The The, Uncertain Smile (1983)

thethesoul mining

Artist: The The
Title: Uncertain Smile
Description: album track, Soul Mining
Label: Some Bizzare
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

I can find no record of a bullet-headed statue erected near Matt Johnson’s birthplace, so we may assume there isn’t one. This is a crying shame. Although his illustrious career, effectively solo, as The The, has not always translated its musical value into monetary – only two of his singles have seen the inside of the UK Top 20, although his third and fourth albums Mind Bomb and Dusk went Top 10 at what we may now label his glory years in the early- to mid-90s – he has proven a diffident, single-minded avatar of content-based pop music, a man drummed out of the awkward squad for being too awkward and never one to compromise his mission statement. Or have a mission statement.

You get the sense that Soul Mining, his first commercial release as The The after some years as a solo artist, then a duo, then a band, then a solo artist pretending to be a band on the post-punk indie fringe, has now been folded into the canon of Great Lost Albums of the 80s. Although for those of us who clasped it to our gnawed hearts, it was a Great Found Album. It was Stevo’s misspelled label Some Bizzare and Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD that became Johnson’s key patrons. He was always a magnet for collaborators, who buzzed around in the forcefield of his creativity while he remained his own nucleus.

I adore Soul Mining. In my house, it has never gone out of fashion. I purchased it, a year late, while living in a brutalist halls of residence in Battersea and writing bloody awful poetry as a release from the privations and humiliations of life on a grant in a subsidisded tower block opposite a park that served hot meals and provided a weekly laundry service. Johnson’s beef was with the modern world of “moral decay” and “piss-stinking shopping centres”, “bruised and confused by life’s little ironies”. I etched his edict on my chest: “Something always goes wrong when things are going right.” At least, I felt-tipped it into my diary. If The The were about anything, it was pithy epigrams you could adopt as your own.

How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself?

I can’t give you up ’till I’ve got more than enough.

You’re just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country

How quickly I came to rely like life support on these seven lengthy compositions of aching urban melancholy with a martial beat, Johnson’s voice not technically brilliant, but authentic, low, growling, wounded, soulful and gamely straining for truth. Andy Duncan was the drummer on four sevenths of the LP, including keystone track Uncertain Smile (which had been a single in a prior version, laid down in New York with flute and saxophone for the US label and substantially re-recorded in London for the LP). His vivid, metronomic beats sound deceptively electronic in origin, but to the trained ear their analogue warmth comes through in the fills. The whipcrack style, followed through, is a signature of the album. Soul Mining is a suite that holds its sonic nerve.

A constantly revolving door of 14 musicians are credited on Soul Mining (16 if you count David Johansen and Harry Beckett who provided harmonica and trumpet for Perfect, later added to the record), including Orange Juice’s Zeke Manyika on drums when Duncan isn’t, and yet it abides a Matt Johnson joint.

Surely his most famous guest star among the multitude is Jools Holland. In 1983 not yet a national treasure at the BBC – in fact, only two years as an ex-member of Squeeze, and just carving out a presenter’s niche on The Tube – lays down what might ordinarily be boxed off as a piano solo but is in truth no such thing on Uncertain Smile. Originally intended as the traditional break in proceedings but spliced together from two takes, it not only engorges the song with improvised musicality, it gives it a second act. Who said there are none of those in pop?

Uncertain Smile could, by rights, be faded down at three minutes and nobody would have asked for their money back. It’s already a copper-bottomed attention-grabbing lament to romantic loss and solipsistic regret, whose heartbreak is grounded by references to pouring sweat, watering eyes, howling wind, “orange-coloured shapes” and the unpleasant sensation of “peeling the skin back” from your eyes. While lacking the basic verse-chorus-verse infrastructure (it’s more intro-verse-instrumental-bridge-verse-instrumental), it’s not really an experimental proposition: boom-thwack drum beat, strummed acoustic, synth chords, insistent guitar riff, some doo-doo-doos, and a protagonist who wakes up in his pit, misses his ex-girlfriend and tries to pull himself together.

After the requisite three minutes, it has done its work – moved your toes, mined your soul, made you think about your own sorry life, inserted a nagging refrain under your skin (“where the rain can’t get in”) and left you wanting more. But it’s not over yet. There is more.

