Sleaford Mods, Face to Faces (2015)

sleafordmodskeymarkets

Artist: Sleaford Mods
Title: Face to Faces
Description: track, Key Markets
Label: Harbinger Sound
Release date: 2015
First heard: 2015

Get me: I hosted a premiere at Cineworld in Birmingham for the big-screen, red-carpet premiere of the first episode in the second series of BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. In my ice-breaking introduction, I played self-effacingly to the predominantly Brummie audience by revealing that I was born and raised in the East Midlands, “the second sexiest half of the Midlands.” I was joking, of course.

You run a crap club in Brum, you lose

In truth, the hoary heritage of the Midlands is as long as your arm; Birmingham (cradle of heavy metal), Stourbridge (grebo), Wolverhampton (Morrissey’s first solo gig), Coventry (2-Tone) and Stoke (Robbie Williams) have the West sewn up, while the East provides back-up through my own hometown Northampton (Bauhaus) and nearby Leicester (Mark Morrison, Family, Showaddywaddy, Cornershop, Kasabian). The once-impenetrably chewy accent heard around Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire has been belatedly enshrined in popular culture through the dialectic patchwork of This is England. But the East needs a mascot. Two, ideally.

Face to faces, alive

Sleaford Mods, named after the Lincolnshire town near Grantham, where Margaret Thatcher began her long walk to Finchley, are a siren call, a last exit, a final comedown and a stab in the dark all in one, or two. The duo, who’ve been around the bloc at least twice if not thrice (they are both in their late-to-mid-40s at time of going to press), semantic street preacher Jason Williamson, born in Grantham, and DJ, tunesmith and wiggler Andrew Fearn, born in Staffs but raised in rural Lincs, carry the weight of town and country on their shoulders, and it resonates in both their flat vowels and their stripped-back style. It is written that the pair have known each other since 2009, working together since the fifth Sleaford Mods album Wank (and thus, in a sense, the first). They are defined by their own failure – if failure to find an audience can really be called a failure – but creating your own sound is not always an overnight eureka. (Many great bands have as much failure below the line as success above it – Pulp a good example – and not all arrive fully-formed – Elbow a case in point. Because life’s not like The X-Factor.)

Nick Clegg wants another chance – really?
This daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful
It’s accepted by the vast majority

I first heard them when most people outside of the toilet circuit did, through those subversive underground outlets 6 Music, BBC’s Glastonbury coverage and Later … with Jools Holland (“We don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball,” Williamson barks on In Quiet Streets). The singer, with his face like Michael Fassbender’s portrait in the attic, happily admitted in one interview that he was turned on to the post-punk Mod revival by seeing The Jam on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978, so what goes around. Like the Woking Mods, Williamson, Fearn, a laptop and two crates arrived on television fully-baked, wound up and ready to play. With their self-described “coarse English music”, they were fast, furious and funny, not above calling you a “silly Billy”. At that stage I’d come to terms with the notion that Arctic Monkeys would be the last new band I would fall in love with from nought to obsessed with their chronicles of rubbish modern life. Seeing Sleaford Mods, I knew I was wrong.

It’s wise to assume that Williamson and Fearn hate whatever you love, especially if you love Blur. They might even hate Sleaford Mods, I don’t know, but they hate the way this country is sliding down the flue even more. They are old enough to know better. You could fill the vacuum inside Ed Sheeran with a hundredth of Sleaford Mods’ conviction and eloquence. But they do not operate on a level playing field, as much as Ed acts like a troubadour. While Ed has nothing to say, Sleaford Mods are biologically and ideologically incapable of saying nothing:

Is it right to analyze in a general sense the capital machine
Its workings and what they mean?
Passive articles on political debate
Its implications are fucking meaningless, mate

It goes without saying that Williamson transforms “fucking” into “fooking” and, later, “I’ll come out to you” to “Arl cum aht too yer“, and “You cunt” to “Yer coont.

New build, new bricks
New methods, old tricks

Why have I chosen Face to Faces as the definitive selection from their definitive album Key Markets? Because it does not deviate. With a fixed drumbeat, a perpetual Marxist bassline and a repeated mantra (“Face to faces“), its three-and-a-half minutes move from National Insurance to new-builds via Boris on a bike, your wife and shit you need to be pissed up to smoke, and its sinews and blood vessels strain to contain its message. Some of the best pop music bursts at the seams of production, and long may it; the jungle concrète of Sleaford Mods is defined by its parameters; Dogma 2015. What you hear is what you get. Other tracks on other albums do the same (BHS, Tiswas, No One’s Bothered, Rupert Trousers), but until Britain is fixed, even a Top 11 chart placing and increased volume in key markets won’t put out the fire. The names are changed to protest the ignorant but the punchline remains the same.

