84. PUBLIC IMAGE – PUBLIC IMAGE (single, 1978) Guest Contributor: Tim Sommer (Hugo Largo / NY Observer)

  

 
“Public Image” by Public Image Limited (1978)
Punk was not a revolution. It was a market correction.

At a different point in my life, I would have regarded that statement as heretical. There are barely words to describe the impact punk had on my teen suburban self. The emergence of punk rock was exactly the right thing at precisely the right time. See, in high school, you are expected to be your most social at precisely the time when it is most horrifying, intimidating, and humiliating to do so. In that devastating, insecure time, I knew that social comfort and musical inspiration was not to be found in the margarine yellow-colored school hallways, amidst the ugly sibilance of slamming lockers, Kansas, and the Grateful Dead; but bands like the Kinks and the Dave Clark 5, not to mention the primitive snarls and chants I heard on the local oldies station favored by the greasers who congregated under wide white skies in the school parking lot, spoke to me. These thumps of rhythm and groans of guitar chords told me there was a visceral, minimalist quality in music that best reached my spine, my soul, my belief that there was more to life than the middling expectations of my education and upbringing. I am sure you recall this, too – we were not black sheep, we were not underachievers, we just saw past the horizon and beyond the edges of the middle of the road.

 So 1976/1977 dawned. It waved a Union Jack and was dressed in narrow trousers, and it seemed to be precisely what I had been searching for. I had absolutely no need nor desire to examine what was superficial or false about the New God, because it rescued me. Those of us saved by ‘77 weren’t fashionable, we were thirsty, and these short, sharp bursts and whirrs were exactly the oasis we had been looking for.

 But I came to realize that punk, regardless of all the extraordinary joy it offered and the inspiration it provided to move my life away from the low expectation of the suburbs and seek The City, despite the lesson it taught me that the greatest deeds could be achieved by those who stood out and not those who conformed, despite the fact that we were presented with some of the most lasting music ever made, despite all those things, the punk movement was, in essence, an energetic and passionate re-assembly of existing pieces, serving the same masters.

 On a purely musical level, virtually all of punk could be traced, almost without hiccupping, to Wilko Johnson or Mick Ronson or Johnny Thunders or Pete Townshend, Dave Davies or Bo Diddley or the Velvet Underground; other times, it was a growled-up return to the brilliantly mongoloid pop values of the more Hodor-like beat bands (which is to say there is a very, very short hop from Herman’s Hermits to the Ramones, and if “I Want You” by the Troggs isn’t a perfect ’77-style punk rock song, I’m not sure what is). And most everyone wanted to be a star, and most everyone was seeking to nurse at the same corporate teat that had suckled all the horrific music punk was supposed to supplant. Not only was the wheel not being reinvented, we were begging the same corpulent salesmen to help us sell it.

 Which is to say, we did not storm the Bastille. We just re-painted it.

 Because the music was so goddamn good and life affirming, only in retrospect did I recognize that the ‘pose’ of punk was deeply misleading. Many listeners, myself very much included, didn’t understand that there was a great gap between slogans and actual activism; despite my deep (and lasting) affection for both the Clash and the Sex Pistols, “White Riot” didn’t incite anything but a pile of haircuts and words on the back of a jacket, and “Give the wrong time/stop a traffic lane” (from “Anarchy in the UK”) literally didn’t do a thing to relieve the oppression of the disenfranchised classes in any country on earth. Listen, despite the stares and sneers it may have gotten you in your school cafeteria, dying your hair pink never fed the hungry or protected a woman from abuse on her way to the abortion clinic.

 But that was not the end of the story. The moment punk rock starts to really live up to its promise and differentiates itself from the renascence of rock and roll’s brilliant old bump, thump, rumble and grind, the moment it stops aping Paul Revere & the Raiders and starts burning the Reichstag, is on October 13, 1978.

 On that day, “Public Image,” the debut 45 by PiL, was released.

