Blessed State

In retrospect, I must admit I hadn’t really enjoyed studying for my A levels. The first year in the lower sixth at Stanwell had been a series of personal and emotional disasters (all pretty much self-inflicted – see previous posts) with poor exam results at the end. The second year in the upper sixth at New College Cardiff had brought a fresh start, new friends, but there were still problems, mainly with maths. A Level maths had blown my mind – all vectors and differentiation and calculus and I really didn’t understand it or see the point to it. It didn’t help that my eyesight was so poor that I couldn’t read the small numbers involved in the equations. I fell out with my lecturer and stupid words were spoken and the headmaster had come down on me like a ton of bricks regarding the honesty and integrity of his school and his staff. Which was funny now considering what he got up to at the time (there were rumours of dodgy doings even then) and what would happen in the future (he sold the college building in the centre of Cardiff for £4m so it would be redeveloped as a hotel – only he didn’t tell anyone until five months later when the college suddenly closed). So I had extra maths lessons from a nice lady called Irene and struggled through the exams and courseworks. Everything else suffered so I could concentrate on my Maths, which was a shame really. Once I’d finished all the exams halfway through June I was at a loose end for the first time in my life.

So what do you do when you know your results won’t come out until the middle of August? Well you could apply for some jobs for a start. A job came up in the Virgin record shop franchise within the Debenhams store in Cardiff and I applied, had an interview, probably came over as an indie snob and didn’t get the job. There was also this odd IBM thing I was interviewed for. I can’t even remember applying for it but I was invited down to one of their headquarters in Southsea near Portsmouth for a day of interviews and assessments. I secretly thought it was hilarious to be interviewed by Big Blue as my first tapes back in ’85 had been on my own label called IBM Tapes, where IBM stood for Industrial Beat Music. Yeah right. Anyway… As it would be a whole day there IBM even put me in a hotel the night before. It was a horrible cheap place whose curtains didn’t close, the bed was too small, and the sound of the amusements down the road filtered through the single glazed windows. The next day I was ferried along to IBM’s offices in a bus alongside fifty or so other candidates. Once there I ate horrible food, had three interviews, an aptitude test and a group exercise where I said virtually nothing. That may have been my undoing. I headed back on the train and read Melody Maker’s 4AD records special to celebrate “Lonely is an eyesore”. I didn’t get the IBM job either.

Meanwhile life continued. We had a few family day trips, sometimes for meals and sometimes just as something to do. One Sunday the whole family – my parents, my brother, my gran and I – took a day trip to Cowbridge, a very posh town in the Vale of Glamorgan about thirty miles from Cardiff. It was a lovely summer’s day and we strolled around the picturesque town browsing in any shops which happened to be open, which wasn’t many. In one shop I happened to see a ‘Nice Price’ cassette of the Byrds’ “Fifth Dimension” LP for about £2.50 so I bought it. I only knew “Eight miles high” from the album but had a vague recollection of Pete Wylie playing “What’s happening!?!?” when he chose some of his favourite songs for Janice Long’s evening session radio show on Radio One. So I gave it a chance. On the car journey back to Cardiff my father said “Oh let’s have a listen to that Byrds tape, Rob” and it was shoved into our Austin Maestro’s tape deck. Everyone seemed to be humming along nicely as the album progressed but I had a growing sense of unease as side one headed to its conclusion. The reason for this? Those bright sparks at CBS had swapped the final songs off each LP side on the tape, so side two finished with the gloomy Hiroshima ghost story “I come and stand at every door”, which meant “The Learjet song” was rapidly approaching. I had no idea what it was going to sound like, but I had a bad feeling about it. Once “What’s happening?!?!” – David Crosby’s beautiful languid ode to being so off your head on chemicals you have no idea what’s going on – had concluded there was a rush of noise like a hoover, some radio chatter and a little riff, some vocals and just more bloody plane noise and chatter. For three whole minutes. When the ‘song’ finished my father took the tape out and passed it back to me, adding “I think that’s one for your walkman, Rob”. The journey home was continued in stunned silence.