At 3.25, Jools sets suavely yet demonically about his boogie-woogie piano and, for the next three virtuoso minutes, makes a watertight case against any future swipes at his propensity to ruin a perfectly good rendition on Later with a twelve-bar blues workout on the ivories. He may have become a willing parody of himself as the years have varnished his reputation and sealed him inside that suit, but Jools is an incredible pianist, a musician raised in an era where virtuosity was ideologically discouraged, and rather than work against the clipped, aphoristic protestations of Johnson, he effectively takes the baton from him and offers a “reply” to the talky stuff that’s gone before.

The result is a game of two halves that beat as one. I know Jools’ solo so well I can air-finger it on imaginary keys. God help us all if there was an actual piano there.

Matt Johnson hasn’t recorded as The The since 2000. He’s into soundtracks now. He was into soundtracks then, come to think of it. Uncertain Smile certainly scored my life at a difficult age, when the idea of a perfect day seemed anathema. And even though the shopping centres no longer stink of piss (maybe they never did), it’s still soundtracks my life and the moral decay that’s still gnawing at the heart of the country.

Faces, Ooh La La (1973)

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Artist: Faces
Title: Ooh La La
Description: album track, Ooh La La
Label: Warner Bros
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Poor old Granddad, I laughed at all his words

This song came to me, belatedly, thanks to Billy Bragg. That it eventually became the theme tune to my first sitcom, Grass, links it to Simon Day. Two of what I always self-mockingly call my “close personal showbiz friends.” (When I turned 40, I still presented Round Table on 6 Music, and was indulged to the point where I chose “all three” of my close personal showbiz friends as guests on the programme: Billy, Simon and Stuart Maconie.) It’s a glorious, sunshiny, folksy ditty about the passage of time and I do wish that I knew what I know now when I was forty.

While researching Billy’s official biography in the year after I left my day job at Q – when I was still, in fact, a journalist he’d met him on a number of professional occasions and subsequently vetted for the job of “Billy Bragg’s Boswell” – I invested in a lot of music that helped put me in the right place for total immersion in my willing and generous subject. I already had the Bragg records, of course, but I augmented them as the soundtrack to toil in my garret with all sorts of tangential tunes that footnoted Billy’s 40 years: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, some fine, lefty folk from Dick Gaughan and Leon Rosselson, Ronnie Lane’s solo stuff and – you’re ahead of me – the Faces.

I’d grown up with Rod Stewart’s greatest hits, but had, at that point, never thought to excavate his past. At Chelsea, my friend Rob regaled me with Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces and through it, I recognised the eccentric genius of Steve Marriott and by association Lane and Kenney Jones (who was on my radar as Keith Moon’s replacement due to a Tommy-led teenage yen for The Who). I know now, and I wish I’d known then, that the good ship Faces rose from the ashes of the Small Faces, with Rod at the prow. They had a good few years. And because Billy had grown up on them, I bought their third and fourth LPs, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse and Ooh La La.

It was Ooh La La in its rather disturbing, pale sleeve that announced itself as an instant favourite, and the title track (and album closer) was its irresistible highlight. I assumed that Rod Stewart sang it, just as he sang most of the other tracks, and pictured him doing so for many years, until dissuaded of this notion by the facts. It’s not even Ronnie Lane, who wrote or co-wrote most of the album. It’s Ronnie Wood’s filter-tipped tones with “all the words”, which makes the song even more special.

The plucked guitar and gently weeping violin of the intro, followed by the penny whistle which joins in with the riff, root the song in a pastoral setting. You imagine a canal, or a gypsy caravan, on a dewy early morning somewhere far from the industrial revolution, and far from the psychedelic underground. The flavour of much of the rest of the album is honky-tonk barrelhouse; Borstal Boys is siren-accompanied pub rock. This is the Faces unplugged. And what a restful way to go out.

Wood rasps of a two-generation gap, in which “poor old Grandad” is revealed not to be a “bitter man” after all, but a wise one, whose knowledge of “women’s ways” turns out to be hard-won, but something that can’t be easily handed down. He tells his grandson: “There’s nothing I can say/You’ll have to learn, just like me/And that’s the hardest way.” It’s a delicious lyric, full of tobacco-stained nostalgia for the can-can, some backstage paddock and the twinkling stars, and it speaks of the infinite power of womankind (“When you want her lips, you get her cheek”, a line I choose to interpret as physiological). Lane was not yet 30 when he penned it, Wood 26 when he sang it. But these men were worldly before their years.

