Sometimes the choices you make define who you are at that particular moment. On the 27th November 1990 I made a choice that defined who I was then. It was the day that Happy Mondays issued “Pills Thrills’n’Bellyaches” and I was going to buy it on the first day it was available. I was wandering around HMV in Cardiff that afternoon having completed lectures at the Poly of Wales at Treforest earlier that day, and I looked at the huge displays of the album all over the store and thought about all the grief I’d had in the halls of residence in Sheffield in 1988 for putting up Happy Mondays posters on my walls – “Never heard of them, they’ll go nowhere with a name like that”. After ten minutes I replaced the CD of their album on the racks, walked over to the Various Artists CD rack, picked up “Air Balloon Road” and purchased it instead. Looking back, that was the point where I transferred my allegiance from Factory Records to Sarah Records.
I became aware of Factory Records during the summer of 1983. It was that unauthorised OMD biography again – it explained how OMD had started on Factory but Tony Wilson encouraged them to sign to a major label and how they weren’t seen as “in the same camp as Joy Division, Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio.” (A quote from the book itself). Just those three names intrigued me – a band called A Certain Ratio? Were they like A Flock Of Seagulls then? I certainly didn’t make the connection between Joy Division and New Order at the time, even though I adored “Blue Monday” and taped it off the radio. When “Love will tear us apart” re-entered the chart in the Autumn of ’83 I still didn’t make the connection, especially as “Confusion” sounded so different from it. “Confusion” sounded like “IOU” by Freeez – how could it be related to that totally different rock tune? It was later in ’83 that my father’s “History of Rock” magazine subscription reached one of the final issues where they explained the history of JD into NO, alongside a track listing for “Power Corruption and Lies” that mentioned “KW1” – working title for “Your smiling face” – and a larger picture of Peter Saville than New Order. The first Factory Record I bought was “Still” – it was early April ’84 and I was depressed about life as only a fourteen year old could be, so it seemed like the right kind of purchase, to show that I really did mean I was depressed. I approached “Still” as if some sacred text – this man died for me, it says here, so I’d better take it seriously. It wasn’t a bundle of laughs but I loved it, especially “Glass”, “The only mistake” and “Dead souls”. That last song was stunning – the tension in the music and Ian Curtis’ words and performance captured how I felt at that point. I wanted more of this, and luckily I started to collect whatever New Order records I came across – “Power Corruption and Lies” bought on holiday in Oxford Easter 84, “Thieves like us” just after my birthday, “Blue Monday” and “Confusion” later in the summer of 84. The lack of information on the sleeves was infuriating and the music press didn’t help – they treated the band with kid gloves and interviews weren’t exactly fact-filled. Record Collector published a fascinating though error-packed Factory discography in late ’84 and that gave me loads of things to investigate. I picked up other singles and albums by Quando Quango, Joy Division, New Order, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio and Section 25 as I found them and loved almost everything – except early Section 25 which I could never get my head around. As time passed by I kept my eyes peeled for Factory Records in second hand shops and in 1986 bought two wonderful albums just because they were on Factory.
In May 1986 our family had a disastrous holiday in Looe in Cornwall. We stayed in a caravan at the top of the hill before the descent into the town and it was far from salubrious. It did give us a good base to drive around the towns and I remember we had a nice day out to St Ives and we took a trip up to Plymouth – the scene of a far better holiday around the same time in May in ’83. My brother had only just passed his driving test and we let him drive one day and that stopped after he drove the car up a hedge. We had a little white Austin Maestro car at the time and I sat in the back, headphones on, watching the world go by.
The soundtrack to the holiday was my tape of “Pillows and prayers” the classic Cherry Red compilation which I’d bought a few days before the holiday and I listened to the album constantly. On the journey down I was playing the opening song “Portrait” by Five Or Six and thinking how I didn’t understand their name, except at some point I fell asleep into a mini-sleep and dreamt I knew what their name meant, then woke up thirty seconds later knowing I had known the answer but couldn’t remember it. I bought the album because I knew a few artists on there – Felt, The Monochrome Set – and “Pillows and prayers” was a wonderful package simply for having a huge amount of information on its inner sleeve – comprehensive discographies for all the acts on the record to give you more to investigate and I did look into acts from the album – Eyeless in Gaza, Tracey Thorn and many more. And it gave me “Compulsion” by Joe Crow, a song I still listen to in amazement now, it’s so simple and so perfect and everything I wanted my own music to be.
