Sleaford Mods, Face to Faces (2015)

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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)

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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

 

Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

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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.

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

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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.

Metronomy, The Look (2011)

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Artist: Metronomy
Title: The Look
Description: single; album track, The English Riviera
Label: Because Music
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

Oh yeah. I can feel the cool breeze on my face as I risk everything and sail this close to the present. It makes me feel so … alive. Can a song I heard for the very first time just over three years ago really be included in The 143? Well, I’ve just proved it. Yes it can.

In many ways, this entry is perhaps the purest of them all, as the only objective context to subjectively influence my decision to induct it is that I heard the song when the album was dropped in my 6 Music pigeonhole by a friendly radio plugger, loved it at first listen and have been playing it regularly ever since (at the expense of anything else on its parent album). I know next to nothing about the band Metronomy, but that’s not important. I know I saw them on Later around the same time, and they performed this deceptively simple tune (and The Bay) live, so I had in mind that they were a band of three men and one woman and that was enough. I knew that The Look was special.

It wasn’t yet a single when I first heard it in situ, as I am old-fashioned enough to feel duty-bound to do. Then it was simply Track 4 on third album The English Riviera. (I didn’t know they were from Devon; I do now.) She Wants had been the lead-off single choice. But you didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to hear The Look at a potential smash hit. Some light research tells me that it reached 190 in the UK Charts, a giddy height Metronomy singles have yet to match. (It did better in France; they do better in France.) Because the band had somehow filtered through to me, and because I simply take zero interest in the UK Chart, I had assumed, in a cavalier fashion, that Metronomy were a chart band. They most certainly were not in 2011. The album, unhindered by a Mercury nomination, actually broke the Top 30, but only just. Their most recent LP, of whose existence I was blissfully unaware, went Top 10. I’m only discovering all this today. Literally today.

That I appear to love a song that wasn’t a hit single makes no difference to me. I have never heard the band’s previous albums. But The English Riviera is a British album to restore my faith not in modern music but in myself. If you are in my company for long enough, you will hear me exclaim that modern music does very little for me. When, in yesterday’s Guardian, I read that the album is apparently dead (sales of individual downloads have bypassed traditional album sales, suggesting an inevitable shift in listening habits from long-form to quick-fix – actually it’s more like the death of context), my first thought was: well, I’ve got plenty of albums to be going on with.

In truth, I do not add to my record collection that often. Since leaving 6 Music, I have to be sufficiently moved by something on Later, or 6 Music, to actually truffle it out and listen to it again. But then I ask: is it worth money? Usually not. Sometimes – Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire – it is, and I doggedly repair to the actual Rough Trade shop to buy an action clunky old CD. But the gaps between purchases are widening. This is not modern music’s doing, it’s my own. I’ve gone and got older, that’s all.

So, The Look. Such a significant song. So meaningful in that even though it arrived free of charge in my pigeonhole before I had the chance to invest money in the band and their record company, I wanted to keep it. I wanted to cherish it and save it for a rainy day. From the palm-tree cover design, through the seagull noises and crashing waves that open the album and bleed evocatively under We Broke Free, this album is just the sort of archly knowing yet affectionately sincere English statement that used to be a Prefab Sprout album in my graduate years. The dominant, squirky synth sounds are countered by the warm verité of Joseph Mount’s high-pitched Glam vocals and those minor guitar chords, the cocktail salt-rimmed by what sounds like actual school percussion.

There’s more seaside in the ersatz Wurlitzer organ, which fades nostalgically in, artfully placed by Mount within a cavernous ballroom echo, creating melancholy and uplift, irony and sincerity at the same time, and what you would have to pigeonhole as a killer hook. It never wavers, never misses a rep, while Mount trills about “going round in circles”, which might describe the structure of the song itself, nudged on by a remedial but actual, analogue drum beat and given new colours by sunbursts of guitar and what might actually be a Stylophone, strategically inferred to ensnare the mums and dads, who remember which TV star used to advertise it.

I find the lyric about “this town” utterly endearing and personal; double-edged and defiant. The protagonists from this town which we must assume to be Totnes are “always running round” a place Mount describes without a sneer as “the oldest friend of mine”. Its small-mindedness and routines bite hard (“And to think they said we’d never make anything better than this”), but hope springs eternal: “Remember all the things we took, took.”

