The Chameleons, Don’t Fall (1983)

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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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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.

 

The House Of Love, Christine (1988)

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Artist: The House Of Love
Title: Christine
Description: single; track The House Of Love
Label: Creation
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Somewhere in a large IKEA sewing box, I have a black and white photograph of me holding up my prized copy of the first House Of Love LP, The House Of Love, not yet divested of the cellophane or the Our Price £5.99 sticker. (The photo was taken by my college friend Rob on his single-lens reflex camera and, I feel sure, hand-developed and printed in a dark room, probably at the Royal College of Art. See: Footnotes) This was the summer of 1988, years before mobile phone proliferation and light-years before selfies. It would have seemed dystopian to our single-lens reflexes that we would subsequently enter a century in which everybody records, logs and publishes everything, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, in the sincere belief that its very digitised existence will render it interesting to the rest of the human race. I expect Rob was just using up the end of a film (we still used films, which came in metal tubes) and I was round his flat and had just purchased The House Of Love so I held it up for display, and to mark the time and date (and price). Why? Because this album was bloody interesting.

I’d been living in south west London for some four years and felt like I belonged. My Prufrockian freelance existence was measured out in meals-for-one, blank videocasettes and vinyl records. (Although I had invested in a CD deck, with Rob’s audiophile assistance, I only had a handful of CDs to play on it.) I took the NME as my weekly gospel and accepted every word of it as if hewn into tablets of stone. When this new, rather gangly-looking, south-east-London-formed foursome were hailed as the latest great saviours of indie, and of rock itself, I had no reason on earth to doubt the tidings, off to Our Price to stake my own claim in the inky revolution. It might have but did not let me down. It was a record worth holding up for display, with its lack of lettering, and its democratic arrangement of the band’s heads in queasy near-sepia, all cheekbones and chins.

The House Of Love were a guitar band. They sang harmonies, certainly – second single Real Animal began a capella – but their life-support was the stringed instrument of legend, played in parallel and set to stun. Mean, moody, full of themselves, the House Of Love arrived with a swagger and in winter coats. The album didn’t feature the existing singles; no sign of their skyscraping debut indie smash Shine On. That’s how arrogant they were – as arrogant as not putting the name of the band on the record – and by dint: how arrogant Creation records were – to encourage them not to put the name of the band on the record (knowing that it would be stickered by Our Price anyway). It did contain Christine. Track one. The same name as one of my favourite Banshees singles. And my Mum. How could it fail? It did not fail.

Christine … Christine … Christine

The most melodic of their early shots at glory, it begins as a heat-haze drone, a hedge of sound, and without warning. (This was not a band to count a song in off the back of the drummer’s sticks.) From a standing start, this was the sound of shoegazing before shoegazing was a sound; something quite different from both the jangly pop and the grebo fuzz of the post-C86 pincer movement. Eyes down: things were looking up.

It’s ironic that in the near future, under house arrest at Phonogram and earmarked as a hit machine, the House Of Love would struggle to locate their sound in ever pricier studios and with a revolving carousel of producers. On the first album, under Pat Collier, they nailed it.

Christine leads the record off, its uncanny ESP of guitars haunted by Guy Chadwick’s voice and the backing vocal by Terry Bickers and outgoing fifth member Andrea Heukamp, treated just enough to make them spectral but not enough to suck their personality; Pete Evans’ drums are content to keep the beat and jackhammer the song to its conclusion, while Chris Groothuizen’s bass sounds a rare note of contentment if you listen hard through the “god-like glow”. The constant refrain of “Christine” suggests this is the chorus before the verse, but I think it’s technically neither.

Then, after what sounds like a single tambourine crack, the mood swings, and the whole world drags us down. When Guy warns, ‘You’re in deep,” it has a malevolence that underlines that this is not a love song. It leads us a merry dance in its allotted three minutes and 22 seconds, from the kitchen-sink signifier of a baby crying to the unfathomable existential fate of “chaos and the big sea.” It’s dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, over the same beat, under the same skies, and we never really get to meet Christine. She’s everyone and no-one, baby, that’s where she’s at.

Does it sound late-80s? Somewhat. It’s pre-rave, although ecstasy would cast its own spell on the band and join the long list of culprits who made a failure of their home. For me, The House Of Love – and its single orphan Christine – is pure House Of Love. The rest is a spirited attempt to reclaim it from success.

