The House Of Love, Christine (1988)

HouseOfLoveLP

Artist: The House Of Love
Title: Christine
Description: single; track The House Of Love
Label: Creation
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Somewhere in a large IKEA sewing box, I have a black and white photograph of me holding up my prized copy of the first House Of Love LP, The House Of Love, not yet divested of the cellophane or the Our Price £5.99 sticker. (The photo was taken by my college friend Rob on his single-lens reflex camera and, I feel sure, hand-developed and printed in a dark room, probably at the Royal College of Art. See: Footnotes) This was the summer of 1988, years before mobile phone proliferation and light-years before selfies. It would have seemed dystopian to our single-lens reflexes that we would subsequently enter a century in which everybody records, logs and publishes everything, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, in the sincere belief that its very digitised existence will render it interesting to the rest of the human race. I expect Rob was just using up the end of a film (we still used films, which came in metal tubes) and I was round his flat and had just purchased The House Of Love so I held it up for display, and to mark the time and date (and price). Why? Because this album was bloody interesting.

I’d been living in south west London for some four years and felt like I belonged. My Prufrockian freelance existence was measured out in meals-for-one, blank videocasettes and vinyl records. (Although I had invested in a CD deck, with Rob’s audiophile assistance, I only had a handful of CDs to play on it.) I took the NME as my weekly gospel and accepted every word of it as if hewn into tablets of stone. When this new, rather gangly-looking, south-east-London-formed foursome were hailed as the latest great saviours of indie, and of rock itself, I had no reason on earth to doubt the tidings, off to Our Price to stake my own claim in the inky revolution. It might have but did not let me down. It was a record worth holding up for display, with its lack of lettering, and its democratic arrangement of the band’s heads in queasy near-sepia, all cheekbones and chins.

The House Of Love were a guitar band. They sang harmonies, certainly – second single Real Animal began a capella – but their life-support was the stringed instrument of legend, played in parallel and set to stun. Mean, moody, full of themselves, the House Of Love arrived with a swagger and in winter coats. The album didn’t feature the existing singles; no sign of their skyscraping debut indie smash Shine On. That’s how arrogant they were – as arrogant as not putting the name of the band on the record – and by dint: how arrogant Creation records were – to encourage them not to put the name of the band on the record (knowing that it would be stickered by Our Price anyway). It did contain Christine. Track one. The same name as one of my favourite Banshees singles. And my Mum. How could it fail? It did not fail.

Christine … Christine … Christine

The most melodic of their early shots at glory, it begins as a heat-haze drone, a hedge of sound, and without warning. (This was not a band to count a song in off the back of the drummer’s sticks.) From a standing start, this was the sound of shoegazing before shoegazing was a sound; something quite different from both the jangly pop and the grebo fuzz of the post-C86 pincer movement. Eyes down: things were looking up.

It’s ironic that in the near future, under house arrest at Phonogram and earmarked as a hit machine, the House Of Love would struggle to locate their sound in ever pricier studios and with a revolving carousel of producers. On the first album, under Pat Collier, they nailed it.

Christine leads the record off, its uncanny ESP of guitars haunted by Guy Chadwick’s voice and the backing vocal by Terry Bickers and outgoing fifth member Andrea Heukamp, treated just enough to make them spectral but not enough to suck their personality; Pete Evans’ drums are content to keep the beat and jackhammer the song to its conclusion, while Chris Groothuizen’s bass sounds a rare note of contentment if you listen hard through the “god-like glow”. The constant refrain of “Christine” suggests this is the chorus before the verse, but I think it’s technically neither.

Then, after what sounds like a single tambourine crack, the mood swings, and the whole world drags us down. When Guy warns, ‘You’re in deep,” it has a malevolence that underlines that this is not a love song. It leads us a merry dance in its allotted three minutes and 22 seconds, from the kitchen-sink signifier of a baby crying to the unfathomable existential fate of “chaos and the big sea.” It’s dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, over the same beat, under the same skies, and we never really get to meet Christine. She’s everyone and no-one, baby, that’s where she’s at.

