An apology and a warning
Firstly, a few parts of this blog post have been mentioned in passing before on Goldfish but not in as much detail as they are here. Especially not in relation to the music. Secondly, this post – and the post which follows – will be dark and darker again. It may become uncomfortable reading, but I’ve always tried to be honest here and I’m not going to whitewash over a difficult time. Of course by writing this, I’m being slightly self serving and putting my own retrospective spin on events to protect myself – an unreliable memoir. On the other hand, the main source for these posts are the final file of my diary of this period which does go into excruciating detail on what happened.
Now you’re worried, aren’t you?
Oh, and if this is your first time reading Goldfish DO NOT START HERE! Go and read some of my other posts, because this isn’t a good place to begin.
“At last the secret is out
As it always must come in the end
The delicious story is ripe to tell
To tell to the intimate friend
Over the tea cups and into the square
The tongue has its desire
Still waters run deep, my dear
There’s never smoke without fire
Behind the corpse in the reservoir
Behind the ghost on the links
Behind the lady who dances
And the man who madly drinks
Under the look of fatigue
The attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story
There is more than meets the eye
For the clear voice suddenly singing
High up in the convent wall
The scent of the elder bushes
The sporting prints on the wall
The croquet matches in summer
The handshake, the cough, the kiss
There is always a wicked secret
A private reason for this”
“At last the secret is out” by W H Auden
The first year of my degree in Sheffield Polytechnic was generally regarded as a success. I’d passed all the exams with flying colours, unwittingly attracting the attentions of a number of swotty female students. I had successfully lived ‘on my own’ for nine months, from the end of September 87 to June 88. I wasn’t really living on my own – Unit 74 Norfolk Park had three other residents beside me, two final year students and one other fresher. Us freshers were taken under their wings and guided through drinking in the student union – Nelson Mandela House – and other rites of passage, water fights, setting fire to things in the garden, foolish things. I had a small circle of friends on the course who were a good laugh to be around. But underlying all of this was a tension which had not really been resolved since the summer of 1986. I still had unrequited crushes on two females from my former school, one of whom was now studying in Sheffield Uni and living with her boyfriend there. I still didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life. I still wasn’t sure about a lot of issues – my relationship with my friends, with my home town, with my parents, with life in general. But all this uncertainty wasn’t expressed to anybody, except for the pages and pages of boring meanderings about everything I didn’t understand. To the outside world, everything was fine.
The Summer of 88 was weird. Back in Penarth after nine months away, I was thrown back into the path of all my anxieties, a social scene of parties and drinking and discos in Cardiff which I didn’t enjoy at all. Most of my friends were hooking up with partners, there were new additions to my circle of friends and I wasn’t comfortable in the Railway. Also there were shenanigans involving the DHSS not allowing me to sign on to the dole during my holiday, meaning that any money I spent was coming out of the allowance for the next year. I decided to hide throughout August, bought a Casio SK1 keyboard and recorded some of the backlog of songs I had, creating “The Kindest Lie”, a ten song album of misunderstanding, hatred and occasional rudeness – highly influenced by “Blonde on Blonde” and “Forever breathes the lonely word” (which are almost the same thing anyway). Released to my eager friends in September it was well received, even by those I was singing about in such unkind terms. (As and when I sort it out, “The Kindest Lie” will be shared on here).
At the end of September my father drove me back up to Sheffield to start my second year. A long drive soundtracked by “More Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits”, “Every face tells a story”, “Seconds of pleasure” and “The Memphis Record”. I was back in Norfolk Park, the Poly’s own accomodation halfway up Granville Road to the north of the city. I wasn’t in Unit 74 now, I was in Unit 11, one room of five, alongside four final year students who were all supposed to take care of me. All four lads knew each other and all had steady girlfriends who would often visit, make themselves at home in the communal living room and kitchen, and share the bath with their partners in the bathroom next to my room. The lads were all lovely, taking me under their wing and helping when they could, particularly in the cooking department where I was hopeless. The girlfriends were also lovely, and for a change it was nice to have female company who I could relax around, not be worried about fancying and could talk to as adults.
The second year course started nicely and we all settled into our lectures and assignments and projects. There was a year long project where four students were given a task to analyse and design a system for something via SSADM, a systems analysis tool. The joke was that I was placed with three female students for this, Indira, Caroline and Michelle. Indira was nice and quiet, Caroline I sort of fancied a little but not much, yet Michelle was a classic blonde bombshell, and had decided that based on my first year’s results I would be desirable to match up with. It was clear that she fancied me, everyone in our year knew it, she even told people, but never said anything to me. Because I didn’t really like her that much. Not my type. But we all got together and worked in libraries and lecture theatres.