It was during the summer of ’87 that I reformed my band Final Ecstasy. We’d played our five songs ad infinitum through the winter and spring of the previous year before a huge argument between bass player Robin and guitarist Dave led to a split that summer. The argument was about whether someone would build a sports stadium at the bottom of Leckwith Road on the outskirts of Cardiff. Robin said it would happen, David said it wouldn’t, and after coming to blows (not me though, I didn’t give a shit) we split up. The irony of course is that it did happen and that is where Cardiff City now play their matches. But a year later such arguments were forgotten. We’d all kept in touch and differences were put aside and we started playing again. David was less interested than the rest of us so only appeared from time to time, adding a layer of power chords and ridiculous widdly widdly soloing over our songs but there were two major differences to the band in ’87. Firstly we had a real singer, a friend of Robin’s called Alan who could really sing so I could stop hollering and concentrate on my keyboards and drum machines. Secondly we now had ten songs not five, so there was a bit more variety. From what I can remember we were actually quite good, and I wish I’d recorded a rehearsal. Alan asked if he could bring his girlfriend along to hear us, but when he told me it was R – who I’d crushed on for two years – I said no. After all, I was still paranoid that her mother was now working in the nearest shop to us in Sully Terrace and clearly knew who I was and seemed to be monitoring the amount of sweets I was buying from there. (R’s mother had inspired one of my best early songs called “Don’t run me down”, about how she always seemed to be driving her green Citreon BX behind me as I cycled home from school. It’s no wonder R didn’t like me…) But Final Ecstasy fell apart towards the end of August, I was fed up with waiting for the other members – they would either be late or not turn up at all – so after a practice where I turned “Follow the leader” into Wire’s “Heartbeat” by playing as softly as possible, the band broke up for the second and last time.

Summer ’87 was an odd time for pop music. The charts were half wonderful and half crap, just for a change. Some big names were starting the campaign for their autumn LP releases so there was Michael Jackson’s “I just can’t stop loving you” glooping away at the upper reaches of the charts, but also the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this?” where the Pet Shop Boys resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield. There were novelties like George Michael hiding under a psuedonym for a Bee Gees cover, Bruce Willis murdering the classics, holiday hits like “Call me” by Spagna and big power ballads like “Alone” by Heart. But there were two songs in the chart which drew all of Final Ecstasy together – “True faith” by New Order and “Animal” by Def Leppard. “True faith” was just a fantastic song and performance, it felt like a vindication for the band when it reached the top 10 – so few of their previous singles were that successful. “Animal” was metal polished to a ridiculously glossy shine. Both songs were impossible to resist. Both songs were also in the top 10 when Robin joined our team (my father, my brother and myself) for a pop quiz… These pop quizzes were every six months or so, organised by people within BT (my father’s employer) in the Oddfellows Club in Newport Road in Cardiff. Our team had won the first quiz in September 86 through me winning a tiebreaker recognising the intro to “No Fun” by the Sex Pistols. We’d come a very close second in the next quiz, losing points where our team’s resident Steely Dan fan didn’t recognise “FM”. So we ditched the Dan fan and replaced him with Robin, who knew his stuff too. The last round was to list the current top 10 singles chart in order – Robin and I piled into that one and got them all right. We won the contest and each took away a ten pounds Woolworths voucher. The next Monday New Order issued their “Substance” compilation, and Woolworths were selling the big boxed cassette version exclusively for a fiver so that’s how I spent my winnings, adding the big hessian covered box alongside the other Factory cassettes I had at the time… “Substance” got a lot of airtime that summer too, I wasn’t fussed on the rerecorded “Confusion” or “Temptation”, but it was great to have all the singles in one place – the full version of “The Perfect Kiss” (why wasn’t that a hit??? Oh, because the single was issued a week after the album “Lowlife” – typical Factory – thanks Marcello for that!), the sound of a new world being created on “Everything’s gone green”… And all those b-sides too, the glacial pain of “In a lonely place”, the urgent rush of “Hurt” and “Murder”, closing with the should-have-been-a-single “1963”. Only a band like New Order would throw away a song like that as a b-side, and only a label like Factory would let them do it.

