The "New" Perfect Collection

THE NEW PERFECT COLLECTION Follow @terrytochel

Greatest Records, Psychedelia, Punk Rock, Rock Music

The Perfect Collection was published in 1982. Subtitled “The Rock Albums everybody should have and why”, editor Tom Hibbert and his contributors selected 200+ albums, which would give you, if you bought them all, a “broad, balanced, lively, collection of all thats best in rock music”.

When this book appeared in our local library it consumed and obsessed us. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t inspire us to track down all of the records like some other lists of the “greatest records ever made” (I’ve still not heard some of them). It included Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On which it claims is probably the worst album ever made. It included Pat Boone, Cliff Richard and Gary Glitter and omitted Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, T Rex and Can.

Where the book got it right was the inclusion of some records which I have never seen included in any other best of lists. It turned us on to records like The Standells’ Try It, The Seeds’ Raw & Alive and The Flaming Groovies’ Teenage Head which remain firm favourites thirty plus years after first reading about them. It included Gene Clark’s No Other and Big Star’s Radio City which were not acknowledged as classics for another decade or two.

While it included many of the big hitters and acknowledged classics, what was clear was that the rest of these albums were the real personal favourites of the contributors, the ones that you would fight for.

What we intend to do is write about the 200 or so albums that we would include in our perfect collection. While it would be tempting to only include records recorded since the books publication, it may include what we would consider glaring omissions from the original book. Like the book, if an artist has two albums of equal artistic merit, an alternative  choice will be denoted with an ‘a’. Various artist compilation were not included in the book, and will not be included here (sorry Nuggets et al) We have tried to avoid the bigger names and shine a light on those names that don’t usually figure in best of lists.

Dedicated to

Tom Hibbert, Andy Schwartz, Brian Hogg, Bill Knight, Chris Charlesworth, C. P. Lee, Chris Welch, Fran Kershner, Giovanni Dadomo, Harry, Shapiro, Ian Birch, John Tobler, Kerry King, Michael Heatley, Mike McDowell, Martin Plimmer, Mark Williams, Nigel Cross, Neville Wiggins, Peter Clark, Patrick Humphries, Paddy Poltock, Paul Whitcombe, Stephen Lee, Sally Payne.

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131. JOE GIBBS & THE PROFESSIONALS – AFRICAN DUB ALL-MIGHTY CHAPTER 3 (1978)

Dub, Greatest Records, Reggae

Gibbs had been active in the JA music scene from the early ‘60s, working alongside Lee Perry and Bunny Lee as well as producing rocksteady hits for the likes of The Pioneers, The Heptones and The Ethiopians, but rose to international prominence with his production job on Nicky Thomas’ 1970 global top ten smash ‘Love Of The Common People’. An impressive résumé certainly, but one undoubtedly overshadowed by his ’70s partnership with engineer Errol (ET) Thompson (aka ‘The Mighty Two’) which – with the help of a crack team of session musicians aka The Professionals (Sly & Robbie & co) – delivered over 100 Jamaican chart toppers for a host of singers and DJs including Big Youth, Dennis Brown, Prince Far-I and Black Uhuru. Some of reggae’s most enduring albums such as Two Sevens Clash by Culture also bore his fingerprints, and along with Coxsone and Scratch he rightly competes for the title of greatest reggae producer of all.

However it is his groundbreaking ‘70s experiments in dub which lend his claim to that accolade the greatest weight. In particular his four volume African Dub Almighty series represents dub music at its most revelatory, with the third of those Chapters the pick of the bunch, a rival to King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, Blackboard Jungle Dub and Pick A Dub as perhaps the key album of the genre.

The first two Chapters (from 1973 and 1974 respectively) were pioneering for the time, yet offered little clue as to what would come next. But four years was a long time during what was the most fertile period in reggae’s history, as Kingston rocked to the roots train, basked in the glory the Wailers’ international success, sweltered while DJs competed for dominance on the street corner sound systems and observed dreadlocks disappear into clouds of ganja smoke as the culture of Rastafari grew more fervent in the wake of Haile Sellassie’s removal as Emperor of Ethiopia.

By the mid-’70s dub had surged forward in its sonic development from the kind of primitive instrumental remixes and edits knocked out by Coxsone and Tubby initially as the most economical way of filling the B-Side of a 45, becoming latterly, far more experimental sonic excursions for increasingly enthusiastic audiences on club nights. Crucially for Gibbs however, in the intervening period (between Chapters Two and Three) he acquired a new 16-track recording studio and record pressing plant at Retirement Crescent. Tubbys by contrast had a mere four tracks and Thompson must have felt like a four year old let loose in a sweetie shop, although the first LP released after the move, State of Emergency, was not an especially significant step forward from Chapter Two – perhaps instead it merely served the purpose of allowing the duo to get their bearings and prepare for what was to come.

Some of the sounds and samples on Chapter Three will be familiar to you if you have at least some interest in reggae and dub music. For instance, the backing track to Jacob Miller’s ‘Baby I Love You So’ has been a much sampled dub staple and along with the echoed skanking guitar, provides the raw material for the album’s title track ‘Chapter Three’. But others almost defy description, so it is vital you give it a proper listen from beginning to end. There’s crazy stuff happening all over the place, not least on the aforementioned title track, where at one point it sounds as if a large grate has been removed from the earth, only to reveal a yawning pelagic catacomb; later in the same track, could that be a double decker bus or another HGV grinding abruptly to a halt?

Lloyd Bradley in his superb history of the genre, Bass Culture, devotes a few pages to ‘Tribesman Rockers’ an otherworldly borrowing of ‘Why Do Birds Follow Spring’ by Alton Ellis, where channels shift and screech over horns, flutes and digital bleeps and squeals which sound like they’ve come from some futuristic arcade game.

For good measure, leavened into the mix on ‘Freedom Call Dub’ are some Clangers-style recorder and insanely distorted UFO sound effects, while the guitar groove on ‘Jubilation Dub’ seems to tailspin off the edge of a cliff beneath some seriously phat bass, the whole thing descending into anarchy, the dial grips on that mixing desk having a house party to themselves. Elsewhere, door bells ring, sirens blare and water pools bubble and froth. One’s head begins to melt.

Best of all is ‘Angolian Chant’ – a heavyweight twist on Dennis Brown’s gorgeous ‘Love Me Always’ reinterpreted as “I wanna dub you, dub you always” – with the sustain on Brown’s “wooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” a stroke of genius, the work of a master engineer, one who understands how to fasten divergent musical fragments together, drape silent shrouds over familiar rhythms and brush and polish others until they gleam anew, radically reinventing with echo, splice and overdub.

Lloyd Bradley identifies parallels between dub and the African beliefs and practices which migrated to Jamaica known as obeah, which divides the body into seven centres or selves (eg digestive system, respiratory system, the brain) and prescribes herbs and potions in order to bring forward, push back or heal and realign those different aspects. Bradley noted how the best dub contains those medicinal even magical qualities, excavating, transfiguring, purifying, shredding, even amputating where necessary. African Dub All-Mighty Chapter Three delivers on all of those fronts, in addition to being one of the most authentically psychedelic records ever created. The likes of Scientist, Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge would rewrite the dub rule book, psyching into the FX and detaching it more and more from its roots. By contrast, the music of Gibbs, Thompson and the Professionals was steeped in reggae’s rich heritage. It holds body and soul, past and future, earth and the cosmos in perfect balance. (JJ)

130. THE ROLLING STONES – BETWEEN THE BUTTONS (1967)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Psychedelia, Rock Music

For me, the best Stones album by some distance is Beggars Banquet. Although Brian Jones played only a small part in its creation, it was the last and greatest LP to feature the original five. By the following year the band’s sound, as well as its understanding of itself, had altered irrevocably. After Beggars Banquet, while the highs were often ecstatic ones, much of their music became progressively more hackneyed over time, and while some of their records (particularly those made between 1969 and 1972) are amongst the best and most confident they would ever make, never again would they sound so natural nor exuberant as they did in ’68.

