Tag Archives: Wire

Blessed State

In retrospect, I must admit I hadn’t really enjoyed studying for my A levels. The first year in the lower sixth at Stanwell had been a series of personal and emotional disasters (all pretty much self-inflicted – see previous posts) with poor exam results at the end. The second year in the upper sixth at New College Cardiff had brought a fresh start, new friends, but there were still problems, mainly with maths. A Level maths had blown my mind – all vectors and differentiation and calculus and I really didn’t understand it or see the point to it. It didn’t help that my eyesight was so poor that I couldn’t read the small numbers involved in the equations. I fell out with my lecturer and stupid words were spoken and the headmaster had come down on me like a ton of bricks regarding the honesty and integrity of his school and his staff. Which was funny now considering what he got up to at the time (there were rumours of dodgy doings even then) and what would happen in the future (he sold the college building in the centre of Cardiff for £4m so it would be redeveloped as a hotel – only he didn’t tell anyone until five months later when the college suddenly closed). So I had extra maths lessons from a nice lady called Irene and struggled through the exams and courseworks. Everything else suffered so I could concentrate on my Maths, which was a shame really. Once I’d finished all the exams halfway through June I was at a loose end for the first time in my life.

So what do you do when you know your results won’t come out until the middle of August? Well you could apply for some jobs for a start. A job came up in the Virgin record shop franchise within the Debenhams store in Cardiff and I applied, had an interview, probably came over as an indie snob and didn’t get the job. There was also this odd IBM thing I was interviewed for. I can’t even remember applying for it but I was invited down to one of their headquarters in Southsea near Portsmouth for a day of interviews and assessments. I secretly thought it was hilarious to be interviewed by Big Blue as my first tapes back in ’85 had been on my own label called IBM Tapes, where IBM stood for Industrial Beat Music. Yeah right. Anyway… As it would be a whole day there IBM even put me in a hotel the night before. It was a horrible cheap place whose curtains didn’t close, the bed was too small, and the sound of the amusements down the road filtered through the single glazed windows. The next day I was ferried along to IBM’s offices in a bus alongside fifty or so other candidates. Once there I ate horrible food, had three interviews, an aptitude test and a group exercise where I said virtually nothing. That may have been my undoing. I headed back on the train and read Melody Maker’s 4AD records special to celebrate “Lonely is an eyesore”. I didn’t get the IBM job either.

Meanwhile life continued. We had a few family day trips, sometimes for meals and sometimes just as something to do. One Sunday the whole family – my parents, my brother, my gran and I – took a day trip to Cowbridge, a very posh town in the Vale of Glamorgan about thirty miles from Cardiff. It was a lovely summer’s day and we strolled around the picturesque town browsing in any shops which happened to be open, which wasn’t many. In one shop I happened to see a ‘Nice Price’ cassette of the Byrds’ “Fifth Dimension” LP for about £2.50 so I bought it. I only knew “Eight miles high” from the album but had a vague recollection of Pete Wylie playing “What’s happening!?!?” when he chose some of his favourite songs for Janice Long’s evening session radio show on Radio One. So I gave it a chance. On the car journey back to Cardiff my father said “Oh let’s have a listen to that Byrds tape, Rob” and it was shoved into our Austin Maestro’s tape deck. Everyone seemed to be humming along nicely as the album progressed but I had a growing sense of unease as side one headed to its conclusion. The reason for this? Those bright sparks at CBS had swapped the final songs off each LP side on the tape, so side two finished with the gloomy Hiroshima ghost story “I come and stand at every door”, which meant “The Learjet song” was rapidly approaching. I had no idea what it was going to sound like, but I had a bad feeling about it. Once “What’s happening?!?!” – David Crosby’s beautiful languid ode to being so off your head on chemicals you have no idea what’s going on – had concluded there was a rush of noise like a hoover, some radio chatter and a little riff, some vocals and just more bloody plane noise and chatter. For three whole minutes. When the ‘song’ finished my father took the tape out and passed it back to me, adding “I think that’s one for your walkman, Rob”. The journey home was continued in stunned silence.

It was during the summer of ’87 that I reformed my band Final Ecstasy. We’d played our five songs ad infinitum through the winter and spring of the previous year before a huge argument between bass player Robin and guitarist Dave led to a split that summer. The argument was about whether someone would build a sports stadium at the bottom of Leckwith Road on the outskirts of Cardiff. Robin said it would happen, David said it wouldn’t, and after coming to blows (not me though, I didn’t give a shit) we split up. The irony of course is that it did happen and that is where Cardiff City now play their matches. But a year later such arguments were forgotten. We’d all kept in touch and differences were put aside and we started playing again. David was less interested than the rest of us so only appeared from time to time, adding a layer of power chords and ridiculous widdly widdly soloing over our songs but there were two major differences to the band in ’87. Firstly we had a real singer, a friend of Robin’s called Alan who could really sing so I could stop hollering and concentrate on my keyboards and drum machines. Secondly we now had ten songs not five, so there was a bit more variety. From what I can remember we were actually quite good, and I wish I’d recorded a rehearsal. Alan asked if he could bring his girlfriend along to hear us, but when he told me it was R – who I’d crushed on for two years – I said no. After all, I was still paranoid that her mother was now working in the nearest shop to us in Sully Terrace and clearly knew who I was and seemed to be monitoring the amount of sweets I was buying from there. (R’s mother had inspired one of my best early songs called “Don’t run me down”, about how she always seemed to be driving her green Citreon BX behind me as I cycled home from school. It’s no wonder R didn’t like me…) But Final Ecstasy fell apart towards the end of August, I was fed up with waiting for the other members – they would either be late or not turn up at all – so after a practice where I turned “Follow the leader” into Wire’s “Heartbeat” by playing as softly as possible, the band broke up for the second and last time.

Summer ’87 was an odd time for pop music. The charts were half wonderful and half crap, just for a change. Some big names were starting the campaign for their autumn LP releases so there was Michael Jackson’s “I just can’t stop loving you” glooping away at the upper reaches of the charts, but also the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this?” where the Pet Shop Boys resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield. There were novelties like George Michael hiding under a psuedonym for a Bee Gees cover, Bruce Willis murdering the classics, holiday hits like “Call me” by Spagna and big power ballads like “Alone” by Heart. But there were two songs in the chart which drew all of Final Ecstasy together – “True faith” by New Order and “Animal” by Def Leppard. “True faith” was just a fantastic song and performance, it felt like a vindication for the band when it reached the top 10 – so few of their previous singles were that successful. “Animal” was metal polished to a ridiculously glossy shine. Both songs were impossible to resist. Both songs were also in the top 10 when Robin joined our team (my father, my brother and myself) for a pop quiz… These pop quizzes were every six months or so, organised by people within BT (my father’s employer) in the Oddfellows Club in Newport Road in Cardiff. Our team had won the first quiz in September 86 through me winning a tiebreaker recognising the intro to “No Fun” by the Sex Pistols. We’d come a very close second in the next quiz, losing points where our team’s resident Steely Dan fan didn’t recognise “FM”. So we ditched the Dan fan and replaced him with Robin, who knew his stuff too. The last round was to list the current top 10 singles chart in order – Robin and I piled into that one and got them all right. We won the contest and each took away a ten pounds Woolworths voucher. The next Monday New Order issued their “Substance” compilation, and Woolworths were selling the big boxed cassette version exclusively for a fiver so that’s how I spent my winnings, adding the big hessian covered box alongside the other Factory cassettes I had at the time… “Substance” got a lot of airtime that summer too, I wasn’t fussed on the rerecorded “Confusion” or “Temptation”, but it was great to have all the singles in one place – the full version of “The Perfect Kiss” (why wasn’t that a hit??? Oh, because the single was issued a week after the album “Lowlife” – typical Factory – thanks Marcello for that!), the sound of a new world being created on “Everything’s gone green”… And all those b-sides too, the glacial pain of “In a lonely place”, the urgent rush of “Hurt” and “Murder”, closing with the should-have-been-a-single “1963”. Only a band like New Order would throw away a song like that as a b-side, and only a label like Factory would let them do it.

