy to explain. While some artists have recreated individual albums for live concerts, there have been few examples of an artist playing their entire catalogue live (I can only think of Sparks doing this beside Kraftwerk). Other electronic pioneers have reinterpreted some of their albums – Tangerine Dream were notorious for this, and more often than not any later version of “Phaedra” just didn’t have the same atmosphere as the original 1974 version, those charmingly out of tune Moogs and mellotrons. Surely Kraftwerk wouldn’t fall into the same trap?

The 3D box did not disappoint. OK, a little more information would have been useful – for instance where the albums or tracks were recorded other than a list of venues they have played. But once the car door slams at the start of “Autobahn” on CD1, the listener is immersed in Kraftwerk’s world. I did try and listen to all eight albums in one sitting but it didn’t seem fair – I felt I should devote myself to each album a little while to pick up nuances and differences. For a start, the music is shiny, gleaming and perfect. The quality of the sound design is faithful to the original albums in places but updated in different ways. “Autobahn” is still an emotional journey, I’ve found myself moved to tears during the final part of the song itself, while the four songs on side two merge into a lovely medley – “Kometenmelodie 1” stills sounds abstract and a link back to the three albums before it, while “Kometenmelodie 2” is as good as pop instrumental as you’ll find. “Mitternacht” merges into “Morgenspaziergang” nicely, and maybe it is the first time I noticed that the melody of the latter is slightly adapted from one of the sections in “Autobahn” – and how long have I been listening to the “Autobahn” album? “Radioactivity” is a revelation – each individual piece is brilliant anyway, but some of the new interpretations are startling and wonderful, not least “Airwaves” which now shows how much Giorgio Moroder took from Kraftwerk back in the day. I would have liked “Transistor” and “Ohm sweet ohm” to last forever, quite frankly, “Trans Europe Express” is possibly the weakest of the new interpretations to my ears, the medley of “Franz Schubert” into “Endless Endless” into “Europe Endless” works well, and Hutter’s voice cracks on some lines here, But here the new versions aren’t different enough, or maybe that’s just me. “The Man Machine” and “Computer World” though are perfect – the right combination of sounding like the originals but with new elements. These are the most played albums in the set for me, and frankly I can’t find much to say about them. They are respectful but modern, which is a hard trick to pull off successfully. “Neon lights”, “Home computer”, “The man machine”, “Computer love”…. the “It’s more fun to compute” / “Home computer” medley is absolutely spellbinding. There’s a slight hint of something not quite right about “Pocket Calculator” which I think is an extra beat in the rhythm track but what the hell, I’m splitting hairs here. “Techno Pop” is a revelation – the beats are stronger, the music richer… “The telephone call” losing its vocal (but then that was Karl Bartos who hasn’t been a member for many decades), and “Sex object” gains the original insistent bassline from the unreleased 1983 version. “The Mix” set is especially designed for headphones, being a 3D sound design exercise and is excellent, and also includes “Planet of visions” – the new version of “Expo 2000”. Finally “Tour De France Soundtracks” is the most similar to its original version, but still sounds fantastic – “Vitamin” has been given a spring in its step, “Aerodynamic” is full of propulsion and “Le Forme” is graceful and mournful. Much like the closing “Golden slumbers” medley on “Abbey Road”, this song feels like the last piece of music the band will make and has a strange emotional pull for me. All in all, the 3D boxed set is a success.

A few days after receiving the 3D set, I happened to take a look at the Colston Hall website and was amazed to see they had a few tickets available. I didnt hang around, I bought one, and then waited patiently for the ticket to arrive. Had it all been a strange fever dream? Was it a con? Had I paid money for nothing? Eventually the ticket arrived and it was true, I was going to see Kraftwerk after all. I arranged transport with Ray and counted down the days until Saturday arrived. I still couldn’t believe it – I had loved Kraftwerk since 1983, and now I was going to see them. How would I cope? There was a sense of anticipation outside and inside the Colston Hall, we were handed our 3D glasses on entry and I found my seat in the stalls and settled down, taking the obligatory shot of the glasses and putting it on Twitter. I felt quite young, looking at the audience. There were fans dressed up like the “Man Machine” cover – red shirts, black ties. The man beside me asked if I’d seen them before, I said I hadnt. He told me he saw them in Poland – “Prepare to be amazed”.

At 8pm, the lights dimmed, and the vocodor introduced the band in the dark, the curtains swung open, revealing the four workstations and the numbers started, literally. 12345678 12345678. The numbers flashed onscreen and swung over our heads, the beats kicked in and Kraftwerk strolled on and stood at their stations and we were off. While nobody was expecting much in terms of showmanship from the Germans, the 3D visuals made up for it. Admittedly I didnt get the full benefit as I only have vision in my right eye, so I had to take everyone else’s word for it about what was happening, but the audience reaction let me know that the visuals were an absolute blast. Having absorbed the 3D box, I knew how the music would sound but even still there was room to improvise, beats were louder and stronger, sections were extended, melodies changed and melded. “Home computer” was brilliant, even better than the recorded version. “Computer love” had a natural ebb and flow, “The man machine” swung, “Neon lights” was awesome – Hutter’s vocal was awestruck, as if he was seeing the lights for the first time. “Spacelab” had amazing visuals, a satellite flying over the audience’s heads (eliciting a huge “whoooo” from the crowd), then a spacecraft flying over Bristol. “Autobahn” seemed to be marred by problems, Hutter looked like he was battling his workstation, filter sweeps appearing the wrong places, were there problems with the machines? “Autobahn” was swiftly dispatched, losing its melancholy closing section which was a shame. “Airwaves” was a shock, a surprise and an absolute blast, while “Radioactivity” had sub bass to die for, and blasted away any remnants of worry. “Electric Cafe” was also a pleasant surprise. “Tour De France” merging into “Etape 1” was marvellous, the sprint of “Chrono” sounding better than ever. Finally “Trans Europe Express” and more problems – there were no vocals at all (bar a few vocodor interjections), a purely instrumental version, had Hutter’s microphone failed? He didn’t look happy at all. The curtains closed for the end of the main set.

Next came “The Robots”, and even these were slightly different to the version on the box set. Were the members of Kraftwerk playing instruments behind the scenes while we watched their robotic counterparts? Who knows. Still a startling vision of pop without human input. The curtains closed again.

As the curtains reopened, Hutter spoke to us – “Life is better with a microphone”. “Aero Dynamic” was a thrilling encore, Hutter clearly enjoying himself, the bass throbbing out. “Planet of visions” was almost unrecognisable (unless you knew the DJ Orlando mix), sounding like a new piece of music, and the members were clearly revelling in it, adjusting the sounds and the visuals to reflect their happiness – all four members were tapping their toes and shaking their legs as the song heralded the links between Germany and Detroit. Finally the “Boing Boom Tschack” / “Techno pop” / “Musique Non Stop” medley which frankly could have lasted forever for me, i never wanted this to end. The ending of the concert will stay with me forever, I won’t spoil the pleasure for those who have yet to see it. The standing ovation from the crowd was well deserved, and the band seemed touched by the response to their music. Hutter took a bow, touched his heart and sent out a kiss, the man machine was human after all

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Was it one of the best concerts I’ve seen. Absolutely. Will I remember it forever? Absolutely.

Kraftwerk deserve their place as innovators, both in music and as a visual show. They have made themselves into a work of art and should be treasured. Enjoy them while they are still here.

A Crack In The Clouds

September 1986.

A time for a change of scenery, somewhere different, stuck in the same place for six years, starting out as success then gradually sinking to the bottom, uncared for, spurned by friends, ignored by everyone else. .. start again, no history, fresh start, clean slate, see what happens.

My first year in the sixth form had been an unmitigated disaster. Any hopes of passing any A Levels were thrown out of the window. Either I didn’t understand the questions or I wasn’t going to ask for help and my mind was befuddled by girls and music and God knows what else, but I was sinking and hated it and didn’t really know how to stop it. The escape route was shown by my brother – a year older than me, he sat his A Levels in the summer of 1986 and comprehensively failed them. Everyone went nuts, the school was blamed and he was found a place to resit the A Levels in New College, a fee paying school in the centre of Cardiff. After a little bit of shuffling, it was agreed that I should transfer there as well to complete my second year of A level studies.

So September was a chance to say goodbye to the old school and hello to the new college. No more uniform, no more useless teachers, no more staring at crushes across the common room. I returned to school for one brief moment, mainly to say goodbye, stick two fingers up at people and tell the teachers to piss off (except for one,  who had tears in her eyes). After this supposedly triumphant exit from the state school system, I felt like a bit of a arse for being so horrible but it did feel good at the time. I then settled down to life at New College.

As it was in Cardiff, my brother and I would have to travel by train every day to get there. Luckily my father worked in Brunel House, the enormous building next to Queen Street station, so caught the train from Penarth to Queen Street every day and we simply joined him. It was quite a novelty, leaving the house together, picking up reading matter in the newsagents (always NME and MM for me) and standing in the recently built red metal shelter on the platform, squeezing on the multiple units, the train jogging down the hill towards Cogan, then through the many tracks around the Grangetown works area, into Cardiff Central where we may alight or on to Queen Street… It was a very different Cardiff then,  out of Central I would walk behind the Central Hotel (where I would regularly buy bootlegs at record fairs), along Bute Terrace beside the railway line to get to New College, a lovely 18th century building full of oak floors, dark corridors and cosy classrooms. Leaving Queen Street, I’d head past the Tandy store on the corner onto Churchill Way, past the British Gas building and along to what used to be the British Gas building before the redevelopments of the eighties, back when Mill Lane went somewhere….

And I settled in quickly, made a few friends, realised that being in Cardiff everyday would be detrimental to my bank account if I was to buy all the records I saw. September brought “Brotherhood”, “The Pacific Age”, “Spacemate”, “Filigree and shadow”, “Gone to earth”, “Talking with the taxman about poetry”, “Blood and chocolate” (the Virgin branch on the top floor of Debenhams had the cassette made to look like a bar of Bourneville chocolate)… I hardly bought any of these at the time…. Two albums in fact, and we won’t discuss either of those now, because it wasn’t just albums in September 1986, there were singles too and one in particular….

September 1986

A time for a change of scenery, somewhere different, stuck in the same place for six years, starting out as success then gradually sinking to the bottom, uncared for, spurned by friends, ignored by everyone else. .. start again, no history, fresh start, clean slate, see what happens.

Julian Cope had signed to Phonogram Records in 1980 at the behest of David Bates who thought Cope could be a pop star and in the six years that followed, his career path had peaked and troughed quite mightily. The singles “Reward” and “Treason” had placed his band The Teardrop Explodes in the spotlight while he was fracturing his psyche with an alarming quantity of mind altering chemicals. Commercial failure for the second Teardrops album led to a slow form of collapse for the band, shedding members every few months yet still creating marvellous music along the way. Cope’s solo career had garnered little critical acclaim and even fewer sales, but his cult loved him and the music, and cherished nuggets from his two solo albums “World Shut Your Mouth” and “Fried”. But in 1986 there was a change – he moved from Phonogram to Island Records, paid off the debt to the former label through a new publishing deal and set about a new phase of his music. No new music had emerged since the start of 1985 – the b sides to “Sunspots” which were clearly in the same mould as “Fried”, and the songs recorded for Janice Long at the end of 1984, a session I remember had confused me a lot at the time. But in 1984 I wasn’t that aware of his catalogue, of course that would change in 1985 (see many previous Goldfish posts). By September 1986 I had bought all the back catalogue I could (I think only the first two Teardrops singles in Zoo had eluded me at that point) and had a few bootlegs of unreleased Teardrops, Cope live shows, Cope radio sessions, all kinds of things. And I was certainly ready for new music from Julian Cope.

Of course I bought the twelve inch of “World Shut Your Mouth” on the day of release. There’s an immediate advantage to being in Cardiff on Mondays. I didn’t have to hang around for the weekend to buy my favourite records. And I was very happy with the new music too. The title track was simple, a “Louie Louie” and “Hang on Sloopy” for the 80s, sharp pop with an edge, but still a little more glossy than even the poppiest moments on “Fried”. The song stuck in your head after one listen, it had a chorus you could easily make your own, a cracking little guitar solo, loads of key changes as the song proceeds to its close. What was there not to love? It sounded like a hit record.  Admittedly it sounded like very little else in the charts but it did sound like it belonged there.

There were still four other new songs on the twelve inch,  and I knew from experience that Cope liked to have decent b sides. “I’ve got levitation” was a 13th Floor Elevators song and sounded like it was cut from the same cloth as the lead song – simple riffs, a raw performance, rather brilliant, but then at this point I didn’t know the original. “Non alignment pact” originally opened Pere Ubu’s debut LP “The modern dance”. Obviously Cope can’t compete with David Thomas’ unearthly shriek and there’s no squealing synth noise to delight / distract, otherwise entirely creditable. “Umpteenth unnatural blues” is a cracking little song, some very neat lines and a cool yet simple arrangement, but my diary records that I thought it was somewhere close to the greatest song on earth. It’s not that great, but it’s pretty good. Lastly “Transporting” is a psychedelic groover, sounding like the band aren’t quite listening to each other (which turns out to be close to the truth) and features a rather nifty riff which I would promptly steal for myself.

“World Shut Your Mouth” was a big deal. And this time it would be unavoidable. For once the media loved him, and welcomed him back with open arms. He was there on “Wogan”, the Irish broadcaster looking slightly baffled by Cope hanging off his green mic stand / climbing frame contraption. He was there on “Number 73”, the band playing live and sounding spot on. And best of all he was back on Top Of The Pops, after five years absence. The song was all over the radio, it sounded like a huge hit, it felt like a huge hit… and it slowly climbed the charts to reach number 19 in October, a very slow crawl. But somehow it felt like it was a much bigger hit than that, the video was always on TV and the new fangled video jukebox which took over my local pub The Railway that Autumn.  I remember it being played a lot there, alongside “To Be A Lover” by Billy Idol. Both songs harkened back to classic songwriting tropes and stood out in the charts.

And this should have been my moment. I had spent the previous year trying to get my friends interested in Cope’s music and nobody had listened, except Nigel who was always receptive to whatever I recommended, and this was around the time he bought his prized copy of “The wrong people” by Furniture and he would play me “She gets out the scrapbook” and we would both sigh wistfully. But nobody else listened to me, and now people I knew who had ignored me were buying the latest record by my hero. This should have been the time I made compilation tapes for Beverley and Jeremy and anyone else. “You like him now? Try this…” Erm I was seventeen, remember. Of course this didn’t really happen, partly because I’m too shy to ever do that, and partly because I’d bloody well left the school behind where all my friends knew I was a Cope freak, and was now in a college where nobody knew me. I did still see a few friends at the Railway but I was still keeping my head down there after being thrown out for underage drinking that summer (again, see previous Goldfish post).

But the fact that nobody knew me in New College could be turned to my advantage. I had no past, no burden of knowledge of previous stupidities. It was a chance to start again, without any taint or trace of my former actions.

(I would learn many years later that this is a typical Aspergers trait too. The need to compartmentalise my past and my present so the two never meet. There’s other traits which we will get to soon enough…)

But for the Autumn of 1986, I was happy. My hero was back, making great music, all over the media and in the charts. He had promised an album called “Saint Julian” in an interview with Melody Maker back in early 1985 and it looked like it was going to happen in the spring of 1987. I had a lot to look forward to.

January 1987
I had a small circle of friends at New College. So small it could be counted on one hand, but that was enough for me really. Manoj was in my Computer Studies class and was a good laugh, and Meg and Anji were two friends from the lower sixth, inseparable and always hanging around the computer room playing “Thrust” on the BBC Micros there. (“Thrust” was an anti-gravity game as I recall – you had to fly a lunar module on rocky terrain using thrusters and the ability to spin your craft – like “Asteroids” without the asteroids. picking up fuel and flying away, it was as much fun as you could have with 32K). Together the four of us hung out and chatted about all kinds of things, nothing of much importance. Chris Jones – our computing teacher and also a weekend DJ on Radio Wales at the time – thought the four of us were trouble but we never were. We just helped each other out if one of us got stuck on some tricky coding in BASIC. Nobody asked about my past and I wasn’t about to tell anyone either, it wasn’t relevant and nobody was bothered. Life at New College was good. I had a parents evening in January where my teachers all told my parents they loved me, which is better than I would have had at my school. “But your maths teacher is a bit of a wimp” they added.

January brought a flurry of record buying, some second hand records (“Neu!” on United Artists in the bright red sleeve, £2 from Jacobs Market, a Troy Tate 10” EP on Why Fi) but more importantly it was the second single by Julian Cope on Island. I’d heard “Trampolene” on the radio just before the new year and called it “more complex”, which isn’t hard really. I bought the 12 inch EP on the day of release (5th January) and absorbed four new songs. “Trampolene” was superb, yes it was more complex than “World Shut Your Mouth” but it felt like it was jammed full of hooks, enough to explode all over the radio. It sounded great on the radio too, big drums, chiming guitar licks and rocking riffs, another simple chorus, a lyric with more to it than “WSYM” and again key changes at the end to ramp up the tension, finally exploding on a drum roll and a long sustained fade out on the final chord. It screamed hit single, it screamed play me again, and this time a bit louder. It sounded fantastic to me. Two other songs on the EP were great. “Disaster” is a bit of a sea shanty, a tale of a ship’s journey, a song full of incident and change. Or maybe it’s an extended allegory for a relationship? My favourite part is towards the end,  Cope is contemplating some kind of shipwreck – “We are listing needlessly, won’t you come and marry me?” – a fantastic non-sequiter – before everyone drops away, a guitar plays a riff and slowly more instrumental layers chime in, pounding out the prime riff, as some raucous guitar lines are thrown over the top, all chugging along on a one note riff . A personal favourite still. “Mock turtle” is slower, more considered and instantly familar – the opening chords and melody are from “Flipped out on LSD”, a legendary 15 minute piece recorded towards the end of the Teardrop Explodes’ life, supposedly released as a twelve inch by La Place De La Concorde but available on a few bootlegs. And that’s just the start. The rest of the song works as a modus operandi for Cope at that time – unsure what he was doing and where he was going but trying his best. “Mock turtle” is a rare slice of direct honesty and is a hidden gem. Which is more than can be said for “Edward the Kingmaker” which is just a clattering noise.  But three great songs out of four ain’t bad.

Again, Cope was everywhere to promote the single. My diary records each incident – front cover of the NME, on “The Tube”, a children’s TV show, the first episode of late night chat show “The Last Resort” (“being interviewed by a prick”, says my diary) and all over the radio. Island did their best to make multiple versions of the single available and by God I bought the bloody set.

I started with the twelve inch on the day of release, then I wanted the seven inch with the gatefold sleeve, which I bought on 12th Jan. And it snowed the previous day, so we all had lots of fun walking to the station in the snow, then walking through Cardiff to find hardly anyone was there. Meg and I slipped and slid our way to HMV to buy the gatefold seven inch that day, and she bought a game for her BBC micro from a shop on Churchill Way. Nobody else was around, it was nice. A fond memory. A week later there was a second twelve inch, a remix of “Trampolene” which extended all the right parts, plus a sticker with it. So I had to buy that. And a week later a 7 inch EP in a cardboard box with a poster, so I had to buy that as well. Manoj would say to me “Haven’t you bought it enough times yet?” each time I would return from HMV. It became a bit of a joke – had I bought another Julian Cope record that week? Manoj, Meg, Anji and I would hang out and chat about all kinds of things, strolling to Wimpy – never McDonald’s as Meg was a vegetarian and she had to have Wimpy spicy bean burgers…  See, I bet you can all see what’s coming, can’t you? Anji and Manoj tried to arrange a night out at the pictures for the four of us then agreed to not go so Meg and myself would be alone,  together. But we all got cold feet. It turned out we were both happy to be friends, and to stay that way.

Meanwhile, I watched the charts to see how “Trampolene” was progressing. On the first week it entered the chart at 33, and I was ecstatic. Then it stayed there for two more weeks, before climbing to 31 in its fourth week before falling out of the top 40. Clearly this wasn’t what anyone expected, least of all me. I’d bought into this single four times, why wasn’t it a bigger hit? Cope has done his bit too, he had been unavoidable. What did he have to do to get a decent hit?

March 1987
Tensions are running high. The A Levels were looming for both my brother and I, and I don’t know about him but I was feeling the strain. I’d always struggled with the Maths A level material, it just made no sense to me. Vectors, differentiation, equations that just looked like nonsense on a page – it completely blew my mind. We sat some final test papers in March and hoped for the best. We were also heading off around the country to look at universities and polytechnics – for me it was Liverpool, Salford, Sheffield, Bath, Trefforest…. I was slightly freaked out at Trefforest because Meg and Anji were there, they kept passing me in corridors. It turned out Meg’s father was a lecturer there, and they were trying to wind me up. They didn’t need to, I was already wound up anyway…. the interview there had turned into a shambles, somehow the interviewer thought my visual impairments were worse than they actually were and had asked a lot of patronising questions about my mobility and disability. God knows why they thought that, I suspected my old school had become involved in the UCCA / PCAS application process. Paranoia was running high.

Some relief was provided by the release of “Saint Julian” on March 2nd. HMV had some signed copies for sale but I wanted to play my records, not keep them as artefacts. (A ridiculous statement considering how many times I’d bought “Trampolene”). I bought the album on the day of release and took it into the computer suite where Manoj ripped the piss out of the cover – “Christ in a scrapyard – Christ on a bike more like”. I wasn’t put off though, I devoured the sleeve and the insert and the little poem (“Saint Julian ain’t Julian” should have been the warning sign) and couldn’t wait to get the album home.

“Trampolene” kicks the album off quite gloriously, and I still couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a hit. So many hooks, so many sections, was it too much?  There’s a cleanliness to this rock, not a horrible distortion, just enough to make me smile. The song was a hymn to an impossible imagined female and frankly I liked that. “Shot down” continued the rock theme, this was taut, lean stuff – not a moment was being wasted. There’s even a tense middle eight with stops and starts. God knows what the song is about though. And it rocks. There’s some odd lyrics about war and uniform (which harks back to lyrics on his debut album) but it works nicely. Are there some sexual references? Could be. “Eve’s volcano” is lightweight fluff after that, a mid tempo melodic joy. Immediately I thought this should be the next single. If that couldn’t reach the charts there was no hope… I suppose all the “ba-ba” and “Do-do-do’ become a little annoying after a while, but this is the closest Cope comes to a Teardrops singalong. Another sexual reference? I’m spotting a theme here. “Spacehopper” had been around a bit, it was mentioned as an early Cope / McCulloch song from the Crucial Three / A Shallow Madness era in Mark Cooper’s “Liverpool Explodes” book. It was the simplest riff, the simplest groove and it sounded great. Why did it fade out? I wanted it to go on longer. Not another sexual reference too? It’s daft as hell, but rather funny too. Closing side one was “Planet Ride”, which was supposed to be a collaboration with Troublefunk – fellow Island label mates and at that point hot as hell at the forefront of go-go. But no, Cope’s band were playing it, a kind of stiff white funk which tried its best to swing. Still, I liked it, even if it seemed to be about sex. Nothing wrong with that. God, how many sex references are there here? This isn’t as stiff (sorry) as I remember it, and once Cope shuts up the musical interplay is rather cool.

Side two then starts with the “big” hit single “World shut your mouth” which is the only song you may hear on this album these days. But in this context, yeah that’s fine. “Saint Julian” is next and this is an odd one, Kate St John is back on cor anglais, it sounds like a “Fried” song after a shave and a haircut, but the lyrics are cutting – a bit anti religion in places but each to their own. This song may be the key to the album, the reference to Ankerside Shopping Centre in Tamworth, but we’ll get to that soon enough… “Pulsar” is the song that confused me in 1984, I didn’t get it at all, it was just a stupid riff…. what did I know? Three years later it made sense in the context of the rest of the album, another stupid riff but bloody hell what a wonderful stupid riff! A song which begged to be played loud. And the lyrics were fantastic too, I would quote them extensively – “And I was quite in love, ‘cos you told me so”, “Don’t have to tell me honey, that’s the way I feel”… yes this was quite a song for me. Next was “Screaming secrets”, an old old song… the Teardrops had played it all the time in ’81 and ’82, they had even recorded it (quite badly) for a Richard Skinner session in 1981, there was a fantastic version on a Whistle Test live concert from 1982…. and it fitted it perfectly now. Sure Donald Ross Skinner couldn’t quite match Troy Tate but there’s enough energy here to get by. And frankly it was great to finally have a favourite song recorded at last.

And finally….

“A crack in the clouds” is an epic. There wasn’t much precedent for it in the back catalogue at the time, and there isn’t really much like it in the rest of Cope’s extensive career, and it’s a shame because this song is gorgeous. There’s storm clouds and sound effects, a disquieting guitar arpeggio, a descending bass line and Cope singing of strange things… After two minutes of disquiet, the band comes in and the chorus is glorious… I mean I don’t know what the song means even now, there’s images of water and floating and maybe I think I’m the wrong person to write this sort of thing. But between the tense quiet of the verses and the triumphant choruses, this song soars. There’s a glorious string arrangement which rises up through the song, and once the final chorus is out of the way, there’s a change to the music, a resolution to the harmonies, and it continues to soar higher and higher and I love it to bits. I’m sorry, I love this song, it always makes me cry and I’m doing a crap job again…. Yet maybe it’s down to a single line… “A quiet village boy takes leave of his life and walks off into the mountains…” Yes, maybe it’s that one dream of escape.

Of course years later I read Cope’s second autobiography “Repossessed” and learnt more about the album. How someone had shyly offered to write songs for him after a meeting at Ankerside Shopping Centre, how that had inspired the batch of songs on “Saint Julian” to be one step removed – Cope imagining how someone else would write songs for him. And there’s the birth of the Two Car Garage Band around Donald Ross Skinner, James Eller and Chris Whitten. And if I had known the b sides to “World Shut Your Mouth” had been recorded in Caerleon not that far from Penarth I would have gone completely mental. But that’s just the way I was.

Of course I played the album a lot when it came out. My diary notes that the CD was issued a week later, on the same day as “The Joshua Tree” and “Men and women”, two albums I didn’t buy…ah the days when a CD release wasn’t always a given. There was also another edition of the LP with an interview disc and I bought that and played it probably twice (but a sentence from the interview ended up in the introduction to “Falling away” many years later). March progressed… I had an interview at Sheffield Poly which lasted all of three minutes, I bought “Angels in the architecture” because it was cheap (£1.99 on tape), I bought tickets for Julian Cope at Cardiff Uni in April, I checked out midi hifi systems with CD players in Laskys  (Laskys!), I worked hard but not hard enough… oh and BBC showed a Cope concert from Westminster Hall earlier in the year, and our Betamax video chose that time to self destruct.

April brought joy and pain. There was tension around my maths, I still had no idea what I was doing and I was struggling but I wasn’t telling anyone. I spent a lot of time in the computer lab working on my computer programming assignment, creating flowcharts and all kinds of useless bollocks on paper for a program about which I can remember absolutely nothing. And then something stupid I did came back to bite me on the arse…

Back at the very start of my diary (Feb 1983) i had written the Teacher Files where I wrote a one sentence put down of all my teachers up to that point. As my diary was being read by my English teacher at the time, she went mental, ripped the pages out and told me to respect my teachers. Immediately my diary became notorious and my friends wanted to know what was in it. Jump ahead to early 1987, I was deeply paranoid about my old school as they seemed to be interfering with the college applications and I was pissed off with my friends for some reason – probably they hadn’t turned up at the Railway when I’d arranged to. So I wrote pages and pages of horrible notes, both the Teacher Files and The Pupil Files. 95% of it was pure invective and vitriol. Hardly anyone came out of it well, except about two teachers and three friends. And foolishly I gave these notes to a friend in my old school, who proceeded to sit down in the common room and start reading them. Soon he wasn’t the only one. The notes ended up pinned to a notice board, got distributed around all of the sixth form, and a few teachers too. And unsurprisingly nobody was happy about what I’d written. Jump ahead a week or so, I turn up at the Railway and find that all my friends are ignoring me. I thought it was a bit odd, then someone tells me that everyone was pissed off with me because of the things I’d written. I dash up to my friend’s house where he tells me what happened and I laugh and cry a lot. I then return to the Railway and apologise profusely for my stupidity. Turns out most people forgave me and eventually saw the funny side. I still have the Teacher and Pupil Files and they really are rather horrible, I can understand why everyone didn’t like me for it.

(Again, this kind of attention seeking behaviour is also typical Aspergers. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. You decide. Maybe I’m just an idiot for even mentioning it now)

Meanwhile, I was gearing up for the Julian Cope concert. “Eves volcano” was issued as a third single, slightly unnecessary I thought unless it was meant to promote the tour. But it received a good review on Peter Powell’s Pop Panel (“Sounds like Passionate Friend” said one reviewer, with a long memory) Still, I bought the CD single, and the twelve inch, and the twelve inch remix with the poster. After all, the twelve inch had a voucher to send off to get a three song live video from the Westminster Hall Concert (I’ve still got the video too, somewhere). And this was my first CD single, even though I’d not bought a CD player yet. As for b sides, “Almost beautiful child” was a looping instrumental which was pretty and idiotic, there were two live songs and the full five minute version of “Spacehopper” which didn’t fade out but came to a natural conclusion.

So I was ready for the live experience. I’d seen OMD a few times at St David’s Hall but this was going to be different, this was at the hall in Cardiff University, this was a standing only gig and I wanted to be standing at the front. Nigel and I took the train to Cathays station and popped into a corner shop to buy some alcohol. We bought a can of Tennants Super each, and kept hold of them. We were amongst the first in the queue so got to the front for the gig, and there were two support acts. First was Crazyhead, then riding high in the indie charts with their single “What gives you the idea that you’re so amazing baby?” My diary recalls that I wasn’t impressed. Lots of leather, lots of feedback and noise, “45 minutes of Crazyhead was more than enough”. What my diary doesn’t say is that the bass player Porkbeast kept shouting into his mic for beer, which of course prompted the audience to throw beer cans at him. These were lax days for security, we had both walked in with our tins of Super in our jacket pockets and kept hold of them throughout the gig. Next were The Faith Brothers, politically correct but a little bit boring live. “Tears For Fears with guitars” said Nigel. They ended their set by covering “Biko”, a very worthy thing to do in 1987. We’d let some female Faith Brothers fans into the front row but now we moved back into the front for the main attraction.

And the main attraction was a total blast. I was in the front row, to the left of me was James Eller on bass, about six foot to the right was Cope himself, on his mic stand climbing frame (blue, if you’re interested) and that beautiful red Gibson 335 twelve string. A fantastic set too (“Trampolene”, “Pulsar”, “Eves volcano”, “Strasbourg”, “Non alignment pact”, “Bouncing babies”, “The great dominions” – chills down spine there – “Shot down”, “Planet Ride”, a new arrangement of “Read it in books”, “Spacehopper” into “World Shut Your Mouth”… )  Cope told us they’d been on a “hippie trip” at Rockfield Studios that day, and from then on referred to the audience as hippies – “How are you doing, hippies?” Encores were “Someone like me” (promised as a forthcoming single) and “Reynard the fox” where Cope leant into the crowd on his mic stand, then fell off and rolled around the floor before destroying the stand.

It was awesome, and Nigel and I were stunned afterwards – deaf too. I bought a t shirt and we walked back into Cardiff drinking our warm cans of Tennants Super which tasted like treacle.  A fantastic night, which was a sharp contrast to what happened the next day or so.

It’s all a bit vague at this distance, and my diary for once isn’t particularly helpful, but this is how I remember it. I’d fallen out with the Maths teacher in New College and somehow I’d said I didn’t trust him or want him teaching me any longer. I’m not sure what happened after that,  but on the day after the concert I was “invited” into the head teachers office where he came down on me like a ton of bricks and made me feel like a piece of shit for daring to question one of his teachers. Then I had something similar happen at home and was told in no uncertain terms that I had to work my socks off to pass my A level maths. It was a bit fraught and I was a bit fragile and I hid myself away. My parents found me a maths tutor who actually helped me make sense of vectors and I revised like mad and did my best before the exams at the end of May.

On the last entry of the year’s diary – 23rd May 1987 – I wrote “I may never see Meg again”. There was more to it than that…. we had a sort of emotional break up on Cardiff station. Anji and Meg and I… They were getting onto a train up the valleys on platform six, I was heading for Penarth on platform seven… Anji was looking at us waiting for either of us to acknowledge we might be upset about it, but we didn’t.  It was very British, very stiff upper lip. Maybe she didn’t like me after all, I sort of liked her but never said it, she never said anything to me and we went our own ways. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t.

Jump ahead to June 1991, the start of the best summer of my life. I was working in Brunel House with my father at BT after completing my third attempt at my second year at poly. The first attempt in Sheffield was a disaster where I left or got kicked off the course (and we will get to that eventually). Then I’d tried again at the Poly of Wales but the issues I had from Sheffield hadn’t been addressed so I flunked out again (and we won’t get to that, ever) so I tried again, a third attempt, I tried my best and did the coursework and attended all the lectures and got bullied mercilessly for sitting at the front of lectures squinting  (so much so that one day when I was absent the lecturer told the class off for it – I also suspect that during this year I met my future brother in law but I’m not sure to be honest). Anyway, come that June day it was time to get the results. So I caught the train from Cardiff Queen Street up to Trefforest and wandered up to get the results. My name was on a list to see the course tutor at a given time, so I headed to the common room to have a sit down and wonder what was going on.

As I sat and pondered, there was a tap on my shoulder. “Hello Rob, how are you?” it was Meg, popping in to see her father who was still lecturing at the Poly of Wales. I was amazed – she looked lovely and she still remembered me, even though I now had a beard (another reason for bullying at the Poly, if I recall correctly).  She asked why I was there, I said about my results and she was sure I’d have done ok. We chatted for about five minutes, catching up with where she was and Anji and Manoj, she was still in touch with them and I’d drifted away into my own world. Then she kissed me goodbye and good luck and disappeared again. I then went to the course tutors office where he told me I’d failed everything, I couldn’t try again, and “You’re on the scrapheap now, you’ll never amount to anything. Goodbye”.

Then I returned to my work at BT for the afternoon, kept my head down, wondered about my future, and wrote a song called “True life story” about meeting up with Meg on such an inauspicious day. This became the start of my first album called “Songs about girls”. I recorded it later that Summer and it is still a scared and scary reminder of a bad day. You can find it at the bottom of this post, hopefully.

Oh my A Levels?  I got a C in Computer Studies, a D in Physics and scrapped an E in Maths which is a minor miracle. Those grades seem really shit now, when kids get five A* grades in their A Levels but a lot of blood sweat and tears – very much tears – went into those grades.

As for the “Saint Julian” era… it’s sort of ignored now. Sure “World shut your mouth” turns up on just about every 80s compilation going, but when did you last hear “Trampolene” on the radio? (Fair play to Josh Meadows on Main FM in Castlemaine, he played it on his show It’s a Jangle Out There last week as I finalised this piece and I have it on good authority that Adam Jeffery will play it on his Indie show this week)  Maybe it was over glossy, an attempt to get noticed which backfired. It was a dash for the mainstream and buffed up a good set of songs into a clean rock sound. But maybe it’s worth going back and investigating again – I certainly hadn’t played “Saint Julian” for a long time before I started writing this and it’s better than I remembered. There wasn’t much around which sounded like it at the time – Echo and the Bunnymen were falling apart and blanding out, U2 were about to become massive on a global scale, there was The Cult with their dictionary of rock moves, the indie section was still going through its shambling phase of lofi, The Smiths were in their own imperial phase before they fell apart… it was unique within its own parameters, it was a clean rock sound that Cope would never return to, but it sounded like nothing else at the time and so sounds timeless (except for the drum sounds). It certainly gained Cope new followers and raised his profile but probably set standards within the management at Island which he would never maintain. He was always destined to be a cult artist but it was always a pleasure to see him orbiting within the pop media as he would again in 1991. But “Saint Julian” is a worthwhile brush with the mainstream, bringing it’s own ideas of garage rock, Stooges simplicity and early Alice Cooper snarl to a pop audience. Have a listen to “Spacehopper” and try not to grin like an idiot – you can’t do it. As for the mainstream, Cope will never go back there, but it was sometimes fun while it lasted. A bit like my year at New College then.

Christmas And Other Trivial Pursuits

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.

Trivial Pursuit 

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.

(With thanks to Tim Worthington whose own post on Christmas 1986 inspired this post – have a look here , it’s very good, you could even buy his books too, the ones I’ve read are excellent)

Next time – we have fled from disaster…

Berlin – Munich – Wherever

The problem with naming your band after someone else’s album is that you set the bar pretty high to start with. Just ask Revolver. Of course those friends of Goldfish The Autumn Stones don’t count, not least because they’re great and don’t sound a bit like a thrown together Small Faces compilation. By naming your band after an album as seminal / canonical / reverred (delete as applicable) as “Scott 4” by Scott Walker could be perceived as sheer stupidity. But that’s exactly what Scott 4 did. I suppose at some point in their early history  it must have been a bit of a joke – “Ha ha, we’re called Scott 4 but there’s only three of us and one of them’s called Scott”. That would be singer and main songwriter Scott Blixen, always seen with a cowboy hat on. It also got them attention from the music press too. This opening paragraph could have been written in any music paper article on the band in the first few years of their existence. to be honest. Sorry to deal in cliches. Shall we take a look from another angle?

The post-Britpop landscape in the late 90s was an odd place. 1997 had seen Blur move in a ‘radical’ direction thanks to Graham Coxon’s influence, Oasis made a coke-soaked monument to their own hubris in “Be here now”, Radiohead redefined the parameters of pre-millenial tension (remember that?) rock  with “OK computer”, The Verve finally got the success they deserved all along as Richard Ashcroft wrote populist anthems while Nick McCabe became more marginalised in his own band. The NME was hunting for the next big thing as they always are – and they grouped a whole load of bands as “the new Beck”. Because the old Beck was clearly not good enough and / or not British, being American and all that. Thrown together in this group were acts like The Beta Band, Scott 4, Badly Drawn Boy and Gomez. Looking at that list with more than fifteen years of hindsight it does look like a funny bunch of disparate artists who have little in common with each other, let alone Beck. But that was how Scott 4 initially got into the press. Their debut single “Deutsche LP Record” was a good start, a funked up beat, some scratchy guitar licks and some odd synth noise, even some scratching thrown in for good measure. But at the song’s heart was an infections melody. On the b side were two more interesting pieces. “Air-con” sounded like those Eyeless In Gaza instrumentals where they set up a harmonium in someone’s garden and clanged a few sticks around. “Mrs Robert Harry” was a slow trawl, a country style lament with keening vocals and a hushed atmosphere only spoilt by the fact it sounded like it was recorded on a cheap battery operated cassette player.

Scott 4 issued a lot of music in quick succession. Debut mini album “Elektro Akoustic Und Volksmechanik” was schizophrenic, country ballads besides primitive synth and beats, a theme developed on their full length debut “Recorded In State”, issued in 1998. “Aspirins” took the country ballad direction in its fullest direction, “East Winter” was quite annoying, “Choke bore” was fab. But they just couldn’t settle on one style, they couldn’t decide if they were trying to be Krautrock or off-kilter I saw Scott 4 supporting the High Llamas in Bristol in early 98 and enjoyed their set, so much that I caught them headlining at TJs a few months later. They were as odd live as they were on record, sometimes huge blurts of Moog noise (a Moog Rogue, fact fans) and sometimes pedal steel laments. And then there was “You set the scene”. In Bristol it lasted about eight minutes, in TJs it passed the twelve minute mark. In the right mood it could be fascinating and hypnotic. In the wrong mood it could be tedious. When Scott 4 issued “Your kingdom to dust” as a single (nice lyrical reference to Henry Kelly’s daytime gameshow “Going for gold”), they backed it with a 22 minute version of “You set the scene” which is perfect for those people who think that the album version of “Jenny Ondioline” could be (a) longer and (b) improved with some banjo and flute. Sometimes artists don’t know when to shut up. This would be a problem for almost every artist as the 90s came to their conclusion. It was the era of bloated CDs, double albums which could have been easily edited  down to decent single albums. The extended length of the Compact Disc led to bands and artists thinking “Yeah I can fill up seventy minutes of music”.

In the early Summer of 1999 Scott 4 issued the single “Catastrophe” as a prelude to their new album “Works Project LP”. They were now signed to V2, a label high on the success of Stereophonics who were just breaking through to the mainstream at this point. I picked up the single and liked it a lot. The main song rocked in its own way, “Avis railhome” was a weird stomped smothered in vicious slide guitar and distortion but the best song was “Famished”. It was slow, which is good, starting with quiet arpeggios of guitars, a simple 4 / 4 beat and Scott Blixen crooning, then at one minute the tempo changes, Scott sings “Had my phaser set to stun” and a lovely string arrangement appears, disquiet and sadness. And it just carries on changing and breaking over and over again. If that was a b side, how was the album going to be?


We had moved into the Crescent in December 1998. When I say “we”…. we’d bought the house together and we were engaged but the wedding was still another year away. So I was there and my fiance was in her parents which was up the road anyway so not too far away. I was sorting the house out, redecorating here and there, getting new carpets and furniture. But the first big decision was getting some cats. I’d always grown up with cats – I can list them all through Leeds, Harpenden and Penarth – Tarot, Tigger, Whiskers, Sooty (apologies for the unimaginative names, I was young ok?), then the four beautiful Burmese cats – Max, Casca, Buffin and Bez. See, the names improved as I got older. Max was my mother’s choice, Casca was a character from “Julius Caesar”, Buffin was my father’s choice and was Dale Griffin’s name in Mott The Hoople. Bez was my choice. He was registered as Pascal, but that didn’t suit him. He liked to get stoned on cat nip and fall around the garden, so it had to be Bez. It was early 1990, it had to be done. Bez was lovely, he’d sit on the roof above my bedroom window crying to be let in at night, then settle down under my duvet, head on a pillow, purring. He was quite a character. When I moved to Newport I tried taking him with me, he lasted a week. He kept sitting on top of my wardrobe crying, he missed his three friends, he didn’t like the lack of a cat flap, he returned to Penarth very quickly but still loved me. If I was going on a night out he would follow me up the street, then wait for me until I came home. Quite a character.

So in the new home in the Crescent we decided we wanted some cats. Two days after Christmas we visited a farm which had a litter of kittens and picked two out for us. One dark tabby who I named Cimber  (after Mettelus Cimber, another character from “Julius Caesar” though everyone assumed it was after Simba in “The Lion King”) and a black and white cat who my fiance named Sophie. “Just a normal name, is that too hard?” The two kittens were introduced to the house, baskets were bought, climbing frames were added, a cat flap installed in the back door and we were away. A few days later on New Years Eve, Sophie was terrified of the noise and ended up stuck behind my hifi unit. And so it went on. Winter turned to spring into summer. My fiance stayed at the house during the day while I was at work, she was working on her final year’s dissertation and sat on the balcony watching Sophie and Cimber playing in the garden, chasing balls, stalking birds, having fun together. They were great friends, those two.


I bought “Works Project LP” one day towards the end of August and gave it that all important first listen as soon as I got home. My fiance wasn’t there so it went straight into the hifi while I put some tea together. “Catastrophe” was a great opener, buzzing synth bass, thrusting drums and all kinds of references to all kinds of untold horrors, the bloodstained 70s, crises and crimes, pollution and death. All memories to me, but far enough away to know vaguely what was going on. But still there was a delicate little chorus, xylophones and acoustic guitars. A hissing synth leads into “Troubles 1 2 3“, which again seems to hint at the seventies frugal nature, while counting problems. “We understand our poverty but cannot solve troubles 1 2 3…..” – another quiet chorus. “The little problems in our teens, we grew around them so now they won’t be seen” – well yes that strikes a chord. Meanwhile the music grooves on more buzzing Moog and drum machine, with a wave of distorted guitars,  ending on a volley of marimba.  Yeah, exactly. Can’t pin this down yet. “Hallo Doctor” is more considered – a 6 / 8 mid tempo waltz, Blixen seems full of self hatred, and there’s lots of lovely organ, piano and acoustic guitar, quite gorgeous. “Lefturno” is funky in a typically British way, and if anything slightly Beck-ish. Heavy beats, a groovy guitar figure and lots of criss crossing vocals. Rather nice, and those curious harmonies help. Then a huge fuck off Moog obliterates the song, leading to a more considered coda. A grower. So that’s side one.

Das Junior” is a distant cousin of “Hallo doctor”, a piano ballad with a gorgeous string section but the words are painful as hell, there’s some real hurt in this song, hints of hospitals and blood and no understanding, false alarms and abstractions. It’s terribly sad and very heartfelt. It’s quite a change to move to “We’re not robots”, stiff electronics and passionless vocoder, even if the words try to prove otherwise amid walls of guitars on the chorus. Rather fun. “May last” is woozy, simple acoustic chords over a bed of buzzing synths and drum machines, and I don’t know what this means but I love it. It also doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, being over after two minutes. Side two closer “Lilla b-boy lullaby” is odd, based on a rhythmic loop of a vocoderised phrase “Help me”, while piano and guitar echo in a reverb haze and Blixen sings down a phone… is he taking the mickey out of beat boys? Who knows, but it’s again rather lovely and short.

Side three starts with one of the best songs on the album – “Scott 4 Travel On Elektrik Trains”. A homage to “Trans Europe Express”, full of modulated synths, hissing electronic percussion and simple melody. And that’s just the intro. The verses add twelve string acoustic guitars and vocoderised vocals, a tale of robot sex and control. It’s like Gary Numan had gained a sense of humour, or more likely the ghosts of New Musik in the circuitry of the song. But fuck me the song itself is gorgeous – propulsive, smart, a perfect  dream of European travel and some unexpected chord changes just to spice things up. The third side can’t help being a let down after that, two quiet songs follow each other – “Applied for release” and “We scratched our names” are intimate and slow, particularly the latter song which sounds like it has some real memories within it. The side closer “Glass and steel” is a damp squib, a groove which goes nowhere for five minutes, Blixen mumbling and not much else going on. It’s that double album hubris again.

Side four makes amends though. “7 days / I’ll see ya” is two songs in one. The first a home recording of Blixen alone with an electric guitar, while the second is a full on country belter, Blixen yelping with joy, pedal steel guitar to the fore, and whilst the pros in Nashville weren’t exactly quaking in their boots, it’s not bad for a bunch of Londoners. After that, “Konigskraft” comes as a shock, piano, acoustic guitar and harpsichord droning and Blixen again hinting at darkness, it feels very ominous. It’s good, but it’s there’s better to come….

And at this point in the first play of the album my fiance appears at home and points out that Sophie is around but Cimber isn’t.  We call out for her and walk around the Crescent looking for her. After ten minutes our neighbours across the road call us over and ask if we’ve lost a cat. It turns out Cimber had been hit by a car and had struggled across the road to collapse and expire in their front garden. We were devastated and cried a little and took the body back home where I buried her at the back of the garden behind the shed. We cuddled Sophie and made a fuss of her and felt quite blue.

It was only once my fiance had gone back to hers later that evening that I finished the Scott 4 album, and listened to the final song “Ancient and modern”.

It starts with an unaccompanied woodwind arrangement by Terry Edwards. It’s not as out there as some of the arrangements on the Mark Hollis solo album, and in a way references back to “The not knowing” which closes the debut Tindersticks album (another Terry Edwards arrangement – “The not knowing” was accidentally played at a Christmas party in 1993 and lasted a minute, a friend asked why I was listening to the music for “Last of the summer wine”.) Anyway, a lovely introduction. Then Blixen strums an acoustic and starts crooning … “I’ve lost my memory and time passes and Kaspar Hauser he can’t fix this…” And the band come in along with a string section, woozy and slow and cautious, like a 2am session, slightly out of it but hanging on. Then at 1:36 an ascending passage, beautiful and scary, ending on a horrible minor seventh and oh lord why are my eyes moist? “It’s ’68 again…” croons Blixen with all that implies, a slow exhortation to hit the hot streets… what the hell is going on? At three minutes another gorgeous instrumental passage, piano and acoustic chords hold still while a bass descends and oh my not again it’s just something oh sorry …. then the final section, Blixen sings “Breathe for us” over and over and at that point I really do lose it completely and still do. It’s all too much, “The last of everything for us….” Not a dry eye in this house. Blixen stops singing, the string arrangement soars and a slide guitar ducks and dives and you know what? I’ll never make a good writer, it’s not hard to describe this music but it affects me like few others. You could say it’s the circumstances that make the song so personal to me, but haven’t you got songs which you have interpreted in your own way, suited your needs more than the writer’s own? Is that a crime? Isn’t that what music is about? Conveying emotion and passion and feelings and merging a time and a place and a memory and a moment? Sure, let music be background, let music be devalued, put a price on everything but not a value….this sort of thing, it’s everything to me, and I’m hopeless at explaining why really. Music is a gateway to the past, to ghosts and old thoughts, some feelings have changed but others remain. And “Ancient and modern” is that day, that loss, in seven minutes of song. Does it matter? Not really no… sigh. So it mattered, it mattered to me…..


What happened next? Well Scott 4 carried on, though they were dropped by V2. In 2002 they issued a collaborative album with Magic Car called “European Punks” which was interesting and had some excellent moments, not least the opening track which manages to fit about six songs into nine minutes. They then slightly changed their name to the Scott 4 Free Rock Orchestra for the “E.S.P” album in 2004, however that sounded more like a Blixen solo album. After that they disappeared though a quick search of the Internet will find the current location and occupation of Blixen. As for cats…. well Sophie wasn’t happy to lose her friend and kept pushing some play balls onto Cimber’s grave, so we replaced Cimber with two new cats, a lovely white with a hint of tortoiseshell who I named Snowball (after the Field Mice LP) and an older cat who looked so sad at the RSPCA because all her litter had been chosen and taken away from her and she was alone. That was Emily and she was forever grateful to us, the most loyal and loving cat I’ve ever known. A friend once said her eyes hid a lot of sorrow and we could only guess at her background, the RSPCA let us have her for free because she had a broken rib and they didn’t think she’d last more than three months . Instead she lasted a good 12 years or more. Poor old Snowball died on our wedding day in October 1999, she was upset someone other than me was feeding her and stormed off into the night and was hit by a car. And Sophie? Well… I started writing this post two years ago, and knew what I was going to say but then time passes and I thought nobody cared about Scott 4. But a few conversations on Twitter in the last few weeks made me go back and finish the post. I wasn’t expecting Sophie to pass away two days before I published the post, 18 years old, the longest surviving cat I’ve ever had. This post is in her memory, and listening to this Scott 4 album again this week has brought back all the memories of that day, and “Ancient and modern” still makes me cry now and oh I’m a sentimental fool and I don’t care, I still expect to see her everywhere….

(After discussions last night, we’ve decided we may get some kittens in the near future)

(Update two days later – yes we’re getting two kittens in a few weeks time when they’re ready)

Anyway, upwards and onwards. I’ve no idea what comes next, so in the meantime here’s a picture of Sophie, listening to Allvvays on Adam Jeffreys’ radio show a few months back.


Happy Birthday Dear Goldfish


On 30th April 1983 I bought some records and my life tilted slightly off its axis. On 30th April 2013 I wrote about that day 30 years previously on a new blog I tentatively named after a line from a Yeah Yeah Noh song. And that’s how it all started. Three years on, there’s over one hundred posts on the main blog, a few posts on the sister blog One Hundred Goldfish and numerous pieces I have written for other blogs. Not to mention over twenty podcasts for Goldfish Radio.

Blimey, how did that all happen?

Well I suppose it happened because of you, dear reader. If it wasn’t for the support of my readers I wouldn’t still be writing.  I’m always amazed by the reaction I receive to anything I create – self depreciation hides low self esteem, I can always find fault in my own work so… Er. .there’s no end to that sentence. (Can you tell I’m writing this ten minutes after I woke up?) But the response and support of those around me has kept me going on here, it’s lovely to know that other people like the same kind of things as me or are prepared to let me witter on about whatever I want to ramble about for their websites.

So yes I haven’t really written much recently on this blog and yes that’s my fault for neglecting the Goldfish but the new Microdisney post is doing well and seems to have hit a nerve with readers old and new. But maybe it’s time I did a round up of pieces I have written for other blogs in the last few months, just in case you missed them.

Back in February, Nicola at the Sounds Familiar website was on Twitter saying how “Rubber Soul” was one of her favourite Beatles albums and I fired back a series of tweets of points why I loved it. She asked me to expand on my thoughts for her website and the article is here. It’s quite a good little article and was written about a week before George Martin passed away so I’m glad I mentioned his contribution to the album which was very important but also subtle.

I have also written a few pieces for the Everything Indie Over 40 website. I may have previously mentioned I wrote a few Indie CV articles, one on Margaret Fiedler and another on Jez and Andy Williams. I should be writing another Indie CV soon too. Anyway, I reviewed the latest album by Murals for the website, which turned into a rumination on how technology has changed our listening habits. But the Murals album is great, you should give it a listen. I also wrote a gig review of Ride at Bristol Ansom Rooms at the end of last year which was a tremendous gig.  Thanks to Ray at Country Mile offering me a ticket.

I’ve also written a few Toppermost articles, not many admittedly but there will be a new one along very soon on The Electric Prunes.  I have updated my Toppermost page at the top of the blog to include my latest musings there.  Always check out Toppermost, there’s always something interesting there, a great collection of writers passionate about music – the recent contributions by John Hartley have been top notch and … well… if you like my style of writing, then John does it a hundred times better than me. (Self depreciation again). Anyway, have a look.

I’ve also been creating a load of Goldfish Radio podcasts – twenty three of them in total with more to come. There’s a dedicated page with information about all of the shows here, people seem to like them, maybe you will too.

As ever I have to think so many people for their help and support throughout these years. Merric at Toppermost and Steve at Everything Indie Over 40 have been great and very patient with me. Adam J at Radio Scarborough and Nicola T at Sounds Familiar have also helped spread the word. Josh M at Main FM in Castlemaine has been fab too. Can’t forget Marcello and Lena at Then Play Long – huge support there, always sharing what I do. There’s probably more if I think about it…. David S in Prospect Hill, Esther in California, Ray at Country Mile, Wally at The Beautiful Music, Keith S, Rick L David T, Dave B, all my family and friends, the PTFA and staff at school, everyone in the Everything Indie Over 40 community, The Autumn Stones, Huge Shark, Andy M, Darren R, Tim W… love you all, thank you all.

Anything else? No? Let’s blow out the candles and cut the cake up. Happy birthday Goldfish!

Feed the birds poisoned bread




I keep realising that I listened to John Peel before 1984. For some reason I used to think I started in the summer of 84 but I tuned in occasionally during the Autumn of 83. From time to time there will be a reference in my diary (Book 6, a thick green exercise book stolen from my History teacher at the start of September) to a song I heard on the show. For instance this was how I heard Microdisney – it’s there in the middle of October, in amongst the turbulent paragraphs of bullying and crying and fancying ten girls simultaneously but not saying anything, there’s a line like “Must find ‘Sleepless’ by Microdisney”. I must have heard the song on the band’s first Peel session and it obviously made an impression on me, so much so that I could still remember it years later, even though I didn’t tape it. For some reason I hadn’t worked out how to record off the radio yet, I was always a late developer. But something within “Sleepless” caught my ear, the conversational tone of the lyrics, how it moved from third person description to speech in the chorus, the insistent melodious nature of the music, the curious Irish burr of the singer. All combined to make a startling discovery for me, that there was something else out there beyond the charts and the fading fast Futurist chart on Radio Luxembourg.

At the time I couldn’t have been able to find “Sleepless” in any record shops, even though I may have tried. I can remember the blank faces behind the counter at HMV as I asked if they had any records by Microdisney. The band were still a year away from recording their debut album, which would include “Sleepless”. However that debut passed me by at the time, I wasn’t aware of its release until later. But I was aware of Microdisney’s continued existence as they recorded three sessions for Peel during 1984. I missed the first two sessions but the third session was taped, or most of it was taped, or half of it… let me explain… My Sanyo music centre had developed a few annoying quirks in the tape deck department. Firstly the keys wouldn’t lock down unless a weight was placed on them – such as a finger or an Ever Ready bicycle light. Secondly once the tape deck was warmed up, it tended to stop recording one channel of the stereo. This could happen quite randomly, sometimes mid song, and this is what happened on the Microdisney session.

So there were four songs on the session and I always managed to miss one song each time the session was broadcast, and that song was always “Goodbye it’s 1987”. But the other three songs – “464”, “Genius” and “Horse overboard” – ended up on tape, though the latter two were only on one side of the stereo. I also missed the intro to “464” as well. Peel would introduce the song, I’d start the tape rolling, the gentle piano introduction would sound, a roll of drums then all hell breaks loose, Cathal Coughlan screams, guitars wail and I would stop the tape thinking I had the wrong band. Then the song itself would start, a mid tempo melodic stroll, and I’d have to start recording again. “464” is a remarkable song – especially in the Peel version – and it was this song which convinced me of Microdisney’s greatness. Coughlan croons a beautiful melody during the verses with a distinctive chorus of “Bring back the street, I liked it so”. The middle eight returns to the noisy intro, after which the final verse has Coughlan chuckling to himself – “Oh dearie me, I’m in a state”. How could I not love a song clearly taking the piss out of itself so perfectly, and so melodically? The tape of the three songs were constant companions that Autumn, even if two of the songs only had half of the musical information on them. I kept an eye out for Microdisney.

