41. PERE UBU – TERMINAL TOWER (comp. 1985)

“We are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.” (David Thomas)

How does one measure success? Consider The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake or Big Star for example: virtually nobody bought their records during their short careers, yet collectively their music has influenced scores of musicians and set substantially more youthful pulses racing than that of say, Yes or Fleetwood Mac. By contrast, those two would not be named as musical touchstones by too many modern rock bands, despite accruing bank balances large enough to shame Rupert Murdoch.

The world wasn’t ready for Pere Ubu, so commercial success was never a viable prospect. In a musical wasteland yet to be administered its life-saving punk booster, and inhabited by flatulent megalomaniacs, tedious singer-songwriters, prog excess, glam frippery and poker-faced AOR, there was undoubtedly a gaping hole to be filled. Aspiring young musicians and fans alike might have hoped for, nay even expected, in such desperate times, a messianic gang of rebels, beats or brats to put an end to it all, to kick off those caftans and get back to basics. Only The New York Dolls had threatened to do anything of the sort, but it had been too much too soon for them. Some would have found in 10cc or Steely Dan a distasteful smugness, and craved something a bit more audacious, primitive. That would have to wait a while longer. Nevertheless, who in 1975 could have expected anything quite like this? And who was listening anyway?

It has been suggested that Pere Ubu’s music came from nowhere, but that is neither factually nor figuratively accurate, for first of all, their origins lie in the industrial heartland of Middle America – Cleveland Ohio, and secondly, they are the descendants of an illustrious if loosely connected experimental art-punk heritage which includes artists as diverse as The Velvet Underground, The Red Crayola, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, Silver Apples, early Roxy Music and Faust, although none of those influences may be immediately obvious.

In fact, Pere Ubu evolved out of the remnants of local proto-punk pioneers Rocket From The Tombs, who during their chaotic eighteen-month lifespan cooked up for Cleveland the unholiest of rackets and gained for themselves mythical status into the bargain. Theirs is one of the great ‘coulda shoulda’ stories of ’70s rock, and when the inevitable disintegration unfolded, the legend was assured. In the meantime two of the band went on to form The Dead Boys, while Thomas – shorn of his RFTT Crocus Behemoth alter-ego, as well as his long hair – and guitarist Peter Laughner, worked a moonlight flit, leaving with a small handful of RFTT’s best tracks to form Pere Ubu, the name according to Thomas  “a joke invented to have something to give journalists when they yelp for a neat sound bite or pigeonhole.” That may indeed be true but it is also nicked from Alfred Jarry’s play ‘Ubu Roi’]

But what of the music? How to pin down a frenzied fusion of Dadaist experimentation, bizarre rhythmic dissonance, sci-fi surrealism, avant-garde adventurism, thrilling garage punk and musique concrete – all wrapped in Thomas’ desperately freakish vocal delivery, characterised by his infantile almost inhuman, yelps and absurdist lyrical humour, accompanied by guitars so loud they sound “like a nuclear explosion”, uniquely garnished by Allan Ravenstine’s radioactive synth rumblings, which sound like they come from another planet, often groaning and skittering like the fragile digestive system of a distressed extraterrestrial?

Terminal Tower (named after the structure which dominates the Cleveland skyline) brings together the band’s early Hearthan singles and B-Sides and is selected here in preference to the Datapanik In The Year Zero EP, which did much the same thing, due to the latter’s omission of ‘Final Solution’, arguably the band’s greatest achievement. [NB. The recent DITYZ box set makes amends  for this]

The album includes a few later self-consciously arty out-takes, without which it could survive quite happily, but would be worth buying for the first three tracks alone. On one half of their debut single, ‘Heart of Darkness’, with its prowling bass line, Thomas’ paranoiac discontent is unveiled:

“Maybe you see further than I can see / or maybe things just look differently / Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall / Maybe love’s a tomb where you dance at night / Maybe sanctuary is an electric light / I get so tired it’s like I’m another man / and everything I see seems so underhanded / I don’t see anything that I want / and I don’t see anything that I want.”

The song’s portentous threatening  atmosphere has no direct musical precedent – but is a clear blueprint for Joy Division’s despairing bass-driven sound. And without them, how different would the musical landscape of the early 1980s have looked?

‘Heart of Darkness’ was coupled with the apocalyptic ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ – a dissonant fusion of throbbing bass belching and Beefheartian dismemberment: synths snarl and fizz, and anarchic guitars rocket their sonic symphonies of feedback through a sequence of musical meltdowns and muffled screams, culminating in a genuinely shocking ending which sounds like someone’s dragged the record off the turntable – the stylus ripping through the vinyl with great ferocity, the volume control left in tatters.

The early version of ‘Untitled’ is pleasing enough but was given a more robust reworking as the title track to their indisputably classic debut album The Modern Dance where the Ubu experiment reached it’s fullest expression.

Meanwhile one can detect  in ‘Cloud 149’ an impetus for the music of Josef K and The Fire Engines and ‘My Dark Ages (I Don’t Get Around)’, is an ironic Beach Boys pastiche, once again showcasing Thomas’ self-deprecating witticisms: (“I don’t get around / I don’t fall in love much”)

That dark humour is much in evidence on the best track of all, the band’s second single ‘Final Solution’. It is nigh on impossible to believe that this music was made in 1976, and if you have not heard it before, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Those who are familiar will rightfully claim it as one of the most thrilling and influential records of the 1970s. One can forgive it’s preposterous take on teenage dread (Thomas will recall that his mom really did throw him out ’till I get some pants that fit’. No joke), for it takes us on an astonishing sonic roller coaster: a throbbing crackling discordant sing-a-long classic, containing spy movie motifs, synths taking off into outer space, ghostly voices, and Tom Herman’s cataclysmic guitar: one moment the sound of a bell, the next stretching out like Hendrix did on If Six Was Nine, before paving the way for Marquee Moon’ with his angst-ridden solo to finish, Thomas screaming over the top almost unintelligibly “I don’t need a cure, I need a final solution.”

A useful analogy: imagine how audiences in 1976 might have experienced the first sitting of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a contemporary artwork, likewise imbued with a decidedly surrealistic streak. The comparison has been made before – and not simply because of the uncanny physical resemblance between David Thomas and Jack Nance (Eraserhead‘s protagonist, Henry Spencer). In truth, like David Lynch’s cult classic, Pere Ubu were so far ahead of the game, that by the time I’d eventually caught up with them (many years later, at The Venue in Edinburgh in March 1988), they still sounded like nothing else on earth. If Bob Dylan kicked popular music ‘kicking and screaming’ into the 20th Century, Pere Ubu were in an awful hurry to take it into the next one. In many ways, the world has yet to catch up.