It was during that long hot summer of ’87 that I bought “154” by Wire. A year earlier I was enraptured by “Chairs missing”, so I was on the lookout for their other LPs. I bought an original copy – with free 7 inch EP – at a record fair in Cardiff for £7 and it became the main soundtrack of the summer. There’s one peculiarity on the original vinyl which I’ve never heard reproduced on the different CDs I’ve had of this LP (and I’ve bought it 3 times on compact disc), and that’s the bursts of white noise at the start of side one which start a second or so before the first song “I should have known better”.

This clearly has nothing to do with the Beatles (or Jim Diamond). Tightly coiled guitars chug out a riff over bass drum and hissing hihats and then Graham Lewis intones a strange tale of a relationship in the throes of disengagement – “I haven’t found a measure yet to calibrate my displeasure”, “Valueing the vengeance that you treasure, I’ve redefined the meaning of vendetta” – and in the background keyboards ramp up the tension and the occasional snare drum hit whips like a slap in the face. The tension never breaks, the situation is never resolved. “Two people in the room” is on the surface a typical punk thrash, guitars are distorted and the rhythm section hurtle along, but it doesn’t sound quite right – the band hang on a discord for half the time before returning to the dumb riff. And Colin Newman is alternately speaking or screaming, words that could be an outsider’s viewpoint on what happening in “I should have known better”. “The 15th” is slyly pretty, all clever phrases and not much more but “The other window” is creepy, a traveller’s tale narrated by Lewis over a barrage of odd noises and a seemingly random drum track. “A single KO” is more dread and menace from Newman, then “A touching display” drags the tension on the album to breaking point. It’s Lewis intoning again about a failing relationship – “how long can we sustain ourselves apart?” – while drums roll and bass rumbles and a barrage of electric violas hovering in the distance. Then around three minutes and thirty seconds the bass gets distorted and leads the song off jumping octaves and taking over, drums tumble and roll then the violas emerge back in, swooping like vultures, rising slowly up in scales, keyboards drone, the whole sound becomes overpowering – all that the words can’t express is said through screaming instruments. And it rises in pressure for minutes and minutes until the violas hang on a dischord, feeding back onto themselves and the song falls apart. (I would play “A touching display” to my brother who was obsessing over “Metal Box” at the time and point out similarities to “Careering”). “On returning” closes the side with Newman back at the helm, a half synthesised riff, a punkish thrash and vignettes of a family on holiday. A skewed pop song.

“A mutual friend” starts side one with more creeping dread and tension, the lyrics hint at family troubles amongst the puns and the song builds naturally to a pastoral middle eight of cor anglais and harmonies – it’s like a gentler version of “A touching display” and all the better for it. It also ends up sounding like Eno at the end, those arch “Oh-oh-oh” backing vocals are so “Taking tiger mountain”. “Blessed state” circles around a simple ascending riff to which guitars are added, very melodic, almost power pop. “Once is enough” sounds like it was recorded in a junkyard (actually the studio was set up with tons of pots and pans for the day’s overdubbing) and is the biggest throwback to their punk days, it all sounds on the edge of falling apart, too compressed, too harsh Lewis and Newman singing together is always a good sound and that middle section where they sing an ascending note together as the noise gets louder – well, I’d say My Bloody Valentine must have been listening. After that “Map Ref” comes as a blessed relief – a genuine pop song, chiming guitars, a real tune, harmonies and Newman’s cry of “Chorus!” always puts a smile on my face. But the words are about maps and travelling and cartography. And the full title is too long to fit on a seven inch single. And – ahem – My Bloody Valentine covered it in ’95 so I was right! In a parallel universe this would have been a hit but EMI had messed up Wire’s chances by trying to hype “Outdoor miner” into the charts the year previously… Shame. “Indirect enquiries” is odd, probably my least favourite song on the album, “40 versions” struck a chord just as much as “Used to” had the previous year. “I never know which version I’m going to be, I seem to have so many choices open to me”. A simple bass pulse, guitars and synths playing around, it’s utterly compelling and slightly scary – the round robin of vocals at the end, the repetitions, the sense of dread, the falling apart…. “154” is all distances and dislocation – the distance between places and people, the dislocation that distance – physical and emotional – may cause, the dread of something ending, the feeling of that unknown loss. It’s no wonder I soaked it up that summer.

In early August ’87 my family went on holiday on what turned out to be our final family holiday, the last time all four of us were together. Two years previously we’d spent a week in a small house on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and had a lovely time, we’d visited the historic town of Haworth twice that week, mainly for the steam railway there (not of any interest to me) and I loved the town, not least the places to eat. On the cobbled main street downhill there was a fabulous coffee shop called The Copper Kettle which I liked for the quality of the food and the waitresses (oh come on, I was 16!). There was also a fantastic chip shop by the station which did the best meat and potato pies I’d ever had (with chips and gravy of course). It was there I first heard “Yesterday’s men” by Madness, which sticks in my mind. Anyway, in 1987 we went back to Haworth for a week, staying in a house actually on the cobbled main street downhill, just across from the Copper Kettle. Was I happy? Oh yes. All I can remember of that holiday is eating – sweets from the specialist sweet shop at the top of the hill, pie and chips at the place by the station, popping across to the Copper Kettle all the time. And I only bought one record…

We took a day trip to Keighley – mainly for being on the steam railway route – and while there we looked for record shops like we always did. I can’t remember the name of the shop we ended up at but it was small and dark and filled with records – not CDs but records, seven inch and twelve inch in size. We all started looking through the racks to find some rare treasure. That’s not true, my mother didn’t look through the racks, she probably just thought “Oh God, another record shop” as she watched her husband and two sons devour the shop’s stock. While passing through the 12 inch singles stock I found a single by a band I knew and liked but I didn’t recognise the title or sleeve, but I bought it anyway. Of course being on holiday I couldn’t listen to it until we returned to Penarth but I raced upstairs to my bedroom, twelve inch in hand and plonked it straight onto the turntable of my hifi.

The record was “The Final Resting Of The Ark” by Felt, a five song twelve inch EP. In the time between purchase and hearing it – three days approximately – I had soaked up the enigmatic sleeve picture, the lyrics on the reverse and the credits on the label. Produced by Robin Guthrie again? Well that could be good or bad. In this case it was good – Guthrie wanted to test out his new studio September Sound so invited Felt in to record a few songs. The EP starts with the title track – Lawrence on shimmering acoustic guitars and singing typically vague imagistic lyrics, then a soprano sax takes over soloing wildly while the guitars catch fire then ending on an echo. “Autumn” is a short electric piano piece by Martin Duffy, as melancholy as its title suggest – the spaces between the notes as important as the notes themselves, hanging in a reverbed halo. “Fire circles” is a guitar instrumental with added keyboard touches, arpeggios and not much else. “There’s no such thing as victory” is Lawrence whispering truthes over simple guitar and bass – “I don’t know what you see in me” indeed. Finally “Buried wild blind” is just over a minute long but utterly gorgeous, guitar and bass and keyboard finally coalesce in glorious major to minor tonalities and melody. It’s not a long record, but it’s a great one. (And it seems to be the only Felt record without a drummer on it too). Short and sweet.

