Fourteen days in July

The last two weeks of summer term in school were always chaotic anyway – the exams were out of the way so kids were running amok, there was a sports day of total lunacy to look forward to, teachers not giving a hoot about the kids because the kids didn’t give a hoot either. Usually the sun was out, everyone relaxed, and the sixth formers had water fights on the last day and did their best to destroy the common room before they left it.

Just to add a little spice to the mayhem, my school used the last two weeks of the school summer term to host the German Exchange. One year the Germans would come to us, the next year we would go to them. As I did quite well in German classes – in my first ever German exam I scored 96% losing marks only because I spelt ‘wiedersehen’ incorrectly four times – I was assigned a penfriend in 1982 and we exchanged pictures and letters regularly. In 1982 my brother’s penfriend visited us but not a lot happened. In 1983 my brother and I went to Staufen in the Black Forest to our penfriends. This was my first trip abroad and I loved every minute of it – the different culture, the delicious food, the crazy TV. My brother on the other hand was homesick, hated the food, didn’t really get on with the language and couldn’t wait to get home. I was still a year away from getting my first walkman so had to rely on a tiny Honeywell transistor radio for music – reception for Radio Luxembourg was far better than in South Wales, and one of my abiding musical memories of the exchange is hearing “Never stop” by Echo and the Bunnymen for the first time through a tiny mono earpiece. The other musical memory was the coach journey back. My friend who had bought the Twister Sister album on 30th April (see previous entry) had been on the exchange and proudly showed me his latest purchase from a local record shop – “We sold our souls for rock’n’roll” by Black Sabbath. Unknown to us, he’d taped the whole album and given the cassette to the coach driver saying “Can you play this please?”. The first hour or so of that journey was spent listening to Tony Iommi’s slow motion riffs and Ozzy Osbourne’s unearthly wailing. Eventually the howls of protest were louder than Ozzy’s howls and the tape was thrown out of the coach’s window on some autobahn, to cheers from the coach’s occupants.

In 1984 my penfriend came to Penarth for the first time and probably experienced as much culture shock as I did the year before. The summer of 84 was the summer of “Frankie Says” – “Two tribes” was everywhere, as was “Relax”, as was Lionel Ritchie and Prince and Wham! and Spandau and Nik Kershaw alongside more interesting stirrings of HI-NRG and Euro Disco. Heaven knows what he thought of it all. Those two weeks in 1984 seemed to be spent going from house party to house party amongst all the German Exchange hosts around Penarth – another night another party, or so it seemed. I can’t remember much about school for those weeks but I do remember my penfriend being totally obsessed with “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. He dragged me into the nearest Odeon to see “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” which made little sense to me as I’d not seen “Raiders…”. He was also searching high and low for the “Raiders” soundtrack album, and thought he had hit the jackpot when he came running up to me in HMV waving an album at me – “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” – “Er sorry no you haven’t” I then returned “Raiders of the pop charts” back into the racks and he carried on hunting. I’m pretty sure we found it for him eventually.

In 1985 it was the turn of the Welsh to invade the Germans again. A lot of my class were with me that year, and most of them knew two things about me – I kept a notorious diary which named names (or so they thought) and I wrote songs and made tapes which also named names (which was true). The trip to Germany took place on the day of Live Aid so I only saw about two hours of it before climbing on a coach to London. Then a train to Dover. Then a ferry to Ostend. Then a train to Cologne. Then another train to Staufen. It was one hell of a journey, made more interesting by avoiding all of my class and befriending a bunch of pupils who were two years younger than myself (I was sixteen at the time). This bunch of friends – four girls and one boy – had no preconceptions about me and didn’t hassle me about my diary or songs and I ended up spending most of my time with them over the two weeks.

By now I had a walkman and had taken a load of tapes with me – OMD, Kraftwerk. Tangerine Dream, Teardrop Explodes. I couldn’t understand why the Germans weren’t interested in what I considered to be their best music. I loaned a tape of Kraftwerk to my penfriend who had never heard it before and in return he loaned me a tape of “The final cut” by Pink Floyd. I didn’t consider it a fair swap.