 “Public Image” still creates the same utter thrill that it did when it first shocked and elated me 38 years ago. Both reduced and explosive (it mixed maximum minimalism and maximum impact in a way that only, perhaps, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Autobahn” ever did), it took the reggae bass of doom and replaced the syncopation with a sturdy metronome, ensnaring you with the snaking snail chord change that knows no equal: E/B, endless, except for that little turnaround between verses. I have often thought this was the chord change that wrapped around the heart of the pharaohs and Siddhartha and maybe accompanied the hymns sung after His body had been lifted, broke, bruised and wasted with a fake death, off of his perch at Golgotha. Driven by the Wobble charge (Johnny and Dee Dee and Aston Barrett and Hütter/Schneider all wrapped up in one instrument and one part), “Public Image” storms forward in a manner that was familiar to punk’s acolytes; but there was a cool blast of air in the unrelenting simplicity, and a sizzling, almost sinister flare of art in the barbed spikes of Keith Levene’s guitar, which tossed punk’s Ronson-isms out the window and replaced it with a brilliantly dumbed-down version of Michael Karoli’s transistor-radio spitfire turn-signal distortion guitar.

 With “Public Image,” PiL announced that the children of ’76 were going to make progressive music of great art and adventure. Today, we take it for granted that elements of art and rock intermingle; with the death of radio as an active interface and promotional tool for rock’n’roll, it has become especially common for even the most high-profile bands to integrate the strangest influences in their sound (exhibit one, two, and three: Radiohead; exhibits four through ten, the entire ranged of far-leftisms introduced by Sonic Youth, and all the unshaven and wide-eyed they sired; and that’s before we even mention Stereolab, Arcade Fire, and all the children of Krautrock). But we forget how shocking that was in the mid/late 1970s, when even the most ‘rebellious’ rock bands were still playing off of a model that had been created in the 1950s and early 1960s (recall the Eddie Cochran slurs that begin both “Neat Neat Neat” and “God Save the Queen,” or the Feelgoods/Who/Kinks/Mott the Hoople mash-ups that comprised the backbone of the style of the Clash and the Jam).

 Back in 1978, the initial, unforgettable bass throb of “Public Image” sounded downright bizarre, but in the most immediate possible way; if Lydon’s adamant lyrical statement that the era of the punk lie was now over (i.e., the new boss was not actually more artistically, morally, or politically superior than the old boss), the bass that kicked off the song immediately alerted us to the beautiful artistic left-turn PiL would represent. Other punk-era bands had opened songs with a bass riff – in fact, it was a standard part of the musical arsenal of first-wave punk, as noted in “Neat Neat Neat,” “Motorhead,” the Strangler’s “Peaches” and Eater’s “Outisde View,” amongst many others – but the four-bar tattoo at the front of “Public Image” was something entirely new. Played with the treble dialed off in replication of reggae’s window-rattling pulse, it was virtually Kraftwerkian in its lack of any filigree; it was like a man-machine dub quadruple-timed (though there is a distinct and odd ‘push’ leading into the second and fourth bars of the riff that no other PiL bassist has been able to accurately reproduce). And then, to ears tuned to punk, Lydon’s “new” voice, his urgent, strident, startling muezzin bleat, also underlined that we were in a new land. Unless you were already familiar with world music or the remarkably similar keen of Amon Duul II’s Renate Knaup, it sounded vastly different from any ‘rock’ singer we had ever heard. True, Suicide, the Eels, Throbbing Gristle and other revolutionaries had sought to marry punk-ish simplicity with an aggressively artistic approach, but John Lydon and PiL were doing this in the extraordinarily harsh light of the mainstream, every torch of every journalist and expectant fan turned their way (imagine if the Beatles had released “Tomorrow Never Knows” immediately after “I Want to Hold Your Hand”).

 Framing this entire highly visible artrock engagement was the manifesto John Lydon delivered on “Public Image.” Lydon’s text, desperately rising from his throat like a prayer fueled by bile, grabbed punk’s narcissistic, photo-friendly head by the hair and forced it to look long and hard into a cold, merciless mirror. Reflecting back was the hypocrisy of the movement, which had the same aspirations for high times and kneeling girls as the worst sort of flared indulgences it claimed to unseat. Lyrically, “Public Image” is goddamn close to perfect, right from the opening hello, repeated five times, which could be a mic check but is far more likely a pronouncement of “This is me! This is the Real Me, You thought you knew me? You thought you understood what this was all about? This is me!” After the initial couplet, the mission is further articulated: “You never listened to a word that I said/You only seen me from the clothes that I wear/Or did the interest go so much deeper/It must have been to the color of my hair.” At this moment, Johnny Rotten, a public invention in the tradition of Billy Fury or Marty Wilde or John Cougar, dies, replaced by a man who recognizes the power of music to make a fiercely personal and accusatory statement that the new boss was the old boss, and the old boss was him, and he’s had enough.  

