73. MAGAZINE – REAL LIFE (1978) / (A) THE CORRECT USE OF SOAP (1980)

Greatest Records, Post-Punk, Punk Rock


REAL LIFE – MAGAZINE (1978)

Like history as a whole, the chronology of music is not a neat, compact narrative. However much some might try to corral it all into tidy, reductive processions of cause and effect, it’s far too multi-layered, unscripted, complex and, in truth, messy, to be so easily, glibly packaged into received wisdom. Did Buddy Holly’s death and Elvis’ draft really lead directly to the neutering and ocean-level dilution of rock ‘n’ roll? Was the Beatles’ vertiginous take-off in America truly the result of a bereft and bewildered nation looking to assuage its grief over its slain leader? And can anyone really definitively call New Rose the first British punk single, as if genre can be as precisely prescribed as geography?

Near the head of this parade of assertions, which marches along the main thoroughfares, bypassing the blind alleys, cul-de-sacs and branch roads which lead to equally captivating destinations, is the notion that the Pistols’ gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June, 1976 directly unleashed the ferment that would pour forth from the city for the best part of two decades. Without question, it was a catalyst, but in the literal, chemical definition of accelerating something happening independently. The proof is that the event – an alternative to an evening’s viewing which included Des O’Connor Entertains and Winner Takes All with Jimmy Tarbuck – was organised by two Mancunian minds which had been fizzing with original but hard to fulfil ideas for some time – Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the slowly but resolutely burgeoning Buzzcocks.

Shelley had already been exploring electronics for a number of years – his composition Sky Yen, recorded in 1974, resembled a loop of the ZX Spectrum programme he would later include on his solo album XL1 – while ultra-literate humanities student and Dylan fan Devoto (ne Trafford, a name too Mancunially loaded to keep in that city for long) would soon be honing one of the sharpest and most original lyrical styles in music.

After Buzzcocks recorded the groundbreaking and still astounding Spiral Scratch right at the end of ’76, Devoto was out before British punk had even got its Docs on. He already found it had become “aesthetically ugly;” while it wouldn’t be truly straitjacketed until the lamentable arrival of oi!, he was right to be plotting a way out before expectations became too rigid and the horizons of some barely spanned from thumb to forefinger.

His response was Magazine, who announced themselves with Shot By Both Sides, not so much a single as a manifesto, broiling with as much energy as any of its peers but voicing cold war anxiety in a manner which reminded you that these weren’t just pat, flip cliches – if somebody flips a switch, that’s it, for all of us. This, you feel, is what Devoto is getting at when he declaims: “I was shocked to find what was allowed;” no one had ever sounded as sardonic as this – not Dylan, not Reed, not even the Rotten rapidly turning back into Lydon – and you can hear his mouth crumple into a virulent grin at the end of every line. But the shock is not the synthetic outrage of a middle-market tabloid reader. It’s that of someone with a conscience, a moral centre, unable to take in what they see, when “They all sound the same when they scream,” like the creatures at the end of Animal Farm looking from pig to man and man to pig, by now indistiguishable.

Magazine and Buzzcocks actually took closer paths than is often acknowledged – behind the beguiling melodies and ambiguous love songs, the latter were continually messing with texture, rhythm, noise, the Can influence always just a micron below the surface, and Shot By Both Sides was the gene Devoto left behind. With Shelley’s lyrics, it became Lipstick for Buzzcocks, ushering in a small but significant post-punk strand of joint custody songs (also Read It In Books by the Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes, Adventures Close To Home by the Raincoats/Slits, Sister Midnight by Iggy/Red Money by Bowie and Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Gos/Fun Boy Three.

The keyboards are barely audible on Shot By Both Sides but, beneath the fingers of Dave Formula, they would be what most immediately set Magazine apart from most of their contemporaries – apart from Ultravox!, hardly any others dared to commit such a technoflash transgression. Compared with the concert-piano level synths by then being deployed by Bowie and Kraftwerk, Formula’s are harpsichords and spinets but like those instruments, they radiate extraordinary beauty, like the Heath Robinson glories of Eno’s non-musician adventures in Roxy Music or the HG Wells future visions of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr – a Magazine fan from the start who would later have the effrontery to purloin the title of Real Life for his own band’s worst album – once declared that, Devoto excepted, they were “wallies…dullheads, completely unaware of the greatness they were part of.” Well, he met them, I didn’t, but it seems an extraordinarily harsh judgement on Formula, a former R & B musician whose youthful imagination had been fired by Yuri Gagarin’s trade union-brokered 1961 visit to Manchester; on bassist Barry Adamson, who would go on to be the heartbeat of darkness on the Bad Seeds’ most unforgiving adventures and to legitimise almost single-handedly the whole dubious enterprise of imaginary film soundtracks (his reward being to get to soundtrack actual films by Carl Colpaert and David Lynch), and on the late John McGeoch, born in Greenock – not 20 miles from where I’m writing – who approached the guitar in the way a brutalist architect might approach bricks, not setting out to make something beautiful and making few concessions to accepted notions of beauty but frequently achieving it anyway.

Take Definitive Gaze, one of the most assured and self-possessed openers in history. Adamson pursues the melody, a vigorous funk figure trapped in proto-video game Pong, while drummer Martin Jackson displays as much flair for tension and release as any chops-wielding session pro, pocketing the odd rimshot when nobody’s looking, and Formula combines freeform discordant piano flourishes with suitably spooky synth (I once put this song on a tape for an obsessive Cure fan who, disappointingly, found no trace of the influence on his heroes, instead hearing only the theme from Scooby Doo). McGeoch plays only what he needs to play – not a note more or less – and Devoto describes an all-seeing eye which appears to be more curse than gift (“Clarity has reared its ugly head again…Now I’m lost in shock/ Your face fits perfectly”).
He takes a similarly skewed view of affairs of the heart on Burst and Parade, the songs which once closed each side. On the former, McGeogh takes Hendrix’s The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp as a tuning fork but heads off in a very different direction, creating a claustrophobic and clenched setting for one of Devoto’s finest anti-love songs (“Once you had this promise/On the tip of your tongue/Needless to say/It went on too long). Despite the title (as in “burst into flames”) it’s compressed, a big crunch waiting to happen as Devoto repeats “You will forget yourself in my happiness,” like the incantation of a contract hypnotist – all as taut and coiled as Television’s Torn Curtain.

Parade is mellower, more refined, with elegant piano by Formula, frissons of wah-wah by McGeoch and a striding rhythm box underpinning Jackson’s tympani-like thunderclaps. But it’s still Howard Devoto out front and he sounds no more comfortable than before, still refusing to bow to sentimentality (“Sometimes I forget that we’re supposed to be in love/Sometimes I forget my position) offering yet more claustrophobia, this time shackled to paranoia (“It’s so hot in here/What are they trying to hatch?”) and proposing desperate courage as a solution (“We must not be frail – we must watch). It’s the fate of all slow and stylish songs to be labelled ballads but it would be an outright misnomer for songs as fraught and gripping as these – if you can think of a better word, let me know.

The fleet and the florid combine in Motorcade, where early languour yields to a pace almost beyond human capacity and McGeoch triumphs again, building on a well-worn siren sound by twisting it into unidentifiable shapes. It seems to allude to the Kennedy assassination but it may be too obvious – and where does the bathos of “The man at the centre of the motorcade/Has learned to tie his boots” fit in? Still, no one ever got right to the root of Oswald’s motive, so enigmatic images of “a snake in the closet” and the choice between coffee and tea are yet more layers on an unfathomable puzzle.

Magazine were never more brilliantly brash than on The Light Pours Out Of Me – come to think of it, not many others have been. Its rhythm could keep a city’s lights on if played on a loop and McGeoch takes a familiar glam riff out of its platform heel into a glass slipper. Formula’s synths are again sparingly used but the space left by their absence creates a canyon for Devoto to descend “like an insect/Up and down the walls.” He’s still accepting no commissions from Hallmark – “It jerks out of me like blood/In this still life/Heart beats up love-” and we’re back to full Buzzcocks circle, with the last line escaping from its earlier appearance on the sleeve of Spiral Scratch. There are more thrilling, elemental, force-of-nature songs than The Light Pours Out Of Me – but not many.

