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Kraftwerk – human after all

Regular Goldfish readers will know that I love Kraftwerk, I’ve written about them here and here and I’ve also written a Toppermost post on them. I have loved their music for over 30 years now and they are up there with The Beatles and The Durutti Column and The Kingsbury Manx in my pantheon of perfect music. New music from Kraftwerk is very rare so has always been greeted with much reverence and attention.

I can still remember that first listen to “Electric Cafe” in the Autumn of 1986, scouring the sleeve for clues, why did it sound so pared down, where were rich European melodies? There were hints – a moment in “Boing boom Tschak” where a counterpoint bass line appears two minutes into the song, and I thought “Oh this is where it gets going” only it didn’t. There was too much emphasis on rhythm tracks and not enough song craft for me back then, the balance between the two had slipped in the wrong direction.  Of course “The Telephone Call” was wonderful, and “Sex Object” had a peculiar grandeur to it, but my main memory of that first listen was the section of “Techno Pop” where Ralf or Florian play a sequence over and over while paging through presets on their DX7. Later I changed my mind, realised that the rhythm was where electronic music was heading and

When “The Mix” album was issued in 1991 it became part of the soundtrack of my finest summer, bought in June on CD, my first Kraftwerk CD, which then encouraged me to buy the rest of their catalogue in that format (it was “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine” bought a week later alongside “Cupid and Psyche 85” in a HMV three for twenty quid offer, my CDs still have the stickers on then). Even the “Tour De France” CD single all was greeted with joy, even if it didn’t contain the original 12” mix. “Expo 2000” may have been little more than a jingle but the remixes were special. By the time the “Tour De France Soundtracks” album had been issued in 2003, I was a member of an online music forum which went nuts on the album and I wrote some pertinent words which people seemed to agree with, which I found strange. People usually didn’t agree with me on music, now I was in a community which loved and cared about music as much as I did, and I still speak online with some of the people in that community thanks to Twitter, and consider them to be friends. You know who you are. But after 2003, new music was not forthcoming. They played live, the shows were spectacular, the live album “Minimum Maximum” was rather good, but there was nothing new. Even welcome remasters of the back catalogue in 2009 just brought more frustration – why the move away from the original sleeves? Why were the credits changing? After Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008, Ralf Hutter turned Kraftwerk into an artefact – playing their eight albums in consecutive concerts in art galleries and special places, such as the Museum Of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Even so, I never thought I would get the chance to see Kraftwerk live – the Tate Modern shows sold out ridiculously fast. I heard bootlegs and dreamt of the amazing 3D visuals.

I was surprised and excited then by the announcement of a proper UK tour during June 2017. Kraftwerk weren’t playing in Wales, well why should they? But Bristol is near enough for me. So when the tickets went on sale in October 2016 I was poised over the refresh button at 10am ready to purchase my dream ticket. But come the moment of reckoning, the tickets sold out within 10 seconds, the time it took me to choose where I wanted to sit in the venue and how many tickets I wanted. Those damn ticket buying robots had beaten me to it. Ten seconds and gone. I almost cried, my chance had been missed. A few days later my good friend Ray from Country Mile Records told me how he had purchased two tickets directly from the venue but again by the time I checked the Colston Hall website they were gone.

I settled for the next best thing – I ordered the “3D Catalogue” 8 CD set and waited for it to arrive two days after my birthday at the end of May. This box set was live recordings of their eight albums as they had been played during their “Catalogue” concerts, and I couldn’t wait to hear them, to hear songs from side two of “Autobahn” in the new format, or even the songs from “Electric Café” like “Sex object” and “The telephone call”. How would these songs be adapted? Would there be audience noise like on “Maximum Minimum”?

It has been tricky explaining the 3D set to people who don’t know or care about Kraftwerk. For a start, there are people who just don’t understand how important Kraftwerk are. How their visions of the future back in the seventies – totally electronic music, people communicating by computers, the robots in our lives, the man and machine in ‘perfect’ harmony – are now so commonplace that we don’t even think about them. Also how much influence they have had on music, from the electro pop of the 80s, through hip hop, techno and beyond. While Kraftwerk have not issued any new music since 2003, they have continued to reinvigorate their back catalogue, as the live shows have demonstrated, updating the songs to be played with the latest technology at their disposal.  It’s a hard analogy to explain. While some artists have recreated individual albums for live concerts, there have been few examples of an artist playing their entire catalogue live (I can only think of Sparks doing this beside Kraftwerk). Other electronic pioneers have reinterpreted some of their albums – Tangerine Dream were notorious for this, and more often than not any later version of “Phaedra” just didn’t have the same atmosphere as the original 1974 version, those charmingly out of tune Moogs and mellotrons. Surely Kraftwerk wouldn’t fall into the same trap?

The 3D box did not disappoint. OK, a little more information would have been useful – for instance where the albums or tracks were recorded other than a list of venues they have played. But once the car door slams at the start of “Autobahn” on CD1, the listener is immersed in Kraftwerk’s world. I did try and listen to all eight albums in one sitting but it didn’t seem fair – I felt I should devote myself to each album a little while to pick up nuances and differences. For a start, the music is shiny, gleaming and perfect. The quality of the sound design is faithful to the original albums in places but updated in different ways. “Autobahn” is still an emotional journey, I’ve found myself moved to tears during the final part of the song itself, while the four songs on side two merge into a lovely medley – “Kometenmelodie 1” stills sounds abstract and a link back to the three albums before it, while “Kometenmelodie 2” is as good as pop instrumental as you’ll find. “Mitternacht” merges into “Morgenspaziergang” nicely, and maybe it is the first time I noticed that the melody of the latter is slightly adapted from one of the sections in “Autobahn” – and how long have I been listening to the “Autobahn” album? “Radioactivity” is a revelation – each individual piece is brilliant anyway, but some of the new interpretations are startling and wonderful, not least “Airwaves” which now shows how much Giorgio Moroder took from Kraftwerk back in the day. I would have liked “Transistor” and “Ohm sweet ohm” to last forever, quite frankly, “Trans Europe Express” is possibly the weakest of the new interpretations to my ears, the medley of “Franz Schubert” into “Endless Endless” into “Europe Endless” works well, and Hutter’s voice cracks on some lines here, But here the new versions aren’t different enough, or maybe that’s just me. “The Man Machine” and “Computer World” though are perfect – the right combination of sounding like the originals but with new elements. These are the most played albums in the set for me, and frankly I can’t find much to say about them. They are respectful but modern, which is a hard trick to pull off successfully. “Neon lights”, “Home computer”, “The man machine”, “Computer love”…. the “It’s more fun to compute” / “Home computer” medley is absolutely spellbinding. There’s a slight hint of something not quite right about “Pocket Calculator” which I think is an extra beat in the rhythm track but what the hell, I’m splitting hairs here. “Techno Pop” is a revelation – the beats are stronger, the music richer… “The telephone call” losing its vocal (but then that was Karl Bartos who hasn’t been a member for many decades), and “Sex object” gains the original insistent bassline from the unreleased 1983 version. “The Mix” set is especially designed for headphones, being a 3D sound design exercise and is excellent, and also includes “Planet of visions” – the new version of “Expo 2000”. Finally “Tour De France Soundtracks” is the most similar to its original version, but still sounds fantastic – “Vitamin” has been given a spring in its step, “Aerodynamic” is full of propulsion and “Le Forme” is graceful and mournful. Much like the closing “Golden slumbers” medley on “Abbey Road”, this song feels like the last piece of music the band will make and has a strange emotional pull for me. All in all, the 3D boxed set is a success.

A few days after receiving the 3D set, I happened to take a look at the Colston Hall website and was amazed to see they had a few tickets available. I didnt hang around, I bought one, and then waited patiently for the ticket to arrive. Had it all been a strange fever dream? Was it a con? Had I paid money for nothing? Eventually the ticket arrived and it was true, I was going to see Kraftwerk after all. I arranged transport with Ray and counted down the days until Saturday arrived. I still couldn’t believe it – I had loved Kraftwerk since 1983, and now I was going to see them. How would I cope? There was a sense of anticipation outside and inside the Colston Hall, we were handed our 3D glasses on entry and I found my seat in the stalls and settled down, taking the obligatory shot of the glasses and putting it on Twitter. I felt quite young, looking at the audience. There were fans dressed up like the “Man Machine” cover – red shirts, black ties. The man beside me asked if I’d seen them before, I said I hadnt. He told me he saw them in Poland – “Prepare to be amazed”.

At 8pm, the lights dimmed, and the vocodor introduced the band in the dark, the curtains swung open, revealing the four workstations and the numbers started, literally. 12345678 12345678. The numbers flashed onscreen and swung over our heads, the beats kicked in and Kraftwerk strolled on and stood at their stations and we were off. While nobody was expecting much in terms of showmanship from the Germans, the 3D visuals made up for it. Admittedly I didnt get the full benefit as I only have vision in my right eye, so I had to take everyone else’s word for it about what was happening, but the audience reaction let me know that the visuals were an absolute blast. Having absorbed the 3D box, I knew how the music would sound but even still there was room to improvise, beats were louder and stronger, sections were extended, melodies changed and melded. “Home computer” was brilliant, even better than the recorded version. “Computer love” had a natural ebb and flow, “The man machine” swung, “Neon lights” was awesome – Hutter’s vocal was awestruck, as if he was seeing the lights for the first time. “Spacelab” had amazing visuals, a satellite flying over the audience’s heads (eliciting a huge “whoooo” from the crowd), then a spacecraft flying over Bristol. “Autobahn” seemed to be marred by problems, Hutter looked like he was battling his workstation, filter sweeps appearing the wrong places, were there problems with the machines? “Autobahn” was swiftly dispatched, losing its melancholy closing section which was a shame. “Airwaves” was a shock, a surprise and an absolute blast, while “Radioactivity” had sub bass to die for, and blasted away any remnants of worry. “Electric Cafe” was also a pleasant surprise. “Tour De France” merging into “Etape 1” was marvellous, the sprint of “Chrono” sounding better than ever. Finally “Trans Europe Express” and more problems – there were no vocals at all (bar a few vocodor interjections), a purely instrumental version, had Hutter’s microphone failed? He didn’t look happy at all. The curtains closed for the end of the main set.

Next came “The Robots”, and even these were slightly different to the version on the box set. Were the members of Kraftwerk playing instruments behind the scenes while we watched their robotic counterparts? Who knows. Still a startling vision of pop without human input. The curtains closed again.

As the curtains reopened, Hutter spoke to us – “Life is better with a microphone”. “Aero Dynamic” was a thrilling encore, Hutter clearly enjoying himself, the bass throbbing out. “Planet of visions” was almost unrecognisable (unless you knew the DJ Orlando mix), sounding like a new piece of music, and the members were clearly revelling in it, adjusting the sounds and the visuals to reflect their happiness – all four members were tapping their toes and shaking their legs as the song heralded the links between Germany and Detroit. Finally the “Boing Boom Tschack” / “Techno pop” / “Musique Non Stop” medley which frankly could have lasted forever for me, i never wanted this to end. The ending of the concert will stay with me forever, I won’t spoil the pleasure for those who have yet to see it. The standing ovation from the crowd was well deserved, and the band seemed touched by the response to their music. Hutter took a bow, touched his heart and sent out a kiss, the man machine was human after all

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Was it one of the best concerts I’ve seen. Absolutely. Will I remember it forever? Absolutely.

Kraftwerk deserve their place as innovators, both in music and as a visual show. They have made themselves into a work of art and should be treasured. Enjoy them while they are still here.

A Crack In The Clouds

September 1986.

A time for a change of scenery, somewhere different, stuck in the same place for six years, starting out as success then gradually sinking to the bottom, uncared for, spurned by friends, ignored by everyone else. .. start again, no history, fresh start, clean slate, see what happens.