A few years after the book, Still Suitable For Miners, was published, I met Simon Day at a prearranged “blind date” in the BBC canteen. His musical palate was broader and more catholic than my own; it ran from the Wu Tang Clan, over whose oeuvre we immediately bonded, to Steely Dan and America, who I’d yet to catch up with. Grass, which we wrote together, was about Billy Bleach, a permed man in his 40s who was cast from the world he knew in South East London into the wilderness of East Anglia via the Witness Protection Programme. It was the first line that Simon had latched onto, about laughing at all the words of “poor old Grandad”, and it seemed to sync with our protagonist, who feigned knowledge a lot of the time (on The Fast Show, Billy had been thumbnailed as “the pub bore”), but had innate wisdom all the same. He, too, was misunderstood, especially by the younger generation.

When you’re planning and writing a television programme in an airless room, you fantasise about its soundtrack as a way of getting through the day, and Simon and I succeeded in having (Careful) Click Click by the Wu Tang Clan as the accompaniment to a paranoid scene in Episode One on a bus, although it had to be replaced on the DVD due to rights issues. The Faces’ version of Ooh La La was our preferred theme tune. We dug in. It came to pass. Few people watched Grass when it aired on the just-rebranded BBC3 and BBC2 in 2003 and 2004 in those dark days before social media and iPlayer, but I hope a few of those who did appreciated the music. Eddie Marsan sings Hold Me Close by David Essex in his pants in a hotel room in one scene. I wish that was on YouTube. It was Babooshka by Kate Bush in the script, but Simon was on-set and will have approved the Essex.

Ooh La La, which is my favourite Rod Stewart song without him actually on it, has also been used in the film Rushmore, and, on TV, in Blackpool, Californication and Entourage. But it’ll always be the Grass theme to me. And a select handful of others.

Don’t ever let it show …

Talking Heads, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980)

TalkingHeadsRemaininLight

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Description: album track, Remain In Light
Label: Sire
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1984

It was Stephen King who got me into Talking Heads. Well, my friend Paul Garner, who got me into Stephen King and Talking Heads at the same time. It was early 1984, the year I would complete my one-year Art Foundation course at Nene College, where Paul – a like-minded cinephiliac contemporary from school who’d left before sixth form – was well on the way to a Diploma at the same local seat of learning. Band and horror novelist, whose twisted Americana held like-minded allure to a provincial lad straining at the artistic leash and already besotted with Hollywood movies as disparate as On The Waterfront, Halloween and Apocalypse Now, came together as one. 

Paul, one step ahead of me, lent me Remain In Light (their fourth album) and Carrie (King’s first) and Night Shift (his first collection) at around the same time. I devoured all three and went for the set in both cases. This was quite a slog with King, already up to his eighth or ninth under his own name, but with great enthusiasm comes fast reading. All three previous Heads LPs, and the next, went onto cassette and when Little Creatures was released a year later, it was my first contemporaneous purchase. Likewise, with King, in paperback, Christine. (It was only in later years, postgraduate and with disposable income, that Paul and I began to buy them in hardback.) If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ll recall that heady thrill of discovery and how it tore through everything like a cyclone.

Imagery and story linked CBGBs band and horror author, although a cosmic alignment suggested itself when, during my reading of The Dead Zone (an early favourite for both of us), Psycho Killer from Talking Heads ’77 gave up the line, “Can’t sleep, my bed’s on fire.” In the story, extra-sensorily perceptive Johnny Smith has a vision of being in a burning child’s bedroom. (It’s in the Cronenberg film, which we saw on video that year.) This was all meant to be.

David Byrne’s lyrics snared me in. “Look over there, a dry ice factory, good place to get some thinking done,” he explained, seemingly in some kind of panic (“I’m a little freaked out”), on Cities, from Fear Of Music, a restless road movie waiting to be adapted by David Lynch (Memphis is the “home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks”, and when he smells “home cooking” it turns out to be “only the river”). But I think what made Talking Heads unique to me in a way that only mining David Bowie’s back catalogue for C90s had ever done before is that every single track had something to recommend it. Even the more spidery early stuff. Not a single song went by without some twang, or chord-change, or vocal quirk that made it different to everything else.

