The Housemartins, Happy Hour (1986)

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Artist: The Housemartins
Title: Happy Hour
Description: single; track, London 0 Hull 4
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1986
First heard: 1986

What a good place to be

Time, ladies and gentlemen, please, to further deify a man already deified. As we draw the final curtain on The 143, and supplementarily launch The 55, tears dilute beers, and pint pots are duly raised in the direction of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft. He was our sturdiest bridge over the troubled waters of popular music, post-prog, linking the throb of dub reggae, Bulgarian voices, Kanda Bongo Man, Barmy Army and The Wedding Present to Bongwater, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Duane Eddy and Toumani Diabaté, by way of The Undertones, the Elgins, Link Wray and the Flying Lizards.

There’s nothing dazzling or original or post-rational to say about John, at whose Aga-warmed Suffolk house I spent a bucolic day in the summer of ’99, a pilgrimage we all dreamed of making, and yet the truth was, we all enjoyed the same intimacy wherever he was broadcasting from and wherever we heard it, under the bedclothes or over the soundwaves. The synapse crackled constantly. We knew him. He knew us. That he latterly broadcast from his own manor was the most important home truth of all. It was always all back to Peel’s. (I was in Stowmarket to interview John for a 60th birthday cover of Radio Times, a landmark for me, too.)

I know for gospel that I first heard the Housemartins’ heart-stopping debut Flag Day when most people not fated to live in Humberside did: between 10pm and midnight on Radio 1 on 29 July 1985, when Peel broadcast their first session bearing his imprimatur. I was living in a study bedroom in Battersea, South London, at the time, both lonely and never alone in the twilight hours. The fleet-of-foot foursome with a spiritual bent recorded Drop Down Dead, Flag Day, Stand At Ease and Joy Joy Joy that summer, and somehow or other, between mouthfuls of reactivated powdered milk and plain own-brand biscuits, I sealed the standout onto cassette tape, alerting me at once to the band’s musical acumen and SWP rigour (“It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean/Try shaking a box in front of the Queen”). Ironically, the migratory bird after which they are named has a blue head; the band had not a blue bone in its body.

The third band signed to the still-wet Go! Discs, they followed Flag Day with Sheep the following year, and set out their counter-metropolitan stall with the decisively named London 0 Hull 4, produced by John Williams (not that one), which signified cardigans, CND badges and a homoeroticism peculiar to firm male friends lined up against the world. That their first squirts of royalties were invested in a local youth football team went without saying. Chief songwriters Heaton and Cullimore (with input on three songs from former bassist Ted Key and a single co-credit for session wingman Pete Wingfield) said an awful lot without saying.

The LP’s kick-off, Happy Hour wasn’t just an indie hit, it was a hit hit, its match-fit jangle-guitar jamboree reaching a vertiginous number three. It had entered the Top 40 at 30 on 8 June, risen to 12 the next week, then to its peak on 22 June, kept from the number one spot by Nu Shooz and The Edge of Heaven, farewell single from bronze gods Wham! Our problem-skinned quartet held steady on 29 June, this time robbed of a flag day at the summit by Wham! and – hello – Madonna. Tough competition for the third most popular act in Britain. Cap-sleeved Glaswegian Owen Paul arrived to nudge them back down to four in July, then seven, then ten. Their descent was decent: slow, incremental, leisurely. That’s a happy thirteen weeks. A good place to be. (They would top the charts that Christmas with an ecclesiastical cover of an Isley Brothers song, but denied Christmas Number One status by the reissue of a 1957 original by Jackie Wilson. Classic soul was their friend and enemy.)

Like most of the most memorable tunes that radiate out in harmonious waves from the shady grinning soul of Paul Heaton, Happy Hour is effortlessly catchy, misleadingly light, freighted with social commentary and soulfully sung by the nation’s favourite choirboys. (Also, in subsequent incarnations, girls: take a bow Jacqui Abbott, Briana Corrigan and Alison Wheeler.) As well as Cullimore, Heaton co-wrote with Dave Rotheray in The Beautiful South and currently collaborates with writing partner Jonny Lexus in Gran Canaria. Nobody else knows how Paul does it.