The two albums which preceded BB offer a glimpse into the Stones’ orbit before they became self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’. The dayglo psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, its excesses (of the sonically adventurous kind) perhaps easier to stomach than those (of the dead-eyed smacked out type) of the ‘70s, so candidly chronicled by Nick Kent in Apathy For The Devil.

But TSMR‘s predecessor Between The Buttons is better still, an effervescent pop potpourri which saw them step outside of their R&B roots to incorporate elements of country and western (‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’), baroque (‘Yesterday’s Papers’) and Kinks-ish music hall (‘Cool, Calm & Collected’,’ Something Happened To Me Yesterday’) alongside their first organically psychedelic inflections.

’67 was the strangest year for the Stones. They would make newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons (the famous drug bust at Redlands) and Between The Buttons – while it performed fairly well in the charts (although not as well as Aftermath) – was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent court case. A shame, because it’s one of the very best albums they ever made.

On January 15th they ‘spent some time together’ performing their new AA-sided 45 on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan censored the lyric while Jagger rolled his eyes and deliberately fluffed his lines. As was oft the case, the single cuts (‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday’) were included on the US version of the LP which would be released in February. The UK version, released on 20th January, omitted both. Curiously, when I began building my Stones collection, the US version was more widely available and therefore I didn’t hear the album in the form it was originally intended to be heard, for many years. And when I did, the album finally began to make perfect sense.

The first of the two tracks to make way for the hits on the US version of the LP, contains the kind of embellishments which would remain absent throughout their ’70s oeuvre. ‘Back Street Girl’ sees Jagger lampoon the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, it’s ‘lord of the manor and his mistress’ lyric stapled to one of the Stones’ gentlest melodies, a waltzing companion piece to ‘Lady Jane’, featuring Brian on vibes, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord with Nick de Caro lending some Gallic charm on accordion. “I wrote this in some weird place which I can’t remember. It’s got the feeling of a French cafe about it” Jagger explained to Keith Altham of the NME. Years later, he suggested it was the only song on the album he was happy with. It’s an album he sorely underestimates.

Brian’s fingerprints meanwhile, are everywhere in evidence, pulling the strings and twiddling the knobs on the second of those tracks, the Bo Diddley on (a)steroids runout ‘Please Go Home’. Jones had big plans then, and his interviews always made good copy. “I believe we are moving toward a new age in ideas and events. Astrologically we are at the end of the age called the Pisces age…We are soon to begin the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place”, he told Keith Altham shortly after the album’s release. Maybe one eye was already on the band’s next more explicitly psychedelic project, but those roots were sewn on BTB not only through Brian’s dilettantish peppering of the material with sitars, oscillators and flutes, but also with Keith’s heavily distorted reverb on ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ and the menacing ‘My Obsession’. Sessions were engineered by Dave Hassinger and the hovering dynamics here recall his similarly impressive synchronous work with The Electric Prunes.

On ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ the miraculous interplay between Nitzche’s harpsichord and Jones’ vibraphone hangs like draped finery over Keith’s pulsating generator. Jagger had envisaged the song entirely differently. “It was going to be very straight but it’s ended up donging about all over the place. All tinkling and weird. Charlie said he wanted to think up a weird drum rhythm for it and brought about two dozen different drums into the studio for it, then he asked me if I thought he was getting contrived?” he told the NME at the time. Contrived or not, it is a hugely undervalued gem and for many, the album’s defining moment.

The Stones hadn’t forgotten how to rip it up as evidenced by the delightfully rambunctious ‘Miss Amanda Jones’. ‘All Sold Out’ and ‘Connection’ are feisty little rockers too, the latter’s irresistible staccato guitar riff and prescient lyric anticipating the personal problems to come (“The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect ’em?”), while the former is ’embellished’ with more superb guitar work alongside Jones’ tone deaf recorder. The mid tempo ballad ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ is less successful, possibly the album’s weakest track, and despite Keith’s versatility his efforts to edify the thing with solemn church organ – Jagger claimed the track was “quasi-religious” – are in vain. Even his bass part is bewildering, as if he’s playing on one string, and a broken one at that. One might guess they ran out of time and everyone else had disappeared for the evening.

‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’, a kind of countrified Dylan pastiche, is a peculiar marriage of his mournfully melancholic ‘She Belongs To Me’ with the bawdy ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35′, but against the odds it works splendidly well, with particular credit to Jones’ understated harp playing. It’s also interesting to note the progression from here to ‘No Expectations’ from the following year’s Beggars Banquet. As for the closer, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’, it is one of the oddest songs in the Stones’ canon, and musically at least sounds like an out-take from The Kinks’ Face To Face. As for the subject matter, Jagger was somewhat cryptic: “I leave it to the individual imagination as to what happened. The ending is something I remember hearing on the BBC as the bombs dropped.” A red herring probably – it is more likely to be about his first encounter with LSD. And that experience would of course lead them to unexplored pastures.

It is often overlooked, but Between The Buttons is quirky and ingenious, and if at times a little too polite for some tastes, reassuringly devoid of the rawk posturing to come. It is the Stones’ brightest album, and also their most English – their very own Village Green. (JJ)

129. JOHN & BEVERLEY MARTYN – STORMBRINGER! (1970)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

I was three years old in 1970, so, unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the time, although vividly etched in my memory are pictures of those Brazilian shirts from the Mexico World Cup which looked like they were about to burst into flames on our television screens. Perhaps the only other thing I remember watching on TV at the time is Mary Mungo & Midge, always at lunchtimes. But despite those tender memories, I usually think of 1970 as the bleakest of years. A more enduring image might be that of those beleaguered festival-goers trudging forlornly along the endless back roads of the Isle Of Wight, their mood darkening by the second. Most of all though I tend to think of long-haired yellow-fingered hippies rolling up on Astral Weeks album sleeves in gloomy bedsits, the curtains drawn tightly together. Perhaps that image has been perpetuated through repeated viewings of Bruce Robinson’s razor sharp study of the time Withnail & I (set in late ‘69), but there was certainly something more somber about the mood of 1970 – and the music often reflected that. The year would witness the disintegration of The Beatles, the emergence of doom-metal lords Black Sabbath, and the release of Bowie’s heaviest and most disturbing album, so that retrospectively, those twelve months feel like a solemn requiem for the optimism of the ‘60s. The Beatles’ split in April – though protracted and long expected – must in itself have procured an outpouring of national grief, soon to be compounded by Lennon hissing venomous derision upon their legacy, and upon the ‘60s as a whole.

All the same, 1970 yielded an abundance of terrific LPs, even if the mood was decidedly more despondent: Bryter Layter, After The Gold Rush, Fun House, Bitches Brew, Watertown, Loaded, The Madcap Laughs to name a few. But two of the very best albums of the year were made by Glasgow folkie John Martyn and his wife Beverley. By the end of the ‘60s Martyn’s reputation had been growing steadily, and his music evolving from traditional folk to incorporate a more distinctive jazzy experimental style. In ‘69 he got himself hitched to singer-songwriter Beverley Kutner and together the pair immediately relocated to Woodstock to begin recording the songs that would make up Stormbringer! and its follow up, the equally impressive Road To Ruin.

