The Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

TheJamBeatSurrender

Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned).

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

TriffidsWideOpenRoad1

Artist: The Triffids
Title: Wide Open Road
Description: single; album track, Born Sandy Devotional
Label: Mushroom
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

By the time I arrived, in my art school dungarees and with a green Pentel behind my ear, at the NME offices in 1988, The Triffids had already been anointed as An Important Band. And quite right, too. Traditionally under-appreciated in their native land, they had done what all interesting Australians do and travelled. They’d already done Perth to Sydney in search of a record deal. By 1984, they were Australians in Europe, tracing the footsteps of the Go-Betweens and the Birthday Party before them to London. These rock’n’roll Clive Jameses did as he did: enrich our culture with their wide eyes, itchy feet and tall stories.

As told elsewhere, one of my first responsible jobs in the NME art room was to design and illustrate the packaging for the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. One of the gems nestling within its three-disc tracklisting was Wide Open Road by the Triffids. I had yet to hear the incredible LP from whence it came, Born Sandy Devotional – whose title alone ought to have caused me to buy it, had money not been so tight in the days before I got on the record company mailing lists – but the song caused proverbial guns to go off in my chest. I had never been to Australia. I’d barely been further than the Channel Islands in 1988 and had to apply for a passport when the NME sent me on my first foreign trip later that same year. Wide Open Road was my visa to the other side of the world.

I’ve still never been to Australia, incidentally, but find myself a sucker for its myth and legend through films and TV and music. The Triffids, though expats, immortalised the land down under like no other group of battlers before or since. Their titles bespeak a deep communal link to their native country and a yearning to travel: You Don’t Miss Your Water (’Til Your Well Runs Dry), Estuary Bed, In The Pines, Tarrilup Bridge, Suntrapper, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Jerdacuttup Man, Bury Me Deep In Love, even Calenture, which is a word for cabin fever at sea. It’s made by men and a woman with guitars and drums and keyboards and a violin, but The Triffids’ music is elemental – beaches, estuaries, reefs and saltwater seem to define them – and I have adored exploring my way through their catalogue in the years since 1988.

We must speak of David McComb. When the Triffids enjoyed their first cover during my tenure at the NME, this Byronic, windswept poet-warrior was photographed crawling up a beach in his native Perth, as if shipwrecked. It captured his spirit perfectly, as if newborn, certainly sandy, and always devotional. To mark the release of Black Swan, their proposed commercial breakthrough (although not in actuality; it reached number 63 in the UK, and became their swansong), NME had flown out to Australia and found the band cast asunder before a tour, some working, some gardening. Out tour guide, McComb was a mass of anxieties about national and Western Australian identity, the Perth music scene (which the journalist described as “moribund” and “third or fourth world”), and his preference for “moontanned” women over bronzed bikini babes. Before the year was out, the Triffids had jacked it in. Within a decade, McComb would be dead, despite getting a new heart in ’96. His lifestyle had not been one to ensure long live, and it’s a shame he was better recognised in his home country as a songwriter of quality and distinction posthumously.

Which is why to rewind to Born Sandy Devotional is to discover the Triffids at their transformative best. Recorded in London and Liverpool, thus planting them in the their adopted home, and the home of their ancestors, producer Gil Norton found shape in their raggle-taggle sound and its fulcrum, Wide Open Road, feels so optimistic, so swollen with possibility. Written as a hymn to what McComb described as “a particular landscape”, specifically a stretch of highway between Caiguna and Norseman in Western Australia that’s apparently one of the longest straight roads in the world. You can sort of tell that without looking it up, as drums “roll off” in the singer’s forehead while he remembers carrying a baby, “crying in the wilderness.” (I did say “elemental.”) That Alsy MacDonald’s drums do indeed roll off to illustrate the lyric underscores the literal nature of the song’s mission: to describe the world around it. For a tune built on an electronic rhythm and washed with synth, it feels as organic as the “big and empty” sky above.