And then the dread and tension came to a head. My brother and I received our A Level exam results. The previous year my brother had sat three exams and got an E and two U’s (that’s unclassified). This year he got an A and two Cs which was enough for him to get to Hull University which is what he’d wanted all along. I got a C in Computing, a D in Physics and an E in Maths. So by scrapping through maths I let my other exams down. I didn’t have enough to get to my first choice, which was Liverpool University so went through clearing while watching Tony Wilson’s “Which way now?” TV show about the whole post-results process. I was offered a place on a Maths and Computing course at Liverpool Uni, and something else at Keele Uni but for some reason – pigheadedness I expect – I was seriously considering Sheffield Poly, my first choice on my PCAS form (UCCA and PCAS being separate then). After much soul searching – and probably pigheadedness – I settled for Sheffield. How different would life have been if I had chosen the other courses? Who knows.

August dragged into September and my brother and I prepared for the big move north. The last record I would buy before the move would be the one which really captured that time for me, and it was a record linked to a future I could not even conceive at the time.

My diary records that it was my second trip to Newport that year. I think the first trip there was for a job interview at the Alcan aluminium plant in Rogerstone, but all I remember of that day in February was it being very cold, Newport being inhospitable and Boy George’s new LP “Sold” being played in a little record shop I found by the Westgate Hotel. The second trip to Newport in September was just a case of “Let’s go somewhere different, see what’s there”. I found it dirty and dingy, didn’t think much of the shops, couldn’t find anywhere decent to eat except a Wimpy on the main street, but did eventually walk into what passed for a shopping centre, with a maze of cheap market stalls underneath called the In Shops, and above them various clothes shops and chemists and…right at the end… An actual record shop. Roxcene Records. It was dark, had a lot of posters up for hard rock bands with gothic logos, it felt slightly dangerous. I didn’t want to stay there too long so quickly flicked through the racks trying not to look nervous – the customers at the desk talking to the staff looked at me like an interloper into their private party. And I found a record I wanted to buy. Bloody hell, now what was I going to do? I’d have to approach these fearsome creatures with a record – surely one they’d pour scorn on for not being rock enough. I went to the counter, slapped it down, the assistant said “Is that it?” I nodded trying to be cool and nonchalent. “OK then” he said, money was paid, record placed in a bag and I walked out with my knees feeling like jelly. I hated Roxcene Records. On the way back home passing through Cardiff I bought a music book and read the book and listened to the record together that night, the two becoming entwined in my mind from that point onwards. The record was “The city of our lady” EP by Durutti Column – a record I wrote about over at Toppermost and mentioned in “Spent time” – but I always think of that EP as being part of the day, the experience of the record shop, the experience of Newport itself, the book, all together. Listening to the EP now still brings back that oncoming dread of moving on, to Sheffield…

Of course the other big thing happening in September 87 was the Smiths splitting up. I remember reading the initial story in the Melody Maker while in our dentist’s waiting room and not being surprised in the least. I felt like it was inevitable, it couldn’t last. But their current single “Girlfriend in a coma” just seemed more of the same, nothing special. And there were better songs around at the time. I was totally in love with “Pump up the volume”, being a huge Colourbox fan. I had no idea who these other blokes AR Kane were though, and I wish I’d bought the single at the time because for sure “Anitina” – the double a-side – would have absolutely blown my head off in ’87, just as it did when I finally caught up with AR Kane in ’94. That was probably my stupidest mistake of that summer, not buying that single. Of course choosing Sheffield over Liverpool or Keele could be seen as a stupider mistake…

And there were still issues with Sheffield. Having decided I was going, the Poly wrote to say there was limited accomodation and did I have any problems which could put me up the list? Of course I did, I was blind in one eye. So that’s how I ended up in Norfolk Park. Then I found out while drinking at the Railway pub that loads of my ex-school mates were going to Sheffield. Not the Poly, but the Uni. This just made me even more worried and paranoid, especially as one of the two major crushes at the time was heading there with her boyfriend. The week before I was due to go to Sheffield my parents and brother took a holiday to Cornwall leaving me alone in Penarth to pack and prepare. All I did was mope around, get drunk a bit and make an EP of music entitled “Goodbye”. This would be my last official Mangled Tape. Five songs simply recorded saying “I’m nervous, I hate you drunken lechs at the Railway, I’m glad to leave Penarth”. All the usual subjects. Then two friends of mine came over, we got pissed as farts after making the worst spag bol ever (well we didn’t know you had to brown the mince first…) and recorded a jam session of us making stupid noises. Then they interviewed me about how I felt leaving Penarth for Sheffield. I can’t bear to listen to that tape now, I was so full of hope, I was so naïve. On Sunday 26th September my parents drove me to Sheffield to start a new life of being self sufficient and studying, and my summer of easy living and dread and tension was over. I was in further education now, and that was a different kind of tension.

Next time – well next time won’t be for a while as I’ll be having a summer break. See you in September.

Some Distant Memory

Hello again. Long time no see. I’ve had phone troubles again but now they are sorted I can hopefully get blogging again. In the meantime, today is my birthday. Thank you, you’re very kind. What, the card’s in the post? That’s fine…. You see, not all birthdays are the same. There are good birthdays and there are bad birthdays, and I have had a few of both along the way. 1992 was a good one, a house party where I carefully selected a soundtrack according to the differing groups who would be attending during the duration. Party anthems and Motown for a few hours when the ‘oldies’ were around, then once it was down to just my friends in attendance it turned into Field Mice, Durutti Column and Dinosaur Jnr and frankly by then everyone was so drunk I could have played “L.A. Blues” by the Stooges and they would have danced along to it. Two years later was a bad one, my first in my new house, waiting in all day for a shed to be delivered (of course it came at half past four), seeing nobody and barely speaking a word all day. There have been parties and celebrations, some more bittersweet than others, one in particular almost a farewell… And there has been music. Usually i will either treat myself to some new records or I will be bought records. On my birthday last year I wrote about records I had received as presents during the eighties, this time I am looking at one year where I had a huge blowout of record buying.

It’s worth explaining the background of why I had such a blowout at the time. Throughout the spring of 1991 I was studying at the Poly of Wales in Treforrest, commuting by train from Penarth. I didn’t have a lot of money spare, and any spare cash I did have was spent on Sarah Records. The advantage of them issuing singles over albums meant I could afford one or two singles every week or so and by the end of May I was up to date with all their single releases, but I hadn’t bought any albums since …oh… “Make it loud” in January (as I knowingly ignore one of the albums I will be writing about here, but we’ll get to that soon enough). So by the time of my birthday I had a stackload of records I wanted to buy. Now this is where my memory fails me slightly, because I was under the impression I bought all these records on my birthday (which was a Friday) but looking at the release date of one of the records it came out on the Tuesday after (Monday being Whitsun Bank Holiday). These records all remind me of my birthday, but it seems I bought them a few days later. Do you care about historical accuracy? Nah…. But what the hell, I bought all these records with my birthday money so they all remind me of my birthday even if I didn’t actually buy them on my birthday…

Anyway, let’s crack on and have a listen to some music. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and there may be a nice cool bottle of Bud somewhere (it was around this time I discovered Budweiser, a beer I actually liked to drink).

Spirea X – “Chlorine Dream” CD EP / “Speed Reaction” CD EP

Ah yes, poor old Spirea X. Where to begin? Well how about the start? Spirea X were formed by Jim Beattie alongside his partner Judith Boyle once Beattie had left Primal Scream around 1988. It was Beattie’s twelve string Rickenbacker all over classics like “Velocity Girl” and “It happens” and the whole “Sonic Flower Groove” album. Why did he leave? Did he jump or was he pushed? Did he not want to wear the leather trousers? Did he argue with Bobby G about the merits of the MC5? Anyway, he lay low for a few years, licked his wounds and watched Primal Scream become successful, even being touted as leaders of a future indie dance crossover. Spirea X was his attempt to right some wrongs, to reclaim what was rightfully his, to show he could do it too, and with a twelve string Rickenbacker still at the forefront of the sound. The band signed to 4AD (apparently Alan McGee was slightly annoyed that Beattie hadn’t gone to Creation first) and issued two singles in quick succession, speaking in the music press about their classic roots and their plans to issue three singles in different styles before their album.

