Bauhaus, In The Flat Field (1980)

Bauhausin-the-flat-field

Artist: Bauhaus
Title: In The Flat Field
Description: album track, In The Flat Field
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Bliss it was in the early 80s to be alive, but to be in Northampton was very heaven. Bauhaus were our band. Formed in our town. Forged in our town, where so little else was forged in those dark days before Alan Carr, Matt Smith, Mark Haddon, Jo Wiley and Marc Warren. Even after they became pop stars in late 1982 with a cover of Ziggy Stardust and Pete Murphy did the Maxell tapes advert, you’d still see David J, Danny Ash and Kevin Haskins in the wine bar on Bridge Street. (Don’t look for it, it’s not there any more, although the area around it has been turned into the Cultural Quarter, which is nice.) Not that any of us Goths were uncool enough to stare, or approach these local heroes. It was enough that they were still in town, when they could be anywhere else, like Pete Murphy always was. We never saw him.

Not that any of us thought of ourselves as Goths. Nobody did in 1982. But we were. Like Bauhaus, we wore black, and netting, and makeup (I never went that far), and we wore our hair high and hard. It was a heady time. I was 15 when I went to my first gig – U2 supported by Altered Images at Northampton College of Further Education, and yes, Dad picked us up in the car afterwards – and in that same year, I saw Bauhaus play at Lings Forum, a gathering of the Northampton tribes, most of whom were more aromatic and Gothic and sexually provocative than me and my friends Pete and Craig. But it didn’t matter. We were there. We lived close enough to walk home. My Mum and Dad still live within view of Lings Forum.

Bands did not slot Northampton into their national tour itineraries in 1982; it was a rock desert and we had to make our own entertainment (we were all in bands). People in raincoats and leather jackets had to take coach trips to Leicester and Nottingham and London for that particular cerebral fix. But Bauhaus, some of whom did the same art foundation course at Nene College that I would subsequently enroll for, were already here. (Our art history teacher, filling us in on the actual 1920s German art school, made the devastatingly cool claim that he’d taught members of the band about it and thus helped give them their name.)

Not since the 1960s when Northampton Town FC ascended and descended the four divisions in near-successive seasons – “The real miracle of 1966,” according to Manchester City’s then-manager Joe Mercer – had our town even been on the map. So you can perhaps imagine our excitement at Bauhaus’s ascent to the top of the pop table.

The nine-minute debut Bela Lugosi’s Dead makes a solid claim to be their meisterwerk. It was a national anthem for much of my youth, and thrills me to this day with its depraved dub and Grand Guignol. But the five-minute title track of their debut album, which, fittingly, I borrowed from Northampton Record Library and taped, distills all of what made Bauhaus far more than just a cheap, powdered novelty. The drums are fast, tribal and spotless and keep time in deafening haste. The bass rubs your loins. The guitar makes a blackboard of your senses, then become a writhing bag of spiders.

It is a waking fever dream, Pete Murphy’s hallucinogenic imagery moves from cut-up mind games (“into the calm gaping we … Calm eye-flick shudder … of black matted lace of pregnant cows … my slender thin and lean”) to punk-rock ennui (“I get bored, I do get bored”). He sounds like a ravaged, consumptive marquis in search of ever more filthy kicks, from Piccadilly whores to whatever the holy fuck “filing cabinet hemispheres” were. I’d never heard of a “lumbar punch” but I knew it wasn’t good that he was up for one. Aged 16, the very utterance of “spunk-stained sheets” was X-rated. Sometimes, especially when you’re a teenager, you need your favourite band to be on another plane, in another place, on another planet. (Even when some of them are in your wine bar.)

In The Flat Field is at once apocalyptic and Edenic. A runaway rapture of Hammer horror and Kafka nightmare that lifts the humdrum listener to unimagined heights of fetid fantasy. “Assist me to walk away in sin”, Murphy intones. To quote a road safety advert of my childhood, he don’t need any help, does he?

The sleeve shrouded around this record is none more black. Within, the band are picked out only in shirtless, emaciated shadow. The low, guttural, metaphysical moaning that underpins the song’s protracted outro is a primordial sound that would recur in Bauhaus’s canon, as they first got darker, then became more music hall, then fell apart in dub. I salute it. This was music to pore over. To take apart. To unpick. To offer yourself up to. To raise a blackcurrant-coloured drink to, as you had borrowed your Mum’s Mini Metro, which was parked up by the Guidhall.

For a couple of years, there really was energy in Northampton.

Echo & The Bunnymen, The Killing Moon (1984)

EchoThe-Killing-Moon

Artist: Echo & The Bunnymen
Title: The Killing Moon
Description: single; album track, Ocean Rain
Label: Korova
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Once a Bunnyman, always a Bunnyman. The thought of it sometimes reduces me to panic, but when I sing The Killing Moon I know there isn’t a band in the world who’s got a song anywhere near that.