The holiday though was a disaster – the caravan leaked, the toilet didn’t flush properly and when it did it flooded the bathroom – so by Tuesday we gave up, packed up and returned home vowing not to tell anyone we were back – otherwise my brother and I would have had to go back to school. On the way back home we stopped in Plymouth again and found a nice second hand record shop in the market where I bought “Bookends” (and hence found out what “Voices of old people” was like, it wasn’t on the tape we had) and “Alma Mater” by The Stockholm Monsters. I knew nothing about the band or the album but it was two pounds and it looked interesting.
It turned out to be a great little album. My copy didn’t have an inner sleeve so I didn’t have any credits to work with so I had no idea that it was produced by Peter Hook though when I did find out it made perfect sense – the rumbling high profile bass guitar sound throughout gave the game away. In places some songs sound like New Order out-takes but that wasn’t the main appeal of the album though – the songs seem simple, there are minimal and uncomplicated chord changes, but layered on top are keyboard and guitar melodies that are richly textured. After some echoed laughter the opener “Terror” sets the scene nicely – “Listen now and I will tell you everything you need to know” – in an uptempo manner with lightly strummed guitars and keyboards and trumpets brightening the corners of the arrangement. “Where I belong” rattles along with stereo guitar games and bristling percussion while Tony France starts to loosen up – over a repeated refrain of “Everything’s wrong” he declaims “I seem to have no other choice than to let things stay the way they are” but doesn’t sound too upset about it. The jangling guitars and trumpets brings to mind The June Brides for some reason and it seemed to make perfect sense listening to this proto-shambling music in 1986. “Decalogue” is slower, more considered, only two chords with TR808 drum machine holding the rhythm as the verses calmly progress, for the whole arrangement to fill out in the instrumental sections – trumpets, keyboards, tom tom drum rolls expressing the emotions that can’t be expressed verbally. “Winter” is the most New Order-like with Hooky bass and Emulator string sounds but “Five o’clock” is totally different – another drum machine ticking, a Casio MT-45 as the main instrument (a fact that gave me immense pleasure as that was the Casio I had – my keyboard on a real record!) and a marvellous vocal from Tony France – as the song builds to a climax he finally puts his full heart into a rant concluding with “And if I was to say to you PLEASE GO AWAY!” – a more polite version of the closing lines of “Your smiling face” perhaps? And the song trundles on – he tries to re-enter the song three times – “It’s then you see…” – each time less committed, and finally speaking to someone in the studio – “I’m lost!” – an admission of defeat. A totally human song, simply beautiful.
Side two kicks off with a medley – “Life’s two faces” races along like “Age of consent” with sharp single note guitar lines and rich layers of synths and constant rolling tom toms but Tony’s not happy – “I can’t take this any more” – but the joyous music belies his words. The song closes as instruments fall away and Tony’s line “Don’t look down” echoes as the tom tom rolls continue – someone shouts “I’m trying to finish”, someone else shouts “Uniform” and frantically strummed guitars introduce “Your uniform” – more joyous noise but Tony’s pointedly tearing into someone – “I think I’ll close my eyes now and turn my back on you”. The second verse is more considered, at least lyrically, while guitars scrub away to the close on a synth chord. The medley sounds so natural, the transition so perfect, it was a shock to hear the two songs separately on the LTM reissue in 2002. “E.W.” is a second cousin to “Winter” on side one, so much so that I still get them confused sometimes. But hell, the lead keyboard part is the Electric Piano preset on the MT-45 so I can’t complain. Tony still seems distressed and aiming at someone again – “You laughed along, laughed along, but never seem to get the joke” – and you feel slightly perturbed listening to such accurately targeted vitriol. “To look at her” is back to slower drum machine territory, like a better version of “We all stand”, there’s an atmosphere of quiet despair in the verses, with more tension building in the choruses as Tony’s vocals get strained in a wonderful way – the grain of his voice showing off perfectly. The album ends with “Something’s got to give” and again it’s only two chord changes but the tension is ratcheted up as the drums clatter in and Tony finally nails his problem – “Someone tell me what life’s about, someone told us you’ll never get out” – and the song grinds on speeding up gently and after 90 seconds the song accelerates to a halt of the same echoed laughter which started the album, bringing it full circle. All the songs struck a chord with me, I loved the energy, the rough edges, the sound of a band playing together. I couldn’t interest any of my friends in the album though so kept it like my own secret, a special album just for me. And I kept an eye out for any further Stockholm Monsters records, or anything else on Factory.