It was during that long hot summer of ’87 that I bought “154” by Wire. A year earlier I was enraptured by “Chairs missing”, so I was on the lookout for their other LPs. I bought an original copy – with free 7 inch EP – at a record fair in Cardiff for £7 and it became the main soundtrack of the summer. There’s one peculiarity on the original vinyl which I’ve never heard reproduced on the different CDs I’ve had of this LP (and I’ve bought it 3 times on compact disc), and that’s the bursts of white noise at the start of side one which start a second or so before the first song “I should have known better”.

This clearly has nothing to do with the Beatles (or Jim Diamond). Tightly coiled guitars chug out a riff over bass drum and hissing hihats and then Graham Lewis intones a strange tale of a relationship in the throes of disengagement – “I haven’t found a measure yet to calibrate my displeasure”, “Valueing the vengeance that you treasure, I’ve redefined the meaning of vendetta” – and in the background keyboards ramp up the tension and the occasional snare drum hit whips like a slap in the face. The tension never breaks, the situation is never resolved. “Two people in the room” is on the surface a typical punk thrash, guitars are distorted and the rhythm section hurtle along, but it doesn’t sound quite right – the band hang on a discord for half the time before returning to the dumb riff. And Colin Newman is alternately speaking or screaming, words that could be an outsider’s viewpoint on what happening in “I should have known better”. “The 15th” is slyly pretty, all clever phrases and not much more but “The other window” is creepy, a traveller’s tale narrated by Lewis over a barrage of odd noises and a seemingly random drum track. “A single KO” is more dread and menace from Newman, then “A touching display” drags the tension on the album to breaking point. It’s Lewis intoning again about a failing relationship – “how long can we sustain ourselves apart?” – while drums roll and bass rumbles and a barrage of electric violas hovering in the distance. Then around three minutes and thirty seconds the bass gets distorted and leads the song off jumping octaves and taking over, drums tumble and roll then the violas emerge back in, swooping like vultures, rising slowly up in scales, keyboards drone, the whole sound becomes overpowering – all that the words can’t express is said through screaming instruments. And it rises in pressure for minutes and minutes until the violas hang on a dischord, feeding back onto themselves and the song falls apart. (I would play “A touching display” to my brother who was obsessing over “Metal Box” at the time and point out similarities to “Careering”). “On returning” closes the side with Newman back at the helm, a half synthesised riff, a punkish thrash and vignettes of a family on holiday. A skewed pop song.

“A mutual friend” starts side one with more creeping dread and tension, the lyrics hint at family troubles amongst the puns and the song builds naturally to a pastoral middle eight of cor anglais and harmonies – it’s like a gentler version of “A touching display” and all the better for it. It also ends up sounding like Eno at the end, those arch “Oh-oh-oh” backing vocals are so “Taking tiger mountain”. “Blessed state” circles around a simple ascending riff to which guitars are added, very melodic, almost power pop. “Once is enough” sounds like it was recorded in a junkyard (actually the studio was set up with tons of pots and pans for the day’s overdubbing) and is the biggest throwback to their punk days, it all sounds on the edge of falling apart, too compressed, too harsh Lewis and Newman singing together is always a good sound and that middle section where they sing an ascending note together as the noise gets louder – well, I’d say My Bloody Valentine must have been listening. After that “Map Ref” comes as a blessed relief – a genuine pop song, chiming guitars, a real tune, harmonies and Newman’s cry of “Chorus!” always puts a smile on my face. But the words are about maps and travelling and cartography. And the full title is too long to fit on a seven inch single. And – ahem – My Bloody Valentine covered it in ’95 so I was right! In a parallel universe this would have been a hit but EMI had messed up Wire’s chances by trying to hype “Outdoor miner” into the charts the year previously… Shame. “Indirect enquiries” is odd, probably my least favourite song on the album, “40 versions” struck a chord just as much as “Used to” had the previous year. “I never know which version I’m going to be, I seem to have so many choices open to me”. A simple bass pulse, guitars and synths playing around, it’s utterly compelling and slightly scary – the round robin of vocals at the end, the repetitions, the sense of dread, the falling apart…. “154” is all distances and dislocation – the distance between places and people, the dislocation that distance – physical and emotional – may cause, the dread of something ending, the feeling of that unknown loss. It’s no wonder I soaked it up that summer.