Ian McCulloch, The Observer, 13 April 2003

Ian McCulloch famously believes that Ocean Rain, Echo & The Bunnymen’s fourth album, is their best. I would have to lay down my raincoat and respectfully disagree with him. I’d say their first album, Crocodiles, remains their best. But I’ll happily concede that The Killing Moon – which in January 1984 promised the moon on a stick from the forthcoming new LP in May – makes a passionate bid for their best song.

It’s interesting how elemental your love for a band can be in your late teens. My first real crossover with Echo & The Bunnymen was when it went around the fifth form at Weston Favell Upper School that one of the cool kids, Mick Monroe, who had a wedge haircut and everything, had thrown away all his records except for those by Echo & The Bunnymen, which can surely only have amounted to one LP and some singles at that decisive stage. (A decade later I worked for Mick when he was an art director at a Covent Garden design agency, although I never satisfactorily got to the bottom of whether or not this was a myth. I prefer to print the legend in any case.)

It was through a much closer friend Craig McKenna that I first heard the Bunnymen myself, by which time their resin-coated reputation was sealed – thanks in no small part to Mick Monroe, who also had pleated trousers and blue shoes, items I attempted to carry off myself in those formative years of 1981 and 1982. By 1983, the Bunnymen had gone overground and boys’ hair in the sixth form was uniformly sticking up and smelling of Boots Country Born, but to know their first two albums was still to mark yourself out from the herd. Among the cognoscenti, even in Northampton, long coats were worn and even danced in at discos. By the summer of ’83, our gang were sockless by default. A knot of us travelled all the way to London to see the Bunnymen play the Albert Hall that year and it was religious. (A single printed sheet of paper was left on every seat, imploring, “LAY DOWN THY RAINCOAT AND GROOVE.” We are talking the highest echelons of cool.)

The 12-inch of The Killing Moon – purchased sight unseen and sound unheard with another Bunnyboy, Kevin Pierce, from Our Price in January 1984, the first landmark release of the year – had a live version of Do It Clean on the b-side, recorded at the Albert Hall. We were there. It was all coming together. I thought I’d heard it all, but The Killing Moon, elegant, aromatic, sincere, torrid, spooky, luxurious, deep, wide and long, was a new day dawning. Lush with strings, hushed with brushes, luminous with muted tones, this self-produced mini adventure knows how good it is.

“In starlit nights I saw you,” coos McCulloch, “So cruelly you kissed me.” It is, of course, his own lips that are “a magic world”, and the sky in the sleeve photo that’s “all hung with jewels.” Self-belief is never left in the dressing room with the Bunnymen in their pomp. It’s not always becoming when a band declares itself the best in the world, but that arrogant sense of entitlement can be intoxicating when embedded in the music – and far more palatable from Liverpudlians, I’d argue. It’s like the Bunnymen owned the road.

The nine-minute Up All Night Mix on the 12-inch never outstays its welcome. But the five-minute single version, which bursts at the seams with minor-chord grandeur and lunar melodrama, is more than enough. Kevin and I played it again, and again, and again. And I’m still playing it. Other songs of theirs – songs to learn and sing – are rougher and readier, sexier, rockier and drugsier, and more demanding of the casual listener (Stars Are Stars, Zimbo, The Puppet, Villiers Terrace), but The Killing Moon is an underground band hitting the big time and playing to the stalls, not just the Gods.

The airtight bass of Les Pattinson, those shards of distorted guitar pouring out of Will Sergeant, the late Pete de Freitas’ tribal exactitude, McCulloch’s possessed incantations and killing croon: for the best part of five years, heaven was down here.

I’ll get me coat.

 

The Farm, All Together Now (1990)

All_Together_Now

Artist: The Farm
Title: All Together Now
Description: single, album track Spartacus
Label: Sony
Release date: 1990
First heard: 1990

I was accused by someone on Twitter of “studied disinterest” when I announced on the popular social media site that I had no interest in being “cool” at my age, before recommending Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album a full ten months after its release because I’ve only just bought it. This disinterest was not studied, which is why I blocked my accuser. No song in The 143 has been selected for any other reason other than I love it. I loved it then and I love it still. If I was concerned about how this list looked, I would be a fraud.

I love All Together Now by The Farm. If the band were ever truly fashionable it will surely have been before this song lodged itself in the national psyche across all castes, creeds and colours (by which I mean football colours). At that point, having cracked it, commercially after many, many years’ service in the trenches of regional indie and fanzine legitimacy, The Farm made the most of a transfer window and went overground, forever thereafter the property of people at wedding discos. It has been some years since I was among those five or six good men and true, but I rather think they are enjoying their “people’s longevity”.