In dragging their concerns back to the original pirate material of English folk music and voicing them in their own voice, Sleaford Mods find a new vanishing point where a pre-industrial past meets a post-industrial future.

 

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Electricity (1979)

OMDElectricity

Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Title: Electricity
Description: single; track, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Label: Dindisc
Release date: 1979, 1980
First heard: 1979

It seemed so radical, appearing on TV with a TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine in place of a backing band, a stunt both Dadaist and practical that many of the modern bands pulled at the turn of the technological decade. The Musicians’ Union took a dim view of synthesisers and samplers, as well they might; these clever boxes signalled a march of industrial automation whose jackboots were already being heard around the corner. Indeed, the Rossini-scored Fiat advert that boasted about the Strada being “handbuilt by robots” debuted in the same year as Electricity’s first outing on – ha! – Factory records. (The pioneeringly callous ad was the first to occupy an entire ad break during News at Ten. Apparently the factory where the ad was shot in Turin by Hugh Hudson was being picketed by its own soon-to-be-redundant workers at the time.)

Elec-tricity
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea
Wasted electricity

But Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys weren’t moving parts. They were flesh and blood in pleated trousers and tank tops; living, breathing musical maestros from the port city with the magic water who weren’t above using occasional drums and guest saxophone in the studio, and augmented the tape player (nicknamed “Winston” in Orwellian tribute) with an actual drummer and auxiliary second synth-player on tour, initially supporting Gary Numan, thereafter headlining. They were handbuilt for the top, playing pure pop of an almost educational bent, packaged with corporate sheen by Peter Saville, and advanced enough by Dindisc to build their own studio in Liverpool, thereby seizing the means of production.

Our one source of energy
Elec-tricity
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away

It’s the single beat between the second and third syllable of “electricity” – elec-tricity – that holds the secret to the debut single’s genius. Such control. Such command. To tame a synthesiser takes more than a soldering iron, and these two “geography teachers” as they were later thumbnailed in a Smash Hits world, not only brought the noise, they brought the expertise. Outfits like OMD, and the Human League, and Soft Cell – not to mention the second tier of Eyeless in Gaza and Naked Lunch and B-Movie and Modern Eon – were not slaves to their machines. These people could still organise a singsong in a power cut. They simply channelled electricity into more than jack-plug sockets, and their revolution would be synthesised.

The alternative is only one

There are four, if not five recorded versions of Electricity. The version I love, and which was enshrined on their first Best Of in 1988, as well as the debut album, starts with what sounds more like a giant marshmallow being struck twice – squoosh-squoosh – between alternate percussive bass notes – bom – and a presumably synthetic snare tap – crack. It’s like being counted in by a spaceship. That amorphous bass slinks into a secret melody while another, shriller riff chimes xylophonically over the top in tandem. If you’re not already dancing with your elbows, you never will be. (I’m secretly doing it right now, and I’m in a Caffe Nero.) This is one of the most infectious intros in post-analogue dancevision. Though McCluskey hogs the spotlight in formation, he and Humphreys share the vocal chores and forge a distant dual lament about mankind’s profligacy. A synth wash sustains the entire three-and-a-half minutes, and it mesmerises.

Electricity is elemental; somehow apocalyptic and yet also hopeful, ancient and modern. And from this short, sharp power surge a legend would emerge. It wasn’t a hit on its first, limited Factory release in 1979, nor its second, and nor its third in 1980. The honour of breakthrough would belong to a, yes, re-recorded Messages, after which the charts would find it hard to shake them for the next five years with their homework about the first atomic bomb, genetic engineering, Joan of Arc, Vorticism, telescopes, architecture and morality. Their LPs were still shifting silver, gold and platinum into the early 90s.

They made their Top of the Pops debut in 1980 on the same show as The Human League. Nice grouping. To love them is to love possibility. Conditions normal and you’re coming home.

