The Housemartins, Happy Hour (1986)

housemartins-happy-hour-chrysalis-2

Artist: The Housemartins
Title: Happy Hour
Description: single; track, London 0 Hull 4
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1986
First heard: 1986

What a good place to be

Time, ladies and gentlemen, please, to further deify a man already deified. As we draw the final curtain on The 143, and supplementarily launch The 55, tears dilute beers, and pint pots are duly raised in the direction of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft. He was our sturdiest bridge over the troubled waters of popular music, post-prog, linking the throb of dub reggae, Bulgarian voices, Kanda Bongo Man, Barmy Army and The Wedding Present to Bongwater, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Duane Eddy and Toumani Diabaté, by way of The Undertones, the Elgins, Link Wray and the Flying Lizards.

There’s nothing dazzling or original or post-rational to say about John, at whose Aga-warmed Suffolk house I spent a bucolic day in the summer of ’99, a pilgrimage we all dreamed of making, and yet the truth was, we all enjoyed the same intimacy wherever he was broadcasting from and wherever we heard it, under the bedclothes or over the soundwaves. The synapse crackled constantly. We knew him. He knew us. That he latterly broadcast from his own manor was the most important home truth of all. It was always all back to Peel’s. (I was in Stowmarket to interview John for a 60th birthday cover of Radio Times, a landmark for me, too.)

I know for gospel that I first heard the Housemartins’ heart-stopping debut Flag Day when most people not fated to live in Humberside did: between 10pm and midnight on Radio 1 on 29 July 1985, when Peel broadcast their first session bearing his imprimatur. I was living in a study bedroom in Battersea, South London, at the time, both lonely and never alone in the twilight hours. The fleet-of-foot foursome with a spiritual bent recorded Drop Down Dead, Flag Day, Stand At Ease and Joy Joy Joy that summer, and somehow or other, between mouthfuls of reactivated powdered milk and plain own-brand biscuits, I sealed the standout onto cassette tape, alerting me at once to the band’s musical acumen and SWP rigour (“It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean/Try shaking a box in front of the Queen”). Ironically, the migratory bird after which they are named has a blue head; the band had not a blue bone in its body.

The third band signed to the still-wet Go! Discs, they followed Flag Day with Sheep the following year, and set out their counter-metropolitan stall with the decisively named London 0 Hull 4, produced by John Williams (not that one), which signified cardigans, CND badges and a homoeroticism peculiar to firm male friends lined up against the world. That their first squirts of royalties were invested in a local youth football team went without saying. Chief songwriters Heaton and Cullimore (with input on three songs from former bassist Ted Key and a single co-credit for session wingman Pete Wingfield) said an awful lot without saying.

The LP’s kick-off, Happy Hour wasn’t just an indie hit, it was a hit hit, its match-fit jangle-guitar jamboree reaching a vertiginous number three. It had entered the Top 40 at 30 on 8 June, risen to 12 the next week, then to its peak on 22 June, kept from the number one spot by Nu Shooz and The Edge of Heaven, farewell single from bronze gods Wham! Our problem-skinned quartet held steady on 29 June, this time robbed of a flag day at the summit by Wham! and – hello – Madonna. Tough competition for the third most popular act in Britain. Cap-sleeved Glaswegian Owen Paul arrived to nudge them back down to four in July, then seven, then ten. Their descent was decent: slow, incremental, leisurely. That’s a happy thirteen weeks. A good place to be. (They would top the charts that Christmas with an ecclesiastical cover of an Isley Brothers song, but denied Christmas Number One status by the reissue of a 1957 original by Jackie Wilson. Classic soul was their friend and enemy.)

Like most of the most memorable tunes that radiate out in harmonious waves from the shady grinning soul of Paul Heaton, Happy Hour is effortlessly catchy, misleadingly light, freighted with social commentary and soulfully sung by the nation’s favourite choirboys. (Also, in subsequent incarnations, girls: take a bow Jacqui Abbott, Briana Corrigan and Alison Wheeler.) As well as Cullimore, Heaton co-wrote with Dave Rotheray in The Beautiful South and currently collaborates with writing partner Jonny Lexus in Gran Canaria. Nobody else knows how Paul does it.

With its joyfully crude claymation video, Happy Hour had make-do charm built in and wooed even those – in fact especially those – who made happy hour so unhappy by being happy that the fire is real and the barman is a she.

And the meaning of style is a night out with the boss

It’s about male bonding rituals and the abject fear of standing out from the lunchtime crowd. It’s about “speaking a different language” from the flock, with their open wallets and closed minds, and their aspirations taken in “footsteps overgrown with moss” towards domestic safety and sexual compliance. There’s even a hint of Christian prurience in the couplet, “They tell me that women grow on trees, and if you catch them right they will land upon their knees.” Not to pray, one dares to assume. I’m thinking about Joe Lampton and Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith and Vic Brown and the other male relics of Barstow and Braine and Sillitoe and Delaney when I hear the desperate plea, “And you take all your clothes off, and go back to the kitchen sink.”