The first I had heard of Spirea X was seeing them perform “Chlorine Dream” on the wonderful BBC2 show “Snub TV”. Can I briefly say what a wonderful show “Snub TV” was? It documented a great period of music, championed a lot of great bands and was like a televisual version of the On pages of NME. (“Rapido” was good too, in case you were thinking I had forgotten it). I wish there was some kind of equivalent of the show now. But Spirea X were there, looking cool, sounding cool too. I added their name to my mental list of records to buy, the title tracks of both EPs were played on the radio and sounded good. I waited for the time I had money to buy them.

“Chlorine Dream” is about Brian Jones apparently. You’d never notice. A twelve string guitar provides an opening riff then woosh a baggy rhythm section blast through the song. There’s dreamy boy girl harmonies and er that’s about it. Once you’ve heard the opening minute you’ve heard it all. It sounds oddly without dynamics, like it is built up from a series of loops (which is of course entirely possible). A fair enough song to introduce yourself with. The b-sides are pants though. “Spirea Rising” is a semi instrumental which is based on the one minute instrumental song “Spirea X” which appeared on the “Velocity Girl” twelve inch, but it lumbers along unattractively. “Risk” is a drum machine, an annoying keyboard riff and someone intoning “X” from time to time. Pointless.

Luckily the “Speed Reaction” EP was far better. Instead of taking their cues from the Soup Dragons they decide to mix the Byrds with the Mamas and Papas (so that would be the Peanut Butter Conspiracy then…). “Speed Reaction” and “Jet Pilot” are both bright breezy guitar pop gems, chiming guitars, lovely harmonies, perfect early 90s indie pop songs then. “What kind of love” is slower, a groove based song with gospel organ and vocals while “Re:Action” is a remix of “What kind of love” with more emphasis on wah-wah guitars and synthesised vibes. So a far better EP than their debut.

From there it all went wrong for Spirea X. Their third single “Confusion in my soul” was never issued and by the time their debut album “Fireblade Skies” was issued in November 91 they were superceded by the triple whammy of “Nevermind”, “Screamadelica” and “Loveless” and their career never recovered, which is a shame as the LP is actually rather good. Spirea X broke up and the creative nucleus of Beattie and Doyle re-emerged a few years later creating micro-pop classics in Adventures In Stereo.

World of Twist – “Sons Of The Stage” CD single

Another band with huge potential at the start of 1991. It felt like everyone was behind World Of Twist, willing them to have a hit single. It didn’t happen with their debut “The Storm” which was issued towards the end of 1990 but still managed a good placing in the Festive Fifty and an appearance on “The Word” (which was another good place to see the latest music, even if you did have to sit through some inane nonsense to get to the good bits). By the time “Sons of the stage” was issued in the Spring of ’91 it felt like it was a hit single in waiting. I’m sure they were on “The Word” again, and Snub TV again, and it got played on the radio as well – at least on the shows I was listening to.

“Sons of the stage” starts quietly and fades in on organ and congas with some sharp notes of guitar, then bursts into life with a great keyboard led groove aided by synth squiggles and noises. Then Tony Ogden sings about “the beat breaks down so we pick it up” and “the floor’s an ocean and this wave is breaking”…he’s singing about the experience of listening to great music, whether it’s a band or a rave or whatever, it’s a feeling that’s universal – “You’ve gotta get down to the noise and confusion”. The song breaks down and builds up again to a climax of psychedelic guitars and acid squibs before falling into an odd coda of mock-orchestral grandeur and silly seaside noises. Hooks that dig in and stick, powerful music, charismatic singer, great song. Oh and the b-side was great too. A cover of “Life and death” by Sly and the Family Stone, stretched out and funky.

What could go wrong? Why wasn’t it a hit? No idea. Possibly it didn’t help that the CD single I’d bought had a horribly truncated version of the song – the intro barely exists and the outro is quickly faded out. (I had to pick up the seven inch single from Woolworths bargain bin for 50p a few weeks later to get the full version). Maybe it was just too quirky. I don’t know… It should have been a huge hit single. It seems it did sell enough copies to reach the top 40 but due to a quirk in compiling the charts “localised sales” were ignored so all the Mancunian fans’ purchases were cancelled out somewhere. Obviously it influenced some brothers in Burnage who almost called their band Sons Of The Stage before settling for something easier, and they called one of their tours “Ten years of noise and confusion” and one of those brothers has been known to play the song with his ‘new’ band.

But what use is that now? Again World Of Twist were swept away in the late ’91 tidal wave of change, so their debut album “Quality Street” got buried. The album’s mastering was awful, it sounded like it could barely fight its way out of a paper bag too, which didn’t help its chances. Whenever I saw early performances by Pulp when they started to break through around 93 I just thought to myself “It should be World Of Twist up there”. In some parallel universe “Sons of the stage” was number one for six weeks. Sometimes parallel universes are a lot more fun than the real one.

Brighter – “Laurel” CD album

“Oh now come on, you’re cheating here. We’ve all read how this was part of your first package from Sarah Records in early May.”

Yes indeed it was, but this time I was buying it on CD.

“Buying a Sarah Record on CD? What kind of fan were you? Wasn’t it vinyl all the way?”

Well yes, but I’d played this LP to death already, I needed a decent digital version. God, did I love Brighter that May. Lovelorn and sad, quiet and sad, gentle and sad… You get the picture. But I’ve written enough about Sarah Records recently so let’s move on to…

The Sea Urchins – “Please Don’t Cry” 12 inch EP

But….but…it’s a single by The Sea Urchins….. And it’s not on Sarah Records???

Well that was my first thought anyway. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave Sarah. Or maybe Sarah had got fed up with them? Either way, here was a new single by them and would it be as good as “A morning odyssey”, which was one of my favourite singles of all time? After all, the sleeve said it was recorded at Walker Memorial Hall, where their previous single was recorded. (And I’ve just googled it and it’s a large hall and wedding venue in Edgbaston, Birmingham).

Please don’t cry” is a pleasant enough song, shambling along (check the way the drums hammer away slightly out of time) and with James Roberts’ voice as wayward as ever. Please note – these are not criticisms. “No matter what” is a cover of the Badfinger classic and is kind of pointless, it doesn’t add anything to the song other than a slide guitar solo which either (a) puts a smile on your face or (b) makes you roll on the floor laughing screaming “Make it stop! Make it stop!” (Delete as applicable). It certainly wasn’t the blueprint for the Cloud Minders when we covered the song (that would be the Jellyfish version…) And just when you think the Sea Urchins are throwing it all away, they offer one more song.

Time is all I’ve seen” is almost as good as “A morning odyssey”! It’s slow and considered, a slightly country-ish feel with slide guitar, delicate piano and acoustic guitars. And there’s a new voice – presumably Patrick Roberts, co-author of the song and James’ brother. And bloody hell he sounds like Gene Clark! The Roberts brothers harmonise around the song, a lovely melody, with impressionistic words and sometimes they give up on words and just “la-la-la” around each other. It’s sad and beautiful and as it turns out it was the last song the Sea Urchins issued so it’s kind of poignant as well. Those Sea Urchins really were good from start to finish, and they had a wealth of unrecorded gems too as the “Live in London” semi-legal CD showed. The band returned as Delta and proceeded to become the unluckiest band in the UK over a decade of great music. And while we’re here, can I just give a mention for James Roberts’ “Everything you know is right” album which truly is a lost classic.