This is pop music as psycho-socio-geography that carves a narrative out of the rock – it’s Walkabout, it’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, it’s Wake In Fright. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin, I cut them off as limbs,” McComb wails, before confessing to “hunting down you and him” on the flatlands with his “chest filled to explode.” You picture a car, but the protagonist is clearly on his knees in the treeless, post-apocalyptic plain when he yells his “insides out at the sun”. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Their only hit in the UK (they couldn’t even break the charts with Bury Me Deep after it had been used on Neighbours), Wide Open Road still feels like the widest and longest four-minute song in the world.

Patsy Cline, Crazy (1961)

Patsy_ClineShowcase

Artist: Patsy Cline
Title: Crazy
Description: single; EP track, Patsy Cline; album track, Patsy Cline Showcase
Label: Decca
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: 1990s

Though I’m a lot rock’n’roll, I can’t really even claim to be a little bit country. I’ve watched Nashville, both the classic 70s movie about the hub they call Music City, and the current, campy TV series, and I’ve long appreciated the Country & Western influence on much of the American rock of the 1960s that I hold dear. I have albums by Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds that make perfect, bootlace-tie sense to my ears, I actually enshrined a song from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline into The 143, and if there is a lovelier, more plangent sound than a pedal steel, I’d like to hear it.

But Patsy Cline is a different order of “meat and three”. The first female artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame (in 1973; it only took them ten years after her untimely death at 30), Cline’s reputation and appeal travelled way beyond the parameters of her chosen genre and subculture. The longer-lived Dolly and Tammy self-evidently had longer careers, but it seems me – as a non-expert – that she towers over them all from beyond the grave. Beset by bad fortune like any self-respecting country singer, Cline’s life was not the self-destructive tragedy of near-contemporary Hank Williams, and she was enjoying all the fruits of success when her plane crashed in a Tennessee forest in 1963.

Crazy is hardly an obscurantist choice from Cline’s crossover repertoire, but for me, it shines brightest and interferes with my heart in a way that I might not expect from a genre whose mawkishness can be a barrier to my full immersion. Written by a then-unknown, clean-cut Willie Nelson, who recorded it himself a year later on his debut LP, it’s a unisex lament to the inevitability of a split-up. Fatalistic, as many classic love songs tend to be, for maximum yearnitude.

The protagonist – female in Cline’s impeccable reading – declares herself crazy for feeling so lonely and for feeling so blue, as she knew her partner would love her as long as he wanted, and then “someday”, leave her “for somebody new.” If she did know this, why did she go with him in the first place? Well, if you need that question answering, you have never been in love. Cline has. She’s “crazy for tryin’, and crazy for cryin’,” and “crazy, for lovin’ you.” The way she lets us in on this apres-relationship confession in that husky voice that is apparently a contralto (ie. low for a lady), almost makes her sound as if the loss and the inevitability are part of the experience. Better to have loved and lost, than to have loved and lost and not seen it coming.

A polite piano intro, augmented by the lazily ascending twang of a guitar, give the song a trilling, balmy porch setting, the better to stage Cline’s wistful but self-lacerating dissection, swept along by the brushes of whichever of the two drummers played on the parent Showcase album. It’s an idyllic backdrop to a gloomy conclusion about the fallibility of the heart. The velvety baritone backing of none other than Elvis’s partly-ordained Jordanaires gives such depth to the arrangement (they were still indentured to the King in 1961 but would later be too busy to join him in Vegas and handed over to the Imperials), but it’s Cline’s rich account that cuts through, the ends of each line quivering into the trees on the wind. In “crazy for feeling so blue,” it’s the word “feeling” that she hammers home: crazy for feeling so blue, the “blue” note held for longer than you might think feasible.

