Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979)

Entertainment!

Artist: Gang Of Four
Title: 5.45
Description: album track, Entertainment!
Label: EMI
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1980

Libraries gave me power.

I suspect I first heard this song in 1980, and not in its year of release, as I know for a fact that I borrowed it from Northampton Record Library, an Aladdin’s cave for audiophiles I first tapped into around this time, and which granted me access to a whole range of exciting vinyl long-players, which I hungrily and methodically borrowed from this glorious, state-run, municipal resource: XTC’s Drums & Wires, In The Flat Field by Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous debut, The Crack by the Ruts, so many thrilling new wave platters, each one stamped out at a desk, just like a book, except with records, you took the disc out of the sleeve and compared its scuffs and scratches to a card wherein any such imperfections and blemishes would be logged in biro. (A bit like the illustration of a rental van with the scratches drawn in – although I couldn’t have known this at 15.)

Through this route did I come upon Entertainment!, whose most-likely-to single, At Home He’s A Tourist, had crossed my radar via its lyrics in Smash Hits the year previously, but which – as is now legend – had been denied its Top Of The Pops shot because the band refused to amend the lyric about “the rubbers you find” and had thus failed to breach the Top 40. Never mind. Gang Of Four were a band designed to exist outside of the mainstream. I might not have fully understood their Situationist influences or Marxist politics at 15, but I sure liked the idea of what they were saying about consumerism and war and whatever linked guns to butter.

And I sure loved the way they were saying it, with their minimalist arrangements, atonal duets and all that white space which ran through their white funk. Having been intoxicated at the right age by the guttural, inclement fury of punk rock, it was head-turning indeed to hear the elements in Gang Of Four’s sound so clearly separated and slotted back together: the twanging bass, the precise drums, the sparing guitar, and of course, Jon King and Andy Gill’s arresting vocal symbiosis, perhaps never bettered than on Ether, in which King croons about digging “at the root of the problem” and “father’s contradictions” and Gill simultaneously barks out “H-block! Long Kesh!”

Entertainment! turned out to be my favourite album of all time. I loved it in 1980 when I taped it and played the cassette until the magnetic coating was worn off. I loved it again in the mid-80s when, as a student, I finally purchased the LP I’d previously been loaned by the public sector. And I loved it all over again on CD soon after. It literally never fails to excite me. I never saw Gang Of Four the first time around (and have never seen them in revived form), so the music’s hold on me is purely aural. And intellectual and political, obviously. And I think the reason that 5.45 always rises to the top is that it rose to the top 33 years ago. And lodged there.

It may not have the urgency of Damaged Goods, nor the squalling audacity of Anthrax, nor the sensual throb of Tourist, but 5.45 has a simplicity and directness that’s almost a capella. And it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk. Of course it begins – as so many of my favourite songs do – with a bare drum beat, typically unshowy and literal from Hugo Burnham, and easy for an aspiring teenage drummer to copy with two rulers on a stool, as I diligently did. Then that polite, wheezy melodica from King. And when Dave Allen’s bass grumbles in, the shooting match begins.

King wonders aloud, “How can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?” Even as a kid, I understood this. I was not one for the news at that age, but mainly because it all looked so grey and severe at the end of the 70s. When King paints pictures of dead men lying “flat on their backs” (echoing the “beetle on its back” from Anthrax), assassination “down on the street”, and a “blood war” on a “bourgeois state”, it’s no leap to the footage of “guerilla war struggle” that will have filtered into my brain in that decade from unknown zones in Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala and, closer to home, Northern Ireland (whose troubles were more specifically addressed in Ether). This was vivid stuff. And he said “eat my tea.”

Repetition is a weapon in the Gang Of Four’s best work – honestly, it’s like The Teletubbies, except with Sandinistas – and so it proves with the mantra, “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is a new personality.” King and Gill sound like they cannot stop singing this until a ceasefire is called, at which we can all get back to the fried egg we have for our “tea”. And it’s called 5.45 – “quarter to six” – could it be any clearer if it was titled After Noah & Nelly?

I wrote recently about how literate pop music was in the 70s and 80s. Gang Of Four may have not quite made it into the charts, but their debut LP did much to rouse me from my apolitical slumber, aged 14 going on 15. Let’s not post-rationalise; it did not “politicise” me on the spot (I wouldn’t become a Neo-Marxist until I’d left school), but from Entertainment!‘s attention-demanding sleeve, with its “red” Indian and its “white” cowboy shaking hands (“He is glad the Indian is fooled – now he can exploit him”), to the unequivocal chants of “H-Block torture!”, it provided a running buffet of food for thought.

I shall remain forever grateful to Gill, King, Allen and Burnham for the factory reset they gifted me. (And I owe a lifelong debt to Northampton Library and its recordings wing, the sort of place the new government in 1979 would have considered surplus to requirements – glad those days are behind us, right?)

The Smiths, Rusholme Ruffians (1985)

Meatismurder

Artist: The Smiths
Title: Rusholme Ruffians
Description: album track, Meat Is Murder
Label: WEA
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.”

What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.
That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

I wrote those opening paragraphs for an assessment of the Smiths’ second studio album Meat Is Murder for a special Q supplement about ten years ago. The album, my abiding favourite, was released on Valentine’s Day in 1985; on that day, the Smiths were aged 23, 21, 20 and 21, Morrissey the eldest. Having left school in 1976 to sign on, he was getting on a bit, but the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to many of those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of incorrectly saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It’s no slight to call the Smiths a student band. For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s draughty, Soviet-style halls of residence and rented rooms in equivalents of Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of something called “top-up fees”, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. (That’s all gone now, of course. I will forever give thanks that this band released an album for each of my four years in higher education.)

