Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes (1984)

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Artist: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Title: Rattlesnakes
Description: single; album track, Rattlesnakes
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

In the same week in 2013, the National Literary Trust revealed that only 28.4% of children in Britain read for pleasure outside of school (down from 38.1% in 2005), blanket media coverage afforded David Bowie’s top 100 reading list, as collated by the Art Gallery of Ontario. As I wrote in the Guardian that week (I used to write for the Guardian): “For my generation, raised on literate pop music, it was like being given homework by the coolest teacher in the world.”

It was, in fact, a reading festival.

Shall we agree that Lloyd Cole is the coolest teacher in the world? Although long since flown from the mainstream (a concept enshrined in the ironic title of his third album Mainstream), he remains a reliable mix of icy reserve and bookish warmth, from the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts, and I am proud to confirm that my own love of Raymond Carver’s writings was sparked by an interview I conducted with Lloyd for the NME in Bar Italia in London’s Soho circa 1990. I took his Bowie-like recommendation away with me and invested in poetry collections Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985) and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). As I built my Carver library, I even included poetry by his second wife Tess Gallagher. (When I recommend books by and about the Mitford Sisters to those who occasionally inquire, I feel like I have improved the world by proxy. Mr Cole, as we would have called him if he was our teacher, improved mine.)

When I put together a fanzine named This is This in 1988, I wrote a two-page feature about Lloyd Cole’s water metaphors under the pseudonym “Rusty James”, taken from a character in Susan Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish, filmed in 1984 by Francis Coppola, in which he is played by a young Matt Dillon. I think you can see the tendrils of cultural connection winding around my relationship with Lloyd Cole.

Rattlesnakes is one of my favourite LPs of the 1980s, and I’ve found it difficult to extract one song from it. The first I knew of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was when their debut single Perfect Skin landed them, or him, on the cover of Melody Maker and on Top of the Pops, a performance marked by the look of fear on the singer’s face. I invested. The tunes were pin-sharp and the arrangements made the pieces sound easy. But it was the lyrics that besotted me and kept me up all night with their references and allusions (“it’s just a simple metaphor,” Lloyd admits in Forest Fire, blowing the metatextuality wide open on side one). If I single out the title track, which became the unsuccessful third single, it’s because it encapsulates everything that was refreshingly brainy and archly poetic about the commotion Lloyd Cole made. For heaven’s sake, it includes this line:

“She looked like Eva Marie-Saint in On The Waterfront …

Now, in 1984, when I first heard Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, I was this side of fashioning myself as a young, bohemian cineaste; a bushy-tailed young art student in dungarees and high hair who still lived at his Mum and Dad’s, besotted with Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now and Dispatches by Michael Herr. During the previous summer, the writing-things-out tedium of A-Level revision had been alleviated by A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, both of which I’d taped in audio off the telly (by placing my ghetto blaster next to the speaker when nobody was likely to walk in). I could quote liberally from both: “You’re not too funny today, fatman … What’s this article? It’s a solid gold dress I believe … Do you know what I say? Ha ha. D’you hear me? Ha ha!”

Can you imagine how loud the worlds colliding sounded at that crux in my cultural education? The pop music fed into the films fed into the books fed back into the pop music. In Rattlesnakes, we learn that Marie-Saint lookalike Jodie wears a hat “although it hasn’t rained for six days” (note to self: buy a hat); that she looks like Eva Marie-Saint, but not in North by Northwest or The Sandpiper or Grand Prix, but in On The Waterfront (my film!); that she reads Simone de Beauvoir (note to self: find out who, in a pre-Wikipedia age, Simone de Beauvoir is); she’s in some kind of “American circumstance” and there’s San José and traffic police and therapy (be more American, more introspective; look into a jumper purchase); she needs a gun on account of all the rattlesnakes (don’t be a snake); and her heart’s like crazy paving, “upside down and back to front” (Mum and Dad had crazy paving, but this sounds more like a suitable case for treatment – nothing is common or garden in the Transatlantic hinterland of Lloyd Cole).

Musically, it’s as tight as a band who’d been together longer – they clearly did their homework before handing it in. Produced by Paul Hardiman in a pre-loved Shoreditch, Rattlesnakes (LP and song) emerged breezily and toe-tapping without pain of birth, I understand. Guitars snake, drums rattle, harmonies enhance, and Eva Marie-Saint’s name is correctly pronounced. (I learned how say the name of my new-found favourite screen goddess from Lloyd Cole – obvious despite myself.)

The one thing I already had in common with Mr Cole (actually, we called our new, turtle-necked teachers at art school by their first names: Mike, Pete, Frank, Malcolm) was that love was also my “great disappointment”, or so I believed without any evidence.

For the record, Rattlesnakes was one of four tracks out of ten on the austerely-packaged parent album co-written with three other Commotions: in its case, guitarist Neil Clark (who also co-parented the gorgeously rhetorical Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?, my second favourite tune on the LP); keyboardist Blair Cowan co-wrote Patience; golfing bassist Laurence Donegan Four Flights Up. These shared credits speak affirmatively of a meritocratic band, not merely a swoon-generating frontman and props. Indeed, the Commotions lasted as long as the Commotions were built to last, and avoided going downhill. After three Top 20 albums, all sound, all of a piece, but not all with hit singles (they accumulated five Top 40 singles, two of them Top 20), they split and Lloyd has been solo ever since, collaborative when it suits him, not least with Clark. Five years: that’s all the Commotions got – to prove their point and stake a claim in the Smash Hits sticker album before my college education had played out.

