A Certain Ratio, Shack Up (1980)

ACRShackUp

Artist: A Certain Ratio
Title: Shack Up
Description: single
Label: Factory Benelux
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1981

Wipe out the problems of our society …

White men may be incapable of jumping. But they can funk. A Certain Ratio, from Wythenshawe, Manchester, England, were no average white band. Named after a line in a Brian Eno song and slyly sent up in 24 Hour Party People for their experimental benign-Hitler-youth outfits – but rightly slotted into the Factory story, of which they were an immortal chapter – ACR had everything a Tony Wilson signing ought to have had (he personally managed them), except success. They notched up Peel sessions and glad-handed their way to a major label advance from A&M in the late 80s, but their aching cool never comfortably converted into commercial welly. Shack Up remains their pinnacle. They didn’t write it, but why quibble over administration? They made it their own.

The United Artists original, by Banbarra (Moe Daniel and Joseph Carter), came out in the States in 1975, over here a year later, and went unheard, certainly by me. It’s a robustly funky, Chic-indebted number with a progressive lyric (“We can love together, work together, sleep together, so why can’t we live together?”) and some swooning female backing singers, but once you’ve heard A Certain Ratio do Shack, you can’t go back.

It’s the ideal copy. The arrangement and the grouting are identical and the original’s drum fills are reproduced almost to the beat by light-fingered, multi-faceted ACR drummer Donald Johnson (whose work was, I maintain, as key to the band’s appeal as Tony Thompson’s was to Chic or Dennis Davis’s to golden-years Bowie). Hearing the two version in the wrong order – as I did, as many kids of my generation must have done: 1980 followed by 1975 – means that Shack Up introduces itself as something spidery and troubling, and then becomes something straightforward and prosaic. Don’t be shy; play them back to back. Neither will ruin the other. But ACR’s version of events is coloured by the northern industrial city that staged it. Martin Moscrop’s Chic-steeped approximation of the guitar sounds just out of tune enough to introduce a prole art threat. As they tear into the funk, the band sound like they could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. I love that.

My memory of the vinyl record is linked to my school pal Craig, who must have been the one who owned it. (We were file-sharing before records were files.) Craig taught himself to play the bass as we already had a guitarist and you’ve got to love the sheer practicality of that. He will have been encouraged to do so by records as funky as Shack Up. (When we did form a band, we dabbled in funk. I learned rimshot for those occasions and listened to a lot of Pigbag.) The turn of the decade was rich with new sounds, new styles. Some days you didn’t know where to look. We had no contact with A Certain Ratio: never saw them on telly (although I expect they were on So It Goes), don’t remember reading an interview with them in Smash Hits, couldn’t have told you their names, never saw them live. Their angular name and the autumnal potato prints of the Shack Up sleeve were all we had to go on. But it was sufficient.

I remember one disco at a hired Pavilion in those Northampton days where, unfathomably, the DJ played Shack Up and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag. We in the pleated trousers and check shirts flew onto the dancefloor like dandies possessed and did our angular, jerky dancing. I will have expertly attempted to mime Johnson’s itchy drum break using my elbows and wrists, not that anybody would have appreciated it in Billing.

We stood, or elbow-danced, at the dawning of a new era. Punk had collided with funk and London had ceded control of the ball. In the Granada region, whose hip magazine shows we did not get in Anglia, a head of steam was forming. A Certain Ratio, whose first album came out on cassette only, sat at the revolution’s fulcrum for a brief moment. Some of us two motorways away from Manchester noticed. Not everybody did. And we jumped.

 

Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978)

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Artist: Blondie
Title: Heart Of Glass
Description: single; album track, Parallel Lines
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass …

The plain paper sleeve with the record company logo doesn’t quite do justice to the delights contained therein. But this was 1978, which was just before punk in Northampton, and the picture sleeve revolution was still in its pupal stage. (Although punk “exploded” in 1976 in London after the Sex Pistols swore on a local news magazine programme, and thereafter in other major cities that were plugged into the zeitgeist, it didn’t arrive in the provinces until two years later, and I didn’t latch onto it until 1979.)

