If you want to count me, count me out

By the middle of April 1986 I knew something had to change. The Easter holidays were over and everything that had happened before Easter had to be put aside. What had happened was this…

So there were two girls in my class at school – S and J – and I sort of fell for them simultaneously. Just before school broke up, we had our annual school prizegiving on 26th March…Actually no, go back a week… On 19th March we had our school photos taken. We weren’t told of this happening beforehand so all the girls had a panic about not looking good enough. I don’t think I had an individual photo but I was in the group picture – about 40 boys and girls, aged 16 to 17, staring at the camera. Even though I’ve not seen the picture for years I can still see it in my mind, I know who was either side of me, and where S and J were. J was to my left, and S was directly in front of me. But the irony was that J wasn’t smiling. She ALWAYS smiled. Maybe she had a natural happy personality. Oh and I looked like the total geek I was, tall thin lank greasy hair and big glasses.

A week later, 26th March, was the school prizegiving. A celebration where all of us in the lower sixth form got our certificates for passing our ‘O’ levels the previous summer, even though it felt like a lifetime away then. I had a bad feeling about the prizegiving – held in the same hall as the school photo – I thought I’d fall over and make a fool of myself in front of the whole school. Also I felt like S and J were winding me up. Every time I looked at them they would be looking at me. I was incredibly paranoid about it all and it was driving me nuts. Finally my name was called out – I stumbled up, the useless headmaster gave me a wet fish of a handshake, and I stumbled down. It wasn’t traumatic, but what happened afterwards was. I’d kept it secret that I was crushing on S and J for months, but afterwards on the way into town to buy the music papers I admitted to one of my closest friends that I was crushing on S. “Oh everyone fancies her” he told me. And suddenly I was destroyed – everyone fancies her? What chance did I have then? I bought Melody Maker, read the rave review of “Circuses and bread” in there and wrote a song called “Wind up” (that’s “wind” liking winding up a clock, a distinction I never made at the time).

The next day – last day in school – sat in the library hiding as the upper sixth enjoyed their last day before disappearing for A levels by throwing water bombs over anyone and anything. Wrote a bitter entry in my diary and wrote another song, called “Unless”. Friday – first day of the holiday, we have a day trip to Cardiff, “Circuses and bread” is already in HMV – in the front ‘new releases’ racks even! – so I buy it and that’s it. Perfect soundtrack to my misery for the Easter break, alongside rediscovering my father’s tape of “Can’t help falling in love” by Andy Williams. I play those two albums incessantly and get totally self-absorbed. (No change there then, say regular readers). I also write and record an EP about how I feel – “Dreaming winding talking and lying”. It would be a perfect four song EP – “Unless”, “Wind up”, the outright nasty noisefest of “Someone else’s dream” and sweetly melodic “Each conversation” – had I not added a franky horrible cover of “Simple thing as love”, not quite understanding how to transpose the song down to a key suitable for me to sing, I end up singing like a cat who’s just been neutered.

Let’s face it, I was spreading myself a bit thin musically at the time. There was that EP, which was issued as a double tape with a previous EP “A kiss in the rain and other dreams” which I felt wasn’t really good enough, and a week later there’d be another EP “Music for testcards” of four instrumentals (note I knew nothing of Young Marble Giants at the time). And there was my band Final Ecstasy who practiced their five songs every Saturday afternoon, me ruining my voice shouting to be heard above the guitarist and bass player who felt a band was a competition to play as loud as possible. We recorded ourselves in April and it was a horrible racket with me screaming and sneering. But that stopped as the guitarist was in the upper sixth and had his A levels to think about. And there was another band who technically never existed beyond four or five people messing around with tape recorders and synthesisers… But that didn’t happen anyway. And I wrote a sixteen song double album called “Contact” to record in the summer, but never recorded it. It’s a wonder I did any school work…