Wire – “The Drill” CD album

Wire developed a habit of issuing their LPs in May which made them ideal birthday listening for me. “A bell is a cup” was purchased from FON Records in Sheffield (birthplace of Warp Records) on my birthday and was the soundtrack to my first year exams in Sheffield in 1988 and is a damn fine album. “It’s beginning to and back again” the following year was kind of ‘live’ and kind of cool, some interesting ideas and extrapolations, and it soundtracked my return to Penarth with my tail between my legs. “Manscape” in 1990 wasn’t quite so good, they were working with new technology which didn’t really gel with the music. It was overlong and had some awful songs but also some wonderful songs (“You hung your lights in the trees” is a very special song) but you can hear Robert Gotobed slowly losing interest as his heartbeat pulse is replaced by drum machines.

So where does “The Drill” fit in? It was an experiment where they tried out the new technology which would lead to “Manscape”. They took the repetitive rhythm from their ’86 song “Drill” and reworked the ‘dugga’ rhythm in a number of ways. So there’s seven reworkings along with a remix of the original and a live version. Dugga overload. If the prospect of nine versions of the same song thrills you then this album’s just for you. Mind you in these days of multiple mixes of the same song it’s not such an unusual idea.

At least the project starts well. “In every city?” is a unique mangling of “Drill” and “12XU” and works brilliantly, with the contrasting vocals of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis working well together. It’s worth it just to hear Lewis intone “I want to drill you”! Then the album goes downhill. “What’s your desire?” swings in on a barrage of sampled ‘dugga’s from Lewis and goes nowhere, insistent but boring. “Arriving/Staying/Going?” may be faster but has a horrible vocal effect, chopping it into unintelligible slices which makes for a frustrating listen. “(A Berlin) Drill” adds some unnecessary synthesier overdubs to the ’86 recording. “Do you drive? (Turn your coat)” is far better, the brisk sequences sounding like Philip Glass played on Casios, and Newman actually gives a committed vocal performance. “Jumping Mint?” is dreary headache inducing noise and the return of the chopped up unintelligble vocal doesn’t help. On the other hand “Did you dugga?” is a delightful piece, taking the melodic overdubs from the “Drill” remix and turning them into something sparse yet pulsing. This actually works. “Where are you now?” takes those elements, slows them down, plays with them and makes an unsettling mood piece. Finally the live “Drill” reminds the listener that there was a four piece band behind all this nonsense, and maybe they should remind themselves of that before diving into a dead end of technology.

The main reason I was (and still am) disappointed with “The Drill” was because I knew what Wire were capable of, together and separately (see previous post on Lewis’ He Said album from ’89). “The Drill” could have been condensed to an EP and maybe would be better that way. For now, it signalled a move into a cul-de-sac for Wire. No wonder Gotobed left.

Electronic – “Electronic” CD album

As the 1980s closed its account, a single was issued which felt like it captured a lot of what was great about that decade into five or so minutes. Electronic were billed as a supergroup in the old traditional Emerson Lake and Palmer sense – artists brought together to make something special. And in this case it was completely appropriate. Bernard Sumner was on a break from New Order who were burnt out after a massive US tour that year. Johnny Marr hadn’t quite found the perfect outlet for his guitar and songwriting skills since the demise of The Smiths two years previously (cue The The fans shouting at me). Add in the Pet Shop Boys – one of the most important synth pop duos still in their imperial phase (have you heard Liza Minelli’s “Results” LP recently? What a class act) – alongside a gorgeous string arrangement from Anne Dudley (so that’s some ZTT New Pop thrown in too) and you’ve got “Getting away with it“, a perfect single. Cool, stylish…and that’s just the sleeve. Was it a one-off? Would more music come from this collaboration? Time would tell.

Of course Sumner and Marr had history together. They had first met in 1984 when Marr had added some decidedly funky guitar licks to Quando Quango’s “Atom Rock” / “Triangle” single which Sumner was producing under his Be-Music alias. Which was my first non-New Order / Joy Division Factory Record purchase that summer and again is one of my favourite singles ever. The success of “Getting away with it” meant they could work together and an album was recorded in 1990 with the Pet Shop Boys on one song and drummer extraordinaire Donald Johnson playing on some songs. Sumner was annoyed that New Order didn’t want to go in a more synthesised direction so did it his way with Marr’s help. Did it work? Oh yes!

A lot of attention at the time regarded Sumner’s rapping on the opening song “Idiot Country” but frankly it’s not that bad. There’s waves of wah-wah guitar, pulsing synths and crisp percussion as a backdrop, and Sumner sounds more engaged than in a long time – there’s anger in his words. He doesn’t like his country and what some people are saying and doing and oddly enough it still sounds true today. (I voted in the European election on Thursday with this song playing on my earphones and it felt appropriate). “Reality” is an early favourite of mine, Sumner now calmer, a host of TR909s beat the retreat, it all sounds very Kraftwerk – especially the end where a synth melody plays with a slight amount of pulse width modulation on it and it sounds like a tribute to “Computer Love”. “Tighten Up” is meatier, lots of tightly strummed chords and chiming guitars, with a tough undercarriage. It’s difficult to know precisely what Sumner is singing about – he is notorious for writing lyrics in the vocal booth so he could be singing about his breakfast or someone he loves. Either way he is impassioned here – the way he stretches out the final word of “There used to be a way but there ain’t no more” into three syllables and notes is remarkable. And Marr adds a great solo, popping his head out to say “Yeah I can still rock out if I want”. “Patience of a saint” marks the return of the Pet Shop Boys to the Electronic project and is another highlight. Neil Tennant and Bernard Sumner trade verses – and sometimes lines – with each other over minimal but lush electronics. It’s a wonderful song full of little glimpses and moments – Tennant’s very British “If I had a faster car I’d drive it BLOODY well”, Sumner’s “What do I care? I’d rather watch drying paint”, the heartbreaking “I’m talking to myself” section, Marr’s delicate acoustic strums. A high point in any career. “Gangster” is one of the few songs here that is dated by its soundset, those orchestral stabs and Italo house piano make it so late 80s early 90s but it’s still great. And what the hell does “All the months of January” mean?

“Soviet” is a brief instrumental which whets the palatte nicely for “Get the message“. This is a wonderful single, crispy crunchy beats, great guitars and Sumner at his pissed off but calm best. I remember him appearing on Simon Mayo’s breakfast show on Radio One to promote the single and Mayo asked him “So what’s the song about?”. Sumner replied along the lines of “Women who spend all your cash” which made Mayo guffaw. The way Sumner sings these words is like he’s quietly arguing his point to someone who won’t listen. And then there’s that guitar solo. All together now – WAAAH WAH WAH WAAAAAH! Genius. I know you’re singing it in your head, aren’t you? Just more evidence that Spring ’91 was a golden era of slightly left field pop singles. “Try all you want” is a purely electronic track, it sounds like a great house track. “Some distant memory” is another beautiful moment. Simple bass, simple chords and drum machines, and Sumner suddenly sounds lost and alone and needing love, and there’s little pizzacato string blips adding to the joy, and is that a tubular bells solo? Well why not? It’s a fantastic song, and Marr’s delicious Spanish guitar solo adds to the magic before it all breaks down to its components again and… What? An oboe solo? Oh my! What a superb idea, such a delightful touch, and the song soars as a result. Absolutely priceless. (The first time I realised that someone else might love this song was when the opening line was written in “Stud Base Alpha”, Dickon Edwards’ pre-Orlando fanzine). “Feel every beat” is a great closer – Johnson’s beats crashing like waves, Sumner rapping about drugs and their effects (“There’s a mirror on the table if you feel you could use it” – alongside assorted sampled snorting sounds), while Marr gets a groove going with more funky guitar and house piano, it’s a bit Soul II Soul but what the hell it all works. And a glorious chorus too. It’s like a distant cousin of A Certain Ratio’s “Be what you wanna be”. And it sort of falls apart at the end, which I find very endearing.