With its joyfully crude claymation video, Happy Hour had make-do charm built in and wooed even those – in fact especially those – who made happy hour so unhappy by being happy that the fire is real and the barman is a she.

And the meaning of style is a night out with the boss

It’s about male bonding rituals and the abject fear of standing out from the lunchtime crowd. It’s about “speaking a different language” from the flock, with their open wallets and closed minds, and their aspirations taken in “footsteps overgrown with moss” towards domestic safety and sexual compliance. There’s even a hint of Christian prurience in the couplet, “They tell me that women grow on trees, and if you catch them right they will land upon their knees.” Not to pray, one dares to assume. I’m thinking about Joe Lampton and Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith and Vic Brown and the other male relics of Barstow and Braine and Sillitoe and Delaney when I hear the desperate plea, “And you take all your clothes off, and go back to the kitchen sink.”

Five years, two albums, one number one, six Top 20 hits, four old heads on four young pairs of shoulders: the Housemartins built a nest in the eaves of popular music and then flew away south to broader pastures.

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The Kinks, Autumn Almanac (1967)

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Artist: The Kinks
Title: Autumn Almanac
Description: single
Label: Pye
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1985

Yes, yes, yes!

On a recent, feature-length Sky Arts documentary about the pivotal Kinks 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, more concisely entitled Echoes of a World, XTC’s Andy Partridge was among a phalanx of high-quality fans to hymn its attributes, filials and legacy. (Others included Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Suggs.) In precis, the non-accidental Partridge said that he’d spent his entire career trying to write something as good as Autumn Almanac. (I would argue that he succeeded, but that’s another entry.)

In any case, it feels fitting to crown an English song, by an English band of English men (Ray and Dave Davies from London, Devonian bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory from Surrey), addressing the subject of this foreign field that will be forever England, at a moment in early 21st century history when the Union seems precarious, the Jack has been hijacked and Englishness is – to quote a later British rock band indebted to the Kinks – “for the Englishman again.” Like many islanders, The Kinks stood on the white cliffs and peered out at the rest of the world, seeking fame and fortune in the United States and stopping to conquer. Like all decent bands worth their blue sachet of salt in the post-rationing 60s, they arrived at the recently renamed JFK singing in the borrowed vernacular of the blues and the barrel-house.

But once the Kinks started making cents, they were sent packing by Uncle Sam for reasons fabled to be union-related and in Kinks mythology precipitated by a punch-up over the only partly true notion that these four limeys had gone over there and stolen the Yanks’ rock and roll jobs. So when Ray Dave, Mick and Pete touched back down at Heathrow – having sampled the Indian subcontinent on the way – they regrouped around an Anglocentricity they’d hitherto never thought to run up the flagpole. The nation saluted.

Thus, having dabbled in the conceptual on fourth album Face to Face in 1966, and foreshadowed Orwell’s warm beer and old maids in the stand-alone track Village Green (recorded for Something Else in 1967 and kept back), they asked in earnest, who did they think they were? Autumn Almanac, recorded at Pye and produced by Ray, with Mr Pleasant on the UK flip, was an orphan; a non-album single. But it fended for itself.

I’m always reading about how fond guitarists are of the dirt that forms around a lovingly manhandled instrument – ancient, filthy strings seem to hold a particular allure – and despite the coming of springtime, there are few guitar sounds muckier than the one that heralds Autumn Almanac. That chop-chop-chop gives the impression of something primitive and earthen, and yet, from out of the sonic fug trill angelic Kink harmonies, with Ray in nature-documentary mode: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar …”

The harmonic scene is set when the dawn “begins to crack” and a breeze blows leaves of “a musty-coloured yellow” before being swept up in Ray’s sack – that’s his autumn almanac. The spirit of The Lion and the Unicorn lengthens like the shadows over a Friday evening where “people get together, hiding from the weather.” If you can’t taste the grill-blackened dried fruit and the sliding butter on Ray’s currant buns, you’re not listening. It is no coincidence that jam is another name for preserve. But this immaculate demonstration of what people in 1967 didn’t casually refer to as “world-building” results in no Prelapsarian idyll. There’s a “lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone” and our narrator’s “poor rheumatic back.” Ray Davies doesn’t deal in absolutes, he’s in the nooks and the faults, the cracks and the veins. Nature is confirmed as red in tooth and claw, but what of human nature? (Ponder this: which other of God’s creatures would compile an almanac?)