So I returned to school at the start of summer term with a new attitude. Enough misery already. Time to get out, see people, stop being introverted, go to parties, see people, get over yourself. And stop listening to that miserable music all the time. School was quieter, the upper sixth had gone (and that meant my brother) so we finally had the common room to ourselves. We could sprawl on the sofas, play darts in the back room any time we wanted, couples could cuddle and cavort (and I’d write songs about who loved who), but the old radio was resolutely set to Radio One. A quick look at the Top 40 of the week we returned – chart on April 19th – shows what a tired and tiresome time period it was. George Michael going all “Another green world” on “A different corner”, “Rock me Amadeus”, “Touch me (I want your body)”, “The power of love” (the Huey Lewis one)… Some good stuff – “E=mc2”, “Kiss”, “Driving away from home”, Pet Shop Boys – but pretty much negated by “Livin’ doll” by Cliff Richard and the Young Ones. It doesn’t matter that it was for charity, it was still horrible. And Radio One played it all the bloody time. “Thighs my soul” etc. Eurgh! But it was a quiet time in music for me – all the artists I liked (OMD, Cope, Bunnymen, Kraftwerk) weren’t issuing anything new and I felt I could stop looking forward and investigate some music from the past.

The past… I’d read books and magazine pieces about Julian Cope and he was constantly compared to Syd Barrett, another acid casualty. Maybe I should hear some of his music. A few days into term I dropped into Penarth’s lending library after school and there was a cassette of Pink Floyd’s “Relics” LP. That’ll do to start with. I took it home and gave it a listen. I knew very little about Pink Floyd. OK no, I knew the main facts – psychedelia, lose leader to acid, meander into space rock, then concept albums blah blah hippy nonsense. It’s odd how I had a kind of Year Zero mentality to music, I really didn’t listen to much sixties or seventies music beyond the Kraftwerk / Eno / Tangerine Dream / Neu lineage. My brother was deeper into the past but strictly in a post-punk way – so all the influential artists like Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Stooges, New York Dolls. He also obsessed over the Yardbirds, the Kinks and Free, and would hunt out bootlegs and rare LPs by all these acts, including odd solo albums by Paul Kossoff and Rabbit Bundrick. But proper psychedelia was an area neither of us had really covered. I vaguely knew “See Emily Play” from years before (it was on the 1967 edition of “25 years of rock”) and of course I knew “Another brick in the wall”. I remember one hot summer’s day in 1980, I was in my last term at junior school, and my class were flaked out in the sun on the yard at playtime. I started singing “We don’t need no education…” And all the top juniors joined in! About sixty 10 and 11 year olds singing “Hey – teacher, leave those kids alone!”. A magical moment. But other songs? I probably knew “Money” and that was about it. “Relics” was going to be interesting.

“Arnold Layne” sounded like a typical 60s pop single but with odd edges, those echoing drum hits and that organ solo, and Barrett’s very English vocals. “Interstellar overdrive” was something else – this was the space rock I expected, even if it was very primitive, that opening riff was amazing and then it drifts off into space but never losing track of itself. When it surges back into the riff towards the end it really feels like a rocket taking off, even if the stereo games are a bit – well – hackneyed. “See Emily Play” sounded sweet and evil simultaneously, a perfect psychedelic single for the summer of ’67. And even now, hearing the instrumental section in the middle I can hear the radio report on LSD beamed into the song by “25 years of rock”. “Remember a day” was spookier, Barrett’s slide guitar like a ghost, the piano leading the way but the vocals being quieter, softer and scarier. Unnerving, shall we say. “Paintbox” was equally unsettling – the chords not really finding a home key, the words sounded like a bad night recalled through an uncomprehending fog, and that line “I open the door to an empty room then I forget” – the final word stretched out over a number of notes. Unsettling but I loved it. “Julia Dream” sounded bucolic – those Mellotron flutes and acoustic guitars – but there was again an underlying sense of dread, the minor chords drag it down. “Careful with that axe Eugene” was tense too. This wasn’t easy listening by any means. It built up slowly but didn’t resolve itself, the whispered title sounding like a threat then a scream. And all the while some bloody vibraphones keep banging away. “Cirrus Minor” sent me to sleep. “The Nile Song” woke me up. “Biding my time” sounded like an out-take (and I was right there) and finally “Bike” was funny and brilliant and slightly crazed, and made me want to hear more of the early stuff.