Each word Cline chooses to emphasise seems perfectly selected. It’s as if she had the ability to italicise with her tonsils, as she went along. I also love her more upbeat, clip-clop 1963 rendition of the Bob Montgomery-quilled Back In Baby’s Arms (introduced into the gumbo of Trent Reznor’s Natural Born Killers soundtrack with creditable plurality), but the career-defining ballad wins by a nose. I suspect if she’d lived, the KLF would have had her on a record in the 90s; as it is, airborne catastrophe immortalises her as a kind of guardian angel in perpetuity.

Not even a hit in the UK, Crazy found me somehow, somewhere along the long, lonesome line. There. I hope I sound like the country expert I’m not.

New Order, Regret (1993)

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Artist: New Order
Title: Regret
Description: single; album track, Republic
Label: London
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Look at me, I’m not you

In the immediate aftermath of Ian Curtis’s untimely death, for Joy Division to not just carry on but fundamentally reinvent themselves under a new banner and ultimately alter the face of British alternative pop, seemed, in that cruel summer of 1980, a mission impossible. The term “regroup” doesn’t cover it. As New Order (the name itself a manifesto), they shuffled Bernard Sumner to the front, added Gillian Gilbert at the back, recorded two existing Joy Division songs in the new formation, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place, and produced an LP that looked and sounded and felt like Joy Division minus Curtis and plus extra synth. As relieved as the discerning were to have them back in business, and so soon, Movement was robbed of sunlight by the Joy Division memorial Still, and it all felt a bit like a holding pattern. Then they went to New York, and the next ten years were about bringing it all back home.

Between the rule-rewriting Temptation in 1982 and the final long-player before the band’s first split, Republic, in 1993, New Order really did bestride the twin worlds of pop and dance like four blushing Colossi. They even outlived Factory. Regret, the majestic lead-off single and a hit all over the shop, was number one in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts and Modern Rock Tracks, which just about says all that you need to know about New Order. Is it dance? Is it rock? Does it – to deploy the cliché – sound better in a club? Or in a barn? Or in a field? The answer is that it sounds better anywhere and everywhere. (I listened to it a lot, alone, in a one-room studio flat in Streatham in South London and it worked for me.) If New Order started out as three young men and one young woman with “weight on their shoulders”, they ended their first ten-year stretch on top of the world, looking down – you might say – on Creation.

That osmotic blend of guitar and synth which falteringly paints in the sky before it starts, as if touching up one of Peter Saville’s oddly sincere stock library photographs on the packaging, can surely, mathematically, never be bettered. Building on a fine repertoire of previous New Order and Pet Shop Boys hits, Stephen Hague sets a template of sleek, slick vistas and bevelled sophistication. It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio. Barney’s guitar still maintains its trademark melancholy but the overriding theme is celebration. (Hey, it’s a song called Regret that speaks of wounded hearts, complete strangers and being upset, you see, almost all the time. That kind of celebration.)

Blue Monday may have history on its side, True Faith the video, Fine Time the Balaeric cool, and World In Motion a rare sense of fun, but Regret is the crowning achievement of a little band who could. A good deal of Joy Division’s eternal appeal lies in the struggle – the quest to hew magic out of limited virtuosity – but mastering their instruments did not rob them of their personality. It is found not just in Barney’s non-classical voice, distanced and chorused in the mix, but in the idiomatic nature of his lyrics: “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known … I would like a place I could call my own, have a conversation on the telephone … I was upset you see, almost all the time”. It’s amazing how much soul there is in his childlike delivery and in these storybook couplets. (This is a man who, on Every Little Counts, on Brotherhood, actually sang, “Every second counts/When I am with you/I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo.”)

The whole of Republic is a showpiece. But Regret is pure cinema. I saw New Order on a boiling hot afternoon at Reading that year and entered a higher state of consciousness when I heard the riff to Regret, one I am physically unable to resist miming. I cannot play the guitar. This is important.

Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002)

JCashAmericanIV

Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002

Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.

It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.

Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.

Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …

Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).

To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.

When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”

Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.

We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”

Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

I haven’t even mentioned the video.