As I type, Brexit threatens to spread pestilence across the land. It’s why I have turned to the Kinks and village green preservation, a project steeped in hope and glory, not today’s pessimism and division. Britain was five years off voting to join the Common Market in 1968; to stop the world because it wanted to get on. Nobody dreamed of leaving. In this European future, would there still be “football on a Saturday, roast beef on a Sunday”? Blackpool? Holidays? Yes, yes, yes.

Ray gets all belligerent as the song woofs and flutters to its conclusion.

This is my street, and I’m never gonna to leave it
And I’m always gonna to stay here

He’s playing a part, as all good storytellers are able: the ultimate Brexiteer, purple-faced, aged ninety-nine with no right to tell the kids, or the Kinks, what to do. You sort of hate to tell him that all the people he meets who “seem to come from my street” will soon be gone. Whatever it is that’s calling to Ray’s surrogate in song it’s unsustainable. “Come on home“? He’s already home.

I first heard this song when it was played to me by fellow art student Rob in a study bedroom in Battersea at the opposite end of London to where Ray and Dave grew up in Fortis Green between Colney Hatch and Muswell Hill and other places that sound fictional but which aren’t. It slotted in somewhere between the more contemporary jangle of Aztec Camera and the new rockabilly of Thee Milkshakes and other Peel-time reprobates.

I didn’t know what an almanac was (it’s a calendar that notes high and low tides, eclipses, sport and prizes, that sort of thing – Whitaker’s is in its 150th edition as I type), but by sheer coincidence I had just learned about the drink called Armagnac, a play on words Ray had already nabbed. I discovered the Kinks piecemeal from compilations Rob lent me and I came of age with little idea of what song came from which parent LP. Autumn Almanac was, however, a keeper. It was also a flash-forward to the band’s greatest long-playing achievement. Ask Noel Gallagher, who regards Village Green as one of the three LPs you have to own.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes

The Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966)

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Artist: The Byrds
Title: Eight Miles High
Description: single; album track, Fifth Dimension
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1980s

At the time of writing, I own six – count ’em – individual compilation CDs whose multi-disc track-listings are recruited from the strict gene pool known as “the 60s”. Unsurprisingly, along with the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, Ohio Express and Scott Mackenzie, all six of these essential roundups are nuanced by the Byrds. The group’s signature tune Mr Tambourine Man, hijacked from under Bob Dylan’s nose, is on all six fulsome compilations; in addition, one of them (100 Hits: Peace and Love; close-up of some daisies) includes Turn! Turn! Turn!, and another (The 60s Summer Album; side-on camper van) risks breaking up the barbecue with Eight Miles High, which is the tune (Tune! Tune!) that abides with me – and the historic single that heralded their prescriptively psychedelic third album, Fifth Dimension, in the summer of ’66.

What I think I love the most about Eight Miles High is its general demeanour: frantic. A proposed chart-topper, it contains strong experimentation from the start, possibly a result of the effects of plant extract, or something with a chemical symbol. Chris Hillman’s western-TV-theme bass intro, the woodpecker attack on the ride cymbal by Michael Clarke, and “Roger” “Jim” McGuinn’s impatiently garbled twelve-string overture of entanglement – something of a unexpected musical item in the bagging area – combine to create the world’s least-likely-to intro to a pop hit in an epoch.

When you come fly with these men, it’s always a jingle-jangle morning. Not the biggest guitar group of the 60s, but arguably the one with the furthest reach into the future (the longest tail, if you like), the Byrds are in one unique sense contemporaries of Les Dawson: so adept at playing their instruments they can kick all of that knowledge into the long grass and make it sound like they’re only just discovering how to get sounds out of them for the very first time. It feels like there’s Mingus in the jumble-sale thrown by McGuinn, Clark, Hillman, Crosby and Clarke in the middle of what remains, on paper, a sweet-natured pop tune about being high and looking down on creation. (Actually, the statute books tell us that Crosby had turned the others onto Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane on the tour bus.)