Five years, two albums, one number one, six Top 20 hits, four old heads on four young pairs of shoulders: the Housemartins built a nest in the eaves of popular music and then flew away south to broader pastures.

The Kinks, Autumn Almanac (1967)

autumn_almanac_cover

Artist: The Kinks
Title: Autumn Almanac
Description: single
Label: Pye
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1985

Yes, yes, yes!

On a recent, feature-length Sky Arts documentary about the pivotal Kinks 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, more concisely entitled Echoes of a World, XTC’s Andy Partridge was among a phalanx of high-quality fans to hymn its attributes, filials and legacy. (Others included Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Suggs.) In precis, the non-accidental Partridge said that he’d spent his entire career trying to write something as good as Autumn Almanac. (I would argue that he succeeded, but that’s another entry.)

In any case, it feels fitting to crown an English song, by an English band of English men (Ray and Dave Davies from London, Devonian bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory from Surrey), addressing the subject of this foreign field that will be forever England, at a moment in early 21st century history when the Union seems precarious, the Jack has been hijacked and Englishness is – to quote a later British rock band indebted to the Kinks – “for the Englishman again.” Like many islanders, The Kinks stood on the white cliffs and peered out at the rest of the world, seeking fame and fortune in the United States and stopping to conquer. Like all decent bands worth their blue sachet of salt in the post-rationing 60s, they arrived at the recently renamed JFK singing in the borrowed vernacular of the blues and the barrel-house.

But once the Kinks started making cents, they were sent packing by Uncle Sam for reasons fabled to be union-related and in Kinks mythology precipitated by a punch-up over the only partly true notion that these four limeys had gone over there and stolen the Yanks’ rock and roll jobs. So when Ray Dave, Mick and Pete touched back down at Heathrow – having sampled the Indian subcontinent on the way – they regrouped around an Anglocentricity they’d hitherto never thought to run up the flagpole. The nation saluted.

Thus, having dabbled in the conceptual on fourth album Face to Face in 1966, and foreshadowed Orwell’s warm beer and old maids in the stand-alone track Village Green (recorded for Something Else in 1967 and kept back), they asked in earnest, who did they think they were? Autumn Almanac, recorded at Pye and produced by Ray, with Mr Pleasant on the UK flip, was an orphan; a non-album single. But it fended for itself.

I’m always reading about how fond guitarists are of the dirt that forms around a lovingly manhandled instrument – ancient, filthy strings seem to hold a particular allure – and despite the coming of springtime, there are few guitar sounds muckier than the one that heralds Autumn Almanac. That chop-chop-chop gives the impression of something primitive and earthen, and yet, from out of the sonic fug trill angelic Kink harmonies, with Ray in nature-documentary mode: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar …”

The harmonic scene is set when the dawn “begins to crack” and a breeze blows leaves of “a musty-coloured yellow” before being swept up in Ray’s sack – that’s his autumn almanac. The spirit of The Lion and the Unicorn lengthens like the shadows over a Friday evening where “people get together, hiding from the weather.” If you can’t taste the grill-blackened dried fruit and the sliding butter on Ray’s currant buns, you’re not listening. It is no coincidence that jam is another name for preserve. But this immaculate demonstration of what people in 1967 didn’t casually refer to as “world-building” results in no Prelapsarian idyll. There’s a “lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone” and our narrator’s “poor rheumatic back.” Ray Davies doesn’t deal in absolutes, he’s in the nooks and the faults, the cracks and the veins. Nature is confirmed as red in tooth and claw, but what of human nature? (Ponder this: which other of God’s creatures would compile an almanac?)

As I type, Brexit threatens to spread pestilence across the land. It’s why I have turned to the Kinks and village green preservation, a project steeped in hope and glory, not today’s pessimism and division. Britain was five years off voting to join the Common Market in 1968; to stop the world because it wanted to get on. Nobody dreamed of leaving. In this European future, would there still be “football on a Saturday, roast beef on a Sunday”? Blackpool? Holidays? Yes, yes, yes.

Ray gets all belligerent as the song woofs and flutters to its conclusion.

This is my street, and I’m never gonna to leave it
And I’m always gonna to stay here

He’s playing a part, as all good storytellers are able: the ultimate Brexiteer, purple-faced, aged ninety-nine with no right to tell the kids, or the Kinks, what to do. You sort of hate to tell him that all the people he meets who “seem to come from my street” will soon be gone. Whatever it is that’s calling to Ray’s surrogate in song it’s unsustainable. “Come on home“? He’s already home.