A few months later they appeared on TV. 19th March 1985, 7pm, BBC2, “Whistle Test”. It was my mother’s birthday, and God knows why we weren’t out celebrating it, but I was sat in front of the Betamax ready to record the best bits. And hell Microdisney opened the show, and played a second song later on. Oh and James played “If things were perfect” and “Scarecrow” from the ICA. But no, Microdisney on TV. Coughlan in a defiant green suit jacket (I always presumed this was a hint at his Irish heritage), larger than life. The rest of the band were just there, the focus was on Coughlan. Opener “Loftholdingswood” took a swipe at English privilege, or so I heard it that way, while “Birthday girl” was a jaunty little number which hid some harsh thoughts. More songs to learn and sing throughout the year as I waited for the album. Yes they already had their debut album out, ‘Everybody is fantastic”, but I didn’t buy that until years later for some reason. Even if it had “Sleepless” on it, I didn’t feel it was vital to my little world. It would become part of the story of my life a few years later on. Finally towards the end of the year the second Microdisney album emerged, and it was one of my Christmas gifts that year (alongside “World Shut Your Mouth”, “Without Mercy” and “Songs to learn and sing”). Strangely the album doesn’t feel like a Christmas album like others I have mentioned receiving as gifts. I suppose that makes “The clock comes down the stairs” timeless. It doesn’t sound particularly dated or tied to its time, the band didn’t have access to a Fairlight and there’s no gated reverb on the drums. What the listener gets instead is a glimpse of mid 80s London from an outsider’s point of view.

“Horse overboard” is a perfect opener to the album, bright and breezy and hiding it’s secrets within the melodic bliss. There is a tale somewhere in the song which I’ve still not managed to work out, but the chorus line of “Can we sleep alone?” is irresistible. “Birthday girl” appears to be about the birth of the song’s narrator – a fiction I presume – but hides darker thoughts. The second verse is full of drunken ideas of misplaced passion and private jokes while the final verse is a glimpse of the narrator’s death, sad and alone. But the music is upbeat and tuneful, this could pass for something on the radio. “Past” is a look at how London is changing and the type of people it is attracting. Cocktail bars and dressed up cashed up Londoners – “They say ‘Who won the war? Who ruled the world? Who showed them all?’ Well who cares?” An escape from one version of the past (the real one everyone runs from) to another past (the one London wants you to believe). For some reason I’m reminded of some of the Martin Amis books of this time like “Money” and ‘London Fields”, though my memory of those books may be wrong, it’s been a long time… But it sounds like it could be today, not 1985 … “And all the papers say ‘Go back to work, you’re all alone….'” “Humane” is a good opening line looking for a song to back it up, and is too similar to “Past” to distinguish itself. Please remember that these are my own opinions and interpretations, I am probably wrong and you may feel differently. The album side closes with “Are you happy?” – A change of tempo, slower and minor key throughout. Is this a series of vignettes of a relationship in crisis, falling apart? Again I’m ready to be corrected. But hell there’s some fabulous lines here – “This joke will run and run, just like you”. Sean O’Hagan adds mournful slide guitar and it’s a beautiful sad moment.

Side two starts in the middle of a situation – “Genius” throws the listener straight in, again bright and breezy but there’s a character assassination in progress, someone is having their shallow wonderful life dissected and Coughlan enjoys every moment. There were people like it then, now they’re called hipsters. “Begging bowl” hurts like hell, a slow crawl through another relationship in crisis. Scary and true. I know that now. “A friend with a big mouth” has a country lilt, and merges dreams with reality, someone destroying your dreams, someone spoiling the grand design. And yes I knew a friend called Howard and still think of him when I hear the song. “Goodbye it’s 1987” is another song it took me years to work out. Again the music is deceptive but the lyrics paint a portrait of nouveau riche yuppies in love with themselves and money, there’s tell tale signs though – before the guitar solo Coughlan adds “Let’s tax the wages of sin”. Of course June 1987 was the projected election month as seen in the middle of Thatcher’s second term. Like I said I’m slightly slow. “And” is another assassination, Coughlan and June Miles Kington singing in harmony words that kill, but gently. “And some people have it bad, yes it’s true. But they wouldn’t if they did not know you”. Is that about Thatcher? Throughout the album, there’s hints and glimpses of a world in disorder, the world that Thatcher had brought in, selling off public utilities, the need for greed, the people left behind not being cared for. Halfway through the second term of a morally corrupt and uncaring Tory government. … Does this sound familiar? Is it like today?

‘The clock comes down the stairs” did well within its own limitations, being issued on Rough Trade so it reached the top of the Indie Album charts. They appeared on “The Tube” playing “Birthday Girl“, this time with Coughlan screaming “Just like JESUS!” just before the chorus. Well it was Christmas after all. In the new year they recorded another Peel session, three new songs and one old one. “Begging bowl” from the previous album gets a new spoken bridge from Coughlan, ending with him yelling “I’m never right, am I? Am I? Am I? Am I?” It’s a scary performance. “Bullwhip road” is another glimpse of a sordid existence, more self hate and more confusing changes of pronoun. Again another lyric which immediately found itself in my personal lexicon – “I hate the world. I hate my life and this song – now run along”. “People just want to dream” is another song of disgust at the Tory leader. The best song of the session was “Town to town”, which sounded immediately like a hit single, even if the lyrics inflict nuclear destruction on so many cities. But it’s a pop song and a bloody fantastic one and I played that tape over and over again. Microdisney signed to Virgin Records and recorded their third album produced by Lenny Kaye. This seemed a common trick of indie bands in 1987, getting a learned wizened older musician to produce you (John Cale for Happy Mondays, Kaye again for the Weather Prophets, Mayo Thompson for Felt and Primal Scream). Did it work? Not always.

“Crooked Mile” was issued in the Spring of 1987, a few weeks after “Town to town” was given a chance at the hit parade. If great things were expected of the single, it didn’t achieve them. Sure it was played on the radio and I saw the video once or twice on TV but it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it should have been. Maybe the strings used had sweetened the song too much? Maybe the energy and verve of the Peel session version had got lost along the way? Either way this was a portent of what was to come with the album. I’ve never been able to adequately identify my problem with “Crooked mile”, is it the songs or the production or the band or the insistence that O’Hagan gets a guitar solo on every song or… whatever it is, something is not quite right.

It’s not really the songs to be honest. Most of them are great, the lyrics throughout are spot on, continuing the themes developed on “The clock comes down the stairs” mostly. Maybe it’s the order of the songs, maybe it’s too many mid tempo strolls halfway through side one. “Our children” is an emotional ballad but derails the flow after “Angels” and the first side doesn’t recover until the end, which is a shame as “Mrs Simpson” is a sharp song and “Hey hey Sam” plays at war games which was fashionable at the time, we were still in the midst of the Cold War. Finally “Give me all of your clothes” is a change for the better, slightly funky and also humorous – Coughlan ripping into a certain type of person again, a hipster again. It’s rather good. Side two is better, helped by “Bullwhip Road” and “People just want to dream” (a perfect closer). “And he descended into hell” is another morality tale with a lot of wit, and I’ve always suspected that it’s the source of the name of Harvey Williams’ nom de plume at Sarah Records. “Rack” is marvellous, and I’ve always taken it to be about music journalists – again is “The Doctor” in verse two Stuart Cosgrove from the NME? Not sure. “Big sleeping house”… how much of these songs is real? A tale of a terrible doss house and also someone who got out of there. Finally “People just want to dream” closes the album in style. Beautiful music and lyrics to kill for. Sorry but I’m going to have to quote a chunk of the second verse.

The High Street, it used to be such a slum
(Petrol queues and bomb scares and liberal confusion)
Until we prised it away from the welfare scum
(Marching piggy-wiggy and bovine retribution)
Oh take it any way you want, everything is better
We used to play around before too long we found that
Money is everything
Don’t make the gentry mean
It’s for you they dream
In their private homes
Their hatred flows in streams

Some things never change.

Although “Town to town” had made a small dent in the charts, clearly Virgin still had faith in the band and they recorded another album in the autumn of 1987. Now well into the third term of Tory rule, the songs are less about the past and more about the awful present. In October Virgin issued a taster single “Singer’s Hampstead Home”, a very thinly veiled dig at Virgin recording artist Boy George. Of course the label didn’t promote it but I bought the cassingle (what a horrible word) on the day I saw them play at the Leadmill in Sheffield. Two of the three extra tracks were quite hopeless – Microdisney weren’t a b side band – but the last track “Half a day” was from a Peel session recorded at the end of 1986, a song they’d never record again and really quite wonderful in its own way. Or maybe it was my circumstances that made some lines leap out – “There’s someone I miss, like there always is, she’s not mentioned round here. …” Well yes.

Nothing really prepared me for the Microdisney live experience, and it was my first time at the Leadmill so I was taken aback by the venue and the band. Coughlan spent most of the time bent double like a man in agony, screaming random abuse between the songs, getting lost in the music. As I was stood by the mixing desk I spied the set list and noted lots of new songs, which would end up on their next album. “Back to the old town” was ferocious, “High and dry” was blackly funny, “Soul boy” was oddly moving. At the end they played a song called “I can’t say no” which started like “You’re the one that I want” from “Grease” and Coughlan spat out the words with contempt. A vicious show, a baptism of fire at the Leadmill.

Onwards into 1988 and a second single is issued to promote the forthcoming album, “Gale force wind” was recorded on the day of the Great Storm in Autumn 1987 and shows it, but the b sides on the cassingle were more interesting. “I can’t say no” was a straight band recording of the song only with “Betty Lou” singing, and in a parallel universe this could have been a novelty hit, all cheery keyboards and smiles. “Say no I can’t” is Coughlan reinterpreting the same song as the band play the song Greek style, but the opening is telling – “What song would our record company like us to sing?” Was there internal pressure for the song to be a single? Finally “Can’t I say no?” is the same song as played by Chas and Dave, all beery atmosphere and drunken vocals (who does sing this? It’s hilarious!). “Gale force wind” stumbled into the lower fifties of the charts and disappeared.

Before we reach the fourth album I have to mention the press advert for “39 Minutes”. It is a cutting from “Meddly Maker” written by “Simon Reinhardt” and the font and format is a perfect facsimile of an album review in Melody Maker. It just repeated “Microdisney Is Shit” (which was the album’s working title, the phrase crops up in “Can’t I say no?” too) over and amongst other abuse. I’m going to see if it’s online… No? Bollocks. It was fantastic, take my word for it.

“39 minutes” then. Rarely has a record hated itself and it’s surroundings so much. It is humorous in a blackly comic way, so you’re not even sure if you should be laughing. It holds a mirror to late 80s society and says “Look at yourself, you English b-boy Soho tea boys… what are you?” Every lyric is a gem, Coughlan is on top form throughout. And this time the music packs a punch. On the surface it would be perfect Radio Two fodder, and adding Londonbeat on backing vocals adds a nice touch. There’s less authenticity and more variety in the sounds too. And the credits are an absolute hoot – backing vocals by the Fabulous Golden Showers, plus Eugene Terrablanche on “Send Herman Home”, with a tap dancing jack boots instrumental section. This is subversion at its finest. If only somebody listened. There’s too many highlights to mention, it’s criminal that this record is ignored. In interviews Coughlan stated that all the previous albums were nostalgic but the new album was current and it shows. God, the contemptuous way Coughlan sings “Says his name is Tim” on “Ambulance for one”, spitting out that name. Of course it would never work, Microdisney were classed as entryists and schemers by Simon Reynolds and they could never realistically be a hit single machine. The album swipes at racism, movie stars and directors, fashion, yuppies…. “There’s nothing wrong with the young would-be rich that a head full of lead would not cure” sung so sweetly. Again, this is still relevant stuff. And finally “Bluerings” is another great album closer, another song aimed at those in power – “The road to honest happiness ploughs straight through yellow scum like you”. Perfect.

Of course it didn’t work, sales were negligible and Microdisney fell apart. Were they dropped by Virgin before they split? There are some tremendous Youtube videos of them playing live around the time where they are just at the end of their tether, Coughlan looks like he could explode at any moment. Three songs broadcast on the BBC for Amnesty International at the ICA could be their final farewell, tension palpable in every gesture.

Did anyone care or miss them? Well obviously both O’Hagan and Coughlan went on to other things – The High Llamas and Fatima Mansions respectively and both have produced their own share of genius along the way – “Gideon Gaye”, “Hawaii”, “Viva Dead Ponies” and “Bertie’s Brochures” should be part of anyone’s record collection. But those Microdisney records are special too, and as I keep saying over and over just as true today as they were thirty years ago.

Isn’t that really rather sad?

Houses In Motion


What a difference a year makes.

This time last year I was living in a cold draughty three bedroom house with awful parking, far too close to school and far too close to the city centre to make it a regular thoroughfare for drunks returning home from a skinful of booze around midnight every night. And now I’m not. That sounds dreadfully boastful actually and I don’t mean it like that. I’m just not there any more. But this time last year I wasn’t even thinking of moving house, it just happened very suddenly and the stars aligned and everything fell into place. It’s been that sort of year really. I certainly didn’t expect to be living in a different house this time last year. I didn’t expect to have made more than a dozen podcasts or to have my name mentioned regularly on the radio. Maybe I do have a reputation after all. Maybe people do like me after all.

This isn’t going anywhere really. It’s been an odd year. I haven’t achieved anything – still haven’t found a job even after a few useless interviews (“What kind of biscuit are you?” Seriously?) There’s been highlights and lowlights, joys and tears. And along the way I listened to some music and wrote about it. To be honest, this time last year I couldn’t see this blog continuing much further. I nearly stopped it completely in April, due to the house move and other commitments. I didn’t think I had that much to write about. Heavens I even ended up listening to The Grateful Dead for a while – how desperate was I?

Then I started to make a podcast or two. I found it was (a) quite easy and (b) a lot of fun. And best of all, people seemed to like them. Either that or you’re all being really nice to me. And the podcasts have raised my profile, not that that was the point. The point was to introduce some cool music to people. It seems to have worked.

A year ago I wrote that I hadn’t really listened to much new music that year, but still listed a lot of music I had enjoyed that year. This year I feel exactly the same. I should point out that I have heard some wonderful new music this year but I’m not saying comprehensively “These are my albums of the year” because I’ve not heard everything issued this year, so don’t even think of adding these End Of Year lists.

So what albums have I enjoyed this year? “Escapists” by The Autumn Stones has fulfilled the promise their singles from last year hinted at – an album of light and shade, both musically and lyrically, which rewards repeated listening. Imagine shoegazing crossed with early Psychedelic Furs, with emphasis on peculiar words, sax solos and catchy melodies. Definitely an album worth a listen. Ryley Walker’s “Primrose Green” album sounds like Tim Buckley and Van Morrison in some 1968 idyll, sun dappled jazz inflected acoustic dreamscapes. Beautiful stuff. “854” by Eyelids is like a more psychedelic Teenage Fanclub, crunchy guitars and harmonies but with peculiar angles. “The broken heed” by The Broken Heed (pseudonym for John Hartley) takes the simplicity of Harvey Williams’ solo albums and adds heartbreaking, deeply affecting and heartfelt words, and some of those heart stopping chord changes that I adore so much – well worth investigating and raising money for a good cause too. “Fragments of a former moon” by Lightning In A Twilight Hour is of course Bob Wratten’s latest project and is as beautiful as his previous works in The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars and Northern Picture Library. In the odd electronica corner I’ve enjoyed albums by Kode9 and Floating Points. Then there’s “The Race For Space” by Public Service Broadcasting. Now I wasn’t impressed by their previous album which I felt couldn’t decide if it wanted to be pop or hauntology, but this year’s album – themed around audio clips from space travel – gripped me from start to finish. If you don’t hold your breath during “The other side”… well, maybe you’re not human. And “Go!” – perfect thrilling pop music. Oh and amazingly Yeah Yeah Noh made a new album, their first in 30 years, and updated their typically English psychedelia with synths and more marvellous turns of phrase.

As always it’s not just about new music, there’s still a myriad of old music to discover. So here’s a list of some songs I have enjoyed this year.

Indelible – Huge Shark
Umbrella wars – Spent
Are you ready to be heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole and The Commotions
The other side – Public Service Broadcasting
Jealous – Nick Jonas (pop single of the year, folks)
The seventh plane – Mystic Moods Orchestra
Scandinavian wastes – The Invisible Girls
Funny little things – The Broken Heed
Mountains of the moon – The Grateful Dead
Plan A (Selling off the silver) – The Drain On The Balcony
Forget about tomorrow – Eyelids
Harvest time – The Clientele
Beauty #2 – Butterfly Child
Satellite (Far out) – Dot Dash
You make no bones – Alfie
Please tell mother (Peel session) – The Telescopes
Wadmalaw island – Power Tools
Please don’t say remember – The Apartments

There’s probably more that I’ve loved this year but can’t remember. I may well add to the list.

I’d like to recommend a few books which I have enjoyed this year. “The year of reading dangerously” by Andy Miller tells of how the author regained his love for reading and is touching, very funny and very accurate. He loves his music too, does Mr Miller, and that shines through the writing – well worth a read. “Popkiss – the life and afterlife of Sarah Records” by Michael White is a meticulously researched and highly readable book on the legendary Bristol indie label, lots of background information on the bands and music plus the early chapters give an excellent history of the development of indie pop. But only one paragraph on the Sweetest Ache??? Lastly “Higher than the sun” by Tim Worthington is a wonderful book about how Creation Records came to issue four brilliant lps within a few months of each other during the Autumn of 1991. Again lots of great background on the mid 80s indie scene there and fascinating insights into the worlds of Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine and the Creation scene in general. You’d love it, I know you would.

So what does the future hold? More podcasts for a start, and more writing. There will be posts on Microdisney, Saint Etienne, Ride, Scott Walker, Virginia Astley, Eyeless In Gaza and more. But don’t hold your breath, these things take time. There will be more Toppermost articles too – thanks for your patience Merric – and other pieces here and there. I’ve recently written a few pieces for the Everything Indie Over 40 site which is always full of interesting articles (not just mine) on obscure indie bands. Have a look here.

As ever, huge thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way, shared my posts and podcasts, offered advice or asked me to write for them. I would write a list but I fear I may forget someone important… ok here goes… Esther, Wally, Ray, Steve, Adam, Nicola, Dawn, Marcello, Lena, Pete, Josh, Lee, John, David, Merric, Rick, Justin, Tim, Darren, Andy, Fiona, my family, Tara, Donna… I’ve forgotten people I’m sure… sorry… I tried….

Anyway, it’s New Years Eve, there’s probably a ton of things you need to be doing, I know there’s a ton of things I should be doing right now, so I’ll let you get on. Happy New Year and don’t feed the goldfish any cheese slices.

Find Out What This Feeling’s About

r-124187-1349004315-5948.jpeg.jpgI am always happy to admit when I am wrong. For many years I was totally wrong about Tears For Fears, but I blame my mistake on … other influences. Back in late 1982 and early 1983, when they had their first flush of success with the singles “Mad World”, “Change” and “Pale Shelter” I thought they were crap but this was mainly because of the people who liked them. There was a bunch of girls in my class in school who swooned over the two main members Curt Smith and Roland Orzabel, the music was entirely secondary to whether Curt and Roland looked dreamy in their videos. Hell, I wouldn’t ever be that shallow, would I?  I often look back on my teenage years and think I must have been an insufferable snob, looking down my nose at anyone not listening to whatever I was enjoying. I’m amazed any of my friends spoke to me. Or my family for that matter. But back in early 1983, my thirteen year old self sneered at the girls adding the initials TFF to my pencil case.

I’m not sure why my pencil case was the subject of so much inter – band rivalry. I can still see it now in my mind’s eye – a plastic pencil case, rectangular and decorated with a Castrol GTX logo. Only there was so much writing on it that it was hard to discern the original design. All the boys would scribble The Jam, The Style Council, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen. .. the cool bands of the time. The girls would write Duran Duran, Wham!, Spandau Ballet… And the girls would scribble insults about the boys and their music, and the boys would scribble insults about the girls and their music.  It was like an Internet forum in microcosm, but on a small piece of plastic being hurled around the classrooms of Stanwell school. Tears For Fears were just another “band for girls”, weren’t they? Never mind that I secretly thought some of the second verse of “Mad World” was downright marvellous – all that stuff about going to school and being nervous, that struck a chord with this young lad who had been to three new schools within the space of 4 years.

But no I kept that to myself and sneered. When Tears For Fears issued their debut album “The Hurting” in the Spring of 1983 I wasn’t interested, preferring to devout my time to Freur and OMD (see many previous posts). It was even played to me by my next door neighbour when I popped over to play “Chuckie Egg” on his Acorn Electron but still I ignored it. The stigma of “the girls like it” was too much for me. By the end of 1983 their fourth hit single “The way you are” was stumbling around the middle of the charts and I mention it in my diary as “The worst song of the year, a complete mess”. It may not be the former but it is the latter.

Summer 1984 was the summer of “Frankie Says”, “Two Tribes” and “Relax” monopolising the top of the charts, George Michael never wanting to dance again, hi energy disco and whatever else was in the charts. In August Tears For Fears issued their new single “Mothers talk” and I still wasn’t impressed. Sure it had big drums but what didn’t?  Everyone had big drums that summer. It still sounded like a mess to me, not sure where to put the guitars into the mix, lots of Fairlight presets. That summer was spent hanging out at the Yacht Club (did I ever mention Penarth was posh?) and their disco would bang out the same tunes over and over. The girls all loved “Mothers Talk” and danced to it at the Yacht Club while trying to be sophisticated. I hid at a table and hated life. (One of the reasons “How soon is now?” struck a chord with me was the verse about going to a club, you know the one….) Still not impressed by Tears For Fears

Then they issued “Shout” at the end of November and I changed my mind. There was a passion within “Shout” which really spoke to me. I didn’t quite understand what the song meant but there was a conviction in the performance and the words which was unmistakable. And it kept on building, starting simple and slowly adding layers, first some Fairlight vocal sounds, then guitar and real drums, organ and more voices. Over six minutes long, this was quite an epic. And in my head that line “I’d really like to break your heart” sounded like how I felt that Christmas. So much so that I bought it a few days after Xmas 1984 (alongside a Casino VL-tone, “Life’s a scream” by A Certain Ratio and “Devil and darkness” by Freur). But stupidly I bought the seven inch which had a habit of jumping quite badly – too much musical information crammed into the grooves. The single sleeve was intriguing though – it had a sleeve note written by producer Chris Hughes noting the somewhat tortured creation of “Shout”. And the video was great too – the passion obvious in the performance, and the communal element when all their friends and family join in with the band  (echoing the promo film for “Hey Jude”, although that may not have been deliberate).

But I still didn’t tell the likes of Elaine, Beverly or Lesley that I’d bought a Tears For Fears record. Hell no. I was too young and proud to admit my mistake to them.

By the summer of 1985 their second album was unavoidable. “Everybody wants to rule the world” had dominated the start of the year. Now “Head over heels” and “I believe” were everywhere too. So I took the plunge on the album around September. Only being a cheapskate I bought it on tape from a market stall in Bessemer Road Sunday market. It’s odd thinking about that market now because I very much doubt it is there now. Oh the fruit market is still there but it’s a very different Cardiff back then.

I’ve written previously about areas of Cardiff which have changed, mostly for the better, and it seems Bessemer Road has changed. Now it is a link road heading towards the development around Leckwith, where the new Cardiff City stadium was built after Ninian Park was flattened to make way for houses. In 1985 Bessemer Road was a home of a B and Q DIY store, a number of cash and carry stores and the fruit market. And on Sunday everyone went to the market there, and B and Q, because that was all that was open. I loved the market, the row of burger and hot dog vans outside wafting the smell of fried onions through the air, the stone steps down in the market which were treacherous in wet weather, and all the market stalls… People selling meat out of the back of a van, the patter of “I can’t do it for a tenner, I’d be ROBBING you missus… how about a fiver?” in the rich Cardiff accent. Loads of stalls selling slightly dodgy looking label clothes. A stall or two with electrical goods like radio cassette players in brand names you’d never heard of (I bought some tapes from there which my early home recordings are on – Prinz Professional Low Noise – ever heard of them? Me neither). There were a few music stalls, one full of rows and rows of 7 inch singles which were totally random, you had to wade through hundreds of dross before you’d find a gem… you’d call it crate digging now… And another with tapes on the walls which is where I bought “Songs from the big chair” from, alongside “Meat is murder”. It was about a year or so later I released these were knock off tapes, not the real thing – paper labels on the tapes instead of printed details like my Beatles tapes. But I bought “SFTBC” on tape that day because it was the “limited edition” tape with the album on one side and a load of b sides on the reverse.

But again I still didn’t tell Beverley or Elaine or anyone else that I actually quite liked Tears For Fears.  I couldn’t come back from my public declaration of hate.  Was I too proud? Was I just an opinionated pillock? Who knows. I just kept listening to the album and absorbing the songs. But definitely no mention of the album in my diary or my end of year poll. It was my guilty secret that I dare not tell.

Around the autumn of 1986, something happened to change my mind. I’m not sure why but Andy Kershaw played a Tears For Fears Peel session from 1982 on his radio show.  I doubt it was Peel himself who played it in 1986, even though he had been looking back on old sessions that summer with the Soar away  Summer Seventies Spectacular or whatever he called it, where he played a load of old sessions from the 70s instead of having new sessions. I often wondered why he did that – was it preparation for the release of the Peel Sessions EPs on Strange Fruit which began to be issued during the Autumn of 86? Was there some behind the scenes problem with recording sessions – an upgrade to the studio perhaps? Maybe I should read a book, there are plenty there now. Anyway  Kershaw or whoever played this TFF session from 1982 and I was amazed. There were four songs – “Ideas as opiates”, “Suffer the children”, “The hurting” and “The prisoner” – and I loved every song. Maybe early TFF weren’t all surface and lack of substance after all.  These songs spoke to me, about feelings of isolation, lack of control, sense of self and a misunderstood childhood. At least that’s how it seemed in the Autumn of 1986. I immediately bought a cheap tape of “The hurting” and played it over and over, the songs made sense to me and I loved them all intensely. Even the songs I had heard as singles before fitted better into the album, made sense in the context of the album. I started to read a little more about the band, discovered the ideas behind their music were inspired by Arthur Janov and his Primal Scream theories of psychotherapy, none of which was new to me as I had read “Lennon Remembers” when I was younger. Suddenly everything slotted into place.

And I was finally ready to declare my love for Tears For Fears. One night after a typically boring session at the Railway pub, a bunch of my friends and I ended up at Beverley’s house for a game of Trivial Pursuit or something similar, and Beverley and I were perusing her record collection to find something to play (it was definitely Autumn because she had the twelve inch of “World Shut Your Mouth” and I insisted that she played the whole EP because the b sides were so good). I noticed a load of her Tears For Fears records there and said to her I was sorry for giving her such a huge amount of stick about liking them, that I had decided that I liked them now and would she mind playing “The hurting”? Only it wasn’t quite that casual, I was very apologetic as only a slightly drunk teenager can be (and incidentally if you are wondering no I didn’t fancy her but it is a fair question to ask). Beverley smiled and said “You know what Rob, we’ve all moved on from Tears For Fears now, but it’s nice to know you’ve finally caught up with us”.

So maybe the girls were right after all. Maybe the girls were the hipsters, and us boys were the fools, they set the trends and we just followed along hoping to impress them.

So how does “Songs from the big chair” hold up thirty years later? Well it holds its own very well.  The reason I had to include something about “The hurting” is because the two albums work together well, in much the same way “Imagine” seemed to soften the message of “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band”, then “Songs from the big chair” is a sweetened version of “The hurting” but contains the same messages.  I also think I was more accepting of “The hurting” in the Autumn of ’86 because I had spent the Summer absorbed in “Compass Kumpass” by Dalek I, an album produced by Chris Hughes who TFF specifically asked to produce them because of that Dalek I album. Also listening to both TFF albums I spot direct or indirect references to OMD, this may not have been deliberate but it certainly made me feel at home. “The hurting” is quite an internalised album, facing the past and trying to work it out with some kind of knowledge – at least that is my impression (for another impression, please read Lena Friesen’s excellent review at Then Play Long here). There is a lot of Pain (every occurrence of the word pain was capitalised in the lyric insert) involved, a lot of thinking, not a lot of engaging with the world. But there is a striving for solutions too – “Belief is our relief” from “Ideas as opiates” for a start. “The prisoner” is as claustrophobic as the title predicts, the blasts of Mellotron voices hark back to “Architecture and morality”, or maybe some prog rock hellfire sermon. And yet for me, the album closer “Start of the breakdown” was my favourite song. I could imagine a video for it too, a stark white room focussing on a piano at the start, the camera expanding and drawing back to reveal more instruments as layers are introduced… But that was in my mind’s eye. “The hurting” then was good, and gained an audience who wanted more, even if they were teenage girls.  And as was proven, teenage girls are often right and teenage boys are usually idiots.

Listening now, I feel like I missed a lot of the subtleties within this music. Or maybe I’m more aware of the world. Would it surprise you if I said I was slightly insular as a teenager? You hadn’t guessed already. But maybe I listen closer now. “Shout” still packs a punch, building slowly but powerfully – each layer adding to the tension which never seems to break. It’s a protest song though and there was a lot to protest about during the period the album was made, from the miners strike to impending nuclear Armageddon which felt like it was only minutes away. But once the real drums kick in around the three minutes mark and the power chords drive through the song – and a pointed guitar solo – it becomes communal, this is a band looking outwards at the world rather than inwards at themselves. This song was a call to arms, if slightly indefinable, but at least it was a start, a step forward. This was as much the sound of Christmas 1984 as Band Aid and “The power of love” and “Last Christmas”. The opening of “The working hour” is almost the definition of mid 80s, the sax solos (by Mel Collins and future Goldfrapp member Will Gregory) are mellifluous and the waves of tinkling Yamaha DX7 electric piano would soon become a cliché but in early ’85 there was still some novelty in the combination. And my, doesn’t it SOUND good? The CD of “Songs from the big chair’ nestled up nicely beside “Brothers in arms” on yuppie coffee tables around the world – “Listen to this! No clicks and pops!” But once the song starts it falls over itself, the Linn drum programming crashes down, the chord progression isn’t quite as normal as expected and it sounds on edge. Again, could this be political? “This day and age, for all and not for one, all lies and secrets….” Is work the answer, at a time when unemployment was so high and times so hard? “Fear is such a vicious thing, it wraps me up in chains” – back to the thoughts and feelings of the debit album, but more approachable, more adult, and a desire to work it out – “Find out what this feeling’s about”. To seek an understanding, a solution. The song closes with more sax solos and we’re back to the start. “Everybody wants to rule the world” I always had a problem with. It is light relief after the previous two songs but still has moments of darkness – the middle eight’s desire to retreat to “a room where the world can’t find you”. But I’ve never liked the jogging rhythm, the general breeziness. The “this could break us in America” attitude. It probably wasn’t written with that in mind but… Maybe someone can help me with that one. I suppose I still remember Dave Blake – the guitarist in my brother’s band – saying “Tears For Fears shouldn’t be allowed to have guitars, that song isn’t fit to stand next to ‘Going Underground’” He was a Jam fan who wouldn’t follow the Style Council, Weller had sold out his credibility… But I digress. “Mothers talk” fits better at the end of an album side than as a single. Again I could be reading too much into it but I always thought this was about nuclear war – the reference to “When the wind blows”, the Raymond Briggs graphic novel perhaps? What do mothers not talk about? Death? Just the threat of Armageddon hanging over us all. So the big drums sound like bombs dropping. Still an oversequenced mess at times but I do like the dubbed out coda though.

By the time I was hearing this album in the autumn of ’85 I had an idea of who Robert Wyatt was, if not quite the range of his extraordinary achievements. I knew “Shipbuilding” from a few years before, and the songs from his “Extended Play” EP which Peel had played the previous year. “I believe” was a tribute to Wyatt  – the brushed drums and piano accompaniment was ample evidence – but has it’s own agenda too. For a start the opening line “I believe that when the hurting and the pain has gone we will be strong” references back to their debut album (and the non capitalisation of pain in the lyric sheet is notable). But the rest of the lyric is peculiar, a set of beliefs that aren’t really believed in (I’m thinking of “God” on “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” for some reason), from astrology and fate onwards. The lines “I believe if you’re bristling when you hear this song I could be wrong or have I hit a nerve?” are quite self referential but not quite as directly as Matching Mole’s “Signed curtain” or “O Caroline” (endless thanks to David Shaw for knowing the technical term for this – cheers!). So a song about faith which isn’t about faith really – it’s “Faithless” even. After all those contradictions, “Broken” kicks in, that Linn Drum crashing and purposeful guitar, before a beautiful descending melody plays over disquieting chords… then some words which point back to the debut again – “Between the searching and the need to work it out….” and references to children again… the descending melody returns and moves into “Head over heels”. Again a casual reading would have this as a love song and there are elements of that but there’s still a lot of dealing with the past here. But the music and melodies and arrangements are so perfect that the majority of listeners probably didn’t notice anything. There’s even a singalong chorus, and a lyrical link back to “Broken”, which flows into a live version of “Broken” from late ’83 (well recorded, I must say, was there some studio sweetening?) and as the crowd go nuts, the final song quietly slides into view.

“Listen” is a real gem. There’s a lot of OMD in this song, hints of “Sealand”, “Stanlow” and the title track to “Architecture and morality”, the movements from quiet to loud, the industrial clang, the occasional discord (there’s an electric piano chord which harks back to “Ideas as opiates”). There aren’t many words for Curt Smith to sing but they again hint at more than they say – “Mother Russia” and “Pilgrim fathers” looking to both sides of the Cold War. But the music is beautiful, slow and deliberate, building in intensity. Probably sequenced to all hell, but gorgeous too, textured and delicate in places, euphoric and rich in others. In the right mood this song can make me sob my heart out.

Flipping the metaphorical tape for the seven songs of b-sides is instructive. Sure there’s not many songs to get the postman whistling but plenty of good ideas. Tracks like “The marauders”, “Empire building” and “The big chair” show the band getting to grips with the new technology at their disposal, the grimy 8 bit world of Fairlights and Emulators. In a way these pieces are comparable with the work other bands were making in this area, the same muddy drum loops and sound tricks as Art Of Noise, Depeche Mode and OMD – compare these songs to “(The angels keep turning) The wheels of the universe” for a start. The b-sides also include “We are broken”, the first recorded version of the song which was the b-side of “Pale shelter” back in the Spring of ’83, it’s more primitive than the album version but just as urgent. There is also a personal favourite song of mine on the b-sides tape – “The conflict”, which builds slowly but has no moment of impact, just unresolved tension.

Somehow Tears For Fears managed an almost impossible feat with “Songs from the big chair”, the songs were both personal and political, yet were immensely popular. The album spawned five hit singles in the UK and was very popular for a long time. It also broke the band in America, where both “Everybody wants to rule the world” and “Shout” reached number one. They were everywhere in 1985, inescapable. Except for Live Aid. Maybe it was missing out on that day which didn’t push them into the upper echelons. But they worked hard and toured hard, and it almost killed the band – the reliance on the sequencers and primitive computer power of the Fairlight made each show a chore and this was something they wanted to move away from for their next album and I’ll come to that at another time.
What is peculiar is how popular Tears For Fears were without being influential. There were no followers, no other duos using similar ideas. There were other electronic duos, sure… OMD by ’85 had expanded to a six piece with a brass section and swung between godlike and powerful (“Crush”, “88 seconds in Greensboro”) to trite (“So in love”, “Secret”) within the same album. Vince Clarke was getting Erasure off the ground,  Pet Shop Boys were starting to make a name for themselves  (I remember seeing them on “Pop around” – “Run around” with music – in the summer of ’85 promoting “Opportunities” on its original issue and thinking they’d go a long way). But there wasn’t the combination of populism and psychotherapy which characterised Tears For Fears.

(Edit – Thanks to Marcello Carlin for reminding me that the existential moody teenagers listening to TFF in their bedrooms went on to form bands like Radiohead and Mansun who both did show their influence, sometimes very directly – “Wide open spaces” for a start. So their influence was on the next generation. Thanks MC)

But there was an odd after-effect in an unexpected place – “Strangeways here we come” and “Viva hate”. Both were recorded at the Wool Hall studio in Box, Somerset which TFF had used for their first two albums, and the characteristic Linn Drum thump of TFF can be heard on “Last night Maudlin Street” and “Break up the family”. As for “Strangeways”, play “I believe” and follow it with “Last night I dreamt  somebody loved me”. That piano introduction, the sound effects… ok maybe it’s just me who hears that. Maybe Morrissey was a fan? Maybe as someone else obsessed by his childhood he understood the ideas of Tears For Fears better than most? Or maybe I’m reading too much into music again?

Next time – Are you happy now, laughing at the world?

Dancing in the ruins of the western world

wpid-r-4275225-1360491508-1635.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-506142-1313790310.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-150403-1245012047.jpeg.jpg“Someone likes you and he’s in your class”

That was all that Rhiannon had to say to D for her to guess it was me. Maybe I wasn’t as subtle as I had hoped to be over the previous few month. But this was my 14th birthday and my little secret was now common knowledge throughout the third years.


Still, I had a load of birthday money and handed over a wad of it to my father saying “Get the first three OMD albums for me”. I had been absorbing “Dazzle Ships” since the end of April that year (1983) and was ready to investigate further. I had seen their other albums in HMV but had no idea what they would sound like. So I handed over £15 and hoped for the best. He popped to Hippo Records, opposite Spillers on the Hayes in Cardiff, a shop which specialised in cheap records from faraway places. My brother’s copy of “Beggars Banquet” was bought from there and was on Pax Records from Israel. So the night after my birthday I settled down with three new albums to absorb.  These were the third, fourth and fifth actual albums in my collection after “Dazzle Ships” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, and I kept my albums in the order I bought them in until … 1991 actually. I’m odd like that.

“Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” was their debut album, issued in February 1980. It was mainly songs from their live set which they had been playing since late 1978, some songs going back further than that to previous Liverpool (Wirral) bands like The Id. My copy of the album in the standard sleeve – no cut out grid on the sleeve, just white background, black grid orange squares and a black border with lots of information on it. The labels were the typical Virgin green on side one red on side two, not that I knew that at the time. And as the album started, a problem was solved.

You see, I knew NOTHING. I’d managed to catch a repeat of OMD’s  Peel Session from earlier in the year and they had played “Bunker soldiers” and I had no idea where this song was from. There wasn’t anywhere I could look for information at the time, and here it was opening the debut album. Phew, I hadn’t missed anything.  But what the hell was the song about? Even now I listen and I struggle with the words, Andy McCluskey sounds very young here, his yelp accenting the words. I’ve looked them up now but I still prefer the words I think he is singing. It’s about war and having little control over your circumstances. I think. I’m probably wrong. But the song itself is different. Even in the distance from 1980 to 1983 it sounded like a different universe. Sharp snaps of synthetic drums, bursts of melody, but sparse as hell, primitive too. But GOOD primitive and sparse. The chorus is McCluskey and Humphreys chanting letters and numbers while the music takes a turn towards the odd, the untrained nature of their music creating intriguing harmonies.

Next came “Almost”, a plaintive melody to start, echoing into the distance before other instruments come in – bass and organ and hissing synthetic percussion. Slower too, more of a ballad. McCluskey sounds calmer slightly, but disturbed – he is missing someone, wants to travel but is unsure of everything. The melody rises and falls across the song, acting as a commentary on McCluskey’s indecision. He repeats the line “Happens all the time to a friend of mine” over and over, nothing has been resolved. And there’s something stuck in the bloody groove of the fade out POP POP POP POP and it was there on the first play and is ingrained in my mind every time I hear the song,
“Mystereality” follows. More upbeat but more confusion. The drum machine hisses insistently, McCluskey is again on the edge of incomprehensible, and there’s a new sound – Martin Cooper’s sax, adding a humanity amongst the electronics. Again there’s another POP of vinyl muck in the last minute of the song. “Electricity” is an immediate favourite, even on the first hearing it sounds like an instant classic, short word bursts, melody melded to insistent rhythm, a perfect song. Of course later I would discover it was the third recording of the song, it had been issued on Factory Records in 1979 but that information was still far away from me. The side closer “The Messerschmidt Twins” was something else though. It drifts in quietly, echoing synth lines bathed in reverb, before the rhythm starts. There’s space in the music now, a halting haunted atmosphere. Even when the main synths join in, arpeggios of chords there is still too little going on. And McCluskey can’t quite accept or believe or understand what is happening.  Has there been an argument? Nothing is clear, but the passion is intense. A beautiful song I still don’t truly understand.

Side two starts with “Messages”. Now this I knew, it was their first hit single in the summer of 1980. But I didn’t remember it sounding like this. The album version is minimal again, that insistent octave jumping synth (a few years later I found a Korg Micro Preset in a music shop and worked out how they did it, a feat of manual dexterity) and organ and not much else. Oh a marvellous sense of melody, a yearning lyric and a curious bass line. And somewhere in the background, an electric guitar played not as a rhythmic element, just a source of additional sound. Yet this version sounded familar and it was a while before I worked out why – because it sounded like the theme tune to “Brookside”, which I believe was played by some members of OMD (an urban myth apparently ). I may be wrong about that. After the climax of that song, “Julia’s  Song” kicks in with an ancient beat box rhythm before turning into a more conventional song. A real live drummer, a propulsive bass line, more guitar hiding in the background. But the words are again hindered by McCluskey’s yelp, but there may be a reason for this (the words were written by Julia Kneale, a member of The Id and McCluskey’s partner at the time the song was written so it may well be that some of the words are about McCluskey himself). But the song falls over itself constantly, like a drunk climbing some stairs. As it fades it highlight the oddball guitar and dubby organ washes. “Red frame white light” is a perky ditty about the telephone box they used as an office for a while, but all short word bursts again, strange descriptions – “You have a yellow book with adverts… 632-3003…” I know that number better than my own phone number. But again the middle eight swerves off into a different key before resolving back to the home key. Very Kraftwerk, not that I know this at that point. “Dancing” is odd, fading in on a collage of found radio sounds before a drum machine starts playing followed by a bass guitar and synth seemingly playing at right angles to each other. A semi instrumental, with occasional spoken word interjections from McCluskey distorted by effects. There’s tons of space here, gaps in the sound you could drive a car through, lots of reverb too. The album closes with “Pretending to see the future”, sparse verses and low voices before a rich chorus – fear about becoming a pawn in the record industry (the giveaway comes towards the end, in a multiple pile up of voices, McCluskey is very clear with “See you the same time the same place next year with the same kind of product and a similar sound”). The last three album tracks have a strange atmosphere, a hint of darkness, spacious yet odd. I liked the album a lot on first impressions, it was minimal but melodic and thoughtful.

I eagerly moved on to “Organisation”, their second album released nine months after their debut. My copy of this album had the standard grey sleeve, unlike other copies with a black sleeve. A foreboding photo of dark clouds over a mountain and lakes. On the back, Humphreys and McCluskey look pensive in black and white. Only one song on the sleeve that I recognise. The labels are two tones of grey with the DinDisc logo and credits.

“Enola Gay”, well I knew this song from late 1980, from Top Of The Pops and Nationwide. Already a leap forward is noticeable – in the quality of songwriting, the layering of synths, even McCluskey’s singing is more confident and less yelping. There are a few reasons for this – “Organisation” was produced by Mike Howlett  (former bass player in Gong and at that time partner of DinDisc label boss Carol Wilson) who added a new level of polish to the music. Also Malcolm Holmes – who drummed on “Julia’s Song” on the debut – has been integrated into the band to give it some physical muscle and heart. And there’s another reason which I wouldn’t learn for a year or so…. “Enola Gay” though is electronic pop at its catchiest – almost every element is a hook, from the drum machine to each layer of synthetic sound. Sure, at this point I don’t understand the lyric at all but that doesn’t stop the enjoyment. “2nd Thought” begins with atonal chimes, synth drops and bass pulses before starting properly, a strange choral synth tone as lead, propulsive bass and rhythm and while the chordal organ beds from the debut album remain, there’s more around them, a new level of intricately woven melodic elements and hooks. McCluskey sounds calmer but the words don’t sound that way – “though the order in our lives left sometime ago, we are the ones who never cried – or so we’re told”. What, told not to cry? So you DO cry? But why? “VCL XI” offers no solutions, a melange of noises, synthetic and otherwise (is that a prepared piano clanging away?), McCluskey’s words are smeared and close to the ear and almost impenetrable – and it turns out to be deliberate. I’ve tried to decipher this song for 32 years and I find a website now saying McCluskey mumbled into the mic some vocal sounds which sounded good. Only there’s one word which is loud and clear in the first verse – “Suicide”. Hmm. “VCL XI” bangs and clatters along, quite experimental for a pop album. “Motion and heart” breezes along on a swing drum machine pattern and is rather nice but just as with songs on the debut the instrumental chorus swerves off into a different key. And there’s hurt too – “I couldn’t believe this would happen again, the things you said – and I called you my friend”. But on the surface a pop song. The side ends with “Statues”. This may need a paragraph on its own….

A drum machine patterns in, bathed in reverb, mid tempo, deliberate… do you know what? I can’t do this song justice. It’s odd, as soon as I heard “Statues” that evening it stopped me dead, just as it is now. This is powerful music, so calm yet so pained too. The synths swell and soar, McCluskey sings his heart out, and no honestly I’m not crying it’s just something in my eye. That high synth note that sustains in movingly throughout the whole song. This song is beautiful. This song is wonderful. This song is one of my three favourite songs of all time. This song means more to me as time passes and friends and family move away or pass on. This song has never been surpassed. This song sends chills down my spine. This song can stop time. This song has the most gorgeous fade out. This song should be played at my funeral. This song is SPECIAL.

Side two starts with “The misunderstanding”, the tension is almost unbearable, wavering synths wail in the distance, Holmes beats a martial tattoo across the song, McCluskey and Humphreys are almost shouting in unison – “Misunderstood but our intentions are good”. Towards the end they almost scream “Please please please please please please it can’t be over….” (or is it “It’s clouding over”, back to the storm clouds approaching). “The more I see you” is light relief after that, layers of cascading melodies and McCluskey’s crooning. Curiously this was one of the songs which made the deepest impression on me at the time and even though I know OMD aren’t keen on it (Carol Wilson wanted a cover version, they had a backing track with no words so McCluskey sang an old Sixties hit) I rather like it.  “Promise” is Humphreys’ first solo lead vocal, his voice more tentative than McCluskey’s but a pleasant change of mood. The song itself was another instant favourite of mine and at this distance I’m not sure why. Yes I love the song but it’s not that good. Still the album has one last genius move – the closer “Stanlow”. Again, I knew nothing at this point, I didn’t realise it was an oil refinery and that years later it would become famous for being the scene of fuel protests at the start of the 21st Century. But the song is a gorgeous tone poem, creating a sound picture with the clatter and clang of a real pump at Stanlow, the hissing white noise and echoing machinery – this is a huge step onwards from the debut album only nine months before. The synths create a swathe of orchestral grandeur, the machines pulse, and McCluskey sings of love for home – Stanlow was always lit up in the night on the outskirts of Runcorn when the band returned home from gigs, it was a sign of comfort. The song moves through stages, the main song throbbing with layers of melody and McCluskey’s voice is richer, darker, subtler than before. The song returns to the machine pulse to close and the last clang reverabates as the music stops. A powerful end to a great album.

And there was still one àlbum left to listen to – the 1981 LP “Architecture and morality”. A yellow sleeve with a cut out to show a picture within on the inner sleeve, which can be reversed to have two different pictures showing (an idea Pulp would extend in 1995, I’ve just realised). Again on the back McCluskey and Humphreys look like contestants on The Apprentice, not smiling. This isn’t going to be a bundle of laughs.

What is odd about “A&M” is that seeing it and owning it at this point reminded me of something, how the album had already been in our house before. My father was a member of a record club in his work, people would buy an album and it would be passed around the members who would listen and tape it and pass it on, blatantly ignoring<strike the old mantra of “Home taping is killing music” – oh how we laughed at that one. But “A&M” had appeared at home in late 1981, lothen disappeared a few days later. I can’t remember hearing the album being played at that time and none of it made its way onto any of his compilation tapes. It can’t have made an impression on him, I wonder what kind of impression it would make on me. I looked at the two tone red label, similar to the one on “Organisation” and dropped the needle on side one.

Hisses and crashes, a thumping bass drum, some guitar noise and then a two chord guitar thrash, quite charmingly amateurish like my own attempts at guitar playing at the time. But this sounded desperate. McCluskey is almost shouting, something had gone wrong and he knows it and it’s all his fault – “Oh my God what have I done this time?” Synth lines whine and wheeze across each other, the song hurtles toward a second verse, a second vocal emphasises occasional words, and now it’s not “what have I done?” but “Oh my God what have WE done this time?” It’s a collective fear now, and drones take over the song as it fades. This isn’t the kind of sound electro pop bands make. Scratchy guitars? Wow. “She’s leaving” is more conventional – the title a nod to a previous Liverpool group – and more layers of melody, for a song based on so few chords there is a rich selection of melodic ideas and little riffs. The words took me a long time to work out, but it doesn’t matter, by the climax of “The more we learn the less we know” it makes sense. And was that line a nod to another Beatles song? A song so ridiculously catchy, it was kept as an album deep cut – yet is still played live today, and was issued as a fourth single in the Benelux countries in 1982 (took me years to find a copy, that’s how I am, determined) but vetoed in the UK as ripping off fans, four singles off an album. “Souvenir” floats in and I knew this one, from the Summer of 1981 and the school disco that Christmas where everyone wanted me to do the “Prince Charming” dance (long story, don’t ask), the couples slow dancing as the song weaves it’s spell. Paul Humphreys takes a lead vocal, Martin Cooper’s sax is filtered through effects to make it unrecognisable, and those choir tapes give a distinctive bed of sound to the song. I’ve never really understood what the lyrics mean but “You’ll understand, it’s not important now” says a lot. A top 3 hit single. How could such an odd record be such a huge hit? 1981 was a great year, but an odd one. “Sealand” is a natural partner to “Stanlow”, another sound painting and another real place – it is close to Stanlow, and earlier this year while visiting my parents in Chester I saw it. But the song is all fog and sirens, clanking machinery, audible click tracks, surging rushes and huge empty spaces. It shouldn’t be heard in daylight. Hardly any words but not a problem, over seven minutes the song stretches out and is a remarkable piece of sound. A landscape to become lost in. To come to this from the debut in two years – incredible. “These arms fail you so”. Arms? Sorry, I’m stepping on someone else’s toes, someone else’s intepratation here. Please read Marcello Carlin and Lena Friesen on “A&M” here , they’re a thousand times better than me. “Sealand” closes with a coda of mellotron, an instrument which will become more dominant as the album progresses, yet was the bastion of psychedelia and progressive rock, the washes of orchestra and choir on Genesis and King Crimson and Tangerine Dream records. Nobody was using them in 1981…

Side two opens with “Joan of Arc”, another top five single and another odd hit single. Childs xylophone, echoing falsettos in echo chambers, throbbing and surging synthetics and McCluskey impassioned yet gentle too, wanting to be understood “Listen to us good and listen well”, preachy but acceptable under the circumstances. Somehow I never thought this was about Joan Of Arc, unless he had a personal relationship with her. On the other hand “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” does sound religious. And what’s with the intro? Atonal, avant garde and bloody hell it was another top five single. Strange times. A waltz, a strident Mellotron sounding like a bagpipe, and McCluskey… sorry, I can’t hear this song without seeing McCluskey dancing… I’ve seen OMD numerous times live and every time this song is a highlight, as is his dancing, a version of someone else’s dance, someone else who I had no idea about at the time. Sorry, sometimes this song just hits me hard and today is one of those days. The album’s title track follows. Ice cream van chimes, deep silences, more Mellotron, more discord, more tension and the miserable cheap Greek pressing letting sound through from across the grooves. What else sounded like this in 1981? When the song moves into the second section – throb and klang and building site noise – it shocks and the build of mellotron chorus stuns to silence. How could they get away with such experimental music, yet ground it in pop melody? “Georgia” sounds like “She’s leaving” part two, perky but desperately trying to convey something dark. The high lying synth line expresses disquiet and the instrumental chorus is a swirl through a bunch of radio stations but is far from random, there’s voices and sirens and what sound like Red Army choirs… and deep in the background a song… finally the sounds clear away to Humphreys singing the most important lines of the album

“Here we watch the morning star
Rising over home Georgia
Dancing in the ruins of the western world
Blindfolds on like we don’t care”

And suddenly it makes sense, a slow coda where the song deep within the miasma earlier reveals itself (and again thanks to Then Play Long for clarifying this puzzle for me) – “Keep the home fires burning – but none survive”. And a gun shot to stop. Nuclear dread was as real in 1983 as it was in 1981, nobody knew what would happen, the Cold War was a threat which certainly kept me awake at night. Morning stars? Georgia is a state in Russia, and America… and something struck me as well in that verse. “Dancing in the ruins of the western world” was the title of an article about OMD in a copy of Melody Maker my father bought in late 1981. I didn’t read it then and it was long gone by the time I heard the album, but why had he bought that MM? He had bought MM when we lived in Leeds and Harpenden but had stopped around 1978, so why with OMD on the cover in 1981? Odd. The album closes with “The beginning and the end”, a gorgeous piece of music bringing the whole album together – glockenspiel and clicking sticks like a primary school music lesson, synth surges, McCluskey playing rudimentary but effective guitar arpeggios, a simple Mellotron choir descent, acoustic piano and so much melody. And that’s just the music, McCluskey sings like a wounded angel. Accepting the inevitable end, blaming himself. So sad. A beautiful close to a wonderful album.


Reading my diary entries for the period of late May to early June 1983 is instructive as I devour these albums. When I first hear them, initial standouts are “Georgia” and “Motion and heart” and I reference D in liking “The more I see you”. A few days later I list ten songs across the albums, including “Statues”. Then I go on holiday to Plymouth for a week (Whitsun holiday again) and have to leave them behind, as I didn’t have a Walkman yet. But the night before I go I write out the entire lyric of “Statues” in my diary and sing it to myself every day. While in Plymouth I buy a few OMD singles (“Telegraph” 7″, “Genetic engineering” 12″, “Messages” 10″) and devour them when I get home. On 7th June I state “Is there such a thing as a perfect album? I have one in my collection – ‘ A&M'”. And I may have been 14 and may have owned less than a dozen albums at that point but bloody hell I was right.

Over the years “Architecture and morality” has held a special place in my heart. I still listen in awe and wonder. As time has passed it becomes more unique, the whole process of the album’s creation seems like a special time for the band, when their desire to experiment was matched by their melodic ideas. The album has matured wonderfully and doesn’t sound dated as it didn’t sound of its time anyway. This is due to a decision while recording the album to play all the synths through guitar amplifiers, then micing them up, to create an air in the sound, the sound of the room. Also the use of acoustic piano, bass guitar, electric guitar and Mellotron expand the sound palette of the band immensely.

A few days ago I asked my followers on Twitter to help me find other electro pop albums issued in 1981, to compare and contrast with “Architecture and morality” and thanks to those who responded I had a list of records to listen to. Huge thanks to everyone who responded with suggestions and lists on websites, it was an interesting exercise. It seems Virgin Records had cornered the market – Human League, Heaven 17, OMD, Japan, DAF – but they all have their distinctive styles. “Tin drum” creates it’s own sound world and “Ghosts” stands tall (was this influenced by “Statues”? It inhabits a similar atmosphere). “Dare” and “Penthouse and pavement” are two sides of the same coin, as to be expected, and are both clean and dry, no air in the sound. The Depeche Mode debut “Speak and spell” sounds trite and wimpy – thanks to the Salient Braves for the NME scan of Paul Morley comparing Depeche’s debut to “A&M” and getting OMD’s album so wrong. Gary Numan’s “Dance” LP is so in awe of Japan that it hurts – but sounds tired and dated. I never took to either Ultravox or John Foxx though I’ve tried, I’ve tried… “Computer world” is in a class of its own, as perfect as “A&M”. I think “Anywhere” by New Musik is of a similar hue, a mix of electronics and guitars, sometimes the human touch of a real drummer, and lyrics which touch nerves in different ways to OMD. Soft Cell were a different kettle of fish. But nothing exactly has the same sound world as the OMD album. Marcello Carlin did suggest “This is the ice age” by Martha and the Muffins and that does make sense – also on DinDisc, and Martha Ladly suggested the OMD album title, and it was the first production job for Daniel Lanois too. I’ve not heard the full Martha and the Muffins album but the few songs I’ve heard do bear comparison. There are distinct hints of Mellotron within songs like “Casualties of glass” and “Boy without filters” (song title or what?), there is a feeling within the songs I’ve heard of fear and trepidation on modern living, even more directly expressed – the repeated chant of “Don’t lose hope” for instance. Sometime it sounds like the Feeling crossed with A Certain Ratio – as on the title track. Definitely an album I intend to find and hear in full.

Since writing the majority of this post, the unspeakable events in Paris have shocked me and wondered at the validity of writing over 4000 words on something as trite as pop music. Then a thought struck me – “Architecture and morality” is under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust, today we are under a shadow of a different kind of terror. Yet nobody is creating albums about today’s terror which could sell millions of copies and spawn three Top Five singles. Different times, as I always keep saying. But that is no excuse. What mainstream artist is making similar moves now? Radiohead I suppose. But how long did it take them to reach such heights? OMD’s progress through their first three albums is remarkable – all the more so considering the music was popular yet cutting edge, tuneful yet experimental and all made within 24 months of their first album. An amazing feat, which today’s music industry – risk averse, safe, formulaic and boring – would never allow.

“Blindfolds on like we don’t care” indeed

Next time – where I was before I got sidetracked probably

Punch drunk, a day late

wpid-r-1435487-1219509442.jpeg.jpgThe midweek snow had come as something of a surprise to me. Sure it was the middle of January and yes it had been bloody freezing standing at the bus stop the previous few mornings but snow? I just wasn’t prepared for that. After all I’d only been living in my new house for two weeks, moving in during the first week of 1994. I was still getting my bearings, finding out which bus took me to town and out to work again, and which bus took me around the estates I didn’t want to see, especially in the dark at 6pm. So far I had discovered the most important places in my new home town – the record shops. Our Price on Commercial Street had all the regular releases you would expect from a mainstream retailer. Diverse Music was hidden behind the market next to GM Music (double win – look at records then pop next door to drool over guitars) and was a superb independent record shop (and still is, and long may it continue). Roxscene was at the back of the Kingsway Shopping Centre, a very seventies development which was already down at hell, as was the shop itself which was slowly closing down. But Hitman Records was interesting, a place to hang out and flick through the racks of CDs, checking out the bargains and oddities. The day before the snow I had bought “Blood Music” by Chapterhouse from Hitman and had played it that night. Yeah it was OK and had its moments but was nothing special. I taped the bonus CD “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” ready for the next day’s bus journey to work. It was the Chapterhouse album reimagined and remixed by Global Communication, about whom I knew very little. But it was a free CD so nothing to lose.