Does it sound late-80s? Somewhat. It’s pre-rave, although ecstasy would cast its own spell on the band and join the long list of culprits who made a failure of their home. For me, The House Of Love – and its single orphan Christine – is pure House Of Love. The rest is a spirited attempt to reclaim it from success.

I suppose the irony of this heady, post-graduate period of my life is that my embrace of the House Of Love – and The House Of Love – coincided with my graduation to the other side. In the summer of ’88, I got a part-time job at the NME, and started just after the band had their first cover. Within two years, I would be writing the House Of Love cover story, a “made man”. By then, Guy’s age had become an issue (he appeared to be over 30!), Terry had withdrawn, depressed and freaked out, and would be followed by a succession of failed replacements, and the only constant for the next three years would be the major record company that never understood them.

But the adventure was one I’m glad I went on, and I never asked for my £5.99 back.

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Cornershop, Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) (1998)

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Artist: Cornershop
Title: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)
Description: single; track The Greatest Hits – Why Try Harder (Fatboy Slim)
Label: Wiiija; Big Beat
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow

How many number one records have made The 143? I reckon around a dozen, with the same number again for tracks that appear on number one albums. This is not necessarily because my tastes don’t often merge with the tastes of the nation. There are plenty of chart-topping groups and singers in my list, but in only selecting one song for any given artist, my final choice might not be their biggest hit. For instance, my chosen Elvis song is Suspicious Minds, which only reached number two in the UK. (It was number one in the US and Canada.) Similarly with those multi-chart-topping beat groups the Beatles and the Stones: neither Blackbird nor Wild Horses reached the top and had to stop. (Blackbird was not a single, and Wild Horses, a US-only single, reached 28 there.) All of which brings me to the rare thrill of agreeing with the British record-buying public and ending up on the same page. This happened in February 1998 when a peppy new remix of Brimful Of Asha beat all comers.

I was lucky enough to see Cornershop play before they were music-press darlings. I’d been sent by the NME to review the Rockingbirds at a club in Leeds in 1992 and Cornershop were the support. They were good and I met them afterwards. My main impression of them was that they seemed shy and polite. I don’t recall being that shocked that two members of an indie band were Asian, or that the Singh brothers used their ethnicity as both sonic turbine and sentient gimmick. It sometimes felt as if their adoption of Asian signifiers was partly done to bait an Anglocentric music press (or perhaps just Morrissey at the time); it was certainly deployed as an ironic weapon. You may recall the “curry-coloured vinyl” release of their first EP (which I still own), the Punjabi version of Norwegian Wood, more than one use of the thankfully now-moribund term of abuse “wog”, and of course, there’s their name. They are a fiendishly clever band, always one step ahead and one step to the side.

The smash hit version of Brimful Of Asha is 90% Cornershop’s achievement, and 10% Norman Cook’s. (I’m sure Norman would humbly accept this share, and I expect Cornershop thanked him kindly for unleashing its beast within.) Their original 1997 iteration of what would be their defining song – a langorous paean whose only signs of danger are a tambourine and a teasing string sample on the playout – reached number 60 in the national charts. Once Cook had got his hands on it, spotting its potential for immortality and universality, it roared back into national consciousness and topped the poppermost: a victory for “our” music over “their” music in those still-entrenched times before file-sharing and giveaway NMEs, and a red-letter day for the independent sector and in particular the Rough Trade-birthed Wiiija.

It was already a uniquely warm, personal and witty evocation of growing up against a rarefied backdrop of Hindi playback singers epitomised by Asha Bhosle (ennobled in the lyric as “sadi rani” or “our queen”), set to a lazily summery indie riff ideal for its original August release and appealingly sung by Singh; Cook simply sped it up, spiced it up, changed the key (or so I’m told by musicologists) and added a bigger beat, the kind that had only just been defined as “Big Beat” and twinned with Brighton. Like the Bollywood tunes that feed into the heritage singalong feel, it’s a tune for dancing. The beachfront remixer spotted that and splashed it up in massive letters.