A week or so later I took a trip to Cardiff and bought the tape of “Piper at the gates of dawn”. It was cheap in WH Smiths. Three quid, and on tape because the LP was a few quid dearer. A friend of mine said to me “Why are you buying that? It’s old!”. Yes but sometimes you can learn from the past…. (Reader guffaws into their sleeve). But as soon as I heard “Astronomy Domine” I knew this was my kind of music. Pulsing, faintly electronic, spacey and yet melodic too. And there was something unconventional about the music too – it wasn’t too blues based, the chords and melodies weren’t orthodox, I couldn’t predict where the song was going but I was loving the journey. And the guitar playing wasn’t showy or over the top but different, gliding up and down with echoing effects, while the vocals were blank and English. And this was just the first song! “Lucifer Sam” is as slinky as its feline hero, Barrett’s riff sliding around with wild guitar interjections. “Matilda Mother” is a vision of childhood – “Oh mother, tell me more!” – with all its hopes and disappointments. “Flaming” is psychedelic pop at its finest, you can almost hear Barrett smiling as he sings “Too much, I won’t touch you – but then I might!”. What always strikes me about this song is the entrance of the acoustic guitar halfway through, and how enormous it sounds for a 1967 recording. “Pow R Toc H”, “Take up thy stethoscope and walk” and “Interstellar overdrive” are chances to stretch out and improvise, showing off what lengths the band could go to, everything they’ve got thrown into these songs – odd noises and tribal rhythms, frantic bluesy workouts, space rock drones, lots of wibbly stereo games too. And it’s at that point the material seems to run out. Not to imply the rest of the LP is filler or sub-par, but whereas the other songs sound like a four piece rock band, songs like “The gnome” and “Chapter 24” sound like they weren’t part of the band’s live reportoire, they weren’t played at UFO… I could be totally wrong about that (and knowing they recorded “The gnome” for the BBC in ’67 shows I could well be barking up the wrong tree), but the LP goes pastoral from hereon in. Maybe it’s the calm after the storm. “The gnome” is charming toytown pop, “Chapter 24” is a keyboard heavy reading of the I Ching and “The scarecrow” out-folks Traffic, and again that acoustic guitar! Finally “Bike” is again crazed and funny and slightly odd – that line “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world” is an odd love lyric, but I related to it at the time. It’s letting someone into your trip, your head, your life. Overall a superb album, one I knew instantly was a direction I wanted to investigate.

This stuff was addictive. I wanted more but I wasn’t really prepared to go forward with the Floyd. My brother had loved “Relics” and “Piper” and borrowed my tape of the latter – and he liked the stuff on side two of “Relics” which sent me to sleep – so he was prepared to go further into Floyd. He was lucky enough to find near mint mono LPs of “Piper” and “Saucerful of secrets” for a couple of quid each, then carried on buying their LPs, but I wasn’t that impressed by them. “Saucerful of secrets” had a few good Richard Wright songs – “Seesaw” and the aforementioned “Remember a day” – but had droning boring space rock like the title track. It also had “Jugband blues”, Barrett’s last song with the band, a song that goes beyond spooked into scary territory – it sounded like Barrett was falling apart at the seams, unsure of his present, scared for his future, but blankly polite about it – “It’s awfully considerate to think of me here…”. On the other hand there was “Corporal Clegg” which my brother insisted on playing all the time. The problem with my brother – and I’ve said this before – was that he would pick the most irritating songs to play to me. That ridiculous “Grooving with a pict” song from “Ummagumma”, “Alan’s psychedelic breakfast”, and he loved “The wall” too. I was not impressed.

