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 alt.country. 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?

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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.

ANYWAY!

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…..

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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.

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Happy Birthday Dear Goldfish

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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

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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?

Houses In Motion

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What a difference a year makes.

This time last year I was living in a cold draughty three bedroom house with awful parking, far too close to school and far too close to the city centre to make it a regular thoroughfare for drunks returning home from a skinful of booze around midnight every night. And now I’m not. That sounds dreadfully boastful actually and I don’t mean it like that. I’m just not there any more. But this time last year I wasn’t even thinking of moving house, it just happened very suddenly and the stars aligned and everything fell into place. It’s been that sort of year really. I certainly didn’t expect to be living in a different house this time last year. I didn’t expect to have made more than a dozen podcasts or to have my name mentioned regularly on the radio. Maybe I do have a reputation after all. Maybe people do like me after all.

This isn’t going anywhere really. It’s been an odd year. I haven’t achieved anything – still haven’t found a job even after a few useless interviews (“What kind of biscuit are you?” Seriously?) There’s been highlights and lowlights, joys and tears. And along the way I listened to some music and wrote about it. To be honest, this time last year I couldn’t see this blog continuing much further. I nearly stopped it completely in April, due to the house move and other commitments. I didn’t think I had that much to write about. Heavens I even ended up listening to The Grateful Dead for a while – how desperate was I?

Then I started to make a podcast or two. I found it was (a) quite easy and (b) a lot of fun. And best of all, people seemed to like them. Either that or you’re all being really nice to me. And the podcasts have raised my profile, not that that was the point. The point was to introduce some cool music to people. It seems to have worked.

A year ago I wrote that I hadn’t really listened to much new music that year, but still listed a lot of music I had enjoyed that year. This year I feel exactly the same. I should point out that I have heard some wonderful new music this year but I’m not saying comprehensively “These are my albums of the year” because I’ve not heard everything issued this year, so don’t even think of adding these End Of Year lists.

So what albums have I enjoyed this year? “Escapists” by The Autumn Stones has fulfilled the promise their singles from last year hinted at – an album of light and shade, both musically and lyrically, which rewards repeated listening. Imagine shoegazing crossed with early Psychedelic Furs, with emphasis on peculiar words, sax solos and catchy melodies. Definitely an album worth a listen. Ryley Walker’s “Primrose Green” album sounds like Tim Buckley and Van Morrison in some 1968 idyll, sun dappled jazz inflected acoustic dreamscapes. Beautiful stuff. “854” by Eyelids is like a more psychedelic Teenage Fanclub, crunchy guitars and harmonies but with peculiar angles. “The broken heed” by The Broken Heed (pseudonym for John Hartley) takes the simplicity of Harvey Williams’ solo albums and adds heartbreaking, deeply affecting and heartfelt words, and some of those heart stopping chord changes that I adore so much – well worth investigating and raising money for a good cause too. “Fragments of a former moon” by Lightning In A Twilight Hour is of course Bob Wratten’s latest project and is as beautiful as his previous works in The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars and Northern Picture Library. In the odd electronica corner I’ve enjoyed albums by Kode9 and Floating Points. Then there’s “The Race For Space” by Public Service Broadcasting. Now I wasn’t impressed by their previous album which I felt couldn’t decide if it wanted to be pop or hauntology, but this year’s album – themed around audio clips from space travel – gripped me from start to finish. If you don’t hold your breath during “The other side”… well, maybe you’re not human. And “Go!” – perfect thrilling pop music. Oh and amazingly Yeah Yeah Noh made a new album, their first in 30 years, and updated their typically English psychedelia with synths and more marvellous turns of phrase.

As always it’s not just about new music, there’s still a myriad of old music to discover. So here’s a list of some songs I have enjoyed this year.

Indelible – Huge Shark
Umbrella wars – Spent
Are you ready to be heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole and The Commotions
The other side – Public Service Broadcasting
Jealous – Nick Jonas (pop single of the year, folks)
The seventh plane – Mystic Moods Orchestra
Scandinavian wastes – The Invisible Girls
Funny little things – The Broken Heed
Mountains of the moon – The Grateful Dead
Plan A (Selling off the silver) – The Drain On The Balcony
Forget about tomorrow – Eyelids
Harvest time – The Clientele
Beauty #2 – Butterfly Child
Satellite (Far out) – Dot Dash
You make no bones – Alfie
Please tell mother (Peel session) – The Telescopes
Wadmalaw island – Power Tools
Please don’t say remember – The Apartments

There’s probably more that I’ve loved this year but can’t remember. I may well add to the list.

I’d like to recommend a few books which I have enjoyed this year. “The year of reading dangerously” by Andy Miller tells of how the author regained his love for reading and is touching, very funny and very accurate. He loves his music too, does Mr Miller, and that shines through the writing – well worth a read. “Popkiss – the life and afterlife of Sarah Records” by Michael White is a meticulously researched and highly readable book on the legendary Bristol indie label, lots of background information on the bands and music plus the early chapters give an excellent history of the development of indie pop. But only one paragraph on the Sweetest Ache??? Lastly “Higher than the sun” by Tim Worthington is a wonderful book about how Creation Records came to issue four brilliant lps within a few months of each other during the Autumn of 1991. Again lots of great background on the mid 80s indie scene there and fascinating insights into the worlds of Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine and the Creation scene in general. You’d love it, I know you would.

So what does the future hold? More podcasts for a start, and more writing. There will be posts on Microdisney, Saint Etienne, Ride, Scott Walker, Virginia Astley, Eyeless In Gaza and more. But don’t hold your breath, these things take time. There will be more Toppermost articles too – thanks for your patience Merric – and other pieces here and there. I’ve recently written a few pieces for the Everything Indie Over 40 site which is always full of interesting articles (not just mine) on obscure indie bands. Have a look here.

As ever, huge thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way, shared my posts and podcasts, offered advice or asked me to write for them. I would write a list but I fear I may forget someone important… ok here goes… Esther, Wally, Ray, Steve, Adam, Nicola, Dawn, Marcello, Lena, Pete, Josh, Lee, John, David, Merric, Rick, Justin, Tim, Darren, Andy, Fiona, my family, Tara, Donna… I’ve forgotten people I’m sure… sorry… I tried….

Anyway, it’s New Years Eve, there’s probably a ton of things you need to be doing, I know there’s a ton of things I should be doing right now, so I’ll let you get on. Happy New Year and don’t feed the goldfish any cheese slices.

Find Out What This Feeling’s About

r-124187-1349004315-5948.jpeg.jpgI am always happy to admit when I am wrong. For many years I was totally wrong about Tears For Fears, but I blame my mistake on … other influences. Back in late 1982 and early 1983, when they had their first flush of success with the singles “Mad World”, “Change” and “Pale Shelter” I thought they were crap but this was mainly because of the people who liked them. There was a bunch of girls in my class in school who swooned over the two main members Curt Smith and Roland Orzabel, the music was entirely secondary to whether Curt and Roland looked dreamy in their videos. Hell, I wouldn’t ever be that shallow, would I?  I often look back on my teenage years and think I must have been an insufferable snob, looking down my nose at anyone not listening to whatever I was enjoying. I’m amazed any of my friends spoke to me. Or my family for that matter. But back in early 1983, my thirteen year old self sneered at the girls adding the initials TFF to my pencil case.

I’m not sure why my pencil case was the subject of so much inter – band rivalry. I can still see it now in my mind’s eye – a plastic pencil case, rectangular and decorated with a Castrol GTX logo. Only there was so much writing on it that it was hard to discern the original design. All the boys would scribble The Jam, The Style Council, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen. .. the cool bands of the time. The girls would write Duran Duran, Wham!, Spandau Ballet… And the girls would scribble insults about the boys and their music, and the boys would scribble insults about the girls and their music.  It was like an Internet forum in microcosm, but on a small piece of plastic being hurled around the classrooms of Stanwell school. Tears For Fears were just another “band for girls”, weren’t they? Never mind that I secretly thought some of the second verse of “Mad World” was downright marvellous – all that stuff about going to school and being nervous, that struck a chord with this young lad who had been to three new schools within the space of 4 years.

But no I kept that to myself and sneered. When Tears For Fears issued their debut album “The Hurting” in the Spring of 1983 I wasn’t interested, preferring to devout my time to Freur and OMD (see many previous posts). It was even played to me by my next door neighbour when I popped over to play “Chuckie Egg” on his Acorn Electron but still I ignored it. The stigma of “the girls like it” was too much for me. By the end of 1983 their fourth hit single “The way you are” was stumbling around the middle of the charts and I mention it in my diary as “The worst song of the year, a complete mess”. It may not be the former but it is the latter.

Summer 1984 was the summer of “Frankie Says”, “Two Tribes” and “Relax” monopolising the top of the charts, George Michael never wanting to dance again, hi energy disco and whatever else was in the charts. In August Tears For Fears issued their new single “Mothers talk” and I still wasn’t impressed. Sure it had big drums but what didn’t?  Everyone had big drums that summer. It still sounded like a mess to me, not sure where to put the guitars into the mix, lots of Fairlight presets. That summer was spent hanging out at the Yacht Club (did I ever mention Penarth was posh?) and their disco would bang out the same tunes over and over. The girls all loved “Mothers Talk” and danced to it at the Yacht Club while trying to be sophisticated. I hid at a table and hated life. (One of the reasons “How soon is now?” struck a chord with me was the verse about going to a club, you know the one….) Still not impressed by Tears For Fears

Then they issued “Shout” at the end of November and I changed my mind. There was a passion within “Shout” which really spoke to me. I didn’t quite understand what the song meant but there was a conviction in the performance and the words which was unmistakable. And it kept on building, starting simple and slowly adding layers, first some Fairlight vocal sounds, then guitar and real drums, organ and more voices. Over six minutes long, this was quite an epic. And in my head that line “I’d really like to break your heart” sounded like how I felt that Christmas. So much so that I bought it a few days after Xmas 1984 (alongside a Casino VL-tone, “Life’s a scream” by A Certain Ratio and “Devil and darkness” by Freur). But stupidly I bought the seven inch which had a habit of jumping quite badly – too much musical information crammed into the grooves. The single sleeve was intriguing though – it had a sleeve note written by producer Chris Hughes noting the somewhat tortured creation of “Shout”. And the video was great too – the passion obvious in the performance, and the communal element when all their friends and family join in with the band  (echoing the promo film for “Hey Jude”, although that may not have been deliberate).

