Tag Archives: The Smiths

Christmas And Other Trivial Pursuits

Christmas 1986 and I’m seventeen, halfway through my second year of A Levels and quietly happy. The reasons for feeling contented will be explained more in the next Goldfish post but for now just accept that for once life seems to be swinging my way for a change. As Christmas swings around I’m happy and not worried about anything and for once didn’t write a long and detailed Christmas list of what records I wanted and where to find them, which I had for the previous few years. This meant that my presents would actually be a surprise and I wouldn’t spend Christmas Eve predicting what I was going to receive the following morning. Genuine surprised face all round then when the presents were opened. 

OMD “Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” video 

Echo and the Bunnymen “Pictures on my wall” video

You know how some people make the wrong choice every time? Well that’s me and my family. Remember how Lancia gained a reputation as rust bucket death traps in the late 70s? We had one. I bought a Blackberry phone just as they stopped being good, ditto Windows Phone just as Nokia and Microsoft ditched the idea. Oh and we had one of those Vauxhalls which caught fire. And one of those Hotpoint tumble dryers which also caught fire. But the biggest wrong decision made by the Morgan household was the purchase of a Betamax video recorder in the summer of 1984. Even then we knew it was the lesser option. We would pop into the video rental shop at the top of Plassey Street next to the chip shop, gaze at the walls of videos to rent, pick one up, take it to the desk and ask forlornly “Have you got this on Betamax?” The shopkeeper would laugh and reply “Nah, only got these on Beta” and point to a small display of outdated films. Yes the sound and picture quality was fantastic, yes I had tapes which still looked great 20 years on (I ditched my last Betamax machine about ten years ago, I just had too much good stuff to lose it all) but bloody hell it was hard enough to find videos for Betamax in 1984, so how the hell did I end up with two of them for Christmas two years later? I still don’t know really.

As for the contents of these two videos they can’t really be faulted. The OMD video was reissued as part of a package with “Architecture and morality” in 2007, a CD and DVD package which was nice to see again, except that was the sixth time I had bought that album (and the fourth time on CD). As a concert experience it’s great. It’s OMD in December 1981, just cresting their wave of popularity and playing songs from their first three albums. It was the only chance I could get of seeing them perform “Statues” live and probably still is. Then there’s “The new stone age” and “Mystereality” and “Stanlow”….  There’s also some odd announcements from Andy McCluskey, some comment about “Just because the royal family come here doesn’t mean we can’t come here and have a good time” (the Royal Variety Performance had taken place in the same theatre a few days before the OMD show) He also sniffily announces “Enola Gay” as “a pop song”. Ouch.

It’s a fantastic historical document really. The audience is fascinating. The men wear suits with skinny ties and dance very awkwardly (McCluskey introduces “Motion and heart” saying “This is for those wearing thin ties”) The women have Princess Di hairstyles and wear a lot of frilly blouses. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Watching the video in 1986 was odd, I had seen OMD twice by this point and it was a far more professional band I had seen – lots of Emulators and a Fairlight on stage, a brass section and some chunky jumpers to replace the skinny ties and shirts. Back in 1981 everything looked like it was held together with sellotape and string, hardly any kind of stage show, the focus on the music and McCluskey’s dancing. Looking at it now is like stepping into a time machine. But bloody hell the band put some energy into these performances, tempos are high, they tear through “The new stone age” in the middle of the set, this electronic music is really quite human.

The Bunnymen video is somewhat different to their Liverpudlian neighbours. It’s a compilation from 1984 and contains a variety of music and forms – there’s some live footage from “Shine so hard”, their debut Top Of The Pops performance with “The back of love” from 1982, some promo videos and more. The major difference is that the Bunnymen have a mystique that was there right from the start and they’re going to maintain it no matter what. Will Mac smile at any point? Hell no. There’s lots of smoke, camouflage netting, lights from behind, shadows, coats, misery, serious and important stuff. The early live footage is great, the impressionistic film for “The puppet” and “A promise” is a little boring. The TOTP performance is fascinating – Mac can’t decide if he wants to mime or not, Pete De Freitas drums like a demon and the audience look bewildered. There’s moody videos from the Iceland trip which gave “Porcupine” a cover image. There’s a few songs from the Royal Albert Hall Concert in 1983 and a few videos from “Ocean rain” to finish with. All fine and dandy but there isn’t much personally being projected other than an aloofness which sometimes seems unfriendly. The glimpses of the audience during the RAH footage shows a very different crowd to OMD – a lot of serious young men, one female fan dancing crazily while everyone else ignores her. But the vibe given off by the whole video is “We’re special, we’re dark and moody, we’re serious” and frankly I may have enjoyed that when I was seventeen but thirty years on it’s a bit tedious. OMD seem to be having a lot more fun.

