The Stone Roses, Fools Gold (1989)

StoneRosesFoolsGold

Artist: The Stone Roses
Title: Fools Good
Description: single
Label: Silvertone
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

I don’t need you to tell me what’s going down

You don’t choose when you are born. Entering my teens in 1978 I was historically too late for the healing fires of punk, and, though in time for New Wave and 2-Tone, I was still too young to get to gigs, and my burgeoning attachment was necessarily passive. It was this accident of birth that put me in the right place at the right time to pledge my troth to the post-punk bands of the early 80s, and even venture out into the world to see some of them play live: U2, The Cure, the Bunnymen, Joy Division/New Order and assorted Goth tub-thumpers. Once emigrated to London, my professional life at the music press similarly coincided with Grebo, t-shirt indie and Madchester, and it is with eternal cosmic gratitude that I am able to state that the stars aligned for me in February 1989.

The already guru-like Steve Lamacq, filling in for Helen Mead on the NME live desk, asked me if I’d like to travel to Manchester and review this new guitar band everyone was talking about at the most famous nightclub in Britain. I was still a relative novice at that time, having only stepped through the paper’s doors the previous summer and picked up a couple of days’ work a week in the layout room, and just over the threshold into my nascent reviewing career. The closest I’d been to Manchester was a family trip to Thornton-Cleveleys, just outside of Blackpool, when I was 14.

The Stone Roses played several high-profile gigs in support of their debut album (due out in May but circulating the music press on advance cassette), including one on February 27 at what was regarded as the centre of the associated Madchester and baggy scenes, Manchester’s The Haçienda nightclub. I know all of this to be the case, as it’s lifted from the band’s Wikipedia entry, as is this:

Andrew Collins wrote in NME: “Bollocks to Morrissey at Wolverhampton, to The Sundays at The Falcon, to PWEI at Brixton – I’m already drafting a letter to my grandchildren telling them that I saw The Stone Roses at the Haçienda.”

Some context. These other landmark gigs were pertinent to the era: Wolverhampton Civic Hall had been Morrissey’s first solo gig, with free entry to anyone in a Moz/Smiths t-shirt, in December 1988; pub venue The Falcon, in Camden, had given the world future indie darlings the Sundays in August 1988, debuting that night (and with kingmaker Lamacq in attendance); and Brixton Academy in London was where Pop Will Eat Itself almost joined the hip-hop orthodoxy when they supported Public Enemy and Run DMC, and been coined offstage, in October 1988. I was at that. And, dear grandchildren, I was at the Hacienda.

I have no grandchildren, but apart from that, if I may say so, I was bang on about the Stone Roses, which is why I still bang on about it. Geography met Art and Culture, and made History. My ardent, in-print response to a gig by four young men in a venue in a city needs no seasonal adjustment. It was the dawn of something, a compass reset, and those heady years, from 1988 (earlier if you were already baggy and caught Sally Cinnamon first time round) to 1990 (when the Roses entered a four-year legal tangle with Silvertone) were impeccable, and beyond the accepted criteria of technical virtuosity, cultural chance or audio perfection. The Roses’ eponymous debut – whose opener I Wanna be Adored also opened the gigs in earth-moving grandeur – is a modern classic, but it did not contain their finest hour. That came with their first Top 10 hit, in November 1989. Of the release’s two A-sides, What the World is Waiting For turned out not to be the one the world was waiting for.

I know the truth, and I know what you’re thinking

Fools Gold, missing apostrophe forgiven, and at just under ten minutes long less a single, more a way of life, cannot be withered by time. Fads that do not destroy it make it stronger. It starts not with an earthquake but a distant paradiddle that sounds like it’s been slapped on a thigh, and with a no-arguments kick-drum THUMP we’re in business. Most ten-minute mixes or extensions on a theme outstay their welcome, go over old ground or allow your mind to wander. Not this one. Produced by first-album talisman John Leckie, it is so luxuriously tooled and yet ultimately so unshowy; it locks down that beat (produced by a human man, Alan Wren, and based upon, but not sampled from, James Brown’s set text The Funky Drummer), lays in the bass (also humanoid: Gary Mounfield), lets John Squire’s guitar sort of wonder out loud, and the tape run. He’s soon into effects mode and Ian Brown joins in, his voice sufficiently treated to make it at the same time otherworldly and part of the woodwork.

The gold road’s sure a long road
Winds on through the hills for fifteen days
The pack on my back is aching
The straps seem to cut me like a knife

The four of them do not so much build up a head of steam, as lay out a body of work in heaven-sent precis. There’s nothing that made the Stone Roses legendary that isn’t in Fools Gold: the insouciance, the confidence, the ESP, the funk, the space, the glory. Brown’s lyric, which directly and indirectly references John Huston, the Marquis de Sade and Nancy Sinatra, is no singalong, but it doesn’t need to be; we’re singing along to the guitar, the bassline, even the drums. (It’s worth calling up the lyric, actually – Brown’s imagery is already knowing, poetic and political: “You’re weighing the gold/I’m watching you sinking.”)

