Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

SonicYouthSister

Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.

The Stone Roses, Fools Gold (1989)

StoneRosesFoolsGold

Artist: The Stone Roses
Title: Fools Good
Description: single
Label: Silvertone
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

I don’t need you to tell me what’s going down

You don’t choose when you are born. Entering my teens in 1978 I was historically too late for the healing fires of punk, and, though in time for New Wave and 2-Tone, I was still too young to get to gigs, and my burgeoning attachment was necessarily passive. It was this accident of birth that put me in the right place at the right time to pledge my troth to the post-punk bands of the early 80s, and even venture out into the world to see some of them play live: U2, The Cure, the Bunnymen, Joy Division/New Order and assorted Goth tub-thumpers. Once emigrated to London, my professional life at the music press similarly coincided with Grebo, t-shirt indie and Madchester, and it is with eternal cosmic gratitude that I am able to state that the stars aligned for me in February 1989.

The already guru-like Steve Lamacq, filling in for Helen Mead on the NME live desk, asked me if I’d like to travel to Manchester and review this new guitar band everyone was talking about at the most famous nightclub in Britain. I was still a relative novice at that time, having only stepped through the paper’s doors the previous summer and picked up a couple of days’ work a week in the layout room, and just over the threshold into my nascent reviewing career. The closest I’d been to Manchester was a family trip to Thornton-Cleveleys, just outside of Blackpool, when I was 14.

The Stone Roses played several high-profile gigs in support of their debut album (due out in May but circulating the music press on advance cassette), including one on February 27 at what was regarded as the centre of the associated Madchester and baggy scenes, Manchester’s The Haçienda nightclub. I know all of this to be the case, as it’s lifted from the band’s Wikipedia entry, as is this:

Andrew Collins wrote in NME: “Bollocks to Morrissey at Wolverhampton, to The Sundays at The Falcon, to PWEI at Brixton – I’m already drafting a letter to my grandchildren telling them that I saw The Stone Roses at the Haçienda.”

Some context. These other landmark gigs were pertinent to the era: Wolverhampton Civic Hall had been Morrissey’s first solo gig, with free entry to anyone in a Moz/Smiths t-shirt, in December 1988; pub venue The Falcon, in Camden, had given the world future indie darlings the Sundays in August 1988, debuting that night (and with kingmaker Lamacq in attendance); and Brixton Academy in London was where Pop Will Eat Itself almost joined the hip-hop orthodoxy when they supported Public Enemy and Run DMC, and been coined offstage, in October 1988. I was at that. And, dear grandchildren, I was at the Hacienda.

I have no grandchildren, but apart from that, if I may say so, I was bang on about the Stone Roses, which is why I still bang on about it. Geography met Art and Culture, and made History. My ardent, in-print response to a gig by four young men in a venue in a city needs no seasonal adjustment. It was the dawn of something, a compass reset, and those heady years, from 1988 (earlier if you were already baggy and caught Sally Cinnamon first time round) to 1990 (when the Roses entered a four-year legal tangle with Silvertone) were impeccable, and beyond the accepted criteria of technical virtuosity, cultural chance or audio perfection. The Roses’ eponymous debut – whose opener I Wanna be Adored also opened the gigs in earth-moving grandeur – is a modern classic, but it did not contain their finest hour. That came with their first Top 10 hit, in November 1989. Of the release’s two A-sides, What the World is Waiting For turned out not to be the one the world was waiting for.

I know the truth, and I know what you’re thinking

Fools Gold, missing apostrophe forgiven, and at just under ten minutes long less a single, more a way of life, cannot be withered by time. Fads that do not destroy it make it stronger. It starts not with an earthquake but a distant paradiddle that sounds like it’s been slapped on a thigh, and with a no-arguments kick-drum THUMP we’re in business. Most ten-minute mixes or extensions on a theme outstay their welcome, go over old ground or allow your mind to wander. Not this one. Produced by first-album talisman John Leckie, it is so luxuriously tooled and yet ultimately so unshowy; it locks down that beat (produced by a human man, Alan Wren, and based upon, but not sampled from, James Brown’s set text The Funky Drummer), lays in the bass (also humanoid: Gary Mounfield), lets John Squire’s guitar sort of wonder out loud, and the tape run. He’s soon into effects mode and Ian Brown joins in, his voice sufficiently treated to make it at the same time otherworldly and part of the woodwork.

