The Housemartins, Happy Hour (1986)

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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.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes (1984)

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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)

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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)

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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?

Simple Minds, Theme For Great Cities (1981)

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Artist: Simple Minds
Title: Theme For Great Cities
Description: track, Sister Feelings Call
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

Here comes the flag …

Until I found my feet at the NME in 1988, aged 23, my only experiences of foreign travel were a school exchange trip to Normandy in 1977, by ferry, and a couple of family holidays to the Channel Islands, again by ferry, no passport required. I was not alone in this unworldliness. From the perspective of this island, it was not yet a small planet. Which is why, I think, in the early 80s, so many of our more inquiring and knowledge-thirsty bands of the day were fixated on faraway cities. In 1981, something of a flashpoint, Ultravox hymned the capital of Austria in Vienna; Duran Duran randomly included the instrumental Tel Aviv on their first LP (good track, actually); Japan, who were already named after Japan, used their Orientalist fifth album Tin Drum to cast their net towards Visions of China and a Cantonese Boy; even Gary Numan’s Dance contained the mixed-up Slow Car to China. Our dreamers were chasing the travel-broadened Kraftwerk, who’d found inspiration in the Autobahn and the Trans-Europe Express, and would soon release Tour de France, and Roxy, who’d vicariously flown down to Acapulco and Rio on Virginia Plain a decade before, spoke of grey lagoons, songs for Europe and a prairie rose.

But no post-punk band was as brochure-gazing as Simple Minds. Pale-faced residents of Glasgow south and students of – yes – Roxy, Bowie and the Velvets, these five young self-abusers established the first Simple Minds line-up in 1978, and took their influences into the Top 30 with first album Life in a Day. Seven months later, Real to Real Cacophony set out their stall with a series of borrowed keywords: naked, citizenchangeyouth, factory, film and perhaps most tellingly, suitcase. That these starry-eyed Scots saw beyond their borders was paramount. Bowie didn’t stay in Bromley. John Cale put the Amman Valley behind him. Ferry didn’t hang around in Country Durham for long. The key track on Real to Real was Veldt, an instrumental imagining of the southern African plain. The first single from breakthrough LP was I Travel. Their case was made.

Empires and Dance was Simple Minds’ boarding card, a whistle-stop tour of the world of their imagination: Capital City, Constantinople Line, Kant-Kino (the Berlin nightspot) – who needed stamps on passports when vicarious movement was free? The band’s hunger for the great beyond eclipsed the sun in 1981, with two travelogues for the price of one: Sons and Fascination, and its sister album Sister Feelings Call. Whisking The Boys from Brazil to The 20th Century Promised Land, via Sound in 70 Cities, the League of Nations and The American, with progressive producer Steve Hillage of Gong at the controls, this double photo-album was a voyage around the imagined world.

I loved then, and I love now its glistening surfaces and machine-tooled glamour, and the blurred, Ballard-esque freeze-frames of airports, concrete, bodywork and skylines on the twin sleeves (Sons and Fascination in colour, Sister Feelings Call in blue-tint and black-and-white). Simple Minds were a band you could lose yourself in; pack up your troubles and go places. The second album came free with the first 10,000 copies of the first. I was at the front of the check-in queue with what would’ve been my wages from a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s, where shelf-stacking gave me time to imagine. I’m drawn back to this bonanza of sound – 15 brand-new tracks in one hit – as I reduce my appreciation of Simple Minds down to one number.

Theme for Great Cities is a disloyal choice, in that it’s an instrumental, and thus locks the mighty, air-chopping Jim Kerr out of the mix (he wrote and sang all of Simple Minds’ lyrics, while the whole band were credited as songwriters; these days, it’s Kerr and the conjoined Charlie Burchill). But as a theme, it still stands supreme, 40 years after it was conceived on the anvil of cinematic evocation. It wasn’t a single, because it was wordless, but it wasn’t just me who singled it out for special measurement; it “defined Balearic for a generation of clubbed-out Ibiza party-goers”, according to simpleminds.org, as it found itself remixed for the dance floor.

Jim tried to pen a lyric for keyboardist Mick MacNeil but gave up. It was known as The Third Track in demo. The image you want is Kerr walking around Glasgow listening to it repeatedly on his new-fangled Sony Walkman device. All concerned seemed happy with it going out wordless.

Despite the lack of a vocal, it sings loudly of the implied sophistication of travel: the Grand Tour of 18th century gentlemen, but reclaimed by people who lived in the long shadow of tower blocks. It hovers in over an eerie MacNeil synth-wash, which almost sighs before Brian McGee’s snareless drums, bendy bass from Derek Forbes and percussively choppy guitar from Birchill fall into step. The keyboards provide the riff, but from a distance, followed by a harder-edged electronic moan over ever-decreasing ripples of atmosphere. Still, the moans and howls emerge from the hinterland, like diamond dogs, or rats the size of cats. It’s sleek and slick, but there is something in those bushes.