If you’ve been following this blog you will recall I mentioned the summer of ’86 was a time I hid in my room from the day I was thrown out of the Railway pub to the day I passed an entrance interview for a private college in Cardiff to complete my A levels. Admittedly you’d have to read two different blog entries to work that out but as David Frost often said “The clues are all there”. Well I wasn’t strictly telling the truth there. I couldn’t stay in my room for a month and a half. However something was definitely up as I hardly wrote a word in my diary during that time and I wrote in my diary religiously almost every day. I did write one entry on the 6th of August which basically said “The only thing I care about at the moment is ‘Here comes everybody’ and ‘Compass Kumpas'”. I can remember going to Cardiff on the 5th August, sulking and skulking around, finding “Compass Kumpas” by Dalek I in Kellys in the market and “Here comes everybody” by The Wake in WH Smiths. I took them home and absorbed them as much as I could,
I knew little about Dalek I except for the part that the two members Dave Hughes and Alan Gill played in the OMD and Teardrop Explodes stories respectively. I wasn’t expecting proto synth pop psychedelia. It sounds like a horrible idea, but the reality is great. Being a record from 1980 it’s all cheap drum machines and mono synths, but Alan Gill adds intriguing guitar – sometimes backwards, sometimes spindly, never traditional chords. He also sings in a lovely breathy manner, like a post punk slightly camp Colin Blunstone. So nothing like Colin Blunstone really. Highlights are the singles “Destiny” and “Freedom fighters” – both almost as good as what OMD were doing at the time – and hearing the latter song made me realise that I’d heard it before in an episode of the quirky BBC comedy “A very peculiar practice”. “A suicide” is a graphic account of someone’s thoughts of suicide then actually committing the act, followed by a jaunty song called “The kiss”, the opening line of which was “Wasn’t it me who said how nice it would be to be dead? Well I’ve changed my point of view…”. The whole album has its own unique sound world – it’s minimal and dubby in places, there’s huge gaps in the music sometimes but it all works well. There’s even an odd cover of “You really got me” thrown in for good measure. It gets more interesting when the songs start to stretch out towards the end of side two – “We’re all actors” and “Heat” are strangely shaped pop songs with noises coming from odd angles, sharp corners, more dub spaces and odd uses of reverb and effects. The closing song “Missing fifteen minutes” goes through a number of phases, built up through a loop of clanking machine sounds and wild guitar, then quiet sections with a multiple voice overs, then speeding back to the original introduction. It was a strange record and curiously influential – it was produced by Chris Hughes (who also played drums on it) and it was through their love of “Compass Kumpas” that Tears For Fears hooked up with Hughes for their albums. It was briefly reissued on CD in 1990 with a number of extra tracks – the two b-sides to the “Destiny” single and both sides of the “Heartbeat” / “Astronauts” single issued in 1981. I ended up buying these singles from second hand shops later in ’86 and “Heartbeat” is a wonderful glimpse of what could have been. Again it was produced by Chris Hughes – this time under his Merrick guise (well he was an Ant at the time) – and “Heartbeat” is a neat pounding piece of electro pop. The double a-side “Astronauts (have landed on the moon)” is a wistful slice of Beatle-esque guitar pop with lush harmonies and a lovely lyric about the overwhelming power of nostalgia to stop you living in the present day. Sadly Dalek I turned away from this direction and I may go back to their progress at a later date.
The other record I was absorbing that August was “Here comes everybody” by The Wake. I had seen one scathing review of this album in the Melody Maker late in ’85 and wondered could it be that bad. The answer was no, it was in fact the opposite. At a time when I needed a melancholic record that deals with failing and fucking up and relationships in peril and yes indeed killing yourself then “Here comes everybody” turned up in my life exactly at the right time. That sentence is a bit crap but you understand what I’m trying to say.
“O Pamela” opens with waves of polysynth block chords and simple guitar lines over the top, then a drumbeat kicks in and a bass joins in, then the opening line. “This is a page from my diary, fifteen day of November”. I was won over immediately. This was how I wanted songs to be, like my life, like my thoughts. “And although the feeling’s changed, the words still sound the same” – absolutely. It’s odd, I have had a few random books of my diary out over the last few months, partly out of curiosity and partly to help research what I’m writing on the blog and reading the old words is a peculiar feeling – it’s like a gateway back into my past, I see the page, my handwriting (and boy my handwriting has got worse over the years) and the words there, what I’m trying to express and I can close my eyes and be back in my bedroom in Penarth, can smell the clean air coming up from the sea, can sea our cats asleep on my bed… But that’s not what the song is about, that’s just one line. I could be wrong, I might be putting my own spin on the song but I think it’s about the diary writer having a crush on Pamela. (But then I would think that, wouldn’t I?). “First thing in the morning the telephone rings, Pamela says ‘Oh look at the time’, believe me that’s the last thing on my mind”. He’s just so glad to hear her voice. But there’s odd intimations – “Can I take a walk with you by the ocean? O Pamela, before it’s too late”. Too late for what exactly? In the meantime the guitars strum gently and the synths are still … Well these days people would call them ‘pads’ but that’s not how it was back then. A good start.
