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.

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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

NickCaveTenderprey

Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.

The Cure, One Hundred Years (1982)

The_Cure_-_Pornography

Artist: The Cure
Title: One Hundred Years
Description: album track, Pornography
Label: Fiction
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

It doesn’t matter if we all die …

I was 17, and on the cusp of agreeing with Robert Smith that it didn’t matter if we all die when I purchased Pornography, The Cure’s fourth studio album. Death seems entirely abstract at that age. Sex, too – or at least, it did to me, something I’m now kind of retrospectively grateful for, in the long run. Pornography, which was not even a word that meant much to me at 17, struck a chord though; a great, big, dirty, clanging cathedral chord. This was a record about sex and death, its themes heralded by an opening track to blow all other opening tracks out of the water (“Sounds like a tiger, thrashing in the water, thrashing in the water”).

Having come in with The Cure at A Forest and worked enthusiastically backwards through Seventeen Seconds and Three Imaginary Boys, I bought literally everything they put out for the next seven years (and some things that they didn’t, such as live bootleg cassettes via mail order or Camden market), after which, as a cub reporter, I was able to get them for free. When in 1989, the NME top brass identified me as a fan and allowed to me to write a full annotated discography of the band across a double-page spread – accompanied by a snapshot of me in my backcombed Goth pomp circa 1984 that Robert Smith mentioned when I finally interviewed him in 1992 – I felt I’d achieved all that I needed to achieve. The Cure had been my favourite band for a decade. I still have a lot of time for them. Work took me to Dallas in ’92 to see them play to a multitude of hyped-up plastic-beer-glass jocks in a football stadium, with Curve in support, one of the most memorable gigs of my life.

The concrete manifestations of my teenage fandom – the haystack hair; the intrepid trip to London to see them at the Hammersmith Odeon with my friend Kevin; the accumulated videotapes of every appearance they made on TV in the 80s; the wallpapered bedroom walls – strictly coalesced during the birth of their “pop” phase circa Let’s Go To Bed, when Smash Hits and Record Mirror started to provide glossy, full-colour pix. Kevin and I embraced their ascent overground, and never once flinched. Why? Because the core of their music remained true: Robert Smith was ultimately still there for the nasty things in life, however hard you tapped a toe. But Pornography had been a landmark in externalised misery. It was The Horror.

Rumbling like a God machine, some out-of-control Wacky Races juggernaut combination of the Creepy Coupe and the Army Surplus Special, One Hundred Years leads off the album in manifesto-striking style at nigh-on seven minutes, with a treated guitar riff that might be a cat wailing or a siren warning, and death-rattling electronic drums that must have pissed drummer Lol Tolhurst off, as such contraptions did to skin-and-timber drummers of the age.

We are dealing in doom and gloom, yes, but unlike the poetic, funereal pain of the previous LP Faith, Pornography replaces its shades of gravestone grey with theatrical black and red, blended to create a Grand Guignol puppet melodrama that took migraine ennui to the level of subversive art. As a boy I had been intoxicated and repelled at the same time by horror movies; and subsequently disaster movies – I was drawn to that which frightened the hell out of me. Instantly reminding me of John Carpenter’s Halloween, I can’t think of an album that sounds this much like its sleeve, or a sleeve that so accurately visualises its contents: the band, blurred and Myers-masked, seem intent on bloody murder*.

The first line we’ve already learned: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” In Smith’s adenoidal cry, set in a permanent echo chamber, this sentiment seems sincere. But it’s when his fevered imagery takes hold that the song moves from the bedroom to the masque. “Ambition in the back of a black car … In a high building there is so much to do.” Already we are into capitalism and mystery, the selling of souls, the industrialisation of pleasure. What post-apocalyptic wasteland is this? “Going home time, a story on the radio …” each line delivered as if Smith is broadcasting from a padded cell in an institute for the all too sane.

I’m listening to it right now. Remember: this magnificent sound was created by three blokes from Sussex, exhausted, drunk, high on drugs and at each others’ throats, imagining they were making their last album, under the aegis of a new producer, Phil Thornalley, who we may assume was neither drunk, nor high, nor at anyone’s throats. If you want to be really brutal: Smith has said that it was either make this album or kill himself. We should give daily thanks for its existence.

As I said, I loved their new, post-Pornographic direction and cherish the pop singles with the comic videos that nobody would have guessed they could make: Catch, Lullaby, Why Can’t I Be You, Just Like Heaven, Inbetween Days, Close To Me … The Cure are one of Britain’s greatest singles bands, right up there with Madness and the Pet Shop Boys and Bananarama and Slade and the Beatles.