My first year in the sixth form had been an unmitigated disaster. Any hopes of passing any A Levels were thrown out of the window. Either I didn’t understand the questions or I wasn’t going to ask for help and my mind was befuddled by girls and music and God knows what else, but I was sinking and hated it and didn’t really know how to stop it. The escape route was shown by my brother – a year older than me, he sat his A Levels in the summer of 1986 and comprehensively failed them. Everyone went nuts, the school was blamed and he was found a place to resit the A Levels in New College, a fee paying school in the centre of Cardiff. After a little bit of shuffling, it was agreed that I should transfer there as well to complete my second year of A level studies.

So September was a chance to say goodbye to the old school and hello to the new college. No more uniform, no more useless teachers, no more staring at crushes across the common room. I returned to school for one brief moment, mainly to say goodbye, stick two fingers up at people and tell the teachers to piss off (except for one,  who had tears in her eyes). After this supposedly triumphant exit from the state school system, I felt like a bit of a arse for being so horrible but it did feel good at the time. I then settled down to life at New College.

As it was in Cardiff, my brother and I would have to travel by train every day to get there. Luckily my father worked in Brunel House, the enormous building next to Queen Street station, so caught the train from Penarth to Queen Street every day and we simply joined him. It was quite a novelty, leaving the house together, picking up reading matter in the newsagents (always NME and MM for me) and standing in the recently built red metal shelter on the platform, squeezing on the multiple units, the train jogging down the hill towards Cogan, then through the many tracks around the Grangetown works area, into Cardiff Central where we may alight or on to Queen Street… It was a very different Cardiff then,  out of Central I would walk behind the Central Hotel (where I would regularly buy bootlegs at record fairs), along Bute Terrace beside the railway line to get to New College, a lovely 18th century building full of oak floors, dark corridors and cosy classrooms. Leaving Queen Street, I’d head past the Tandy store on the corner onto Churchill Way, past the British Gas building and along to what used to be the British Gas building before the redevelopments of the eighties, back when Mill Lane went somewhere….

And I settled in quickly, made a few friends, realised that being in Cardiff everyday would be detrimental to my bank account if I was to buy all the records I saw. September brought “Brotherhood”, “The Pacific Age”, “Spacemate”, “Filigree and shadow”, “Gone to earth”, “Talking with the taxman about poetry”, “Blood and chocolate” (the Virgin branch on the top floor of Debenhams had the cassette made to look like a bar of Bourneville chocolate)… I hardly bought any of these at the time…. Two albums in fact, and we won’t discuss either of those now, because it wasn’t just albums in September 1986, there were singles too and one in particular….

September 1986

A time for a change of scenery, somewhere different, stuck in the same place for six years, starting out as success then gradually sinking to the bottom, uncared for, spurned by friends, ignored by everyone else. .. start again, no history, fresh start, clean slate, see what happens.

Julian Cope had signed to Phonogram Records in 1980 at the behest of David Bates who thought Cope could be a pop star and in the six years that followed, his career path had peaked and troughed quite mightily. The singles “Reward” and “Treason” had placed his band The Teardrop Explodes in the spotlight while he was fracturing his psyche with an alarming quantity of mind altering chemicals. Commercial failure for the second Teardrops album led to a slow form of collapse for the band, shedding members every few months yet still creating marvellous music along the way. Cope’s solo career had garnered little critical acclaim and even fewer sales, but his cult loved him and the music, and cherished nuggets from his two solo albums “World Shut Your Mouth” and “Fried”. But in 1986 there was a change – he moved from Phonogram to Island Records, paid off the debt to the former label through a new publishing deal and set about a new phase of his music. No new music had emerged since the start of 1985 – the b sides to “Sunspots” which were clearly in the same mould as “Fried”, and the songs recorded for Janice Long at the end of 1984, a session I remember had confused me a lot at the time. But in 1984 I wasn’t that aware of his catalogue, of course that would change in 1985 (see many previous Goldfish posts). By September 1986 I had bought all the back catalogue I could (I think only the first two Teardrops singles in Zoo had eluded me at that point) and had a few bootlegs of unreleased Teardrops, Cope live shows, Cope radio sessions, all kinds of things. And I was certainly ready for new music from Julian Cope.

Of course I bought the twelve inch of “World Shut Your Mouth” on the day of release. There’s an immediate advantage to being in Cardiff on Mondays. I didn’t have to hang around for the weekend to buy my favourite records. And I was very happy with the new music too. The title track was simple, a “Louie Louie” and “Hang on Sloopy” for the 80s, sharp pop with an edge, but still a little more glossy than even the poppiest moments on “Fried”. The song stuck in your head after one listen, it had a chorus you could easily make your own, a cracking little guitar solo, loads of key changes as the song proceeds to its close. What was there not to love? It sounded like a hit record.  Admittedly it sounded like very little else in the charts but it did sound like it belonged there.

There were still four other new songs on the twelve inch,  and I knew from experience that Cope liked to have decent b sides. “I’ve got levitation” was a 13th Floor Elevators song and sounded like it was cut from the same cloth as the lead song – simple riffs, a raw performance, rather brilliant, but then at this point I didn’t know the original. “Non alignment pact” originally opened Pere Ubu’s debut LP “The modern dance”. Obviously Cope can’t compete with David Thomas’ unearthly shriek and there’s no squealing synth noise to delight / distract, otherwise entirely creditable. “Umpteenth unnatural blues” is a cracking little song, some very neat lines and a cool yet simple arrangement, but my diary records that I thought it was somewhere close to the greatest song on earth. It’s not that great, but it’s pretty good. Lastly “Transporting” is a psychedelic groover, sounding like the band aren’t quite listening to each other (which turns out to be close to the truth) and features a rather nifty riff which I would promptly steal for myself.

“World Shut Your Mouth” was a big deal. And this time it would be unavoidable. For once the media loved him, and welcomed him back with open arms. He was there on “Wogan”, the Irish broadcaster looking slightly baffled by Cope hanging off his green mic stand / climbing frame contraption. He was there on “Number 73”, the band playing live and sounding spot on. And best of all he was back on Top Of The Pops, after five years absence. The song was all over the radio, it sounded like a huge hit, it felt like a huge hit… and it slowly climbed the charts to reach number 19 in October, a very slow crawl. But somehow it felt like it was a much bigger hit than that, the video was always on TV and the new fangled video jukebox which took over my local pub The Railway that Autumn.  I remember it being played a lot there, alongside “To Be A Lover” by Billy Idol. Both songs harkened back to classic songwriting tropes and stood out in the charts.

And this should have been my moment. I had spent the previous year trying to get my friends interested in Cope’s music and nobody had listened, except Nigel who was always receptive to whatever I recommended, and this was around the time he bought his prized copy of “The wrong people” by Furniture and he would play me “She gets out the scrapbook” and we would both sigh wistfully. But nobody else listened to me, and now people I knew who had ignored me were buying the latest record by my hero. This should have been the time I made compilation tapes for Beverley and Jeremy and anyone else. “You like him now? Try this…” Erm I was seventeen, remember. Of course this didn’t really happen, partly because I’m too shy to ever do that, and partly because I’d bloody well left the school behind where all my friends knew I was a Cope freak, and was now in a college where nobody knew me. I did still see a few friends at the Railway but I was still keeping my head down there after being thrown out for underage drinking that summer (again, see previous Goldfish post).

But the fact that nobody knew me in New College could be turned to my advantage. I had no past, no burden of knowledge of previous stupidities. It was a chance to start again, without any taint or trace of my former actions.

(I would learn many years later that this is a typical Aspergers trait too. The need to compartmentalise my past and my present so the two never meet. There’s other traits which we will get to soon enough…)

But for the Autumn of 1986, I was happy. My hero was back, making great music, all over the media and in the charts. He had promised an album called “Saint Julian” in an interview with Melody Maker back in early 1985 and it looked like it was going to happen in the spring of 1987. I had a lot to look forward to.

January 1987
I had a small circle of friends at New College. So small it could be counted on one hand, but that was enough for me really. Manoj was in my Computer Studies class and was a good laugh, and Meg and Anji were two friends from the lower sixth, inseparable and always hanging around the computer room playing “Thrust” on the BBC Micros there. (“Thrust” was an anti-gravity game as I recall – you had to fly a lunar module on rocky terrain using thrusters and the ability to spin your craft – like “Asteroids” without the asteroids. picking up fuel and flying away, it was as much fun as you could have with 32K). Together the four of us hung out and chatted about all kinds of things, nothing of much importance. Chris Jones – our computing teacher and also a weekend DJ on Radio Wales at the time – thought the four of us were trouble but we never were. We just helped each other out if one of us got stuck on some tricky coding in BASIC. Nobody asked about my past and I wasn’t about to tell anyone either, it wasn’t relevant and nobody was bothered. Life at New College was good. I had a parents evening in January where my teachers all told my parents they loved me, which is better than I would have had at my school. “But your maths teacher is a bit of a wimp” they added.

January brought a flurry of record buying, some second hand records (“Neu!” on United Artists in the bright red sleeve, £2 from Jacobs Market, a Troy Tate 10” EP on Why Fi) but more importantly it was the second single by Julian Cope on Island. I’d heard “Trampolene” on the radio just before the new year and called it “more complex”, which isn’t hard really. I bought the 12 inch EP on the day of release (5th January) and absorbed four new songs. “Trampolene” was superb, yes it was more complex than “World Shut Your Mouth” but it felt like it was jammed full of hooks, enough to explode all over the radio. It sounded great on the radio too, big drums, chiming guitar licks and rocking riffs, another simple chorus, a lyric with more to it than “WSYM” and again key changes at the end to ramp up the tension, finally exploding on a drum roll and a long sustained fade out on the final chord. It screamed hit single, it screamed play me again, and this time a bit louder. It sounded fantastic to me. Two other songs on the EP were great. “Disaster” is a bit of a sea shanty, a tale of a ship’s journey, a song full of incident and change. Or maybe it’s an extended allegory for a relationship? My favourite part is towards the end,  Cope is contemplating some kind of shipwreck – “We are listing needlessly, won’t you come and marry me?” – a fantastic non-sequiter – before everyone drops away, a guitar plays a riff and slowly more instrumental layers chime in, pounding out the prime riff, as some raucous guitar lines are thrown over the top, all chugging along on a one note riff . A personal favourite still. “Mock turtle” is slower, more considered and instantly familar – the opening chords and melody are from “Flipped out on LSD”, a legendary 15 minute piece recorded towards the end of the Teardrop Explodes’ life, supposedly released as a twelve inch by La Place De La Concorde but available on a few bootlegs. And that’s just the start. The rest of the song works as a modus operandi for Cope at that time – unsure what he was doing and where he was going but trying his best. “Mock turtle” is a rare slice of direct honesty and is a hidden gem. Which is more than can be said for “Edward the Kingmaker” which is just a clattering noise.  But three great songs out of four ain’t bad.

Again, Cope was everywhere to promote the single. My diary records each incident – front cover of the NME, on “The Tube”, a children’s TV show, the first episode of late night chat show “The Last Resort” (“being interviewed by a prick”, says my diary) and all over the radio. Island did their best to make multiple versions of the single available and by God I bought the bloody set.

I started with the twelve inch on the day of release, then I wanted the seven inch with the gatefold sleeve, which I bought on 12th Jan. And it snowed the previous day, so we all had lots of fun walking to the station in the snow, then walking through Cardiff to find hardly anyone was there. Meg and I slipped and slid our way to HMV to buy the gatefold seven inch that day, and she bought a game for her BBC micro from a shop on Churchill Way. Nobody else was around, it was nice. A fond memory. A week later there was a second twelve inch, a remix of “Trampolene” which extended all the right parts, plus a sticker with it. So I had to buy that. And a week later a 7 inch EP in a cardboard box with a poster, so I had to buy that as well. Manoj would say to me “Haven’t you bought it enough times yet?” each time I would return from HMV. It became a bit of a joke – had I bought another Julian Cope record that week? Manoj, Meg, Anji and I would hang out and chat about all kinds of things, strolling to Wimpy – never McDonald’s as Meg was a vegetarian and she had to have Wimpy spicy bean burgers…  See, I bet you can all see what’s coming, can’t you? Anji and Manoj tried to arrange a night out at the pictures for the four of us then agreed to not go so Meg and myself would be alone,  together. But we all got cold feet. It turned out we were both happy to be friends, and to stay that way.