I’ve always found Stormbringer! a terribly sad record, riddled with an aching melancholia, a perfect mirror image of the painful comedown from the ‘60s. And while the Martyns would have yet been in the honeymoon period of their relationship, the songs struggle to communicate any marital bliss. One might have expected the first fruits of their creative partnership to be populated with odes to Eros and hymns to nature, but although the songs are richly textured, the lyrics betray their authors’ own fragility and uncertainty. A sign of things to come – there would be an intensity to their relationship which made it a tempestuous, at times even violent one, and the wheels would come off spectacularly, but grey clouds were already gathering at the beginning.

It is hard not to imagine Nick Drake being the subject of ‘Go Out And Get It’, the album’s blistering opening track. Martyn would later pen ‘Solid Air’ about his doomed friend, but the lyrics here (“I know a man, six feet tall…educated well / And he keeps his mind within a padded shell / Behind the curtain, upon the shelf / Lives a man living with himself / Behind his eyes, behind his smile / What is going on, nobody in the world can tell”) seem to tell Drake’s story equally well, and it certainly sets a solemn tone for the album. Musically however, it represents a huge leap forward, the fuller band sound bolstered by Mother of Invention Billy Mundi on the sticks with Martyn’s shrieking slide oscillating through the rhythm.

Back in Blighty, there had been tension between Martyn and Witchseason’s Joe Boyd (“he didn’t really like me, thought I was vulgar”, Martyn claimed), and Boyd sent the pair across the Atlantic where they teamed up with several seasoned players such as Levon Helm, Harvey Brooks and John Simon. It is unclear how much of the production credit should lie with Boyd or keyboard player Paul Harris. But whatever the case, the new album was a significantly different proposition from The Tumbler, Martyn’s preceding album from ‘68. The title track and the closer ‘Would You Believe’ offer the best illustration of that transformation, with newly expansive playing and exquisite embellishments, the former’s descending string sequence towards the end and the latter’s hypnotic shimmering reverb the equal of anything in Martyn’s canon, whilst pointing the way forward to his more celebrated mid-‘70s work. Despite the musical progression, ‘Stormbringer!’ (“She never looked around to see me / She never looked around at all / All I saw was shadows on the wall”) and ‘Would You Believe’ (“Would you believe me if I told you / That I didn’t want to lose you? / That’s why I had to bruise you so sadly…”) reflect the prevailing sense of unease. Under record company pressure, Martyn would soon be recording solo once again, but perhaps there was an inevitability about this development. There are some lighter moments – the pretty paean to ‘Woodstock’ for instance – but these are pushed aside by more sinister rumblings. Even the more explicitly romantic lyrics have a darker underbellly (“I’m John the Baptist and this is my friend Salome / And you can bet it’s my head she wants and not my heart only.”)

Meanwhile Beverley’s compositions possess an almost purgatorial character – elusive almost painful melodies, always on the verge of some ecstatic moment, the euphoria stifled by sone maudlin huskily delivered line or a slightly off-kilter note on the piano. On ‘Can’t Get The One I Want’ she laments “I can’t get the one I want to love / So I’m just biding my time / Drunk is drunk / The wine is just fine”. In contrast she comes over like a narcoticized Julie Driscoll on ‘Sweet Honesty’ – its seven minutes of sultry funk perhaps outstays its welcome a little; but it does feature some strong harmonica playing. Beverley’s songs are the equal of John’s throughout and one regrets their collaboration wasn’t to stretch beyond the end of the year. But that makes the music even more evocative of time and place.

The further removed we become from a particular moment in time, the more we allow our consciousness – our memories, our imagination – to bottle it like a commodity to be recalled and, once savoured, returned – untainted – to the shelf of history. The filtering of memories can be a peculiar thing, but often with hindsight we seem somehow better able to understand the past, and our own place in it. Stormbringer! – despite its almost timeless production – makes me think 1970 in a way no other record does. It’s the sort of record that is best appreciated during an intense bout of nostalgia, but that’s what makes it so special. And tonight, as I observe grey clouds gathering outside, it may just be the time to draw those curtains once again. (JJ)

128. MILTON NASCIMENTO / LO BORGES – CLUBE DA ESQUINA (1972)

Brazilian, Exotica, Greatest Records, Samba

Exile On Main Street is often regarded as the greatest double album of all time, but there is another twin set recorded in the same year on the other side of the world, to which I turn far more frequently for joy and inspiration. Clube da Esquina is an album which infuriatingly never graces any of those Greatest Albums lists. Brazilian records never do. Even their most internationally renowned artists (Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Elis Regina, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Joyce) are mysteriously overlooked. And yet from bossa nova and samba, through the Tropicalia movement of the late ’60s, onto the exotic synthesis of MPB with Western sounds in the early ’70s there are such rich seams to explore in Brazilian popular music.

It probably helps if one has first undergone some conditioning. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve me playing with my Airfix soldiers on the living room carpet, my mother zipping round me doing the housework whilst blasting the music of Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes and Maria Bethania from the hi-fi. Those soldiers were better equipped to do the samba than to engage in battle. I meanwhile would grow up with bossa nova in my blood.

Amongst all of that wonderful music, the mystical Clube da Esquina stands at the zenith. It’s title (‘The Corner Club’) was the name given to a collective of musicians from the state of Minas Gerais, but for this album, their debut offering, the reins were effectively yielded to Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges.

At over an hour in length, it remains a sprawling and highly ambitious fusion of styles. Nascimento had already made a name for himself in Brazilian music, and his ’68 album Courage is a classic of orchestral pop, while the younger Borges (a mere nineteen at the time) brought with him a more traditional roots sensibility. People presumed the picture on the album’s sleeve to be a photograph taken of the two friends during their childhood. Not so. The iconic image was actually snapped by Carlos da Silva Assunção Filho and perfectly captured the spirit of the favela, the ‘face of Brazil’ at a time of brutal political oppression by the military regime. Amidst such poverty and injustice, one might have expected the music to be rustic, a Brazilian variation of the protest song, but instead the songs were painstakingly constructed and richly textured, the arrangements often luxurious.

Is it possible to be in love with Nascimento’s voice without recognising a word it utters? I barely know two words of Portuguese, but it barely matters. For my heart discerns the purest of connections with this music and with its creators and this is an album to be enjoyed as much for its subtle inflections, celestial sparkle, twisting irresistible rhythms and piercing melancholia as for its social commentary.

It is a constantly surprising record; from the very first listen one’s attention is seized by the seesawing guitar lines of ‘O Trem Azul’ and ‘Nuvem Cigana’ as well as Nascimento’s hysterical wailing outro on the opening track, Borges’ ‘Tudo Que Você Podia Ser’. That in itself is a revelation – a traditional Brazilian folk tune ambushed by a contagious cockeyed samba. Then there is the meandering staccato piano fade into nothingness of Milton’s gorgeous introspective ballad ‘Cais’.

But what is most striking is the sheer extravagance of melodious inventiveness. The record has such a warm sound too – there are songs which subtly provide a counter cultural critique, some document an emotional catharsis, while others are clearly more celebratory, but one senses musicians completely in tune with one another, suffused with the sheer joy of making music together. There are little recurrent interludes (‘Saidas E Bandeiras Nos. 1 & 2’) and songs (‘Cravo E Canela’) which miraculously keep in balance some impressively dexterous whistling and the itchy ecstasy of bossa nova with the glitter and fizz of the carnival. Then hear how the laborious picking on ‘Dos Cruces’ cedes into an almost maniacal tango with a spitfire fuzz wigout at the fade. That is followed by the swooning intro to ‘Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo’ (when I first acquired the album in 1997, I managed to convince my younger brother this was the beginning of the brand new single by Gorky’s Zycotic Mynci) before a suspenseful cinematographic episode is blown apart by guitars quickly accelerating towards the finale. And if you fail to immediately press repeat after hearing the little six-string melodic miracles knitted together as ‘Estrelas’ and ‘Clube da Esquina No. 2’, then it is reasonable to assume your soul died a long time ago.

