Squeeze, Up The Junction (1978)

SqueezeUp_the_junction_cover

Artist: Squeeze
Title: Up The Junction
Description: single; album track, Cool For Cats
Label: A&M
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

It’s hard to convey to the youth of today how vital Smash Hits was at the end of the 70s. In an age so pre-digital “sharing” meant literally lending things to other kids, we would pass copies of the fortnightly pop-words magazine around in the playground, eager to discover what our favourite bands of that post-punk/disco era were actually singing. Imagine it, young people of today! To care about what artists were singing! And to have no immediate method at our fingertips of finding out from one fortnight to the next!

The lyrics to Up The Junction, the third smash hit from this glowering bunch of posers from a place called Deptford, appeared across a full page in “ver Hits” – as it was not yet self-mythologisingly known – and what an unusually lengthy and involved rearrangement of the English language it was: each verse a chapter in a story and no chorus, no repetition, no deviation or hesitation. Just a minute: thinking about it, their previous hit, the snarlier Cool For Cats (which I’d exchanged pocket money for), didn’t really have a chorus either beyond the line “co-oo-ool for cats”, and it too had beguiled my fragile teenage mind with its literate turns of phrase and its Sweeney imagery. Who were these clever blokes who looked like they were trying so hard to disguise their cleverness?

In the mid-80s, by which time I’d gone off to art school in faraway London but retained my devotion to Smash Hits, my path almost crossed with that of Squeeze, when one of our visiting tutors at Chelsea School of Art (headquartered in Wandsworth, a borough I’d first heard about through Cool For Cats when London was a foreign field) made a head-turning request. Could I write out the lyrics to the next Squeeze album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti? His name was Rob O’Connor, and he ran his own design company which specialised at that time in LP sleeves. Honestly, we with a pop sensibility worshipped at his self-effacing feet, especially when we discovered that it was his handwriting on the sleeve of the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope album. You should know that my handwriting was mannered and cartoony in 1984, hence the speculative calligraphic commission. In the event, my lyrics (and I really did write them all out, by hand) went unused. But it was close. And I got paid.

It is not to in any way denigrate or underestimate the deceptively intricate power of Squeeze’s musicianship – something hard which they made look easy – but the lyrics were always the thing for me. The very fact that Glenn Tilbrook, who wrote the music, engineered such a witty yet moving job of singing the words, which were written by Chris Difford, makes Up The Junction a sort of definitive encapsulation of what made – and makes – their Lewisham Lennon/McCartney symbiosis one of pop and rock’s essential services. The lyric – a three-minute kitchen-sink drama – would be severely diminished without the singer, and the singer would self-evidently just be humming without the lyric. (I know Difford sings it himself, solo, but I hope he would agree that Tilbrook’s rendition is heavenly.)

You know sometimes when you have to just shut up and reproduce the lyric, like Smash Hits did in 1978?

I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on a windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten

What audacious rhymes. What Davies-esque evocation of the capital via place names.

I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday

Although we subsequently learn that the job with Stanley involves working eleven hours, we discover nothing more specific about the nature of the work. But we don’t need to. As for the delicate crux of this cautionary tale …

She said she’d seen a doctor
And nothing now could stop her

More fatalism. Tilbrook’s lilting tones are so free of animosity or self-pity, so devoid of judgement or blame, you’re inclined to sympathise with both parties, especially when he vouches:

I put away a tenner
Each week to make her better

Writing short stories is hard. Any short story writer will tell you that. To do so in verse, in rhyme, and in half-rhyme (“tenner”, “better”), is harder still. “And when the time was ready, we had to sell the telly”? Heartbreaking. “She gave birth to a daughter, within a year a walker, she looked just like her mother, if there could be another”? This is a man declaring his love for a woman who until recently he was referring to as “the girl.” And yet, two years later – and it really is like a country song now – she’s “with a soldier” and he’s going “from bar to street to bookie.”

It’s only at the bitter end – and bitterness takes that long to rise to the surface – that our South London protagonist admits he’s “up the junction”. The song’s title is also its punchline, its killing joke, its crowning glory. This is a London A-to-Z of emotion.

Having almost skipped over this band’s virtuosity – a trait hugely unfashionable in the white heat of New Wave – I will throw a bone to seasoned pro Gilson Lavis, whose exactitude from the drum stool lent both weight and a lightness of touch often simultaneously to the many timeless hits of Squeeze. Such an asset. Maestro Jools Holland, an uncontainable personality who dipped in and out as his parallel broadcasting career flourished, was closest to Squeeze’s only other permanent member, and he and Lavis came together in the 90s and are still going strong in the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. That’s two lasting relationships from one band of brothers.