“Sail through” and “Send them away” are … Ok. “Sail through” sounds like listening to a private conversation until you notice on the lyric sheet (yes a lyric sheet, on a Factory Record, surely a first) that some lines are in quotes then you realise Caesar is quoting from “I don’t want to talk about it”. “Send them away” is almost a song of hope and comfort. Some people are saying horrible things, Caesar’s advice is to “close your eyes” but again it sounds like only half the story, there’s parts missing. They’re both good songs but compared to what comes next they are just OK.
“Melancholy man” is seven minutes long and barely feels like it. I don’t really talk about the music on the album because it is consistent – warm synths, sparkling single lines of guitar or arpeggios, subtle basslines, drums that are just right. The songs have this ‘limited’ range or vocabulary of sound but are still gorgeously rich in texture and sound. “Melancholy man” has an intro of nearly 90 seconds before the singing starts, setting the scene. The first verse is written from the perspective of the titular Melancholy gentleman, with his “long grey overcoat that trails along the ground”. You have to wonder whether this was tongue-in-check – was Caesar taking the piss out of the Factory Funsters? The character in the first verse mentions how he is teased by children on the bus but how they misunderstand him – “If only they can see how happy I can be but sometimes they must look away…”. The second verse is from the view of the children themselves and how they empathise with him and try to cheer him up – “We smiled at you but you didn’t smile at us” – and how they do understand him really. After a guitar break the final outro is either a genius move or a total cop-out – the entire final verse of “Vincent” by Don Mclean is quoted verbatim then the song fades out, like the gentleman’s life as he passes away.
Side two starts with what could be called a normal pop song – “World of her own”. Cheerful melody and mouth organ (or is it melodica?) over more block chords. Again it sounds like an intrusion on a private conversation until the middle eight – “Yes I’m sure tomorrows tend to be too late to change your ways, yesterdays are easier to imitate”. A brilliant line.
“Torn curtain” has Simon Topping (ex-A Certain Ratio) adding latin percussion and the song has some dub shadings, the music dropping out to bass and drums. The lyrics deal candidly with another failed relationship, at the point where one party is broaching the subject of leaving. A tricky point. “But nobody listens to the words in a song”. “All I asked you to do” could be my favourite song on the album, a melancholic swing from minor to major chords and a lyric which is a subtle reworking of “Do you remember Walter?” by the Kinks only this time it’s not the narrator’s best friend that is being remembered but a girl the narrator loved. The first verse remembers her fondly ending on “Perhaps she wouldn’t recognise me after all this time”. The second verse inverts this slightly – “And she always seemed so carefree, she always seemed so kind, perhaps I wouldn’t recognise her after all this time”. The implication being that she isn’t carefree or kind any longer, that life has taken its toll on her. And all he asked her to do? To talk or to dance. And did she say yes? Probably not. I knew that feeling. As the song draws to a close the synth washes become more orchestral and fade out to some kind of radio playing then a scratchy guitar figure introduces the title track. This is more dub wise again – a heavy bass line – and Simon Topping reappears with a coterie of percussion noises. The lyrics imply so much – “Milk and honey waiting for me on the other side, I’ll never fall in love again but you could change my mind”. There’s a major betrayal going on yet Caesar sings it all so gently, not raising his voice, it’s finally too late – “Who kissed you on Sunday?” – it’s all got too much – “When I’m not with you I can see myself falling to the ground” – he’s been pushed over the edge – “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me” –
and there’s no way back from this betrayal – “You kissed him on Sunday”. The lyrics stop but the music continues and a guitar expresses what can’t be said verbally – a distorted echoing guitar that rises up through the song like a tower of righteous anger and breaks the song apart before returning to the original scratchy guitar figure that opened the song and as the instruments stop and fade, the guitar – which has been on a minor chord for seven minutes – slides up the fret board to a major chord,
So, between “Compass Kumpas” and “Here comes everybody” there’s three songs whose narrators commit suicide. And I probably played “The Queen Is Dead” a few times that summer too. Happy days happy days. Was I in a deep deep hole? Yes. Was I dragged out of it eventually? Yes thankfully. My brother’s A level results arrived in mid August and were worse than expected so he had to resit them, and was given the chance to resit them in a private college in Cardiff. A week later I was amazed to find I’d passed an auxiliary O level in Maths to be able to sit the A Level, so was also offered the chance to go to the same college. (Also that day another Gema Records order arrived with “Da Capo” and “Climate of hunter” for me – both remind me of that peculiar day). Suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel, and I reappeared in the Railway at the end of August carefully drinking lemonades.