When Heart Of Glass – underwhelmingly the third single from Blondie’s third album – was purchased “for the house” in 1978, I must have been aware that it was a cool record by a cool band with a cool singer, but how it slotted into “punk” was probably too nuanced for my 13-year-old brain. That it was essentially a disco record (working-titled The Disco Song when first demoed in 1975) didn’t seem that important to my young ears, suddenly pricked on a regular basis by so many noises coming out of the radio in Mum and Dad’s “music centre”, whose built-in space-age cassette deck was pressed into service every Sunday in order to cherry-pick the Top 40. The essentially American schism between rock and disco held no sway at 6, Winsford Way.

Blondie were quite the package, whose sex appeal to a 13-year-old slotted in with Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Legs & Co. It is with infinite sadness that I accept that 13 year-olds today are already mainlining hardcore porn; for my generation, a lot more was left to the imagination, and Debbie Harry’s come-hither eyes, forces’-sweetheart looks and diaphanous dresses were the height of confused arousal. The blokes in their black suits and skinny ties looked aspirational, too, with their New York states of mind, and the sleeve of Parallel Lines was something you had to own. (I didn’t own it – we hadn’t really moved into LP ownership at that age – but you always knew someone who did.) They were a supreme singles band. But Heart Of Glass shines harder for many reasons.

One of the reasons is Clem Burke. I have retrospectively learned to appreciate the sheer craft of this most imaginative of timekeepers – able to twirl his sticks and keep the beat, but capable of what are disparagingly called “fills” that light up the room. Listen to Heart Of Glass through to its protacted fade and you will hear variation upon variation rattled out across snare and tom toms in a way that mocks the metronome of dance music. (He is said to have disapproved of the song initially.)

In the hands of hitmaking producer Mike Chapman, who’d co-authored so much dazzling British glam with Nicky Chinn, the whole of the stompy, poppy, bubblegummy Parallel Lines lifts off, but examine the way he runs Blondie’s brash new wave through a car wash and wax: a bubbling Roland CR-78 backbeat that ought to have been anathema to the CBGB gang paves the way for the intro, for which the individual components are neatly arranged in perspective. The smell of repetition really is on them. Bass, guitar, that Moroder-like pulsing synth, Burke’s whooshing hi-hat, the whole thing pre-programmed to shift key but in hybridising the synthesised and the organic it’s alive with personality and possibility. Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.

Blondie were apparently mainlining Kraftwerk during the recording, putting them well ahead of the pack in terms of the New Romantic regeneration, but it was never the song’s technical specs, nor its pioneering place in pop history, that took it to number one.

I went to CBGB in the early 90s. I’m glad I did. But it was dirty in there. Blondie did well to sell out.

The The, Uncertain Smile (1983)

thethesoul mining

Artist: The The
Title: Uncertain Smile
Description: album track, Soul Mining
Label: Some Bizzare
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

I can find no record of a bullet-headed statue erected near Matt Johnson’s birthplace, so we may assume there isn’t one. This is a crying shame. Although his illustrious career, effectively solo, as The The, has not always translated its musical value into monetary – only two of his singles have seen the inside of the UK Top 20, although his third and fourth albums Mind Bomb and Dusk went Top 10 at what we may now label his glory years in the early- to mid-90s – he has proven a diffident, single-minded avatar of content-based pop music, a man drummed out of the awkward squad for being too awkward and never one to compromise his mission statement. Or have a mission statement.

You get the sense that Soul Mining, his first commercial release as The The after some years as a solo artist, then a duo, then a band, then a solo artist pretending to be a band on the post-punk indie fringe, has now been folded into the canon of Great Lost Albums of the 80s. Although for those of us who clasped it to our gnawed hearts, it was a Great Found Album. It was Stevo’s misspelled label Some Bizzare and Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD that became Johnson’s key patrons. He was always a magnet for collaborators, who buzzed around in the forcefield of his creativity while he remained his own nucleus.

I adore Soul Mining. In my house, it has never gone out of fashion. I purchased it, a year late, while living in a brutalist halls of residence in Battersea and writing bloody awful poetry as a release from the privations and humiliations of life on a grant in a subsidisded tower block opposite a park that served hot meals and provided a weekly laundry service. Johnson’s beef was with the modern world of “moral decay” and “piss-stinking shopping centres”, “bruised and confused by life’s little ironies”. I etched his edict on my chest: “Something always goes wrong when things are going right.” At least, I felt-tipped it into my diary. If The The were about anything, it was pithy epigrams you could adopt as your own.

How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself?