“Public Image” was an adamant announcement that the same star-making/star begging machinery that had always powered the mammon and mammary-driven superficial spirits of rock’n’roll had been behind punk, too. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the preposterous, monstrous and magical beast called good ol’ rock’n’roll, but there was something distinctly fetid about punk’s adamant claim that it stood for something else. “Public Image” points out just how full of corny dreams, old condoms, and the bells of Old Bowie the supposedly new magicians were. Others – most notably the amazing Mark Perry with Alternative Television, and the Saints’ Chris Bailey on Eternally Yours — had toyed with these concepts, but Lydon was going to build a whole band around the idea that we had been cheated, he had been one of those doing the cheating, and it was time to tell a new story.

 Finally, the release of “Public Image” marks, as firmly as any date on the calendar, when punk becomes post-punk. If you imagine punk as a wall of sound made up of tightly cemented bricks of guitars designed to stop the passenger/listener dead in their tracks and pay attention, post punk was an attempt to blow a few holes in that compactly constructed wall and let in some light, without losing any of the impact. On First Issue, released very shortly after “Public Image,” PiL explored this idea even further, taking cues from Can/reggae/dub and all manners of krautrock and art rock, constructing entire songs that emphasized what was not there. PiL took this fully to fruition on their masterpiece, Metal Box/Second Edition, which conjured deeply compelling magic out of a band that was, for all intents and purposes, reduced to Wobble’s patient, pensive, steady throb, the most minimal kick, snare, and hi hat, the opium-empty absentee guitar of Keith Levene, and Lydon’s emotive pleas crossing the landscape like camels crossing the desert on a moon-lit night.

 By the time of Metal Box’s release 16 months later, the impact of “Public Image” and First Issue had already re-set the musical landscape. A whole new generation of bands had discovered that punk’s minimalism had a logical next step: the removal of instruments, the entry of space, the impact of naked rhythm. It’s impossible to hear the bass and drum driven desperation of Joy Division without believing they were as hugely impacted by “Public Image” as I was. Perhaps most remarkably, U2’s “I Will Follow” is an inventive if fairly transparent re-write of “Public Image,” with both a bass line and a guitar part clearly inspired by the PiL song.

 On so very many levels, “Public Image” remains one of the greatest 45s ever released. Many bands have released singles that were both utterly essential listening and also scene-changers in the history of music; but I am hard pressed to think of anyone who did all that while also making an enormous statement, in just three minutes, about the beautiful and sexy false god of rock’n’roll. (Tim Sommer)

 

 

 

 

 

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83. SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – THE SCREAM (1978) – Guest Contributor: Johny Brown (Band of Holy Joy)/(A) KALEIDOSCOPE (1980)

 THE SCREAM / A FEW RANDOM FRACTURED THOUGHTS

The bass is prescient, thunder before lightning.                                                  

‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

Overground for normality, overboard for identity.                                   

People do moan! You just take a walk up City Road and take a look at the new builds that tower over the advertising boards to reassure yourself, everything is just as it should be, things are normal here, safe, mate.

The voice on this album is mercury slither and razor.                                     

It’s a nice day. The weather is not too bad and the property market remains vibrant. You’re engaged with your handheld. There’s a strong signal in the area. You always find a strong signal reassuring. It’s all good!

My limbs are like palm trees swaying in the breeze.                                        

There was a terrorist scare earlier on but you’re getting used to them now. It’s like that porn habit you had a while back, it was all out of control but then you got desensitised and once that happened you got bored and it stopped.

The guitar is the sheeted window of a glass box new build crashing to the ground.                                    

Nah, all good mate, proper, normal, you didn’t get the raise you wanted at work and they’ve got you working longer hours but it’s worth it. You got ten sympathetic likes on Facebook. You can never be too popular, can you?

