The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

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Artist: The Specials
Title: Gangsters
Description: single
Label: 2 Tone
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

There follow two fairly faithfully transcribed entries from my 1980 diary.

Sunday, 10 February
Did my Smash Hits Specials album competition entry. Rather hopeful. Only six winners. Had to design 2 Tone man for record of choice. I did Smash It Up. You never know …

Friday, 7 March
Craig bought Smash Hits for me because I have come in the top six in the 2 Tone competition. My entry’s bin printed. It’s really good to see my name in the mag in print. I’ll be getting a Specials album. Goodo.

The first Specials LP duly arrived in the post, slightly bent but free of charge. I was excited about winning this prize, but perhaps more so about having my own drawing of Walt Jabsco, the 2 Tone mascot, “smashing up” some vinyl records to echo the Damned hit Smash It Up, printed in my favourite magazine. It was a victorious time for all of us, as 2 Tone – the name of a Coventry indie label which also stood for the ska revival movement itself – was a win-win. In repackaging a Jamaican form not previously known to most of us, but refracted through the prism of punk energy, related multiracial detente and Midlands stoicism, it slotted perfectly into the tribal landscape of Thatcher’s Britain, and gave even the most provincial among us something to think about.

The broader mod revival was easy to dress for (my younger brother took to wearing his school blazer down town at weekends, matched with a thin tie and some suitable target badges from the market) and if you preferred, as I did, to fashion yourself after punk, you didn’t have to be against ska. Into my already strictly coded “punk” singles collection went 2 Tone seven-inches in their distinctive paper sleeves, and we all got along famously. My friend Craig even invested in Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, and we all danced to it, even though none of us had a skinhead. But the Specials, aka The Special AKA, had been the first to convert us, and for that they remained supreme.

Too Much Too Young, A Message To You Rudy, Concrete Jungle, Rat Race, Nite Club, there wasn’t a selection on The Specials that we didn’t rate, or stomp to. Some of us aped Chas Smash’s bendy shapes, too. We welcomed The Selector, The Beat (initially on Go Feet) and even Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers into our bedrooms. But Gangsters is where it all started and Gangsters is where we went back to. As with The Prince by Madness, released a month afterwards, Gangsters had history built in. It was a reworking of Al Capone by the Prince himself, Buster. But much was gained in translation.

The screeching of tyres and the in-joke rewording of “Al Capone knows, don’t argue” to “Bernie Rhodes” (the much-maligned Clash manager who briefly handled the Specials) announce a record that would change lives in the UK. Where our beloved punk and new wave records kicked and elbowed, this new, worldly record bounced and syncopated, its hiccuping rhythm seemingly sung as well as wristed by guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation. I hadn’t been there to witness the actual birth of punk, but 2 Tone burst from its sac before our very ears. The skies were blackened with pork pie hats. (I never had the hat. Nor did anybody in Northampton that I knew.)

It was all about the black and white, the two skin tones of the Specials, the Beat and the Selector (although not Madness), the contrast – literally – between the two. Northampton was a predominantly white bread town, but this seemed a wider, national move toward racial coalition, and there was clearly only one side to be on, that of both sides. If West Indian culture could be so sincerely and idiosyncratically filtered through Coventry and Birmingham to create this thrilling new hybrid, then mixed was the only colour in town. It’s quite a thing, looking back from my privileged position of over 30 years living in melting-pot London from the vantage point of so much enlightenment, that some seven-inch singles in 1979 and 1980 must have cast such a liberating, liberal spell over us.

The lyrics of Gangsters, a Jerry Dammers composition, touch on Cagney, Raft and Muni (“Don’t call me Scarface”), but paint a modern urban picture of distrust, paranoia and threat.

Why must you record my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?

He knows what he’s doing when he gets Terry Hall to repeat the word “dread” in the line, “I dread – dread – to think what the future will bring”, recalling as it does fear and loathing, but also the street poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood, all grist to our duotonal mill. The idea that the police state might “confiscate all your guitars” is an inspired rock’n’roll recontextualisation of Orwellian angst. “And Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.”

It was Hall who became the overnight star, with his eyeliner, his nasal sneer and his close crop. That slight lean and the blank-eyed gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance (far beyond the kids in v-necks chickening away in the audience at Top Of The Pops) made him an instant rock’n’roll model and if anything updated ska for our concrete jungle, it was his faraway deadpan. Flanked by the hyperactive Golding and Neville Staples, his was the true punk presence in amid the night moves.