So I woke up to snow and was slightly freaked out. I very much doubted the usual bus I caught would make it up the hill of Ruskin Avenue – and I was right – so slid down to the bus stop on Risca Road and waited and hoped. There was very little traffic and the roads were still patchy white, while the pavements were pretty much pristine – deep and crisp and even and beautifully white. It’s a huge thrill to place a footprint in the snow, at whatever age. Finally a bus came along and I settled down with my new tape, which I had been listening to since I left the house. It fitted the day and the journey well, starting quietly and slowly rising in intensity. I was happy to be on a bus, relatively warm and moving towards work. And then the bus stopped. The driver admitted that the road was impassable and we would have to make our own way into town.

Which was slightly difficult as I had no idea where we were. I looked around for any landmarks I may recognise from my limited journeys around Newport but was pretty much lost. Everyone else was walking down hill so I just followed them, still listening to the tape. After half an hour I was somewhere I knew – the town centre – and headed for the bus station for my next bus to work. Luckily there were no problems with that as the journey was on Newport Road and I arrived in work about two and a half hours after leaving my home. There I found a skeleton staff as everyone else was struggling through the snow and by eleven am the whole office was closed down to allow people time to get home. So I struggled back to town and ended up walking home, still listening to that tape, and getting home around 3pm, a wasted day. But I’d listened to “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” about three times which is why that album always reminds me of snow.

By that weekend the snow was still around which was a pain in the arse. I wanted to get out, go somewhere different and eventually decided to visit Cwmbran, the closest town to Newport. I’d never been there before and had a vague impression it may have some record shops. So I slid down the hill to the bus stop again, caught a bus into town then walked to the train station for a train which took me to Cwmbran. Only I hadn’t the faintest idea where I was once I left the train station. I was disorientated by the snow, and wandered around lost looking for signs which may lead me to the town centre. I didn’t think to ask anyone though – far too shy. After half an hour of wandering I accidentally found the town centre, awash in icy slush. Now Cwmbran is an odd place, a “new town” built up during the 50s and 60s to provide housing for mine workers in the south eastern valleys in South Wales, a town built around a million roundabouts (as I would discover when I learnt to drive there a decade later) and the shopping centre was built in the late 60s. It seemed like a rabbit warren that day, I was so lost but somehow managed to find some record shops so I was happy and lost.

The best record shop that day was Apple Stump, hidden upstairs in the shopping centre. Don’t go looking, it’s no longer there. A dark hideaway, racks and racks of CDs and tapes and LPs and singles everywhere. I settled down to a half hour of browsing and ended up flicking through a box of random 12″ singles on the floor. I came across a single in an intriguing sleeve, a picture of what looked like a cliff face with different shades of rock on display. It caught my eye, as did the fact it had no words on the front. I turned it around, the sleeve picture faded into what looked like water in an ocean, the picture still dominant and a small strip on the left hand side saying very little – the band name Pacific, the song title “Shrift” and “A Creation Recording”. The sleeve looked more Factory than Creation. I only knew one Pacific song but liked that one song so took a chance, as the 12 inch was only 99p… Actually I bought both copies that Apple Stump had, just in case it turned out to be brilliant. Then I continued to wander around Cwmbran, trying desperately to look like I knew where I was going, getting lost looking for the train station again and struggling back home in the dark with a nice haul of records (and maybe we’ll get to one or two of those other records another time).

So who and what exactly were Pacific? Well I didn’t know that much about them at the time. I knew one song of theirs – “Jetstream” had appeared halfway through Creation’s classic “Doing it for the kids’ compilation of Summer ’88 and the song stood out like a sore thumb there. While most of the bands and songs on that iconic compilation were various shades of indie jangle (mostly GOOD indie jangle too), there were only two songs which used any kind of 80s technology – drum machines, sequencers, samplers. “A complete history of sexual jealousy parts 17 – 24” by Momus was like a jilted Pet Shop Boys (and there were people who at the time said it was the theme song for my life), but “Jetstream” was something else. There’s found radio broadcasts, gentle acoustic guitars, a rattle of a drum machine and a peculiar string arrangement over a mid tempo beauty of a song. And Michael Heseltine speaking in the House Of Commons before a brief trumpet solo. This was definitely not a typical Creation Record. So what would this single I’d just bought be like?

“Shrift” is a three song EP, the title track on one side and two other songs “Autumn Island” and “Mineral” on the reverse. The label states that the title track is produced by John A Rivers, always a trademark of quality. It starts with a grand sweep of a string section moving slowly around a set of four chords with a church organ in the background. After a minute, these drop away to be replaced by sampled orchestra hits, crashing drum machines and frantic sequencers. This is definitely not a typical late 80s Creation Record, but a typical late 80s pop song. Cellos soar and finally a male voice sings words that seem like glimpses of a bad day – “So when garlands slip off your life.. punch drunk a day late…” before bursting into a joyous chorus where a female voice joins in. The female voice then gets a verse to herself, an intriguing few lines which add to the peculiar state of affairs – “The lovers leap in front of the cars, you thought you’d left but woke up to find things as they were”. What the hell is going on? Then a trumpet solo while tympani drums crash. Back to the male voice for more verses, then a trumpet led fanfare / breakdown and a perfect line of lyric – “As if I wasn’t weird enough…” And the song keeps building, there’s the crescendo around the five minute mark where you think the song should logically end but doesn’t. Finally the string arrangement brings the song to a close around seven minutes and then there’s a minute of space talk, which is a recording of NASA transmitting Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass to the Apollo 8 mission which circled the moon around Christmas 1968. Overall eight minutes long and a real synth pop beauty.

Flip to side two of the EP for two songs. “Autumn Island” is an instrumental based around acoustic guitar arpeggios – slightly reminiscent of early Felt – but with a minor key air of melancholy, aided by simple string synths in the background and the occasional Ofra Haza style vocal sample. The piece establishes it’s mood, there’s a few embellishments like the occasional trumpet blast and more quiet chimes and synthesisers, but all very subtle. And it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

“Mineral” starts with a minute of water noises – a waterfall, some splashing in sensurround stereo before a sequencer a slightly disquieting series of notes, again melancholy and minor key, lots of delay and echo on the simple pattern. Then the waterfall drops out allowing the listener to concentrate on the sequence, and there’s nothing else here, just the echoing synth, before transferring the sequence to a piano, emphasis on the bass notes, still dark and haunted before sampled ‘cello is joined by a real string section, adding to the unease. It really is sad music, uncomfortable and slightly sinister. And then it just stops.

I looked back at the record. It definitely said it was recorded in 1988. Sure there were probably other people making synthetic pop records like a cut price Pet Shop Boys around then, but nobody was making dark beatless instrumentals like the b-sides. And for this to be issued on that bastion of indie tradition Creation Records… And this band performed at the Doing It For The Kids gig in London that August? Maybe this was the start of Creation moving towards being a dance music label? Jump ahead to 1990/91 and Alan McGee is blissed out on E, Primal Scream have got their groove going thanks to Andrew Weatherall and the “Keeping the faith” dance compilation is one of the coolest collections to have. Maybe that’s a bit of a jump, too much conjecture but it makes sense to me.

And that Apollo 8 recording leads me somewhere too. In the back of my mind I had a memory of reading an interview with Pacific, when this single was released back in the early months of 1989. The mainstream music press ignored it, but the oddball music magazine Offbeat devoted a column of one page to them. It mentioned that Apollo recording, the incongruous nature of being in space and having the world literally at your feet and having Alpert’s music – the height of uncool (or so it seemed) – being piped up as entertainment. Sadly I didn’t have the interview to go back to but remembered a few details, how Pacific was a trio, how they were mixing orchestral instruments with samplers and drum machines, and that’s about it. That may well have been the only press they ever got.

So on that snowy Saturday I span the disc over and over again and marvelled at my humble discovery. Did anyone else know about this little gem? Was there anything else by them? Luckily the insert to the Creation Soup compilations gave a clue in the discography, Pacific had made an album called “Inference” though it was just a compilation of their two singles. I wanted to find this album. I kept my eyes peeled.

A few months later I had found Rockaway Records, the record stall upstairs in Newport market, a strange place affiliated with TJs, the legendary live venue by the cenotaph with enough stories written about it. I was flicking through their racks one afternoon after work, not even sure whether I would find anything. I saw this strange album sleeve, a dark picture which I still don’t really understand. Intrigued I turned it over, and it said “Inference”. This was the album I was searching for. True enough it compiled their two EPs but this was what I had been searching for. Handing over the £3.99 (yes the price is still on the sleeve now) I hurried home to hear this. And was slightly disappointed. The version of “Shrift” which kicked off the album was a four minute edit, losing entire verses and most of the best parts of the song. “Autumn island” and “Mineral” were as perfect as ever. Flipping to side two, “Barnoon Hill” sounded like the Lotus Eaters, lots of rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, that wandering ‘cello, some sequencers and drum machines and lyrics about “The dark side of happiness”. Marvellous stuff. “I wonder” was more of the same, very indie pop with touches of trumpet and ‘cello, a male female duet with another great lyric – “I’d like to gather up all the wrong things that I’ve done and send them back to the person I knew who had none”. “Henry said” was the female singer sounding like Tracey Thorn over a gentle bed of acoustic guitars and sighing ‘cello – listening now it sounded like a precursor to some of Blueboy’s quieter moments. Then finally “Jetstream” which sounded just as odd and out of place in 1994 as it did in 1988.

As time passes, Pacific felt like a little secret project that nobody really remembered that much about. I would put songs onto compilation tapes for people and they were charmed. I found that “Shrift” fitted nicely in mixes between “Looking from a hilltop” and “Missing the moon”. I put “Mineral” on the end of a compilation for a girlfriend and she said it reminded her of her holiday in Ibiza the previous year. And I still kept looking for the CD of “Inference”. In 2005 I found it, in the Oxfam music and book store in Cardiff, just wandering in after a day’s shift on the phones on the way home, amazed to see it there in the rack, bouncing to the cash desk, telling the assistant “I’ve been searching for this for ten years”, like they cared. Shoving the CD into my Walkman for the train home, grinning like an idiot when the full version of “Shrift” appeared at the end of the CD… happy bunny.

So what did become of Pacific? There isn’t a lot of information on the net about them. A few blog posts sharing out of date links to the singles. Someone confusing them with a 90s supergroup featuring John McGeogh. And yet the main person behind Pacific continues to produce music, that gentleman being Dennis Wheatley and he now records under the name of Shrift. Well that makes sense. There’s music on Spotify and available in record shops and it’s very nice indeed.

I’ve reached the end of this tale. I still love Pacific and included “Mineral” on the Goldfish Radio b-sides podcast. “Shrift” still sounds like it should have been a hit single. And it just pops up sometimes. A few days ago the Everything Indie Over 40 Twitter account posted “Shrift” in their “Posting Randoms From The Creation Catalogue” and that’s what prompted this post. It’s not important to you…

“Go ahead with the music, but be advised the fidelity was low and the volume too high…. (music comes through)… that’s good!”

Next time – so why is “Statues” by OMD one of my favourite songs ever?

Long Hot Summer

Every week there was a clamour for the charts, who was going up, who was going down and who was number one. Yes the weekly charts of the girls i fancied in my class were legendary. I would be sat in the back row of Miss Hagyard’s Maths class and the girls in the row in front would turn around en masse and ask who was where in my chart. Elaine and Lesley and Mary and Melissa and Beverley were all there in the top five from time to time but there was only ever one constant at number one, my beloved D, my first crush. Not that I would ever have the courage to ask her out. Actually I did ask her out once, but that was under duress – Evo had my book bag hanging out of a third floor window at the time so that doesn’t really count. And yes in retrospect I was horrible to objectify the opposite sex and stupid and sometimes cruel in my decision making but I was 14… Actually that’s no excuse really.

So it’s July 1983 and my year group have finished our exams. We are in our third year at comprehensive school – what is now called Year 9 – and these are the last compulsory exams before we can choose our O Level subjects, and I know which subjects I’m dropping so I don’t bother revising for Biology or Geography, resulting in my first ever failed exam (27% for Biology). But what to do in that long gap between the end of the exams and the end of the school year? The teachers don’t really care – they are probably marking our exams or writing our reports so as long as we are vaguely quiet, us kids can do what we like. My English teacher seems baffled by my essay on what the year 2010 will be like and asked me what a modem is. Looking back on my school reports, they are completely divorced from the huge documents produced now for pupils, carefully listing every element of a child’s capabilities. For instance, this is Miss Hagyard’s entire comment for Maths that year – “Robert always provides excellent work, well done”. Seven words. It’s a different world now, teaching doesn’t stop until the end of term, every day must be planned and accounted for. But those days were lazy and hazy, we sat around playing games on paper or throwing paper planes or just talking. It was in a Geography class that July that i saw one of my defining images of D, carefully recorded in my diary that night. The classroom – a portacabin – was hot so the fire exit was open, and she was outside talking to someone with her back to me. Suddenly she turned round to look back into the classroom and smiled. Probably not at me – imagine the first minute of Little Mix’s “Black Magic” video, over and over – but that was enough, that image was perfect and while memories fade over time, reading the incident back in my diary brings total recall. And there was a song playing in my head at that point which fitted perfectly.

The song starts gently, a wash of synth strings, a hint of melody. Guitars sparkle and glisten, high register arpeggios, no rhythm as yet, just a heat haze miasma of guitars with counterpoint piano. “It’s warm, in and out” – hell yes… After a minute of beautiful drift, the rhythm section kick in and the song bursts into fruition with a joyous chorus – “The fire picture of you, the first picture of Summer”. Ah it all makes sense now, and while the song plays out with glorious climaxes of chiming guitars that one moment of D turning around is captured. It was the Lotus Eaters of course, a perfectly timed song which captured many hearts. Now I now how they fit into the lineage – of Paul Simpson leaving the Teardrop Explodes to form his own band The Wild Swans, how they issued one perfect single on Zoo before splitting in two, to become Care and The Lotus Eaters. But at the time I just heard the song and loved it, and followed its steady progress up the charts and cheered when they appeared on Top Of The Pops.

For some reason I didn’t buy “The first picture of you”, there were more important records to buy that July. One Saturday in early July I took a trip to Cardiff with my family intent on buying some records. In HMV I bought the ten inch of “Souvenir” and the twelve inch of “Maid of Orleans” by OMD then in Spillers I bought two seven inch singles – “Matters of the heart” by Freur and “Dr Detroit” by Devo. Playing all these singles in any order brings back that summer feeling perfectly. “Matters of the heart” was the more poptastic follow up to “Doot-doot”, a record I have mentioned enough times on Goldfish for regular readers to know it’s importance to me. “Souvenir” had an extra verse, a new version of “Motion and heart” from “Organisation” and a delicate song called “Sacred heart”. There was slight disappointment with “Maid of Orleans” – the sleeve promised a song called “Experiments in vertical take off” but the record itself had “Of all the things we’ve made” which I knew from “Dazzle Ships”, but the other b-side “Navigation” made up for that disappointment. It was HUGE, mellotrons in full effect, drums from some military academy, yet with passages of quiet tension too. One of my favourite b-sides ever. Yet it is “Dr Detroit” which reminds me of that day the most.

“Dr Detroit” has a strange pull on me. I’ve spent the last few days trying to find out about it. The song is the theme song to the film but I cannot remember the film being distributed in the UK. It’s a Dan Ackroyd feature, very early 80s, very garish and zany, very dated. It’s on Youtube if you really want to see it. There’s also an odd trailer where Ackroyd rants about video games keeping people away from cinemas. Then there’s Devo’s own video for the song, which mixes clips from the films with Devo’s own visuals. Singer Mark Mothersbaugh is the only member seen, in a tight black leather catsuit, being controlled by two ladies in white coats from a computerised laboratory. It’s very odd, but parts of the video are oddly familiar. The song itself is great too, rather minimal electro pop with occasional bursts of synthesised pedal steel guitar, leading to a full scale pedal steel solo. I always thought the pedal steel was synthetic, – for some reason I was convinced it was a Moog Liberator, the Moog keytar – but I’m not so sure now. Either way, it’s a highlight of a great song. I’m unsure how the song is related to the film, but at the distance of 32 years I don’t really care. The song wasn’t a big hit though, stumbling around the very bottom of the chart in the early weeks of July, never reaching higher than number 98. Probably the sleeve didn’t help, a smirking Ackroyd in yellow coat appears to be carrying the skewered torsos of the five members of Devo on a sword. 

So how did I end up hearing a song whizh barely scrapped into the charts? Well you can thank my obsession with Radio Luxembourg for that one. I was an avid listener to their Futurist Chart, broadcast every Thursday night. I never knew at the time what a Futurist was, I still don’t really know. Any song with a synth or a member with an odd haircut fitted the bill. But I would tune in every Thursday night hoping to hear something new and cool. Digging through the charts of June / July 1983, a lot of the songs in the lower reaches ended up in the Futurist Chart. Songs like “Sister Friction” by Hayze Fantayzee, “I love you” by Yello, “Hanging around with the big boys” by the Bloomsbury Set were all familiar to me, while bigger hits were also included. But remarkably “Matters of the heart” never appeared in the Futurist Chart, even though “Doot-door” had spent months there. Still I kept listening. Two favourites at this time were “Nobody’s Diary” by Yazoo and “Waiting for a train” by Flash And The Pan.

I must admit that I completely misinterpreted “Nobody’s diary” at the time. For some reason I missed the point and just heard the word “diary” and ran with it. But hell my friends did too. I had only been writing my own diary for seven months but it was already legendary amongst my class and year. The diary was started as an exercise in writing by our English teacher and she would read them every week. Of course I didn’t realise the invasion of privacy involved and took it seriously. By Book 2 (all diaries were in exercise books until May 1986 when I moved to A4 files) I created The Teacher Files where I wrote what I thought of every teacher in the school. My English teacher went nuts and tore the pages out in front of our class and it was at that point it became legendary – everyone wanted to know what I had written, and later diaries include updated Teacher Files and Pupil Files, and that got me into even more trouble amongst my peers. But that is jumping ahead. I also decided to tell her I’d stopped writing and just carried on anyway making the diary mine and mine alone. So Books 3 to 5 cover from March to July ’83, and starting to buy records and develop personal taste and also discovering that I fancy girls. Hideous embarrassment all round.

Back to “Nobody’s diary” then. Yes I got it wrong but I still loved the song. It was perfect for me, totally synthetic yet Alison Moyet’s vocal was soulful and rich. “Waiting for a train” was a very odd record to reach so high in the charts – it entered the top ten. Flash And The Pan were Australians, an art rock project based around Vanda and Young from the Easybeats back in the sixties. Seemingly the thoughts of someone stuck at a train station, the relentless chug of the rhythm and the insistent vocal sounds and the chords ebbing and flowing made a compulsive listen. Once heard, never forgotten.

So the end of June crossing into the start of July was a wonderful time. There was great music and great times. I don’t remember doing anything much with my friends, I was quite a solitary young lad. (Have you seen that picture of me from ’84 on Twitter? It explains a lot). But it felt like the best time to be alive. It was a long hot summer, and yes the Style Council’s “Long hot Summer” blended in nicely too, though that came a little later. Now that was a song which caused some controversy amongst my friends. You see, for years Paul Weller had been a hero to most of the boys (always the boys) in my class. They’d grown up with the Jam, pricking their consciences, making them read books, showing the way forward. The boys would bring along “All mod cons” and “Sound Affects” to the music lessons where we could play our own records, and insist we listen with reverence and respect. The Jam were Important therefore Weller was Important and everything he did had Importance thrust upon it. The boys didn’t quite understand the Style Council though. “Speak like a child” was fair enough, a soulful blast. “Money-go-round” was a bit too funky for the boys. But “Long hot summer” totally confused them. Where were the guitars? What was the meaning? What’s with the drum machines? And when the boys saw the video… Well… They may not have understood but maybe the girls did. Personally I’d never cared much for the Jam but kept that opinion well hidden at the time, but quite liked “Long hot summer”, and I saw how it related to “Juicy fruit” by Mtume, another song I adored that summer.

Two weeks before the end of term in school, I was cycling back there after lunch at home when I was stopped by two girls. Lesley and Elaine were both in my class, friends of D and both had appeared in my “Girl Chart” many times. Lesley asked me if I wanted to go out with Elaine on a date. Elaine herself said nothing, but Lesley assured me she was willing. Sorry, I’m really choosing the wrong words here. This was all totally innocent, there would only be hand holding and … Well actually I had no idea what there would be. Elaine always seemed quite posh to me, and I was astonished that she would be interested in me. But I took it all seriously and a date was set up at the end of the week. The final page of Book 5 of the diary expresses my mixed emotions on the matter. “I’ve got a date, what happens now?” I also rewrote my chart so that Elaine was number one.

So what exactly would I find to talk about? I knew absolutely nothing about her and was too shy to ask anyone else. So I had to make assumptions. For a start I knew she liked music so I had to remember which band names she had scribbled on my pencil case. Looking at it, she seemed to be into this New Romantic music – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Tears For Fears and A Flock Of Seagulls. Even then there was no way I was going to listen to either Duran or Spandau, that was an absolute no-no. I was still a few years away from deciding if I liked Tears For Fears, though I secretly adored “Mad world”, there was something about the lyrics which struck me as quite deep. But I wouldn’t admit that to anyone, they were still considered to be a girls’ band at the time. Hell, I’ll admit I was wrong there but that’s for another time perhaps. Which only left A Flock Of Seagulls. I’d quite liked the singles I’d heard by them, I’ll give them a go. So I asked my father to get me their current album “Listen” from HMV on Tuesday so I’d have enough time to soak in the album before Friday’s date.

(Strange logic but I will keep reminding the reader that I was fourteen years old and knew nothing)

Only it didn’t quite work. Or at least “Listen” and my Sanyo music centre didn’t get on at all. As soon as the tom toms kick in on the opening song “Wishing”, the stylus would jump and not play ball. I tried putting some coins on the stylus head but it still jumped. So my father took the LP back and got me another copy. This too jumped in the same place so back that went too, and I somehow ended up with the picture disc of the LP which just about played, but sounded crap as most picture discs do. So I ended up buying another copy of the LP. Why didn’t I cut my losses and get the tape? Probably because my tape deck on the Sanyo was temperamental and didn’t stay down to play. So I have two copies of “Listen” in my collection.

If you look up the term “Front loaded album” in the hypothetical rock’n’roll dictionary there will be a picture of “Listen” by A Flock Of Seagulls. Sticking the first three singles from the album as the first three songs on side one is either genius or madness. The opener is of course “Wishing (If I had a photograph)”, which is a great way to start. There’s the slightly oriental melody wavering over two chords, the distinctive comb filtered noise which runs throughout the song and it’s an odd tempo – not fast enough for dancing, not slow enough for slow dancing. And then there’s the words. Mike Score doesn’t know what it is about his Other that stands out, he lists a lot of things which it isn’t, but finally admits that really he’s forgotten anyway and needs a photograph as a reminder. Not a fine sentiment, but more than likely I’m reading it wrong. Once Score shuts up the synths cascade and descend and melodies tumble over each other for about two minutes of heavenly music. “Nightmares” is faster but oddly minimal, deep bass and drums power the song but the guitars are muted and hazy in the background, swinging from half chords to arpeggios in the chorus. It’s an old story lyrically though, Score has little sympathy for the Other here, who he knew from younger days but now hides from life. No resolution though. “Transfer  affection” bubbled up to number 38 in early July so received enough play on Luxembourg for me to cite it on the back page of Book 5, and it’s a rather cute little pop song and I suppose I associated with it – “Don’t try and tell me that I’m out here on my own”. Those high register “Hold on” backing vocals. Very nice. “What am I supposed to do?” starts all speedy, funk bass and disco drums, sequencers chattering. Then Score starts singing at the top of his register, moving between two or three notes, sometimes expanding notes at the end of each verse, and he sounds exactly like Morrissey. Even the lyrics are like Moz without the clever word play. It’s a startling listen. It’s a glimpse of a Smiths where the rhythm section showed off their funk chops, if you squint hard enough.

Side two starts with “Electrics” which fades in on flanged noise – kind of third hand Joy Division intro, or “The misunderstanding” even – before chorused and delayed guitars thump out jumpy half chords and squealing harmonics, while Score yelps like Fergal Sharkey, and it sounds like “Quit dreaming” era Bill Nelson with a hint of Robin Guthrie thrown in sideways. It sort of rocks, and I used to play this at my brother to show him I liked music with guitars too. “The traveller” continues the post punk mood, lots of pinched harmonics and off kilter guitar patterns, and Score’s vocal is droning on one note through the verse. Is he travelling towards a person? “I want to swim in your ocean”. Quite. “2:30” is a minute of effected sound effects and backwards cymbals before leading into “Over the border”, a Duran Duran clone – Mike Score doing his best Simon Le Bon impression over the bombastic guitar motif. The lyrics are suitably vague and aiming for profundity – “I try not to look back in anger, I try not to look back at all”. “The Fall” is neither a tribute to Albert Camus or Mark E Smith sadly, a slow grind of rolling tom toms and high sustained guitar notes and rumbling bass. Listening now with hindsight, most of side two sounds like A Flock Of Seagulls want to be a post punk band, and maybe the pop singles were a cover for the music they really wanted to make. Closer “(It’s not me) Talking” was another single and a re-recording of one of their original singles on Bill Nelson’s Cocteau label. Nelson steps in to produce here (the rest of the album was produced by Mike Howlett) and it’s another space age fantasy, breezing along for a few minutes but nothing special.

So I played “Listen” over and over hoping to absorb the New Romantic vibe, maybe Elaine and I would talk about this music. It sounded more angular than I expected but I did like it a lot. Maybe we would bond over the album. Maybe this could blossom into something interesting. Finally the day of the date came. We were going to meet at the playing fields by the school. I went there at the allotted time, waited around for a while then went home. It was all a joke, I’d been conned. Silly me. Elaine and Lesley were banned from my chart and D returned to number one, never to be moved. The subject was never mentioned by either girl again and i was too ashamed to admit it to anyone. Did I learn? Did I hell. The next year Lesley promised she’d buy me a birthday present if I bought her “Against all odds” by Phil Collins for her birthday a week before mine. I bought that reprehensible song in Woolworths where nobody knew me and gave it to her, expecting “Silver” by Echo and the Bunnymen the following week. Of course that never happened either. Oh well, I’ll never learn.

But without all this happening I wouldn’t have dreamt of buying “Listen” by A Flock Of Seagulls. It turns out they were more than a bunch of strange haircuts and pretty faces after all.

Next time – whatever

What We Did On Our Holidays

Every year I say it – “I’m taking a break over the Summer holidays” – and every year I end up writing throughout the summer. This year hasn’t been any different. Regular readers of Goldfish will think I have been shirking a little lately – I’ve only written about three full posts on this blog this year but hell I’ve moved house and I’m still getting life organised. Don’t worry, there’s still more to come from Goldfish – the continuing story of my second year in Sheffield plus pieces on Saint Etienne and Ride are in the pipeline.

On the other hand, if you don’t follow me on Twitter (and why should you?) you may not have spotted other posts that I have written recently for other websites. So here’s a round up of pieces I’ve written this year which may have passes you by.

I am a regular contributor to the Everything Indie Over 40 community on Twitter, a group of like minded folks who have a love for indie music old and new. A month ago the community set up a website which is an excellent portal into that world – lots to read there and respond to. I have been asked to write a regular feature called “The Indie CV” where I examine an individual’s career in music and the records and bands they have been involved in. So far I’ve written two CVs, one for Margaret Fiedler (Moonshake, Laika) and another for the Williams twins Andy and Jez (Sub Sub, Doves, Black Rivers). Links to both are here, and it’s well worth looking around the site if you have the time.

Indie CV – Margaret Fiedler

Indie CV – Jez and Andy Williams

The Music Vs The World website recently asked a number of writers to contribute a piece on a random decade in music, two writers took a decade each and it was an interesting read all round. I was asked to write about the Nineties and my post is available here. Thanks to Fi for thinking of me and I hope it was ok.

Music Vs The World – The 90s

A new website called When That Song Plays lets writers examine one song and what it means to them,.memories, thoughts and feelings. I wrote a piece for them about “Boy from school” by Hot Chip and the birth of my son in 2006. You can read it here and again, the website has plenty more content to read.

Hot Chip – Boy From School

The experience of writing about one song at a time gave me an idea for a subsidiary blog called One Hundred Goldfish where I recall one song and the memories associated with it. So far I’ve posted three pieces there and they are all listed below.

East River Pipe and Kylie Minogue


The Boo Radleys

Of course I couldn’t miss out Toppermost – a marvellous website with nearly 500 contributions from over 70 writers. I’ve written a good dozen or more pieces for Toppermost in the last couple of years and there is a separate page listing all my contributions here.


I have just polished off another Toppermost on The Rutles which should be available in a couple of weeks. Again, please take a look around the website, there’s plenty to get stuck into there.

And of course I’ve done six podcasts for Goldfish Radio, and there will be a page about that within the menu at the top of this page very shortly.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the above websites’ for letting me ramble on endlessly about music. It’s a lovely feeling getting positive feedback about something so personal

Enjoy your Summer holidays and Goldfish will return in September with the Winter into Spring 89, Morrissey, Virginia Astley and Eyeless In Gaza..

Take care and God bless.

His Mind Remained Unbended

This is the first part of an ongoing series where I listen to Grateful Dead albums and decide whether I like them or not. I give each album a fortnight and report back.

First of all, why am I doing this? Mainly because I want to find out if I can end up liking an act simply by listening to their music. Will sheer force of repetition charm me? Also I want to find out about the Grateful Dead, to get inside their music, to understand their fans’ devotion. There must be some element within the music for it to have sustained for so long. What is that key?

So I’ll start listening to their second album “Anthem of the sun” for about the tenth time and write down some thoughts as the album plays…

It all starts so sweetly. A gentle wash of organ, almost chiming guitars, and tentative drums. The first few minutes seem rather nice really. Not psychedelic as I know it. Then it all goes horribly wrong. Around 1:30, there’s a drum roll and the listener is thrust into a maelstrom of live Deads all playing simultaneously across the stereo field, fading in and out and the song rocks on. Sure, it’s fast and rocking and Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar work is lyrical but… It doesn’t move me. There’s a nice verse about Ken Kesey and the Pranksters’ bus but… it returns to the first melody again from the start, more merging of recordings. It all sounds very ordinary and when the band dive into a two chord live vamp it still does nothing for me.

Maybe I should have some drugs.

Then when all the ‘avant-garde’ noises start towards the close it sounds like a less organised version of the end of “Bike” by Pink Floyd. Probably far out if you’re zonked. Ooh look the Clangers have arrived! Big deal.

“New Potato Caboose” starts nicely too, gentle guitar arpeggios and celestes or tack pianos and this is nice melancholy psych. Will the mood last? Will it hell! Actually this song drifts along rather well. The anticipated explosion doesn’t happen but some noodling does. In fact the noodling takes over and I already feel like nodding off. Maybe it’s the painkillers. What is this headache I’ve had all day? Why is it at the back of my head not the front? Oh, there’s multiple Deads again. This is sounding like a mess. Garcia said this was to “bring on the hallucinations”. Frankly I’m not having it. This is going on a bit now.

“Born Cross-Eyed” sounds like the last song. Or maybe the “Feels like I’ve been here before” is ironic?  But at least it is short. But bloody hell they noodle even in a three minute song. How is that possible?

“Alligator”, that opening drum should be looped. Again all very lyrical but kazoos are generally a bad idea in music. Are they kidding? They’re all good players (excepting kazoos) and they work well off each other but bloody hell they’re going to start noodling, I know it. Oh no, sorry just a key change and more kazoos..and then it goes all A Certain Ratio – or multi percussion anyway, “Come on everybody get down and dance!”. Jeez, do I have do? I can see pictures in my mind of hippies swinging around the mud. Is the alligator a metaphor? Or just an alligator? Either way, this is going on a bit. I never thought I’d be glad to hear some guitar, even if it’s just pentatonic scales with a few bends and vibrato. (Harsh…but fair). I’m sure they must have enjoyed playing this more than I am enjoying listening…There’s another five minutes of this? I know that eventually they get a good riff going and I’m just waiting for that. Play that guitar, Jerry. (Looks at watch). This cost $100,000 to record. Dave Hassinger gave up on the band during the recording process. I take my hat off to him. (I love Hassinger’s work for the Stones and the Electric Prunes by the way). Oh, they’re back on the riff. Did my mind wander? Oh just get on with it! Please! Now for another freeform noise freakout, as used by every band in the world when they’ve run out of ideas. (I should know, my band did it often enough)

“Caution (Do not step on tracks)” makes good use of two drummers, Garcia’s guitar but the lyrics are blues cliches. Though Pigpen’s style of singing reminds me of David Crosby, though it’s more likely Pigpen influenced Crosby. And repeating  “All you need” over drums makes me think of live versions of “Drill” by Wire (“Could this be a….?”). What the hell, they’re messing with the speed of the tapes now. Very clever. And just as I think it’s finished they all start again. My cat is looking out of the window at the rain. Then they do the freeform freakout thing again. More noise and nonsense. Far out. Yawn.


OK, I’m being a bit harsh on “Anthem of the sun”. I’ve been listening to it for a fortnight and it has mostly bored me stupid and made me question the validity of the project. There’s some nice moments – the melodious parts on “That’s it for the other one” and “New potato caboose” – but the majority of it is noodling. Maybe I need to unwind a bit. Maybe I need to be a little bit wasted. That isn’t going to happen. Maybe I should have listened to their debut album first but that is uncharacteristic, I’m told.

What is most odd is that the single recorded at the same sessions – “Dark Star” – turns out to be utterly lovely. The guitar interplay is gorgeous, the general atmosphere is spooked, deep pools of reverb, there is no percussion beyond a few cymbal washes, there’s twinkling keyboard notes… I absolutely love this song. Which slightly worries me as I know they will stretch it out for the rest of their career.

Still, that’s what ’68 Dead sounded like. I wonder what ’69 holds

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Ironing With The Dead

For years I have been fascinated by The Grateful Dead. Psychedelic voyagers, survivors, legends, endless jams, endless highs, Jerry searching for the cosmic note of heaven. Or something like that anyway. As you may be able to tell from previous posts I do like a bit of psychedelia, but more the British pastoral toytown visions of childhood. I like my psychedelia to be “Psychedelic”, far out, strange noises, studio tinkering. And I’ve never really liked the American side of psychedelia, the Doors sound like  bad poetry over a pretentious garage band, Jefferson Airplane is all rhetoric and empty promises, Big Brother and the Holding Company is lumpen blues rock… Sure I love the Nuggets bands and Moby Grape and the Electric Prunes but most of the main SF bands leave me cold.

The live aspect of the Dead intrigues me. A quick glance on Spotify shows hundreds of live shows on there, can they all be so different? There is a jazz like mentality, a commitment to improvisation, to exploring new territory. This is fascinating, but then so are the Deadheads themselves. I remember a very high ranking civil servant in the Stats Office – all suit and tie and briefcase – being a Deadhead and I could never correlate that, somehow. There are databases on the web full of information, taping details, how long a particular solo on “Dark Star” was.  This is peculiar behaviour. And the idea of John Oswald using his considerable skills to create a dream “Dark Star” in “Greyfolded”… That sounds wonderful.

And if I was going to give the Dead a go, where to start? I had tried “American Beauty” before and hated it, and that was their best album. So where next? A live album? There’s so many to choose from. Studio albums? But did the Dead truly capture their essence in a recording studio?  God, this is so hard. And of course there’s the issue of not being there, can the experience of being – well how can I put this… Ok…on drugs make a difference? I’ve never had anything stronger than Tramadol and that just made me puke. (We’ll ignore the time I had an out of body experience while being pumped full of morphine during a lithotripsy session….)

So I set myself a task. I’m going to listen to a Grateful Dead album consistently – but not exclusively – for a fortnight and report back my experiences. I’ll try to listen once a day during that time, with different circumstances – on headphones, on speakers, in the car, doing housework, concentrating and not concentrating. I’ve already started this exercise and I’ve been listening to “Anthem of the sun” for a week already. I hope to write up each album I listen to for every other Friday. I’ll work my way through their released catalogue in chronological order until I got bored or decide whether or not I like the Dead. It may not take long, or it may be interminable. And as I do a lot of laundry the project will be titled “Ironing With The Dead”. It may even get a hashtag. How modern.

See you on Friday!

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The Second Summer Of Love

With the typical arrogance of youth I thought I knew it all, and I thought I knew better than anyone else. Reading back the diary of my first year in further education in Sheffield, I come across as a total music snob, looking disdainfully at anyone whose taste differed from mine. The grebos listening to Gaye Bikers On Acid? The metal heads buying tickets for Magnum at the City Hall? What did they know? My worst was saved for the indie kids, I really didn’t have a kind word for the C86 generation of bands – “I-wanna-be-a-Buzzcock” music I called it. Jingly jangly nonsense. I was above all that, I thought. So superior. Then, I returned to Penarth for a ‘reading week’ and…

(A quote from the diary now)

Tuesday 23rd February 1988

I go to Cardiff. Bought..
“Gale Force Wind” – Microdisney cassingle £1.99
“Dreaming” – OMD CD £3.99
“Illusions from the crackling void” compilation LP. £2.99. It’s brilliant. I love it

And with those five words, a small obsession started. I thought I knew about psychedelia  – I knew Love and the Move and Pink Floyd and the Byrds. That was psychedelic music. I didn’t want to explore into Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead – that was hippie music. I liked my psych to be slightly warped, far out – not politically charged or boogie-ing into the cosmos. But “Illusions from the crackling void” opened up a door into another world. “Illusions…” was a 16 song sampler LP issued by the Bam Caruso label, based in St Albans and run by Phil Smee and Richard Norris. Bam Caruso specialised in digging up rarities from the 60s for reissue, and a few contemporary bands with a similar mindset. This was my first introduction to the scene and I was amazed. Sixteen songs and almost every one brilliant, and all a gateway to something new – for me anyway. A glance at the track listing in retrospect shows how ‘on the mark’ Bam Caruso  was. During the mid to late 80s these songs and artists weren’t known at all, now three decades later bands like The Poets, Kaleidoscope and Timebox have been anthologized and reassessed. What was once forgotten has been remembered and revered.

But as I said for me this was an album of revelations. Side one had the louder brasher sound of freakbeat. The dark threat of “That’s the way it’s gotta be” by the Poets, the powerful “When the night falls” by The Eyes and “Come see me” by The Pretty Things, alongside the grandiose Nirvana and frankly twee   Koobas. Side two was more psychedelic, kicking off with the superb trio  of “A dream for Julie” by Kaleidoscope followed by “Guess I was dreaming” by The Fairytale and “Gone is the sad man” by Timebox, a Beatle-esque groover with lush harmonies, a harsh guitar solo and vibraphones. Yes even vibes could be psychedelic. Then the Americans came in, “Tinsel and ivy” by Montage was beautiful, as soft as lace and just as fragile. “Road to nowhere” by Hearts and Flowers was the best country rock I’d heard thus far in my life, “Marionette” by SRC was moody and constantly shifting while the closer “Pretty ballerina” by the Left Banke was the icing on the cake, just too gorgeous for words, such wistful melancholy.

I played little else for the next few weeks, the songs becoming engrained in my mind in that particular order, so much so that whenever I hear “Guess I was dreaming” I always expect “Gone is the sad man” next. But the album had whetted my appetite, I wanted more like this and luckily Bam Caruso had included a handy back catalogue insert which gave me clues of where to look next. A few weeks later I was back in Penarth for Easter and bought more BC albums – firstly “Nightmare in Wonderland”, volume three of the Rubbles series, and “And suddenly it’s…” by The Left Banke.

If I had been impressed by “Illusions…” I was stunned by “And suddenly it’s…” For a start, the sleeve was great. The sleeve notes were comprehensive, funny and wise, there was a full discography with digs at other record companies who had reissued music BC had dug up, and the sleeve was gorgeous. Somehow the sleeve made the band look totally contemporary – this was a trick BC would continue to do with their sleeves, making the 60s acts look cooler and showing the C86 generation how to do bowlcuts (is that Ok, Andy? ??)  Look at the picture on the front of “And suddenly it’s…”, namely the band member second from the right… Does that look seem familiar? Floppy fringe? Big lips? Hell, it’s Mark Gardener from Ride! The original sleeve of Montage’s LP (a post Left Banke project by Michael Brown) is a horrible modernist mess. The Bam Caruso sleeve makes the band look like  they are third on a Creation night bill behind The Weather Prophets and Biff Bang Pow!

And then there was the music of the Left Banke too. I only knew “Walk away Renee” from the Four Tops hit version, and “Pretty ballerina” from the “Illusions…” LP. Now here was mid to late sixties music aiming for baroque and hitting the target spot on. The album was beautifully sequenced, mixing material from all their career to make a more listenable whole, placing the slower more melancholy songs towards the end. There were harpsichords, block harmonies, string quartets, nothing too dramatic and overblown, this was subtle music. It drew on the innovations of the Beach Boys and Beatles and pushed forward on its own path. The quality of the songwriting was very high too, and the lyrics frequently dealt with melancholy – loneliness, loss of love, heartbreak, and where are all my friends today? Highlights were plentiful. The breezy pop of “Goodbye Holly”, “Let go of you girl” and “She may call you up tonight”, the single “Desiree” – as grand as any Spector production – and the sighing “Shadows breaking over my head”, whose middle eight was stunning, block harmonies around a vocal and chord sequence of such complexity, ending with a heartfelt “It’s through for her and me”, that last word held high like a last gasp of hope. The last few songs on side two were highlights – as long as you ignored the useless jam of “Foggy waterfall” which concluded the LP. “Barterers and their wives” was ridiculously catchy with only light drums and harpsichord and a lyric which sustains itself through a ton of internal rhymes. “Wifely cooking will keep them looking their best, as they smiling set out beguiling with jest”. Who else was writing lyrics like that in 1966? “Pedestal” was from their final single and is an aching ballad, a love hymn, which slowly builds through bridges and choruses to reach a communal sing-along in the style of “Hey Jude”. I always loved this song, it sounds like such a grand late sixties gesture and I still spot echoes of early Bowie in the bridges. Probably nobody else can.

So that was the Left Banke. Vol 3 of Rubbles had it’s fair share of wonders too. The over the top kitchen sink production on Mark Wirtz’s “He’s our dear old weatherman”, the multi-part heroic cry of “Revolution” by Tomorrow, the crunching guitars of “Model Village” by The Penny Peeps and the two Pretty Things songs “Mr Evasion” and “Talking about the good LP times”. Over Easter I played these records constantly and my brother became interested too.

What was odd about this period is that my brother and I were probably at our closest during our respective first years in further education – Andy in Hull Uni and me in Sheffield Poly. Maybe the distance made a difference, we weren’t always around annoying each other. Our musical tastes were converging too, certainly around psychedelia. Buying “The Byrds Collection” in Hull in January 88 had launched a joint obsession for both of us, exploring their output as much as we could – I bought Edsel’s reissue of “Younger than yesterday” and an original American LP of “Turn turn turn!” And he went in the other direction, from “Sweetheart of the rodeo” onwards. But we were listening to the same things, he taped my Love and Teardrop Explodes albums and started to buy some Bam Caruso LPs too, some Rubbles LPs and related things – BC’s “Strange Things Are Happening” magazine, “Out There” by Love, the Dukes of Stratosfear LP from the previous year… He’d send me compilation tapes of these things, alongside a tape of Frank Hennessy singing songs about Cardiff just to make me homesick. He visited Sheffield and stayed overnight in my student house, and I took him to FON Records and he bought tons of BC records, including “Evil Hoodoo” by The Seeds and about four Rubbles LPs. FON was an amazing shop, though my memories of it are vague. No matter how cool you were, the staff were cooler but willing to help you find something. They sold all kinds of weird stuff, records i wouldn’t recognise until years later were on display (I swear they had a display of early Sarah Records singles on their wall, even in 1988 when these records were brand new). But they also would order in anything you wanted and were the best independent record shop in the city. FON was great.

Another great shop which helped my burgeoning collection of psych at this time was Piccadilly Records in Manchester. In early May I went over there to get a ticket for my brother to see the Kinks and returned with a cassette of the See For Miles “Great British Psychedelic Trip” compilation, playing it back on my walkman on the long train journey home – made longer by catching the wrong train and ending up somewhere in Derbyshire. That compilation also made an impression on me, I ended up writing a track by track review in my diary – an honour reserved only for Durutti Column and Wire records. There were a few stinkers on there but they were far outweighed by the sheer brilliance of the majority of the songs. “Tales of Flossie Fillet” by Turquoise was “Autumn Almanac” with a spring in its step, and a role call of friend at the end (from members of the Kinks to Tom Keylock). “Shades of orange” by The End had frequently turned up on Stones bootlegs as a “Brian Jones single” and you could understand why, the hushed atmosphere and insistent tabla (from Charlie Watts) was pure Satanic Majesties. Even when the music wasn’t quite pure psych (if there is such a thing) it was still cute, toytown pop like “The muffin man” by World of Oz or “Baked jam roll in your eye” by Timebox. And when it was good, my God it was FANTASTIC.

Spring turned to summer and more records were bought. Bam Caruso issued another sampler called “It’s just a passing phase” which had more fabulous goodies on it – the Joe Meek produced noise overload of “I take it we’re through” by the Riot Squad, the freakbeat of “Its just a fear” by The Answers, the frantic desperation to communicate of “Anymore than I do” by The Attack… Between us, my brother and i bought more LPs too, “Dandelion seeds” by.July, the reissue of the Open Mind LP, “The magic rocking horse” (the latest Rubbles LP), more “British Psychedelic Trip” compilations, a double set of Blossom Toes albums, Kaleidoscope’s debut “Tangerine Dream”. “Deram Dayze” is worth a mention, not just for being 99p in HMV that August but also for introducing me to “Mythological Sunday” by Friends and “Some good advice” by Bill Fay (thanks to Marcello for mentioning the latter song the other day and reminding me that I’ve known it for years). These records all soundtracked that summer, played over and over again. The music world was producing great records in 1988, I read about them in the music papers, noise and oceanic rock, the birth of acid house and dance culture, how the House Of Love were the best thing since sliced bread – but I was listening to “House of love” by The Flies (on “The electric crayon set”, Rubbles vol 5).

There was a search for information as well. Who were these bands and how had they slipped through the net? Record Collector had written an article about the Rubbles series, again quite opinionated – they didn’t like Rubbles 4 but they were wrong! Paging through my back issues of Melody Maker, Simon Reynolds had written an article in 1987 about freakbeat and psychedelia with particular reference to Bam Caruso (pretty sure it included an interview with Richard Norris) while making connections to modern bands. But the best source of information was Bam Caruso themselves. Their sleeve notes were always informative, if aw slightly biased, with mini discographies and pictures of the bands. The Strange Things magazine continued the aesthetic – deeper articles about bands like Autosalvage, the Stooges and the Kinks (their double cd of singles and EPs on PRT was another essential listen at this time), plus like minded modern bands like Wire and the Dukes of Stratosfear. Plus authors old and new (it was Strange Things who introduced me to Barry Yourgrau’s incredible short stories).

So that was my summer of love. Not a tripped out day dream, but those months from Spring to Summer listening to this music felt like a magical time. Nobody else seemed to know or care about this music which made it feel more exclusive. It also made more sense a year later when I heard My Bloody Valentine (note how Simon Reynolds mentions the “Anglo freakbeat dementia” of The Eyes, The Creation and John’s Children in the section of “Blissed out” about MBV), and it gave me more context (and more ballast to throw at people) for the Stone Roses around the same time. My love of this music still flourishes, I’m always looking out for new releases of old psych, I’ve probably bought “10,000 words in a cardboard box” by The Aquarian Age five times on various compilations, and there’s always plenty more British psych, freakbeat and toytown pop to discover. To close this piece, I’ll draw up a dream Rubbles collection based on my favourite sixteen songs I heard at this time.

(As an aside, for those wondering why I haven’t mentioned more about The Attack and Kaleidoscope, I have written about these two acts over at Toppermost so feel free to click on the links provided)

So turn off your mind, relax and float downstream and listen to “Darkness On The Edge Of Toytown”, a sixteen song fake Rubbles album of my favourite songs that I discovered during this time period.

“Magic Potion” – The Open Mind (available on “The Psychedelic Snarl”, Rubbles vol 1)

Kicking off with a distorted riff not unlike a Stooges or MC5 song, this song is noticeably later than most Bam Caruso songs – I think it was from 1969, certainly the fact that it is in stereo helps. But there’s still something primal here, the desire for something new, whether it be the potion opening eyes and blowing minds.  And once the wah-wah starts around the two minute mark, it strikes me that this sounds like a more energetic Loop.  A damn fine start, motoring along with great speed and lots of long sustained feedbacking guitar.

“Sueno” – The Truth (available on “The Magic Rocking Horse”, Rubbles vol 14)

Originally a song by the Young Rascals, and quite a basic laid back sound on that version – thanks Spotify – this bunch of Brits make the song rumble and tumble in a headless rush, there’s crazy piano in the background (sounding like Nicky Hopkins), a pummelling bridge of thunderous drums and bass, handclaps, high harmonies, and a lyric again about escape and living in dreams.  As the thunder rises at the end a wailing guitar adds to the madness, bending and screaming before the whole song falls into a cavern of reverb. Wonderful stuff. “Nothing has ever mattered quite as much as it does now” – what a great sentiment to being here now.

“Woodstock” – Turquoise (available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)

Turquoise were a fabulous band who should have been huge. In their lifetime they only issued two singles but all four songs are tremendous. “Tales of Flossie Fillet” I’ve already mentioned, “53 Summer Street” is a bizarre ode to a place of escape which no longer exists (shades of “Itchycoo Park”), “Saynia” was a heartstopping ballad of lost love (“I will never have somebody else if I can’t have you”) but best of all was their second a-side “Woodstock”. Absolutely nothing to do with the festival in America or the residence of Dylan and the Band, this is a joyous romp about the town in Oxford, leaving real life behind,  another return to innocence – “Would you like to go back to the things we used to say?  Try to live the kind of life we lived in yesterday?” And there’s a hilarious bridge full of pumping Hammond organ and a Dylan-esque vocal, and it is so completely crammed full of melody and incident along the way it could almost explode at any point. They make Woodstock sound like the best place to be, and for heaven’s sake why wasn’t this a hit???

“Defecting Grey” – The Pretty Things (available on “Pop Sike Pipe Dreams”, Rubble vol 2)

I’ve mentioned the Pretty Things before on Goldfish, and have mentioned this particular song in passing a few times.  Once the Pretty Things had moved to EMI in 1967, they dropped all pretence at being baroque or their original primal R&B and moved with the times. Their early EMI singles – “Defecting grey” b/w “Mr Evasion” and “Talking about the good times” b/w “Walking through my dreams” are all perfect in every way, but I’ve never managed to understand the love for “SF Sorrow”. Maybe I still need time with it. I bought a Pretty Things compilation tape in April 88 – “Cries from the midnight circus” I think it was – made up of their late sixties early seventies EMI material and was never that impressed, except with the utterly uncharacteristic “October 26” single which I think is beautiful, full of ennui and should be heard by as many people as possible.  But “Defecting Grey” is far above that… I’d bought this Pretty Things “Singles As and Bs” compilation from the second hand record shop in Broadway in Cardiff around the same time and my brother and I were having a first listen to it while washing up. And we eventually had to stop washing up because neither of us could get over “Defecting Grey”, how it kept chopping and changing, moving from gentle waltz to brutal rock to bar-room rowdies to beat-group pop music and back again, even throwing in a two second brutal rock section for no apparent reason towards the end.  We went back and played it over and over – how could one song contain so much information? And I still feel that way now. I also have a video made in my mind for this song, but hey doesn’t everyone do that? You don’t?

(PS yes I know there’s a longer acetate version of this song, but to me this single version is just right thank you very much)

“Magic Rocking Horse” by Pinkerton’s Colours (available on “The Magic Rocking Horse”, Rubbles Vol 14)

Another return to innocence and childhood, another song full of melody. There’s chiming twelve strings, autoharps playing, lots of harmonies… sometimes I feel like I’ll break the spell of this song by trying to write about it.  A wonderful encapsulation of childhood – “Goes to show that life is always moving much too fast, when a simple tree becomes a warships mast, and the good times they just never seem to stay, but I know that I’ve had plenty in my day”.  Oh yes indeed.

“Vacuum cleaner” by Tintern Abbey (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)

First heard by me on that lost train journey on the way back from Manchester via the middle of nowhere with “The great British Psychedelic Trip” tape.  I was pretty stunned at the time. There’s such an atmosphere on this song, the way almost everything is washed in reverb and echo, the faint harmonies, the guitar solo bursting through the middle of the song drenched in feedback and sustain, the bizarre lyrics about housework… For a long time this band were totally mysterious, then reading in books about the time by Jonathan Green there were mentions of them as friends of Jonathan Meades! Which makes them even more mysterious somehow.

“Secret” by Virgin Sleep (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)

Also on that “Great British Psychedelic Trip” was Virgin Sleep’s first single “Love”, which is as wimpy as prime Donovan – let me have a listen again a second. Twinkling bells, sitar, sighing vocals, a swooning Eastern atmosphere.  Hmm.  So the brutal thump of “Secret” was quite a shock. A musical battle, an ascending guitar figure against a descending chord sequence, and some very odd lyrics about animals knowing about this secret which is never revealed, yet the singer knows what’s going on. And for God’s sake, this is a cracking tune.  Nothing is revealed, the drums roll harder and harder, and the guitars crackle to life at the end, and oh boy I love this song so much.  I have been known to scare the staff at my local McDonalds drive through by singing this at top volume, with additional finger pointing for all the “..But I DO!” parts.  Virgin Sleep disappeared after this.  Shame. They couldn’t have been bigger than the Beatles…

“Father’s name was Dad” – The Fire (available on “The Electric Crayon Set”, Rubbles Vol 5)

Crunching power pop in excelsis. What a riff! There’s a story about Paul McCartney hearing this song on the radio, demanding to remix it and make it better and I never believed it until I bought the “Nuggets II” boxed set and found an alternate mix on there which was slightly different – less harmonies, no doubled tracked vocals. Now I wonder whether the version I’ve known and loved all these years is the first or the second version. More innocence again.  Do you spot a theme within British psychedelia? A return to childhood, to a younger life, a freedom which adults never have.  “See the hollows of my eyes, make my career of empty skies – I laugh at it all”.

“Iceman” – Ice (available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)

Ice were another band who recorded two singles and four perfect songs.  Very much in the manner of Procol Harum, the minor key Hammond organ work was all over their music – debut single “Anniversairy of love” was a little too close to Procol to be successful, though the b-side “So many times” (which was issued on “GBPT” by mistake instead of “Anniversairy…”) was better. “Iceman” is even better, that lovely descending opening guitar line, an allegorical lyric – I think, I’m not good at these things… Oh whatever, it’s just beautiful.

“The fox has gone to ground” – The Bamboo Shoot (available on “Nightmares in Wonderland”, Rubbles vol 3)

It all starts so normally, crunching guitar riffs, lumbering bass, a desperate voice at the edge, and a lyric of odd visions – “Airport quite deserted, wolves run through the distant woodland…”  And then it stops and turns into a strange chant – “Do not accept life as it was or is or ever shall be”… Gongs crash… What the bloody hell is going on? Then back to the crunching riffs and empty bottles in bedsitters.  Such a strange atmosphere on this song, not quite apocalyptic but on the edge of some unknown trouble… there must have been something in the water.

“Cheadle Heath Delusions” – The Felius Andromeda (Available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)

Talking of which… More strange atmospheres here, a curious string arrangement, a darkness in a minor key and more visions of wrongness – “Please tell me what is going on, everything is going wrong”.  A seriously bad trip here – “Public houses with no beer? Is that peoples’ minds that I hear?”  The song’s a-side “Meditations” isn’t a lot happier but this is just on a precipice of fear and loathing.  (I believe my brother lives near Cheadle Heath now.  I hope the public houses have got beer now)

“I am so blue” – The Poets (available on “The clouds have groovy faces”, Rubbles vol 6)

The Poets were the best band to come out of Scotland during the sixties, loved by Andrew Loog Oldham and allowed to make numerous singles over the years.  Quite why they never achieved any success is bewildering.  They could move from crunching (“That’s the way it’s got to be” and “Wooden Spoon”) to mellow (“I love her still” and “I’ll cry with the moon”) so easily.  “I am so blue” is all late night melancholy, gentle sadness and regret, the band barely making much music – echoing woodblocks, chiming twelve strings, a halting arrangement.  It sounds so perfect.

“Beeside” by Tintern Abbey (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)

What a jape, to call the a-side of a single “Beeside”. That should confuse people.  Or alternatively make the most perfect British pop psych single of all time (in my humble opinion) then disappear.  My review of this song in my diary at the time is full of superlatives – “Easily an entry into my Top 30 songs of all time” – and years later I still feel the same way.  A piano fades in and then WOOOSH everything goes hazy, drums rolls, cymbals wash in reverb, guitars are woozy, the singer plays with the echo on his voice while singing a hymn to nature and bees while mellotrons hum and guitars are effected.  Flowers, guitars, echo and reverb… then a gentle bridge with backwards reverb on the vocals (was anyone else doing this at the time?) before it all crashes back in again.  A totally stunning song, then and now.  A few years ago I realised the whole arrangement is copped from “Morning Dew” but even that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the song.  Perfect in every way.

“Crying is for writers” by July (from “Dandelion Seeds” aka “July”)

My brother and I fought over July in Spillers Records, who would buy it? He ended up with it and I went off and bought “Forever breathes the lonely word” by Felt instead and who’s to say who won that particular battle.  The next day he wasn’t sure about half of the album – there were twee moments on “Jolly Mary” and “Move on sweet flower” – but that didn’t stop me loving every moment of it, as long as I ignored “Hello, who’s there?”  Now rightly regarded as a classic album, this was totally ignored at the time and the horrible sleeve didn’t help. For me, this song was a stand out, not least because the lyrics were totally spot on for me, agonising about writing and living… “Putting down his pen he turned and said ‘I want to live but I wish I was dead’”  And the arrangement is crunching and rocking and wild but the despair is real as hell.

