28. CROSSING THE RED SEA WITH THE ADVERTS – THE ADVERTS (1978)

CROSSING THE RED SEA WITH THE ADVERTS – THE ADVERTS (1978)
The notion of alternative culture has been diluted enough to leave a gap where the Pacific used to be. What purports to be an alternative is, all too often, scarcely any better than – or even much different to – the thing it’s offered up as an alternative to; trace a line in 2015 from celebrity culture to hipster culture and you’ll hardly travel the length of your own toes; the distinction has been all but erased and there are  far too many intersections at Ukulele Junction, Animals In Adverts Corner and Live Lounge Ring Road. And maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of the passage of time but when some of the most emotionally complex and ideologically committed artists of the last half century – the Smiths, the Jam, REM, Radiohead – end up on a Conservative Prime Minister’s Desert Island Discs, is there anywhere left for anything to go? Yes, I’m well aware that there’s still much that’s radical to be discovered  but even its most ardent champions have seen it all, heard it all and the notion of anything even vaguely subversive penetrating the mainstream now seems as fanciful as the discovery of a bootleg of Geoffrey Chaucer reciting his own work.
Consider, then, what the Adverts and their peers were up against in the late ’70s. There were no politicians or ubiquitous TV presenters self-consciously and ingratiatingly clamouring to prove how really into this groovy punk stuff they were. Who were they surrounded by when the unforgettably gruesome Gary Gilmore’s Eyes became an improbable hit? Smokie, The Dooleys, Brotherhood of Man; Crossroads, Des O’Connor Tonight and Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on TV; Keith Joseph and Willie Whitelaw on the news. Punk defined itself against all of these; if they were aware of it at all, the response to it was a deeply-felt revulsion, shown most viscerally towards the Pistols but nobody was immune.

The Adverts stood out as close-quarters observers of the culture they were part of but seemed to be ambivalent towards. On their torrential debut One Chord Wonders (which, along with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and Safety In Numbers, formed an opening volley of singles fit to stand alongside any), TV Smith berates an indifferent audience which starts off as irate hippies (“Come back when you’ve learned to play”) but turns into fickle, bandwagoneering punks (“We must be the new wave, they’ll like us next year). Safety In Numbers adds a double meaning to its title’s readymade cliche – not only did the scene’s proliferation provide plenty of lookalikes to hide behind but it also eroded its impact. Meanwhile, to the most mellifluous melody of their early period, New Church acknowledges this conformity but urges you to turn it to your advantage (“strength within you, not without you”).
More obliquely, On The Roof slows the headlong charge to a surreptitious tread and Smith appears to be calling for an escape from everyday pettiness (“We’re fighting on the floor for a ha’penny”). On Wheels is much more specific, a reflective and, for its time, bold contemplation of life with disability. It’s less blunt than Peter Hammill’s similarly stark Handicap And Equality, which appeared the following year, but both are notable in dating from a time when a whole lexicon of breathtakingly tactless terms was still applied, without qualm, in official circles to people with disabilities.
The dyspeptic jewel in this tarnished crown is Great British Mistake, one of the most unblinking examinations ever of the nation’s conscience, as lyrically forensic and musically excoriating a dissection as any performed by Weller, Costello or Morrissey. The error is diagnosed as “looking for a way out…getting complacent, not noticing” and personified as people “out of the prepack, into the fear, into themselves.” Torpor and resistance to ideas are the consequence and Smith is fearful – “When will it be over? How can they avoid it?”
It took the Adverts a full year to deliver Crossing The Red Sea… and it appeared a month after the Pistols’ ignominious implosion. I’ve never held with the notion that punk was all over by 1977 – for me, it flourished as late as 1980 – but the Adverts themselves didn’t capitalise on the detonation of this album. A series of strong but sporadic singles came over the next year and a half but the follow-up album, Cast of Thousands, was dangerously flawed. It had one of their finest moments – the untypically gentle, Television-echoing but profoundly sinister I Will Walk You Home – and probably their worst, the hysterical and frankly awful I Looked At The Sun, which ELP would have rejected for being too pompous. But at their peak, they had few equals ; they were once described as “a great band, for a moment” – Crossing The Red Sea… was that moment (PG).

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8. IT’S TIME FOR JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS (1986)

jonathanIn appreciation of the long-playing record It’s Time for Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, 1986

‘Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?” Lou Reed 1966.

