The Chameleons, Don’t Fall (1983)

ChameleonsScriptofabridge

Artist: The Chameleons
Title: Don’t Fall
Description: track, Script Of The Bridge
Label: Statik
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

“In his autumn, before the winter, comes man’s last mad surge of youth.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

It’s the rejoinder from an exchange in a box at the theatre that clinches it as a typically random mouthful of dialogue lent unfathomable depth of meaning and angst by its very detachment from context. In a way, even telling you that it’s ripp’d from the mainly unknown 1946 American musical comedy Two Sisters From Boston ruins it. That the exchange is enacted by Peter Lawford as the idealistic son of Nella Walker, playing his uncomprehending mother, is irrelevant. It’s better if we don’t know.

Book publisher, sports writer, biographer and documentarian Mark Hodkinson – who hails from the same neck of the Greater Manchester woods as The Chameleons – named his first novel after the intriguing word combination The Last Mad Surge of Youth in 2009. It was about a struggling indie outfit called Group Hex. (At the time of its self-publication I praised it in Word magazine for containing “all the affection missing from John Niven’s similarly biz-themed Kill Your Friends,” a compliment to both.)

The Chameleons, though led from the front by a charismatic if fanciful, self-romanticising young man like the novel’s John Barratt, were not Group Hex. Mark Burgess, for it was he, was a melodramatic post-punk touchstone briefly in the early-to-mid 80s. He went straight onto the hit-list my like-minded bedroom co-conspirator Kevin and I kept circa 1983 after the band’s ferocious debut In Shreds and the Rochdale-recorded debut LP’s hand-pencilled sleeve illustration, which promised hope and glory. (The illustrator was guitarist Reg Smithies, which fed into my own twins dreams of art school and rock’n’roll.) Before the decade was out, I’d gone to London to see the Queen and backdoored my way into the NME as a layout boy. I met Burgess professionally in the boozer-next-door in 1988 by which time, improbably signed to Geffen, he’d forgotten to tell his paymasters that he and John Lever had changed the optics and become The Sun and the Moon. Whatever. The record was all the excuse I needed to genuflect at the fringe of a hero, regardless of fripperies like which band called what was signed to whatever label.

Without exhausting the elastic “post-punk” cordon, it can be difficult to put your finger on what was occurring in that fecund wake of the first mad surge of the independent sector. Punk bands stopped playing punk and started foregrounding melody and decoration over spit and sawdust. I guess if anything it was the knobs in higher education saying, “Hold my beer!” before that concept had been invented. If nothing else, the mid-80s were literate and a bit speccy, but not without some dramatic swoops of hair and permanently aloft jacket and overcoat collars. Had the Chameleons sold as many records as, say, China Crisis, or Big Country, or the dreaded Thompson Twins, they might have made more of a mark. Instead, they were Modern Eon or Essential Logic or Clock DVA or The Scars or Jesus Couldn’t Drum: deserving of more appreciation. (Alright, perhaps not Jesus Couldn’t Drum.)

As it stands, Script for a Bridge, and follow-ups What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times, are of historical interest rather than cultural. A general sense of rainwear awareness (“A storm comes, or is it just another shower?”) weds them to the blockbusting likes of the Bunnymen and the Goth bands, but not in unit terms. Their sound was arena-ready but never got the chance to prove it. They had the alienation, but not the niche of Alien Sex Fiend. No wonder they semi re-formed in the 2000s for a second crack at the cherry and were by all accounts louder than Motorhead. (Burgess’s wingman and drummer Lever sadly died, aged 55, in 2017, a sad day.)  They have every right to play as a legacy act. They are an act that has a legacy.

So why is Don’t Fall one of the 143 best songs of all time?

For me, because it means more than a phase, or a whim, or a makeweight, or a notch on a recovering new romantic’s bedpost in an East Midlands town. The Chameleons mattered because they meant it, man, and they soared when the sociopolitical trajectory pointed alarmingly towards a fork in the road where neither choice filled you with optimism. (Imagine that!) At times like these, we need something more than Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding’s product-placing career plans and artists featuring other artists featuring other artists: something mad, something that surges, something that says youth.

Only in adolescence do we write or think thoughts like this, and I know of what I squeak.

Hiding inside
A room that’s running red
The place to be
Exists only in your head
And the focus of fear
In the creases of a dress
A female dress
How did I come to be drowning in this mess?
This fuckin’ mess?

If you managed to get through your exams without Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Specials, Soft Cell, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, The Tube, The Chart Show, grunge or Pubic Enemy, I salute you. In this hormonal hinterland, we do need another hero: one who articulates the state of the nation and all the trouble in the world better and more poetically than we humanly can. With longer words, or shorter ones, but always better ones. We all feel as if we have an uncomprehending mother or father and wonder what on earth we’re talking about.

Who can honestly say they didn’t at a certain tender, shoe-gazing age feel as if they were drowning in a mess – beat – a fuckin’ mess?

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Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

SonicYouthSister

Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.