In amongst Nascimento’s ghostly sighs and shrieks (“If God had a voice he would sound like Milton Nascimento”, famously quipped Elis Regina), there is an outstanding vocal from Alaide Costa on ‘Me Deixa Em Pas’. Then there’s the darkly delicious psychedelia of ‘Pelo Amor de Deus’ with atmospheric autoharp, deranged keyboard and Beto Guedes’ crazed Strawberry Alarm Clock fuzz. But I’m barely scratching the surface here. There is such a proliferation of ideas and styles it is little wonder Clube da Esquina has often been referred to as the ‘Brazilian White Album’. And yet it is so much more than that. Let’s be clear, there is nothing that smacks of imitation here. If the Western influence has been accommodated, nevertheless these are quintessentially Brazilian rhythms and melodies. And this record represents Brazilian popular music at its finest.

As I write it is summertime in Brazil and Clube da Esquina is a record perhaps best appreciated amid the sweltering humidity of a long hot summer. But here in Glasgow the daylight is sparse and good cheer in short supply. There is no better time to let this winter warmer beckon swiftly the sun’s return. (JJ)

127. POSITION NORMAL- STOP YOUR NONSENSE (1999)

Electronic, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Indietronica

By 1999, I had completely lost interest in new music. There was one aberration from this disconcertingly reactionary development: my obsession with an album by a ‘band’ called Position Normal. I knew nothing about them except that the album was entitled Stop Your Nonsense.

I later discovered that Position Normal was a guy called Chris Baliff who had been experimenting with tape-to-tape multi-tracking since his early teens, using his family’s Amstrad hi-fi and an SK1 drum machine. At college he borrowed a Marantz tape recorder to do a project on ice cream vans, and from there began utilising guitars and other instruments. In the guise of Position Normal, with help from John Cushway, Baliff inhabits a discomfiting subconscious world of nonsensical gibberish, dreams and nightmares, delirium and hysteria. All conventional ideas about how music should sound have been abandoned, liberating him to create discombobulated aural collages which – depending upon the listener’s own psychological state – have the capacity to amuse excite and disturb in equal measure. If he has cultivatied his own mystique over the years (sporting faceless masks for example), resolutely maintaining a deliberately low profile, there is certainly nothing taciturn in his willingness to completely mess with your head.

Stop Your Nonsense is one of the most fearless records I’ve ever heard, made without the remotest concern for commercial viability. That is fairly unusual in itself, but what makes the album even stranger is that it is constructed almost exclusively from obscure samples of found sound. [‘Plunderphonics’, according to at least one website] In sharp contrast to DJ Shadow’s painstakingly seamless reconstructions on Endtroducing however, Position Normal layer the samples on top of one another in the most anarchic way imaginable: visualise a Banksy mural stencilled over a fresco by Botticelli or custard being thrown over a plate of sausages. Take ‘The Blank’ for instance, where a mechanical clang of Beefheartian guitar locks horns with what sounds like some syrupy children’s (loonee) tune knocked out on a xylophone. Meanwhile, vocal samples from a television quiz show (“What is the blank?”), manic bouts of laughter, and an obscure loop of eveningwear jazz arrive to gatecrash the party. It’s all utterly disorientating, rather marvellous and somehow makes perfect sense.

Everything sounds fractious, frenetic, desperate not to outstay it’s welcome, as much the perfect recipe for those suffering from attention deficit disorder as once was Pink Flag. Things move quickly here. You might struggle to keep up. Perhaps the strangest juxtaposition of styles is on ‘Rabies’ where the lyric (“Missing her like I miss rabies”) read by the narrator in a ludicrously accelerated tempo, fades into a devastatingly poignant moment from some ultra-solemn piano sonata. ‘Undada Sea’ likewise begins with looped varispeed voices before a playbarn bossa nova party is bashed out on flutes, tin cans and glass bottles.

‘Drishnun’ could be Broadcast or Stereolab on downer acid. Then there is ‘German’, where a strident rendition of what sounds like some theatrical composition by Kurt Weill (perhaps sung by his wife Lotte Lenya?) dissolves away through the addition of some sumptuous sonic phasing. Despite this Teutonic phonic interlude, the sounds Baliff harnesses together are typically unmistakably English, from the lumpen cockney accents on ‘Whoppeas’ and ‘Jimmy Had Jane’ (“Pickled egg, pickled egg, pickled egg eyes…”, which could be Derek & Clive or the Monty Python team reworking Rock Bottom) to taped telephone calls and source material extracted from UK children’s television and radio shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Simon Reynolds has detected elsewhere the same spirit of adventure characteristic of the UK post-punk scene of the early ‘80s, even comparing some of the eerily disembodied guitar to the work of Vini Reilly (check ‘Pepe Pepaymemimo’ or the haunting and genuinely hypnotic closer ‘Bedside Manners’), as well as citing other reference points as diverse as St. Etienne, Nurse With Wound and De La Soul. Perhaps another might be The Residents or early Matt Johnson (check the heavily reverbed guitar on ‘Bucket Wipe’)

It’s all defiantly lo-fi, at times making The Fall’s Dragnet sound as smooth as late period Steely Dan. Mind you, there are so many snippets and samples it becomes a challenge in itself to discern which sounds are authentically original. In the end, that doesn’t really matter, for in the early years of the noughties, when I like many others, had been left utterly unmoved by Coldplay, The Strokes, Primal Scream et al, this beautifully unhinged little gem contrived to keep my sanity intact. (JJ)

126. COLOSSAL YOUTH – YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS (1980)

Greatest Records

COLOSSAL YOUTH -YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS (1980)
It’s unlikely that the title of the world’s quietest band has ever been actively, or even eagerly, coveted but the hushed highnesses over the years have been so noble that it’s hard to see it as a dubious accolade.

The stillest, smallest voices of calm for a number of years now have been Low. Despite having a looser hand on the volume control for more than a decade, the brilliant Minnesotans are still associated with their earliest whispers, which reached their zenith during a live John Peel session, in which they played so quietly that at one point they triggered the emergency broadcast that kicks in following a certain period of dead air. Previously, the title was silently seized by the Cowboy Junkies, through the pindrop, eyeball-close mystery of 1989’s Trinity Session.

But the notion first came into being with the arrival at the dawn of the ’80s of Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants. The critical acclaim they encountered was equalled only by the bafflement of those same critics; after the commotion of punk and the more cerebral, but no calmer, post-punk ferment, they had little clue what to make of this seemingly fully-formed and uncategorisable creature. There were few signposts; casting around for comparisons, unlikely parallels were drawn with Slapp Happy and even Ivor Cutler who, for all his greatness, shared nothing with YMG but a penchant for holding long keyboard notes. In Smash Hits (at this point, not yet the breathless,  ultra-frivolous publication it would become but a slick, fearsomely smart younger sibling to the NME) the enigmatic Red Starr observed that it would be “doubtless received with massive uncertainty by those who haven’t been told how to react” but gave his own approval and was mercifully off beam in his wry prediction that metropolitan hacks might label it “mining pop.”