So where to go from here? How about trying some American psychedelia? My brother’s Rolling Stone album guide gave five stars to “Forever Changes” by Love, and the small paragraph on it said it had influenced the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. Maybe I should buy that then? In early May I bought it and yet again had my mind blown. For a start it didn’t sound like my idea of psychedelia, where were the effects and backwards tapes and odd noises and visions of childhood? I’d not heard too much US psych at this point – “Eight miles high” and “White rabbit” (from my father’s tape of the “Stardust” soundtrack – now there’s an album I should investigate at some point) – and didn’t really know the context so much, the whole hippie anti-war movement. And the sleeve reminded me of the slightly psychedelic cover of “The golden hour of the Kinks” which my parents had. I didn’t realise until that first listen that “Forever Changes” was all acoustic guitar and string arrangements. But it sure as hell wasn’t easy listening.

“Alone again or” I vaguely knew, I’d probably heard it on Annie Nightingale or something like that. It’s a good introduction, all flamenco flourishes and Tijuana brass fanfares but there’s underlying tension in the solo acoustic sections that will gnaw away throughout the album. “A house is not a motel” is urgent and slightly desperate, there’s no string arrangement to sweeten the song and the lyrics are paranoid and worried – the third verse turns into a bad dream of water turning into blood, and why would we call Arthur Lee’s name? Then two electric guitars fire off at each other as the band pound away, and Lee’s screaming in the background and it doesn’t stop and doesn’t fade and then a sudden tape cut in mid note. (NB – this is a peculiarity of a German mid-80s pressing which doesn’t fade out, just keeps going. This was mentioned on an ILM thread years ago and judging by Bob Stanley’s comment on the LP in “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, he had a copy like this too). My brother and I loved the sudden ending – were they too out of it in the studio to fade it out? “Andmoreagain” is gentler, Lee doing his Johnny Mathis impression, and the words touched me too – “and when you’ve given all you had, and everything still turns out bad and all your secrets are your own…” And then there’s “And you don’t know how much I love you” which absolutely killed me at the time. And well, the way Lee pronounces “Andmoreagain” makes it sound like he’s singing “And Morgan”, you know. Me me me. (Except it’s more likely my brother Andrew…). Lost in confusions indeed. “The daily planet” is one of the songs that bloody annoys me – it’s never been mastered properly on CD – that choppy electric guitar at the start should be in the middle of the stereo picture. This sounded different to the previous songs – which made sense years later when I read it was the Wrecking Crew playing it. It seems to be about mundane existence – “it is oh so repetitious”. But the song twists and turns, and doubled vocals sing different words at key points. Weird. My brother and I would argue about that – we each heard different words there. “Old man” is back to the acoustics, and now Bryan McLean is singing – a softer voice. It sounds so gentle, and the little echo on the drums helps. The string arrangement is gorgeous here, and the lyrics are beautiful, how everything becomes clear through love. Sorry, shouldn’t be cynical. But I love this song so much, it was an idealised version of what love should be. And what is that last line?

New paragraph needed for “The red telephone”. This might take a while. The problem being… Hell it was exactly how I was feeling at the time. Alienated from everyone, trying to connect, confused by the world and everybody in it. (Shakes head). I’m not doing this well at all. Sorry. The little descending harpsichord fills between verses. The bridge sections… The string arrangements in them…the way they ascend and make my heart ache… The words… “And if you think I’m happy, paint me yellow”…the way Lee spits out “the fifth’s to FIX”. It was just so much like me me me. Suddenly this song was one of the most important songs in the world. Suddenly it was ‘up there’ as a high entry in that list (see previous blog post – waddayamean you didn’t see it?). Forget all the stuff at the end about “We’re all normal”, it was about the rest of the song getting there. A window into my head. How did Arthur Lee know? Still utterly heart-stopping. Sorry, I’ve failed to even touch the wonder of the song.