Regardless of what went in at the other end, or how much sway producer Allen Stanton had over proceedings, there’s a massive attack in the way these musicians cook the hooks – even in the way they shake a tambourine, man – and it’s what sets Eight Miles High eight miles apart from the more house-trained likes of All I Really Want To Do and So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star, which are designed to make you feel a whole lot better.

Hadn’t they read the songwriting manual? Did they not want to be rock & roll stars? (They look every inch like they do, in their shades, and their suedes, and their tassels, and their Paisley, and the occasional cape, all lined up, a straight-legged groove machine.) It was not yet officially the age of Aquarius, and songs began with an intro, followed by a verse, a chorus, then another verse, a bridge, then back for a final chorus and fade. Albums were where the noodling went on – the navel-gazing and the barrier-pushing – not singles. And certainly not lead-off singles (Eight Miles High was released in March 1966; the LP followed after the second single, 5D, in July).

Eight Miles High is three-and-a-half minutes long, which is a minute longer than most radio DJs prescribed. It feels longer, like a drawn-out trip, and when you touch down, you find that it’s “stranger than known”. You may accept that the song’s about a chartered flight, legendarily to London (the “rain gray town, known for its sound,” where “small faces” – or Small Faces? – “abound”). If so, then it’s a short hop, and, be honest, something of a bad trip. The natives, some of them “shapeless forms”, are “huddled in storms”, and I don’t like the sound of those black limousines (The Man!) pushing through “sidewalk scenes”. If TripAdvisor had been around in 1966, this one would’ve averaged at two-and-a-half green circles. The guarantee with drug songs (and it is a drug song, despite thin denials after the initial US radio ban, although Clark and Crosby subsequently admitted to what the cool cats already knew), is that what goes up must come down, although not usually in such short, concertina-ed order.

It’s subversive, it’s on the edge, it’s of its time and yet beyond its years. It captures a five-piece band at a crossroads, just as they downsize to a four-piece, playing a song co-written by the cuckoo who flew over the rest and was missing from Fifth Dimension’s Arabian carpet.

Whether they were on drugs, or rugs, the Byrds staked out an important swatch of territory in the era during which they thrived. They’d invented folk rock and date-stamped “jangly”. The 90s would have been a lot quieter had they not done so, when punk rock electric guitar ran out of filth and fury, and fell obsolete, and the jingle-janglers had their season in the sun.

Thank heavens it had nothing to do with drugs.

 

Teenage Fanclub, The Concept (1991)

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Artist: Teenage Fanclub
Title: The Concept
Description: single; album track, Bandwagonesque
Label: Creation
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I’m writing this in a coffee shop in the centre of Glasgow. Teenage Fanclub, like the Soup Dragons and BMX Bandits, formed in Belshill, a town ten miles south east of the centre of Glasgow. We are under a week away from the Scottish Referendum. Scotland, and in particular its most characteristic city, feels like a pretty vital place to be having a coffee and an opinion. We have established elsewhere what a vibrantly musical would-be republic Young Scotland is, and it was carrot-topped emeritus Alan McGee’s London-based but Greater Glasgow-spirited Creation who helped bring Teenage Fanclub to the wider audience they strove for and fully deserved in the early 90s, when “indie” was not yet a dirty word.

British guitar music slowed down to an interminable crawl in the mid 2000s, the main drag caused by Coldplay but sluggishly adhered to by Snow Patrol, Travis, Embrace, Keane. Why didn’t they just call themselves Slow Patrol and be done with it? This era was turgid indeed. A go-slow does not automatically equate with grandeur or meaning – you have to be as assured as Elbow or Doves to crack that. I mention all this only because Teenage Fanclub, a decade earlier, had also eased off the pedal (if not the pedals) and created a glorious new groove for themselves that never plodded or trudged. Listen in particular to their third, fourth and fifth albums again – on which nary a foot is put wrong – and experience a band at the top of not just any game but a game they’d devised themselves. It’s not that literally every song is slow, but listen in wonder at how naturally they slip into that gear.