If there really have to be comparisons, the closest might be Robert Wyatt, in the floating-serenely-on-the-surface-paddling-like-mad-below (I realised after writing this that it might seem an unfortunate turn of phrase but, for avoidance of all doubt, it refers to the song only) Sea Song from Rock Bottom and his spectral cover of Chic’s At Last I Am Free, which appeared a few months after Colossal Youth. Like Rock Bottom, along with Astral Weeks and Spirit Of Eden, it’s a record which inhabits its own landscape, follows its own internal logic and is completely self-contained. Like all of these equally astonishing records, it gives the impression of a forest but, where the others are rich in foliage and vegetation, every last leaf of Colossal Youth has fallen, yet its unclothed branches and stricken bark have an autumnal beauty all of their own.

The opener Searching For Mr Right strikes the tuning fork immediately. A distorted rhythm generator fades in, like the footsteps of a seeker of eagerly-anticipated news, the Moxham brothers, Stuart and Phil, on terse bass and taciturn guitar make their points with clarity; amid them and between them is Alison Statton, a voice of folk, a voice of jazz, a voice of pop, a voice beyond category – and a contender in a BBC poll for Wales’ Greatest Living Voice (spoiler: Shakin’ Stevens won). If the title seems cliched in a post-Bridget Jones and all her nieces world, lines like “Blind as the fate decrees/I will go on/Teaching myself to be/The young untold” should prompt a rethink. This is desperate hope, the kind that keeps a quest going when a cause seems lost – I’ve certainly been there, though fortunately not for a long time.

The album’s best and – at three and a half minutes – longest song, NITA, begins with a barely audible rumble below the pulse, giving it an in-the-room live feel similar to the start of Television’s Little Johnny Jewel, where, if you listen closely, you can hear the tape being switched on. The organ hums almost to itself, resembling nothing so much as an interval signal  from a shortwave radio station, the kind that would appear at the furthest reaches of the dial (anyone remember Radio Sweden?) accompanying a generous, poignant and very modern (more than most you’d hear today) reflection on a relationship that’s no more (“It’s nice to hear you’re having a good time/But it still hurts, ‘cos you used to be mine/This doesn’t mean that I possessed you/You’re haunting me because I let you”). The scene shifts sharply to what appears to be an acting workshop where the title’s acronym is expanded (“Shake up your body, let’s be a tree/Visual dynamics for you to see/Nature intended the abstract for you and me”) but the sinister calm coasts, intact, until it ends as suddenly as it began – an excerpt from eternity.

A consistency in tone doesn’t mean in any sense that this is an unvarying record – it slices across a vasty spectrum of ideas, shades and details. Colossal Youth – the song – emerges as if it intends to be a slightly awkward 12-bar exercise but soon pivots on a see-sawing melodic figure which could have wandered over from Rough compatriots the Raincoats, a band as far from blues as Debussy is from thrash. Stuart Moxham has revealed to TNPC that Include Me Out, improbably, owes a debt to Whole Lotta Love – to my ears, it’s always sounded uncharacteristically abrasive, and while the brusque, choppy riffing is perhaps closer to Billy Bragg than Jimmy Page, the solo dares to Rock in a way YMG seldom did. But any threat of spandex is defused by the rhythm generator bounding around gleefully like the scribbled logo from the much-loved BBC children’s series Vision On.

Eating Noddemix’s strange tale of a memory of an accident, and its attendant prurient media clamour, takes a stop-start route to a curt but satisfying halt. The metronome of Music For Evenings ticks at a tempo Wire repeatedly returned to on Chairs Missing and evokes an early ’80s moment suspended somewhere between the end of homework, Play For Today and the Nine O’Clock News. The Asimovesque sci-fi of the Man Amplifier glides on organ straight from Blackpool Tower and makes its final descent on a church bell carillon,  bookended by the starling-like mimicry of the BBC’s time signal pips – though it’s just over three minutes long rather than an hour. The bass of Wurlitzer Jukebox alternates between gleeful funk and classically post-punk pokerfacedness, all sealing its absence from just about any of the eponymous contraptions.

Brand-New-Life, conversely, is an overtly pop-new wave song, swaggering on the crest of a tough-tender melody which Blondie snoozed on and lost, laced with unexpectedly gruff Moxham harmonies. There’s another  serrated edge on Credit In The Straight World, sharpened to a stiletto point by a troubling  lyric (“Look a dealer in the eye…I lost a leg I lost an eye), all making a package which prompted a significantly overhauled cover by Hole, who we’ll return to shortly.

Salad Days, a two minutes flat lament for not that long ago youth, is placid even by the standards of the songs around it; it took me a long time to figure out why but it suddenly clicked – Rhythm Generator is absent but I didn’t quite notice at first. And this is one of the keys to Colossal Youth – it may be quiet music but it’s not slow music; it’s often in quite a headlong hurry. And it’s never subdued music – as we’ve seen, it’s robust and forthright whenever it needs to be. In fact, let’s slay that canard; this is not quiet music so much as it’s sparse music, skeletal but a skeleton with every bone intact, sparse but sounding full precisely because it’s full of spaces.

The album’s brace of (well, one and a half) instrumentals are equal partners with the rest, despite being Stattonless zones. The instrumental seems to have become something of a lost art, possibly seen as indulgences and missed opportunities  in testing times,  but the turn of the ’80s were highly testing times as well. And anyway, these are sketches, vignettes, not merely interludes. The spirit of Joe Meek sits in the back seat of The Taxi as an, appropriately (Bravo!) tango rhythm sweeps a subtly Hispanic melody into the front. A largely indecipherable radio message crackles across the reverie, while refusal to cross the boundary, reluctance to allow you to take your pizza in and failure to indicate are all blissfully absent.

From land to sea, the closing Wind In The Rigging is more blissful still. Rhythm Generator sweeps like a broom on deck and it all sets its compass for the queasy serenity of Bowie’s Art Decade, berthing well ahead of schedule. It evokes the fragile magic of the briney as readily as Adagio from Spartacus – Khachaturian’s Onedin Line theme – or even Sailing By, the Shipping Forecast theme which is as belovedly soothing to uncomprehending landlubbers as it’s essential to the survival of mariners. But Sailing By harbours (intended) a dark secret; though synonymous with the sea, it was first used to soundtrack a balloon race. Should this led to it being deemed unfit to serve in its current post, I nominate Wind In The Rigging as its successor.

Within a year, Young Marble Giants had ceased, after two more EPs, the all-instrumental Testcard and, two months after Colossal Youth, Final Day, the title song of which articulated, in 100 seconds, the daily dread wrought by the Cold War as eloquently and bluntly as any in-depth documentary.

Statton moved on to Weekend, who briefly but beautifully surfed the  jazz-with-everything vogue of 1982 and a fine string of folk-inflected records, firstly with Ian Devine, formerly of Ludus, and then her fellow Weekender Spike Williams. More recently, she recorded a heart-battering interpretation of the mining disaster lament Bells Of Rhymney, securing an overdue homecoming for a song that Pete Seeger and the Byrds had all but claimed for America. Philip Moxham joined Weekend’s kindred spirits Everything But The Girl and, later, The Pedestrians, formed by David Thomas during Pere Ubu’s mid-’80s furlough. Stuart Moxham explored, without bombast or ostentation, the new decade’s new pop through the Gist, producing the lost summer hit to lord over them all with Love At First Sight, which rolls all of 1982 and 1983’s many sunny days into four cider-effervescent minutes. It was also covered by Lush and by French singer Etienne Daho as Paris Le Flore, reviving a practice most prevalent in the ’60s of completely different lyrics for different languages, which saw Da Doo Ron Ron become a bittersweet farewell to lost love, I Only Want To Be With You a sour dismissal of a liar and, in House of The Rising Sun, the “mother, tell your children” caution coming from a life prisoner.