It’s a song you can play over and over and over again, without pause. It’s almost analgesic. It makes you want to go and live on the South coast and occupy a place where everyone knows you’re trouble. It would be unfair to pin all my jaded, beaten-up, won’t-get-fooled-again hopes on Metronomy, whose names I barely know and whose career I have only half-followed. But on this side of the sea, they seem the best bet for a bright future. And if not, it doesn’t matter. They have achieved greatness in my house, where I do like to be beside this A-side.

Radiohead, Idioteque (2000)

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Artist: Radiohead
Title: Idioteque
Description: album track, Kid A
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

It seems convenient, but you’re going to have to believe me. I fell for Radiohead when, during their support slot at the Astoria in London on October 9, 1992, Jonny Greenwood played those three “dead notes” on his guitar and the non-hit single Creep lurched into life. They were supporting The Frank & Walters, and their PR, Philip Hall, a man I liked and respected enormously, had talked me into coming with him to see Radiohead, whose first releases had not lit my fire, and who in my memory were playing to a virtually empty Astoria that night, but I may have idealised this detail.

From that day forward, I was essentially theirs. A fan of Pablo Honey when it was released in early 1993, I got to meet them before they were famous when they took me in their Transit to play a gig at Glamorgan University in Treforest, South Wales. They were polite and welcoming at whichever of them’s pleasantly appointed Oxford house we met in, and I was served hot, buttered toast made of thickly-sliced bread. Thom Yorke was harder to decode than the assorted Greenwoods, but I interviewed him alone in the back of the van at the university and a shared art school education bonded us. The “angle” for the piece I wrote for Select (headlined, “Super Creep”) was that Yorke represented a new, square-peg kind of indie “star”. Within two years, he was a star without speechmarks.

Come the end of the century, Radiohead were British music’s saving grace. Along with the Manics, they saw me through the Millennium. And Kid A was, for me, their first masterpiece. It remains a dizzying fusion of substance and style, ideas and technique, function and decoration, an experiment that worked, a bonfire of vanities that for most bands wouldn’t have even amounted to vanities that lit up the sky and a new leaf that wasn’t the same as the old leaf. Kid A reigns supreme. And of its ten tracks, Idioteque sums up its jagged glory in five tightly wound minutes.

On the back of a frantic, caffeinated electronic beat recalling Fad Gadget, what apparently originated with Jonny but was put through the Thom Yorke mincer before its oblique strategies could be unveiled to the world, Idioteque gets right under your skin with a remarkably rudimentary layering of ambient hum and interference, a mechanical concerto of rattling, shaking and shuffling.

Yorke’s snuffled, muffled distress signals may or may not presage a coming global apocalypse, but certainly conjure bunkers, an Ice Age and whatever emergency drill insists that women and children go first (“and the children, and the children”). Yorke’s first child – rather touchingly christened Noah – was not yet born when Idioteque was conceived, but it’s tempting to divine thoughts of fatherhood bubbling beneath the itchy surfaces of Kid A, and the anxiety about the future that starting a family engenders. With 21st century Radiohead particularly, it often feels like the end of days, even if the toast is thickly-sliced and hotly buttered. See them live – and I saw Idioteque essayed at Earls Court on the Hail To the Thief tour in November 2003, truly a night to remember – and your first impressions will not be of a traditional five-piece band, but of an industrial unit, busy with their machinery and infrastructure (too busy to face the audience, certainly, and often wrapped up in some function or maintenance side of stage that’s so pressing they just cannot tear themselves away).

The tumultuous “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming” passage is what recorded music is all about, those multi-tracked vocals suggesting a choice invisible at a moment of existential truth. Rattling like a little girl’s toy, it makes you jerk your elbows, it makes you think, it makes Thom Yorke enter the same seizure-like state of grace that once possessed Ian Curtis. It’s surely an explicit reference to the nightmarish rape of Rosemary Woodhouse by Satan himself when Yorke intones, “This is really happening” (as in, “This is no dream, this is really happening” in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – end of days, once again), but it might just be a thumbed nose to climate change deniers. You deconstruct Radiohead’s lyrics at your own peril.

That all of this industry conspires to create something as delicately balanced, emotionally affecting and ultimately human as anything on Kid A and its less socialised brother Amnesiac, but Idioteque in particular, is all the testament you should require that Radiohead are not as other bands. When they released Pablo Honey and I went down the M4 with them and Yorke had yet to grow the peroxide out of his hair, they were still as some other bands, but not for long.

Hey, Creep‘s a great song, too, but “everything all of the time”? No contest.