“World spinning sadly” by The Parking Lot (available on “Pop Sike Pipe Dreams”, Rubbles vol 2)

I was talking about this song a week or so ago on Twitter and called it ‘Melancholy Psych’, a genre which should exist, and decided to try and find some more – songs like “He” and “Bitter wind” by Moby Grape, a sense of sadness and dread.  Then Andy Miller pointed me towards the Clientele for which I am grateful.  But this song is very special… there’s a link to “Still I’m sad” era Yardbirds somewhere here, those wordless chanted vocals in the background, the air of despair, something ending, a world almost suspended in eternal dusk.. “we run through fields with our hands in the air, escaping time dancing dreams without care”.  What the hell is going on? Something is seriously wrong in dreamland.

“Turquoise tandem cycle” by Jason Crest (available on “The great British Psychedelic Trip vol 3”)

And more again… More odd things happening, a house of papier mache, a ribbon hangs in the air, birth and death together… and meanwhile the music is slow and sad and the organ is going through a wah-wah pedal adding drama and something is still seriously wrong, by the second verse nothing is resolved, and the sadness prevails, the ribbon fades away, the baby is born, the old man dies and somehow the organ continues to drive away towards some kind of conclusion.  What I love about so much of these songs is the atmosphere, if side one of this compilation is about a joyful escape then side two is about a fearful reality. That dichotomy sums up British psych perfectly.


This is my hundredth post on my blog which started two years ago today. I am amazed that anyone is still willing to read my ramblings (even when I’ve not written for months I was still getting twenty views a day) and will link through to me.  As ever huge thanks to those who have shared my blog and posts and encouraged my writing and offered support – I am forever in your debt. I hope you enjoyed this ramble through freakbeat and maybe discover something new.

Next time – What Stephen and Stephen did next

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The Art Of Falling Apart

Ignorance really can be bliss and at the end of 1991 I was blissfully ignorant about the cause(s) of the demise of the Field Mice. There had been one full page interview with them in Melody Maker in October ’91 which gave no clue that there was any problems within the band, so it came as a huge surprise and shock to read the live review of the last gig of their Autumn tour in the MM, announcing their split. And from that point on I knew absolutely nothing about what would happen next, if anything at all. There was a barbed comment in one of the sleeve inserts to an early 92 Sarah Records single (possibly. “Honey sweet” by Secret Shine) about being more excited about a forthcoming Blueboy album than the ten millionth Field Mice album. But I didn’t read many fanzines so I knew precisely nothing. Would Bob Wratten make any new music? The music papers weren’t interested in telling me, being full of Suede and grunge and other dull things.

When a new copy of the WAAAAH fanzine arrived towards the end of 1992 it was a revelation. For a start, there was a full page interview with Blueboy (conducted by Dickon Edwards, I believe) with lots of information about my new favourite band. And of course a picture of Keith with a sign saying “Fuck this government to bits”, a fine sentiment then and now. And there was an EP by Bouquet too which was twee and cute and rather lovely. And there was a single page interview with Northern Picture Library. “Who?” I thought, then read on. Northern Picture Library were the new band formed by three fifths of the Field Mice, Bob Wratten, Anne-Mari Davies and Mark Dobson. The interview was carried out by the latter two members and hinted at new directions, new material and a new label – the plan was for the French label Danceteria to issue their records. But still it seemed like there would be something new to look forward to in the New Year. At the bottom of the page was a short paragraph mentioning a one off project by Wratten and Davies, a song called “A winter’s dawn” issued under the name The Yesterday Sky on a four song compilation EP. I immediately sent a cheque off for the EP (God bless you Richard Coulthard, wherever you are) and it arrived on 30th December and made my year. The three other tracks were great, and it was nice to have another song by the Sugargliders who at that point were proving to be quite a potent force in indie pop circles (weren’t “Seventeen” and “Letter from a lifeboat” marvellous songs?)… But the main event was “A winter’s dawn”.

It was clearly a demo, there was a layer of tape hiss, it sounded minimal, barely there, but there was enough passion and heartache in the song to last a lifetime. A drum machine is calm, mostly hihat patterns with a rim shot on the chorus. There’s a lightly phased rhythm guitar part, a simple single note lead guitar part and two vocals. Wratten is the main voice, sketching details of missing someone, while Davies adds harmonies here and there, to emphasise words or phrases. The chorus is beautiful, only the words “There’s so much time to go before i see you again”, but the chord changes underneath are gorgeous, the change on the word ‘again’ is so simple yet devastating. The song is stark, heartfelt, beautiful, and exactly captures that moment in a relationship when you can’t wait to see someone you love. I may have thought I understood that feeling at the time but I didn’t. This did not hinder my love for the song, and it is one of my three favourite songs ever.

So with that one song, my levels of anticipation sky rocketed. What would come next? How good would it be? The WAAAH interview hinted that Northern Picture Library would be more extreme than the Field Mice, and the Mice were pretty extreme within their limitations (from “Emma’s House” to “Other galaxies” via “Humblebee”). It didn’t help when Danceteria went bust but luckily the Vinyl Japan label stepped in and took over funding the album. Because that’s what they did, they seemed to steal artists from Sarah Records, and it even got a mention in a Sarah newsletter. Finally a small advert appeared in the music papers for s single in September and an album in October.

I bought the single on CD on the day it was issued and felt slightly disappointed on playing it. There were two versions of the same song, one mix more minimal than the other, and a seven minute instrumental. The title track of the single was “Love sing for the dead Che”, written by Joseph Byrd, and at that time I had no idea who he was or where the song came from. Again this was more disappointment, I wanted Wratten’s voice, Wratten’s songs not someone else’s song. When the single was reviewed in the Melody Maker (ignored by the NME as ever) it explained that it was a cover of a song from the only album by The United States Of America, and I remembered that name from my brother’s”Rock Machine” album (see previous post on the USA album during the summer). And the song itself was very nice… The first thirty seconds were great, a screeching sample with deep cavernous bass, before the song drifts into mid tempo normality, synth chords and Davies’ half-asleep vocals. It’s delightful, and you could call it trip hop if such a term existed at the time. The b side “The way that stars die” pulsed gracefully on a bed of cooing voices and chattering drum machines, with chords hinting at melodies or ideas, plus Morse code and a few speech samples. It was like “Triangle” had married “Humblebee” and had a child. Intriguing stuff, but as a way of deferring pressure it was perfect. Just what would the album be like?

One month on and I found out. “Alaska” was beautifully blank, the sleeve was a picture of an oil refinery at dusk, or something like that. There was the usual minimal amount of information on there, nothing to help the listener, little to cling to – except the music. Sometimes it’s good to do that, to focus on the music itself. Some of the song titles didn’t help either, two songs called “Untitled”???

“Untitled #1” was forty seconds of multitracked cooing from Davies, a lovely way to start, much like “Our prayer” starts “Smile”. Straight into “Into the ether” and already this listener noticed a change. For a start this was glossier than any Field Mice production, the quality of the recording was better, it sounded lavish, richly textured. And still it didn’t sound like anything else. A drum loop, a wandering yet melodic bassline, distant cooing from Davies, a recorder playing the melody and smack bang in the foreground someone hoovering. Or playing with white noise and filters, whatever. If NPL were trying to defy their fans to like it, they were doing well. After seven minutes “Catholic Easter Colours” fades in and sounds almost conventional, acoustic guitars ringing clear, someone blowing a melodica for as long as possible, real drums… And finally Wratten sings, after a long build up. I’ve never quite worked out what this song is about, he’s masking his voice with echo again (always a sign of his insecurity with the truths he sings), is it about a relationship falling apart? “We don’t talk to each other any more…” But the song is graceful and melodic, it’s a beauty. “Glitter spheres’ is a minute of odd noises, before “Insecure”. This is another tricky song, a wash of backwards guitars and synths, and Davies at her most heart wrenching. Is she singing her own words, or Wratten’s? Either way they cut to the core, about love and trust and leaving yourself open and bare to love. “There’s a part of your heart that’s never belonged to me”. Scary. There’s no resolution here, just doubt and hesitancy. “Dreams and stars and sleep” is an apt title, drifting for six minutes of backwards sounds, washes of keyboards, no vocals at all. Side one has been a most unexpected journey.

“Lucky” is the most conventional song so far, a slight lovers rock lilt, organ, deep bass and drums, and Davies singing of finding the perfect love if you are lucky. It sounds like Saint Etienne, which is fair enough as “So tough” was recorded at the same studio around the same time as “Alaska”. After two and a half minutes, the song gets a dub mix coda which is nice. “LSD icing” is another instrumental interlude before “Truly madly deeply”. Now I’ll admit I had trouble with this song, the simple piano introduction does a poor impression of “Imagine”, Wratten sings here about contentedness and happiness and in the wrong mood it can sound horribly cloying, a heartfelt love song which has a smattering of cliches, the title for a start. But there are melodic twists and the heart-on-sleeve honesty just about see the song finish on the right side of the line marked “cringe worthy”. It’s slightly uncomfortable listening, though. “Isn’t it time you faced the truth?” is slightly bitter, and slight. Luckily this side of the album improves, another interlude with “Untitled #2” which sounds like the odd “Oh that’s nice” coda to Julian Cope’s “Metranil Vavin” leading into “Skylight”, sounding like it would fit perfectly on side two of “For keeps”, starting with strummed acoustic guitars and Wratten’s most impassioned vocal, sympathetic to someone’s miserable life, while slowly Davies’ harmonies and more instruments take over the song. Beautiful. “Of traffic and the ticking” returns us to the start, those harmonies that opened the album are now part of a song, harpsichords, bass, tambourine, a Pet Sounds tribute? And is Wratten singing to the same person as “Skylight”? Possibly. Very beautiful. A piano reprise of “Lucky” to close the album itself. (This was a common trick that year, One Dove closed their wonderful “Morning Dove White” with a brief reprise of “White Love”). And as a bonus for buying the CD, a droning instrumental called “Monotone”, looped percussion, unison bass and guitar, those tremelo guitars the Field Mice loved in 1991, and a general trancelike nature. I’d forgotten how good this track is, those backwards guitars!

I know I loved “Alaska” at the time, and I still do now. It gets a bit soppy with “Truly madly deeply” but besides that it is a chance to hear Wratten stretching out into unexpected territory. Probably the C86 contingent waiting for the next “Emma’s house” were disappointed and it sold one tenth of the copies the last Field Mice album sold, but it didn’t fall on deaf ears. To those with more expansive and less catholic tastes it hit the spot. In December of 1993 I wrote to Dickon Edwards (of Orlando and Fosca and Dickon Edwards fame) asking how to produce a fanzine (it never happened) and he wrote back about how he was listening to “Alaska” because it covered everything from the Field Mice to The Orb. So people were listening. Around the same time, Richard Coulthard compiled an indie pop version of “The Sound Of Music” and NPL contributed a spectral version of “Something good”, washed in reverb, Davies singing pure and clear, a special song. Almost as good as Blueboy’s take on “My favourite things”. (I’m not joking either)

A few months later Northern Picture Library issued a new EP titled “Blue Dissolve” which may be a Neil Young reference. Again on Vinyl Japan, four new songs, another song called “Untitled”? I was living in Newport by this time but bought the EP on the way to my parents’ house in Penarth where I was cat sitting for a few days. So my first play of the record was sat in my parents’ music room, headphones on with Bez and Buffin sitting next to me on the sofa (clearly Max and Casca were outside). “Dear faraway friend” is eleven minutes long, and starts slowly, organ and guitar, shakers, very peaceful. I’ve never been clear about the lyrics, the song is written as a letter, and I can never decide if the writer is worried about a war or persecution or whatever. The first few verses are one letter, the last few verses are a later letter where the writer is calmer and more considered, “Thank you for worrying about me”. After seven minutes, some drums finally kick in and the tone of the song changes, waves of distorted electric guitars rise up and engulf the song, alongside more noise from organs and other instruments, the song accelerates slightly and … It just exists. It’s not as surprising and thrilling as the guitars on “Sensitive” or as shocking or drastic as the noise assault on “Other galaxies” (the last Field Mice recording, eleven minutes of build and explosion). It just doesn’t go anywhere. It’s actually a pleasure when it cuts out at eleven minutes. “Here to stay” is “Insecure” part two, washes of keyboards, Davies singing again, and there’s more doubt, a possibility of the end of the romance, but the friendship will remain. This song chills me to the bone, always did and always will. It’s so honest. And at the end the song goes from major to minor key and slips into darkness, implying the change has already happened. God, that ending sends shivers down my spine  “Untitled #3” is another instrumental mood piece, “Echoes” piano droplets, ticking clocks, Davies’ wordless sighs, more tension even without words. What the hell was going on in Northern Picture Library to make this music? “Breaking” gives no answer, a churning hunk of sound, which wouldn’t sound out of place on “Dry Stone Feed” by Main. Maybe that was the point? Wratten’s voice can be heard in the miasma but is indistinguishable from the noise around him. There’s still a melody hiding in there, Wratten can’t hide his pop heart, but there is an uneasiness to the song, to the whole record which makes for uncomfortable listening, even with two Burmese cats fighting for your lap.

Around this time – Spring 1994 – Northern Picture Library was assimilated back into the fold of Sarah Records. They played a tour of France alongside Blueboy which must have been curious. Davies stayed at home as her stage fright was unbearable and NPL didn’t have the technology to translate their keyboard heavy studio sound into a live situation. The tour was odd, there were indulgences and peculiar behaviour and nobody deemed it a success. In the eighth Sarah Records newsletter, Matt and Clare state that NPL are recording four new songs for Sarah, the best they’ve done, and they would be issued as two singles in the Autumn. Oddly enough the song titles at this point are “Paris”, “Last September’s Farewell Kiss”, “She’s waiting out there” and “Texas” (that title is a joke for film fans, they admit).

The first of these singles was issued in September ’94, just as I was forming the Cloud Minders with Paul and discovering through him that the objection of my affection for the past two years was batting for the other side. And she had a dog called Paris so I always associate the dog with this song. Not that this is relevant. “Paris” is a quite conventional sounding song, weaving guitars and strident drums, but the words are worrying. Davies is singing them quite sweetly, yet it’s unclear whether she wrote them or if Wratten wrote them, or if they are real thoughts or imaginary. “What you want is a girlfriend, that’s what I don’t want to be”. And it goes downhill from there, each line cutting the possibility of a relationship into shreds. Is this the end of the relationship, the end of the affair? “Let me dream of Paris” sings Davies, and it’s the dream that keeps her sane. The b side “Norfolk Windmills” is even harsher, Wratten is singing now over a spare arrangement of guitar and keyboard and drums, and these words hurt. He’s doubting his love for her, he’s not so much under her spell… “Once I could never see us ending, now I’m not so sure”. Ouch. There’s no resolution either, only a droning lead guitar part as the song fades away.

One month on and there’s the second single in a matching sleeve. There is the addition of Gemma from Blueboy on cello to add to the musical palette.  “Last September’s farewell kiss” starts quietly, the cello and guitar chords descending as Wratten sings about disappearances and doubtful love, saying goodbyes and false feelings. Then the chorus bursts in, drums and bass and distorted guitars and Davies’ harmonies (this is the only time both Davies and Wratten sing together on these Sarah tracks) and Wratten is at the end of his tether, a kiss touched him and it’s made him think – though there’s a hint of doubt in the line “You really care about me, don’t you?” The second verse is more specific, mentions of Bristol, Paris and London – who is this about? (I do have an idea actually). Then a killer line – “I wasn’t the easiest person to have for a best friend, but then neither were you”. Ouch again. The song builds to a crescendo of guitars and drums, and this time it works. And then I flipped the single over and wanted to die.

“Signs” is sparse. Guitar, cello and Wratten’s voice. It doesn’t need anything else. There’s nowhere to hide now. Wratten is thinking of her, and of how she doesn’t know how he feels. He clings to his hopes, knowing he’s being foolish. “Was I just seeing signs when there were no signs?” Already my heart is in my mouth. Isn’t this ME? She’s not thinking of him, he’s thinking of her. He knows he’s being stupid but it doesn’t stop him enjoying the whirlwind of unrequitedness. “I cannot stop thinking about someone I hardly know”. To hear this song at the end of wasting two years pining for someone who clearly would never be interested… It absolutely killed me. This was every song I ever wanted to write, this was my life in five minutes.

And then nothing. No more records by Northern Picture Library. A single line in a later Sarah newsletter stated that they had broken up, no explanation, nothing. The story became clearer in 1996 with the start of Wratten’s next band / project Trembling Blue Stars,  how the relationship between him and Davies had broken down, so the band stopped and he channelled his feelings into the first TBS album “Her handwriting”, and the rest is history for another time. Obviously they reconciled enough for Davies to sing on some TBS songs, and I believe she sings on Wratten’s forthcoming project Lightning In A Twilight Hour. I’ve only heard two songs from that so far but they are both excellent and it promises to be a highlight of this year. Northern Picture Library tend to get passed over these days, but in their small catalogue there are some great songs, not least “Signs”. The marvellous LTM label has compiled all the NPL material onto two CDs which are well worth investigating, there’s a delightful cover of the Stars Of Heaven’s “Ammonia train” on one… 

Anyway, God bless Bob Wratten and all those who sail with him in his many guises.

Next time – I’ve been away too long and I’m wondering why…

What’s Another Year?

Spotify sent me a link the other day to My Year In Music. It was a strange year, seemingly based on the music I had played the most. I say ‘seemingly’ because it didn’t truly reflect the music I had listened to on Spotify, but what my family had put on repeat at various points in the year. Five songs out of the top ten are from Abba Gold, including the top two “The winner takes it all” and “Mamma Mia”. Other songs reflect family obsessions – “A little less conversation” and “Happy” have soundtracked many dances around the house. Only three songs reflect my choices, though “Hotel California” was listened to during the writing of a Goldfish post and not for pleasure. The other two songs are “Swingtime” by Woo (a charming indie pop instrumental) and “Long hair soulful” by The National Gallery, the closing track on a late 60s LP of pop psych inspired by Klee paintings.

This makes me wonder. Just how much music do I listen to these days? Sure the radio is usually playing commercial radio in the car so I’ll hear whatever subset of whatever is popular and bland there. I used to listen to Radio 2 but can’t be bothered any longer, I don’t want to hear “Love Train” ever again. 6music has never appealed – my favourite DJ Gideon Coe has his show in the evenings so I rarely listen to him these days. So I pick up music from recommendations online from people whose opinion I trust. And whatever is on the radio in the car. But Spotify tells me I listened to over 14,000 minutes of music on there this year. And it sure as hell wasn’t all Abba.

It’s not been a terribly exciting year for music for me. Maybe I’m too insular in my tastes, stuck in my ways, not thinking outside my musical tastes box. All the year end praise for St Vincent makes me want to give the album a listen, but the problem is that it has been praised so highly it can’t live up to expectations. The War On Drugs album which is also winning end of year polls turned out to be in thrall to Dylan and the Band and Neil Young and never transcended its influences for me. And I still cant see the appeal of this year’s Beck album.

On the other hand there has been some great music I’ve heard this year. Sleaford Mods are sharp, funny, truthful and ridiculously rude. They say more about modern life in Britain than almost anybody, and by holding a mirror up to society we can laugh and cry at what we see. Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” album shows how powerful music can be without being overproduced overcompressed and overdubbed beyond the realms of listenability. Sloan’s “Commonwealth” is a cornucopia of melodies and riffs culminating in a side long suite of music of astonishing beauty. I will hereby publicly thank Rick Leach for tipping me off about Courtney Barnett at the start of the year, her music has made me smile a lot this year. Also huge thanks to Josh Meadows and his radio show It’s A Jangle Out There, broadcasting from Castlemaine in Australia and worth waking up early on Thursday mornings for. It’s a great mix of old and new indie tunes and has introduced me to some fab music, not least The Sudden Death Of Stars, whose sitar tinged psychedelia hits a lot of my sweet spots. And a mention is due for The Autumn Stones whose three singles this year have been stylistically different yet remarkably consistent. A new album next year should be good. Oh and the Luxembourg Signal’s LP was great, as was The Orchids’ LP, and next year promises the return of Bobby Wratten with his new project Lightning In A Twilight Hour. And there’s a new album by The Dodos in January…

Ok maybe it’s not been such a bad year, and there’s been a few more discoveries along the way these past twelve months, both old and new music. So in the manner of Mojo I’ve produced a “Best thing I’ve heard this year” list. In no particular order….

The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness – The Feelies
Keep In The Dark – Temples
Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
To Prove My Love – Ned Doheny
Tonight – The Move
Blue Energy Programme – The Advisory Circle
Queen – Perfume Genius
Out Of The Black – Neneh Cherry
Piano Phase – Steve Reich
Reunion – Stars
The Void – The Sudden Death Of Stars
Cold Coke – Disco and Co
Love Letters – Metronomy
Another Day – Phlumph
Forty-eight Portraits -Sloan
77 Slightly Delayed – Ashra
Suburban Love – Japan
Pulstar – Vangelis
Endless War – The Autumn Stones
She Loves To Feel The Sun – The Luxembourg Signal
We Made A Mess – The Orchids

There’s probably more songs I’ve enjoyed this year but those are the highlights, off the top of my head.

There’s more to come from Goldfish in the New Year, looking at some happy moments and dark times – sometimes within a few months of each other – and more thoughts and words on music. Continued and eternal thanks to all my readers old and new, and to those out there who have supported me, mentioned me on the radio, linked from their websites, retweeted me…. Honourable mentions to Marcello and Lena at Then Play Long, London Lee, Tim Byron at The Vine, Josh Meadows, Beth Arzy, Bob Stanley, Stephen at Everything Indie Over 40, The Riverboat Captain, Merric at Toppermost, Rick Leach, Dotty, Karen, Claire, David, Matt, Johnny, Esther in California – for telling me that Josh was mentioning Goldfish in Australia – and probably more I’ve forgotten. Sorry if I left anyone out. A huge thank you to my family too, for reading and learning and responding too!

Here’s to the future. This goldfish is gonna keep swimming….

Happy New Year!

One Christmas for your thoughts

“It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid….”

It is December 1984 and one song is inescapable. It is everywhere, all over the radio, closing Top of the Pops every week, everyone knows the words, everyone knows they’re doing good by buying it. All the girls in my class swoon over the singers, ooh George Michael is so hunky, Simon Le Bon looks gorgeous… But Sting and Paul Weller and Paul Young look like a different generation, which they were. The girls weren’t interested in them. George Michael was the one, and with “Last Christmas” also rising up the charts the girls were in heaven. I can remember one of my class bringing in “Make it big”, and the girls all swarmed around it cooing and sighing. There was also a double pack of picture discs, one of George and one of Andrew Ridgeley, and nobody wanted the latter disc…. The boys weren’t like this, or if they were they weren’t doing it publicly in the Chemistry lab.

I didn’t care musically about Band Aid. I looked at the list of participants and thought “I’m not interested in these people”. Already my snobbish attitude to music was rising to the surface. I was beyond the Top 40. Yes there were still songs I liked in the charts and I would buy singles like “Shout” by Tears For Fears and “Blasphemous rumours” by Depeche Mode, both of which were hardly filled with Yuletide cheer. Roland Orzabel screaming “I’d really like to break your heart” fitted my mindset at the time far more than Holly Johnson warbling about the power of love. It was just how I felt, y’know.

1984 had been the year of crushing on R and by the end of the year it was getting tiresome for both her and me. She had a boyfriend and they were pretty much inseparable and the happy couple would do their best to annoy me by being happy and lovey dovey at all times. Looking back I don’t know why I bothered, I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere. But my diary is full of love and hate, leaping on any act of kindness as a sign of some possible hope, while pouring scorn on her other half and any perceived faults he may have had in my eyes. Thirty years on it makes a tedious read and one wonders if the amount of controversy generated by my diary in school was entirely appropriate for what in retrospect was an exceedingly dull non affair. But at the time it felt so important, moments could be extrapolated into minutes, glances could become deep and meaningful… I was fifteen, I grew out of it. Eventually.

So December 1984 was all about my mock ‘O’ Levels, all jammed into an intense fortnight. Every day all of the Fifth Year would traipse into the main hall and sit at individual desks, get our pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, rulers and other accoutrements of the examination process, and stay silent for three hours at a time while we struggled or breezed through the exam papers in front of us. And of course boredom took over and the inevitable happened – we started having conversations on the desks. The same hundred fifteen year olds jammed together every day… It was bound to happen. One desk read “Helen loves Huw” then “No I don’t” then “Why not? He’s cute” then “You have him then”. Someone had written a very rude comment about R on one desk and I got the blame for it. During the half hour before each exam, certain people were giving guided tours of certain desks with added commentaries and speculation on who wrote what. It passed the time and was sometimes more interesting than the exams themselves.

At ten to nine on the Tuesday, just as I’m settling down to my English Lit exam, my Computers teacher Mrs M comes running up to me and says “We’ve got a competition to go to at 12, I’ll pick you up after the exam…” For my sins I was a member of the school’s computer quiz team, the previous year we had finished second in all of Wales and got my picture in the local paper. We had our reputation to think about, so after a frenzied and slightly panicked exam, Mrs M rounded up a 4th year boy and my brother’s friend Sean from the 6th form and myself, throwing us a tuna bap each to sustain us, then we piled into her red Mini Metro and she drove like crazy out of Penarth, across Cardiff to a teacher training unit on Western Avenue where we faced a team of girls from Heathfield High, and metaphorically thrashed them, not dropping a single point. Then Mrs M drove us back, cheerily saying “The next round is tomorrow afternoon”, then dropping me at Sean’s house so we could play some computer games on his Tandy TRS80. Sean was a nice guy, as nerdy as I was, and we got on well. I got the feeling he preferred me to my brother, cos they would argue about politics all the time. Sean’s father was the local candidate for the Communist Party and his house was covered in posters promoting their cause. On the other hand, my brother was a staunch Tory, with a bedroom full of posters in praise of the free market economy and how great privatisation could make the trains and other public utilities. Well we all do silly things when we are young. The next day, the same mad post-exam dash across Cardiff to face my father’s old school Cardiff High, and again we didn’t lose a point. Nice.

It felt like the exams were going on forever – on the 19th December my diary states “Only Computers prac exam left – boring”. Then the next day its all over and something else far more important has started – “it was the start of Peel’s Festive Fifty last night, 50 to 41. Quite good too, Cocteaus, Bunnymen, Hard Corps – and more tonight!”

The final day of term involved me being happy because R was nowhere to be seen, although there were rumours she had changed her hairstyle. I had a shock when Mary gave me a Christmas card from my first crush D. A teacher who was known as Barney Rubble commandeered me and my friend Huw as we were the only kids waiting to be let in, so we pushed the one school piano from the stage of the main hall across the school to the Youth Wing. Then everyone packed into that tiny space for a hilarious carol concert, where nobody sang in tune , “Hark the herald angels sing” was stopped because everyone was laughing at it, and we forced the teachers to play “Do they know it’s Christmas?” three times in a row. Then R turned up at the end (“the only difference in her hair is a bow and it looks stupid” I remarked in my diary that night) then we walked home together with Mike and Jeremy, both of whom wanted to form a band with me. “Only if R sings” I said, hoping she was a secret Liz Fraser.

Once school was over the Festive Fifty became the centre of attention, I noted in my diary that I should buy “It’ll end in tears” as soon as possible because “Another Day” was “stupendous” (it took me three years to buy it). It was a bloody good year, to be honest and I recently put together a Spotify playlist of 48 of the 50 songs (the missing two songs were New Order b sides) and hearing the songs in order sent me straight back to those cold dark December nights. You can almost hear Peel himself talking between the songs. It was a chart of reassurance – nice to hear some songs I may have forgotten earlier in the year – and discovery- pointing out songs and bands I may not have come across and would have to investigate in the coming year. From that year on, the Festive Fifty would be a barometer for me, checking for new directions, checking my favourites were there. (That’s not a barometer then – Pedantic Ed).

Finally Christmas Day arrived and there were four albums under the tree for me. I had a good idea what they were, having made a list and sent my father to Spillers Records to hunt down the more obscure artists. So let’s have a look at these four albums.

“La Dusseldorf” by La Dusseldorf

Back in the summer of 1984, the Evening Session had a series where guests would come in and talk about records that influenced them. I didn’t listen to all of them but tuned in from time to time and that was where I encountered La Dusseldorf for the first time. It was Midge Ure choosing the songs and one song he chose was “Rheinita” by La Dusseldorf. I loved how it flowed so gracefully, the patient pace of the song, it sounded not quite electronic but strangely timeless. I noted the name in my diary and kept an eye out. A few months later I saw an album by La Dusseldorf called “Viva” appear on our regular quarterly mail order list from Gema Records so I send off my cheque and hoped for the best – these orders were quite random, sometimes you would get everything you ordered and sometimes absolutely nothing. A few weeks later “Viva” arrived, looking odd – the title sprayed on the wall on one side, a man feeding a goat on the other. A distinct lack of information, even on the label which didn’t even tell me which was side one, so I ended up thinking that “Cha cha 2000” was how the album opened, and I didn’t realise I was wrong until I read “Krautrocksampler” ten years later. Still, I loved the album, “Rheinita” was gorgeous and I wanted more by them, if there was any more. A quick hunt in Kellys Records in Cardiff Market found two more albums, their self titled debut and their third LP “Individuellos”. On my instructions, my brother bought me the debut album and it became my Christmas present from him.

And now the difficult part…because I love this album, I listen to it a lot thirty years on, but bloody hell there’s not a lot to say about it. Opening song “Dusseldorf” moves along for thirteen minutes, built on a propulsive motorik drum pattern, wimpy jangling  guitars and simple keyboard melodies and never gets boring. There’s lots of chanted vocals, lots of  Klaus Dinger whispering “Dusseldorf”, dive-bombing synths, and even the occasional line of German that even I could translate (“Wir gerhen wie in die alten Stadt” is something like “We’re going to the old city”). And it just motors along beautifully. I should point out that in 1984 I had absolutely no idea about Neu! other than OMD’s b-side tribute “4-Neu”, or how Neu related to La Dusseldorf. The next song was entitled “La Dusseldorf” and starts with a load of football fans cheering before bursting into a frantic dash of more trebly guitar, phased drums and a bit of a punky attitude. Dinger’s singing “Dusseldorf” again, and who can blame him? One point that’s always annoyed me as an aside, in his book Julian Cope claims there’s only three words on this album… He is wrong, there’s loads of lyrics but they’re in German, but also a few in English too. Still, this song is bloody fantastic.

Over on side two, “Silver cloud” is ten minutes of absolute godlike music, a wonderful performance with incredible dynamics , moving from a whisper to an explosion of sound within seconds. Guitars and synths glisten, melodies are simple yet glorious, and oh sorry I just love this song. Obviously so did David Bowie as he nicked the tempo, the dynamics and format for “A new career in a new town”. The final track “Time” is a slow burner, starting quiet and getting faster and fuller as it progresses, still full of marvellous melodies. And Dinger lists lots of things that it’s time for, and you’ll have to get your German to English dictionary out for that part – I can translate about half of it. Then it slows down and gets spacey, before coming to a rousing conclusion.

Once I’d bought the third La Dusseldorf album early in 85, I started to work backwards, purely by accident – I bought the debut Neu! album around the same time and made the connection through the songs “Leiber Honig” and “Leiber Honig 81”. I still think the three La Dusseldorf LPs are as good as the three Neu! LPs, and i play them more often too.

“Step Forward” – Portion Control

Another discovery through Peel, I first heard their single “Rough justice” during the Easter holidays of 84 and loved the clipped sequencers, the parping brass section, the chirruping drum machines and over it all some unusually harsh vocals. I might as well get this over with now – I know bugger all about Portion Control as a band and research online has provided little useful information, so I don’t know the name of their singer. So shoot me. Whoever he is, he is impassioned, forceful, frequently hoarse and the complete opposite of the usual type of singer a band like Portion Control would have (wimpy boy vox over synth pop cliche alert).  Certainly I was interested in PC and kept an eye out for any more releases.

By the autumn of 84, Peel had previewed some songs from their imminent album which sounded great so it went on the Christmas list and ended up under the tree for me. “Step Forward” had been given a glowing five star review in Sounds and PC were the support act on Depeche Mode’s late 84 UK tour. It felt like a perfect fit too, the Basildon boys getting tougher and touring with these electro industrial punks.

“Step Forward” is a very 1984 kind of album, both musically and politically. For a start its all electronic, harsh drum machines, pulsing synths, occasional brief samples, very of its time. But there’s anger too. The opener “Refugee” is as relevant today – a shouted opening of “Does the government ever hate you?”, then the plight of a refugee seeking a place to live and work, as work is replaced by automation. From there the pace is maintained by “Under the skin”, a more personal fury – “I speak no evil, I only talk to you”. A brief respite then with the first of the numerous short instrumental tracks “Mutie”, a bass drum like a jack boot, drifting mid tempo disquiet. “Tex mex” is an album highlight, almost conventional synth pop (that huge bass!), but the vocals push again, more relationships falling, but still with enough verbal and melodic hooks to snare unsuspecting listeners. “Tongue beat” passes by before the side closes with an odd track “Micro box”, distant noises and what sounds like Alf Garnett ranting.

Side two reprises “Micro box” before moving into “Real estate cult”, which tries hard to be “Blue Monday” but can’t be. Another short instrumental “Tin” (love this digital synth tones) before “Havoc man”, another better attempt at “Blue Monday” with added New Musik sonar bleeps (!) More vocal anger though, but still hope and vision. The contrasting sequencers pulse away, leading to another instrumental “319” which moves into another highlight “Scramble”. Maybe I’m mishearing it, but this is merging personal with political… “I thought it was time that you should go…” Who? It’s no good hiding behind obscurity. And then there’s the chorus..

“No cause for concern in things you believe
Get ready to labour, achieve what you will
In times of need, no one is hungry
No one to feed
Achieve what you will, situation is brave
Finger on the button, don’t go insane”

Like i said, I could be wrong. I frequently am. But that sounds like a cry against a government ignoring everything to get its way, to drag the country through a depression, to make people hungry… I didn’t think so then, because I didn’t think about much more then me and school and girls and music. But now… And the music’s good too. Final track “Son of Go Talk” is a dub style mix of a previous single, all empty spaces and dread. Very good, but I wanted “Rough justice” and never did find a copy.

One last thought. Who has the rights to the back catalogue of Illuminated Records? They had 400 Blows, Portion Control, Dormannu and 23 Skidoo at this point. That’s quite a roster of talent.

 “Hatful of hollow” – The Smiths

Of course, listening to Peel in 1984 meant that it was impossible for me to avoid The Smiths. They were unavoidably anyway, they had hit singles and kept appearing on Top Of The Pops and other TV shows, but Peel played them, had them in session, supported them, praised them, kept playing their b sides…

But by Christmas I hadn’t bought any of their records. I was killing music by taping them off the radio. A few weeks before Christmas, my family were all sat at the dining room table eating tea with the radio on in the background, probably from the kitchen. “William it was really nothing” came on and breezed through the room for two minutes and ten seconds. “You like the Smiths, don’t you Rob?” asked my father. “Yes I do” I replied. I was expecting some snarky comment from him or my brother about Morrissey not being able to sing, but it never came. The conversation moved on, but a seed was sown.

A few weeks later it came as no surprise to find “Hatful of hollow” under the Christmas tree, suddenly the conversation made sense. It wasn’t the first of the four LPs I received to get played, but it was the second.  And what an album. Excellent value for money for a start, fifty five minutes and sixteen songs in a gatefold sleeve for £3.99. And all the words too, making for essential reading. And as for the quality of the music….

There were the five singles I already knew on the album, but some not in these versions. For a start I knew the Sandie Shaw version of “Hand in glove” best at this point, and both “This charming man” and “What difference does it make?” were radio session versions. There’s a freshness about “This charming man” here, not the confident leap of the hit single, but a gentle strum through a song they’ve just written and are still amazed about creating. There’s b sides which are good enough to be a sides, like “Girl afraid” and “How soon is now?” And some of the session songs are the definitive versions – not least “Reel around the fountain”.

What struck me on that first listen on Christmas Day was how sexual the songs were. I wasn’t quite expecting that! Conjugal beds and mammary glands were the most obvious signs, but there was a frisson running through so many songs which I picked up on. There were lines which resonated with me…. Actually I’m looking at the lyric sheet here and now and thinking I could quote most of these songs in their entirety for the relevance to my life at the time. I wanted someone to kiss under the iron bridge, I did feel I’d made a terrible mess of my life (and that feeling still remains), and when will I accept myself?

And yet even at this point there was a past to not return to. It just wasn’t like the old days anymore. The relationship with the past is already bittersweet. “Back to the old house” – a simple performance of Morrissey and Marr alone – was powerful for it’s simplicity as well as its accuracy. “And you never knew how much I really liked you, because I never even told you, oh and I meant to… Are you still there?” Bob Wratten has made a career from that one verse. These songs touched nerves like few I’d heard before. I still believe there is a special magic in the early music of The Smiths, an empathy for the downtrodden and demoralised, the luckless in love, the ones left behind by the race for success. That disappeared after 1984, it was like a modicum of success changed them, they became less personal, more universal by the time of “Meat is murder”. I loved them no less, but the songs on “Hatful of hollow” ring truer for me.

And I’m not even going there on how much I identified with “How soon is now?” You can imagine it for yourself. And “Reel around the fountain” too – fifteen minutes with R, well I wouldn’t say no (at the time – Ed).

For me “Hatful of hollow” is the best Smiths album. It may be a compilation but it often betters the versions on their debut, and the addition of the 1984 singles tracks which were of an incredibly high standard, makes for a perfect album. By the time I’d reached the closing “Please please please let me get what I want” on that day, I knew my life had changed slightly for the better and that the music of The Smiths would always be an important part of my life.

“Treasure” -Cocteau Twins

I first heard Cocteau Twins when they released “Pearly dewdrops drops” in the Spring of 1984. It was an immense sounding record in a year of big sounding records. It swung, it chimed, it was like a glimpse of a magical world like I’d never seen before. And that’s not even mentioning Liz Fraser’s voice. But the moment the Cocteaus clicked for me was their Peel session in the summer, and the song “Wischt” (which would become “Beatrix”). That was a truly stunning sound, I could not place what kind of instrument was making the music. I was entranced, and I was in love with their music.

As I have already mentioned in the run up to Christmas I heard a lot of this album in the Festive Fifty, and somehow the whole album became the soundtrack to Christmas. When I did receive the album on Christmas Day it was the first one to be played so really captured that post present opening feeling. Something about the sounds used makes me feel Christmassy even now. Maybe it’s the chiming bells on “Lorelei” and “Ivo”. It’s certainly not  just memory, even though now I am listening  I’m back on my bed, headphones on and trying to ignore whatever my brother may have been playing, smelling the turkey cooking in the oven….

There is a danger when talking about Cocteau Twins to start on lyrical flights of fancy, sonic cathedrals of sound and other things. In all fairness it’s an easy trap to fall into. You can’t focus on the words because they are indecipherable. The music is unique too, although there is still a hint of post punk within it. The song structures of “Amelia” and “Cicely” on side two are throwbacks to their gothic Banshees beginnings and my least favourite songs on the album. On the other hand, when they transcend their influences, they create something new and unique – the aforementioned “Beatrix” and the slow motion drift of whispers that is “Otterley” are otherworldly but don’t really fit into the regular Cocteaus schema. “Beatrix” is still stunning, the main instrument some bastardised dulcimer, with strange harmonic drones from time to time, while Fraser sings babytalk. And when they decide to go pop, they go POP. On “Lorelei”, “Ivo” and especially “Aloysius” the melodies soar, the guitars chime and the vocals overlap each other beautifully. “Aloysius” is my favourite song on the album, an odd choice but I adore everything about it, from the uneasy discord in the introduction to the little piano asides, and the vocals… I can’t describe how joyful this song makes me feel. I could listen to it on a loop and still not be sick of it.

One aspect that is rarely mentioned in relation to Cocteau Twins music is the drums. Guitarist Robin Guthrie was a drummer before moving to guitar and his talent for drum programing is exceptional. This is helped by his use of the Emu Drumulator, a drum machine that could be programmed in real time, without any quantisation, allowing for more realistic drum patterns. Listen to the gentle 6 / 8 swing of “Pandora” and marvel at the subtlety of the rhythm track, the snare hitting around the beat, the rolling tom toms, the hi hats tapping away.  This would have been impossible on the more regimented grid based drum machines made by Roland or Linn. Another aspect of the drums is the sounds themselves. The Drumulator could be reprogrammed with samples and on “Treasure” Guthrie used the additional “Rock Set”, made up of samples of John Bonham and on songs like “Lorelei” and “Persephone” you can hear that distinctive “When the levee breaks” crunch. Well I can, anyway.

“Treasure” closes with one of its best tracks “Donimo”. Beginning with an uneasy discord before settling into a choral section of multiple Frasers (and the choral sample on an Emulator), this sets up tension before the song bursts into life, huge chorused guitars lije flapping wings, those Bonham drums crashing, and again Fraser singing like an angel. The song moves from this to a quieter chorus section of beautiful descending chord before crashing back in. It feels euphoric, like a release from all tension, it’s just wonderful.

I’ve done a crap job of writing about “Treasure”. One last point to make though. In his excellent book “Lost in music” Giles Smith writes how he spent some time recovering from cancer and listening exclusively to “Treasure”, describing it as the perfect record to immerse himself during this period, a record that isn’t so much colourful but a selection of shades of grey. (It’s a shame that the phrase “Shades of grey” has become synonymous with softcore sadomasochistic tendencies now.) I’ve probably paraphrased that badly but it makes a lot of sense. “Treasure” is that kind of album – a limited palette used in incredible ways.

On New Years Eve 1984, Whistle Test broadcast a Best Of The Year show including Cocteau Twins performed “Pearly dewdrops drops”. A week or so later they were back, performing “Lorelei”, Fraser wearing what looked like a tea cosy on her head. And I was smitten. From that point on, Liz Fraser was my first celebrity crush.

And that was Christmas 1984.

Happy Christmas!

Next time – Dreams and stars and sleep

From Village Greens where we feel secure


There were two albums in my parents’ record collection which made me feel uneasy. Not so much the music. Well that’s not quite true really because the first album was a Music For Pleasure LP of “Peter and the Wolf” and Prokofiev’s masterpiece always spooked me out. Even now thinking about it the main theme running through my mind makes me shudder. I can’t explain it very well but the movement of the music sends shivers down my spine. But more than the music it was the album cover which made me feel uneasy. I’ve only been able to locate the picture via Ebay but seeing it…. It looks quite placid, the actor Paul Daneman in a cosy red sweater, some felt and paper mache animals next to a tree but to me as a five year old, this looked like the creepiest thing ever. I would have nightmares about the cover, worried that the wolf was under my bed. (This may come as a surprise to my parents, but this blog had been an education for them if anything).

The other album was “The Golden Hour Of The Kinks”, a compilation issued by Pye’s Golden Hour offshoot label. The front cover is totally inappropriate, a psychedelic swirling drawing of the four members of the band, possibly in honour of Love’s “Forever Changes”, but bright yellows and oranges and vivid colours.. It was a very psychedelic cover for a record that really isn’t psychedelic at all. But there was worse on the reverse of the sleeve. Lots of pictures of other Golden Hour LPs, one of which had a picture of the moon – with a man’s face superimposed, another was a jigsaw of Donovan. Both looked very weird and slightly disconcerting.

But enough about the sleeves, what about the music? Well have a look at the track listing and marvel at how right it is. If you needed one album to convince you that the Kinks were important then this is it. Ok, so it was clearly compiled before “Lola” returned them to the Top Ten in 1970, but as an overview of their 60s heyday it is nearly perfect. There’s the primal early shredded speaker racket of “You really got me” and “All day and all of the night”, there’s the social satire of “A well respected man” and “Dedicated follower of fashion” there’s the run of classic singles through 1966 to 1967, from “Sunny afternoon” to “Autumn almanac”. Add to this a few oddities – “Sitting on my sofa” and “Louie Louie”, a smattering of album tracks and failed singles and there you go, a truly golden hour.

One curious thing for me is that listening to these songs in this particular order sends me straight back to being a child again. No matter how familiar these songs are – and they are very familiar – this sequence feels right somehow. There’s even the crappy stereo mix of “Wonderboy” where the lead vocal is buried within the song. Still sounds great in context. What is also curious about the album is that it inspired my brother to investigate the Kinks and to dig deeper. The album itself was long gone from my parents’ record collection by 1981, it was only on a cassette, which had a quirk of its own. Because the intro to “Waterloo Sunset” got stuck while it was being recorded. There’s the well known descending introduction, then the first three notes of Dave Davies’ lead guitar part, then it jumps back to the end of the descent and Dave plays three notes, back to the descent, Dave plays three notes and finally my father notices and nudges the stylus on and the song progresses normally. This is how I heard “Waterloo Sunset” for the first 12 years of my life and that’s how it sounds in my head, even now. But back in 1981 my brother had his first music centre, an integrates unit of tape deck, radio, record player with two speakers which immediately were drilled to his bedroom wall. Andy was (and still is, obviously) eighteen months older than me so was 14 in 1981, starting to develop his own music taste much as I would two years later. For him it was the Rolling Stones, at the time experiencing a resurgence of popularity due to the success of “Tattoo you” and “Start me up”. From there it was a logical move to check out the tapes in our parents’ collection and see what was similar. “The golden hour of the Kinks” fitted the bill and was regularly blasted out. I’m sure my parents didn’t mind, it was their music, it could’ve been worse, it could’ve been that sweaty noisy punk rock. (That would start pouring out of my brother’s bedroom a year or so later)

So this album started my brother’s obsession with the Kinks. A few weeks after listening to this tape he bought a cheap double cassette Best Of from Woolworths, full of songs neither of us knew with strangely British titles like “Harry Rag” and “Afternoon tea” but not too many actual hits, but it whetted his appetite for more and he started to buy their LPs. Around this time – early 1983 – the Kinks had a surprise hit single or two when “Come dancing” and “Don’t forget to dance ” returned them to Top Of The Pops, Ray Davies looking half delighted and half bemused by it all, like an uncle at the wrong party. Actually Dave Davies looks more bemused than anything. This resurgence of interest in the band helped my brother, because two books were published, “The sound and the fury” by Johnny Rogan and an official biography by Jon Savage. Then in early ’84 the Kinks played at St Davids Hall in Cardiff supported by The Truth I think, and Andy was there, the first of many Kinks gigs.

I’ve mentioned before how I wasn’t fond of my brother’s taste in music. By the end of 1984 our tastes were diametrically opposed. I liked modern music, always reading the music papers and listening to John Peel, looking for the next new song or band. He was looking backwards, investigating punk and its sources, from the Stooges and Velvet Underground, and digging into Dave Davies’ early Eighties solo career. In retrospect it gave him a better idea of the history of music, so fair play to him. But at the time I didn’t really see the point. Andy didn’t help his cause by playing the most annoying parts of his record collection at me at top volume, often accompanied by his own attempts to play the songs on his electric guitar, also at top volume. And even if he wasn’t massacring these classics, he’d still insist on force-feeding me horrible songs like “Ducks on the wall” from “Soap opera”. He would ask “What do you think?” knowing full well I hated it. He would also turn the volume up for the dull filter sweep at the end of “Attitude” from “Low budget” and say “Look Rob, the Kinks using synths!” as if they were great innovators in that area. I would counteract this by playing “You’re a hoover” by Freur and say “Look Andy, guitars!” We were young….

The first sign that something was changing for me was a tape I compiled in November ’84. It was only one side of a C90 (a green BASF if you’re interested) but it was quietly significant. It was the first time that I acknowledged that some of my brother’s music was worth listening to, not that I’d admit it to his face. I raided my parents’ then meagre Beatles collection for “Not a second time”, “Every little thing” and “I don’t want to spoil the party”. I then moved to my brother’s collection, starting with the gentler sound of the Velvet Underground for “Here she comes now”, “Beginning to see the light” and “That’s the story of my life”. Finally a few Kinks songs, three from “Village Green Preservation Society” – “Animal farm”, “Starstruck” and “People take pictures of each other” – and two from “Arthur” – “Brainwashed” and “Shangri La”. I loved that tape and again hearing those songs in that order conjures up more visions of how 1984 ended for me (which I’ll get back to soon enough). But that tape was my own secret.

I suppose the real turning point came in 1987 when two compilations arrived. “The Kinks Kronikles” was purchased by Andy during the summer holiday in Haworth (I’m pretty sure he bought it in Harrogate) and something about this collection of mid to late sixties album tracks, singles and outtakes clicked with me, so much so that I ended up taping highlights on one side of a tape with the whole of the “Village Green” LP on the other and playing it a lot in my student digs in Sheffield. The sleeve notes by John Mendelssohn were also bang on – admitting that the early seventies Kinks weren’t a patch on the late sixties Kinks, with all the subtlety and pathos replaced by drunkenness and crowd pleasing. A few months later “The great lost Kinks album” also arrived, with more pointed sleeve notes and  an even richer collection of songs. Around 1988, whoever owned the rights to Pye Records (I think it was PRT) issued a double CD of all the Kinks’ singles, EPs and b sides, alongside a mini LP collecting all Dave Davies’ songs onto “The albums that never was”. Slowly I was convinced that the Kinks’ golden period spanned from 1966 to 1969 and I started to appreciate them more.

Unfortunately just as I became interested in the Kinks, they went through a stage of making dreadful records, but my brother would still travel around the country to see them. In 1988 he stayed overnight with me in Sheffield as it was halfway between Hull (where he was studying) and Manchester (where they were playing). By 1993 both my father and I loved the Kinks enough to see them at St Davids Hall in Cardiff, and Andy came down from Stockport too. But he made one condition – if they did “It” he would walk out and go to the toilet. “It” was this odd instrumental where Ray and Dave sodded off for a drink or a fight in the wings while some dancers came on and did some kind of art. It wasn’t a lot of fun, and Andy had been to enough Kinks gigs by 1993 to know he didn’t want to see it again. So the Kinks played, Dave Davies played guitar on his knees at the lip of the stage hoping the crowd would be there for him, but St Davids Hall has an orchestra pit there and a thin layer of wood over it so nobody ever gets close to the stage… It was hilarious. But yes the Kinks were great and played old songs and new songs and a few surprises – “Oklahoma USA” sent shivers down my spine. And when the dancers came on, Andy headed for the toilets leaving me and my father laughing out loud.

I think that was the last major tour the Kinks completed before splitting up so I was glad to see them. I can never remember if my father had seen them ar their notorious gig at the Capitol Theatre back in 1964 where Mick Avory nearly decapitated Dave with a cymbal… But Ray and Dave are both still around, I’ve seen Ray a few times solo and he’s always been marvellous, and his books are great too.

So in honour of the Kinks I thought I’d write about fifteen of my favourite songs by them. I couldn’t limit it to ten, I tried a baker’s dozen but what the hell, here’s fifteen of their songs which mean the most to me. They are in chronological order and hell I could have doubled this number and still missed out a ton of favourites.

“Too much on my mind” – from “Face to face” LP, 1966

It was already clear by 1966 that Ray Davies wasn’t just going to celebrate how great Swinging London was. He was too much of a realist for that. The markers had been set the previous year with “The world keeps turning round” on “The Kinks Kontroversy” (oh how my spellcheck protests at that) and “Where have all the good times gone?” But now it was even harder for Ray to hide. By now he’d had a nervous breakdown, threatened to retire and had sued various sections of his management team and publishing, and then there were the problems with America, where the Kinks had behaved so badly they had been banned from performing there, so they watched powerless as other less able bands coined it in through the British Invasion. All these worries for someone so young.
All these worries were rolled into this one song. The music sounds placid to begin with (and you could trace a line from the intro to the start of “The theme from MASH”) but Ray sounds like he’s going to explode, but every so quietly. This tension is what makes the song so special, and it’s never truly resolved either. A highlight on an album full of gems – “Sunny afternoon”, “Party line”, “Fancy”…. Though “Rosie won’t you please come home” is very very close (“And I would bake a cake if you’d tell me you were on the first plane home” – the image of Ray Davies making a cake always makes me smile).

“This is where I belong” – b side to “Mr Pleasant” single in Europe, 1967

Some people don’t like “Mr Pleasant” at all, but I love it. Those chiming guitars, the barrel house piano but more than anything the way it swings from D major to D minor whenever Mrs Pleasant is mentioned, and you could say its a bit obvious but no, I think it’s great. For some reason I always think of “Mr Pleasant” as the husband of the woman in “Mother’s little helper”.

But “This is where I belong” is an amazing song. For a start it sounds like the Kinks are trying to achieve a  “Highway 61 revisited” vibe, lots of twiddling organ in the mix and some of the vocal has a Dylan-esque twang. But the lyrics are far from that, it’s a hymn to stability, peace, finding your place and being contented in it. Its a heartfelt performance, and when Ray and Dave sing in harmony together towards the end it makes my heart melt.

What is odd is how well known this song turned out to be. It was never issued in the UK officially until the late 90s reissue of “Face to face” but was a mainstay of “The Kinks Kronikles” since that was issued in 1971, so the Americans knew it better. Which is why the majority of covers of the song are American. A quick trawl through Spotify found almost ten versions, mostly of the garage rock variety. I’m sure Frank Black covered it, and School of Fish. And it even appears within the new “Sunny Afternoon” stage show. But best of all, when Paul K and I saw Ray perform in Cardiff a few years ago he opened his set with it. Well, it saved me having to request it.

“Autumn almanac” – single, 1967

I so wanted to include a song from “Something else…” but we’ll get to some of that album a little later. But for now let’s say that “Two sisters” was a distinct possibility for this list. But in the end I chose this single. The structure of the song is remarkable, how it moves through different time signatures dropping and adding bars along the way, how the different sections of the song all slot together so perfectly, how it evokes so many memories, how it is completely autumnal, slightly psychedelic, almost falling over itself to pack as much incident and melody into the song. And yet it doesn’t sound forced, there’s a relaxed nature to the song -no pun intended. This is a song as good as any late 67 single and should be regarded as one of the Kinks’ true classics.
(Well what can you say about perfection?)

“Do you remember Walter?” / “People take pictures of each other” from “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” LP, 1968

It’s hard to find new ways of talking about VGPS simply because it has been so comprehensively covered in Andy Miller’s superb 33 1/3 book on the album, and his sleeve notes to the three CD deluxe edition issues not long afterwards. And if you don’t own both of these items then may I suggest you get both in your life as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.

There’s so much past in VGPS… It seeps out of almost every song, sometimes specifically and sometimes just in a general attitude of melancholy longing to return to a younger, safer and more innocent place. “Do you remember Walter?” is beautifully ambiguous. I’ve often wondered if there should be a comma between the last two words of the title, to make it more specific. Ray is remembering an old friend, the promises they made to each other, and what happened to those dreams. The final verse always hurts…and Ray sings it with such feeling – such sadness when he sings “i bet you’re fat and married”… Walter is an echo of the past, now he’s grown up and hen pecked and boring (and is Ray implying that he is too?) and not interested in the past. The final line though… “People often change but memories of people still remain”.
At the other end of the album the accumulation of memories has turned into an avalanche and Ray can’t cope. The music sounds slightly manic, the intro ascending a little bit too far, Ray’s vocal is all purrs and sighs, people are trying to prove their existence with photographs so a moment can last forever. And I knew hearing this back in the 80s that it was right, the number of pictures of me on holiday pulling a face because I didn’t want to be there… Seeing the pictures brought it all back to mind. And there’s more hurt too – “You can’t picture love that you took from me, when we were young and the world was free”. By the end of the song Ray is at the end of his tether, one too many pictures, one too many memories… “a picture of me when I was just three, sat with my ma by the old oak tree, how I love things as they used to be” then softly but insistent “Don’t show me no more please”. He’s had enough. The past is too much.
The whole of VGPS is like that, every song is superb, every song tells its own story. Even the outtakes are great. Limiting myself to two songs was hard, the whole album works beautifully, it is a masterpiece. Every home should have one.

“Mindless child of motherhood” – b side to “Driving” single, 1969.

For a short while in 1967 and 1968 Dave Davies had his own solo career. His voice was always distinctive within the Kinks but his songwriting developed in such a way that he could add three brilliant songs to “Something Else By The Kinks” in 1967. “Death of a clown” was a well deserved hit single and follow up “Susannah’s still alive” was just as good. There was a hint of Dylan in the wordplay and his keening voice was distinctive. But by ’68 his third and fourth singles flopped badly and any plans for an album were shelved. All of which is a great shame as the songs themselves were perfectly fine, if not quite in keeping with the rapidly changing times. He still managed to contribute two b sides to the Kinks’ ’69 singles and all these songs were compiled later into “The album that never was”, an approximation of what a Dave Davies solo album could have been.

There is a thinly veiled thread of heartache within Dave’s late sixties songs. A tale of first love, fumbled first experiences, unexpected results and being ostracised by the family. Even a simple line in “Lincoln County” – “got a scarf for my mama that she won’t wear” – disguises part of the sorry tale, Dave bought a scarf for hia girlfriend but didn’t have the courage to give it to her so left it in someone’s hedge, only for his mother to find it and bring it home. All these stories roll into the best of these songs – ” Mindless child of motherhood”.

For a start the songs rocks in a way the Kinks hadn’t for a while by this point, the guitars are gorgeously crunching yet still with a Byrdsian jangle, and the song hurtles towards its conclusion full of chime and desperation. But what makes the whole performance real is Dave’s vocal, he’s searching for her but can’t reach her, he regrets so much, there are intimations of an offspring, and Dave’s voice cracks during the last chorus, it gets too much for him.  An emotionally draining song, and a real hidden gem.