I find it’s easy to forget how good Squeeze were – that’s how good they were. But they were the equal as a British singles band to Madness, or the Kinks before them, or Blur after them. They were what a fortnightly pop-words magazine in the steam age was invented for.

XTC, Making Plans For Nigel (1979)

XTCMakingPlansForNigel

Artist: XTC
Title: Making Plans For Nigel
Description: single; album track, Drums and Wires
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Not yet proficient, I was nonetheless convinced around the turn of the decade that drums were my instrument. The components of rhythm caught my ear in the music I listened to and seeing a drummer hunched over a kit caught my eye. Although the desire to mime playing the guitar is instinctive to all of us, learning notes and chords never really had any pull for me. Whereas hitting things …

I can’t source it, but I definitely saw some kind of documentary or even news item about XTC around this time, and it showed the band in the studio: four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry. I was instantly taken by Terry – Terry Chambers – whose inventive proficiency was mesmerising at a time when I had only the vaguest idea of how a drum kit might be assembled around a drummer. I can only think that the band must have been laying down their Black Sea album in the summer of 1980 in London’s Townhouse Studios, which had the famous “stone room” for an exceptional live drum sound. I was already a fan of the band from Top Of The Pops, but had only belatedly taken their previous LP, Drums and Wires, out of the record library, and taped it. The connection I’d formed with Chambers gave me extra purchase with their sound. And if ever a pop song is beat-driven, it’s Making Plans For Nigel.

It opens the album with that mighty Chambers rhythm, treated by Steve Lilywhite to give it a space-age resonance as it rumbles almost musically around the available space from the floor tom through the mounted toms, a luxuriously sucked hi-hat attracting attention away from the featherlight snare. It’s BIG without being caps-lock. In my imagination it goes unaccompanied on forever before Dave Gregory’s sci-fi guitar and Colin Moulding’s underfloor bass come in, but in reality it’s only a bar. Such is the impression it makes.

The single came in a limited-edition board-game sleeve, which I never owned, and neither did anyone I know. I found one, already sold, on eBay, but there’s no photo of it unfolded. It adds to the myth of a single that was much more inventive and content-led than most New Wave of that time, its arrangement spare and meticulous, the punctuating canine yelp “Oh-woo” adding abandon to the social comment and the ker-ash! of Chambers’ cymbals close to the sound of breaking glass, which I love. Written by Colin Moulding, it speaks of jobs for life, the dying days of British industry, the allure of conformism, and parental control. Nigel, so acutely named for that era, is “not outspoken”, but he “loves to speak and he loves to be spoken to.” He is ordinary, he is normal, he is no agitator or subversive, and yet, as his Mum and Dad coo over the fact that “if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy in his world,” we suspect the worst. (The Undertones would subsequently create their own Nigels – Jimmy, Terry, Kevin – achieving similar pathos through Beano comedy.)

But we never hear from Nigel. We have no idea what goes on in his world (a line bent into a tragic lament by Andy Partridge, and curved away in cold echo by Lilywhite). Steeped in studio drama, Nigel is a song in the saddest key of life, a Play For Today in which the titular character has no lines. Does he have “a future in British Steel”? Does British Steel have a future in British Steel? This is pop to turn over in your brain long after the needle’s come off the record. Life may begin at the hop, but it ends in a future that’s as good as sealed.

The other songs on Drums and Wires are much more choppy and perverse and staccato. I liked them, but I was truly moved by Nigel and didn’t feel that way again until the end of Side Two, and another epic studio sweep, the closer Complicated Game. Its infinite echo chamber finds Partridge tearing his heart out and raging against the dying of the light (“I said, God, it really doesn’t matter where you put your world/Someone else will come along and move it/And it’s always been the same/It’s just a complicated game”). Because of the fabled sleeve of Nigel, I linked the two bookends together, Nigel’s parents’ “helping hand” perhaps touching fingertips with Partridge’s powerless God in mockery of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. In the creation of Nigel, the complicated game was life, the universe and everything. Not bad for four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry playing guitars, drums and wires on the Goldhawk Road.