In early August ’87 my family went on holiday on what turned out to be our final family holiday, the last time all four of us were together. Two years previously we’d spent a week in a small house on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and had a lovely time, we’d visited the historic town of Haworth twice that week, mainly for the steam railway there (not of any interest to me) and I loved the town, not least the places to eat. On the cobbled main street downhill there was a fabulous coffee shop called The Copper Kettle which I liked for the quality of the food and the waitresses (oh come on, I was 16!). There was also a fantastic chip shop by the station which did the best meat and potato pies I’d ever had (with chips and gravy of course). It was there I first heard “Yesterday’s men” by Madness, which sticks in my mind. Anyway, in 1987 we went back to Haworth for a week, staying in a house actually on the cobbled main street downhill, just across from the Copper Kettle. Was I happy? Oh yes. All I can remember of that holiday is eating – sweets from the specialist sweet shop at the top of the hill, pie and chips at the place by the station, popping across to the Copper Kettle all the time. And I only bought one record…

We took a day trip to Keighley – mainly for being on the steam railway route – and while there we looked for record shops like we always did. I can’t remember the name of the shop we ended up at but it was small and dark and filled with records – not CDs but records, seven inch and twelve inch in size. We all started looking through the racks to find some rare treasure. That’s not true, my mother didn’t look through the racks, she probably just thought “Oh God, another record shop” as she watched her husband and two sons devour the shop’s stock. While passing through the 12 inch singles stock I found a single by a band I knew and liked but I didn’t recognise the title or sleeve, but I bought it anyway. Of course being on holiday I couldn’t listen to it until we returned to Penarth but I raced upstairs to my bedroom, twelve inch in hand and plonked it straight onto the turntable of my hifi.

The record was “The Final Resting Of The Ark” by Felt, a five song twelve inch EP. In the time between purchase and hearing it – three days approximately – I had soaked up the enigmatic sleeve picture, the lyrics on the reverse and the credits on the label. Produced by Robin Guthrie again? Well that could be good or bad. In this case it was good – Guthrie wanted to test out his new studio September Sound so invited Felt in to record a few songs. The EP starts with the title track – Lawrence on shimmering acoustic guitars and singing typically vague imagistic lyrics, then a soprano sax takes over soloing wildly while the guitars catch fire then ending on an echo. “Autumn” is a short electric piano piece by Martin Duffy, as melancholy as its title suggest – the spaces between the notes as important as the notes themselves, hanging in a reverbed halo. “Fire circles” is a guitar instrumental with added keyboard touches, arpeggios and not much else. “There’s no such thing as victory” is Lawrence whispering truthes over simple guitar and bass – “I don’t know what you see in me” indeed. Finally “Buried wild blind” is just over a minute long but utterly gorgeous, guitar and bass and keyboard finally coalesce in glorious major to minor tonalities and melody. It’s not a long record, but it’s a great one. (And it seems to be the only Felt record without a drummer on it too). Short and sweet.

And then the dread and tension came to a head. My brother and I received our A Level exam results. The previous year my brother had sat three exams and got an E and two U’s (that’s unclassified). This year he got an A and two Cs which was enough for him to get to Hull University which is what he’d wanted all along. I got a C in Computing, a D in Physics and an E in Maths. So by scrapping through maths I let my other exams down. I didn’t have enough to get to my first choice, which was Liverpool University so went through clearing while watching Tony Wilson’s “Which way now?” TV show about the whole post-results process. I was offered a place on a Maths and Computing course at Liverpool Uni, and something else at Keele Uni but for some reason – pigheadedness I expect – I was seriously considering Sheffield Poly, my first choice on my PCAS form (UCCA and PCAS being separate then). After much soul searching – and probably pigheadedness – I settled for Sheffield. How different would life have been if I had chosen the other courses? Who knows.

