Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1983)

Herbie_Hancock_-_Rockit

Artist: Herbie Hancock
Title: Rockit
Description: single; album track, Future Shock
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

Herbie Hancock may not even have been previously known by the generation that learned his name anew from Rockit, an out-of-the-blue instrumental hit that was so of its time, so cutting edge, so future-shocking, it would have seemed inconceivable that its creator had his roots in 1960s jazz. But Hancock – classically trained, something of a prodigy, but one who “learned” jazz with his ears – was no stranger to changing the game. As a pianist, he’d been sought out by Miles Davis for his egalitarian Second Great Quintet in 1963, where he was able to fuse elements of free jazz into something more structured.

It’s perhaps ironic that Davis’s interest in other music – soul, funk, even rock – led to the dissolution of the Quintet in the late 60s, because Hancock would prove just as open to other forms, expanding into soundtracks and experimentation with electronic instruments. Like a freeform shark, he kept moving – and still does. These days, aged 74, he’s indentured at UCLA and Harvard, lecturing on “the ethics of jazz”. Nice. And here, in the early 80s, when hip hop and electro ripped up the road map out of the ghetto, he was, Zelig-like, nailing a whole new hybrid sound to the gatepost along with fellow explorers bassist Bill Laswell and synth scientist Michael Beinhorn.

Scholars usually cite Rockit as the first hit to feature “scratching”, although Malcolm McLaren’s seminal Duck Rock album landed the same year, preceded by its early-adopting Buffalo Gals single, which as well as popularising synchronised skipping and South African sounds, also prominently showcased turntablism – a new, tactile artform unpacked by McLaren in the album’s sleeve notes as “a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar with the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record.”

No matter who beat whom to the North Pole of the patent office, Rockit was a hit in over a dozen countries, exploding like a rocket. There was no rapping or singing on it, just a galloping robot beat injected with sampled brass bursts, a side order of extraneous bongo, an almost atonal riff on bold, squelchy synthesiser and – dig it – a needle being moved manually across the surface of a gramophone record. Actually, to be pedantic, it’s the surface of a gramophone record being moved manually under a needle by New York’s Grandmixer DXT, the Bert Weedon of groove-wristing. It was science fiction that announced: greet the new dawn. The moreish Godley & Creme video, which featured android legs and torsos created by artist Jim Whiting, helped to make Rockit an event.

I remember hearing Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock for the first time and recognising a tectonic shift happening before my very ears, but Rockit was universally bought and loved. It crossed over, without, to my mind, losing a gram of its avant-gardist, underground veracity. Pretty soon, graffiti and baseball hats and rapping would be used to sell yogurts, but the subculture remained thrilling for a number of years. And Rockit does not lose its shine with the passage of time. The breaks where it’s just scratching and a vestige of the beat are pure circus.

There’s no lyric to unpack, beyond a punctuation-mark “Come on, y’all” towards the close. The music does the talking.

If it were just historic, it would be something. But to still induce dancing 30 years later is something else.

I know one thing: all this scratching is making me itch.

 

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959)

DaveBTakeFive

Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Title: Take Five
Description: single; album track, Time Out
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1970

How do you pinpoint when you first heard one of the most popular jazz hits of all time? Especially one recorded before your parents had even got married. It feels to me as if Take Five has always been in the background, either as the accompaniment to some TV show, laid across a montage or played over a testcard. I may have first heard it in the womb in late 1964 and early 1965, or in my cot thereafter. I usually stick a pin in 1970 as the year I first became aware of which songs I was actually hearing through the radio (the birth of a collector and archivist), although TV theme tunes lodged much earlier, as there’s a feted reel-to-reel recording of me, aged two, parroting the themes to The Monkees, Z-Cars and Dee Time into a fuzzy mic, much to my Dad’s glee.

