Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Beyond Belief (1982)

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Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Title: Beyond Belief
Description: album track, Imperial Bedroom
Label: F-Beat/Columbia
Release date: 1982
First heard: circa 1999

I’ve got a fee-e-ee-ling
I’m going to get a lot of grief

Although late to his albums, I can honestly say now that I listen to Elvis Costello in his prime in a state of awe. It is not to overstate the case to reveal that when I am in the presence of his finest work, I feel a real sense of privilege. And none more keenly than when I listen to Imperial Bedroom, the second of his LPs to invade me during the aforementioned lull at the end of the century when I forsook new music and flooded the gap with albums by classic artists I felt I had to get to know better.

Aware and noncommitally fond of his singles from Watching The Detectives through to A Good Year For the Roses in 1981, the first Elvis album I bought during that self-educational pre-millennial frenzy was Punch The Clock, from 1983. I was instantly hooked by the jaunty likes of Let Them All Talk and Everyday I Write The Book and the morose glory of Pills And Soap and his reclamation of Shipbuilding. So, Imperial Bedroom, released a year earlier, I came to from the wrong direction.

To name Beyond Belief, its opening track, as my all-time favourite, may seem odd, especially among all those memorable singles, not all of them hits, and the more obviously “important” Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding. Let’s be perfectly clear: I could list about 25 Costello songs, most but not all with the Attractions, that sit at my top table. I could make my selection from pretty much anything on Blood & Chocolate, or Get Happy!!, or Goodbye Cruel World, or King Of America, or the Attractionless Spike and Brutal Youth, or even, hey, The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps its highlight I Almost Had A Weakness. (I’m rustier on his more recent works, but that must be resolved in my own time.)

But Imperial Bedroom does not put a single toe wrong, from its beguiling Barney Bubbles pastiche of Picasso to the orchestral fade of Town Cryer. And hearing track one Beyond Belief just makes me excited as it means I’ll soon be listening to the cheeky Tears Before Bedtime, the torrid Man Out Of Time, the heartbreaking Almost Blue, the gossamer Kid About It, and the crooked waltz of Imperial Bedroom itself, which came only as a bonus track on the CD (typically for Elvis, the title track of an album rarely features on that album – you’ve got to love that about him, the ornery fellow).

Beyond Belief, a short hop at two and a half minutes, drops us without much warning into Fabs engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio environment: a little hissy, dare I say, which suits the energy of the performances and with enough reverb to give melodrama to Elvis’s voice; out of a simple bassline and some tickled hi-hat and a barely audible sustained keyboard chord it comes, “History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” he trills, almost blue already. (History doesn’t repeat here, of course, as it’s the first Elvis album without Nick Lowe at the controls.) He’s mannered, of course, dipping down in self-parody, rising up for the line, “in a very fashionable hovel,” and I truly understand why, like Dylan’s, certain respectable adults have a problem with his voice. That nasal voice. Almost sneering. But these are the elements which I love about it. And the clever wording around which he wraps his tonsils!

I think it was the way this opener ensnared me at first listen that keeps me coming back to it, to sup from the fountain. Who but McManus would even construct phrases like “this almost empty gin palace” or “her body moves with malice” or “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault” and expect them to fit into a two-tiered pop song? Around every corner with this erudite songsmith you get a new arrangement of the English language that intrigues and challenges and paints pictures every bit as colourful and bendy as Barney Bubbles’. “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard”? I mentioned awe, right? It’s like reading a great novelist, or listening to a great orator at the stump, or seeing a beautifully but assymetrically framed shot in a foreign film. I’m not even sure at this remove what Beyond Belief is about, and that’s the alchemy. Most Elvis songs seem to be about relationships gone South. This one certainly “seemed so appealing” but now it’s “beyond belief.”

About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning. And it doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s kind of all verse. I guess you might even dismiss it as a kind of intro, rather than a song, an establishing shot, a mood-setter, but it has it all, from where I’m sitting, even if it does fade out way too soon. Hello, cruel world.