It’s closer to music for a film, or an undiminished symphony, and that’s Simple Minds. The lack of a Kerr vocal is the ultimate sacrifice from a general to his troops. It is a great theme for cities, and a theme for great cities. Simple Minds peaked over and over again in the 80s. When Mel Gaynor joined, with his tree trunks for drumsticks, he panel-beat the band’s sound into new, harder, rockier shapes, and just in time for stadia to beckon. The world finally lay at their feet.

But they’d been around it plenty of times in their minds.

 

Wah!, The Story of the Blues Part 1 (1982)

Wah!StoryOfTheBlues

Artist: Wah!
Title: The Story of the Blues Part 1
Description: single
Label: Eternal/WEA
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

In May 2015, I had the most Liverpool Night Ever. I found myself in England’s finest city to meet, interview and watch Weekend Escapes with Warwick Davies with Ralf, Viv and Eve Woerdenweber, Gogglebox’s finest healing-crystal Goths, for what became the official Gogglebook in time for the Christmas market. I’d arrived at Lime Street that afternoon and walked to my hotel rather than take a taxi – because I knew I could and it was, and remains, my style. A later minicab took me through Birkenhead Tunnel to the Wirral and I had a splendid evening on the other side, eating ice-cream cakes, stroking cats and drinking coffee. I’ll be honest, when I arrived back at the Hope Street Hotel, I was drained from travel and the emotional pressure of meeting two sets of new people and hoping to click with them in houses I knew from watching telly. I ordered fat chips on room service and settled in for a sales-rep night of solitude …

Until a friend phoned. Having sensibly fled her adopted London for her Liverpool home, Kate was carousing in the magnetic city’s most famous pub, Ye Cracke, which just happens to be round the corner from Hope Street and, on that occasion, contained another mutual acquaintance, the comedian Michael Legge, and my friend’s husband-to-be Pete Wylie. Resistance would have been churlish.

And then you realise, you’ve got nothing left to lose

I’d crossed paths with the municipally crucial Pete Wylie before, in 1989, two weeks after the horror of Hillsborough when he joined The Mission, Mick Jones and Lee Mavers onstage at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre for a chest-swelling benefit bill that found me in the orchestra pit, gazing upwards as these driven musicians radiated outwards. (My hitherto reigning most Liverpool Night Ever.) It’s easy to underestimate his legend in Jung’s “Pool of Life”. They do things differently there. Selfless acts are remembered. Remembrance is automatically civic. Loyalty is rewarded. Only New Orleans matches Liverpool for self-mythology, and it’s earned. Unlike certain musicians who helped put the city on the map, Wylie represents the majority who still live there. Like Catholicism, it never leaves you, even if you leave it.

So, there are photos of me, and Michael Legge, bathing in Wylie’s glow in Ye Cracke, the same Mecca The La’s had taken me to on my second ever journalistic trip out of London for the NME, in 1988. (The Farm would subsequently blood me at my first Yates’ Wine Lodge a couple of years later.) It’s a city that’s been on its uppers, and has had its fair share of shit, and not just from The Sun, but its heart is as big as … well.

Bands from Liverpool punctuate The 143: the Bunnymen, OMD, the Farm, the Lotus Eaters, the Beatles, and we’re not done yet. I’ve stopped asking if there’s something in the water; there just is. Liverpool was indirectly immortalised in 1960 as a “wondrous place” by local lad Billy Fury (even though his hit was written about some other place by a pair of Americans): “Man I’m nowhere/When I’m anywhere else”; a body of water crossed by its ferry were made myth by Gerry Marsden (and re-floated 20 years later by Frankie Goes to Hollywood); the name of one of its lanes, and the garden of a children’s home, gifted to the world by the Beatles; and Pete Wylie wrote the city an anthem suitable for footballing occasions both victorious and tragic.

But The Story of the Blues is the one. A hit as big as Liverpool in 1983, two years after the terrifyingly insistent Seven Minutes to Midnight had burrowed into the brains of me and my schoolfriend Craig. Wah! Heat had streamlined into Wah! and mainstream acclaim was theirs, or his, or both. (He gets a kick out of expanding and contracting his trading name, but in maverick, dandyish essence Wylie is Wah! and Wah! is Wylie.)

It is the early 80s, so it’s immaterial whether or not the lush strings that provide this pocket symphony’s prologue are real, or cooked up by microprocessors. The majesty of the ascending violins, further warmed through soulful backing vocals (some of which aren’t the hands-on Wylie) and an incredibly polite funk guitar riff give way to wall-of-sound excess that must have provided producer Mike Hedges with a good day at the office. These deft layers feel like literal extensions of the song’s soul. The creator describes it as a labour of love, recorded over months, learning the tech as he and Hedges went along. He aimed to make something that would “last forever.” Well, 34 years down the line, and it’s in rude health. Ask the fans who sing it at Liverpool games.