I suppose the irony of this heady, post-graduate period of my life is that my embrace of the House Of Love – and The House Of Love – coincided with my graduation to the other side. In the summer of ’88, I got a part-time job at the NME, and started just after the band had their first cover. Within two years, I would be writing the House Of Love cover story, a “made man”. By then, Guy’s age had become an issue (he appeared to be over 30!), Terry had withdrawn, depressed and freaked out, and would be followed by a succession of failed replacements, and the only constant for the next three years would be the major record company that never understood them.

But the adventure was one I’m glad I went on, and I never asked for my £5.99 back.

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

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Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days before writing this entry, along with let’s say 4,999 others, I witnessed Carter play their final, final gig on 22 November 2014 at Brixton Academy in London, which is practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their last final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago in Brixton.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the now-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.

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.

The Eagles, Hotel California (1976)

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Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Label: Asylum
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994

Such a lovely place …

I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.

It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Croweded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).

Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.

I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.

If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.

Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!

That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …

Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with the “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?

There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon or Racey.

And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”

And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?

For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.

The Fire Engines, Candy Skin (1981)

FireEngines

Artist: The Fire Engines
Title: Candy Skin
Description: single
Label: Pop:Aural
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

I wrote at great length about “indie” for the mighty – and mightily missed – Word magazine in 2006. They headlined the piece, with typical panache, Wan Love. By “indie”, I meant that multifarious music which sprang forth from the bowels of punk, taking with it the rigid-digit spirit, but pressing that attitude not just into the noise it made, but the means of production by which it distributed that noise. In 2006, I reluctantly wrote indie’s obituary, as its DIY ethic had long since flown the nest, replaced by a cuckoo of workaday guitar and major label largesse disguised as something “edgy”.

In 1981, indie – the abbreviation not really yet in common circulation (I can’t have been the only young person convinced that the “Indies” chart published initially in Sounds pertained to music from the West Indies) – meant something. It meant The Fire Engines. It meant Pop:Aural, a subsidiary of Fast Product. It meant Bob Last and Hillary Morrison, who founded Fast Product and ran it from a tenement flat. It meant Candy Skin.

The scratchy, discordant, Marxist sounds that emanated on Warholian waves from punk-energised cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and – in the case of the Fire Engines – Edinburgh, did not necessarily seek to destroy, but to enhance, to romanticise, to drag out of the gutter and aim somewhere higher and more intellectual. Led by Davy Henderson – a handsome, windswept, literate pop star who never was, but ought to have been (trading as Win he even had a song used on a McEwan’s lager ad) – the Fire Engines epitomised a movement, especially north of the Wall, whose cultural glue was civic, even economic (the recording of the Fire Engines’ debut is fabled to have cost £46). That such sweet, romantic music arose from dirty urban centres should not surprise archaeologists of Detroit.

The Edinburgh scene also produced the Scars, Josef K, the Flowers, the Rezillos, Shake (I seem to recall), the Prats and Boots For Dancing. I have chosen The Fire Engines to represent the clan, as Candy Skin has never stopped resonating in my heart since I first heard it on John Peel in the earliest 80s. In 1988, as the new kid in the NME art room, I was asked to design and illustrate the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. Candy Skin nestled on Side 1 between Blue Boy by Glasgow compatriots Orange Juice and Never Been In A Riot by the Mekons (the first ever release on Fast, which actually specialised in Northern English in its early years). I can claim no credit for the intuitive brilliance of the track listing, but Candy Skin was a constant highlight when mainlining that double-cassette with a surfboarding Noddy on the inlay card.

There are a number of sounds which historians should take note of. Chief among them, the lead guitar, which stitches into this ramshackle tapestry one of the great riffs of the new dawn. It defies “scratchy”, and “angular”, and affects something closer to “tingly”. It tingles. A goosebumping ostinato that crystalises everything about 1981 in one electrifying, melodic phrase, augmented thereafter by an entire jumble sale of bashes, squeaks, voices, vibrations and even chocolate box strings, which unite to attain a certain kind of DIY nirvana. Henderson’s deep quasi-croon speaks of a soulful, sometimes operatic ambition that also gave us Billy Mackenzie, Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame. The sound of young Scotland, indeed.

In February 2006, a trigger for my Word treatise, I’d been for a haircut at Toni & Guy in Reigate, and asked Mel, my young stylist, to take plenty off the back and sides, thin it out on top, hack me out a side parting and leave me a heavy fringe, enough to cover one eyebrow. She commented, “This haircut’s quite fashionable. A lot of the indie bands have this.” RIP indie. Long live the Fire Engines.