But I still didn’t tell the likes of Elaine, Beverly or Lesley that I’d bought a Tears For Fears record. Hell no. I was too young and proud to admit my mistake to them.

By the summer of 1985 their second album was unavoidable. “Everybody wants to rule the world” had dominated the start of the year. Now “Head over heels” and “I believe” were everywhere too. So I took the plunge on the album around September. Only being a cheapskate I bought it on tape from a market stall in Bessemer Road Sunday market. It’s odd thinking about that market now because I very much doubt it is there now. Oh the fruit market is still there but it’s a very different Cardiff back then.

I’ve written previously about areas of Cardiff which have changed, mostly for the better, and it seems Bessemer Road has changed. Now it is a link road heading towards the development around Leckwith, where the new Cardiff City stadium was built after Ninian Park was flattened to make way for houses. In 1985 Bessemer Road was a home of a B and Q DIY store, a number of cash and carry stores and the fruit market. And on Sunday everyone went to the market there, and B and Q, because that was all that was open. I loved the market, the row of burger and hot dog vans outside wafting the smell of fried onions through the air, the stone steps down in the market which were treacherous in wet weather, and all the market stalls… People selling meat out of the back of a van, the patter of “I can’t do it for a tenner, I’d be ROBBING you missus… how about a fiver?” in the rich Cardiff accent. Loads of stalls selling slightly dodgy looking label clothes. A stall or two with electrical goods like radio cassette players in brand names you’d never heard of (I bought some tapes from there which my early home recordings are on – Prinz Professional Low Noise – ever heard of them? Me neither). There were a few music stalls, one full of rows and rows of 7 inch singles which were totally random, you had to wade through hundreds of dross before you’d find a gem… you’d call it crate digging now… And another with tapes on the walls which is where I bought “Songs from the big chair” from, alongside “Meat is murder”. It was about a year or so later I released these were knock off tapes, not the real thing – paper labels on the tapes instead of printed details like my Beatles tapes. But I bought “SFTBC” on tape that day because it was the “limited edition” tape with the album on one side and a load of b sides on the reverse.

But again I still didn’t tell Beverley or Elaine or anyone else that I actually quite liked Tears For Fears.  I couldn’t come back from my public declaration of hate.  Was I too proud? Was I just an opinionated pillock? Who knows. I just kept listening to the album and absorbing the songs. But definitely no mention of the album in my diary or my end of year poll. It was my guilty secret that I dare not tell.

Around the autumn of 1986, something happened to change my mind. I’m not sure why but Andy Kershaw played a Tears For Fears Peel session from 1982 on his radio show.  I doubt it was Peel himself who played it in 1986, even though he had been looking back on old sessions that summer with the Soar away  Summer Seventies Spectacular or whatever he called it, where he played a load of old sessions from the 70s instead of having new sessions. I often wondered why he did that – was it preparation for the release of the Peel Sessions EPs on Strange Fruit which began to be issued during the Autumn of 86? Was there some behind the scenes problem with recording sessions – an upgrade to the studio perhaps? Maybe I should read a book, there are plenty there now. Anyway  Kershaw or whoever played this TFF session from 1982 and I was amazed. There were four songs – “Ideas as opiates”, “Suffer the children”, “The hurting” and “The prisoner” – and I loved every song. Maybe early TFF weren’t all surface and lack of substance after all.  These songs spoke to me, about feelings of isolation, lack of control, sense of self and a misunderstood childhood. At least that’s how it seemed in the Autumn of 1986. I immediately bought a cheap tape of “The hurting” and played it over and over, the songs made sense to me and I loved them all intensely. Even the songs I had heard as singles before fitted better into the album, made sense in the context of the album. I started to read a little more about the band, discovered the ideas behind their music were inspired by Arthur Janov and his Primal Scream theories of psychotherapy, none of which was new to me as I had read “Lennon Remembers” when I was younger. Suddenly everything slotted into place.

And I was finally ready to declare my love for Tears For Fears. One night after a typically boring session at the Railway pub, a bunch of my friends and I ended up at Beverley’s house for a game of Trivial Pursuit or something similar, and Beverley and I were perusing her record collection to find something to play (it was definitely Autumn because she had the twelve inch of “World Shut Your Mouth” and I insisted that she played the whole EP because the b sides were so good). I noticed a load of her Tears For Fears records there and said to her I was sorry for giving her such a huge amount of stick about liking them, that I had decided that I liked them now and would she mind playing “The hurting”? Only it wasn’t quite that casual, I was very apologetic as only a slightly drunk teenager can be (and incidentally if you are wondering no I didn’t fancy her but it is a fair question to ask). Beverley smiled and said “You know what Rob, we’ve all moved on from Tears For Fears now, but it’s nice to know you’ve finally caught up with us”.

So maybe the girls were right after all. Maybe the girls were the hipsters, and us boys were the fools, they set the trends and we just followed along hoping to impress them.

So how does “Songs from the big chair” hold up thirty years later? Well it holds its own very well.  The reason I had to include something about “The hurting” is because the two albums work together well, in much the same way “Imagine” seemed to soften the message of “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band”, then “Songs from the big chair” is a sweetened version of “The hurting” but contains the same messages.  I also think I was more accepting of “The hurting” in the Autumn of ’86 because I had spent the Summer absorbed in “Compass Kumpass” by Dalek I, an album produced by Chris Hughes who TFF specifically asked to produce them because of that Dalek I album. Also listening to both TFF albums I spot direct or indirect references to OMD, this may not have been deliberate but it certainly made me feel at home. “The hurting” is quite an internalised album, facing the past and trying to work it out with some kind of knowledge – at least that is my impression (for another impression, please read Lena Friesen’s excellent review at Then Play Long here). There is a lot of Pain (every occurrence of the word pain was capitalised in the lyric insert) involved, a lot of thinking, not a lot of engaging with the world. But there is a striving for solutions too – “Belief is our relief” from “Ideas as opiates” for a start. “The prisoner” is as claustrophobic as the title predicts, the blasts of Mellotron voices hark back to “Architecture and morality”, or maybe some prog rock hellfire sermon. And yet for me, the album closer “Start of the breakdown” was my favourite song. I could imagine a video for it too, a stark white room focussing on a piano at the start, the camera expanding and drawing back to reveal more instruments as layers are introduced… But that was in my mind’s eye. “The hurting” then was good, and gained an audience who wanted more, even if they were teenage girls.  And as was proven, teenage girls are often right and teenage boys are usually idiots.

Listening now, I feel like I missed a lot of the subtleties within this music. Or maybe I’m more aware of the world. Would it surprise you if I said I was slightly insular as a teenager? You hadn’t guessed already. But maybe I listen closer now. “Shout” still packs a punch, building slowly but powerfully – each layer adding to the tension which never seems to break. It’s a protest song though and there was a lot to protest about during the period the album was made, from the miners strike to impending nuclear Armageddon which felt like it was only minutes away. But once the real drums kick in around the three minutes mark and the power chords drive through the song – and a pointed guitar solo – it becomes communal, this is a band looking outwards at the world rather than inwards at themselves. This song was a call to arms, if slightly indefinable, but at least it was a start, a step forward. This was as much the sound of Christmas 1984 as Band Aid and “The power of love” and “Last Christmas”. The opening of “The working hour” is almost the definition of mid 80s, the sax solos (by Mel Collins and future Goldfrapp member Will Gregory) are mellifluous and the waves of tinkling Yamaha DX7 electric piano would soon become a cliché but in early ’85 there was still some novelty in the combination. And my, doesn’t it SOUND good? The CD of “Songs from the big chair’ nestled up nicely beside “Brothers in arms” on yuppie coffee tables around the world – “Listen to this! No clicks and pops!” But once the song starts it falls over itself, the Linn drum programming crashes down, the chord progression isn’t quite as normal as expected and it sounds on edge. Again, could this be political? “This day and age, for all and not for one, all lies and secrets….” Is work the answer, at a time when unemployment was so high and times so hard? “Fear is such a vicious thing, it wraps me up in chains” – back to the thoughts and feelings of the debit album, but more approachable, more adult, and a desire to work it out – “Find out what this feeling’s about”. To seek an understanding, a solution. The song closes with more sax solos and we’re back to the start. “Everybody wants to rule the world” I always had a problem with. It is light relief after the previous two songs but still has moments of darkness – the middle eight’s desire to retreat to “a room where the world can’t find you”. But I’ve never liked the jogging rhythm, the general breeziness. The “this could break us in America” attitude. It probably wasn’t written with that in mind but… Maybe someone can help me with that one. I suppose I still remember Dave Blake – the guitarist in my brother’s band – saying “Tears For Fears shouldn’t be allowed to have guitars, that song isn’t fit to stand next to ‘Going Underground’” He was a Jam fan who wouldn’t follow the Style Council, Weller had sold out his credibility… But I digress. “Mothers talk” fits better at the end of an album side than as a single. Again I could be reading too much into it but I always thought this was about nuclear war – the reference to “When the wind blows”, the Raymond Briggs graphic novel perhaps? What do mothers not talk about? Death? Just the threat of Armageddon hanging over us all. So the big drums sound like bombs dropping. Still an oversequenced mess at times but I do like the dubbed out coda though.