“The Smiths” – The Smiths

Now this came as a surprise. Someone must have looked at my record collection and realised that I didn’t have the debut album by the Mancunian miseries. I hadn’t told anyone I had wanted it, remember, but this was a welcome addition to the collection, even if it seemed quite old fashioned already two years after its release. After all, The Smiths of 1986 were a huge rock monster,.Johnny Marr playing a Les Paul, a second guitarist  (who had just been sacked, as it turned out) and anthems like “Panic” and “The Queen is dead” filling up the Festive 50. So listening to “The Smiths” would be a reminder of those more innocent times. But it just wasn’t like the old days any more.

The problem with “The Smiths” was the same in 1986 as it is now – the songs are great but the production is a little flat and grey, and there’s alternate versions on “Hatful of hollow” which are brighter, more sprightly and just generally better. Take album opener “Reel around the fountain” – on “Hatful” the song is in a higher key and slightly faster and Johnny Marr’s guitar shimmers like sunlight on water. On “The Smiths” the key is lowered, it’s a little sluggish and Paul Carrack adds Hammond organ and piano fills which are completely unnecessary and quite distracting. What should be the defining opening song of the debut album just drones a lot. “You’ve got everything now” also had these odd organ rolls which get in the way. On the other hand Carrack’s organ on “I don’t owe you anything” sounds more integrated into the song and works beautifully so I can’t dismiss Carrack’s contributions completely.

There are a number of elephants in the room really. There’s the lacklustre production for a start and there’s the lack of “This Charming Man” too. Yes it was on the cassette – I remember a friend showing me the tape in early 1984, as we were the only two people we knew who liked them then. And then there’s the material itself. There’s a lack of variety on offer, too many songs taken at mid tempo, too many arpeggios from Marr. You could flip the argument and make it a positive – a linear grey drizzle which is the perfect aural metaphor for the ennui and lack of drive of those lives stuck in Whalley Range and other parts of Manchester. At the time I didn’t know there was an alternate version of the album recorded with Troy Tate, and frankly if I had known I would have moved hell and high water to find a bootleg of it. As it is, the few songs issued with Tate at the helm (“Jeane”, “Pretty girls make graves”, “Reel around the fountain”) show he had a far better idea of how to layer guitars than John Porter. But then I was a huge Teardrop Explodes fan and was collecting up Tate’s excellent solo releases at the time so I would say that.

Er, where was I? Oh yes I suppose I should mention the actual album rather than what’s not there.

As always it was very easy for me as a teenager to associate myself with Morrissey’s lyrics. God damn it I would have killed for 15 minutes with whoever I crushed on at the time (again, more on that next time). There’s something very sexual about the early Smiths songs but a lot of it is thwarted by Moz’s awkwardness – he is impelled to give in to lust on “Pretty girls make graves” but he refuses, he’s too delicate for that and bloody hell yes I sort of identified with that too. “Still ill” feels like a manifesto of some kind, and I had to laugh many years later when I saw a preacher in church quote the first four lines of this song. I actually prefer this version of “Hand in glove” which must make me in a minority of one. “I don’t owe you anything” is wonderful and worth the price of admission alone.

Oh I don’t know…. I just find this album unsatisfying, a glimpse of a great album seen through a dark window. The songs are mostly great (only “Miserable lie” fails), there’s dark humour and dark thoughts and chilling thoughts and uncomfortable songs but it’s not as good as it could be. Better was to come, and even with a perspective of two years I knew they had done better. However I didn’t realise within another year they would no longer exist.

“Arthur Lee” – Arthur Lee

In 1986 I had bought “Forever changes” and “Da Capo” by Love and adored them both. I was quite happy with what I’d heard and was in no hurry to explore the rest of Love’s catalogue, or Arthur Lee’s solo work. Clearly my brother thought otherwise.