Unfortunately, many of those in awe of Magazine missed the opportunity to make their own magic from their influence. Magazine inspired Simple Minds at their best but were powerless to prevent them sinking to their worst. Mick Hucknall is said to have been a regular at their early gigs. Marti Pellow once averred that, early on, Wet Wet Wet wanted to be Magazine – Magazine, a band of potency and dexterity, utterly devoid of clumsiness, smarm or schmaltz – what happened? I guess it’s just real life but you can always turn to Real Life instead (PG).

THE CORRECT USE OF SOAP (1980)  “I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin / My irritability keeps me alive and kicking.” (A Song From Under The Floorboards.’)

One might surmise from his recordings that life for Howard Devoto was a cruel joke. Love meanwhile was a pointless charade, a game played by fools. There’s a 1980 Australian TV interview with him (sporting a Nietzsche baseball cap) larking around in a laundrette – where he discusses ‘superior hygiene’ and ‘ulterior cleanliness’ as well as his imaginary Ni-etz-sche Removal & Trucking business venture. Devoto cultivated the image of irascible bugger, someone to rival Mark E Smith or John Lydon for ultra-contrariness, Scott Walker or Eno for inscrutable mystique. What is more interesting about the interview is Devoto’s response to being questioned about his decision to leave The Buzzcocks in order to form Magazine. He attributes that to his ‘revolutionary idea that one could play slow songs‘. If Magazine harnessed some of the fizz and fury of punk, they also recognised in its mediocre uniformity, something stultifying rather than liberating. Without question, Howard would rather have been Bowie than Strummer, and Magazine likewise Can, Roxy or Ubu instead of The Pistols.

“You could do me a favour/Do whatever you want to/I will let you hurt me/Because I know it hurts you/It hurts you.” Devoto snarls with trademark acridity on the wonderfully odd ‘I’m A Party’, which while featuring a slightly extraneous jazz break, unfurls to reveal Dave Formula’s filmic synth and John McGeoch’s nervy guitar lines. McGeoch was one of the great under-rated lead guitarists; he often sounded like he was working in his own little bubble, nowhere more than here, surreptitiously stitching out taut geometric patterns redolent of a column of ants scratching out a new colony. Or listen to him virtually ignite his fretboard on the magnificent speed-fuelled ‘Philadelphia’. Here is Magazine in all its glory – Barry Adamson’s throbbing bass bubbling like a pregnant geyser, Formula’s shrieking keyboard wizardry and Devoto’s rueful witticisms: ‘Everything’d be just fine/If I had the right pastime/I’d’ve been Raskolnikov/But mother nature ripped me off…‘ Glorious stuff.

In some ways the flamboyance and range of the music is utterly at odds with the bleak cynicism of the lyrics. And Devoto makes true on his promise to play some slow ones, these offering a sharp contrast to their more convulsive companions. The stately piano and soulful backing vocals on ‘You Never Knew Me’ sound warmer, but Devoto’s lyrics remain implacably acerbic (‘Thank God that I don’t love you/All of that’s behind me now/Still seems to be above you’), rivalling Dylan at his sardonic ’65 peak; while elsewhere he confesses to his own (masochistic?) weakness and compulsion: ‘But I still turn to love, I want to burn again.’

That dark sense of humour is accompanied by both political observation (‘Model Worker’ envisages the moral quandary of the Soviet proletarian who dares to dream of a better future: ‘I’m sick of working on the land/I wanna work with machines and look handsome.’) and an incisive eye for detail: ‘We drank from cups on standard issue/Sofas under scaffolding/Informed sources said we were seen/By observers it’s a meeting.’ (from ‘Sweetheart Contract’ – a genuinely classic single).

One can as easily imagine Devoto firing the band and taking himself off in a huff to record the whole thing on an acoustic guitar. Then he might have delivered a rival to ‘Sister Lovers’ or ‘Blood On The Tracks’. But as he says himself: “I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it” so thankfully Magazine’s audience was gifted with songs like ‘Stuck’, a squelching stinging funk conundrum which comes across as something like a post-punk Weather Report and is quite magnificent.

If their brilliant debut ‘Real Life’ had a bold, metallic and expansive sound, Magazine’s follow up, ‘Secondhand Daylight’ was dense, feverish and – on the colour spectrum – undoubtedly grey. With Martin Hannett – having recently applied the finishing touches to ‘Closer’ by Manchester’s more celebrated musical sons – at the mixing desk, ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’ successfully managed to add a layer of polish to proceedings, but the album’s claustrophobic sound and misanthropic soul gave new meaning to the old cliche ‘all that glitters is not gold’. It sounds as thrillingly vibrant today as ever and stands unparalleled as a gallery of lavish but caustic portraits, a repository of glistening miserabilism. (JJ)

PS. ‘I’ve got a good face for memories’:
The first critics poll of greatest albums I remember (and still my favourite list of this kind by miles), was the MME’s (100) Greatest Records Ever Made, published in November 1985. It was the first time I had ever bought an issue of the NME, and I in my innocence immediately took the contents of its poll as gospel, seeing in it the definitive selection of the essential albums every serious music fan should own. It was a marvellously flawed collection, by turns intriguing (only one Stones, no Sgt. Pepper), eclectic (plenty of jazz, blues, reggae and soul alongside a plethora of post-punk) and bewildering (no Can, Byrds or Fall, while ‘Mad Not Mad’ at no. 55 today looks simply bizarre). To the best of my knowledge, it is the only such list ever to feature The Correct Use Of Soap, a mere five years young at the time.* I built my record collection around that list, beginning with the low/mid-price albums which had the coolest sleeves and graduating on to the more expensive ones afterwards. It was an education of sorts. I eventually got round to buying The Correct Use Of Soap, fittingly from Virgin Records, in January 1987, proudly clutching to my chest its glitzy post-modernist sleeve alongside another purchase I made that day, Sly & The Family Stone’s star-spangled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’. My abiding memory of that evening is hearing two very different but equally blistering versions of Sly’s ‘Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again’ which to my complete surprise, appeared on both albums.

*[Sounds magazine retorted with their own Top 100 and that one featured Real Life, but as it had four Alice Cooper albums in there, I figured the NME probably had it right. No harm to Alice Cooper, but four!?]

68. THE GUN CLUB – MIAMI (1982)

Desert Blues, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

 American Shaman

Jeffrey Lee Pierce in bona fide rock’n’roll tradition, was destined never to grow old. He barely gave himself a chance. The first diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver may well have been as early as 1982. Pierce was a mere 24 years old then, two thirds of the way through his brief earthly sojourn. That he lasted as long as he did surprised some, but his death in 1996 (from a brain haemorrhage) still came as a shock to many. The Gun Club had made a career out of being the craziest, drunkest, most shambolic act on the LA scene. The band members played their parts willingly. After all, as Pierce said at the time: “People here have got nothing else to do but lose their minds.” Who better than Jeffrey to help them on their way?

When Pierce – who ran Blondie’s West Coast fan club – met Brian Tristan (Kid Congo Powers) – chief of The Ramones fan club – at a Pere Ubu gig in 1978, sparks were destined to fly. First baptised Creeping Ritual and soon after The Gun Club, this early incarnation were according to Powers “too arty for rock people, far too rock for arty people, too cuckoo for the blues crowd and too American for punk”. If history was theirs to make, it was near inevitable that their legendary status would be born of their scabrous and uncultivated live performances and their antagonistic personalities, rather than from their mercurial discography. The Gun Club would never neatly present us with a ‘Forever Changes’ or a ‘Marquee Moon’; their anarchic lifestyles possessed neither the patience nor prissiness for that to happen.