I’ll admit to going for long periods without calling up my Elvis Costello and/or the Attractions albums, and I always wonder why. As a lyricist of quality and distinction, he’s in the superleague. As a singer of character and tenacity, he is out there on his own. As an albums artist, he’s David Bowie with a band. To quote Town Cryer, from the end of Side Two, he’s “a little down, with a lifetime to go.” Amen to that.

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Pink Floyd, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V (1975)

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V
Description: album track, Wish You Were Here
Label: Harvest
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1988

Come on you raver, you seer of visions
Come on you painter
You piper, you prisoner and shine

Here’s my footnote in Pink Floyd history: I proof-read the booklet that was boxed up with the remastered Shine On compilation set released in 1992. I’m not 100% sure how it happened. Either my friend Rob was working for Storm Thorgerson, who by law designed the sleeve and packaging, or he was working for Stylo Rouge, who may have been designing the book. Either way, it was a commission borne of benign nepotism, and not one that I was honestly up to. A journalist of some three or four years’ standing, what I knew of “subbing marks” was learned from having had my own typewritten pages red-penned at the NME. Nonetheless, I manfully went through the proofs and – somebody else will have to check this – I think I earned a thanks in the box-set credits.

What’s more significant about my intersection with the mighty Floyd’s back catalogue (Shine On contained nine discs and was a selective history via eight albums – from their second, A Saucerful Of Secrets, to their 13th, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason – plus some early singles) is that it was my first in any meaningful way. I did not own a Pink Floyd album in 1992. I had reviewed the live album Delicate Sound Of Thunder for the NME in 1988, when I was at the office-boy stage of my writing career and was grateful for rejects and flotsam from the LPs cupboard, but I really was unqualified. I only recognised the hits.

However, it helps me carbon-date what was my first conscious exposure to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which endures as my favourite Pink Floyd track. (It’s actually rather sweet that the first version I must have heard was a live one, in all its grandiloquent melancholy at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island.) I think we all know the score about this track, and the album it so definitively bookends in its nine – count ’em – parts: it’s a tribute to Syd Barrett that would have been no sadder and more heartfelt had the band’s tragically scooped-out founder actually died before they laid it down.

Crazy Diamond defines Pink Floyd. Big, beaty and bold, it’s also personal and emotional, a prog-rock movement that actually moves. So much of it is preamble, so much of it is atmosphere and noodling – the very facets of this kind of “dinosaur” rock that made it toxic and heinous to punk rock come the revolution – and yet, at its heart lies a song. An old-fashioned song. It earns back every minute you’ve potentially wasted not singing along, not tapping a toe, tempted to make a cup of herbal tea and come back. It’s the longest song in The 143, in that even Parts I-V divorced from Parts VI-IX runs for 13:38, but it’s succinct and to the point in surprising ways. Roger Waters only sings his handful of verses in the two-and-a-half-minute Part IV (and again, foreshortened, in Part VII); the rest, you could say, is noise. But what noise!

This being Pink Floyd, whose compositions have been picked over by the technically inclined for decades, I could look up exactly which guitars and keyboards are played where, and in what key, and blind you with talk of arpeggio variations and 6/4 time and the “bleed” on the Abbey Road mixing console, but let’s just instead switch off and tune in. Nobody actually died in the making of it, but four grown men left a little bit of their souls in the studio over the days and weeks it took to process, a spirit that’s unlocked each time they play it live. Know that.

I will have innocently enjoyed the majesty of its rock and the mystery of its roll without gleaning its meaning, but it’s the backstory that powers it (and the rest of the album; this was a close-run thing with the title track Wish You Were Here itself), and the tribute that lifts it. We won’t ever really know what Syd thought of it (see how easily we call him by his first name?), even though he wandered into Abbey Road while they were laying it down and made Waters cry with his altered physical state, but there are few nods of the head in song that shine so brightly with sincerity and pulse. When Waters sings, “You wore out your welcome with random precision,” that’s the sound of something being nailed.