By the time I was hearing this album in the autumn of ’85 I had an idea of who Robert Wyatt was, if not quite the range of his extraordinary achievements. I knew “Shipbuilding” from a few years before, and the songs from his “Extended Play” EP which Peel had played the previous year. “I believe” was a tribute to Wyatt  – the brushed drums and piano accompaniment was ample evidence – but has it’s own agenda too. For a start the opening line “I believe that when the hurting and the pain has gone we will be strong” references back to their debut album (and the non capitalisation of pain in the lyric sheet is notable). But the rest of the lyric is peculiar, a set of beliefs that aren’t really believed in (I’m thinking of “God” on “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” for some reason), from astrology and fate onwards. The lines “I believe if you’re bristling when you hear this song I could be wrong or have I hit a nerve?” are quite self referential but not quite as directly as Matching Mole’s “Signed curtain” or “O Caroline” (endless thanks to David Shaw for knowing the technical term for this – cheers!). So a song about faith which isn’t about faith really – it’s “Faithless” even. After all those contradictions, “Broken” kicks in, that Linn Drum crashing and purposeful guitar, before a beautiful descending melody plays over disquieting chords… then some words which point back to the debut again – “Between the searching and the need to work it out….” and references to children again… the descending melody returns and moves into “Head over heels”. Again a casual reading would have this as a love song and there are elements of that but there’s still a lot of dealing with the past here. But the music and melodies and arrangements are so perfect that the majority of listeners probably didn’t notice anything. There’s even a singalong chorus, and a lyrical link back to “Broken”, which flows into a live version of “Broken” from late ’83 (well recorded, I must say, was there some studio sweetening?) and as the crowd go nuts, the final song quietly slides into view.

“Listen” is a real gem. There’s a lot of OMD in this song, hints of “Sealand”, “Stanlow” and the title track to “Architecture and morality”, the movements from quiet to loud, the industrial clang, the occasional discord (there’s an electric piano chord which harks back to “Ideas as opiates”). There aren’t many words for Curt Smith to sing but they again hint at more than they say – “Mother Russia” and “Pilgrim fathers” looking to both sides of the Cold War. But the music is beautiful, slow and deliberate, building in intensity. Probably sequenced to all hell, but gorgeous too, textured and delicate in places, euphoric and rich in others. In the right mood this song can make me sob my heart out.

Flipping the metaphorical tape for the seven songs of b-sides is instructive. Sure there’s not many songs to get the postman whistling but plenty of good ideas. Tracks like “The marauders”, “Empire building” and “The big chair” show the band getting to grips with the new technology at their disposal, the grimy 8 bit world of Fairlights and Emulators. In a way these pieces are comparable with the work other bands were making in this area, the same muddy drum loops and sound tricks as Art Of Noise, Depeche Mode and OMD – compare these songs to “(The angels keep turning) The wheels of the universe” for a start. The b-sides also include “We are broken”, the first recorded version of the song which was the b-side of “Pale shelter” back in the Spring of ’83, it’s more primitive than the album version but just as urgent. There is also a personal favourite song of mine on the b-sides tape – “The conflict”, which builds slowly but has no moment of impact, just unresolved tension.

Somehow Tears For Fears managed an almost impossible feat with “Songs from the big chair”, the songs were both personal and political, yet were immensely popular. The album spawned five hit singles in the UK and was very popular for a long time. It also broke the band in America, where both “Everybody wants to rule the world” and “Shout” reached number one. They were everywhere in 1985, inescapable. Except for Live Aid. Maybe it was missing out on that day which didn’t push them into the upper echelons. But they worked hard and toured hard, and it almost killed the band – the reliance on the sequencers and primitive computer power of the Fairlight made each show a chore and this was something they wanted to move away from for their next album and I’ll come to that at another time.
What is peculiar is how popular Tears For Fears were without being influential. There were no followers, no other duos using similar ideas. There were other electronic duos, sure… OMD by ’85 had expanded to a six piece with a brass section and swung between godlike and powerful (“Crush”, “88 seconds in Greensboro”) to trite (“So in love”, “Secret”) within the same album. Vince Clarke was getting Erasure off the ground,  Pet Shop Boys were starting to make a name for themselves  (I remember seeing them on “Pop around” – “Run around” with music – in the summer of ’85 promoting “Opportunities” on its original issue and thinking they’d go a long way). But there wasn’t the combination of populism and psychotherapy which characterised Tears For Fears.

(Edit – Thanks to Marcello Carlin for reminding me that the existential moody teenagers listening to TFF in their bedrooms went on to form bands like Radiohead and Mansun who both did show their influence, sometimes very directly – “Wide open spaces” for a start. So their influence was on the next generation. Thanks MC)

But there was an odd after-effect in an unexpected place – “Strangeways here we come” and “Viva hate”. Both were recorded at the Wool Hall studio in Box, Somerset which TFF had used for their first two albums, and the characteristic Linn Drum thump of TFF can be heard on “Last night Maudlin Street” and “Break up the family”. As for “Strangeways”, play “I believe” and follow it with “Last night I dreamt  somebody loved me”. That piano introduction, the sound effects… ok maybe it’s just me who hears that. Maybe Morrissey was a fan? Maybe as someone else obsessed by his childhood he understood the ideas of Tears For Fears better than most? Or maybe I’m reading too much into music again?

Next time – Are you happy now, laughing at the world?

Dancing in the ruins of the western world

wpid-r-4275225-1360491508-1635.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-506142-1313790310.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-150403-1245012047.jpeg.jpg“Someone likes you and he’s in your class”

That was all that Rhiannon had to say to D for her to guess it was me. Maybe I wasn’t as subtle as I had hoped to be over the previous few month. But this was my 14th birthday and my little secret was now common knowledge throughout the third years.

Damn.

Still, I had a load of birthday money and handed over a wad of it to my father saying “Get the first three OMD albums for me”. I had been absorbing “Dazzle Ships” since the end of April that year (1983) and was ready to investigate further. I had seen their other albums in HMV but had no idea what they would sound like. So I handed over £15 and hoped for the best. He popped to Hippo Records, opposite Spillers on the Hayes in Cardiff, a shop which specialised in cheap records from faraway places. My brother’s copy of “Beggars Banquet” was bought from there and was on Pax Records from Israel. So the night after my birthday I settled down with three new albums to absorb.  These were the third, fourth and fifth actual albums in my collection after “Dazzle Ships” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, and I kept my albums in the order I bought them in until … 1991 actually. I’m odd like that.

“Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” was their debut album, issued in February 1980. It was mainly songs from their live set which they had been playing since late 1978, some songs going back further than that to previous Liverpool (Wirral) bands like The Id. My copy of the album in the standard sleeve – no cut out grid on the sleeve, just white background, black grid orange squares and a black border with lots of information on it. The labels were the typical Virgin green on side one red on side two, not that I knew that at the time. And as the album started, a problem was solved.

You see, I knew NOTHING. I’d managed to catch a repeat of OMD’s  Peel Session from earlier in the year and they had played “Bunker soldiers” and I had no idea where this song was from. There wasn’t anywhere I could look for information at the time, and here it was opening the debut album. Phew, I hadn’t missed anything.  But what the hell was the song about? Even now I listen and I struggle with the words, Andy McCluskey sounds very young here, his yelp accenting the words. I’ve looked them up now but I still prefer the words I think he is singing. It’s about war and having little control over your circumstances. I think. I’m probably wrong. But the song itself is different. Even in the distance from 1980 to 1983 it sounded like a different universe. Sharp snaps of synthetic drums, bursts of melody, but sparse as hell, primitive too. But GOOD primitive and sparse. The chorus is McCluskey and Humphreys chanting letters and numbers while the music takes a turn towards the odd, the untrained nature of their music creating intriguing harmonies.

Next came “Almost”, a plaintive melody to start, echoing into the distance before other instruments come in – bass and organ and hissing synthetic percussion. Slower too, more of a ballad. McCluskey sounds calmer slightly, but disturbed – he is missing someone, wants to travel but is unsure of everything. The melody rises and falls across the song, acting as a commentary on McCluskey’s indecision. He repeats the line “Happens all the time to a friend of mine” over and over, nothing has been resolved. And there’s something stuck in the bloody groove of the fade out POP POP POP POP and it was there on the first play and is ingrained in my mind every time I hear the song,
“Mystereality” follows. More upbeat but more confusion. The drum machine hisses insistently, McCluskey is again on the edge of incomprehensible, and there’s a new sound – Martin Cooper’s sax, adding a humanity amongst the electronics. Again there’s another POP of vinyl muck in the last minute of the song. “Electricity” is an immediate favourite, even on the first hearing it sounds like an instant classic, short word bursts, melody melded to insistent rhythm, a perfect song. Of course later I would discover it was the third recording of the song, it had been issued on Factory Records in 1979 but that information was still far away from me. The side closer “The Messerschmidt Twins” was something else though. It drifts in quietly, echoing synth lines bathed in reverb, before the rhythm starts. There’s space in the music now, a halting haunted atmosphere. Even when the main synths join in, arpeggios of chords there is still too little going on. And McCluskey can’t quite accept or believe or understand what is happening.  Has there been an argument? Nothing is clear, but the passion is intense. A beautiful song I still don’t truly understand.

