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