There’s no taking this record’s pride. When, having peaked, it strips itself down for the epilogue – just those rattlebag drums, some fading wooos and the string section until the dot of four minutes – it’s as if the song knows you need time to decompress. If I had to isolate the very essence of The Story of the Blues, I’d hazard a guess at the syncopated rhythm at the end of each line in the verse where the snare drops out for a beat – boom, boom-boom – a stroke, if I may, of genius. Those drums are played by Linn.

First they take your pride,
Then turn it on its side,
And then you realise you’ve got nothing left to lose.
So you try to stop,
Try to get back up,
And then you realise you’re telling the Story of the Blues.

There’s an operatic quality to Wylie’s voice that suits the ambition of this gin-soaked, us-and-them anthem, which charted on Christmas Day 1982, put Wah! on Top of the Pops and summited at number 3, during 12 weeks on the chart. In the video, he’s all eyeliner, silk scarf, red kerchief and a jiggling energy that suggests either a rubbing of the gums or pentup pride.

While the song might have once been oh-so-mistakenly misread as a reference to Everton FC, its emanating aura of togetherness has seen it recently adopted by fans of Manchester City FC, and before that Chelsea, leaving Wylie understandably touched.

From one man’s pocket comes “front page news”.

A postscript: at the end of that memorable night in ’89 at the Royal Court, the power went out, plunging audience and participants into darkness. Wylie led a spontaneous community singalong, lit by the light of lighters: You’ll Never Walk Alone and, if I remember correctly, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. Except you can.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Electricity (1979)

OMDElectricity

Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Title: Electricity
Description: single; track, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Label: Dindisc
Release date: 1979, 1980
First heard: 1979

It seemed so radical, appearing on TV with a TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine in place of a backing band, a stunt both Dadaist and practical that many of the modern bands pulled at the turn of the technological decade. The Musicians’ Union took a dim view of synthesisers and samplers, as well they might; these clever boxes signalled a march of industrial automation whose jackboots were already being heard around the corner. Indeed, the Rossini-scored Fiat advert that boasted about the Strada being “handbuilt by robots” debuted in the same year as Electricity’s first outing on – ha! – Factory records. (The pioneeringly callous ad was the first to occupy an entire ad break during News at Ten. Apparently the factory where the ad was shot in Turin by Hugh Hudson was being picketed by its own soon-to-be-redundant workers at the time.)

Elec-tricity
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea
Wasted electricity

But Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys weren’t moving parts. They were flesh and blood in pleated trousers and tank tops; living, breathing musical maestros from the port city with the magic water who weren’t above using occasional drums and guest saxophone in the studio, and augmented the tape player (nicknamed “Winston” in Orwellian tribute) with an actual drummer and auxiliary second synth-player on tour, initially supporting Gary Numan, thereafter headlining. They were handbuilt for the top, playing pure pop of an almost educational bent, packaged with corporate sheen by Peter Saville, and advanced enough by Dindisc to build their own studio in Liverpool, thereby seizing the means of production.

Our one source of energy
Elec-tricity
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away

It’s the single beat between the second and third syllable of “electricity” – elec-tricity – that holds the secret to the debut single’s genius. Such control. Such command. To tame a synthesiser takes more than a soldering iron, and these two “geography teachers” as they were later thumbnailed in a Smash Hits world, not only brought the noise, they brought the expertise. Outfits like OMD, and the Human League, and Soft Cell – not to mention the second tier of Eyeless in Gaza and Naked Lunch and B-Movie and Modern Eon – were not slaves to their machines. These people could still organise a singsong in a power cut. They simply channelled electricity into more than jack-plug sockets, and their revolution would be synthesised.

The alternative is only one

There are four, if not five recorded versions of Electricity. The version I love, and which was enshrined on their first Best Of in 1988, as well as the debut album, starts with what sounds more like a giant marshmallow being struck twice – squoosh-squoosh – between alternate percussive bass notes – bom – and a presumably synthetic snare tap – crack. It’s like being counted in by a spaceship. That amorphous bass slinks into a secret melody while another, shriller riff chimes xylophonically over the top in tandem. If you’re not already dancing with your elbows, you never will be. (I’m secretly doing it right now, and I’m in a Caffe Nero.) This is one of the most infectious intros in post-analogue dancevision. Though McCluskey hogs the spotlight in formation, he and Humphreys share the vocal chores and forge a distant dual lament about mankind’s profligacy. A synth wash sustains the entire three-and-a-half minutes, and it mesmerises.

Electricity is elemental; somehow apocalyptic and yet also hopeful, ancient and modern. And from this short, sharp power surge a legend would emerge. It wasn’t a hit on its first, limited Factory release in 1979, nor its second, and nor its third in 1980. The honour of breakthrough would belong to a, yes, re-recorded Messages, after which the charts would find it hard to shake them for the next five years with their homework about the first atomic bomb, genetic engineering, Joan of Arc, Vorticism, telescopes, architecture and morality. Their LPs were still shifting silver, gold and platinum into the early 90s.

They made their Top of the Pops debut in 1980 on the same show as The Human League. Nice grouping. To love them is to love possibility. Conditions normal and you’re coming home.

The final source of energy
Solar electricity