Watch the muscle twitch, for a brand new switch.

You do think though, sometimes, when you pause the digital information overload, that maybe you might be a touch scared inside, that you put a front on everything, keep a lid on things, and that you could crack any moment.

The drums on this album are a hammered clockwork jerk.          

 You’ve been picking up on interior voices lately, fractured thought processes, bad feelings, meaningless impulses, needled reactions, weird obsessions, sudden relapses, wallowing, seething, snapping under your normal self.

 Metal is tough, metal will sheen.      

https://open.spotify.com/track/6cVnCavV3ucFY86rox4v69

You find yourself craving, having ecstatic bouts followed by deep sloughs and the prescription meds don’t help and this Brexit thing just confuses you I mean who should you vote for, they all seem so, ah you’d like to take a hammer…

It’s a psychologically disturbed / disturbing record.                                 

And your boss is back and he’s not smiling like he is waiting for the market to crash the bubble to burst the dam to break the virus to spread the earth to swallow you up, but you, you’re not cracking up, no, it’s all good mate.

Television flickers with another news bulletin.                                          

Smoking again. It’s just a habit. Hand shakes. Driving you insane. Sucking up the fumes. So congested and you feel so claustrophobic, like the city is closing in. Haven’t smiled in days and now YOU JUST CAN’T HELP BUT SCREAM.

I’m sorry that I hit you but my string snapped.                                                 

This record stands alone. PiL and Joy Division would carry the concerns and aesthetic of THE SCREAM further and Test Dept and Einsturzende Neaubaten would take it to the logical extreme and maybe better it.

The sleeve represents every drowning voice.                                                          

But this, for myself at least, was the first of its kind of the time, and maybe time hasn’t afforded it the space it deserves. I’d like to state the case that this is a great record. It’s a good soundtrack to this moment now.

See the nicotine start to spread. It’s in my head, it’s in my head.                  

 It’s timeless, it’s serving just as well for me now as it did when I was a confused and alienated 17 year old, disappointed with punk but still wanting some kind of noise to articulate the feeling of otherness I held close.

The image is no images it’s not what it seems….                                             

There is secret knowledge contained within this record. Souixsie and Severin knew. John and Kenny enabled. The record is unspoiled by overt musicianship but is enhanced by a sense of utility dedication and passion for the cause.

All the signals send me reeling.

https://open.spotify.com/track/3xWTQQm2u9KvPL31DT27eM

It’s a minimal, bleak tour de force; no quarter is given and there is no pandering to the bands that were around them at the time. It is haughty yes, but it has purpose and without being overtly political it is a most political recording.

Well you may be a lover but you ain’t no fucking dancer.                                 

And then it all opens up on the last song with a sax driven hallucinatory pagan chant played out on city rooftops under polluting skies. Just as we think the streets and the times are closing in on us they are blasted open again.

It’s not what it seems.                          

The Scream has its desired effect, it breaks a spell, a new age emerges. Playing it the past few days, I know it still works and with everyone mugged / content / sedated / scared inside, I know that this is a now record. It has soul.

When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the ride.                              

 ‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

So look out…

(Johny Brown)

(A) KALEIDOSCOPE  – SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES (1980)

