(For the sake of anonymity, I am going to use only initials for the names of people. The reason for this is that one person mentioned in the story is now a relatively well known political blogger and another person in the story is a sports writer for a national newspaper. And before you ask, no I am not telling you who they are)
May 4th 1985 was a Saturday. After a week in school everyone was ready to blow off steam and let rip and have a party, get drunk, trash someone else’s house and not worry about it, we were 14 or 15 or thereabouts and who was going to stop us.
Well that’s how the version scripted by John Hughes would start. In reality it was all a bit more parochial than that. It was S’s birthday and his parents were going out leaving him alone in the house so people decided that he should have a party. He lived in Sully, a small town on the outskirts of Barry which was about three miles from Penarth where we all went to school together. It was arranged, be there around seven and see what happens.
But first there was the rest of the day. In the bright morning sunshine my parents and I went into Penarth’s town centre to buy me a new pair of trainers. While browsing around the single street of shops – WH Smiths, Boots, Spar, Woolworths and numerous banks and building societies – we dropped into Oxfam. Years before my mother had volunteered in this store and years later I would also volunteer in there, ending up doing a charity exercise bike ride in their window for six hours. But this time I was just browsing through their singles box. I’d picked up a few odd things along the way from that particular box, but nothing prepared me for what I was to find that day. There was three copies of the same record, a double pack seven inch single – a dark black and white picture of a shaggy haired guitarist with light reflecting off his Gibson 335, and the plain words “The Teardrop Explodes” on the sleeve.
By this point I knew who they were – I’d bought “Reward” from the same store the previous year, blasted out the a-side and marvelled at how off-kilter the b-side was. I was also reading the music papers – a habit I’d acquired around February 84 – and had seen damning reviews of Julian Cope’s first two albums, he was an acid casualty with a tortoise shell on his back. In the summer of 84 I had discovered the John Peel show and Cope’s session had been the first I had taped – onto an orange BASF C90 which chewed up quite frequently. I recently dug this tape out of the attic and it was weird hearing Peel’s voice between songs, and how quietly it was taped, and all the other songs I taped from the show – some much loved and some long forgotten – “Sahara electric” by Die Dissidenten still sounds amazing. That Cope session was intriguing because it was a man, a guitar and a Casio – which was what I was working with myself at the time but my tentative baby steps in songwriting could not compare to gems like “Sunspots” or “Me singing”. But that was an introduction to Cope’s music but besides the hit singles I knew nothing of the Teardrops.
So I took a chance and bought it. In fact I bought two copies, just in case – it still left one more copy for some other Penarthian. It was 50p for five songs, how could I go wrong? What did I have to lose? We got home, tried on the shoes, got that out of the way and I hooked myself up to my father’s hifi and read the sleevenotes inside. They seemed a bit peculiar, about Cope’s sense of absurdity and how this was the end, but what would come next would be seven times better. Intrigued, I strapped on the headphones and started the tape – a blue Tandy Concertape C90. .
“You disappear from view” was labelled A1. It sounded like funk, short blasts of brass and slap bass, and it sounded very familiar too. It turned out I had heard it on the Futurist Chart two years earlier but hadn’t really noticed it at the time. Once I had found the twelve inch of the single a year or so later I would also recognise it from the wall of twelve inchers on my first HMV visit. It was a rather cool song, I liked it a lot and I wanted it to go on further but the fade out seemed too premature. Flip the single over for side B1, the song “Suffocate”. There’s a delicacy about the start, the first verse, as if tentatively skirting the borders of the subject – it sounds like an argument waiting to happen, and it does – the chorus explodes in drums and fire alarm organ before returning to the delicate second verse, but there’s more tension, there’s a cymbal ticking like a time bomb counting down to another chorus. The third verse is more strident and features a guitar part that I’ve never heard repllicated, a sort of random scrabble of notes after each line of lyric. The song closes on the ticking cymbal and a bass pulse. This isn’t quite what I expected but it’s good.
Remove first single, change the speed down to 33 rpm for C1, the song “Ouch monkeys”. An already ancient sounding drum machine beats away followed by muffled marimbas and haunted choral voices. Then Cope enters, speak- singing as if through a telephone, strange words that even now sometimes I don’t know. Drum rolls break the chorus followed by more sirens and alarms. Towards the end, Cope intones “Oh such fun and games” over and over, and I couldn’t tell if he was being ironic or not, there’s no malice in his voice, just a blankness.