I can’t give you up ’till I’ve got more than enough.

You’re just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country

How quickly I came to rely like life support on these seven lengthy compositions of aching urban melancholy with a martial beat, Johnson’s voice not technically brilliant, but authentic, low, growling, wounded, soulful and gamely straining for truth. Andy Duncan was the drummer on four sevenths of the LP, including keystone track Uncertain Smile (which had been a single in a prior version, laid down in New York with flute and saxophone for the US label and substantially re-recorded in London for the LP). His vivid, metronomic beats sound deceptively electronic in origin, but to the trained ear their analogue warmth comes through in the fills. The whipcrack style, followed through, is a signature of the album. Soul Mining is a suite that holds its sonic nerve.

A constantly revolving door of 14 musicians are credited on Soul Mining (16 if you count David Johansen and Harry Beckett who provided harmonica and trumpet for Perfect, later added to the record), including Orange Juice’s Zeke Manyika on drums when Duncan isn’t, and yet it abides a Matt Johnson joint.

Surely his most famous guest star among the multitude is Jools Holland. In 1983 not yet a national treasure at the BBC – in fact, only two years as an ex-member of Squeeze, and just carving out a presenter’s niche on The Tube – lays down what might ordinarily be boxed off as a piano solo but is in truth no such thing on Uncertain Smile. Originally intended as the traditional break in proceedings but spliced together from two takes, it not only engorges the song with improvised musicality, it gives it a second act. Who said there are none of those in pop?

Uncertain Smile could, by rights, be faded down at three minutes and nobody would have asked for their money back. It’s already a copper-bottomed attention-grabbing lament to romantic loss and solipsistic regret, whose heartbreak is grounded by references to pouring sweat, watering eyes, howling wind, “orange-coloured shapes” and the unpleasant sensation of “peeling the skin back” from your eyes. While lacking the basic verse-chorus-verse infrastructure (it’s more intro-verse-instrumental-bridge-verse-instrumental), it’s not really an experimental proposition: boom-thwack drum beat, strummed acoustic, synth chords, insistent guitar riff, some doo-doo-doos, and a protagonist who wakes up in his pit, misses his ex-girlfriend and tries to pull himself together.

After the requisite three minutes, it has done its work – moved your toes, mined your soul, made you think about your own sorry life, inserted a nagging refrain under your skin (“where the rain can’t get in”) and left you wanting more. But it’s not over yet. There is more.

At 3.25, Jools sets suavely yet demonically about his boogie-woogie piano and, for the next three virtuoso minutes, makes a watertight case against any future swipes at his propensity to ruin a perfectly good rendition on Later with a twelve-bar blues workout on the ivories. He may have become a willing parody of himself as the years have varnished his reputation and sealed him inside that suit, but Jools is an incredible pianist, a musician raised in an era where virtuosity was ideologically discouraged, and rather than work against the clipped, aphoristic protestations of Johnson, he effectively takes the baton from him and offers a “reply” to the talky stuff that’s gone before.

The result is a game of two halves that beat as one. I know Jools’ solo so well I can air-finger it on imaginary keys. God help us all if there was an actual piano there.

Matt Johnson hasn’t recorded as The The since 2000. He’s into soundtracks now. He was into soundtracks then, come to think of it. Uncertain Smile certainly scored my life at a difficult age, when the idea of a perfect day seemed anathema. And even though the shopping centres no longer stink of piss (maybe they never did), it’s still soundtracks my life and the moral decay that’s still gnawing at the heart of the country.

Diana Ross, Upside Down (1980)

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Artist: Diana Ross
Title: Upside Down
Description: single; album track, Diana
Label: Motown
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Respectfully I say to thee …

Because life isn’t perfect, I sold my entire vinyl record collection to a voluble sounds-trader called Rob in 2005. Hundreds of circles went in the back of his truck bound for Newcastle and what was then a shopless mail-order service (he’s since reopened the shop, which I would love one day to visit). I hope those records that have been subsequently re-sold went to happy homes. They certainly came from one.

Of course I’m tinged with sentimental hoarder’s regret, but the back-breaking collection had come with us twice when moving house and with another move on the horizon, we made the Big Decision to set the LPs and 12-inch singles free, and clear some physical and psychological space. Every significant LP had been replaced on CD in any case, and that supposedly “compact” collection in itself was arduous enough to lift. Of course I was sad to see a few items of sentimental value go, but I squared it with myself by keeping back all of my seven-inch singles. Every single one. These now occupy a hefty flight case in the eaves and act as as a musical photo album. Flick through the 600 or so singles and each produces a Proustian memory.