In a way, it’s immaterial. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Take Five is the best-selling jazz single of all time and the first to sell a million copies. But since jazz was never really a singles club (and Take Five was a five-and-a-half minute album track by birth, talked down to three for release as a 45 with Blue Rondo A La Turk by CBS boss Goddard Lieberson), it’s the wrong yardstick. What’s remarkable about it is the fact that an instrumental workout in quintuple time inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck had heard on tour became a hit at all.

I’ve stated elsewhere that jazz entered my life in a more conscious way in the mid-80s, when the form was infusing much of the modern indie pop I was listening to (blimey, including The Cure) and sounding a lot like summer. Also, I’d met a card-carrying jazz musician and expert, fellow art student Dave Keech, whose influence on my musical outlook was as seismic as that of Frank Wilson, my first 6 Music producer, 20 years later. Both men bent my ear away from the pale-faced 4/4 rock that dominated my core. Ironic, you might say, that the first jazz entry in The 143 should come from a white pianist and composer, but the two-tone multi-ethnicity of postwar jazz is what made it so appealing to so many kids in the shadow of the Atom bomb, as likely to tap a toe to the cool jazz of Stan Getz, Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. (By the way, don’t be impressed by the way these names trip off my typing fingers; I had literally never heard of these people before Keech became the jazzmaster to my Grasshopper at Nene College.)

Brubeck’s writing partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond, who composed Take Five, was also white. (I just read on Wikipedia that he bequeathed his royalties to the American Red Cross, who still get a “check” every year. What a swell guy.) We have Joe Morello to bow down to for that smoky beat, and Eugene Wright for the sparing stand-up bass, although it’s the foregrounded alchemy of Brubeck’s languid ivory-tickling and Desmond’s airy sax that clinches the tune. You don’t need to be a scholar to surmise that jazz is less about the composition and more about the execution. In this, it’s closer to eternally interpretable classical than the fixed formulas of pop. It’s not dance music, and can be appreciated seated, but let’s not dismiss nodding as anything other than a valid and primal response.

It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind. In this, it’s pretty unique among the “songs” the comprise The 143. We’ve welcomed Archangel by Burial, whose voices are only fragments; I can easily see Green Onions finding a seat here; something from John Murphy’s 28 Weeks Later soundtrack is shortlisted; and distinct passages of Autobahn are instrumental, another essential tune that’s very possibly coming over the hill. But Take Five goes further than all of these contenders, because, in the collective bones of the Quartet, it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, or how it will it all turn out. In this and only this respect is it like the TV series Lost.

Recorded jazz is almost a contradiction in terms. But it’s how we preserve and the Time Out rendition is as near as dammit. Purists will tell you that it’s better on vinyl, too, where, for instance Morello’s kick drum really kicks. I will take this on advisement, for I have not the hardware to play vinyl. Certainly, the key jazz sides I taped off Keech in 1984 were flat and pre-digital, and they were my tablets of stone for a good few years.

Some detail. I will always love a tune that begins with a beat, because the drum is the only instrument I have ever been able to master, but how unintrusive the intro on Take Five, the ride cymbal almost literally tickled and the snare tapped by expertly pulled punches. And how regular and conventional the 5/4 quickly becomes. The high alto coos like a pigeon; it summons images of summer breezes, ceiling fans and open windows – jazz on a summer’s day – while that piano doggedly presses its delicate but hard-wearing underfelt into place beneath. (You may say it’s a thankless task for the bandleader with his name above the title to keep insistently looping that piano signature, but where would we all be without it?) I think I’m right in saying that only on the album version does Morello get to “go round the kit” quite as much as the full length permits. I’m latterly so hooked on the five-and-a-half-minuter I can’t even recall what the foreshortened precis sounds like. It’s unfettered at executive length and yet never reckless or indulgent.

I’m listening to it now. Background music? By definition if you take into the account the way Take Five entered my consciousness by osmosis without ever introducing itself and how snugly it provides accompaniment to imagery. But only if you treat what happens in the background with the utmost respect. True “background music” is exposed if you listen too hard to it. Not this.