Turn over for side four, with two songs. D1 is “Soft enough for you”, a piano waltz in an echo chamber, and it’s nice to hear real instruments. Cope is singing more normally now, and again it seems to be a relationship being dismembered. As the chorus arrives a string quartet appear and add to the general disquiet. The song revolves around its unresolved chord changes and seems to stumble to a close. Song D2 is “The In-psychlopedia” which was definitely not what I was expecting, pulsing synths and syn drums thrashing away but my word I absolutely loved it. Again the words didn’t make sense and a chorus of soneone counting to eight?
I played it all again and again, those eighteen or so minutes got drummed into my head to the point where little chunks of melody or lyric circled in my mind – this is probably my favourite time when getting to know new music, five or six plays in, the songs becoming more familiar, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place, but not so familiar that new details can’t leap out and surprise you. And I was at that point that day when H turned up in a taxi to take us to S’s party.
I can still remember the layout of the house even though I only visited on this one occasion. The hall with stairs that guests were forbidden from using, the downstairs bathroom, the little study with Amstrad computer, the main lounge leading from the kitchen, then out to the conservatory and the garden heading downhill with a greenhouse at the bottom. A few people were already there and drinks were given out and the general lack of females there was bemoaned. Cider was drunk by one and all and then a miracle happened. Around eight thirty two females arrived and all hell broke loose.
The first girl was M who was a good friend of mine, she was a year older than all of us and that maturity made a huge difference at that age. Certainly she was one of the very very few females I could talk to, mainly brcause she had never appeared on one of my ‘fancy’ lists, so I wasn’t too scared to talk to her for fear of making myself seem foolish. Alongside M was her friend R, which seemed to make the partygoers happy because everyone had been trying to get R and myself together as the general consensus was that we really fancied each other and our firm claims to oppose this was really just a smokescreen for our real feelings towards each other.
With hindsight I wonder if there was some truth in the matter. I would never ever EVER admit it to anyone – not even to my diary which I had started in 83 and stopped in 89 after 28 exercise books and three well-filled A4 folders – that sometimes I found her attractive. Not always but sometimes. I can imagine there are friends of mine from the time reading this and shouting “Yes! I knew it all along!”. She was always there on the periphery of whatever was happening wirh a carefully timed sarcastic comment. For instance….
WHY I HATE “HOTEL CALIFORNIA”
There was this one time around late 1985 when a bunch of us sixth formers were given time to ourselves in the Careers Library to try and discern a future for ourselves. The library itself consisted of leaflets from various government departments on types of work out there and how to claim benefits, alongside prospectus after prospectus for universities and polytechnics. These careers sessions were seen as a cop-out, nobody cared about such things in the Lower Sixth, we’d only just got over our O levels, can we not think too hard about the future please? So we sat around in groups and chatted or read newspapers (or music papers in my case). It was mainly boys in the library on this occasion and in one corner was J, P and S (a different S to the host of the above party). They were discussing music so I joined in the conversation from time to time. At some point both M and R joined us, both having been playing netball or something as they were both still in their games kit, and I’d never seen R’s legs before – she usually had the longest skirt possible, sometimes touching her ankles, and usually with the edge of a petticoat showing too – she was a very prim and proper girl. I wasn’t the only one making admiring glances in the direction of those legs. Then for no reason at all J started singing “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair” and pointed to S who sang the next line. This proceeded along between J, P and S trading lines of the verse of “Hotel California” with one of them table drumming to keep the beat. For the chorus they burst into harmony, off key and unplanned, with J taking the role of Don Henley on lead vocals and P and S harmonising behind him. J had quite a good voice and a few months later would join my band Final Ecstasy as lead vocalist, proceed to sing the heart out of the five songs I’d given the band, then get sacked for preferring to watch a Welsh rugby international than rehearse with us.