By rights there should be no place on this list for their second LP ‘Miami‘. Gun Club devotees, accustomed to the band’s cathartic early performances, lament the emasculated mix of an album which in the right hands, could have been a career defining, even generation defining moment. It wasn’t. A critical and commercial failure, it lacks the blood and guts of their debut ‘Fire Of Love’, the nocturnal glare of ‘The Las Vegas Story’ (Pierce’s personal favourite) and the polish and swagger of ‘Mother Juno’. At least the latter pair provided the most unpunctual of platforms for original member Kid Congo Powers, absent from the band’s early records on Cramps duty, and ‘Miami’ doesn’t feature him either. Powers’ replacement, Ward Dotson who plays guitar, called the album disastrous. In an interview during the twilight of his career, Pierce was congratulated for delivering such a fine album, and proceeded to mercilessly deride the journalist’s compliment. So, is its inclusion here an act of folly or simply sheer contrariness? Not so. We’ve included it here for one very simple reason – more than any other of their albums, it has the highest concentration of brilliant Gun Club moments. Chris Stein’s anaemic production? Yeah, I hear you. Blah blah blah… You want the best post-punk collection of primitive American rock’n’roll songs? Look no further.

‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘Like Calling Up Thunder’ showcase Pierce’s shrill atonal wailing which almost drowns out Dotson’s atmospheric slide guitar, the latter track also featuring a brilliant rumbling Fall-like rockabilly rhythm. ‘Brother And Sister’ opens up promisingly (‘Sins of me, buzz and hiss in the trees/Their little skeletons will harm no one/Why do you bring them, always back to me/Their kingdom come and their will be done/On Heaven and earth and me’) but ends up feeling a little stiff and contrived. Thankfully it is followed quickly by a sizzling cover of Creedence’s ‘Run Through The Jungle’ – here Pierce multi-tasks with a strung out lead guitar, all the while sounding like he’s performing a frenzied shamanic ritual.

But the album hits ramming speed on ‘Devil In The Woods’ which along with Side Two’s ‘Bad Indian’ and ‘Sleeping In Blood City’ shares the thrilling two chord frenzy of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ filtered through an exhilarating psychobilly spectrum. Bassist Rob Ritter alongside Dotson play with finger-shredding ferocity which even the flattened mix can’t disguise. Pierce’s delirious and savage delivery ensures these are three songs to make cacti bleed. Meanwhile the band give good range on ‘Texas Serenade’ where once again Pierce maniacal delivery is electrifying, this time strewn wildly over Mark Tomeo’s woozy steel pedal.

‘Watermelon Man’ is the bands very own ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’, conjuring images of blood spattered Creole dolls – one can almost hear the bells jangling out their rhythm on Pierce’s wrists. If the band’s take on the standard ‘John Hardy’ is an archetype for the cowpunk of early Meat Puppets, nevertheless I somehow find myself singing along to Roxy Music’s ‘Editions of You’ – which despite its futuristic aspirations shares with it the same basic blues roots. Meantime, ‘The Fire Of Love’ out-Cramps Lux and Ivy with a big proud garage stomp. The closer ‘Mother Of Earth’ is almost a straightforward country rock track (once again enhanced by Tomeo’s steel pedal cameo), but masterfully evocative of the wide open desert spaces and consequently a fitting finale to an album which couldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world or by any other band in the world.

There was a time in the not too distant past, where UK independent record shops boasted bulging ‘Americana’ sections. I can’t imagine that record stores across the North Atlantic would have replicated this bumbling genre-lisation. That would surely be meaningless in the US, but I am honest enough to admit my ignorance in this regard. Nevertheless, I could partially identify with this (anxious? nostalgic?) millennial movement to recapture in a post-postmodern culture a sense of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rootsiness’. However, often the albums stacked up on those shelves were uninspiring rewrites of ‘After The Gold Rush’ ‘The Band’ ‘Grievous Angel’ and the like. If you want real Americana, why not hear the whole history of American rock’n’roll music in one band? Pierce’s travels took him to every corner of his homeland in his efforts to distil the mythical elements of that sound. From sleeping rough in New York to learning voodoo from Haitians in New Orleans, Pierce searched long and hard for the holy grail. His journey wasn’t a wasted one. I hear in the music of The Gun Club the wounded mutant blues of Charlie Patton, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, traversing desert, prairie and swamp to revisit the voodoo incantations of Dr. John, freeloading along the way on rockabilly, exotic southern-fried trash and bad-ass LA punk, and simultaneously nailing the garage sound of ‘Psychotic Reaction’, while stretching out along the highway to envelop ghostly torch song and murder ballad. ‘Miami‘ tells its compelling version of the story of American rock’n’roll with the spikes and bristles flattened out in the mix, yes, but with the most indelibly bewitching treasury of songs imaginable. (JJ)

59. EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)

Electronic, Post-Punk

EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)
Life on the road. Life in a band. By the mid-1970s these had become among the most prevalent tropes in rock music and the ones which demonstrated how remote and detached those making the music had become from their audience. Following the well-worn advice “write about what you know,” many were unable to see beyond the satin and denim-lined cocoon they now inhabited, often a world away from where they had started; understandably, many had no wish to go back there but those places were still inhabited by the majority who hadn’t got the break and whose daily lot remained heavy industry, characterless – literally and metaphorically – offices, or no employment at all.
The bands radiated indifference. All that they knew of, or cared about, was our majesty the road (for the first and last time ever, thank you Ted Nugent), its myriad temptations and The Business. And so we got ELP writing a song about their engineer; we got Grand Funk Railroad promising/threatening Good Singin’ Good Playin’ in an unsurpassably awful album title; and, in an unsurpassably awful title and cover, we got Mud  and their limo in the centre of an LS Lowry pastiche, cruising smugly past the suffocating factory gates and the downtrodden matchstalk masses pouring from them, in the service of an album entitled It’s Better Than Working!!!! (first exclamation mark theirs, the rest mine).
And this travel had no discernible impact on the bands or their music. Venue, hotel, venue, hotel, and possibly a couple of other unsavoury locations, in interchangeable towns, countries  continents. Not so in the case of Simple Minds. Emerging from Glasgow at a time when many of its citizens’ attainable horizons still stretched little beyond London, and from the far from prosperous area of Toryglen touring was, however banal it might sound, a real opportunity for Simple Minds – a chance for escape, not cruisin’ down the highway with the wind in yo’ hair but looking, observing, exploring other cultures which were unknown and, unless you actually went there, unknowable.
After two hesitant but ambitious albums which underperformed commercially, the crossroads they were reaching was not one Robert Johnson ever had in mind but was one which had everything to do with the mean, miserable music business they were magnificently failing to sing about. So touring Europe informed practically all of their third album, Empires And Dance, not from the point of view of a jaded, complacent rock ‘n’ roll band but detached observers of a continent where the divisions imposed 35 years earlier would start to dissolve before the 1980s were out but which, for now, were as rigid and impregnable as they had ever been.
It opens thrillingly with I Travel, where the first-person pronoun seems to mean not self-absorption but simply “I travel and wouldn’t have seen and learned what I have otherwise.” The obvious influences of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Joy Division are corralled into an unopposeable dance beat of the kind Giorgo Moroder set running alongside Donna Summer and Sparks. By this stage, the majority of the people who mattered most knew disco did not suck and Simple Minds produced, with respect to the Average White Band, the greatest dance song to have come out of Scotland at this point – and, bar the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s cover of Jacques Brel’s Next,  one of the first tartan toe-tappers to look east rather than west for inspiration.
Along with Celebrate, which followed it as a single, I Travel saw them probing the dance path that New Order would take a year later. In fact, Simple Minds’ role as navvies for the dance of the late ’80s and the ’90s is often underestimated – this despite the later adoption of their vast 1981 instrumental Theme For Great Cities as a Balearic anthem and the sampling of New Gold Dream on Usura’s Open Your Mind (which was also blatantly – though no one’s ever seemed to notice – pilfered by the Charlatans for The Only One I Know).
Today I Died Again (we’d already had The Man Who Dies Every Day from Ultravox and Every Day I Die from Tubeway Army – pattern?) has a clear echo of My Tulpa by avowed influence  Magazine but, in place of the panic Paul Morley correctly identified as permeating Magazine’s Real Life album, there’s a weight of melancholy and the deeply evocative line “The clothes he wears date back to the war,” which acknowledges that, while Simple Minds were part of a generation looking unblinkingly, if not always enthusiastically, to the future, many of those who lived through one or both of the world wars had hardly seen their circumstances change – not while others had never had it so good, not while others were swinging, not ever.