Side two starts with “Messages”. Now this I knew, it was their first hit single in the summer of 1980. But I didn’t remember it sounding like this. The album version is minimal again, that insistent octave jumping synth (a few years later I found a Korg Micro Preset in a music shop and worked out how they did it, a feat of manual dexterity) and organ and not much else. Oh a marvellous sense of melody, a yearning lyric and a curious bass line. And somewhere in the background, an electric guitar played not as a rhythmic element, just a source of additional sound. Yet this version sounded familar and it was a while before I worked out why – because it sounded like the theme tune to “Brookside”, which I believe was played by some members of OMD (an urban myth apparently ). I may be wrong about that. After the climax of that song, “Julia’s  Song” kicks in with an ancient beat box rhythm before turning into a more conventional song. A real live drummer, a propulsive bass line, more guitar hiding in the background. But the words are again hindered by McCluskey’s yelp, but there may be a reason for this (the words were written by Julia Kneale, a member of The Id and McCluskey’s partner at the time the song was written so it may well be that some of the words are about McCluskey himself). But the song falls over itself constantly, like a drunk climbing some stairs. As it fades it highlight the oddball guitar and dubby organ washes. “Red frame white light” is a perky ditty about the telephone box they used as an office for a while, but all short word bursts again, strange descriptions – “You have a yellow book with adverts… 632-3003…” I know that number better than my own phone number. But again the middle eight swerves off into a different key before resolving back to the home key. Very Kraftwerk, not that I know this at that point. “Dancing” is odd, fading in on a collage of found radio sounds before a drum machine starts playing followed by a bass guitar and synth seemingly playing at right angles to each other. A semi instrumental, with occasional spoken word interjections from McCluskey distorted by effects. There’s tons of space here, gaps in the sound you could drive a car through, lots of reverb too. The album closes with “Pretending to see the future”, sparse verses and low voices before a rich chorus – fear about becoming a pawn in the record industry (the giveaway comes towards the end, in a multiple pile up of voices, McCluskey is very clear with “See you the same time the same place next year with the same kind of product and a similar sound”). The last three album tracks have a strange atmosphere, a hint of darkness, spacious yet odd. I liked the album a lot on first impressions, it was minimal but melodic and thoughtful.

I eagerly moved on to “Organisation”, their second album released nine months after their debut. My copy of this album had the standard grey sleeve, unlike other copies with a black sleeve. A foreboding photo of dark clouds over a mountain and lakes. On the back, Humphreys and McCluskey look pensive in black and white. Only one song on the sleeve that I recognise. The labels are two tones of grey with the DinDisc logo and credits.

“Enola Gay”, well I knew this song from late 1980, from Top Of The Pops and Nationwide. Already a leap forward is noticeable – in the quality of songwriting, the layering of synths, even McCluskey’s singing is more confident and less yelping. There are a few reasons for this – “Organisation” was produced by Mike Howlett  (former bass player in Gong and at that time partner of DinDisc label boss Carol Wilson) who added a new level of polish to the music. Also Malcolm Holmes – who drummed on “Julia’s Song” on the debut – has been integrated into the band to give it some physical muscle and heart. And there’s another reason which I wouldn’t learn for a year or so…. “Enola Gay” though is electronic pop at its catchiest – almost every element is a hook, from the drum machine to each layer of synthetic sound. Sure, at this point I don’t understand the lyric at all but that doesn’t stop the enjoyment. “2nd Thought” begins with atonal chimes, synth drops and bass pulses before starting properly, a strange choral synth tone as lead, propulsive bass and rhythm and while the chordal organ beds from the debut album remain, there’s more around them, a new level of intricately woven melodic elements and hooks. McCluskey sounds calmer but the words don’t sound that way – “though the order in our lives left sometime ago, we are the ones who never cried – or so we’re told”. What, told not to cry? So you DO cry? But why? “VCL XI” offers no solutions, a melange of noises, synthetic and otherwise (is that a prepared piano clanging away?), McCluskey’s words are smeared and close to the ear and almost impenetrable – and it turns out to be deliberate. I’ve tried to decipher this song for 32 years and I find a website now saying McCluskey mumbled into the mic some vocal sounds which sounded good. Only there’s one word which is loud and clear in the first verse – “Suicide”. Hmm. “VCL XI” bangs and clatters along, quite experimental for a pop album. “Motion and heart” breezes along on a swing drum machine pattern and is rather nice but just as with songs on the debut the instrumental chorus swerves off into a different key. And there’s hurt too – “I couldn’t believe this would happen again, the things you said – and I called you my friend”. But on the surface a pop song. The side ends with “Statues”. This may need a paragraph on its own….

A drum machine patterns in, bathed in reverb, mid tempo, deliberate… do you know what? I can’t do this song justice. It’s odd, as soon as I heard “Statues” that evening it stopped me dead, just as it is now. This is powerful music, so calm yet so pained too. The synths swell and soar, McCluskey sings his heart out, and no honestly I’m not crying it’s just something in my eye. That high synth note that sustains in movingly throughout the whole song. This song is beautiful. This song is wonderful. This song is one of my three favourite songs of all time. This song means more to me as time passes and friends and family move away or pass on. This song has never been surpassed. This song sends chills down my spine. This song can stop time. This song has the most gorgeous fade out. This song should be played at my funeral. This song is SPECIAL.

Side two starts with “The misunderstanding”, the tension is almost unbearable, wavering synths wail in the distance, Holmes beats a martial tattoo across the song, McCluskey and Humphreys are almost shouting in unison – “Misunderstood but our intentions are good”. Towards the end they almost scream “Please please please please please please it can’t be over….” (or is it “It’s clouding over”, back to the storm clouds approaching). “The more I see you” is light relief after that, layers of cascading melodies and McCluskey’s crooning. Curiously this was one of the songs which made the deepest impression on me at the time and even though I know OMD aren’t keen on it (Carol Wilson wanted a cover version, they had a backing track with no words so McCluskey sang an old Sixties hit) I rather like it.  “Promise” is Humphreys’ first solo lead vocal, his voice more tentative than McCluskey’s but a pleasant change of mood. The song itself was another instant favourite of mine and at this distance I’m not sure why. Yes I love the song but it’s not that good. Still the album has one last genius move – the closer “Stanlow”. Again, I knew nothing at this point, I didn’t realise it was an oil refinery and that years later it would become famous for being the scene of fuel protests at the start of the 21st Century. But the song is a gorgeous tone poem, creating a sound picture with the clatter and clang of a real pump at Stanlow, the hissing white noise and echoing machinery – this is a huge step onwards from the debut album only nine months before. The synths create a swathe of orchestral grandeur, the machines pulse, and McCluskey sings of love for home – Stanlow was always lit up in the night on the outskirts of Runcorn when the band returned home from gigs, it was a sign of comfort. The song moves through stages, the main song throbbing with layers of melody and McCluskey’s voice is richer, darker, subtler than before. The song returns to the machine pulse to close and the last clang reverabates as the music stops. A powerful end to a great album.

And there was still one àlbum left to listen to – the 1981 LP “Architecture and morality”. A yellow sleeve with a cut out to show a picture within on the inner sleeve, which can be reversed to have two different pictures showing (an idea Pulp would extend in 1995, I’ve just realised). Again on the back McCluskey and Humphreys look like contestants on The Apprentice, not smiling. This isn’t going to be a bundle of laughs.

What is odd about “A&M” is that seeing it and owning it at this point reminded me of something, how the album had already been in our house before. My father was a member of a record club in his work, people would buy an album and it would be passed around the members who would listen and tape it and pass it on, blatantly ignoring<strike the old mantra of “Home taping is killing music” – oh how we laughed at that one. But “A&M” had appeared at home in late 1981, lothen disappeared a few days later. I can’t remember hearing the album being played at that time and none of it made its way onto any of his compilation tapes. It can’t have made an impression on him, I wonder what kind of impression it would make on me. I looked at the two tone red label, similar to the one on “Organisation” and dropped the needle on side one.

Hisses and crashes, a thumping bass drum, some guitar noise and then a two chord guitar thrash, quite charmingly amateurish like my own attempts at guitar playing at the time. But this sounded desperate. McCluskey is almost shouting, something had gone wrong and he knows it and it’s all his fault – “Oh my God what have I done this time?” Synth lines whine and wheeze across each other, the song hurtles toward a second verse, a second vocal emphasises occasional words, and now it’s not “what have I done?” but “Oh my God what have WE done this time?” It’s a collective fear now, and drones take over the song as it fades. This isn’t the kind of sound electro pop bands make. Scratchy guitars? Wow. “She’s leaving” is more conventional – the title a nod to a previous Liverpool group – and more layers of melody, for a song based on so few chords there is a rich selection of melodic ideas and little riffs. The words took me a long time to work out, but it doesn’t matter, by the climax of “The more we learn the less we know” it makes sense. And was that line a nod to another Beatles song? A song so ridiculously catchy, it was kept as an album deep cut – yet is still played live today, and was issued as a fourth single in the Benelux countries in 1982 (took me years to find a copy, that’s how I am, determined) but vetoed in the UK as ripping off fans, four singles off an album. “Souvenir” floats in and I knew this one, from the Summer of 1981 and the school disco that Christmas where everyone wanted me to do the “Prince Charming” dance (long story, don’t ask), the couples slow dancing as the song weaves it’s spell. Paul Humphreys takes a lead vocal, Martin Cooper’s sax is filtered through effects to make it unrecognisable, and those choir tapes give a distinctive bed of sound to the song. I’ve never really understood what the lyrics mean but “You’ll understand, it’s not important now” says a lot. A top 3 hit single. How could such an odd record be such a huge hit? 1981 was a great year, but an odd one. “Sealand” is a natural partner to “Stanlow”, another sound painting and another real place – it is close to Stanlow, and earlier this year while visiting my parents in Chester I saw it. But the song is all fog and sirens, clanking machinery, audible click tracks, surging rushes and huge empty spaces. It shouldn’t be heard in daylight. Hardly any words but not a problem, over seven minutes the song stretches out and is a remarkable piece of sound. A landscape to become lost in. To come to this from the debut in two years – incredible. “These arms fail you so”. Arms? Sorry, I’m stepping on someone else’s toes, someone else’s intepratation here. Please read Marcello Carlin and Lena Friesen on “A&M” here , they’re a thousand times better than me. “Sealand” closes with a coda of mellotron, an instrument which will become more dominant as the album progresses, yet was the bastion of psychedelia and progressive rock, the washes of orchestra and choir on Genesis and King Crimson and Tangerine Dream records. Nobody was using them in 1981…