I first heard this song when it was played to me by fellow art student Rob in a study bedroom in Battersea at the opposite end of London to where Ray and Dave grew up in Fortis Green between Colney Hatch and Muswell Hill and other places that sound fictional but which aren’t. It slotted in somewhere between the more contemporary jangle of Aztec Camera and the new rockabilly of Thee Milkshakes and other Peel-time reprobates.

I didn’t know what an almanac was (it’s a calendar that notes high and low tides, eclipses, sport and prizes, that sort of thing – Whitaker’s is in its 150th edition as I type), but by sheer coincidence I had just learned about the drink called Armagnac, a play on words Ray had already nabbed. I discovered the Kinks piecemeal from compilations Rob lent me and I came of age with little idea of what song came from which parent LP. Autumn Almanac was, however, a keeper. It was also a flash-forward to the band’s greatest long-playing achievement. Ask Noel Gallagher, who regards Village Green as one of the three LPs you have to own.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes (1984)

lloyd-cole-rattlesnakes

Artist: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Title: Rattlesnakes
Description: single; album track, Rattlesnakes
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

In the same week in 2013, the National Literary Trust revealed that only 28.4% of children in Britain read for pleasure outside of school (down from 38.1% in 2005), blanket media coverage afforded David Bowie’s top 100 reading list, as collated by the Art Gallery of Ontario. As I wrote in the Guardian that week (I used to write for the Guardian): “For my generation, raised on literate pop music, it was like being given homework by the coolest teacher in the world.”

It was, in fact, a reading festival.

Shall we agree that Lloyd Cole is the coolest teacher in the world? Although long since flown from the mainstream (a concept enshrined in the ironic title of his third album Mainstream), he remains a reliable mix of icy reserve and bookish warmth, from the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts, and I am proud to confirm that my own love of Raymond Carver’s writings was sparked by an interview I conducted with Lloyd for the NME in Bar Italia in London’s Soho circa 1990. I took his Bowie-like recommendation away with me and invested in poetry collections Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985) and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). As I built my Carver library, I even included poetry by his second wife Tess Gallagher. (When I recommend books by and about the Mitford Sisters to those who occasionally inquire, I feel like I have improved the world by proxy. Mr Cole, as we would have called him if he was our teacher, improved mine.)

When I put together a fanzine named This is This in 1988, I wrote a two-page feature about Lloyd Cole’s water metaphors under the pseudonym “Rusty James”, taken from a character in Susan Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish, filmed in 1984 by Francis Coppola, in which he is played by a young Matt Dillon. I think you can see the tendrils of cultural connection winding around my relationship with Lloyd Cole.

Rattlesnakes is one of my favourite LPs of the 1980s, and I’ve found it difficult to extract one song from it. The first I knew of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was when their debut single Perfect Skin landed them, or him, on the cover of Melody Maker and on Top of the Pops, a performance marked by the look of fear on the singer’s face. I invested. The tunes were pin-sharp and the arrangements made the pieces sound easy. But it was the lyrics that besotted me and kept me up all night with their references and allusions (“it’s just a simple metaphor,” Lloyd admits in Forest Fire, blowing the metatextuality wide open on side one). If I single out the title track, which became the unsuccessful third single, it’s because it encapsulates everything that was refreshingly brainy and archly poetic about the commotion Lloyd Cole made. For heaven’s sake, it includes this line:

“She looked like Eva Marie-Saint in On The Waterfront …

Now, in 1984, when I first heard Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, I was this side of fashioning myself as a young, bohemian cineaste; a bushy-tailed young art student in dungarees and high hair who still lived at his Mum and Dad’s, besotted with Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now and Dispatches by Michael Herr. During the previous summer, the writing-things-out tedium of A-Level revision had been alleviated by A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, both of which I’d taped in audio off the telly (by placing my ghetto blaster next to the speaker when nobody was likely to walk in). I could quote liberally from both: “You’re not too funny today, fatman … What’s this article? It’s a solid gold dress I believe … Do you know what I say? Ha ha. D’you hear me? Ha ha!”

Can you imagine how loud the worlds colliding sounded at that crux in my cultural education? The pop music fed into the films fed into the books fed back into the pop music. In Rattlesnakes, we learn that Marie-Saint lookalike Jodie wears a hat “although it hasn’t rained for six days” (note to self: buy a hat); that she looks like Eva Marie-Saint, but not in North by Northwest or The Sandpiper or Grand Prix, but in On The Waterfront (my film!); that she reads Simone de Beauvoir (note to self: find out who, in a pre-Wikipedia age, Simone de Beauvoir is); she’s in some kind of “American circumstance” and there’s San José and traffic police and therapy (be more American, more introspective; look into a jumper purchase); she needs a gun on account of all the rattlesnakes (don’t be a snake); and her heart’s like crazy paving, “upside down and back to front” (Mum and Dad had crazy paving, but this sounds more like a suitable case for treatment – nothing is common or garden in the Transatlantic hinterland of Lloyd Cole).

