Now that we’re long past the 20th century, the vast changes – by no means all deserve to be called progress – it wrought can easily be taken for granted; if you stop to think about them, they defy belief, particularly considering the transformations witnessed by those who lived through them.
The post-war second half alone brought change beyond recognition but the paradox at the heart of More Tales From the City is that, while it sounds like it belongs in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll ’50s, it’s one of the most vivid and eloquent accounts of the fractured, fractious times in which it was made – declared by BoHJ frontman Johnny Brown, with some justification, as “the maddest time ever”; a time when the maddest policies ever somehow earned yet another public endorsement; a time when eminently preventable disasters showed up systematic failings with terrifying frequency; a time of wilfully misunderstood disease, of censorship suddenly and arbitrarily ratcheted up, of savagery in light entertainment as death and bereavement came to sit alongside the usual banality.
Amid all this, BoHJ’s brass and organ-heavy, rhumba-laden sound evoked a Shine On Harvey Moon demi-monde of national service, illicit encounters at the milkshake parlour and seaside towns already showing signs of wear. Morrissey was at this time preparing to touch on these themes but BoHJ delved even further and deeper with a vision that was universal more than it was regional or personal and the squabbling couples, stolen babies and forsaken misfits inhabiting their songs reflected, like those of the Smiths, timeless concerns.
The name of Bertolt Brecht followed BoHJ around like a benign fog but their sound was a complex, heavily loaded broth. Half of the songs on More Tales From the City are wholly or partly in waltz time but this never becomes wearing – why should it any more than an unvarying 4/4 tempo? – while a dancehall organ rhythm box is an equally frequent visitor. The piano that heralds opening track Who Snatched the Baby? brings a classical shade into the parlour, while Don’t Stick Knives In Babbies’ Heads takes a macabre folk standard and uses it to report soberly the facts of the grim case while reserving most of its judgement for the prurient fascination the crime attracts – a theme expanded on the lyric sheet, where the brief verses are compressed and inflated into a single, breathless Niagara of gossip.
Elsewhere among the snapshots of thwarted yet unavoidably resilient lives, Cities ponders “five minutes’ joy, a lifetime of shame” to exquisite mandolin and despairing strings and The Tide of Life ends its dissection of regret and resentment after six minutes but could conceivably carry on for millennia along with the waves it mimics.
The two most ‘modern’ sounding songs are among the best. Mad Dot puts bass in the foreground for the first and last time and, despite the striped t-shirts and anoraks favoured by the band, is the one song that could have galvanised an indie disco – if only there’d been one that had the nous to play it. Closing track (of course) Goodnight, God Bless, Goodbye, meanwhile, is genuinely heartbreaking, Johnny’s rueful memories – “in a way I’m glad what we had we swore was forever” – cushioned by rotating drums, subdued keyboards and a rare-going-on-unique instance of whistling being not only forgivable but essential.
They supported James. Carter USM insisted on quoting them as an influence despite using them to completely misguided ends. Robert Plant is a fan and would have been anyway even if they didn’t have practically the same name as his pre-Zeppelin band. For all this, BoHJ have been persistently forgotten and overlooked but they’ve returned- now sadly without founder member Karel van Bergen, who died in 2013 – and still have plenty to offer. More Tales From the City, though, remains the place to start, as potent and pointed as the day it came about – “I refuse to believe that those days are gone, that there was a time that was once upon”. (PG)