I still wanted more Factory Records and picked them up as and when I could. I never found any early Stockholm Monsters singles, but did buy “Partyline” when it was issued in 1987 – the closing section where they reel off a list of names who’ve helped them along the way – “And a last goodbye from the Stockholm Monsters!” – still makes me miss a breath or two. The b-side “Militia” was a more traditional frantic dash for the finish line, more jangling guitars and a heartfelt vocal – “Let’s go out for a walk, somewhere we can talk, oh I love you oh so much…”. And that was the end of the Monsters.
The Wake though… Late in 1987 I found their “Something that no-one else could bring” twelve inch EP and loved it. John Leckie produced it and gave it his usual clear touch. The songs are less personal and depressing and could be normal pop songs with chiming guitars and plenty of melodic hooks. “Pale sceptre” was almost contemporary, a lilting female lead vocal and plenty of “Sha-la-la-la”s. Highlight was “Plastic flowers” which felt so fragile you could break it by looking at it – a delicious pop confection of a love song. “Never been less unhappy and safe, everyone knows me…they seem to like me too”. Finding love and acceptance. It was a happy song by the Wake and augured well for their future.
In the meantime I found some more of The Wake’s back catalogue. In the winter of 1988 I bought their debut album “Harmony” and played it incessantly that Christmas. It was stark, brutal, dark and chilling – just what I needed to hear. The debt to their Factory fathers was more obvious here, the bass being more prominent, the guitars being more scratchy than melodic, the keyboards being repetitive and minimal. Again there’s more hurt and betrayal on show – “I don’t know what to make of you, I don’t want to be touched by you”, “Now I know what friends are for” (in the most bitter voice possible), “I keep my cares deep within…”. Highlights? Well side two was nigh+on perfect. “Favour” is spritely guitar pop with an insistent riff. “Heartburn” is more moody, an ascending bassline against descending guitar chords and rolling drums and a yearning vocal, obsessing over the girl again – “This goes on and on until the feeling ends at the light of day, where do you stay?”. As the song fades out, Caesar adds “But it’s over now” and you feel like it’s only just starting. “An immaculate conception” sees a final betrayal as the song ticks steadily towards combustion around three minutes as drums cascade and guitars snarl for another three minutes. A month or so later I found the “Something outside” twelve inch in a second hand record shop in Sheffield – the shop assistant said to me “What sort of fool sells their records by The Wake?” – and that was only two songs but good ones. “Something outside” pointed towards the sound world of “Here comes everybody” – block synth chords and lovely guitar and an odd lyric – “I feel just like a weatherman”. “Host” really was dubby, emphasis on the bassline and once the slightly tuneless singing ends, some odd orchestral string stabs and swells surge through the mix. Odd but lovely. At that point – early 89 – I’d not seen or heard anything of the Wake for over a year and just assumed they’d split up.
But there were other Factory acts I liked. I’d cottoned on to Happy Mondays when I saw their bright orange oversized box for the cassette of their debut album, and loved their oddly shaped funk. I saw them a few times around the time of “Bummed” as well at the Leadmill or Sheffield Uni – I was there the night in late 88 where they were due to play instead of The La’s, then turned up but refused to play – the reason I found out many years later via the Leadmill’s website was that they were in the dressing room and were so out of it that they were convinced they’d already played the set before they started so couldn’t be persuaded onstage. Living in Sheffield meant I could take regular trips to Manchester to buy whatever looked interesting so I ended up with a nice collection of those big boxes – Section 25, The Railway Children, Wim Mertens, if it looked interesting and in a big box I was probably going to end up owning it.
But times change… I knew Happy Mondays were getting popular when an old schoolfriend of mine came into the Railway in Spring 1990 saying “Hi Rob, you’re twisting my melon man.”. I’m going to come across as an insufferable indie snob here but at that point I slowly started to disassociate myself. I still loved the music but I preferred their earlier songs, their earlier attitude, and the earlier attitude of Factory themselves – all that “Wake up America, you’re dead” turned out to be ironic considering what was around the corner. And luckily there was something else just around the corner to get obsessed about. And oddly enough The Wake would sort of lead me
Next time : Where The Wake led me.