“A long way from home” – from “Lola vs Powerman and the Money-go-round volume one” LP, 1970

The “Lola” LP is far more than just the two hit singles on it. A funny, scabrous, cruel look at the music business, kicking out at management, press, publishers and anyone who had done wrong to Ray along the way, it’s a far better album than its predecessor “Arthur”. That LP is ok but … I’ve never seen it as the Kinks’ pinnacle that some people do. Too many of the songs are reliant on the ‘plot’, they can’t stand outside the album. Of course I could have picked “Shangri la” except for the fact that it is almost too painful to listen to as a middle-aged man with all the things in the song, the gas bill and the water rates and payments on the car, too scared to think about how insecure I am. (cough).
On the other hand “Lola” looks outward in ways previously unknown to the Kinks. So many good songs, even Gaz Coombes and John Lewis can’t spoil the joy in “This time tomorrow” and it’s great to hear Dave’s songs assimilated back into the band. And in the middle of all this is “A long way from home”.

I’ve  always wondered who this is written about. Is Ray talking about himself, or Dave, or someone else who he has met out on the road? Or is it from the viewpoint of Ray’s wife to Ray? Either way, its beautifully poised, delicate piano mostly, Ray sings of the distance between the person he knew then and now, how the money and success has changed them. It’s as if he’s met up with Walter, and Walter is singing this to Ray. But the distance isn’t just a matter of miles, it’s emotional distance too. At the end, Dave is harmonising too, and its powerful in its quiet intensity. Ray sings “You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in funny clothes but you don’t know me” in such a heartbreaking way. Stunning.

“The way love used to be” – from “Percy” soundtrack album, 1971

“Percy” is an odd record. Asking the Kinks to create the soundtrack to a film about a penis transplant is odd enough. The fact that Ray took it as a chance to produce some quietly beautiful songs about the glory of nature, love and tradition shouldn’t really have surprised anyone. We are all God’s children, after all. Yes there’s a few daft instrumentals too but then it’s a soundtrack, what do you expect? Nestling inside the album is this beauty, the only Kinks on it are Ray on acoustic guitar and Ray Gosling on piano, the rest is a gorgeous string arrangement by Stanley Myers, soft as a feather bed but with enough swerves to make my heart leap into my mouth. And Ray is crooning, reminding the listener about how love should be, getting away from it all, and only talking about love. Not even doing anything, just talking. How old fashioned, how quaint, how utterly perfect.

“Demolition” – from “Preservation Act One” album, 1973

At which point my brother gasps.

In a way “Preservation Act One” is a logical development from “Village Green Preservation Society”, the songs aren’t too specific, there isn’t too much plot until the end, its all character sketches most of the way.  There’s some good songs and some bad songs. I would happily never hear “Cricket” and “I think there’s a change in the weather” again. “Where are they now?” is curiously touching, looking back on the Teddy Boys and clothes designers and characters from fiction who defined the swinging sixties with fondness. Of course it wasn’t just Ray looking back at the time, as a quick listen to “Pin ups” and “Quadrophenia” and “These foolish things” would demonstrate.

But in listening to this recently, the song that leapt out was “Demolition” in which Mr Flash starts buying up properties in the village to bulldoze it, build new flats and treble the profit. “it’s the wonderful world of capitalism, I’ve got to make a profit, I’ve got to get rich quick”. Sound familiar? Even in somewhere like Newport this is happening, down the road a load of unoccupied offices are turned into luxury flats, a hotel which closed last year is going to be flats too… It’s happening everywhere, especially in London. An opportunity for luxury living.
The whole Flash persona had been building up for a while, you can see it surface in “King Kong” on the b side of “Plastic man” back in ’69 (“Everybody wants power, everybody wants fame, everybody wants money” and “I’ve got so much money I can buy anyone who gets in my way”) and “Powerman” on “Lola”, but Flash is more fleshed out. Of course it would be developed in “Preservation Act Two” and that one good melody found at the end of “Demolition” would be hammered into the ground. Shame.

“A face in the crowd” – from “Soap Opera” LP, 1974

Oh dear, “Soap opera”. My brother played this all the bloody time back in the day. About a year ago I decided to listen to the album and it turned out that I knew every word, so it must have soaked in through osmosis. The majority of the album is dismal, the plot is risible… A pop star swaps places with a normal person called Norman to gain perspective and write songs about mundane things like ducks in the wall and going for a drink after worm. Eventually he has a breakdown over a shepherds pie (“but I can’t cope with all that fancy stuff you like to eat like pizzas…” cries Norman’s wife) and the ending is a sing-along about the power of music and oh god how tedious and showy and yet…

“A face in the crowd” is the only truthful song here. He’s giving up, fading away, facing up to the truth that he’s ordinary. Is this all a fantasy? Is the whole premise of the album a lie? And considering what had happened to Ray at a Kinks gig in White City the previous year (an overdose on pills, having his stomach pumped, nobody believing him because he was in his stage clothes – “dressed like a clown”), is Ray talking about his ow  desire to not be famous, to return to normality? Who knows? All these thoughts are attached to one of the sweetest melodies on the album, with a beautiful descending sequence.

“No more looking back” – from “Schoolboys in disgrace” LP, 1975

Not another concept album! This is about Mr Flash in his youth, and I suppose the story of getting someone pregnant could be related to Dave’s story. Do we need Ray to tell us school is hard and rules are made to be broken and education is a bad thing? Demon headmasters? Dave riffing on “The hard way”?

The album closer “No more looking back” steps outside of the concept. It’s the present day, Ray sees someone he thinks he knows, and all the memories come tumbling back. He can’t escape the past, but does he want to? As the song progresses, Ray gets wilder and more passionate, until at the end he’s practically screaming out.
“No more looking back
No more living in the past
Yesterday’s gone and that’s a fact
So now there’s no more looking back”
But do we believe him? Hell no. Even when I heard this song for the first time in the mid eighties I knew it was special, I already associated with it, I knew precisely what it meant. Read through the blog, see why it holds resonance for me. That’s all I’ll say.

“Too hot” / “Living on a thin line” – from “Word of mouth” LP, 1984

The Kinks’ period on Arista may have given them huge commercial success, particularly in America, but it was to the cost of their songwriting, and their subtlety. Huge power chords, riffs you can guess from a mile away, God the Kinks in the late 70s and early 80s were a bit dull and obvious. For every good song like “Better things” there’s half a dozen tired rewrites like “Destroyer”. Dave’s back contributing songs too, even though sometimes they’re a bit weird – there’s a section towards the end of “Trust your heart” where Dave’s vocal gets so high pitched only cats and dogs can hear him. But for some reason 1984’s “Word of mouth” was half a decent album. Maybe the success of “Come dancing” in the UK had made Ray make an album for Britain not America. There’s a few duffers in there – some of which ended up in “Return to Waterloo” – but when it’s good it’s very good indeed.

“Too hot” is a fascinating snapshot of 1984. The gym is full of people working out and body popping, Julian is trying to make a video, Arthur’s heading towards a confrontation and Sarah Jane is struggling to study while working on the side. It doesn’t sound like much on paper but it has a gleeful nature that is quite infectious. “Living on a thin line” is more serious, Dave in command, not shrieking because this time the words matter. Have a look here. Strange how it still sounds relevant – “Blame the future on the past”? It could be about this government. Some things never change, even if they should. “Living on a thin line” is a song which becomes more truthful as time passes. I think this song has been used on some TV shows so it may be more well known now, and quite deservedly so.

“Only a dream” – from “Phobia” LP, 1993

After some quite dreadful albums – “Think visual” and “UK jive”- 1993’s “Phobia” was a surprising return to form. It’s not all brilliant and suffers from the standard nineties crime of trying to fill as many of the 74 minutes as possible, ao you could happily lose three or so songs, but the rest of the album is great. There’s humour, pathos, tenderness and a lot of rather decent social commentary. It was a toss up whether I would chose “Scattered” or this song. “Scattered” is a great song, it should have been a hit (ditto to non-album single “Did ya” from earlier that year) but in the end “Only a dream” won.

The reason? Because it’s the truth. You’re feeling like shit when someone od the opposite sex says hello, and your mind goes spinning off – does she like me? Is this the start of something? Suddenly the world is a better place and you’re walking on air. The next day she ignores you, but life is that little bit better. Of course it’s corny – especially the last line, oh dear- but I’ve got a lot of affection for this song. Has it happened to me? Ha, yes of course it has.

it was a huge shame that the Kinks didn’t capitalise on Britpop and faded away, and seeing Ray Davies singing with Damon Albarn on “The White Room” was about as far as it got. Every so often the rumours fly of an reunion and it may well happen. Me, I’m just glad I did see them, and that “Pictures in the sand” is finally available on CD at last. (The recent Pye anthology may play fast and loose with the mixes but it’s still a worthwhile purchase)

And with that, I’ll bid adieu.

(Oh lets see if this playlist thing works…)

Next time – it was thirty years ago today…


Soft enough for you

Goldfishes after slumber? Return of the Goldfish? Whatever, I’m sort of back. For a start I’ve written a new Toppermost about The Teardrop Explodes which is available to read now if you so wish. And there is a new Goldfish entry on its way, which covers about thirty years. Not necessarily my years though. That should be available by this time next week.

in the meantime, have a nice weekend and ser you the same time next week.

Fingers crossed 😊

I’m only sleeping

Don't worry, the goldfish is asleep

Don’t worry, the goldfish is asleep

There’s a few changes going on around here – exciting things like the possibility of a part time job and grappling with a new phone (cos you all know I run Goldfish off a Blackberry, don’t you?). And there’s other things which are slightly less exciting, but overall I’m not going to have the time over the next month to write anything here (or anywhere else for that matter – sorry Toppermost fans). But rest assured the Goldfish will return as and when I have the time and energy to write. Oh, and something to write about too obviously. I’ll still be on Twitter and there may be a Spotify playlist soon once I work out how to achieve it, but for now the Goldfish isn’t dead, it’s just having a good snooze.

Keeping It Peel

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of John Peel, so I thought I’d write a few thoughts on the great man.

The first few times I listened to Peel were towards the end of 1983. I’m not even sure why I started listening – I’d been sticking to Radio Luxembourg for most of the year, perhaps I was tired of the signal interference? So I retuned the radio late at night and heard a few songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again. In that one section I heard “Sleepless” by Microdisney (in session that night) and “Burning airlines” by Eno – both songs would lead me in new directions, both played in half an hour. The next time I listened was to hear the last few songs in his Festive Fifty – a concept I didn’t understand because he didn t explain it. But hearing “Blue Monday”, the dance mix of “This charming man” and “Song to the siren”… Two of these songs I’d heard in the charts but “Song to the siren” was astonishing, that voice was haunting and rich, the backing minimal and aching.

For some reason I didn’t take that as a hint that I should be listening regularly to Peel. Silly me. I became a dedicated listener from the summer of 84 onwards. It was a golden period, every night headphones on finger poised over the pause button. There’s an orange BASF tape of the fitst few Peels I heard – the Julian Cope session with “Sunspots” and “Me singing”, the first records by Yeah Yeah Noh and Terry and Gerry, “CREEP” by the Fall, the Microdisney session with “Horse overboard” and “464”, all alongside obscurities like “Sahara Elektrik” by Dissidenten and “NCR” by Ike Yard. All ended up on tape. There was one song whose chorus has echoed round my mind even though I don’t know much about it – I’m sure it was called “David in distress” and it sounded angular and had a chorus which had the line “And absence makes the heart grow fonder” before a guitar break.

By the close of ’84 I was listening to Peel every night and my Xmas list of records was heavily slanted to the music he was playing – “Treasure” by Cocteau Twins, “Step forward” by Portion Control, “Hatful of hollow” by the Smiths. The ’84 Festive Fifty made more sense to me as a regular listener and I was pleased to see some of my favourites in there – “Dirty” by Hard Corps, “Upside down” by the Jesus and Mary Chain, “The Saturday boy” by Billy Bragg (bloody hell how much did I identify with that song?). Did I vote? No.

1985 would see more discoveries through Peel – he was the only person to play “Smiling Monarchs” by Abercederians, a huge sounding record which always encourages air drumming from me, then there was “Motor city” by Age of Chance and Husker Du and James and the continuing development of Yeah Yeah Noh from spare post punk to psychedelic funsters. There were odd one offs and session tracks too – Paul Haig doing “Mystery train” springs to mind… The ’85 Festive Fifty was wonderful, I enjoyed almost every song on there. Into ’86, more wonderful sessions – Microdisney going pop with “Town to town”, Yeah Yeah Noh’s final session, a “Super Summer Session” series where Peel broadcast old sessions during the summer – hearing classic sessions from This Heat, Public Image Limited, Teardrop Explodes. But as time passed and ’86 became ’87 I drifted away from Peel’s shows. I didn’t like all the jangling stuff he was playing – I could not abide the Wedding Present at all back then, and when the ’87 Festive Fifty was half Smiths songs and half Wedding Present songs and what was that tuneless screeching called “Birthday” at number one? All this new stuff in the Melody Maker too… Rubbish! God, how wrong was I? Between the ages of 17 and 20 I was an unsufferable music snob, looking down on anyone whose taste disagreed with mine and that included Peel. I’m surprised I wasn’t punched in the face for some of the things I said down the Leadmill.

But I still listened in to Peel, not every night but from time to time. I heard him play “Feed me with your kiss” and I laughed at how distorted it was. I taped parts of the ’88 Festive Fifty and was intrigued enough to investigate My Bloody Valentine and “Take me! I’m yours” was the first Wedding Present song that I actually connected with (“But I still see you the day before I wash my hair” – yep, know that feeling). Back home in ’89 I could listen more often and that year’s Festive Fifty opened my ears to the Field Mice and the Telescopes and Pale Saints and Galaxie 500. So in 1990 I started listening more frequently – listening to the start of shoegazing and all the techno bleepery and one of the highpoints of the Fall’s career (the “Extricate” / “High tension line” / “White lightning” period). And in June I noticed a session by the Field Mice where he played two songs by them consecutively then two later consecutively and I’d not heard him do that before, and that piqued my interest enough to make me want to buy their records. One distinct memory is hearing him play “Dreams burn down” by Ride for the first time, so vivid a memory that I can remember it all – sitting at my computer typing a diary entry, then stopping typing and being utterly in awe of this song – the drums sounding like Valhalla, the peal of guitar notes, the wall of distortion and the words too. Then as it faded I wrote in my diary “Just heard the new Ride single on Peel – it’s immense, like Felt with distortion pedals”. That year’s Festive Fifty was full of classics – the top four… Perfect. Peel continued to play Sarah Records too, and related records – he played “Madly in love with 25 people” by the Bedflowers from the “Mind the gap” cassette. And he’d take the time to read out addresses, twice, or give you warning to get pen and paper. 1991 didn’t have a Festive Fifty – the ‘phantom 50’ it was called – and as time passed I slightly lost interest again, as I had in the late 80s. I would still listen from time to time – the ’94 Festive Fifty was the last one I taped and there were still some great discoveries in there but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a girlfriend at last and you can’t be rude and spend two hours every night sitting next to your tape deck when you’ve got a girlfriend. Or I couldn’t anyway. At some point I had to ‘grow up’. You can’t spend your life listening to music. That’s a dream job.

And that’s the job Peel had. It was everybody’s dream – to play the music you love to other people. That’s what he did, from the sixties right through to his death ten years ago today. He was inclusive – he wasn’t forceful in his enthusiasm for the music, but he wanted you to investigate for yourself, to open your ears and your mind to the world of music. You might not like every song he would play but you never knew what was coming next, the next song could change your life. He was like an older brother who had the best record collection ever, pointing out new directions or old connections – when acid house broke in 1988 he played a track from Ike Yard’s “A fact a second” LP from ’82 making the point that people had been making minimal electronic music for years. Personally I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1996 – the last show I remember had him playing “Abba on the jukebox” by Trembling Blue Stars at 33 rpm until Bob Wratten started singing – but in those ten to twelve years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise, and I will always consider him to be a huge influence on my musical taste. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time – in my teenage years when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to playing records. Pretty much every DJ on Radio One at the time wanted to thrust the new Wham or Rick Astley single at you like it was the best thing in the world – and this style of DJ now populates commercial radio like a virus (“We’ve got the latest hot track from David Guetta next, this anthem is going to soundtrack your Saturday night”). Peel was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved. His TV appearances were great too – on Top of the Pops he would quietly send up artists, on documentaries he would be sick as the 60ft Dolls took him over the Newport transporter bridge. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect and nobody is, but he is fondly remembered for everything he did – the bands he discovered and championed, the way his taste migrated over time like anyone else’s, and the quiet influence he had on so many artists and DJs over time.

John Peel – ten years gone but never forgotten.

Look at them fall, flicker and fade

I make no apology – I love Freur. I’ve mentioned them a few times here in passing but I was listening to all their records the other day and thinking I should write about them properly. So I may repeat one or two paragraphs or memories from previous posts. So shoot me. At the time of writing there’s a lot of attention on Underworld as they promote the 20th anniversairy reissue of “Dubnobasswithmyheadman”, there have been a few articles about that album (which is very very good indeed) and how Rick Smith and Karl Hyde got there from Freur. If Freur are mentioned it’s usually in a derogatory way – Look at their awful clothes and hair ha ha! They had a squiggle for a name ho ho! Weren’t they crap hee hee! But Freur weren’t that bad at all, and hopefully I can give a not too biased view of their music.

Of course Freur’s debut single “Doot-doot” was one of the two records I bought on 30th April 1983 as documented in my very first blog post many months ago. I’d discovered the song through Radio Luxembourg’s Futurist Chart on Thursday evenings, which was filled with anything new – New Pop, New Romantic, synth pop, even the Icicle Works got in there with “Birds Fly”. Then Luxembourg picked it as a power play for a week – one of the songs they would play coming out of the news on the hour. It felt like it was going to be a hit, but it didn’t quite happen. I missed their peculiar performance on “The Tube”, so had no idea what they looked like. But there seemed to be a lot of pressure on them to do well – Luxembourg would play a little promo intro where a voice would intone “Welcome to the world of Freur” before the single started (there are promo copies of the single with this). “Doot-doot” was mysterious, a bouncing drum machine and echoing guitars with ominous synth lines and choral backing vocals. It should have been a huge hit but it only reached number 57 or thereabouts in the real world charts before dropping away. But I didn’t forget it, and when I took my first trip to the newly opened HMV in Cardiff it was the first record I hunted for and bought, but on twelve inch not seven inch.

The record was just as mysterious when I got it home. An electric blue sleeve like staring at a clear blue sea, the band name being a squiggle on the left hand side, and on the reverse a band picture of five members wearing two types of matching jackets, but the whole picture was filtered so you couldn’t make out any of their faces. The twelve inch mix of “Doot-doot” was lovely, extrapolating all I loved about the song over six minutes. The b-side “Hold me mother” was faster and relentless, but went on a bit for my liking – a lot of drums banging away, someone intoning “Mother!” over and over. It could easily have been three minutes long. A week or so later I bought the 7 inch version of “Doot doot” and found both songs to be more concise but I did really prefer the twelce inch versions in the end.

June 1983 and I’m head over heels in my first crush. What I really need more than anything is a good soundtrack. Just in time, Freur decide to issue their second single “Matters of the heart”. It receives a glowing review in Adrian’s “Smash Hits” (he had a subscription to it, I just read it every fortnight) – they make it single of the week and state “The best electric love song since ‘Vienna'”. A few days later I hear it on CBC – South Wales’ independent commercial radio station. They’ve supported Freur as the band are from Cardiff and considered to be local boys. The song sounds perfect for that moment in my life and I wax lyrical in my diary about that first hearing.

The next Saturday my family take a trip to Cardiff mainly to go record shopping. We start in Woolworths on Queen Street which has quite a good record selection. It also has that week’s chart ripped out of Music Week with a huge advert for “Matters of the heart” at the top – it’s available on 7 inch, 12 inch “Dun Different” mix and square picture disc. Interesting. We cross over Queen Street to HMV (it was opposite Woolworths) and I buy two OMD singles – “Souvenir” 10 inch and “Maid of Orleans” 12 inch. Lots of interesting b-sides there, I think. Finally we reach Spillers Records and I’ve almost run out of money. I ask if they’ve got “Matters of the heart” – they have 12″ and 7″ but I’ve only got enough for the 7″ so leave with that, still quite happy. We all go home and I hurry off to listen to my new purchases.

The OMD singles were great, though I was slightly disappointed to find that “Experiments in Vertical Take-off” didn’t exist and was really “Of all the things we’ve made”. And “Navigation” was totally epic. Then I got around to “Matters of the heart”. Nice glossy sleeve, the logo and title in the top right hand corner like “Doot doot” – nice touch of consistency. The front cover looked like paint spilt on wallpaper. The back cover had a picture of the band, a live shot. They looked very odd, like outcasts from a Zaphod Beeblebrox convention – big hair, shades, outlandish clothes. But the lead singer / guitarist had a cool Gretsch.

Then I played the single. “Matters of the heart” was – and still is – utterly gorgeous. Lots of sound effects, a lovely melody, rich instrumentation – mostly synthetic but sounding oddly natural. And peculiar words – it’s kind of a love song. Nice touches throughout the song – in the first verse it’s four hearts beating as one, in the closing verse there’s a million hearts. Then flip the single over for the b-side “You’re a hoover”. And at this point I notice the single is slightly warped. Damn. It still plays but I’m annoyed. “You’re a hoover” starts with almost 90 seconds of rhythmic noise bursts – some vocal, some synthesised. Then someone shouts and screams, drums thunder and a guitar starts riffing, the song speeds along in a hurry, and the singer is trying to keep up – the lyrics are a strange mix of animalistic threats and sighs, leading to a glorious chorus “It all seems much wiser (the madhouse scream) to live in the dance machine”. Then a guitar solo, then a final verse and the song keeps chugging along before fading. I thought it could go on forever.

I spent the next week playing those three singles and staring at my crush as she played tennis and I helped out with athletics. (There is a little article about me and school sports here, so as not to disturb the flow of this piece). It was all part of that perfect summer feeling. But there was something nagging in the back of my mind – I wonder what the twelve inch version is like. So a week or so later I returned to Spillers and asked for it. “Oh that Freur record’s been recalled and they’ve been dropped by CBS” I was told. A month or so later that square picture disc started appearing in the back pages of “Record Collector” magazine for silly money. But the picture disc of “Doot doot” was still reasonably priced and became the first record (of many) I bought from that magazine. Still looks lovely too, a big squiggle through clear vinyl.

So that was the end of Freur, or so I thought. In October 83 my family popped to Cardiff before taking my brother to a dentist on Cathedral Road to have a brace put in. We did the usual tour of record shops – Spillers, Hippo, Our Price, Virgin. HMV – and in the latter I idly flicked through the ‘F’ section of seven inch singles and stopped dead. The last thing I was expecting to see was a new single by Freur. They were now reverting to a name rather than a squiggle on the sleeve (but the squiggle was still on the reverse along with the words) and the cover looked less vague – blood red background, a posed picture of the band. They still looked weird – two short haired chaps in leather, two long haired chaps in strange clothing and one more slightly balding chap looking menacing. An odd bunch indeed. They clearly weren’t going to be sex symbols like Kajagoogoo. I rushed to the till and bought it, not even thinking of the twelve inch. I was slightly disappointed to see that the b-side was “You’re a hoover” again. Then the long wait until we got home to see what this new single was like.

For a start it was called “Runaway” which was quite normal. The song itself was normal too – a conventional pop song even. A saxophone, a Hammond organ, a chugging guitar rhythm, a “Can’t live with you or without you” lyric. Normal normal normal. But the chorus was a glorious pop moment, full of melody and thumping drums and odd voices. Very good indeed. In fact it was totally unlike any other single at thet time – Freur were somehow making unique music around the New Romantic / New Pop / synth pop templates available to them. And “You’re a hoover” was slightly different – the initial 90 seconds of silly noises was lost and an extra 90 seconds of chugging guitars was added at the end. If only I’d known that the twelve inch version was the whole song from noises to chugging.

Finally CBS decided to issue a Freur LP just before Christmas 1983 cunningly entitled “Doot doot”. Another cool blue sleeve, with an inner sleeve full of lyrics and pictures of each member looking moody. So now I knew who did what – Karl was singing and playing guitar, Rick was playing keyboards etc. There were the three singles on there amongst the ten songs. And I received the LP as a Christmas present and was quite disappointed by it. The three singles had been intriguing, original and quite brilliant in different ways from each other but the other songs on the album didn’t live up to the promise of the singles. “Riders in the night” has all the sequenced propulsion of Ultravox but attached to a song about – well – long haulage truckers by the sound of it. “Theme from the film of the same name” tries to be clever and post-modern in terms of a narrative about filming a scene but meanders tunelessly. “Tender surrender” can’t decide if it’s rock or a ballad and has decidedly bonkers lyrics involving hoovers, animals, leather and lace. There’s more of that kind of thing on “Steam machine” – there’s an odd steam-punk lizard sex cult vibe – “We animals gotta stick together, there’s nothing like steam for polishing leather”. Oh stop it Karl! The whole vibe isn’t helped by the credit on the sleeve that all the band’s clothes are provided by Lizard Life, whoever they were! Maybe they’re trying to be ironic or tongue in cheek but it doesn’t work. “My room” is about seducing someone and is creepy. “It’s all too much” looks at fame and hangers-on but finds it wanting and empty. Worst of all is “Whispering” which tries so hard to be Japan – imagine a mish-mash of “Nightporter” and “Ghosts” only without the imagination or atmosphere of either song. It’s unfortunate that such a poor song gets Karl’s most passionate vocal performance. As an album “Doot doot” is a great place to collect the three singles but little else. However a few months later I bought the cassette which had the “Dun Diff’rent” twelve inch mixes of “Doot Doot”, “Matters of the heart”, “Hold me mother” and “You’re a hoover” as extra tracks – at last the full five minutes of the latter song.

Did “Doot-doot” the album sell well? I don’t remember it doing well at all and it could be found in many a bargain bin by the summer of ’84. CBS reissued “Doot doot” as a single but it still didn’t get anywhere near the charts, neither did “Riders in the night” issued that Spring. Again there was a twelve inch single, a longer mix of the song (yawn) but two b-sides showing a way forward. “This is the way I’d like to live my life” was barely two minutes long but was more interesting than half the songs on their album. The lyric felt more truthful for a start, but the song was only a sketch of a synth sequence and strings. “Innocence” was six minutes of pounding drums, doomy church organ, strange noises and a vocal torn between sex and chastity, it seems.

Finally at the end of 1984 Freur issued some new material. CBC were the first to play the new single “The Devil and Darkness” and it sounded light years away from their previous material. It received quite a lot of radio play but didn’t trouble the charts. I finally bought it a few days after Christmas ’84 (also buying “Life’s a scream” by A Certain Ratio and a Casio VL-tone) and this time plumped for the twelve inch and I’m glad I did. Interesting sleeve image for a start – the crazy clothes and hair have gone, replaced by a sort of rustic farmworker look – white shirts, black trousers, short hair, hats. The a-side’s extended mix (by Kevin Whyte – feeds name into discogs, goes ‘oh right fair enough’) extrapolated all the good things from the version I’d heard on the radio and made it even better. But the b-side was wonderful. “Jazz is king (?)” drifts along for seven or eight minutes, building up layer and layer slowly. And finally it sounds like a real band – they’re lightly taking the mickey out of an idea of cool jazz, lots of cymbals counting time, synths being unobtrusive, a piano slowly getting more angular, snippets of speech fragments fed through echo boxes and Karl Hyde singing about an imaginary jazz club scenario where beards look neat and the drummer’s swinging and so on, his voice smeared in echo. It’s quietly hilarious. Towards the end he sings lines from “The In Crowd” in his normal voice, before singing the lines again in a high nasal voice before shouting into the echo chamber “THANK YOU LAMB CHOP!”, then sampled vocal tones join in, the piano gets crazier and the band collapse, you hear members shouting across the studio “Finished”, then a high pitched noise takes over. Very odd but very great. And I honestly can’t imagine a seven inch mix of it working at all.

Early in 1985 Freur recorded a BBC Radio One “In concert” show which I recorded off the radio. It featured six songs – “Doot doot” and “Riders in the night” from their debut, current single “The devil and darkness” and three new songs. This new material sounded wonderful and it’s interesting to note that Karl introduces “AOKO” by saying “By the time you hear this, this will be our new single” because it wasn’t a single at all. Instead in the Spring of ’85 a small advert appeared in Melody Maker promoting a new Freur single “Look in the back for answers”. I never saw this record in any record shops at the time but did buy the seven inch from a second hand record stall in Jacobs Market in Cardiff about a month after that advert – also bought the first Neu! LP that day too, but that’s another story. Never saw a twelve inch of “Look in the back for answers” ever. Were CBS losing interest in Freur? It looked that way – if records aren’t distributed how can they be bought? Another interesting sleeve focusing on Karl’s stomach as he rips his white shirt open as the sun sets. The a-side was perfect pop but the b-side “Hey ho away we go” again was wonderful.

The 84 / 85 material saw a retreat from flamboyant clothes and music into something more streamlined, more natural in a way – it was as if they’d heard “Love on a farm boy’s wages” and thought it was a great idea to base their image and music on that song. “Hey ho away we go” is a paean to hating being unemployed, sung and played in their new rustic style. It’s very minimal – a drum machine, occasional clipped synth chords, not a lot of actual music but this forces you to listen to the words. Karl wants a job, seeing it as a way out for himself and others. He’d shared his gains too – “If I was a working boy I would buy us all a curry so we could all enjoy living on a workman’s wages”. Meanwhile he’s up the dole and down the labour and awaiting his cheque. He’s seen the jobs on offer – the hangman – but would rather a more pleasant job. He’s jealous of other people making money from music too – “I’ve seen the Factory boys, they make money, they make noise…” – surely a dig at New Order? There’s desperation in the dark humour and it’s a fascinating song. At the end the rabble singing along to the chorus all clap and cheer as someone calls time on the revelry.

After that, everything went quiet. No more releases, no new album. An enormous discography book from late ’85 named a second Freur LP as “Get us out of here!” but I never saw a copy either in a shop or listed in Record Collector. At the end of 1985 Freur appeared on a BBC Wales TV music programme performing two new songs live which were rather fabulous and were never recorded (it’s on a Betamax tape in my attic somewhere). Then Freur were no more. Clearly dropped by CBS they renamed themselves Underworld and became an industrial funk outfit signed to Sire Records and they were more successful in Australia and America than the UK, issuing two LPs “Underneath the radar” and “Change the weather” in the late 80s. Then Underworld faded away too never to be heard from again. I picked up the missing twelve inch singles over the years and hoped that one day I’d find that elusive second album.

It’s just after Christmas 1988, a day or so before New Year, and my family are looking around a second hand record shop in Albany Road in Roath, Cardiff. I flick through the vinyl not expecting to find anything interesting and am surprised to find the “Extended Player” twelve inch EP by Godot – a short lived offshoot of OMD and Dalek I Love You. I’ll have that. Keep flicking keep flicking keep flicking WHAT THE HOLY FUCK! Heart racing I pick the LP out of the rack just to make sure I’m not dreaming. It’s a copy of “Get us out of here!” by Freur! I check the inner sleeve and the label, yes it’s on CBS from the Netherlands and it looks immaculate. And it’s three quid. And it’s mine mine MINE! The LP cover continues the dark theme from the singles – Karl is in a desert praying for deliverance at sunset, on the inner sleeve he’s got his shirt open again. The band look mysterious again in their pictures, and there’s a full set of lyrics again.

“Look in the back for answers” is a song of hope for someone who’s luck is failing, breezy and melodic – minimal verses and glorious choruses. But what the hell is the chorus about? “Dressed for preaching fire at the market”? This rustic thing again. Lots of phasing in the middle eight – nice. A good start. “Emeralds and pearls” is a conventional pop rock song with intimations of betrayal and pain – “I am a victim in the laughter in your eyes”. These songs are more personal than on “Doot doot” and more heartfelt too. “Kiss me” hints at more pain too over a bed of sustained vocal samples and tribal drums- love going awry, love and hate together. “AOKO” could well have been a single, it’s as pop as Freur get and perfectly acceptable. “The devil and darkness”… Why wasn’t this a hit? Maybe because the lyric sheet on the sleeve had to explain the words “mummer” and “snickersnee”. (Mummer – hmm… XTC again…). Songs about regrets after a drunken night don’t get vaguer than this – “Praise to the hop and sing to the vine and everybody here was a friend of mine yesterday”.

Side two heads into darker territory. “The piano song” sounds bright and cheery but Karl Hyde is discussing how he wants to be remembered when he dies. “Happiness” is far from happy – more love going wrong, “Happiness is over now you’re leaving” – and it all gets a little bitter during the second verse. Musically it takes the sequenced propulsion of “Riders in the night” into more personal areas. “Endless Groove” is the closest in style to the first album, lots of strange words (and yes Billy The Fish gets a mention) over a nice rhythm and melody – but the chorus music is ominous and dark, especially in its instrumental coda. “This is the way I’d like to live my life” returns from its b-side status and is a better recording – shakers, string synths, deep bass, a bucolic atmosphere of a childhood half remembered – and more verses and ideas jammed into the song. “Bella Donna” closes the LP as it quietly builds up on dread, Hyde sings like he’s about to die, then the whole band burst into a chorus sung in Italian (or mock Italian probably). It rises and falls beautifully. An excellent closer.

Of course I was bound to be kind to this LP – I’d hunted for it for so long, but it really is a lot better than their debut. The songwriting is much improved and more personal, there’s no mention of lizards or hoovers or steam or sex, Freur had finally arrived at their own style of music and it was great. The fact that it was totally out of touch with chart music doesn’t matter, except to whoever signed them to CBS back in ’83 who was probably sacked around the same time Freur were dropped. Of course Freur disappeared and so did Underworld after two LPs. Only they didn’t – Karl Hyde and Rick Smith developed the band into something new and different in the early Nineties and they are now well known purveyors of dance music. Freur get mentioned occasionally, but not in a positive light. There are fans out there and the internet has helped – I bought a CD-r of all their twelve inch mixes and b-sides a few years ago, there’s a complete concert from the Marquee in late ’83 on Youtube (where it turns out “Bella Donna” was performed with cod Italian lyrics – and what the bloody hell are they wearing?) I even found Freur demo tapes and rarities online while researching this piece – the cassette of “Get us out of here” had five bonus songs mostly from the singles but one song which never appeared anywhere else. Cherry Red reissued “Get us out of here” with “Doot doot” on CD back in 2009 but faded out half the songs to fit them onto one disc. And even Karl Hyde himself performed “Doot doot” at a concert in London’s Union Chapel last year. Some people don’t understand Freur – the review for “Get us out of here” on Allmusic is horrendous – but I loved them and still do.

Next time – who knows?

Happy Ever After

Just a little update to mention my latest post over at Toppermost where I wax lyrical about Stockholm Monsters, a wonderful band on Factory Records who didn’t get enough attention then and don’t get enough attention now either. Have a read of my piece, have a listen to the Spotify playlist and see what you think.

In the meantime I’m still working on another post which should be ready by the middle of next week, alongside a sub-post totally unrelated to music which is far from essential reading. Regular followers of mine on Twitter will know the subject of the next post as it’s been all I’ve listened to for most of the last week or so.

Oh and one last plug – the “All unrevealed parts of the unknown” LP by The Sudden Death Of Stars is a great album – very late 60s, sometime garage-y, sometimes psych-pop, sometimes heavy on the sitar, but always tuneful and interesting. Well worth investigating.

Anyway, this isn’t getting the bathroom cleaned…. Have a nice weekend, everybody!

The Last Seaside Resort

(This is the follow-up to “Oh Harpenden so much to answer for”, as it carries on from that period – early 1978 – to some point in 1980 when I leave junior school. Oh and it’s back to my parents’ record collection again)

On the 1st June 1978 the Morgan family left Harpenden for the final time and headed west to our new home in Penarth, a few miles west of Cardiff in South Wales. At the time I thought we were moving because my father’s job was going to Cardiff from St Albans, but that wasn’t the whole story – we were also moving to be closer to our family. We had looked at a few houses around the area before settling on Cherry Close – there was a big house in Whitchurch whose garden was flooded (not a good idea), a very modernist house in Dinas Powis which was all sharp angles and glass and concrete (too radical) and another house in Penarth – a dorma bungalow in Robinswood Close (not big enough for us really). If we’d bought the latter house I would have ended up opposite one of my best friends’ houses – my friend Adrian who would be with me on 30th April ’83 buying “Dazzle ships” and “Doot-doot”. But no, we settled on Cherry Close, a big four bedroom house which was oddly built – it had a garage at either end of the house and two driveways to get there, and a slopping roof which our cats would regularly jump up to and then sit outside my bedroom window miaowing at night. So now we were in Penarth…

Penarth was a sleepy little seaside resort on the South Wales coast with a pier and an esplanade and a beach covered in rocks and pebbles and no sand at all and some rather nice Italian gardens and a horrible 60s monstrosity of a car park and leisure centre at the end of the beach. I say “was” because it isn’t that now. Admittedly I’ve not visited there properly for the best part of 17 years but a few years ago I visited the high street on business and barely recognised it. The Cardiff barrage and the building of Penarth Marina, not to mention the radical transformation of Cardiff Bay a few miles up the coast, have turned Penarth from a sleepy town mainly known for the number of care homes and pensioners in residence into a busy town with all the trappings of wealth. Penarth used to be the retirement home of South Wales. Now it’s a thrusting town with connections. From time to time it will appear on television as well – an episode of the remake of “Upstairs Downstairs” was centred around an affair on Penarth seafront, only it was supposed to be somewhere in Kent. And there’s lots of “Doctor Who” filmed there – but they film that all over South Wales, I watched the first trailer for the comeback being filmed in the tunnel under Newport railway station years ago…. Penarth then is small and posh, geographically and emotionally halfway between Cardiff and Barry.

So we moved to Penarth in June 1978 and my brother and I started another school just over a year after starting at a new school in Harpenden. Evenlode school is still there, about three quarters of a mile from our house, a pleasant walk there and back, a school built in the sixties, all on one level with a large playing field around it. I only have happy memories of Evenlode – although I wasn’t treated like a genius like I had been in Harpenden, the teachers in Penarth recognised if I had a talent and let me run with it. At that time that talent was for story writing, and after I wrote a 19 page story called “The dream”, full of strange dream imagery and disconnections, some of it based on real dreams I had – well after that my teacher let me develop a series of stories based around a multi-national crime solving gang. Only I didn’t know what to call the individuals in the stories so used the exotic names of lower-rank Grand Prix drivers, like the Renault team of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Arnoux. “Nobody will know where I got those from” I thought to myself. A week later, Jabouille won the French GP with Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve famously battling wheel to wheel for second place. The game was up. Sigh. In my final year at Evenlode – 79 to 80 – we were encouraged to write ‘a novel’. Most people gave up, I wrote over three hundred pages – mostly complete nonsense but still in a structured way. I think it ended up with some kind of nuclear apocalypse. Those were the days. I always took these things too far.

Evenlode was a great school and I was happy there, and I still know some of the people I went to school with (hello Mike, if you’re reading this). OK, so there were mishaps and misunderstandings and I did have a fight with Paul Mumford but it was pretty limp wristed – he was the smallest boy in the class, I was one of the tallest, he was trying to assert some kind of authority by picking on a tall speccy kid (see picture at the bottom of the page) and nobody really got hurt and we laughed about it afterwards. We played British Bulldog on the field, I scored a goal at football by walking across the pitch and kicking a ball randomly as I passed by, everybody seemed really happy there. Oh and I learnt rude words from Paul – even if I didn’t know what they meant, they sounded cool. It’s peculiar, the more I think about Evenlode the more I can remember it…. One of our teachers drove a Fiat 126 which was a great novelty… There was a little ‘forest schools’ area with a pond where we nurtured tadpoles into frogs.. My pencil case – yellow plastic from WHSmiths, with two layers, it swung on a hinge at one end (damned if I can find a photo of it anywhere)… Playing board games during the last weeks of term… The first electronic games – Simon and Merlin…The novelty of shatterproof twelve inch rulers, and proving that they weren’t shatterproof at all….

And then there was the main hall
So many memories from there. Sitting in the back row of assembly playing Pocketeer games and hoping nobody would notice. Doing gym in there – climbing bars on the wall, attempting rolls on blue mats, falling and laughing. Singing odd old songs- “Pack up your troubles” and “My old man said follow the van” – in school assembly. Doing exams there, sat at little individual desks, not knowing why we were doing them. We would spend the second week of Wimbledon sat in the main hall watching the matches on TV – I wonder what the teachers were doing!

(As I am married to a primary school teacher, I look back on these years with wonder – I see the planning and assessments that she does, the stress of inspections, and think that the job of teaching has changed so much since then)

So we settled into life in Penarth. There were no shops nearby, except for Sully Terrace Stores about half a mile away. Actually no that’s wrong – there was a shop actually within someone’s house on Forrest Road until around 1980 – their front rooms were full of groceries with a counter and lots of sweets and I was gutted when they closed down. Sully Terrace Stores was a little further away from home and back in the late seventies it was known to us as Mr Teagal’s, as it was run by a lovely old gentleman of that name. We’d stop there on walks into town to get drinks or sweets or both. It was a quaint little place, dark and woody, jars of sweets behind the counter, a wide array of just about anything you could want – an Aladdin’s Cave for a ten year old. I would frequent Sully Terrace Stores for many years to come, and I wonder if it’s still there.

So it’s the late seventies and what music are we listening to? Unsurprisingly there was a lot of Abba to be heard. The C120 tape of Abba was a permanent fixture in the car. It had “Abba’s Greatest Hits” and “Arrival” on one side, then on the reverse “Abba – The Album” and “Voulez-vous”. All fine records with some wonderful songs and some dodgy moments too. I didn’t really think of them going disco with the latter album but something was lost along the way – no room for melancholy like “My love my life”. I suppose the real melancholy would come later for them. I still believe “Arrival” is one of the best pop albums of the seventies, but I wouldn’t say the same for the LPs that followed. By the time the “Super Trouper” LP came out in late 1980 we didn’t buy it, and the first time I heard it was at a Christmas party with all the family in Rhiwbina that year, and it didn’t stay playing long – it didn’t sound like a party record.

My father bought a few LPs during this time – ’78 to ’80 – and I’ll investigate a number of them in depth, but there were a few LPs which were bought but not played in full. “Repeat when necessary” by Dave Edmunds starts well but slowly grows more weary as it progresses – which is probably why only side one of the LP was played, with the occasional play of track one side two. But that one side of music is great. “Girls’ talk” is wonderful. I must admit that I don’t know Elvis Costello’s original version even now, but Edmunds’ cover is surely definitive. Sharp and chiming and a cool key change and those baying backing vocals. (It probably helped that I generated an alternate lyric interspersed with the names of contemporary Grand Prix drivers – “But I heard you mention my name, can’t you talk Niki Lauda?” etc). Side one grinds through swampy rock like “Creature from the black lagoon” and the speedy blast of “Crawling from the wreckage” and even Cliff Richard’s “Dynamite” kicks like a bull. But after “Queen of hearts” at the start of side two the album falters a lot. Of course retrospect would say take the best bits of this LP and the best bits of “Labour of lust” by Nick Lowe and you’d have a killer album. But then Lowe wrote all his material and Edmunds wrote none of his…

Another LP we only heard edited highlights from was “Discovery” by Electric Light Orchestra. There is a very fine review of this LP over at Then Play Long which is worth your time In the meantime we heard the singles from it. “Shine a little love” was a little bit disco, “Confusion” was rather nice, “The diary of Horace Wimp” would be a nice dream in a few years from this point, but best of all was “Don’t bring me down”. It thumped and rocked, it was primal and simple, I absolutely loved it. I also loved the little synth figure that appeared between “Don’t bring me down” and “Gruss”, because it reminded me of a similar sounding figure on “Equinoxe 6”.

There were two compilations of older material which opened a few doors for me. “Legend” by Buddy Holly helped to fill in the gap between Elvis and the Beatles – here was a man and a band writing their own songs and performing them in new and interesting (at the time) ways. Listening to Holly’s music now, it’s remarkably uncomplicated, synthesising its influences (country, western swing, Chuck Berry, pop) into plain speaking songs that still sound fresh and sparklingly clean. It was a forty song tape which was always in the car – until the tape chewed up, as is the way of things. But in the time it spent in the car, that tape wormed its way into my heart. Holly’s songs spoke simply – he avoided metaphor and simile and went straight for the heart. If he had something important to say then he would sing “Listen to me”. If he was overjoyed he would sing “Oh boy!”. I loved that simplicity of communication. My two favourite songs on the compilation were two of the oddest. I didn’t really understand “Midnight Shift” at the time – I probably thought Annie had been working at a bakery overnight – but there’s a minor key atmosphere which is cool. “Well…all right” is incredibly cool and forward looking, the song ebbs and flows beautifully and again is simply sung. I could hear the Beatles in that song. I liked that tape a lot and considered it an education.

The other compilation was “Semi-Detached Suburban”, a TV advertised LP by Manfred Mann. The advert is actually wonderful and I certainly didn’t understand it at the time but I do now – very clever. As for the album, I always preferred side two – the Mike D’abo era – to side one – the Paul Jones era. Nothing wrong with the early stuff, perfectly good R&B with a jazzy touch, but when D’Abo joins there’s a sense of discovery and joy and playfulness within songs like “My name is Jack” and “Fox on the run”. Of course they fell down the bubblegum route and weren’t taken seriously which lead to their splitting up eventually. And it’s worth mentioning that this LP was my introduction to the songs of Bob Dylan – “The mighty Quinn”, “If you gotta go, go now” and “Just like a woman” were intriguing songs, beamed in from another planet that seemed a lot cooler and stranger than Penarth.

So let’s look at three LPs which I associate most with this era.

“Hotel California” – The Eagles

Before I go diving headlong into this LP, let’s clear up a few issues.

Firstly, regular readers with long memories may remember that I don’t like the title track to “Hotel California”. I wrote a paragraph or two here about an incident in school which put me off the song, and since then I’ve always avoided it – leaving pubs and workplaces when it has been played. Indeed I’m sure there have been times the song has been deliberately put on a jukebox to annoy me. So it’s about time I faced the fear and listened to the song, in the context of the whole LP.

Secondly, I was discussing this post with my parents a few days ago and which albums I would be looking at and my father – an avid reader of Goldfish – said he didn’t remember having this LP and preferred their earlier stuff. I do know we had “Their Greatest Hits ; 1971 – 1975” as a tape – bought from Cobs Records in Portmerion in 1976 – but I listened to that LP on Sunday night and didn’t recognise half the songs. Obviously I knew “Take it easy” and “One of these nights” from constant play on Radio Two, but songs like “Witchy woman” and “Peaceful easy feeling” I’d not heard before. Maybe he played the tape in the car when we weren’t around. And as a sidenote “Lyin’ eyes” goes on for about five hours. But I know we listened to “Hotel California” a lot because every note is known to me. Well I think so anyway.

Deep breath – I’m going in…

It’s quite an attractive opening chord sequence, you know. What’s with the swirling synth noise? So far so good. And now it’s gone limp reggae, very clipped. Trying not to think of legs in libraries. Concentrate, Rob. I can see men with beards and double neck guitars. People nodding out. This ain’t so bad. Lyrics are quite clever. I read how Don Henley argued with a journalist who said wine wasn’t a spirit, and completely missed the point. Still limp musically. Oh no, here’s the big reveal – “BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE!”. Guitar solo one. I’m back in that library again. Guitar solo two. Those tom rolls are doing my head in. Here comes the harmony bit. Air guitars out. Fade out sooner than I thought.

Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? No need to run away.

“New kid in town” is limp too. For some reason I keep thinking that little electric piano figure is going to turn into “Knock three times” by Dawn. I’d rather listen to that. This is just a bitter little song about transience in the music business. JD Souther was a bit of a miserable git. This sounds so wimpy though. “Life in the fast lane” is closer to rock. Did nobody use reverb in the seventies? Again clever lyrics if slightly harsh – and I wouldn’t have got half the lyrical references at the time – “There were lines on the mirror” would have bypassed me. Is this a fantasy or a reality for the Eagles? Is this glamorising sex and drugs? It’s ambivalent, I suppose. Oh maybe it’s not, getting to the last verse. But for such a classic rock song it doesn’t really rock that hard. “Wasted time” is a slow ballad, and I’ve not heard this for over 30 years but I know every word. If I thought of this song at all – which I might have done – I always thought it was a Bob Seger song. A big weepie, but they’re not sympathetic at all. This is a tiresome facsimile of passion. Pointless instrumental reprise too.

“Victim of love” is the band live in the studio (instrumentally at least) and at last it sounds like a group of people. But the lyrics are nasty. I really object to these words, they are horrible. Oh hang on – “Victim of love, we’re not so far apart” – is Henley showing sympathy? Not for long. Eurgh. I feel slightly contaminated listening to this – it all sounds like seedy sex and drug parties and bitching and hatred and posing. Very LA really. “Pretty maids all in a row” – that intro is nice. This sounds like Steely Dan. It is also drifting in one ear and out of the other. It doesn’t sound like the Eagles. I’m a sucker for string synths. Pleasant enough then. “Try and love again” is what I would expect of the Eagles – a 70s update of the Byrds. Again quite pleasant, and the words aren’t nasty for a change. Nice “Abbey Road” style arpeggios and descending chords. I really like this one. A hidden gem, I suppose. “The last resort” is a tribute to the Troubabour in LA (according to books I’ve read) and the big statement. It’s also a regular song to be played after “Popmaster”. It’s meant to be important but it drags dreadfully. So people came to California and it wasn’t as great as promised. Big deal. Some people don’t get there at all. What do you want? Sympathy?

For such a well known classic album “Hotel California” is a bit dull. I don’t really like the people they are writing about, there’s no emotional connection with them from me or the singers themselves. A distance which leaves a bad taste. To sum it up in three words – bitter and twisted. I won’t be listening again in a hurry.

“Parallel Lines” – Blondie

Now here’s an album that definitely was part of the family. I had been aware of the hit singles from their previous LP “Plastic Letters” – and remember someone bringing that LP into school. (Why did people bring LPs into school? To show how cool they were obviously. Because it’s not like there were record players there.). I’ll categorically state right here that I was too young to understand the sex appeal of Debbie Harry. I still had Abba posters on my walls of my bedroom but had no idea of what other boys saw in her. Call me a late developer, I suppose. For me it was about the music and I had liked “Denis” and “Presence dear”. I liked the singles from “Parallel lines” too, so was quite happy when my father bought the LP.

It’s another album with specific memories actually. There was a holiday in Guernsey in May 1979 that I may have mentioned already – notable for me getting lost on a military training ground, purchasing a massive 1;15 scale model of a Brabham BT44, buying a ton of the newly launched Lego Space sets and seeing Tubeway Army perform “Are ‘friends’ electric?” on Top of the Pops on my birthday and liking it. Watching it again it may have something to do with the uniform that Gary Numan was wearing looking like the uniform of the Lego Space men and the two intwined in my mind…

And in a record shop I saw my first twelve inch single. It was “Sunday girl” by Blondie. It was on a wall display and I pointed at it and asked my father “Is that a new Blondie album?”. Because in my head albums were twelve inches and singles were seven inches. “No, that’s a twelve inch single” he said and my little mind was blown. I wondered at how exotic a single on twelve inch vinyl would be – would it be different? Longer? Better? It would be another four years before I owned one but I saw a few along the way…

As for the album itself. Er.. The problem is I know it inside out and love it, even the slightly duffer tracks in the middle. Actually “I know but I don’t know” was one of my favourite songs on it when I was growing up. Those squelchy synths, the endless riff, loping drums, the unsureness of the lyrics. Damn it, I’ll have a go but really you should read what Marcello says about it at Then Play Long, a blog that is a thousand times better than mine (someone pay him – and Lena – to write a book please).

(Starts listening to the LP)

I can’t do this justice, you know it’s a great rock pop album, I don’t get how it’s punk. It’s honourable to the antecedents, even the Buddy Holly cover – which obviously made me happy as it was on “Legend”. It’s nice to hear “One way or another” without thinking of One Direction, and did they include the final verse which turns the song on its head? (Do I want to listen to their version and find out? No thanks, I don’t take research that seriously!). I’m amazed by Debbie Harry’s voice – the way she goes from purring to growling so easily. The grain in the voice. “Fade away and radiate” is nicely moody – that intro is pure Saint Etienne, Harry sounding totally like Sarah Cracknell – ok, vice versa. I’d forgotten how much I love this song. No, I’d forgotten how much I love this album. “11;59” is pretty apocalyptic, is that one minute to midnight or midday? Maybe she wants lunch? 😎 God, I don’t care if it’s not that good a song, the energy pushes it along as it does on “Will anything happen?” Great production by Mike Chapman on this LP – not too glossy but clean. I remember years later buying an old copy of “Trouser Press” from early ’78 where there’s a page long article previewing this LP while they’re making it, a report from the studio, how nobody in America knew who Chapman was, how they didn’t know how people would react to their disco song… “Heart of glass” of course. This is the song that really caught me at the time and it still sounds fresh. I could listen to this forever. I knew nothing about disco at the time – music was music, it was in the charts if it was good and then I’d know about it. Such innocence. (I should point out that the first synth I had – a Roland SH3a – was the one used to create the pulsing synthetic bass of this song, I wonder how they synced it to the drum machine). Even “Just go away” is a funny end, a kiss off with a p instead of a k.

One last memory for this LP. Exactly one year on from the day we moved into Cherry Close we held a charity bring and buy sale in our garden and I remember it well. There were tables all over the place, selling bric a brac and sweets and toothpaste and books. My brother and I had a stand selling a few things, one of which was “Parallel Lines” – I don’t think it was my parents’, it was donated to us. I kept telling anyone who looked at it that it was a perfect album and that they should buy it. Eventually someone did. I hope they got as much enjoyment out of the LP as I did.

“Rock’n’roll juvenile” – Cliff Richard

If you have read my remembrances of Harpenden then you’ll know that my parents had a fondness for the music of Cliff Richard. Maybe not the person himself, but the music. Somehow my parents had followed the rest of the world and ignored his “Green light” album, but this LP from autumn 79 was bought almost as soon as it came out and was a staple in our car. The album was a continuation of the “Every face tells a story” LP – mostly written by Terry Britten, produced by Britten, Bruce Welch and Richard himself. And it’s an odd LP.

“Monday thru’ Friday” is harder rocking than anything on “Hotel California”, the chorus is playing against the beat, the guitars are overdriven and rough and Cliff sings in a committed way about the working week, paying his union dues and looking forward to Saturday – as it is “Rock’n’roll time”. There’s even some shockingly high falsetto notes towards the end. A lovely outdated attitude to rock’n’roll already. Is that motorbikes rev-ing at the end? “Doing fine” is bright and breezy and bland, Richard is on a positivity tip – it’s not so much “I’m OK you’re OK” it’s “I’m OK who are you again?”. He doesn’t need politicians giving him blues. Best stick your head in the sand, matey. “Cities may fall” is the first of a number of songs co-written with BA Robertson and is…er..odd. It’s like someone’s listened to “Heroes” and “Are ‘friends’ electric?” and thought it would fit Richard. He sings through a flanger, there’s unearthly synths, drums through harmonisers like “Low”, Bowie style sax.. And the words are even odder. All “no more machinery” and “human zoos”. What the HELL? (Of course this was the song my brother always said I should like – “You like that weird Jean Michel Jarre synth music” – and I suppose I did like this song). Good ending too. “You know that I love you” is clipped, spare and sharp. He loves her, he wants to be with her, and she doesn’t care. Slightly funky, but more memorable for the peculiar drum noises in the chorus and the angular guitar solo. It passes pleasantly. “My luck won’t change” begins dreamily but soon kicks into traditional rock. More positivity (that Christian life’s got him in its sway) but it does nothing for me, except the bizarre atonal piano running through the song’s bridges. The LP’s title track – written by Richard alone – closes side one, rollicking along like pub rock. Richard starts professing to roll over Beethoven then goes Christian again – “I’m a rock’n’roll holy roller, I love to sing about Jesus ‘cos he saved my soul-yeah”. Oh give over. (And I’m a Christian but this sort of thing makes me sick). Then plays on the dream on the guitar making you a star. Shut up, only fools like the Gallaghers believe that crap.

Side two starts with “Sci-fi”, more synths and references to “Close encounters” and “Star wars”. But it’s nonsense – Richard can’t be into UFOs if he’s into Jesus too. These lyrics are hilarious actually. The musical backing is hilarious too, very new-wave nerdy proto-synth pop – I’m sure there’s a vocoder in there somewhere. “Fallin’ in luv'” is a through-back, all doo-wop vocal harmonies and more clipped guitars. “Carrie” is special though, it paces the room in circles and doesn’t spoil things by being too obvious. Is Richard a private eye, or looking for an old girlfriend? Is he a stalker? There’s enough gaps in the lyrics to keep the listener guessing. How does the narrator turn it into the third person on the second verse? Nothing is resolved, nothing is delivered – that cry of “Carrie!” before the sax solo is truly pained. Wonderful. “Hot shot” sounds like more hackwork – there’s a lot of library music which sounds like this – and is rubbish. “Language of love” is hilarious again – Richard trying it on with French and Italian girls and trying to impress them with his language skills, but ends up sounding like Del Trotter. “I’m getting ready for my new vocation – I’m gonna be the man who’ll unite the nations”! But the joie de vivre (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the playing and singing is obvious.

And then at the end, a glimpse of the future.

“We don’t talk any more” wasn’t the most futuristic single of 1979 but it was so different from the run of the mill Cliff Richard canon that it caught everyone’s attention. So many synths on it, hardly any guitar except the occasional guitar solo. And Richard sounds committed to the song, throwing in some high notes and making the words count. A relationship in freefall – always a good subject for me – and Richard really sings his heart out. A hugely deserved number one single, you know. Not bad as a song recorded in a day towards the end of the session – and don’t forget it’s the only song with any help from Alan Tarney, who will go on to far greater things.