It’s rare for music to summon up the anxiety of a lyric in the instrumentation, but Gangsters does just that during the passage, “Don’t offer us legal protection, they use the law to commit crime”, where, spiced only by an Egyptian sounding keyboard doodle from Dammers, John Bradbury’s almost militarily precise snarework creates a modern malaise which may well have had roots in amphetamines of which we had no working knowledge. Then it’s back into the dancehall groove to end. Though it’s fast and furious, you can hear Ghost Town prefigured here – the howling wind, the desolation, the ironic pre-apocalyptic party mood – but for now, we’re living in gangster time.

I finally saw the Specials live in 2009, at Glastonbury, in the afternoon. Terry was still doing that lean and gaze, Lynval and Neville were still leaping around, Brad was still lock-tight, only Jerry Dammers – was he pushed? did he jump? – was absent from this viable nostalgia band. They were among the very best acts I saw over that lost weekend, even if the pies were a little porkier.

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Nine Inch Nails, Something I Can Never Have (1989)

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Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: Something I Can Never Have
Description: album track, Pretty Hate Machine
Label: TVT
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1994

I saw Natural Born Killers on its release in 1994 in downtown San Francisco. It seemed like the right country to be in at the time for a movie so steeped in American mythology: serial killers, tabloid TV, rolling news, video-paparazzo, guns, rednecks, prison, peyote, Rodney Dangerfield and, via its patchwork soundtrack, Patsy Cline, Patti Smith and Tha Dogg Pound. The soundtrack album, produced – or more accurately, curated and spliced – by Trent Reznor, belatedly introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, an act that had already gone overground thanks to MTV, Lollapalooza, an early Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy and, that very year, a defining appearance at Woodstock ’94. Because of my tardily circuitous route in, they – or he – first crossed my radar with the haunting lament Something I Can Never Have. I got hold of the debut album from which it came, Pretty Hate Machine, forthwith, and founding nothing else like it thereon.

The high-pitched, jackhammer-driven, no-prisoners industrial hubbubs that had made Reznor an alt-rock demigod in the early 90s seemed fairly tame to me, although they stirred something primal down there. Then again, I was old enough to remember Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke. None of which is to do down the success or raw bleeding power of Nine Inch Nails, whose unit-shifting impact owed much to an apparent existential holw in Reznor’s adolescent audience. It demanded filling. Industrial’s rise was concurrent with that of grunge, and both groundswell movements benefited from a record industry still geared up for the aggressive exploitation of the new thing. In the early 90s it was entirely feasible to be a multimillion-selling artist and still really fucking fed up. Pretty Hate Machine is no harder to listen to than Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar (which Reznor co-produced) – hell, some of it really is synthpop with a frown – but both provided a vital lever for disaffected American teens who were as desperate to piss off Mom and Dad as any teen before or after them. This was rock theatre, and I’m all for that. (Plus, NIN remind me of Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke …)

Something I Can Never Have would be a soul classic – classical soul, in fact – in any era, regardless of socio-cultural context. The bombast and thunderstorms are stripped away, leaving just Reznor to lay his emotional cards on the table, a former high-school musical prodigy from the cornfields of Pennsylvania raised by his grandparents but suckled by TV for maximum disconnectedness, here he is in his mid-20s, a driven and hardworking self-starter (“Back then I couldn’t do the things that I can do now”) with an outlet for a lifetime of frustration.

I still recall the taste of your tears
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore
Scraping through my head ’till I don’t want to sleep anymore

To which lost love he is broadcasting, we do not know, but her absence is making his heart grow devil horns.

I’m down to just one thing
And I’m starting to scare myself

Like every pop singer ever, he just wants something he can never have, and it speaks to us. Not all pop music can be Love Train. Some of it must be a howl of pain, a chorus of disapproval, a rumble from the jungle, a classic cry for help ie. “This thing is slowly taking me apart, grey would be the color if I had a heart.” The only fundamental difference between this and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little,” is the strategic and artistically justified deployment of the F-bomb in the third verse, to whit:

Everywhere I look you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be

Purists might argue that it’s unnecessary in a song that’s so elegantly arranged to convey melancholy and heartbreak, but as Mickey says to Mallory in Natural Born Killers before fading under the lilting synth intro of this very ballad, “Let me tell you somethin’, this is the 1990s, alright? In this day and age, a man has to have choices, man has to have a little bit of variety.” Within seconds, she is screaming obscenities at him: “Why’d you pick me up? Why’d you take me out of my fuckin’ house and kill my parents with me? Ain’t you committed to me? Where are we fuckin’ goin’?” I genuinely considered putting forward the soundtrack edit of this song to be committed to The 143, with the dialogue so tastefully interlaced into it, but it’s only four minutes long, and the album original is closer to six. Less is not more in this case. More is.