The gold road’s sure a long road
Winds on through the hills for fifteen days
The pack on my back is aching
The straps seem to cut me like a knife

The four of them do not so much build up a head of steam, as lay out a body of work in heaven-sent precis. There’s nothing that made the Stone Roses legendary that isn’t in Fools Gold: the insouciance, the confidence, the ESP, the funk, the space, the glory. Brown’s lyric, which directly and indirectly references John Huston, the Marquis de Sade and Nancy Sinatra, is no singalong, but it doesn’t need to be; we’re singing along to the guitar, the bassline, even the drums. (It’s worth calling up the lyric, actually – Brown’s imagery is already knowing, poetic and political: “You’re weighing the gold/I’m watching you sinking.”)

There are passages where the bass rumbles like an earth tremor. Occasional bongos. John’s guitar sometimes sharks in, then switches pedal, live. At one dub-assisted juncture, I hear Daniel Ash from Bauhaus (although that might be just me). Brown disappears for bridges at a time. Squire fills the sky. Reni never stops. It’s a finished symphony. At about a minute-and-a-half from the end, you start to fret about it ending.

I witnessed Fools Gold for the first time in Widnes, swallowed by the estuary breeze. It was an unforgettable occasion, but a problematic concert. In truth, Spike Island rode the gap between ambition and reach, which sometimes swallowed the band. But in the pure, recorded form of Fools Gold, it is its own stairway to heaven.

The trousers haven’t worn as well.

Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

Whenthesungoesdown

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …

The House Of Love, Christine (1988)

HouseOfLoveLP

Artist: The House Of Love
Title: Christine
Description: single; track The House Of Love
Label: Creation
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Somewhere in a large IKEA sewing box, I have a black and white photograph of me holding up my prized copy of the first House Of Love LP, The House Of Love, not yet divested of the cellophane or the Our Price £5.99 sticker. (The photo was taken by my college friend Rob on his single-lens reflex camera and, I feel sure, hand-developed and printed in a dark room, probably at the Royal College of Art. See: Footnotes) This was the summer of 1988, years before mobile phone proliferation and light-years before selfies. It would have seemed dystopian to our single-lens reflexes that we would subsequently enter a century in which everybody records, logs and publishes everything, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, in the sincere belief that its very digitised existence will render it interesting to the rest of the human race. I expect Rob was just using up the end of a film (we still used films, which came in metal tubes) and I was round his flat and had just purchased The House Of Love so I held it up for display, and to mark the time and date (and price). Why? Because this album was bloody interesting.

I’d been living in south west London for some four years and felt like I belonged. My Prufrockian freelance existence was measured out in meals-for-one, blank videocasettes and vinyl records. (Although I had invested in a CD deck, with Rob’s audiophile assistance, I only had a handful of CDs to play on it.) I took the NME as my weekly gospel and accepted every word of it as if hewn into tablets of stone. When this new, rather gangly-looking, south-east-London-formed foursome were hailed as the latest great saviours of indie, and of rock itself, I had no reason on earth to doubt the tidings, off to Our Price to stake my own claim in the inky revolution. It might have but did not let me down. It was a record worth holding up for display, with its lack of lettering, and its democratic arrangement of the band’s heads in queasy near-sepia, all cheekbones and chins.

The House Of Love were a guitar band. They sang harmonies, certainly – second single Real Animal began a capella – but their life-support was the stringed instrument of legend, played in parallel and set to stun. Mean, moody, full of themselves, the House Of Love arrived with a swagger and in winter coats. The album didn’t feature the existing singles; no sign of their skyscraping debut indie smash Shine On. That’s how arrogant they were – as arrogant as not putting the name of the band on the record – and by dint: how arrogant Creation records were – to encourage them not to put the name of the band on the record (knowing that it would be stickered by Our Price anyway). It did contain Christine. Track one. The same name as one of my favourite Banshees singles. And my Mum. How could it fail? It did not fail.

