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?

Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

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Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

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.

Cud, Rich And Strange (1992)

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Artist: Cud
Title: Rich And Strange
Description: single; album track, Asquarius
Label: A&M
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Holy Moses, here we go again …

OK, here’s the timeline.

1985 Cud form around various art courses at Leeds Polytechnic
1990 Cud’s second proper album Leggy Mambo, on Imaginary, reaches me at the NME. I love it
16 October 1991 I see Cud live for the first time and meet them afterwards at Manchester International II
27 May 1992 I see Cud for the second time live at Wakefield Rooftop Gardens and sit in for AWOL drummer Steve Godwin for Rich And Strange at the soundcheck (photographic evidence is taken of this momentous occasion)
June 1992 I see Cud live at Glastonbury
July 1992 As features editor of NME, I commission Cud’s first and only NME cover story (but do not write it)
1995 Cud split
2006 Cud re-form
2003-2011 I develop a happy if inaccurate reputation for being the only DJ on 6 Music who plays Cud (although I do play them a lot)
11 November 2012 Cud invite me to sit it on the drums again at Brixton Academy to play Rich And Strange when they support Carter USM and the Neds, this time to an actual audience of fans. It is one of the greatest moments of my life

Now, can I separate my love of this song and this band from my own personal history with both? Yes, is the resounding answer. (And in any case, when was The 143 not personal?) I will state for the record that, as the timeline indicates, I fell for Cud’s crazy, toe-tapping pop-rock music before meeting them as tremendous people. And I’d already identified Rich And Strange as a high watermark of their already prolific canon based on a promo cassette of it, which will have arrived from A&M Records in the NME mailbag in early 1992. They hooked me in with their music, these voluble art-rockers, and then landed me with their personalities. But what is a great band if not the sum of its own members’ personalities? Cud stood out then, and stand out now, because they created their own cool, rather than follow a signposted footpath. In Carl Puttnam, they had a singer who could sing and a frontman who could front, but did neither job as per the standardised job description.

In the more finely-tuned and less accidental third LP Asquarius, with a major label behind them and the marketing and formatting that once came with that pre-digital patronage, Cud skirted briefly with the mainstream, and they had the hooks and the ideas to live there, but they were, and are, a fringe proposition with their comic timing and their awful shirts, and it suits them, as much as the shirts did, or do. That bassist William Potter, the band’s own Boswell and apparent treasurer, is a comic artist, and Puttnam a painter (his daubing forms the sleeve of Rich And Strange), feeds into not just their sleeves but their attitude: pop as art.

Rich And Strange, whose intricately syncopated drum signatures I will now take to my grave, is a tight, bright, almost claustrophobically self-contained glam racket. It creates a kitchen-sink drama in which Puttnam bellows of lonely tigers in a basement and hurtling “flushed and brash” into “some crazy scheme”. In the words of Tom Waits, what’s he building in there? Our protagonist seems to be looking for love (“a kiss is too much”) and wounded by loss (“you must remember when you loved me like a friend”), but remains upbeat (“I’m never fed up”), wearing his self-awareness like a belt buckle: “I’m fat but I know where it’s at.” (If crueler observers ever thought of Carl as “fat” in the early 90s, it just goes to show how goalposts move.) Mike Dunphy’s guitar comes in starbursts during the verse then scales the heights of melodrama come the chorus, while Godwin’s line of duty never falters and Potter’s bass throbs away.

Having learned and played the drums to this song (don’t know if I mentioned it), I can report that it’s never off the splash cymbals, and that may explain the sheer, crashing, underlined joy it exudes. It is deceptively rich, albeit explicitly strange. A rare Top 30 hit during Cud’s commercial purple patch, the charts were a more interesting place with them in them.

Because Cud don’t fit into any movement (at Select, we gamely shoehorned them into what wasn’t called our 1993 Britpop issue, and I rated Puttnam four out of five in a concurrent sidebar rating indie’s frontfolk for “star quality”, stating, “Cud’s affable, frizzy-haired, chest-beating vocal acrobat minted ’70s retro chic and now carries Crimplenist mantle with much elan”), they are oft forgotten when matters epochal are discussed. But these four men lured to Leeds from Essex, Northumberland, Derbyshire and Surrey (all but one still trading as the Cud Band) boot-stomped a significant footnote into history. They’re one of my favourites, hope they’re one of yours.

The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)

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Artist: The Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Label: Verve
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988

I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.

Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.

What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.

I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?

This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.

When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?

There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.

 

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

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Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.