For an act so revered for making some noise, Something I Can Never Have appreciates the sound of near-silence. The repetitive piano motif is redolent of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, but it’s laid so low it never needles your ears. It’s not until one and a half minutes in that the song moves to the factory floor, where the whoosh, thud and crack of a satanic mill provide an unexpected rhythm to the tribute “You make this all go away.” At which, it does, and we’re back with just Trent, prodding at the keys with one hand and showing us what’s under his ribcage with the other. It’s like he’s had some kind of episode, but subdued it, pushed it back down, put it off for later.

That he’s technically limited as a singer adds to the rawness and vulnerability of the performance. He’s hiding behind nothing, fully exposed, deal with him. The snarl at the end of “something I can never have” is a defence mechanism. Reznor’s most famous song, not yet written for The Downward Spiral and neither yet claimed as the epitaph of a dying old man dressed as a mortician, is Hurt, but the hurt was always there.

If you’re not acquainted with the Natural Born Killers soundtrack album, remedy that. It’s like a jukebox being kicked for 75 minutes, hopping from L7 to Lard to Nusrat Fhati Ali Khan to Duane Eddy to the Cowboy Junkies, punctuated with rattlesnakes, Robert Downey Jr and Native American chanting. And Something I Can Never Have is on it.

That’s where we’re fuckin’ goin’.

The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)

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Artist: The Waterboys
Title: The Whole Of The Moon
Description: single; album track, This Is The Sea
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers …

Mike Scott had heard the Big Music, and he’d never be the same. I am loath to be so vague, but I don’t know who introduced me to the Waterboys during my college years. But their sizeable strain of rock moved me in a powerful way in the middle of a decade that was often characterised by scale. Drums went off like cannons in so much 80s music. Brass emphasised that which had already been expressed in foot-high capital letters. Male voices in particular strained hard for operatic grandeur. Producers stretched every overblown gesture to fill the widest screen.

Trumpets, towers and tenements, wide oceans full of tears …

Inadvertently or otherwise, the Waterboys coined the name of their own genre – The Big Music – on their second blood-stirring album, A Pagan Place. In characteristically arse-about-tit style, I got into their third album This Is The Sea first, then their second, then their first. So for me, their music got smaller, as This Is The Sea is the pinnacle of their bid for windswept magnitude. Ironically, they were never as big as their music sounded, and only got big when their music got more intimate. Arguably their signature tune, The Whole Of The Moon only managed number 26 on its first release (“too high, too far, too soon” indeed). Not that I cared as I attempted to apply the rubric of the song’s roof-raising lyric to whichever student relationship was falling apart around me at the time. It’s a pretty compelling device, with the narrator comparing his own feeble efforts at dealing with the complexities of the world around him with the cosmic equivalent of some estimable maiden. To whit: “I pictured a rainbow, you held it in your hands.” And again, “I had flashes, but you saw the plan.” And again, “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.” Who wouldn’t insert themselves and their unmanageable partner into this plan? (Or which self-pitying man wouldn’t?)

Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves …

It seems dimwitted to say it, but this is the Big Music writ large. It’s not just session man Chris Whitten’s gloriously elephantine drums, or the heavenward, multi-tracked trumpet of Roddy Lorimer, or Anthony Thistlethwaite’s unapologetic sax, or Karl Wallinger’s synth, which hits a spot somewhere between the fairground and Van Halen, it’s the sentiment. Scott could be delivering this sermon from a mount. It’s not about some of the moon, no more than the album’s title track is about sea. I’m never sure how I feel about literal sound effects in serious songs, but when he testifies, possibly in a biblical hailstorm, “You climbed on a ladder, with the wind in your sails, you came like a comet …” the thundercrack of what we must assume is a comet proves pretty persuasive. (Naturally, as a young, romantically precarious twentysomething, the double entendre of a woman “coming like a comet” was not lost on me.)

Every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars …

And just when you’re getting the hang of this I’m-rubbish-you’re-amazing love declaration (“I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon”), the lyric dovetails into Gandalf’s shopping list. There’s something so fundamentally uncool about those scimitars and scarves, those unicorns and cannonballs (this was decades before Game Of Thrones), you’d have to have a heart of granite not to want to embark on a shopping spree.

It’s hard to think of a riper fruit than The Whole Of The Moon. I might once have argued you have to be in the mood for its overstatement and bombast, but this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood. This erudite poet of the seas is so knocked out by the completion of the lunar object he gives up and just shouts, “Hey, yeah!” at one juncture. That Scott and fellow travellers put the brakes on after This Is The Sea and decamped to Spiddal to make Irish folk music – entering their “raggle-taggle” phase and lining up with the Hothouse Flowers et al – is a natural wind-down. Where can you fly to next when you’ve been to the whole of the moon on the back of a comet?

I didn’t know what Brigadoon was when I first entered this song in 1985-86 at the urging of someone I’ve misplaced. I subsequently found out and another jigsaw piece slotted into place.