About two weeks into my first term, the second week of October, I bought two important items. One was a Casio SK5 keyboard – or the Radio Shack / Tandy equivalent – for £50, a third of it’s real price. This expanded on the SK1 by having sample pads, so I could make percussion, or just noises. I could now write music in Sheffield, and tape very rudimentary demoes on songs onto my ghetto blaster. The other purchase was “Odessey and oracle” by The Zombies. It was a cheap CD reissue, a horrible light blue sleeve with some strange castle floating above clouds as an illustration. £7.99 from Our Price. But this was the soundtrack to the first month, and what an album it was.
I knew only two songs by the Zombies at this point – “She’s not there” and “Time of the season” were both on K-tel compilations my parents owned, but I was intrigued by “Odessey…”. Why had the Teardrop Explodes recorded a backing track for “The butcher’s tale” for “Wilder”? I had that on a bootleg, it sounded great, I wonder what the original is like? I suppose I wasn’t expecting quite so much melancholy on the album. “Care of cell 44” starts off jaunty but soon the dark clouds of Mellotron and minor chords slip into the song, just as it becomes clear to the listener that the song is about a character’s girlfriend in prison. While the cheery “Feels so good you’re coming home soon” chorus blasts out with full throated harmonies, the middle eight “We’re walking the way we used to walk…” always put me on edge. “A rose for Emily” is a bleak portrait of an unloved spinster, deep pools of reverb on the piano in places and already it’s a painful listen, such empathy yet still dead. Still dead. “Maybe after she’s gone” always sounded like the end music to “World in action” to me – that descending guitar arpeggio… , It iis a dream of love – it’ll never happen, it’ll never happen… The way Colin Blunstone sings the word “breath” on “I feel I’ll never breath again”. That desperation. I knew these feelings, even if unrequited. “Beechwood Park” is too beautiful and sad to contemplate, a perfect summer dream in remembrance, Rod Argent’s Hammond organ more haunting than anything Procul Harum could manage. “Brief candles” – more loss and remembrance. Sorry, I’m just repeating myself. I know what’s coming both on the album and in the story. “Her sadness makes her smile” is the key here, transposed to him and me and me and ME. Sorry, this is no good. That wordless high middle eight. “Hung up on a dream” is unspeakable. More often than not I can’t listen to the song without welling up. Another perfect dream in remembrance, more heartbreaking chord changes, those gauzy backing vocals towards the end, Blunstone singing like a wounded choirboy, THAT CHORD CHANGE AT 1:18 to 1:20. Of course it’s all a dream. (Wipes tears away). Sorry
“Sometimes I think I’ll never find
Such purity and peace of mind again”
Now here’s an interesting point. I always saw “Odessey and Oracle” as songs grouped in threes, four three song packages. The only other album I think of like this is “Isn’t anything”, an album I was aware of at this time, having heard “Cigarette in your bed” on “Doing it for the kids” and Peel playing “Feed me with your kiss” while I was in my room in Unit 11 and me laughing at how distorted it was. But I wouldn’t buy that LP for six months yet.
“Changes” and “I want her she wants me” are a respite from what has gone before, thank God. “Changes” always annoyed me because stereo panning was so primitive (or was this when they ran out of money?). “I want her…” Is just jaunty, and frankly I’m glad of it. “This will be our year” is hopeful but still streaked by sadness – does Blunstone believe it? “Butcher’s Tale” truly is scary, a view of the First World War. And now I can hear how Julian Cope would sing it. “Friends of mine” is simply perfect, the most cheerful love song, thank God. And yes all the ‘friends’ they name have split up now, but the idealism is there. “But when I feel bad when people disappoint me, that’s when I need you two to help me believe”. “Time of the season” is also perfect, from the quiet drum and bass intro (was this an influence on the start of “Come Together”, do you think?) through the gorgeous harmonies and choppy guitar and organ. So much space, so much beauty. Even the two overlapping organ solos sound great over each other, even if they were a mistake. It sounds like “I want you (she’s so heavy)” during the instrumental break – was Lennon a Zombies fan? Hmm.
A great album closer
“Odessey and Oracle” hung over me like a cloud of melancholy blue during October, and my diary records me being exhausted by lectures and tutorials and assignments, but also records a growing self awareness – on 6th October I state “I have lost the art of conversation – I can’t say anything, my mind doesn’t think in terms of starting conversations… I can’t put into words what I think any more”. But I seemed to cope with the ridiculous work load until the end of the month when I am knocked sideways by a cold and an ear infection, being bed ridden for a week or two, unable to walk without explosions in my head, finding my way to a doctors and getting lost and ending up in Derby on a bus, and reading a Clive James novel to take my mind off things. I was drugged up to the eyeballs and not in a fit state to do much.