This album was recorded and issued by Rhino in 1981 and issued in the UK by Beggars Banquet. There’s twelve songs and intriguing notes from Lee himself on the sleeve. It’s an odd album this – I thought so at the time and even more so now. It’s an album out of time really. Knowing more now about Lee’s career trajectory from 1968 onwards the stylistic variety makes more sense, and I feel far more generous to this album now than I did back in 1986 when I listened a few times and consigned it to the “interesting” part of my record collection.

For a start, it’s better than I remember. “Happy me” and “One” would fit nicely onto “Four Sail” or one of the Blue Thumb albums Love made around the end of the sixties. There’s some delicate moments like “Do you know the secret?” There’s some ill advised reggae like “One on one” and “Mr Lee”… actually this album sounds like it’s been compiled from about four different recording sessions. There’s no need for Lee to rerecord “Seven and seven is” or to tackle “Many rivers to cross”. On the other hand “I do wonder” is an absolute gem, which isn’t surprising as the song was written and recorded for “Forever Changes” in 1967. It must have been hard for Lee to sit on a song as good as this for so many years.

I don’t think this album has been reissued since though I’m willing to be corrected on this. It’s a lot better (in places) than I remember. Belated thanks to Andy, only 30 years late.

“Back in the DHSS” – Half Man Half Biscuit

Could I have received a more indie present that year? Maybe “C86” but then I hated all that jingle jangle shit which clogged up half of Peel’s shows at the time. Even if HMHB had appeared on that tape, nobody really considered them to be part of C86. Sure, they shambled and were as ramshackle as the next bunch of amateurs with three chords and a mistuned Telecaster but HMHB were different …

I’d first heard them on Peel of course, it was “Sealclubbing” which ended up on the tape from early 86 with the Yeah Yeah Noh and Microdisney sessions. Then there was an appearance on “Whistle Test” breezing through “Trumpton Riots” and rumours of them blowing out “The Tube” because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game – this band weren’t going to be playing the fame game by the usual rules. Then there was the strangely melancholic Peel session with songs like “I left my heart in Papworth General” and “Reasons to be miserable” – “And I don’t know anyone who puts peaches on their corn flakes either” – and a farewell single of “Dickie Davies Eyes” and they were gone, for four years anyway.

But “Back in the DHSS” was their debut album, recorded for £40 to test out a friend’s recording studio, according to the tale at the time, and frankly it showed. There’s rough around the edges and there’s this – tape hiss, a band playing live with no time or facilities to remove mistakes, but a lot of charm. And of course there’s the songs.

This album became a totem for me and my friends. We would learn the songs off by heart and sing the lyrics when we were drunk down the Railway or hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, checking out each others record collections – “Oh, you’ve got this too?” and then ten minutes of quoting lines to each other accompanied by raucous laughter. It wouldn’t take much to set this off. My friend Nigel would look at me in the Railway and ask me “What did God give us Rob?” to which I’d reply “God gave us life, Nigel” and off we’d go. This was our Monty Python, this was our Young Ones, this was our “The Jerk”, this was OURS. The songs were fermented in a mix of minor celebrities from crap TV shows and sports programmes, children’s TV, a life of idleness in front of the worst of seventies and eighties TV, while smoking rather good weed and waiting for the next dole cheque. It could have been dreadful, but the attention to detail was so right, the references were so spot on that it made it hilarious, and not just once but over and over again. There was a form of impotent rage about the shiteness of mid 80s life within these grooves, but with humour too. There was still melancholy – which is why “Reflections from a flat” is my favourite song on the album – but there isn’t much of a hint of what they would become, which is national treasures.

Of course my main memory of this album was Christmas Day itself. My dear old Gran was with us, she was living in our house while she waited to move into a nice retirement flat after selling her house in Canton. When I opened this album, she said “Oh that looks interesting…” and starts to read the song titles. I hastily grabbed it off her because I didn’t want her to see “Fucking hell, it’s Fred Titmus” on there…. sorry Gran, you wouldn’t have understood.