This LP – well, tape actually – stayed in the car forever. In fact it transferred from our white Lancia Beta to our Datsun Violet about a month before the Lancia rust bucket story hit the news, so we were lucky to sell that car. The Violet may have been smaller than the Lancia but I loved it, I can still remember the number plate (AWO 300T) and everything…


So, you may ask, how about punk? Didn’t that have any influence on you during the time? Well…er…

First of all I should say that I was ten years old in 1979 so just about too young to really know what was going on, and certainly my father had stopped buying Melody Maker somewhere between Harpenden and Penarth so I wasn’t reading about these things. If it was on the radio or on Top Of The Pops then I knew about it. The Clash? “London Calling” and that’s about it. Buzzcocks? Always in the charts, so I knew them. The Sex Pistols completely passed me by until the very end – I can remember Sid Vicious doing Eddie Cochrane songs appearing on TOTP in early ’79. But one song of theirs did find its way into my life. I have a distinct memory of my friends and myself sitting in the hall with a bunch of year 6 boys a year above me and they passed around a seven inch single of “Something Else”, and them teaching us younger boys the words to the b-side “Friggin’ in the riggin'”. Until the teacher caught us singing “‘Cos there was f*** all else to do”. I also remember the seven inch of “Hit me with your rhythm stick” being handed around specifically for the b-side “There ain’t half been some clever bastards”. Rude words clearly were very funny.

And then there’s The Jam. I first noticed them doing “David Watts” on TOTP, and amazed my brother’s classmates by singing it in the lunch hall the next day. I didn’t know it was a Kinks song – it didn’t appear on “The Golden Hour Of The Kinks” which had been in my parents’ collection for years. The Jam seemed furious about something, there was an urgency in their performances which made them seem really important to pre-teen me. When “Going Underground” went straight into the charts at number one, it felt like a bomb had gone off – that never happened in those days. And even I recognised that the cover of their “Sound Affects” LP was made to look like the BBC Sound Effects LPs that my brother and I borrowed from Penarth library then used as material for our own crazed tapes – snippets of songs, radio broadcasts, records old and new. Some of these tapes are ingrained in my mind – a cross-over from a lick in Paul McCartney’s “Another Day” into a steam train tooting its horn into a Grumbleweeds sketch.

The final months at Evenlode were Spring into Summer 1980. We were the “big frogs” according to our teacher but we’d be “small frogs” when we moved to secondary school and we prepared for this transition by walking there one day, having an assembly and walking back. The first three weeks of May in 1980 were spent on a concentrated course of swimming lessons. Each morning our year 6 class would climb aboard a coach outside the school, drive down to the seafront to the swimming baths and have a morning of lessons there – with Radio One blaring in the background. So many songs from the chart in May 1980 remind me of those lessons – “Geno”, “Talk of the town”, “Coming up”. Don McLean singing “Crying”, “Suicide is painless”. Of course the baths were closed in the mid 80s and turned into a bar (“Inn at the deep end” – sigh). It’s probably flats now.

On our last day at Evenlode, Year 6 gave a presentation on what we wanted to be when we were older. We all stood in a line waiting to act out our dreams. I said “When I grow up I want to be a writer”, swung my scarf meaningfully like some Oxford undergraduate (as suggested by my teacher, it was her scarf) and wrote a few lines in my ‘novel’. Everyone clapped.

A writer! Me! Ha ha ha.

Thanks for indulging me, dear reader. Next time – what happened next, and another journey through the past.

Wouldn’t you miss me?

As ever, I would like to start with an apology. I was hoping that my next blog post would be ready by today but sadly circumstances have conspired against me. It’s half written but not fully formed enough to be published yet. It should be ready by this time next week, so – as my son would say – sorry to keep you waiting.

In the meantime, I have written another post for Toppermost – it is comparatively short by my standards but then it is about an artist who had quite a short career – Syd Barrett. The link to that Toppermost is here.

As I do from time to time, I might as well say what I’ve been listening to recently. You may be interested, or you may not.

Right, let’s get the controversial part over with. I’ve tried to enjoy Aphex Twin’s music for over twenty years now and I didn’t ‘get it’ then and I still don’t ‘get it’ now. His new album “Syro” sounds much like everything else I’ve ever heard by him. It squelches and squeals, drum machines thump out, there’s some melody and some deliberately dissonant music. And it leaves me stone cold. Everyone else has been in raptures about the new LP and I feel like I’m the only person who isn’t enjoying it. Somewhere out there is an Aphex Twin piece of music which will unlock the music for me – a way into his world. I wonder if I’ll ever find it.

On the other hand, a new LP I’ve found very easy to enjoy has been “Commonwealth” by Sloan. I’m a comparative newcomer to the Canadian band – it was Marcello Carlin’s praise for “Never hear the end of it” at the end of 2006 that intrigued me enough to invest in a copy, and I loved that album – it sounded like a seventy minute radio show playing the best power pop in the world. I worked around Sloan’s other LPs and found some better than others (“Twice Removed” is an unheralded – in the UK – classic) and as I explored I started to recognise traits within the four members’ songs, and often found myself preferring drummer Andrew Scott’s songs – “People of the sky” = genius. So for the new LP Sloan took a different tack – each of the four songwriters were given a side of the LP to create a suite of songs. All four rose to the challenge – each side works as a whole, the songs play off each other and the final side – a seventeen minute suite by Scott entitled “Forty-Eight Portraits” – is magnificent. Starting like a section of Sudden Sway’s “Spacemate” – pots and pans percussion, atonal piano – it builds through numerous snippets of riffs and melodies, a modern equivalent of the “Abbey Road” medley. And it sounds so effortless and right. The final five minutes are absolutely stunning – Scott’s children singing, heartwrenching lyrics, heartstopping chord changes, and a closing homage to the coda of “I want you (she’s so heavy)”. Well it makes me cry anyway.

Those other melodic Canadians The Autumn Stones continued their run of great singles with “In with the out crowd”, issued a few months ago and it got lodged happily in my mind for most of the summer. If “End of faith” channelled Psychedelic Furs through a Wild Swans filter, the new single is influenced by prime “Unisex” era Blueboy and the Monochrome Set, but with its own distinctive sound (those horns again – quite Bowie-esque). Well worth a listen, and definitely a band worth watching out for. And if you think I’m being soft on the Autumn Stones, I must admit their recent singles are a huge leap forward from their debut album which was a bit weak and obvious.

While praising Canadians… Another recent discovery is “Set yourself on fire” by Stars, which was issued around 2005 I think. A few weeks ago Josh Meadows played “Reunion” on his excellent radio show “It’s a jangle out there” and I remembered that I should have bought the LP when it came out. I’ve played it a few times since and it’s lovely orch-pop with words which cut to the quick about relationships, ageing and love. Quite wonderful. I’ll enjoy exploring their other albums too.

Enough Canadians (sorry Canada)

Other music of the summer? Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener” has bounced around my head a lot, the FKA Twigs LP is intriguing, and I’ve been working my way through a collection of Steve Reich’s works (it’s good housework music), and keep getting stuck on “Piano Phase” and “Drumming”. But I still prefer “A rainbow in curved air”….

Anyway, that’s enough for now. I promise there will be a proper blog entry by this time next week featuring fast lanes, semi-detached suburbans and other memories conjured by my parents’ record collection.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

Everyone loves to argue over a top ten list – whether it be music or films or books or people or sweets (hmm, top ten sweets…. Now there’s a thought). If you like musical top tens then Toppermost is the website to check out. There’s over 350 articles there about different artists with a top ten songs included. The only reason I mention this now is because I’ve written a few articles there and I thought it might be a nice idea if I collated them all in one place on Goldfish. (Admittedly this isn’t an original idea – I’ll credit The Riverboat Captain for inspiring me to do this). My latest article is about The Smiths, a band I’ve been reluctant to write about before. It’s very much in the Goldfish style of writing, give or take a cough or two 😎 If you like me talking about music and girls and that kind of thing It might be worth a few minutes looking over it. In the meantime here’s some Toppermosts I prepared earlier.

The Kingsbury Manx

The Attack

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark



The Orchids

The Durutti Column

Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Half Man Half Biscuit (written with Rick J Leach)

Teenage Fanclub (written with Keith Shackleton aka the Riverboat Captain)

The Smiths

Please have a look at the other articles at the Toppermost website – I’m sure you will find something interesting whatever your taste in music (unless Gregorian chants are your thing, in which case sorry)

Next time – Promises promises

Twelve Hours Of Blues

The process of applying for further education was far simpler in my day – the mid to late eighties. These days it seems very complicated, AS Levels before A Levels and lots of calculations based on projected results and whatnot. In my day – sorry, I sound like an old Daily Mail reading fuddy-duddy – you sent applications to UCCA and PCAS after picking five unis and polys, your choices based on what your teachers thought you might achieve at A level, and you would go for an interview and sit your exams and hope for the best. I wanted a degree in computing and the best places for that were up north, which was lucky because that was where I wanted to be. Yes I had interviews for Bath University (very odd place, like a 60s dream of a university – all concrete walkways and harsh buildings) and the Poly of Wales (where the interviewer was more interested in my visual impairments than me) but the other places on my forms would require a few hours’ train journey to get there – Salford Uni, Sheffield Poly.

But the first open day and interview I was invited to attend was at Liverpool University on 9th February ’87. I was nervous as hell – it was alright for my brother to head off to interviews in Hull by train, he was a trainspotter, he was always jumping on trains to go around the country. For me this was a big adventure, all on my own. My brother’s huge nationwide timetable book came in handy – we worked out that to reach Liverpool by lunchtime I would have to set off from Cardiff Central around 6;30am. Tickets were bought, sandwiches packed, fresh batteries put in the walkman, tapes of Liverpool music were compiled. I was ready to go.

Once my father had dropped me off at Cardiff Central station I was on my own. I changed trains at Birmingham New Street and was amazed at the station, it looked so shiny and modern compared to the grimy Cardiff station I knew. (The best that could be said of Cardiff Central was that its proximity to Brains Brewery meant that it smelt of malt and barley most mornings – it was like walking into a cloud of Horlicks). As it was a Wednesday I dutifully bought the music papers as something to do on the journey, then caught my next train to Crewe. This was an old fashioned train with compartments in the carriages, and I had my compartment all to myself so stretched out, ate my lunch, read the papers, then changed again at Crewe. Crewe station was like a junction for everywhere, just miles of track all around. Caught my final train – a shabby old multiple unit which got me to Liverpool around half past eleven.

Ah Liverpool. Home of the Beatles, OMD, the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and lots more. And I was there, treading the same pavement as my musical heroes. The harsh winter sunlight blinded me as I walked out of Lime Street station, looked at St George’s Hall across the road and decided not to waste any time and head to the Uni. It was a good mile or so to walk there but I found it easily. Once there I was amongst a group of about forty teenagers, mostly looking as bewildered as me. We were led into a lecture theatre, given a talk about the course, had a guided tour of the faculty and facilities (in my diary I noted “Using a Mac to sequence a DX7 playing ‘Money for nothing’ – nobody uses Apples, do they?” – ha ha ha), then an interview which I cannot remember at all, then a walk back to Lime Street, just as rush hour was starting to fill the streets. I was absolutely starving by this point so ate a Casey Jones burger from a franchise at the station and regretted it – it was vile.

Then the long journey home. Even more changes this time – Crewe, Birmingham and my first visit to the joyless soul-free hell that is Bristol Parkway train station. I watched the sun go down over the strange post-industrial terrain between Liverpool and Crewe. I remember running for a train at New Street and missing it by seconds. I remember frantic calls to my parents from a payphone in Birmingham saying I’d be late. And I remember finally reaching home around 10pm – my father picked me up from Cardiff again – and telling my parents all about it, and feeling an odd swaying motion in my body from all the train travel.

And before I went to bed my father said “Oh, almost forgot – this tape came for you from Gema Records…”. It was the second album by Dalek I Love You.

The last time I wrote about DILY was in the context of the summer of ’86 and their debut album, the minimal psychedelic electro pop of “Compass Kumpas”. It’s worth expanding a little bit on what happened between that LP in 1980 and the DILY LP which was released towards the end of 1983. After “Compass Kumpas”, the main creative duo within Dalek fell apart – Dave Hughes left to help out OMD and Alan Gill took his guitar to the Teardrop Explodes. By 1981 Gill had left the Teardrops and was using the Dalek name again for a wonderful one off single “Heartbeat” / “Astronauts have landed on the moon”. Also in 1981 Hughes left OMD to work on a new synthpop band Godot with vocalist Keith Hartley and saxophonist Martin Cooper from OMD. Godot issued a rather wonderful EP called “Extended Player” which develops nicely from Dalek, but Cooper returned to OMD, Hartley was poached by Gill to sing in a new lineup of Dalek and Hughes went off to do film music. Complicated? Yes. So Dalek was now Gill and Hartley and two more vocalists – Gordon Hom and Kenny Peers. They moved from Back Door – a subsidiary of Phonogram – to Korova – a subsidiary of Warners – and issued a few singles in ’82 and ’83, bright shiny electropop with lots of female backing vocals. None of them were hits, but still the album was issued anyway. I remember reading a review of it in the free monthly music paper given away by HMV at the end of 1983, but I never saw a copy until now. I lay on my bed, headphones on, still feeling woozy from the train travels and pressed play.

Holiday in Disneyland” starts with a fade of a bells chiming before a harmonica then a voice sings “Let’s think of life together, let’s have a rollercoaster” and the song starts – funk bass, drum machines banging, lots of electronic claps, strange guitar, lots of female backing vocals and already this sounds very different to “Compass Kumpas” – this is the difference three years in the early 80s makes, a richer sound palette. There’s some really evocative yet odd words. “Let’s kill some time together because this time is killing us” before the female chorus coo “Our holiday in Disneyland”. Then the vocal gets impassioned – “Don’t want to be a ghost, don’t want to go to heaven… And when I DIE I don’t want God to find me”. Troubled words and thoughts. Yet the music rolls relentlessly on, gets a bit dubby – instruments drop in and out, sounds echo into the distance and Gill adds his distinctive guitar. “Horrorscope” is breezy electro pop, verses of bland statements from horoscopes and predictions, but the choruses are the voices of people planning a robbery – “In the back, John, balaclava on…”. Eventually the two strands meet up – “July’s ideal for planning a crime if you believe the stars…”. “Health and happiness” is all tension and dread – a list of things to relax – “Soak yourself in a perfumed bath, cigarette – smoke and steam” – but behind the languid vocal there’s a second near-hysterical vocal singing the same words in the background. “Majorca or Benidorm? Mantovani, Manilow or me?”. “The mouse that roared” is a jolly romp of barrelhouse piano, massed kazoos and words that I still can’t decipher – but certainly the chorus of “I never ever thought it ever could happen here” is plain enough. Anything to do with the film or the book? Who knows? “Dad on fire” is just as odd, dipping into distant dubby echoes for minimal verses before full pelt choruses. No idea on this one, but it doesn’t sound happy and there’s lot of snarling too. “Ambition” is typical 1983 pop – like a cheap knock-off of “Relax” if anything, but with a kick. The lyrics deal with what’s happening to Liverpool at the time, the desire to break free, be famous, have money. If it was sung by Londoners it would be horrible, but you can tell there’s a tongue in a cheek somewhere – even alluding to riots – “We are so opposed to people breaking windows, getting things that only money can buy”. (Don’t forget that the roots of DILY were in a band called Radio Blank who only existed once they had stolen a load of gear from another local band Pegasus – who would include the nucleus of OMD). All the cheers of “Everybody loves a winner” sound hollow, and the speech samples sound like soundbites from “Countdown”. End of side one. Turn tape over.

Lust” breezes in on a relentless drum machine, acoustic guitars and pulsing synths and finally Alan Gill sings! Throughout side one vocal duties have been split between the other Daleks (oh I love that sentence) and now Gill sings again. The lyrics are wonderful, viewpoints on love and lust – “From the friendly smiles that are prepared each morning, is this friendship is this lust…” Oh yes I knew that feeling. Even with the oh so 80s Gary Barnacle adding sax it still sounds good and again goes all dubby at the end. “Twelve hours of blues” is just as good, and sounds like a real band – there’s Barnacle again and Drummie Zeb on drums and there’s real piano, and Gill sounds exhausted and at the end of his tether – “So tired of this corner, got to think of something new”. It grooves along for five or so minutes, Barnacle let’s his sax squeal, there’s lots of space for the female vocals to sigh, it’s slight melancholy remains unresolved. “Sons of Sahara” is a desert fantasy, and not as interesting as it thinks. And finally – there’s always an ‘and finally’…

Africa Express” fades in on distant hiss of steam, then a peal of electronic sitars (as used on “Hyperborea” by Tangerine Dream, it’s a PPG Waveterm preset) before a Trans African Express heads off. Synths twinkle in unison, sitars chime, and multiple Gills sings in harmony. “Sold all my instruments except the ones that are made of wood…Burned all my documents and every thing that was proof of my existence here – the simple life is calling me”. Almost all the previous songs have dealt in urban troubles – trying to relax, trying to succeed, trying to find love, trying to find comfort in belief, trying trying trying. Finally here is an escape route, leaving Liverpool behind, leaving the rat race. “Forget about the new ice age and the bonds that restrict… No-one knew who I was when I climbed down from the train…”. Er, Alan I hate to tell you but they probably didn’t know who you were in London either. But by the by – the music chugs along beautifully, building and taking away, surging on for seven minutes, Gill adds some characteristic psychedelic guitar fills, there’s no female backing vocals at all getting in the way, at last this is pure Dalek I Love You music. (In an interview conducted for the sleevenotes on the 2007 reissue of this LP Gill claims that “Sons of Sahara” and “Africa Express” were the only songs he was truly happy with). And in my journey addled mind that late night in February 1987 it made perfect sense – the rhythm of the song matched the rhythm still swaying inside my body from the train.

Nobody really cared for “Dalek I Love You”. It wasn’t a hit album, there were no hit singles, I’m not sure if the band played any gigs to support it. The style of music was slightly out of step by the time of release – nobody wanted Liverpudlian electronic pop. There was a huge difference between the primitive drum machines and mono synths of “Compass Kumpas” to this hyper-sheen of a record, but still charm and humour there. I was amazed to see the 2007 reissue (again on Korova, who also issued the two Wild Swans LPs as a double CD) especially as it had lots of bonus tracks – including “Masks and licences” and “Heaven was bought for me“, b-sides of “Holiday in Disneyland” and more primitive than the gloss of the LP. I’d treasured these singles for years, I was glad to see them on CD but due to Warners falling apart not long after that the Korova reissues soon disappeared from the racks. “Dalek I Love You” is little more than a curio – a high gloss electropop LP which screams 1983 through every fibre of its body – it’s pre-MIDI pre-Fairlight pre-DX7 and that makes it a fascinating listen. And there’s some great music too.

Of course, I never ended up in Liverpool but I’ve told that story before. Everybody loves a winner…

Next time – Please please please let me get what I want this time

An Earlier Autumn

It’s too late to say September’s not so far away, it’s already here.
The children are back in school, the nights are drawing in, but it’s still warm enough to sit outside and watch the sunset turn the light clouds pink then red then black. Autumn doesn’t have to be about Strictly or the X Factor, it can be your own memories, your own lives, your own musics

I love Autumn. There’s a lot of memories associated with this time of year – and I’ve spoken about them at length in various posts. Now that I think I’ve worked out these new-fangled Spotify playlists I thought it might be an idea to try an autumnal playlist. I hope it works and I hope you enjoy it. I’ve discussed some of these songs specifically but not all of them. Maybe it’s a bit obvious – not enough variety perhaps – but these are all songs for Autumn for me.

Next time – what I said last time. Though there may be a Toppermost or two along the way too.

Debut Albums #36 – #40

At last the end is nigh. The final five albums from my debut album list. Yes I know it’s forty not fifty, I can’t count. Sorry. Anyway, let’s press on, I’m sure you’ve been on the edge of your seats waiting…

“The United States Of America” – The United States Of America

I’m not old enough to remember “The Rock Machine Turns You On”, the first cheaply priced sampler album issued by CBS in 1968. Well I’m not old enough to remember it at the time, but at some point around 1982 a copy of the LP somehow ended up in my brother’s record collection. I think my mother found it for him in a charity shop where she worked and thought he might be interested in it. He may not have been that interested at the time, but looking back on the track listing the LP does hold pointers to music that both he and I would end up listening to later on in our lives. It’s a very 1968 album, and a very CBS ’68 album – there’s Dylan in John Wesley Harding mode, Simon and Garfunkel doing “Scarborough Fair”, Al Kooper gets in there with Blood Sweat and Tears, the Byrds drop by for the oceanic “Dolphin’s smile”, “Time of the season” before it became a hit… But there’s oddities too, and looking back suddenly a few songs make sense. As in “So that’s why I recognised ‘Can’t be so bad’ and ‘Sisters of mercy’ and ‘Turn on a friend’ when I heard them…”. I don’t think my brother played the album many times, but even back in the early 80s I remembered that ridiculous song with clanging noises and screeching violin about a wooden wife. That kind of song you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jump to the late 90s – ’97 or thereabouts – and I spot “The United States Of America” on LP and CD in Diverse Records I examine the sleeve on the LP, it looks a very ’68 CBS LP sleeve – all the lyrics on the back in the same manner as “Bookends”, but I pick up the CD instead. I suppose my interest had been piqued by “Love song for the dead Che”, the debut single by Northern Picture Library back in October ’93 which was a cover version of a song from this LP. I didn’t know much more about the band but I was going through a phase of listening to as much odd music issued by CBS in 1968 and this fitted that bill perfectly.

The United States Of America were the brainchild of Joseph Byrd, an attempt to bring radical ideas – political satire, electronic instrumentation, avant-garde experimentation – into mainstream music. It all must have sounded very revolutionary when it was released in early 1968, but then revolution was in the air that year – everyone thought it would happen sooner or later. I’m not going into the socio-political side of things here – there’s been enough books about that over the years and I’ve read quite a few of them – but purely in musical terms, this album was its own revolution. There were no electric guitars at all, just bass guitar, drums, electric violin and a range of primitive synthesisers and effects – ring modulators, oscillators and more. And then there was Dorothy Moskowitz as lead singer, her voice alternately soft and harsh – a counterpart to Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane.

The opening of “The American metaphysical circus” wasn’t inspiring – a collage calliopes and barrel organs and marching bands for almost a minute, then creeping into the sound picture is a strange unearthly noise like a buzzing bee, then the song starts – slow and careful, bass and drums and keyboards and vocals while in the distance peculiar noises echo. And with each verse’s pass, the female vocal – so calm and serene – changes, different effects each time it’s clearly an homage to “Being for the benefit of Mr Kite”, yet is far more sinister – the chorus runs “And the price is right, the cost of one admission is your mind”. And as the music rises, the words get submerged into the rising clanging of the electronics. Finally the song collapses back into fairground music. Very odd. “Hard coming love” starts like a typical late 60s US psych raver – blaring keyboards, pulsing rhythm section, a lead guitar seemingly searing through the song. Only it’s a distorted keyboard, and after a minute it all drops down to quietitude – Moskowitz is alluring, talking about love but meaning something else – the song stops and the synths rise to the occasion, so to speak. Dirty and hard. “Cloud song” is a gentle drum-free drift, as befitting such a title – it sounds very sixties but decidedly modern too. “The garden of earthly delights” is more hip 60s groove music, the lyrics full of drug references or war references – so many mushrooms! And the song is smothered in those typical ‘let’s see what a synth can do’ noises, but it’s fabulous psych rock and the lyrics could almost predict the rave generation – “dancing by night dying by day”. To close the side is “I won’t leave my wooden wife for you, Sugar” – all clangs, fuzz bass and satire. “You make me feel twenty five again” sings Byrd and you really don’t believe him. A glimpse of a typically perfect American family life.

Side two begins with chanting in Latin before “Where is yesterday?” kicks off, with queasy sliding strings and gentle descending music and lots of echoing vocals. Unease again – “Shadows on the pavement but no bodies do you find”. It passes the time until “Coming down” kicks the door down. This is more prime psych rock – fuzz bass, charging drums, frantic tambourine, odd synth noises and a perfect drug lyric, full of what now sound like cliches but probably sounded really clever at the time – “Reality is only temporary”, “A trip that doesn’t need a ticket or a bed”. As it dies away in an explosion, “Love song for the dead Che” fades in gently, swooning strings and keyboards and a strange lyric which is heartfelt and gentle. “Stranded in time” always annoyed me, the staccato strings were very “Eleanor Rigby” but are out-of-phase so sound HORRIBLE (this is producer David Rubinson’s fault, it’s an effect he used all over Moby Grape’s debut LP for those unearthly harmonies – and if you’re thinking “What about Moby Grape’s debut?” Well we’ll get to that at another point soon enough), and the song veers from the string quartet to waltz time rock band back and forth while being another critique of straight society… “The American way of love” starts as another conventional song (unless you listen to the sordid lyrics) before rocketing into some strange areas, electric violins through fuzzboxes, space noises, discordant strings then a second section about “California good time music”, sunshine pop with a pervy twist, finally into a grinding section where all manner of craziness comes in – sections from the previous nine songs are spun in as found sounds and collaged into a daydream nightmare as the whole album replays before your ears before a loop of “How much fun it’s been” repeats endlessly. It’s a bit “Revolution 9” and a bit like “Track for speedy freaks” which closes Blossom Toes’ debut LP which crams their entire LP into one minute of confusion.

And that’s the end of the album and effectively the end of the band. Byrd made a second album under the name Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, confusingly titled “The American Metaphysical Circus” before heading back to academia. Moskowitz moved over to join Country Joe and the Fish and well the revolution never happened and the revolutionaries certainly weren’t on Columbia.

But.. This LP turned out to be more influential than a lot of other albums of the era. The mix of rock instrumentation with electronics was highly innovative and set the groundwork for any number of bands who integrated the two together. It was odd hearing the LP in ’97 because it sounded quite up to date, the influence upon Stereolab and Broadcast was obvious. And Portishead too (thanks Marcello). It’s now regarded as a forward looking classic and that’s the way it should be. Get past the dated lyrics and it’s a total blast.

“Bringing home the ashes” – The Wild Swans

In the mid 80s the Wild Swans were spoken about as if they were a magical dream, a mirage which briefly appeared, made a perfect record then disappeared again. As soon as I read Mark Cooper’s “Liverpool Explodes!” book which mentioned them, I knew I had to hear their one single. In late ’85 I was lucky enough to buy a bootleg tape of “To the shores of Lake Placid”, the Zoo Records compilation, which the kind bootlegger had added both sides of the Wild Swans’ single at the end of the tape. “Revolutionary Spirit” and “God forbid” were as special as I had hoped. A year later I found a copy of the single in a secondhand store for only £2 and snapped it up immediately. Then in the Autumn of ’86, Strange Fruit Records issued their first batch of Peel Session 12 inch EPs – including the Wild Swans’ session from June ’82. I didn’t buy it then but found the cassette of it (in a bizarre plastic case…it seems the cassette version is quite rare, it’s not mentioned on in a bargain bin in Virgin in Sheffield in early ’88, and if I remember correctly I bought it alongside an Editions EG label compilation from 1981 and “Arrival” by Abba, all for 99p each. That Wild Swans session always reminds me of Spring in Sheffield, the sun starting to warm up the mornings, getting drunk and sleeping on floors on the wrong side of town, then bleary bus rides into the city centre for lectures.

One of the unexpected side-effects of the Peel session being issued was that the Wild Swans reformed, made a new album and played some gigs. When I found that they were playing Sheffield Poly (as support act for the Mightly Lemon Drops) I was ecstatic and quickly snapped up tickets. Sadly on the night the sound was typical support band mush, all midrange noise and not a lot else. I recognised their current single “Young Manhood” as the set opener, and “Revolutionary Spirit” was the closer but the rest was just noise. And they completely ignored Simon and me down the front shouting “No bleeding” at them. And the Mighty Lemon Drops were shit too. Anyway, I finally bought the LP “Bringing home the ashes” when I found a copy (it was a bit hard to find for some reason) and played it a lot, not just because I liked it but because…


Because it’s a bit bloody bland. It took me a lot of listening to identify which songs were which. It’s a very late 80s production job. Lots of big drums, the latest keyboard sounds (which now date it horribly), but the real problem is the lack of dynamics. The music is great, absolutely wonderful – but there’s no lift for the choruses, nothing to make the listener sit up and take notice which makes the album sound homogenous, safe and uninteresting. Which is a shame as the songs deserve better.

“Young manhood” was their ‘comeback’ single and works well as a statement of intent for the LP, a bit of a Northern Soul stomper,a list of things Paul Simpson doesn’t believe in, while the guitars chime – nice one note guitar solo. But it refuses to soar. “Bible dreams” is more remembrance of friendships and lives changed, but already the problem of the album is evident – there’s not enough variety within the songs, all spritely and brisk but nothing to distinguish them from each other. “Bitterness” and “Archangels” could be the same song – great background driving music I suppose. These songs deserve better, so much better. God I feel bad about this LP, I wish it was better. “Northern England” is slower, slightly. There’s too many simple chord changes from C to F and the like, not enough surprise. Side two just carries on like side one too. Great songs all – “Whirlpool heart”, “Mythical beast” – but ruined by the production. I should point out that Simpson’s croon is perfect and his lyrics are wonderful depictions of growing up and facing adulthood. But I so want the fog to lift off these songs. For something different to happen.

Finally it does.

The closing track is called “The worst year of my life”. It’s slower, it’s based around a drum machine and high chiming guitars. And it’s different, beautiful, honest and a little bit scary because it could be me. If any song touched a nerve with me, it was this one. “There’s no golden future, just an open wound there”. God that hurt.

(I’ve only just realised the drum machine pattern is the same as “Bluerings” by Microdisney, also recorded and released around the same time Make of that what you will)

After this LP, the Wild Swans ceased to exist as a functioning band, Simpson made a second LP under the name with various Liverpool legends like Ian Broudie, Chris Sharrock and Ian McNabb, but the bizarre bubblegum pop never got issued here and then Simpson retreated into Skylab. And that was that. The essential Wild Swans can be found on the “Incandescent” compilation of their 81 – 82 material. “Bringing home the ashes” could be so much better. An opportunity wasted. Shame.

“Uh! Tears Baby (A Trash Icon)” – Win

As I write this in the first week of September, there is a lot of attention on my home town of Newport. By the end of this week 150 world leaders will be attending the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Hotel. That means David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and all the rest of them will be here in my home town. Well…Kind of… The Celtic Manor was previously best known for being the venue of the Ryder Cup in 2010, when the world’s golf loving celebrities all turned up here. And it was odd hearing stories of Will Smith and his family eating in the Harvester on Malpas Road and that kind of thing. But this summit is very different to that. These are powerful people so the security is high – there’s police from all over the country in attendance, there’s ten foot high security fencing around the hotel and other buildings and there have been police helicopters flying over Newport day and night. But the security fencing is mainly around Cardiff – the capital city ten miles down the M4 where some meetings and meals are taking place – and has been causing traffic chaos for weeks as it has been deployed and this has caused some confusion in the media. From CNN and BBC to the Guardian, the media is under the impression that it’s taking place in Cardiff and it isn’t. Fair play to Newportians from Mayor Matthew Evans (never thought I’d mention him on Goldfish, hi there…) to members of GLC, they’ve done their best to promote Newport as the venue. But still Cardiff gets the security which leads to the thought that the world leaders won’t be setting foot inside the city itself, only seeing the hotel and little else. Actually no, it turns out that since I wrote this Obama and Cameron are going to visit a school ‘in Wales’ (it’s all they’re saying for now) on Thursday morning. I’d rather have the school inspectors in… Anyway, all this activity comes at a time when Cameron boosts (if that’s the right word) the country’s threat level to severe, implying that a terrorist attack is imminent. While everyone’s in my hometown. Great. I only mention this because I was listening to “Uh! Tears Baby” by Win last night and it struck me that while the music is dated the lyrics are still pertinent and relevant. But we’ll get to that soon enough…

Win are now seen as a footnote in Davey Henderson’s biography – a gap between the Fire Engines and Nectarine Number Nine – but at the time they felt like a big deal. I first came across them playing “You got the power” on “The Tube” in the autumn of 1985 and loved the song. It also turned up in an advert for McEwans lager around the same time (thanks again Marcello). I didn’t buy the single until it was reissued in 1986 in a double 12 inch with their previous single “Unamerican broadcasting”, both on Swamplands Records, the label set up by Alan Horne after Postcard, and home to James King, Memphis and Paul Quinn. “You got the power” had quite a provocative sleeve – a baby holding a Cadburys Flake with a blue background. Hmm….nevermind. Anyway, there were more singles and finally the album “Uh! Tears Baby” was issued in 1987 on London Records who had taken over Swamplands.

And much success was expected. Only it didn’t happen. Already by 1987 Simon Reynolds was mentioning Win as failures in one of the essays later collected in “Blissed Out” – “Win lost!” he stated. They were entryists, trying to subvert from within the pop system, but by not having an entry into the charts they had already failed, according to Reynolds. Was that really the case?

The album opens with a bright blast of guitar before the jogging rhythm of “Super popoid groove” starts. A massed chorus sing the – ahem – chorus “What I want is a super popoid groove, it’s the type of sort of thing that just makes you want to move”. Awkward already. The song was originally a ‘slagging’ of Duran and Spandau but became a celebration of the tackiness of great pop – “chewing gum for the ears, a dashing young valium to soften the fears”. It bounces along nicely, and reached a heady number 63 in the charts. “Shampoo tears” is another bright (failed) single and indicates that the world is cruel and there’s no protection from a high rate of infection… Is Henderson talking about something else here? (Yes). Back in the mid 80s the biggest threat to life was either heroin or AIDS, and Henderson knew a lot about the former – there was a lot of it in Scotland at the time. (By the way I feel like an imposter writing this by the way, this is a very Scottish record and I’m Welsh so can’t quite pick up the nuances but I’ll do my best. Apologies to Scots reading this). “Binding love spell” is about..well.. Love I suppose. “Un-American broadcasting” is a more polished rerecording of their debut single, and the sharp funk edges have been smoothed away, and the Speak and Spell games make less sense too. But lyrically the anti-American sentiment is still strong. “Turn your ABC into any language…turn your ABC into propaganda…”. “Hollywood Baby Too” is a bit of a glam stomper – there’s definitely a bit of “All the young dudes” in there – but lyrically dismisses the Hollywood dream factory. “Empty holsters” is slower and deeper, taking pot shots at America in general and gun culture. (I could be wrong about all of this, mind) but comes across like T’Pau while Carol Decker pops outside for a quick ciggie break.

“You got the power” is bright and brash but hides a powerful message – “You got the power to generate fear, you got the power to censor what is real…”. Is that the media, or the government? That such a song sneaked onto TV through an advert for lager must have amused Henderson. “Charms of powerful trouble” is Prince doing Bolan, and feels troubled itself – those vocal chants are unsettling – “Just one thing I don’t want to dream of – J Edgar Hoover and his poisoned doves”??? “It may be a beautiful sky tonight but it’s only a shelter from a world at risk” is little more than the title but is as uneasy in its skin as the previous song. A brief vocal reprise of “Charms” leads to the final song “Baby Cutting”. Big tribal drums and more unease musically and Henderson whispering threats, half the time inaudible but very scary – all the unease in the previous songs is unleashed here. “Like a baby cutting the heads off flowers, here she comes…”. Do they mean Maggie? “She will double your money…”. Of course this was the era of privatisation of British Gas, she oversaw all that…

I played the album a lot when I bought it in late ’87 and though I didn’t understand it much (and I don’t now – see previous paragraph) I felt it was a special record. There were important thoughts hidden in the music which was typically mid 80s – brash, bright, shiny… (A quote from a Japanese website on this album says it all – “The debut, Uh! Tears Baby (A Trash Icon), featured danceable rhythms, sunny vocal harmonies, glossy synths. This record actually grooved”). But people didn’t get it. I lent a tape of it to a friend in Sheffield and he said it sounded like Wham! and dismissed it. Win would move to Virgin Records, create another bubblegum pop gem in “Freaky Trigger”, still have no hits, play one of the shortest shows I saw at the Leadmill (after five songs Henderson apologised that all their machines had broken down and the band left the stage, never to return) and that was Win’s career over and done. I lent my CD of “Uh! Tears Baby” to a friend in college in ’91 and never saw it again, a decision I would regret when the CD started selling for silly money on Ebay. But I did find another copy a few years back in a charity shop and listening to it was like getting reacquainted with an old friend – quite tearful in places.

Does the LP relate to NATO? No not really. But it’s only a shelter for a world at risk.

“Neil Young” – Neil Young

I would expect that most readers of Goldfish know who Neil Young is. Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby Stills Nash and Young… But back in 1993 I didn’t know that much – they were just names, I didn’t know the music. That changed when I borrowed “Decade” from Cardiff library. I taped it without listening to it and the next morning my father drove me to work from Penarth to Newport as he was on his way to Swindon. The tape started playing and we were both gobsmacked as great song followed great song. Admittedly we both got confused when “Broken arrow” started with a pisstake of “Mr Soul” which we’d only just heard. But where had all this music been all our lives? I started picking up Neil Young LPs that year and found a few favourites along the way – my personal favourites were “Zuma” and “After the goldrush” and I really didn’t take to “Harvest” at all. I think my brother discovered Young’s music around the same time, so we all ended up swapping favourites and hunting for bootlegs… Actually there’s a funny story there… A certain record shop was selling the 4 CD “Rock’n’roll Cowboy” set and my father went in there to buy it and they refused to sell it to him, thinking this middle aged bearded gentleman in a suit was a plant to catch them selling boots. He told me about this and as I was known to the staff as a regular customer I went in there the next day and asked for the same set, bought it and explained that the gentleman wanting to buy it the day before was my father. Oh how they laughed, just as you are now. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s have a look at Young’s debut LP cunningly entitled “Neil Young”. It was recorded during 1968 and initially released at the end of that year to be withdrawn, remixed and reissued early in ’69. The reason for this is because it was originally mixed and issued using some ‘fancy’ stereo to mono processing which made it sound awful. The album was made in the immediate wake of Buffalo Springfield falling apart, and there are links to Young’s songs from their second album “Again”, notably some arrangements and production by Jack Nitzsche. But Young claimed that he disliked the experience of recording ‘alone’ and moved away from the sound of this album quite radically with “Everybody knows this is nowhere”.

But that’s jumping ahead. The LPI starts with a pleasant country trot of an instrumental called “The emperor of Wyoming”, full of twanging guitars and a sweeping string section. Nice but unexpected. “The loner” sees Young setting himself up as an outsider to everything – surely he’s writing about himself here? Lots of delicious fuzztone guitar and creamy organ (did I just say that? Sorry), but from time to time this strange string arrangement drops by with little bursts of fuzz guitar. What’s all that about? “If I could have her tonight”…ah I suppose I should mention that when I first heard this LP in the summer of ’93 I was still crushing on someone and the songs have relevance from that. “All of a sudden she was on my mind…” Ha yes indeed. A hope of love, and the guitars jangle and chime quite gorgeously here. “I’ve been waiting for you” is more of the same, Young looking for a woman to save his life… Those little piano figures and the descending organ swells… Love this song, and then the guitar solo rises up from nowhere! It’s very post-psychedelic, in a good way. “The old laughing lady” harks back to “Expecting to fly”, but is quietly spooked, and after a few minutes of the music swelling up and down it finally strikes you – it sounds like a track from David Axelrod’s “Songs of Innocence”. But then it’s the same players – Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums. Check those drum snare fills and rolls. But the song is spooked as hell, those strings are uneasy and the female backing vocals are in pain.

Side two starts slow and uneasy – “String quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill” leads into “Here we are in the years”, a supposedly relaxing homage to relaxing in the sun, chilling out in the country… And hang on, where did that Moog come from amongst all the arpeggio guitar chime? “What did you do to my life?” is another lovelorn mid-tempo beauty, lots of vibrato and fuzztone guitars and echoing backing vocals. “I’ve loved her so long” is in the same category as “The old laughing lady” and sounds even more like David Axelrod, the vibes and electric piano and string arrangements. Those backing vocals are unsettling too. There’s such a melancholy mood across the whole side as it drifts by. Finally “The last trip to Tulsa” is mainly Neil and his acoustic guitar singing a very Dylan-esque travelogue, lots of dread there too. Very quotable lyrics too. Not quite “Desolation Row” though.

In the end, this album was the most logical direction for Young from Buffalo Springfield but not really right for him and he found the Rockets – his own Rolling Stones, as he called them – and was invited into Crosby, Stills and Nash and the rest is history. He was lucky to be on Reprise Records at the point where they were letting artists experiment with their music – it wouldn’t happen today. But as it is, “Neil Young” isn’t as bad as he makes out. For a start, both Bowie and the Pixies have covered songs from this LP, which is odd. And there’s a lovely innocence about the love songs which is striking. And more than anything, it sounds like Neil Young fronting late 60s Axelrod. What’s not to love?

“Colossal Youth” – Young Marble Giants

There have been plenty of candidates for ‘the worst year of my life’ (do you see what I did there?) but 2007 is still the freshest in my memory. I lived through 2007 with two massive storm clouds hanging over me – both of my own making and both would lead towards my Aspergers diagnosis the following year. This has made writing about music from 2007 very difficult – I was hoping to include “Fourteen autumns and fifteen winters” by The Twilight Sad in the previous blog post but listening to it brought back so many memories of Spring ’07 that I found it impossible. It’s a great album, you should listen to it, but I can’t yet. That album alongside “Sky blue sky” and “Never hear the end of it” and “Out to sea”… Can’t listen to them. That’s just how Spring ’07 was for me. House husband driven quietly nuts by too many dirty nappies, too much CBeebies and too much time on my hands. Thank you sorry.

But the Autumn of ’07 was… Not a lot better to be perfectly honest. But at least I was working. I’d started a job in July for A Major Internet Provider, working in their call centre doing technical support over the phone. If you had a problem you’d ring me on a premium rate number and I’d try to sort you out within the twenty minute limit imposed by OFCOM. Want to set up an internet router? Simple, just type in on Internet Explorer. (See, that number is burned into my memory). Got an email jamming your inbox? I’d go in and sort it out. (During my time there I did this for the drummer for Dodgy and the actress Jenny Seagrove – she was lovely, especially when I rang her back on her mobile to tell her I’d sorted it out). But the job was hard work, the shift pattern was crap – I was often on 2pm to 10;30pm, the call centre was a shit hole (and they admitted it), the managers were ogres who would scream at you if you took time off-line to go to the toilet… It was a great laugh.

And in the Autumn of ’07 the first of the two storm clouds broke. I was in the dog house to put it politely and it felt like the end of the world, in a tiny way. The second storm cloud would still hang around for a few months… Actually about a month later the second cloud kinda exploded but the repercussions wouldn’t be felt for a while. But it all got a bit embarrassing and strained and oh I hated my life at the time. And it was all my fault. Every shift at the call centre would start with a long email composed to the only person I could confide in and knew what was going on and they were probably horrible to read now. I’d sit at a computer hating the job and hating myself and hating everything in the whole wide world. I would spend every break time standing by the A48 watching cars hurtle past me with “I feel like going home” by Yo La Tengo playing on my walkman. That’s a special song – slow and sad, strange guitar noises behind the piano, heart stopping chord changes… Then…

“Sometimes late at night while running from the rain. Running from the voices filling up my brain, now I wish they’d leave me alone and let me be to go off on my own”

And on that word “own” there is such a BEAUTIFUL heartwrenching chord change… And then a slightly unsettling instrumental coda. I’d head back into the call centre wiping the tears out of my eyes.

And I bought “Colossal Youth” by Young Marble Giants at this exact point.

I had almost bought “Colossal Youth” many times before. Back in 1986 I almost bought it during the summer but picked up “Here comes everybody” by The Wake instead. In the summer of ’91 I almost bought it again from Our Price when the CD reissue came out, but I bought “Funeral at the movies” by Shudder To Think instead because it was cheaper. Now in 2007 those lovely people at Domino Records had reissued it in a three CD version with EPs and Peel sessions and I’d read about it in “Rip it up and start again” so I took the plunge, not quite knowing what to expect.

I probably wasn’t expecting it to be so minimal. The drum machine is tinny and tiny, the guitar and bass playing is mostly cliche-free spindly post punk. There’s occasional organ too, hinting sometimes at the sounds Robert Wyatt would make. And there was Alison Statton – blankly singing words “as if she’s at a bus stop” (as YMG guitarist Stuart Moxham said once). But in this quiet music there was a lot of power.

I really don’t want to go song by song through the album because it’s a bit pointless. It’s skeletal, there’s huge spaces in the music to find your own thoughts inside, and that’s precisely what I did. I lost myself within the album, picking up lines and words from songs that were relevant to what was happening. No song outstays its welcome, it makes its point then stops. Even the instrumentals work, providing breathing space within the album. “Eating Noddemix” seems more relevant now in our multi channel multi media world. There is a typically 1980 sense of dread within the muslc, too – the unspoken fear of impending destruction. “NITA” scared me though – “You’re haunting me because I let you” was not what I wanted to hear. In fact that song brings back memories I’d rather forget. Actually so does “Music for evenings”. Why exactly am I listening to this? It’s all coming back, dark drives home, hiding in corners of the call centre where I could be alone… Oh and my car’s engine stopped working too, didn’t it? I drove to work for a 2pm start, parked at the top car park, went to move it on my first break and after 50 yards the engine imploded and I had to push it down the hill to park it up, then had to wait for the shift to end at 10:30 to call a recovery vehicle. I did ask management if I could leave early but they told me to sod off. They were nice like that.

So yes *Colossal Youth” was a relevation to me. It also sounded like the kind of music I was trying to make in 1985. Indeed if I had accepted the offer of two female schoolfriends to sing for me during the spring of that year then “808 days” may have sounded like this album. But it didn’t. And no you can’t hear it. “Wind in the rigging” has just started and I feel autumn’s chill in my bones all over again.

And there you go, the end of the line. Thanks for reading, thanks for your patience, and thanks for your support. As Captain Sensible once song I’m glad it’s all over.

Next time – Totally psyched, or how I learned to search through the rubble.

Debut Albums #31 – #35

Yes I know… I wasn’t going to do any more of these for a while but what the hell, here goes. Five more favourite debut albums from the list…

“Blondertongueaudiobaton” – The Swirlies

In the summer of 1993, this LP received a rave review in Melody Maker. It said words to the effect of “Ever wished that My Bloody Valentine hadn’t progressed straight from ‘Isn’t anything’ to ‘Loveless’?”. Which was a heretical statement for 1993 – progress was everything back then. Anyway, a review like that piqued my interest and even though I hadn’t heard a single note of their music I decided to buy “Blondertongue…”. Only I didn’t. I went into Spillers Records in Cardiff and bought the wrong CD, I bought “What to do about them” which was a mini-LP compilation of singles and oddities – even a song straight from a flexidisc. I still loved it, especially songs like “Upstairs” and “Chris R”. It felt like they had a grounding in jangle pop – which is why the “Sarah Sitting” debut EP was issued on Slumberland Records. After a few days of soaking up the early Swirlies, I went back to Spillers and bought what I was supposed to buy in the first place.

The Swirlies – at the time anyway – were a four piece band from Boston who created their own brand of music they called ‘chimp-rock’. Strangely the page on chimp-rock on Wiki goes straight into the lo-fi page. I remember reading about them in fanzines – there was something to do with kittens but it’s a long time ago. But that MM review was right – if MBV had made an LP in 1989 it would have sounded like “Blondertongue…”. But whereas MBV songs surge with noise, the Swirlies’ songs stop and start, sometimes jangle, and sometimes take so many left turns that you end up back where you started from.

For instance, the first thing I did with the CD was tape it for my journeys to and from work. But what I didn’t realise was that songs would flow into each other all the time so without having a CD player to judge where tracks start or finish (or a banded piece of vinyl) I couldn’t understand how the first few songs on the album worked. ‘Bell” has a lot of the clangour of detuned Sonic Youth but with sweet boy girl harmonies on the chorus, but heads off through tempo shifts and changes around the three minute mark before returning to the original riffs at half speed. “Vigilant always” is similar, swerving back and forth, but has little injections of words from time to time, and again after four minutes of swerving returns to its origins. Throughout the record, there’s lots of tremelo arm action on the guitars, lending the music a woozy quality – best heard on “Her love just washed away”, a languid ballad. If you could call it a ballad. Well, it’s slower. There’s nothing quite so out-there as “All I need” or “No more sorry”, and the wall of noise isn’t their only trick, and there’s enough variety to keep you listening. Admittedly I have no clear idea what any of the songs mean, but that’s never stopped my enjoyment.

My personal favourite songs appear towards the end. “Tree chopped down” could be any early 90s US indie band (that means you, Pavement) but ducks and dives around its melodies so beautifully, and also features an absolutely peerless use of the word ‘f***’ – as in “But I’ve got to get the f*** away from you’… “Wrong tube” is almost sweet, lots of unison boy girl coo-ing, jangling guitars but that opening line… “Here we are without our clothes…”. Oh. Still, glorious pop-ish melodies, lots of grinding bending guitars, a bit playful – a really good album on the whole. A lot of people prefer their second album (something about “They wasted their youth blah blah blah” can’t be bothered to look it up) but I definitely prefer “Blondertongueaudiobaton”.

Oh, and the CD label was ridiculously rude too. 😎

“It’ll end in tears” – This Mortal Coil

Considering how much I love the music of Cocteau Twins I find it odd that I haven’t mentioned them much on Goldfish. I only heard them properly once I started listening to John Peel during the summer of ’84. I knew “Pearly dewdrops drops” from it being a minor hit single, and I knew the band received rhapsodic reviews from the music papers I read but the first time the Cocteaus clicked was their autumn 84 Peel session – “Pepper tree”, “Peep-bo” (“Ivo”), “Otterley” and “Wischt” (“Beatrix”). If anything it was that final song that clinched it for me. It sounded like a dance from a grave, some strange instrument making those sounds… I was given “Treasure” for Christmas in ’84 (alongside “Step Forward” by Portion Control and “Hatful of hollow”) and loved it, the whole album just sounds like Christmas for me.

In the run up to Christmas, Peel ran his annual Festive 50, and this was the first one I listened to – tape set on pause, as ever. The tape of course is in my attic but looking at the run-down I know which songs I taped, and I was pleased to see songs I loved in there – “Bias Binding” by Yeah Yeah Noh, “Dirty” by Hard Corps, ‘Upside down” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Songs from “Treasure” were dotted amongst the list, but there were two songs by This Mortal Coil in there too – one sung by Liz Fraser. And I’m sure I’d probably heard “Song to the siren” by then too, either on Peel or elsewhere on the evening shows on Radio One.

Now I’d love to say how cool I was at this time and that I bought “It’ll end in tears” around that time. But the truth is I didn’t. My friend Nigel did though, and I remember hearing it at his house during the mid 80s. See, Nigel was cooler than me – he’d actually been out on a date with R, my huge mid 80s crush. Sorry Nige! He was also a bit more of a goth – I can remember records by Sisters of Mercy and the Leather Nun being played at his house, though these might not have actually belonged to him. But Nigel definitely had “It’ll end in tears” and we would swoon hearing Liz Fraser’s voice amongst other things. But no, I didn’t buy “It’ll end in tears” until early 1987 so I wasn’t that cool. I did buy “Filigree and shadow” on the day it was issued in late ’86, and I have a distinct memory of sitting in a classroom in college pouring over the lavish sleeve. But I certainly wasn’t cool enough to know all the original songs either. I knew the names but not the actual music.

So what of “It’ll end in tears” itself? I don’t need to tell you that at this point This Mortal Coil come across as a 4AD supergroup – there’s appearances by all three Cocteau Twins, alongside members of X-Mal Deutschland, Colourbox, Modern English and Dead Can Dance. But there’s also other non-4AD elements – Howard Devoto and Gordon Sharp provide vocals, and it could be said that Sharp’s keening voice is as important to the LP as Fraser’s. And let’s not forget the string arrangements by Martin McCormick and Gina Ball which are perfect throughout.

(But what about the MUSIC?)

Gawd, I hoped you wouldn’t ask that…

(Oh go on, give it a go…)

Oh alright then.

The problem for me is that… For some of the cover versions, these songs feel definitive. As I didn’t know the originals at this point, these are the first versions I heard so for me they are the best. I know that sounds awful but… Oh Lord I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man here… Back in the mid 80s, these songs weren’t readily available to hear. You didn’t see “Sister Lovers” or “Starsailor” in record shops, they were swapped on tapes, knowledge passed from those ‘in-the-know’ to others. In a way This Mortal Coil helped to bring the music of Alex Chilton and Tim Buckley to a new generation and showed that the ‘year zero’ attitude of punk was a myth, there was great music from the sixties and seventies that was (at the time) yet to be fully discovered.

(Yes yes, very canonical, but you’re still not talking about the MUSIC!)


OK then.

“Kangaroo” is clearly never going to be as wracked as the original, but makes it glacial and graceful – removing the deliberate destruction of Big Star’s version. “Song to the siren”… No words necessary for that one. Perfect. “Holocaust” isn’t that different from the original, Devoto’s voice is a perfect fit for the song. “FYT” sounds very dated, a very 1984 “We’ve got a sampler” instrumental, like a gothic Art Of Noise. “Fond affections” is quite lovely – those sampled choirs are straight out of the Cocteaus’ “From the flagstones” era – and very different to the Rema Rema original which is very post-punk and spiky and shouty. Quite a transformation really. “The last ray” is a very Cocteaus-esque instrumental, heavy beats and lots of Simon Raymonde’s distinctive throbbing bass. “Another day” is difficult really, it is a beautiful song in this version and Fraser sings it carefully, and the string arrangement is lovely but … Well you know the rest. Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel did this on a TV special – that’s rather good too. Actually the original is quite similar, just remove the acoustic guitar really. Move along. The medley of “Waves become wings” into “Barramundi” is very oceanic and drifts nicely. I do have a soft spot for the multiple guitars and synth melodies of “Barramundi” while “Dreams made flesh” is like a second cousin (understandably) to Dead Can Dance’s “Carnival of lights” – another song Peel played a lot that winter. “Not me” comes as quite a shock at this point – it’s an unreleased Colin Newman song, recorded as a demo for his debut LP “A-Z” (and why aren’t I writing about that LP? Sod it I will do it another time..). “Not me” is a conventional wall of guitars two chord chugger, nothing wrong with that but it sounds out of place here. And that’s a Casio VL-tone playing the melody at the end. “A single wish” is a delicate ending to the album – gentle piano, guitar harmonics, DX7 bells (there’s a lot of DX7 on this LP which dates it too). Very nice.

(That wasn’t worth waiting for)


Anyway, “It’ll end in tears” feels like a summary of that era of 4AD, the next This Mortal Coil LP wouldn’t have so many 4AD acts but for me “Filigree and shadow” was a better album, even if it was sprawling and expansive and just as dated by the technology used. I must admit that I never really got on with “Blood”, maybe I need to go back to it at some point. But I do enjoy “It’ll end in tears” a lot, and if you want a 45 minute experience of This Mortal Coil, it’s the place to go.


“Ticket to the dark” – Troy Tate

Troy Tate is one of those bit players on the periphery of pop music. Google him and you’re more likely to discover the Smiths. Look on Spotify and again the Smiths appear. But he was involved in some great music – not just with other bands but also under his own name.

He first emerged in early 1981 when he became guitarist for The Teardrop Explodes. Julian Cope’s band was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough with their first hit single “Reward” but they’d lost guitarist Alan Gill through sheer far-out behaviour, and Cope took the chance to sack keyboard player Dave Balfe too, move himself off bass guitar to become lead singer and hire new musicians for guitar, keyboards and bass. In his memoir “Head on” Cope writes of how he and drummer Gary Dwyer took hits of acid while watching people audition and hired musicians if they were bearable. But he does say he liked the way Troy Tate clanged his guitar. Tate had previously played with a group called Shake who made two singles but this was the big time. Within weeks he was on Top Of The Pops alongside the rest of the band. During the chemical excesses of 1981, Tate acted as a buffer between Cope and Dwyer and the other new members of the band and one wonders at what he saw on the road. In the meantime his guitar shone brightly – from the electric sitar solo of “Passionate friend” to the extended live jamming on “The culture bunker” and “Sleeping gas” to the more subtle arpeggios of “And the fighting takes over” (for which he wanted a writing credit – Cope refused).

While all this was happening Tate was also signed to the Why-Fi label as a solo artist and issued a handful of singles during the 81-82 period of his membership of the Teardrops. Also there were two songs issued on “To the shores of Lake Placid”, a compilation on Zoo Records, under the name The Turquoise Swimming Pools. This was a studio band made up of Dave Balfe, Troy Tate and Hugh Jones, recording songs by Balfe at Rockfield Studios during the summer of ’81 when Balfe was out of the Teardrops. The two songs “The Winds” and “Burst Balloons” are moody and full of melancholy. I can never really tell if Tate is singing – it sounds like him but could be Balfe (admittedly I’ve never heard Balfe sing) but those defeated cries of “Oooh how can we soldier on?” are heartwrenching. Tate’s solo singles from this time utilised musicians he knew – Balfe on kayboards, Rolo McGinty on bass (he was one of the many bass players in the Wild Swans) and Virginia Astley on backing vocals – she was in the Ravishing Beauties alongside Nicky Holland and Kate St John and was also signed to Why-Fi. The key songs from these singles eventually found their way onto Tate’s debut LP.

By the middle of ’82 Cope was intent on destroying the Teardrops, even though the early months of the year had seen them playing some wonderful gigs. With Balfe back in the lineup and new bass player Ronnie Francois they were shit hot live, and Tate’s guitar could soar and scream through anything. (See “Rachael built a steamboat” for evidence of how great this line-up was). After two massive gigs supporting Queen at Milton Keynes bowl in early June, Cope sacked Tate and Francois… I just realised that the episode of Pop Quiz with Tate on it (broadcast 12th June) was taped before that obviously. Tate went straight from Teardrops to fronting Fashion for a few months while Dee Harris sodded off to join Rick Wright in Zee (why do I know this stuff? I’m not researching any of this – I KNOW this much useless information). Anyway. Tate was now a free agent after Fashion and signed to Rough Trade for another solo single in early ’83 “Love is…” Is the only Troy Tate record available on Spotify and one of the b-sides – “I’m mad” – is an odd little gem.