Musically, it’s as tight as a band who’d been together longer – they clearly did their homework before handing it in. Produced by Paul Hardiman in a pre-loved Shoreditch, Rattlesnakes (LP and song) emerged breezily and toe-tapping without pain of birth, I understand. Guitars snake, drums rattle, harmonies enhance, and Eva Marie-Saint’s name is correctly pronounced. (I learned how say the name of my new-found favourite screen goddess from Lloyd Cole – obvious despite myself.)

The one thing I already had in common with Mr Cole (actually, we called our new, turtle-necked teachers at art school by their first names: Mike, Pete, Frank, Malcolm) was that love was also my “great disappointment”, or so I believed without any evidence.

For the record, Rattlesnakes was one of four tracks out of ten on the austerely-packaged parent album co-written with three other Commotions: in its case, guitarist Neil Clark (who also co-parented the gorgeously rhetorical Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?, my second favourite tune on the LP); keyboardist Blair Cowan co-wrote Patience; golfing bassist Laurence Donegan Four Flights Up. These shared credits speak affirmatively of a meritocratic band, not merely a swoon-generating frontman and props. Indeed, the Commotions lasted as long as the Commotions were built to last, and avoided going downhill. After three Top 20 albums, all sound, all of a piece, but not all with hit singles (they accumulated five Top 40 singles, two of them Top 20), they split and Lloyd has been solo ever since, collaborative when it suits him, not least with Clark. Five years: that’s all the Commotions got – to prove their point and stake a claim in the Smash Hits sticker album before my college education had played out.

Footnote #1: I have belatedly discovered that in 1985, The Fall recorded one of their 24 Peel Sessions. (The Commotions recorded none.) It began with L.A. and some impromptu Mark E Smith beat poetry: “Lloyd Cole’s brain and face is made out of cow pat, we all know that.” If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that L.A., happens to be my personal favourite ever Fall song, and thus my selection from their catalogue in The 143.

Footnote #2: Answering a fan query on his website, Lloyd wrote this about why he was never invited to record his own Peel session: “Peel made it quite clear that he didn’t rate us. Which was slightly saddening, but that’s all. I’m not sure if he ever heard any of my solo stuff. He memorably compared the Commotions to Leicester City – a team in the first division, but one was never quite sure how they had got there, as they seemed more of a division two outfit at best.”

Footnote #3: John Peel was fallible, just like a Pope.

Ha ha.

 

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

BornInTheUSAsinglecover

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Description: single; track, Born in the U.S.A.
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

When, in Springsteen on Broadway, the man who wrote Born To Run and Thunder Road and Racing in the Street reveals to his invited theatre audience that in fact he did not run (“I currently live ten minutes from my home town”) and couldn’t even put his bandmate’s car’s stick-shift into first gear when they drove cross-country to do their first out-of-town gig, he grins. He is grinning at his own self-image. After a pause, he adds, “That’s how good I am.” You’re in the palm of his hand.

Against the bare-brick facade of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York – the Big Apple a faraway emerald city that nobody Springsteen knew growing up in the boondocks of Freehold Borough in New Jersey had ever visited – he does something he also confesses that he never did before: work for five days a week.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he smiles. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” And again: “That’s how good I am.”

I’ve been immune to the Boss for as long as I can remember. I never actively disliked him. I just didn’t feel any pressing need to have him in my record collection. A friend at college with more catholic taste turned me on to I’m On Fire, but it was mostly the “freight train running through the middle of my head” that grabbed me in my own wilderness of self-mythology. I’m pretty sure I intuited that the song Born in the U.S.A. wasn’t anything other than an anti-war anthem when I heard Max Weinberg’s artillery-fire retorts on the snare and sensed fists being clenched and air being punched, but they weren’t really my style. (I’d seen enough Vietnam War movies to know what the tough guy in denim and axle grease meant when he sang, or hollered, of being sent off to a foreign land to “kill the yellow man”.)

Over the years, Bruce and I have largely crossed paths only tenuously. I loved Streets of Philadelphia. I read the reviews of The Ghost of Tom Joad and wondered if it was time yet? The Rising, his rapid response to 9/11, ought to have been up my street and was, theoretically. But whatever it was I was listening to in 2002, it wasn’t him. (I looked it up: my Top 5 albums of 2002 were Where The Wild Things Are by Karen O and the Kids, Born Like This by Doom, My Way by Ian Brown, Goffam by Jim Bob and Forget The Night Ahead by The Twilight Sad. So.)