The schism of Siouxsie and the Banshees came as a particular shock. It was so (seemingly) sudden, so final – and so symmetrical. The abrupt flight of half of the band, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris, somewhere between Aberdeen and Glasgow (my brother was among the jilted fans whose Glasgow Apollo ticket suddenly became worthless) in September 1979 seemed a fittingly terse and tense end for a band whose approach had always been one of collision – between old and new, male and female, dystopian and utopian, sheet metal and gossamer.
If it had been the end. McKay and Morris were seldom heard of again but Siouxsie and Steve Severin had a contract, tour obligations – and, above all, unfinished artistic business. Faced with a choice to fold or continue, after a sundering which they had not committed, they set about filling the gaps in a manner which, on paper, could have been a recipe for the very antideluvian rock/roll cliches they had come to vanquish and obliterate – they effectively turned the Banshees into a supergroup.
But there was never any prospect of them becoming the Sioux-Severin Overdrive – they swiftly recruited drummer Budgie,  initially a face on the Liverpool scene based around Eric’s (on the other side of Mathew Street) in the semi-mythical Big In Japan, who at various times had also featured Holly Johnson, Ian Broudie and Jayne Casey, and later heard on the Slits’ astonishing Cut. Serendipitously, John McGeoch became available following his increasing disillusionment with Magazine – a matter he was reluctant to expand upon but which put him in a position to play on Happy House, which nobody would have dreamed of calling a comeback single but which many wouldn’t have dared to hope would appear.
It was immediately obvious it was a departure, with the dialogue between McGeoch’s giddy guitar and Severin’s two-note bass hums mediated by Budgie, who lent it what was undeniably a disco feel. Above, Siouxsie declaims a lyric said to be  a vinegar-soaked ironic portrait of domestic bliss but which could also be interpreted as a return to her recurring theme of mental health. It’s also the most overt outing to date for her Bromley accent (“There’s room for you/If you say you do”) which might have had George Bernard Shaw reaching for the phonetic alphabet but was a continuation of one of punk’s lasting achievements – building on the foundations laid by Syd Barrett and David Bowie, the mid-Atlantic tyranny of earlier years had, if not been overthrown, then at least challenged and questioned; at last, we’re getting to the core of what ‘alternative’ actually means.
That recurring theme is unambiguously explored on second pre-album single Christine. Siouxsie unequivocally spells out the solitude and despair of schizophrenia as an endless hall of distorted and destroyed mirrors (“Every new problem brings a stranger inside/Helplessly forcing one more new disguise”). The first line also gifts the album its title (“She tries not to shatter, kaleidoscope style/ Personality changes behind her red smile”) in a reportedly true story, the subject of which finally developed 22 identified personalities; overall it’s a, particularly for its time, compassionate treatment of a too often trivialised and brazenly misrepresented subject. Musically, Severin’s bass is again the  torchbearer, drilling through a wall decorated by synth spangles and McGeoch’s 12-string, limbering up for the vertiginous feats of athleticism he and it would perform on the following year’s Spellbound.
Severin once claimed Trophy almost made the cut for Kaleidoscope’s predecessor, 1979’s frustratingly half-formed Join Hands, but holding it over gave McGeoch the chance to remould it in his own image, to the extent that I carried the song’s riff in my head for quite some time without being able to (re)identify it and convinced myself it belonged to Magazine. He locks in with Budgie at least as tightly as Severin does and the result goes beyond the obvious resemblance to Berlin Bowie to reach as far as James Brown. It’s as funky as the Banshees got, certainly more so than on their later, somewhat ill-advised tilt at Ben E King’s Supernatural Thing, and is goaded on by Siouxsie’s rumination on the title’s dual meaning of prizes claimed by “headhunters, headshrinkers and long-distance runners” and an apparent conclusion of futility in competition in the face of its transient nature.