Thomas might have insisted that Pere Ubu wrote ‘pop songs’, the band themselves have used the term ‘avant-garage’, while the general public may have called their music plain weird . Me? I simply prefer to call it modern rock’n’roll. Now in their 40th year – give or take a few intervals, changes in personnel and personal tragedies (Laughner succumbed to acute pancreatitis in 1977) – their influence can be heard in the likes of Joy Division, Husker Du, Minutemen, Pixies, Throbbing Gristle, Butthole Surfers and more obviously, in fellow Ohioans, Devo. Ubu have outlasted all of those, so surely that accounts for some measure of success. And for the Pere Ubu devotee, a series of decisive victories. (JJ)

Special Feature: ‘THE FIXER’ – TNPC interviews DAVID THOMAS (PERE UBU) for Shindig! Magazine

  The Fixer

When Pere Ubu emerged from the wreckage of Rocket From The Tombs to infect the industrial heartlands of mid-1970s Ohio with their throbbing, squealing sonic architecture, few would have seriously considered their candidature for rock longevity a viable prospect. But David Thomas had other plans. He always does. “When we started, nobody liked us in Cleveland. We accepted that this was the natural order of things – that nobody would ever like us, much less HEAR us. So when that becomes your world-view then everything is very easy.” An A&R man’s worst nightmare (they stubbornly refused to be pigeonholed), the band have sculpted their own unique trajectory with singularly relentless conviction over these past forty years. Thomas, along with the latest incarnation of Pere Ubu (he is the only remaining original member), is making the final preparations for The North American Coed Jail! Tour, where the current line up – one of the band’s strongest ever – will perform classic material from their ‘historical era’ (1975-1982). While that prospect may be a mouthwatering one to long term fans, it is not something you might expect from him. Thomas has taken great care to ensure Pere Ubu remains a constantly evolving entity, always moving forward, so for him this seems an uncharacteristically retrospective move. But then, David Thomas is hardly likely to do the predictable thing. He thinks about music in pretty much the same way as he does life and art. The great French film-maker Jean Renoir once explained the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour by noting that “in life, everyone has his reasons”. Thomas concurs: “I am not a playful guy when it comes to work – there’s always a reason. Orson Welles was asked why he made Anthony Perkins act in a certain way as Josef K. The critic said ‘Kafka meant the character to be an innocent victim of the machinery.’ Welles responded, “No, he’s guilty – guilty as hell.”‘ 
 Given his own very individual worldview, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pere Ubu is one of the most misunderstood bands in rock music. Steadfastly oblivious to even the remotest commercial instinct, yet paradoxically, possessors of a panoramic perspective of pop’s colourful history, they have outlasted almost all of their contemporaries: a particularly impressive achievement considering they didn’t fit in then and don’t now. “The arty people dismiss us because we’re too pop and we despise talk. The pop people because we are too arty and we talk too much.” Does the lack of commercial success bother him? “We’re still here. I am Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the UN, screaming ‘We will bury you’.” Sixteen albums down the line, two into their ‘Orange period’ and in robustly good health, he may have a cogent argument. As Thomas explains: “Pere Ubu is a continuum. I’ve often said we don’t do conceptual albums – we have a conceptual career. If you look at the body of my work it’s soon apparent that it is one novel-like endeavour with characters, stories and plots interweaving and reappearing over the decades.” Perhaps then, revisiting the work of another era makes logical sense.
Thomas likes to keep himself busy – for him, making music is not the assuaging of some inexorable creative impulse, but something more fundamental. The need to work. At the moment this means ‘fixing’ music. One of his most pressing recent concerns – as the output of Pere Ubu’s last two long players (‘The Lady From Shanghai’ & ‘Carnival Of Souls’) testifies – is his need to ‘fix’ dance music. “Part of that project is an effort to realign how meter and time are incorporated into music. How do you break up the mafia-like hegemony of bass and drums? But I need to stress that I do not react or counteract – I reinvent or realign as if the current world doesn’t exist and never did exist. I reimagine history. For example, what if English prog rock had been the true punk movement? What if Henry Cow had become the Sex Pistols?” Now there’s a thought…

Sometimes misconstrued as a punk band (not many punks nurture a fondness for The Allman Brothers for starters), that sense of hyper-alienation (‘data panic’) from technological society, the dissonant nonlinear song structures, not to mention Thomas’ curdled wails stretching over fizzing garage riffs – certainly at least invited the rather lazy comparison. But there was always substantially more to Pere Ubu, an expressionistic adventurousness far beyond the reach of the punk fraternity, which while leaving them at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, kept their integrity intact. As the band prepare to revisit and perform their late 1970s repertoire, how does Thomas now feel the music they produced over that period fits in the context of the ‘punk era?’ “I stood apart from it. We were dedicated to our own path. Sometimes two different roads converge – going through a mountain pass or along a river or what have you. The difference between the two roads seems negligible at that point. Twenty miles down the line they may diverge and head off in distinct directions.”
As 2016 will see the release of two retrospective box sets (the first, ‘Architecture Of Language’, was released in March, the second is scheduled for August) alongside the forthcoming tour, Thomas clearly has no plans to give up making music just yet. Songs like ‘Golden Surf II’ from ‘Carnival Of Souls’ contain the original vitality, the vital originality, that made the band such a thrilling proposition in the first place. One senses Thomas and Pere Ubu will be at it for some time to come yet. “I have a job that I do and I do it well. I’ll do it (a) as long as I make a living from it, and (b) as long as I do it well.”  (JJ)

(This article was first published in the wonderful Shindig! magazine – click here: http://www.shindig-magazine.com/?p=1165)