Killah Priest, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (1995)

GZALiquid-Swords

Artist: Killah Priest
Title: B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
Description: album track, Liquid Swords (credited to Genius/GZA); album track, Heavy Mental (credited to Killah Priest)
Label: Geffen/MCA
Release date: 1995; 1998
First heard: 2000

The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
And, uh, the second son of Pope Alexand-uh
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome

A curious case. Liquid Swords is the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan key man and co-founder GZA (aka The Genius), recorded and released in the hiatus between the first and second Wu-Tang albums in 1995. Like most Wu solo projects, it involves the majority of the Clan and numerous satellites in at least a guest capacity: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God and Masta Killa. It was recorded and produced by RZA.

So what’s the 13th and final track, B.I.B.L.E., all about? Despite a performance credit to GZA/The Genius “featuring” Killah Priest, it is, to all intents and purposes, a solo piece by Priest, then a Wu affiliate but not a full, card-carrying member. The artist born Walter Reed is best known for his group Sunz Of Man, who released two albums in 1998 and 2002. He has since severed ties with the Wu. If this isn’t interesting to you, I hope it at least goes some way to illuminating the complex, internecine, cross-hatched nature of the Wu-Tang family.

Having enrolled the Wu-Tang Clan’s Let My Niggas Live into The 143 – for me, a supreme example of teamwork – I’m left with a well twice as deep filled with Wu-Tang solo records. A number are registered classics among the rapuscenti: Tical by Method Man, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is where, as they say, we at.

As a long-player, it run on samples from a 1980 marital arts film I have never seen, and am unlikely ever to see, Shogun Assassin. Such snippets of dialogue, usually dubbed into English and badly, are a thread that runs through the entire Wu canon. But no such find a place on B.I.B.L.E., the album’s final track, left off certain formats. Why? Perhaps because it appears to have very little to do with GZA, whose name does not even appear in the song’s credits. Quite what it’s doing on the LP is a mystery to me.

And yet, it makes sense, as it’s nothing like the rest of the album, and it comes at the very end, like the bonus it appears to be. It’s produced by 4th Disciple, an enduring Wu knobsman with prod and co-prod credits on the output of most principal members and the Clan themselves on Wu-Tang Forever (he also turntabled on Enter The Wu-Tang). So, B.I.B.L.E. is canon, but not. Run on a looped rhythm from the final track (apt!) of 1972 Ohio Players LP Pleasure – the eerie, hiccuping, childlike cry is presumably singer Robert Ward, hamming it up – it moves at an unhurried pace, creating a lowdown, smoky vibe, entirely suited to the earnest sermon thereupon.

Not a single curse-word passes its lips. You can play it on the radio. I did play it on the radio. (I think the first time I did I credited it to GZA and was quickly pulled up on my mistake.) As verbose as many a core Wu-Tang piece, its chorus is a soothing repeat of the “basic instructions before leaving earth” refrain and the lyric actually bears examination. That this investigation into Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and imagery is not tossed off quickly becomes clear. “Life is a test,” he testifies, referring to “research”, which involved feeling “joy an’ the hurt.”

He spools back to when he was 12 years old in Bedford-Stuyvesant and presumably still called Walter (“I loved doin’ right, but I was trapped in Hell”). It’s a moving stanza about “mad ideas, sad eyes an’ tears” and “years of fears.” This church-going, juvenile “search for truth” ended when Priest found his own priest wanting: “souped up with lies,” he recalls.

Durin’ the service, he swallowed up the poor
An’ after they heard this, they wallowed on the floor
But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold
An’ watched mysteries unfold

He returns to this theme of the unreliable preacher later in the song:

See, look into my eyes, brethren, that’s the lies of a Reverend

There are references here to Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, Hebrew, Job, the Bible, “hocus pocus”, space, sin and abortion. This is not a lyric you’ll get on first listen, nor one you hear every day. It, too, requires “research.” (“I studied ’til my eyes was swollen.”) But it’s eloquent, fluid, personal, questioning and complex, replete with surprising rhymes and twists: “abyss” twinned with “hiss”, “turban” with “urban”, “beanie” and “genie.”

An’ from the caves he crept from behind
An’ what he gave was the sect of the swine

You don’t need to sign up with the Nation of Islam – or indeed the Black Hebrew Israelites – to find the theological rigour intoxicating. It certainly makes a change from rap’s incessant braggadocio and gun-slingin’. As a longtime white fan of this deeply black music (one of the devils, I guess, who “tricked his dome”), I have long since made peace with the fact that I am a geographical and cultural outsider listening in, with issues, and accredit the best of the genre to its raw power, archaeological originality and lyrical dexterity. When Priest raps, “For years religion did nothing but divide,” you sense a man of peace not war.

Why should you die to go to Heaven?
The Earth is already in space

You can’t help but feel warmth when our father speaks of teaching his son “as he kneels on the stoop.” He augers, “Son, life is a pool of sin,” and then appears to warn of “wicked” women who “build picket signs to legalise abortion.” We’re in murky waters here, but to listen is not to condone. Think of it as reading a novel. You don’t have to vote for him.

This tune’s instructions are not basic at all, but a resplendent, fabulously interwoven crown of thorny issues. It’s one of my favourite Wu-Tang Clan tracks and yet occupies its own pitch on the outer limits. It’s not even really on the album it says it’s on. But it makes you think and nod your head, even if you don’t agree with every sentiment.

And it rhymes “And, uh,” with “Pope Alexand-uh,” which ought to win a poetry prize.