Buzzcocks, Boredom (1977)

BuzzcocksSpiral

Artist: Buzzcocks
Title: Boredom
Description: EP track, Spiral Scratch
Label: New Hormones
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1979

Boredom, boredom, boredom

I own three vinyl copies of the Spiral Scratch EP. I’d like to say the first one is the 1977 original. But it isn’t. (I hadn’t even graduated to buying the NME in 1977, so I would have had no knowledge of the EP’s groundbreaking existence.) My earliest copy is the 1979 reissue, which I bought with pocket money the moment I’d seen it reviewed in the NME, and will be identifiable when it turns up on Antiques Roadshow by the addition “with Howard Devoto” under the band’s name. The other two copies in my collection must date from 1991 when Spiral Scratch was reissued again by Document, although one of these is either signed by all four members of the band, or possibly signed by a PR, who has gone to the trouble of using different pens for each Buzzcock. Since I did not attain these signatures myself, nor can I verify their provenance, I will assume they are faked and worth nothing. (I did meet Pete Shelley once, but in a professional capacity, so I was hardly going to take a record along and get his autograph.)

Spiral Scratch is often cited as one of the most important seven-inch releases in British music history. Not the first independent record, obviously, or the first punk record, but one that heralded the birth of the post-punk independent era, so lovingly and fluently chronicled in those  staples on the rock’n’roll curriculum Rip It Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds and My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize by David Cavanagh. It’s a tale well worth telling and told well; one that combines British industry, British creativity and British rebellion, while it lasted.

To quote Reynolds: “Spiral Scratch was simultaneously a regionalist blow against the capital (Manchester versus London) and a conceptual exercise in demystification (spiral scratch, because that’s what a record materially is).” In other words, it combined geography, business studies and art – very much indie’s A-level choices.

Some industrial context: when the initial, 1,000-copy run of Spiral Scratch was unleashed in January 1977, The Clash were signed to CBS, the Sex Pistols were between contracts with EMI and A&M, and The Damned were singed to Stiff, ergo distributed by EMI. Spiral Scratch was self-funded from recording and mixing (by far-out northern kingpin Martin Hannett) to pressing and distribution. It was made without anyone’s permission. Buzzcocks became the first band to start their own record label, New Hormones, and they did it out of burning necessity. This was the spirit of punk.

Urk!

That the grooves also thrum with that spirit is more than coincidental. Boredom is regarded as the lead-off track, although it’s actually the first song on the B-side. It encapsulates everything that’s on the borrowed money about this EP, tossed off, you might say, in five hours (including the mix), and yet unimpeachable. Time’s Up is almost a jazz odyssey at just over three minutes, while Breakdown and Friends Of Mine come in at roughly two apiece. Boredom is a shade under three, but part of its nihilistic alchemy arises from repetition, a chugging beat and the insistence of Pete Shelley’s skeletal solo. Boredom was a key tenet of punk rock, the refusal to be entertained by that which was intended to entertain, and many lesser pop units than Buzzcocks attempted and failed to bottle its essence. Songs about boredom tend towards the boring; not this one. It might even be ironic.

B’dum, b’dum

Later enshrined by Edwyn Collins into Rip It Up, a breezily upbeat pop tune of the early 80s indie enlightenment, Boredom‘s nee-naw guitar signature makes this the Smoke On The Water of punk. Devoto’s sneering, priapic, nattering vocal is essential to this early maquette of post-punk futurism. When he insists that you “get your hand out of my trousers,” the very tragedy of male insecurity is encapsulated in just a few short syllables, yelled out as if from the sexual confusion of an upside-down world. Devoto would no longer be “with the Buzzcocks” after these four songs, but what a hysterically apposite contribution he made to their legend.

Humdrum-drum

Pete Shelley’s voice was, and is, so much more harmonic and heartbreaking than Devoto’s deadpan but perhaps it would have flowered up the attack. Devoto strains to keep up with the choppy thrust of the song (“ring-a-ring-a-ring-a-fucking-thing”) and the go-faster drums of John Maher, but it works. He even seems to acknowledge the very shelf life of the song he’s singing:

You see there’s nothing behind me
I’m already a has-been
My future ain’t what it was

I loved it because I was frightened. The Buzzcocks made many more glorious pop songs, more sophisticated, more acceptable, more whistleable, but Boredom and its three comrades on this historic EP are the mother lode, the creation myth, the spring, the source, the core. Devoto would go on to front Magazine and take the bendiness of this early incarnation to lengthier, more literate and apocalyptic ends over four intoxicatingly nihilistic albums. Buzzcocks themselves, minus Devoto, would tighten up into an even more flamboyant post-punk platoon, full of hits, colour and discipline.

