This is the logical follow up to “Computer Love” which dealt with Kraftwerk, “New Gold Dream” and being 14 in late ’83.
Christmas 1983. I had placed four albums on my Christmas list – “Doot doot” by Freur, “Hyperborea” by Tangerine Dream, “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk and “New Gold Dream” by Simple Minds. There were four LP shaped packages under the Christmas tree, but just before school broke up my father had bought me “New Gold Dream” to compensate for missing the school disco. So what was the fourth album under the tree? This question puzzled me for ages until Christmas Day itself when the gaudy paper was ripped off to reveal a double pack of two Eno albums – “Here come the warm jets” and “Before and after science”. How did my parents know I wanted these albums? Had I mentioned Eno to them, or my brother? Or were they – heavens – looking in my diary? I’d heard one Eno song before – “Burning airlines” – on Peel’s show a month or so before and had liked it a lot, but two albums I didn’t know? What would they be like?
Of course they weren’t the first albums that were played that morning. While my mother slaved away in the kitchen I rushed off to my bedroom, lay on my bed and stuck my headphones on for the next few hours. “Autobahn” was so difficult to track down at the time that my copy was an Australian import that had been on sale in Cardiff HMV for nearly ten pounds, twice the average price of an LP at the time. I only knew the single version of “Autobahn” so this 23 minute version was an eye-opener, going through movements like a symphony. And it wasn’t quite as technological as I had expected – there was flute and guitar on it. And there were two hippies on the back cover. I loved the full song, and spent some time with my German dictionary translating the lyric, and the other side of the album was… interesting. “Kometmelodie 1” was very very slow, then “Kometmelodie 2” was the same tune at normal pop song speed, sounding like a primitive version of electro pop which had dominated the charts for the last few years. “Midnight” was all clangs and atmosphere, while “Morgenspaziengang” was as spritely as it’s title implied (“Morning walk” – see I knew my German O level would come in handy at some point). I remember a few weeks after this my next door neighbour came over to play some computer games and wanted to hear what music I was listening to. I had side 2 of “Autobahn” on my music centre and I insisted that I turn it over, he’s like the title track a lot more. But no, he wanted exactly what I had on – so the slow drone of “Kometmelodie 1” filled the room. After four minutes he walked over and switched my music centre off, claiming it was the worst music he’d ever heard. I told him he should have let me turn the LP over.
Next up – “Doot doot” by Freur. The title track was the first single I bought back in April 30th (see the very first blog entry of mine) and since then they had issued two more great singles. “Matters of the heart” was a perfect summer love song and soundtracked a perfect summer but I had been under the impression (from Spillers Records) that they’d been dropped by CBS. I was surprised to see a third single by them in the autumn – “Runaway” was more conventional, a normal pop song – hell, it had a soprano sax on it! Played by Andy Sheppard! Normal! And most normal of all – they no longer answered to a squiggly line (a snail sticking its tongue out – I can’t add an image for it so google it), they answered to a name – Freur. How boring. They still looked like extras from an episode of Doctor Who so that was ok. But a full length album by Freur was… Awful. Besides the three singles which were great, the songs swung from style to style like a chameleon. “Riders in the night” was ersatz Ultravox. “Whispering” aimed for the quiet mystery of Japan’s “Ghosts” and failed dismally. “Theme from the film of the same name” used up it’s one good idea in the title. There were a lot of songs involving steam, lizards and leather – like some strange reptile steam-punk sex cult. To be blunt – the album was crap. Hugely disappointing.
Next up – “Hyperborea” by Tangerine Dream. I’d heard one song on the radio a month before and liked it, and the album had a rave review in the December issue of “Electronics and Music Maker” magazine I’d bought and devoured a few weeks before. Strangely, this is the album that reminds me of Christmas. Just hearing the intro to “No man’s land” – the drone fading in, the synthetic tablas and sitars – takes me back to that day. “Hyperborea” is a good album, great in places. The sidelong “Sphinx Lightning” drags sometimes, but “No man’s land” skips along nicely and the title track is moody. But “Cinnamon Road” is special. At only four minutes it could’ve been a single – it’s highly melodic, highly sequenced and has a wonderful breakdown section in the middle. Very good indeed.
