Computer Love

I loved the Smiths at the time, but I’m still not going to write about them. They weren’t that important to me. There were other bands and artists out there who spoke more directly to my heart, then and now. Don’t get me wrong. I bought all the albums and taped the songs off Peel and read the interviews and all the rest, but even then I didn’t think they were the greatest band in the world. Good – yes. Excellent sometimes – undoubtably. “The Queen Is Dead” as best album ever with “The Stone Roses”? No. I liked them, some of it sounds good and some of it sounds of its time, and we’re all older now. And that’s partly the point – my favourite line from any Smiths song is from “Shakespeare’s sister” – “Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” Absolutely spot on. Looking back on a time you thought was dreadful can make you reassess whether it was as bad as it seemed at the time. Context is everything. In the grand scheme of things, does somebody changing their hairstyle matter that much? Not really.

The Autumn term of 1983 was one of those times. I remember it as dark and dreary, walks home from school as the sun goes down, hiding in classrooms and no laughter in corridors, bullying and misunderstanding and being worried all the time and wondering where it will all end, and bloody hell WHY HAS SHE CHANGED HER HAIRSTYLE? But now, well it wasn’t that bad, was it?

It was our fourth year in secondary school so it was time to choose our O Levels. This was when I decided to cut my losses and give up on subjects I was clearly crap at – like biology and geography and music and art. I’d studied three years of music up to that point and all it had been was scales and modes and notation and not one single chance to relate a note on a stave to a sound made by a musical instrument. I was always hopeless at art, didn’t care for biology or geography, so that was that. I was more scientific and language based so I studied Latin. German, Physics, Chemistry, History and Computer Studies. Latin I quite enjoyed – not least because it was a small class and D (my first crush – see “April 30th and all that” – I’ll just call her D because she’ll get mentioned along the way) was in my class so I was happy to spend time with her. In fact I’m pretty sure she was in all my classes except German and Computer Studies, which was a subject I’d been waiting to start since …

Well since a long long time previously. My father worked for the GPO from the mid sixties onwards, but in the computer division, so he worked in a number of the GPO’s computer centres around the country – this is why my parents moved around a lot, from Cardiff to London to Derby to Leeds to Harpenden back to Cardiff again. My first memory of computers was my father taking me to the Leeds computer centre around 1975 and being surrounded by all these huge whirling tape machines and flashing lights and VDU terminals. My father fed in some paper cards, the tapes spun around and some lights flashed – it truly was like you see in films from that period. I was fascinated and wanted to know more. From time to time my father would take me into his work and I’d gaze longingly at these wonderous machines doing amazing things and I wanted to use them, to make them do what I wanted, I wanted to be a computer programmer and I told everyone that was my ambition from around the age of ten.

The first computer the school had was a big black box which was wheeled around on a trolly, used 8 inch floppy discs and cost the school thousands of pounds. We rarely saw it – our maths teacher demonstrated it to us in 1981 by playing noughts and crosses on it – but we were told it was very special and was hard to use. We wondered how the generally useless teachers in the school managed to use it. For Christmas in 1981 I was given a Sinclair ZX81 and learnt to program that, and by my birthday in 83 I was ready to move to the next level of computing. At the time it was all BBC micros (or Acorn Electrons, which my neighbour had – we spent many a happy hour playing “Chucky Egg” on it while he played “The hurting” in the background) or Sinclair Spectrums. A few people had Vic-20s and the Commodore 64 was just around the corner. But being obscure I chose an Oric-1. And I bloody loved it. I learnt to type on it, I programmed my own games on it, and best of all the sound was wonderful – three independent sound channels, so I programmed my own synthesisers and drum machines and sequencers on it. So by the time I got around to my O Level I’d been programming quite a lot. This was also the era of the BBC’s “Computer Programme” with Chris Serle (or was it Fred Harris?) learning about BBC micros from the technical guru Mac, these shows were essential viewing and our teachers encouraged us to record them (if we had videos, which our family didn’t until summer 84).

In those days our class were only the second year to study CS to O level standard. The school had a “computer suite” comprised of about ten BBC micros, some with tape decks and one or two really pushing the boat out with floppy drives. Our CS teacher – Mrs M – was lovely and sort of took me under her wing and helped me do well. But the subject itself was a bit dull – the history of computing, how discs worked, we still learnt about punched cards and paper tape – we were all itching to program these BBC micros. Or at least play “Elite” on them.