Just about every article written on Young Marble Giants in the past quarter century has mentioned that any or all of Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are among their fans. I guess this can now be added to that pile but, truthfully, it’s one of the least important, possibly even least interesting, things about them. Their greatness exists independently of, and predated, any celebrity endorsements – which is what these effectively amount to, although it would be churlish to dismiss their  role in raising awareness of YMG. The band’s influence spread fast to Tracy Thorn, the Cocteau Twins and Barton and Jane, long before their It’s A Fine Day had a bangin’ donk applied to it by Opus III, while much more recently, they’ve been frequently mentioned in dispatches around The xx.

For all that it calls to mind a certain Radiophonic Workshop/Midwich Cuckoos, sorcery of the innocents milieu, Colossal Youth still sounds thrillingly, indisputably modern. And the sheer joy of seeing them live at Stereo in Glasgow in 2014, was no nostalgic wallow; they were teleported into a world where they made more sense than ever. A world no less fractious or fractured than the one into which Young Marble Giants emerged but one which, just possibly, understood a little more the power of pumping down the volume and opening up space. Colossal Youth: not only a synonym for Young Marble Giants but also an accurate assessment of their stature  (PG).
 
Q & A – Stuart Moxham
 
Independent music at the start of the ’80s was, to a great extent, highly regionalised, devolved even, with small labels and DIY cassette producers in just about every part of the UK. Did this give you space to create a distinctive sound?
 

Yes, though it was really more of a late ’70’s thing than early ’80’s. We wrote the YMG set from ’78 -’79 mostly, with the “Final Day” 7″ material coming in early 1980 when Geoff Travis asked me if I could write something for a potential single.

Although I find it difficult to distinguish any particularly Welsh qualities in our repertoire that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Being a child of the 1950’s I grew up in an Anglisized south Wales – nobody was interested in Welshness, in my experience. Certainly I come from a background where we were told that our regional accent would be a handicap in life by our parents. I think we looked to England and thought of ourselves as British. My father, although born in Cardiff,  is from Gloucester farming stock all the way back. These things have subsequently changed completely of course and I now content myself, in my conflicted state, by paraphrasing Morrissey: English blood, Cymric heart.

In 1979 I produced a home made cassette album of “Colossal Youth” and sold it through the auspices of the Virgin record shop, where I worked at the time, which precisely allowed Young Marble Giants to get their music out to a potential audience in Cardiff, in an era when Status Quo were the only band in town, so to speak. We wanted to see if there was an audience for something different.

Spike Williams and the folks at Z Block records consequently invited us to contribute to “Is The War Over?” which was the U.K’s second D.I.Y. compilation album after Manchester’s “Spiral Scratch.” So it was very much a localised phenomenon, with Z Block very much mentored by Scritti Politti as I understand it. Certainly Wales is famously Nonconformist and that religious culture naturally attracted a ready audience who were perhaps inclined to simmering rebellion against the English overlords and therefore identified with different ways of doing things.

Despite the sparsity of your sound, songs like Wurlitzer Jukebox and, in particular, Include Me Out, are actually quite abrasive. Do you feel this aspect of Young Marble Giants was overlooked?
 

Abrasive? Certainly my guitar style was abrasive throughout, partly because I was a beginner at electric guitar and just did what came to me at the time, i.e. my main concern was that I didn’t know much about chords and composition, and so I tried to compensate by finding things which sounded good to my ear like using two note chords and moving the relatively few chord shapes I did know up and down the neck,  using a very trebly setting and a very hard “Sharkfin” plectrum. All these things were self taught. But I take your point. I would say more rock influenced though, as in power chord riffs. I remember playing the “Wurlitzer Jukebox” intro one day in 1981, when Phil Legg was in the room at our squat in Stoke Newington, after YMG split.  When he saw that I was only playing two strings at a time, in the 9th and 11th frets, he said, “Is that all it is?” Music is much more than the sum of its parts because it has psychological and supernatural elements. Those are what good composers try to work with – A.I. my arse! Courtney Love’s Hole arrangement of “Credit In The Straight World” was a good example of a New World shedding of YMG’s Old World repression. So yes, in all definitely an overlooked aspect. Somebody could probably do  a decent mini album with the repressed rock tracks from “Colossal Youth.” For instance “Include Me Out” is actually a semi skimmed homage to “Whole Lotta Love”, for example. Evidently the tightly controlled, tense and uptight renditions we made had their own appeal though!


 
What was the reason for Nature Intended The Abstract being condensed to the acronym NITA? Was it inspired by the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again)?
 

Nice guess on the acronym. I don’t think I knew about ITMA at the time. It was just easier to condense it. As a songwriter I soon realised that I would be writing titles down kazillions of times over and so I have kept them short. “The Man Shares His Meal With His Beast” is a very rare exception!

Many Welsh bands of the ’90s had a strong national identity. It appeared to be less overt in Young Marble Giants but was it still there in your sound and your approach as a band?
 
Regarding whether Welsh national identity is detectable in YMG’s output,  our being Welsh was something that journalists and etc. picked up on. I don’t think it mattered to us so much – it certainly never crossed my mind.  I wonder if people who don’t know our geographical/cultural background ever hear Welshness in our music? We missed out on the entire “Cool Cymru” thing because we popped up long before that sea change in attitudes and therefore, perhaps, the next generation completely missed us. There just wasn’t any particular support within Wales in our time because it wasn’t seen as anything remarkable, marketable or downright meritorious to be Welsh. Even recent music oriented websites fail to flag up what a big deal we actually were in Wales for some people. 
Admittedly our diffidence was mirrored by the media. Historically Wales is a conquered nation and I think suffered, and still suffers, a lack of confidence as a result. The basic issue is that, once the coal was mostly mined out, the place is basically a massive tourist destination/sheep farm and the poorest country in Western Europe. Looking back at some interviews from 1980 I often mentioned the apathy prevalent in Cardiff. It’s difficult to explain that, but a general lack of money circulating in the country means less opportunity and maybe that can lead to less aspiration. 
 I do think there was something Cardiffian in our approach to – well, everything really. Cardiff has long been the test bed for new theatrical productions, variety shows, etc. because there is a strong bullshit filter inherent in the Cardiffian audience. If a production goes down well there, then it will work anywhere. The converse is true and when I have occasionally found myself getting windy at the prospect, say, of doing a solo show in some glittering American city rising out of the MidWestern plain, I simply steady myself by saying “You’ve played Cardiff, you’ve got nothing to worry about.!” I terms of YMG, both in business and in our music, we operated the Cardiffian attitude too; give people the goods, and do it directly – don’t fanny around. Don Watson, in a NME review of The Gist album “Embrace The Herd” said “It has the feeling of firesides, Welsh cottages and shaggy dogs.” There’s lovely!
 
When you played Glasgow in 2014, Alison  Statton told a great story about a couple who had bonded over Colossal Youth years earlier and took their children with them to see you in Manchester. I feel this illustrates that Young Marble Giants are a genuinely timeless band whose music makes sense in any era – would you agree?
 