The Meat Is Murder tour would take them from university gigs into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens (I saw them for the first and only time at Brixton Academy, one of the best gigs I ever experienced). The LP and tour scored a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency: vegetarianism; republicanism; activism (Moz had attended an anti-Abortion Act march in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration”); pacifism (the Vietnam-themed cover); even an opener decrying the education system. But within it, run on a skiffle theme, is what remains for me the Smiths’ finest hour: the gloriously alliterative Rusholme Ruffians. (I had never heard of Rusholme; a band educating me there from the Top 40, a theme I often warm to.) As a keen student of Moz’s lyrics, which are closer to poetry than even Dylan’s in my opinion, I never tire of reciting these:

Last night of the fair
By the big wheel generator
A boy is stabbed
And his money is grabbed
And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine

It’s one of the few songs I can confidently sing from one end to the other without pause, deviation or hesitation. It’s not to in any way discount the unique contribution of Marr, Rourke and Joyce, who combine like stars in a constellation to create the most breathtaking, head-spinning whizz round that fair, from whirling waltzer and the top of the parachutes to the lonely walk home, but Ruffians is Morrissey’s ultimate triumph: descriptive, evocative, fast, funny, fleet of foot and ripe with imagery (“dulling wine”, “the grease in the hair”, “a tremulous heart”, the name scratched on a arm “with a fountain pen”). Alan Bennett couldn’t have set the scene any more eloquently or viscerally.

As with the rest of the perfectly ordered album – and I even like the title track, that’s how much I like it, give me a fountain pen and I’ll roll up my sleeve and prove it – it’s crunchily produced, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums). On the whole, it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. You will have you own favourite track. But I have mine.

It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

Billy Bragg, Tank Park Salute (1991)

BillyBraggDon'tTryThisAtHome

Artist: Billy Bragg
Title: Tank Park Salute
Description: album track, Don’t Try This At Home
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book

I have not cried to that many songs in my lifetime. When I have, it’s likely I’ve been sad about something else and the song has induced tears that were already desperate to get out of their ducts. It’s stirring and miraculous that a series of chords and the deft rearrangement of the English language can do this.

I’ve willingly and perhaps even self-indulgently massaged my own doom and gloom downwards with doomy and gloomy music, especially during my difficult teenage years, and I still have a soft spot for melancholy and infinite sadness. Trust by The Cure is as good as on standby on my iPod for when clouds are gathering, the dry leaves are on the move, the darkness is drawing in, or if I just feel like being windswept and interesting on a deserted train platform. (It goes, “I love you more than I can say, why won’t you just believe?”, a chest-beating declamatory cry for help that has not literally applied to where I find myself in life for quite some time and yet it feels so cathartic to have Robert Smith wail it between my ears.)

I once sat in my office at home and put Tank Park Salute on repeat, almost unable to stop listening to it, and it brought me to tears. I can’t quite contextualise it. It was about seven or eight years ago. It guess I might have been feeling my mortality – and it’s definitely a song about mortality – and I had moved outside of London for the first time in my adult life and may have been experiencing a profound sense of disconnect, but I don’t recall any kind of slough of despond. I cried, in a private way, because the song is really, really sad, and moving. And it got me right here.

My relationship with Billy Bragg, as it well documented, began as a remote one, between artist and listener, then became professional when I had found my calling at the NME and we became artist and journalist. But out of that, through turning artist and biographer, we became friends. Man to man. We remain so. However, I have never stopped being a listener. I love the way his delivery has developed over the decades, and I ought to feel hard pressed to select one song to sum up my appreciation of Billy’s 30 years in rock’n’roll, but Tank Park Salute makes it easy. Its position within the brightly colour-coded Don’t Try This At Home, the forced “pop album” intended to shower Billy with chart success and mainstream acceptance (it didn’t), feels more poignant with every listen. Not that the album lacks depth or content among the hooks and breeze; just that the deep, personal near-existential melancholy of this delicate, haunting requiem seems courageously at odds.

It is essentially the point of view of an 18-year-old boy remembering his childhood while dealing with the debilitating illness and death of his father – namely Dennis Bragg, a tank driver in the war, who died of lung cancer in 1976, aged 52. Because Dennis was housebound for almost 18 months after being diagnosed, Billy described the period to me as “being in slow motion”, and hence, one assumes, the references in the lyric to “darkness” at “the top of the stairs” where once Dad had left the light on.

Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way. It’s not a new observation that his voice has matured, and Tank Park Salute was hardly the first time he demonstrated its halting delicacy, but the personal subject matter and the simple arrangement provide the perfect showcase for its emotional range.

It’s a very clever structure, sung to his father from three points in time: he regresses to childhood (“kiss me goodnight, and say my prayers”), then jump-cuts to the funeral (“I accepted the commiserations of all your friends and your relations”), and ends in the present day (“I offer up to you this tribute”), where “photographs of a sunny day” fill the adult narrator with nostalgia for childhood. The three ages of man, if you like (and there’s no doubt that his father’s early passing made the 18-year-old a man).

You don’t have to have lost a parent at an early age to feel the pain. You just need to have a parent, or to have had one. Or, let’s push the boat out, be one. Billy’s compassion lies at the heart of his politics (“socialism of the heart”), so to draw a line in the sand between his protest songs and his personal songs is reductive; blood pumps through them all. There’s some great pop on Don’t Try This At Home, too (You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, North Sea Bubble, Sexuality).

But Bernie was right: sad songs say so much.

Got something in my eye.