There are passages where the bass rumbles like an earth tremor. Occasional bongos. John’s guitar sometimes sharks in, then switches pedal, live. At one dub-assisted juncture, I hear Daniel Ash from Bauhaus (although that might be just me). Brown disappears for bridges at a time. Squire fills the sky. Reni never stops. It’s a finished symphony. At about a minute-and-a-half from the end, you start to fret about it ending.

I witnessed Fools Gold for the first time in Widnes, swallowed by the estuary breeze. It was an unforgettable occasion, but a problematic concert. In truth, Spike Island rode the gap between ambition and reach, which sometimes swallowed the band. But in the pure, recorded form of Fools Gold, it is its own stairway to heaven.

The trousers haven’t worn as well.

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Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

Whenthesungoesdown

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …

The House Of Love, Christine (1988)

HouseOfLoveLP

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.

Cornershop, Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) (1998)

CornershopBrimful

Artist: Cornershop
Title: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)
Description: single; track The Greatest Hits – Why Try Harder (Fatboy Slim)
Label: Wiiija; Big Beat
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow

How many number one records have made The 143? I reckon around a dozen, with the same number again for tracks that appear on number one albums. This is not necessarily because my tastes don’t often merge with the tastes of the nation. There are plenty of chart-topping groups and singers in my list, but in only selecting one song for any given artist, my final choice might not be their biggest hit. For instance, my chosen Elvis song is Suspicious Minds, which only reached number two in the UK. (It was number one in the US and Canada.) Similarly with those multi-chart-topping beat groups the Beatles and the Stones: neither Blackbird nor Wild Horses reached the top and had to stop. (Blackbird was not a single, and Wild Horses, a US-only single, reached 28 there.) All of which brings me to the rare thrill of agreeing with the British record-buying public and ending up on the same page. This happened in February 1998 when a peppy new remix of Brimful Of Asha beat all comers.

I was lucky enough to see Cornershop play before they were music-press darlings. I’d been sent by the NME to review the Rockingbirds at a club in Leeds in 1992 and Cornershop were the support. They were good and I met them afterwards. My main impression of them was that they seemed shy and polite. I don’t recall being that shocked that two members of an indie band were Asian, or that the Singh brothers used their ethnicity as both sonic turbine and sentient gimmick. It sometimes felt as if their adoption of Asian signifiers was partly done to bait an Anglocentric music press (or perhaps just Morrissey at the time); it was certainly deployed as an ironic weapon. You may recall the “curry-coloured vinyl” release of their first EP (which I still own), the Punjabi version of Norwegian Wood, more than one use of the thankfully now-moribund term of abuse “wog”, and of course, there’s their name. They are a fiendishly clever band, always one step ahead and one step to the side.

The smash hit version of Brimful Of Asha is 90% Cornershop’s achievement, and 10% Norman Cook’s. (I’m sure Norman would humbly accept this share, and I expect Cornershop thanked him kindly for unleashing its beast within.) Their original 1997 iteration of what would be their defining song – a langorous paean whose only signs of danger are a tambourine and a teasing string sample on the playout – reached number 60 in the national charts. Once Cook had got his hands on it, spotting its potential for immortality and universality, it roared back into national consciousness and topped the poppermost: a victory for “our” music over “their” music in those still-entrenched times before file-sharing and giveaway NMEs, and a red-letter day for the independent sector and in particular the Rough Trade-birthed Wiiija.

It was already a uniquely warm, personal and witty evocation of growing up against a rarefied backdrop of Hindi playback singers epitomised by Asha Bhosle (ennobled in the lyric as “sadi rani” or “our queen”), set to a lazily summery indie riff ideal for its original August release and appealingly sung by Singh; Cook simply sped it up, spiced it up, changed the key (or so I’m told by musicologists) and added a bigger beat, the kind that had only just been defined as “Big Beat” and twinned with Brighton. Like the Bollywood tunes that feed into the heritage singalong feel, it’s a tune for dancing. The beachfront remixer spotted that and splashed it up in massive letters.

There’s dancin’ behind the movie scenes

It informs as it entertains, listing Bhosle’s contemporaries Mohammad Rafi and
Lata Mangeshkar and going on to namecheck All India Radio, Trojan Records, Marc Bolan and French singer Jacques Dutronc. It’s a song about singers; it’s music about music; it’s a lyric about lyricists. It says, “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” Brimful of Asha is a celebration of itself, if you like. Even if you’re not on Cornershop’s actual wavelength, you get the gist. They care about RPMs. They acknowledge the power of radio. They love 45s. And so do you. After all, you’re holding theirs. And everybody, regardless of backdrop, ethnicity or accident of geography, needs a bosom for a pillow.