Side two opens with “Joan of Arc”, another top five single and another odd hit single. Childs xylophone, echoing falsettos in echo chambers, throbbing and surging synthetics and McCluskey impassioned yet gentle too, wanting to be understood “Listen to us good and listen well”, preachy but acceptable under the circumstances. Somehow I never thought this was about Joan Of Arc, unless he had a personal relationship with her. On the other hand “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” does sound religious. And what’s with the intro? Atonal, avant garde and bloody hell it was another top five single. Strange times. A waltz, a strident Mellotron sounding like a bagpipe, and McCluskey… sorry, I can’t hear this song without seeing McCluskey dancing… I’ve seen OMD numerous times live and every time this song is a highlight, as is his dancing, a version of someone else’s dance, someone else who I had no idea about at the time. Sorry, sometimes this song just hits me hard and today is one of those days. The album’s title track follows. Ice cream van chimes, deep silences, more Mellotron, more discord, more tension and the miserable cheap Greek pressing letting sound through from across the grooves. What else sounded like this in 1981? When the song moves into the second section – throb and klang and building site noise – it shocks and the build of mellotron chorus stuns to silence. How could they get away with such experimental music, yet ground it in pop melody? “Georgia” sounds like “She’s leaving” part two, perky but desperately trying to convey something dark. The high lying synth line expresses disquiet and the instrumental chorus is a swirl through a bunch of radio stations but is far from random, there’s voices and sirens and what sound like Red Army choirs… and deep in the background a song… finally the sounds clear away to Humphreys singing the most important lines of the album

“Here we watch the morning star
Rising over home Georgia
Dancing in the ruins of the western world
Blindfolds on like we don’t care”

And suddenly it makes sense, a slow coda where the song deep within the miasma earlier reveals itself (and again thanks to Then Play Long for clarifying this puzzle for me) – “Keep the home fires burning – but none survive”. And a gun shot to stop. Nuclear dread was as real in 1983 as it was in 1981, nobody knew what would happen, the Cold War was a threat which certainly kept me awake at night. Morning stars? Georgia is a state in Russia, and America… and something struck me as well in that verse. “Dancing in the ruins of the western world” was the title of an article about OMD in a copy of Melody Maker my father bought in late 1981. I didn’t read it then and it was long gone by the time I heard the album, but why had he bought that MM? He had bought MM when we lived in Leeds and Harpenden but had stopped around 1978, so why with OMD on the cover in 1981? Odd. The album closes with “The beginning and the end”, a gorgeous piece of music bringing the whole album together – glockenspiel and clicking sticks like a primary school music lesson, synth surges, McCluskey playing rudimentary but effective guitar arpeggios, a simple Mellotron choir descent, acoustic piano and so much melody. And that’s just the music, McCluskey sings like a wounded angel. Accepting the inevitable end, blaming himself. So sad. A beautiful close to a wonderful album.

—————

Reading my diary entries for the period of late May to early June 1983 is instructive as I devour these albums. When I first hear them, initial standouts are “Georgia” and “Motion and heart” and I reference D in liking “The more I see you”. A few days later I list ten songs across the albums, including “Statues”. Then I go on holiday to Plymouth for a week (Whitsun holiday again) and have to leave them behind, as I didn’t have a Walkman yet. But the night before I go I write out the entire lyric of “Statues” in my diary and sing it to myself every day. While in Plymouth I buy a few OMD singles (“Telegraph” 7″, “Genetic engineering” 12″, “Messages” 10″) and devour them when I get home. On 7th June I state “Is there such a thing as a perfect album? I have one in my collection – ‘ A&M'”. And I may have been 14 and may have owned less than a dozen albums at that point but bloody hell I was right.

Over the years “Architecture and morality” has held a special place in my heart. I still listen in awe and wonder. As time has passed it becomes more unique, the whole process of the album’s creation seems like a special time for the band, when their desire to experiment was matched by their melodic ideas. The album has matured wonderfully and doesn’t sound dated as it didn’t sound of its time anyway. This is due to a decision while recording the album to play all the synths through guitar amplifiers, then micing them up, to create an air in the sound, the sound of the room. Also the use of acoustic piano, bass guitar, electric guitar and Mellotron expand the sound palette of the band immensely.

A few days ago I asked my followers on Twitter to help me find other electro pop albums issued in 1981, to compare and contrast with “Architecture and morality” and thanks to those who responded I had a list of records to listen to. Huge thanks to everyone who responded with suggestions and lists on websites, it was an interesting exercise. It seems Virgin Records had cornered the market – Human League, Heaven 17, OMD, Japan, DAF – but they all have their distinctive styles. “Tin drum” creates it’s own sound world and “Ghosts” stands tall (was this influenced by “Statues”? It inhabits a similar atmosphere). “Dare” and “Penthouse and pavement” are two sides of the same coin, as to be expected, and are both clean and dry, no air in the sound. The Depeche Mode debut “Speak and spell” sounds trite and wimpy – thanks to the Salient Braves for the NME scan of Paul Morley comparing Depeche’s debut to “A&M” and getting OMD’s album so wrong. Gary Numan’s “Dance” LP is so in awe of Japan that it hurts – but sounds tired and dated. I never took to either Ultravox or John Foxx though I’ve tried, I’ve tried… “Computer world” is in a class of its own, as perfect as “A&M”. I think “Anywhere” by New Musik is of a similar hue, a mix of electronics and guitars, sometimes the human touch of a real drummer, and lyrics which touch nerves in different ways to OMD. Soft Cell were a different kettle of fish. But nothing exactly has the same sound world as the OMD album. Marcello Carlin did suggest “This is the ice age” by Martha and the Muffins and that does make sense – also on DinDisc, and Martha Ladly suggested the OMD album title, and it was the first production job for Daniel Lanois too. I’ve not heard the full Martha and the Muffins album but the few songs I’ve heard do bear comparison. There are distinct hints of Mellotron within songs like “Casualties of glass” and “Boy without filters” (song title or what?), there is a feeling within the songs I’ve heard of fear and trepidation on modern living, even more directly expressed – the repeated chant of “Don’t lose hope” for instance. Sometime it sounds like the Feeling crossed with A Certain Ratio – as on the title track. Definitely an album I intend to find and hear in full.

Since writing the majority of this post, the unspeakable events in Paris have shocked me and wondered at the validity of writing over 4000 words on something as trite as pop music. Then a thought struck me – “Architecture and morality” is under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust, today we are under a shadow of a different kind of terror. Yet nobody is creating albums about today’s terror which could sell millions of copies and spawn three Top Five singles. Different times, as I always keep saying. But that is no excuse. What mainstream artist is making similar moves now? Radiohead I suppose. But how long did it take them to reach such heights? OMD’s progress through their first three albums is remarkable – all the more so considering the music was popular yet cutting edge, tuneful yet experimental and all made within 24 months of their first album. An amazing feat, which today’s music industry – risk averse, safe, formulaic and boring – would never allow.

“Blindfolds on like we don’t care” indeed

Next time – where I was before I got sidetracked probably

Punch drunk, a day late

wpid-r-1435487-1219509442.jpeg.jpgThe midweek snow had come as something of a surprise to me. Sure it was the middle of January and yes it had been bloody freezing standing at the bus stop the previous few mornings but snow? I just wasn’t prepared for that. After all I’d only been living in my new house for two weeks, moving in during the first week of 1994. I was still getting my bearings, finding out which bus took me to town and out to work again, and which bus took me around the estates I didn’t want to see, especially in the dark at 6pm. So far I had discovered the most important places in my new home town – the record shops. Our Price on Commercial Street had all the regular releases you would expect from a mainstream retailer. Diverse Music was hidden behind the market next to GM Music (double win – look at records then pop next door to drool over guitars) and was a superb independent record shop (and still is, and long may it continue). Roxscene was at the back of the Kingsway Shopping Centre, a very seventies development which was already down at hell, as was the shop itself which was slowly closing down. But Hitman Records was interesting, a place to hang out and flick through the racks of CDs, checking out the bargains and oddities. The day before the snow I had bought “Blood Music” by Chapterhouse from Hitman and had played it that night. Yeah it was OK and had its moments but was nothing special. I taped the bonus CD “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” ready for the next day’s bus journey to work. It was the Chapterhouse album reimagined and remixed by Global Communication, about whom I knew very little. But it was a free CD so nothing to lose.

So I woke up to snow and was slightly freaked out. I very much doubted the usual bus I caught would make it up the hill of Ruskin Avenue – and I was right – so slid down to the bus stop on Risca Road and waited and hoped. There was very little traffic and the roads were still patchy white, while the pavements were pretty much pristine – deep and crisp and even and beautifully white. It’s a huge thrill to place a footprint in the snow, at whatever age. Finally a bus came along and I settled down with my new tape, which I had been listening to since I left the house. It fitted the day and the journey well, starting quietly and slowly rising in intensity. I was happy to be on a bus, relatively warm and moving towards work. And then the bus stopped. The driver admitted that the road was impassable and we would have to make our own way into town.