Hybrid positions McGeogh as perhaps the only realistic successor to McKay as he pulls from the hat the secret weapon he shared with his predecessor: the sax. Both saw it as an instrument which was not there to sooth but to unsettle;  if vampires had shadows, they would be the one’s McGeoch casts here. His guitar runs tread a path The Edge would take a few years later  (listen to this and then U2’s Bad – now do you see?) and Budgie takes  an elementary yet completely coercing roll around the traps. Siouxsie, meanwhile, returns to cockney noir in a mysterious tale of cloning, packaging and fragmentation.
For all its glories, genuine beauty was a quality hitherto largely lacking in the Banshees’ music. It emerges twice on Kaleidoscope, firstly on Lunar Camel, where a suitably Levantine melody on lo-fi synth keeps pace with an alluring rhythm box (not drum machine) which could, if this song’s intro were stood next to that of Visage’s Fade To Grey in an identity parade, lead to a case of mistaken identity. It also shields an outrageous pun in what may or may not be a reflection on the space race (“I don’t have to prove I’ll last longer than you/One hump or two, any handicap will do against you”). And then – an unfeasibly lovely chorus, yet one so simple that even I, a non-musician of an order Eno could only dream of, was able to figure it out on piano. You don’t even notice Sinatra being huckled through as Siouxsie entreats: “Oh fly me to the moon/Get me there soon.” The only word for the backing voices is, I’m afraid, sighing. It’s just what they do and they do it formidably.
Even more pulchritude comes from Desert Kisses, which captures that moment when a spell of sweltering heat is about to give way to a fearsome storm, as the impending torrent hangs in the air like a predator, jaws agape, at once airy and claustrophobic. If  the title promises Valentino, the song delivers Mitchum; the flanged bass, which would come to be a blight on the then infant ’80s, drives both the song’s sensual exterior and its sinister core; the backing vocals, appropriately credited to The Sirens, are near-celestial; so, in fact, is Siouxsie, until you hear she’s singing: “Tidal fingers cling to rocks/A deadly grip, a deadly lock” and repeats “sinking down” – a desert of quicksand. Then finally, “the world is flat/There’s no one here to question that” – half a millennium undone in four minutes flat. It came out in one of the wettest summers in living memory and still carries its humidity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtu7IMJlevs
The other guest is a kindred spirit from the old Bromley days – Steve Jones, whose guitar tyranny was second only to Lydon/Rotten’s tomcat timbre in defining the Pistols’ sound, had that not been a notion all concerned would have scoffed at at the time. Jones’ performance on Kaleidoscope is as much a liberation from the Pistols’ vaudeville straitjacket (they imploded at exactly the right time – there was absolutely nowhere left for them to go) as Public Image Ltd had been for Lydon – the serpentine squall he uncoils is only a couple of postcodes away from Anarchy In The UK but the space he acquires here, compared with the claustrophobia of that song and its establishment-flaying siblings, is like a stepping out of a cell into an endless corridor – still nobody’s idea of luxurious but with the capacity to stride and sprint, accompanying Siouxsie’s exploration of unnecessary plastic surgery – something of a cliche now but confined at the time in the public imagination to the artifice state of California (“Hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics/But this chameleon magic is renowned to be tragic”).
Jones is also on brief but bracing semi-instrumental Clockface and the closing Skin, a melodica-frilled, staccato snare-studded diatribe against the fur trade – vanity is again Siouxsie’s target (“Shame about the smell but/They’re fine soaked in perfume”). It also makes Kaleidoscope the third of four consecutive Banshees albums to end with the sound of a lone guitar.
The Banshees followed Kaleidoscope with Israel, a colossal stand-alone single which fell short of the top 40, possibly because it was so intensely charged, emotionally, politically and ethnically, and with Juju, which is often seen as one of the founding texts of goth but which, despite the matt-black textures of songs like Night Shift and Voodoo Dolly, still admitted shafts of upful pop light – just fewer than on its predecessor. Equally often, Kaleidoscope is considered a transitional album but it was Juju which utimately proved to be a sidestep and Kaleidoscope which, by opening a paintbox and freeing the Banshees from the constraints of a fixed line-up, set the tone for the remainder of their time on Earth.
As Jonny Brown has so eloquently and ardently described here on TNPC, The Scream remains their high watermark but it was nowhere near their only triumph. On the index of the inexplicably overlooked, Kaleidoscope rates pretty highly (PG).