With a percussive mistake, an explosion of cymbal and a whipcrack toe-stubbing exclamation from Byrne, Born Under Punches opens Remain In Light in fidgety, wired, ants-in-pants style, although you’ll have to forgive me, I played Side Two of my first ever Talking Heads LP before Side One because it had the single Once In A Lifetime on it, which, a surprise UK hit, was my passport over the border. (It wasn’t until C4’s proto-Adam Curtis, cut-up documentary Once In A Lifetime aired later that year – coloquially known as Talking Heads Vs. Television – that I truly appreciated the “world music” aspect of Byrne’s appetite, including the sign and body language behind the famous Once In A Lifetime video.) Remain In Light has not a weak link, from the jerky pop to the more morose meditations on Side Two, but Born Under Punches is the one that really throws its weight around for me. (Crosseyed And Painless really picks up the twitchy baton, and The Great Curve is no slouch, but both feel relatively controlled in comparison.)

A chattering, Brian Eno-doctored mutant of guitars, squeals and beats speaks in musical tongues, while Byrne, a perspiring Norman Bates-like figure, affects a near-parody of the possessed funk vocalist (“I’m a tumbler … I’m so thin … Take a look at these hands … Some of you people just about missed it … Thank you! Thank you!”) With repeated phrases and half-phrases, coming back on each other in the round, the lyric, such as it is, behaves more like beat poetry. As with the dancing, there’s so much going on behind it. Who is “the Government man”? Why are the hands “passing inbetween us”? In what way was the tumbler “born under punches”?

Talking Heads pose way more questions than they answer, and so be it. This is collegiate new wave taken to vertiginous heights of theoretical tease. When even the hand jive has subtext, it’s little wonder the words have you reaching for books. And so it was that Talking Heads burrowed into my consciousness at the same time as Stephen King’s vivid tales of domestic equilibrium shattered by supernatural events.

When I thought I had it in me to write a novel, the first title I came up with was Born Under Punches. It looked superb in capital letters. But I checked it on Amazon and unfortunately someone had already nabbed it. Not that you should ever start with a title if you’re writing a novel. I fully intended to have a Government man in it, and a backstory about domestic violence (born under punches) and a subplot about hand signals. It would have been amazing.

I stopped buying Stephen King’s books when they came out at the end of the 90s, but I did see him read from Bag Of Bones onstage at the South Bank in ’98 and it was pretty cool. Never did see Talking Heads, although I went to CBGBs and it was pretty horrible.

Don’t even mention it!

Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002)

JCashAmericanIV

Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002

Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.

It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.

Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.

Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …

Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).

To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.

When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”

Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.

We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”

Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

I haven’t even mentioned the video.

Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988)

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Artist: Happy Mondays
Title: Mad Cyril
Description: album track, Bummed
Label: Factory
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1989

I like that. Turn it up

As a journalist I was locked out of the Happy Mondays love-in somewhat during their Madchester reign in the late 80s and early 90s. Never really in the gang. Right haircut, wrong time. Not from the North like my NME compatriots Stuart Maconie and James Brown, nor an iconoclastic rottweiler like Steven Wells, who was deployed to go in for the kill when the clock struck “knock ’em down”, I remained a fan throughout. By the time I arrived at Select in 1993, where the Mondays were as good as a “house band”, again I found myself in a long queue behind Miranda Sawyer (who had perhaps the closest geographical affiliation of all and yet nobly sought the inconvenient truth for the famous “difficult fourth album” cover story), editor Andrew Harrison, and other embedded feature writers like Andrew Perry. I watched from the sidelines as Shaun Ryder, Bez, Horse, Cow and crew were mingled with and written about in the scallydelic, draw-sucking, lolloping gait of the era.

I finally pulled my numbered ticket from the deli-counter dispenser in 1997, by which time Shaun was the leader of Black Grape, an incarnation way more successful off the blocks than anybody could have hoped. For their underwhelming second album, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, I got to hang out in a locked municipal park in West London for the photos and back at a hotel posh enough to have Chris Eubank’s tank (registration: “KO 1”) parked up on the kerb outside and to serve mushy peas in a ramekin. We spoke of many things, most memorably his new domestic bliss in southern Ireland with new partner Oriole Leitch, their passionate relationship perfectly summed up by the argument they’d had before he’d left their Irish getaway, which involved the Little Hulton tearaway, 35, tipping a Pot Noodle over “her favourite Buddha” which sat in the fireplace, “facing the right way and everything”, and ramming her favourite £700 hoover up the chimney. He was top company and he loved those mushy peas. Now I knew why all of those journalists who’d gone before me since 1987 had been so reluctant to come home.