Which was slightly difficult as I had no idea where we were. I looked around for any landmarks I may recognise from my limited journeys around Newport but was pretty much lost. Everyone else was walking down hill so I just followed them, still listening to the tape. After half an hour I was somewhere I knew – the town centre – and headed for the bus station for my next bus to work. Luckily there were no problems with that as the journey was on Newport Road and I arrived in work about two and a half hours after leaving my home. There I found a skeleton staff as everyone else was struggling through the snow and by eleven am the whole office was closed down to allow people time to get home. So I struggled back to town and ended up walking home, still listening to that tape, and getting home around 3pm, a wasted day. But I’d listened to “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” about three times which is why that album always reminds me of snow.

By that weekend the snow was still around which was a pain in the arse. I wanted to get out, go somewhere different and eventually decided to visit Cwmbran, the closest town to Newport. I’d never been there before and had a vague impression it may have some record shops. So I slid down the hill to the bus stop again, caught a bus into town then walked to the train station for a train which took me to Cwmbran. Only I hadn’t the faintest idea where I was once I left the train station. I was disorientated by the snow, and wandered around lost looking for signs which may lead me to the town centre. I didn’t think to ask anyone though – far too shy. After half an hour of wandering I accidentally found the town centre, awash in icy slush. Now Cwmbran is an odd place, a “new town” built up during the 50s and 60s to provide housing for mine workers in the south eastern valleys in South Wales, a town built around a million roundabouts (as I would discover when I learnt to drive there a decade later) and the shopping centre was built in the late 60s. It seemed like a rabbit warren that day, I was so lost but somehow managed to find some record shops so I was happy and lost.

The best record shop that day was Apple Stump, hidden upstairs in the shopping centre. Don’t go looking, it’s no longer there. A dark hideaway, racks and racks of CDs and tapes and LPs and singles everywhere. I settled down to a half hour of browsing and ended up flicking through a box of random 12″ singles on the floor. I came across a single in an intriguing sleeve, a picture of what looked like a cliff face with different shades of rock on display. It caught my eye, as did the fact it had no words on the front. I turned it around, the sleeve picture faded into what looked like water in an ocean, the picture still dominant and a small strip on the left hand side saying very little – the band name Pacific, the song title “Shrift” and “A Creation Recording”. The sleeve looked more Factory than Creation. I only knew one Pacific song but liked that one song so took a chance, as the 12 inch was only 99p… Actually I bought both copies that Apple Stump had, just in case it turned out to be brilliant. Then I continued to wander around Cwmbran, trying desperately to look like I knew where I was going, getting lost looking for the train station again and struggling back home in the dark with a nice haul of records (and maybe we’ll get to one or two of those other records another time).

So who and what exactly were Pacific? Well I didn’t know that much about them at the time. I knew one song of theirs – “Jetstream” had appeared halfway through Creation’s classic “Doing it for the kids’ compilation of Summer ’88 and the song stood out like a sore thumb there. While most of the bands and songs on that iconic compilation were various shades of indie jangle (mostly GOOD indie jangle too), there were only two songs which used any kind of 80s technology – drum machines, sequencers, samplers. “A complete history of sexual jealousy parts 17 – 24” by Momus was like a jilted Pet Shop Boys (and there were people who at the time said it was the theme song for my life), but “Jetstream” was something else. There’s found radio broadcasts, gentle acoustic guitars, a rattle of a drum machine and a peculiar string arrangement over a mid tempo beauty of a song. And Michael Heseltine speaking in the House Of Commons before a brief trumpet solo. This was definitely not a typical Creation Record. So what would this single I’d just bought be like?

“Shrift” is a three song EP, the title track on one side and two other songs “Autumn Island” and “Mineral” on the reverse. The label states that the title track is produced by John A Rivers, always a trademark of quality. It starts with a grand sweep of a string section moving slowly around a set of four chords with a church organ in the background. After a minute, these drop away to be replaced by sampled orchestra hits, crashing drum machines and frantic sequencers. This is definitely not a typical late 80s Creation Record, but a typical late 80s pop song. Cellos soar and finally a male voice sings words that seem like glimpses of a bad day – “So when garlands slip off your life.. punch drunk a day late…” before bursting into a joyous chorus where a female voice joins in. The female voice then gets a verse to herself, an intriguing few lines which add to the peculiar state of affairs – “The lovers leap in front of the cars, you thought you’d left but woke up to find things as they were”. What the hell is going on? Then a trumpet solo while tympani drums crash. Back to the male voice for more verses, then a trumpet led fanfare / breakdown and a perfect line of lyric – “As if I wasn’t weird enough…” And the song keeps building, there’s the crescendo around the five minute mark where you think the song should logically end but doesn’t. Finally the string arrangement brings the song to a close around seven minutes and then there’s a minute of space talk, which is a recording of NASA transmitting Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass to the Apollo 8 mission which circled the moon around Christmas 1968. Overall eight minutes long and a real synth pop beauty.

Flip to side two of the EP for two songs. “Autumn Island” is an instrumental based around acoustic guitar arpeggios – slightly reminiscent of early Felt – but with a minor key air of melancholy, aided by simple string synths in the background and the occasional Ofra Haza style vocal sample. The piece establishes it’s mood, there’s a few embellishments like the occasional trumpet blast and more quiet chimes and synthesisers, but all very subtle. And it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

“Mineral” starts with a minute of water noises – a waterfall, some splashing in sensurround stereo before a sequencer a slightly disquieting series of notes, again melancholy and minor key, lots of delay and echo on the simple pattern. Then the waterfall drops out allowing the listener to concentrate on the sequence, and there’s nothing else here, just the echoing synth, before transferring the sequence to a piano, emphasis on the bass notes, still dark and haunted before sampled ‘cello is joined by a real string section, adding to the unease. It really is sad music, uncomfortable and slightly sinister. And then it just stops.

I looked back at the record. It definitely said it was recorded in 1988. Sure there were probably other people making synthetic pop records like a cut price Pet Shop Boys around then, but nobody was making dark beatless instrumentals like the b-sides. And for this to be issued on that bastion of indie tradition Creation Records… And this band performed at the Doing It For The Kids gig in London that August? Maybe this was the start of Creation moving towards being a dance music label? Jump ahead to 1990/91 and Alan McGee is blissed out on E, Primal Scream have got their groove going thanks to Andrew Weatherall and the “Keeping the faith” dance compilation is one of the coolest collections to have. Maybe that’s a bit of a jump, too much conjecture but it makes sense to me.

And that Apollo 8 recording leads me somewhere too. In the back of my mind I had a memory of reading an interview with Pacific, when this single was released back in the early months of 1989. The mainstream music press ignored it, but the oddball music magazine Offbeat devoted a column of one page to them. It mentioned that Apollo recording, the incongruous nature of being in space and having the world literally at your feet and having Alpert’s music – the height of uncool (or so it seemed) – being piped up as entertainment. Sadly I didn’t have the interview to go back to but remembered a few details, how Pacific was a trio, how they were mixing orchestral instruments with samplers and drum machines, and that’s about it. That may well have been the only press they ever got.

So on that snowy Saturday I span the disc over and over again and marvelled at my humble discovery. Did anyone else know about this little gem? Was there anything else by them? Luckily the insert to the Creation Soup compilations gave a clue in the discography, Pacific had made an album called “Inference” though it was just a compilation of their two singles. I wanted to find this album. I kept my eyes peeled.

A few months later I had found Rockaway Records, the record stall upstairs in Newport market, a strange place affiliated with TJs, the legendary live venue by the cenotaph with enough stories written about it. I was flicking through their racks one afternoon after work, not even sure whether I would find anything. I saw this strange album sleeve, a dark picture which I still don’t really understand. Intrigued I turned it over, and it said “Inference”. This was the album I was searching for. True enough it compiled their two EPs but this was what I had been searching for. Handing over the £3.99 (yes the price is still on the sleeve now) I hurried home to hear this. And was slightly disappointed. The version of “Shrift” which kicked off the album was a four minute edit, losing entire verses and most of the best parts of the song. “Autumn island” and “Mineral” were as perfect as ever. Flipping to side two, “Barnoon Hill” sounded like the Lotus Eaters, lots of rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, that wandering ‘cello, some sequencers and drum machines and lyrics about “The dark side of happiness”. Marvellous stuff. “I wonder” was more of the same, very indie pop with touches of trumpet and ‘cello, a male female duet with another great lyric – “I’d like to gather up all the wrong things that I’ve done and send them back to the person I knew who had none”. “Henry said” was the female singer sounding like Tracey Thorn over a gentle bed of acoustic guitars and sighing ‘cello – listening now it sounded like a precursor to some of Blueboy’s quieter moments. Then finally “Jetstream” which sounded just as odd and out of place in 1994 as it did in 1988.

As time passes, Pacific felt like a little secret project that nobody really remembered that much about. I would put songs onto compilation tapes for people and they were charmed. I found that “Shrift” fitted nicely in mixes between “Looking from a hilltop” and “Missing the moon”. I put “Mineral” on the end of a compilation for a girlfriend and she said it reminded her of her holiday in Ibiza the previous year. And I still kept looking for the CD of “Inference”. In 2005 I found it, in the Oxfam music and book store in Cardiff, just wandering in after a day’s shift on the phones on the way home, amazed to see it there in the rack, bouncing to the cash desk, telling the assistant “I’ve been searching for this for ten years”, like they cared. Shoving the CD into my Walkman for the train home, grinning like an idiot when the full version of “Shrift” appeared at the end of the CD… happy bunny.

So what did become of Pacific? There isn’t a lot of information on the net about them. A few blog posts sharing out of date links to the singles. Someone confusing them with a 90s supergroup featuring John McGeogh. And yet the main person behind Pacific continues to produce music, that gentleman being Dennis Wheatley and he now records under the name of Shrift. Well that makes sense. There’s music on Spotify and available in record shops and it’s very nice indeed.