Meanwhile, I watched the charts to see how “Trampolene” was progressing. On the first week it entered the chart at 33, and I was ecstatic. Then it stayed there for two more weeks, before climbing to 31 in its fourth week before falling out of the top 40. Clearly this wasn’t what anyone expected, least of all me. I’d bought into this single four times, why wasn’t it a bigger hit? Cope has done his bit too, he had been unavoidable. What did he have to do to get a decent hit?

March 1987
Tensions are running high. The A Levels were looming for both my brother and I, and I don’t know about him but I was feeling the strain. I’d always struggled with the Maths A level material, it just made no sense to me. Vectors, differentiation, equations that just looked like nonsense on a page – it completely blew my mind. We sat some final test papers in March and hoped for the best. We were also heading off around the country to look at universities and polytechnics – for me it was Liverpool, Salford, Sheffield, Bath, Trefforest…. I was slightly freaked out at Trefforest because Meg and Anji were there, they kept passing me in corridors. It turned out Meg’s father was a lecturer there, and they were trying to wind me up. They didn’t need to, I was already wound up anyway…. the interview there had turned into a shambles, somehow the interviewer thought my visual impairments were worse than they actually were and had asked a lot of patronising questions about my mobility and disability. God knows why they thought that, I suspected my old school had become involved in the UCCA / PCAS application process. Paranoia was running high.

Some relief was provided by the release of “Saint Julian” on March 2nd. HMV had some signed copies for sale but I wanted to play my records, not keep them as artefacts. (A ridiculous statement considering how many times I’d bought “Trampolene”). I bought the album on the day of release and took it into the computer suite where Manoj ripped the piss out of the cover – “Christ in a scrapyard – Christ on a bike more like”. I wasn’t put off though, I devoured the sleeve and the insert and the little poem (“Saint Julian ain’t Julian” should have been the warning sign) and couldn’t wait to get the album home.

“Trampolene” kicks the album off quite gloriously, and I still couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a hit. So many hooks, so many sections, was it too much?  There’s a cleanliness to this rock, not a horrible distortion, just enough to make me smile. The song was a hymn to an impossible imagined female and frankly I liked that. “Shot down” continued the rock theme, this was taut, lean stuff – not a moment was being wasted. There’s even a tense middle eight with stops and starts. God knows what the song is about though. And it rocks. There’s some odd lyrics about war and uniform (which harks back to lyrics on his debut album) but it works nicely. Are there some sexual references? Could be. “Eve’s volcano” is lightweight fluff after that, a mid tempo melodic joy. Immediately I thought this should be the next single. If that couldn’t reach the charts there was no hope… I suppose all the “ba-ba” and “Do-do-do’ become a little annoying after a while, but this is the closest Cope comes to a Teardrops singalong. Another sexual reference? I’m spotting a theme here. “Spacehopper” had been around a bit, it was mentioned as an early Cope / McCulloch song from the Crucial Three / A Shallow Madness era in Mark Cooper’s “Liverpool Explodes” book. It was the simplest riff, the simplest groove and it sounded great. Why did it fade out? I wanted it to go on longer. Not another sexual reference too? It’s daft as hell, but rather funny too. Closing side one was “Planet Ride”, which was supposed to be a collaboration with Troublefunk – fellow Island label mates and at that point hot as hell at the forefront of go-go. But no, Cope’s band were playing it, a kind of stiff white funk which tried its best to swing. Still, I liked it, even if it seemed to be about sex. Nothing wrong with that. God, how many sex references are there here? This isn’t as stiff (sorry) as I remember it, and once Cope shuts up the musical interplay is rather cool.

Side two then starts with the “big” hit single “World shut your mouth” which is the only song you may hear on this album these days. But in this context, yeah that’s fine. “Saint Julian” is next and this is an odd one, Kate St John is back on cor anglais, it sounds like a “Fried” song after a shave and a haircut, but the lyrics are cutting – a bit anti religion in places but each to their own. This song may be the key to the album, the reference to Ankerside Shopping Centre in Tamworth, but we’ll get to that soon enough… “Pulsar” is the song that confused me in 1984, I didn’t get it at all, it was just a stupid riff…. what did I know? Three years later it made sense in the context of the rest of the album, another stupid riff but bloody hell what a wonderful stupid riff! A song which begged to be played loud. And the lyrics were fantastic too, I would quote them extensively – “And I was quite in love, ‘cos you told me so”, “Don’t have to tell me honey, that’s the way I feel”… yes this was quite a song for me. Next was “Screaming secrets”, an old old song… the Teardrops had played it all the time in ’81 and ’82, they had even recorded it (quite badly) for a Richard Skinner session in 1981, there was a fantastic version on a Whistle Test live concert from 1982…. and it fitted it perfectly now. Sure Donald Ross Skinner couldn’t quite match Troy Tate but there’s enough energy here to get by. And frankly it was great to finally have a favourite song recorded at last.

And finally….

“A crack in the clouds” is an epic. There wasn’t much precedent for it in the back catalogue at the time, and there isn’t really much like it in the rest of Cope’s extensive career, and it’s a shame because this song is gorgeous. There’s storm clouds and sound effects, a disquieting guitar arpeggio, a descending bass line and Cope singing of strange things… After two minutes of disquiet, the band comes in and the chorus is glorious… I mean I don’t know what the song means even now, there’s images of water and floating and maybe I think I’m the wrong person to write this sort of thing. But between the tense quiet of the verses and the triumphant choruses, this song soars. There’s a glorious string arrangement which rises up through the song, and once the final chorus is out of the way, there’s a change to the music, a resolution to the harmonies, and it continues to soar higher and higher and I love it to bits. I’m sorry, I love this song, it always makes me cry and I’m doing a crap job again…. Yet maybe it’s down to a single line… “A quiet village boy takes leave of his life and walks off into the mountains…” Yes, maybe it’s that one dream of escape.

Of course years later I read Cope’s second autobiography “Repossessed” and learnt more about the album. How someone had shyly offered to write songs for him after a meeting at Ankerside Shopping Centre, how that had inspired the batch of songs on “Saint Julian” to be one step removed – Cope imagining how someone else would write songs for him. And there’s the birth of the Two Car Garage Band around Donald Ross Skinner, James Eller and Chris Whitten. And if I had known the b sides to “World Shut Your Mouth” had been recorded in Caerleon not that far from Penarth I would have gone completely mental. But that’s just the way I was.

Of course I played the album a lot when it came out. My diary notes that the CD was issued a week later, on the same day as “The Joshua Tree” and “Men and women”, two albums I didn’t buy…ah the days when a CD release wasn’t always a given. There was also another edition of the LP with an interview disc and I bought that and played it probably twice (but a sentence from the interview ended up in the introduction to “Falling away” many years later). March progressed… I had an interview at Sheffield Poly which lasted all of three minutes, I bought “Angels in the architecture” because it was cheap (£1.99 on tape), I bought tickets for Julian Cope at Cardiff Uni in April, I checked out midi hifi systems with CD players in Laskys  (Laskys!), I worked hard but not hard enough… oh and BBC showed a Cope concert from Westminster Hall earlier in the year, and our Betamax video chose that time to self destruct.

April brought joy and pain. There was tension around my maths, I still had no idea what I was doing and I was struggling but I wasn’t telling anyone. I spent a lot of time in the computer lab working on my computer programming assignment, creating flowcharts and all kinds of useless bollocks on paper for a program about which I can remember absolutely nothing. And then something stupid I did came back to bite me on the arse…

Back at the very start of my diary (Feb 1983) i had written the Teacher Files where I wrote a one sentence put down of all my teachers up to that point. As my diary was being read by my English teacher at the time, she went mental, ripped the pages out and told me to respect my teachers. Immediately my diary became notorious and my friends wanted to know what was in it. Jump ahead to early 1987, I was deeply paranoid about my old school as they seemed to be interfering with the college applications and I was pissed off with my friends for some reason – probably they hadn’t turned up at the Railway when I’d arranged to. So I wrote pages and pages of horrible notes, both the Teacher Files and The Pupil Files. 95% of it was pure invective and vitriol. Hardly anyone came out of it well, except about two teachers and three friends. And foolishly I gave these notes to a friend in my old school, who proceeded to sit down in the common room and start reading them. Soon he wasn’t the only one. The notes ended up pinned to a notice board, got distributed around all of the sixth form, and a few teachers too. And unsurprisingly nobody was happy about what I’d written. Jump ahead a week or so, I turn up at the Railway and find that all my friends are ignoring me. I thought it was a bit odd, then someone tells me that everyone was pissed off with me because of the things I’d written. I dash up to my friend’s house where he tells me what happened and I laugh and cry a lot. I then return to the Railway and apologise profusely for my stupidity. Turns out most people forgave me and eventually saw the funny side. I still have the Teacher and Pupil Files and they really are rather horrible, I can understand why everyone didn’t like me for it.

(Again, this kind of attention seeking behaviour is also typical Aspergers. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. You decide. Maybe I’m just an idiot for even mentioning it now)

Meanwhile, I was gearing up for the Julian Cope concert. “Eves volcano” was issued as a third single, slightly unnecessary I thought unless it was meant to promote the tour. But it received a good review on Peter Powell’s Pop Panel (“Sounds like Passionate Friend” said one reviewer, with a long memory) Still, I bought the CD single, and the twelve inch, and the twelve inch remix with the poster. After all, the twelve inch had a voucher to send off to get a three song live video from the Westminster Hall Concert (I’ve still got the video too, somewhere). And this was my first CD single, even though I’d not bought a CD player yet. As for b sides, “Almost beautiful child” was a looping instrumental which was pretty and idiotic, there were two live songs and the full five minute version of “Spacehopper” which didn’t fade out but came to a natural conclusion.

So I was ready for the live experience. I’d seen OMD a few times at St David’s Hall but this was going to be different, this was at the hall in Cardiff University, this was a standing only gig and I wanted to be standing at the front. Nigel and I took the train to Cathays station and popped into a corner shop to buy some alcohol. We bought a can of Tennants Super each, and kept hold of them. We were amongst the first in the queue so got to the front for the gig, and there were two support acts. First was Crazyhead, then riding high in the indie charts with their single “What gives you the idea that you’re so amazing baby?” My diary recalls that I wasn’t impressed. Lots of leather, lots of feedback and noise, “45 minutes of Crazyhead was more than enough”. What my diary doesn’t say is that the bass player Porkbeast kept shouting into his mic for beer, which of course prompted the audience to throw beer cans at him. These were lax days for security, we had both walked in with our tins of Super in our jacket pockets and kept hold of them throughout the gig. Next were The Faith Brothers, politically correct but a little bit boring live. “Tears For Fears with guitars” said Nigel. They ended their set by covering “Biko”, a very worthy thing to do in 1987. We’d let some female Faith Brothers fans into the front row but now we moved back into the front for the main attraction.

And the main attraction was a total blast. I was in the front row, to the left of me was James Eller on bass, about six foot to the right was Cope himself, on his mic stand climbing frame (blue, if you’re interested) and that beautiful red Gibson 335 twelve string. A fantastic set too (“Trampolene”, “Pulsar”, “Eves volcano”, “Strasbourg”, “Non alignment pact”, “Bouncing babies”, “The great dominions” – chills down spine there – “Shot down”, “Planet Ride”, a new arrangement of “Read it in books”, “Spacehopper” into “World Shut Your Mouth”… )  Cope told us they’d been on a “hippie trip” at Rockfield Studios that day, and from then on referred to the audience as hippies – “How are you doing, hippies?” Encores were “Someone like me” (promised as a forthcoming single) and “Reynard the fox” where Cope leant into the crowd on his mic stand, then fell off and rolled around the floor before destroying the stand.