So I was doing subjects in school I enjoyed, and still crushing badly, and everything seemed OK. So why do I remember them as such dark days? Well there was something else…In the first two years in school I’d been bullied pretty badly – being thrown down stairs, untrue stories about me spread around school, general abuse both physical and mental. I hadn’t taken it well and I seem to remember my parents stepping in once or twice. It stopped in the third year but had started again in the fourth year. There was one main instigator who was horrible to me, playing mind games and things like that. I was always seen as a goodie-goodie, a nerd, an easy target because yes I was more sensitive about that sort of thing and yes if pushed I would break down and cry and even writing that makes me upset a little and sometimes I wish that there was better diagnosis for ASD back in the day cos so many symptoms were there looking back BUT ANYWAY this one boy was a complete bastard to me for most of Autumn term and it made me very upset. We were in the same class for Physics and somehow I hadn’t hit it off with the new Physics teacher, he seemed to think I was a waster like this other boy (who I’ll call B) and didn’t twig that the reason B sat next to me was to copy my work and bully me. One time in a Physics lesson B was sitting directly to the left of me and was rolling up bits of paper and spitting them in my ear. Now unfortunately for B, he didn’t realise that my left eye was a lazy eye – fully formed cataract since birth – so if someone did something to the left of me I wouldn’t see it, but would feel it and react to it. In this case he spat paper in my left ear and I reacted by punching him in the face, without even looking – just involuntary reaction – spit – punch. He fell off his stool and there was blood everywhere – I had got him right on the nose. There was uproar in class and the teacher tried to regain control by sending us both outside the classroom.

We were both outside the room looking in through the old leaded glass windows and all B’s friends were pointing and laughing at me as if to say “Rob’s in trouble” and B himself was trying to wind me up – “You’ll be up before the headmaster now, suspension at least” blah blah. And I was trembling inside thinking “Shit what have I done?”. There was blood all down his shirt and he was saying “I’ll make you pay for a new one”. And back in the classroom, my crush D had watched all this and I could see her chatting to her friends and looking at me. After the lesson we were both sent to the headmaster and while B got a good bollocking, I was told it was understood I was the victim and to forget about it. I was later told (by Mrs M actually) that the Physics teacher had come into the staff room that day complaining about my behaviour and all the other teachers – who knew me better than him – were horrified about it and told him I wasn’t a common thug and must have been provoked. At the start of the next Physics lesson with him, he took me aside and apologised for his behaviour towards me and from there treated me better. Oddly enough, so did B – that fact I’d punched him must have surprised him and gradually he gave up on me.

“But enough, isn’t this a blog about music?”

Well yes…

By now I’d bought as many OMD records as the Cardiff record shops would stock, so I needed to diversify my taste a little. I’d bought an unauthorised OMD biography in the summer – Omnibus Books I think – which had a great discography and information about their equipment and influences, and Kraftwerk got mentioned a lot. Now I knew a little about them at the time. I knew “The model” had been a big hit the year before and the follow up “Showroom dummies” was a smaller hit and of course I remembered “Pocket calculator” from that holiday trip in 1981. They had issued “Tour De France” as a single during the summer of 83 and I liked it enough to buy the twelve inch which was great, though I didn’t quite understand why there was a version with three minutes of rhythm track and bicycle noises. My parents went away on holiday to France for a week around October 83 leaving my brother and I alone to look after ourselves for the first time. Would we kill each other? No, we’d just leave the house in a state and tidy up just before our parents came back. But my parents said “What would you like as presents from France?” to which my reply was “Some Kraftwerk albums”. A week later, with the house as tidy as my brother and I could make it, my parents returned with Some Kraftwerk Albums.

In fact they had “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine”.
Could there be a better introduction to the band? Maybe not. However it was a French edition of “TEE”, so the sleeve was slightly different – the colour cover shot was on the back and the black and white photo from the back on the front – but more importantly “Showroom dummies” was called “Les Mannequins” and sung in French. Until I bought a cd issue of “TEE” in 91 this was the version I knew and loved most, and actually sounds more “right” in my head. At the tender age of 14 I knew nothing about disco or the underground hip hop scene or break beats or “Planet Rock” – what I got from “TEE” was a sense of unrelenting movement. Now I recognise the octave jump bass on “Europe Endless” as a disco signifier, the full 15 minutes of the title track with all the subtleties of beat inflections being as revolutionary as “I feel love”, but that’s now – I just loved the mix of the old and the new. I loved the warped orchestral swells throughout the album – the Orchestron sounding like ancient history even in 1983. At the time, the title track was the longest song I had in my collection and it didn’t grate or get boring, it just journeyed on and on and on. The final tracks “Franz Schubert” and “Endless Endless” impressed me most – the rolling sequencers with the Orchestron over the top doing its orchestral thing really touched me and still does, it sends a shiver down my spine even now.