Then I saw him own Glastonbury in 2009, a pit-stop on his year-round Working on a Dream Tour. The Pyramid Stage was headlined for old folks: Neil Young on the Friday, Bruce on the Saturday and token 40-year-olds Blur on the Sunday. He played 25 songs that warm June night, five of which I knew well enough to mouth the chorus to (plus two of the covers), but a more important thing happened during that magic hour: I got him. Seeing an artist of world renown along with thousands of other people who haven’t necessarily paid to see him or her (the headliners were announced after the tickets had sold) is a great place to do so. Bruce knew he had to work hard for his money. Many of the audience couldn’t sing along and didn’t cheer the first note of every tune. The amazing thing was that I felt I knew the songs I didn’t know. That’s how good he is.

He did Born to Run and The River and Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark, so I wasn’t exactly locked out of the love-in, but he omitted Born in the U.S.A., which I found myself yearning for in the dark and wondering if it might close the show. Here was a pasture where his hymn to the fallen and his reclamation of the flag would not be misinterpreted, and what would those drums sound like?

In its from-the-womb guise for the parent album, recorded at the Power Station in New York in April 1982, produced by Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, it opens proceedings at such a high, keening pitch of ambition, as raw as a jug of eggs and pushing against the ceiling from the first blah of Roy Bittan’s synth riff and the inaugural crack of Weinberg’s tree-trunk stick on snare, surely it will have nowhere to go for the remaining four and a bit minutes? It’s peaked too early. Bruce is shouting at the top of his voice from the first stanza:

Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

If not a lucky town (although nowhere in particular packs its own punch and dead men do wear plaid), Springsteen was born in a lucky country, a lucky panorama, a lucky landscape. He’s a lucky songwriter and storyteller to have been by accident of gene born in the United States of America and with an innate understanding of what that means. (His father, he tells us on Broadway, still regarded a nursed “morning beer” as “the breakfast of champions,” before passing on in 1998, aged 74. One pictures a Schlitz?)

It takes a few hours to drive from one coast the United Kingdom of Whatever to the other, and aside from towns turning into hills then hills back into towns, it’s little wonder our inspiration tends towards introspection, nostalgia and terms and conditions. It is glorious that our island would produce Half Man Half Biscuit and Dusty Springfield, William Shakespeare and EL James, Alfred Hitchcock and Banksy, but you still ultimately have to make your own entertainment here. When Bruce broke out of his youth and discovered what lay beyond the walls of New Jersey (almost literally – he speaks in his memoir of being “walled in by God” ie. the Catholic school, the church), he was filled to the brim with ideas and wasted not one of them as they were road-tested into legend.

At around the four-minute mark of the definitive recording, a strange, immutable thing happens: Weinberg seems to submit to the gods of drumming and allows his hands and sticks to be puppeteered by some higher force, as if this song, its intent, its power and its glory are circuited into a higher realm. This songs begins at a sociopolitical and actual pitch that lesser men after the same affect might build up to. Result: it’s impossible to disentangle the actually iconic pose of Bruce – with his guitar arm in the air, that ripped knee-slit in his work trousers and the stars and stripes rendered in duct-tape strips behind him – from the art it promises. Same goes for the concert promo clip, assembled and shot through with footage of working men coming and going to work by John Sayles, although the black headband hasn’t worn as well.

Born in the U.S.A. was just one among seven top 10 hits mercenarily taken from the album, which changed the Springsteen optics for life; the new Boss was not the same as the old Boss. He was Michael Jackson now. Madonna. Aretha. Elvis. Bono. Prince. Bowie. Sinatra. Crosby. Doris Day. When I interviewed the impressively self-aware Jon Bon Jovi for the NME in 1989, he knew that Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2 were bigger than he was, and accepted it with grace. He didn’t mention Bruce, who came from the same neck of the woods. I suspect of the two New Jerseyites, Bruce spent less time doing the Forbes arithmetic, although both he and Jon had written songs that were bigger than they were.

Back at the boards of Walter Kerr a decade after my Glastronautical epiphany, in much more intimate surroundings with not a single casual bystander in the house, and Springsteen almost apologises for the “long and noisy prayer” he’s been reciting. He explains, “I wanted to rock your very soul. I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”

He has, not least on his best song, and without moving more than a few feet. That’s how good he is.

The Chameleons, Don’t Fall (1983)

ChameleonsScriptofabridge

Artist: The Chameleons
Title: Don’t Fall
Description: track, Script Of The Bridge
Label: Statik
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

“In his autumn, before the winter, comes man’s last mad surge of youth.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

It’s the rejoinder from an exchange in a box at the theatre that clinches it as a typically random mouthful of dialogue lent unfathomable depth of meaning and angst by its very detachment from context. In a way, even telling you that it’s ripp’d from the mainly unknown 1946 American musical comedy Two Sisters From Boston ruins it. That the exchange is enacted by Peter Lawford as the idealistic son of Nella Walker, playing his uncomprehending mother, is irrelevant. It’s better if we don’t know.