Christine … Christine … Christine

The most melodic of their early shots at glory, it begins as a heat-haze drone, a hedge of sound, and without warning. (This was not a band to count a song in off the back of the drummer’s sticks.) From a standing start, this was the sound of shoegazing before shoegazing was a sound; something quite different from both the jangly pop and the grebo fuzz of the post-C86 pincer movement. Eyes down: things were looking up.

It’s ironic that in the near future, under house arrest at Phonogram and earmarked as a hit machine, the House Of Love would struggle to locate their sound in ever pricier studios and with a revolving carousel of producers. On the first album, under Pat Collier, they nailed it.

Christine leads the record off, its uncanny ESP of guitars haunted by Guy Chadwick’s voice and the backing vocal by Terry Bickers and outgoing fifth member Andrea Heukamp, treated just enough to make them spectral but not enough to suck their personality; Pete Evans’ drums are content to keep the beat and jackhammer the song to its conclusion, while Chris Groothuizen’s bass sounds a rare note of contentment if you listen hard through the “god-like glow”. The constant refrain of “Christine” suggests this is the chorus before the verse, but I think it’s technically neither.

Then, after what sounds like a single tambourine crack, the mood swings, and the whole world drags us down. When Guy warns, ‘You’re in deep,” it has a malevolence that underlines that this is not a love song. It leads us a merry dance in its allotted three minutes and 22 seconds, from the kitchen-sink signifier of a baby crying to the unfathomable existential fate of “chaos and the big sea.” It’s dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, over the same beat, under the same skies, and we never really get to meet Christine. She’s everyone and no-one, baby, that’s where she’s at.

Does it sound late-80s? Somewhat. It’s pre-rave, although ecstasy would cast its own spell on the band and join the long list of culprits who made a failure of their home. For me, The House Of Love – and its single orphan Christine – is pure House Of Love. The rest is a spirited attempt to reclaim it from success.

I suppose the irony of this heady, post-graduate period of my life is that my embrace of the House Of Love – and The House Of Love – coincided with my graduation to the other side. In the summer of ’88, I got a part-time job at the NME, and started just after the band had their first cover. Within two years, I would be writing the House Of Love cover story, a “made man”. By then, Guy’s age had become an issue (he appeared to be over 30!), Terry had withdrawn, depressed and freaked out, and would be followed by a succession of failed replacements, and the only constant for the next three years would be the major record company that never understood them.

But the adventure was one I’m glad I went on, and I never asked for my £5.99 back.

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.

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

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Artist: The Triffids
Title: Wide Open Road
Description: single; album track, Born Sandy Devotional
Label: Mushroom
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

By the time I arrived, in my art school dungarees and with a green Pentel behind my ear, at the NME offices in 1988, The Triffids had already been anointed as An Important Band. And quite right, too. Traditionally under-appreciated in their native land, they had done what all interesting Australians do and travelled. They’d already done Perth to Sydney in search of a record deal. By 1984, they were Australians in Europe, tracing the footsteps of the Go-Betweens and the Birthday Party before them to London. These rock’n’roll Clive Jameses did as he did: enrich our culture with their wide eyes, itchy feet and tall stories.

As told elsewhere, one of my first responsible jobs in the NME art room was to design and illustrate the packaging for the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. One of the gems nestling within its three-disc tracklisting was Wide Open Road by the Triffids. I had yet to hear the incredible LP from whence it came, Born Sandy Devotional – whose title alone ought to have caused me to buy it, had money not been so tight in the days before I got on the record company mailing lists – but the song caused proverbial guns to go off in my chest. I had never been to Australia. I’d barely been further than the Channel Islands in 1988 and had to apply for a passport when the NME sent me on my first foreign trip later that same year. Wide Open Road was my visa to the other side of the world.

I’ve still never been to Australia, incidentally, but find myself a sucker for its myth and legend through films and TV and music. The Triffids, though expats, immortalised the land down under like no other group of battlers before or since. Their titles bespeak a deep communal link to their native country and a yearning to travel: You Don’t Miss Your Water (’Til Your Well Runs Dry), Estuary Bed, In The Pines, Tarrilup Bridge, Suntrapper, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Jerdacuttup Man, Bury Me Deep In Love, even Calenture, which is a word for cabin fever at sea. It’s made by men and a woman with guitars and drums and keyboards and a violin, but The Triffids’ music is elemental – beaches, estuaries, reefs and saltwater seem to define them – and I have adored exploring my way through their catalogue in the years since 1988.