Trivial Pursuit 

Gordon Wood was a work colleague of my father’s from BT, as far as I know they’d worked together for years. Maybe his family had made the same journey we had to find our way to South Wales from Leeds, I don’t know. (Maybe I should ask my Dad before I write these things). However in 1986 the Morgan family had met up with the Wood family a few times and every time we had ended up playing Trivial Pursuit. That’s how 1986 was.

The first time was in June. Andy had gone trainspotting and my parents were going over to visit the Woods in Whitchurch  (I may be wrong there) and I was looking forward to a night on my own, but then I changed my mind and went along. The Woods had two daughters, one about the same age as me and one slightly younger, both of whom had the initial of M. And of course I sort of crushed on the eldest daughter M1 as soon as I saw her. Fuck knows what she thought of the thin geeky idiot trying to impress her. So I looked through their record collection and spun their original mono copy of “Help!” and after a few drinks had loosened everyone up, Trivial Pursuit came out and Mum and I got thrashed at it. It was deemed so successful we did it again in July when my penfriend was over from Germany and again we played Trivial Pursuit and again I got beaten quite heavily, but boy was I crushing on M1. I even made an obscure reference to her in the sleeve note to my album from September 1986.

Trivial Pursuit was the big new game of the mid 80s and everyone was playing it. Admit it, you’ve played it at least once. Maybe on a phone or computer, a DVD game or maybe on a pub machine. You could even play it on a ZX Spectrum. It’s expanded out a bit, this one. You know the score – dash around a board answering questions across six categories to win six cheeses then back to the centre to win outright. Everyone was playing it, there were lots of expansion boxes of questions and frankly I can’t think of much more to say about it. It’s a game, we all played it. End of story.

Naturally Trivial Pursuit was under our Christmas tree, not just the game but an additional question pack on entertainment. This would make us all very welcome at any parties because we could add extra questions into the pot…. oh whatever. It did come in useful as we made another trip to the Woods household for New Years Eve and yet again I crushed on M1 and yet again lost badly at Trivial Pursuit. I blame my team mate, of course. (Note, I know who my team mate was thanks to my diary but I’m not telling). Then we stayed up til midnight, toasted the new year with champagne and I fell asleep on a camp bed around 1:30 am. And that was the last time I saw the Wood family. Anyway, this was all a distraction….

And other stuff…

According to my diary there was a red jumper and some chocolates and other stuff. I know someone was hoping the chocolates were Harlequin but they were After Eights which were (and still are) my favourite. There were probably blank tapes (I was fond of the silver BASF chrome c90s) and stuff like that. My diary doesn’t record what we actually did on Christmas Day itself, I was probably hiding in my bedroom playing records. Was this the year of Dirty Den dishing divorce on Angie? Well I remember watching that. The rest of the day? Probably fighting for the video recorder and the TV. Happy days.

(With thanks to Tim Worthington whose own post on Christmas 1986 inspired this post – have a look here , it’s very good, you could even buy his books too, the ones I’ve read are excellent)

Next time – we have fled from disaster…

One Christmas for your thoughts

“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.

Happy Christmas!

Next time – Dreams and stars and sleep

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

Everyone loves to argue over a top ten list – whether it be music or films or books or people or sweets (hmm, top ten sweets…. Now there’s a thought). If you like musical top tens then Toppermost is the website to check out. There’s over 350 articles there about different artists with a top ten songs included. The only reason I mention this now is because I’ve written a few articles there and I thought it might be a nice idea if I collated them all in one place on Goldfish. (Admittedly this isn’t an original idea – I’ll credit The Riverboat Captain for inspiring me to do this). My latest article is about The Smiths, a band I’ve been reluctant to write about before. It’s very much in the Goldfish style of writing, give or take a cough or two 😎 If you like me talking about music and girls and that kind of thing It might be worth a few minutes looking over it. In the meantime here’s some Toppermosts I prepared earlier.

The Kingsbury Manx

The Attack

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

Kaleidoscope

Kraftwerk

The Orchids

The Durutti Column

Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Half Man Half Biscuit (written with Rick J Leach)

Teenage Fanclub (written with Keith Shackleton aka the Riverboat Captain)

The Smiths

Please have a look at the other articles at the Toppermost website – I’m sure you will find something interesting whatever your taste in music (unless Gregorian chants are your thing, in which case sorry)

Next time – Promises promises