If history is written by – or at least about – the winners, it doesn’t  mean the ones who are edited out have lost. In music, the small-scale, local but for decades unacknowledged release has been there at every stage, from muffled blues and country 78s stretching either side of the second world war to dimestore rock ‘n’ roll, from ’60s 45s that later became the stuff of Nuggets, Pebbles and Northern Soul, from post-punk DIY by The Night The Goldfish Died and Prevent Forest Fires to the countless, sometimes anonymous, dance 12″s of the ’90s and the upstart start-ups now lurking in the infinite corners of Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
Quality has varied considerably, of course, and for decades this music was seldom heard outside the town/county/state where it was made but it’s always been the sum and substance of the iceberg, underpinning more visible events, and,  at its best, has been fit to take its place alongside more celebrated songs and names, with the added advantage of not having been bludgeoned by repetition.
A case in point: Shoes (distinguishable from French dance act The Shoes through their admirably principled stance on the definite article), a bunch of Hardy Boys doppelgangers who came from Zion, a dot on the Illinois map, and stayed there, opting to keep away from Chicago and any other city to progress, for the most part, at their own pace and on their own terms.
In the pre-punk/new wave ’70s, the sound Shoes were cultivating – drawing on early Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star, was far from obvious and, even allowing for some elements of glam, had few adherents and the proliferation of hyper-proficient, hysterically pompous technoflash bands – Styx, Kansas, Journey – was swallowing airtime and theatre space once reserved for music that wasn’t unintentionally ludicrous.
But Shoes did whatever it took to push their music out. Private press releases were commonplace but their first release, One In Versailles (so named as a nod to  guitarist and architecture student Gary Klebe during his year abroad in France) was neither vanity project nor bizarre affectation. Despite being out of step with tastes defined more by chops than ideas, it had genuine potential to find an audience who may not have realised it was what they wanted, through strong and – on at least one song, Do I Get So Shy – complex songwriting.
They took things a stage further with Black Vinyl Shoes but resources were tight and the album’s sleevenotes make its six-month recording seem an arduous  even harrowing, process, telling of “strenuous conditions” and extreme limitations” as it itemises the equipment used.
The notes assert that it’s a “unique” record – having worked in and around media for  more than 20 years, it’s my firm belief that this most precisely-defined of words should never be used lightly or loosely but the finished results of Black Vinyl Shoes dispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Superficially, it’s as straightforward as these things get – fifteen melodic, uncomplicated songs, mainly on the eternal theme of girl baffles boy. Some of the lyrics would be viewed differently now to the way they might have been then, (eg “Ride you in my car/Make you feel some older”) but they had a penchant for an unexpected turn of phrase (“Better toughen up your middle ground/Get it hard for senseless casualties” or “The fastest way I can find you/Is my justified means to the end”).
And while, to the casual observer, US politics of the ’70s may have been dominated by two areas – foreign policy and the office of President – it always comes back to The Economy, Stupid and on Capital Gain, Shoes have their own Taxman, a slightly gauche but acerbic sketch of a grasping businessman on the make (“Let the the buyer beware if they’re buying their wares from him/And when he’s doin’ a favour, watch out or he’ll do you in.”)
Further hidden depths and textures emerge on closer scrutiny; the unequivocally basic equipment makes the songs swim, swoop and hiss and at times Shoes’ drummer, the late Skip Meyer, sounds like he’s playing on suitcases, but while he’s actually using a full kit, there’s a noble tradition here – the Crickets’ Jerry Allison used a cardboard box on Not Fade Away and his own very knees on Everyday, so the important thing is not what’s used but how it sounds.
Other sounds range from sparing but subtle slide guitar (Running Start, Fire For Awhile),  acoustic 12-string stabs (Someone Finer, Okay) and, on Fatal, the synthesised guitar sound that would later become the trademark of The Cars (and there were  deliberate constraints – third album Tongue Twister would proclaim ‘no keyboards’ as defiantly as Queen’s ‘no synthesisers’). Meanwhile, breathless opener Boys Don’t Lie, which lends its title to the band’s biography by Mary E Donnelly, could fit neatly over the five-a-side scene in the opening credits of Trainspotting.

Shoes would righly look askance at the unseemly term ‘powerpop’ and here show an ability to smuggle in unexpected genres – melodically, the aforementioned Running Start is practically a country song  and there’s a definite groove/swing to Not Me, which has a cowbell intro to match Honky Tonk Women or Low Rider. Then the fuzz bass and staccato rhythms of If You’d Stay echo what Bowie was doing at the time in Berlin and Devo two statelines away in Ohio. It’s also not unlike the radical Eurodisco revamp the Undertones would perform on True Confessions for their first album and Shoes did strike a match to light the Derry gang’s way. Their smilingly lugubrious demeanour and tunes of condensed milk sweetness, together with the equal division of labour (five songs each by Gary Klebe and brothers John and Jeff Murphy) also foreshadowed Teenage Fanclub – Shoes themselves have noted the similarity but, with characteristic modesty, didn’t presume to have been a direct influence.
A spell with Elektra produced three albums, including the magnificent Present Tense, but they then returned to self-sufficiency, at their own Short Order Recorder studio in Zion. For 40 years, they’ve pursued their muse as single-mindedly as the Ramones and are cherished as much by those who are aware of them; they’re there in a rich seam for anyone who cares to look (PG).


Trying to find great, life changing music on television in the Eighties was always a bit of a struggle. As the steady supply of punk and post punk acts that sold enough to get on Top Of The Pops seemed to (with a few notable exceptions) dry up, you needed to look elsewhere. There was Whistle Test, but more often than not that sterile studio atmosphere (almost as bad as the forced enthusiasm of the Newcastle fashionistas on the Tube) failed to spur many of the bands towards anything like excitement. The Jesus and Mary Chain crackled with electricity under red and green lights playing In A Hole, despite being recorded at ten in the morning given their notoriety at the time. Contrast this with  their rather tame performance of Just Like Honey and Inside Me on The Tube ten months later. (Pete Townshend liked it though, reminded him of Buddy Holly). There was always that clip of the Smiths recording Meat Is Murder, Morrisey and Marr miming along to Nowhere Fast, Marr looking like Johnny Thunders trying to sneak his way onto the back cover of Revolver. Or what about that amazing footage of The Cramps playing The Most Exalted Potentate Of Love live at the Peppermint Lounge and shown on The Tube. These moments were taped and watched endlessly.

It probably didn’t help that TV executives seemed to be more interested in looking backwards – Sounds Of The Sixties, re-runs of Ready Steady Go. There was even The Golden Oldie Picture Show where they would create videos for old hits and shown at prime time. Where were the opportunities for the new bands to get this kind of exposure? It’s not as if the music was not being made. Sometimes you’d get great bands popping up in the most unexpected places. I remember Iggy Pop disembowling a teddy bear on No. 73, Pere Ubu appearing on Roland Rat, Strawberry Switchblade on Cheggers Plays Pop. These may not have been these bands finest hours musically, but even catching a glimpse of them was enough in pre-internet, pre-Youtube barren times. Sometimes you want something so bad you’ll grab anything.

So, towards the end of the eighties Snub TV came along and we could finally see interviews, videos and live clips of the likes of (off the top of my head) My Bloody Valentine, The Butthole Surfers, Wire, Pale Saints, Pixies, Loop, Teenage Fanclub, Ride (before releasing a record I think), Spacemen 3 etc. etc. For me, this is where Ultra Vivid Scene arrived. Cue slowed down grainy over-saturated footage of a cool looking band in a studio. Built around a prowling two note fuzz bass line, the song is called The Mercy Seat. Phhht! Don’t they know there’s already a song called that? It borrowed the template the Mary chain used for Sidewalking earlier that year. Still it drew me in, high sparkling fuzzy Fender guitars, great melody. I was a goner.

After further investigation it turned out that the band was in fact one man, a New Yorker called Kurt Ralske. Recorded in New York, UVS debut does not stray too far from those home turf giants of art rock Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine. Sung in a detached whisper, Lynn Marie #2 sounds like the song Lou Reed would write if you gave him the chords to Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, while Crash fades in just like Train Round The Bend. Blood Line is as pretty a melody as Verlaine’s Days, while the intro to How Did It Feel would not be out of place on Dreamtime or Words From The Front. He may be a guitar virtuoso but there’s no room here for long, meandering solos. There’s hardly any solos at all in fact. Everything here is designed to support the songs, from the chilly keyboards of Nausea to the One Of These Days-like slide guitars of Crash.