On the few occasions the Welsh pupils attended the school in Staufen we didn’t really do much – just sat in rooms chatting to each other. There was one teacher at the German school who seemed to model himself on Julian Cope and he was always around with us. One evening there was a disco for the exchange students hosted in the school and this teacher was the DJ. I was hoping he’d play some Teardrop but he didn’t. As the drinks started to kick in, all the girls from my own class were badgering me to sing – “We’ve heard your tape, sing something for us” or “Sing the song about (name removed)” – and eventually the drink got the better of me and I gave in. I went into the disco, someone handed me a microphone and the music stopped and everyone in the disco looked at me.. And I sang a Teardrop Explodes b-side. The drink must have kicked in for everyone else because they clapped me and wanted more. I sang one of my songs, they clapped again and I ran to the toilets and threw up. I don’t remember much more of that night.

The 85 exchange ended with another multi-faceted journey back to Wales which took 36 hours. This was the first time I heard “Into the groove” – someone had a radio playing on Cologne train station and it was playing and I had no idea who it was. It was weird – we’d been away for a fortnight and it felt like the whole charts had changed in that time. The journey was terrible – the section in the ferry coincided with a storm on the North Sea which resulted in the majority of our party vomiting somewhere along the line. On the train from Dover to London most of us dozed but I was watching the landscape pass by, and dawn broke as we passed Battersea power station which looked quite glorious that morning.
We finally arrived back to Penarth around lunchtime and I got to bed half an hour later with every intention of reading the two copies of Melody Maker I’d missed (one was about Live Aid, the other had the Coward Brothers on the cover). Of course I was asleep within an hour.

All of the above was a preamble and a scene setter for 1986’s exchange when the Germans came to us. We were all a bit older now – I was 17 – and that made a huge difference. The Germans arrived on Friday 4th July by coach and all the hosts were given a wodge of A4 sheets with addresses and contact details and told that we should “socialise” with each other more. I looked over the list and was pleased to see that all the friends I’d befriended the previous year were still involved. On the other hand I wasn’t pleased to see that R – she of the love hate relationship with me (see previous entry) – was also on the list. The first night of the fortnight our guest settled in after a fraught journey easily the equal of our trip the previous year, but on the Saturday he was ready to rock. So we went into Penarth town centre and looked for records. The only record shop in the town was Woolworths and our guest hunted through the somewhat limited stock. I don’t remember what he was searching for but I don’t think he found it. I found a cassette of “Remain in light” for £2.99 and bought it. We returned home and I lay back on my bed with my headphones on. This was going to be good.

And it was. I couldn’t believe this record. “Born under punches” was funkier than anything I’d heard before, and the guitar solo blew my head off. The solo sounded like it had been fed through a computer and it had churned out random spurts of notes and noise, bent and twisted into shapes no guitar should make. All of side one was frantic, funky and seemed to be moving in directions I could barely comprehend. The call and response vocals on “The great curve” swam around my head and again an astonishing guitar solo. I turned the tape over, “Once in a lifetime” I knew already but now I was picking up more details. Just as “Houses in motion” got to the chorus there was a knock on my bedroom door and my mother came in – “There’s someone to see you at the door”. I switched off the tape and went downstairs to find R standing at my door with her guest. “We thought we’d come over and see you” she said. I was flabberghasted. Here was R – in my house! I was in awe of the fact that she’d had the courage to come over, and small talk was made, then she said we should all go to hers so we walked the mile or so into the town centre to her parents’ house. So now I was in R’s house, slightly amazed at the decor, and drinking cans of lager. We always had this odd relationship, R and myself (yes shouldn’t that be “R and I” but that sounds like an insurance company). We were highly sarcastic to each other and I really couldn’t tell what her feelings were because they were veiled by this wall of sarcasm. But being in each other’s houses freaked me out, and I do wonder why she chose me to visit out of all the people on the exchange.

That night my guest wanted to go out for a drink and the only pub in the town was The Railway so we walked down there. I’d never been there before and felt a bit intimidated. The first people I saw there were the two girls I had simultaneous crushes on at the time, which didn’t help. Then all my friends saw me looking lost and dragged me in, pleased to see me and amazed that I was there at all. The first thing I did was knock over a burly builder type to get to my friends and he looked like he was going to thump me before one of my friends dragged me away. I was given a drink and told to shut up and not talk to anyone. I was still a year away from the legal drinking age but everyone else seemed to be getting away with it. My guest was alright, he was six foot three inches so nobody was going to question him. This was an alien environment for me, most of my classmates were there but I’d rarely seen them outside of school before, I was slightly freaked out by seeing them ‘out of context’ and in normal clothes. They all appeared to be enjoying themselves even if I wasn’t. At the end of the evening my guest and I walked home, slightly woozy. I went to bed, placed my headphones on and continued with “Remain in light”. Feeling woozy suited “Houses in motion” and I paid extra close attention to the words on “Seen and not seen” as you do when you’re slightly drunk and trying to concentrate hard to appear sober. The words made a strange kind of sense to me. As the album wound to a grinding droning halt on “The overload” I gave in and fell asleep.