The Clash, Groovy Times (1979)

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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?

Billy Bragg, Tank Park Salute (1991)

BillyBraggDon'tTryThisAtHome

Artist: Billy Bragg
Title: Tank Park Salute
Description: album track, Don’t Try This At Home
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book

I have not cried to that many songs in my lifetime. When I have, it’s likely I’ve been sad about something else and the song has induced tears that were already desperate to get out of their ducts. It’s stirring and miraculous that a series of chords and the deft rearrangement of the English language can do this.

I’ve willingly and perhaps even self-indulgently massaged my own doom and gloom downwards with doomy and gloomy music, especially during my difficult teenage years, and I still have a soft spot for melancholy and infinite sadness. Trust by The Cure is as good as on standby on my iPod for when clouds are gathering, the dry leaves are on the move, the darkness is drawing in, or if I just feel like being windswept and interesting on a deserted train platform. (It goes, “I love you more than I can say, why won’t you just believe?”, a chest-beating declamatory cry for help that has not literally applied to where I find myself in life for quite some time and yet it feels so cathartic to have Robert Smith wail it between my ears.)

I once sat in my office at home and put Tank Park Salute on repeat, almost unable to stop listening to it, and it brought me to tears. I can’t quite contextualise it. It was about seven or eight years ago. It guess I might have been feeling my mortality – and it’s definitely a song about mortality – and I had moved outside of London for the first time in my adult life and may have been experiencing a profound sense of disconnect, but I don’t recall any kind of slough of despond. I cried, in a private way, because the song is really, really sad, and moving. And it got me right here.

My relationship with Billy Bragg, as it well documented, began as a remote one, between artist and listener, then became professional when I had found my calling at the NME and we became artist and journalist. But out of that, through turning artist and biographer, we became friends. Man to man. We remain so. However, I have never stopped being a listener. I love the way his delivery has developed over the decades, and I ought to feel hard pressed to select one song to sum up my appreciation of Billy’s 30 years in rock’n’roll, but Tank Park Salute makes it easy. Its position within the brightly colour-coded Don’t Try This At Home, the forced “pop album” intended to shower Billy with chart success and mainstream acceptance (it didn’t), feels more poignant with every listen. Not that the album lacks depth or content among the hooks and breeze; just that the deep, personal near-existential melancholy of this delicate, haunting requiem seems courageously at odds.

It is essentially the point of view of an 18-year-old boy remembering his childhood while dealing with the debilitating illness and death of his father – namely Dennis Bragg, a tank driver in the war, who died of lung cancer in 1976, aged 52. Because Dennis was housebound for almost 18 months after being diagnosed, Billy described the period to me as “being in slow motion”, and hence, one assumes, the references in the lyric to “darkness” at “the top of the stairs” where once Dad had left the light on.

Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way. It’s not a new observation that his voice has matured, and Tank Park Salute was hardly the first time he demonstrated its halting delicacy, but the personal subject matter and the simple arrangement provide the perfect showcase for its emotional range.

It’s a very clever structure, sung to his father from three points in time: he regresses to childhood (“kiss me goodnight, and say my prayers”), then jump-cuts to the funeral (“I accepted the commiserations of all your friends and your relations”), and ends in the present day (“I offer up to you this tribute”), where “photographs of a sunny day” fill the adult narrator with nostalgia for childhood. The three ages of man, if you like (and there’s no doubt that his father’s early passing made the 18-year-old a man).

You don’t have to have lost a parent at an early age to feel the pain. You just need to have a parent, or to have had one. Or, let’s push the boat out, be one. Billy’s compassion lies at the heart of his politics (“socialism of the heart”), so to draw a line in the sand between his protest songs and his personal songs is reductive; blood pumps through them all. There’s some great pop on Don’t Try This At Home, too (You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, North Sea Bubble, Sexuality).

But Bernie was right: sad songs say so much.

Got something in my eye.