Panic is in abundance – along with tension and foreboding – on the staggering This Fear Of Gods, which I believe still stands as Simple Minds’ greatest song. The rhythm is supple, the pace brisk but this is about the empires, not the dance. I always picture it as the soundtrack to a long drive in the dead of night to an undisclosed location which may never be reached – the discordant sax, a sinister three-note figure  recurring like a hovering shadow and Jim Kerr’s increasingly anxious and breathless exhortation “faster,faster” all conspire in a hymn to horror.
Over on side two (without meaning to sound flippant, the walls on albums also came down at the end of the ’80s) Capital City’s perpetual Kraftwerk-engineered motion arises as much from Radioactivity’s glide down the dial as from the more obvious source of Trans-Europe Express, Constantinople Line progresses in fits and starts in a way you’d hope the Orient Express never does, while its incantation of “These stations we love them/Newspaper, encounter, confusion” evokes the disorientation of cross border-travel and again positions Simple Minds not as a band on tour but a band of tourists. Room, strange in its brevity (two and a half minutes), stranger still in its puttering rhythm box, its low-key web of colliding melodies and its unsettling lyric (“The razor’s song…I only live here, a fragile man”) brings it all to a splendidly perplexing conclusion.
You may have noticed that I’ve made no mention of what later became of Simple Minds – the sharp descent into hollow, clodhopping stadium catnip which reaped enormous commercial rewards but was utterly bereft of the guile and legerdemain which had previously made them so enticing. No one has ever fallen so far, so fast but I don’t believe it’s strictly relevant here – it’s true that once you’re exposed to something like Alive And Kicking or the ghastly Let There Be Love, they can’t be unheard but at the time of Empires And Dance, they no more existed than  Little Fockers did at the time of Taxi Driver.
It’s tempting but fairly futile to speculate on where Simple Minds might have gone if they’d continued on their initial trajectory but for some indication, I refer you to Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. It’s entirely different in its construction to Simple Minds at their prelapsarian peak, owing to leader Mark Hollis’ visceral aversion to synthesisers, but is identical in its scope, ambition and texture. Empires And Dance, meanwhile, was a moment where the future was simultaneously confronted and embraced – never fled from or shunned (PG).

57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

Electronic, Post-Punk

The One That Went AWOL

When Suicide’s long overdue third album finally appeared, one could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed since 1980. Elsewhere, time had seemed to catapult itself forward relentlessly from 1977 to the end of the 1980s, a decade which oversaw a restlessly transient musical landscape, whose fluctuating cultural shifts were not incomparable to the seismic ones experienced during the swinging 1960s and the schizophrenic 1970s. In music, it had begun with a superabundance of post-punk inventiveness, but had given way to the shallow superficial sheen of the new romantics – their vacuous synth pop all artifice, little substance. As the decade neared its close, the thriving independent music scenes in the UK and the US, had gloried in the ebullient resurrection of guitar-based music. The decade that had begun with Closer and Remain In Light had survived its asinine brush with meaninglessness, and was ending its journey on a high with a similarly inspirational torrent of creativity, bringing us the likes of Daydream Nation, Spirit Of Eden and Isn’t Anything. By the time ‘A Way Of Life’ appeared in late 1988, somehow, despite the absence of guitars (they rarely used them) and having remained virtually silent during this period, Suicide’s cachet had remained pretty high, perhaps in part because they were one of the few acts who successfully managed to transcend this shift in styles, their two chord punk primitivism and pioneering electro sound appeasing both the indie/alternative fraternity and those brought up on a diet of Depeche Mode, The Human League and Soft Cell.

‘A Way Of Life’ arrived eight years after ‘Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide’ and while it featured the original line-up – there were only ever two members – it somehow felt like a ‘reunion’ album or even a brand new incarnation. An eight year musical hiatus was comparatively rare then. However, Suicide had never really ‘split up’, despite Vega and Rev pursuing their own impressive solo ventures (check out ‘Saturn Strip’ and ‘Clouds Of Glory’) in the meantime. Alongside the new noisemeisters of guitar, a new generation of artists had built upon Suicide’s groundbreaking originality to create a sub-genre of music, sometimes called ’electronic body music’/ ‘industrial’ / ‘New Beat’, for the most part a hideous amalgam of goth fashion and automated electronic noise. For me, those bands, in addition to omitting to embellish their music with the occasional melody, also missed the point attitudinally. Suicide stood apart from them, having more in common with proto-punk icons The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (two, three chords tops), and with Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! (minimalist electronic pulse), than with those later groups such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, who utilised their machinery like a soulless bulldozer. By contrast to their pulverising racket, Suicide were impossible romantics, with a penchant for 1950s doo-wop and rockabilly. Often, the songs they wrote were love songs. Or at least, love songs buried under an aesthetic of art trash brutalism.

The band had developed a cult following from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Inspired by the street trash image of their NYC ancestors Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, the band trawled through junk stores to acquire some electronic flotsam and jetsam (including a battered old farfisa organ), donned some leather jackets and cultivated an impossibly cool NYC street image, alongside a completely uncompromising musical style. Their debut album ‘Suicide’ – the one with the blood smeared sleeve and subtle Communist iconography – seemed out of step with the ’77 zeitgeist, and yet reputedly it had been Suicide who had first coined the term ‘punk’. Certainly their concert posters from the early 1970s were often emblazoned with an invitation to a ‘Punk Mass’. Having said that, the punk masses almost to a man, abhorred them. People attacked them in the street and threw bottles at them on stage. Once, while supporting The Clash, Vega famously even had to dodge a tomahawk! I often wonder if this incident took place during a rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ a deranged ten minute purgatorial endurance test, telling the story of an impoverished factory worker who resorts to suicide, which is punctuated with Vega’s hysterical screams. Perhaps that audience was more afraid of him, than he them?

Their second album, confusingly also entitled ‘Suicide’, had a slightly more polished sound but was equally brilliant, a fluid and dazzling display of glam electro-minimalism. We know and acknowledge these albums as classics, but their third album is often ignored, and unfairly so. Musically it bears a closer resemblance to the second album, than the second does the first. But then Suicide were not a band to surprise their audience by dropping a reggae number into their set (like Patti Smith) or to indulge in a bit of genre-hopping by going acoustic or adding some orchestral accompaniment. Rather the surprises lay in their capacity to continually distil their sound to its very essence. As the ultimate purists, they bore all the hallmarks of musical sclerosis, adhering to a template from which they stubbornly refused to deviate. Indeed, Suicide songs generally follow one of four archetypes: the gorgeously ethereal atmospheric drone (eg. ‘Cheree’), the uptempo robotically pulsing drone (see ‘Ghost Rider’) the menacing hypnotic amorphous drone (try ‘Harlem’) and the jaunty electrobilly beat (eg. ‘Johnny’). In other words, a lot of drone. Vega’s nervy croon, deliriously erotic at times, sounds like Elvis had he been abandoned, petrified, in a haunted house. Rev’s drum machine punches out patterns which perform a function similar to Tommy Hall’s jug in the Elevators, while as one man band he creates a range of extraordinarily dissonant keyboard sounds.

‘A Way Of Life’ was recorded in one session on one day in December 1987. Apparently, billed producer Ric Ocasek arrived immediately after the recording session finished, stunned to find the album had already been completed. Nevertheless, he retains production credits on an album which features some of Sucide’s most memorable songs, not least the opener ‘Wild In Blue’ where Vega’s echo-laden gnarling vocals over an eerily locked robotic funk groove, inculcate an air of menace. On ‘Rain Of Ruin’ one of their most danceable rhythms is buried underneath a buzz of mechanistic beats, which sounds like a relentlessly rushing great electronic river – like Metal Machine Music played by Ralf and Florian. The Lou Reed fixation is taken to the outer limits on ‘Love So Lovely’, the last half of which has a rhythmic intensity of phrasing that recalls the maniacal finale to The Velvets’ ‘Murder Mystery’. Then there is the gorgeous ballad ‘Surrender’, where Elvis meets Angelo Badalamenti at the High School Prom, 1958. ‘Jukebox Baby 96’ is archetype #4 (see above), the obligatory flirtation with rockabilly, while ‘Dominic Christ’ funky and frightening at the same time, presents the band at their despairing best, bristling with dark energy.

