My Bloody Valentine, Soon (1990)

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Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Title: Soon
Description: EP track, Glider; album track, Loveless
Label: Creation
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1990

In the 1970s, Queen would guarantee by way of a recurring sleeve note that “no synthesisers were used” in the making of their records. I always read this as a snotty form of dinosaurial purism. But Kevin Shields, the big brain and dextrous fingers of My Bloody Valentine, might have revived the very same badge of honour in the 1980s and 90s. For he, too, was proud to have created his band’s distinct sound using guitars, played live. Except with a spot of glissando.

My Bloody Valentine were just two Irishmen and two English women who walked into a bar and made some noise, and yet they were legend. The story of the band’s diffident second album Loveless is a fable well told, the hard facts of its recording as distorted as the sounds heard within it. How much it actually cost – beyond the band’s future patronage at Creation – becomes less relevant with every passing year. As with Brian May’s, time cannot wither My Bloody Valentine’s sound, because it emerged from places unidentified between the plectrum and the magnetic tape that enshrined it, and as such has never faded from vitality and relevance.

If Loveless reminds us of that awkward transition from the 80s into the 90s – and it was recorded as one decade metamorphosed into the other – it is little more than bald historical statute: that is when we first heard it. But if Soon encapsulates its era with that nod to what we used to call “indie-dance” – MBV’s own fuzzy mutation of the shuffle beat, buried deep in the miasma – there endeth its bondage to fashion.

I interviewed the whole band on the eve of release of Loveless for an NME cover story in their manager’s front room in Streatham. As a devotee of their squall since Isn’t Anything I was proud to do so, even if the on-paper results were tongue-tied and sensation-free. (It was just around the corner from where I lived at the time, which was handy.) This is a band whose music speaks for itself; at least, it speaks with more clarity than the mere mortals who make it. But let us lose ourselves in these seven minutes of mystery and see what comes out in the wash.

“The vaguest music ever to get into the charts,” according to a lecture given by Professor Brian Eno at the New York Museum Of Modern Art in 1990, Soon is the track most like and yet most unlike My Bloody Valentine at that particular equinox, a band whose kind of magic seemed unbottleable then.

You should listen to Soon in the context of Loveless. (It was previously chucked out on the Glider EP in April 1990 to appease a panicked Alan McGee as far as I can tell, while its parents shuttled like refugees between 18 studios around London until the autumn of 1991). It begins with the end: the dying, eddying embers of previous track What You Want.

Like everything My Bloody Valentine did from one end of Loveless to the other (and Soon lies at the other end), it sounds as if it were hewn from interference insomnia and something gaseous. “That” drum pattern, unlike its equivalent on a record by, say, the Mock Turtles or the Milltown Brothers, seems to work against the rest of the song rather than with it. It emerges from a near-militaristic snare doodle that may in fact have been affected by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig using sticks on a skin and then sampled and looped into the mix by Shield. (Ó Cíosóig only plays live on two tracks, which is two more than bassist Deb Googe and guitarist Bilinda Butcher.)

I won’t tie myself up in knots locating each instrument in this sonic equivalent of one of those pantomimic equations scrawled madly across a huge blackboard in films about genius. If in doubt, it’s a guitar, treated at the point of purchase using the tremelo arm of fable, then treated again a bit afterwards using some supernatural combination of pre-amp equalisers, whatever they may be. But the real treat is for our ears. To understand precisely how Shields did it would be to let light in upon magic. And there’s light here in abundance: bright, blinding, infinite, and liable to leave an imprint.

It’s not an unconventional song. It has a beat, an intro, singing, riffs. In the first sequence, a spellbinding repeat pattern throbs with ecstasy and wine, and we’re in good, happy company. And then, at 44 seconds, where there was harmony, Shields brings the first note of discord. Out of this comes Bilinda Butcher’s indistinct, woozy dream-state vocal – her lovely singing voice always a fourth “instrument” in Shields’ vision – and a narcotic state of grace is achieved. Verse? Chorus? Both and neither. Do not let the funky beat confuse you. This is a night at the opera.

