James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.

Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988)

Happymondaysbummedcover

Artist: Happy Mondays
Title: Mad Cyril
Description: album track, Bummed
Label: Factory
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1989

I like that. Turn it up

As a journalist I was locked out of the Happy Mondays love-in somewhat during their Madchester reign in the late 80s and early 90s. Never really in the gang. Right haircut, wrong time. Not from the North like my NME compatriots Stuart Maconie and James Brown, nor an iconoclastic rottweiler like Steven Wells, who was deployed to go in for the kill when the clock struck “knock ’em down”, I remained a fan throughout. By the time I arrived at Select in 1993, where the Mondays were as good as a “house band”, again I found myself in a long queue behind Miranda Sawyer (who had perhaps the closest geographical affiliation of all and yet nobly sought the inconvenient truth for the famous “difficult fourth album” cover story), editor Andrew Harrison, and other embedded feature writers like Andrew Perry. I watched from the sidelines as Shaun Ryder, Bez, Horse, Cow and crew were mingled with and written about in the scallydelic, draw-sucking, lolloping gait of the era.

I finally pulled my numbered ticket from the deli-counter dispenser in 1997, by which time Shaun was the leader of Black Grape, an incarnation way more successful off the blocks than anybody could have hoped. For their underwhelming second album, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, I got to hang out in a locked municipal park in West London for the photos and back at a hotel posh enough to have Chris Eubank’s tank (registration: “KO 1”) parked up on the kerb outside and to serve mushy peas in a ramekin. We spoke of many things, most memorably his new domestic bliss in southern Ireland with new partner Oriole Leitch, their passionate relationship perfectly summed up by the argument they’d had before he’d left their Irish getaway, which involved the Little Hulton tearaway, 35, tipping a Pot Noodle over “her favourite Buddha” which sat in the fireplace, “facing the right way and everything”, and ramming her favourite £700 hoover up the chimney. He was top company and he loved those mushy peas. Now I knew why all of those journalists who’d gone before me since 1987 had been so reluctant to come home.

It is with the luxury of hindsight that we may elevate the magnificent musical output of the Happy Mondays – whose loose-fit gang mentality and garrulous sociability made them so alluring to be around – to the podium. For me, Martin Hannett’s Bummed and Osborne and Oakenfold’s chart-cracking follow-up Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, are among the cornerstone recordings of the glorious, terraces-pacifying “white men dancing” epoch. (It was the Southern fop Danny Kelly who identified Ecstasy’s greatest achievement in the 1990 Granada documentary Celebration: The Sound Of The North as its ability to make white men dance. I was in the background on that, too, while Maconie walked purposefully past me, taking the Lancastrian lead.)

I select Mad Cyril from a number of contenders to marker-flag the Mondays’ apex. They also captured the hooded-top/blue-Rizla zeitgeist with Hallelujah, WFL, Lazyitis, Step On, 24 Hour Party People and Kinky Afro (“Son, I’m thirty, I only went with your mother ’cos she’s dirty”) but if a single four-and-a-half minutes seal in amber what made this Salford Family Stone the greatest rock’n’roll band in Britain for a brief period, it’s the dizzying charge of Mad Cyril, with its taped-off-the-telly dialogue samples, that crashing rhythm from Gary Whelan and those migraine synth bursts from Paul Davis, or possibly sonic overlord Hannett himself (it’s impossible to know who’s responsible for what individual sound in a madhouse Hannett production, usually committed to tape in the early hours).

It’s easy to imagine the Mondays bonging out to Performance on video in some rented room near Whalley Range. Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s fabled meditation on fatal fame and identity theft has it all for the new-lad cinephile stoner: gangsters, nostalgia, cars, violence, Jagger, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Big Audio Dynamite raided it first, for the quickstep E=MC2 in 1985, but there’s plenty of Cockney banter to go round, herein such muffled, isolated gems as the opening mission statement, “We’ve been courteous!”, the definitive, “I need a Bohemian atmosphere,” and the sinister shopping list, “It’s a right pisshole … long hair, beatniks, druggers, freeloaders.”

Amid these Carnaby-Street cinematic conundrums, Ryder does what he always does and does best: testify and swear. Are you ready? Let’s go. “Although our music and our drugs stayed the same,” he reasons, “Although our interests and our music stayed the same, we went together, fuckers from the well, we smoked together and we slipped down in hell.” This beat poetry from the back-bar Bukowski or – according to the late, kingmaking Tony Wilson – the Wine Lodge Yeats, gives vital shape to what is otherwise a near formless barrage of noise.

Subsequent Mondays classics cleave more conventionally to the baggy beat and summon sleaze and summertime from a slower, more sophisticated groove. Their older cousin in the attic plays with madness, a half-cut, Kit-Kat-wrapper cacophony from inside a padded room. And a right old performance. Turn it up.

No longer the big draw, but a hero to most, Shaun Ryder has settled into a self-parodic dotage made thrilling by his very survival and we should salute him. Not all the beatniks, druggers and freeloaders made it.