Cornershop continue to produce the goods on their own fluid terms (Tjinder and Ben Ayres survive from the founding squad), albeit away from the treacherous eddies of the UK chart. Their subsequent singles have been no less catchy and colourful, and who cares if Asha was a commercial fluke? It got higher than Strawberry Fields and Vienna. I reviewed their sixth album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in Word in 2009, and wrote that they “continue to forge a singleminded path between English pop kitsch and Asian birthright”, noting the use of “supplementary tambura and sitar,” and a preoccupation with “a surreal form of pacifism.”  I also stated that “a soulfulness roots Tjinder Singh’s elusively quirky lyrics in sincerity.” Hold that thought.

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

CarterUSMOnlyLivingBoy

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 ago I, along with let’s say 4,999 others, witnessed Carter play their final, final gig 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.

The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

SpecialsGangsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

TriffidsWideOpenRoad1

Artist: The Triffids
Title: Wide Open Road
Description: single; album track, Born Sandy Devotional
Label: Mushroom
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

By the time I arrived, in my art school dungarees and with a green Pentel behind my ear, at the NME offices in 1988, The Triffids had already been anointed as An Important Band. And quite right, too. Traditionally under-appreciated in their native land, they had done what all interesting Australians do and travelled. They’d already done Perth to Sydney in search of a record deal. By 1984, they were Australians in Europe, tracing the footsteps of the Go-Betweens and the Birthday Party before them to London. These rock’n’roll Clive Jameses did as he did: enrich our culture with their wide eyes, itchy feet and tall stories.

As told elsewhere, one of my first responsible jobs in the NME art room was to design and illustrate the packaging for the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. One of the gems nestling within its three-disc tracklisting was Wide Open Road by the Triffids. I had yet to hear the incredible LP from whence it came, Born Sandy Devotional – whose title alone ought to have caused me to buy it, had money not been so tight in the days before I got on the record company mailing lists – but the song caused proverbial guns to go off in my chest. I had never been to Australia. I’d barely been further than the Channel Islands in 1988 and had to apply for a passport when the NME sent me on my first foreign trip later that same year. Wide Open Road was my visa to the other side of the world.

I’ve still never been to Australia, incidentally, but find myself a sucker for its myth and legend through films and TV and music. The Triffids, though expats, immortalised the land down under like no other group of battlers before or since. Their titles bespeak a deep communal link to their native country and a yearning to travel: You Don’t Miss Your Water (’Til Your Well Runs Dry), Estuary Bed, In The Pines, Tarrilup Bridge, Suntrapper, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Jerdacuttup Man, Bury Me Deep In Love, even Calenture, which is a word for cabin fever at sea. It’s made by men and a woman with guitars and drums and keyboards and a violin, but The Triffids’ music is elemental – beaches, estuaries, reefs and saltwater seem to define them – and I have adored exploring my way through their catalogue in the years since 1988.

We must speak of David McComb. When the Triffids enjoyed their first cover during my tenure at the NME, this Byronic, windswept poet-warrior was photographed crawling up a beach in his native Perth, as if shipwrecked. It captured his spirit perfectly, as if newborn, certainly sandy, and always devotional. To mark the release of Black Swan, their proposed commercial breakthrough (although not in actuality; it reached number 63 in the UK, and became their swansong), NME had flown out to Australia and found the band cast asunder before a tour, some working, some gardening. Out tour guide, McComb was a mass of anxieties about national and Western Australian identity, the Perth music scene (which the journalist described as “moribund” and “third or fourth world”), and his preference for “moontanned” women over bronzed bikini babes. Before the year was out, the Triffids had jacked it in. Within a decade, McComb would be dead, despite getting a new heart in ’96. His lifestyle had not been one to ensure long live, and it’s a shame he was better recognised in his home country as a songwriter of quality and distinction posthumously.

Which is why to rewind to Born Sandy Devotional is to discover the Triffids at their transformative best. Recorded in London and Liverpool, thus planting them in the their adopted home, and the home of their ancestors, producer Gil Norton found shape in their raggle-taggle sound and its fulcrum, Wide Open Road, feels so optimistic, so swollen with possibility. Written as a hymn to what McComb described as “a particular landscape”, specifically a stretch of highway between Caiguna and Norseman in Western Australia that’s apparently one of the longest straight roads in the world. You can sort of tell that without looking it up, as drums “roll off” in the singer’s forehead while he remembers carrying a baby, “crying in the wilderness.” (I did say “elemental.”) That Alsy MacDonald’s drums do indeed roll off to illustrate the lyric underscores the literal nature of the song’s mission: to describe the world around it. For a tune built on an electronic rhythm and washed with synth, it feels as organic as the “big and empty” sky above.

This is pop music as psycho-socio-geography that carves a narrative out of the rock – it’s Walkabout, it’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, it’s Wake In Fright. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin, I cut them off as limbs,” McComb wails, before confessing to “hunting down you and him” on the flatlands with his “chest filled to explode.” You picture a car, but the protagonist is clearly on his knees in the treeless, post-apocalyptic plain when he yells his “insides out at the sun”. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Their only hit in the UK (they couldn’t even break the charts with Bury Me Deep after it had been used on Neighbours), Wide Open Road still feels like the widest and longest four-minute song in the world.