The thrill of the chase is something that’s been irretrievably lost in the you-want-it-we-got-it internet. My curiosity, fuelled by Paul Morley’s characteristically evangelical assertion that “their music will move you” and its number one position in an NME Manchester top 10 (yus, above NewJoyFallBuzzSmithMagColumn) drove a lengthy hunt for the Distractions’ 1979 single Time Goes By So Slow. It ended at the magnificent Realistic Records, near Glasgow’s Partick Cross, for the price of a packet of dry roasted peanuts and what emerged was a brisk yet serene, sprightly yet weary, sunny yet crushed tale of an inability to let go that topples into delusion.
It’s a recurring theme on Nobody’s Perfect – which I acquired a few months later and on which TGBSS doesn’t feature – as Leave You To Dream sees her oblivious to his attention on the warmest summer evening of the year and Stuck in A Fantasy evokes another vanished detail while describing profound obsession familiar from age to age: “On my TV when the station closes down/Your ghostly face appears to me, laughing like a clown”.
Most hauntingly and unforgettably, Looking For A Ghost is the sound of the guy who missed his chance slipping into her wedding and sitting in the back row – then staying silent as he accepts that the impediment he knows of is not reasonable but, on the contrary, completely irrational, as he’s yet again imagining she’s still with him, while Wilson and Spector conduct the choir in harmonies so dense no laser could pierce them.
If this extraordinary song ever found its way on to a film soundtrack, ubiquity would swiftly follow – though considering this would inevitably entail karaoke pummellings, tone-deaf whistled renditions and weak jokes about gaps in the lyric’s logic
(“One minute he’s saying she’s floating by my side, the next she’s encased inside my head. Eh? Make up y’mind hehehe”) I hope it never, ever happens.
Driven to Distraction was Mike Finney as he sang of heads ransacked by Cupid, in a voice which told of Saturday nights at the Wigan Casino spent trying to forget Friday nights on Deansgate. By this time there’d have been plenty of those – drummer Alec Sidebottom had late ’60s form with the Purple Gang, who gave us the recklessly twee Granny Takes A Trip, while another highlight of Nobody’s Perfect is their version of Eden Kane’s Boys Cry, where the “someone who says goodbye” in the knock-kneed period piece of the 1964 original is transformed from a soon-forgotten tryst into something bordering on bereavement.
Yet there’s real wit amid the desolation, on each side’s closer. Paracetamol Paralysis is pell-mell cautionary punk with sound medical advice on drinking while trying to fend off the flu – and it really is as innocent as that; when they say paracetamol, they mean paracetamol. That pair from Burnage might have managed to come up with this if only they’d kept trying after 1996. Then it’s all rounded off not with the desperate comfort of the penultimate Looking For A Ghost but the sub-two minute sprint of Valerie, where a palm court piano is caddishly shoved aside by a marauding tune fleeing from Pete Shelley as he tries to grab back the greatest song he never wrote. Even here there’s defeat as Finney faces up to the most pulverising blow a heart can take – “I love Valerie but Valerie loves YOU!!”
They ended up as the band that Manchester forgot and were blighted by lousy luck, signing for Factory at almost exactly the same time as Joy Division and Island at almost exactly the same time as U2. Adulation and legendary status would never be theirs but they’re back, having issued a beguiling album (End Of The Pier) and with a compilation (Parabolically Yours) poised to emerge. Maybe it’ll include their final EP, And Then There’s… which I also saw at Realistic but rashly decided to forego until I’d pounced on Time Goes By So Slow. By then it had vanished never to return, and it remains a stranger to YouTube to this day. Maybe the thrill of the chase isn’t gone after all. (PG)