The album itself is full of tales of parties and beautiful cruel muses, icy Warholian goddesses (Lynn Marie, like Lou’s Caroline gets two songs named after her), uptight and strung out in equal measure.

It’s not all genuflecting at the feet of New Yorks finest though. The use of a drum machine colours the songs differently and stops them sounding like they are merely aping the Velvets or Television, and drives them closer to some imaginary crossroads where Chromes Slip It To The Android/Kinky Lover schtick meets Soft Cells kinky pop. The album opener She Screamed – could have been a hit single in more sympathetic era – is more like Metal Urbain piling into the disco on a night out. Like a lot of his contemporaries (Nick Cave, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3) Kurt likes his Religious imagery (Whore of God, Hail Mary), and he’s not scared to cop a title from Ballard or Sartre. But most of all there is a romance and tenderness that more than balances any sleaze. This isn’t Real slows down Buzzcocks Walking Distance and adds a lyric about a B-movie sob story mystery. He saves his most heartbreaking lines for A Dream of Love

A dream of love is haunting me

a dream of love is taunting me

Misguidedly labeled shoegazing, this album deserves to be rated alongside the cream of the eras visionary dream pop like My Bloody Valentine, early AR Kane, late Spacemen 3, Mazzy Star et al. An album this good should not be languishing out of print as it currently is. (TT)


curtisWhen a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore in April 2015, some might have been forgiven for imagining they had entered a nightmarish time warp. But this would have betrayed a political perspective deficient in its awareness of snowballing social inequalities in the USA today. For African-Americans in particular, the barriers to social and economic equality remain intact. For them, the wealth gap remains, along with persistently high unemployment rates – twice the level of white unemployment – a statistic depressingly similar to that of 1971. Too many go home to impoverished environs, nearly six in ten living in segregated neighbourhoods. It is clear that the effort to attain social and economic equality has some way to go.

These statistics would have made disheartening, if familiar reading to the late Curtis Mayfield. As a driving force in black music from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, he was a seasoned documentor of the struggle of black Americans through his music and lyrics, which blended fluid, at times lush, melodic funk/soul with measured social commentary. Before launching a highly successful solo career, Mayfield was a member and later leader of Chicago-based vocal group The Impressions. Of all the mid-60 R&B vocal group heavyweights, their music, despite significantly lighter radio rotation, is arguably the most enduring. While the likes of The Temptations only began to produce socially conscious records around 1968-69, Mayfield and The Impressions had been consistent in doing so since the departure of original lead vocalist Jerry Butler in 1962. Paralleling the Civil Rights movement, it took different forms, but was invariably dignified and gently righteous, whether urging black Americans to ‘Keep On Pushin’ in their struggles, landscaping utopian visions which mirrored the more famous dreams of more famous others (‘People Get Ready’) or lending encouragement during times of uncertainty and setback (‘It’s Alright’, ‘We’re A Winner’).

But it would be amiss of me to suggest that the music of The Impressions was a polemical belligerent brew. In fact, for the most part, it was as sweet as sweet soul music could be, the lion’s share of the songs occupying  themselves with that most perennial of concerns; finding, keeping or losing the girl. A shrewd move, guaranteeing an audience sizeable enough to ensure the other message found its way into as many homes as possible. Despite great success, and perhaps due to complications with record company distribution, their reputation seems to have declined over the years, certainly by comparison to their more conspicuous Detroit-based contemporaries. For example, Big Sixteen*, a magnificent 1965 compilation of their early ABC singles (curiously placed at No. 51 in consecutive NME Top 100 Polls of 1974 and 1985) seems to have disappeared without trace from Greatest Albums lists. It would be tempting to reassert its rightful place in the canon, but the album has long since been unavailable and its inclusion here would not be in keeping with our aim to favour those albums that tend to drop beneath the radar.

[*It took me a long time to track down Big Sixteen, finally doing so at the immortal vinyl Valhalla that was Beanos in Croydon around 1992, but not before I had been introduced to The Impressions’ music a few years earlier, through the purchase of their 1965 People Get Ready LP, which I acquired – after a somewhat briefer excursion – to the late lamented John Smiths’ Bookstore in Byres Road. A veritable goldmine that shop. It always seemed to have the good stuff]

Mayfield’s output was prolific, but unlike some of his peers, Marvin Gaye for instance, he has no single universally recognised classic album, although Superfly and There’s No Place Like America Today often vie for the accolade of his most accomplished long player. But almost everything he put his hand to between 1964 and 1976, turned to gold.

The Impressions’ This Is My Country (1968) was the first release on Mayfield’s own Curtom label. It remains their finest studio album, featuring Curtis’ trademark falsetto and skilful if unobtrusive guitar work [self-taught, he utilised open tunings to create a unique sound and claims to have slept with the instrument, so that when the muse was upon him, he could wake up in the middle of the night and write], showcased most eloquently here on the gorgeous ballad ‘I’m Loving Nothing’. By contrast ‘Stay Close To Me’ comes on like a Northern Soul floor-filler, recalling The Isleys’ This Old Heart Of Mine’,  and ‘Fool For You’ is hard-hitting brassy blues, characteristic of Ray Charles. Curtis is in control throughout and pulls the (heart) strings more confidently than ever on the achingly tender ’It’s So Unusual’ which also features some melancholic brass dispersed with dazzling effect following an unexpected momentary pause in the rhythm. ‘You Want Somebody Else’ is even better – the couplet “But my love is still true, for only you” may indeed sound banal but when Curtis drips the honey as sublimely as this, it reminds me why I was given a pair of ears in the first place.

The album is bookended by the two ‘message’ songs, first of all ‘They Don’t Know’ where with familiar restraint, Curtis laments the recent assassination of MLK:

“Another friend has gone / And I feel so insecure  / Brother if you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself  / We have lost another leader  / Lord how much must we endure  / If you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself”

It is street smart R&B, and although perhaps not all of the lyrics date very well (“Every brother is a leader /  Every sister is a breeder”) the song’s loose earthy arrangement, replete with organ, strings, guitar and horns is a winning combination.

On the closing title track, the call to action is rousing. One can feel chests simultaneously bursting with pride and righteous indignation:

“Some people think we don’t have the right  / To say it’s my country  / Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight  / Than say it’s my country  / I’ve paid three hundred years or more  / Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back  / This is my country”

Along with People Get Ready, This Is My Country is The Impressions’ crowning glory. Times were changing fast and less than two years later, Mayfield had left the group, embarking on a solo career that would take him in new directions and bring him unprecedented success. On his first solo outing Curtis (1970) he delivers the record he always wanted to make, a self-penned socio-political concept album (don’t worry, this isn’t prog rock!), a clear precursor to What’s Going On. An edited version of its most celebrated track, the nine minute uptown funk classic ‘Move On Up’, was a huge success in the UK, but strangely failed to chart back home, its aspirational message ignored by the public, who paradoxically lapped up the equally lengthy, blitzkrieg of pent-up venom that was the album’s opener, ‘Don’t Worry If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’. And how about that opening line?

“Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry, If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”

proclaims Mayfield over amplified fuzz-funk guitar and echo-laden infernal screaming, as he anticipates the tempest brewing in American inner cities, reproaching those responsible for the fragile state of race relations. This theme is explored more subtly on ‘The Other Side Of Town’ where Mayfield’s innate sensitivity to the plight of the downtrodden is laid bare:

“I’m from the other side of town  / Out of bounds  / To anybody who don’t live around  / I never learned to share  / Or how to care  / I never had no teachings  / About being fair”

But here and elsewhere on the album, the augmentation of harp and harpsichord lends to the proceedings a sweeping expansive sound which is simply irresistible. And the closer, ‘Give It Up’, Mayfield’s heartbreaking confessional, would melt the hardest of hearts

“All concern and the trusts that never happened with us  / The walk of embraces and the love of our faces  / It never happened you see and I’m so sorry”

On Curtis, Mayfield blends in everything from full orchestrations, exquisite balladry to experimental funk, ably abetted by arrangers Riely Hampton and Gary Slabo. He would go onto even greater success with his soundtrack for Blaxploitation classic Superfly,  but Curtis was his album, the one where he flaunted his talent most liberally.

And what of his influence? Well, it wasn’t only black teenagers in Chicago who were taken with The Impressions’ gospel and blues-tinged harmonising, and their influence was not restricted to young R&B wannabes. They made regular visits to play the Kingston dance halls, and their influence is clearly discernible in the rocksteady sound of late 1960s Jamaican music. A production line of eager JA vocal groups would record cover versions of Mayfield-penned classics. Among them, a young Bob Marley would have been listening intently and it is no exaggeration to say that without Mayfield, Cash and Gooden, then there would have been no Marley, Tosh and Livingston. At the very least, it is indisputable that The Wailers’ sound would have evolved into something quite radically different. Later reggae acts such as The Congos would add a third vocalist (Watty Burnett) in a bid to replicate The Impressions’ sound. Further afield, a young Belfast boy christened Ivan was similarly smitten; one doesn’t need to look very far to hear how The Impressions shaped his sound (try Crazy Love from Moondance or Gypsy Queen from His Band & The Street Choir for starters). Mayfield’s socially conscious lyrics undoubtedly cleared the path for eighties / nineties urban hip-hop / rap acts concerned more with the brutal realities of inner-city life. His legacy in soul music endures today, the voice of Pharrell Williams for example, a carefully studied imitation.

However, his legacy is also a social one. In response to criticism of the subject matter of his music for Superfly, Mayfield famously quipped “I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films. The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions. His compassion for people caught up in poverty was matched by his hope for a brighter future for all. As Gaetana Caldwell-Smith in her Obituary in ‘Socialist Action’ notes: “Mayfield inspired three generations of musicians to infuse their work with his idea of the meaning of soul. He wrote and composed with the aim toward getting people to think about themselves in relation to the world around them, to make this planet a better place for everyone.  He had personal obstacles to overcome, his own crosses to carry: raised by his mother and pastor grandmother in poverty, he became hard-nosed enough as a record producer to ensure he retained songwriting and production credits in a world where most other artists were being ripped off by record companies. More significantly, in his later life Curtis had been a quadriplegic since 1990, after being felled by a lighting rig which collapsed on him at a concert in New York, crushing his spine. But in addition to being a beacon for black Americans he became an inspiration to the disabled as well. After his accident, he remarkably found he could still sing, using gravity’s pull on his chest and lungs as he lay flat. His death in 1999, at the age of 57 was attributed to complications related to diabetes as a result of his accident. Music lost one of its greatest voices, poor black Americans one of their greatest champions. At his funeral, The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “Curtis Mayfield’s music told us that despite all odds, we are here and we will continue to fight until we become equal partners in the social fabric of this country.” Baltimore, Chicago, America and the world today need a few more prophets and peacemakers like him. But there will only ever be one Curtis Mayfield. (JJ)