From this early acorn did so much powerful modern music – and an entire economy – grow.

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Killah Priest, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (1995)

GZALiquid-Swords

Artist: Killah Priest
Title: B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
Description: album track, Liquid Swords (credited to Genius/GZA); album track, Heavy Mental (credited to Killah Priest)
Label: Geffen/MCA
Release date: 1995; 1998
First heard: 2000

The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
And, uh, the second son of Pope Alexand-uh
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome

A curious case. Liquid Swords is the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan key man and co-founder GZA (aka The Genius), recorded and released in the hiatus between the first and second Wu-Tang albums in 1995. Like most Wu solo projects, it involves the majority of the Clan and numerous satellites in at least a guest capacity: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God and Masta Killa. It was recorded and produced by RZA.

So what’s the 13th and final track, B.I.B.L.E., all about? Despite a performance credit to GZA/The Genius “featuring” Killah Priest, it is, to all intents and purposes, a solo piece by Priest, then a Wu affiliate but not a full, card-carrying member. The artist born Walter Reed is best known for his group Sunz Of Man, who released two albums in 1998 and 2002. He has since severed ties with the Wu. If this isn’t interesting to you, I hope it at least goes some way to illuminating the complex, internecine, cross-hatched nature of the Wu-Tang family.

Having enrolled the Wu-Tang Clan’s Let My Niggas Live into The 143 – for me, a supreme example of teamwork – I’m left with a well twice as deep filled with Wu-Tang solo records. A number are registered classics among the rapuscenti: Tical by Method Man, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is where, as they say, we at.

As a long-player, it run on samples from a 1980 marital arts film I have never seen, and am unlikely ever to see, Shogun Assassin. Such snippets of dialogue, usually dubbed into English and badly, are a thread that runs through the entire Wu canon. But no such find a place on B.I.B.L.E., the album’s final track, left off certain formats. Why? Perhaps because it appears to have very little to do with GZA, whose name does not even appear in the song’s credits. Quite what it’s doing on the LP is a mystery to me.

And yet, it makes sense, as it’s nothing like the rest of the album, and it comes at the very end, like the bonus it appears to be. It’s produced by 4th Disciple, an enduring Wu knobsman with prod and co-prod credits on the output of most principal members and the Clan themselves on Wu-Tang Forever (he also turntabled on Enter The Wu-Tang). So, B.I.B.L.E. is canon, but not. Run on a looped rhythm from the final track (apt!) of 1972 Ohio Players LP Pleasure – the eerie, hiccuping, childlike cry is presumably singer Robert Ward, hamming it up – it moves at an unhurried pace, creating a lowdown, smoky vibe, entirely suited to the earnest sermon thereupon.

Not a single curse-word passes its lips. You can play it on the radio. I did play it on the radio. (I think the first time I did I credited it to GZA and was quickly pulled up on my mistake.) As verbose as many a core Wu-Tang piece, its chorus is a soothing repeat of the “basic instructions before leaving earth” refrain and the lyric actually bears examination. That this investigation into Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and imagery is not tossed off quickly becomes clear. “Life is a test,” he testifies, referring to “research”, which involved feeling “joy an’ the hurt.”

He spools back to when he was 12 years old in Bedford-Stuyvesant and presumably still called Walter (“I loved doin’ right, but I was trapped in Hell”). It’s a moving stanza about “mad ideas, sad eyes an’ tears” and “years of fears.” This church-going, juvenile “search for truth” ended when Priest found his own priest wanting: “souped up with lies,” he recalls.

Durin’ the service, he swallowed up the poor
An’ after they heard this, they wallowed on the floor
But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold
An’ watched mysteries unfold

He returns to this theme of the unreliable preacher later in the song:

See, look into my eyes, brethren, that’s the lies of a Reverend

There are references here to Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, Hebrew, Job, the Bible, “hocus pocus”, space, sin and abortion. This is not a lyric you’ll get on first listen, nor one you hear every day. It, too, requires “research.” (“I studied ’til my eyes was swollen.”) But it’s eloquent, fluid, personal, questioning and complex, replete with surprising rhymes and twist, “abyss” twinned with “hiss”, “turban” with “urban”, “beanie” and “genie.”