It was awesome, and Nigel and I were stunned afterwards – deaf too. I bought a t shirt and we walked back into Cardiff drinking our warm cans of Tennants Super which tasted like treacle.  A fantastic night, which was a sharp contrast to what happened the next day or so.

It’s all a bit vague at this distance, and my diary for once isn’t particularly helpful, but this is how I remember it. I’d fallen out with the Maths teacher in New College and somehow I’d said I didn’t trust him or want him teaching me any longer. I’m not sure what happened after that,  but on the day after the concert I was “invited” into the head teachers office where he came down on me like a ton of bricks and made me feel like a piece of shit for daring to question one of his teachers. Then I had something similar happen at home and was told in no uncertain terms that I had to work my socks off to pass my A level maths. It was a bit fraught and I was a bit fragile and I hid myself away. My parents found me a maths tutor who actually helped me make sense of vectors and I revised like mad and did my best before the exams at the end of May.

On the last entry of the year’s diary – 23rd May 1987 – I wrote “I may never see Meg again”. There was more to it than that…. we had a sort of emotional break up on Cardiff station. Anji and Meg and I… They were getting onto a train up the valleys on platform six, I was heading for Penarth on platform seven… Anji was looking at us waiting for either of us to acknowledge we might be upset about it, but we didn’t.  It was very British, very stiff upper lip. Maybe she didn’t like me after all, I sort of liked her but never said it, she never said anything to me and we went our own ways. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t.

Jump ahead to June 1991, the start of the best summer of my life. I was working in Brunel House with my father at BT after completing my third attempt at my second year at poly. The first attempt in Sheffield was a disaster where I left or got kicked off the course (and we will get to that eventually). Then I’d tried again at the Poly of Wales but the issues I had from Sheffield hadn’t been addressed so I flunked out again (and we won’t get to that, ever) so I tried again, a third attempt, I tried my best and did the coursework and attended all the lectures and got bullied mercilessly for sitting at the front of lectures squinting  (so much so that one day when I was absent the lecturer told the class off for it – I also suspect that during this year I met my future brother in law but I’m not sure to be honest). Anyway, come that June day it was time to get the results. So I caught the train from Cardiff Queen Street up to Trefforest and wandered up to get the results. My name was on a list to see the course tutor at a given time, so I headed to the common room to have a sit down and wonder what was going on.

As I sat and pondered, there was a tap on my shoulder. “Hello Rob, how are you?” it was Meg, popping in to see her father who was still lecturing at the Poly of Wales. I was amazed – she looked lovely and she still remembered me, even though I now had a beard (another reason for bullying at the Poly, if I recall correctly).  She asked why I was there, I said about my results and she was sure I’d have done ok. We chatted for about five minutes, catching up with where she was and Anji and Manoj, she was still in touch with them and I’d drifted away into my own world. Then she kissed me goodbye and good luck and disappeared again. I then went to the course tutors office where he told me I’d failed everything, I couldn’t try again, and “You’re on the scrapheap now, you’ll never amount to anything. Goodbye”.

Then I returned to my work at BT for the afternoon, kept my head down, wondered about my future, and wrote a song called “True life story” about meeting up with Meg on such an inauspicious day. This became the start of my first album called “Songs about girls”. I recorded it later that Summer and it is still a scared and scary reminder of a bad day. You can find it at the bottom of this post, hopefully.

Oh my A Levels?  I got a C in Computer Studies, a D in Physics and scrapped an E in Maths which is a minor miracle. Those grades seem really shit now, when kids get five A* grades in their A Levels but a lot of blood sweat and tears – very much tears – went into those grades.

As for the “Saint Julian” era… it’s sort of ignored now. Sure “World shut your mouth” turns up on just about every 80s compilation going, but when did you last hear “Trampolene” on the radio? (Fair play to Josh Meadows on Main FM in Castlemaine, he played it on his show It’s a Jangle Out There last week as I finalised this piece and I have it on good authority that Adam Jeffery will play it on his Indie show this week)  Maybe it was over glossy, an attempt to get noticed which backfired. It was a dash for the mainstream and buffed up a good set of songs into a clean rock sound. But maybe it’s worth going back and investigating again – I certainly hadn’t played “Saint Julian” for a long time before I started writing this and it’s better than I remembered. There wasn’t much around which sounded like it at the time – Echo and the Bunnymen were falling apart and blanding out, U2 were about to become massive on a global scale, there was The Cult with their dictionary of rock moves, the indie section was still going through its shambling phase of lofi, The Smiths were in their own imperial phase before they fell apart… it was unique within its own parameters, it was a clean rock sound that Cope would never return to, but it sounded like nothing else at the time and so sounds timeless (except for the drum sounds). It certainly gained Cope new followers and raised his profile but probably set standards within the management at Island which he would never maintain. He was always destined to be a cult artist but it was always a pleasure to see him orbiting within the pop media as he would again in 1991. But “Saint Julian” is a worthwhile brush with the mainstream, bringing it’s own ideas of garage rock, Stooges simplicity and early Alice Cooper snarl to a pop audience. Have a listen to “Spacehopper” and try not to grin like an idiot – you can’t do it. As for the mainstream, Cope will never go back there, but it was sometimes fun while it lasted. A bit like my year at New College then.

Christmas And Other Trivial Pursuits

Christmas 1986 and I’m seventeen, halfway through my second year of A Levels and quietly happy. The reasons for feeling contented will be explained more in the next Goldfish post but for now just accept that for once life seems to be swinging my way for a change. As Christmas swings around I’m happy and not worried about anything and for once didn’t write a long and detailed Christmas list of what records I wanted and where to find them, which I had for the previous few years. This meant that my presents would actually be a surprise and I wouldn’t spend Christmas Eve predicting what I was going to receive the following morning. Genuine surprised face all round then when the presents were opened. 

OMD “Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” video 

Echo and the Bunnymen “Pictures on my wall” video

You know how some people make the wrong choice every time? Well that’s me and my family. Remember how Lancia gained a reputation as rust bucket death traps in the late 70s? We had one. I bought a Blackberry phone just as they stopped being good, ditto Windows Phone just as Nokia and Microsoft ditched the idea. Oh and we had one of those Vauxhalls which caught fire. And one of those Hotpoint tumble dryers which also caught fire. But the biggest wrong decision made by the Morgan household was the purchase of a Betamax video recorder in the summer of 1984. Even then we knew it was the lesser option. We would pop into the video rental shop at the top of Plassey Street next to the chip shop, gaze at the walls of videos to rent, pick one up, take it to the desk and ask forlornly “Have you got this on Betamax?” The shopkeeper would laugh and reply “Nah, only got these on Beta” and point to a small display of outdated films. Yes the sound and picture quality was fantastic, yes I had tapes which still looked great 20 years on (I ditched my last Betamax machine about ten years ago, I just had too much good stuff to lose it all) but bloody hell it was hard enough to find videos for Betamax in 1984, so how the hell did I end up with two of them for Christmas two years later? I still don’t know really.

As for the contents of these two videos they can’t really be faulted. The OMD video was reissued as part of a package with “Architecture and morality” in 2007, a CD and DVD package which was nice to see again, except that was the sixth time I had bought that album (and the fourth time on CD). As a concert experience it’s great. It’s OMD in December 1981, just cresting their wave of popularity and playing songs from their first three albums. It was the only chance I could get of seeing them perform “Statues” live and probably still is. Then there’s “The new stone age” and “Mystereality” and “Stanlow”….  There’s also some odd announcements from Andy McCluskey, some comment about “Just because the royal family come here doesn’t mean we can’t come here and have a good time” (the Royal Variety Performance had taken place in the same theatre a few days before the OMD show) He also sniffily announces “Enola Gay” as “a pop song”. Ouch.

It’s a fantastic historical document really. The audience is fascinating. The men wear suits with skinny ties and dance very awkwardly (McCluskey introduces “Motion and heart” saying “This is for those wearing thin ties”) The women have Princess Di hairstyles and wear a lot of frilly blouses. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Watching the video in 1986 was odd, I had seen OMD twice by this point and it was a far more professional band I had seen – lots of Emulators and a Fairlight on stage, a brass section and some chunky jumpers to replace the skinny ties and shirts. Back in 1981 everything looked like it was held together with sellotape and string, hardly any kind of stage show, the focus on the music and McCluskey’s dancing. Looking at it now is like stepping into a time machine. But bloody hell the band put some energy into these performances, tempos are high, they tear through “The new stone age” in the middle of the set, this electronic music is really quite human.

The Bunnymen video is somewhat different to their Liverpudlian neighbours. It’s a compilation from 1984 and contains a variety of music and forms – there’s some live footage from “Shine so hard”, their debut Top Of The Pops performance with “The back of love” from 1982, some promo videos and more. The major difference is that the Bunnymen have a mystique that was there right from the start and they’re going to maintain it no matter what. Will Mac smile at any point? Hell no. There’s lots of smoke, camouflage netting, lights from behind, shadows, coats, misery, serious and important stuff. The early live footage is great, the impressionistic film for “The puppet” and “A promise” is a little boring. The TOTP performance is fascinating – Mac can’t decide if he wants to mime or not, Pete De Freitas drums like a demon and the audience look bewildered. There’s moody videos from the Iceland trip which gave “Porcupine” a cover image. There’s a few songs from the Royal Albert Hall Concert in 1983 and a few videos from “Ocean rain” to finish with. All fine and dandy but there isn’t much personally being projected other than an aloofness which sometimes seems unfriendly. The glimpses of the audience during the RAH footage shows a very different crowd to OMD – a lot of serious young men, one female fan dancing crazily while everyone else ignores her. But the vibe given off by the whole video is “We’re special, we’re dark and moody, we’re serious” and frankly I may have enjoyed that when I was seventeen but thirty years on it’s a bit tedious. OMD seem to be having a lot more fun.

“The Smiths” – The Smiths

Now this came as a surprise. Someone must have looked at my record collection and realised that I didn’t have the debut album by the Mancunian miseries. I hadn’t told anyone I had wanted it, remember, but this was a welcome addition to the collection, even if it seemed quite old fashioned already two years after its release. After all, The Smiths of 1986 were a huge rock monster,.Johnny Marr playing a Les Paul, a second guitarist  (who had just been sacked, as it turned out) and anthems like “Panic” and “The Queen is dead” filling up the Festive 50. So listening to “The Smiths” would be a reminder of those more innocent times. But it just wasn’t like the old days any more.

The problem with “The Smiths” was the same in 1986 as it is now – the songs are great but the production is a little flat and grey, and there’s alternate versions on “Hatful of hollow” which are brighter, more sprightly and just generally better. Take album opener “Reel around the fountain” – on “Hatful” the song is in a higher key and slightly faster and Johnny Marr’s guitar shimmers like sunlight on water. On “The Smiths” the key is lowered, it’s a little sluggish and Paul Carrack adds Hammond organ and piano fills which are completely unnecessary and quite distracting. What should be the defining opening song of the debut album just drones a lot. “You’ve got everything now” also had these odd organ rolls which get in the way. On the other hand Carrack’s organ on “I don’t owe you anything” sounds more integrated into the song and works beautifully so I can’t dismiss Carrack’s contributions completely.

There are a number of elephants in the room really. There’s the lacklustre production for a start and there’s the lack of “This Charming Man” too. Yes it was on the cassette – I remember a friend showing me the tape in early 1984, as we were the only two people we knew who liked them then. And then there’s the material itself. There’s a lack of variety on offer, too many songs taken at mid tempo, too many arpeggios from Marr. You could flip the argument and make it a positive – a linear grey drizzle which is the perfect aural metaphor for the ennui and lack of drive of those lives stuck in Whalley Range and other parts of Manchester. At the time I didn’t know there was an alternate version of the album recorded with Troy Tate, and frankly if I had known I would have moved hell and high water to find a bootleg of it. As it is, the few songs issued with Tate at the helm (“Jeane”, “Pretty girls make graves”, “Reel around the fountain”) show he had a far better idea of how to layer guitars than John Porter. But then I was a huge Teardrop Explodes fan and was collecting up Tate’s excellent solo releases at the time so I would say that.