The Human League, Being Boiled (1980)

 

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Artist: The Human League
Title: Being Boiled
Description: EP track, Holiday ’80; album track, Travelogue
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

In 1980, I heard the future and it was The Human League. I suspect I read about them in the NME before I heard them, but when I did hear them – inevitably on the recommendation of a much more electronically advanced friend from another school whose real name was David Freak – I was overjoyed to discover that they sounded as remote, stark, serious and yet instantly cherishable as they looked with their stares and their jackets and their science-fiction board game and slide show and just the one pioneering haircut between the four of them. Although it wasn’t called that, post-punk was starting to really form shapes for the still malleable pig iron of my teenage brain.

OK, ready, let’s do it.

Now, as scholars of the Sheffield sound will know, there are two distinct versions of Being Boiled. The original and therefore some would say best, released on key Edinburgh indie Fast Product in 1978 and reissued in the same dispassionate pastel sleeve in 1980 on EMI (and again, in “stereo”, in 1982 when it went Top 10); and the comprehensively re-recorded and beefed up 1980 version, released by Virgin as the third track on the Holiday ’80 EP (from whence they made Top Of The Pops with the more “commercial” Gary Glitter cover Rock ’N’ Roll Pt 1) and included on the band’s magnificent second album Travelogue, which is where, in that year, I first heard it. I subsequently bought the Fast reissue, and have great affection for both. The earlier incarnation is tinny and hissy and opens with that gorgeous “OK, ready, let’s do it” call to arms by a callow-sounding Phil Oakey. But I’m going to seriously test the weight-bearing capacity of this limb and vote for the John Leckie re-record, or Album Version.

It’s longer, and rather than languidly emerge from the white noise of what sounds like machines being switched on and valves being warmed up, it explodes in an insect frenzy of rhythmic pulse and floating bleeps and bloops. The confidence of its totally synthesised modus operandi is almost overwhelming, a new sound indeed from the still-industrial north, hinting at space-age portent and totalitarian dance. The intro takes it time, then crashes into life with a terrifying cathedral riff. The voice that issued forth out of this crackling telex from another dimension was always going to be deep and booming, and Oakey slaps down his orders with the authority of a less genial Tharg, albeit not until a glam rock handclap beat has got the party started.

We are implored to “listen to the voice of Buddha” as the sound drops out, a spiritual entreaty at odds with the dictatorship of the delivery. A new button is pressed and a sort of squelchy horn section is summoned. At which point a truly pivotal moment in pop music is born: a singer uses the word “sericulture”, which even a 19-year-old Will Self wouldn’t have been able to provide a definition for. It means the agricultural rearing of silkworms for silk, although it was years before I found that out. The way the word sounds was exotica enough for provincial me. The eventual meaning doesn’t rob it of any mystery.

All I knew in 1980, aged 15, is that I had embarked upon a journey uncharted and intellectually and sonically demanding, very different from the fraught bike ride to Dave’s house in Trinity on the other side of town to swap seven-inches. A diary entry for 4 October, 1980, records my reaction to hearing and then borrowing Dave’s copy of Rock ’N’ Roll: “I’m into it, man. I wanna side-part my hair and wear thin black ties and button-down collar black shirts and black baggies.” It was about more than the way Phil Oakey looked, but that was a part of the allure. Dave picked up for me my seven-inch copy of the brand new, still-wet Boys and Girls – what would be the last Human League single pre-Crazy Daisy –  because he was going into town before I had the chance to do so, and I vividly remember him bringing it along to a meeting of the Film Society in a plain brown paper bag, on which he’d carefully traced the sleeve (including, of course, the face of the Doctor, illustrating the B-side Tom Baker).

Travelogue remains one of the keystone albums of my blind youth. I love Reproduction, too, with what I thought of as those Coronation St ladies’ legs dancing on babies and Circus Of Death, but Travelogue is unimpeachable, featuring black hit of space after black hit of space, a crow and a baby who had an affair, and the tune from the Gordon’s Gin advert you saw at the ABC. Being Boiled is its altarpiece.

I never once forsook The Human League when they went pop. I invested heavily into Dare, the Jam & Lewis experiment and Electric Dreams, applauded their 90s comeback and felt warm inside this century when they and other 80s stars were able to do package tours and earn a pension. But it’s the stuttering beat, burping synths and basso verbosity of Being Boiled that remind me of parking my bike and gazing out at the edge of  a brave new world and willing my fringe down over my eye.