I almost chose To Here Knows When as the ultimate My Bloody Valentine track – this album’s fourth: in essence the sound of an analgesic working on a headache for five minutes and 31 beautiful seconds – or the dolphin call of I Only Said, which never fails to alleviate symptoms of angst with its afternoon’s delights. In many ways, you could argue for the 49-minute entirety of Loveless as My Bloody Valentine’s greatest song. But Soon puts a tin hat on the record, unafraid of shape and form, a battler after mainstream acceptance. Shields and MBV always operated outside the tent, pitching in, and never bestrode the world like Queen. Too vaporous to handle. Too shrouded in mystery. Too much. Too Jung. But their place in history is now assured. The comeback and the third album in 2013 proved that they can still do whatever it is that they did.

Soon fades for about 20 seconds. But instead of knobs being turned, it is the sound of an idea being dissembled. It will rock you.

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Sex Pistols, Pretty Vacant (1977)

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Artist: Sex Pistols
Title: Pretty Vacant
Description: single; album track, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1979

The killing joke is that the first punk single I bought with my own pocket money, aged 13, was Somethin’ Else by the Sex Pistols. This was in March 1979, a month after the death of Sid Vicious and over a year since the band broke up onstage at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. This was the Sex Pistols’ testimonial year, the year of flogging a dead horse, the year The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle provided their patchwork, cartoon legacy and four hit singles that didn’t have Johnny Rotten on them. I signed on for punk the year that punk was dead, the year, according to England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage, that “Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and there was no way of piecing him together.” Ever get the feeling I’d been cheated?

I neither knew nor cared; in that formative year for me, the Sex Pistols were my favourite band, and records kept coming out with their ransom-note logo on, so I bought those with my pocket money too. My appreciation of their story, and their historical context, came subsequently. By the end of that year, I was fully versed in their short back catalogue. In 1980, when I formed my first bedroom band, DDT, with Pete Sawtell, Pretty Vacant was one of our first attempts at a cover. (Also, You’ve Got My Number by the Undertones.) Pete played guitar; I sang and played “drums”, which were two bike tyre levers and a Tupperware tub. There were no printed lyrics to Pretty Vacant, so we guessed them: “I’ve just remembered a germ can fly,” sticks in my head. I have never been able to place a Sex Pistols single higher than Pretty Vacant ever since.

The Pistols have passed through the cleansing fires of history more than once. They’ve been sanctified and dismissed, inflated and belittled, shouted from the rooftops and stuck in the bargain basement. The passage of time seems to oversimplify and overcomplicate punk simultaneously. In recent weeks, John Lydon has been making headlines by having a pop at Russell Brand for advocating anarchy and revolution, which is confusing, but then Lydon is 58 and he did it first. Pretty Vacant earned the Pistols their first Top Of The Pops appearance and Single Of The Year in the NME, and yet it’s always overshadowed by Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen, for self-evident narrative reasons. For all its tuneful bluster and gut-level impact, it seems not to define the band or provide a handy shortcut for makers of music documentaries. It lacks highlighter-pen buzzwords like “Antichrist”, “IRA” or “Belsen” (“Bel-sunn-ah”), and the poetry of “there’s no future in England’s dreaming” or “flowers in the dustbin”. But I don’t care.

Steve Jones’ surprisingly intricate intro, which hangs in the air longer than you might expect from a music thumbnailed as nasty, brutish and short, is then duffed up by Paul Cook’s heftily pummeled drums and what we may assume is a spectral bassline also supplied by Jones (Sid was not encouraged to the album sessions and apparently had hepatitis at the time anyway). By the time Lydon, or Rotten, sneers into earshot, it’s crashing around with suitable violence but the arrangement never takes its foot off the floor or loses its balance. Jones and Cook would require a bulldozer to knock over when in their extra-sensory pomp. There may be little finesse in the guitar shadowing the vocal, but this is not dumb music.

For a band all about turning up, saying something outrageous and pissing off, Never Mind The Bollocks always takes you aback with its subtleties, wit and tunes, satisfactorily and perhaps against all odds marshalled by producer Chris Thomas. And Pretty Vacant, the little song that could, has to fend for itself, with a lyric about very little and only Lydon’s bear-baiting emphasis on the second syllable of “vay-cunt-ah” to cause offence. You could even pick up the tune and guitar parts and lay them over a Thin Lizzy song, but where’s the dishonour in that? Both bands were talented, commercial hitmakers. (And of course Cook and Jones ended up playing with them.)

