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.

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James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.

The Farm, All Together Now (1990)

All_Together_Now

Artist: The Farm
Title: All Together Now
Description: single, album track Spartacus
Label: Sony
Release date: 1990
First heard: 1990

I was accused by someone on Twitter of “studied disinterest” when I announced on the popular social media site that I had no interest in being “cool” at my age, before recommending Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album a full ten months after its release because I’ve only just bought it. This disinterest was not studied, which is why I blocked my accuser. No song in The 143 has been selected for any other reason other than I love it. I loved it then and I love it still. If I was concerned about how this list looked, I would be a fraud.

I love All Together Now by The Farm. If the band were ever truly fashionable it will surely have been before this song lodged itself in the national psyche across all castes, creeds and colours (by which I mean football colours). At that point, having cracked it, commercially after many, many years’ service in the trenches of regional indie and fanzine legitimacy, The Farm made the most of a transfer window and went overground, forever thereafter the property of people at wedding discos. It has been some years since I was among those five or six good men and true, but I rather think they are enjoying their “people’s longevity”.

They have the keys to Liverpool, figuratively it not actually, and occupy the same post-punk Scouse pantheon as Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns, Ian McNabb, Holly Johnson, Julian Cope, Ian Broudie and, although it would annoy him, Lee Mavers. Such figures do not drift in and out of fashion, they exist in perpetuity in collective local mythology rooted in the Cavern and Merseybeat. All Together Now is a sentimental song, made in a sentimental city, sung by sentimental people then and now, in sentimental situ. And it would be easy to belittle it by practitioners of studied disinterest. (Its sentimentality, by the way, is nothing to do with the sort of civic stereotype that saw Boris Johnson visit the city, cap in hand, to apologise for belittling the Liverpudlian character in the Spectator in 2004, in an article that also perpetuated lies about Hillsborough that have since been legally quashed, forever.)

A “terrace singalong” is how it might be dismissed by people who’ve never stepped foot on a terrace, or sang along. But community singing is important, and if there is no community (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed, as she set about destroying them), then if a song momentarily makes you feel like there might be one, it has done its job. In this respect, you’ll never walk alone.

The Farm and their mentor Suggs (who took them in hand) seized their moment as the 80s jigged into the 90s and years of marginal struggle coalesced into right-place-right-time-right-trainers relevance. With fashionable production on their side, this band of brothers gave it everything they had and found a chart-topping album within, Spartacus. Their thumbs-up bonhomie didn’t hurt. The Farm once gave me a tour of Liverpool that took us from Walton Gaol to Robert Tressell’s grave and we had our photo taken at a Yates’, one that I still treasure. Unlike the Madchester bands, The Farm came with added socialism.

Using Johann Pachelbel’s Canon In D as its kicking-off point – a common pop nick in the 60s, but audacious in ’90 nonetheless – All Together Now uses the gentle orchestral waft and a plangent rising guitar signature from co-writer Steve Grimes to lull the listener into a false sense of decorum before a pull on the bass ignites what historians will identify as a textbook “indie-dance” groove. If all this song did was lay a trendy backbeat under a classical riff, it would be worth a cursory listen and a tap of the trainer, but Peter Hooton’s voice and lyric are what cause a studio lark to ascend.

It’s distant and high, more delicate than anything the Happy Mondays would attempt (and neither should they have done), gloriously augmented by the mighty Pete Wylie on backing vocals, and sets out a bold stall, for this is a song about the Great War when “baggy” songs tended to be about lager and rainbows. “Remember boy that your forefathers died,” he entreats, a man as capable of tomfoolery and wisecracks as any burgher of Liverpool, but not messing about herein. “Lost in millions for a country’s pride … But they never mention the trenches of Belgium, when they stopped fighting and they were one.”

The England-Germany truce is a well-worn, proto-pacifist fairytale with a mile-wide target on its back for the creatively bereft, suitable for all ages and shamelessly exploited by a supermarket chain to sell chocolate at Christmas. It even contains a kickabout which might have been a cynical button-pushing exercise in the hands of the insincere, but who else in the hedonistic Italia ’90 theme party along the M62 was singing about “a spirit stronger than war” on a “cold, clear and bright” night in December 1914? Not Northside. The Farm were like baggy’s older brothers. They’d been round the block. They were granted certain privileges. It didn’t take much to be a militant tendency in that largely apolitical landscape.

All together now? What a sappy deal, eh? Arms around each other. Blokes hugging. Scarves in the air. Tears in beer. Working Men’s clubs. The further away we get from No Man’s Land in December 1914 and successive outbreaks of togetherness among fighting men, the more vital such sappiness arguably becomes. The Farm’s moment in the sun seemed all too brief, but they abide, with at least one certified anthem suitable for sporting tournaments and occasions of national unity. You write a song like this, and you are forced to bequeath it to whichever group of people have gathered together in hired hall or sports stadium to sing it. All Together Now sorts out the fashionable from the unfashionable, and who’d want to be cordoned off among the first group?

Studied interest? No, just abandon, bejewelled with treasured memories of all the voluble, winking Liverpudlians I met when working for the NME meant getting the hell out of London on a weekly basis. If The Farm were waiting for you at Lime Street, you were alright.