There’s dancin’ behind the movie scenes

It informs as it entertains, listing Bhosle’s contemporaries Mohammad Rafi and
Lata Mangeshkar and going on to namecheck All India Radio, Trojan Records, Marc Bolan and French singer Jacques Dutronc. It’s a song about singers; it’s music about music; it’s a lyric about lyricists. It says, “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” Brimful of Asha is a celebration of itself, if you like. Even if you’re not on Cornershop’s actual wavelength, you get the gist. They care about RPMs. They acknowledge the power of radio. They love 45s. And so do you. After all, you’re holding theirs. And everybody, regardless of backdrop, ethnicity or accident of geography, needs a bosom for a pillow.

Cornershop continue to produce the goods on their own fluid terms (Tjinder and Ben Ayres survive from the founding squad), albeit away from the treacherous eddies of the UK chart. Their subsequent singles have been no less catchy and colourful, and who cares if Asha was a commercial fluke? It got higher than Strawberry Fields and Vienna. I reviewed their sixth album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in Word in 2009, and wrote that they “continue to forge a singleminded path between English pop kitsch and Asian birthright”, noting the use of “supplementary tambura and sitar,” and a preoccupation with “a surreal form of pacifism.”  I also stated that “a soulfulness roots Tjinder Singh’s elusively quirky lyrics in sincerity.” Hold that thought.

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

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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.

Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

SpecialsGangsters

Artist: The Specials
Title: Gangsters
Description: single
Label: 2 Tone
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

There follow two fairly faithfully transcribed entries from my 1980 diary.

Sunday, 10 February
Did my Smash Hits Specials album competition entry. Rather hopeful. Only six winners. Had to design 2 Tone man for record of choice. I did Smash It Up. You never know …

Friday, 7 March
Craig bought Smash Hits for me because I have come in the top six in the 2 Tone competition. My entry’s bin printed. It’s really good to see my name in the mag in print. I’ll be getting a Specials album. Goodo.

The first Specials LP duly arrived in the post, slightly bent but free of charge. I was excited about winning this prize, but perhaps more so about having my own drawing of Walt Jabsco, the 2 Tone mascot, “smashing up” some vinyl records to echo the Damned hit Smash It Up, printed in my favourite magazine. It was a victorious time for all of us, as 2 Tone – the name of a Coventry indie label which also stood for the ska revival movement itself – was a win-win. In repackaging a Jamaican form not previously known to most of us, but refracted through the prism of punk energy, related multiracial detente and Midlands stoicism, it slotted perfectly into the tribal landscape of Thatcher’s Britain, and gave even the most provincial among us something to think about.

The broader mod revival was easy to dress for (my younger brother took to wearing his school blazer down town at weekends, matched with a thin tie and some suitable target badges from the market) and if you preferred, as I did, to fashion yourself after punk, you didn’t have to be against ska. Into my already strictly coded “punk” singles collection went 2 Tone seven-inches in their distinctive paper sleeves, and we all got along famously. My friend Craig even invested in Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, and we all danced to it, even though none of us had a skinhead. But the Specials, aka The Special AKA, had been the first to convert us, and for that they remained supreme.

Too Much Too Young, A Message To You Rudy, Concrete Jungle, Rat Race, Nite Club, there wasn’t a selection on The Specials that we didn’t rate, or stomp to. Some of us aped Chas Smash’s bendy shapes, too. We welcomed The Selector, The Beat (initially on Go Feet) and even Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers into our bedrooms. But Gangsters is where it all started and Gangsters is where we went back to. As with The Prince by Madness, released a month afterwards, Gangsters had history built in. It was a reworking of Al Capone by the Prince himself, Buster. But much was gained in translation.