During that fortnight some days we had to be in school and some days we had trips planned and some days we could do as we pleased. On the first Monday we had a “do as you please” day, so we went to Cardiff record shopping. After fruitless searching for nothing in particular we ended up in a second hand record shop on Broadway where bargains and oddities were in plentiful supply. This day I found a few records I fancied which I bought – the twelve inch single of “A promise” by Echo and the Bunnymen and “Chairs missing” on LP by Wire, two pounds each.

Now the Bunnymen single I wanted for the b-side which wasn’t up to much cop, but as I only had “Heaven up here” on tape I was happy to have the a-side on vinyl. On the other hand I knew very little about Wire.

In fact I only knew one song by them. My father had subscribed to “The History of Rock” partwork magazine in the early 80s – 120 sections covering everything from the 1950s to around 1983. There was also a series of thirty double albums to accompany the magazines – single artist compilations which were an education in themselves. There was one single side of “Punk” on a later volume and my brother and I would laugh hysterically at the last two songs – “Little girl” by The Banned and “12XU” by Wire. The latter just seemed too beserk to be real – this ticking hihat and tense guitar chug before bursting into the full throttle riff. It was intriguing, but I had no idea to expect when I put “Chairs missing” on the turntable. Certainly the package looked arty, cool and clinical and I had a lyric sheet to examine while I listened. Headphones on, tape recording, drop the needle.

A bassline circles around four notes not going anywhere but defiantly alone. Then a clicking drum track kicks in as does a choppy guitar playing one angular chord. An added distorted arpeggio chord is added and no change is happening, it’s just ongoing on this one chord riff. Then Colin Newman adds his voice and the words. “Practice makes perfect yes I can prove it / Business or pleasure the more that you do it”. On the “do” the band changed from one chord to another but still maintained the machine rhythm. Then back to the original chord. “Please dress in your best things, this course was unplanned / Cos you see up in my bedroom I’ve got Sarah Bernhardt’s hand”. On the word “Sarah” it reverts to just bass and ticking drums. The next verse continues as the first verse but there’s something lurking at the edges of the sound – like a synthesised choir starting to fade in sustaining one chord. Colin is now repeating “Waiting for us, waiting, waiting” and getting more frantic while the choir gets louder and a strange siren sounds every four seconds and someone else is laughing into an echo chamber. Slowly everything drops away to ticking drums, the sustained choir and the siren then silence. Then the siren.

That was crazy. Wasn’t this meant to be a punk band? What about “12XU”? The only link back seemed to be the trebly ticking drums and the wall of distortion guitar. As the album progressed I found myself amazed by each individual song. “French film blurred” seemed to be almost a pop song, and I still feel like it sounds like Squeeze on the millisecond there are two harmonised vocals on the word “ribbon”. The words seemed to be abstract views on a man’s demise through the Mafia. It intrigued me. Before it got boring the song ended. “Another the letter” added some speed and a simple analogue synth sequence to the mix and was over at just over a minute – it made it’s point and then stopped. I wasn’t used to such brevity. “Men 2nd” was pop punk with bite. “Marooned” ticked along on a bed of synthesised chords and the occasional clanging guitar chord. “Sand in my joints” was frantic punk but with a jarring guitar solo seemingly cut and pasted together. “Being sucked in again” was slower but far from mellow, the tension palpable in the slashed chords. The song ends on sustained synths and odd noises. “Heartbeat” is a two chord pulse, the whole band restrained to play as quietly as possible, and only reaching a crescendo halfway through before returning to the quiet pulse at the end. Side one closed, I pressed pause, turned the LP over, looked at the vinyl and saw the first track seemed a bit longer than others. “Mercy” was sort of what I expected only slower and with strange words about transvestite nurses and it dragged its noisy frame across what felt like six long minutes. “Outdoor miner” really was a joyous pop song but was over before it was really going. “I am the fly” clanged relentlessly. Then the last few songs tore me apart. “I feel mysterious today” was held in check, the lyrics reflected how I felt half the time – “Always cause for concern when you’re feeling quite bright…I feel mysterious today, everything is humming loudly…is it ever appealing to stand on the ceiling, observe the tension grow”. This was angst expressed in a manner I’d not heard before, but it struck home, as did the final line – “Did you ever conceive that you too can leave exactly when you like?”. I mean. I could have misread that line all this time but I knew what I think it meant. “From the nursery” implied evil thoughts from a child’s cuddly toy. “Used to” was a complete shock. The drums ticked quietly, layers of distorted chords swam over a simple bassline and synth chords. And the words, oh the words were like an arrow through my heart.