Despite rotating at 45 rpm, Against Nature is, for me, the last great album of the ’80s. It appeared right at the end of a decade which left much of the UK drained, dispirited and soul-sick and which had been documented in withering detail by Cathal Coughlan, first in Microdisney and then in Fatima Mansions.
The life and foreshortened times of Microdisney will be another story for another time but, in crude precis, it revolved around the tension between the meticulous, mellifluous music of Sean O’Hagan and Coughlan’s pitiless studies – sometimes direct and unvarnished, as often luridly allegorical – of human cruelty, stupidity and ridiculousness. After their 1985 masterpiece, The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, they were poached from Rough Trade by Virgin, who appeared to believe they had secured themselves their own Deacon Blue, when, in fact, they had on their hands a band which could glide and swoop as deftly as Steely Dan but which was fronted by a scabrous amalgam of Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and Mark E Smith.
While Microdisney’s fourth album, 39 Minutes (its perfunctory, factual title a grudging and sour compromise; the band wanted a far more colourful title) was a fine record, still lyrically excoriating and melodically acute, it was over-embellished in places (unnecessary horns, Londonbeat on backing vocals) and stubbornly refused to yield a hit. Virgin, well on the way to becoming a byword for musical reductiveness and loads of cash, no longer wanted to know.
Coughlan was often compared with James Joyce – well, they were both Irish – but a closer comparison, who also happened to be Irish, is Jonathan Swift. Swift’s Latin epitaph declares that he is now “where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no longer,” a rage articulated in his lifetime through the immeasurably bitter irony of A Modest Proposal (cannibalism as the ideal solution to hunger in Ireland, with children reared specifically for this purpose) and the final part of Gulliver’s Travels, which (Walt) Disney left decidedly alone (Gulliver finds a land run by wise, benevolent horses and populated by the brutish, barely-evolved Yahoos, who, he is forced to concede, are as human as he is. After he’s compelled to return to England, a year passes before he can allow his family anywhere near him and five years before he lets his wife eat with him – even then, only at the end of a long table, while he has his nose stuffed with lavender and tobacco leaves to deflect her Yahoo scent.)
Swift summed his attitude up thus: “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” Some 250 years later, charges of similar misanthropy would be levelled at Cathal Coughlan; certainly, his incandescent stage persona was of a piece with his lyrical ire and at times you could wonder if the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” had been coined in a Microdisney live review. Yet interviewers continually reported finding an affable, approachable character, at odds with the creator of lines like: “I know they’re fools, they’re my only hope/When would you like to kick in my head?”
When he started again with Fatima Mansions, named after a notorious Dublin housing scheme, he was liberated from the Microdisney house style and able to wander where he would –  Sean O’Hagan would be similarly galvanised in the formidable High Llamas. Against Nature was a decisive statement of intent and unleashed an enviable musical palette which was the ideal canvas for Coughlan’s parade of grotesques, encompassing rockabilly, disco and chamber pop – but genres be hanged, its twitching brouhaha is magnificently impossible to pin down. With Aindrias “Grimmo” O’Gruama as his new foil on taser guitar, more emphasis could be laid on Coughlan’s humour, which often went unnoticed or was at least underplayed. This happened as much to him as to Morrissey and the one-time accidental labelmates had far more in common than either might have been prepared to admit.
It’s there in opener Only Losers Take The Bus, which fades in to the sound of a good ol’fashioned landline ringing, and to a full-throttle electrobilly rhythm, has its pompous tyrant of a narrator proudly displaying his knowledge: “Can you draw the Chinese flag? It’s, er, three blue lines and six dahlias/Paris is in India,” depressingly foreshadowing scores of reality TV types.
The Day I Lost Everything kicks off with a – more of a monologue than a rap, embracing Jimmy Tarbuck, Santa Claus and a fall downstairs before embarking on a story of justified paranoia (“Don’t even think about not answering your phone/It might be me – and I know you’re always home” set to verses made of tungsten and choruses made of ambrosia. The pace slows on the wintry Wilderness On Time, where the synth-harpsichord heard on Only Losers… is the sole accompaniment to a romantic encounter that probably isn’t (“When I look round your eyes/There’s a space at the sides/Where ten more eyes could hide.”) I’ve no idea if it’s a personal song but I once, at King Tut’s in Glasow, heard Coughlan berating a hapless individual who had been singing along to it and was exposed when Coughlan took a longer-than-on-the-recorded-version pause before the line “my genuine Celticness shines.” It’s unlikely he’d ever invite a crowd to hold their phones aloft, which is exactly how it should be.
You Won’t Get Me Home is a partial return to Microdisney terrain, with a querulous live feel and palpable rage at Aids persecution “You’re not your own executioner -NO!). The album’s most controversial song, 13th Century Boy, has to be heard in the context of its time – Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions were omnipresent and repeatedly, sometimes lazily, held up as the embodiment of all that was evil. This song lampoons their MO with fiendish accuracy – Rick Astley or Jason Donovan could easily have had their vocals imposed on the backing track, though maybe not singing lyrics caricaturing self-denying ordnances (“You are the reason why I try to tend this fertile void”). As such, it now shows its age somewhat but appeared in different garb live as a full-band detonation, although there doesn’t appear to be a surviving recording of this online. It was a double-A sided single with the tempestuous Blues For Ceausescu (written quickly following the Christmas Day execution of the Romanian despot and an early exercise in expectation management as the Soviet Bloc disintegrated). It could have been massive; if it had been, it would almost certainly have been the end of Fatima Mansions, an unrepresentative albatross they might never have been able to lay to rest (see also: Lazy Sunday).
Bishop of Babel is also of its time, veering dangerously towards what was never called in the ’80s a power ballad, but it survives by virtue of a faultless organ solo and one of Coughlan’s gentler satires of religion (“We don’t talk the same, so we don’t talk at all/And our hosts just look on with glee). More punkabilly on Valley of the Dead Cars, which appears to start with an encounter with a homeless woman and just keeps getting bleaker. Coughlan has frequently drawn on Ireland’s restless history and here he refers to Skibbereen, the town in his native Cork which became synonymous with the agony of the country’s 19th-century famine and as a honky-tonk piano rollicks and  Grimmo’s feedback caterwauls, , he concludes with possibly the saddest lines he’s ever written: “At the mouth of a flooded mine/I will embrace you hard/And we’ll wait for the sun to shine.”

Musically, closer Big Madness is pure balm, a log fire against the lyric’s blizzard of a killer bragging of his exploits (“Yells and laughs: they all wanted it/It was easy, so how could it be wrong?”). In its washes of synth and Coughlan’s rich, expressive voice – he could be the most underrated vocalist of the past 30 years- it echoes two of his most prominent influences, the Beach Boys and Scott Walker. In fact, his trajectory is in many ways similar to that of  Walker, whose odyssey took him from his sumptuous but twisted orchestral opuses of the ’60s to his increasingly layered and impenetrable works of the last three decades, finally going as far as anyone’s ever been on 2012’s Bish Bosch. For its final minute, it segues into the Pet Sounds-against-the-poll-tax instrumental Monday Club Carol, named after a think tank renowned for a lack of enthusiasm on  matters of multiculturalism (Fatima Mansions  were originally named the Freedom Association, after another group in  a similar region of the political spectrum).
Fatima Mansions would become stormier and narrower; by 1992’s Valhalla Avenue , Seattle had eaten the world and there had been a convergence of sorts between them and the mainstream. This was a problem; they now sounded like many other people, whereas their earlier greatness hinged on the fact that they sounded like nobody else. They reasserted themselves on 1994’s briiliant Lost In The Former West; then, suddenly, it was done but Coughlan continues to challenge, confront and needle with his righteous anger and often-overlooked compassion intact.
We now live in a world that thinks it’s beyond satire, which it thinks can be blunted with shrugging insouciance, know-knothing knowingness and the wilful, all-pervasive, 2+2= 5-style equation of criticism with hatred. Because he can penetrate these shields, the work of Cathal Coughlan, past and present, is more important than ever (PG).


“He [Alan Horne] was never keen on our angular sound at all. He appreciated much more the softer West Coast aspects of Orange Juice. He used to say that we were The Velvet Underground of Postcard, and Orange Juice were like The Byrds. I think he felt that it was cool to have a gloomy band as well as a jolly one on the roster.” (Paul Haig)

As a young man, knee-deep in Kafka and Camus, the world weighed heavily on Paul Haig’s shoulders. At the same time as I would have been racing back and forth to The Odeon on Renfield St. to dream of clandestine liaisons with Clare Grogan in ‘Gregory’s Girl’, by contrast, Haig’s sense of alienation was finding its way onto a striking series of prickly yet savant 7” singles, released by Josef K to great critical acclaim between December 1979 and March 1982.

During that time Josef K made good their impetuous oath to release only one album and then disband, although improbably, they recorded two. Their first attempt at a debut, “Sorry For Laughing”, was shelved, the band dispirited by its ‘insipid’ production. In its place they released ‘The Only Fun In Town’, recorded in only two days in Belgium, a few months later, as a defiantly lo-fi response. It was a gamble which never paid off. The critics were divided and the fans, accustomed to the exhilarating vitality of the band’s live shows, featuring Haig’s provocatively charismatic performances, were largely underwhelmed. While ‘The Only Fun In Town’ has now assumed the status of lost post-punk classic, to my mind it pales in comparison to its abandoned predecessor. One wonders why of the two albums, this was the one to be condemned, like Kafka’s protagonist, without a fair trial. Nevertheless, whichever one holds to be the authentic or apocryphal Josef K moment, this decision helped to cultivate the mystique, the enigma, the legend, that set in motion one of the most feverish pursuits for the curious record collecting teenager of the 1980s.