The screeching of tyres and the in-joke rewording of “Al Capone knows, don’t argue” to “Bernie Rhodes” (the much-maligned Clash manager who briefly handled the Specials) announce a record that would change lives in the UK. Where our beloved punk and new wave records kicked and elbowed, this new, worldly record bounced and syncopated, its hiccuping rhythm seemingly sung as well as wristed by guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation. I hadn’t been there to witness the actual birth of punk, but 2 Tone burst from its sac before our very ears. The skies were blackened with pork pie hats. (I never had the hat. Nor did anybody in Northampton that I knew.)

It was all about the black and white, the two skin tones of the Specials, the Beat and the Selector (although not Madness), the contrast – literally – between the two. Northampton was a predominantly white bread town, but this seemed a wider, national move toward racial coalition, and there was clearly only one side to be on, that of both sides. If West Indian culture could be so sincerely and idiosyncratically filtered through Coventry and Birmingham to create this thrilling new hybrid, then mixed was the only colour in town. It’s quite a thing, looking back from my privileged position of over 30 years living in melting-pot London from the vantage point of so much enlightenment, that some seven-inch singles in 1979 and 1980 must have cast such a liberating, liberal spell over us.

The lyrics of Gangsters, a Jerry Dammers composition, touch on Cagney, Raft and Muni (“Don’t call me Scarface”), but paint a modern urban picture of distrust, paranoia and threat.

Why must you record my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?

He knows what he’s doing when he gets Terry Hall to repeat the word “dread” in the line, “I dread – dread – to think what the future will bring”, recalling as it does fear and loathing, but also the street poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood, all grist to our duotonal mill. The idea that the police state might “confiscate all your guitars” is an inspired rock’n’roll recontextualisation of Orwellian angst. “And Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.”

It was Hall who became the overnight star, with his eyeliner, his nasal sneer and his close crop. That slight lean and the blank-eyed gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance (far beyond the kids in v-necks chickening away in the audience at Top Of The Pops) made him an instant rock’n’roll model and if anything updated ska for our concrete jungle, it was his faraway deadpan. Flanked by the hyperactive Golding and Neville Staples, his was the true punk presence in amid the night moves.

It’s rare for music to summon up the anxiety of a lyric in the instrumentation, but Gangsters does just that during the passage, “Don’t offer us legal protection, they use the law to commit crime”, where, spiced only by an Egyptian sounding keyboard doodle from Dammers, John Bradbury’s almost militarily precise snarework creates a modern malaise which may well have had roots in amphetamines of which we had no working knowledge. Then it’s back into the dancehall groove to end. Though it’s fast and furious, you can hear Ghost Town prefigured here – the howling wind, the desolation, the ironic pre-apocalyptic party mood – but for now, we’re living in gangster time.

I finally saw the Specials live in 2009, at Glastonbury, in the afternoon. Terry was still doing that lean and gaze, Lynval and Neville were still leaping around, Brad was still lock-tight, only Jerry Dammers – was he pushed? did he jump? – was absent from this viable nostalgia band. They were among the very best acts I saw over that lost weekend, even if the pies were a little porkier.

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

TalkingHeadsRemaininLight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t even mention it!

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959)

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Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Title: Take Five
Description: single; album track, Time Out
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1970

How do you pinpoint when you first heard one of the most popular jazz hits of all time? Especially one recorded before your parents had even got married. It feels to me as if Take Five has always been in the background, either as the accompaniment to some TV show, laid across a montage or played over a testcard. I may have first heard it in the womb in late 1964 and early 1965, or in my cot thereafter. I usually stick a pin in 1970 as the year I first became aware of which songs I was actually hearing through the radio (the birth of a collector and archivist), although TV theme tunes lodged much earlier, as there’s a feted reel-to-reel recording of me, aged two, parroting the themes to The Monkees, Z-Cars and Dee Time into a fuzzy mic, much to my Dad’s glee.

