“It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid….”
It is December 1984 and one song is inescapable. It is everywhere, all over the radio, closing Top of the Pops every week, everyone knows the words, everyone knows they’re doing good by buying it. All the girls in my class swoon over the singers, ooh George Michael is so hunky, Simon Le Bon looks gorgeous… But Sting and Paul Weller and Paul Young look like a different generation, which they were. The girls weren’t interested in them. George Michael was the one, and with “Last Christmas” also rising up the charts the girls were in heaven. I can remember one of my class bringing in “Make it big”, and the girls all swarmed around it cooing and sighing. There was also a double pack of picture discs, one of George and one of Andrew Ridgeley, and nobody wanted the latter disc…. The boys weren’t like this, or if they were they weren’t doing it publicly in the Chemistry lab.
I didn’t care musically about Band Aid. I looked at the list of participants and thought “I’m not interested in these people”. Already my snobbish attitude to music was rising to the surface. I was beyond the Top 40. Yes there were still songs I liked in the charts and I would buy singles like “Shout” by Tears For Fears and “Blasphemous rumours” by Depeche Mode, both of which were hardly filled with Yuletide cheer. Roland Orzabel screaming “I’d really like to break your heart” fitted my mindset at the time far more than Holly Johnson warbling about the power of love. It was just how I felt, y’know.
1984 had been the year of crushing on R and by the end of the year it was getting tiresome for both her and me. She had a boyfriend and they were pretty much inseparable and the happy couple would do their best to annoy me by being happy and lovey dovey at all times. Looking back I don’t know why I bothered, I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere. But my diary is full of love and hate, leaping on any act of kindness as a sign of some possible hope, while pouring scorn on her other half and any perceived faults he may have had in my eyes. Thirty years on it makes a tedious read and one wonders if the amount of controversy generated by my diary in school was entirely appropriate for what in retrospect was an exceedingly dull non affair. But at the time it felt so important, moments could be extrapolated into minutes, glances could become deep and meaningful… I was fifteen, I grew out of it. Eventually.
So December 1984 was all about my mock ‘O’ Levels, all jammed into an intense fortnight. Every day all of the Fifth Year would traipse into the main hall and sit at individual desks, get our pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, rulers and other accoutrements of the examination process, and stay silent for three hours at a time while we struggled or breezed through the exam papers in front of us. And of course boredom took over and the inevitable happened – we started having conversations on the desks. The same hundred fifteen year olds jammed together every day… It was bound to happen. One desk read “Helen loves Huw” then “No I don’t” then “Why not? He’s cute” then “You have him then”. Someone had written a very rude comment about R on one desk and I got the blame for it. During the half hour before each exam, certain people were giving guided tours of certain desks with added commentaries and speculation on who wrote what. It passed the time and was sometimes more interesting than the exams themselves.
At ten to nine on the Tuesday, just as I’m settling down to my English Lit exam, my Computers teacher Mrs M comes running up to me and says “We’ve got a competition to go to at 12, I’ll pick you up after the exam…” For my sins I was a member of the school’s computer quiz team, the previous year we had finished second in all of Wales and got my picture in the local paper. We had our reputation to think about, so after a frenzied and slightly panicked exam, Mrs M rounded up a 4th year boy and my brother’s friend Sean from the 6th form and myself, throwing us a tuna bap each to sustain us, then we piled into her red Mini Metro and she drove like crazy out of Penarth, across Cardiff to a teacher training unit on Western Avenue where we faced a team of girls from Heathfield High, and metaphorically thrashed them, not dropping a single point. Then Mrs M drove us back, cheerily saying “The next round is tomorrow afternoon”, then dropping me at Sean’s house so we could play some computer games on his Tandy TRS80. Sean was a nice guy, as nerdy as I was, and we got on well. I got the feeling he preferred me to my brother, cos they would argue about politics all the time. Sean’s father was the local candidate for the Communist Party and his house was covered in posters promoting their cause. On the other hand, my brother was a staunch Tory, with a bedroom full of posters in praise of the free market economy and how great privatisation could make the trains and other public utilities. Well we all do silly things when we are young. The next day, the same mad post-exam dash across Cardiff to face my father’s old school Cardiff High, and again we didn’t lose a point. Nice.