Er, where was I? Oh yes I suppose I should mention the actual album rather than what’s not there.

As always it was very easy for me as a teenager to associate myself with Morrissey’s lyrics. God damn it I would have killed for 15 minutes with whoever I crushed on at the time (again, more on that next time). There’s something very sexual about the early Smiths songs but a lot of it is thwarted by Moz’s awkwardness – he is impelled to give in to lust on “Pretty girls make graves” but he refuses, he’s too delicate for that and bloody hell yes I sort of identified with that too. “Still ill” feels like a manifesto of some kind, and I had to laugh many years later when I saw a preacher in church quote the first four lines of this song. I actually prefer this version of “Hand in glove” which must make me in a minority of one. “I don’t owe you anything” is wonderful and worth the price of admission alone.

Oh I don’t know…. I just find this album unsatisfying, a glimpse of a great album seen through a dark window. The songs are mostly great (only “Miserable lie” fails), there’s dark humour and dark thoughts and chilling thoughts and uncomfortable songs but it’s not as good as it could be. Better was to come, and even with a perspective of two years I knew they had done better. However I didn’t realise within another year they would no longer exist.

“Arthur Lee” – Arthur Lee

In 1986 I had bought “Forever changes” and “Da Capo” by Love and adored them both. I was quite happy with what I’d heard and was in no hurry to explore the rest of Love’s catalogue, or Arthur Lee’s solo work. Clearly my brother thought otherwise.

This album was recorded and issued by Rhino in 1981 and issued in the UK by Beggars Banquet. There’s twelve songs and intriguing notes from Lee himself on the sleeve. It’s an odd album this – I thought so at the time and even more so now. It’s an album out of time really. Knowing more now about Lee’s career trajectory from 1968 onwards the stylistic variety makes more sense, and I feel far more generous to this album now than I did back in 1986 when I listened a few times and consigned it to the “interesting” part of my record collection.

For a start, it’s better than I remember. “Happy me” and “One” would fit nicely onto “Four Sail” or one of the Blue Thumb albums Love made around the end of the sixties. There’s some delicate moments like “Do you know the secret?” There’s some ill advised reggae like “One on one” and “Mr Lee”… actually this album sounds like it’s been compiled from about four different recording sessions. There’s no need for Lee to rerecord “Seven and seven is” or to tackle “Many rivers to cross”. On the other hand “I do wonder” is an absolute gem, which isn’t surprising as the song was written and recorded for “Forever Changes” in 1967. It must have been hard for Lee to sit on a song as good as this for so many years.

I don’t think this album has been reissued since though I’m willing to be corrected on this. It’s a lot better (in places) than I remember. Belated thanks to Andy, only 30 years late.

“Back in the DHSS” – Half Man Half Biscuit

Could I have received a more indie present that year? Maybe “C86” but then I hated all that jingle jangle shit which clogged up half of Peel’s shows at the time. Even if HMHB had appeared on that tape, nobody really considered them to be part of C86. Sure, they shambled and were as ramshackle as the next bunch of amateurs with three chords and a mistuned Telecaster but HMHB were different …

I’d first heard them on Peel of course, it was “Sealclubbing” which ended up on the tape from early 86 with the Yeah Yeah Noh and Microdisney sessions. Then there was an appearance on “Whistle Test” breezing through “Trumpton Riots” and rumours of them blowing out “The Tube” because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game – this band weren’t going to be playing the fame game by the usual rules. Then there was the strangely melancholic Peel session with songs like “I left my heart in Papworth General” and “Reasons to be miserable” – “And I don’t know anyone who puts peaches on their corn flakes either” – and a farewell single of “Dickie Davies Eyes” and they were gone, for four years anyway.

But “Back in the DHSS” was their debut album, recorded for £40 to test out a friend’s recording studio, according to the tale at the time, and frankly it showed. There’s rough around the edges and there’s this – tape hiss, a band playing live with no time or facilities to remove mistakes, but a lot of charm. And of course there’s the songs.

This album became a totem for me and my friends. We would learn the songs off by heart and sing the lyrics when we were drunk down the Railway or hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, checking out each others record collections – “Oh, you’ve got this too?” and then ten minutes of quoting lines to each other accompanied by raucous laughter. It wouldn’t take much to set this off. My friend Nigel would look at me in the Railway and ask me “What did God give us Rob?” to which I’d reply “God gave us life, Nigel” and off we’d go. This was our Monty Python, this was our Young Ones, this was our “The Jerk”, this was OURS. The songs were fermented in a mix of minor celebrities from crap TV shows and sports programmes, children’s TV, a life of idleness in front of the worst of seventies and eighties TV, while smoking rather good weed and waiting for the next dole cheque. It could have been dreadful, but the attention to detail was so right, the references were so spot on that it made it hilarious, and not just once but over and over again. There was a form of impotent rage about the shiteness of mid 80s life within these grooves, but with humour too. There was still melancholy – which is why “Reflections from a flat” is my favourite song on the album – but there isn’t much of a hint of what they would become, which is national treasures.

Of course my main memory of this album was Christmas Day itself. My dear old Gran was with us, she was living in our house while she waited to move into a nice retirement flat after selling her house in Canton. When I opened this album, she said “Oh that looks interesting…” and starts to read the song titles. I hastily grabbed it off her because I didn’t want her to see “Fucking hell, it’s Fred Titmus” on there…. sorry Gran, you wouldn’t have understood.

Trivial Pursuit 

Gordon Wood was a work colleague of my father’s from BT, as far as I know they’d worked together for years. Maybe his family had made the same journey we had to find our way to South Wales from Leeds, I don’t know. (Maybe I should ask my Dad before I write these things). However in 1986 the Morgan family had met up with the Wood family a few times and every time we had ended up playing Trivial Pursuit. That’s how 1986 was.

The first time was in June. Andy had gone trainspotting and my parents were going over to visit the Woods in Whitchurch  (I may be wrong there) and I was looking forward to a night on my own, but then I changed my mind and went along. The Woods had two daughters, one about the same age as me and one slightly younger, both of whom had the initial of M. And of course I sort of crushed on the eldest daughter M1 as soon as I saw her. Fuck knows what she thought of the thin geeky idiot trying to impress her. So I looked through their record collection and spun their original mono copy of “Help!” and after a few drinks had loosened everyone up, Trivial Pursuit came out and Mum and I got thrashed at it. It was deemed so successful we did it again in July when my penfriend was over from Germany and again we played Trivial Pursuit and again I got beaten quite heavily, but boy was I crushing on M1. I even made an obscure reference to her in the sleeve note to my album from September 1986.

Trivial Pursuit was the big new game of the mid 80s and everyone was playing it. Admit it, you’ve played it at least once. Maybe on a phone or computer, a DVD game or maybe on a pub machine. You could even play it on a ZX Spectrum. It’s expanded out a bit, this one. You know the score – dash around a board answering questions across six categories to win six cheeses then back to the centre to win outright. Everyone was playing it, there were lots of expansion boxes of questions and frankly I can’t think of much more to say about it. It’s a game, we all played it. End of story.

Naturally Trivial Pursuit was under our Christmas tree, not just the game but an additional question pack on entertainment. This would make us all very welcome at any parties because we could add extra questions into the pot…. oh whatever. It did come in useful as we made another trip to the Woods household for New Years Eve and yet again I crushed on M1 and yet again lost badly at Trivial Pursuit. I blame my team mate, of course. (Note, I know who my team mate was thanks to my diary but I’m not telling). Then we stayed up til midnight, toasted the new year with champagne and I fell asleep on a camp bed around 1:30 am. And that was the last time I saw the Wood family. Anyway, this was all a distraction….

And other stuff…

According to my diary there was a red jumper and some chocolates and other stuff. I know someone was hoping the chocolates were Harlequin but they were After Eights which were (and still are) my favourite. There were probably blank tapes (I was fond of the silver BASF chrome c90s) and stuff like that. My diary doesn’t record what we actually did on Christmas Day itself, I was probably hiding in my bedroom playing records. Was this the year of Dirty Den dishing divorce on Angie? Well I remember watching that. The rest of the day? Probably fighting for the video recorder and the TV. Happy days.

(With thanks to Tim Worthington whose own post on Christmas 1986 inspired this post – have a look here , it’s very good, you could even buy his books too, the ones I’ve read are excellent)

Next time – we have fled from disaster…

London Belongs To Me?

I have been to London about a dozen times now in my 47 years. Each time has been slightly different, with differing aims and goals. The first few times will be dealt with at other points in future Goldfish posts on 1989 and 1990. The next time after that was a weird trip in 1993 with my boss from the Stats Office. We were supposed to be attending an exhibition at Wembley about digital imaging systems. I was maintaining the System 2100 scanners at the time and we were there to look at alternatives, and see the System 2100 stand – who were amazed that they had anyone using their products, let alone an actual government department. After a brief look at Wembley I told my boss I wanted to go to Oxford Street and he said “As long as you’re back at Paddington by 6pm I don’t care”. I then headed to HMV / Virgin / Tower and spent the best part of £80 in one afternoon. My wife and I had a few weekend breaks there seeing shows and – yes – buying records but the birth of our son ten years ago stopped all that.

This year was different – a holiday in Disneyland Paris meant stopovers in London both ways before and after Eurostar journeys and we decided to have a whole day in London, let our son see a few sights, do the obvious touristy things like an open top bus, a river boat along the Thames, a few underground trips, you get the picture.

But I noticed something had changed in London. Sure, I don’t know everything about the city, I’ve only visited it over the years. But there seemed a huge disparity between the parts of London we saw. On the bus tour we were shown all the old buildings – St Pauls Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and all the rest – but I was more interested in the new buildings we passed by which went unmentioned. The Shard, the Gherkin, the horrible upside down blancmange which is City Hall, that strange building which appears to be the wrong way around, all overhanging at the top (you can tell I’m not researching this, I just want to get my thoughts down)… On the river cruise, we looked west from Westminster Pier and saw the cranes in the distance,  the construction of more offices. This was one London which was unmentioned, the vile buildings showing how great the city is (or perhaps how great The City is). These weren’t built for the good of the people of London, these were grand gestures by banks and investors and architects, to keep up with the other city skylines across the world. Powerful buildings for a powerful city with a powerful economy and a powerful future.

The bus tour also took us south of the Thames, but only once. The commentary spoke about normal Londoners living here and yes it was Southwark. It looked a million miles away from the City, the sixties and seventies estates, the shops and play areas for kids, it looked like a community. I wondered how soon the residents would be priced out of their own homes and flats. This was the London we weren’t supposed to see, according to the commentary but it looked like the most normal part we saw on the tour. The rest of the tour was a vulgar glimpse of steel, glass and money.

Also at one point the tour bus stopped by Victoria coach station and we noticed how previous tourists had thrown their earphones onto the roof of the bus stop. This was naturally a photo opportunity.

The tour started and finished at Marble Arch, or was supposed to finish there only the bus broke down along Park Lane so we walked the rest of the way. Hyde Park looked parched, which was sad. Back at Marble Arch my wife saw an old man, shabbily dressed and shaking, picking through a bin for food. To my shame, I was quite cynical about it – I thought it could be a scam to be honest – but my wife was upset and I approached him, tried to talk to him and gave him some money, explaining (in vain) that there were plenty of places to buy food around there. He looked like he had Parkinsons Disease, uncontrollable shaking, no words spoken. For someone like that to be there, at the end of Oxford Street, so close to the money and glitz of Park Lane, just seemed so wrong. Again, this was the London we weren’t supposed to see.

I had a few opportunities to walk around outside our hotel near Kings Cross and I didn’t feel ill at ease there, once I was onto the back streets behind Pentonville Road and the Scala Theatre (yes I got lost, ok?) it felt like the community spirit was there in the little shops and cafes. Even after 9pm in McDonald’s I didn’t feel worried. It felt like a busier night out than any I had experienced but I wasn’t uncomfortable.