I grew to appreciate Pink Floyd with age. I certainly had to get out of the NME first. They’re one of those classic rock bands whose back catalogue I greedily completed at the fag-end of the century when new music – except Radiohead, funnily enough – was failing to move me. I recognised Floyd as canon. You need all of the albums, but each can be addressed separately, and individual tracks isolated, depending on mood. I think I enjoyed shocking my teenage self by getting into them.

There are parts of Dark Side Of The Moon, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Barrett’s solo records and even The Wall that I enjoy as much as Wish You Were Here, but it retains its seat at my top table. Because it’s got Shine On You Crazy Diamond on it, in full.

The Source feat. Candi Staton, You Got The Love (Radio Edit) (1991)

SourceCandiStaton

Artist: The Source featuring Candi Staton
Title: You Got The Love
Description: single
Label: Positiva
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

After my first full year of absence from the airwaves of 6 Music, I felt sufficiently emancipated from the yoke of BBC impartiality and general station cheerleading to shout from the rooftops, “I think Florence Welch has pulled off one of the great confidence tricks in modern music!” Two hit albums in, she was worth $14 million ($28 million by 2019) and feted around the world, so I don’t feel she’ll lose any sleep to discover that I don’t hear what millions of others do in her vocal style or mode of musicality. It still feels liberating to state for the record that in my subjective opinion I find her opportunistic 2009 remake of You Got The Love – pedantically “corrected” to You’ve Got The Love – to be one of my least favourite cover versions in all of pop music. Though slavishly similar, and clearly bound for glory by association, for me, Florence Against The Machine’s rendition sucks every drop of soul from one of the greatest modern mash-ups of the 20th century.

I won’t bore you, or myself, with the circuitous history of the eventual 1991 version credited to The Source, whose vocal was apparently recorded by Candi Staton a capella for a video documentary in the 80s and whose vital studio production can, it seems, be credited to John Truelove and Eren Abdullah (although Frankie Knuckles was involved somewhere along the line). Needless to say, the Young Hearts Run Free disco legend supplies a supreme, inimitable vocal which needs little enhancement to raise it up. But can you imagine a more sympathetic exoskeleton than the minimally plucked “talking” bassline and mechanical, insectoid synth tinkle that frame it?

Has anybody ever heard that now-immortal intro and not air-clicked their finger in time to it? This is such a boldly graphic and sonically desaturated underlay, which adds melodrama and dirty funk to Staton’s reverb-enhanced declaration:

Sometimes I feel like throwin’ my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care”
But you got the love I need to see me through

The production knows instinctively when to trigger each new layer (the first finger click just as she starts the second verse with another “Sometimes”), and by verse three, everything’s working together as a team from hi-hat to added keyboard wash cycle; it’s not even a minute in. At this point if you don’t yet feel like throwing your hands up in the air, you never will do. It’s certainly one of those tracks that ought to struggle to match its own impeccable intro, but once up and running, there’s always something new, vocally or sonically, to keep you keen: the way Staton sings the word “occasionally”, that insistent synth line two and a half minutes in, the squelching sound, and the drop-out to bass, click and vocal at three minutes. Give thanks.

Sometimes a classic song comes together in a roundabout way, but as when the stars align, we should savour the moment. You Got The Love is one of those moments. I’m not a purist about cover versions – there are a number in The 143 – but this isn’t really one that should be attempted in karaoke. Just do the finger clicks instead. Or sing the bassline. That would be a greater tribute.

As with These Boots Are Made For Walking and Try A Little Tenderness, I’m always sad when the Radio Edit fades out.

The Sisters Of Mercy, Lucretia My Reflection (1988)

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Artist: The Sisters Of Mercy
Title: Lucretia My Reflection
Description: single; album track, Floodland
Label: Merciful Release, Elektra
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Hot metal and methedrine …

Having thoroughly enjoyed the lavishly tortured imperial grandeur of Showtime’s The Borgias via Sky Atlantic over three seasons, I now hear the name in the title of this pounding song as “Lucrezia” (with an Italianate “zz”). According to extensive research on Wikipedia, I have gathered that Andrew Eldritch wrote the song for his then-new collaborator Patricia Morrison in tribute to her similarities to Pope Alexander VI’s scheming daughter. He just spelled it wrong. Who cares? Lucretia is immortalised, and sits between Marian and Alice in Sisters Of Mercy lady-worship. (And Morrison didn’t play on Floodland. Again, who cares?)