It felt like the exams were going on forever – on the 19th December my diary states “Only Computers prac exam left – boring”. Then the next day its all over and something else far more important has started – “it was the start of Peel’s Festive Fifty last night, 50 to 41. Quite good too, Cocteaus, Bunnymen, Hard Corps – and more tonight!”
The final day of term involved me being happy because R was nowhere to be seen, although there were rumours she had changed her hairstyle. I had a shock when Mary gave me a Christmas card from my first crush D. A teacher who was known as Barney Rubble commandeered me and my friend Huw as we were the only kids waiting to be let in, so we pushed the one school piano from the stage of the main hall across the school to the Youth Wing. Then everyone packed into that tiny space for a hilarious carol concert, where nobody sang in tune , “Hark the herald angels sing” was stopped because everyone was laughing at it, and we forced the teachers to play “Do they know it’s Christmas?” three times in a row. Then R turned up at the end (“the only difference in her hair is a bow and it looks stupid” I remarked in my diary that night) then we walked home together with Mike and Jeremy, both of whom wanted to form a band with me. “Only if R sings” I said, hoping she was a secret Liz Fraser.
Once school was over the Festive Fifty became the centre of attention, I noted in my diary that I should buy “It’ll end in tears” as soon as possible because “Another Day” was “stupendous” (it took me three years to buy it). It was a bloody good year, to be honest and I recently put together a Spotify playlist of 48 of the 50 songs (the missing two songs were New Order b sides) and hearing the songs in order sent me straight back to those cold dark December nights. You can almost hear Peel himself talking between the songs. It was a chart of reassurance – nice to hear some songs I may have forgotten earlier in the year – and discovery- pointing out songs and bands I may not have come across and would have to investigate in the coming year. From that year on, the Festive Fifty would be a barometer for me, checking for new directions, checking my favourites were there. (That’s not a barometer then – Pedantic Ed).
Finally Christmas Day arrived and there were four albums under the tree for me. I had a good idea what they were, having made a list and sent my father to Spillers Records to hunt down the more obscure artists. So let’s have a look at these four albums.
“La Dusseldorf” by La Dusseldorf
Back in the summer of 1984, the Evening Session had a series where guests would come in and talk about records that influenced them. I didn’t listen to all of them but tuned in from time to time and that was where I encountered La Dusseldorf for the first time. It was Midge Ure choosing the songs and one song he chose was “Rheinita” by La Dusseldorf. I loved how it flowed so gracefully, the patient pace of the song, it sounded not quite electronic but strangely timeless. I noted the name in my diary and kept an eye out. A few months later I saw an album by La Dusseldorf called “Viva” appear on our regular quarterly mail order list from Gema Records so I send off my cheque and hoped for the best – these orders were quite random, sometimes you would get everything you ordered and sometimes absolutely nothing. A few weeks later “Viva” arrived, looking odd – the title sprayed on the wall on one side, a man feeding a goat on the other. A distinct lack of information, even on the label which didn’t even tell me which was side one, so I ended up thinking that “Cha cha 2000” was how the album opened, and I didn’t realise I was wrong until I read “Krautrocksampler” ten years later. Still, I loved the album, “Rheinita” was gorgeous and I wanted more by them, if there was any more. A quick hunt in Kellys Records in Cardiff Market found two more albums, their self titled debut and their third LP “Individuellos”. On my instructions, my brother bought me the debut album and it became my Christmas present from him.
And now the difficult part…because I love this album, I listen to it a lot thirty years on, but bloody hell there’s not a lot to say about it. Opening song “Dusseldorf” moves along for thirteen minutes, built on a propulsive motorik drum pattern, wimpy jangling guitars and simple keyboard melodies and never gets boring. There’s lots of chanted vocals, lots of Klaus Dinger whispering “Dusseldorf”, dive-bombing synths, and even the occasional line of German that even I could translate (“Wir gerhen wie in die alten Stadt” is something like “We’re going to the old city”). And it just motors along beautifully. I should point out that in 1984 I had absolutely no idea about Neu! other than OMD’s b-side tribute “4-Neu”, or how Neu related to La Dusseldorf. The next song was entitled “La Dusseldorf” and starts with a load of football fans cheering before bursting into a frantic dash of more trebly guitar, phased drums and a bit of a punky attitude. Dinger’s singing “Dusseldorf” again, and who can blame him? One point that’s always annoyed me as an aside, in his book Julian Cope claims there’s only three words on this album… He is wrong, there’s loads of lyrics but they’re in German, but also a few in English too. Still, this song is bloody fantastic.