———

All of these records were played incessantly at the end of May which is why they remind me of that time so much. I can even tell you in what order these records were put onto tape (two tapes actually, a C60 and a C90). The Electronic LP got the most plays as it was the perfect length to get me from my house to the train station to Brunel House in Cardiff for my job at BT. Almost every working day would start with me pounding up seven flights of stairs with the last few minutes of “Feel Every Beat” blasting on my headphones. I can’t imagine climbing seven flights of stairs now. 8-(

So that was my birthday blowout. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. ’91 was a great year, wasn’t it? As for my actual birthday of that year, I remember going to Rabiottis bar on Penarth seafront, waiting for my friends to turn up, getting progressively drunker while waiting so when they did arrive I was rather loud and abusive to them. For which I would like to publicly apologise. Finding Luciano’s was only a week or so away, and so was work and music and Bud. Lots of Bud. Raise a cold one for me, folks!

Next time – not sure at the moment…

Fourteen days in July

The last two weeks of summer term in school were always chaotic anyway – the exams were out of the way so kids were running amok, there was a sports day of total lunacy to look forward to, teachers not giving a hoot about the kids because the kids didn’t give a hoot either. Usually the sun was out, everyone relaxed, and the sixth formers had water fights on the last day and did their best to destroy the common room before they left it.

Just to add a little spice to the mayhem, my school used the last two weeks of the school summer term to host the German Exchange. One year the Germans would come to us, the next year we would go to them. As I did quite well in German classes – in my first ever German exam I scored 96% losing marks only because I spelt ‘wiedersehen’ incorrectly four times – I was assigned a penfriend in 1982 and we exchanged pictures and letters regularly. In 1982 my brother’s penfriend visited us but not a lot happened. In 1983 my brother and I went to Staufen in the Black Forest to our penfriends. This was my first trip abroad and I loved every minute of it – the different culture, the delicious food, the crazy TV. My brother on the other hand was homesick, hated the food, didn’t really get on with the language and couldn’t wait to get home. I was still a year away from getting my first walkman so had to rely on a tiny Honeywell transistor radio for music – reception for Radio Luxembourg was far better than in South Wales, and one of my abiding musical memories of the exchange is hearing “Never stop” by Echo and the Bunnymen for the first time through a tiny mono earpiece. The other musical memory was the coach journey back. My friend who had bought the Twister Sister album on 30th April (see previous entry) had been on the exchange and proudly showed me his latest purchase from a local record shop – “We sold our souls for rock’n’roll” by Black Sabbath. Unknown to us, he’d taped the whole album and given the cassette to the coach driver saying “Can you play this please?”. The first hour or so of that journey was spent listening to Tony Iommi’s slow motion riffs and Ozzy Osbourne’s unearthly wailing. Eventually the howls of protest were louder than Ozzy’s howls and the tape was thrown out of the coach’s window on some autobahn, to cheers from the coach’s occupants.

In 1984 my penfriend came to Penarth for the first time and probably experienced as much culture shock as I did the year before. The summer of 84 was the summer of “Frankie Says” – “Two tribes” was everywhere, as was “Relax”, as was Lionel Ritchie and Prince and Wham! and Spandau and Nik Kershaw alongside more interesting stirrings of HI-NRG and Euro Disco. Heaven knows what he thought of it all. Those two weeks in 1984 seemed to be spent going from house party to house party amongst all the German Exchange hosts around Penarth – another night another party, or so it seemed. I can’t remember much about school for those weeks but I do remember my penfriend being totally obsessed with “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. He dragged me into the nearest Odeon to see “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” which made little sense to me as I’d not seen “Raiders…”. He was also searching high and low for the “Raiders” soundtrack album, and thought he had hit the jackpot when he came running up to me in HMV waving an album at me – “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” – “Er sorry no you haven’t” I then returned “Raiders of the pop charts” back into the racks and he carried on hunting. I’m pretty sure we found it for him eventually.

In 1985 it was the turn of the Welsh to invade the Germans again. A lot of my class were with me that year, and most of them knew two things about me – I kept a notorious diary which named names (or so they thought) and I wrote songs and made tapes which also named names (which was true). The trip to Germany took place on the day of Live Aid so I only saw about two hours of it before climbing on a coach to London. Then a train to Dover. Then a ferry to Ostend. Then a train to Cologne. Then another train to Staufen. It was one hell of a journey, made more interesting by avoiding all of my class and befriending a bunch of pupils who were two years younger than myself (I was sixteen at the time). This bunch of friends – four girls and one boy – had no preconceptions about me and didn’t hassle me about my diary or songs and I ended up spending most of my time with them over the two weeks.

By now I had a walkman and had taken a load of tapes with me – OMD, Kraftwerk. Tangerine Dream, Teardrop Explodes. I couldn’t understand why the Germans weren’t interested in what I considered to be their best music. I loaned a tape of Kraftwerk to my penfriend who had never heard it before and in return he loaned me a tape of “The final cut” by Pink Floyd. I didn’t consider it a fair swap.

On the few occasions the Welsh pupils attended the school in Staufen we didn’t really do much – just sat in rooms chatting to each other. There was one teacher at the German school who seemed to model himself on Julian Cope and he was always around with us. One evening there was a disco for the exchange students hosted in the school and this teacher was the DJ. I was hoping he’d play some Teardrop but he didn’t. As the drinks started to kick in, all the girls from my own class were badgering me to sing – “We’ve heard your tape, sing something for us” or “Sing the song about (name removed)” – and eventually the drink got the better of me and I gave in. I went into the disco, someone handed me a microphone and the music stopped and everyone in the disco looked at me.. And I sang a Teardrop Explodes b-side. The drink must have kicked in for everyone else because they clapped me and wanted more. I sang one of my songs, they clapped again and I ran to the toilets and threw up. I don’t remember much more of that night.

The 85 exchange ended with another multi-faceted journey back to Wales which took 36 hours. This was the first time I heard “Into the groove” – someone had a radio playing on Cologne train station and it was playing and I had no idea who it was. It was weird – we’d been away for a fortnight and it felt like the whole charts had changed in that time. The journey was terrible – the section in the ferry coincided with a storm on the North Sea which resulted in the majority of our party vomiting somewhere along the line. On the train from Dover to London most of us dozed but I was watching the landscape pass by, and dawn broke as we passed Battersea power station which looked quite glorious that morning.
We finally arrived back to Penarth around lunchtime and I got to bed half an hour later with every intention of reading the two copies of Melody Maker I’d missed (one was about Live Aid, the other had the Coward Brothers on the cover). Of course I was asleep within an hour.

All of the above was a preamble and a scene setter for 1986’s exchange when the Germans came to us. We were all a bit older now – I was 17 – and that made a huge difference. The Germans arrived on Friday 4th July by coach and all the hosts were given a wodge of A4 sheets with addresses and contact details and told that we should “socialise” with each other more. I looked over the list and was pleased to see that all the friends I’d befriended the previous year were still involved. On the other hand I wasn’t pleased to see that R – she of the love hate relationship with me (see previous entry) – was also on the list. The first night of the fortnight our guest settled in after a fraught journey easily the equal of our trip the previous year, but on the Saturday he was ready to rock. So we went into Penarth town centre and looked for records. The only record shop in the town was Woolworths and our guest hunted through the somewhat limited stock. I don’t remember what he was searching for but I don’t think he found it. I found a cassette of “Remain in light” for £2.99 and bought it. We returned home and I lay back on my bed with my headphones on. This was going to be good.