“Does the pain remain when the head is turned and the body walks away? You used to know.
Does nausea ensue when you chance upon a memory of someone you used to know?
Does warmth increase when the pulse is strong but the response is weak? You used to know.
I just lay down guidelines in front of me.
It’s similar to the things you do to me”

The song repeats the verse and the singing drops away to leave the synth chords getting richer as the song fades out. I’d never heard anything so beautifully eloquent on the pain of rejection, and instantly added the song to my mental playlist of favourite songs. Finally “Too late”. A punky thrash, an odd lyric which seems to imply incest and four minutes of incessant riff and noise. A wonderful conclusion to a startling exceptional album. I knew as soon as I heard it that this was going to be one of my favourite albums, the textures were perfect, the words were peculiar and succinct, the songs had hooks and swerves as well, I wanted to play it again and again, and I played it a lot over the next week or so.

Meanwhile back to the exchange. We all went on two coach trips. The first was a day trip to the Roman town of Bath – a town I adored, mainly because it had quirky shops and a small sweet shop which was the only place I knew sold milk gums at the time. (For those who don’t know, milk gums were like wine gums only white and milk flavoured. Obviously). I didn’t really give much concern to my guest – I was just having a day out. It was the first time I’d seen all the friends I’d made on the previous year’s exchange and we carried on as if we’d been in touch all year (which we hadn’t – I was now in the sixth form so hid in the common room). We went to cafes, trawled the shops and just generally hung out, enjoying each other’s company. In a small record shop in a back street in Bath I was pleased to find a bargain bin of discounted seven inch singles. Dashing through the box I found three copies of Sudden Sway’s recently issued “Sing song” single. Sudden Sway were an archetypal Peel band – a few independent singles and some innovative Peel sessions which mixed music with speech with humour and pathos had led to Warner Brothers signing the band. Asked by the label to produce a sing-song type song for their debut major label single, they wrote “Sing song”, then recorded eight different versions of it in eight totally different styles, then insisted all eight be issued simultaneously. This was guaranteed commercial suicide – radio didn’t know which version to play, so they didn’t play it. Buyers didn’t know which version they were getting unless they looked closely at the catalogue number on the back of the sleeve and even then it may not have been the version they may have heard on the radio. Peel himself played version 4. He may have played other versions but that was the one I heard him play. So I was pleased to find three copies. Checking the sleeves I had versions 1, 5 and 8. I bought them for 50p each. I never saw another copy of “Sing song” ever again. The coach journey back was spent pouring over the sleeve notes on the back of the single – my friends thought I was mad to buy three copies of the same song. When I explained why they thought the band was crazy.

Plqwaying the singles was just as crazy as the ideas behind the band. Version 1 was like a pisstake of the Jesus and Mary Chain, all metallic distortions. Version 5 was drum machine and acoustic guitar, like a strange protest song. Version 8 was pop song 86, the full production, twinkling Fairlights and DX7s, as rich as anything from the previous year’s Scritti Politti album. The b-side to all three singles was an instrumental version of the song with an explanation of the processes behind the song in strange management speak. The songs were put on the other side of the “Chairs missing” tape.

As you may have gathered there wasn’t a lot of interaction with my guest. He wanted to go out to the pub every night to meet up with his friends and sometimes he went on his own and sometimes I was his reluctant comrade. One balmy hot night there was a barbecue for the exchange students at Cosmeston Park, a short walk from our house. We all went along and just about everyone from my class was there getting drunk – it had turned into an end of term party. I just recall wandering around hiding from people who I fancied. These were my first real experiences of drinking alcohol and it seemed to make me melancholy and paranoid. I really didn’t learn. I just thought “At some point this must turn into fun” but it never did, more alcohol meant more melancholy and more paranoia. It didn’t help that my two simultaneous crushes were both there and I kept bumping into them at the most inappropriate times. There was no happy conclusion to the barbecue, just a drunken wander back home.

The second exchange trip was a coach trip to the Gower, a beachy area near Porthcawl. Again I virtually ignored everyone except the bunch of younger students I’d met the year before. We found a secluded section of the beach and sunbathed and listened to the radio and read books and chatted. I think the others looked up to me as someone with some maturity (how wrong they were) and they wanted to know about how O level exams were and what life was like in the sixth form. The radio played two songs that day which I’d not heard before, and for me soundtracked the trip.