In a way, it’s immaterial. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Take Five is the best-selling jazz single of all time and the first to sell a million copies. But since jazz was never really a singles club (and Take Five was a five-and-a-half minute album track by birth, talked down to three for release as a 45 with Blue Rondo A La Turk by CBS boss Goddard Lieberson), it’s the wrong yardstick. What’s remarkable about it is the fact that an instrumental workout in quintuple time inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck had heard on tour became a hit at all.

I’ve stated elsewhere that jazz entered my life in a more conscious way in the mid-80s, when the form was infusing much of the modern indie pop I was listening to (blimey, including The Cure) and sounding a lot like summer. Also, I’d met a card-carrying jazz musician and expert, fellow art student Dave Keech, whose influence on my musical outlook was as seismic as that of Frank Wilson, my first 6 Music producer, 20 years later. Both men bent my ear away from the pale-faced 4/4 rock that dominated my core. Ironic, you might say, that the first jazz entry in The 143 should come from a white pianist and composer, but the two-tone multi-ethnicity of postwar jazz is what made it so appealing to so many kids in the shadow of the Atom bomb, as likely to tap a toe to the cool jazz of Stan Getz, Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. (By the way, don’t be impressed by the way these names trip off my typing fingers; I had literally never heard of these people before Keech became the jazzmaster to my Grasshopper at Nene College.)

Brubeck’s writing partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond, who composed Take Five, was also white. (I just read on Wikipedia that he bequeathed his royalties to the American Red Cross, who still get a “check” every year. What a swell guy.) We have Joe Morello to bow down to for that smoky beat, and Eugene Wright for the sparing stand-up bass, although it’s the foregrounded alchemy of Brubeck’s languid ivory-tickling and Desmond’s airy sax that clinches the tune. You don’t need to be a scholar to surmise that jazz is less about the composition and more about the execution. In this, it’s closer to eternally interpretable classical than the fixed formulas of pop. It’s not dance music, and can be appreciated seated, but let’s not dismiss nodding as anything other than a valid and primal response.

It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind. In this, it’s pretty unique among the “songs” the comprise The 143. We’ve welcomed Archangel by Burial, whose voices are only fragments; I can easily see Green Onions finding a seat here; something from John Murphy’s 28 Weeks Later soundtrack is shortlisted; and distinct passages of Autobahn are instrumental, another essential tune that’s very possibly coming over the hill. But Take Five goes further than all of these contenders, because, in the collective bones of the Quartet, it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, or how it will it all turn out. In this and only this respect is it like the TV series Lost.

Recorded jazz is almost a contradiction in terms. But it’s how we preserve and the Time Out rendition is as near as dammit. Purists will tell you that it’s better on vinyl, too, where, for instance Morello’s kick drum really kicks. I will take this on advisement, for I have not the hardware to play vinyl. Certainly, the key jazz sides I taped off Keech in 1984 were flat and pre-digital, and they were my tablets of stone for a good few years.

Some detail. I will always love a tune that begins with a beat, because the drum is the only instrument I have ever been able to master, but how unintrusive the intro on Take Five, the ride cymbal almost literally tickled and the snare tapped by expertly pulled punches. And how regular and conventional the 5/4 quickly becomes. The high alto coos like a pigeon; it summons images of summer breezes, ceiling fans and open windows – jazz on a summer’s day – while that piano doggedly presses its delicate but hard-wearing underfelt into place beneath. (You may say it’s a thankless task for the bandleader with his name above the title to keep insistently looping that piano signature, but where would we all be without it?) I think I’m right in saying that only on the album version does Morello get to “go round the kit” quite as much as the full length permits. I’m latterly so hooked on the five-and-a-half-minuter I can’t even recall what the foreshortened precis sounds like. It’s unfettered at executive length and yet never reckless or indulgent.

I’m listening to it now. Background music? By definition if you take into the account the way Take Five entered my consciousness by osmosis without ever introducing itself and how snugly it provides accompaniment to imagery. But only if you treat what happens in the background with the utmost respect. True “background music” is exposed if you listen too hard to it. Not this.