 


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


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!?]

44. SANDINISTA! – THE CLASH (1980)

SANDINISTA! – THE CLASH (1980)


Sandinista! is a profoundly flawed record, one which, even if its 36-song, two-hour plus content were trimmed by a fifth, would still be carrying considerable excess baggage.
So what’s it doing in The New Perfect Collection? For all its flaws, which will also be explored here, the open-minded, restlessly curious spirit in which it was made, an unexpectedly high strike rate against the odds, and its persistence in standing up to 35 years of out-of-hand dismissal secure it a place in this pantheon of the passed-over.
Few bands have polarised opinion as sharply as the Clash. On one side, they were subjected to rigorous expectations from those who wished nothing more from them than a fistful of rewrites of White Riot each year and a few handily digested slogans (something they were exceptionally adept at; in their first year alone, they came up with at least a dozen). These were, of course, disregarded with wilful brio, while those detractors, who by now saw them as little different to those they were thought to have come to obliterate, hunkered down for the new decade with the entrenched likes of the Cockney Rejects and the Anti-Nowhere League.
On the other, they’re right up there with the Stones, the Velvets and Bowie in having been subjected to screeds of unctuous, over-reverential hagiography. While their detractors will trot out the same, admittedly valid, charges time and time again to condemn them (they signed for CBS and called themselves socialists! They sang I’m So Bored With The USA and then spent half the year over there! Daddy was a diplomat, not a bankrobber!) their champions often show little more imagination (they Famously refused to play Top Of The Pops! London Calling was Famously voted album of the ’80s by Rolling Stone  – even though it came out in the ’70s , y’daft Yanks!). Then there’s the ongoing reductive radio campaign to condense their entire career to three or four songs – I Fought The Law, London Calling, Should I Stay Or Should I Go and, at a push, Rock The Casbah. But what everybody seems to agree on is that Sandinista! is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece and there are those who wish that, like the even-more, and this time justly, reviled Cut The Crap, it would just go away lest it tarnish the legacy.
For a start, a triple album? Just after London Calling  Smash Hits printed a picture of the band which, if memory serves, had them  dressed up as morris dancers and the caption declared that their next album would be a triple enitled Yeovil Calling..What?! Hang on, it was just a joke! But a year later, there it was, housed like its predecessor (and, not coincidentally, labelmate Bruce Springsteen’s just released double The River) in a single sleeve to keep costs down and once again for a capped price – £6 this time rather than £5 but when you’re getting an extra disc…
And then there was what was on those three discs (or reels, if you got the boxed cassette version). The aforementioned conservative (upper and lower case, occasionally both) naysayers were joined by those who heard only a directionless mess, chief among them the NME’s Nick Kent, who labelled the genre jumble “a ridiculously self-indulgent communique.” In more recent years, as the – for grievous want of a better term – world music market has grown, and some of its most earnest advocates have become more precious, Sandinista! has increasingly stood accused of dilettantism or, even worse, cultural colonialism, however benign, as the Clash dip their toes in the sounds of Brooklyn, Havana and Kingston, sing of ghettoes and dictatorships then scurry back to the shadow of the Westway with more cash than the authentic practitioners of all this music could ever dream of.
Again, some valid points. Except – firstly , of course, they’d been exploring other styles for years, ever since their interpretation (they couldn’t have faithfully reproduced it even if they wanted to at this stage) of Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves on their first album. Also, why not try on other clobber? Why should expanding their sound be limited to a couple of other pre-approved sources? It’s not as if they cast the net absurdly wide and attempted  to take on opera or North African folk; theirs was the same approach that Primal Scream took a decade later on Screamadelica and the Beatles a decade earlier on the White Album but, while those albums were tuned into, and responding to, specific times, moods, spirits and cultures, Sandinista! (which was released days after John Lennon’s murder) fitted nowhere at all  despite being by a band who still commanded more attention than almost any other.
Most importantly, it’s a record made by music fans. The Clash were a punk band but, individually, they were not punks. What they did in 1976-7 was unlike anything that had been done before but the myth that it all descended fully formed from the sky and landed in Oxford Street has long since been quashed. They were people with pasts, hinterlands – Joe Strummer’s prior existence as Woody Mellor the squat-dweller is now well-known; far less remarked upon is Topper Headon’s contribution – superficially, he was often seen as a standard punk dustbin clatterer, like Rat Scabies without the  corny stick-juggling, and, well, he wasn’t even with them from the start, but he actually had roots in jazz and was accomplished on several instruments. Not something you shouted about down the Roxy but by the time of Sandinista! the Clash were answerable to no one and there was no punk worthy of the name left to answer to anyway, so Topper was in a position to nudge them in all manner of new directions.
I have a strong aversion to genre identification games but if you must, there are about 14 on Sandinista! and, at its best, it’s an exemplary kaleidoscope of educated pastiche. Far-sighted, even, on the two rap workouts, The Magnificent Seven and Lightning Strikes, which are relatively conventional band performances, rather than deploying scratch or beatbox, and this, paradoxically, means they’ve aged better than some of the more authentic early rap, which at the time was the sound of the future but now faces the, fairly unjust, fate of being considered as quaint as nursery rhymes.
At the opposite pole, The Sound Of The Sinners is a complete one-off in the Clash’s repertoire, such a perfect exercise in gospel that they didn’t need to repeat it. Its evangelical fervour is undercut more than slightly by the voice of a tweedy, Derek Nimmo-esque vicar (rumoured to be actor Tim Curry, though I prefer to think it was recorded straight from a televised Sunday service) bidding “cheerio” to a departing congregation, presumably to contrast the ardent, celebratory nature of gospel with the staid, Conservative-Party-at-prayer perception of churches they might find closer to home.
Rockabilly gets a runout on The Leader, a masterly, 100-second distillation of the Profumo affair which, again, shows that this type of music was closer to Strummer’s heart than punk ever was and that, on form, he was a lyricist with few equals (“Vodka fumes and the feel of a vulture”); also on Midnight Log, a macabre, blues harp-scarred tale of being in the pay of the devil who, we’re told, “ain’t been seen for years/’Cept every 20 minutes, he zooms between my ears.” I always hear the feedback buzz at the end as the latest of those unwelcome visits.