“The Man Machine” though felt like a step into the real future. It was a very clinical record – everything was clipped and efficient, the sequences and rhythms more complex, melodies soar and sing, as do the robots. Of course “The model” was familiar from its time at Number One the previous year, but there were other wonderful songs on there, not least “Neon lights”. There’s something magical in that song, from the calm forward motion of the introduction, the stately melody, the glistening textures of the gently filter-swept counter melody, and then three minutes in the song just motors off into the distance, the rhythms develop in complexity, more melodies are introduced and oh is that the Orchestron appearing again towards the end? It is a blissful nine minutes and possibly my favourite Kraftwerk song. The rest of the album is nearly as good but “Neon lights” is special. I played both albums incessantly throughout October and it seems they soundtracked that month well. November on the other hand would bring one of my favourite albums ever.

My brother had been playing guitar for a few years by now. He started off with a dreadful Audition Spanish guitar my father had bought from Woolworths in Leeds. The action on this guitar was awful and the strings felt like cheesewire. Around 1981 my brother bought a Kay Jumbo acoustic, big and black and not unlike those big Gibsons the Everly Brothers played. A few months later he bought his first electric guitar, a Kay SG copy which came with a horrible free 5W amp. For his sixtenth birthday in November 83 he upgraded to a decent guitar, a black Fender Stratocaster copy alongside a bigger 50W amp. On the Saturday he bought these, I consoled myself with a purchase of my own – from HMV I bought “Computer World”.

In my opinion “Computer World” is a perfect album. Everything about it is wonderful. From the opening pulsing of the title track to the closing seconds of “It’s more fun to compute”, not a second is wasted. Every beat is carefully worked out, every melody moves the songs forward. The title track was already familiar as the theme to the BBC’s “The Computer Programme” TV show – oh look, there’s an animated owl flying across a cityscape… And what with PRISM and the NSA it makes the lyrics more sinister and prescient. There is such a progression from “The man machine” already, the rhythms and the arrangements are far more complex. Even now I still notice new things in this song – playing it today I noticed that during the instrumental break, there’s a keyboard part playing one chord all the way through it. Every so often a random stray drum beat will appear, there’s a moment towards the end where the lead synth plays two notes simultaneously and it sparkles like the sun. “Pocket calculator” is like a jigsaw of interlocking parts, coalesing into a sum (pun slightly intended) larger than its parts. “Numbers” has a robot counting in Welsh – what’s not to love about that? The whole of side one works well as a suite, the transition from “Numbers” to “Computer World 2” is sublime. Side two has longer songs but they fly past in the blink of an eye – “Computer love” develops its melodies in a similar manner to “Neon lights” and is a beautiful piece of music that even Coldplay could not ruin (though they tried), “Home computer” is slightly more sinister sounding and the finale “It’s more fun to compute” sounds more like an order than anything else, but soon moves into a lovely groove. The packaging of the album is lovely – you could say it’s “VDU Yellow” but you could also say it’s almost sepia toned too, already a sense of nostalgia. The album has a very specific sound too, the percussion is clipped but complex but the synthesiser sounds are rich in timbre, there are few hard synth sounds, they have definite attack envelopes (whoops getting technical) which adds a softness to the sounds. For an album about the computer age it sounds very non-digital. I played the album over and over again, with the sound of my brother practising his power chords in the background.

There were other songs around at the time which I heard and wanted to buy but funds were limited as was time to buy them. There was “That was then, this is now” by ABC, a huge sounding song which stalled their career in a huge way. It should have been enormous, the oddly psychedelic air-raid siren guitars at the end, the iconoclastic lyric (ignoring the apple crumble line), the drums that sound like a horde of Vikings, not forgetting that tape cut off ending that would surprise so many DJs. Maybe it wasn’t really suitable for radio, but it made its point to me. I remembered the “old” ABC – I knew the singles from “Lexicon of love” and a friend had played me the album and I’d been very impressed (once I was older and bought my own copy I realised that “being impressed” was a pretty weak response to an absolute classic album, but I was young…). “That was then…” was a break with the past and I loved it. Another single from the time which I liked was “This charming man”. I can remember discussing it with a friend and how we thought it was a breath of fresh air. Late 83 felt like that – it was all Thompson Twins and Eurythmics and Howard Jones and whilst I liked one or two of their songs it felt like a definite step down from the quality of the charts in the Spring of 83.