But I was still trying to attend lectures and doing coursework but somehow my heart wasn’t quite in it. I visited my brother in Hull on 5th November and picking up a couple of Felt EPs, “Document and eyewitness” by Wire and “Escape from noise” by Negativland. I popped along to the Leadmill that evening to see Happy Mondays but they didn’t play – allowing support band Eat to have a full set instead. (Years later I found out via the Leadmill’s website what happened. The Mondays were there, but so off their heads in the dressing room that they believed they had already played and absolutely refused to play ‘an encore’, so Eat played instead).
And then on 8th November I had a panic attack on paper. I call it a crisis of confidence but it was so much more than that. A lot of capitalisation, a lot of fear for the future, a lot of worry, a lot of uncertainty about my motivation for doing the course, or anything at all. A lot of comparing myself unfavourably to my family, to other people. A lot of disappointment, hating myself for not doing as well as I should have. Three pages of panic, and nothing is sorted. Then the next entry is as if nothing has happened… “Went to Heriot House, did ISE assignment”… But inside my head a switch had been tripped, and that was the turning point.
Not that I told anyone. I maintained a semblance of normality and November progressed with the Unit 11 room-mates inviting their partners over for weekends, and lots of ‘coupling’ in the bathroom next to my room. Life seemed ok, then on 17th November I received a letter from my parents telling me our house in Penarth had been burgled and that totally freaked me out. Being so far away from them, only about to ring them from a crappy call box by the bursars office, feeling lost and homesick. I dashed back to Penarth for the weekend, cried a lot and recorded “Escape from noise”. Returning to Sheffield mentally caned, that album didn’t offer solace or solutions, it just offered thoughts and feelings I didn’t believe could be expressed through music.
I don’t see the point in going track by track through “Escape from noise”. It’s not that kind of album. It needs to be listened to deeply in full from end to end. Maybe now it sounds out of date, but then it sounded spot on. From the announcement to radio pluggers who rely on “intangibles like taste and intuition” onwards, the album sucks you in with cross references throughout. The phrase “Is there any escape from noise?” seems more pertinent in the social media chatter of the 21st Century. Sometimes I like to take a day away from Twitter just to see how life was before. To regain composure. If only life was that easy all the time. That repeating synthetic pattern… It just depends on breaking the records over radio – now that dates it. Thoughts continue – the gun debate is clearly still topical, there’s still stress in marriage and I won’t even mention the last song on side one. That’s not even funny. “Yellow black and rectangular” is still one of my favourite pieces of music ever, but then Boards Of Canada never topped “Zoetrope”… And finally “You don’t even live here” really does make me cry, the emotion, the real world impinging on my private world… “You don’t have to talk, you don’t even live here, you have NO STAKE IN THIS PROCESS”. Someone shouting “Pay attention” in the background. Still sounds relevant today. A wonderful album which is often forgotten.
Returning to Sheffield there still seemed a form of normality at the end of November, I wrote about the project and lectures and other things. But even on 22nd November I wrote “I’m going mad and I don’t care anymore…I wander around in a daze not speaking unless spoken to…I must be insane to think some of my little thoughts…please don’t press on this subject…”
Of course if I had actually spoken to anyone about the way I felt then perhaps somebody could done something about it. Looking back on what I wrote with hindsight I can see obvious signs not just of depression but also Aspergers – not wanting to communicate, internalising feelings, not wanting to let anyone down, putting my head in the sand and hoping everything would go away, But Aspergers wasn’t well known back then, I just thought I was going nuts.
So I started to disappear. Instead of going to lectures I would take day trips – to Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham… Anywhere but Sheffield. I didn’t really do anything in these places, other than buy the occasional record. On a trip to Leeds on 28th November I bought the tape of “Bummed”, the second album by Happy Mondays. I played it on the train home to Sheffield, walking up Granville Road with a huge shit eating grin on my face, even going into the living room of Unit 11 and sitting on the sofa refusing to take my headphones off as the last two songs played.
During the summer of 88, Tony Wilson gave an interview to the short lived “Offbeat” magazine where he said he had the world’s best dance act – New Order – and the most beautiful solo act – Cath Carroll – and the world’s best rock act – Happy Mondays. He was almost right. Pairing the Mondays with Martin Hannett was a genius move, whoever thought of it. Hannett gets better performances out of the band than John Cale did on their debut, and gives the songs a strange echoing yet clear production, it sounds like something interesting is going on in the background but you just can’t quite hear it. And the influence of acid house is there throughout the album, but the Mondays try to recreate the hypnotic sounds of acid’s electronics through their own Can-style repetitions, the songs swaying and swooping like drunken dancers. You can mentally picture Bez swinging away on “Moving in with”. And Shaun Ryder is lyrically on top form, images and thoughts and everything thrown into the deep stew. “Mad Cyril” drops in samples from “Performance” which then gets namechecked on the final song on side one, a trance inducing mid tempo groove. All of the mad lowlife of Manchester was here, from fat lady wrestlers to other brain dead fuckers. “Wrote for luck” may have become remixed and made more dancefloor friendly but the album version – trying to induce the trance state again for six minutes – is absolutely perfect. It didn’t need Vince Clarke’s sequencers or whatever. “Do it better” is acid house on guitars, or “On one” anyway and could make anyone dance. “Lazyitis” as a closer works perfectly, the sitar and Beatles references a nod to the first Summer of Love. “Bummed” was Happy Mondays on their cusp, just reaching their peak and in my opinion they would not make a better album.