They have the keys to Liverpool, figuratively it not actually, and occupy the same post-punk Scouse pantheon as Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns, Ian McNabb, Holly Johnson, Julian Cope, Ian Broudie and, although it would annoy him, Lee Mavers. Such figures do not drift in and out of fashion, they exist in perpetuity in collective local mythology rooted in the Cavern and Merseybeat. All Together Now is a sentimental song, made in a sentimental city, sung by sentimental people then and now, in sentimental situ. And it would be easy to belittle it by practitioners of studied disinterest. (Its sentimentality, by the way, is nothing to do with the sort of civic stereotype that saw Boris Johnson visit the city, cap in hand, to apologise for belittling the Liverpudlian character in the Spectator in 2004, in an article that also perpetuated lies about Hillsborough that have since been legally quashed, forever.)

A “terrace singalong” is how it might be dismissed by people who’ve never stepped foot on a terrace, or sang along. But community singing is important, and if there is no community (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed, as she set about destroying them), then if a song momentarily makes you feel like there might be one, it has done its job. In this respect, you’ll never walk alone.

The Farm and their mentor Suggs (who took them in hand) seized their moment as the 80s jigged into the 90s and years of marginal struggle coalesced into right-place-right-time-right-trainers relevance. With fashionable production on their side, this band of brothers gave it everything they had and found a chart-topping album within, Spartacus. Their thumbs-up bonhomie didn’t hurt. The Farm once gave me a tour of Liverpool that took us from Walton Gaol to Robert Tressell’s grave and we had our photo taken at a Yates’, one that I still treasure. Unlike the Madchester bands, The Farm came with added socialism.

Using Johann Pachelbel’s Canon In D as its kicking-off point – a common pop nick in the 60s, but audacious in ’90 nonetheless – All Together Now uses the gentle orchestral waft and a plangent rising guitar signature from co-writer Steve Grimes to lull the listener into a false sense of decorum before a pull on the bass ignites what historians will identify as a textbook “indie-dance” groove. If all this song did was lay a trendy backbeat under a classical riff, it would be worth a cursory listen and a tap of the trainer, but Peter Hooton’s voice and lyric are what cause a studio lark to ascend.

It’s distant and high, more delicate than anything the Happy Mondays would attempt (and neither should they have done), gloriously augmented by the mighty Pete Wylie on backing vocals, and sets out a bold stall, for this is a song about the Great War when “baggy” songs tended to be about lager and rainbows. “Remember boy that your forefathers died,” he entreats, a man as capable of tomfoolery and wisecracks as any burgher of Liverpool, but not messing about herein. “Lost in millions for a country’s pride … But they never mention the trenches of Belgium, when they stopped fighting and they were one.”

The England-Germany truce is a well-worn, proto-pacifist fairytale with a mile-wide target on its back for the creatively bereft, suitable for all ages and shamelessly exploited by a supermarket chain to sell chocolate at Christmas. It even contains a kickabout which might have been a cynical button-pushing exercise in the hands of the insincere, but who else in the hedonistic Italia ’90 theme party along the M62 was singing about “a spirit stronger than war” on a “cold, clear and bright” night in December 1914? Not Northside. The Farm were like baggy’s older brothers. They’d been round the block. They were granted certain privileges. It didn’t take much to be a militant tendency in that largely apolitical landscape.

All together now? What a sappy deal, eh? Arms around each other. Blokes hugging. Scarves in the air. Tears in beer. Working Men’s clubs. The further away we get from No Man’s Land in December 1914 and successive outbreaks of togetherness among fighting men, the more vital such sappiness arguably becomes. The Farm’s moment in the sun seemed all too brief, but they abide, with at least one certified anthem suitable for sporting tournaments and occasions of national unity. You write a song like this, and you are forced to bequeath it to whichever group of people have gathered together in hired hall or sports stadium to sing it. All Together Now sorts out the fashionable from the unfashionable, and who’d want to be cordoned off among the first group?

Studied interest? No, just abandon, bejewelled with treasured memories of all the voluble, winking Liverpudlians I met when working for the NME meant getting the hell out of London on a weekly basis. If The Farm were waiting for you at Lime Street, you were alright.

Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987)

pet-shop-boys-introspective

Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Description: single
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.

Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.

Since it is a cover – and there will be further covers in The 143 as a great song is not a great song without a great version; I’m even hovering over another cover by Willie Nelson for inclusion –  I feel duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.

My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.

I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was unbearable.

Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been on Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough).  Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.

I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.

Yes, there may well be an Elvis entry in The 143. And as previously vouchsafed, definitely a few further covers.