We chatted to a few people around us too – the staff at the hotel, the taxi drivers here and there – and were amazed by the work ethic, more out of necessity than anything else. The taxi driver worked 7 days a week, 12 hour shifts each day. The hotel cleaners worked similar hours. “It’s what you do to stay alive here”, the driver said. “The price you pay to live in London”. I thought that was very sad indeed. Is this what London has become now? It’s own citizens working unholy shift patterns to keep themselves living there?

As an outsider I probably have no right to an opinion on London. I’d probably feel pissed off if someone came to Newport and moaned about it. But the small amount of time I spent in London made me feel such a mix of emotions that it was overwhelming. I felt sickened by the wealth and opulence on display, especially as it wasn’t really much benefit to the majority of the people living there. I felt inspired by the folks who still live there and keep their heads above water. I was pleased my absolute love of the Underground has transferred to my son, his look of delight being on the train was mirrored by how I always felt on the Tube, but could never show without looking like a grinning idiot.

There was one more thing…. how do people in London not have songs constantly spinning around their heads? Even looking at road signs spun me off into musical thoughts. .. oh look there’s Archway, then I’ll be singing “Archway people” by St Etienne until I see a sign for Euston then I’m back on “London” by The Smiths. Even the river boat tour commentary mentioned “Waterloo Sunset” as we passed under Waterloo Bridge. London is just full of songs and musical references everywhere. Even Victoria Coach Station had me singing “Coach Station Reunion” by The Field Mice. Damn it, we even passed the Bag o’Nails and I was singing from “The Who Sell Out”. Or maybe I know too much music?

Anyway, just wanted to scribble the thoughts down while they were relatively fresh in my mind. The next Goldfish post will either be about Scott Walker or AR Kane and will turn up just when you don’t expect it. Thanks for reading.

Berlin – Munich – Wherever

The problem with naming your band after someone else’s album is that you set the bar pretty high to start with. Just ask Revolver. Of course those friends of Goldfish The Autumn Stones don’t count, not least because they’re great and don’t sound a bit like a thrown together Small Faces compilation. By naming your band after an album as seminal / canonical / reverred (delete as applicable) as “Scott 4” by Scott Walker could be perceived as sheer stupidity. But that’s exactly what Scott 4 did. I suppose at some point in their early history  it must have been a bit of a joke – “Ha ha, we’re called Scott 4 but there’s only three of us and one of them’s called Scott”. That would be singer and main songwriter Scott Blixen, always seen with a cowboy hat on. It also got them attention from the music press too. This opening paragraph could have been written in any music paper article on the band in the first few years of their existence. to be honest. Sorry to deal in cliches. Shall we take a look from another angle?

The post-Britpop landscape in the late 90s was an odd place. 1997 had seen Blur move in a ‘radical’ direction thanks to Graham Coxon’s influence, Oasis made a coke-soaked monument to their own hubris in “Be here now”, Radiohead redefined the parameters of pre-millenial tension (remember that?) rock  with “OK computer”, The Verve finally got the success they deserved all along as Richard Ashcroft wrote populist anthems while Nick McCabe became more marginalised in his own band. The NME was hunting for the next big thing as they always are – and they grouped a whole load of bands as “the new Beck”. Because the old Beck was clearly not good enough and / or not British, being American and all that. Thrown together in this group were acts like The Beta Band, Scott 4, Badly Drawn Boy and Gomez. Looking at that list with more than fifteen years of hindsight it does look like a funny bunch of disparate artists who have little in common with each other, let alone Beck. But that was how Scott 4 initially got into the press. Their debut single “Deutsche LP Record” was a good start, a funked up beat, some scratchy guitar licks and some odd synth noise, even some scratching thrown in for good measure. But at the song’s heart was an infections melody. On the b side were two more interesting pieces. “Air-con” sounded like those Eyeless In Gaza instrumentals where they set up a harmonium in someone’s garden and clanged a few sticks around. “Mrs Robert Harry” was a slow trawl, a country style lament with keening vocals and a hushed atmosphere only spoilt by the fact it sounded like it was recorded on a cheap battery operated cassette player.

Scott 4 issued a lot of music in quick succession. Debut mini album “Elektro Akoustic Und Volksmechanik” was schizophrenic, country ballads besides primitive synth and beats, a theme developed on their full length debut “Recorded In State”, issued in 1998. “Aspirins” took the country ballad direction in its fullest direction, “East Winter” was quite annoying, “Choke bore” was fab. But they just couldn’t settle on one style, they couldn’t decide if they were trying to be Krautrock or off-kilter I saw Scott 4 supporting the High Llamas in Bristol in early 98 and enjoyed their set, so much that I caught them headlining at TJs a few months later. They were as odd live as they were on record, sometimes huge blurts of Moog noise (a Moog Rogue, fact fans) and sometimes pedal steel laments. And then there was “You set the scene”. In Bristol it lasted about eight minutes, in TJs it passed the twelve minute mark. In the right mood it could be fascinating and hypnotic. In the wrong mood it could be tedious. When Scott 4 issued “Your kingdom to dust” as a single (nice lyrical reference to Henry Kelly’s daytime gameshow “Going for gold”), they backed it with a 22 minute version of “You set the scene” which is perfect for those people who think that the album version of “Jenny Ondioline” could be (a) longer and (b) improved with some banjo and flute. Sometimes artists don’t know when to shut up. This would be a problem for almost every artist as the 90s came to their conclusion. It was the era of bloated CDs, double albums which could have been easily edited  down to decent single albums. The extended length of the Compact Disc led to bands and artists thinking “Yeah I can fill up seventy minutes of music”.

In the early Summer of 1999 Scott 4 issued the single “Catastrophe” as a prelude to their new album “Works Project LP”. They were now signed to V2, a label high on the success of Stereophonics who were just breaking through to the mainstream at this point. I picked up the single and liked it a lot. The main song rocked in its own way, “Avis railhome” was a weird stomped smothered in vicious slide guitar and distortion but the best song was “Famished”. It was slow, which is good, starting with quiet arpeggios of guitars, a simple 4 / 4 beat and Scott Blixen crooning, then at one minute the tempo changes, Scott sings “Had my phaser set to stun” and a lovely string arrangement appears, disquiet and sadness. And it just carries on changing and breaking over and over again. If that was a b side, how was the album going to be?


We had moved into the Crescent in December 1998. When I say “we”…. we’d bought the house together and we were engaged but the wedding was still another year away. So I was there and my fiance was in her parents which was up the road anyway so not too far away. I was sorting the house out, redecorating here and there, getting new carpets and furniture. But the first big decision was getting some cats. I’d always grown up with cats – I can list them all through Leeds, Harpenden and Penarth – Tarot, Tigger, Whiskers, Sooty (apologies for the unimaginative names, I was young ok?), then the four beautiful Burmese cats – Max, Casca, Buffin and Bez. See, the names improved as I got older. Max was my mother’s choice, Casca was a character from “Julius Caesar”, Buffin was my father’s choice and was Dale Griffin’s name in Mott The Hoople. Bez was my choice. He was registered as Pascal, but that didn’t suit him. He liked to get stoned on cat nip and fall around the garden, so it had to be Bez. It was early 1990, it had to be done. Bez was lovely, he’d sit on the roof above my bedroom window crying to be let in at night, then settle down under my duvet, head on a pillow, purring. He was quite a character. When I moved to Newport I tried taking him with me, he lasted a week. He kept sitting on top of my wardrobe crying, he missed his three friends, he didn’t like the lack of a cat flap, he returned to Penarth very quickly but still loved me. If I was going on a night out he would follow me up the street, then wait for me until I came home. Quite a character.

So in the new home in the Crescent we decided we wanted some cats. Two days after Christmas we visited a farm which had a litter of kittens and picked two out for us. One dark tabby who I named Cimber  (after Mettelus Cimber, another character from “Julius Caesar” though everyone assumed it was after Simba in “The Lion King”) and a black and white cat who my fiance named Sophie. “Just a normal name, is that too hard?” The two kittens were introduced to the house, baskets were bought, climbing frames were added, a cat flap installed in the back door and we were away. A few days later on New Years Eve, Sophie was terrified of the noise and ended up stuck behind my hifi unit. And so it went on. Winter turned to spring into summer. My fiance stayed at the house during the day while I was at work, she was working on her final year’s dissertation and sat on the balcony watching Sophie and Cimber playing in the garden, chasing balls, stalking birds, having fun together. They were great friends, those two.


I bought “Works Project LP” one day towards the end of August and gave it that all important first listen as soon as I got home. My fiance wasn’t there so it went straight into the hifi while I put some tea together. “Catastrophe” was a great opener, buzzing synth bass, thrusting drums and all kinds of references to all kinds of untold horrors, the bloodstained 70s, crises and crimes, pollution and death. All memories to me, but far enough away to know vaguely what was going on. But still there was a delicate little chorus, xylophones and acoustic guitars. A hissing synth leads into “Troubles 1 2 3“, which again seems to hint at the seventies frugal nature, while counting problems. “We understand our poverty but cannot solve troubles 1 2 3…..” – another quiet chorus. “The little problems in our teens, we grew around them so now they won’t be seen” – well yes that strikes a chord. Meanwhile the music grooves on more buzzing Moog and drum machine, with a wave of distorted guitars,  ending on a volley of marimba.  Yeah, exactly. Can’t pin this down yet. “Hallo Doctor” is more considered – a 6 / 8 mid tempo waltz, Blixen seems full of self hatred, and there’s lots of lovely organ, piano and acoustic guitar, quite gorgeous. “Lefturno” is funky in a typically British way, and if anything slightly Beck-ish. Heavy beats, a groovy guitar figure and lots of criss crossing vocals. Rather nice, and those curious harmonies help. Then a huge fuck off Moog obliterates the song, leading to a more considered coda. A grower. So that’s side one.

Das Junior” is a distant cousin of “Hallo doctor”, a piano ballad with a gorgeous string section but the words are painful as hell, there’s some real hurt in this song, hints of hospitals and blood and no understanding, false alarms and abstractions. It’s terribly sad and very heartfelt. It’s quite a change to move to “We’re not robots”, stiff electronics and passionless vocoder, even if the words try to prove otherwise amid walls of guitars on the chorus. Rather fun. “May last” is woozy, simple acoustic chords over a bed of buzzing synths and drum machines, and I don’t know what this means but I love it. It also doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, being over after two minutes. Side two closer “Lilla b-boy lullaby” is odd, based on a rhythmic loop of a vocoderised phrase “Help me”, while piano and guitar echo in a reverb haze and Blixen sings down a phone… is he taking the mickey out of beat boys? Who knows, but it’s again rather lovely and short.

Side three starts with one of the best songs on the album – “Scott 4 Travel On Elektrik Trains”. A homage to “Trans Europe Express”, full of modulated synths, hissing electronic percussion and simple melody. And that’s just the intro. The verses add twelve string acoustic guitars and vocoderised vocals, a tale of robot sex and control. It’s like Gary Numan had gained a sense of humour, or more likely the ghosts of New Musik in the circuitry of the song. But fuck me the song itself is gorgeous – propulsive, smart, a perfect  dream of European travel and some unexpected chord changes just to spice things up. The third side can’t help being a let down after that, two quiet songs follow each other – “Applied for release” and “We scratched our names” are intimate and slow, particularly the latter song which sounds like it has some real memories within it. The side closer “Glass and steel” is a damp squib, a groove which goes nowhere for five minutes, Blixen mumbling and not much else going on. It’s that double album hubris again.

Side four makes amends though. “7 days / I’ll see ya” is two songs in one. The first a home recording of Blixen alone with an electric guitar, while the second is a full on country belter, Blixen yelping with joy, pedal steel guitar to the fore, and whilst the pros in Nashville weren’t exactly quaking in their boots, it’s not bad for a bunch of Londoners. After that, “Konigskraft” comes as a shock, piano, acoustic guitar and harpsichord droning and Blixen again hinting at darkness, it feels very ominous. It’s good, but it’s there’s better to come….