When Lou was writing ‘I’m Waiting’ For The Man’, he would have had a precise picture in his head of the dope dealing character in the song. That’s because Lou would certainly have known him personally, aspiring young hustler that he was. For some reason however, when I hear the song today I think of Jonathan Richman as the naive fresh-faced ‘white boy’, with Lou himself conversely, the cool hipster of the Lower East Side, overseeing young Jonathan’s induction to the dark stuff. Lou fitted that NY boho smackhead chic pretty well, but what about Jonathan? Unlike Lou, he was never really suited to hanging out with druggies and sexual deviants. There was always something incongruous about this Velvets’ disciple, sleeping on Steve Sesnick’s couch and affecting that proto-punk attitude. It just didn’t add up.

Something happened to Jonathan Richman. Something changed in him. This vicious world of adulthood, where everyone smoked, took drugs and cheated one another over record deals or in the bedroom. This new world was not for him. What about the old world?

I imagine this metamorphosis to have occurred in 1973. [A dream: Jonathan is in attendance at a family gathering in late summer in a New Hampshire coastal village. He is experiencing a creative nadir, and finds himself out of the city at a nephew’s birthday party. It’s early evening. There are kids eating ice cream, they’re falling over one another on the porch and there is much laughter around the place. He watches a boy chase a kite along the beach. Some old uncle recalls a few anecdotes. Drinks are spilled and memories shared. ‘Come on Jonathan, play us a tune!’ comes the inevitable invitation. It’s been a while. Jonathan looks over at the old battered acoustic guitar leaning against the family Steinway. He picks up the instrument and knocks out a couple of old Chuck Berry numbers. Everyone cheers. Boy, does this feel good. Jonathan loves an audience. He wanders off into the kitchen. Maybe he hears an old doo-wop track by the 5 Royales or the Flamingoes on the little transistor radio sitting there. He goes upstairs and sitting by the bedroom window, writes the first version of ‘It’s You’, what will become the opening track on It’s Time For Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. It will be 12 years before he records it for posterity but something has clicked. Jonathan recalls the first time he heard music like this on the radio and fondly remembers his carefree childhood. He’s battered and bruised from his walk on the wild side and disillusioned with the excesses of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Change of plan.

Of course the first fruits of Jonathan’s new approach came long before the release of It’s Time For…. By 1986 he’d recorded a number of Modern Lovers albums, all filled with his own brand of gentle romantic rock’n’roll and all presumably filed nervously in the ‘new-wave’ sections of confused record stores. He had built his reputation on the classic first punk blast of The Modern Lovers: ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘She Cracked’, all moody black-clad Velvets sneer, and then proceeded to confound everyone’s expectations of him with his bizarre Top 10 novelty hit’Egyptian Reggae’.

Fast forward a decade or so and he has cultivated a small but loyal audience for his charming old world vision. This album was my first encounter with Jonathan, and to be honest, looking at the sleeve and seeing this thirty five year old man, looking (most impressively) no more than 21, but clad in an unbuttoned pink linen shirt, was certainly unpromising and frankly, a bit unsettling. I too was a Velvets disciple and well, the image was just…well, so wrong! But what to make of the music inside the sleeve? I could not believe the album had just been released. It sounded at least twenty five years older than that. And yet, there was a freshness, an innocence and a joy in this music which encapsulated the very essence of rock’n’roll. The album veers from the delightfully moronic ‘Let’s Take A Trip’ (‘I got my jeans and things and I’m ready to go!’) to Jonathan’s ridiculous hymn to his favourite milkshake of all (‘Double Chocolate Malted’ – OK Jonathan, no nuts!), and a playful retelling of the classic Persian love story ‘Shirin and Fahrad’. But amidst the somewhat contrived innocence and playfulness are a small bunch of timeless gems.

The opener the aforementioned ‘It’s You’ is a singalong classic – how could one fail to smile listening to it? ‘Neon Sign’ and ‘When I Dance’ sway along beautifully – the latter exuding an ironic sexual confidence, the former conveying a neurotic and nostalgic displacement in the adult world. But it is the triumvirate of ‘This Love of Mine’, ‘Just About Seventeen’ and the closer ‘Ancient Long Ago’, which really set this apart from other sterling Jonathan albums – such as Jonathan Sings!

‘This Love of Mine’ has all the smooth assurance of Sam Cooke, with the honeyed harmonising the perfect counterpoint to Jonathan’s stuttering adolescent awkwardness. He’s in character for sure, but he’s comfortable here. Jonathan and the boys enjoy themselves so much on ‘Just About Seventeen’ that, lost in the moment, they cannot refrain from a chorus of ‘dangdangdoodang wangdangdoodang’ to further accentuate the good vibe. “I’m about seventeen…I guess, well that’s what the calendar says…what do numbers mean? I’m about seventeen”. Pure gold.