Which brings me to the two Eno albums. In those days Polydor liked to repackage two albums by an artist together in a gatefold – maybe to get rid of overpressed LPs. Certainly my brother had a few of these double packs by The Who by then. But Eno was a slightly unknown quantity so I waited until the afternoon to play them. I started with “Here come the warm jets” and didn’t get it at all. It probably didn’t help that the first song “Needle in the camel’s eye” sounded more like my brother’s beloved Velvet Underground records than anything I wanted to hear. I wasn’t expecting so many guitars – I thought Eno was all about the synths – but as the album progressed I started to acclimatise to them. For the start Robert Fripp’s guitar solo on “Baby’s on fire” was totally awesome. I loved the 50s doo wop influence on “Cindy tells me”. And then “Driving me backwards” threw me off the scent again. I really could not get my head around that song. Side two though was classic after classic. The way “On some faraway beach” developed from quiet to orchestral bombast and back again. “Blank Frank” was just nuts, with another crazy guitar solo. “Dead finks don’t talk” was utterly hilarious – Eno doing an Elvis impression! Or is it a Bryan Ferry impression? (Thanks Marcello). And finally the title track was immense. That monumental unison guitar riff. The double drumming. And after a good three minutes of build up – the words – “Oh these days we’re all on our knees”. Superb.
So I then tried “Before and after science”. And blow me down if it didn’t sound like the future of music in at least six different ways, almost pop but a pretty big almost. “No one receiving” sounded ridiculously funky yet slightly sideways, like disco designed for crabs. “Backwater” was Elton John telling a shaggy dog story. “Kurt’s rejoinder” was more sideways funk. “King’s lead hat” was like the punk records my brother played, but with more cleanliness and precision than any Clash record I heard emerging from his bedroom. And that’s not even taking the lyrics into account – they were in turn sarcastic, peculiar and plain funny. And then side two kicked in. “Here he comes” was more meditative and flowing, and then it got REALLY good. “Julie with…” was utterly beautiful, a slow drum-free drift of synth and gentle guitar, as it progresses through six minutes. And the words – I know Eno isn’t known for heartfelt words, but this is such a perfect vignette of a moment in love, a secret shared by only two, it’s truly wonderful. “By this river” is like the same two people an hour or so later, and is just as sweet. Then “Through hollow lands”. This is the one song that finally caught me – it was utterly enchanting, building slowly from bass and piano with a little percussion and some layers of synthesisers, and I immediately grabbed the needle and moved it back to play it again and again before moving on to “Spider and I” which I found strangely emotional. It’s a simple end to a great album.
And that was Christmas day 1983. Five albums to absorb over the next few weeks until I returned to school on Tuesday 3rd January. It was nice to be back at school, because it meant I could gaze at my beloved D, the girl I’d been crushing on for most of the previous year. There were some classes where I was sat close to her and these were the best ones. (That sounds awful). In our first maths class of ’84 our teacher Miss H was fed up with the time wasters at the back of the class, so moved the front two rows to the back and the back two rows to the front. D was in the front row, I was in the second – and now we were at the back. It was weird being at the back because it was a different atmosphere there – all the swots suddenly became different, we thought we could get away with any old shit and to be honest we did. We chatted, we laughed, we passed notes to each other. And I sat and stared at the back of D’s head, hoping she might turn around and smile at me.
Looking back I often wonder what the hell I would have done if she had at some point said “Yes” instead of “No” to me when I asked her out. I only thought of her in the purest way – no dirty thoughts, no idea on kissing or anything else – “getting off” as it was known at the time – eg “Did you see Hayley getting off with Kevin?”. No, I had no idea on anything. I mean, I’d had some sex ed so knew about the birds and the bees but I didn’t think of D in that way at all. My parents had this big book on ‘Growing Pains’ by Claire Rayner (a well known UK agony aunt, to my non-UK readers) and I remember reading the two or three pages on what she called “calf-love” over and over again, about daydreaming of a person, gazing at them across the classroom, writing endless pages in diaries, spending hours locked in your bedroom. And I just thought “That’s me! How does she know?”. A quick google on “calf-love” relates it to “puppy love” – “youthful attachment as opposed to lasting attachment”. Years later I would come across the word limerence, and discover attachment theory, and think to myself “Yes that’s me as well”.