And at this point in the first play of the album my fiance appears at home and points out that Sophie is around but Cimber isn’t.  We call out for her and walk around the Crescent looking for her. After ten minutes our neighbours across the road call us over and ask if we’ve lost a cat. It turns out Cimber had been hit by a car and had struggled across the road to collapse and expire in their front garden. We were devastated and cried a little and took the body back home where I buried her at the back of the garden behind the shed. We cuddled Sophie and made a fuss of her and felt quite blue.

It was only once my fiance had gone back to hers later that evening that I finished the Scott 4 album, and listened to the final song “Ancient and modern”.

It starts with an unaccompanied woodwind arrangement by Terry Edwards. It’s not as out there as some of the arrangements on the Mark Hollis solo album, and in a way references back to “The not knowing” which closes the debut Tindersticks album (another Terry Edwards arrangement – “The not knowing” was accidentally played at a Christmas party in 1993 and lasted a minute, a friend asked why I was listening to the music for “Last of the summer wine”.) Anyway, a lovely introduction. Then Blixen strums an acoustic and starts crooning … “I’ve lost my memory and time passes and Kaspar Hauser he can’t fix this…” And the band come in along with a string section, woozy and slow and cautious, like a 2am session, slightly out of it but hanging on. Then at 1:36 an ascending passage, beautiful and scary, ending on a horrible minor seventh and oh lord why are my eyes moist? “It’s ’68 again…” croons Blixen with all that implies, a slow exhortation to hit the hot streets… what the hell is going on? At three minutes another gorgeous instrumental passage, piano and acoustic chords hold still while a bass descends and oh my not again it’s just something oh sorry …. then the final section, Blixen sings “Breathe for us” over and over and at that point I really do lose it completely and still do. It’s all too much, “The last of everything for us….” Not a dry eye in this house. Blixen stops singing, the string arrangement soars and a slide guitar ducks and dives and you know what? I’ll never make a good writer, it’s not hard to describe this music but it affects me like few others. You could say it’s the circumstances that make the song so personal to me, but haven’t you got songs which you have interpreted in your own way, suited your needs more than the writer’s own? Is that a crime? Isn’t that what music is about? Conveying emotion and passion and feelings and merging a time and a place and a memory and a moment? Sure, let music be background, let music be devalued, put a price on everything but not a value….this sort of thing, it’s everything to me, and I’m hopeless at explaining why really. Music is a gateway to the past, to ghosts and old thoughts, some feelings have changed but others remain. And “Ancient and modern” is that day, that loss, in seven minutes of song. Does it matter? Not really no… sigh. So it mattered, it mattered to me…..


What happened next? Well Scott 4 carried on, though they were dropped by V2. In 2002 they issued a collaborative album with Magic Car called “European Punks” which was interesting and had some excellent moments, not least the opening track which manages to fit about six songs into nine minutes. They then slightly changed their name to the Scott 4 Free Rock Orchestra for the “E.S.P” album in 2004, however that sounded more like a Blixen solo album. After that they disappeared though a quick search of the Internet will find the current location and occupation of Blixen. As for cats…. well Sophie wasn’t happy to lose her friend and kept pushing some play balls onto Cimber’s grave, so we replaced Cimber with two new cats, a lovely white with a hint of tortoiseshell who I named Snowball (after the Field Mice LP) and an older cat who looked so sad at the RSPCA because all her litter had been chosen and taken away from her and she was alone. That was Emily and she was forever grateful to us, the most loyal and loving cat I’ve ever known. A friend once said her eyes hid a lot of sorrow and we could only guess at her background, the RSPCA let us have her for free because she had a broken rib and they didn’t think she’d last more than three months . Instead she lasted a good 12 years or more. Poor old Snowball died on our wedding day in October 1999, she was upset someone other than me was feeding her and stormed off into the night and was hit by a car. And Sophie? Well… I started writing this post two years ago, and knew what I was going to say but then time passes and I thought nobody cared about Scott 4. But a few conversations on Twitter in the last few weeks made me go back and finish the post. I wasn’t expecting Sophie to pass away two days before I published the post, 18 years old, the longest surviving cat I’ve ever had. This post is in her memory, and listening to this Scott 4 album again this week has brought back all the memories of that day, and “Ancient and modern” still makes me cry now and oh I’m a sentimental fool and I don’t care, I still expect to see her everywhere….

(After discussions last night, we’ve decided we may get some kittens in the near future)

(Update two days later – yes we’re getting two kittens in a few weeks time when they’re ready)

Anyway, upwards and onwards. I’ve no idea what comes next, so in the meantime here’s a picture of Sophie, listening to Allvvays on Adam Jeffreys’ radio show a few months back.


Happy Birthday Dear Goldfish


On 30th April 1983 I bought some records and my life tilted slightly off its axis. On 30th April 2013 I wrote about that day 30 years previously on a new blog I tentatively named after a line from a Yeah Yeah Noh song. And that’s how it all started. Three years on, there’s over one hundred posts on the main blog, a few posts on the sister blog One Hundred Goldfish and numerous pieces I have written for other blogs. Not to mention over twenty podcasts for Goldfish Radio.

Blimey, how did that all happen?

Well I suppose it happened because of you, dear reader. If it wasn’t for the support of my readers I wouldn’t still be writing.  I’m always amazed by the reaction I receive to anything I create – self depreciation hides low self esteem, I can always find fault in my own work so… Er. .there’s no end to that sentence. (Can you tell I’m writing this ten minutes after I woke up?) But the response and support of those around me has kept me going on here, it’s lovely to know that other people like the same kind of things as me or are prepared to let me witter on about whatever I want to ramble about for their websites.

So yes I haven’t really written much recently on this blog and yes that’s my fault for neglecting the Goldfish but the new Microdisney post is doing well and seems to have hit a nerve with readers old and new. But maybe it’s time I did a round up of pieces I have written for other blogs in the last few months, just in case you missed them.

Back in February, Nicola at the Sounds Familiar website was on Twitter saying how “Rubber Soul” was one of her favourite Beatles albums and I fired back a series of tweets of points why I loved it. She asked me to expand on my thoughts for her website and the article is here. It’s quite a good little article and was written about a week before George Martin passed away so I’m glad I mentioned his contribution to the album which was very important but also subtle.

I have also written a few pieces for the Everything Indie Over 40 website. I may have previously mentioned I wrote a few Indie CV articles, one on Margaret Fiedler and another on Jez and Andy Williams. I should be writing another Indie CV soon too. Anyway, I reviewed the latest album by Murals for the website, which turned into a rumination on how technology has changed our listening habits. But the Murals album is great, you should give it a listen. I also wrote a gig review of Ride at Bristol Ansom Rooms at the end of last year which was a tremendous gig.  Thanks to Ray at Country Mile offering me a ticket.

I’ve also written a few Toppermost articles, not many admittedly but there will be a new one along very soon on The Electric Prunes.  I have updated my Toppermost page at the top of the blog to include my latest musings there.  Always check out Toppermost, there’s always something interesting there, a great collection of writers passionate about music – the recent contributions by John Hartley have been top notch and … well… if you like my style of writing, then John does it a hundred times better than me. (Self depreciation again). Anyway, have a look.

I’ve also been creating a load of Goldfish Radio podcasts – twenty three of them in total with more to come. There’s a dedicated page with information about all of the shows here, people seem to like them, maybe you will too.

As ever I have to think so many people for their help and support throughout these years. Merric at Toppermost and Steve at Everything Indie Over 40 have been great and very patient with me. Adam J at Radio Scarborough and Nicola T at Sounds Familiar have also helped spread the word. Josh M at Main FM in Castlemaine has been fab too. Can’t forget Marcello and Lena at Then Play Long – huge support there, always sharing what I do. There’s probably more if I think about it…. David S in Prospect Hill, Esther in California, Ray at Country Mile, Wally at The Beautiful Music, Keith S, Rick L David T, Dave B, all my family and friends, the PTFA and staff at school, everyone in the Everything Indie Over 40 community, The Autumn Stones, Huge Shark, Andy M, Darren R, Tim W… love you all, thank you all.

Anything else? No? Let’s blow out the candles and cut the cake up. Happy birthday Goldfish!

Feed the birds poisoned bread




I keep realising that I listened to John Peel before 1984. For some reason I used to think I started in the summer of 84 but I tuned in occasionally during the Autumn of 83. From time to time there will be a reference in my diary (Book 6, a thick green exercise book stolen from my History teacher at the start of September) to a song I heard on the show. For instance this was how I heard Microdisney – it’s there in the middle of October, in amongst the turbulent paragraphs of bullying and crying and fancying ten girls simultaneously but not saying anything, there’s a line like “Must find ‘Sleepless’ by Microdisney”. I must have heard the song on the band’s first Peel session and it obviously made an impression on me, so much so that I could still remember it years later, even though I didn’t tape it. For some reason I hadn’t worked out how to record off the radio yet, I was always a late developer. But something within “Sleepless” caught my ear, the conversational tone of the lyrics, how it moved from third person description to speech in the chorus, the insistent melodious nature of the music, the curious Irish burr of the singer. All combined to make a startling discovery for me, that there was something else out there beyond the charts and the fading fast Futurist chart on Radio Luxembourg.

At the time I couldn’t have been able to find “Sleepless” in any record shops, even though I may have tried. I can remember the blank faces behind the counter at HMV as I asked if they had any records by Microdisney. The band were still a year away from recording their debut album, which would include “Sleepless”. However that debut passed me by at the time, I wasn’t aware of its release until later. But I was aware of Microdisney’s continued existence as they recorded three sessions for Peel during 1984. I missed the first two sessions but the third session was taped, or most of it was taped, or half of it… let me explain… My Sanyo music centre had developed a few annoying quirks in the tape deck department. Firstly the keys wouldn’t lock down unless a weight was placed on them – such as a finger or an Ever Ready bicycle light. Secondly once the tape deck was warmed up, it tended to stop recording one channel of the stereo. This could happen quite randomly, sometimes mid song, and this is what happened on the Microdisney session.

So there were four songs on the session and I always managed to miss one song each time the session was broadcast, and that song was always “Goodbye it’s 1987”. But the other three songs – “464”, “Genius” and “Horse overboard” – ended up on tape, though the latter two were only on one side of the stereo. I also missed the intro to “464” as well. Peel would introduce the song, I’d start the tape rolling, the gentle piano introduction would sound, a roll of drums then all hell breaks loose, Cathal Coughlan screams, guitars wail and I would stop the tape thinking I had the wrong band. Then the song itself would start, a mid tempo melodic stroll, and I’d have to start recording again. “464” is a remarkable song – especially in the Peel version – and it was this song which convinced me of Microdisney’s greatness. Coughlan croons a beautiful melody during the verses with a distinctive chorus of “Bring back the street, I liked it so”. The middle eight returns to the noisy intro, after which the final verse has Coughlan chuckling to himself – “Oh dearie me, I’m in a state”. How could I not love a song clearly taking the piss out of itself so perfectly, and so melodically? The tape of the three songs were constant companions that Autumn, even if two of the songs only had half of the musical information on them. I kept an eye out for Microdisney.