But give me their gory years any time. “Something small falls out of your mouth and we laugh … A prayer for something better … Please love me, meet my mother, the fear takes hold …” This is all of my favourite dark art, film and literature in one song: Bacon, King, Dix, Poe, Carpenter, Schwitters, Leigh, Gilliam, Rothko (come on – the colours!), McCarthy, Dickinson, Cummings, Owen, Sutherland, Nash, Steadman, Scarfe, Pinter. When I was an art student, I created a calendar whose imagery was extrapolated from Robert Smith’s lyrics; for “Ambition in the back of a black car,” I stole licks from Ralph Steadman and drew a stretched, hearse-like limousine in chalky pastels, with a pair of female legs akimbo from the passenger windows. My own interpretation may not stand up to the test of time, or taste, but the lyric abides as English literature.

If I ever do curate The 143 albums, Pornography will be one of the first admitted. From this track through to the almost atonal, grumbling title track, via as close as it dares come to a pop tune, Siamese Twins (recently used for a montage in The Americans, and performed live on some Arts Council magazine show in 1983 while two fantastic, whiteface ballet dancers violently entwined themselves to it amid dry ice) and the almost heart-stopping Strange Day (in which “the sky and the impossible explode”), it glows like a nuclear sun on the horizon. One One Hundred Years, the reason we are gathered here today, Fat Bob is “sharing the world with slaughtered pigs.” One year later? “We missed you, hissed the Lovecats.” The boy needed therapy.

*Let’s credit designer Ben Kelly and photographer Michael Kostiff while we’re singing praises.

The Sisters Of Mercy, Lucretia My Reflection (1988)

SistersFloodland

Artist: The Sisters Of Mercy
Title: Lucretia My Reflection
Description: single; album track, Floodland
Label: Merciful Release, Elektra
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Hot metal and methedrine …

Having thoroughly enjoyed the lavishly tortured imperial grandeur of Showtime’s The Borgias via Sky Atlantic over three seasons, I am now hearing the name in the title of this pounding song as “Lucrezia” (with an Italianate “zz”). According to extensive research on Wikipedia, I have gathered that Andrew Eldritch wrote the song for his then-new collaborator Patricia Morrison in tribute to her similarities to Pope Alexander VI’s scheming daughter. He just spelled it wrong. Who cares? Lucretia is immortalised, and sits between Marian and Alice in Sisters Of Mercy lady-worship. (And Morrison didn’t play on Floodland. Again, who cares?)

Lavishly tortured imperial grandeur is the guiding light of the second incarnation of the Sisters after all that legal argy-bargy over the name, which Eldritch won, and although he clearly resents the idea that a more mainstream rock audience “discovered” the band via the expensive studio metalwork of Jim Steinman on This Corrosion (he didn’t work on Lucretia), it provided quite a spectacle, with a band, or brand, so rooted in the underground emerging via MTV onto the freeway and blinking in the light. I had fallen in love with the first incarnation during my provincial Goth phase in 1983, enchanted by those rattly early singles Anaconda and Temple Of Love. I saw the Sisters live at London’s Lyceum in the mid-decade and felt it a religious experience. (And when I say I saw them, I peered into a wall of dry ice for an hour and occasionally caught a glimpse of a human figure.)

By the time Floodland came out in 1988, I was old enough to have a) embraced all musical forms, including jazz, blues and Bob Dylan, although not yet opera*, and b) stowed any punk-rock snobbery about “selling out”. Thus, I applauded the Sisters Of Mercy’s brazen bridgehead into crossover. I remember seeing the darkly operatic** video for This Corrosion on ITV’s The Chart Show, with its inclement weather and Fester-and-Morticia double act. The album followed through, with a form of rock not really yet stamped by the latecoming American consensus as “industrial”, and no holds barred. The Wagnerian pomp that had driven the first album was turned up to eleven. This was big music. Unabashed. Sincere or ironic? Who can ever really know? I met Eldritch once, on 6 Music, and he unironically requested that the studio webcam be switched off as he wasn’t dressed in character; however, he struck me as a very wry and self-aware chap, so, again, who can ever really know?

I know in my bones that Lucretia, in its full eight-and-a-half minute flight, is a track to drive a tank to. It consolidates all the dreams and fantasies I entertained during my Goth years of death and horror and sex and power. I don’t really have those dreams and fantasies any more, but this songs still sounds magnificent. Eldritch gurgles, “I hear the roar of the big machine.” Yeah, mate, you’re making it. It’s your machine.

*I still haven’t embraced opera, unless you count Tommy.
**I know what “operatic” sounds like.