The next Saturday we took a trip to Cardiff and at Kelly’s Records on the top floor of the market I picked up Eno’s second album “Taking tiger mountain by strategy” alongside “(No pussyfooting)” by Fripp and Eno. They’ve both still got their price stickers on them. The former album was the one I’d heard a song from, and I took a chance on the latter. “(No Pussyfooting)” was two twenty minute pieces – because I wouldn’t call them songs – that showed off Fripp’s wonderful guitar playing and Eno’s manipulation of tape loops. And it was an original copy – black Island label, catalogue number HELP 16. Is that worth anything now? That album was added to my ‘revision list’, instrumental albums I could have in the background while revising for exams. I could drift in and out of it, concentrate on a section then ignore it. And yes I know exactly what I’m saying.
“Taking tiger mountain” was different though. A set of ten songs, and a set that sounded good together. Unlike “Here come the warm jets” or “Before and after science”, this album sounds like it was made by the same band of people at the same time – there is a definite group sound. Most of this is because of what I call the “machine guitars” – the rhythm guitar playing isn’t just ramalama chords, they are in peculiar rhythm patterns that sometimes sound like industrial machines, playing in frantic bursts of chords then stopping, or stop start patterns. I could concentrate on the guitars on this LP for hours. Or the bass playing, which is frequently on one note. The music is always at the service of the songs, and while the songs don’t have much of an emotional impact (until the end), they still grab you with melodies and lyrics that stick. And while the record doesn’t sound timeless, it still sounds contemporary, which is a clever trick to achieve. The arrangements are unique, sometimes relying on drum machines for rhythm, sometimes synth bass is used instead of bass guitar – novel approaches for 1974.
“Burning airlines” kicks the LP off with a doubled lopsided guitar riff played over machine guitars and a drum machine before crisp drums and guitars clang together and Eno offers one of my favourite opening lines – “When I got back home I found a message on the door, sweet Regina’s gone to China, cross left on the floor”. The listener is dropped into the story halfway through and has to play catch up. “Back in Judy’s jungle” is a strange wartime shaggy dog story with lyrics I could (and did) quote most extensively. “The fat lady of Limbourg” is slow and slightly oriental, the hissing drum machine and sustained organ chords alongside peculiar horns and another strange tale. “Mother whale eyeless” is probably the most conventional song in terms of the structure and organisation of its parts, but Eno’s vocals are pulled into the background so only a few images pull through – “parachutes caught on steeples”. “The great pretender” has the hiss and spit of the drum machine, alongside bass piano – so low that some notes are just distorted harmonics – before a phalanx of wobbly guitars enter, alongside clanking percussion. Eno sings at his most arch – the low “Monica sighs” are positively evil – and halfway through synthetic crickets chirp into life, slowly taking over the track until there’s only them, on a lock groove. Vinyl, remember. (And yes I was as surprised as anyone else to hear those synthetic crickets kicking off “Inner flight” many years later).
Side two starts with “Third uncle”. A bass pulse throbs on a single note for ten seconds before the drums and guitars kick off – fast and punky with some crazed guitar solos and some deadpan singing from Eno. If Peel hadn’t got the wrong side of the album when he played it in late ’83 this would have been the first Eno song I heard. “Put a straw under baby” is on the surface a bright filler, a waltzing harmonium, the tinkling piano, but there’s strange undercurrents – from Eno’s unsettling Grimm fairy tale lyrics to the entrance of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. “The true wheel” initially appears to be straightforward until you notice the chord structure against the synthesised melody – the chords repeat in groups of three while the melody is a group of four, giving the impression of the song falling over itself. Eno plays against his backing vocalists (a trait he would continue in his production work – compare this to Talking Heads’ “The great curve”) and the lyrics seem dream-like in their logic – unsurprising as the “We are the 801” chant came from a dream. Then power chords come in and the classic line “Looking for a certain ratio” brings in the middle eight. Of course this is where A Certain Ratio got their name, though I do remember Private Eye during their Factory hating / baiting days trying to imply it was to do with Hitler – which it may do, but I suspect ACR were more Eno fans than Nazis. Then more wobbling guitar solos and at three minutes the drums turn to tom tom rolls, the guitars sound like sirens, there’s more machine guitars and Eno throws more conundrums at the listener – and did he do more to publicise The Modern Lovers here? After all they’d not actually made any records by this point, even though they’d recorded for Warners by now… It all gives the idea that Eno ‘knows’. “China my China” has synth bass, hissing drum machines and more machine guitars and a general sense of unease. “These poor girls are such fun, they know what God gave them their fingers for – to make percussion over solos” – followed by more crazed guitar and a bunch of overdubbed typewriters! Then the final verse brings the true horror – a suicide treated as if it was the most normal thing on earth. The title track is the calm after the storm, a slow drift based on piano, bass and a dreamy harmonised guitar melody, with Eno’s repeated vocals only emerging halfway through – “We climbed and we climbed…”. It’s a signpost for where he would go in the future – his own future and pop music’s future. And I find it oddly emotional, like peace being restored, a balm on a wound, the healing process started. I must have played this album a thousand times and I still love it, still find it bewitching and horrifying in equal measure.