These songs – the ones that went AWOL – are worthy successors to those on Suicide’s first two universally hailed masterpieces and deserve greater recognition. There is a temptation to write the band off as a creative force after 1980, but they have continued to make new music since ‘A Way Of Life’, and even if subsequently they have not recaptured that original vitality, their legacy is secure with an impressive list of disciples including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream, not to mention many notable creators of electronic music from 1978 onwards. While our sense of time and place can indeed conspire to deceive us, listening to the music of Suicide means we can stand outside of that; it is original, unique, groundbreaking, and ultimately, ageless. (JJ)

52. A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)
Firstly, a health warning – listening to A Bell Is A Cup… has been known to make one of my TNPC colleagues feel unwell. I can relate to this – hearing (Shambeko! Say) Wah!’s Remember can still, more than 30 years after the event, resurrect the waltzer-induced nausea I felt the day I bought it, coming straight from the Kelvin Hall carnival. However, Wire’s fifth studio album – and the second following their 1985 reformation – is a record I’m fortunate enough to be able to listen to without the need for Anadin or a damp cloth on the fevered brow.
Not sure if the same can be said of Wire themselves. Their decision to reunite has since become pretty much expected eventually of all bands that part company ( including some that should absolutely never have added their unnecessary footnotes – this means you Beatles, Velvets, Pistols). At the time, it was highly unusual; rarer still was their flat refusal to play any of the music that had made them such a thrilling and infinitely challenging proposition in their first incarnation of the late ’70s.
They’ve since relented to some degree and their live sets are now speckled with returns to these years but this can’t be taken for granted – a plea for Outdoor Miner (or Outside Miner, as the hapless heckler named it), the closest they’ve ever had to a hit, was studiously ignored when they played King Tut’s in Glasgow in 2013.
But this wasn’t wilful perversity – while many would characterise it as such, it was simply Wire doing what came naturally to them. Genuinely uncompromising, they had little or no interest in going back over the same ground once it had been seen and done, leaving the past to be dealt with by the Ex-Lion Tamers, who would now be lost in the thickets of the dubiously-named tribute band industry but in the mid-’80s had only the Bootleg Beatles for company as they supported the no-rear-view Wire. How quickly a high-concept idea can become mainstream…
And anyway, Wire had unfinished business, having come to an inconclusive halt in 1980, and by 1985 , their prodding and goading of the commonplace was needed more than ever. While it extended possibilities and created a new language – and Wire were more responsible for this than most – punk ultimately “destrrrrooooooyed” nothing, at best knocking some things temporarily unconscious. It would be fatuous, simplistic and, in fact, wholly inaccurate to describe it as any kind of cavalry charge but there was much rejoicing at their return and the manner of their returning. Their name was being heard in unlikely but intriguing places, cited as an influence by REM and the Minutemen. It seemed odd that this most British, European and bluesless of bands found such favour in America but these bands were part of a thoughtful and open new breed who were as intent on slaying predatory old rock beasts as Wire were themselves.
But Wire had to adapt to new surroundings to an extent. Wilson Neate’s comprehensive band history, Read And Burn, tells of a fraught and fractious process in recording their “second debut,”  The Ideal Copy, in Berlin, with old tensions reignited, particularly between Colin Newman’s penchant for pop hooks and the proclivity of Graham Lewis and, especially, Bruce Gilbert for more challenging, abstract sounds. Certainly, the results were uneven – Madman’s Honey (which Neate scorns with pitiless adjectives like “egregious,” “sickly,” “polite”) is, to my ears, a mesmerising work which resembles little else in popular music; conversely, Ambitious is lyrically intriguing (it donates the album’s title and its avalanche of acronyms – “CIA, DNA, KGB-” cements the notion of the band resembling a crack research group or a deep-cover spy cell. Musically, though, it’s something of a mess, Lewis’ roar of “Are  you hot? Are you hot? I FEEL AMBITIOUS!” veering uncomfortably close to another Anglophiles’ favourite, Basil Fawlty and the whole thing feels dated in a way no Wire music ever should be.
A Bell Is A Cup… arrived the following year as a far more rounded and cohesive statement, with a consistency of tone which creates  not  monotony but instead a sense of Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. In turn, it’s their most monochrome album since their 1977 debut, Pink Flag; by 1979’s 154, they were deploying texture and colour at Matisse level but A Bell Is A Cup… seems sketched in pencil. In keeping with this, Q’s review opined that it appeared to be “based on maths,” which, like the horse’s head sculpture on the cover, brings us back to ancient Greece, a time  and place where maths was not a trial for school pupils but a branch of philosophy, bound up with extensive thinking on the human condition – something Wire have always been pretty good at.
Take Kidney Bingos which, in the practice of the times, appeared as a single a few months earlier. It’s the final panel of a triptych, begun a decade earlier with Fragile and continued with Outdoor Miner, of unfeasibly melodic yet lyrically labyrinthine songs. Words, phrases are tossed out, making by turns no sense and perfect sense (“Dressed pints, demon shrinks, bread drunk, dead drinks”) intoned by Newman in the angelic voice which came to the fore on Chairs Missing and gradually superseded his “other” droll, simulated Cockney tones which are more or less entirely absent on A Bell Is A Cup.The verse, the solos, so sublimely tuneful, and: chorus! “Money spines, paper lung/Kidney bingos, organ fun.” The code is cracked and revealed as a macabre Twilight Zone fantasy (only just) of vital organ jackpots and severe medical economics, as the melody reaches an exquisite peak. At the end of 1988, I declared it my single of the year, in the face of competition ftom The Mercy Seat, You Made Me Realise and Gigantic. Depending on the mood of the day, I  can still find myself standing by that decision.

Second single Silk Skin Paws kicks off the album and is sterner, more unblinking but still entrances. Like Kidney Bingos, it has a surefooted gait driven by the ultra-minimal but vastly inventive drumming of Robert Gray, aka Gotobed (his pared-down kit of snare, hi-hat and bass drum attracted considerable attention at the time; he would eventually be usurped altogether by programming before returning post-millennium). It’s steely and gossamer in equal measure, sighs as much as it hisses and has the elegant precision of a sculpture. It did not chart. But it was a very pleasant, albeit unexpected, surprise, to hear it given an outing at King Tut’s earlier this year.
Worthy of particular attention are the two closing tracks. Follow The Locust is one of Wire’s  most purely exhilirating moments, hurtling on a bullhorn-force bass synth riff as Newman delivers a quizzical account of travel that resembles perpetual motion and continues their exemplary record for songs about insects. Its barreling momentum hints at some of the more uncompromising moments of their, by then, labelmates Depeche Mode and is a harbinger of One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, the gloriously evocative gem Gilbert created the following year with Wire associate and sometime video director Angela “AC Marias” Conway.
Closer A Public Place stands out for its stillness and air of desperate calm fending off unbearable tension. The actions switches, verse by verse, from a vignette witnessed late at night in King’s Cross railway station to the absurd but all too present menace of “privet hedge pissers” and “village boy wide men” and the strange but compelling image of “broken promises/drifted into the shape of footprints.” Meanwhile, the lead guitar soothes, the rhythm guitar snarls and a synth drone hovers like a sentry. It’s rhythmless, apart from the clatter Gotobed goads out of found percussion, similar to what’s heard on Pink Flag’s Strange (covered by REM a few months earlier) but this is no nostalgic, and certainly not an ironic, wink tipped to the past – it’s Wire finding the late ’80s every bit as “not quite right” as the late ’70s and delivering a sombre but eloquent verdict as only they can.
Nostalgia, you say? Wire’s reconvening would have been utterly pointless if that’s what it was about but this is how some would have had it; the reputation of their ’70s output is secure, close to inviolate, but their second incarnation has many detractors. I can’t help feeling that many of these misgivings relate more to a general  disdain for the trappings of the ’80s, which were manifested in some of the more misguided production choices on The Ideal  Copy and in Lewis brandishing a headstock- free bass and the hairstyle that no one actually called a mullet until around 1994 (“footballer’s haircut” seemed to be the preferred term at the time).
True, by ths time of their second cessation around 1992, they were at risk of becoming the dry laboratory exercise they’re seen as by some who fail to detect the drama, mystery and magic at their core. But what makes A Bell Is A Cup… such a strong candidate for reappraisal is how fresh, undated and, in fact, contemporary it sounds. It’s also makes one of the strongest cases for Wire being a vast, yet almost completely unacknowledged, influence on Radiohead. I’ve never known Radiohead themselves, or even any critics, to trace their lineage back to Wire but, in the shared values of manipulating traditional rock forms to unconventional ends, applying advanced technology to those newly mutated forms and making shrewd political observations couched in oblique terms, as well as unlikely popularity in America, I find the comparison glaringly obvious and the influence incalculable.
It was only at the time of A Bell Is A Cup… that I properly discovered Wire. I’d been aware of them first time around, catching desultory hearings of Practice Makes Perfect and On Returning on John Peel, but the only song of theirs I was truly intimate with was I Am The Fly. But the repeated citations and the quality of A Bell Is A Cup… meant that this was one of those rare occasions, as with the Velvet Underground and REM a few years earlier, when my eagerness to delve into a back catalogue came with a sure and well-founded conviction that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Now in their third incarnation, they’re still adding to it – even without Gilbert and with the remaining original members all over 60, they’re capable of being as abrasive and compelling as ever. Just keep some of that Anadin handy (PG).