The climax of the song was approaching, the final verse, the denoument to the sixties dream blah blah blah. The three singers were now standing on a table belting it out like they were playing Wembley Stadium. And after “But you can never leave” P burst into air guitar, singing the guitar part note for note, followed by S ‘playing’ Joe Walsh’ solo, and both them standing face to face gurning at each other as they sang the arpeggio harmony section. It was the most horrible thing I had ever witnessed musically. At the end of the song J, P and S looked around expecting applause which never came, but R gave them a withering look and channelling her inner Simon Cowell said “That was interesting” – with heavy sarcasm on the third word – “but never do it again in my presence”. Secretly I cheered and loved her a little bit more, whixh was to say not very much. But from then on whenever I hear “Hotel California” I’m back there watching this performance and hating it more and more. I have been known to walk out of rooms, pubs, workplaces when it comes on the radio or jukebox. Last year when I was working as a cook in a nursing home it started playing on Radio Two as I was serving up lunch and I had to dash across the kitchen to turn the radio off. Everything stops for “Hotel California”.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE PARTY…
M and R were there being ogled by slightly drunken teenage boys and everyone decided it was a good idea if R and myself kissed. So we were locked in a room and told to get on with it. It didn’t happen, of course. I was too embarrassed and she wasn’t interested and we both thought it was a bad idea and I looked at my shoes and mumbled apologies and M burst in and dragged R out and they left soon after.
More cider was consumed by one and all, the music got louder, someone crushed a box of Rice Krispies into the carpet in the living room, a game of ‘throw the empties on the conservatory roof” was started, then someone fell over me and broke my glasses.
(Good Lord that is the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written)
I mean these weren'( just NHS specs, these were my Reactolite lenses which had cost a small fortune the previous year and were meant to shade my catarract-tainted eyes from daylight. In fact all they did was go dark on the school yard and briefly make my nickname Stevie Wonder. It was at this point in the party I decided I’d drunk enough and after H and I had bent my mis-shapen glasses back into some semblance of normality we both decided a return to normality might be good for both of us too. We stopped drinking, moved to orange juice and became observers of other people’s craziness. More people arrived, people we didn’t know or hadn’t been invited but had heard there was a party on. There was a stand-off between us and some other kids outside the house. Neighbours rang the police and we had a visit from a friendly policeman informing us to quieten down. People starting passing out in bathtubs. As I sobered up lines from the Teardrop Explodes songs kept floating into my mind – “Busy in the backroom having fun”, “Oh such fun and games”, “Don’t cast shadows on me” and suddenly it fitted together – the songs were about or describing disorientation (or so it seemed, I could be wrong but that was my interpretation) and now I understood a little better. I had got drunk for the first time, felt the world spin as I closed my eyes for the first time, and not really enjoyed the lack of control. Of course that wouldn’t stop me drinking again in the future.
By one in the morning it was clear the party was grinding to a halt, even though there were some hardy souls belting out “Everybody wants to rule the world” drunkenly. H and I decided to walk the three miles back to Penarth and talked all the way, apart from when we got spooked by some peculiar looking trees. The next morning I told my parents about my glasses and I reverted to my NHS specs for a few days. And on Monday afternoon…
Monday afternoons were PE that year. Due to my eye problems I was excused PE and had to sit in a room on my own doing homework or revision or something. But after a while I realised that nobody was taking any notice of whether I was in the room or not I started to use Monday afternoons as a chance to go record shopping in Cardiff. That Monday afternoon I disappeared from the school, making sure nobody saw me, then headed to Cardiff, bought “Kilimanjaro” and headed home. That album was more of what I expected the Teardrops to sound like but the brass and organ glare seemed too homogenous to me, and ir was a month or so later I found “Wilder” in a second hand shop and that made more sense. Over the next year I hunted high and low through record fairs and second hand shops picking up the singles for the strange but wonderful b-sides, and live tapes from different eras and line-ups of the band. But that final double pack of “You disappear from view” remains special, even now I know more about it’s cirumstances, the third album Balfe wanted but Cope hated. Even so I’ve still not seen a definitive answer of where and when “Suffocate” was recorded – it was included on the US “Kilimanjaro” in 81 so perhaps was recorded by the same line-up as on “Reward”.
And today it’s the 4th May, everyone talks about it being Star Wars Day and really it’s “You disappear from view” day. Maybe next rime there’ll be more music and less rambling. We’ll see what happens next.