But it was through the Rough Trade connection that Tate came to produce the first album by a new band signed to RT – The Smiths. The whole album was recorded during the summer of ’83 but was rejected before any final mixes were prepared, it seems. There have been all sorts of rumours regarding why the album was rerecorded – the one I believe the most is that Tate was concentrating too much on Marr’s guitars than Morrissey’s vocals, which is why a lot of the songs that have leaked out unofficially only have guide vocals. One song was issued at the time, “Jeane” became b-side to “This charming man” and shows that Tate had better ideas on layering guitars than John Porter had on the rerecorded debut, which sounded drab, flat and tired.

Still, Tate bounced back from that disappointment to sign to Sire Records and issued his debut album “Ticket to the dark” during the summer of 1984. I didn’t buy it at the time but I bought it second hand from Kellys in Cardiff market early in ’86 as I was on my Teardrop Explodes kick at the time. I’m jolly glad I did, though it took me a while to get my head around the album.

This wasn’t helped by the opening track “Party”. It’s a sprawling 6 minute number anchored around a simple bass and drum pattern, then on top there’s madly strummed acoustics, synthethic noises, clangs, people laughing, and Tate sings a series of odd lines, like a collection of snippets from conversations at a party… Totally unconnected lines, overlapping each other, he’s trying to connect but failing … “You read the papers? I read the papers too… Let’s talk about more important subjects…” Non-sequitors abound – “Will I have my trousers on when they drop the atom bomb?”. What does it mean? “There’s a million things I want to say…” Tate sings at the end. Go ahead…

“Thomas” is a more conventional pop song, and was a single in early 84 – I remember Morrissey treating it kindly as guest reviewer in Melody Maker. A remembrance of an old friend seen at a station, but written in a subtle way that you may miss the sentiment – or the message – even during the last verse. “Love is…” is a gorgeous pop song, all hooks and synths and airy twelve string acoustics – but the melancholy chorus hurts, as do the words – a moment of understanding that an affair is ending. In a perfect world a hit single. “Winning team” is peculiar – Tate is advocating the joys of pushing ahead, taking each day in your stride, it’s a bit of a yuppie anthem, he’s trying to be Bowie vocally. But he doesn’t sound convinced by what he’s singing – he sings “You’ll reap the benefit” so cynically. “All the way up” is another hyper 80s production, synth horns, slap bass, gated drums, and on the surface it’s more optimism but halfway through it falls apart – “Let’s spend a night in the city. Missed the last train”, and it goes all jazz for some reason. Part of me HATES how tacky it is, but another part of me ADORES this song. Oh well. End of side one

“Factory girl (whip crack away)” provides a similar start to side two as “Party” did to side one – ie, a long song full of odd noises, strange words, music in and out of focus, sections of completely unrelated music, and Tate sings and shouts – “Set me free!”, “Whip crack away”… But the chorus is compulsive and tuneful. Halfway through Tate mumbles “I’m glad of this protection, you know I need this sense of belonging”. Quite. Bizarre but great. “Safety net” is a little tale of crossing borders. “House of the new breed” is slower and more considered, lots of bass and drums and space and contrapuntal keyboards and guitars, though what Tate is singing is kind of disturbing – “Watch the skeleton clotheshorse as his teeth fall out”. Then towards the end, Tate finally does some guitar tricks like he did on “Like Leila Khaled Said”. “Lifeline” was an old recording from ’82 and features Balfe on keyboards and sounds a bit Teardrops-y, but has a kind of restless skank to it, very moody and dark. (That was a single?). Finally “I’m not your toy” is sharp and defiant, a good ending. Tate’s fed up with someone – “You live your life like a bad TV play” – but there’s real hurt in this song – “I will meet you with your clothes ripped and torn, and you’ll wish you never were born…you with your lying eyes”. It’s my favourite song from the album, probably because it actually sounds heartfelt. It also reminds me in places of Channel 4 music and “Sleepless night” by the Kinks – but I doubt anyone else hears that one. (Can I get away with saying I like the sepulchral mood of side two of “Sleepwalker” here so my brother doesn’t notice?).

“Ticket to the moon” didn’t do much but Sire believed in Tate enough to allow him to make a second solo album and after that… Well who knows? He just faded into the background. I have no idea what he’s doing now and it’s not exactly a mystery like Lewis or anything… His LPs aren’t high on anyone’s lists for reissuing. Still there is a very fine website here with full downloads of both albums and single tracks and even gigs. Help yourself.

“Mudflat Joey” – Tse Tse Fly

Tse Tse Fly were from Leeds, they formed in 1988 and I first became aware of them when they were the first support act (alongside Moonshake) on the Wedding Present’s December 92 tour which I saw in Cardiff. In reality, the Weddoes could never compete with Moonshake who were at their absolute peak then and played a superb tightly coiled set. Tse Tse Fly made an impression on me too that night, they sounded like distant cousins of two bands from Wetherby who were just starting to make an impression – Boyracer and Hood.

The next I heard of the band was when Cherry Red issued a 7 inch EP by them alongside an EP by Prolapse. I must admit I’ve not heard the “Fledgling” EP in full for years but know that the first song on side two was brilliant. It was also produced by Richard Formby, a name I knew from the credits on The Telescopes’ records – actually searching on Spotify has found “Brad”, the song on side two of the EP and it’s as great as I remember it being.

The following year Tse Tse Fly issued the “Scaffolding” EP which was the six minute title track and three b-sides. That title track set their style perfectly – throbbing trebly bass, stop start rhythms, mixed male / female vocals, clipped guitars. At the 2:15 seconds mark the song abruptly stops and restarts as an instrumental, repeating an insistent riff over and over as guitars squall over the top. And at 2:51 it cuts to a live feed of the recording for one iteration of the riff before returning to the main song. “That’s a very This Heat thing to do” I noted in my diary and expected good things from their album.

“Mudflat joey” arrived a month or so later. “M1” starts slowly with quiet but malevolent guitars twinkling before the whole band bursts into life, frantic drums, that trebly bass again and vocals that have a Northern sharpness. There’s the female vocalist talking in the background and I’ve just noticed her saying “I’ve always been so scared of the lorries”. Jump cut into “Jonah” – a pulsing synth chord leads into more distorted guitars powered by a slightly skewed motorik beat and it stays resolutely on one chord for two minutes, and when it does change chord it comes as a shock. “Talk to me” is a more traditional song though the lyrics are…enigmatic to say the least, more clipped guitars and an urgent rhythm. “Dog-eared” is slower, brushed drums, whispered vocals, hushed guitars, still a feeling that something will explode but it doesn’t. A drum break leads into “On purpose”, almost a swing rhythm and more Velvets downstrum guitars but it doesn’t overstay its welcome by finishing around the one minute thirty mark. “Lido” is mid tempo and features a rumbling bass guitar pulse at the end, and is probably my least favourite song on the album.

Side two kicks off with “Roo mole suit” (yeah, quite) which sounds like “Talk to me”‘s noisier cousin and features two seconds of gorgeous harmonised guitar which stops abruptly, as if they didn’t really want to do it. “Itchy” is louder and more like a Boyracer song but again only lasts a minute and a half, and as it fades out on a sustained distorted guitar note a drum machine kicks out a four on the floor bass drum, and then an alternate future reveals itself. “Some day soon” is like nothing I’d heard at the time and nothing I’ve heard since. The bass drum pulses, a bass guitar follows it, on one side a distorted guitar sustains notes, on another side a clean guitar repeats a small single note riff, keyboards and sequencers pulse away, a shipping broadcast can be heard, the female vocalist speaks strange words, more layers are built up over its six minutes length, and after five minutes everything is slowly obliterated by one last noisy guitar and as the song fades out it’s back to normal for the last three songs – “Non-ferrous” is like “Dog-eared”, “Kitchen” is a minute long thrash and closer “Hogwash” tries to be epic but can’t really pull it off. It’s not bad, but after “Some day soon” everything is a bit of a let down.

What happened to Tse Tse Fly after this album? Two of them joined one of their previous members in the Wedding Present and the band effectively finished. It was a bit of a shame because there are some great moments on the album, if you like noisy guitar with an edge. But for “Some day soon” I will never forget them – it’s a song I can return to over and over again and still pick up new details every time. That song is like a future that was unexplored by the band or anyone else and absolutely marvellous. Did anyone notice? No. Does anyone care? Not really. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the album appear on Spotify so the whole thing’s going on the playlist.

“Ultra Vivid Scene” – Ultra Vivid Scene

Sometimes I buy records on trust. I trust the label, I trust the reviewer, I trust a friend’s judgement, I trust my own knowledge to guide me to something I might like. What’s odd about “UVS” (because I’m not going to write Ultra Vivid Scene all day) is that I can’t really remember why I bought it. It was towards the end of 1988 that I bought the album – on cassette – and I have no recollection of whether it was through reviews or the cover artwork (I do like a good toothbrush) or it being on 4AD. There is a possibility that I’d seen “The mercy seat” video on “Snub” or “Rapido”. But whatever reasons, “UVS” appeared in my life just when I needed it.

I’ve mentioned previously that the end of 1988 were dark days, but there were a few albums I bought then which transcended the darkness. One was “Bummed” by Happy Mondays, this was the other. At this point UVS were a one man band – Kurt Ralske – and this wasn’t quite an indie album. When I read “Blissed out” a few years later Ralske came across as an intellectual trying to create meta-pop from his influences, but I never really saw that. Maybe because I’m not an intellectual – I just took the music and lyrics at face value.

“She screamed” kicks off the album nicely. A spirited thrash of a song, lots of feedback screams in the background, the song is apparently about someone’s first experience of MDMA – “when she ate half a nightmare she could see in the dark”. “Crash” is both a tribute to Ballard’s book and Ralske’s previous band, he sounds quietly pleased to be dying – “You can crash me if you like”, it’s another viewpoint to “There is a light that never goes out”. “You didn’t say please” is a mid tempo grinder, and Ralske sounds like he’s enjoying dominating someone, it’s a bit fey and camp – when he sings “Exercise is good for you, so come on – hup two hup two” its more Carry On Marquis De Sade than anything else. “Lynn Marie #2” is superior indie pop, chiming guitars and soaring melodies. “The mercy seat” is immense – tons of fuzz, deliberately slow drums, a mix of sex and religion in the lyrics. (Odd that Nick Cave would issue his own song called “The mercy seat” in the same year). “The dream of love” is a lovely (?) side closer – starting quiet and drowsy, stumbling around before reaching a quietly powerful climax. (It was this song I seem to have ripped off on “Purity”)

“Lynn Marie #1” is like an inverse to “#2”, the guitars swapped for Suicide-y synths. Then side two drifts through some gorgeous hazy songs – “It isn’t real”, “The whore of God”, “Bloodline” – which tend to merge into an ocean of mumbles, organs, gentle washes of guitars. I’m not demeaning these songs, I absolutely love ’em to bit, every one of them. They have an aura of narcotic bliss about them. (That sounds very Simon Reynolds) “How does it feel?” comes as a shock – loud and fast to shake the system up, then “Hail Mary” is a slow closer, broken drum machines, crackling cables. A wonderful record.

I played “UVS” all the time in Sheffield, and even lent it to a friend or two. One very perceptive person said to me “If you ever made a proper record, I bet it would sound like this” and he was absolutely right. Times have changed and I don’t feel like I did back then, but I still play this LP often. Of course their second LP “Joy 1967 – 1990” was just as good, if slightly different but their third LP “Rev” was a serious disappointment to me at the time – too organic, too rocky, too obvious. Maybe I should go back to it. But those first two UVS LPs are it for me.

Next time – five more LPs to complete the alphabet. But that’ll be in a couple of weeks. In the meantime I’ve done a Spotify playlist for this blog post. I hope it works as this is all new to me. Enjoy!

Fifty Debut Albums – the full list

Due to the fact that I shouldn’t be writing anyway because I’m supposed to be on a summer break, I’m now publishing my full list of fifty debut albums. As regular readers will know I’m up to number 30, but due to a cock up on the counting front the list I was working from only had 40 LPs on it. So I’ve bumped it up with LPs I’ve already written about here at Goldfish or will write about eventually, one way or another.

So here’s the full list.

The graveyard and the ballroom – A Certain Ratio
Come from heaven – Alpha
69 – AR Kane
Hex – Bark Psychosis
Please Please Me – The Beatles
If wishes were horses – Blueboy
A walk across the rooftops – Blue Nile
One year – Colin Blunstone
Colourbox – Colourbox
Kontiki – Cotton Mather
Lo and behold – Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint
If I could only remember my name – David Crosby
The fantastic expedition of Dillard and Clark
Lost souls – Doves
The return of – The Durutti Column
Crocodiles – Echo and the Bunnymen
Crumbling the antiseptic beauty – Felt
Fleet foxes – Fleet Foxes
76;14 – Global Communication
Story – Honeybus
Euphoria – Insides
Oxygene – Jean Michel Jarre
The Only Fun In Town – Josef K
Tangerine dream – Kaleidoscope
The gentle art of conditioning – Lower
Shot forth self living – Medicine
XYZ – Moose
Begin – The Millennium
All we could do was sing – Port O’Brien
No less the trees than the stars – Purple Ivy Shadows
Radar Bros – Radar Bros
The Bridge – Robert Rental and Thomas Leer
Present tense – Sagittarius
Quique – Seefeel
Judee Sill – Judee Sill
Paul Simon – Paul Simon
Spoonfed Hybrid – Spoonfed Hybrid
Switched on / Peng! – Stereolab
Jaguar – The Sweetest Ache
Blondertongueaudiobaton – The Swirlies
It’ll end in tears – This Mortal Coil
Ticket to the dark – Troy Tate
Her Handwriting – Trembling Blue Stars
Mudflat Joey – Tse Tse Fly
Fourteen autumns and fifteen winters – The Twilight Sad
United States Of America – United States of America
Ultra Vivid Scene – Ultra Vivid Scene
Neil Young – Neil Young
Colossal youth – Young Marble Giants

Like I said, alphabetical order by artist. If anyone really wants me to finish this project then I will. But at the moment I’m a bit exhausted in writing and annoyed at criticism and fed up with the whole process. So if you see an album on the list and think “I’d like to see what Rob has to say about that” then please let me know on here or on Twitter (@durutti74).

Thanks for listening and reading and being supportive. I’m off on holiday now. See you in September.

Debut Albums #26 – #30

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums twenty six to thirty

“Quique” – Seefeel

It felt like Seefeel emerged fully formed when they issued their initial EPs in the summer of 1993. I was interested by what I’d read about them, plus they were on Too Pure – another label I trusted thanks to Stereolab and Moonshake – and I always suspected they took their name from a line in “Celeste” by The Telescopes, though I’ve never seen that clarified anywhere. Their first EP “More like space” was like Mike Oldfield brought into the 1990s with “Time to find me” as the standout song – soft cooing female vocals, harsh drum machine beats and drifting synthesised chords with little bursts of feedback amid the noise and crackle. The second EP “Pure impure” was more developed, “Plainsong” and “Moodswings” were near perfect and “Milky starshine” was over ten minutes of drift. The main selling point of the EP were three remixes carried out by The Aphex Twin who had expressed an interest in what Seefeel were doing.

“Quique” was released just before the end of 1993 in amongst a flurry of great albums, some of which I’ve written about it stood out simply because it was so different. It fell between so many stools – it wasn’t indie, it wasn’t dance, it wasn’t ambient but it was a little bit of all of those genres. It’s difficult to describe really… Sounds have no logical source, they are edited and looped and filtered, drum patterns are regimental and change incrementally, the bass is pulsing and deep, dropping out into vertiginous freefall, vocals are just additional sounds. It’s definitely a post-“Loveless” sound, abstracting My Bloody Valentine’s ideas to a further level, less about the power of noise and more the power of small changes within repetition. (I keep thinking Terry Riley here). There’s some industrial clanging on “Polyfusion”, drones hovering in mid-air throughout “Industrious”. “Imperial” is percussion free sound shaping… The latter half of the album gets better. The version of “Plainsong” is more propulsive than the single version. “Charlotte’s mouth” is almost normal – the sounds being almost recognisable as guitars, Sarah Peacock’s vocal is almost a conventional vocal, but there’s big gaps in the music, strange surges. “Through you” sounds like it was recorded in a wet and dank cave, the acoustics all dark reverb. “Signals” is five minutes of closing sound. But the best song is “Filter Dub” – sounds being bent, a lazy rhythm, a dub-like bass line (for once the bass is the melodic focus of a track) and guitars swooning and arcing like doves in a courting ritual. Sounds stupid? Yes. Sounds lovely? Yes.

“Quique” would be the last record Seefeel made for Too Pure, in 1994 they moved to Warp Records which would feel like a logical home for them. In February ’94 I saw them live supporting Cocteau Twins in Cardiff – a wonderful pairing. My main memory of Seefeel live was the enormous wash of sound and the bass player swinging his guitar by its strap on his little finger. And I bought the white label 12 inch of alternate mixes of songs from “Quique”. Bet that’s worth tuppence now. Seefeel moved further into abstraction but still made lovely records, but “Quique” catches them at the perfect point between songcraft and loopcraft. It also makes an excellent soundtrack to painting and decorating, which is why I’m listening to it today while painting the spare bedroom. 😎

“Spoonfed Hybrid” – Spoonfed Hybrid

Pale Saints didn’t feel quite the same as any of the other shoegazing bands they were lumped in with. For a start, they had existed for some time – I remember their name cropping up in the demos page of the short lived “Underground” magazine in early 1988 when they sounded like the Wedding Present. Well, they were from Leeds. And they were named after a quite obscure Eyeless In Gaza song, which was intriguing enough. They could make a glorious racket when they wanted to – “She rides the waves”, “Babymaker” and “Holding back the apple” were ample evidence of that – but there was always an off-kilter side to them, odd time signatures, peculiar song structures and odd dynamics. They also had a delicate side – see “A deep sleep for Steven” or “Neverending night” or “Shell”.
And more than anything they could be unsettling – see “The colour of the sky”, an extra track on the “Half life” EP. Yes they could be sweet (Ian Masters’ choirboy vocal style saw to that) but they could be sour as well – the “Flesh Balloon” EP in ’91 summed them up well. “Hunted” built up layers of dread in 5/4 time. “Porpoise” was a six minute instrumental. “Kinky love” was a sweet cover of a Nancy Sinatra song and “Hair shoes” was a shimmering heat haze of guitars (and you can draw a line from that song’s instrumental siren melody through “King of the rocket men” by The Clouds to “Karma Police”). So they weren’t quite in the same boat as the Thames Valley boys and girls – no wonder their second album “In ribbons” had a message inscribed in the run-out groove – “Scene but not herd”. Ouch!

In 1993 Ian Masters took his skewed sense of pop craft and choirboy voice away from Pale Saints, teamed up with Chris Trout from AC Temple and created Spoonfed Hybrid, a studio concoction who would issue one album on the 4AD subsidiary Guernica. (It was released on the same day as “Euphoria” by Insides on the same label). But I didn’t buy it until Wednesday 5th January. This was my last day of living in Penarth with my parents before the big move to my new house in Newport. Everything was packed and ready to go, we’d hired a van to move everything the next day, I just needed something to listen to which would take my mind off being nervous. All my hifi was packed away so I took my newly purchased CD / radio / cassette ghetto blaster out of its box, dug out my headphones and listened uneasily in bed that night.

“Heaven’s knot” starts with a stereo noise darting left and right, as it will do throughout the song. The song is more structured and precise than any Pale Saints song – tightly sequenced – but Masters sings like an angel with a halo of wordless vocals behind him. Those wordless vocals will be a trait throughout the album. Not sure what he’s singing about, but once a series of descending guitar solos start appearing in harmony who cares. Good opening. “Naturally occurring anchors” is a seemingly simple song – acoustic guitar and voice – made extraordinary by the complex layering and switching of guitar sounds – I counted about fifteen different sounds and treatments and they flick between sounds and across the stereo spectrum within a strum of a chord in some places (The song credits read Iain McKinna as “King of Mutes” – a feat of mixing desk dexterity in those days). The song closes with a descending string section, which is mirrored by the introduction to “Tiny planes”, a mid tempo song based around “queasy cellos” and clockwork percussion. Again Masters sings in enigmas – “Tiny planes fluttering against my skin… The noises of their wings excites me still” – but what the hell, the music is rich and peculiar. “Stolen clothes” starts with washes of twelve string acoustics and tablas, it sounds idyllic until you concentrate on the words which Masters sings gently “Whisper to me, hear all my fears… I’m finally beginning to grow”. Is he saying Pale Saints was holding him back? “Wash away these terrors of mine”. Some strange things are happening. “Lynched” is an uneasy take on jazz, a double bass maintains stability while strange guitar chords strum into a background of radio noise, the song is cut through with sudden bursts of noise. “1936” has a rhythm track not unlike chirping crickets, with multiple pianos holding the music together. Masters sings of “Dreams and their lies” before a section of kettle drums, marimbas and a chorus of wordless Master choirboys, then zithers and a feedbacking guitar, followed by a jazzy piano solo. None of these individual elements make sense outside of the songs but together they work perfectly.

“Getting not to know” is the most Pale Saints-like, a swirling guitar figure and a raucous chorus but there’s still more wordless Masters choirboys in the background, and the end is intriguing – an ascending guitar solo followed by a slow half tempo descent as two synth notes slide downwards. Most odd. “Somehow some other life” is built up around repeated piano patterns – it feels very systems music – and Masters putting the past behind him – “Farewell to all the things you love so dearly, several skies you felt part of”. A peal of bells and kettle drums lead forward amid a swarm of ebow guitars. “A pocketful of dust” is the fulcrum for the whole album – the only song sung by Chris Trout rather than Ian Masters – and the words are now clearer, a relationship falling apart, a love triangle…some of the words are horribly painful (especially this week). “Ecnalubma” (try it backwards) comes as a moment of relief – turning the pulse of “Heaven’s knot” into an instrumental. Finally “Boys in zinc” feels like an emotional conclusion, slow chimes and strings, it almost feels Christmassy, more odd words, stately like a hymn, then after a crescendo a little guitar turns around, stops and starts, and a choir of Masters appears at the end, cooing sweetly, but the song ends on a dischord. It’s worth listening to “Eva” from Butterfly Child’s debut LP “Onomatopoiea” (released around the same time) which sounds very similar in style and music to “Boys in zinc”. Intriguing.

That first listen reflected how uneasy I was that night before I moved out. Once the move was complete and I was in my house alone the first thing I did was dig out the same ghetto blaster and play “Spoonfed Hybrid” to christen my house. Four years later it was the last record I played in that house and the first I played in the house I live in now. At the time the album was released it was uneasily lumped into the initial stirrings of post-rock – the aforementioned Seefeel, Bark Psychosis, Insides alongside Butterfly Child, Pram, Disco Inferno and others. There wasn’t much to link these bands’ musics except a forward thinking attitude to technology and atmosphere. Listening now, Spoonfed Hybrid sound like a form of psychedelia – playful yet pensive, a music for the mind. And if I move house again, it will be the last album I play at the old house and the first at the new house. It has to be done.

“Switched on” – Stereolab / “Peng!” – Stereolab

What constitutes a debut album? The obvious answer is “the first album issued by an artist”. But what if the first album issued by an artist is a collection of previously released singles? The number of times I have seen “The First Three EPs” by The Beta Band in debut LP lists… But it’s tricky with Stereolab because…well… “Switched on” was only supposed to be for the French market and a few copies were issued in the UK, and “Peng!” was issued about a month after “Switched on”… So what the hell, I’ll pick them both together.

The first I heard of Stereolab was when Peel started playing “Super-electric” in September ’91. It was the first time I’d heard a band take on board the motorik pulse of Neu! and La Dusseldorf and make something new out of it. I’d picked up the old Krautrock LPs in the mid 80s and felt like I was the only person who loved “Hallogallo” and “Rhienita”. But Stereolab loved it too. I loved “Super Electric”, all the layers of vocals and guitars and organs, especially that really loud dirty organ that threatens to overload the song around the four minute mark. So I kept an eye out for Stereolab and picked up “Switched on” a week or so before I started at the Stats Office – I probably bought it for my birthday. The album didn’t sound like a bunch of singles and b-sides, it was consistent and wonderful. “Doubt” was a 60s pop dream, the two versions of “Au grand jour” complemented each other, “High expectations” was a different kind of melancholy – “Do you really want to love someone who does not love you?” – I wish I’d listened to those words. , It felt like Stereolab had found a new way to make two or three chords sound different. It wasn’t shoegazing, it wasn’t indie, it was their own sound based on their influences. But the lyrics were something else – I didn’t really understand them, but they made me want to investigate books, learn more, learn French, be a more rounded person, they had far more knowledge and I felt like they were trying to pass that on in one form or another. But I didn’t read my books, I just enjoyed the music. That’s how shallow I am.

As “Peng!” was issued in late June 92 it may well have been the first album I bought with my first Stats Office pay packet. It certainly sticks in my mind as being there alongside “She’s a superstar” by Verve as the earliest records I bought in that ‘new era’. I’d read the Melody Maker review which stated that it sounded like they hadn’t used a mixing desk (that’s a paraphrase, I don’t subscribe to Rock’s Back Pages) so that sounded good. It wasn’t quite like that… “Super falling stars” had no drums, just guitars strumming, bass and droning organs but a lot more layered vocals. There were typical motorik songs like “Orgiastic” and “Peng! 33”, but there were experiments too – “K-stars” was built on a backwards loop of drums and organ, and had a quite gorgeous coda… (Listening to the lyrics, is this song about the Situationists in Paris, those Durutti Columnists who “just drifted”?). “You little shits” had a stilted rhythm pattern, like limping towards heaven. “The seeming and the meaning” was a pop hit waiting to happen (I put it on a mix tape for Lucianos bar and the barman loved it, even if he thought it was by Lush). You know it’s really easy to type things into Google like “Enivrez-vous” and finding it’s a Baudellaire poem. I feel really dim sometimes – why did I not know this stuff at the time? I bet Nicky Wire knew that. Sigh. “Stomach worm” was indie Status Quo and nowhere near as bad as that sounds. “Surrealchemist” is another percussion free drift of rhythm guitar and organ. And again the lyrics were intriguing, sometimes like an argument, sometimes like a lecture, but always interesting. Or in French. It did sound very upfront – not a lot of effects, not a lot of artifice – but that was probably deliberate too.

So which is the debut? Take your pick, they’re both rather good. Neither is Stereolab’s masterpiece – take your pick from “Transient random noise bursts…” or “Mars Audiac Quartet” or “Dots and loops” or “Emperor tomato ketchup” or… But as early indicators for their style, they are both near-perfect.

“Jaguar” – The Sweetest Ache

During the spring of ’91 I was catching up with Sarah Records, buying two or three singles each week. If there were multiple singles by one artist I’d buy them together, so I was buying St Christopher singles one week, Another Sunny Day the next week… I picked up Sarah 36 and Sarah 39 together because they were both by The Sweetest Ache and had similar sleeves. Sarah 36 was “If I could shine” b/w “Here comes the ocean” and sounded like a typical Sarah band, the a-side was quite nice with groovy organ and an insistent guitar line while the b-side showed more dynamics – loud to quiet and back again. A good start. Sarah 39 was more subtle – “Tell me how it feels” sounded drowsy and love-lorn, a boy girl duet on the edge of falling asleep while “Heaven scented world” was an acoustic ballad, just guitar and voice, bookended by backward noise. (I spun these backwards to find it was “Close my eyes” by Ride – a band the single’s sleeve notes slagged off!). So both good singles, lots of potential.

In May that year Sarah issued a third Sweetest Ache single – “Sickening” / “Everlasting”. This was a step forward for the band and they sounded a lot more confident. “Everlasting” was a jangly beauty with a positive spirit while “Sickening” was moodier, real pain in the words and vocal – “All I find is wasted time and an endless flow of all your sickening false promises”. A month or so later I saw a flyer for a Sarah Records Night up in the valleys – St Christopher and the Sweetest Ache up in Pentre. Sadly I saw the flyer two days after the gig itself. I was a bit gutted. From the summer onwards, a forthcoming album called “Jaguar” was promised in the Sarah leaflets, and it was finally released in Spring ’92. In the meantime there were more promises – the first two Watercolour Records singles in late ’91 promised a Sweetest Ache single coupling “Selfish” and “Hideaway”.

Finally…I bought the album. After months of misery on the dole I’d landed a job at the Stats Office so my parents gave me fifty quid to celebrate and I dashed to the nearest record shop to buy all the records I’d missed during the previous months. So that was “Secondhand clothes” EP by Moonshake, “Adrenaline” EP and “Everything’s alright forever” LP by Boo Radleys, “Going blank again” LP by Ride, “In ribbons” LP by Pale Saints and “Jaguar”. That night my parents had our friends Janice and Clem over and they mentioned my purchases. “Oh let’s have a look” said Clem, I passed them over to him and he perused each sleeve as if he was taking in every detail before passing them to his wife. After examining each record, they looked at me and said in unison “Never heard of any of them, Rob!”

In amongst all the shoegazing around it, “Jaguar” felt special and slightly different. In my diary at the time I would rave about the ‘purity’ of the sound, the lack of distortion, the clarity of it all. I must admit I play “Jaguar” a lot more frequently than any of the other records I bought that day. As much as I love all those records, this album is the one I return to the most.

It opens in a most uncharacteristic way with “Briaris”. Organ chords, a gentle wash of cymbals rising like waves, acoustic guitars, a pulsing bass drum and a female vocal – a friend of the band named Louise. Pure and clear – “All good things must come to an end, throw your caution to the wind”… The chorus rises with the addition of bass guitar, the singer is double tracked in harmony now. This sounds like love – “Take that sadness away, spending days of joy together”. Then the middle eight rises – “Fade away, no more sadness…”. Like it’s that easy. Then the song fades out as she sings “I will take your sadness away”. Again, like it’s that easy. For months I’d been in the depths of despair without a job, now I had one… Was that the answer to all my problems? Would it cure the blues? “Capo” follows, Simon Court is back on lead vocals. Two minor chords on acoustic guitar, and a truth or two. “I’ll be honest with myself, it makes all the difference, it all hurts less that way if it all goes wrong some day”. Oh dear, here comes the rain again. “Surround myself with emptiness, commit myself to loneliness”. The music is melancholy, string synth chords rising for the sun, little guitar licks, tom tom rolls like impending doom, bass guitar wandering everywhere, but the root notes (can I just state the bass playing on this LP is totally unpredictable and wonderful), then at three minutes the clouds clear, a new chord change and a sax solo brightens the skies. A former Melody Maker writer once stated on Twitter that “Capo” was the purest example of what Sarah Records did. He may have been right. “She believes” is a full band performance but feels oddly weightless – the bass is acting like a lead guitar. There’s a lot of ‘feelings” here – initially the female in the song can “feel the hurt drift away” and later a litany of feelings overwhelm her – “Feel the love feel the pain feel the sea feel the sky feel the heart feel the mind… Still not sleeping”. The climax is almost too much, the drums stop rolling and go motorik, organs rise and fall, guitars solo – but there’s no distortion, no overdrive. It’s just so perfectly clean and pure. “More than this” is more doubtful, Court is trying to persuade someone – “Trust in me please, there’s one more move to make” – while guitars arpeggio and tambourines are shaken impatiently. “Tell me reasons maybe, understanding is an art for me, face to face with ugliness, there must be more than this”. Sometimes you wish someone would tell you this. End of side one.

“Don’t be coy, let feelings run – forget who knows, enlighten me” sings Court at the start of the title track. Is this a continuation of the conversation from the last song? But the chorus is more forceful – blaring organ and harsh drums and – finally – distorted guitars as Court implores “I never meant to push too hard but these things kill me”, stretching these final words out. “Standing hopeful on the edge”? Is he trying to stop someone jumping off a building, or expecting a new surge of optimism? It’s never made clear. And the music rises and falls, there’s a lovely instrumental middle eight before the harsh chorus comes in, Court repeating “These things kill me” over and over again, so impassioned, as things get raucous, waves of noise, a bit of a rave up then the song suddenly stops and returns backwards. Rewrite the past? Maybe I think too much. “Bitterness” moves through a lovely chord change with added backwards guitar chords, then Court sings “Lately feeling confusion about all the things I want and need”. Some things never change. Nothing makes sense to Court, but the music swirls sweetly. “Failing every nervous move I make”, mysteries and strangeness – sorry to say that these feelings never leave you. Never ending. “Climbing” finds Court in a more positive frame of mind and the music reflecting that – light strums of acoustic guitar over spritely drums and bass. Court isn’t listening to the cruel voices, he’s seeing clearer, yet there’s a spoken section which sounds like a diary entry reciting deep dark thoughts Yet Court is still thinking positive – “I won’t succumb to that again, I’m lying sore and empty – maybe we’ll see”… Hope in despair, hope in love, hope in someone else. As the song fades out and the music dashes for some kind of resolution Court repeats “I’m seeing clearer” like his life depends on it. “Selfish” closes the album in a similar manner to “Journey’s end” closes Brighter’s “Laurel” LP – soft arpeggios and gentle music. Court sings “Another day and I have no-one but myself to understand my twisted thoughts”. Back to bad thoughts? But there’s something else – “Somewhere inside, there’s another place to be, my unselfish hideaway”. And it’s all in the mind. And we’re back to “There’s a place” on “Please please me”, the retreat into insularity, into the mind, into thought. Is that the answer? Depends on the question.

“Jaguar” received no reviews in the music press, or if it did they passed me by. The Sweetest Ache were never interviewed by the Melody Maker or NME either. Later in 1992 they issued a single on Watercolour – not the songs promised but a delightful cover of Honeybus’ “I remember Caroline” backed with “Brown fox”, a seven and a half minute thriller – more dark thoughts as the music quietly prowls and Court is more worried than ever – “I taste one more time your bitter poisoned love” – and the latent agression building throughout explodes then dims down again. Simmering until it boils over again, too much pain, too much crying. It’s all too much. A remarkable song.

The next single issued by the band was on the American label Sunday Records in early 1993. “A new beginning” is a gentle acoustic drift, but Court is still not happy – “I am blinded by lies, can you hear me?”. The other side “Sweet soul sister” is odd, at the time it sounded different, a traditional rock song, typical rock guitar licks, nobody was doing this kind of thing except Delta – the former Sea Urchins. But now it sounds like a cross between “Give out” era Primal Scream and “Don’t look back in anger”. Hmm. At this point Court left the band and they recorded a second album “Grass roots” for Vinyl Japan, a record so anonymous and boring that I can barely remember it, and then split up. Various members have been in bands around the Swansea area – Shooter, The Milestone Band – and eternal thanks to Wally at The Beautiful Music for digging for information and music about these bands. “Jaguar” though is special. I keep saying that about everything. You must be so bored with me by now.

Next time – nineties noise, eighties pop, misery and heartbreak- lots of misery and heartbreak.

Debut Albums #21 – #25

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums twenty one to twenty five

“Begin” – The Millennium / “Present Tense” – Sagitarrius

By 1967 Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher were unhappy with their existence. Sure they were both producers in LA, creating albums by the Byrds, the Association, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Chad and Jeremy and more. But they wanted artistic freedom. They knew which way the musical wind was blowing. Usher had worked with Brian Wilson back in the early 60s – they wrote “In my room” together – and they had both moved on a long way from surf music. In late 66 Usher recorded “My world fell down” (an already exceptional song by the Ivy League) with the cream of his LA studio buddies – Glen Campbell sang lead, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson are in the chorus vocal mix, the Wrecking Crew provided the backing – and presented it to his record company Columbia as a new group called Sagittarius. They loved it, issued the single and in 1967 it reached the Hot Hundred without a group to promote it. Columbia were eager for an album, so Usher started to create one, enlisting Boettcher to help.

Boettcher had his own problems. He had guided the early albums by the Association, adding musique concrete noise to their harmony pop sound before falling out with them, or being sacked. There were also issues over songwriting – Boettcher claimed to have written their hit “Along comes Mary” but was stung out of royalties by Tandyn Almer. There were scores to be settled, songs which had to be sung. Boettcher had created his own band the Ballroom who had recorded an entire LP for Warner Brothers which was never issued, and he was working towards creating a new seven piece band called the Millennium. Usher’s request came at the right time – Boettcher agreed to work on Sagittarius, the Millennium signed to Columbia too and worked on the Sagittarius LP, before moving to their own LP while utilising some of the Ballroom recordings. Everybody was happy. “Present Tense” was issued in July 1968, followed a few months later by “Begin”. Great success was expected – “Begin” was the most expensive album recorded by Columbia at the time – but both LPs sold less than 50,000 copies at the time. Usher left Columbia and recorded a second Sagittarius LP for his own label (which I wrote about last year), the Millennium split up after one more single leaving their talented members to solo careers and other groups like Crabby Appleton, and the two LPs were lost, forgotten or treasured by the few who owned them.

By the mid to late 90s there had been a resurgence in interest in so-called sunshine pop or soft pop, and Mojo magazine had featured both LPs in their “Hidden Treasures” page. Sundazed reissued “Present tense” on CD with bonus tracks, Creation’s Revola arm issued “Begin” and I bought both CDs within a few months of each other in 1998 – “Present Tense” from a record fair in Newport around March and “Begin” on a trip to London with my fiance towards the end of the year.

“Present Tense” is the lighter of the two albums, there’s more emphasis on orchestration, harps and harpsichords and less emphasis on guitars, but there’s a lot to enjoy on the album. Side one can slide past in a dreamy mid-tempo haze of pizzacato strings, phased organs and lush harmonies – I always thought the rising and falling string figure on “Song to the magic frog” was an homage to “The dangling conversation” but I could be wrong. These are many Boettcher’s songs and his sweet breathy singing style suits the material. “Glass” comes a shock then – a mass of effects, Indian instruments, submerged vocals. Quite psychedelic then. “Would you like to go?” is apparently about the Monterey Pop festival, but taking the piss – “Where prophets play electric guitars” indeed. Side two is more varied – “My world fell down” is remixed into stereo and loses its sound effects (a request from Clive Davis, it seems) while second single “Hotel Indiscreet” (co-written by James Griffin before he joined Bread) lost its section of Firesign Theatre noises. “I’m not living here” is Boettcher settling scores, as is “Musty dusty” – a mellotron heavy remembrance of childhood, apparently co-written with Albyn but mysteriously not credited to him. Finally Usher takes control of his project, writing and singing the closer “The truth is not real”. This is perfect psychedelia, swirling organs, heavy bass and drums, lots of phasing and effects while Usher whispers of “rejecting truth because you’re out of phase”. A great closer.

If “Present tense” is sunshine-orch-pop then “Begin” is sunshine-power-pop. Not surprising considering the Millennium contained five singer songwriter guitarists. Boettcher was one of the first people in America experimenting with 16 track recording on this album, running two 8 track tape recordings side by side and it sounds like every one of those 16 tracks was filled with sound, sometimes it works and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Side one opens with an instrumental “Prelude” where a sweet harpsichord figure is smashed to smithereens by a hugely compressed drum beat – inventing Big Beat in a flash – then segueing into “To Claudia on Thursday”, an evocation of a lazy summer’s day. Side one is consistent even if the sound quality is lacking sometimes – all those overdubs – and has some delightful late 60s pop songs on it. Side two however is far superior. “It’s you” is powerful guitar pop, a protest against authority and the older generation disguised as a love song. “Some sunny day” adds some pedal steel to the mix, while “It won’t always be the same” promises secrets being revealed. “The know it all” is an uptempo pounder with distorted guitars and Hugh Masakela’s frenzied trumpet blast, with lyrics about past lives. Are they trying to make a point? “Karmic Dream Sequence #1” is a huge song with a strange edgy yet serene atmosphere (which would be replicated on “Where the geese go” by Verve) – backwards screams, celestes, a wash of guitars and whoever is singing sounds distinctly like Robert Plant at his most gentle. (Of course Plant was a huge fan of Californian late 60s rock). After four minutes, it all gets strange – more backwards sounds, kotos, reverb and wind noises. All topped off with a brief snatch of the “Prelude” harpsichord at the end. And it gets better again. “There is nothing left to say” brings all the semi-religious aspects of the music into focus – “the time is gonna come when we’re gonna lead the way, you’ll be shown the way and shown the time, we’ll only need to go…” – while the music is a rich mix of Leslie-toned guitars, pianos and aeriated backing vocals. Quite stunning. “Anthem” is a bit of a laugh to close the album, tribal drumming, wild phasing, silly “CTA 102” voices and a chant of “Columbia Columbia… C…B…S” just to annoy the label.

Both LPs are wonderful, similar but different. Neither were praised at the time but are now regarded rightly as classics.

“No less the trees than the stars” – Purple Ivy Shadows

Back in the day I collected record labels. Sometimes I even wrote to them and ordered records directly from them. Sometimes their mail order was so crap that I never received anything in return (I’m looking at you Fluff Record of Loughborough, I presume that Hula Hoop LP got lost in the post then). In the early and mid 90s there were numerous indie labels I’d know and look out for – Sugarfrost, Heaven Records (run by the Fat Tulips), A Turntable Friend, the aforementioned Fluff (who issued Boyracer’s debut single alongside early records by Hood), Bus Stop Records from America, Summershine Records from Australia and Watercolour Records which were based in Ironbridge in the industrial Midlands. It was the latter which was most interesting as they didn’t have one set style of music, they were quite eclectic within the genre. Their main band was The Field Trip who were are strange mix of mod and space rock (pretty sure Sonic Boom produced some of their singles), but they issued some wonderful little seven inchers – the Lean-To’s “Soapscum” EP, an odd fanzine and flexi package by the Snowbirds, the Sweetest Ache’s Honeybus cover…

Some of these songs were compiled onto a CD called “Self Portrait” which would be Watercolour’s final release at the end of 1993 alongside a few new songs. There were two songs on the CD I hadn’t heard from a Watercolour single I didn’t buy until early 94, both by the American band Purple Ivy Shadows. “Cathedral Forests” and “At Eleven” both start quietly then gradually increasing in complexity with lots of delayed guitars coming to a crescendo around the five minute mark. This type of indie shoegazing was very much in fashion – a similar style was used by The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and there were two wonderful singles by Fur on Che Records in this vein. But Fur disappeared as did EOST and I presumed Purple Ivy Shadows had as well. I was very surprised when I saw an advert in ’97 for a PIS LP issued on Slow River Records in the UK. I hunted it down and bought it alongside its sister EP “Under and OK” in a Manchester Music and Video Exchange shop later that year.

I was probably expecting more of the same – echoes, delays, oceans of reverb. I didn’t get it. Instead I was given crystal clear acoustic guitar strums, some nicely overdriven electric guitars, songs which took diversions when I least expected them, odd time changes and lyrics I would still be puzzling over for years to come. Did I care? Absolutely not. I adored it. “Pawtucket” is a fine opener and there’s some odd lyrical ideas – “What are you doing with the sun?” – and some interesting stop-start twists. “Feeble” tumbles around in 6/8 time, while “Rebuilding the ancestral statue” is an odd motorik jam – typewriters, clanging percussion, atonal horns, lots of guitars and strange words – “Plans are not politicals…” Then a strangled cry of “UUUU-niversal”. Very odd. The songs continue in this vein – falling off sideways when you least expect them, peculiar lyrical conceits – “You are a blue mountain” – references to books or films. “Roadwise blood” is the culmination of this, strange time signatures, guitars tumbling over themselves, three overlapping vocals not aiding understanding, leading to a raucous clangour of a chorus. End of side one.

I’d like to say side two is easier to understand but it isn’t. “Sustance” is a more straightforward opener which is almost logical, possibly about self-destruction – “You can be a good athlete and hurt yourself, you can be a good soldier and shoot yourself in the foot”. “She wouldn’t have it” is short but unsettling, especially when huge waves of distorted guitars and drums take over the song at the end. “Stairs” is so similar in tempo, rhythm pattern and key to “Carly Simon” by Insides that I often mix them up in my mind, I really should do a mash up of the two songs. (“No, please don’t!” I hear you cry). “Dancefloor shiny under junky” is another two chord jam and yes that is a very odd title. Then it all goes really good. “No health” has more chiming guitars and stop start rhythms but a sudden melodic sense only hinted at before, then rises to a chorus of “The second I feel great comes a week when I have no health anymore” – then some lovely George Harrison-esque guitar peals to close the song. Finally “A space is needed” returns to their shoegazing past, in a way. A simple three chord guitar riff is strummed through echo and reverb, organ and bass is added, tentatively, drums are hit occasionally, the whole band seem to be warming up, working around the riff, this goes on for ninety seconds, bursts of feedback, slide guitars… Then a drummer kicks in with a offbeat waltz, the whole band drop in and link together, the song moves upwards for about thirty seconds before falling apart again, everyone dropping out and returning to that one guitar riff and droning organ echoing into space.

I loved the album and played it to other people but nobody really liked it. Were the structures too odd? Wasn’t it melodic enough? Maybe it’s one of those records that gets made and then disappears. Purple Ivy Shadows made a few more LPs but none were issued in the UK, it became harder to find them as time passed but luckily they are all available on Bandcamp if you feel the need to investigate. Give them a listen, I’d love to think I’m not the only person out there who loves them.

“Radar Bros” – Radar Bros

This LP was mentioned amongst Melody Maker’s Top 50 LPs of 1996 which was odd because I’d not really noticed them writing about it. But there it was, looking strange in the list. When I saw it reduced in Diverse a few months later I bought it, played it once or twice at bed time – always the best time to absorb new music – and fell asleep to it. I kept trying to listen to it, I kept falling asleep. Over and over again. What was peculiar was that I would wake up to hear the closing track, think “That was good” then switch off the CD player and fall into a really deep sleep.

I knew I had to hear the album properly so put it onto tape and took it on my bus journeys. It didn’t do very well as the soundtrack for the journey to work, and whenever I played it on the journey home I would still fall asleep, often leading to me falling forward and banging my head on the seat in front of me (I’m not making this up, you know). Eventually I found it was the perfect soundtrack to the late night bus journeys from my girlfriend’s house back to mine. I managed to stay awake for the whole album and it finally made sense to me.

You see “Radar Bros” is slow-core. I’d not really come across the term or any of the music before. Reading the page on “slowcore” on Wiki “the music of slowcore artists is generally characterized by bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies, slower tempos and minimalist arrangements”. So far so good. But the Wiki page also mentions that nobody liked the term and nobody used the term which is odd. Antecedants – Galaxie 500 and American Music Club. Pioneers – Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Wiped out by the end of grunge. So Radar Bros didn’t really fit into a genre which didn’t really exist by the time they started. Hmm. Radar Bros are what Jim Putnam did next after leaving Medicine, if you ignore Maids Of Gravity (I know, it’s gonna be hard to ignore them but you’ll try, won’t you?) They were a trio of guitar, bass and drums and played slowly and quietly, with occasional keyboards and lots of space around the music. It could be said that there was nothing new in their sound – trios had been playing slow and spacey since Free – but Radar Bros established their style and they stuck to it.

So how does the debut album sound? Slow, quiet, miserable. The songs merge into each other on initial listens, only becoming distinct entities after about ten or more plays. The lyrics are generally downbeat and pessimistic when they are not riddles. Admittedly the first few tracks really do drag a lot and I’m not surprised I fell asleep by the fifth song. “Supermarket pharmacy” really is as soporific as any product from that pharmacy. Too many songs open with a roll on the tom toms, or a slow guitar chord.

God this record is depressing.

Thankfully it improves. “We’re over here” is positively spritely compared to what has come before it, and the song is actually really good, an interesting riff, lots of guitar interplay, they actually sound awake, but I still have no idea what the words mean. “Too wasted for community”? But it doesn’t drag and the added radio noises keep my interest. “Hey that can’t be all of me?” – if you say so. “Distant mine” builds up nicely to a loud conclusion. “This drive” seems to be about failing mid 90s technology – “Too much time behind the monitor today – my disc drive is dead” – and has quite sweet harmonies, and could pass for a sleepy Crazy Horse if you squint hard enough. And finally the closer is worth slogging through the rest of the album for. “Goddess” is five minutes of total wonder – a riff so easy you wonder why nobody else thought of it, a melody actually worth singing, a performance on the edge of drowsy and some lovely guitar solos. Not just a solo though – Jim sings it too. “Da dum…da da dum…” while he plays it, like Neil Young crossed with George Benson. Absolutely wonderful.

I’ve probably not inspired anyone to listen to this LP. It is hard work – very hard work to be honest – but it is worthwhile to get to “Goddess”. Or just find that song on the internet somewhere and listen to it instead.

“The Bridge” – Robert Rental and Thomas Leer

In 1984 I heard a strange single on the radio, it picked up a decent amount of airplay on the local radio station to ingrain itself into my mind. The song was “International” by Thomas Leer. It was an unusual sound – all synthesised but with a swing and an almost oriental bent melodically, and the lyrics sounded straightforward but had hidden depths – something about poppies being harvested? – all sung in a lovely Scottish burr of a voice. I bought it and loved it. A month or so later my favourite magazine Electronics And Music Maker had an interview with Leer (it also had an article on Cocteau Twins I think) where he talked about his career from his debut single “Private Plane” in 1978 through to his Cherry Red singles and album up to his major label debut LP “Scale of ten”. He also demonstrated his abilities on the Fairlight CMI which he kept in his flat.

A few months later I saw an album called “Business Unusual”, a compilation of singles issued by independent labels during 1978 to 1979, compiled and issued by Cherry Red Records. It had “Private Plane” on it, and “Paralysis” by Robert Rental which looked interesting. I wanted that LP, and eventually found a copy during the summer of ’86. “China’s Eternal” by the Tights turned out to be a lost classic of arty post punk. In the meantime I picked up “Paralysis” by Robert Rental from a record fair in Beaconsfield (don’t ask) and loved it, then at the start of ’86 I found “The Bridge”, the only album combining the talents of Leer and Rental together.

“The Bridge” is an album of two halves. Side one is pop songs, side two is more expansive. The album was recorded quickly “at home” during two weeks in the summer of ’79 on an eight track recorder with a hired mixing desk which had previously been used by Paul McCartney (according to the E&MM interview it was full of moss from his Scottish hideaway – making me wonder if it was involved in the creation of “McCartney II”. Hmm). Side one kicks off with “Attack Decay” – frantic primitive synth sequences, white noise bursts, barely audible vocals from both Leer and Rental Melodic but intense. “Monochrome Days” is a distant cousin to Rental’s “ACC” (b-side of “Paralysis”), halting guitar riffs over synthetic percussion and bass blasts. But it sounds like a pop song. “Day breaks night heals” is more synthetic, pulsing and beating against each other. Again it sounds like pop music. “Connotations” is moodier, and brings to mind the kind of music the Radiophonic Workshop would create for “The boy from space” or other “Words and pictures” type programmes for schools and colleges. “Fade away” is six minutes of synth blurts, noise and random shouting – “This video is broken!”.

Side two is something else. The majority of the music was built up in loops using the methodology shown on the reverse of Eno’s “Discreet Music” – a tape loop delay system. Or Frippertronics perhaps. The music is more ambient and experimental then. “Interferon” is the most obviously looped piece, building in intensity from an industrial start to something quite beautiful and startling. “Six AM” is aptly named, capturing that pre-dawn mood well – flickering street lamps, a sense of dread or paranoia. “The hard way in is the easy way out” features the voices of John Lydon and Joan Collins when they appeared together on a revival of “Juke Box Jury” (and yes I just had a look at it on Youtube) and is a bit unsettling while “Perpetual” is strange, synths bubbling, vocal tones stretched out, very haunting indeed.

What is odd is that the album sounds like a future that never quite happened. There’s a feeling in the music, within the timbres of the synths, a general greyness of tone, a lack of polish, a lack of high-end EQ even… It suited the time, it feels like 1979 to me. It sounded like ancient history amid the shiny digital mid 80s synth pop that was dominating the radio at the time. It is a beautiful time capsule of how futuristic synth pop could be made in a flat in London, and it is a great shame that neither Leer or Rental had much success – indeed Rental made one more single on Mute before disappearing. At least Leer had a career through his solo records and his collaboration with Claudia Brucken in Act and is still making music now. But “The Bridge” is a wonderful record, well worth your time.

Next time – Noise, heartbreak, skewed mid 80s pop and more of the same

Debut Albums #16 – #20

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums sixteen to twenty

“Story” – Honeybus

A short tale. It’s the early 90s and my family are on a short break in Stratford-Upon-Avon, seeing David Troughton in “The Venetian Twins” at the RSC, a play so funny that I can’t physically stop laughing at one point. We are staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast which serves the best full English breakfast I’ve ever had. During the long drive home we all decide we’re fed up with whatever music is being played on the cassette player. Somebody asks me “Haven’t you got some Honeybus, Rob? That’ll be nice. ” I dig around, find my tape of their only LP “Story” and pass it forward. The tape plays. A voice says “Give us a note Pete” followed by the sound of a string section tuning up. The first song starts, gentle drums, guitars keening, then a voice sings “She used to laugh, she used to laugh at me…”. The tape is abruptly stopped, ejected and thrown back at me. Someone says “I’m not surprised she laughed at you” and another more ‘acceptable’ tape is found for the journey.

Honeybus.. “I can’t let Maggie go”… Nimble bread… One hit wonders in 1968…Did they make an album? Really? What else is there to say?

Honeybus were soft-rock, lots of guitars and harmonies and orchestral arrangements, probably a harpsichord somewhere, an oboe probably over there – like a British version of the Left Banke. Their early singles on Deram made little impact in ’67 – except that the second “Do I still figure in your life? was covered by Joe Cocker on his debut album (probably the Denny Cordell connection). But the third single “I can’t let Maggie go” was a huge hit, as joyous as a walk on a spring morning with the one you love. But the hit caused pressure – the lead singer and songwriter Pete Dello wanted the band to be a studio only act but the hit meant live performances where they couldn’t reproduce the rich sound of the records. Dissatisfied, he left the band and everyone assumed Honeybus were over. The other members had different ideas, carried on, issued a few singles and finally issued their debut album “Story” in 1970, produced by Ivor Raymonde – known for writing and arranging for Dusty Springfield amongst many other talents. I bought a CD of it when See For Miles reissued it in the early 90s and loved it. But why did I love it?

Because the album is soft pop heaven. It even sound quite indie pop in places too. It’s a typically late 60s record, but not over ambitious. There’s no heavy concept, no extended soloing, no tricky time changes. If heard in the wrong context (like a car journey on the outskirts of Stratford-Upon-Avon) it probably sounds wimpy as hell. There’s the occasional string arrangement, lots of harmonies, acoustic guitars strumming gently, nothing outlandish. The album is consistent too – the lyrics paint small vignettes of life and love, gentle political comment, tales of country boys and high class ladies, remembrance of loves past and hopes for future loves.

Highlights? The sighing opener “Story” is great- “Have you seen the light that she keeps within her eyes when she looks your way?” says so much. “Black mourning band” is a jaunty song of death. “Fresher than the sweetness in water” is pure refreshing pop (and was covered by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in the mid 90s). “Ceilings #1” is almost country rock with a message. “Under the silent tree” is as close to psych rock as they get, twisting mellotrons and distorted guitars. “She said yes” is one of the ultimate “Hurrah, I’ve got a girlfriend” songs (see what I mean about it being indie pop?) “How Long” is wonderful chiming guitar rock but also shows a problem on side two of the album- the mixing leaves a lot to be desired on this song and “She’s out there” – vocals side, instruments right side, it’s more 1964 than 1970. But it’s forgivable – maybe they ran out of money. Who knows? The album is full of little gems, even The Sweetest Ache sweetly covered “I remember Caroline” for a single on Watercolour Records in 1992.

But nobody noticed, it was ignored, Honeybus split up and it was only many years later people realised what a lovely little LP they had made. Shame. Don’t let this lovely music be ignored any longer.

“Euphoria” – Insides

Friday 3rd December 1993

It’s her last day in IT and I’m quietly having panic attacks. Will I ever see her again? I have devoted so much time and effort (not to mention songwriting) on her and it’s all been for nothing. I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me. What am I doing? Why am I wasting so much time on her? Should I say something? That morning I sneak a camera into my bag, determined to somehow get a picture of her. How do I do that without looking weird? I look weird enough as it is. Her department hold a leaving party for her in the office next to mine, I can hear every dishopnest word being spoken – she hated it there and made it known she wanted to move on. Naked ambition? What do I know – I know nothing about her.

She carries out a final shift on the help desk in the room opposite my seat. My door is open, so is hers. I could walk across the corridor and talk to her. I could proclaim my affection for her. But instead I quietly pop in and shyly wish her well. Then when I’m back at my seat and she’s relaxing in hers – feet up on the desk, not looking – I take the chance and quickly take a photo. Not even sure if it will come out. Nobody notices, least of all her. (The photograph will become the sleeve for the third volume of “Honest and worthless”, a three tape compilation of my musical highlights from 1985 to 1994. The logic is each volume has a picture of the main inspiration on it – vol one has school, vol two has the Railway pub, vol three has her. The tapes are in the possession of one of the readers of this blog, not me). At the end of the day I leave the office thinking sad thoughts – is this the last time I see her, or speak to her, or anything? What I need now is a distraction.

My journey home that night inevitably takes a detour into Spillers Records. Music is after all a good distraction. I look through the little cardboard CD sleeves (Spillers don’t actually put CDs on their racks, they photocopy the sleeves onto 6 inch square cardboard – you have to admire their dedication to stopping people stealing stock) and come across “Euphoria” by Insides, an album I was interested in after a rave review in Melody Maker. I look at the sleeve, the track listing… There’s a song called “Distractions”. Perfect. I’ll have it.

I play the album at home that night. I play it again and again and again. I play it walking to the Railway and back again after a few drinks. I play it as much as I can to distract from the thoughts in my head. And slowly the songs assemble their parts like a jigsaw. Each song is built from patterns – electronics, bass guitar, electric guitar – that circle around each other like systems music. At first it all sounds random, it makes no sense – time signatures seem skewed and wrong. But each song has its own logic, builds up or drops down again. The music alone would make this a great album.