I’ve reached the end of this tale. I still love Pacific and included “Mineral” on the Goldfish Radio b-sides podcast. “Shrift” still sounds like it should have been a hit single. And it just pops up sometimes. A few days ago the Everything Indie Over 40 Twitter account posted “Shrift” in their “Posting Randoms From The Creation Catalogue” and that’s what prompted this post. It’s not important to you…

“Go ahead with the music, but be advised the fidelity was low and the volume too high…. (music comes through)… that’s good!”

Next time – so why is “Statues” by OMD one of my favourite songs ever?

Long Hot Summer



Every week there was a clamour for the charts, who was going up, who was going down and who was number one. Yes the weekly charts of the girls i fancied in my class were legendary. I would be sat in the back row of Miss Hagyard’s Maths class and the girls in the row in front would turn around en masse and ask who was where in my chart. Elaine and Lesley and Mary and Melissa and Beverley were all there in the top five from time to time but there was only ever one constant at number one, my beloved D, my first crush. Not that I would ever have the courage to ask her out. Actually I did ask her out once, but that was under duress – Evo had my book bag hanging out of a third floor window at the time so that doesn’t really count. And yes in retrospect I was horrible to objectify the opposite sex and stupid and sometimes cruel in my decision making but I was 14… Actually that’s no excuse really.

So it’s July 1983 and my year group have finished our exams. We are in our third year at comprehensive school – what is now called Year 9 – and these are the last compulsory exams before we can choose our O Level subjects, and I know which subjects I’m dropping so I don’t bother revising for Biology or Geography, resulting in my first ever failed exam (27% for Biology). But what to do in that long gap between the end of the exams and the end of the school year? The teachers don’t really care – they are probably marking our exams or writing our reports so as long as we are vaguely quiet, us kids can do what we like. My English teacher seems baffled by my essay on what the year 2010 will be like and asked me what a modem is. Looking back on my school reports, they are completely divorced from the huge documents produced now for pupils, carefully listing every element of a child’s capabilities. For instance, this is Miss Hagyard’s entire comment for Maths that year – “Robert always provides excellent work, well done”. Seven words. It’s a different world now, teaching doesn’t stop until the end of term, every day must be planned and accounted for. But those days were lazy and hazy, we sat around playing games on paper or throwing paper planes or just talking. It was in a Geography class that July that i saw one of my defining images of D, carefully recorded in my diary that night. The classroom – a portacabin – was hot so the fire exit was open, and she was outside talking to someone with her back to me. Suddenly she turned round to look back into the classroom and smiled. Probably not at me – imagine the first minute of Little Mix’s “Black Magic” video, over and over – but that was enough, that image was perfect and while memories fade over time, reading the incident back in my diary brings total recall. And there was a song playing in my head at that point which fitted perfectly.

The song starts gently, a wash of synth strings, a hint of melody. Guitars sparkle and glisten, high register arpeggios, no rhythm as yet, just a heat haze miasma of guitars with counterpoint piano. “It’s warm, in and out” – hell yes… After a minute of beautiful drift, the rhythm section kick in and the song bursts into fruition with a joyous chorus – “The fire picture of you, the first picture of Summer”. Ah it all makes sense now, and while the song plays out with glorious climaxes of chiming guitars that one moment of D turning around is captured. It was the Lotus Eaters of course, a perfectly timed song which captured many hearts. Now I now how they fit into the lineage – of Paul Simpson leaving the Teardrop Explodes to form his own band The Wild Swans, how they issued one perfect single on Zoo before splitting in two, to become Care and The Lotus Eaters. But at the time I just heard the song and loved it, and followed its steady progress up the charts and cheered when they appeared on Top Of The Pops.

For some reason I didn’t buy “The first picture of you”, there were more important records to buy that July. One Saturday in early July I took a trip to Cardiff with my family intent on buying some records. In HMV I bought the ten inch of “Souvenir” and the twelve inch of “Maid of Orleans” by OMD then in Spillers I bought two seven inch singles – “Matters of the heart” by Freur and “Dr Detroit” by Devo. Playing all these singles in any order brings back that summer feeling perfectly. “Matters of the heart” was the more poptastic follow up to “Doot-doot”, a record I have mentioned enough times on Goldfish for regular readers to know it’s importance to me. “Souvenir” had an extra verse, a new version of “Motion and heart” from “Organisation” and a delicate song called “Sacred heart”. There was slight disappointment with “Maid of Orleans” – the sleeve promised a song called “Experiments in vertical take off” but the record itself had “Of all the things we’ve made” which I knew from “Dazzle Ships”, but the other b-side “Navigation” made up for that disappointment. It was HUGE, mellotrons in full effect, drums from some military academy, yet with passages of quiet tension too. One of my favourite b-sides ever. Yet it is “Dr Detroit” which reminds me of that day the most.

“Dr Detroit” has a strange pull on me. I’ve spent the last few days trying to find out about it. The song is the theme song to the film but I cannot remember the film being distributed in the UK. It’s a Dan Ackroyd feature, very early 80s, very garish and zany, very dated. It’s on Youtube if you really want to see it. There’s also an odd trailer where Ackroyd rants about video games keeping people away from cinemas. Then there’s Devo’s own video for the song, which mixes clips from the films with Devo’s own visuals. Singer Mark Mothersbaugh is the only member seen, in a tight black leather catsuit, being controlled by two ladies in white coats from a computerised laboratory. It’s very odd, but parts of the video are oddly familiar. The song itself is great too, rather minimal electro pop with occasional bursts of synthesised pedal steel guitar, leading to a full scale pedal steel solo. I always thought the pedal steel was synthetic, – for some reason I was convinced it was a Moog Liberator, the Moog keytar – but I’m not so sure now. Either way, it’s a highlight of a great song. I’m unsure how the song is related to the film, but at the distance of 32 years I don’t really care. The song wasn’t a big hit though, stumbling around the very bottom of the chart in the early weeks of July, never reaching higher than number 98. Probably the sleeve didn’t help, a smirking Ackroyd in yellow coat appears to be carrying the skewered torsos of the five members of Devo on a sword. 

So how did I end up hearing a song whizh barely scrapped into the charts? Well you can thank my obsession with Radio Luxembourg for that one. I was an avid listener to their Futurist Chart, broadcast every Thursday night. I never knew at the time what a Futurist was, I still don’t really know. Any song with a synth or a member with an odd haircut fitted the bill. But I would tune in every Thursday night hoping to hear something new and cool. Digging through the charts of June / July 1983, a lot of the songs in the lower reaches ended up in the Futurist Chart. Songs like “Sister Friction” by Hayze Fantayzee, “I love you” by Yello, “Hanging around with the big boys” by the Bloomsbury Set were all familiar to me, while bigger hits were also included. But remarkably “Matters of the heart” never appeared in the Futurist Chart, even though “Doot-door” had spent months there. Still I kept listening. Two favourites at this time were “Nobody’s Diary” by Yazoo and “Waiting for a train” by Flash And The Pan.

I must admit that I completely misinterpreted “Nobody’s diary” at the time. For some reason I missed the point and just heard the word “diary” and ran with it. But hell my friends did too. I had only been writing my own diary for seven months but it was already legendary amongst my class and year. The diary was started as an exercise in writing by our English teacher and she would read them every week. Of course I didn’t realise the invasion of privacy involved and took it seriously. By Book 2 (all diaries were in exercise books until May 1986 when I moved to A4 files) I created The Teacher Files where I wrote what I thought of every teacher in the school. My English teacher went nuts and tore the pages out in front of our class and it was at that point it became legendary – everyone wanted to know what I had written, and later diaries include updated Teacher Files and Pupil Files, and that got me into even more trouble amongst my peers. But that is jumping ahead. I also decided to tell her I’d stopped writing and just carried on anyway making the diary mine and mine alone. So Books 3 to 5 cover from March to July ’83, and starting to buy records and develop personal taste and also discovering that I fancy girls. Hideous embarrassment all round.

Back to “Nobody’s diary” then. Yes I got it wrong but I still loved the song. It was perfect for me, totally synthetic yet Alison Moyet’s vocal was soulful and rich. “Waiting for a train” was a very odd record to reach so high in the charts – it entered the top ten. Flash And The Pan were Australians, an art rock project based around Vanda and Young from the Easybeats back in the sixties. Seemingly the thoughts of someone stuck at a train station, the relentless chug of the rhythm and the insistent vocal sounds and the chords ebbing and flowing made a compulsive listen. Once heard, never forgotten.

So the end of June crossing into the start of July was a wonderful time. There was great music and great times. I don’t remember doing anything much with my friends, I was quite a solitary young lad. (Have you seen that picture of me from ’84 on Twitter? It explains a lot). But it felt like the best time to be alive. It was a long hot summer, and yes the Style Council’s “Long hot Summer” blended in nicely too, though that came a little later. Now that was a song which caused some controversy amongst my friends. You see, for years Paul Weller had been a hero to most of the boys (always the boys) in my class. They’d grown up with the Jam, pricking their consciences, making them read books, showing the way forward. The boys would bring along “All mod cons” and “Sound Affects” to the music lessons where we could play our own records, and insist we listen with reverence and respect. The Jam were Important therefore Weller was Important and everything he did had Importance thrust upon it. The boys didn’t quite understand the Style Council though. “Speak like a child” was fair enough, a soulful blast. “Money-go-round” was a bit too funky for the boys. But “Long hot summer” totally confused them. Where were the guitars? What was the meaning? What’s with the drum machines? And when the boys saw the video… Well… They may not have understood but maybe the girls did. Personally I’d never cared much for the Jam but kept that opinion well hidden at the time, but quite liked “Long hot summer”, and I saw how it related to “Juicy fruit” by Mtume, another song I adored that summer.