So back to life… I struggled on with school that week, as I played “Taking tiger mountain” over and over and let it seep into my life and my diary. On Wednesday 11th January I started a diary entry with “These are your orders, seems like it’s do it or die” (from “Back in Judy’s Jungle”) followed by a paragraph about Miss H’s maths class, how she’d refused to let us leave the classroom until she’d lectured us on the responsibilities of adulthood and obeying your elders and betters. I thought “Why are you preaching to 14 year olds?”. And then two days later…
“I know it’s Friday the 13th but bloody hell!”
I can remember it quite clearly. One of D’s friends came up to me before morning registration and said “I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but D’s moving to another school in another town”. That was it, the rest of the day’s lessons were forgotten, the day a blur. During one lesson I passed by her table – “Is it true?” – “Yes sorry Rob” – and was quietly devastated. A week or so went by before I plucked up the courage to ask again – “When are you going?” – “Today, Rob. Sorry”. It was Wednesday 25th January and suddenly every class with her became precious, every moment sacred, every gaze even more special. She was probably glad to get away from me mooning after her. In our Chemistry class she had a bag of Quality Street chocolates and went around from table to table giving her classmates a sweet each. She gave me two. And that was my last real sighting of her. I knew I’d never see her again.
I cycled home at top speed feeling a strange mix of sadness and elation. And as I cycled I sang “Speed your love to me”, the then-current single by Simple Minds. Quite why I sang that song, I don’t know. It just felt like the right song to sing. It had just been issued and was all over the radio and I liked it more than their previous single “Waterfront” and…
It hinted at something else. Because once D was gone, I fell for someone else pretty much within a week. This was R – see the November 84 post for more on her – and just before Christmas I’d noticed her. We’d been in junior school together – I have a memory of being on a school trip with her, we were on a coach and she was sitting in the row in front of me with E who was allegedly my first girlfriend, but all I can remember was her having purple lips, and buying her some jewellery on this trip and her rejecting it and me giving it to my mother and when our house was burgled in ’88 this was the only jewellery which was left behind… The shit I remember… And anyway, we were in the coach and the radio was playing “Voulez Vous” (so this was ’79? ’80?) and I was singing it and she turned round to me and said “Robert! Shut up!”. And that was how our relationship was from the start – R telling me off. Not that we had a relationship at all…
It’s odd but looking at the charts of late January ’84 is interesting because there’s a feeling of something ending, yet hints of something else starting. There’s the last stragglers of synth pop from the previous year. “What is love?” by Howard Jones – I liked that one. “Hold me now” by The Thompson Twins – yeah that’s ok. “Here comes the rain again” showing that the Eurythmics were capable of being grandiose and boring at the same time. There’s oddities like “That’s livin’ alright” and “Rat rappin'” – two TV tie-ins – and some big names – CBS must have been happy so many big multi-single-from-one-album artists like Michael Jackson and Billy Joel and Lionel Richie (Correction – oops, he was on Motown, for some reason I thought he was on Epic) in the charts. And there were new things happening which at the time spelt out more interesting music to come. Frankie Goes To Hollywood climbing to number one, new entries for Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, plus “The killing moon”, “Love is a wonderful colour” and “What difference does it make?” Guitars were back. Ignore The Alarm and Big Country ok? Interesting times. And Simple Minds too.