In fact, Josef K arrived in my house on Christmas Day 1987, in the form of the ‘Young & Stupid / Endless Soul’ compilation album released earlier that year. 1987. I was always about five years behind. Its instantaneous impact sent me on an only partially successful hunt for the band’s fabled Postcard singles and their long unavailable solitary album. As things eventually transpired, my younger brother would beat me to the post with its capture, but while green with envy, our house echoed to the strains of the band’s music for some considerable time. It was a good time to catch on, before they fell foul of ever changing musical fashions. Guitarist Malcolm Ross recalls:

“There was a while especially when acid house music and hip hop first came along that nobody was interested in Josef K. There was a period of over ten years between 1988 and right up until the end of the late nineties when nobody gave a damn about us. I remember when I released my second solo album in 1998 the ‘NME’ was sent a copy and the editor said to the record company, ‘We are not going to review this. This has no relevance to us now.”

In truth, as far as being fashionable or relevant, the emerging post-punk Scottish music scene was slow to blossom and certainly lagged behind the rest of the UK in developing the spirit of ’76/77. At the very least, it took longer for the records to arrive. But, by allowing the more artless and noxious aspects of punk to fizzle out, that gave Josef K and Orange Juice, along with their peers, given the tag ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’, sufficient distance to confidently exhibit a more expansive range of influences in their music than most others could muster.

Often parallels are made between the distinctive Glasgow / Edinburgh music scenes with the corresponding US demarcation between East Coast and West Coast sensibilities, but these are overplayed. If the Glasgow bands (Orange Juice, The Pastels, Aztec Camera etc) professed an admiration for Love and The Byrds, they were quite often equally in awe of NY’s The Velvet Underground. Likewise if the Edinburgh bands (Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars) were more indebted to the sharper caustic traits of Television and The Voidoids, at the same time they bore the influence of Beefheart (LA). And, as is well documented, Josef K preferred Chic in any case. In truth there was more harmony than discord between the two scenes. However, when it came to Josef K’s music the reverse was true. Discord was a fundamental ingredient of the bands thrilling sound.

John Lydon had penned Death Disco, which I always felt was the perfect Josef K song title. Behind those near-nerdy (occasionally) baggy suits, were detuned twitchy guitars, equal parts punk scratch and funk catch, underpinning a batch of lyrics brimming with existential angst. Consider ‘Drone’ for instance, which features guitars so ferociously discordant it feels the fretboards will ignite or even fingers fall off, where the lyrics sound like they’ve been ripped from a random page of Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’:

‘I’d like to starve, fade away
Don’t need the cash, just decay.’ (‘Drone’)

On ‘Variation Of Scene’ I’m imagining Haig lurking in the shadows a la ‘The Third Man’ (Auld Reekie surely could have been as atmospheric a location as Vienna for Carol Reed’s classic noir, a film with which I’m sure the band would have been familiar)

‘I hear our footsteps echo
This trip is so much fun
One more eternal city
The psychos always rerun’

Between them, on ‘Heads Watch’, Haig and Ross somehow contrive to create a frenzied guitar battle between Television and Gang of Four, while David Weddell, playing Hooky, does his best to drag the whole thing through the floor and into the bass-ment. You can dance to it, you can sing along to it, and at the same time affect a supercilious urbane sneer:

‘I stand and look outside,
At pseudo-punks and all the mindless,
I see what they think about here,
I watch the girls and watch the heads turn.’  (‘Heads Watch’)

The influences are worn openly but converge to create something unique and vital. At times the band borrow heavily from Martin Hannett’s production for ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (‘Citizens’, ‘Sense Of Guilt’), while the jocular bass on ‘Crazy To Exist’ could be from one of The Fall’s early singles, and the intonation on ‘No Glory’ is a straight lift from David Watts. I imagine Alan Horne’s ears may have pricked up, his inner voice screaming ‘a hit at last!’ as he tuned in eagerly to the beginning of ‘Art of Things’. It promises a shift towards Orange Juice’s more melodic shamble and anticipates the charming amateurishness of The Pastels, but it soon flexes it’s rhythmic muscles to reveal a jittery heart of beef.

Despite that darker edge, Josef K still managed to find room in their album titles for the words ‘Laughing’ and ‘Fun’, but they were young then after all. The band’s reputation has grown, aided by a number of factors, not least through the high profile of Scottish bands Belle & Sebastian and public devotees Franz Ferdinand, but also through the booming vinyl market. Josef K were a band made for vinyl, if ever there was one. This, the album they themselves rejected, finally saw a  vinyl release in 2012. It makes it into The New Perfect Collection not only for its bravery, wit and invention, nor simply because it is has the most sparkling guitar playing from any Scottish band ever, but  also because every connoisseur’s collection should contain the stuff of legend:

“The world needed a squeamish, jumpy quartet of po-faced, slapstick modish punk kids with concerns about their mental health who would leave behind a messy legacy, a near legend, a fragmented narrative, a bent brilliance, a throbbing rumour of false starts, different versions, other mixes, half songs, shadowy codas, rejected tracks, bits and pieces, lost meolodies, twisted torch, bitty thoughts, missed hits, different members, temporary aberrations, bad dreams, old classics, nervy remakes, buried treasure, Peel sessions, failed ambition, part time associations, sure things, collapsed potential, scattered lies, romantic vision, sentimental sickness, solo attempts and dynamic inadequacy.” ​​​​​​​​​(Paul Morley)

[The documentary, ‘Big Gold Dream: The Sound Of Young Scotland’ is scheduled for release on July 4th 2015] (JJ)


