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)

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).