August dragged into September and my brother and I prepared for the big move north. The last record I would buy before the move would be the one which really captured that time for me, and it was a record linked to a future I could not even conceive at the time.

My diary records that it was my second trip to Newport that year. I think the first trip there was for a job interview at the Alcan aluminium plant in Rogerstone, but all I remember of that day in February was it being very cold, Newport being inhospitable and Boy George’s new LP “Sold” being played in a little record shop I found by the Westgate Hotel. The second trip to Newport in September was just a case of “Let’s go somewhere different, see what’s there”. I found it dirty and dingy, didn’t think much of the shops, couldn’t find anywhere decent to eat except a Wimpy on the main street, but did eventually walk into what passed for a shopping centre, with a maze of cheap market stalls underneath called the In Shops, and above them various clothes shops and chemists and…right at the end… An actual record shop. Roxcene Records. It was dark, had a lot of posters up for hard rock bands with gothic logos, it felt slightly dangerous. I didn’t want to stay there too long so quickly flicked through the racks trying not to look nervous – the customers at the desk talking to the staff looked at me like an interloper into their private party. And I found a record I wanted to buy. Bloody hell, now what was I going to do? I’d have to approach these fearsome creatures with a record – surely one they’d pour scorn on for not being rock enough. I went to the counter, slapped it down, the assistant said “Is that it?” I nodded trying to be cool and nonchalent. “OK then” he said, money was paid, record placed in a bag and I walked out with my knees feeling like jelly. I hated Roxcene Records. On the way back home passing through Cardiff I bought a music book and read the book and listened to the record together that night, the two becoming entwined in my mind from that point onwards. The record was “The city of our lady” EP by Durutti Column – a record I wrote about over at Toppermost and mentioned in “Spent time” – but I always think of that EP as being part of the day, the experience of the record shop, the experience of Newport itself, the book, all together. Listening to the EP now still brings back that oncoming dread of moving on, to Sheffield…

Of course the other big thing happening in September 87 was the Smiths splitting up. I remember reading the initial story in the Melody Maker while in our dentist’s waiting room and not being surprised in the least. I felt like it was inevitable, it couldn’t last. But their current single “Girlfriend in a coma” just seemed more of the same, nothing special. And there were better songs around at the time. I was totally in love with “Pump up the volume”, being a huge Colourbox fan. I had no idea who these other blokes AR Kane were though, and I wish I’d bought the single at the time because for sure “Anitina” – the double a-side – would have absolutely blown my head off in ’87, just as it did when I finally caught up with AR Kane in ’94. That was probably my stupidest mistake of that summer, not buying that single. Of course choosing Sheffield over Liverpool or Keele could be seen as a stupider mistake…

And there were still issues with Sheffield. Having decided I was going, the Poly wrote to say there was limited accomodation and did I have any problems which could put me up the list? Of course I did, I was blind in one eye. So that’s how I ended up in Norfolk Park. Then I found out while drinking at the Railway pub that loads of my ex-school mates were going to Sheffield. Not the Poly, but the Uni. This just made me even more worried and paranoid, especially as one of the two major crushes at the time was heading there with her boyfriend. The week before I was due to go to Sheffield my parents and brother took a holiday to Cornwall leaving me alone in Penarth to pack and prepare. All I did was mope around, get drunk a bit and make an EP of music entitled “Goodbye”. This would be my last official Mangled Tape. Five songs simply recorded saying “I’m nervous, I hate you drunken lechs at the Railway, I’m glad to leave Penarth”. All the usual subjects. Then two friends of mine came over, we got pissed as farts after making the worst spag bol ever (well we didn’t know you had to brown the mince first…) and recorded a jam session of us making stupid noises. Then they interviewed me about how I felt leaving Penarth for Sheffield. I can’t bear to listen to that tape now, I was so full of hope, I was so naïve. On Sunday 26th September my parents drove me to Sheffield to start a new life of being self sufficient and studying, and my summer of easy living and dread and tension was over. I was in further education now, and that was a different kind of tension.

Next time – well next time won’t be for a while as I’ll be having a summer break. See you in September.

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