36. JOSEF K – SORRY FOR LAUGHING (1981*)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

“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)

23. CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Uncategorized
CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)
Any record which features sandpaper, coat rack and shoes among its instrumental credits has emphatically earned the right to be called Crazy Rhythms. The rhythms, and the songs they inhabit, aren’t ostentatiously barmy – for which thanks – so much as markedly unorthodox, squatting in a territory somewhere on the road from skiffle to funk without remotely resembling either.
Taking their name from an undemanding, multi-sensory form of film in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  the Feelies appeared most likely to side with the Gamma, Delta and Epsilon classes of the book, with their unassuming – for want of a better word – preppy image and palpably un-rock ‘n’ roll demeanour, fitting with the most superficially obvious comparison of Jonathan Richman.
 A crude precis of Crazy Rhythms could be that it outlines how the Modern Lovers might have developed if Richman had continued to expand the Velvet Underground template of their first album, instead of proceeding to draw more heavily on rockabilly and doo-wop influences. This also puts them in proximity with the commotion of Josef K and even the early Go-Betweens, while on the Bolt-worthy sprint of Fa Ce La, they provide a blueprint for the sound of the Woodentops.
Repeatedly on Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies prove themselves to be masters of the slow build and slower burn. Many of the songs are one or two minutes down the line before vocals or hooks arrive, meaning that many self-proclaimed cutting edge radio stations
would play them – not that this would ever actually happen – in a severely truncated form, but this would be like skipping all that business with the apes  in 2001: A Space Odyssey and going straight to HAL’s breakdown. The full picture is needed for full power. Funny how this doesn’t seem to apply when the song in question is Stairway To Heaven or Champagne Supernova.
All of this is most explicit on opener The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, where hesitant-sounding claves and/or woodblock are spied on by a ticking guitar, which finally springs upon them when goaded by the tom-tom roll of future avant-garde voyager Anton Fier. What follows is a sketch of a silent recluse who either has depths too hidden to be traceable or is just completely withdrawn – a Boo Radley who’s never been allowed anywhere near scissors or a Sheldon Cooper plotting his world domination? Unclear – the Feelies put as little flesh on the bones of their lyrics as their music.
But don’t let this sparsity underestimate their capacity to scorch, particularly with Glenn Mercer and Bill Million proving to be the most quietly potent guitar duo of their era, Verlaine and Lloyd with silencers attached . The solo midway through the similarly elongated intro to Loveless Love – which they’re seen performing in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild – would have the jocks meekly handing THEIR dinner money over, while another on Forces At Work – seven minutes, practically all one chord – is a proud descendant of Run, Run, run and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The abum’s sweetest melody is on Raised Eyebrows, where it almost feels like a copout for them to introduce lyrics, particularly when they’re so terse, and you feel that they should have had the courage of their convictions and gone for an instrumental. But it ends up structured like a 1930s dance band tune, which gives it a charm of its own.
There’s even a Beatles cover. Their interpretation of Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey is less drastic an overhaul than Devo’s version of Satisfaction but is conceived in a similar spirit – seemingly ambivalent towards its weighty source material but plainly a product of an utterly different time and culture.
It’s apt that ‘rhythms’ is close to being the longest vowelless word in the English language, as Crazy Rhythms withdraws what might be essential elements to some – big production, deep bass, bravado – and is vastly inventive with what’s left. French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles once likened the record to a UFO – it may come in peace but has little interest in being taken to your leader, as it would much rather take you on a path of its own (PG).

22. THE FALL – DRAGNET (1979) / (A) THE FALL – SLATES (1981)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Punk Rock

DRAGNET

It might seem odd to talk about a departure in the Fall’s sound but if there ever was such a moment, it came with Dragnet. Yvonne Pawlett had gone through the exit, on possibly the last occasion before the hinges needed fixed, dragging behind her the endearingly spooky organ that had been as central to their early sound as Tony Book had been to Manchester City a decade earlier.

Enter Craig Scanlon and Paul Hanley, neither of whom could ever be described as lieutenants to Mark E Smith- could anyone?- but who, as dramatically outlined in Hanley’s memoir The Big Midweek, stayed for the best part of two decades as the fist-close witnesses, and unceasingly compelling soundtrackers of, Smith’s, well, ownership of a band that previously borne a vague resemblance to a democracy.

It still (a word that always recurs in Fall reviews) stands as one of their most gripping statements, though I’m quite aware Smith is unlikely to take kindly to such a view about a record made as long ago as 1979. A Figure Walks is as terrifying as you’d expect a song about stalking to be and, along with Muzorewi’s Daughter, shows that tom-tom thunder is possibly the most thrilling sound yet discovered by scientists. They had never yet been so downright tuneful as they are on Your Heart Out and Flat Of Angles, despite reliably unsettling lyrics (“Then they take your heart out/ With a sharp knife, it wasn’t fake”) nor as plain brutal as on Spectre Vs Rector, which served notice that this band were probably not in music to make money and certainly weren’t in it to make friends. Before The Moon Falls sounds like the title of a lovely Al Bowlly-crooned ballad from somewhere around 1932. It isn’t. It’s classic Fall.

And what’s classic Fall? It would be more than slightly churlish to say that if you have to ask, you’ll never understand, so one listen to this song – and this album – should give you pretty shrewd idea. (PG)

SLATES

If I were allowed but one Fall record in my collection I would probably choose Slates. This primordial slab of Salford sludge finds MES at his most cryptically acerbic and blisteringly bewildering and the band making a glorious amphetamine-fuelled racket.

Slates was released in an unusual 10″ format, two years into Thatcher’s premiership at the height of the Brixton Riots of April 1981. It clocks in at a little over 22 minutes. In fact, it’s safer to say that it’s an EP rather than an LP, but with 6 tracks it’s just unclear enough to ignite a discussion on the matter.

The first half kicks off with Middle Mass. Musically, a Velvets-y organ drone breaking into a jaunty Beefheartian guitar break, it is ostensibly a yarn about the drinking habits of football fans during the close season; while others have divined a tirade about Marc Riley (‘The boy is like a tape loop’). More likely the kicking is aimed at Mark’s favourite target the middle classes themselves. Just quite what Mark is getting at with his repeated declaration that ‘The Wermacht never got in here’ is anyone’s guess.