And it was. I couldn’t believe this record. “Born under punches” was funkier than anything I’d heard before, and the guitar solo blew my head off. The solo sounded like it had been fed through a computer and it had churned out random spurts of notes and noise, bent and twisted into shapes no guitar should make. All of side one was frantic, funky and seemed to be moving in directions I could barely comprehend. The call and response vocals on “The great curve” swam around my head and again an astonishing guitar solo. I turned the tape over, “Once in a lifetime” I knew already but now I was picking up more details. Just as “Houses in motion” got to the chorus there was a knock on my bedroom door and my mother came in – “There’s someone to see you at the door”. I switched off the tape and went downstairs to find R standing at my door with her guest. “We thought we’d come over and see you” she said. I was flabberghasted. Here was R – in my house! I was in awe of the fact that she’d had the courage to come over, and small talk was made, then she said we should all go to hers so we walked the mile or so into the town centre to her parents’ house. So now I was in R’s house, slightly amazed at the decor, and drinking cans of lager. We always had this odd relationship, R and myself (yes shouldn’t that be “R and I” but that sounds like an insurance company). We were highly sarcastic to each other and I really couldn’t tell what her feelings were because they were veiled by this wall of sarcasm. But being in each other’s houses freaked me out, and I do wonder why she chose me to visit out of all the people on the exchange.

That night my guest wanted to go out for a drink and the only pub in the town was The Railway so we walked down there. I’d never been there before and felt a bit intimidated. The first people I saw there were the two girls I had simultaneous crushes on at the time, which didn’t help. Then all my friends saw me looking lost and dragged me in, pleased to see me and amazed that I was there at all. The first thing I did was knock over a burly builder type to get to my friends and he looked like he was going to thump me before one of my friends dragged me away. I was given a drink and told to shut up and not talk to anyone. I was still a year away from the legal drinking age but everyone else seemed to be getting away with it. My guest was alright, he was six foot three inches so nobody was going to question him. This was an alien environment for me, most of my classmates were there but I’d rarely seen them outside of school before, I was slightly freaked out by seeing them ‘out of context’ and in normal clothes. They all appeared to be enjoying themselves even if I wasn’t. At the end of the evening my guest and I walked home, slightly woozy. I went to bed, placed my headphones on and continued with “Remain in light”. Feeling woozy suited “Houses in motion” and I paid extra close attention to the words on “Seen and not seen” as you do when you’re slightly drunk and trying to concentrate hard to appear sober. The words made a strange kind of sense to me. As the album wound to a grinding droning halt on “The overload” I gave in and fell asleep.

During that fortnight some days we had to be in school and some days we had trips planned and some days we could do as we pleased. On the first Monday we had a “do as you please” day, so we went to Cardiff record shopping. After fruitless searching for nothing in particular we ended up in a second hand record shop on Broadway where bargains and oddities were in plentiful supply. This day I found a few records I fancied which I bought – the twelve inch single of “A promise” by Echo and the Bunnymen and “Chairs missing” on LP by Wire, two pounds each.

Now the Bunnymen single I wanted for the b-side which wasn’t up to much cop, but as I only had “Heaven up here” on tape I was happy to have the a-side on vinyl. On the other hand I knew very little about Wire.

In fact I only knew one song by them. My father had subscribed to “The History of Rock” partwork magazine in the early 80s – 120 sections covering everything from the 1950s to around 1983. There was also a series of thirty double albums to accompany the magazines – single artist compilations which were an education in themselves. There was one single side of “Punk” on a later volume and my brother and I would laugh hysterically at the last two songs – “Little girl” by The Banned and “12XU” by Wire. The latter just seemed too beserk to be real – this ticking hihat and tense guitar chug before bursting into the full throttle riff. It was intriguing, but I had no idea to expect when I put “Chairs missing” on the turntable. Certainly the package looked arty, cool and clinical and I had a lyric sheet to examine while I listened. Headphones on, tape recording, drop the needle.

A bassline circles around four notes not going anywhere but defiantly alone. Then a clicking drum track kicks in as does a choppy guitar playing one angular chord. An added distorted arpeggio chord is added and no change is happening, it’s just ongoing on this one chord riff. Then Colin Newman adds his voice and the words. “Practice makes perfect yes I can prove it / Business or pleasure the more that you do it”. On the “do” the band changed from one chord to another but still maintained the machine rhythm. Then back to the original chord. “Please dress in your best things, this course was unplanned / Cos you see up in my bedroom I’ve got Sarah Bernhardt’s hand”. On the word “Sarah” it reverts to just bass and ticking drums. The next verse continues as the first verse but there’s something lurking at the edges of the sound – like a synthesised choir starting to fade in sustaining one chord. Colin is now repeating “Waiting for us, waiting, waiting” and getting more frantic while the choir gets louder and a strange siren sounds every four seconds and someone else is laughing into an echo chamber. Slowly everything drops away to ticking drums, the sustained choir and the siren then silence. Then the siren.

That was crazy. Wasn’t this meant to be a punk band? What about “12XU”? The only link back seemed to be the trebly ticking drums and the wall of distortion guitar. As the album progressed I found myself amazed by each individual song. “French film blurred” seemed to be almost a pop song, and I still feel like it sounds like Squeeze on the millisecond there are two harmonised vocals on the word “ribbon”. The words seemed to be abstract views on a man’s demise through the Mafia. It intrigued me. Before it got boring the song ended. “Another the letter” added some speed and a simple analogue synth sequence to the mix and was over at just over a minute – it made it’s point and then stopped. I wasn’t used to such brevity. “Men 2nd” was pop punk with bite. “Marooned” ticked along on a bed of synthesised chords and the occasional clanging guitar chord. “Sand in my joints” was frantic punk but with a jarring guitar solo seemingly cut and pasted together. “Being sucked in again” was slower but far from mellow, the tension palpable in the slashed chords. The song ends on sustained synths and odd noises. “Heartbeat” is a two chord pulse, the whole band restrained to play as quietly as possible, and only reaching a crescendo halfway through before returning to the quiet pulse at the end. Side one closed, I pressed pause, turned the LP over, looked at the vinyl and saw the first track seemed a bit longer than others. “Mercy” was sort of what I expected only slower and with strange words about transvestite nurses and it dragged its noisy frame across what felt like six long minutes. “Outdoor miner” really was a joyous pop song but was over before it was really going. “I am the fly” clanged relentlessly. Then the last few songs tore me apart. “I feel mysterious today” was held in check, the lyrics reflected how I felt half the time – “Always cause for concern when you’re feeling quite bright…I feel mysterious today, everything is humming loudly…is it ever appealing to stand on the ceiling, observe the tension grow”. This was angst expressed in a manner I’d not heard before, but it struck home, as did the final line – “Did you ever conceive that you too can leave exactly when you like?”. I mean. I could have misread that line all this time but I knew what I think it meant. “From the nursery” implied evil thoughts from a child’s cuddly toy. “Used to” was a complete shock. The drums ticked quietly, layers of distorted chords swam over a simple bassline and synth chords. And the words, oh the words were like an arrow through my heart.

“Does the pain remain when the head is turned and the body walks away? You used to know.
Does nausea ensue when you chance upon a memory of someone you used to know?
Does warmth increase when the pulse is strong but the response is weak? You used to know.
I just lay down guidelines in front of me.
It’s similar to the things you do to me”

The song repeats the verse and the singing drops away to leave the synth chords getting richer as the song fades out. I’d never heard anything so beautifully eloquent on the pain of rejection, and instantly added the song to my mental playlist of favourite songs. Finally “Too late”. A punky thrash, an odd lyric which seems to imply incest and four minutes of incessant riff and noise. A wonderful conclusion to a startling exceptional album. I knew as soon as I heard it that this was going to be one of my favourite albums, the textures were perfect, the words were peculiar and succinct, the songs had hooks and swerves as well, I wanted to play it again and again, and I played it a lot over the next week or so.