As always, there’s plenty of reggae but in some unfamiliar guises. Junco Partner, a song shrouded in mystery at the time (to the point of Unknown receiving the songwriting credit) but which turned out to be an early ’50s blues tune; the 12-bar melody always suggested as much but its peripatetic violin was rarely heard in either reggae or blues.
It’s there again in The Equaliser, a dub-heavy, anti-slavery (with or without wages) diatribe which is followed by The Call-Up, uptempo and skanking but deeply melancholy as it contemplates the then very likely prospect of a return to the conscription which had killed so many throughout the 20th century (to remove all ambiguity, NO DRAFT was emblazoned on the label when it appeared as a single), while even deeper reggae is explored on If Music Could Talk and its dub version, Living In Fame, with a toast by the late Mikey Dread, who sternly counsels the young pretenders to live up to their names (“If you say you are Selecter, you’ll have to have a good selection”). Bizarrely, he was at it again years later, when he was by chance captured in a fly-on-the-wall airport documentary lambasting his chosen airline (“Life is not easy with easyJet!!”) . The same tune is re-reprised on the closing Shepherd’s Delight, a poignant finale that turns sinister the second the music stops, to be replaced by what’s always sounded to me like a rocket launch (red sky…). It’s like a bite from a seal. Perversely, they also cover an Eddie Grant song, Police On My Back, and turn it into the most traditionally Clash-sounding thing on the whole album.
Of course, not everything works. About a side’s worth is wholly negligible but one of these songs has to be mentioned as, without recourse to the music, it’s actually the most significant song on the album. Washington Bullets is a Latin/salsa flavoured tune, a style of music I can never help feeling sounds corny, but lyrically, it recounts the 1979 overthrow of the oppressive Somoza regime in Nicaragua by the Sandinista (hence the title) rebels. Unlike the Special AKA’s later Nelson Mandela, it didn’t directly lead to anything but in recounting this episode and other examples of corruption and injustice (notably the odious Pinochet regime in Chile) they raised awareness in many, myself included. And there was plenty to come – Ronald Reagan was preparing to enter the White House and his administration would later pass the proceeds of arms sales to Iran on to the Contra rebels opposing the Sandinista government. I guess the music of Washington Buĺlets is appropriate to the countries it tells of but the arribas and ululations tip it into parody and undermine the power of describing “the cries of the tortured men.”
Ultimately, all the debate, posturing and pontificating you hear about music is irrelevant. All that really matters is what the artists intended when making the music and your own perceptions whenever you hear it. Sandinista! always vividly reminds me of finding my feet at secondary school, so while it evokes Ladbroke Grove, Manhattan and Santiago, it evokes even more double Latin and discovering my ineptitude at throwing the discus. Pre-internet, I didn’t even hear anyone else’s view on many of these tracks for years, such was the sheer volume of material and the bewilderment around much of it, so I was free to form my own images – Sandinista! may be popularly seen as the second biggest runt in the Clash litter but I love it for all these reasons and more (PG).

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)

40. BLACK VINYL SHOES – SHOES (1977)

BLACK VINYL SHOES – SHOES (1977)

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).

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

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)