We must speak of David McComb. When the Triffids enjoyed their first cover during my tenure at the NME, this Byronic, windswept poet-warrior was photographed crawling up a beach in his native Perth, as if shipwrecked. It captured his spirit perfectly, as if newborn, certainly sandy, and always devotional. To mark the release of Black Swan, their proposed commercial breakthrough (although not in actuality; it reached number 63 in the UK, and became their swansong), NME had flown out to Australia and found the band cast asunder before a tour, some working, some gardening. Out tour guide, McComb was a mass of anxieties about national and Western Australian identity, the Perth music scene (which the journalist described as “moribund” and “third or fourth world”), and his preference for “moontanned” women over bronzed bikini babes. Before the year was out, the Triffids had jacked it in. Within a decade, McComb would be dead, despite getting a new heart in ’96. His lifestyle had not been one to ensure long live, and it’s a shame he was better recognised in his home country as a songwriter of quality and distinction posthumously.

Which is why to rewind to Born Sandy Devotional is to discover the Triffids at their transformative best. Recorded in London and Liverpool, thus planting them in the their adopted home, and the home of their ancestors, producer Gil Norton found shape in their raggle-taggle sound and its fulcrum, Wide Open Road, feels so optimistic, so swollen with possibility. Written as a hymn to what McComb described as “a particular landscape”, specifically a stretch of highway between Caiguna and Norseman in Western Australia that’s apparently one of the longest straight roads in the world. You can sort of tell that without looking it up, as drums “roll off” in the singer’s forehead while he remembers carrying a baby, “crying in the wilderness.” (I did say “elemental.”) That Alsy MacDonald’s drums do indeed roll off to illustrate the lyric underscores the literal nature of the song’s mission: to describe the world around it. For a tune built on an electronic rhythm and washed with synth, it feels as organic as the “big and empty” sky above.

This is pop music as psycho-socio-geography that carves a narrative out of the rock – it’s Walkabout, it’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, it’s Wake In Fright. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin, I cut them off as limbs,” McComb wails, before confessing to “hunting down you and him” on the flatlands with his “chest filled to explode.” You picture a car, but the protagonist is clearly on his knees in the treeless, post-apocalyptic plain when he yells his “insides out at the sun”. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Their only hit in the UK (they couldn’t even break the charts with Bury Me Deep after it had been used on Neighbours), Wide Open Road still feels like the widest and longest four-minute song in the world.

Teenage Fanclub, The Concept (1991)

TeenageFanclubTheConcept

Artist: Teenage Fanclub
Title: The Concept
Description: single; album track, Bandwagonesque
Label: Creation
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I’m writing this in a coffee shop in the centre of Glasgow. Teenage Fanclub, like the Soup Dragons and BMX Bandits, formed in Belshill, a town ten miles south east of the centre of Glasgow. We are under a week away from the Scottish Referendum. Scotland, and in particular its most characteristic city, feels like a pretty vital place to be having a coffee and an opinion. We have established elsewhere what a vibrantly musical would-be republic Young Scotland is, and it was carrot-topped emeritus Alan McGee’s London-based but Greater Glasgow-spirited Creation who helped bring Teenage Fanclub to the wider audience they strove for and fully deserved in the early 90s, when “indie” was not yet a dirty word.

British guitar music slowed down to an interminable crawl in the mid 2000s, the main drag caused by Coldplay but sluggishly adhered to by Snow Patrol, Travis, Embrace, Keane. Why didn’t they just call themselves Slow Patrol and be done with it? This era was turgid indeed. A go-slow does not automatically equate with grandeur or meaning – you have to be as assured as Elbow or Doves to crack that. I mention all this only because Teenage Fanclub, a decade earlier, had also eased off the pedal (if not the pedals) and created a glorious new groove for themselves that never plodded or trudged. Listen in particular to their third, fourth and fifth albums again – on which nary a foot is put wrong – and experience a band at the top of not just any game but a game they’d devised themselves. It’s not that literally every song is slow, but listen in wonder at how naturally they slip into that gear.