A few months later they appeared on TV. 19th March 1985, 7pm, BBC2, “Whistle Test”. It was my mother’s birthday, and God knows why we weren’t out celebrating it, but I was sat in front of the Betamax ready to record the best bits. And hell Microdisney opened the show, and played a second song later on. Oh and James played “If things were perfect” and “Scarecrow” from the ICA. But no, Microdisney on TV. Coughlan in a defiant green suit jacket (I always presumed this was a hint at his Irish heritage), larger than life. The rest of the band were just there, the focus was on Coughlan. Opener “Loftholdingswood” took a swipe at English privilege, or so I heard it that way, while “Birthday girl” was a jaunty little number which hid some harsh thoughts. More songs to learn and sing throughout the year as I waited for the album. Yes they already had their debut album out, ‘Everybody is fantastic”, but I didn’t buy that until years later for some reason. Even if it had “Sleepless” on it, I didn’t feel it was vital to my little world. It would become part of the story of my life a few years later on. Finally towards the end of the year the second Microdisney album emerged, and it was one of my Christmas gifts that year (alongside “World Shut Your Mouth”, “Without Mercy” and “Songs to learn and sing”). Strangely the album doesn’t feel like a Christmas album like others I have mentioned receiving as gifts. I suppose that makes “The clock comes down the stairs” timeless. It doesn’t sound particularly dated or tied to its time, the band didn’t have access to a Fairlight and there’s no gated reverb on the drums. What the listener gets instead is a glimpse of mid 80s London from an outsider’s point of view.

“Horse overboard” is a perfect opener to the album, bright and breezy and hiding it’s secrets within the melodic bliss. There is a tale somewhere in the song which I’ve still not managed to work out, but the chorus line of “Can we sleep alone?” is irresistible. “Birthday girl” appears to be about the birth of the song’s narrator – a fiction I presume – but hides darker thoughts. The second verse is full of drunken ideas of misplaced passion and private jokes while the final verse is a glimpse of the narrator’s death, sad and alone. But the music is upbeat and tuneful, this could pass for something on the radio. “Past” is a look at how London is changing and the type of people it is attracting. Cocktail bars and dressed up cashed up Londoners – “They say ‘Who won the war? Who ruled the world? Who showed them all?’ Well who cares?” An escape from one version of the past (the real one everyone runs from) to another past (the one London wants you to believe). For some reason I’m reminded of some of the Martin Amis books of this time like “Money” and ‘London Fields”, though my memory of those books may be wrong, it’s been a long time… But it sounds like it could be today, not 1985 … “And all the papers say ‘Go back to work, you’re all alone….'” “Humane” is a good opening line looking for a song to back it up, and is too similar to “Past” to distinguish itself. Please remember that these are my own opinions and interpretations, I am probably wrong and you may feel differently. The album side closes with “Are you happy?” – A change of tempo, slower and minor key throughout. Is this a series of vignettes of a relationship in crisis, falling apart? Again I’m ready to be corrected. But hell there’s some fabulous lines here – “This joke will run and run, just like you”. Sean O’Hagan adds mournful slide guitar and it’s a beautiful sad moment.

Side two starts in the middle of a situation – “Genius” throws the listener straight in, again bright and breezy but there’s a character assassination in progress, someone is having their shallow wonderful life dissected and Coughlan enjoys every moment. There were people like it then, now they’re called hipsters. “Begging bowl” hurts like hell, a slow crawl through another relationship in crisis. Scary and true. I know that now. “A friend with a big mouth” has a country lilt, and merges dreams with reality, someone destroying your dreams, someone spoiling the grand design. And yes I knew a friend called Howard and still think of him when I hear the song. “Goodbye it’s 1987” is another song it took me years to work out. Again the music is deceptive but the lyrics paint a portrait of nouveau riche yuppies in love with themselves and money, there’s tell tale signs though – before the guitar solo Coughlan adds “Let’s tax the wages of sin”. Of course June 1987 was the projected election month as seen in the middle of Thatcher’s second term. Like I said I’m slightly slow. “And” is another assassination, Coughlan and June Miles Kington singing in harmony words that kill, but gently. “And some people have it bad, yes it’s true. But they wouldn’t if they did not know you”. Is that about Thatcher? Throughout the album, there’s hints and glimpses of a world in disorder, the world that Thatcher had brought in, selling off public utilities, the need for greed, the people left behind not being cared for. Halfway through the second term of a morally corrupt and uncaring Tory government. … Does this sound familiar? Is it like today?

‘The clock comes down the stairs” did well within its own limitations, being issued on Rough Trade so it reached the top of the Indie Album charts. They appeared on “The Tube” playing “Birthday Girl“, this time with Coughlan screaming “Just like JESUS!” just before the chorus. Well it was Christmas after all. In the new year they recorded another Peel session, three new songs and one old one. “Begging bowl” from the previous album gets a new spoken bridge from Coughlan, ending with him yelling “I’m never right, am I? Am I? Am I? Am I?” It’s a scary performance. “Bullwhip road” is another glimpse of a sordid existence, more self hate and more confusing changes of pronoun. Again another lyric which immediately found itself in my personal lexicon – “I hate the world. I hate my life and this song – now run along”. “People just want to dream” is another song of disgust at the Tory leader. The best song of the session was “Town to town”, which sounded immediately like a hit single, even if the lyrics inflict nuclear destruction on so many cities. But it’s a pop song and a bloody fantastic one and I played that tape over and over again. Microdisney signed to Virgin Records and recorded their third album produced by Lenny Kaye. This seemed a common trick of indie bands in 1987, getting a learned wizened older musician to produce you (John Cale for Happy Mondays, Kaye again for the Weather Prophets, Mayo Thompson for Felt and Primal Scream). Did it work? Not always.

“Crooked Mile” was issued in the Spring of 1987, a few weeks after “Town to town” was given a chance at the hit parade. If great things were expected of the single, it didn’t achieve them. Sure it was played on the radio and I saw the video once or twice on TV but it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it should have been. Maybe the strings used had sweetened the song too much? Maybe the energy and verve of the Peel session version had got lost along the way? Either way this was a portent of what was to come with the album. I’ve never been able to adequately identify my problem with “Crooked mile”, is it the songs or the production or the band or the insistence that O’Hagan gets a guitar solo on every song or… whatever it is, something is not quite right.

It’s not really the songs to be honest. Most of them are great, the lyrics throughout are spot on, continuing the themes developed on “The clock comes down the stairs” mostly. Maybe it’s the order of the songs, maybe it’s too many mid tempo strolls halfway through side one. “Our children” is an emotional ballad but derails the flow after “Angels” and the first side doesn’t recover until the end, which is a shame as “Mrs Simpson” is a sharp song and “Hey hey Sam” plays at war games which was fashionable at the time, we were still in the midst of the Cold War. Finally “Give me all of your clothes” is a change for the better, slightly funky and also humorous – Coughlan ripping into a certain type of person again, a hipster again. It’s rather good. Side two is better, helped by “Bullwhip Road” and “People just want to dream” (a perfect closer). “And he descended into hell” is another morality tale with a lot of wit, and I’ve always suspected that it’s the source of the name of Harvey Williams’ nom de plume at Sarah Records. “Rack” is marvellous, and I’ve always taken it to be about music journalists – again is “The Doctor” in verse two Stuart Cosgrove from the NME? Not sure. “Big sleeping house”… how much of these songs is real? A tale of a terrible doss house and also someone who got out of there. Finally “People just want to dream” closes the album in style. Beautiful music and lyrics to kill for. Sorry but I’m going to have to quote a chunk of the second verse.

The High Street, it used to be such a slum
(Petrol queues and bomb scares and liberal confusion)
Until we prised it away from the welfare scum
(Marching piggy-wiggy and bovine retribution)
Oh take it any way you want, everything is better
We used to play around before too long we found that
Money is everything
Don’t make the gentry mean
It’s for you they dream
In their private homes
Their hatred flows in streams

Some things never change.

Although “Town to town” had made a small dent in the charts, clearly Virgin still had faith in the band and they recorded another album in the autumn of 1987. Now well into the third term of Tory rule, the songs are less about the past and more about the awful present. In October Virgin issued a taster single “Singer’s Hampstead Home”, a very thinly veiled dig at Virgin recording artist Boy George. Of course the label didn’t promote it but I bought the cassingle (what a horrible word) on the day I saw them play at the Leadmill in Sheffield. Two of the three extra tracks were quite hopeless – Microdisney weren’t a b side band – but the last track “Half a day” was from a Peel session recorded at the end of 1986, a song they’d never record again and really quite wonderful in its own way. Or maybe it was my circumstances that made some lines leap out – “There’s someone I miss, like there always is, she’s not mentioned round here. …” Well yes.

Nothing really prepared me for the Microdisney live experience, and it was my first time at the Leadmill so I was taken aback by the venue and the band. Coughlan spent most of the time bent double like a man in agony, screaming random abuse between the songs, getting lost in the music. As I was stood by the mixing desk I spied the set list and noted lots of new songs, which would end up on their next album. “Back to the old town” was ferocious, “High and dry” was blackly funny, “Soul boy” was oddly moving. At the end they played a song called “I can’t say no” which started like “You’re the one that I want” from “Grease” and Coughlan spat out the words with contempt. A vicious show, a baptism of fire at the Leadmill.

Onwards into 1988 and a second single is issued to promote the forthcoming album, “Gale force wind” was recorded on the day of the Great Storm in Autumn 1987 and shows it, but the b sides on the cassingle were more interesting. “I can’t say no” was a straight band recording of the song only with “Betty Lou” singing, and in a parallel universe this could have been a novelty hit, all cheery keyboards and smiles. “Say no I can’t” is Coughlan reinterpreting the same song as the band play the song Greek style, but the opening is telling – “What song would our record company like us to sing?” Was there internal pressure for the song to be a single? Finally “Can’t I say no?” is the same song as played by Chas and Dave, all beery atmosphere and drunken vocals (who does sing this? It’s hilarious!). “Gale force wind” stumbled into the lower fifties of the charts and disappeared.

Before we reach the fourth album I have to mention the press advert for “39 Minutes”. It is a cutting from “Meddly Maker” written by “Simon Reinhardt” and the font and format is a perfect facsimile of an album review in Melody Maker. It just repeated “Microdisney Is Shit” (which was the album’s working title, the phrase crops up in “Can’t I say no?” too) over and amongst other abuse. I’m going to see if it’s online… No? Bollocks. It was fantastic, take my word for it.

“39 minutes” then. Rarely has a record hated itself and it’s surroundings so much. It is humorous in a blackly comic way, so you’re not even sure if you should be laughing. It holds a mirror to late 80s society and says “Look at yourself, you English b-boy Soho tea boys… what are you?” Every lyric is a gem, Coughlan is on top form throughout. And this time the music packs a punch. On the surface it would be perfect Radio Two fodder, and adding Londonbeat on backing vocals adds a nice touch. There’s less authenticity and more variety in the sounds too. And the credits are an absolute hoot – backing vocals by the Fabulous Golden Showers, plus Eugene Terrablanche on “Send Herman Home”, with a tap dancing jack boots instrumental section. This is subversion at its finest. If only somebody listened. There’s too many highlights to mention, it’s criminal that this record is ignored. In interviews Coughlan stated that all the previous albums were nostalgic but the new album was current and it shows. God, the contemptuous way Coughlan sings “Says his name is Tim” on “Ambulance for one”, spitting out that name. Of course it would never work, Microdisney were classed as entryists and schemers by Simon Reynolds and they could never realistically be a hit single machine. The album swipes at racism, movie stars and directors, fashion, yuppies…. “There’s nothing wrong with the young would-be rich that a head full of lead would not cure” sung so sweetly. Again, this is still relevant stuff. And finally “Bluerings” is another great album closer, another song aimed at those in power – “The road to honest happiness ploughs straight through yellow scum like you”. Perfect.

Of course it didn’t work, sales were negligible and Microdisney fell apart. Were they dropped by Virgin before they split? There are some tremendous Youtube videos of them playing live around the time where they are just at the end of their tether, Coughlan looks like he could explode at any moment. Three songs broadcast on the BBC for Amnesty International at the ICA could be their final farewell, tension palpable in every gesture.

Did anyone care or miss them? Well obviously both O’Hagan and Coughlan went on to other things – The High Llamas and Fatima Mansions respectively and both have produced their own share of genius along the way – “Gideon Gaye”, “Hawaii”, “Viva Dead Ponies” and “Bertie’s Brochures” should be part of anyone’s record collection. But those Microdisney records are special too, and as I keep saying over and over just as true today as they were thirty years ago.

Isn’t that really rather sad?