Footnote #1: I have belatedly discovered that in 1985, The Fall recorded one of their 24 Peel Sessions. (The Commotions recorded none.) It began with L.A. and some impromptu Mark E Smith beat poetry: “Lloyd Cole’s brain and face is made out of cow pat, we all know that.” If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that L.A., happens to be my personal favourite ever Fall song, and thus my selection from their catalogue in The 143.

Footnote #2: Answering a fan query on his website, Lloyd wrote this about why he was never invited to record his own Peel session: “Peel made it quite clear that he didn’t rate us. Which was slightly saddening, but that’s all. I’m not sure if he ever heard any of my solo stuff. He memorably compared the Commotions to Leicester City – a team in the first division, but one was never quite sure how they had got there, as they seemed more of a division two outfit at best.”

Footnote #3: John Peel was fallible, just like a Pope.

Ha ha.

 

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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?

Prefab Sprout, When Love Breaks Down (1984)

 

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Artist: Prefab Sprout
Title: When Love Breaks Down
Description: single; album track, Steve McQueen
Label: Kitchenware
Release date: 1984, 1985
First heard: 1984

I’m not even sure why, but it was a standing joke that Prefab Sprout, critical darlings clearly capable of mainstream commercial embrace, kept on re-releasing When Love Breaks Down until it was a hit. In fact, they released it once, prior to its parent album Steve McQueen, in 1984 – when it failed to make the Top 75 – and again, in 1985, when it scaled to number 25 and made Top Of The Pops. I’m not sure the embellished version of events was even meant to denigrate the band, or their doughty label Kitchenware, merely to underline their determination to break on through to the other side. Which they surely did. (Come the next album, they were a Top 10 certainty, and shampooed their hair accordingly.)

Prefab Sprout shone for all the bands forged on the anvil of post-post-punk, who appreciated the here’s-three-chords-now-form-a-band ethic, but had broader musical aspirations and tended toward the windswept and interesting: Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Associates (all Scottish, so far), Win, Deacon Blue (still Scottish), ABC, The Christians, Danny Wilson, Wet Wet Wet (and we’re back in Scotland). Not all as cool as each other, but all willing to admit to an appreciation of Steely Dan, the collective sense of ambition was palpable, but there was further to fall. Once you’ve cracked the actual charts and become what used to be called a “housewives’ favourite”, the only way is down or Las Vegas. (Or a comfortable dotage on Radio 2, which is less of a comedown these days, of course.)

Paddy McAloon never aimed low in his life, and continues to defy a string of crueler-than-cruel medical jokes by finding new ways around his disabilities, a spirit undimmed. His songs have always been intricate, opaque and one step ahead of you. I bought Steve McQueen and Swoon in the wrong order during college, and thus experienced them getting less accessible, and thus more intriguing. Swoon beguiled me before I knew the meaning of the word. It was terrible background music, as it demanded you pay attention to its curling lyrics and unpredictable tempo changes. Steve McQueen was a more approachable affair, full of potential singles, not least the locomotive country opener Faron Young, and this one.

Torrid and aching in arrangement and thrust, after some of the cryptic crossword clues on Swoon, it’s pretty straightforward: McAloon’s love and he “work well together”, but are “often apart”. Nothing too melodramatic, just a couple separated by distance. Instead of fonder, “absence makes the heart lose weight” (even when he’s playing a straight bat, McAloon still hits a six). When love breaks down, we tell lies, we fool ourselves, we do all sorts of stuff to “stop the truth from hurting”, but soon, we’ll be as “free as old confetti.” More given to Sondheim than Strummer, Paddy brings a great gift to the masses: eloquence with wit. Prefab Sprout are like punk never happened.

It’s hard not to swoon to the desaturated Hollwood pose on the sleeve of the album (I don’t know about you, but I never imagined McAloon could ride that Triumph), and the clean lines of the production from either Thomas Dolby (the longer, album version) or Phil Thornalley (the single). But most of all, I admire the daring Americanisation of the imagery, building from Swoon‘s basketball, cornball, Bobby Fischer and “Chicago urban blues” (carefully tempered by tea-rooms, A-Levels and Jodrell Bank), to take transatlantic flight with blueberry pies, bubblegum, “the songs of Georgie Gershwin” and Pearl Harbor. McAloon imagines and interprets like a novelist, of course. He was sort of leapfrogged by Lloyd Cole in this department, who made America his lyrical, then spiritual, then actual home. All roads lead back to Tyne and Wear for McAloon.

Let us praise his bandmates, for this was a band, whose lineup remained steady until after Andromeda Heights in 1997, and a one that was fleet of finger and foot. McAloon and Wendy Smith’s vocals work well together, her angelic hosts, treated in the manner of I’m Not In Love, a constant, breathy presence. Brother Martin McAloon’s air-conditioned bass never falters. The exactitude of Neil Conti’s clockwork rimshot and feathery snare fills were good enough to get him recruited for Bowie’s band at Live Aid.

Even the LP take, at just over four minutes, ends too soon. But Prefab Sprout make alchemical pop at all lengths (on Steve McQueen alone there’s Blueberry Pies at two-and-a-half, and Desire At over five), and in any case, the lyric has quietly come to a conclusion. You may have missed it. Here’s where the story ends: with the protagonist and his former love joining “the wrecks who lose their hearts for easy sex.” His work here is done; he’s ridden that triumph.

I realise now that Prefab Sprout are wasted on the young. They age like port.

By the way, Stuart Maconie and I subsequently spent the back end of a boozy evening in Newcastle in 1992 sitting round a grand piano in a hotel bar singing along as Paddy McAloon pounded out requests from the Sprout catalogue. It was one of the greatest back ends of a boozy evening of my life.

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

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

You better run, you better run …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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