Two weeks before the end of term in school, I was cycling back there after lunch at home when I was stopped by two girls. Lesley and Elaine were both in my class, friends of D and both had appeared in my “Girl Chart” many times. Lesley asked me if I wanted to go out with Elaine on a date. Elaine herself said nothing, but Lesley assured me she was willing. Sorry, I’m really choosing the wrong words here. This was all totally innocent, there would only be hand holding and … Well actually I had no idea what there would be. Elaine always seemed quite posh to me, and I was astonished that she would be interested in me. But I took it all seriously and a date was set up at the end of the week. The final page of Book 5 of the diary expresses my mixed emotions on the matter. “I’ve got a date, what happens now?” I also rewrote my chart so that Elaine was number one.

So what exactly would I find to talk about? I knew absolutely nothing about her and was too shy to ask anyone else. So I had to make assumptions. For a start I knew she liked music so I had to remember which band names she had scribbled on my pencil case. Looking at it, she seemed to be into this New Romantic music – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Tears For Fears and A Flock Of Seagulls. Even then there was no way I was going to listen to either Duran or Spandau, that was an absolute no-no. I was still a few years away from deciding if I liked Tears For Fears, though I secretly adored “Mad world”, there was something about the lyrics which struck me as quite deep. But I wouldn’t admit that to anyone, they were still considered to be a girls’ band at the time. Hell, I’ll admit I was wrong there but that’s for another time perhaps. Which only left A Flock Of Seagulls. I’d quite liked the singles I’d heard by them, I’ll give them a go. So I asked my father to get me their current album “Listen” from HMV on Tuesday so I’d have enough time to soak in the album before Friday’s date.

(Strange logic but I will keep reminding the reader that I was fourteen years old and knew nothing)

Only it didn’t quite work. Or at least “Listen” and my Sanyo music centre didn’t get on at all. As soon as the tom toms kick in on the opening song “Wishing”, the stylus would jump and not play ball. I tried putting some coins on the stylus head but it still jumped. So my father took the LP back and got me another copy. This too jumped in the same place so back that went too, and I somehow ended up with the picture disc of the LP which just about played, but sounded crap as most picture discs do. So I ended up buying another copy of the LP. Why didn’t I cut my losses and get the tape? Probably because my tape deck on the Sanyo was temperamental and didn’t stay down to play. So I have two copies of “Listen” in my collection.

If you look up the term “Front loaded album” in the hypothetical rock’n’roll dictionary there will be a picture of “Listen” by A Flock Of Seagulls. Sticking the first three singles from the album as the first three songs on side one is either genius or madness. The opener is of course “Wishing (If I had a photograph)”, which is a great way to start. There’s the slightly oriental melody wavering over two chords, the distinctive comb filtered noise which runs throughout the song and it’s an odd tempo – not fast enough for dancing, not slow enough for slow dancing. And then there’s the words. Mike Score doesn’t know what it is about his Other that stands out, he lists a lot of things which it isn’t, but finally admits that really he’s forgotten anyway and needs a photograph as a reminder. Not a fine sentiment, but more than likely I’m reading it wrong. Once Score shuts up the synths cascade and descend and melodies tumble over each other for about two minutes of heavenly music. “Nightmares” is faster but oddly minimal, deep bass and drums power the song but the guitars are muted and hazy in the background, swinging from half chords to arpeggios in the chorus. It’s an old story lyrically though, Score has little sympathy for the Other here, who he knew from younger days but now hides from life. No resolution though. “Transfer  affection” bubbled up to number 38 in early July so received enough play on Luxembourg for me to cite it on the back page of Book 5, and it’s a rather cute little pop song and I suppose I associated with it – “Don’t try and tell me that I’m out here on my own”. Those high register “Hold on” backing vocals. Very nice. “What am I supposed to do?” starts all speedy, funk bass and disco drums, sequencers chattering. Then Score starts singing at the top of his register, moving between two or three notes, sometimes expanding notes at the end of each verse, and he sounds exactly like Morrissey. Even the lyrics are like Moz without the clever word play. It’s a startling listen. It’s a glimpse of a Smiths where the rhythm section showed off their funk chops, if you squint hard enough.

Side two starts with “Electrics” which fades in on flanged noise – kind of third hand Joy Division intro, or “The misunderstanding” even – before chorused and delayed guitars thump out jumpy half chords and squealing harmonics, while Score yelps like Fergal Sharkey, and it sounds like “Quit dreaming” era Bill Nelson with a hint of Robin Guthrie thrown in sideways. It sort of rocks, and I used to play this at my brother to show him I liked music with guitars too. “The traveller” continues the post punk mood, lots of pinched harmonics and off kilter guitar patterns, and Score’s vocal is droning on one note through the verse. Is he travelling towards a person? “I want to swim in your ocean”. Quite. “2:30” is a minute of effected sound effects and backwards cymbals before leading into “Over the border”, a Duran Duran clone – Mike Score doing his best Simon Le Bon impression over the bombastic guitar motif. The lyrics are suitably vague and aiming for profundity – “I try not to look back in anger, I try not to look back at all”. “The Fall” is neither a tribute to Albert Camus or Mark E Smith sadly, a slow grind of rolling tom toms and high sustained guitar notes and rumbling bass. Listening now with hindsight, most of side two sounds like A Flock Of Seagulls want to be a post punk band, and maybe the pop singles were a cover for the music they really wanted to make. Closer “(It’s not me) Talking” was another single and a re-recording of one of their original singles on Bill Nelson’s Cocteau label. Nelson steps in to produce here (the rest of the album was produced by Mike Howlett) and it’s another space age fantasy, breezing along for a few minutes but nothing special.

So I played “Listen” over and over hoping to absorb the New Romantic vibe, maybe Elaine and I would talk about this music. It sounded more angular than I expected but I did like it a lot. Maybe we would bond over the album. Maybe this could blossom into something interesting. Finally the day of the date came. We were going to meet at the playing fields by the school. I went there at the allotted time, waited around for a while then went home. It was all a joke, I’d been conned. Silly me. Elaine and Lesley were banned from my chart and D returned to number one, never to be moved. The subject was never mentioned by either girl again and i was too ashamed to admit it to anyone. Did I learn? Did I hell. The next year Lesley promised she’d buy me a birthday present if I bought her “Against all odds” by Phil Collins for her birthday a week before mine. I bought that reprehensible song in Woolworths where nobody knew me and gave it to her, expecting “Silver” by Echo and the Bunnymen the following week. Of course that never happened either. Oh well, I’ll never learn.

But without all this happening I wouldn’t have dreamt of buying “Listen” by A Flock Of Seagulls. It turns out they were more than a bunch of strange haircuts and pretty faces after all.

Next time – whatever

What We Did On Our Holidays

Every year I say it – “I’m taking a break over the Summer holidays” – and every year I end up writing throughout the summer. This year hasn’t been any different. Regular readers of Goldfish will think I have been shirking a little lately – I’ve only written about three full posts on this blog this year but hell I’ve moved house and I’m still getting life organised. Don’t worry, there’s still more to come from Goldfish – the continuing story of my second year in Sheffield plus pieces on Saint Etienne and Ride are in the pipeline.

On the other hand, if you don’t follow me on Twitter (and why should you?) you may not have spotted other posts that I have written recently for other websites. So here’s a round up of pieces I’ve written this year which may have passes you by.

I am a regular contributor to the Everything Indie Over 40 community on Twitter, a group of like minded folks who have a love for indie music old and new. A month ago the community set up a website which is an excellent portal into that world – lots to read there and respond to. I have been asked to write a regular feature called “The Indie CV” where I examine an individual’s career in music and the records and bands they have been involved in. So far I’ve written two CVs, one for Margaret Fiedler (Moonshake, Laika) and another for the Williams twins Andy and Jez (Sub Sub, Doves, Black Rivers). Links to both are here, and it’s well worth looking around the site if you have the time.

Indie CV – Margaret Fiedler

Indie CV – Jez and Andy Williams

The Music Vs The World website recently asked a number of writers to contribute a piece on a random decade in music, two writers took a decade each and it was an interesting read all round. I was asked to write about the Nineties and my post is available here. Thanks to Fi for thinking of me and I hope it was ok.

Music Vs The World – The 90s

A new website called When That Song Plays lets writers examine one song and what it means to them,.memories, thoughts and feelings. I wrote a piece for them about “Boy from school” by Hot Chip and the birth of my son in 2006. You can read it here and again, the website has plenty more content to read.

Hot Chip – Boy From School

The experience of writing about one song at a time gave me an idea for a subsidiary blog called One Hundred Goldfish where I recall one song and the memories associated with it. So far I’ve posted three pieces there and they are all listed below.

East River Pipe and Kylie Minogue

Morrissey

The Boo Radleys

Of course I couldn’t miss out Toppermost – a marvellous website with nearly 500 contributions from over 70 writers. I’ve written a good dozen or more pieces for Toppermost in the last couple of years and there is a separate page listing all my contributions here.

Toppermost

I have just polished off another Toppermost on The Rutles which should be available in a couple of weeks. Again, please take a look around the website, there’s plenty to get stuck into there.

And of course I’ve done six podcasts for Goldfish Radio, and there will be a page about that within the menu at the top of this page very shortly.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the above websites’ for letting me ramble on endlessly about music. It’s a lovely feeling getting positive feedback about something so personal as.music.

Enjoy your Summer holidays and Goldfish will return in September with the Winter into Spring 89, Morrissey, Virginia Astley and Eyeless In Gaza..

Take care and God bless.