Over on side two, “Silver cloud” is ten minutes of absolute godlike music, a wonderful performance with incredible dynamics , moving from a whisper to an explosion of sound within seconds. Guitars and synths glisten, melodies are simple yet glorious, and oh sorry I just love this song. Obviously so did David Bowie as he nicked the tempo, the dynamics and format for “A new career in a new town”. The final track “Time” is a slow burner, starting quiet and getting faster and fuller as it progresses, still full of marvellous melodies. And Dinger lists lots of things that it’s time for, and you’ll have to get your German to English dictionary out for that part – I can translate about half of it. Then it slows down and gets spacey, before coming to a rousing conclusion.
Once I’d bought the third La Dusseldorf album early in 85, I started to work backwards, purely by accident – I bought the debut Neu! album around the same time and made the connection through the songs “Leiber Honig” and “Leiber Honig 81”. I still think the three La Dusseldorf LPs are as good as the three Neu! LPs, and i play them more often too.
“Step Forward” – Portion Control
Another discovery through Peel, I first heard their single “Rough justice” during the Easter holidays of 84 and loved the clipped sequencers, the parping brass section, the chirruping drum machines and over it all some unusually harsh vocals. I might as well get this over with now – I know bugger all about Portion Control as a band and research online has provided little useful information, so I don’t know the name of their singer. So shoot me. Whoever he is, he is impassioned, forceful, frequently hoarse and the complete opposite of the usual type of singer a band like Portion Control would have (wimpy boy vox over synth pop cliche alert). Certainly I was interested in PC and kept an eye out for any more releases.
By the autumn of 84, Peel had previewed some songs from their imminent album which sounded great so it went on the Christmas list and ended up under the tree for me. “Step Forward” had been given a glowing five star review in Sounds and PC were the support act on Depeche Mode’s late 84 UK tour. It felt like a perfect fit too, the Basildon boys getting tougher and touring with these electro industrial punks.
“Step Forward” is a very 1984 kind of album, both musically and politically. For a start its all electronic, harsh drum machines, pulsing synths, occasional brief samples, very of its time. But there’s anger too. The opener “Refugee” is as relevant today – a shouted opening of “Does the government ever hate you?”, then the plight of a refugee seeking a place to live and work, as work is replaced by automation. From there the pace is maintained by “Under the skin”, a more personal fury – “I speak no evil, I only talk to you”. A brief respite then with the first of the numerous short instrumental tracks “Mutie”, a bass drum like a jack boot, drifting mid tempo disquiet. “Tex mex” is an album highlight, almost conventional synth pop (that huge bass!), but the vocals push again, more relationships falling, but still with enough verbal and melodic hooks to snare unsuspecting listeners. “Tongue beat” passes by before the side closes with an odd track “Micro box”, distant noises and what sounds like Alf Garnett ranting.
Side two reprises “Micro box” before moving into “Real estate cult”, which tries hard to be “Blue Monday” but can’t be. Another short instrumental “Tin” (love this digital synth tones) before “Havoc man”, another better attempt at “Blue Monday” with added New Musik sonar bleeps (!) More vocal anger though, but still hope and vision. The contrasting sequencers pulse away, leading to another instrumental “319” which moves into another highlight “Scramble”. Maybe I’m mishearing it, but this is merging personal with political… “I thought it was time that you should go…” Who? It’s no good hiding behind obscurity. And then there’s the chorus..
“No cause for concern in things you believe
Get ready to labour, achieve what you will
In times of need, no one is hungry
No one to feed
Achieve what you will, situation is brave
Finger on the button, don’t go insane”
Like i said, I could be wrong. I frequently am. But that sounds like a cry against a government ignoring everything to get its way, to drag the country through a depression, to make people hungry… I didn’t think so then, because I didn’t think about much more then me and school and girls and music. But now… And the music’s good too. Final track “Son of Go Talk” is a dub style mix of a previous single, all empty spaces and dread. Very good, but I wanted “Rough justice” and never did find a copy.