Everything But The Girl, Each And Every One (1984)

Everything But The GirlEden

Artist: Everything But The Girl
Title: Each And Every One
Description: single; album track, Eden
Label: Blanco y Negro
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Maybe you should just think twice
I don’t wait around on your advice

I didn’t see jazz coming. The Lovecats by The Cure was a curve ball in 1983, at a time when my musical core was defined by doom and gloom and minor chords. It opened my ears to brushwork and double bass and Django Reinhardt-style guitar. It’s amazing how a jackknife in direction by one of your pet bands can broaden your mind in an instant. It was the year I stopped being a sixth-former and became a student and fumbled towards a sartorial identity. Oxfam raincoats, big hair and ripped t-shirts initially. But something happened during that one-year foundation course at Nene College: I met Dave.

Dave Keech, a fellow art student from nearby Kettering with a much more mature palate – and palette – was a jazz aficionado. He listened to it, understood it and played it. And he got me into it. I made cassettes of artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald (her standard of Too Darn Hot came to epitomise the hot summer of ’84). This was trad jazz. Swing. I wasn’t ready for modern jazz yet. But I remain grateful to Dave for blowing away so many of my post-punk prejudices, and for leading me towards a flat-top.

So by the time I arrived in London in September ’84, away from home for the first time, I was primed to welcome in the jazz- and Latin-infused wave of pop music already happening in the pages of the NME and Smash Hits. This was the breezy, horizontally-striped time of Weekend, Sade, Café Bleu, Carmel and, at the forefront, rising as ambassadors from the defiantly wispy Pillows & Prayers swoon-iverse, Everything But The Girl.

Before my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence, Stephen Clasper, got me into ABC’s Beauty Stab, he flooded the corridor with the irresistible clean air of Eden. An already hardened Smiths fan, I was alert to melancholy, and here was a whole slab of it, with plaintive brass, school-orchestra percussion (what is that hollow, ridged wooden thing you scrape a stick across?) and voices spun from silk. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt share everything, including the vocals across the album. But the opening track – and the revelation for me – Each And Every One, is Tracey’s, with a bit of Ben on backing (“Slam the door” “Much too dear”), I think; it might be Tracey multi-tracked.

(It’s funny how it seemed OK to think of them as Ben and Tracey, even though we didn’t know them. I met them in 1990 around the release of the super-sophisticated – and thus slightly more remote – Language Of Life album, but it was as if I already knew them, so intimate and heart-on-sleeve was their music.)

That they were a couple made Everything But The Girl so much more significant and authentic when they crooned these gorgeous, heart-tugging songs. Theirs was a kitchen-sink romance, more about a dare-I-say domestic togetherness than a fleeting quickie, or a passing moment of bruised ribs. Lyrically, they draw too upon past relationships, whose failings still resonate even when you’re in a stable one, so when Tracey sings to a lost love, “And your kind of love is the kind that always disappears,” we wonder if she’s fearing the same of the current one. (I have no way of knowing, as Tracey is commendably guarded in her otherwise revealing memoir, but one wonders aloud if by writing songs about sour times, they exorcised them from their own home life.)

Even though it’s the second album Love Not Money (another that I hungrily taped from Stephen) that bears the monochrome, photographic sleeve, like Woody Allen, I always see Eden – and Each And Every One – in black and white.

Maybe it seems unfair to cite the first song of an artist’s first album as my all-time favourite – after all, I’ve consistently drawn comfort and joy from their subsequent work, from the harmonica-infused Native Land, through the captivatingly orchestral agit-prop Little Hitler, to Toddy Terry’s wipe-clean Missing, and into Tracey’s lovely recent solo work, like Grand Canyon and Nighttime – but you can’t match the feeling of the right music in the right place at the right time.

Just a few years after punk, and its independent spirit was alive and well and jazzy. Who saw that coming?