Book publisher, sports writer, biographer and documentarian Mark Hodkinson – who hails from the same neck of the Greater Manchester woods as The Chameleons – named his first novel after the intriguing word combination The Last Mad Surge of Youth in 2009. It was about a struggling indie outfit called Group Hex. (At the time of its self-publication I praised it in Word magazine for containing “all the affection missing from John Niven’s similarly biz-themed Kill Your Friends,” a compliment to both.)

The Chameleons, though led from the front by a charismatic if fanciful, self-romanticising young man like the novel’s John Barratt, were not Group Hex. Mark Burgess, for it was he, was a melodramatic post-punk touchstone briefly in the early-to-mid 80s. He went straight onto the hit-list my like-minded bedroom co-conspirator Kevin and I kept circa 1983 after the band’s ferocious debut In Shreds and the Rochdale-recorded debut LP’s hand-pencilled sleeve illustration, which promised hope and glory. (The illustrator was guitarist Reg Smithies, which fed into my own twins dreams of art school and rock’n’roll.) Before the decade was out, I’d gone to London to see the Queen and backdoored my way into the NME as a layout boy. I met Burgess professionally in the boozer-next-door in 1988 by which time, improbably signed to Geffen, he’d forgotten to tell his paymasters that he and John Lever had changed the optics and become The Sun and the Moon. Whatever. The record was all the excuse I needed to genuflect at the fringe of a hero, regardless of fripperies like which band called what was signed to whatever label.

Without exhausting the elastic “post-punk” cordon, it can be difficult to put your finger on what was occurring in that fecund wake of the first mad surge of the independent sector. Punk bands stopped playing punk and started foregrounding melody and decoration over spit and sawdust. I guess if anything it was the knobs in higher education saying, “Hold my beer!” before that concept had been invented. If nothing else, the mid-80s were literate and a bit speccy, but not without some dramatic swoops of hair and permanently aloft jacket and overcoat collars. Had the Chameleons sold as many records as, say, China Crisis, or Big Country, or the dreaded Thompson Twins, they might have made more of a mark. Instead, they were Modern Eon or Essential Logic or Clock DVA or The Scars or Jesus Couldn’t Drum: deserving of more appreciation. (Alright, perhaps not Jesus Couldn’t Drum.)

As it stands, Script for a Bridge, and follow-ups What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times, are of historical interest rather than cultural. A general sense of rainwear awareness (“A storm comes, or is it just another shower?”) weds them to the blockbusting likes of the Bunnymen and the Goth bands, but not in unit terms. Their sound was arena-ready but never got the chance to prove it. They had the alienation, but not the niche of Alien Sex Fiend. No wonder they semi re-formed in the 2000s for a second crack at the cherry and were by all accounts louder than Motorhead. (Burgess’s wingman and drummer Lever sadly died, aged 55, in 2017, a sad day.)  They have every right to play as a legacy act. They are an act that has a legacy.

So why is Don’t Fall one of the 143 best songs of all time?

For me, because it means more than a phase, or a whim, or a makeweight, or a notch on a recovering new romantic’s bedpost in an East Midlands town. The Chameleons mattered because they meant it, man, and they soared when the sociopolitical trajectory pointed alarmingly towards a fork in the road where neither choice filled you with optimism. (Imagine that!) At times like these, we need something more than Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding’s product-placing career plans and artists featuring other artists featuring other artists: something mad, something that surges, something that says youth.

Only in adolescence do we write or think thoughts like this, and I know of what I squeak.

Hiding inside
A room that’s running red
The place to be
Exists only in your head
And the focus of fear
In the creases of a dress
A female dress
How did I come to be drowning in this mess?
This fuckin’ mess?

If you managed to get through your exams without Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Specials, Soft Cell, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, The Tube, The Chart Show, grunge or Pubic Enemy, I salute you. In this hormonal hinterland, we do need another hero: one who articulates the state of the nation and all the trouble in the world better and more poetically than we humanly can. With longer words, or shorter ones, but always better ones. We all feel as if we have an uncomprehending mother or father and wonder what on earth we’re talking about.

Who can honestly say they didn’t at a certain tender, shoe-gazing age feel as if they were drowning in a mess – beat – a fuckin’ mess?