One last thought. Who has the rights to the back catalogue of Illuminated Records? They had 400 Blows, Portion Control, Dormannu and 23 Skidoo at this point. That’s quite a roster of talent.
“Hatful of hollow” – The Smiths
Of course, listening to Peel in 1984 meant that it was impossible for me to avoid The Smiths. They were unavoidably anyway, they had hit singles and kept appearing on Top Of The Pops and other TV shows, but Peel played them, had them in session, supported them, praised them, kept playing their b sides…
But by Christmas I hadn’t bought any of their records. I was killing music by taping them off the radio. A few weeks before Christmas, my family were all sat at the dining room table eating tea with the radio on in the background, probably from the kitchen. “William it was really nothing” came on and breezed through the room for two minutes and ten seconds. “You like the Smiths, don’t you Rob?” asked my father. “Yes I do” I replied. I was expecting some snarky comment from him or my brother about Morrissey not being able to sing, but it never came. The conversation moved on, but a seed was sown.
A few weeks later it came as no surprise to find “Hatful of hollow” under the Christmas tree, suddenly the conversation made sense. It wasn’t the first of the four LPs I received to get played, but it was the second. And what an album. Excellent value for money for a start, fifty five minutes and sixteen songs in a gatefold sleeve for £3.99. And all the words too, making for essential reading. And as for the quality of the music….
There were the five singles I already knew on the album, but some not in these versions. For a start I knew the Sandie Shaw version of “Hand in glove” best at this point, and both “This charming man” and “What difference does it make?” were radio session versions. There’s a freshness about “This charming man” here, not the confident leap of the hit single, but a gentle strum through a song they’ve just written and are still amazed about creating. There’s b sides which are good enough to be a sides, like “Girl afraid” and “How soon is now?” And some of the session songs are the definitive versions – not least “Reel around the fountain”.
What struck me on that first listen on Christmas Day was how sexual the songs were. I wasn’t quite expecting that! Conjugal beds and mammary glands were the most obvious signs, but there was a frisson running through so many songs which I picked up on. There were lines which resonated with me…. Actually I’m looking at the lyric sheet here and now and thinking I could quote most of these songs in their entirety for the relevance to my life at the time. I wanted someone to kiss under the iron bridge, I did feel I’d made a terrible mess of my life (and that feeling still remains), and when will I accept myself?
And yet even at this point there was a past to not return to. It just wasn’t like the old days anymore. The relationship with the past is already bittersweet. “Back to the old house” – a simple performance of Morrissey and Marr alone – was powerful for it’s simplicity as well as its accuracy. “And you never knew how much I really liked you, because I never even told you, oh and I meant to… Are you still there?” Bob Wratten has made a career from that one verse. These songs touched nerves like few I’d heard before. I still believe there is a special magic in the early music of The Smiths, an empathy for the downtrodden and demoralised, the luckless in love, the ones left behind by the race for success. That disappeared after 1984, it was like a modicum of success changed them, they became less personal, more universal by the time of “Meat is murder”. I loved them no less, but the songs on “Hatful of hollow” ring truer for me.
And I’m not even going there on how much I identified with “How soon is now?” You can imagine it for yourself. And “Reel around the fountain” too – fifteen minutes with R, well I wouldn’t say no (at the time – Ed).
For me “Hatful of hollow” is the best Smiths album. It may be a compilation but it often betters the versions on their debut, and the addition of the 1984 singles tracks which were of an incredibly high standard, makes for a perfect album. By the time I’d reached the closing “Please please please let me get what I want” on that day, I knew my life had changed slightly for the better and that the music of The Smiths would always be an important part of my life.
“Treasure” -Cocteau Twins
I first heard Cocteau Twins when they released “Pearly dewdrops drops” in the Spring of 1984. It was an immense sounding record in a year of big sounding records. It swung, it chimed, it was like a glimpse of a magical world like I’d never seen before. And that’s not even mentioning Liz Fraser’s voice. But the moment the Cocteaus clicked for me was their Peel session in the summer, and the song “Wischt” (which would become “Beatrix”). That was a truly stunning sound, I could not place what kind of instrument was making the music. I was entranced, and I was in love with their music.