An’ from the caves he crept from behind
An’ what he gave was the sect of the swine

You don’t need to sign up with the Nation of Islam – or indeed the Black Hebrew Israelites – to find the theological rigour intoxicating. It certainly makes a change from rap’s incessant braggadocio and gun-slingin’. As a longtime white fan of this deeply black music (one of the devils, I guess, who “tricked his dome”), I have long since made peace with the fact that I am a geographical and cultural outsider listening in, with issues, and accredit the best of the genre to its raw power, archaeological originality and lyrical dexterity. When Priest raps, “For years religion did nothing but divide,” you sense a man of peace not war.

Why should you die to go to Heaven?
The Earth is already in space

You can’t help but feel warmth when our father speaks of teaching his son “as he kneels on the stoop.” He augers, “Son, life is a pool of sin,” and then appears to warn of “wicked” women who “build picket signs to legalise abortion.” We’re in murky waters here, but to listen is not to condone. Think of it as reading a novel. You don’t have to vote for him.

This tune’s instructions are not basic at all, but a resplendent, fabulously interwoven crown of thorny issues. It’s one of my favourite Wu-Tang Clan tracks and yet occupies its own pitch on the outer limits. It’s not even really on the album it says it’s on. But it makes you think and nod your head, even if you don’t agree with every sentiment.

And it rhymes “And, uh,” with “Pope Alexand-uh,” which ought to win a poetry prize.

Tubeway Army, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? (1979)

AreFriendsElectric?TubewayArmy

Artist: Tubeway Army
Title: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Description: single; album track, Replicas
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

It’s cold outside
And the paint’s peeling off of my walls

But not the face. I never painted my face. I never wore rouge or eyeliner, not even during my peacock Goth phase in the early 80s, when my genuflections to androgeny happened strictly above the forehead and below the neck. Hence the high esteem in which I held those gentlemen who did turn it up to No.7 during that first flush of male empowerment in the first decade of gender realignment. I was called a “poof” by rugby players on a number of occasions for my effete style choices (neckerchief, cavalry shirt, velveteen boots, even a bow tie), but the only time I wore actual makeup was for a sixth form production of Macbeth.

Gary Numan rocked the full slap. In line with his bid to appear alien, remote and “other”, he did what a number of prominent public men did during what, in 1979, had not yet emerged as New Romanticism, and that was to colour himself in. Or, in actual fact, rub the colour out. He claims it was to mask his acne, but it masked more than that. (It’s important to remember that Tubeway Army preceded the Blitz kid movement and never felt a part of it, or any sect, although whiteface was worn by plenty of rockers before Numan, not least Japan and Kiss and all those Glam Rock fops.) To mangle a line, What a piece of work was this man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? seemed to beam down, fully formed (“Please sit down”). Just as we provincials were getting comfortable with our binary system for identifying which records were and weren’t “punk”, here came some new jets, with their Philip K Dicks out and their Minimoog synthesisers in flight cases. It was a revolution, nothing short of. In the wake of Kraftwerk and Roxy and Moroder and Jarre, Tubeway Army took the discordant spirit of punk and remodelled it to look like an Auton. On this demonstration disc for what machines could do, the music pulsed and klaxoned, but it was driven by a skin-and-stick beat courtesy of Numan’s uncle. An important human factor. Rather, an important Numan factor. For it was Gary’s dispassionate, prosaic, borderline-frigid vocal that drew you into the noir. Part serial-killer, part sentient onboard computer, this pale, paranoid, panda-eyed android was sure fine looking, man, he was something else.

I was too ill-versed aged 14 to join the dots to his musical ancestors and felt instead as if something illegal had landed: contraband from another planet, smuggled onto Top Of The Pops and to the top of the pops – for four weeks, bean counters. Once deconstructed in Smash Hits – and willingly – Numan was more of a pop star than he at first seemed, playing Ziggy left-handed and constantly threatening retirement to spend more time with his pilot’s licence. It took the edge off his 2000AD horror-show style (Down In The Park, I Nearly Married A Human, The Machman, “There’s a man outside … a candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed”) and made him somewhat approachable, for all the trussed-up jumpsuit stylings.

Most sci-fi ages badly. Even Blade Runner, which was still in the future in 1979. But this single, like the faster Cars, still sounds ahead of the curve. If Numan became a figure of fun, it was because he put himself out there without fear of dying: flying his plane, making Groundhog Day comebacks, advertising hair transplants, marrying his biggest fan. When I finally met and interviewed him on 6 Music in the early 2000s, he told me he’d been only recently diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s. This may go some way to explaining his direct manner, his remote stance, his perceived arrogance, the speechmarks around ‘friends’ and his utter focus.

You see this means everything to me …