The first job I had was a temporary three month placement through the summer of 1989. It was organised through Cardiff And Vale Enterprise which was run by one of my father’s work colleagues and I can remember my brother and I went to the interviews in a building opposite Bute Street station by the docks. Years later this area would be redeveloped to become Cardiff Bay but at the time it was a hugely run down and almost seedy area. I know my brother didn’t get his job but I did. Considering I had flunked out of my Sheffield Polytechnic the company still took me on as a temporary systems analyst based on the four terms I had completed. I suppose they got me on the cheap.
The company manufactured industrial air driers and turbines in a factory on Dumballs Road in Cardiff, heading away from the centre of the city away towards the docks. The whole area has been demolished and rebuilt now but at the time it was extremely shabby. On my first day the managing director introduced me to all the staff explaining I should be helped in any way by everyone, nobody should fear me as I was going to help the company improve. I was analysing the entire process of the company, find new ways of doing things and after three months present a report to management of my recommendations. I shall just remind you that I was a 20 year old failed Poly student at this point. What did I know?
The obvious answer was “Bugger all”. In the first few weeks I sat in meetings and board rooms taking copious notes, then interviewing key staff from every department. Some staff were more helpful than others – there were two staff in particular who guided me and made me feel at home, making in jokes with me at meetings and offering advice when I got stuck.
“Very interesting, but where is this going, Rob?”
Well this was my first job and therefore the first time I had earned my own money. And of course that meant one thing – buying records. This period wasn’t a total orgy of record buying because moat of my wages were being saved for my own PC. But my wages were paid on Saturdays and I used my first pay to buy a CD on a family trip to Cardiff one early Saturday in June.
I’m not really sure what drove me to buy “Isn’t Anything” by My Bloody Valentine. I only knew “Cigarette in your bed” from “Doing it for the kids” but I had heard their singles and fancied giving them a go. I picked it up from HMV on CD then we all trundled to Moss Bros opposite Spillers to buy me a suit. My first look at the sleeve was while waiting to be fitted into a suit. It looked very overexposed, very close, very intimate. I couldn’t wait to get home and stick the Cd in my Philips hifi (the same Philips hifi can be seen in the background of Ken and Deirdre’s house in “Coronation Street”)
“Isn’t Anything” is one of those records which reviewers have struggled to describe for years. I could go all Simon Reynolds and talk about glide guitars and reinventing guitars and sonic whatnots of sound. But instead I’ll write what I hear and think as the album progresses. First of all I hear these twelve songs on groups of three, and I don’t really know why. The only other album I think about in threes is “Odessey and Oracle”. “Soft as snow (but warm inside” sets the parameters, rumbling overdriven bass, surging guitars, stop start rhythms and frantic drumming. And more than anything it sounds ridiculously carnal, the words are …. rude but not in a dirty or seedy way. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher coo in harmony over waves of guitar noise. A good start. “Lose my breath” is slower, a cocoon of reverse reverberated acoustic guitars while Butcher sings in a small voice, it is claustrophobic and breathless in the same way an asthma attack is. “Cupid come” is more swooning guitars and hammering drums while Shields gets carnal again. There is that line in the middle which always takes my breath away – “Every time I look at you it pins me to the ground.” How great is that? And now I’m starting to hear how the band is working. The drums are slightly ragged in places but that just adds to the humanity of the sound. Yet still some unearthly white noise rushes emerge through the song. “(When you wake) You’re still in a dream” is faster with stops and starts and a huge riff while Butcher coos and Shields struggles to get heard above the noise. “Your wasted space is mine too”. I could be hearing these lines wrong of course. “No more sorry” returns to the claustrophobic sound of “Lose my breath” and this time it is even more worrying and unsettling. Apparently a song about abuse, Butcher sings in a disengaged whisper which makes it even more chilling. “All I need” sounds like nothing on earth. It sounds like what a baby hears in the womb, a heartbeat pulse, waves of guitars heard through a fog of reverb (technically this is all ‘wet’ reverb sound), the acoustics are totally skewed, and God knows what Butcher and Shields are singing. As the song closes, sections fall away and you hear there’s something playing backwards within the sound.