And then there’s the vocals. The words are sung (and presumably written) by Kirsty Yates, who also co-wrote the music with Julian Tardo. Yates has a breathy intimate voice, speak-singing, not forcing the words out in a declamatory way, letting them slip out of her mouth. And the words…oh the words. Sexy, intimate, scary, literate, totally unfiltered… It is the inner most thoughts of someone who doesn’t truly understand relationships. So that’s me there. The words are unique and they are sung into the listener’s inner ear so sweetly, even if the sentiments are far from sweet. Each song has its own unique style but it’s all washed in a deep blue reverb, throughout the album. “Walking in straight lines” has one of the best opening lines ever – “Thanks for waiting, I’ll start now”. Fine… “Relentless” has seemingly random sequences pulsing away while Yates sings “It’s time to say goodbye…”. Yes indeed. “Yes” is the most conventional, almost jazzy, just bass and drums and guitars while “Skykicking” builds up in layers and layers over seven minutes, reaching an ecstatic peak as Yates is drowned out by everything around her. It’s intensely personal, but strangely universal – should someone be saying these things? And how come I think these things too? Does this mean it’s not just me who feels this confused by the thought of relationships? The whole album is perfect. Just don’t ask me to describe it better than that.

I return to work on Monday not expecting to see her. But I do, at lunchtime. She ignores me. Life goes on. “What do you think about when you’re lonely?”

“The Only Fun In Town” – Josef K

In December 1991 I started to work two days a week at the Oxfam charity shop in Penarth. One of my neighbours was the manager there so a good word was put in for me, after all I had been on the dole for four months and no jobs were on the horizon, it was something to do and something to fill in a gap on my CV. I worked on Saturday mornings and Tuesday mornings and loved it. Saturdays were busier and I usually had a second till set up to serve the hordes of customers. Tuesdays were quieter and I was on the till with a lovely older lady, we used to have a huge amount of fun there. In fact having a ‘young man’ in the shop was an enormous novelty amongst the generally pensioner age workforce at the store. But I loved every minute of my time at Oxfam, so much so that even once I started working in Newport from June ’92 I still did Saturday mornings at Oxfam until I left Penarth in ’94.

And what has this got to do with anything, least of all a debut album by a Scottish group on Postcard Records released in 1981? Well obviously I didn’t have a lot of money at the time so every record was precious. I only bought two CDs between January and April ’92 – “Spooky” by Lush and “Sorry for laughing” / “The only fun in town” by Josef K. “Spooky” has been conspicuous in its absence from all the “best debut albums” lists I’ve been reading on Twitter – probably because Robin Guthrie’s production suffocated the songs in much the same way it did on “Ignite the seven cannons”. Odd because his production on their “Mad Love” EP had been perfect. “Spooky” still had its moments – “Monochrome” was a perfect album closer… ENOUGH LUSH!

So the only new music (new to me, that is) I listened to obsessively was the Josef K CD. “Sorry for laughing” was meant to be their debut album in 1980 but was pulled at the test pressing stage for being too clean and bright, so “The only fun in town” was recorded quickly as a replacement, sounding more live and punk. I put the albums on either side of a cassette and played them over and over, anywhere I walked I had Josef K playing on my walkman. For three whole months. It was great. I was trying to decide which of the two albums I preferred, and after much listening and pondering I chose “The only fun in town”. It soundtracked almost every moment of those three months, but the days I remember are the deep winter days in late January. There was a heavy snowfall and I ended up walking to Oxfam and back through snowdrifts, then a day or so later a fog descended and smothered Penarth. Again I walked through it all – snow at my feet, wrapped in a thick winter coat, gloves and hat and scarf on to keep warm, a fog so deep I could barely see a metre ahead of me, with Josef K’s angst ringing in my ears. “It’s kinda funny”? Not really. More like “A dreadful winter, listen(ing) to noise…”

What jumped out at me about Josef K when I started listening was the guitars. Yes they were scratchy, yes they were trebly, yes they were frantic… But the way they were played and the chord shapes and patterns was beyond my comprehension. I was – and still am – a competent guitarist at this point but I really couldn’t work out whether the two guitars were using alternate tunings or strange chord fingerings to achieve the discords in the songs. And then there’s the songs – mostly frantic dashes, the drums and bass struggling to keep up with the guitars. And the words are typical post-teenage angst, sung in a kind of yelp by Paul Haig which registered with me – this man knew truthes from his hard life so far and was sharing them with me. Phrases leapt out of the maelstrom – “there’s so many pathways that lead to the heart”, “So I’ll disappear through a crack in the wall”, “Everyone in our town walks around to test the air”… The ten songs were wonderful across the board, but some stood out. I loved the atmosphere on “It’s kinda funny”, the chiming of the guitars in the instrumental middle of the song. “Citizens” had a skitterish funk feel. “Sorry for laughing” was frenetic and strangely joyful. A song about being disabled, it comes across as being sympathetic yet stressed out – “Sorry for laughing – there’s too much happening”. Angst had never sounded nervier, edgier, more terrified of living – that made sense to me that winter. Whenever I listen to “The only fun in town” I’m back in the fog and the snow – literally and metaphorically.

“The Gentle Art Of Conditioning” – Lower

1997 was a miserable year for reasons I won’t go into, but there was some good music discovered and / or released that year. Maybe I’ll write about “Sound of lies” by the Jayhawks at some point, especially now it’s been reissued with “I hear you cry” rightfully restored at the album’s close (it was on the promo copy I had then disappeared on regular copies). But towards the end of the year I bought a single which would suit my feelings completely. It was hiding in the Diverse Records CD singles bargain bin – a sleeve of a snail crawling along a cut throat razor. A song called “Life’s so slow” by a band called Lower. Interesting. There was another single called “All change” by the same band. Bought them both for 50p each. It turned out “All change” was their debut single and was OK, but “Life’s so slow” was far better – it fitted the sleeve image, shall we say?

I kept an eye on the bargain bins for other Lower singles and lo and behold they turned up there over time. “Second best” came between the two singles I had, while in early 98 they issued two more singles “Sink or swim” and “Crime satellite”. All excellent, and some good b-sides. All bought for less than a pound. Then Lower went on tour and played in Le Pub in Newport. The venue had just had a refit and Lower were the first band to play there when it reopened, and my band the Cloud Minders were going to be the second band two days later. Only it turned out neither of us played. Lower turned up, looked at the stage and said “This venue’s too small for us, mate” and refused to play. And our drummer broke his wrist on the morning of our gig so we had to cancel (we still played there twice in the following years – great venue). There was supposed to be an album issued around this time called “The gentle art of conditioning” issued in ’98, I never saw a copy on a record shop but did find a promo CD of it at a record fair that year. £3. So I bought the band’s entire output for less than £8.

Lower were a five piece British rock band and very much of their time. You could call their music post Radiohead pre millenium tension music. It’s indie rock with a grumpy viewpoint. Look at the song titles – “Low Jesus”, “Second best”, “Machines for living in”, “Stuck on self destruct”. It gets loud and shouty, it gets quiet and moody. It was nothing new and nothing special at the time, everyone was looking for the new Radiohead and eventually people found it in Muse. But while the album in one sitting can be a bit wearing – there’s only so many times you can listen to “this alienation’s killing me” – in small doses it can be quite wonderful. All four singles are great (and it’s worth noting that the album versions are all slightly different to the single versions – I like bands that do that) and there’s one or two stunning songs. The best is “In semi-conscious” – moody verses then a rocking chorus – “What more do you want? The water’s safe to drink, just sterilise your mouth with bleach. What more do you need? The air is breathable but filtered through Salbutamol.”. It concludes with a round of vocals singing “You don’t turn round you don’t look down” which remind me of nothing less than New Musik at their best (and that’s meant as a compliment). An unheard gem of a song. Closing the LP with “Life’s so slow” is perfect too. After all the high tempo wall of noise, it’s good to hear something slower and moodier – and the slow build to a tape cut close is a nice idea (even if it hadn’t already been done on “I want you (she’s so heavy)” or “Timeless”). Oh and if you do happen to have the CD, note the credits state “Tracks 0 – 12” so pause the CD at the start and rewind. And the sleeve itself is rather good. These people understood packaging.

Of course nobody really noticed which is why nobody’s heard of them. Lower were signed to Coalition Records – which was what happened when Warners bought half of PWL Records, so the rest of the label’s output is very odd – from Apache Indian to Sarah Brightman to Jools Holland to Userei Yatsura – and clearly they had no idea how to promote an indie rock band. So after the general faliure of “The gentle art of conditioning”, the band disappeared into the bargain bin in the sky. I wonder where any of them are now. I hope that whatever or wherever they are, they’re a bit happier than they were in 1998.

“Shot Forth Self Living” – Medicine

It starts with someone talking, then a distorted guitar starts, holding one note as the guitar’s timbre is filtered and changed slightly, a wah-wah pedal is rocked gently perhaps – harmonics shearing off it at odd angles – but the note is sustained. At 53 seconds a bass enters, alternating between two notes – a root and a fifth – at a minute exactly drums thump out a pattern, medium paced. And the guitar note is still going on, the bass oscilates on those notes, the drums pound away past the two minute mark, unswerving unchanging thump noise thump noise is anything going to happen? At 2 mins 30 seconds the bass is allowed to slide to a note and the song actually starts, the note turns into an ascending and descending melody, the bass plays over it, more noisy guitars enter and singing – words of fatalistic affairs sung so slightly – “What’s the use in getting angry over me? One more year and we’re history”. And the avalanche of noise guitars continues to pour over the song, until around the seven minute mark they just drop away for the final verse, the song ends on a long feedback note at 8 minutes and 50 seconds.

What a way to open an album!

“Shot Forth Self Living” was the debut album by Medicine, an American noise pop / shoegazing five piece band led by Brad Laner on guitars, vocals and keyboards but also featuring Jim Putnam on guitars and Beth Thompson on vocals. The LP was issued in September 1992 on Creation Records and was trumpeted as America’s answer to My Bloody Valentine. I could see the similarity but each band had their own aesthetic but it’s bloody hard to think about that now. Medicine had pop songs swathed in noise. Not an original concept by 1992 – not even for America. But it was different enough to capture my attention at the time and regular readers to the blog will know I was in need of fatalistic songs about love in the autumn of ’92 (see many other posts).

“Shot forth self living” then is nine pop songs covered in horrendous noise. “Aruca” has Laner and Thompson cooing together over a dance beat and the sound of a chainsaw. “Five” and “Defective” sound more conventional, almost psychedelic. “A short happy life” is a crawl through molasses, where Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar is fucked up so much by Laner’s studio tinkering that Kleinow cried at the aural desecration. “Sweet explosions” is perfectly named, sugary sweet with a dangerous heart. “Miss Drugstore”…amazingly I once saw an episode of “The Clothes Show” where a Milan catwalk had “Miss Drugstore” playing as the models paraded the latest clothes. Different times… Don’t forget that around this time “The Clothes Show” (a Sunday late afternoon fashion show on BBC1) interviewed J Mascis about grunge fashion. Yep. J Mascis on Sunday afternoon TV. I nearly choked on my crumpet. Anyway, Medicine made a great debut album, the melodies stick, the noise hurts, the words are painful – what’s not to love?

Sadly Medicine couldn’t keep up the intense noise to pop ratio – Jim Putnam left to plough his own furrow and gradually Medicine got worse. “The buried life” is great but the third LP was dire… Still, great debut!

Next time – more obscure rubbish nobody cares about except me. And maybe one or two albums you may have heard.

UPDATE 02/08/14 – Due to a cockup on the counting front, it seems my list of 50 debut albums only has 35 albums. I’ll bump it up to 40 and provide an appendix of links to other blog posts where I’ve written about debut albums… Whoops, sorry etc

Debut Albums #11 – #15

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums eleven to fifteen

“The Fabulous Expedition Of Dillard and Clark” – Dillard and Clark

I love Saint Etienne. Not just for their music (which is enough reason as it is) but also for how inclusive they are. Like all proper music fans, they want everyone to come along and join in with the trip, to hear the old music they love and the great new discovery they’ve just found in some dusty charity shop. They are pop fans and there’s no snobbery in their veins. This is also why Bob Stanley’s book “Yeah Yeah Yeah” was such a good read – Bob loves pop and wants to hip you to his favourites along the way.

Why am I going on about Saint Etienne when I should be talking about Dillard and Clark? Because in the autumn of 2005 I bought a double mix CD called “The Trip: Created by Saint Etienne” which opened my eyes to a ton of great stuff. I’d bought the Tom Middleton “Trip” mix CD a month or so before and that was amazing, the first disc a cool mix of disco and new wave (and the theme from “Picture Box” as a hidden track!!), the second a more downtempo mix including a few 70s kiddies favourites alongside Harpers Bizarre, the Dudley Moore Trio, Dorothy Ashby and Vangelis. (A few years ago I heard this CD being piped into a sauna at a health club I was visiting – it fitted perfectly). Anyway I got the Saint Etienne disc and devoured it. The first disc was cool enough – some Northern Soul, disco, American theme tunes. But disc two was something else. Just look at the track listing – Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, The Left Banke, Ice, Tim Hardin… soft pop and soft psych, melancholy and gorgeous. Just listening to it all now brings back memories of those days. Obviously records by Queen Anne’s Lace and Orpheus were going to be hard to find but the one song by Dillard and Clark led me to buying a CD with both their late 60s albums on it within a few days.

“The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” was recorded and issued in late ’68. Doug Dillard had left his brothers in the Dillards to their own bluegrass country synthesis. Gene Clark had left the Byrds with his own melancholy heart and had left CBS after a failed solo LP. Dillard and Clark combined their immense talents, surrounded themselves with sympathetic players from the LA scene and made a quiet gem of an album for A&M – also home to the Flying Burrito Brothers, so someone there was on the country rock pulse.

It opens with “Out on the side”, like a gentle Dylan song – all Al Kooper organ fills, lots of guitars and gentle drums, but with Byrds style harmonies. And Gene Clark is singing like a sad angel. “She darked the sun” is more traditional country, all fiddle and mandolin, while “Don’t come rollin'” is Dillard’s show piece, fast and breezy but the words have a post-hippy sentiment… “We can have love and peace if we want, it’s a state of mind, no more”. So far so straightforward – country or rock. Then the two start merging. “Train leaves here this mornin'” is slower and is a list of mistakes – bad contracts, being in the wrong place, strange parties – but Clark and the other musicians sing and play with such warmth and love, it sounds like they are just sitting in a circle playing for themselves. (A song so great not even the Eagles can ruin it). “With care from someone” sounds like it’s lifting chunks from the verse of “A taste of honey” (that descending bass and ascending melody) but resolves into a joyous harmony chorus. “The radio song” adds an electric harpsichord to the instrumental mix and is full of heartache. “Git it on brother” is more traditional country but “In the plan” is questioning existence and deep thoughts while the closing “Something’s wrong” harks back to Clark’s childhood and innocence and compares it to his current existence which is found wanting, all the while the music matches these thoughts, lots of minor chords and sad melodies.

It’s difficult to listen to “The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” without hearing how much other music sounds like it, from the Eagles onwards through other Californian country rock and It must have been mindblowing hearing it in 1968 when such a country rock cross-over was far from the mainstream. (Indeed a worthwhile comparison point is “Roots” by the Everly Brothers.). It may have sold poorly at the time but by golly it was influential.

“The Return of the Durutti Column” – The Durutti Column / “The Graveyard and the Ballroom” – A Certain Ratio

It’s a few days after Christmas, 1985. My family are in Cardiff looking around the sales, hoping for bargains. I don’t find any, but I do find two cassettes instead – they may be full price but I don’t care, I’ve got Christmas money to spend. And the tapes look so interesting… Big cardboard boxes covered in fabric – one in blood red, the other in deep blue. Both have a simple font on the front with the band name, the album title in italics and the catalogue number. One is Fact 14c, the other is Fact 16c. I buy them both.

I’ve written about “The return of the Durutti Column” already (go on, you know you want to read my Toppermost again) so I don’t need to convince you of its greatness again. As I only knew “Without Mercy” and “Say what you mean…” It was quite a revelation, such simple beauty. And inside that red box was a piece of sandpaper with the credits printed onto it. Perfect. But “The graveyard and the ballroom” was something else.

For a start it was a reissue of ACR’s first album from early 1980 which was half studio and half live, and only available as a cassette in a pouch. I’d seen the name mentioned in Record Collector and loved the combination – graveyard and ballroom can only mean death disco. I didn’t realise it was referring to the Graveyard Studio and the Electric Ballroom. Inside was a card with the credits on one side and a picture of the original cassette on the other, inside an orange plastic pocket. It looked stylish, cool and very very clean.

As for the music… The studio side was amazing. I couldn’t understand how it had been recorded on a four track, there seemed to be lots of echoes and reverbs on different instruments. How the hell did Martin Hannett produce such sounds? The snare drum was tuned high but was loose too, a unique sound. The drums and bass carried the funk, while guitars were trebly and jangling and sharp, and Simon Topping’s words were very odd, flailing flesh, crippled children, being anonymous in death, not typical. There were odd noises too from some kind of primitive synth or effects box, alongside wah-wah guitar which was not “Shaft” at all. It all sounded like they were struggling to play but that added to the fun. I totally loved it. All the songs were great but “Flight” stood out. For a start it was so spare – single bass notes, guitars playing muted chords, so much space. And the words were great – implying so much with so little. The studio side ended with “Strain”, stopping and starting over and over again.

The live side repeated some of the songs from the studio side but that didn’t hurt. “All night party” had been their drumless debut single but now it had Donald Johnson’s funky drums giving it more propulsion. “Choir” and “Flight” were more expansive live, and there’s song they would never return to again. But more than anything there’s a humour that isn’t apparent elsewhere. As the drum intro to “The Fox” starts, Topping laughs “That sounds like Joy Division, doesn’t it?” Later he sings the opening line of “Disorder” at one point before giggling. It’s a side you don’t expect from a Factory band and makes it all the more human. Loud trebly sparse funk. Wonderful. I would cycle to school and back singing songs from it for months to come. What higher praise is needed?

“Crocodiles” – Echo and the Bunnymen

By the Autumn of 1985 I’d heard enough Teardrop Explodes – both albums and a load of b-sides – to know I loved them. Maybe I should give their arch enemies Echo and the Bunnymen a go? For some reason I actually did the decent thing and started listening to a band’s records in the order they were released. So in October ’85 I bought a cassette of “Crocodiles” from the record shop within Debenhams in Cardiff. It had two extra tracks on it, after all…

“Crocodiles” is a good mix of bright and dark. The music is trebly and sharp, Will Sargeant’s guitar could cut your hand off if you let it, Les Pattinson’s bass is steadfast – not as ‘in your face’ as Peter Hook’s bass lines, but harder tougher and the rock the music is built on. Pete De Freitas’ drums kick like angry mules. And Ian McCulloch sings like… Himself.

“Going up” fades in with odd noises, scratching guitars and sonar beeps before the whole band come in properly – propulsive and harsh, Mac already plotting his own greatness – “If we should pull the plugs out on all our history” – before the band rock into the distance. Normally at this point on the cassette would be “Do it clean” but a peculiarity meant my tape played “The puppet”, a failed single. It sure as hell wasn’t “Do it clean”. “Stars are stars” jangles along but always reminded me of something else I could never put my finger on. “Pride” is choppier and better, about family jealousy, though mentioning “Peter” and “Julie” could be digs at Mac’s former members of the Crucial Three (though Julie was the name of Mac’s sister, also the subject of “Passionate Friend”). “Monkeys” is chime and menace and the earliest Bunnymen song, and the most hemmed in of Pete De Freitas’ performances. “Crocodiles” is taken at breakneck speed and hurtles to its illogical conclusion. End of side one.

“Rescue” was the first song written with De Freitas in the line up and also the first song not produced by “The Chameleons” (Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe) – Ian Broudie is at the controls here. Whatever Drummond and Balfe may be or become, at this point they weren’t the greatest producers in the world and both “Crocodiles” and “Kilimanjaro” (recorded straight after “Crocodiles” at the same studio) are thin productions, lacking in what can only be called ‘balls’. “Rescue” is more muscular and shows some lingering doubts already – “If I said I’d lost my way…” – “Is this the blues I’m singing?” – which would develop by the time of the third Bunnymen album. But here the guitars actually chime and it sounds great. “Villiers Terrace” sounds like a cool place to be, everyone sounds out of it. Both the Bunnymen and the Teardrops recorded “Read it in books” twice and this version is by far the worst – the version on the b-side of the Zoo single of “Treason” is my preference. “Pictures on my wall” is great, leading into “All that jazz” which is mean and threatening – all those barricades and fist shaking. A very late 70s lyric. “Happy death man” is a good closer – atonal piano over the top, even if it does have the Teardrop horns. “Like to keep things dark” – yeah I still recognise that feeling. It grooves along, and fades out into “Going up” coming back in. A nice touch. A nice opener, but buying “Heaven up here” two weeks later showed their real potential. I think “Crocodiles” suffered from being issued amongst a wealth of great albums – “Closer” was issued around the same time and let’s face it, everything will suffer in comparison to that album. But at least “Crocodiles” still turns up on proper best debut lists.

“76:14” – Global Communication

I have been listening to this album for just over twenty years (I bought it on the day it was issued – June 1st 1994 – and it was in the card wraparound sleeve, the velcro’s a bit worn now…) and still I don’t know the ‘names’ of the songs. But is that surprising? After all the titles are just the length of each track. It’s not the kind of thing you’d talk about down the pub – “Oh that song ‘8:07’ is so great…”

Again I might be cheating calling it a debut album… The first I heard of Global Communication was when I bought “Blood Music”, the second and last album by Chapterhouse. It had a free CD with it – “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” – which was the Chapterhouse LP ‘reworked by Global Communication’. And not long after that I bought “A collection of short stories” by Reload from late ’93 which was Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton who were Global Communication and Jedi Knights and E621 and oh it gets confusing. So was “76:14” a debut album? Well it’s my rules…

The album itself is all instrumental, mainly downtempo, synth washes, simple melodies building up layer by layer. There’s percussion sometimes, slightly harsh industrial synth hits, or a clock ticking, or sonar bleeps. It is an admirable late night listen on headphones, though more often than not I would find myself nodding off. I suppose that’s a compliment. “7:35” is more uptempo, leading into what can only be called a tribute to Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a real train” in “8:07” and “5:25” (or “Maiden voyage” as it was called when it was issued as a single) Then it all slows down again and the closing “12:10” takes choral voices into somewhere deeply chilled – like “1/2” from “Music for Airports” in an echo chamber. Very nicezzzzzzz. Oh sorry I just nodded off again.

The whole idea of no titles was to allow your mind to paint its own pictures and Global Communication encouraged people to write in with their thoughts and impressions. I remember reading at the time how a primary school teacher played it to her class and they wrote about it and sent it back to them. There’s even a very primitive website address on the sleeve – I wonder if it still works? I used the album myself as a functional piece of music – when my son was very young I would play the album to get him to sleep, the gentle tick tock of “14:31” would always ease him off gently into a snooze, but it was often difficult not following him.

It’s been odd watching how this album has become a classic over the years because at the time I never saw it happening. Yes it was great and a favourite album, but compared to the other fantastic music being issued around the time it was just one of many great albums. Maybe it was just a high water mark for this sort of music – from here chilled music would either head into trip-hop territory or towards more ambient and experimental areas. Twenty years on, this album feels as dated as any Orb album but I still return to it, still explore the textures and feelings, still fall asleep towards the end.

Maybe that’s not such a compliment after all.

Next time – Five more debut albums, including an album I would be surprised if any reader knows (or cares) about.

Debut Albums #6 – #10

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums six to ten.

“A Walk Across The Rooftops” – The Blue Nile

It’s hard to write about a record like “A walk across the rooftops” without sounding like an idiot. But that’s not really stopped me before. I’ve written about “Isn’t anything”, after all….

I first heard “Tinseltown in the rain” in the spring of ’84, it was a regular part of Annie Nightingale’s playlist. I didn’t see any reviews of the single or album but the name kept popping up – Andy McCluskey of OMD mentioned the Blue Nile in interviews, and if it was good enough for him then it was good enough for me to invest in a copy. Admittedly it took me a while – I ended up with a second hand copy towards the end of 1985. To which the obvious response is “Someone sold their copy? FOOLS!”. This album was a real word-of-mouth record when that actually meant word of mouth. But it was a record that you got to know, that rewarded repeated listens, that won you over so much that you felt you had to pass the secret knowledge on to somebody else.

“A walk across the rooftops” is a magical record. Not a note is out of place, there’s sparse electronics, occasional orchestral surges, piano ballads, pop songs… It feels like a tour of Glasgow, the home town of the three members of the band. I’ll admit it now I’ve never been there but listening to this LP I can imagine it – the fountains and cathedral bells. it’s a record full of love – for people, for each other and for their home town. In a way it’s a thirty seven minute love letter to Glasgow. “Tinseltown in the rain” is a night in a cheap disco, finding love in a hopeless place, the guitar and string arrangement aping Chic but creating something special of their own. “From rags to riches” could be the story of the city struggling to regenerate itself (compare with Simple Minds’ “Waterfront”). “Easter parade” is heart-stopping. “Heatwave” is airless and sticky. “Automobile noise” is one of my favourite album closers of all time, sounding like it was recorded in an underground car park – hot and humid, metallic clangs in the distance, but motionless and cool too.

And I’ve not even mentioned Paul Buchanan’s voice. What control, what passion. Not in a typical soul singer way but his own unique way. His “Do I love you? (Pause) YES I love you!” during the middle of “Tinseltown…” makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The album is full of vocal moments like that, “Easter parade” for a start…

The BBC would like you to think the world revolves around Glasgow at the moment with the Commonwealth Games. I’d love to see the Blue Nile play “Tinseltown in the rain” at the closing ceremony, it would be absolutely perfect.

“Colourbox” – Colourbox

“Play some more of that – that Colourbox stuff…”

An American voice drawls the line, as a distorted guitar reels off a crazy phrase, cut off by drum machines and sequencers chattering at a high Beats Per Minute, this is manic, this is “Manic II”, this is getting ahead of myself….

The first Colourbox I heard was Peel playing “Fast Dump”, the b side of their “Say You” single, during the summer of ’84. It sounded like the other electro tracks he was playing (cuts from the Streetsounds “UK Electro” LP by Foreveraction, who turned out to be Dj Greg Wilson, Andy Connell from A Certain Ratio and Martin Jackson from Magazine, heading towards Swing Out Sister). But I noticed it enough to write it in my diary to one to remember. During the summer of ’85 Colourbox appeared on the cover of Melody Maker to promote their debut album, issued in July that year. I bought it while on holiday in Yorkshire on the day it was issued – HMV Leeds actually – and I wanted an early copy as it came with a free album, which would turn out to be essential.

The main LP itself is terrific. After a genteel piano instrumental to lead off, it cuts to the thrilling rock / dance collage of “Just give ’em whiskey”, drum machines pounding, guitars rocking out, and a multitude of speech samples from “Westworld”, “The prisoner”, “2001” and a peculiar interview with Joan Collins (“Sex makes your skin glow and your eyes sparkle”!) Then cut to the lilting reggae sway of “Say You”, then powerful pop ballad “The moon is blue”, then soulful pop of “Inside informer” all highlighting the vocals of Lorita Graham. Side two is just as eclectic, frantic former single “Punch”, sophisticated pop of “Suspicion”, a great medley of “Manic” and “You keep me hanging on” (a year before Kim Wilde’s near identical hit version) closing with the moody ballad “Arena”. It’s a quick trawl through pop styles in the mid 80s and a great listen. Note that the crazed guitar solos on “Manic” are played by William Orbit.

Then there’s disc two. “Edit the dragon” is another rock dance collage, fast cuts to match the sound of martial arts samples, “Hipnition” has a cool swing while “We walk around the streets” is Hale and Pace. Yes indeed. Quickly cutting to a remix of “Arena” which is almost as good as the first version. Side two of this disc (side 4 according to the inner sleeve) works as a side long suite, kicking off with “Manic II”, a remix of “Manic” which stretches the song to over six minutes, including some lovely passages of just pure sequencer showing how the song is built up, then into “Fast dump”, covered in samples and noise (including the sound of a ZX Spectrum program taoe being loaded) and finally “Sex gun” where the backing track of “Just give ’em whiskey” gets a new vocal from Graham. It’s a great side of music, and only available on the first 10,000 copies of the LP and the cassette tape – the CD edition missed it entirely even though there was room for it. (Thankfully it was restored to its rightful place on the comprehensive Colourbox box set that was issued a few years ago)

So Colourbox’s debut is a great sign of the times electro pop soul sampledelic album. It points the way to a hip hop future – and Colourbox had a part in that future through their involvement in “Pump up the volume” by MARRS. But the most remarkable point about the Colourbox LP is that it was issued on 4AD records, home to ethereal gothic types like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Dif Juz and X Mal Deutschland. Not your typical 4AD record then, but still very fine.

“Kontiki” – Cotton Mather

It was “My before and after” which did it. It was on one of those numerous free CDs that came with Uncut every month, usually they go straight to the back of the cupboard after one listen (certainly the amount of them that turn up at the charity shop indicates I’m not the only one who does this). But that song was different, and the accompanying five star review in the magazine meant I was soon hurrying upstairs to Paul K’s office (we were both in the Stats Office, y’know – me down in Forms Production and him in IDBR maintenance) telling him “Listen to this! Read this! ORDER THIS ALBUM!”. He agreed and from there “Kontiki” became the soundtrack of summer 1998.

It was the real fag end of Britpop, The Verve were the biggest band in the country having sold out all their psychedelic grooviness to become Richard Ashcroft’s backing band (and yes I could write about.”A storm in heaven” but it’s not on my final list), Oasis were still huge with their wall of noise Beatles pastiches, and indie guitar music was in another doldrums. “Kontiki” was a breath of fresh air.

OK so leader Robert Harrison has a Lennon-esque twang to his voice and there are hints of “Revolver” in the crunchy guitar tones but it’s not obviously derivative. It’s just prime power pop almost all the way with light psychedelic touches here and there. It sounded home made in the nicest sense – songs have little extra bits appended on the end, as if they’d be recorded over some old songs of theirs. There’s conventional pop songs like “Password”, “She’s only cool” and the aforementioned “My before and after”, jammed with melody and interesting turns of phrase. There’s a few woozy turns like “Private Ruth” and the slowly speeding “Aurora Bori Alice”, showing a psychedelic edge. Then there’s the huge blast of guitars and drums on “Church of Wilson” – “I’m an acolyte of the mighty Church of Wilson” – presumably Brian not Harold. “Vegetable Row” is the kind of song that should soundtrack a hundred Hollywood teen summer smashes. Best of all are the slower moments. “Spin my wheels” is a lovely song built on acoustic guitars and a bed of harmonies, while “Lily dreams on” is a gorgeous romantic drift of a song. The whole album packs about fifteen songs into forty minutes, which is the antithesis of the “fill all eighty minutes” ethos of the time. Over fifteen years on, this album still sounds great – not retro, just fresh. Worth a listen. I’d hope.

“Lo and behold” – Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint

The great thing about having a book full of record reviews – such as Robert Christgau’s “Rock Albums Of The 70s” – is that you can flick through and find a review of an album you’ve never heard and make a mental note of it, then months or years later find the album in a bargain bin and it turns out to be a bit of a classic. This is the case with “Lo and behold”. Only it took about twenty or more years for me to find the album, and it was well worth it.

I’m slightly cheating by calling “Lo and behold” a debut album. It’s certainly the debut album by the conglomerate of performers listed, but Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint had been together in Manfred Mann back in the sixties and had a few hits on their own (with the help of Gallagher and Lyle) in the early 70s) while Dennis Coulson and Dixie Dean had also been on the music scene for years. After Gallagher and Lyle had departed from McGuinness Flint after their second album flopped, the newly christened foursome headed into a studio in London in early 72 with Manfred Mann (“The world’s most sensible Dylan nut” according to Xgau’s LP review here) as producer. The final magic ingredient in “Lo and behold” is Bob Dylan.

For this album is a collection of cover versions of his songs, and not just the usual classic songs which get covered regularly. These were songs which had been copyrighted between 1963 and 1971 but not officially issued by Dylan himself. So there’s early protest songs mixed in with songs from “The Basement Tapes” (which were still three years away from official release by this point). Even now trying to locate the Dylan versions of these songs on Spotify there’s gaps – “Sign on the cross” and “Rocks off” are still not released by Dylan, other songs are found on “The Witmark Demos” or an unreleased live LP from 63 or a collection of recordings for “Broadside” magazine. I shall point out here that Clinton Heylin’s book “Revolution in the air” which details every Dylan song (released and otherwise) up to ’73 helped me understand this album a lot better.

So that’s the background. What’s the album actually like? Absolutely wonderful. “Eternal circle” is a good start, sounding like a Byrds out-take, while “Lo and behold” is a travelogue in the jaunty style of the Band – an acceptable comparison point and they add more melody than the Basement Tapes version. “Let me die in my footsteps” is defiant in word and music – building from droning guitar and tablas into something more folky. “Open the door Homer” is a personal favourite, playful and freeflowing, with a great coda. “Lay down your weary tune” starts all choral before building up in layers of melody and sound. God, what lyrics! A song about the power of music. Still astounds me now, and obviously the source of “Strength of strings” (after all, the Byrds did record it themselves). “Don’t you tell Henry” is a laugh, jug band music, are they taking the piss out of Mungo Jerry? And that “Hot love” lift at the end? Love it. “Rocks off” is a slow bluesy crawl, “The death of Emmett Till” is a heartbreaking lyric, and one must wonder how this can happen.. “This song is just a reminder…”. “Odds and ends” rocks and rolls with humour – nice lift from “Dizzy miss Lizzy” – while closer “Sign on the cross” is heartfelt gospel with a wild rav e up at the end and again one wonders why the song has never been officially released – maybe it’s actually too honest and close to the bone. A great album, and I’m told by my brother that when he saw the Manfreds live recently (an amalgamation of various ex-members of Manfred Mann) they played some numbers from the album. A great and little known album.

(Note to people saying “Tiny Montgomery”? “I wanna be your lover”? Those were b-sides added to the CD reissues, and both fine songs indeed, especially the latter which again apes T.Rex)

“If I could only remember my name” – David Crosby

Put aside any preconceptions of David Crosby you may have – the cliche of a freak flag flying hippy, the freebasing drug addled car crashing crazy, the ecological warrior – and there’s still the music. It turns out he was right about a lot of things anyway, but ain’t hindsight great? But the music…. His songs with the Byrds were always the most questing, adventurous and questioning – “What’s happening?!?!”, “Draft morning”, “Lady friend”, “Triad”, “Everybody’s been burned”… Come on folks, he deserves a free pass just for that one song. Then in Crosby Stills and Nash (and Young) there was the righteous paranoia of “Almost cut my hair”, the past lives of “Deja Vu”, the glorious atonal drift on “Guinevere”… If Crosby had maintained that standard of music throughout the seventies he’d be even more of a legend than he already is.

“If I could only remember my name” was his debut solo album released in 1971 and featuring a cast of just about anyone famous in California in that time. There’s numerous members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana on the songs, alongside Joni Mitchell and both Graham Nash and Neil Young – Stephen Stills only turns up as a character in one of the songs. It could have been a dreary album of interminable jamming, but it’s is far from that. Yes the songs do go on a bit, but there’s always direction and purpose and reason.
“Music is love” – a rare Crosby / Nash / Young collaboration – is a gentle opener, the three men harmonising well over multiple twelve string guitars repeating the title’s mantra, then around 2:30 Young adds some spooked vibraphone (compare with “I believe in you”) and the words change – “Everyone’s saying that music’s for fun”. But this isn’t born out by what comes along. “Cowboy movie” is mainly the Grateful Dead backing Croz while he explains about the bizarre love triangle within Crosby Stills Nash and Young which would lead to their falling out. It grooves nicely. “Tamalpais high (at about 3)” is a gentle breeze of a song, massed Croz harmonies over a jazzy backing. “Laughing” is a total classic, acoustic guitars bright as the sun, Croz searching for something, anything, comfort, getting it wrong, only finding it in a child’s laughter – it’s an allegory for the Maharishi apparently. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel at the end is divine. “What are their names?” begins like a casual jam – Garcia and Young trading guitar licks as the rest of the band rev up, before a choir of Croz’s friends sing about the men who run the countries. Still relevant today. “Traction in the rain” glistens with autoharp and guitars and Croz at his dreamiest and most thoughtful. “Song with no words” is more luscious ba-ba-ba music and ended up on many of my mixtapes. “Orleans” is spooky, multitracked Crosbys singing a traditional song with only a guitar accompaniment. Finally the album gets totally spooked, “I swear there was somebody there” is incredibly eerie, barely eighty seconds of Crosby’s most anguished vocal tones echoing into the distance.

Some people didn’t get the album at the time – again Christgau was particularly scathing – but this is an album that has grown in stature as the years have gone by, time has been kinder to this than a lot of early 70s music. What initially sounds indulgent becomes hypnotic over repeated listenings. This album’s a grower – definitely not an instant classic, but give it time to seep in and it will alternately charm and spook you.

Next time – another five albums. It might be a while as I’m going on holiday but I’ll see what I can do…

Debut Albums #1 – #5

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums one to five.

#1 – “Come From Heaven” by Alpha

There was a period during the late 90s when record fairs were full of promo CDs of albums for a couple of quid. It felt like the record industry was throwing tons of crap at the wall and hoping a minuscule amount of it would stick. Those record fairs would end up being rich pickings for me – I ended up with some great albums amongst the dross, I’d pick a title or band because the name sounded interesting or I might have read about them. That’s how I found little gems like The Willard Grant Conspiracy and The Liquor Giants (if “Every other day at a time” had been their debut, I’d sure as hell be writing about it here). It’s also how I ended up with “Come from heaven” by Alpha.

I knew about Alpha from an advert I’d seen in one of the music papers for the Melancholik label, run by Massive Attack. I had picked up their debut single “Sometime later” – again from a bargain bin, this time Diverse Records’ £1 cd singles box. (We’ll come back to that box on a later instalment). I had liked the single and the b sides, it was definitely in the post Portishead orchestral trip-hop vibe. And they were from Bristol. And it turned out that one of them (Corin Dingley) had helped out on the production and engineering of Secret Shine’s debut LP “Untouched”. So..worth a punt for three quid.

The first few times I listened to “Come from heaven” I really didn’t get it. Sure it was a pleasant enough record to put on at bedtime and fall asleep to (again, this may end up a theme) but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Then one day I felt like crap in work, full up with a cold and barely able to concentrate. I went home sick, stopping off at the pharmacists long enough to buy some sort of Contac 400 “Night and day” cold relief tablets. I headed home, took a tablet, lay on my bed and shoved “Come from heaven” on. Whatever was in those tablets must have been pretty strong because I felt light-headed and woozy almost instantly. I didn’t feel better, I just felt like I didn’t give a shit about my cold any longer. And as the drugs kicked in the album started to make sense to me.

The album is built around looped samples from multiple sources – a bit of Percy Faith Orchestra here, a Dusty Springfield there, Michel Legrand’s soundtrack to “Le Mans”… All scratchy vinyl, a dab of melody here and there, sub-bass blurts and orchestral arrangements that are subtle but lovely. The vocals are handled by three singers – Wendy Stubbs, Martin Barnard and Helen White – all sound drowsy and half-awake which adds to the general downtempo nature of the record. “Sometime later” is an early highlight – brooding and slow, but building in intensity as it progresses before Barnard finally explodes as the orchestra rises in pitch – “Hold the sun down, hold the moon down, leave me the rest…”. “Delaney” is a duet between White and Barnard, taking alternate verses, almost conversational, the loop falling over itself. If anything I prefer Barnard’s vocals on the album as a whole, he sounds more involved somehow. It’s not perfect throughout – “Slim” is a bit too much Portishead-by-numbers – but overall for a summer’s day strung out on cold cures it was great. It maintains its mood throughout its sixty eight minutes. Could it lose a few of those minutes? Of course it could – just because a CD could hold up to eighty minutes of music, it didn’t mean everybody’s debut album had to fill every minute. Have I mentioned how much I love “Firefly” towards the end of the album? No? I know there was probably some grand concept by putting a different version of “Sometime later” at the end of the album with Stubbs’ vocal instead of Barnard’s…

Like I have already said, this is not “My favourite debut albums”, just debut albums I think are worth a listen. For sunny days like today, this is worth putting on in the background.

#2 – “Sixty-Nine” by AR Kane

I missed A.R.Kane at the time, and I mean completely missed them. I was aware of their existence through reading the music papers religiously every week, but I didn’t hear them on the radio or see them on TV (did they do any TV? I doubt it). They were just a name that the Melody Maker writers raved about during the late 80s. I just bleeped them out, that’s all.

Jump to the summer of 1993 and I borrow a copy of Simon Reynolds’ book “Blissed Out” from Cardiff library and devour it from cover to cover. Can these records be that good? Reynolds saved his highest praise for A.R.Kane and their first few singles and their debut LP “69”. I thought I should hear this music, see what it’s like. Obviously the records aren’t available in normal record shops – their label Rough Trade records regularly went bust in those days – so I had to scour second hand record shops. I took a trip to Bristol mainly to recreate the pictures on the Sarah Records labels 21-30 – the Severn Beach railway line – and ended up in Plastic Wax, a record collecting shop I’d frequented for nearly ten years (I’d first been there in early 84, buying early OMD singles). It was there I found “69” by AR Kane on tape. It wasn’t my ideal format but at least I could listen to the album on the train journey back to Penarth. As I sit down on the train leaving Temple Meads I slot the tape in and press play.

“Crazy blue” starts like an almost normal song, wandering bass, choppy guitar chords, congas and some sweet(ish) singing about everything going crazy. So far so normal. Then the chorus comes in, drums drop in from nowhere and these amazing guitar chords radiate across the stereo spectrum, rich in harmonics, a sumptuously lush sound while the bass gets untethered and wanders crazily up and down octaves. Back to the verse again and now it sounds more dub-like – echoing rim-shots, spaces in the music. And the chorus bursts back in with those radiant guitars again. And the singing isn’t forceful or declamatory, it’s lazy and swooning – “When I think of you, everything goes crazy”. That sounds like real life to me. But those guitars, and that bass. Good opener. “Suicide kiss” starts with a repeated bass line and a stop start drum pattern and the singer knows something’s falling apart – “The writing’s on the wall”, “This is not another sob story”. . Tension builds, on the second verse walls of distorted guitars join in, just one chord all the way through. Then after the second chorus, screaming single notes of feedback enter and the drums start going mental, ricocheting off against each other as more and more shards of noise join in until the whole song collapses on itself, the drums stumble to a halt and the guitars feed back endlessly. The bass guitar starts again and now all hell has broken loose, guitars all over the place, Alex Ayuli almost shouts to be heard above the cacophony, and the song stops dead – like a tape cut, or a suicide.

By now I’m loving this album. I can see why the critics loved it. The next song is “Baby milk snatcher” – obviously a reference to Mrs Thatcher “the milk snatcher” who stopped free school milk in the mid 70s. (As an aside, I still get an instant memory rush if I drink milk at room temperature, I’m back in primary school in Leeds drinking milk out of a tiny glass bottle through a straw – the milk was never chilled in those days). This song is more dub-wise, a heavy bass, echoes and spaces, but with huge waves of guitars in the way. And it sounds kind of sexy too – “baby suck seed slow slow slow”. And it’s at this point the train blasts into the Severn Tunnel, the carraige goes dark, the windows rattle and it’s a most perfect moment. “Scar” is more minimal – a lightly strummed guitar, some odd lyrics, echoed drum shots, more space. “Sulliday” on the other hand is just too much. Even now I don’t understand it – it’s a collection of moments and sounds, each unrelated to each other, all engulfed within an ocean of reverb. No melody to speak of, words that wander in and out, just oddness. The only equivalent I’ve come across is “Dreaming at rain” by Eyeless In Gaza, which is a seven minute improvisation in the middle of an otherwise song based LP. End of side one. Turns tape over, watches the sun stream through the windows.

“Dizzy” defies convention. While there’s a cello in the foreground and everything feels normal on the surface, Ayuli’s lyrics are slightly queasy – “Dizzy, like when the blood runs away” – and dip in and out. Someone’s having fun at the mixing desk. And in the background there’s strange screaming and guitars going supernova, but never overpowering the song itself. Odd. “Spermwhale trip over” is the song that sounds most like their antecedents the Cocteau Twins, a drum machine taps gentlly, a bass plays a prominent role, guitars circle around each other, but there’s again a sense of space that the Cocteaus never had. And again whispers in the background – “I love you forever”. It’s delicious and beautiful. “The sun falls into the sea” was the song that Reynolds went nuts over the most – something like “It sounds like they are playing a whale’s rib cage”. How could it live up to that? But by golly it does! The first two minutes drift in quietly, guitars sparkle in strange hues, a waves of harmonics, then the lightest percussion, bass wandering around, vocals like crushed hearts, a soprano sax, all in this beautiful reverbed cavern of sound. I had heard nothing like it then, and I’ve heard nothing like it since. “The madonna is with child” is built around a repeated piano pattern which sounds quite threatening, and AR Kane throw every trick they have at the song – sky kissing feedback arcs, multiple twinkles of harmonics, and it all makes sense. And there’s a feeling of loss too in the words and music, if the previous two songs were loved up and blissed out, this is more about the turmoil, the falling out. The album closes with “Spanish quay (3)”, an instrumental reprise of what has already been. And that’s it. I loved it, and hunted high and low to find it on vinyl and CD, being one of the few albums I own on all three formats.

A stunning debut album featuring more innovation in sound and ideas than most bands create in their entire careers. There’s a gleeful sense of playfulness – a “what if?” mentality to working in a recording studio that works every time. It’s an album I can return to over and over again and still find new details within it. I’ll probably keep saying “this isn’t a best debut albums list” but frankly “69” IS one of the best debut albums ever. Full stop.

#3 – “Hex” by Bark Psychosis

“Hex” is the sound of an unfamiliar town as a cold winter turns into a slightly less cold spring. Dark nights, catching buses which take odd turns into housing estates I have no idea about, feeling uneasy, paranoid – where ARE we going? I don’t recognise this street, can everyone see the panic on my face? I’d only been living in Newport for a month or so, slowly settling into my new house. I didn’t know the town, only how to catch a bus in to the bus station and a bus out to work. If anything happened differently I was lost. One day it snowed and all the buses stopped, I tried to walk to work and got completely lost and ended up having to ring in to work from a call box to admit defeat and say I wasn’t coming in. My parents brought my cat Bez to live with me and he hated it – he missed his three feline playmates in Penarth, he didn’t like being stuck inside the house all the time and spent most of his days sat on top of my wardrobe miaowing at me. He went back after a week. It wasn’t that easy for me.

And “Hex” is that sound. I’d bought the single “A street scene” on 10″ red vinyl and loved it, and I bought “Hex” on the day it was issued, Valentine’s Day 1994. Not that I had a valentine that year. When lovers everywhere indulged in meals and chocolates and huge inflated prices for roses, I spent the night listening to the new Bark Psychosis album. It’s not a conventional rock album – it was after all the album that gave rise to Simon Reynolds’ term “post-rock” – but it is mainly played out on conventional instruments. It is possible it was recorded meticulously and sequenced in places using whatever now-primitive technology was available at the time, but it all sounds natural. It doesn’t sound synthetic at all. There’s lovely tremelo guitar, bass and drums, piano sometimes in chords and patterns, sometimes just notes. The music ebbs and flows naturally, quiet to loud to quiet, the drums are brushed rather than hit hard, spaces in the music… And Graham Sutton’s whisper of a voice telling secrets and truths – “It’s gonna work out anyway”, “You turn my world upside down”, “And that’s the biggest joke of all”. Highlights? “A street scene”, the closest thing to a hit single, the song exploding in noise before slowing gradually to a crawl. The late night drive around town of “Big shot”. Then the closing two songs. “Eyes and smiles” flows from one section to another, that guitar pattern, cymbals keeping time, occasional bass, keyboards like a sunrise, moving across eight minutes of logic and beauty, rising to a crescendo as the musicians slowly increase the pressure, the drums swing around, the bass juts in, wild Miles Davis style trumpets blatt in, the levels increase and Sutton finally lets loose, shouting “And you’ve got to go on!”. After that – no more words. “Pendulum man” is a nine minute drift of guitars and synth washes, making the most of the echoes in the church being used to record the album. A great closer, relieving the tension building up to that point.

So turn off the lights, watch the night fall with the curtains open and let “Hex” weave its magical spell. Try not to get lost.

#4 – “Please please me” by The Beatles

If the past is a foreign country then music is the passport.

It’s Spring 1963 and Anne is just turning fifteen years old. Is she interested in boys? Probably. There’s a few older boys who she might fancy but nothing serious, not yet, nothing to distract her from studying for her CSEs and O level exams, but they’re still a year or so away. But what does interest her is this new music coming out of Liverpool. She’s probably heard it on Radio Luxembourg and “Saturday Club” on the Light Programme. It doesn’t sound like anything else around, the staid and boring music in the charts that passes for rock’n’roll. No, this sound young, fresh, exciting – it SPEAKS to her, it’s her generation talking to her. There’s lots of new groups around and she notices them all, noting the names of the bands and their songs. She’ll write to the local paper and say that it’s not just the Beatles who are making waves, there’s other bands – like the Merseybeats. A week later after the letter is published the manager of the Merseybeats turns up on her doorstep, getting suspicious looks from her parents, offering her a chance of a lifetime – a chance she’ll reject. There’s exams and life to live yet. And quite frankly, the Merseybeats aren’t really as good as the Beatles.

She buys the singles and after saving she buys the Beatles’ debut album “Please please me”. She imagines her future self being “just seventeen” in “I saw her standing there”. She doesn’t quite recognise all the adult emotions within “Anna (go to him)” but she does understand the emotion in John Lennon’s voice during the middle section – “All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl…”. She hopes someone will write a letter to her like “PS I love you”. She hopes someone will whisper “Do you want to know a secret?” in her ear. She gets a thrill each time she dances to the wild rave up “Twist and shout” in her bedroom in the little terraced house she lives in. This is music for her.

She’ll go to see the Beatles at the Capitol Theatre in May, with Roy Orbison in support. She goes along with her friend David, who is older. He’s played her his LPs, the music of his youth – Elvis, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly – but again it’s a different generation, even though these acts are clearly hugely influential on the Beatles. Does she scream at the concert? Possibly. There is a feeling rising around this band, a hope for the future… But for now just dance and sing along and enjoy the moment while it lasts. Pop music is so transient, they could be forgotten in eighteen months. Anne places the stylus back to the opening song, hears Paul McCartney counting off “1…2…3…4” and they’re off again.


It’s 1975, Anne and David have been married eight years now. 1966… Seems like a long time ago now. They spent a few months in London through David’s job in the GPO, that’s something to tell the children – living in London in 1966! Whenever Anne sees the opening credits of “Georgy Girl” it always reminds her of that time. Young and free spirited, and in London! Anne and David were married in September that year before going to London, then moved around through David’s job, there were two sons – the first in late ’67 and the second in ’69. And now the whole family listens to the cassettes of the Beatles albums whenever they travel around the country, visiting Cardiff or on holidays. Everyone enjoys the Beatles tapes, it crosses boundaries of age, unites the family. The youngest son may have his own problems with his eyes but he really loves his music. David buys him a book about the Beatles – a “Story of Pop” book which glosses over the harder to understand parts of their story – and he devours it, wanting to know more information about the songs and the music. David borrows “Yellow Submarine” from the library and the youngest son sits in the garden listening to “Only a Northern Song” on his little cassette player. What the hell? But he seems to recognise something in the music which gives him comfort, which makes him happy. Does he understand it? Who knows….


Whenever I hear “Please Please Me” it always makes me think of those long car journeys. There’s some quality in the sound, the sound of youth, the sound of a fresh start, the sound of incipient freedom. The simplicity of the music, the band playing together… When I was young I didn’t recognise it as anything other than the Beatles – I didn’t know about cover versions, I didn’t know the source of “Baby it’s you” and “A taste of honey”. I just knew it was good. It was only years later – probably as a teenager – that I listened harder, and realised that the whole album hangs on one song – “There’s a place”. Because the place they are singing about isn’t a physical place to escape to – away from the pressure of life and love and parents and work and children and everything, away from when it all gets on top of you. The “place” is the mind – and time stands still – “and there’s no time when I’m alone”. Of course there’ll be “No sad tomorrows” too – the future is assured. And yet the music is bright and breezy. this was early 1963, it had to be. Brian Wilson was six months away from writing his own introspective tribute to inner retreat from pressure “In my room”. But “There’s a place” is so significant to me anyway because it promises so much within its verses and choruses, all over within two minutes. It feels to me like justification for internalisation – see, somebody else thinks like this, it must be ok. I love the whole album, of course I do, I’ve known it all my life. The sound of that echo chamber as the songs on side two progress, it’s the sound of coming home – physically (the end of the journey) and figuratively. Of course it is also the start of the journey – the distance from “Please please me” to “Abbey Road”, and all the passengers that the Beatles brought along with them. This, you see, is why I’ve resisted writing about the Beatles – it’s personal. It’s probably the same for everyone, and that’s the magic of their music. Just put the LP on and imagine that fifteen year old girl dancing to it in 1963, and realise that’s over fifty years ago and we’re still listening to it now. That’s an important debut album.

(Thanks Mum)

#5 – “If wishes were horses” by Blueboy

In the sleeve note to “Honey Sweet” by Secret Shine (Sarah 61? January 92?) whichever one of Matt or Clare wrote along the lines of “We’re more excited about a debut album by Blueboy than the millionth single by the Field Mice” and I could only agree. By that point I’d only heard the first Blueboy single and that had been good enough. Issued in a batch of three singles with “Half-hearted” by Brighter and “After years” by Secret Shine during the autumn of ’91, “Clearer” shone out like a beacon. Quietly melodic, so subtle I completely missed the political subtext of anti-Clause 28 for a while, it was great and the b-side “Alison” sounded like a long lost artefact from a strange meeting of Durutti Column and Dislocation Dance circa 1982. It was that good. I had high hopes, only to be raised by hearing Blueboy’s second single “Popkiss”. Peel played it, I taped it, I played it over and over that night, writing in my diary the next day “PROMISE FULFILLED” (yes I wrote it in capitals), before I’d even heard the b-sides. “Popkiss” was HUGE, guitars churning, the rhythm section holding back and Keith Girdler singing his heart out, proud of what he is. Then… THEN… Drum rolls galore, more guitars gallumping over the horizon, a chord change or two to die for, and oh is that me dancing? Really? Well throwing my limbs around in a random way anyway. And when it all gets a bit Status Quo at the end and really rifftastic? Bloody brilliant.

So of course I was excited about the debut album “If wishes were horses”, released at the end of the summer of 1992. That title after all had resonance with me – it’s a song on “Can’t help falling in love” by Andy Williams, part of the heartbreaking medley on side two. First shock when buying the album – a list of members, there’s five of them? A proper band! Great. “Candy bracelets” has sweet boy girl harmony vocals hiding a tale of sex, loss of innocence and regret, while the guitars cascade around the lithe and supple rhythm section. “Cloud babies” is acoustic guitar and cello and voice and that’s enough to break my heart. Those chord changes, the melody, the words… “I’ve known people sell their soul for a chance to see their own stupid face if there is love… A guitar and that alone sounds like heaven is my friend…I have seen the face of God”… You know this looks stupid on paper, you just need to hear it. If it wasn’t for “A winter’s dawn” turning up then “Cloud babies” would have been song of the year in ’92. “Too good to be true” is just voice and jazzy guitar, again words cutting through, a manifesto of positivity, relishing the difference between worlds. “Fondette” cuts even harder, over music which sounds like the bastard son of Freddie Phillips’ “Chigley” music, Gemma recites words that are as relevant today as then. “That’s right, get on with your life, get a good CV…” Remember, this is a band who appeared on the front of the WAAAH fanzine with a sign saying “F*** this government to bits”. From one useless Conservative government to another, things have not improved. Sigh. “Sea horses” is light relief, back to the full band, twee but happy – “Don’t sigh, don’t cry, there’s more to me than you think”! A great performance. “Clear skies” is jazzy again, going a bit early Aztec Camera in places, Gemma sings of two different views on life. “Happiness and smiles” was the song that ended up on mixtapes, slower and sadder, this song makes me think of the people and the times of Autumn ’92 – “Is it like this? Is it happiness and smiles?” Of course it isn’t. Layers of guitars and bass and cellos add to the melancholy. “Amoroso” is a fine finale, the full band again, God knows what Girdler’s singing about but that chorus shines – “Leaves are falling, mountains crumbling, she’s in love with a memory”… Then after two verses the band rock out for the last three minutes, well as much as Blueboy rock out. It’s wonderful. Utterly wonderful…

Of course I can’t leave it there. I’ve probably mentioned it but I’ll say it again. I headed up to Manchester in November ’92 to stay with my brother in Stockport and see two gigs on consecutive nights – Julian Cope at Manchester Uni and a Sarah Records night at the Swinging Sporran. Andy didn’t want to join me on the second night… So I found my own way there, got in way too early, sat watching Brighter and Blueboy soundcheck, Matt finally asked me to pay for entry, I almost bought Harvey Williams a drink, someone asked the soundman to tape the gig, Boyracer were short and loud and punky, Blueboy were immensely good – I stood at the side of the stage looking longingly at Harvey’s red Gibson 335 guitar, they played a few acoustic numbers to start – Keith and Paul on stools, then more of the band entered, playing unrecorded songs like “Stephanie” and “A gentle sigh” and “Air france”, then rockier songs at the end… “Popkiss” was incredible, big smiling from ear to ear music, then closing with “Amoroso”, Keith grabbing a red Strat to add to the guitar chaos at the end… Then I had to leave to catch the last train to Stockport so I missed Brighter, but chatted to Clare and bought two t-shirts which got worn out through wearing them with pride… A fabulous night. The set list is inside the sleeve of “If wishes were horses”, you know..

Next time – more debut albums I expect… You’ll soon get sick of me, I promise.