It is with the luxury of hindsight that we may elevate the magnificent musical output of the Happy Mondays – whose loose-fit gang mentality and garrulous sociability made them so alluring to be around – to the podium. For me, Martin Hannett’s Bummed and Osborne and Oakenfold’s chart-cracking follow-up Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, are among the cornerstone recordings of the glorious, terraces-pacifying “white men dancing” epoch. (It was the Southern fop Danny Kelly who identified Ecstasy’s greatest achievement in the 1990 Granada documentary Celebration: The Sound Of The North as its ability to make white men dance. I was in the background on that, too, while Maconie walked purposefully past me, taking the Lancastrian lead.)

I select Mad Cyril from a number of contenders to marker-flag the Mondays’ apex. They also captured the hooded-top/blue-Rizla zeitgeist with Hallelujah, WFL, Lazyitis, Step On, 24 Hour Party People and Kinky Afro (“Son, I’m thirty, I only went with your mother ’cos she’s dirty”) but if a single four-and-a-half minutes seal in amber what made this Salford Family Stone the greatest rock’n’roll band in Britain for a brief period, it’s the dizzying charge of Mad Cyril, with its taped-off-the-telly dialogue samples, that crashing rhythm from Gary Whelan and those migraine synth bursts from Paul Davis, or possibly sonic overlord Hannett himself (it’s impossible to know who’s responsible for what individual sound in a madhouse Hannett production, usually committed to tape in the early hours).

It’s easy to imagine the Mondays bonging out to Performance on video in some rented room near Whalley Range. Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s fabled meditation on fatal fame and identity theft has it all for the new-lad cinephile stoner: gangsters, nostalgia, cars, violence, Jagger, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Big Audio Dynamite raided it first, for the quickstep E=MC2 in 1985, but there’s plenty of Cockney banter to go round, herein such muffled, isolated gems as the opening mission statement, “We’ve been courteous!”, the definitive, “I need a Bohemian atmosphere,” and the sinister shopping list, “It’s a right pisshole … long hair, beatniks, druggers, freeloaders.”

Amid these Carnaby-Street cinematic conundrums, Ryder does what he always does and does best: testify and swear. Are you ready? Let’s go. “Although our music and our drugs stayed the same,” he reasons, “Although our interests and our music stayed the same, we went together, fuckers from the well, we smoked together and we slipped down in hell.” This beat poetry from the back-bar Bukowski or – according to the late, kingmaking Tony Wilson – the Wine Lodge Yeats, gives vital shape to what is otherwise a near formless barrage of noise.

Subsequent Mondays classics cleave more conventionally to the baggy beat and summon sleaze and summertime from a slower, more sophisticated groove. Their older cousin in the attic plays with madness, a half-cut, Kit-Kat-wrapper cacophony from inside a padded room. And a right old performance. Turn it up.

No longer the big draw, but a hero to most, Shaun Ryder has settled into a self-parodic dotage made thrilling by his very survival and we should salute him. Not all the beatniks, druggers and freeloaders made it.

It was Mad Cyril …

The Farm, All Together Now (1990)

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Artist: The Farm
Title: All Together Now
Description: single, album track Spartacus
Label: Sony
Release date: 1990
First heard: 1990

I was accused by someone on Twitter of “studied disinterest” when I announced on the popular social media site that I had no interest in being “cool” at my age, before recommending Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album a full ten months after its release because I’ve only just bought it. This disinterest was not studied, which is why I blocked my accuser. No song in The 143 has been selected for any other reason other than I love it. I loved it then and I love it still. If I was concerned about how this list looked, I would be a fraud.

I love All Together Now by The Farm. If the band were ever truly fashionable it will surely have been before this song lodged itself in the national psyche across all castes, creeds and colours (by which I mean football colours). At that point, having cracked it, commercially after many, many years’ service in the trenches of regional indie and fanzine legitimacy, The Farm made the most of a transfer window and went overground, forever thereafter the property of people at wedding discos. It has been some years since I was among those five or six good men and true, but I rather think they are enjoying their “people’s longevity”.