Lyrics aren’t poetry – discuss. What sounds like it’s fit to stand alongside Milton and Pope when set to music can be as pre-adolescent doggerel writen down – try “Where did your long hair go?/Where is the girl I used to know?” for starters. Conversely, lyrics that think they’re poetry are almost inevitably doomed to pull up well short – rhyming alone does not automatically qualify anything as poetry and the last writer to get away with using the weather as an emotional metaphor (pathetic fallacy, to give it its proper name) was  Ernest Hemingway.
But any suggestion that lyrics shouldn’t be poetry, shouldn’t even try, leads nowhere except to a place where songs are about nothing but sound and fury and the beast with two backs, where nothing and no one should aspire to anything beyond dancing and getting tanked up.
All these things are absolutely fine as they go but the human experience offers vast source material and if this music had continued to draw on this inspiring, but ultimately limited and limiting, range, it would have quickly ended up trudging in ever decreasing circles, finally perishing quietly some time in 1965.
And this doesn’t mean haughty, heavily-worn erudition or proficient musicianship for its own sake, all of which led to the most flatulent excesses of prog and the type of rock that you always notice rhymes with ‘sock;’ it means having a bit of curiosity, not rejecting things out of hand simply because they aren’t in the orbit of your experience, being prepared to look beyond the limits others try to set for you and which can be all too tempting to set for yourself.
Right on cue, enter Blue Aeroplanes. A densely-populated, loose-limbed,  horn of plenty, they emerged from the ever-fertile Bristol scene with an armful of slim volumes, a quiver full of riffs and more ideas in one song than many could muster in an entire career.
What made them if not quite unique then certainly distinctive were the words and delivery of frontman Gerard Langley. A genuine poet but one utterly enamoured with taking his place in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he frequently demurred at the idea of Blue Aeroplanes as an “intellectual bar band” and, as one which used not only his poems but those of Louis MacNeice, WH Auden, Kenneth Patchen and Sylvia Plath, he caricatured a common perception of them as having their album covers festooned with stickers declaring “includes A-Level syllabus poem.” In fact, he told with pride a story of them being ejected from LA’s Rainbow Room, whose clientele include practically every debauched rock type you could name over three decades. Yet he saw no paradox in having literary aspirations and sybaritic appetites, pointing out that some of the strangest art in history, notably by Shakespeare and Dylan, was also some of the most successful.
I first properly checked in (they were always an endlessly fertile source of punnery) to Blue Aeroplanes in the autumn of 1988. I had heard a small crop of their songs, notably Tolerance, here and there and had been impressed but then came across particularly vivid live reviews and interviews in editions of the late Melody Maker which I had been sent during my year in France, as part of my French degree. To paraphrase Kid Rock’s immortal couplet, we didn’t have no internet but, man, I never will forget how intrigued I became about Blue Aeroplanes. Effervescent guitars, florid lyrics, a scratching DJ, a relentlessly celebratory onstage dancer, live shows which were – as I would discover for myself – as thrilling as a Jason Bourne adventure.
While many of their contemporaries had a stylistic range as broad as Chile from east to west, the ‘Planes ran a gamut the length of Chile from north to south, encapsulated in their double album Friendloverplane which, while made up of b-sides, covers and alternate versions amid new material, made up a redoubtable cohesive whole that was a match for Hatful of Hollow. A year later, I failed to secure a copy which I’d been assured was on sale for £4.50 and it narrowly missed out on being my last purchase of the ’80s. A decade-long search for a modestly priced vinyl copy (the CD had three songs missing) followed and it eventually became my last purchase of the ’90s.
During a week back home in the middle of that year abroad, I bought Tolerance   – the album – and, having received my sterling in large denominations before my return, produced, to the dismay of the guy behind the counter, a £50 note. But he was able to rustle up the change and I was rewarded with a record that was audacious, diverse, intrepid, if a little oddly produced – a matter Gerard was aware of. In the MM interview, he declared that, if his band had a budget to match that of justly forgotten soft metallers Glass Tiger, they could outsell them by five to one.
That budget arrived with a deal with Ensign and Swagger, presided over by Gil Norton (Pixies/Triffids/Bunnymen), presented Blue Aeroplanes in the variegated landscape they required deserved. Blue Aeroplanes are renowned for having a revolving roster to rival the Fall – albeit one where people at least appear to leave on more amicable terms – and Swagger presented a mostly, if not entirely, new string-wielding line-up. Angelo Bruschini, more recently associated with another set of Bristol titans, Massive Attack, had contributed the cameo of one of Tolerance’s outstanding moments, the unsettling Ups, and as a full-time member, proved himself to be a specialist in complex, serpentine epics.
Chief among these were the intertwined Weightless and …And Stones, the former a part stoical, part fulminating reflection on space exploration, alcohol and disease reminiscent of the Smiths’ stately ballads Reel Around The Fountain and I Know It’s Over, the latter a cruise-control lunge across the Clifton Suspension Bridge propelled by the dulcimer of Oysterband’s Ian Kearey, never an official Aeroplane but always their secret weapon.

Bruschini also slots the jewel into the Swagger crown – the closing Cat-Scan Hist’ry, a many tentacled monster which echoes some of Zeppelin’s most epic moments but which, instead of Plant being Plant, has a deceptively calm recitation by Gerard, pushed side by menacing chants and the pulverising tom-toms of his brother John, before it’s all submerged in chaos (in the true, creation of the universe sense) similar to the second half of the title song of the Bunnymen’s Porcupine. I always picture Gerard as an anthropologist recording his observations on to a dictaphone at a safe distance from preparations for a grim tribal ritual, before a hurrricane scatters them all at the last moment. It’s gargantuan and never fails to stagger.
The contributions of Rodney Allen, barely out of his teens when he joined the band, are less incendiary but this doesn’t mean they’re slighter. Your Ages is probably the most beautiful song the band have ever recorded and its circular, accelerating riff impeccably underpins Gerard’s reflections on a drive to the country and possible visions of the future. Allen also weighs in with Careful Boy, one of the moments on most Aeroplanes albums when Gerard steps aside and allows a song to be sung. This particular one was derided by some at the time as a moment to go and put on the kettle, like a Barbara Dickson song during The Two Ronnnies – or, come to that, a Ronnie Corbett monologue – but I’ve always found it tender and affecting, with a modest poetry of its own, though it  makes more sense on the session version for Radio 1’s Nicky Campbell show – available on the deluxe reissue – than on the album proper’s mandolin-driven version.
A rich legacy is also left by former member Richard Bell, who left before Swagger. His setting of Plath’s poem The Applicant, in which a spouse becomes “it” and marriage a job or business transaction, is suitably fitful and carbonated, while What It Is is outwardly tranquil but with a trainload of wheels turning. A guest appearance by Michael Stipe on the latter – Blue Aeroplanes supported REM on the UK leg of the 1989 Green Tour at his invitation – became a selling point for the whole album but, in truth, he’s low-key and Swagger is easily strong enough to stand on its own, a sign that Blue Aeroplanes were rapidly becoming REM’s peers.
But within a couple of years, while REM had gone from big to universe-sized, Blue Aeroplanes had been largely forgotten – in the prevaling climate, dominated by the appallingly dubbed  and often appalling-sounding genres of grunge and crusty, labelling bigots as “assholes” was deemed astute social comment and Blue Aeroplanes were routinely derided along the lines of “chin-stroking noodling” by people who had never seen them rend ceilings with Jacket Hangs, Bury Your Love Like Treasure (a riff for the ages, the equal of Jumpin’ Jack Flash) or Tom Verlaine’s Breaking In My Heart, which often saw the number of musicians on stage going well into double figures.
I yearn for another chance to witness all this but the records could keep you going for years, musically and lyrically – I also had the good fortune to be among the 50 winners of a copy Swagger in the Sounds (which would go out of business a year later) prize crossword and can brandish the compliments slip as proof.

So are lyrics poetry? They don’t have to be but, when written by Gerard Langley, they usually are – and I haven’t quoted a word from them here, so that you can savour them for yourself. (PG).