Following Partridge’s dramatic breakdown and the band’s withdrawal from touring (which saw the gig-hungry Chambers bail out), the studio-only XTC found sanctification by connoisseurs of intelligent, pastoral pop and English folkedelia. Gravitas was theirs. I can’t claim to have kept up with their every move, but enjoyed Oranges and Lemons at the end of the decade which incidentally saw British Steel privatised, and wished them well. The compilation Fossil Fuel in 1996 cemented my appreciation, although it was hearing Nigel again that made me happiest in my work.

I was assembling and hitting my own secondhand drum kit by 1981, but never as elegantly as Terry did.

Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978)

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Artist: Blondie
Title: Heart Of Glass
Description: single; album track, Parallel Lines
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass …

The plain paper sleeve with the record company logo doesn’t quite do justice to the delights contained therein. But this was 1978, which was just before punk in Northampton, and the picture sleeve revolution was still in its pupal stage. (Although punk “exploded” in 1976 in London after the Sex Pistols swore on a local news magazine programme, and thereafter in other major cities that were plugged into the zeitgeist, it didn’t arrive in the provinces until two years later, and I didn’t latch onto it until 1979.)

When Heart Of Glass – underwhelmingly the third single from Blondie’s third album – was purchased “for the house” in 1978, I must have been aware that it was a cool record by a cool band with a cool singer, but how it slotted into “punk” was probably too nuanced for my 13-year-old brain. That it was essentially a disco record (working-titled The Disco Song when first demoed in 1975) didn’t seem that important to my young ears, suddenly pricked on a regular basis by so many noises coming out of the radio in Mum and Dad’s “music centre”, whose built-in space-age cassette deck was pressed into service every Sunday in order to cherry-pick the Top 40. The essentially American schism between rock and disco held no sway at 6, Winsford Way.

Blondie were quite the package, whose sex appeal to a 13-year-old slotted in with Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Legs & Co. It is with infinite sadness that I accept that 13 year-olds today are already mainlining hardcore porn; for my generation, a lot more was left to the imagination, and Debbie Harry’s come-hither eyes, forces’-sweetheart looks and diaphanous dresses were the height of confused arousal. The blokes in their black suits and skinny ties looked aspirational, too, with their New York states of mind, and the sleeve of Parallel Lines was something you had to own. (I didn’t own it – we hadn’t really moved into LP ownership at that age – but you always knew someone who did.) They were a supreme singles band. But Heart Of Glass shines harder for many reasons.

One of the reasons is Clem Burke. I have retrospectively learned to appreciate the sheer craft of this most imaginative of timekeepers – able to twirl his sticks and keep the beat, but capable of what are disparagingly called “fills” that light up the room. Listen to Heart Of Glass through to its protacted fade and you will hear variation upon variation rattled out across snare and tom toms in a way that mocks the metronome of dance music. (He is said to have disapproved of the song initially.)

In the hands of hitmaking producer Mike Chapman, who’d co-authored so much dazzling British glam with Nicky Chinn, the whole of the stompy, poppy, bubblegummy Parallel Lines lifts off, but examine the way he runs Blondie’s brash new wave through a car wash and wax: a bubbling Roland CR-78 backbeat that ought to have been anathema to the CBGB gang paves the way for the intro, for which the individual components are neatly arranged in perspective. The smell of repetition really is on them. Bass, guitar, that Moroder-like pulsing synth, Burke’s whooshing hi-hat, the whole thing pre-programmed to shift key but in hybridising the synthesised and the organic it’s alive with personality and possibility. Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.

Blondie were apparently mainlining Kraftwerk during the recording, putting them well ahead of the pack in terms of the New Romantic regeneration, but it was never the song’s technical specs, nor its pioneering place in pop history, that took it to number one.

I went to CBGB in the early 90s. I’m glad I did. But it was dirty in there. Blondie did well to sell out.

Talking Heads, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980)

TalkingHeadsRemaininLight

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Description: album track, Remain In Light
Label: Sire
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1984

It was Stephen King who got me into Talking Heads. Well, my friend Paul Garner, who got me into Stephen King and Talking Heads at the same time. It was early 1984, the year I would complete my one-year Art Foundation course at Nene College, where Paul – a like-minded cinephiliac contemporary from school who’d left before sixth form – was well on the way to a Diploma at the same local seat of learning. Band and horror novelist, whose twisted Americana held like-minded allure to a provincial lad straining at the artistic leash and already besotted with Hollywood movies as disparate as On The Waterfront, Halloween and Apocalypse Now, came together as one. 