Timelessness is often attributed to YMG’s music and who am I to argue? Sonically it’s mostly standard elements; bass, electric guitar and vocals, so they won’t age quickly, although the cheesy electric organ harks back to the ’60s and the rhythm generator, (not a commercially available drum machine, because there weren’t any in 1979,) is prescient. The way we used these elements was pretty sui generis, as Steven Appleby once said, so that also helps to keep it fresh. The bass being an upfront, melodic instrument (nonconformist) and the guitar as almost a percussion instrument, with both of these locking into the metronomic and highly artificial “drum” sounds created an open mesh (hence my knitting analogy) to support the single, untreated voice. None of that was chosen from a range of ideas – it was just the way we liked it. There were a lot of ideas and risks in what we did, but I felt that we had nothing to lose. I almost feel sorry for today’s University students who are studying discrete areas of music making, production and performance in great detail, because coming to make, record and perform the YMG set (and everything since) has been a totally personal evolution for me, drawing largely on native wit and cunning. It’s like the coke bottle – not designed by a dedicated team after much research and consultation, but built by inspiration and totally “right.” That’s how things used to be done. Anyway, good songs are always timeless because their lyrics are about universal concerns.

125. THE LILAC TIME (1987)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative

In late 1986 Stephen Duffy decided it was time for a change of direction. His second solo album Because We Love You, was a commercial flop and his record label, the Virgin subsidiary, 10, hardly enamoured with the plans he had for its follow up, proceeded to dispense with his services. Duffy regrouped with his brother Nick and their friend Michael Weston to record some new songs inspired by their shared love of folk and country music. His discovery of a compilation album by Nick Drake entitled Heaven In A Wild Flower in ’87 gave this vision crucial impetus. Drake’s reknown was much slighter then than now, but the record’s impact was such that Duffy decided to christen the new band using a lyric from one of Drake’s songs. The trio, now reborn as The Lilac Time, soon signed to a small independent label called Swordfish, which, with little fanfare, released their (eponymously titled) debut album to quietly enthusiastic reviews at the tail end of ’87.

The switch to making more traditional music surprised many. Stephen’s pop pedigree was undisputed. He had after all been the founder of Duran Duran, and had written sizeable hits (‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Icing On The Cake’) not without flair and finesse. He was unmistakably a savant, his lyrics knowing and clever (how many Top 10 smashes possess lines such as “When I grow old I won’t forget / To innocence my only debt”?) On The Lilac Time, his pop sensibilities would remain intact, seeing him pen songs like ‘Return To Yesterday’ which had a chorus The Monkees would have died for, alongside its own banjo-fuelled rustic charm. In a similar vein, ‘Together’ was masterfully crafted and equally joyous. Pop would always be part of the package, but elsewhere Stephen finally sounded free to explore the music he loved, liberated from any pressure to populate the charts with hits.

To open the album with ‘Black Velvet’ was not only a brave move, but also a perfect calling card for Duffy’s second coming. As gentle as a snowflake, it sounds as if Stephen is hiding from the world – in some ways he was – but the sheer beauty and poetry of the lyric [“Found me a language that talks without blackmail…/ I called for you without words / And you answered like a kiss.”] slowly sweet-talk the sparse instrumentation out of the shadows, and if one listens closely enough, the  little cracks and tremors of yearning in his voice lend the song huge emotional weight.

‘Love Becomes A Savage’ mines even greater depths. [“And if you get married / You’ll find out that it’s true / Love becomes a savage / Who’s going to savage you.”] Frank, more than a tad fearful (oh youthful pessimism!), genuinely erotic, possibly even a little self-righteous, it – for a fleeting moment – appears to cradle in its arms the secret to happiness in human relationships, only to concede – like sand slipping through one’s fingers – to their impossible fragility. It’s the sort of thing Leonard Cohen may well have conjured up, although Lenny, God rest him, would no doubt have been tempted to inject a profanity or two into the mix. For art’s sake.

These two songs could have been written yesterday. That the album made few concessions to modernity lends it a certain timelessness and consequently it has aged remarkably well. Even its humble sleeve – with a picture of the house where the band rehearsed – suggested a new back-to-basics stoicism. Only the gothic country of ‘Rockland’ incorporates some technology of sorts. Indeed, it could quite feasibly read as a prescient state of the nation address [“Our leaders are assassin’s friends / And we aren’t needed for their ends / No industry or open wars / They cut health care and lock the doors.”]

Duffy must have divined he was onto something special and he was determined to make it happen. After only a few months on the shelves the band signed to Fontana, and The Lilac Time was quickly  given a production makeover and reissued in early ’88. There issued one deviation in the album’s running order (‘Rockland’ swapped places with ‘Return To Yesterday’), but it was on the more uptempo tracks where one noticed the extra polish and depth of the remix, particularly on ‘You’ve Got To Love’ and ‘Too Sooner Later Than Better’, both of which were virtually hoedown barndancers by comparison to ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, surely symptomatic of the underlying musical contentment of its creators. But it did also contain more elusive moments, harder to read, such as the bittersweet ‘Road To Happiness’ whose theme seems strangely at odds with the solemnity of its music, which could be preparing for its own burial.

‘And The Ship Sails On’ meanwhile is without doubt one of the great lost pop songs of the ’80s. ‘Return To Yesterday’ may have made a more obvious choice as 45, but it could quite as easily have been this. It is a picnic on the meadow in summertime, a curtain blowing gently before the stillest ocean, and is the song that The Lightning Seeds always wanted – but were never quite able – to make [“And the ship sails on / And when our lives have gone / What epitaph will mean a thing? / What’re you gonna say when the phone don’t ring? / Was your life quite good? / And were your book shelves made out of wood? / To hold the books they write when their heroes die / And the loss they always find / Beyond words.”] Pure gold. And to finish, Duffy instituted a Lilac Time tradition by closing the album with an instrumental, the gorgeous ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’, whose stark banjo plucking gives way to a magnificently rebellious melody that meanders its way through the Balkans until it comes across some singing travellers, with whom it dances the night away in front of the fire. And there’s not a trumpet to be heard anywhere!

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how many brilliant wordsmiths there were making music in the ‘80s (Morrissey, Costello, McGowan, McAloon, MES, Tom Waits, Nick Cave etc). But few have lasted the pace as well as Stephen Duffy. He has made consistently great music over the last 30 years, and the band’s latest offering Return To Us, scheduled for release later this year, even features on its sleeve the aforementioned old rehearsal house from the first album. Perhaps things have come full circle for Stephen Duffy. But whether or not there is more to come from him, it remains undeniable that on The Lilac Time his tongue danced like a butterfly and his fingers ached to touch. The music may have been as gentle as a feather floating through the air. But when that feather came to rest on the surface of the ocean, what great depths lay beneath. To paraphrase a certain man, his songs were innocent as doves and yet wise as serpents. (JJ)

Interview with Stephen Duffy, July 2018

TNPC: When you started out together how did you envisage The Lilac Time? It seemed at the time a strange digression from Ups & Downs. 

SD: There were hints – B sides – the version of ‘Wednesday Jones’ that came out on an ep – but certainly songs like ‘Sunday Supplement’ and ‘Julie Christie’ on the Because We Love You album. A song called ‘Cocksure from that time could have been on the first Lilac Time album. To me though The Ups & Downs was the digression.

I was always a folkie. The Incredible String Band were the first band I ever saw was I was 9 or 10 and remain my favourite band. They were produced by Joe Boyd who went on to produce Nick Drake & Fairport Convention who were also very important to me. Bob Dylan was a major obsession for me in my teens. Planet Waves was released when I was 14, Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes when I was 15, Desire – 16. In-between discovering the other previous 12 records, I even bought Dylan. I loved the Pat Garret & Billy the Kid soundtrack. I found the Albert Hall bootleg in someone’s record collection. It was all mind blowing to the teenage me. It still is.

But it was the release of the Nick Drake compendium Heaven in a Wild Flower and the first UK terrestrial television broadcast of Don’t Look Back in 1986 that forced the issue. I recorded half of the Lilac Time album (‘Return To Yesterday’, ‘Rockland’, ‘And the Ship Sails On’ and a couple of othersas my next Virgin/10 album. They wanted me to make dance records so I knew they’d hate it. I was dropped. So I recruited Nick and Michael and called it the Lilac Time and recorded the rest of it.