Lavishly tortured imperial grandeur is the guiding light of the second incarnation of the Sisters after all that legal argy-bargy over the name, which Eldritch won, and although he clearly resents the idea that a more mainstream rock audience “discovered” the band via the expensive studio metalwork of Jim Steinman on This Corrosion (he didn’t work on Lucretia), it provided quite a spectacle, with a band, or brand, so rooted in the underground emerging via MTV onto the freeway and blinking in the light. I had fallen in love with the first incarnation during my provincial Goth phase in 1983, enchanted by those rattly early singles Anaconda and Temple Of Love. I saw the Sisters live at London’s Lyceum in the mid-decade and felt it a religious experience. (And when I say I saw them, I peered into a wall of dry ice for an hour and occasionally caught a glimpse of a human figure.)

By the time Floodland came out in 1988, I was old enough to have a) embraced all musical forms, including jazz, blues and Bob Dylan, although not yet opera*, and b) stowed any punk-rock snobbery about “selling out”. Thus, I applauded the Sisters Of Mercy’s brazen bridgehead into crossover. I remember seeing the darkly operatic** video for This Corrosion on ITV’s The Chart Show, with its inclement weather and Fester-and-Morticia double act. The album followed through, with a form of rock not really yet stamped by the latecoming American consensus as “industrial”, and no holds barred. The Wagnerian pomp that had driven the first album was turned up to eleven. This was big music. Unabashed. Sincere or ironic? Who can ever really know? I met Eldritch once, on 6 Music, and he unironically requested that the studio webcam be switched off as he wasn’t dressed in character; however, he struck me as a very wry and self-aware chap, so, again, who can ever really know?

I know in my bones that Lucretia, in its full eight-and-a-half minute flight, is a track to drive a tank to. It consolidates all the dreams and fantasies I entertained during my Goth years of death and horror and sex and power. I don’t really have those dreams and fantasies any more, but this song still sounds magnificent. Eldritch gurgles, “I hear the roar of the big machine.” Yeah, mate, you’re making it. It’s your machine.

*I still haven’t embraced opera, unless you count Tommy.
**I know what “operatic” sounds like.

The Jackson Sisters, I Believe In Miracles (1973)

JacksonsistersIBelieve

Artist: The Jackson Sisters
Title: I Believe In Miracles
Description: single
Label: Propesy
Release date: 1973; 1987
First heard: circa 2003

I’m certain I didn’t hear this veritable starburst of Detroit soul in 1973, which is when it was first put out on the short-lived Prophesy records (look at that lovely label above, with its youngster-confusing hole), nor in subsequent 70s pressings. And I definitely wasn’t going to the right clubs to hear it resurface on the Rare Groove scene when it was reissued to a shrug of the charts’ shoulders in 1987. (Though in London, I was all about The Wedding Present, Pixies, Deacon Blue and George Gershwin at that time, my main club being the Town & Country.)

What I do know for a fact is that it was love at first listen: the Pearl & Dean-indebted orchestral fanfare, the loose-limbed groove, the keyboard splurges and then, that irresistible, sun-kissed five-sibling harmony: “I believe in miracles, baby, I believe in you-ooooooh!”

Possibly my favourite soul track of all-time, it’s so positive, so airborne, so persuasive, it has you hammering thin air and kills all known melancholia dead. Still only sporadically recruited for compilations (I first came across it on the out-of-print 100% 80s Soul, where it out-funked better-known tunes by Indeep and the Salsoul Orchestra by dint of not actually being 80s soul), the Jackson Sisters remain a collector’s item with a misleading surname, having put out one LP on Tiger Lily and never had a hit. But such intellectual credibility is dust next to the spritzing, zealous, sky-touching glee of the track. Lyn, Pat, Rae, Gennie and Jacqueline believe in miracles – don’t you-ooooh?