Pretty Vacant is both pretty and vacant. How about that? The lyric is adamant it will not give anything up and says so: “There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply.” (Jamie Reid’s sleeve cunningly depicts an empty frame.) What’s more, “You’ll always find us … out to lunch.” In other words, you won’t find them at all. By the way, could there be a less “punk” place to find them than out to lunch, whether literally or figuratively? I find the whole song so playful. It’s of a piece with the future, Rottenless confection Silly Thing (“Oh you silly thing, you’ve really gone and done it now”). The Pistols weren’t all concentration camps and fascist regimes.

“Stop your cheap comment, ’cos we know how we feel.”

Lydon builds a wall around himself lyrically and yet somehow, invites you in. There’s joy in the chorus (“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty,” they mouth off, Lydon enunciating the hard “t” with feeling), no matter how much the band might protest to not care. I never can quite match it up with Glenn Matlock’s claim that the riff was stolen from ABBA’s S.O.S., but I like the idea.

I will intellectualise this visceral slab of discontent no further. It is what it is: a band who could write and play, writing and playing with verve and wry humour and the occasional flourish, captured in their moment and giving the idea of punk some actual bollocks.

A Certain Ratio, Shack Up (1980)

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Artist: A Certain Ratio
Title: Shack Up
Description: single
Label: Factory Benelux
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1981

Wipe out the problems of our society …

White men may be incapable of jumping. But they can funk. A Certain Ratio, from Wythenshawe, Manchester, England, were no average white band. Named after a line in a Brian Eno song and slyly sent up in 24 Hour Party People for their experimental benign-Hitler-youth outfits – but rightly slotted into the Factory story, of which they were an immortal chapter – ACR had everything a Tony Wilson signing ought to have had (he personally managed them), except success. They notched up Peel sessions and glad-handed their way to a major label advance from A&M in the late 80s, but their aching cool never comfortably converted into commercial welly. Shack Up remains their pinnacle. They didn’t write it, but why quibble over administration? They made it their own.

The United Artists original, by Banbarra (Moe Daniel and Joseph Carter), came out in the States in 1975, over here a year later, and went unheard, certainly by me. It’s a robustly funky, Chic-indebted number with a progressive lyric (“We can love together, work together, sleep together, so why can’t we live together?”) and some swooning female backing singers, but once you’ve heard A Certain Ratio do Shack, you can’t go back.

It’s the ideal copy. The arrangement and the grouting are identical and the original’s drum fills are reproduced almost to the beat by light-fingered, multi-faceted ACR drummer Donald Johnson (whose work was, I maintain, as key to the band’s appeal as Tony Thompson’s was to Chic or Dennis Davis’s to golden-years Bowie). Hearing the two version in the wrong order – as I did, as many kids of my generation must have done: 1980 followed by 1975 – means that Shack Up introduces itself as something spidery and troubling, and then becomes something straightforward and prosaic. Don’t be shy; play them back to back. Neither will ruin the other. But ACR’s version of events is coloured by the northern industrial city that staged it. Martin Moscrop’s Chic-steeped approximation of the guitar sounds just out of tune enough to introduce a prole art threat. As they tear into the funk, the band sound like they could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. I love that.

My memory of the vinyl record is linked to my school pal Craig, who must have been the one who owned it. (We were file-sharing before records were files.) Craig taught himself to play the bass as we already had a guitarist and you’ve got to love the sheer practicality of that. He will have been encouraged to do so by records as funky as Shack Up. (When we did form a band, we dabbled in funk. I learned rimshot for those occasions and listened to a lot of Pigbag.) The turn of the decade was rich with new sounds, new styles. Some days you didn’t know where to look. We had no contact with A Certain Ratio: never saw them on telly (although I expect they were on So It Goes), don’t remember reading an interview with them in Smash Hits, couldn’t have told you their names, never saw them live. Their angular name and the autumnal potato prints of the Shack Up sleeve were all we had to go on. But it was sufficient.

I remember one disco at a hired Pavilion in those Northampton days where, unfathomably, the DJ played Shack Up and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag. We in the pleated trousers and check shirts flew onto the dancefloor like dandies possessed and did our angular, jerky dancing. I will have expertly attempted to mime Johnson’s itchy drum break using my elbows and wrists, not that anybody would have appreciated it in Billing.

We stood, or elbow-danced, at the dawning of a new era. Punk had collided with funk and London had ceded control of the ball. In the Granada region, whose hip magazine shows we did not get in Anglia, a head of steam was forming. A Certain Ratio, whose first album came out on cassette only, sat at the revolution’s fulcrum for a brief moment. Some of us two motorways away from Manchester noticed. Not everybody did. And we jumped.