It was Mad Cyril …

The Farm, All Together Now (1990)

All_Together_Now

Artist: The Farm
Title: All Together Now
Description: single, album track Spartacus
Label: Sony
Release date: 1990
First heard: 1990

I was accused by someone on Twitter of “studied disinterest” when I announced on the popular social media site that I had no interest in being “cool” at my age, before recommending Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album a full ten months after its release because I’ve only just bought it. This disinterest was not studied, which is why I blocked my accuser. No song in The 143 has been selected for any other reason other than I love it. I loved it then and I love it still. If I was concerned about how this list looked, I would be a fraud.

I love All Together Now by The Farm. If the band were ever truly fashionable it will surely have been before this song lodged itself in the national psyche across all castes, creeds and colours (by which I mean football colours). At that point, having cracked it, commercially after many, many years’ service in the trenches of regional indie and fanzine legitimacy, The Farm made the most of a transfer window and went overground, forever thereafter the property of people at wedding discos. It has been some years since I was among those five or six good men and true, but I rather think they are enjoying their “people’s longevity”.

They have the keys to Liverpool, figuratively it not actually, and occupy the same post-punk Scouse pantheon as Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns, Ian McNabb, Holly Johnson, Julian Cope, Ian Broudie and, although it would annoy him, Lee Mavers. Such figures do not drift in and out of fashion, they exist in perpetuity in collective local mythology rooted in the Cavern and Merseybeat. All Together Now is a sentimental song, made in a sentimental city, sung by sentimental people then and now, in sentimental situ. And it would be easy to belittle it by practitioners of studied disinterest. (Its sentimentality, by the way, is nothing to do with the sort of civic stereotype that saw Boris Johnson visit the city, cap in hand, to apologise for belittling the Liverpudlian character in the Spectator in 2004, in an article that also perpetuated lies about Hillsborough that have since been legally quashed, forever.)

A “terrace singalong” is how it might be dismissed by people who’ve never stepped foot on a terrace, or sang along. But community singing is important, and if there is no community (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed, as she set about destroying them), then if a song momentarily makes you feel like there might be one, it has done its job. In this respect, you’ll never walk alone.

The Farm and their mentor Suggs (who took them in hand) seized their moment as the 80s jigged into the 90s and years of marginal struggle coalesced into right-place-right-time-right-trainers relevance. With fashionable production on their side, this band of brothers gave it everything they had and found a chart-topping album within, Spartacus. Their thumbs-up bonhomie didn’t hurt. The Farm once gave me a tour of Liverpool that took us from Walton Gaol to Robert Tressell’s grave and we had our photo taken at a Yates’, one that I still treasure. Unlike the Madchester bands, The Farm came with added socialism.

Using Johann Pachelbel’s Canon In D as its kicking-off point – a common pop nick in the 60s, but audacious in ’90 nonetheless – All Together Now uses the gentle orchestral waft and a plangent rising guitar signature from co-writer Steve Grimes to lull the listener into a false sense of decorum before a pull on the bass ignites what historians will identify as a textbook “indie-dance” groove. If all this song did was lay a trendy backbeat under a classical riff, it would be worth a cursory listen and a tap of the trainer, but Peter Hooton’s voice and lyric are what cause a studio lark to ascend.

It’s distant and high, more delicate than anything the Happy Mondays would attempt (and neither should they have done), gloriously augmented by the mighty Pete Wylie on backing vocals, and sets out a bold stall, for this is a song about the Great War when “baggy” songs tended to be about lager and rainbows. “Remember boy that your forefathers died,” he entreats, a man as capable of tomfoolery and wisecracks as any burgher of Liverpool, but not messing about herein. “Lost in millions for a country’s pride … But they never mention the trenches of Belgium, when they stopped fighting and they were one.”

The England-Germany truce is a well-worn, proto-pacifist fairytale with a mile-wide target on its back for the creatively bereft, suitable for all ages and shamelessly exploited by a supermarket chain to sell chocolate at Christmas. It even contains a kickabout which might have been a cynical button-pushing exercise in the hands of the insincere, but who else in the hedonistic Italia ’90 theme party along the M62 was singing about “a spirit stronger than war” on a “cold, clear and bright” night in December 1914? Not Northside. The Farm were like baggy’s older brothers. They’d been round the block. They were granted certain privileges. It didn’t take much to be a militant tendency in that largely apolitical landscape.

All together now? What a sappy deal, eh? Arms around each other. Blokes hugging. Scarves in the air. Tears in beer. Working Men’s clubs. The further away we get from No Man’s Land in December 1914 and successive outbreaks of togetherness among fighting men, the more vital such sappiness arguably becomes. The Farm’s moment in the sun seemed all too brief, but they abide, with at least one certified anthem suitable for sporting tournaments and occasions of national unity. You write a song like this, and you are forced to bequeath it to whichever group of people have gathered together in hired hall or sports stadium to sing it. All Together Now sorts out the fashionable from the unfashionable, and who’d want to be cordoned off among the first group?

Studied interest? No, just abandon, bejewelled with treasured memories of all the voluble, winking Liverpudlians I met when working for the NME meant getting the hell out of London on a weekly basis. If The Farm were waiting for you at Lime Street, you were alright.