As I have already mentioned in the run up to Christmas I heard a lot of this album in the Festive Fifty, and somehow the whole album became the soundtrack to Christmas. When I did receive the album on Christmas Day it was the first one to be played so really captured that post present opening feeling. Something about the sounds used makes me feel Christmassy even now. Maybe it’s the chiming bells on “Lorelei” and “Ivo”. It’s certainly not just memory, even though now I am listening I’m back on my bed, headphones on and trying to ignore whatever my brother may have been playing, smelling the turkey cooking in the oven….
There is a danger when talking about Cocteau Twins to start on lyrical flights of fancy, sonic cathedrals of sound and other things. In all fairness it’s an easy trap to fall into. You can’t focus on the words because they are indecipherable. The music is unique too, although there is still a hint of post punk within it. The song structures of “Amelia” and “Cicely” on side two are throwbacks to their gothic Banshees beginnings and my least favourite songs on the album. On the other hand, when they transcend their influences, they create something new and unique – the aforementioned “Beatrix” and the slow motion drift of whispers that is “Otterley” are otherworldly but don’t really fit into the regular Cocteaus schema. “Beatrix” is still stunning, the main instrument some bastardised dulcimer, with strange harmonic drones from time to time, while Fraser sings babytalk. And when they decide to go pop, they go POP. On “Lorelei”, “Ivo” and especially “Aloysius” the melodies soar, the guitars chime and the vocals overlap each other beautifully. “Aloysius” is my favourite song on the album, an odd choice but I adore everything about it, from the uneasy discord in the introduction to the little piano asides, and the vocals… I can’t describe how joyful this song makes me feel. I could listen to it on a loop and still not be sick of it.
One aspect that is rarely mentioned in relation to Cocteau Twins music is the drums. Guitarist Robin Guthrie was a drummer before moving to guitar and his talent for drum programing is exceptional. This is helped by his use of the Emu Drumulator, a drum machine that could be programmed in real time, without any quantisation, allowing for more realistic drum patterns. Listen to the gentle 6 / 8 swing of “Pandora” and marvel at the subtlety of the rhythm track, the snare hitting around the beat, the rolling tom toms, the hi hats tapping away. This would have been impossible on the more regimented grid based drum machines made by Roland or Linn. Another aspect of the drums is the sounds themselves. The Drumulator could be reprogrammed with samples and on “Treasure” Guthrie used the additional “Rock Set”, made up of samples of John Bonham and on songs like “Lorelei” and “Persephone” you can hear that distinctive “When the levee breaks” crunch. Well I can, anyway.
“Treasure” closes with one of its best tracks “Donimo”. Beginning with an uneasy discord before settling into a choral section of multiple Frasers (and the choral sample on an Emulator), this sets up tension before the song bursts into life, huge chorused guitars lije flapping wings, those Bonham drums crashing, and again Fraser singing like an angel. The song moves from this to a quieter chorus section of beautiful descending chord before crashing back in. It feels euphoric, like a release from all tension, it’s just wonderful.
I’ve done a crap job of writing about “Treasure”. One last point to make though. In his excellent book “Lost in music” Giles Smith writes how he spent some time recovering from cancer and listening exclusively to “Treasure”, describing it as the perfect record to immerse himself during this period, a record that isn’t so much colourful but a selection of shades of grey. (It’s a shame that the phrase “Shades of grey” has become synonymous with softcore sadomasochistic tendencies now.) I’ve probably paraphrased that badly but it makes a lot of sense. “Treasure” is that kind of album – a limited palette used in incredible ways.
On New Years Eve 1984, Whistle Test broadcast a Best Of The Year show including Cocteau Twins performed “Pearly dewdrops drops”. A week or so later they were back, performing “Lorelei”, Fraser wearing what looked like a tea cosy on her head. And I was smitten. From that point on, Liz Fraser was my first celebrity crush.
And that was Christmas 1984.
Next time – Dreams and stars and sleep