It has been well documented that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” Hearing the angelic ‘Ancient Long Ago’ one might be tempted to disagree. It reveals Jonathan to be the real deal. Listening to it again, I am transported through time, people and places appear and disappear from my mind’s eye, in particular, some very special evenings being charmed by Jonathan’s songs aboard the Renfrew Ferry in the early 1990s. It is a shimmering invocation with an extraordinary musical arrangement which should evoke a heartfelt response from even the most sceptical listener. ‘I am not bound by space or time right now’ he says. Neither am I Jonathan. Not now.

We may be in the late autumn of Jonathan’s recording career, but these songs have been criminally under appreciated for far too long. I listen to them today in the first stirrings of spring, and I embrace summer in full bloom. Go on, as the man himself says, surrender to Jonathan! (JJ)

2. GIRLS AT OUR BEST – PLEASURE (1981)

Pleasure- Girls At Our Best!
Considering the Jupiter-sized egos usually involved, it’s inevitable that there’s always been plenty of room for self-mythology in music. For two decades and more, it’s been an article of faith in hip-hop but can be traced at least as far back as Bo Diddley, who pulled off the remarkable trick of repeatedly deploying the third person without ever appearing deluded. The Beatles dabbled briefly but memorably in it on Glass Onion and practically every Clash album contained at least one ode to their own legend but what all these had in common was that their mythology either already existed or proved to be self-fulfilling.
This was somewhat less the case with Girls At Our Best!, whose approach appeared to be that if they didn’t mythologise themselves  nobody else would – but was more likely a satire on self-proclaimed legends who were often within their rights to bluster as they did  but could come over a bit daft at the same time.
It all began on Warm Girls, one half of their debut double A-side from 1980.  Discordant and tuneful in equal measure, and  a grotesque caricature of beauty pageants (no one would now even consider writing a line like “I love mental  children”, owing to a combination of  understandably but over-zealously heightened sensibilities and the utterly devalued, bankrupt currency of irony), it ended with a repeated refrain of the band’s  name, followed in the fade-out by a tantalising preview of the song’s sequel (and, with poignant symmetry, GAOB’s final single) Fast Boyfriends.
The other side,  Getting Nowhere Fast, is their best remembered song,  at least partly because of the Wedding Present’s cover from their single-a-month camapign of 1992, but it’s actually fairly untypical, being rawer and scruffier than the rest of their repertoire, while singer Judy Evans pretty much chants the lyric without going anywhere near the stratospheric registers which would become her trademark.
Fast Boyfriends wouldn’t emerge for another year  and a half, when Pleasure was launched to a public who would have been ungrateful if they weren’t so oblivious. Neither song from the debut single appeared on the album – but they were on the lyric sheet, along with  the equally absent and equally magnificent follow-ups Politics!/It’s  Fashion and Go For Gold. It’s as if GAOB knew their tiny-but -massive output – which would amount to just 18 songs, including a cover and a medley – had to be seen as a whole, not an immaculately sculpted oeuvre but every facet of a sparky, at times infuriating  but ultimately downright lovable personality.
With a profoundly English perspective on Blondie’s Manhattan scuzz, GAOB were ultimately left at the gates by Altered Images in the race to take sweet but skewed pop to the  masses but it really didn’t matter as GAOB were a cult in the truest sense – comparatively few people knew about them but just about everyone who did loved them fervently and embraced the shockingly compulsive da-da-da chorus of She’s Flipped,  the aural bouncy castle (a compliment, trust me) of Waterbed Babies and that self-mythology again in the Ants-pulsed sales pitch of £600,000.
This song, combined with the free, more innocuous than it sounds Pleasure Bag (a paper bag with postcards and stencils containing a photo of the band) and the CB radio celebration of Fun City Teenagers, as well as the Stars On 45 medley they did for a Peel Session, lock Pleasure, and GAOB as  a whole, as firmly into 1981 as an episode of Not The Nine O’Clock News. Mercifully, they left the song about the Rubik cube to the Barron Knights but ceased to exist some time in ’82, vanishing like a neighbour on a moonlight flit.
Their lack of success means that there’s no place for them on the sorrowful parade of ’80s nostalgia tours, where the notion that there’s something inherently amusing about the music of that benighted decade is pandered to in an ever downward spiral, but it also means they can be remembered, discovered and cherished unblemished and intact. One day they’ll get caught… (PG)