Side two – or the start of the third trio of songs, as I see it – kicks off with “Feed me with your kiss”. A drum count, someone dropping a glass and then you get smacked in the face with a pummelling riff, which doesn’t stop punching you over and over and over, and even if you are counting the punches it keeps adding more. And there is an enormous wall of noise too. I remember hearing this song in late ’88 in my student bedroom, and I laughed out loud at the distortion. It just sounded like everything was in the red. And again Butcher and Shields sing to and with each other, sounding like they want to eat each other, or maybe something more than that. “Sueisfine” is speedy as hell, waves of noise and guitars and frantic drumming, and the words are desperate and needy and express the strange desire for someone anyone to notice that occur when someone is at the end of their tether. Too right I understood. “Several girls galore” is almost bass-less, the guitars sounding like accelerating cars, drums all over the place, just hanging on by the fingernails. The final trio is my favourite part of the album. “You never should” is a hurtle towards desire, with a guitar solo of almost atonal white noise while guitar chords swoop around like vultures. I really am failing to not sound stupid here, aren’t I? “Nothing much to lose” starts with crazy flailing drums and guitars before settling into what could almost be called a normal jangling indie pop song, but it’s still got these juggernauts of noise driving through it. Finally “I can see it but I can’t feel it” is a lovely closer, senses confused, all over the place but such a gorgeous melody as Butcher and Shields sing together. The whole album is very sexual, not in a “Let’s get it on” way, it isn’t romantic, it’s close and intimate and confused and desperate and hyped up and … It’s like real life, with a lot of white noise interference. I have played “Isn’t Anything” hundreds, if not thousands, of times since and it never fails to thrill and excite me. I have learnt that it is a terrible soundtrack to driving unless you want to get somewhere very fast. I also know that when I am old and grey (or greyer than now) and my hearing is nonexistent, it will be through listening to “Isn’t Anything” too loud on headphones too many times.
See, I didn’t mention “the chaos of desire”, did I? Damn….
I absolutely adored “Isn’t Anything” and played it as much as possible. Going to work, going home, in my lunch hour walking to the city centre and back, walking to the pub. It really did soundtrack my life at that point. Which is just as well considering the alternatives out there that summer. In the factory I was given the choice of two rooms, one above the manufacturing area and one by the designers offices. The latter was quiet and silent and I used that most of the time, but when I was in the former room I could hear the radio in the factory, blasting out Kylie and Jason and Jive Bunny. It was horrible. There were good things on the sidelines – there were singles by De La Soul and others which got played occasionally which lit up the dismal playlists – but they were few and far between.
After about a month of observations and interviews I moved into a large room and started putting my findings together, huge sheets of paper with SSADM diagrams and data structures strewn all over a huge table. I also had saved enough money to buy my PC – from Morgan Computers, an Acer PC, green and black screen, five and a half inch disc drive, 4MB of hard drive, dot matrix printer. I started to write my report on it at home but still had that room to myself at the factory. I was left to my own devices in the room, nobody disturbed me and I kept my head down. Part of the time I was working but sometimes I read the music papers, sometimes I would chat to people passing by my room, and on one occasion I wrote a letter.
During the previous summer I had started meeting up with a new group of friends at the Railway in Penarth. I’m not sure how they came into my circle of friends but there they were. Porky and Dave and Julian and Grace and a few others. And there was one who I was interested in, who i’ll coyly call C. The first time I mentioned her in my diary was in August 88, talking about this new group and I describe C as “someone I try to be nice to, because I secretly fancy her”. I’m not sure how people knew that I fancied her, maybe I’m just a bit obvious. By Christmas 88 I had a long drunken chat with her and I thought she might be interested in me, maybe I actually had a chance of a girlfriend. That slim hope kept me going through the first six months of 1989 while I flunked out of Sheffield and C moved up to Perth in Scotland. By the middle of the summer I decided to write her a letter, my first ever love letter. I wrote it in that office on a piece of A4 paper. It said that I liked her, I thought she might like me and perhaps we could be friends. I asked one of my friends for C’s address and posted it on a Saturday.