“Speed your love to me” rocked. It sounded like it started in the middle of the song, big drum rolls, guitars like rampaging rhinos, big piano chords and Jim Kerr being passionate about being passionate. Yes that’s what it sounded like inside my head on that Wednesday as I cycled away from D towards R.
Within two weeks I would buy “Sparkle in the rain” and an original copy of “Music for airports” (three quid from a record fair in Bristol), with Eno’s definitive sleevenote on Ambient Music on the inner sleeve. “Music for airports” is one of those records which I can listen to in almost any situation, reading or writing or revising or ironing or cooking or travelling. “2/2” is my favourite piece, I love the timbre of the synthesiser and the reverb behind it, but I love the whole album. It’s just so calm and sometimes you need calm.
“Sparkle in the rain” is not calm. It is a noisy clamouring BIG ROCK album. Made to compete with U2 and other emerging BIG ROCK acts. As is the case with a lot of BIG ROCK albums of the time, the drums are mixed high, shoved through gated reverbs and sound huge. So huge that Stylus website described the opening of “Up on the catwalk” thus: “The almighty snare thwack which opens this cacophony can only have been made by catapulting a medium-sized sperm whale against a massive sheet of plastic stretched between a couple of handy oil rigs.” This is loud.
That loudness – the songs ready-made for the stadium – is the album’s undoing. All the subtlety, grace and beauty of “New Gold Dream” is replaced by bombast and clatter. And yet I love it. Simple Minds were aiming for the stadiums but weren’t quite there yet – and the striving is audible. As with “New Gold Dream” it’s hard to know exactly what Jim Kerr is singing about, but there are phrases that leap out and remain in the mind. “Up on the catwalk” is a fine opener, even with Kerr’s peculiar way of pronouncing Michaelangelo’s name. “Book of brilliant things” could be a reference to the Bible, but who knows? It’s fast, there’s lots of drums banging away, Charlie Burchill’s guitar is used for high single notes not chords, Derek Forbes’ bass is high and active but the song runs out of steam after two minutes. “Speed your love to me” is as propulsive as the title, and is damn near perfect in my opinion. “Waterfront” is apparently about the 80s regeneration of Glasgow but is all about the pulsing one note bass line. Forbes was a fantastic bass player, capable of delicate melodic bass patterns, and he’s playing one note for four minutes? What a waste. “East at Easter” builds from an echoing guitar pattern (hinting at early Disco Inferno actually) and Kerr sings “We will rock you, little child” like a threat, as drum rolls crash. What the hell is he on about? “Street hassle” is a mistake and a song I very rarely played. I knew the original from my brother’s collection, and even then I preferred Lou’s version. This just sounds wimpy, even when the whole band are playing. “White hot day” is nice, a close cousin to “Colours fly and Catherine Wheel” – Forbes’ bass is active, there’s a bit more dynamics involved. “C moon cry like a baby” has a great intro, delayed guitars and strange choppy keyboards (this is possibly one of the first appearances of a Yamaha DX7), and the song does not disappoint – it’s moody and dark, plenty of stop-start and space in the arrangement. “The kick inside of me” is a real highlight. It sounds like they are actually in a room playing together, from the count-in to the distorted bass, two note guitar part, and some subtle keyboards. Kerr finally sings at the edge of his voice breaking, there’s passion and pain in there – and the whole song keeps building up, drums get more frenzied, and any sensible listener would be turning the volume up. It’s a thrilling ride, the whole band playing like a sodding BAND, and as the last minute kicks in the drums get wilder, Kerr loses himself in the song and it all falls apart in noise and confusion. (I remember Peel playing this song at the time and saying “I think I only like this song for the last minute”). “Shake off the ghosts” is a more stately instrumental, based on a reversed drum pattern – as if to say “Yeah, we can still do beautiful too, especially if Jim shuts up”. It’s spooked. Which is good. But these two last songs suffered on record from poor sound quality. At the time I thought half the problem with the sound was the pressing quality – another thin piece of plastic – but “The kick inside of me” sounds no better on CD. It’s a very compressed sound, similar to the noisy sound on some brickwalled CDs of the 21st century.
So that was Winter ’84. From one crush to another, soundtracked by Eno and Simple Minds. What would happen next we’ll deal with later, when things will get all wrapped up.
Next time – Hold me close, just tell me how it feels