“Maybe the people…” is light relief to start side two, even with the clever ‘end a verse with the first word of the next verse’ trick. It’s uptempo and happy and Spring is in the air and those trumpets sound as happy as Lee does. “Live and let live” isn’t happy. There’s far more worrying lines than the opening “snot has caked against my pants” line. There’s guns, past lives, threats – “why can’t you understand?”. Tension builds all the time. No string arrangements again, no sweetening. “Write the rules in the sky and ask your leaders WHY?”. Then a sharp electric guitar spits out a desperate solo. And it still builds up, repeating again. Will the tension break? Not til the end when everything gets double speeded and frantic. And I think I’ve just worked out “The good humor man he sees everything like this”. Because the ‘good humor man’ is an ice cream seller in America and Lee is describing the ice cream seller’s thoughts in a park or out and about, as this is how he sees everything. Hummingbirds, girls in pigtails, that’s what he sees. Or maybe not. Still, sweet. Except the very last seconds as the tape slips back and forth. Proto-scratching. “Bummer in the summer” I always assumed was a Dylan piss-take, and passes the time pleasantly enough. “You set the scene”… That slightly off guitar arpeggio, stable bass note, low ‘cello… It sounds so…threatening, unsettling…”There are people wearing frowns who’ll screw you up but they would rather screw you down”…still the same, you know. Then the strings come in and the light breaks through, a slow drum roll and the song changes in tempo, and Lee sounds more accepting of his fate – “I’ll face each day with a smile” but still fatal, everything’s going to die anyway, the horns are triumphant but Lee is telling a bitter truth with a smile on his face. The final repeating section always brings a tear to my eye, as Lee echoes the word ‘time’ into the distance and everything sounds like a celebration, strings and horns rejoice. But in what? There’s no real resolution.

And that’s how I felt – no resolution. I played the album over and over, absorbing it into my bloodstream. I took a tape of it into school and sat in the common room playing it on my personal stereo, which is why it reminds me so much of the time I suppose. And nobody knew about it. I asked my friends who knew about music – “Do you know ‘Forever Changes’?” And they were all blank. It was my own discovery, my own world. The factions couldn’t fit it anywhere. The goths were listening to the Leather Nun. The rockers were lapping up Marillion. The indie kids (of which I was one, really) were waiting for Moz’s next words and absorbing “Victorialand” and “Shellshock”. Nobody cared about sixties music. I remember around the time going to a friend’s house – he was always cooler than anyone else – and looking at his tape collection, it was all the cool stuff (which is why “On tape” by the Pooh Sticks was so funny, because it was true) like the Velvets and the Doors and he didn’t know Love either. It was a secret society of one – well two really because my brother fell for “Forever Changes” too, and we finally had a liking for the same music and kept discovering it together.

So, how did the socialising and getting out and about go? Unsurprisingly it was a total disaster. To celebrate one year on since the legendary party described previously, everyone got together at the pitch and putt course on Cliff Walk, right by my house, to then go on to a party. S and J would be there, and I would be too. Only it didn’t happen. I went to the wrong end of the pitch and putt course and missed them all. A week or so later I was invited to a party over at Cosmeston Lakes with my friends, and I cycled over. At the lakes, I bumped my bike onto the boardwalk over the marshes and my front wheel fell off my bike, I crashed to the ground and everyone helped retrieve my wheel from sinking into the waters. I didn’t really recover after that. It was no wonder I stayed in my bedroom and consoled myself in music. S and J remained oblivious to my crush on them, and probably did for years. The finale of that story being that S would hook up around this time with another friend of mine, they would both go to Sheffield University together at the same time I was in Sheffield Poly, and I would be in a constant state of paranoia in case I saw them. I didn’t see them at all until my final drunken night in Sheffield, April ’89, when I met them in a bar by the uni and told them an absolute pack of lies of how great life was for me.

I sat my exams in June and felt like I’d failed every one of them. I was almost right there. At the end of one of the Maths exams, I glanced over to J and she was smiling. What kind of person smiles at the end of a maths exam? That started a song. And that song lead somewhere else, away from “Contact”. And why did everyone go to J’s house afterwards? What was so great about that? And why wasn’t I invited? And that started another song…

And I sat in the common room feeling different to everyone else in that room and wondering what I had to do to fit in, be part of the crowd, be normal, and did I really want to fit in anyway? And those words from “The Red Telephone” became more and more relevant. “Sometimes I deal in numbers, and if you want to count me – count me out”.

Next time – every little now and every little then…

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