The Clash, Groovy Times (1979)

ClashCostofLivingEP

Artist: The Clash
Title: Groovy Times
Description: Track, The Cost Of Living EP
Label: CBS
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

NEW
EXTRA POWER
INTENSIFIED
WAKING UP THE DEAD

I don’t mind being quoted when I cite The Clash as “Britain’s greatest ever rock’n’roll group”. For me, they are. On points, they even see off The Smiths; and their finite output of five studio albums* over six productive, metamorphosing years out-toughs any historic claim by the Rolling Stones. (When, on their B-side to White Riot, they declare, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones … in 1977”, lines are drawn and battle comes down.) How much do I like The Clash? I can even put up with Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!

As established elsewhere, I was too young for punk’s year zero, but this just made the whole scene all the more attractive to me while I fumbled my pubescent way towards its heart of darkness in 1979, making healthy mistakes along the way. I was fascinated by the Clash – their clothes, their songtitles, the stencils, the picture sleeves of their singles. I remember seeing the cover of English Civil War reprinted in Smash Hits, with its still from Animal Farm, and wondering what it sounded like. In May of that year, I took the plunge, purchasing The Cost Of Living EP, figuring it was good pocket money value at four tracks. Although I Fought The Law dominated, I was quickly indoctrinated by the other three songs, originals, which were like no other band I’d heard before.

To this day, I still rate the urgent, “Hello, Cleveland” stomp of Gates Of The West and the expansive, London-centrically exotic Capital Radio (officially Capital Radio Two, as it was a re-recording, although I wasn’t to know at 14) over more iconic Clash sides like Guns Of Brixton, Clash City Rockers, even (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. They were always a sharp singles outfit, but there was something secret about these B-sides, in particular Groovy Times.

There’s content in all of Joe Strummer’s lyrics. But this one beguiled me at first listen. Its “see-through shields”, the dead that had to be picked up “out of the broken glass”, and those lorries bringing “the bacon in” – what vivid dystopian scenes he wove. Who was “the nervous triggerman”? Was he the same man as the “king of early-evening ITV”? (I’ve read since that the latter was Bill Grundy.) And what happens when they put you in “a dog suit” (those words almost barked by a hoarse but in-character Strummer), “like from 1964”? When we learn that “the housewives are all singing”, we feel a sneer against conformity and control. Even the Biblical prediction that these Groovy Times “have come to pass … forever more”, sends shivers down the spine.

As a hardened, cynical, better-read adult I can see my way through the imagery – poetic, questioning, reactionary, blackly comic – but it’s the melodic sweetness of the backing vocals, the rather nifty, treated mouth organ (credited to “Bob Jones” ie. Mick), and the Mamas & The Papas-like chant of the chorus, not to mention the acoustically picked solo, that add a discordant lightness to the dark. It’s odd to pick out such a little-known song to represent the entire output of such a magnificent, hitmaking band, but there’s not much that’s unique about The Clash that isn’t in Groovy Times. For one, I can’t think of a more definitive Strummer vocal performance (“Hey, Groovy!”), those words spat out with such righteous fury and agitated saliva. And Topper Headon is all over that kit, with inventive fills a-go-go. This is not a song, and thus not a band, afraid of sounding palatable. (“Have you seen these charts?” whoops Strummer on Capital Radio.)

The Clash felt dangerous to me in 1979. Theirs was strong meat. While I was comfortable calling in the whole of the Undertones’ catalogue, and that of 999, I never felt fully qualified – perhaps politically? – to allow The Clash into my young life. My friend Craig had London Calling, so I had no need to invest. I purchased it years later on CD, although by then I’d picked up a vinyl copy of Sandinista! at a record fair and weighed it lovingly in my hands, more than ready to go around the world with a band who’d so comprehensively broken out of punk. My appreciation of what they did has strengthened with the years.

I entered discussions with Virgin about writing another music biography after Billy Bragg’s and we put some thoughts together about a definitive tome on The Clash. But I didn’t have the history with them and though my heart was in it, my boots weren’t.

An unplanned meeting during my NME years with Mick Jones in Hamburg was regrettable (he had some beef with the paper that was nothing to do with me but he treated me with a sneer nonetheless.) More fruitfully, I met Strummer in 1999 for Q magazine and he did not disappoint. Proclaiming his insomniac love for the defunct Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club (we were the kings of early-morning ITV!), teasing the security guards at the corporate office where we met with a block of hash and threatening to set off the sprinklers by lighting a roll-up, he insisted we repair to the nearby Irish pub for our chat, where we threw out the plan of him answering readers’ questions and instead jawed about Burma. (He took away the questions so that he could answer them properly, and, true to his word, sent them back to us by post.) He was a year younger then than I am now, but boy did he look good. When he came to pass in 2002, I was so stunned that morning I went into 6 Music just to sit in the same room as Gideon Coe, a bigger Clash fan than I.

A reader from Oslo asked: “Are you still as cool as your photo?”
Strummer replied: “No-one is.”

I had a title for the Clash book I never wrote: The Housewives Are All Singing.

* I don’t include Cut The Crap. Who does?