But what else was there to talk about? Well… One day in November, something changed. D had her hair permed. And all of a sudden I felt a sense of loss, a betrayal, and for a while there I wondered if I still fancied her. Of course the answer was yes I did, but for about two weeks that one act tore my world apart. Years later I would read a section in Simon Reynolds’ book “Blissed out” about ‘the rapture of the gaze’ and how a person wants a love object to remain constant and not change their appearance and how changing is a primal loss (I am paraphrasing really badly here) and I recognised how I felt when D permed her hair. It was only a small thing, and I decided I still liked her anyway, but that’s all it ever was. I never knew the first thing about her, we rarely spoke, I just gazed at her. God I must have driven her nuts. But it was my first crush and it hit me hard. My diary was full of pages screaming “How could she do this?” like it was a crime. I’d got over it by Christmas because…

Every Christmas there was a school disco in the last week of term – not on the last day but in the week. These were held in the building with the retrospectively dodgy name of “The Youth Wing”, a building in the centre of the school complex which was like a youth club, it had a bar where you could buy sweets and drinks, some clapped out sofas for relaxing or snogging, a couple of video games in the corner, a TV with some seats for those with a fondness for whatever limited daytime TV had to offer and it was generally as dark and dingy and slightly edgy as you would expect. I think it opened in the evenings too but was usually open during school lunchtimes and my friends would hang out there sometimes if we felt welcome. I’d been to previous discos before there and was a typical wallflower and didn’t dance. But this year it was going to be different. Everyone knew that I was crushing on D, especially D herself, and I had heard rumours that I was going to get to dance with her at the disco. I was pleased about that but also nervous because I don’t dance. In the end it didn’t happen – on the day of the disco I was violently sick and ill so stayed off school, which my friends all found very suspicious. The next day I returned to school to hear stories about the disco, who had snogged who and who had thrown drinks over who and how D had looked sad all day. On the final day of term we were sat in our form room waiting to receive our reports and D siddled up next to me and whispered “I would have danced with you” before slipping away again with a shy smile on her face.

Was there any consolation to this despair? Well yes there was. My father took pity on me missing the disco and picked an album at random from my Christmas wants list and gave it to me that night. That was “New Gold Dream” by Simple Minds. Even without the circumstances above it would be a special record – the sleeve bathed on gold and rich vivid reds and purples and crosses and those serious young men in the pictures. This wasn’t playful music. I knew a few singles from the album but what had convinced me was hearing “Somebody up there likes you” played on the Radio 1 evening show by someone unexpected (I believe it may have been Peter Powell but I could be wrong). The whole album had an atmosphere of seriousness but it wasn’t joyless music, it was thrilling and rich in texture and bathed in reverb and I hadn’t heard such vague guitar playing – there was no rhythm guitar, the songs were built on beds of drums, bass as almost lead instrument and waves of synths, with guitars heavily effected and adding a texture to the sound. This was unlike anything I knew – I had yet to encounter Joy Division or New Order beyond the singles that had charted that year. Each song was great, the singles I knew already but deeper cuts were more attractive. “Big sleep” felt like sleepwalking, the bass bouncing lighter than air and the guitar like a siren towards the end. I did notice that the songs seemed to improve when Jim Kerr stopped singing, and the instrumental sections were my favourite parts. “Somebody up there likes you” swept in and engulfed me. “Glittering prize” I always associated with D for some reason – I felt like it was a justification for gazing but hell I was young and stupid there. “The hunter and the hunted” is an incredible piece of music, there’s hints of darkness and danger in “cruising at the speed of life” and after three minutes Jim stops quoting other people’s song titles (something I only spotted recently) and Herbie Hancock appears and plays a spectral keyboard solo which takes the song onto another level. “King is white and in the crowd” is more tension building and wonderful, but it’s part of a whole album – it gave me comfort on that day, and still gives pleasure now. It’s a hard album to describe because it feels amorphous, a wash of sound and rhythm, a beautiful vagueness, edges are blurred, nothing is precise.

So why did the end of 1983 feel so dark? Well there were incidents and accidents, and almost getting run over on the way home from school one time, and the first feelings of being out of my depth in some subjects, and Mrs M dragging me out of class to participate in an IBM sponsored computer quiz for schools which I promptly forgot about until we came second in South Wales and ended up getting my geeky picture in the local paper, and there was the bullying slowly petering out after complaints and threats of expulsions. Or maybe it’s just autumn becoming winter, dark mornings and dark nights and mist in the air and in my head it all merges into one dark night. Was it really so bad? I think of those records and how they’ve stayed with me and think about people and wonder where they are but it doesn’t matter that much now. Wherever they are they probably don’t think about those times in the way I do, and they probably aren’t writing blogs about it. So really that was then and this is now. Time to movc on.

Next time – Anticipointment and two record reviews for the price of one.

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