The final source of energy
Solar electricity

 

Althea & Donna, Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

AltheaDonnaUptownTopRankingArtist: Althea & Donna
Title: Uptown Top Ranking
Description: single; album track, Uptown Top Ranking
Label: Lightning Records
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

There’s no point in being coy about it: I once sang Uptown Top Ranking, the number one one-hit of Jamaican teens Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, in the appropriate patois and ting, onstage at no less than London’s famous 100 Club as part of a particularly memorable Karaoke Circus night. It is fair to say that my interpretation, as heartfelt and affectionate as it was, lacked a certain amount of pop and style, and was no match for the carefree unselfconsciousness of the irresistible original.

Inaccurately billing the artists as “Althia” & Donna on the original sleeve and label, Lightning was a subsidiary of Warner Bros, although the post-colonial plunder of Jamaica’s rich seam of musical ore really did help to broadcast it around it around the world, and it’s accepted now that reggae fed into punk, leading to the UK ska revival of the early 80s. Uptown Top Ranking might have seemed like a pop novelty to some in 1977 when it bogled up to the toppermost of the poppermost – two slightly cocky teens boasting of being “hip and ting” and threatening to give lecherous men a heart attack with their ’alter back (the “halter back” being a vest held up by a single strap, if you’re not fashion-inclined) – but its jerky charm is not withered by age. It feels now like an authentic explosion of youthful attitude.

Typically, it was John Peel who championed the track, and the duo, just as he did a few years later with Musical Youth, whose Pass The Dutchie was also a knee-high number one smasheroo. Although his patronage of reggae is more readily emblemised by dope-cloud dub, it’s to the great man’s credit that he was also a reggae pop-picker. As mentioned elsewhere, I was the right age circa post-punk and 2-Tone – and in the right ie. wrong place, geographically ie. Northampton – to find the West Indian influence effortlessly alluring. I can’t to this day confidently translate every romantically coloquialised couplet in Uptown Top Ranking, but you get the picture.

See me ’pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting

The protagonists’ focus on couture is paramount to the song’s trajectory. To the clothes hanger bearing “pants” (the “hot” variety we might presume) and that cardiac-risky “‘alter back”, we may add a “khaki suit”.

Meanwhile, the addition of a “likkle bass”

make me wine up me waist

Which, as any student of patois will tell you, refers to a form of dancing normally done by women, which involves gyrating the mid-section of body. Nothing to do with a glass of pinot. There are site-specific coordinates, too, which work best if you don’t look them up.

Drivin’ through Constant Spring
Them check sey me come from cosmo spring

Constant Spring is a residential district of Kingston, Jamaica, and I know this because I looked it up and that’s all its Wikipedia entry reveals other than the fact that it’s mentioned in Uptown Top Ranking. Cosmo spring? No idea. All I know now, as someone who’s not only looked up the lyric but learned it, off by heart, and sung it to a clubful of people through amplification, is that when I first heard it, in 1977, I made no effort whatsoever to understand it. I was transported by the order of its syllables, and you could just about sing along to the title, and to the manifesto line, “No pop, no style, something something roots.” It was sufficient.

Since we know for historical fact that the 1970s were a troubled decade, sexually, not least in Television Centre, where the 17- and 18-year-old Forrest and Reid performed their hit for Top Of The Pops that February, it’s reassuring to find that the pair seem so strident; their musical youthfulness appears to have escaped without patronisation or worse. That appearance, backed by a turtlenecked Top Of The Pops Orchestra who I suspect were largely non-Caribbean, survives as an organic little gem. Nothing about the packaging of the girls or their records (they followed up with an LP and further singles for Virgin’s Front Line, but none charted) seems exploitative, even in retrospect.

Althea and Donna get a writing credit along with Errol Thompson, one half of The Mighty Two with producer Joe Gibbs (the peak of whose endless studio CV must surely be Two Sevens Clash), so we might assume the young women had some input into the lyric. Let’s hope so. (The b-side of the UK issue, Calico Suit, is credited only to The Mighty Two.) Although the TOTP rendition is robbed of its roots, the vocal keeps it real, but you must return to the original recording to savour the full effect, from lazy opening rimshot to that teasing fade. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!” (as in: “Watch how we chuck it and ting” “Ow!”), you’re a reggae weekender.

Ow!

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

CarterUSMOnlyLivingBoy

Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days ago I, along with let’s say 4,999 others, witnessed Carter play their final, final gig at Brixton Academy in London, which is practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their last final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago in Brixton.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the now-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.

Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

SparksNo1

Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.