The next few days I waited and waited and nothing happened. In the meantime I bought the new single by A Certain Ratio called “The Big E”. It was their debut single on A&M after years and years on Factory Records. I had seen ACR in December 88 in the Leadmill in Sheffield, their warm up for the infamous ACR / Happy Mondays / New Order show at GMEX, and their new material had been great on stage. And i nicked Jeremy Kerr’s whisky and coke. Sorry. But “The Big E” sounded almost too smooth. Just as acid house and the Roses and the Mondays were kicking in, ACR had blanched out slightly. I kept working and hoping for the best. As I arrived home on the Thursday my mother said there was a letter for me with a Scottish postmark. It was from C saying she wasn’t interested in me, she’d only shown an interest in me back in December because of the circumstances and what I had been saying, and that we shouldn’t talk about it to anyone. Understandably I was annoyed and the next day I wrote a song called “Respecting your wishes” which was bitter and twisted. I can remember getting the melody in my office and dashing downstairs to the toilet to write the song. She may have asked me not to tell anyone about it, but that didn’t stop her telling anyone. I returned to the Railway pub that Friday night to find all my female friends saying to me “Oh it’s a shame about C, isn’t it?” She’d written to her friends at the same time as she’d written to me and told them all about it. I was extremely pissed off and stormed off for a sulk at the top of Albert Road, watching the sun go down with “The Big E” playing on my Walkman, over and over. “I won’t stop loving you, I still believe in you, when everything goes wrong you think you’re on your own….” Was I singing the words to her or to me? “You just can’t take it any more but then again a lost cause is the only thing worth fighting for.” If i hadn’t decided to have a teetotal summer I would have drunk myself into oblivion that night.
The next week I consoled myself with the purchase of another album. I chose “Take Care” by He Said, the non de plume of Graham Lewis from Wire. Now I was a bit cautious when it came to Wire solo projects. Sometimes they could be wonderful and sometimes they could be awful. I would happily dash into a burning house to retrieve my copy of Colin Newman’s “Not To” album, which is precisely what a fourth Wire album would have sounded like had they ditched Mike Thorne as producer and would be absolutely perfect were it not spoilt by a horrible version of “Blue Jay Way” at the end. On the other hand I would happily throw “The shivering man” by Bruce Gilbert inside a burning house, especially if it was accompanied by “This way” and one or two Dome albums. So I approached this album with trepidation. What would it be? Noise or pop songs? Turned out it was pop songs built on noise.
