A Certain Ratio, Shack Up (1980)

ACRShackUp

Artist: A Certain Ratio
Title: Shack Up
Description: single
Label: Factory Benelux
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1981

Wipe out the problems of our society …

White men may be incapable of jumping. But they can funk. A Certain Ratio, from Wythenshawe, Manchester, England, were no average white band. Named after a line in a Brian Eno song and slyly sent up in 24 Hour Party People for their experimental benign-Hitler-youth outfits – but rightly slotted into the Factory story, of which they were an immortal chapter – ACR had everything a Tony Wilson signing ought to have had (he personally managed them), except success. They notched up Peel sessions and glad-handed their way to a major label advance from A&M in the late 80s, but their aching cool never comfortably converted into commercial welly. Shack Up remains their pinnacle. They didn’t write it, but why quibble over administration? They made it their own.

The United Artists original, by Banbarra (Moe Daniel and Joseph Carter), came out in the States in 1975, over here a year later, and went unheard, certainly by me. It’s a robustly funky, Chic-indebted number with a progressive lyric (“We can love together, work together, sleep together, so why can’t we live together?”) and some swooning female backing singers, but once you’ve heard A Certain Ratio do Shack, you can’t go back.

It’s the ideal copy. The arrangement and the grouting are identical and the original’s drum fills are reproduced almost to the beat by light-fingered, multi-faceted ACR drummer Donald Johnson (whose work was, I maintain, as key to the band’s appeal as Tony Thompson’s was to Chic or Dennis Davis’s to golden-years Bowie). Hearing the two version in the wrong order – as I did, as many kids of my generation must have done: 1980 followed by 1975 – means that Shack Up introduces itself as something spidery and troubling, and then becomes something straightforward and prosaic. Don’t be shy; play them back to back. Neither will ruin the other. But ACR’s version of events is coloured by the northern industrial city that staged it. Martin Moscrop’s Chic-steeped approximation of the guitar sounds just out of tune enough to introduce a prole art threat. As they tear into the funk, the band sound like they could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. I love that.

My memory of the vinyl record is linked to my school pal Craig, who must have been the one who owned it. (We were file-sharing before records were files.) Craig taught himself to play the bass as we already had a guitarist and you’ve got to love the sheer practicality of that. He will have been encouraged to do so by records as funky as Shack Up. (When we did form a band, we dabbled in funk. I learned rimshot for those occasions and listened to a lot of Pigbag.) The turn of the decade was rich with new sounds, new styles. Some days you didn’t know where to look. We had no contact with A Certain Ratio: never saw them on telly (although I expect they were on So It Goes), don’t remember reading an interview with them in Smash Hits, couldn’t have told you their names, never saw them live. Their angular name and the autumnal potato prints of the Shack Up sleeve were all we had to go on. But it was sufficient.

I remember one disco at a hired Pavilion in those Northampton days where, unfathomably, the DJ played Shack Up and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag. We in the pleated trousers and check shirts flew onto the dancefloor like dandies possessed and did our angular, jerky dancing. I will have expertly attempted to mime Johnson’s itchy drum break using my elbows and wrists, not that anybody would have appreciated it in Billing.

We stood, or elbow-danced, at the dawning of a new era. Punk had collided with funk and London had ceded control of the ball. In the Granada region, whose hip magazine shows we did not get in Anglia, a head of steam was forming. A Certain Ratio, whose first album came out on cassette only, sat at the revolution’s fulcrum for a brief moment. Some of us two motorways away from Manchester noticed. Not everybody did. And we jumped.

 

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 a market town in Surrey, and asked Mel, the name of 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.