What You Do To Me, Metal Baby, Sidewinder, Alcoholiday, Guiding Star, About You, Mellow Doubt, Don’t Look Back, Neil Jung, I Gotta Know, I know, I know, I’m just listing tracks now, but great tracks, and not one of them breaks a sweat. It’s as if the Fanclub recognised that Everything Flows was the key song on A Catholic Education and based a whole repertoire around its colours, just as Rothko had done with his crimsons and burgundies, and nobody asked for their money back.

It was a headache choosing one song from that repertoire (and I did not discount Songs From Northern Britain or Howdy when making the dreaded final selection), but the impact of being the first song on their first copper-bottomed classic LP proved hard to ignore. The Concept even sounds definitive from its title. (By the way, I should confess now and forever hold my peace: I had never heard a note of the fabled Big Star when I heard Teenage Fanclub, so their thrall to Alex Chilton and gang meant nothing to me beyond the theoretical. I’ve heard Big Star since, and yeah, I get it. Everything flows from somewhere.)

Four seconds of tasty feedback, then that first couplet: so evocative, so arch, so potent, like the opening lines of a hip, dog-eared novel.

She wears denim wherever she goes
Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo
Oh yeah … Oh yeah

Let’s go over that again. Who’s she? What’s the significance of her choice of denim? That’s she’s cool? That she’s uncool? She’s promising to fill the Status Quo void in her record collection. Is that cool? She thinks they’re called “the Status Quo”, or perhaps she’s balancing the semantic karma after Mark Goodier’s habit of dropping the definite article from band names (Farm, Charlatans). She doesn’t even know the name of the band she thinks are cool enough to boast about thinking of investing in, but who may not be as cool as this denim-clad woman thinks they are. It’s Norman Blake singing his own lyrics here, but it might just as well not be, as Teenage Fanclub remain the most democratic songwriting unit ever registered. This instrument-swapping egalitarianism does them great credit, and stops Norman from being the frontman, even though he is. But what darkness is this?

Still she won’t be forced against her will
Says she don’t do drugs but she does the pill

What fierce creature is she? Not the sad groupie hinted at by the later intelligence that “she likes the group ’cause we pull in the slack” and even drives them home “if there isn’t a bar”; compos mentis, it seems, and yet contraceptively covered. Our protagonist says, “I didn’t want to hurt you,” which suggests that he did hurt her. That’s gratitude for all the compliments about his hair she gave, the designated driver. There is some fine lyrical alchemy afoot here, and maybe that’s why the slow pace works: it gives you time to ruminate on what you’re hearing.

“Slacker” was an imported lifestyle choice in the early 90s, matched by the often laboured nature of grunge and the thinness of its complaint. Teenage Fanclub “pull in the slack”. They are bright, breezy, self-mocking individuals. If ever a member disappeared, he was replaced by another just like him. Belshill seems to breed rare, fluting wits (the Soup Dragons’ Paul Quinn was an easy fit after the manic Brendan O’Hare left). Once you’ve met Norman and Gerry and Raymond, it’s impossible to unpick them from their music, but if you’ve encountered them live, you’ll feel you know them anyway. I was blessed to be in faraway Wick with the second line-up of Teenage Fanclub on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, and while they treated her tragic passing with respect, I recall a natural optimism that seemed to bounce off them like positive ions as we breathed deep of the sea air outside the hotel.

To pick out a couple of the niceties that raise this six-minute song up from merely super-tuneful, intelligent, timeless epic rock that you can listen to between meals without ruining your appetite: the simple contrast between the crackle of distortion and the sweetness of Norman’s vocal; the full-bodied depth on the “Oh yeah”s; the droll guitar “quotes” from Parfitt and Rossi before the second verse and the bridge; and the dramatic gap at the halfway mark, where everything stops flowing and Brendan almost falls across his kit to bring it back from the brink and the four of them harmonise like angels. Angels, I tell you.

As if we deserve swooping, sawing strings as well.

I finish writing this on the train back to London. When I cross the Scottish border, it may be the last time I do so without a passport in my jacket pocket, so I’d best mark this momentous occasion but putting The Concept back on, which is a pretty vital song about the status quo. Oh yeah.