At the start of December everything was falling apart. I admit to the diary that I hadn’t been to a lecture for over a week, then return to be greeted like a leper. Michelle had been around to Unit 11 while I was on a bender and all my housemates fell in love with her, but she was concerned about me and would sit me down in the refectory or in our group meetings trying to get inside my head, but I didn’t want to know. She would see me out in pubs and it would get back to me, which is where the joke that I was being watched by “Michelle’s Satellite” came from. But any concern fell on deaf ears, I was so wrapped up in my own little world, my own problems, making mountains out of molehills, sinking deeper into depression.
So I went out and got bladdered, then stayed up watching “The Other Side Of Midnight”. OSM was a beacon in the darkness during those days – when acid house was breaking through and being vilified by everyone from the police to the BBC, Tony Wilson would broadcast his late night arts show with as much reference to what was going on in the music world. He had Happy Mondays on choosing their flares from the Joe Bloggs warehouse, then performing a mesmerising version of “Performance”, showing they really were one of the best live bands at the time. (Happy Mondays also appeared on a Granada TV show for schools on the music industry, showing recording and promotion and launching the LP “Bummed” without mentioning the LP name – it’s on YT and is a fascinating time capsule – ooh look there’s James Brown before he started Loaded…). OSM also had a show live from Victoria Baths in Manchester, where a rave seemed to be taking place – A Guy Called Gerald playing “Voodoo Ray” live, their outdated Roland TB303s and TR909s set out on a table and sounding like the future, then a wonderful portion where Tony Wilson interviewed Pete Waterman on why “The Hit Man and Her” was championing acid house – “Acid House is the most important thing since the Beatles” said the man from Warrington, “I’d say since the Pistols” said the man from Salford and they were both right.
Of course The Leadmill had regular acid house nights – Friday by the look of it. Thursday was The Beat Club, all sixties music – and the primitive stereo on “Nowhere Man” would leave half the venue dancing to the music and the other half dancing to the vocals. Fridays had odd art shows in the early evenings, then acid and indie – “the DJ will play a Wedding Present song and all the indie kids will stop being wallflowers and dance, then head back to the shadows again if a drum machine comes on”. I once frightened everyone around me by dancing crazily to “Do the du” by ACR. But people tend to forget Sheffield’s part in acid house – it was only over the Pennines from Manchester and the Leadmill regularly hosted Graeme Park and Mike Pickering as DJs. And don’t forget FON Records was where Warp Records was born. And of course Sheffield’s electronic history – from the Human League to Cabaret Voltaire in Western Works which moves onto Warp… Yes Sheffield may not have been as vocal about its importance as Manchester but then it never had a TV show like OSM or a champion like Tony Wilson or a focus like the Hacienda.
Sidetrack rant over
The big night in Manchester’s 1988 history was the GMEX show by New Order with Happy Mondays and A Certain Ratio. ACR played a warm up show for that night on Tuesday 13th December at the Leadmill with A Guy Called Gerald as support. I was there, right at the front. AGCG played “Voodoo Ray” and songs from their Peel session which was marvellous but the crowd wanted more – the weekend before they had been on OSM playing their version of Ed Barton’s “Born in the north” anthem and the crowd kept chanting “Born in the North!” until Gerald came back on, reprogrammed his machines for a minute then played the song for us. A Certain Ratio were also on top form, performing a lot of new songs – which would end up on “Good Together” a year later. But they also played a lot of old material – “Bootsy”, “Sounds like something dirty”, “Wild party”. I was leaning on Jeremy Kerr’s monitor and nicked his drink (rum and coke, if you’re interested). A good night.
But good nights were few and far between and the week before Christmas I returned to Penarth knowing I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt, what was going on in my head, even though I should have. Something inside me couldn’t admit I was in trouble even though I knew I was sinking fast. So Christmas passed in a flurry of drinking and recording the songs I’d written on my Casio in Sheffield, songs which said what I couldn’t admit to anyone. A mini LP entitled “No happy endings”.
Then my parents looked at my bank balance…
Next time – Further into the fog I fall…