NB: This entry was adapted from a piece about “happy songs” I contributed to Word magazine in 2011. It is the very criminal lack of Word magazine that in many ways drove me to start this blog, so it seems entirely apposite.

The Orb, Little Fluffy Clouds (7″ Edit) (1990)

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Artist: The Orb
Title: Little Fluffy Clouds
Description: single; album track, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
Label: Big Life
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1991

What were the skies like when you were young?
They went on forever

I’ve wanted to start a novel with that couplet for 20 years. Just printed, in italics, as a sort of philosophical frontispiece. It’s only the formality of nobody wanting to pay me to write a novel that stands in the way of this burning ambition. (I used it as the lead-off to a piece I wrote for Word magazine on nostalgia in 2011 – that’ll have to do.) The question and answer come from the defining spoken sample of what is the greatest single ever made. (I know. The 143 is not about quantifying individual tracks, but if I am ever forced to choose my favourite song of all time, I never later regret saying Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb. It’s my Apocalypse Now or Slaughterhouse Five of songs.)

I think I always knew, or knew early on in my ardent relationship with this insistently lilting four and a half minutes of ambient pop, that the woman answering the question was Rickie Lee Jones. I didn’t initially know that the interview was essentially a promotional one – hence the vanilla questions – conducted for an extra disc included by Geffen in the box set edition of her 1989 Flying Cowboys album, as A Conversation With Rickie Lee Jones. You must admit, it’s a fantastic question. I wish I’d asked it of someone I’d interviewed in my time as an interviewer. What were the skies like when you were young? It’s not even the first utterance on the single, whose 7″ Mix I select amid a welter of longer, more luxurious and tangential remixes; that, following a crowing cock, and a buzzing biplane, is a Radio 4-style voice saying:

“Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the drone of a lawnmower, the smack of leather on willow, comes a new sound …”

And we’re off, into a remarkably disciplined sonic creation, whose voices drift across the production’s blue sky like clouds (I always see them as perfect, white, Simpsons-credits clouds – you’re with me?), and from a heartbreaking harmonica wail emerges that hypnotic keyboard signature which bubbles away beneath, quickly joined by a hard bass drum and a Tight Fit-styled Afro-beat and, at one minute 13 seconds, a supplementary synth noodle provides the nagging riff: we have lift-off. Rickie waxes hippy about “purples and reds and yellows” and how these colours are “on fire”, and eventually wonders if you still see such psychedelic Arizona skies “in the desert.” The deft combination of boho guff and ultramodern techno groove is just perfect, and what might have initially been a mischievous glint in the eye of Dr Alex Patterson is ultimately rendered sincere and moving. You’re with her! You want to see those skies! Those little fluffy clouds!

I will have been more than aware of The Orb’s significance in the post-rave world as I was playing out my third act at the NME in 1991-92, but I was not a raver. I was too scared to take the relevant drugs. Which is not to say that the moment did not regularly get into my bloodstream. I was dispatched to Sheffield by the live desk to review a benefit for miners’ families in November 1992 staged by Primal Scream, with The Orb supporting. (Documented evidence tells us that the Orb played longer than the Scream, and gave phenomenal stage show, despite there only being three of them onstage at Sheffield Arena: the good Doctor, “Thrash” and Steve Hillage.) I remember having a couple of beers in the VIP paddock during the interval, but this was not a night of intoxication. I watched The Orb from the seated area near the front and remember Little Fluffy Clouds doing everything in its cosmic, thumping power to get me out of that stupid plastic fold-up chair. (Arena dance: not one of the modern word’s great ideas.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to get up and dance more in all my life. But such encroachment into walkways was discouraged by security and, surreally, we had to nod and bounce in our seats and be happy with that. I’ve had more fun subsequently dancing to it in my house, or secretly, on public transport. Little Fluffy Clouds is a form of transport. It takes me places, and not just to an imagined Arizona when Rickie Lee Jones was young. I’m sticking with it as best single ever made, as it epotomises the lure of nostalgia on many levels, it works its alchemy on me every single time, and I play it a lot.