Meanwhile back to the exchange. We all went on two coach trips. The first was a day trip to the Roman town of Bath – a town I adored, mainly because it had quirky shops and a small sweet shop which was the only place I knew sold milk gums at the time. (For those who don’t know, milk gums were like wine gums only white and milk flavoured. Obviously). I didn’t really give much concern to my guest – I was just having a day out. It was the first time I’d seen all the friends I’d made on the previous year’s exchange and we carried on as if we’d been in touch all year (which we hadn’t – I was now in the sixth form so hid in the common room). We went to cafes, trawled the shops and just generally hung out, enjoying each other’s company. In a small record shop in a back street in Bath I was pleased to find a bargain bin of discounted seven inch singles. Dashing through the box I found three copies of Sudden Sway’s recently issued “Sing song” single. Sudden Sway were an archetypal Peel band – a few independent singles and some innovative Peel sessions which mixed music with speech with humour and pathos had led to Warner Brothers signing the band. Asked by the label to produce a sing-song type song for their debut major label single, they wrote “Sing song”, then recorded eight different versions of it in eight totally different styles, then insisted all eight be issued simultaneously. This was guaranteed commercial suicide – radio didn’t know which version to play, so they didn’t play it. Buyers didn’t know which version they were getting unless they looked closely at the catalogue number on the back of the sleeve and even then it may not have been the version they may have heard on the radio. Peel himself played version 4. He may have played other versions but that was the one I heard him play. So I was pleased to find three copies. Checking the sleeves I had versions 1, 5 and 8. I bought them for 50p each. I never saw another copy of “Sing song” ever again. The coach journey back was spent pouring over the sleeve notes on the back of the single – my friends thought I was mad to buy three copies of the same song. When I explained why they thought the band was crazy.

Plqwaying the singles was just as crazy as the ideas behind the band. Version 1 was like a pisstake of the Jesus and Mary Chain, all metallic distortions. Version 5 was drum machine and acoustic guitar, like a strange protest song. Version 8 was pop song 86, the full production, twinkling Fairlights and DX7s, as rich as anything from the previous year’s Scritti Politti album. The b-side to all three singles was an instrumental version of the song with an explanation of the processes behind the song in strange management speak. The songs were put on the other side of the “Chairs missing” tape.

As you may have gathered there wasn’t a lot of interaction with my guest. He wanted to go out to the pub every night to meet up with his friends and sometimes he went on his own and sometimes I was his reluctant comrade. One balmy hot night there was a barbecue for the exchange students at Cosmeston Park, a short walk from our house. We all went along and just about everyone from my class was there getting drunk – it had turned into an end of term party. I just recall wandering around hiding from people who I fancied. These were my first real experiences of drinking alcohol and it seemed to make me melancholy and paranoid. I really didn’t learn. I just thought “At some point this must turn into fun” but it never did, more alcohol meant more melancholy and more paranoia. It didn’t help that my two simultaneous crushes were both there and I kept bumping into them at the most inappropriate times. There was no happy conclusion to the barbecue, just a drunken wander back home.

The second exchange trip was a coach trip to the Gower, a beachy area near Porthcawl. Again I virtually ignored everyone except the bunch of younger students I’d met the year before. We found a secluded section of the beach and sunbathed and listened to the radio and read books and chatted. I think the others looked up to me as someone with some maturity (how wrong they were) and they wanted to know about how O level exams were and what life was like in the sixth form. The radio played two songs that day which I’d not heard before, and for me soundtracked the trip.

The first song was “The way it is” by Bruce Hornsby and The Range. At that time it was a real one off, not sounding much like the other songs on the radio, showing real musicianship in the piano playing and subtlety in the lyrical department. I adored it and was pleased when it became a hit. Sadly it would become ubiquitous with a certain kind of faux-sophistication, becoming co-opted into TV music and advertisements, but that summer it sounded unique.

The other song truly sounded like little else. Starting with a flurry of electronic notes, followed by an ascending bassline and strident drums, the main music started with strange staccato guitar chords and synthesised gulps counterpointing each other. Then the singing started, two voices but one singer harmonising with himself, seemingly doubting, feeling led astray or led on. He didn’t mean it to get that far. From time to time the intro’s flurry of notes appear and there’s an odd sustaining note which appears occasionally. At one point the whole song stops, leaving that sustaining note to ring out for three seconds totally alone – an incredibly brave thing to do in the middle of a pop song. It sounded like Prince at his finest. When the song faded out the DJ said “That was Robert Palmer with ‘I didn’t mean to turn you on'” I was amazed. This was his followup to “Addicted to love”, a lumbering hulk of a song. So I lay on the beach with these two songs sliding around my head, fell asleep and got sunburned. On the coach back I was sat on my own playing “Chairs missing” on my walkman. Suddenly one of the girls tapped me on the shoulder and said “What are you listening to? Can we have a listen?”. My walkman was snatched off me, the tape removed and then the tape was passed back a few rows to someone’s ghetto blaster. At that point “Another the letter” blasted out across the coach. People nodded along, but I never expected it to last. It lasted up to “Being sucked in again”. The coach rocked out to Wire for almost ten minutes and seemed to love it. Afterwards people asked me what the tape was, they were really interested and intrigued by it.

The fortnight continued – I spent some nights at the Railway avoiding the bar staff, and some nights we did nothing at all, maybe playing Trivial Pursuit or visiting friends. My guest and I seemed to hang out with R and her guest a lot and I still didn’t know why, she seemed to gravitate to me for some reason. In the second week there was clearly bugger all to do so I hooked up with two other friends – C and M – who were making a film about the school and became their “sound man”. This mainly involved holding the mic out behind C’s video camera, while M tried to guide the action in front of us. I don’t know what the point of the film was, but it was a scream reviewing the footage at the end of each day. On the Thursday – the penultimate day of term – I hauled my big JVC tape deck into school to record some ‘ambient’ sounds and properly record interviews with some teachers. Towards the end of the day, we set up my tape deck and the video camera in the school’s hall and I improvised a mournful two minute piece on the school piano, working with the natural echo in the hall. It was lovely, and that piece ended up as the title track of my summer album “All is joy in the land of the mad” (oh come on, I was seventeen…).

The next day all the Germans left around lunchtime and us lower sixth pupils sat around waiting for our reports at the end of the day. I ended up sitting around a table in the common room playing “Murder” with a bunch of people, one of whom was one of the two crushes. I avoided eye contact with her as much as possible due to my own embarrassment and ended up not being murdered by her, much to her annoyance. We then fed into our form rooms to receive our reports. All our school records were out for some reason, so I took the chance to read mine. All my school history in one place, all my troubles, disappointments, letters to my parents, letters from my parents, everything. Phrases jumped out at me which seemed to define my life. Then we sat down and got our reports – mine was dreadful, it’s probably in a drawer somewhere, a bunch of low grades and awful comments. It wasn’t well received at home. So I went out to the Railway that night, to drown my sorrows. After a half of lager one of the staff grabbed me and asked how old I was. I lied and said I was 18, they said “Prove it and you can come back, until then, sling your hook”. This was witnessed by all my friends and all my classmates. I left and sat on Penarth seafront for an hour watching the sun go down, then returned home and disappeared into my room and inside my head.

Does the pain remain when the head is turned and the body turns away
You used to know
Does nausea ensue when you chance upon the memory of someone
You used to know
Does warmth increase when the pulse is strong but the response is weak
You used to know
I’ll give you an example typically
It’s less complicated than it simply should be.