“Watch take care” is all industrial clanking rhythms, deep bass rumbles, sudden bursts of noise and yet there is a pop song of sorts over the top. Lewis sings in his deep stentorian voice of what he sometimes wants – “Sometimes I want to be with you, sometimes I want to be alone” – and it all works. Layers are slowly added as the song progresses, some lush keyboard chords behind the noise and clutter, and it would be perfect if it didn’t go on a minute or two too long (which would turn out to be the main fault of the album – it doesn’t know when to stop). “ABC dicks love” is more like it, even with that slightly dodgy title. Legendary drummer Keith Le Blanc makes an appearance here, adding a pert rhythmic variety, but it’s still Lewis’ song. Blasts of synthetic horns and a seemingly normal pop chorus lead into verses of deadpan rap, some of which seems pertinent to the time (I always took the line “Batman’s flat bizarres my metro” to be a reference to the contemporary advert for the Mini Metro where the Batmobile is unavailable so Batman and Robin drive Robin’s Metro instead, and “Buy shares in hell” is a reference to the Tory Party’s policy of selling off British Gas and British Telecom during the late 80s). It’s a fun little song but again it goes on slightly too long. “Could you?” is a slow and empty song, with Lewis doing a good Scott Walker impression, that first verse with just bass and echoing piano is great. The song is written about an incident when someone dropped a lump of concrete from a bridge onto Wire’s tour bus, and Lewis is questioning the motivation of the person who committed the act. Again the song builds nicely but there isn’t enough variety to make it truly work. “Tongue ties” is a song I’ve never really understood, is it about communication or the lack of it? Still, there’s a good chorus to sing along with. Mind you that line -“The country boy’s heart follows staggering behind” – always struck me as an odd but arresting image. The song is followed by a short instrumental reprise. “Not a soul” is wonderful, fast and punchy, full of melody and noise, and that clicking sound you hear from time to time is the noise a Casio SK1 makes when it samples something (you can also hear it on the live version of “Feed me” on Wire’s “Ahead” EP). Again the song refers to a real life incident, where Lewis was mugged in the street if I remember correctly but with the female chorus singing “Who shot my baby?” and the general air of slightly mischievous pop makes the song irresistible. After that the album goes into instrumental mode, with some pieces for Michael Clark’s dance company – a production called “Because we must” which I remember seeing on “The South Bank Show” at the time. The final song on the LP is “Hole in the sky”, huge pounding drums and Lewis shouting over a barrage of samples – “There’s one or two things I like about you”. A noisy close to the LP.
Only I had bought the CD with four extra tracks. Two remixes of “ABC dicks love” and “Could you?” And a peculiar cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”. And one more song called “He said she said”. And what a song! A simple rhythm, a total lack of bass, two chords repeated but progressively getting richer as the song continues, and Lewis croons again. And this time the words cut like a knife. It is ostensibly a conversation between a couple trying to get together, finding each other, finding excuses, finding reasons, and full of vague memories. Lewis sings “In this place I first saw you, in this place I first met you, in this place I first held you, in this place I fell for you” and that’s the story of my ill fated affair with C, only without the holding ha ha ha. And as the song goes on Lewis slips in little extra phrases… “I’m hiding my feelings”…”my feelings for you”…. And my world slightly tilted off its axis. Because yes I was hiding my feelings, hiding my hurt, feeling betrayed, keeping her secret which she then tells everyone. Thanks a million. In the end Lewis stops singing, lost in his own thoughts and some lushly romantic strings surge forth to take over the song. Total genius and worth the price of the album just for that one song.
And it would only get worse. A week after receiving the letter from C, I returned to the Railway to find that she was back in Penarth, hanging with her friends and they were all talking about me, huddled in corners and discussing my letter and her letter and HOW COULD YOU? My God I was pissed off by her return, and that inspired another song which was either called “Another way to say hello” or “I never knew you cared” (deep cultural references both) because I could never decide on a title for it.
Meanwhile my placement was coming to a logical conclusion. I spent about a week typing out a final report where I took into consideration everything I had learnt about the company over the previous months and recommendations, how to invest in new Computer Aided Design software, make changes to improve communication and workflow. In the end it was a hefty document, about fifty pages of information in a proper report format, with all my SSADM diagrams at the back. I then made a presentation alongside the deputy manager to the managing director. He listened to what I recommended, then said “This is all very interesting, but you didn’t interview me or ask what I thought should be changed. Therefore I’ll take it into consideration like this” and threw my report into the bin. That was my introduction to office politics, and I wondered why I had bothered working so hard for the past three months. As for C, she returned to Perth and seldom returned to Penarth. She was soon forgotten, and everyone moved on. Including me. Honest. And “Isn’t Anything” is still one of my favourite albums, and still gets played at least once a month. And the company I worked for? Still a going concern according to the internet, and the deputy is now the managing director. Good for them.
Next time – Life is where I’m going and time is all I’ve seen