Paul, one step ahead of me, lent me Remain In Light (their fourth album) and Carrie (King’s first) and Night Shift (his first collection) at around the same time. I devoured all three and went for the set in both cases. This was quite a slog with King, already up to his eighth or ninth under his own name, but with great enthusiasm comes fast reading. All three previous Heads LPs, and the next, went onto cassette and when Little Creatures was released a year later, it was my first contemporaneous purchase. Likewise, with King, in paperback, Christine. (It was only in later years, postgraduate and with disposable income, that Paul and I began to buy them in hardback.) If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ll recall that heady thrill of discovery and how it tore through everything like a cyclone.

Imagery and story linked CBGBs band and horror author, although a cosmic alignment suggested itself when, during my reading of The Dead Zone (an early favourite for both of us), Psycho Killer from Talking Heads ’77 gave up the line, “Can’t sleep, my bed’s on fire.” In the story, extra-sensorily perceptive Johnny Smith has a vision of being in a burning child’s bedroom. (It’s in the Cronenberg film, which we saw on video that year.) This was all meant to be.

David Byrne’s lyrics snared me in. “Look over there, a dry ice factory, good place to get some thinking done,” he explained, seemingly in some kind of panic (“I’m a little freaked out”), on Cities, from Fear Of Music, a restless road movie waiting to be adapted by David Lynch (Memphis is the “home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks”, and when he smells “home cooking” it turns out to be “only the river”). But I think what made Talking Heads unique to me in a way that only mining David Bowie’s back catalogue for C90s had ever done before is that every single track had something to recommend it. Even the more spidery early stuff. Not a single song went by without some twang, or chord-change, or vocal quirk that made it different to everything else.

With a percussive mistake, an explosion of cymbal and a whipcrack toe-stubbing exclamation from Byrne, Born Under Punches opens Remain In Light in fidgety, wired, ants-in-pants style, although you’ll have to forgive me, I played Side Two of my first ever Talking Heads LP before Side One because it had the single Once In A Lifetime on it, which, a surprise UK hit, was my passport over the border. (It wasn’t until C4’s proto-Adam Curtis, cut-up documentary Once In A Lifetime aired later that year – coloquially known as Talking Heads Vs. Television – that I truly appreciated the “world music” aspect of Byrne’s appetite, including the sign and body language behind the famous Once In A Lifetime video.) Remain In Light has not a weak link, from the jerky pop to the more morose meditations on Side Two, but Born Under Punches is the one that really throws its weight around for me. (Crosseyed And Painless really picks up the twitchy baton, and The Great Curve is no slouch, but both feel relatively controlled in comparison.)

A chattering, Brian Eno-doctored mutant of guitars, squeals and beats speaks in musical tongues, while Byrne, a perspiring Norman Bates-like figure, affects a near-parody of the possessed funk vocalist (“I’m a tumbler … I’m so thin … Take a look at these hands … Some of you people just about missed it … Thank you! Thank you!”) With repeated phrases and half-phrases, coming back on each other in the round, the lyric, such as it is, behaves more like beat poetry. As with the dancing, there’s so much going on behind it. Who is “the Government man”? Why are the hands “passing inbetween us”? In what way was the tumbler “born under punches”?

Talking Heads pose way more questions than they answer, and so be it. This is collegiate new wave taken to vertiginous heights of theoretical tease. When even the hand jive has subtext, it’s little wonder the words have you reaching for books. And so it was that Talking Heads burrowed into my consciousness at the same time as Stephen King’s vivid tales of domestic equilibrium shattered by supernatural events.

When I thought I had it in me to write a novel, the first title I came up with was Born Under Punches. It looked superb in capital letters. But I checked it on Amazon and unfortunately someone had already nabbed it. Not that you should ever start with a title if you’re writing a novel. I fully intended to have a Government man in it, and a backstory about domestic violence (born under punches) and a subplot about hand signals. It would have been amazing.

I stopped buying Stephen King’s books when they came out at the end of the 90s, but I did see him read from Bag Of Bones onstage at the South Bank in ’98 and it was pretty cool. Never did see Talking Heads, although I went to CBGBs and it was pretty horrible.

Don’t even mention it!

Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979)

Entertainment!

Artist: Gang Of Four
Title: 5.45
Description: album track, Entertainment!
Label: EMI
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1980

Libraries gave me power.