We walked all the way from the Arena back to the hotel in central Sheffield after the gig, but the Orb, not Primal Scream, were ringing in my happy ears.

Everything But The Girl, Each And Every One (1984)

Everything But The GirlEden

Artist: Everything But The Girl
Title: Each And Every One
Description: single; album track, Eden
Label: Blanco y Negro
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Maybe you should just think twice
I don’t wait around on your advice

I didn’t see jazz coming. The Lovecats by The Cure was a curve ball in 1983, at a time when my musical core was defined by doom and gloom and minor chords. It opened my ears to brushwork and double bass and Django Reinhardt-style guitar. It’s amazing how a jackknife in direction by one of your pet bands can broaden your mind in an instant. It was the year I stopped being a sixth-former and became a student and fumbled towards a sartorial identity. Oxfam raincoats, big hair and ripped t-shirts initially. But something happened during that one-year foundation course at Nene College: I met Dave.

Dave Keech, a fellow art student from nearby Kettering with a much more mature palate – and palette – was a jazz aficionado. He listened to it, understood it and played it. And he got me into it. I made cassettes of artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald (her standard of Too Darn Hot came to epitomise the hot summer of ’84). This was trad jazz. Swing. I wasn’t ready for modern jazz yet. But I remain grateful to Dave for blowing away so many of my post-punk prejudices, and for leading me towards a flat-top.

So by the time I arrived in London in September ’84, away from home for the first time, I was primed to welcome in the jazz- and Latin-infused wave of pop music already happening in the pages of the NME and Smash Hits. This was the breezy, horizontally-striped time of Weekend, Sade, Café Bleu, Carmel and, at the forefront, rising as ambassadors from the defiantly wispy Pillows & Prayers swoon-iverse, Everything But The Girl.

Before my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence, Stephen Clasper, got me into ABC’s Beauty Stab, he flooded the corridor with the irresistible clean air of Eden. An already hardened Smiths fan, I was alert to melancholy, and here was a whole slab of it, with plaintive brass, school-orchestra percussion (what is that hollow, ridged wooden thing you scrape a stick across?) and voices spun from silk. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt share everything, including the vocals across the album. But the opening track – and the revelation for me – Each And Every One, is Tracey’s, with a bit of Ben on backing (“Slam the door” “Much too dear”), I think; it might be Tracey multi-tracked.

(It’s funny how it seemed OK to think of them as Ben and Tracey, even though we didn’t know them. I met them in 1990 around the release of the super-sophisticated – and thus slightly more remote – Language Of Life album, but it was as if I already knew them, so intimate and heart-on-sleeve was their music.)

That they were a couple made Everything But The Girl so much more significant and authentic when they crooned these gorgeous, heart-tugging songs. Theirs was a kitchen-sink romance, more about a dare-I-say domestic togetherness than a fleeting quickie, or a passing moment of bruised ribs. Lyrically, they draw too upon past relationships, whose failings still resonate even when you’re in a stable one, so when Tracey sings to a lost love, “And your kind of love is the kind that always disappears,” we wonder if she’s fearing the same of the current one. (I have no way of knowing, as Tracey is commendably guarded in her otherwise revealing memoir, but one wonders aloud if by writing songs about sour times, they exorcised them from their own home life.)

Even though it’s the second album Love Not Money (another that I hungrily taped from Stephen) that bears the monochrome, photographic sleeve, like Woody Allen, I always see Eden – and Each And Every One – in black and white.

Maybe it seems unfair to cite the first song of an artist’s first album as my all-time favourite – after all, I’ve consistently drawn comfort and joy from their subsequent work, from the harmonica-infused Native Land, through the captivatingly orchestral agit-prop Little Hitler, to Toddy Terry’s wipe-clean Missing, and into Tracey’s lovely recent solo work, like Grand Canyon and Nighttime – but you can’t match the feeling of the right music in the right place at the right time.

Just a few years after punk, and its independent spirit was alive and well and jazzy. Who saw that coming?