The Doors, The End (1967)

the-doors

Artist: The Doors
Title: The End
Description: track, The Doors
Label: Elektra
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1982

This is the beginning …

I know exactly where I was when I first heard the establishing tinkles of John Densmore’s splash cymbal and what sound like chimes but might be something Ray Manzarek teased from his keys: I was sitting on a plastic chair in the arts centre of what used to be Northampton College of Further Education on Booth Lane, where my friends Paul, Dave, Neil and I had joined the Film Society in order to blow our minds. It was 6 April, 1982 and we were there to see the X-rated Apocalypse Now (we were 17). Francis Coppola gave The End by the Doors a starring role. Written in 1967 about a break-up, it divides chin-stroking opinion. But it’s difficult to argue with its placement at the beginning – and the end – of Coppola’s South-East Asian odyssey.  This is not background music. Jim Morrison’s mournful wail and student poetry meld into something that might have been – but wasn’t – written for the film or the war.

So, I heard the song for the first time at the same time as seeing the film for the first time. A film that would become one of my all-time favourite films. A song that would become one of my all-time favourite songs.

Both are long. The song comes in at an epic 11 minutes and 41 seconds on the Doors’ debut album. It’s reduced to just over six-and-a-half minutes on the soundtrack edit, its middle section concertina’d so that the serpentine opening and close are left fully intact. Apocalypse Now runs at 153 minutes, but there are other cuts of the film, notably the 202-minute Redux. The classic recording of The End for producer Paul A. Rothchild at Sunset Sound in Hollywood is formed of two takes, spliced together. And you can’t hear the join.

What I’m saying is, there’s no rush, and yet there is such a rush.

This is the middle bit …

It’s not a single and was never designed to be, but it climaxed Doors live shows as a backstop and would be the last song the band would ever play together, in New Orleans. (Morrison’s end came four years later in a rented room in the 4th arrondissemont, aged 27, an early bath foreshortening his “elaborate plans”.) In 1983, the Fun Boy Three tapped into the darkness on the edge of town and covered The End for novelty purposes on a proprietary music show called Switch and did a worthwhile job, I recall, including a good bash at the famous Oedipal interlude; this re-lit my fire for the Doors, whose eponymous debut album I purchased on cassette. I don’t know why cassette.

The sidewinding lyrics to The End had already entered my bloodstream via the film. The “stranger’s hand in a desperate land”; that “wilderness of pain” and “all the children” who went insane while “waiting for the summer rain” – Yeah!

It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a horny sixth-form poet with the top button of his leather trousers accidentally left unpopped, and because The End is essentially free-form, refined into copyright over a series of jams, it doesn’t all read that well on the page. He reaches the bottom of his pencil case when he suggests we “ride the snake to the lake” and declares that “the West is the best.” But this song, this track, this Freudian trip, this outpouring of childhood angst brought on by a rich diet of reading, defines the Doors.

They made shorter, better, tighter, more hummable songs – Break On Through, People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You, Riders on the Storm, Touch Me – and three of these were million-sellers, once Light My Fire had been pruned back to three minutes. They pulled six albums out of the chaos over five years, each a huge record in the multi-platinum orbit. But for all of Morrison’s apparent unsuitability for the straight and narrow – singing the forbidden word “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show against the show’s express wishes; the public obscenity charge; taunting his fans at an over-sold show in a seaplane hangar; bothering blameless cabin crew – he kind of turned up for work nonetheless, however drunk. The lizard king myth was successfully blown out of proportion, but the late 60s and early 70s were a heady time, and if Jim Morrison hadn’t existed, they’d have had to invent him.

This is the end

What elevates The End from an overlong song at the end of a perfectly sensible psychedelic rock album by a gigging band who’d found their feet to a work of genius is – boring as this seems – its very length. Its mission to explain and explain. The long-windedness beneath its wings. The fundamental wherewithal to go where no band had gone before while staying fashionable. Not many greatest hits get away with a spoken interlude – ABC’s The Look of Love (“They say, Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”); Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“Darkness falls across the land”); Britney’s Oops! … I Did It Again (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”) – but those that do need to get some perspective. At about six-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison slips out of his stentorian oratory, leans on the mic stand, and starts to tell us a sto-o-ory. Are you sitting uncomfortably?

“The killer awoke before dawn … He put his boots on … He took a face from the ancient gallery and walked on down the hall … And he came to a door and he looked inside …”

That we associate this edition of Crackanory with Captain Willard’s journey to enlightenment beyond the Do Long Bridge and the Montagnard Army in Apocalypse Now, followed by its murderous fruition, is easy to follow. It’s not about the Vietnam War, but it’s 1967 and everything’s about the Vietnam War, man.

Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother … I want to … waaaaaarrrgghhhh

And Densmore’s drums explode into abandon, Robby Krieger’s guitar gets out of the boat, and Manzarek mellows the situation out with a go-around the keys, while Morrison breaks on through to the other side, that peyote still pecking at his vitals and Rothchild manning the pumps. They meet at the back of the blue bus, Morrison lashing away, using “fuck” as a beat, Densmore adds more cowbell, Krieger banjo-duels with his himself, until it all falls apart and – in the mind of an Apocalypse Now devotee – a sacred cow is sacrificed.