What You Do To Me, Metal Baby, Sidewinder, Alcoholiday, Guiding Star, About You, Mellow Doubt, Don’t Look Back, Neil Jung, I Gotta Know, I know, I know, I’m just listing tracks now, but great tracks, and not one of them breaks a sweat. It’s as if the Fanclub recognised that Everything Flows was the key song on A Catholic Education and based a whole repertoire around its colours, just as Rothko had done with his crimsons and burgundies, and nobody asked for their money back.

It was a headache choosing one song from that repertoire (and I did not discount Songs From Northern Britain or Howdy when making the dreaded final selection), but the impact of being the first song on their first copper-bottomed classic LP proved hard to ignore. The Concept even sounds definitive from its title. (By the way, I should confess now and forever hold my peace: I had never heard a note of the fabled Big Star when I heard Teenage Fanclub, so their thrall to Alex Chilton and gang meant nothing to me beyond the theoretical. I’ve heard Big Star since, and yeah, I get it. Everything flows from somewhere.)

Four seconds of tasty feedback, then that first couplet: so evocative, so arch, so potent, like the opening lines of a hip, dog-eared novel.

She wears denim wherever she goes
Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo
Oh yeah … Oh yeah

Let’s go over that again. Who’s she? What’s the significance of her choice of denim? That’s she’s cool? That she’s uncool? She’s promising to fill the Status Quo void in her record collection. Is that cool? She thinks they’re called “the Status Quo”, or perhaps she’s balancing the semantic karma after Mark Goodier’s habit of dropping the definite article from band names (Farm, Charlatans). She doesn’t even know the name of the band she thinks are cool enough to boast about thinking of investing in, but who may not be as cool as this denim-clad woman thinks they are. It’s Norman Blake singing his own lyrics here, but it might just as well not be, as Teenage Fanclub remain the most democratic songwriting unit ever registered. This instrument-swapping egalitarianism does them great credit, and stops Norman from being the frontman, even though he is. But what darkness is this?

Still she won’t be forced against her will
Says she don’t do drugs but she does the pill

What fierce creature is she? Not the sad groupie hinted at by the later intelligence that “she likes the group ’cause we pull in the slack” and even drives them home “if there isn’t a bar”; compos mentis, it seems, and yet contraceptively covered. Our protagonist says, “I didn’t want to hurt you,” which suggests that he did hurt her. That’s gratitude for all the compliments about his hair she gave, the designated driver. There is some fine lyrical alchemy afoot here, and maybe that’s why the slow pace works: it gives you time to ruminate on what you’re hearing.

“Slacker” was an imported lifestyle choice in the early 90s, matched by the often laboured nature of grunge and the thinness of its complaint. Teenage Fanclub “pull in the slack”. They are bright, breezy, self-mocking individuals. If ever a member disappeared, he was replaced by another just like him. Belshill seems to breed rare, fluting wits (the Soup Dragons’ Paul Quinn was an easy fit after the manic Brendan O’Hare left). Once you’ve met Norman and Gerry and Raymond, it’s impossible to unpick them from their music, but if you’ve encountered them live, you’ll feel you know them anyway. I was blessed to be in faraway Wick with the second line-up of Teenage Fanclub on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, and while they treated her tragic passing with respect, I recall a natural optimism that seemed to bounce off them like positive ions as we breathed deep of the sea air outside the hotel.

To pick out a couple of the niceties that raise this six-minute song up from merely super-tuneful, intelligent, timeless epic rock that you can listen to between meals without ruining your appetite: the simple contrast between the crackle of distortion and the sweetness of Norman’s vocal; the full-bodied depth on the “Oh yeah”s; the droll guitar “quotes” from Parfitt and Rossi before the second verse and the bridge; and the dramatic gap at the halfway mark, where everything stops flowing and Brendan almost falls across his kit to bring it back from the brink and the four of them harmonise like angels. Angels, I tell you.

As if we deserve swooping, sawing strings as well.

I finish writing this on the train back to London. When I cross the Scottish border, it may be the last time I do so without a passport in my jacket pocket, so I’d best mark this momentous occasion but putting The Concept back on, which is a pretty vital song about the status quo. Oh yeah.