I suspect I first heard this song in 1980, and not in its year of release, as I know for a fact that I borrowed it from Northampton Record Library, an Aladdin’s cave for audiophiles I first tapped into around this time, and which granted me access to a whole range of exciting vinyl long-players, which I hungrily and methodically borrowed from this glorious, state-run, municipal resource: XTC’s Drums & Wires, In The Flat Field by Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous debut, The Crack by the Ruts, so many thrilling new wave platters, each one stamped out at a desk, just like a book, except with records, you took the disc out of the sleeve and compared its scuffs and scratches to a card wherein any such imperfections and blemishes would be logged in biro. (A bit like the illustration of a rental van with the scratches drawn in – although I couldn’t have known this at 15.)

Through this route did I come upon Entertainment!, whose most-likely-to single, At Home He’s A Tourist, had crossed my radar via its lyrics in Smash Hits the year previously, but which – as is now legend – had been denied its Top Of The Pops shot because the band refused to amend the lyric about “the rubbers you find” and had thus failed to breach the Top 40. Never mind. Gang Of Four were a band designed to exist outside of the mainstream. I might not have fully understood their Situationist influences or Marxist politics at 15, but I sure liked the idea of what they were saying about consumerism and war and whatever linked guns to butter.

And I sure loved the way they were saying it, with their minimalist arrangements, atonal duets and all that white space which ran through their white funk. Having been intoxicated at the right age by the guttural, inclement fury of punk rock, it was head-turning indeed to hear the elements in Gang Of Four’s sound so clearly separated and slotted back together: the twanging bass, the precise drums, the sparing guitar, and of course, Jon King and Andy Gill’s arresting vocal symbiosis, perhaps never bettered than on Ether, in which King croons about digging “at the root of the problem” and “father’s contradictions” and Gill simultaneously barks out “H-block! Long Kesh!”

Entertainment! turned out to be my favourite album of all time. I loved it in 1980 when I taped it and played the cassette until the magnetic coating was worn off. I loved it again in the mid-80s when, as a student, I finally purchased the LP I’d previously been loaned by the public sector. And I loved it all over again on CD soon after. It literally never fails to excite me. I never saw Gang Of Four the first time around (and have never seen them in revived form), so the music’s hold on me is purely aural. And intellectual and political, obviously. And I think the reason that 5.45 always rises to the top is that it rose to the top 33 years ago. And lodged there.

It may not have the urgency of Damaged Goods, nor the squalling audacity of Anthrax, nor the sensual throb of Tourist, but 5.45 has a simplicity and directness that’s almost a capella. And it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk. Of course it begins – as so many of my favourite songs do – with a bare drum beat, typically unshowy and literal from Hugo Burnham, and easy for an aspiring teenage drummer to copy with two rulers on a stool, as I diligently did. Then that polite, wheezy melodica from King. And when Dave Allen’s bass grumbles in, the shooting match begins.

King wonders aloud, “How can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?” Even as a kid, I understood this. I was not one for the news at that age, but mainly because it all looked so grey and severe at the end of the 70s. When King paints pictures of dead men lying “flat on their backs” (echoing the “beetle on its back” from Anthrax), assassination “down on the street”, and a “blood war” on a “bourgeois state”, it’s no leap to the footage of “guerilla war struggle” that will have filtered into my brain in that decade from unknown zones in Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala and, closer to home, Northern Ireland (whose troubles were more specifically addressed in Ether). This was vivid stuff. And he said “eat my tea.”

Repetition is a weapon in the Gang Of Four’s best work – honestly, it’s like The Teletubbies, except with Sandinistas – and so it proves with the mantra, “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is a new personality.” King and Gill sound like they cannot stop singing this until a ceasefire is called, at which we can all get back to the fried egg we have for our “tea”. And it’s called 5.45 – “quarter to six” – could it be any clearer if it was titled After Noah & Nelly?

I wrote recently about how literate pop music was in the 70s and 80s. Gang Of Four may have not quite made it into the charts, but their debut LP did much to rouse me from my apolitical slumber, aged 14 going on 15. Let’s not post-rationalise; it did not “politicise” me on the spot (I wouldn’t become a Neo-Marxist until I’d left school), but from Entertainment!‘s attention-demanding sleeve, with its “red” Indian and its “white” cowboy shaking hands (“He is glad the Indian is fooled – now he can exploit him”), to the unequivocal chants of “H-Block torture!”, it provided a running buffet of food for thought.

I shall remain forever grateful to Gill, King, Allen and Burnham for the factory reset they gifted me. (And I owe a lifelong debt to Northampton Library and its recordings wing, the sort of place the new government in 1979 would have considered surplus to requirements – glad those days are behind us, right?)