And so to the seven-inch of Upside Down by Diana Ross. This, I can tell you with total confidence, I purchased in St Helier in Jersey in the Channel Islands while on a family holiday in July 1980. Staying in a hotel called the Merton, it was the Collins family’s first ever catered holiday after years in North Wales farmhouses and bungalows, and our first across a body of water. The quick-witted will have already deduced that this seven-inch single in its monochrome paper sleeve was a useless item. I couldn’t play it until we got home a week later. So why did I buy it?

I bought it because I was 15 and at that enraptured time measured out my life in seven-inch singles. These were affordable with saved pocket money and fitted snugly into the handled record box we all carried. I bought Upside Down as a trophy, because even though I was on holiday, the accumulation of seven-inch singles need not be put on hold. With limited funds, the choice of a single was no quick decision made lightly. Planning was involved. The selection process was complex. You didn’t want to waste your next turn.

I suspect we had extra spending money that fortnight because we were on holiday. I asked Twitter how much a seven-inch single retailed for in 1980 and the hive mind reckons between 99p and £1.29. It would have been a chart single as it went to number 2 and I suspect the record shop I bought it in would have been a Woolies and nothing too specialist? (Residents of Jersey at that time will be able to confirm this.) So let’s assume I set aside a pound which might otherwise have gone on a paperback or a miniature bottle of spirits (which I’d convinced my parents were collectable) and spent it on a piece of black extruded polyvinyl that I could only look at.

Such was the heady power of pop music. Now, Upside Down – a fastidiously produced nugget of disco funk from the Chic Organisation used to flag up the May-released Diana album – was not my usual poison, musically speaking. In 1980 I was all about angular post-punk and way more likely to be getting a penny change from a pound note at the record shop for Totally Wired, Holiday In Cambodia or Feeling Alright With The Crew.

That said, I was going to youth club discos at the time, because that’s where the girls were at, and among my immediate circle of friends, both Craig McKenna and Andy Bonner had begun to invest in disco 12-inches, which had piqued my interest with their executive-length and predominantly beat-driven mixes. If I didn’t hear Upside Down at a disco, I’d be surprised. I fell for it instantly and for reasons visceral not intellectual or even social. That it didn’t quite fit into my handled record box, as it were, was possibly part of its appeal. And at least it had a picture sleeve, which wasn’t a prerequisite of disco singles.

But I feel I appreciate its artistry more keenly now. I gamely attempted to copy Tony Thompson’s immaculately fluid drum fills at the time with rulers on a stool without even knowing his name, or fully appreciating that the people who made Le Freak, which I was also dancing to at discos, had made Upside Down. There is much I didn’t know then that I know now; crucially, that Miss Ross got into a funk with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards as she didn’t like their final cut of the LP, going so far as to remix it herself with an in-house producer. Motown put out her version and inflamed the wrath of Chic’s learned friends. It all got a bit nasty. Which is a shame, as the album – whose subsequent hit singles the declamatory I’m Coming Out and jaunty My Old Piano are also spectacular – does not sound of acrimony or post-rationalisation.

The lyric may not be Shakespeare – “Upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively” – but the use of “thee” in “respectfully I say to thee” is cute and in any case, Ross’s voice, high in the mix (maybe higher than intended), is light, sexy and seamlessly authoritative throughout, aware of its space and reflected off the mirrored architecture of the Chic sound: Rodgers’ much-copied masturbatory guitar (the song is counted in by a jitter), Edwards’ spare bass and Thompson’s airtight beat, while the Chic Strings punctuate skywards. The single edit runs some 30 seconds shorter than the album version and gives Rodgers the elbow room to freak out a bit, but even in the fade, Thompson’s tactile curlicues are memorable, each concentrated splash of Zildjian a graphic marker flag. I’ve attempted in adult life to “learn” the drums on this track, and the sequence is beyond my capabilities. We may never see the late Mr Thompson’s like again.

Maybe I should have saved up the extra 50p and purchased the 12-inch in St Helier, although it would only have been the four-minute album track. With singles, the selection process was complex. But I didn’t waste my next turn.