‘An Older Lover etc’ is probably about… well, his older lover (11 years older) at the time, Kay Carroll. Here his cerebral ponderings are rawly laid bare. It’s accompanied by one of those spookily amateurish guitar rumbles, like the Magic Band tuning up, and is punctuated by Mark’s indignant yelps…’Dr. Annabel Lies’ – she being the mythical agony aunt for Mark’s self therapy session

I must have listened to Prole Art Threat around 100 times but I’m none the wiser – one can surmise it has something to do with the surveillance or suppression of working class culture in Thatcher’s new Britain. Or is it? For a more extensive and insightful analysis I refer you to Taylor Parkes’ superb piece in the Quietus (http://thequietus.com/articles/03925-the-fall-and-mark-e-smith-as-a-narrative-lyric-writer) Musically, a magnificent Fall moment – driven by one of those ferocious cyclical riffs, rising, falling, FALL-ing – like only The Fall can – Hanley and Scanlon brutalising their collective ten strings, the groove intermittently suspended by the guitar squealing in protest at its ill treatment. The band were rarely if ever, tighter than on this track – every note sounds both harsh and wild and yet is delivered with military precision.

Mark sounds buoyant on Fit & Working Again, back observing the world around him after an unexplained layoff? For me it’s the slightest musical and lyrical achievement here, Mark chopping away on a solitary piano key over a skiffle-like rockabilly rhythm. But that only makes the final twosome sound even more spectacular.

A million words have been spent attempting to decode and deconstruct The Fall’s ‘definitive rant’ – who or what exactly are the Slags, Slates etc’ of the title? Accountants in suits, the pub bore, plagiarists, ‘dead publisher’s sons, material hardship pawns, The Beat, Wah! Heat – male slags…?’ I’ve even read some analysts identify the slates as vinyl records, particularly 7 inch reggae singles? To be honest one can only ‘have a bleedin’ guess.’ I am sure MES must get a kick out of reading ‘academic male slags’ trying to piece together his cryptic declamations. And their vain attempts no doubt conveniently provide him with useful material for his next rant. So forget the mystery of the subject matter and celebrate instead the vigorous kick in the gonads provided by the huge two chord guitar riff that – combined with Steve Hanley’s bowel bursting bass intro, never seems to relent. It makes for one of the greatest ever Fall tracks, enhanced further by Mark’s immortal interjection to the boys: ‘don’t start improvising for God’s sake’ – demonstrating both a natural flair for tyranny and a sensitive ear for musical purity. Bloody marvellous!

‘Leave The Capitol’ provides a fitting climax. It’s wiry and punchy and bouncily infectious in equal measure, as Mark’s invective spills over in this Arthur Machen inspired tirade at old ‘Lahndan Tahn, (‘this f-ing dump’) where he exhorts himself to ‘Exit this Roman Shell!!’ Holed up in his hotel room where the ‘maids smile in unison’ and where ‘the beds are too clean’ and the water ‘poisonous’ – you can just see him there can’t you? Pining desperately to return north to his fags’n’beer an’ a bit of proper culture…God Bless him!

Selecting one album from The Fall’s extensive repertoire is not a simple task. And the one I’ve picked is not even an album. But with prodigious economy, Slates – more than any other – is a one stop distillation of the Fall sound. Reasonable people may argue with this choice, but perhaps it would be most fitting to let the children of the Wermacht offer the final word on the matter. See below: (JJ)

21. ECHO & AND THE BUNNYMEN – HEAVEN UP HERE (1981)

Greatest Records, Post-Punk
Everybody has one band who, above all others, are Theirs. Echo and the Bunnymen were Mine.
 It’s hard to explain why they should have snagged on to me more than any other – there were plenty of others, before and after, who came close and with many of them I had the same sense of discovery, both in the sense of finding them for myself and in being taken to places unknown. It helped that the silly name and their distinct difference from, on the one hand, boorish metal and on the other, flagging rock ‘n’ roll revivalists meant they were great for winding up the people who favoured those styles.  They also eschewed many of rock’s fatigued conventions at a time when its last rites were being read, from simple gestures like foregoing the drum riser to have the band in a line on stage, to their khaki stage gear and camouflage set, to event gigs like the mystery tour to a botanic gardens (captured in the short film Shine So Hard) and the celebrated Crystal Day, where Liverpool as a whole became the venue and the gig was just one element of a show which also took in Chinese theatre, a bike ride and a visit to the band’s favourite cafe which was required for tickets to be valid. It may be that these were largely the ideas of their manager, future KLF pop provocateur Bill Drummond, but instead of being overcompensatory gimmicks, they were inspired and complementary to the extraordinary music the band were making.
And most of all, that music and lyrics had a swagger, inexhaustible reserves of cool that I  could never hope to claim for my own but could at least revel in the reflection of, and at the same time a real – to borrow a phrase from contemporary heroes Dexys – knowledge of beauty – which meant it had heart as well as heft. In short, listening to the Bunnymen made me feel 100 feet tall.
Roughly 94 feet taller than Ian McCulloch, the garrulous, big-coated first Bunnyman among equals, who at this stage had as much to say in song as in interview and sang it in a voice which could leap from sardonic drawl to anguished peal and back again faster than you could say “King Kenny.” (his Liverpool fandom even went a long way towards rekindling my own interest in football, which had expired utterly through a combination of Scotland’s 1978 World Cup calamity in Argentina, a realisation that I myself couldn’t play the game for toffee and a sense that, compared with music, it was just plain uncool. Joe Strummer or Terry McDermott?)
Alongside him was Will Sergeant, a guitarist of ideas as much as action, influenced by Eno and Tom Verlaine in equal measure, who could bring textures by the score to a song while rocking like an entire ecosystem of beasts. Further along, the brilliantly athletic rhythm section of bassist Les Pattinson and the – it’ll always be painful to write the word – late Pete de Freitas on drums, elastic, double-jointed, able to switch direction at half a second’s notice and enabling the band to turn the conventions of rock songwriting, as they would put it themselves, inside out, back to front, upside down.
Two particular songs on Heaven Up Here conduct this surgery on the song with a Nobel level of skill and precision. Opener Show of Strength shifts gears, leaps ever higher and steps as surefootedly as a tightrope walker asking for the rope to be hoisted a few more feet, then it disappears like a spy whose mission is accomplished, leaving Mac alone to file the final report: “Hey, I came in right on cue/One is me and one is you.”
Similarly, Over The Wall fades in on a simulation of the sound of the seas that Mac would return to time and again for inspiration, a gently pulsing rhythm box and a three-note riff embodying Sergeant’s economical yet panoramic style. Pattinson goes one better with a rotating four-note bassline as far evolved from root-note jockey playing as the Grand Canyon is from a pothole, while De Freitas knows exactly when to hold back, when to detonate and when to let loose the steeplechases where Mac riffs on Runaway by Del Shannon (who, Mac claimed, was mooted as producer for first album Crocodiles) and pleads, twisting another cliche “come on and hold me tight…to my logical limit.” A year earlier, he’d chosen this for his all-time top 10 in Smash Hits but what would usually be unpardonable hubris actually seemed quite reasonable.
Elsewhere, they offer their own perspective on the parched funk of Talking Heads and Gang of Four – both strong undercurrents in early Bunnymen – on It Was A Pleasure and No Dark Things. The title song takes the triple-jump rhythm of Bowie’s Star and accelerates it to prove that rock that’s foresaken the roll can be its own kind of dance music, while All I Want is equally celebratory amid call-and response guitars and drums tossed on – to quote their Liverpool contemporaries the Wild Swans – a harsh and foaming sea.
Melancholy arrives on The Disease, probably their oddest ever song, a simple, see-sawing riff embellished by backwards vocals, injections of feedback and ominous rumbles. Like Heaven Up Here itself, it also sees Mac contrasting heaven with hell – a device he’s used in at least half a dozen other songs since.
The mood darkens further on All My Colours (aka Zimbo) where Mac ponders desolation and decline to the accompaniment of then-voguish tribal drums but to far more defeated and less triumphant ends than the ones that Adam and the Ants were, coincidentally, pursuing to massive success. This version of the song actually works less well than many live versions, as the vast snare crack which heralds the chorus is needlessly muted – I’d recommend instead the version from the 1982 WOMAD festival with the Drummers of Burundi (“we’re Echo and the Burundimen” quips Mac) which appeared on the 12″ of The Cutter.
It’s often observed that, despite three top 10 hits, the Bunnymen ultimately never achieved the stadium status of U2 and Simple Minds. Just as significantly, neither have they secured the place in The Canon that Joy Division/New Order and the Smiths now routinely occupy. Since reforming in the late 1990s, they continue to produce alluring records and remain an enticing live act but, while I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re tarnishing their legacy, the songs are now largely linear (the very thing Mac claimed to dislike in early masterpiece Villiers’ Terrace), join-the-dots affairs, glaringly missing the vigour of the original rhythm section, while Mac has long since retreated from his early vivid lyricism (eg “a shaking hand would transmit all fidelity”) to an all too familiar litany of sunandrainandmoonand stars. In view of Oasis and Coldplay’s acknowledged debt to the Bunnymen, he might be held indirectly responsible for the trite, unimaginative lyric writing that’s so pervasive today.
But then I remember what the Bunnymen have meant to me for so many years and, even if they are peripheral in official rock history, it makes me feel even more vindicated. I’m more than happy to share them with anyone but you must understand – they’re Mine. (PG).