This was the end, and, for me, the start of beautiful friendship. He did, however, write some bloody awful poetry.

 

 

Lana Del Rey, Radio (2012)

LanaDelReyBornToDieAlbumCover

Artist: Lana Del Rey
Title: Radio
Description: track, Born To Die
Label: Interscope/Polydor
Release date: 2012
First heard: 2012

Motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin

I still appreciate accredited lyrics and have done since the Smash Hits revolution of my early teens. When a freckly contemporary of Weston Favell Upper School called Stuart Skelton first introduced a copy of the pop mag into the playground, I was slap-bang smitten. This particular issue was dated June 14-27, 1979, which meant the fortnightly glossy publication was not yet six months out of the traps (and nor did I know that among its staff were a handful of young, witty men who would in my future employ me to do what they were already doing). It had Donna Summer on the cover and tantalising promise of the words to Up The Junction, Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Ring My Bell and Masquerade within. To my knowledge, I didn’t miss an issue until the late 80s and only then because I had by then fixed my sights on the inky music press and brooked no argument from Black Type and Bev Hillier.

Within that first year of plighting my troth to Smash Hits it was with deep existential horror that the magazine confessed that the lyrics it had printed to Duchess by the Strangers (a single I’d bought) had been procured by listening with the head pressed against a speaker rather than sourced from the record company. I still distinctly remember the phrase “Dutch of the terrace” when my own ears told me it was “Duchess the terrace.” I’d like to say I never trusted them again. But I did.

We live now in an age of one-click, one-swipe everything. Ironically, this guarantees neither quality nor veracity. You’re as likely to encounter bluffed, phonetic, inaccurate lyrics on a lyric site as verse-chorus poetry directly sent directly down the pipe from a song’s copyright owners. I resent that. If I wanted poorly transcribed lyrics I’d transcribe them poorly myself. Which brings me to Radio by Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey in general.

I took a flyer on this cinematic-seeming new artiste in 2012, ignoring the nagging voice in my head that told me I was too old for this type of thing: a willowy young woman with an apparently fake ID and Hollywood-esque backstory – take your pick from a buffet of waitressing, teenage dyspepsia, pseudonyms, Catholicism, the Bronx, a hippy uncle and aunt, a degree in metaphysics – and a fabulously smoky, sneering vocal style. I wasn’t interested in her CV, but I liked her style. The singles – and there were a gluttonous, Thriller-approaching six –  from her second album Born to Die cast their net and I took the shiny bait. Whether she was real or fake, Del Rey’s record felt raw and ambitious and fiercely grown-up behind that varnished Lolita outer shell (“swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car”). And in one track, Radio, she sang so sweetly and melodically about “motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin” (hence: not a single). These were word combinations that interested me.

Well, guess what? She wasn’t singing that at all. After closer examination and with no Smash Hits to consult, I became convinced she wasn’t even swearing in that stanza from the song’s knockout chorus. I’m a grown man. I’m not impressed by strong language from the start per se, but I respect the commercial self-harm of building in a bad swear – not least if it discounts putting out a seventh single from an album that only contains 12 tracks. Anyhoo, here’s the apparently definitive couplet, which is only marginally less poetic than my misheard version:

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio

Be honest. It’s the syncopated, rhetorical question, “How do ya like me now?” that tips the chorus into invincibility. Del Rey is a natural wordsmith. She bullseyes again with, “Lick me up and take me like a vitamin,” which is an original come-on, steeped in the modern world of snowflake millennials. Then she’s claiming her body’s “sweet like sugar-venom, oh yeah.” This is beat poetry, man. The blank look of a blank generation she wears on the album’s sleeve sort of dares you to reflect it back. She isn’t going to be the first to blink in a stare-off. She’s a kohl-eyed JFK. She’s a poolside Svengali. Her name’s the name of a bar or a rodeo or a turnpike.

Songwriters are involved throughout the LP, sourced from as far apart as Lincolnshire, Warrington, Palo Alto and New Jersey – not to mention where genial Jim Irvin, former music journalist, editor and frontman of Furniture, hails from in London – but Del Rey’s family surname Grant is a constant. This is her truth, even if it isn’t true.

The arrangement is strewn around gossamer ambience and deep echo, combined with crunching beats, and it’s simultaneously chilly and warm. How do they achieve that? No matter. She sings, “Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise,” and your spider-sense tingles: has this apparently non-fictional character found peace beneath the chlorine? So soon?

I’ve realised that Lana Del Rey is for Christmas as well as for life. How do ya like me now?