TNPC: Did your approach to making music closely reflect what you were listening to at the time? Beyond Nick Drake, were you influenced by contemporary songwriters (Morrissey, Forster & McLennan etc)?

SD: The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM, The Replacements, Echo & The Bunnymen I’d always check out their new releases but I don’t know if they had any direct influence. I was still too enthralled by the mechanics of the old records and perhaps too jealous of everyone else’s success. There was so much old stuff to discover. I’d been hip to the Witchseason artists, Dylan, The Beatles and The Stones. And then came the great punk wars which put a dent in things. After that it was all about playing catch up. Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Later Byrds albums. So much to listen to and all in the second hand stores in their original pressings with any luck.

I was and still am great friends with Nick Laird Clowes of the Dream Academy, his enthusiasm for music was an influence. I think I got heavily into Crosby Stills Nash & Young at this point. I wanted my own Broken Arrow ranch which took us the Hereford side of the Great Malvern Hills. I was reading a lot of Iris Murdoch too.

TNPC: Songs like ‘Black Velvet’ perfectly capture that quintessential Englishness, that many strive for but few are able to achieve. What inspired the lyric here and can you please tell me where is ‘Butcher Town’?

SD: I got really drunk one night with the best friend of one of my exes. Which led, tortuously and eventually, to a relationship. This was the night spent falling down on Black Velvet. That was the starting point. Black Velvet in the Fox on Hurst Street was cider and Guinness. There is a Buchertown in Louisville Kentucky but here it substitutes for Birmingham.

I’d been reading a lot of twentieth century poetry, just beginning to grasp its immensity and greatness and wanting assimilate or subsume some of that vast poetical warp and woof into the songs. I figured I could go further, that I’d been holding back in a kitchen sink drama of my own making. I was very taken by a Stephen Spender poem called Your Body Is Stars. (“Your body is stars whose million glitter here/I am lost amongst the branches of this sky/Here near my breast, here in my nostrils, here/Where our vast arms like streams of fire lie.”) And on the day I read it I wrote ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Road To Happiness’ and ‘Love Becomes A Savage’. Poetry was quite potent back then.

TNPC: When you wrote ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, was the lyric contemporaneous with the experience you mention or were you speaking about something from the past? It’s such a beautiful song lyrically, but I’ve always felt raw listening to it, like I’m intruding on something far too private and personal.

Yes, it’s become my Lady of the Island. Too embarrassing to sing, although we did at last years Port Eliot Festival. We were going to play the whole thing but I got too bored with it in rehearsal. I didn’t want to inhabit that 27 year olds shoes and limitations. Originally “love becomes a savage who’s going to savage you” was “loves a noble savage who’s going to damage you”. I changed it because I felt the noble savage was a racist concept and not something philosophical of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This hunch was proved right but I only found out when they invented the internet. So after the noble savage disappeared it became more personal. Why did people, usually my girlfriends, want to get married when all of the young married people I knew seemed so unhappy and destined for divorce? Speaking as a 57 year old whose life was perhaps saved by marriage I wouldn’t write it now. But it was true then. You don’t get many songs about female pubic hair these days and I think the world is commensurately worse off.

TNPC: The Lightning Seeds would trade their England shirts for German ones to be able to write something as effortlessly brilliant as ‘And The Ship Sails On’. Were you not tempted to release it as a 45, or did ‘Return To Yesterday’ seem a more obvious choice?

SD: I wonder why we never remixed ‘And The Ship Sails On’?It was a big step for me to go “I’m not going to try and come up with a new riff, I’m going to use the ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘If Not For You’ chords instead.” I think I’ve written three or four others subsequently, ‘In The Evening Of Her Day’ being the best. I suppose we thought “beyond words” wasn’t a big hook. ‘Return to Yesterday’ is a bit of a mission statement though isn’t it? It tells you all you need to know about the band and the state of the world. We’ve got one on the new album the title track Return To Us.

The next single was ‘You’ve Got To Love’ which started off with a line of Bobby Sands but I can’t remember which now, or if it made it to the finished track. Then we remixed ‘Black Velvet and out it out at Christmas but it didn’t knock Noddy of his perch.

On the Dreaming tour just before we split up in 1991 this guy would come to the gigs and request “Ship, Ship!” he’d shout. We had a guitarist with us on that tour and our shouter thinking he might not know it alternated shouting “Ship“ with shouting the chords “C to F” he’d shout “C to F”.

TNPC: ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’ sounds completely joyous, almost like a Balkan wedding band at the height of the festivities. Tell us a little about it…

I wonder when I said to Nick “Do you have an instrumental to finish the album?” We’ve certainly stuck with it. All 10 albums have instrumentals, lilac6 has two. It’s our most heard song as it was used as a Flora margarine advert and a television programme about narrow boating. I love a banjo tune being called Trumpets. The new one on ‘lilac 10’ is called ‘King Kopetsky’.

TNPC: The Lilac Time is a record shrouded in mystery. [Appears to little fanfare on relatively obscure label late ‘87, a few glowing reviews, disappears briefly, returns ‘remixed’ in early ‘88] but has slowly garnered great critical acclaim over the years. Did you have a sense that this was a great record? Was its temporary disappearance an act of desperation – did it need another push to try to seek a wider audience? Or had Fontana noticed its potential and made particular demands? Or was the remix less to do with the record’s marketability and more for artistic reasons? Looking back, what would you say is the difference between the two versions?

SD: There was a third version released by Mercury Records in the United States of America. I felt at the time this was the best version. It had the ‘Black Velvet‘ remix on it. I wonder if I have a copy. David Bates at Fontana wanted remixes and I was happy to do them. We added more backing vocals. I think I replayed the bass on something. It sounded better to me although I’m sure the Swordfish version is charming.

We were finishing the record in August/September 1987 and I called up Swordfish records in Birmingham, a record shop and a label, and I asked them if they could turn the record round before Christmas. They said yes and so they did. I’d known Gareth and Mike since the Duran days so it was very friendly and collegiate. We’d recorded the record at Bob Lamb’s studio which was also in Birmingham. The house on the cover was where we rehearsed.

I sent a few records off to the press and everyone gave it good reviews. We then should’ve signed with Go Disc which would’ve been cooler. But my manager thought sign with the big guys. I got a big publishing advance from Lucian Grange who now owns the music business and bought a house in the Malverns which was kind of impractical. Mercury were trying to break us in the States and we’re rehearsing in a 17th century farm house without a phone…

TNPC: Have you always been more content to live in the shadows – or has that been more by accident than design? You seem to have slipped out of the spotlight at important moments. Anything to do with pressure, fear of compromising your artistic integrity or have there been other factors?

SD: I was very briefly a pop star and I think I’ve pretended to be a pop star ever since. I thought it would be easier than coming up with another pose. It’s easier to do this kind of thing if you pretend to be a pop star because pop stars think everything they say is interesting. But truthfully if you’ve had a hit in the eighties you are exempt from certain things. You don’t have to go out in the rain for instance and of course you can wear sunglasses at night.

I alternate pretending to being a popstar with genius of this parish and slightly tipsy unpublished poet. None of these make you a hit at dinner parties or indeed in the public bar.

I think I’ve always expected great success but have always been contrary. If dance music is big I assume people will want country pop folk rock. My shoegaze grunge era record I made with Nigel Kennedy. I made my Brit pop era record in Kernesville North Carolina with Mitch Easter. My memoir is called What The Fuck Was I Thinking?