20. MATT JOHNSON – BURNING BLUE SOUL (1981)

Post-Punk

So much for British psychedelia: Syd’s Pink Floyd the only enduring body of work from a time when the top of the UK charts was ring-fenced by Englebert Humperdinck, the whole hippy dream lampooned mercilessly by the Small Faces and the best we could do aside from letting the mad genius play, was – apparently – Status Quo. Ok, there was The Beatles – who did it well, sometimes very well – and, ahem…’Their Satanic Majesties’. The odd hidden gem such as The Eyes’ ‘You’re Too Much’ or ‘I Must Be Mad’ by The Craig if you looked a little harder, but as for great albums…nothing much doing. Some might point to The Yardbirds or The Creation and of course there was the plain weirdness and wizardry of The Incredible String Band but arguably nothing besides that to take you to the aural outer limits.

The prevailing perception is that psychedelic music was an historical (largely US) phenomenon which materialised around 1965, peaked two years later on the West Coast, and gradually burnt out thereafter as the decade drew to its unhappy close. The long-playing record was its principal currency. But this perspective is a narrow one. When I first heard those Grateful Dead albums, the promise of their garish dayglo sleeves (so intriguing to a teenager with a 1960s fixation) was quickly nullified by the content within. So this is psychedelic? It seemed to me that the copious use of hallucinogenics led only to overinflated egos and particularly unadventurous sets of extended blues jams. This was clearly not the mind-expanding experience I had so enthusiastically sought. And I, in my youthful innocence, was looking for something which might distort my perception of reality just enough to take me to another world for 45 minutes or so…I persisted with my search and soon found an unlikely source.

The The’s debut album ‘Burning Blue Soul’ was released in 1981. For contractual reasons it was credited to its creator, Matt Johnson. He was 19 years old. Even now, few would classify it as a ‘psychedelic’ album. But let me go one step further. I contend that not only is BBS a great ‘psychedelic’ album but it is possibly the greatest ever British psychedelic long player. It is however a particular species of psychedelia, peculiar to a post-punk UK landscape, one brought about by a failing industrial economy, and an emerging nihilistic moral vacuum.
So what makes this record psychedelic? Perhaps let’s begin with a definition:

Psychedelic (adj): of or noting a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair. (www.dictionary.com)

Nothing here about ’free love’ and getting it together (maan!) Matt Johnson was not the cheeriest of chaps in 1981. While he often claims that this, his debut album is full of wry humour, it frequently reads like a teenage suicide note.

‘I have no future for I’ve had no past
I’m just sittin’ here pullin’ arrows out of my heart.’
‘…See me dwindle, watch me dwell
In my cut out corner, in my plastic world.’ (‘Icing Up’)

‘Saturday night and I was lying in my bed
The window was open and raindrops were bouncing off my head
When it hit me like a thunderbolt
I don’t know nothing and I’m scared
That I never will.’ (‘Another Boy Drowning’)

100,000 people today were burned
I ‘felt a pang of concern
What are we waitin’ for
A message of hope from the pope?
I think he got shot as well.’ (‘Song Without An Ending’)

Johnson’s dogmatic pessimism – such a contrast to the ridiculously utopian optimism of the 1960s – seemed so beguiling to me when I first discovered this album as a 19-year old in the late 1980s. I was helplessly drawn to this strange otherworldly concoction as I stared gloomily at the bedroom ceiling. Today for some, its self-obsession and sixth form existential angst appear naiive and suggest the author was still a little wet behind the ears. But it is the music that really counts here, and for that we can forgive Johnson his lugubrious self-indulgence. Matt was concerned that people would find his lyrics too direct and worked tirelessly to bury the vocals deep in the mix, and this only serves to intensify the disorientation of the listener.

There are all kinds of things going on here: some have criticised the album’s ‘crude tape-splicing’, rather than appreciate it’s brilliant range of guitar and keyboard treatments. Consider for instance the inauspicious and relatively uneventful opener ‘Red Cinders in The Sand’ where a subterranean tribal drum pattern emerges from a piercing sonar tone before breaking briefly into a middle-eastern raga-type dirge. Then we have what sounds like large metal sheets being thrown unceremoniously onto a truck. A pulverising industrial beat emerges accompanied by shards of feedback and a droning tuba (?). It’s an unnerving sound reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and pre-empting the kind of territory that would be explored by the likes of Test Dept. in the mid-1980s.Or listen to the feverishly voltaic spittle of guitars over a portentously motoric bass riff on ‘Out Of Control’, which could have served as a fitting soundtrack for the classic lost 1970s BBC TV series ‘The Changes’.

‘Song Without an Ending’ is truly astounding. A bass-driven hurdle over nervy jagged guitar lines with the kind of riff the likes of Hot Chip would sell their souls for. Listen to the swell of the surf-style reverb break in to the relentless groove at 1:14, followed swiftly by a paranoiac backwards guitar accompanied by an expansive keyboard part which, synthesised with the galloping clutter of beats manages somehow to make the song feel simultaneously claustrophobic and panoramic. Quite an achievement.

It’s not hard to detect the sleight of hand of Wire duo Gilbert and Lewis on a few of the album’s more abstract moments. They are at work on one of the oddest of all, ‘The River Flows East In Spring’ where the spiderlike guitar picking of the intro is abruptly assaulted by what sounds like a stampeding fanatical Maoist (?) chant.

And to top it all there is the aforementioned ‘Another Boy Drowning’ where Johnson’s palpable despair sits incongruously with perhaps the most gorgeous melody of his career. It’s written like it was his last day on earth – and perhaps he feared it might have been.

Recently, listening to one of my favourite albums from recent years, the justly celebrated Loud City Song by Julia Holter, I was struck by the profusion of ideas on the record. It’s what set it apart from the competition in 2013. A line from one of her songs seemed to encapsulate this: ‘There’s just no room for all our thoughts’ she purrs on This Is A True Heart. Well, although Loud City Song is a more cohesive and assured record than Burning Blue Soul, by comparison with the sheer volume of ideas on Johnson’s debut, it sounds positively anaemic. There is such a proliferation of mindbending moments on Burning Blue Soul that it’s hard to draw comparisons with other ‘out there’ records. It could be a spiritual cousin of ‘Metal Box’ and rivals the likes of ‘Starsailor’ for sheer inventiveness and ‘Sister Lovers’ as a capsule of psychological meltdown. But while flawed and in some ways a sprawling mess, Johnson dazzles us on BBS with his musical dexterity and with a kaleidoscopic palate, which unleashes a deluge of visionary dreamscapes. If psychedelic has anything to do with loss of ego (the ‘I’), then Burning Blue Soul is a spectacular failure. It’s narcissistic traits leave no room for doubt on that front. But if we go by the definition above – while there may be only sporadically euphoric moments, the songs on his debut album take us on those profound and intense hallucinatory journeys from which our fragile minds will never fully recover…(JJ)