The first song was “The way it is” by Bruce Hornsby and The Range. At that time it was a real one off, not sounding much like the other songs on the radio, showing real musicianship in the piano playing and subtlety in the lyrical department. I adored it and was pleased when it became a hit. Sadly it would become ubiquitous with a certain kind of faux-sophistication, becoming co-opted into TV music and advertisements, but that summer it sounded unique.

The other song truly sounded like little else. Starting with a flurry of electronic notes, followed by an ascending bassline and strident drums, the main music started with strange staccato guitar chords and synthesised gulps counterpointing each other. Then the singing started, two voices but one singer harmonising with himself, seemingly doubting, feeling led astray or led on. He didn’t mean it to get that far. From time to time the intro’s flurry of notes appear and there’s an odd sustaining note which appears occasionally. At one point the whole song stops, leaving that sustaining note to ring out for three seconds totally alone – an incredibly brave thing to do in the middle of a pop song. It sounded like Prince at his finest. When the song faded out the DJ said “That was Robert Palmer with ‘I didn’t mean to turn you on'” I was amazed. This was his followup to “Addicted to love”, a lumbering hulk of a song. So I lay on the beach with these two songs sliding around my head, fell asleep and got sunburned. On the coach back I was sat on my own playing “Chairs missing” on my walkman. Suddenly one of the girls tapped me on the shoulder and said “What are you listening to? Can we have a listen?”. My walkman was snatched off me, the tape removed and then the tape was passed back a few rows to someone’s ghetto blaster. At that point “Another the letter” blasted out across the coach. People nodded along, but I never expected it to last. It lasted up to “Being sucked in again”. The coach rocked out to Wire for almost ten minutes and seemed to love it. Afterwards people asked me what the tape was, they were really interested and intrigued by it.

The fortnight continued – I spent some nights at the Railway avoiding the bar staff, and some nights we did nothing at all, maybe playing Trivial Pursuit or visiting friends. My guest and I seemed to hang out with R and her guest a lot and I still didn’t know why, she seemed to gravitate to me for some reason. In the second week there was clearly bugger all to do so I hooked up with two other friends – C and M – who were making a film about the school and became their “sound man”. This mainly involved holding the mic out behind C’s video camera, while M tried to guide the action in front of us. I don’t know what the point of the film was, but it was a scream reviewing the footage at the end of each day. On the Thursday – the penultimate day of term – I hauled my big JVC tape deck into school to record some ‘ambient’ sounds and properly record interviews with some teachers. Towards the end of the day, we set up my tape deck and the video camera in the school’s hall and I improvised a mournful two minute piece on the school piano, working with the natural echo in the hall. It was lovely, and that piece ended up as the title track of my summer album “All is joy in the land of the mad” (oh come on, I was seventeen…).

The next day all the Germans left around lunchtime and us lower sixth pupils sat around waiting for our reports at the end of the day. I ended up sitting around a table in the common room playing “Murder” with a bunch of people, one of whom was one of the two crushes. I avoided eye contact with her as much as possible due to my own embarrassment and ended up not being murdered by her, much to her annoyance. We then fed into our form rooms to receive our reports. All our school records were out for some reason, so I took the chance to read mine. All my school history in one place, all my troubles, disappointments, letters to my parents, letters from my parents, everything. Phrases jumped out at me which seemed to define my life. Then we sat down and got our reports – mine was dreadful, it’s probably in a drawer somewhere, a bunch of low grades and awful comments. It wasn’t well received at home. So I went out to the Railway that night, to drown my sorrows. After a half of lager one of the staff grabbed me and asked how old I was. I lied and said I was 18, they said “Prove it and you can come back, until then, sling your hook”. This was witnessed by all my friends and all my classmates. I left and sat on Penarth seafront for an hour watching the sun go down, then returned home and disappeared into my room and inside my head.

Does the pain remain when the head is turned and the body turns away
You used to know
Does nausea ensue when you chance upon the memory of someone
You used to know
Does warmth increase when the pulse is strong but the response is weak
You used to know
I’ll give you an example typically
It’s less complicated than it simply should be.

1 thought on “Fourteen days in July

  1. Excellent writing. Walkman’s. LOL… I remember my adult friend telling me it was like a little stereo. It was amazing. Created a league of rocking introverts. Me included.

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