They have the keys to Liverpool, figuratively it not actually, and occupy the same post-punk Scouse pantheon as Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns, Ian McNabb, Holly Johnson, Julian Cope, Ian Broudie and, although it would annoy him, Lee Mavers. Such figures do not drift in and out of fashion, they exist in perpetuity in collective local mythology rooted in the Cavern and Merseybeat. All Together Now is a sentimental song, made in a sentimental city, sung by sentimental people then and now, in sentimental situ. And it would be easy to belittle it by practitioners of studied disinterest. (Its sentimentality, by the way, is nothing to do with the sort of civic stereotype that saw Boris Johnson visit the city, cap in hand, to apologise for belittling the Liverpudlian character in the Spectator in 2004, in an article that also perpetuated lies about Hillsborough that have since been legally quashed, forever.)

A “terrace singalong” is how it might be dismissed by people who’ve never stepped foot on a terrace, or sang along. But community singing is important, and if there is no community (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed, as she set about destroying them), then if a song momentarily makes you feel like there might be one, it has done its job. In this respect, you’ll never walk alone.

The Farm and their mentor Suggs (who took them in hand) seized their moment as the 80s jigged into the 90s and years of marginal struggle coalesced into right-place-right-time-right-trainers relevance. With fashionable production on their side, this band of brothers gave it everything they had and found a chart-topping album within, Spartacus. Their thumbs-up bonhomie didn’t hurt. The Farm once gave me a tour of Liverpool that took us from Walton Gaol to Robert Tressell’s grave and we had our photo taken at a Yates’, one that I still treasure. Unlike the Madchester bands, The Farm came with added socialism.

Using Johann Pachelbel’s Canon In D as its kicking-off point – a common pop nick in the 60s, but audacious in ’90 nonetheless – All Together Now uses the gentle orchestral waft and a plangent rising guitar signature from co-writer Steve Grimes to lull the listener into a false sense of decorum before a pull on the bass ignites what historians will identify as a textbook “indie-dance” groove. If all this song did was lay a trendy backbeat under a classical riff, it would be worth a cursory listen and a tap of the trainer, but Peter Hooton’s voice and lyric are what cause a studio lark to ascend.

It’s distant and high, more delicate than anything the Happy Mondays would attempt (and neither should they have done), gloriously augmented by the mighty Pete Wylie on backing vocals, and sets out a bold stall, for this is a song about the Great War when “baggy” songs tended to be about lager and rainbows. “Remember boy that your forefathers died,” he entreats, a man as capable of tomfoolery and wisecracks as any burgher of Liverpool, but not messing about herein. “Lost in millions for a country’s pride … But they never mention the trenches of Belgium, when they stopped fighting and they were one.”

The England-Germany truce is a well-worn, proto-pacifist fairytale with a mile-wide target on its back for the creatively bereft, suitable for all ages and shamelessly exploited by a supermarket chain to sell chocolate at Christmas. It even contains a kickabout which might have been a cynical button-pushing exercise in the hands of the insincere, but who else in the hedonistic Italia ’90 theme party along the M62 was singing about “a spirit stronger than war” on a “cold, clear and bright” night in December 1914? Not Northside. The Farm were like baggy’s older brothers. They’d been round the block. They were granted certain privileges. It didn’t take much to be a militant tendency in that largely apolitical landscape.

All together now? What a sappy deal, eh? Arms around each other. Blokes hugging. Scarves in the air. Tears in beer. Working Men’s clubs. The further away we get from No Man’s Land in December 1914 and successive outbreaks of togetherness among fighting men, the more vital such sappiness arguably becomes. The Farm’s moment in the sun seemed all too brief, but they abide, with at least one certified anthem suitable for sporting tournaments and occasions of national unity. You write a song like this, and you are forced to bequeath it to whichever group of people have gathered together in hired hall or sports stadium to sing it. All Together Now sorts out the fashionable from the unfashionable, and who’d want to be cordoned off among the first group?

Studied interest? No, just abandon, bejewelled with treasured memories of all the voluble, winking Liverpudlians I met when working for the NME meant getting the hell out of London on a weekly basis. If The Farm were waiting for you at Lime Street, you were alright.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

NickCaveTenderprey

Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.