The Lotus Eaters, The First Picture Of You (1983)

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Artist: The Lotus Eaters
Title: The First Picture Of You
Description: single; album track, No Sense Of Sin
Label: Arista
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

It was a safe bet in the early 1980s that if a band was from Liverpool, they were worth listening to. Why? Wiser social historians than I will have their own theories. Clearly, Liverpool is a music city, the Nashville of England, and we all know about the rich cultural exchange of a port, which helped create the white, Catholic rock’n’roll they called Merseybeat in the 60s.

Hey, the early 80s were fecund and pioneering right across this isle, with electronic possibility and art-school intellectualism painting the now-form-a-band punk ethic in wonderful colours. But Liverpool, that wondrous place, revealed itself to be Britain’s most vivid and exotic cauldron with hit after nonconformist hit from the likes of Frankie, Echo & The Bunnymen, A Flock Of Seagulls, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, China Crisis, Dead Or Alive, Black, the Icicle Works and assorted incarnations of Wah! (Deeper archaeologists will already be adding the less commercially successful but equally vital Pink Military/Industry, the Wild Swans, the Pale Fountains, the Original Mirrors, Modern Eon and Dalek I.) What joy it was to cherry-pick from this rich buffet of delicacies during the best part of that decade. It was heaven up there.

Enter The Lotus Eaters. The First Picture Of You was their first single and their first and only hit. I’d like to tell you I first heard it on John Peel in October 1982, before they were signed (I must have been out that night), but I know for a fact that I heard it on Top Of The Pops the following July (“the first picture of summer”). There is no shame in this. Nor in the haste with which I tore out the lyrics from Smash Hits and blu-tacked the page to my bedroom wall.

The fey-looking, grey-shirted, Orwellian-fringed duo Peter Coyle and Jem Kelly had local form – Kelly had co-founded the Wild Swans – but hadn’t played a gig when they arrived, fully-formed, on TOTP. The song was just about perfect: a seasonal evocation of young love initially floated on a gossamer layer of synth which thumps into joie de vivre with a louche bassline and some enthusiastic but deceptively delicate drumming (from – I think – Alan Wills; ex-Wild Swan Ged Quinn is on keys).

Coyle sings of it being “warm, in and out”, which I was guileless enough in 1983 to take at face value and read in a meteorological sense and not carnal, but I get it now. “The pulse of flowing love … pleasure fills with love … the magic force of your feelings”, frankly, it’s as saucy or as chaste as you want it to be. The grey shirts, joyful flowers and fey delivery had me fooled.

That the Lotus Eaters never followed through on the promise of The First Picture Of You is immaterial. It abides as one of the most uplifting and enduring guitar-pop anthems of the time, arranged with an innate sense of melodrama and – always its trump card in my ears – a confident display of loose-limbed but watertight drumming of a type that Chris Sharrock would subsequently bring to the equally pastoral crowd-pleasers of The Icicle Works, a band with greater staying power, as it transpired, than their Liverpudlian cohorts in grey shirts (and their own prior links with the Wild Swans, naturally – if you weren’t in the Wild Swans in Liverpool in the early 80s, you weren’t there).

But even in commercial isolation, the magic force of this song’s feelings – the sort that feel as if they could actually bring on a change in season – is forever. It’s the square peg on many a cheap 80s hits compilation, but unlike, say, Cry Boy Cry by Blue Zoo or Too Shy by Kajagoogoo, it survives the test of time and retains its ability to “flood the world deep in sunlight”.

The Wild Swans reformed in 2011 around Paul Simpson but without Jem Kelly. The Lotus Eaters reformed too, and I believe are still extant. Liverpool still has something in the water.

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The Fall, L.A. (1985)

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Artist: The Fall
Title: L.A.
Description: B-side, Cruiser’s Creek; album track, This Nation’s Saving Grace
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

To put this choice into context, here are 32 other songs by The Fall which might equally occupy this hallowed seat, and in fact, do:

Cruiser’s Creek
Muzorewi’s Daughter
Totally Wired
Living Too Long
Lucifer Over Lancashire
C.R.E.E.P.
Australians In Europe
Hit The North Pt 2
Guest Informant
The Container Drivers
Black Monk Theme Pt 1
Hilary
British People In Hot Weather
Ride Away
What About Us
I Can Hear The Grass Grow
Early Days Of Channel Fuhrer
Mere Pseud Mag Ed
Who Makes The Nazis?
New Big Prinz
Bad News Girl
Cab It Up
Glam Racket
I’m Going To Spain
A Past Gone Mad
Garden
Barmy
Spoilt Victorian Child
Couldn’t Get Ahead
Gut Of The Quantifier
My New House
There’s A Ghost In My House

And even that’s not a definitive list. I could draw up another 32 right now. I don’t think I need state which late-nite DJ introduced me to The Fall. I am certain it was in 1980, when I had just turned 15, and lived the cliché of the kid listening to a transistor radio after dark, under the bedsheets, with a single waxy earpiece in. (Within a few years, I would be listening with parental permission, with my finger hovering over the pause button on a tape recorder. I wish I still had those cassettes, with their occasional disembodied intro or outro from Peel, although the songs on them are forever burned into my brain’s own internal hard drive.)

I don’t know it if was the screeching, dual-speed Musorewi’s Daughter from 1979’s Dragnet, or the stuttering, beguiling The Container Drivers from 1980’s Grotesque, or whether it was the original or a Peel Session version, but whichever song came first floored me at once. I was Mark E Smith’s forever. The more beaty Totally Wired, in its scribbly sleeve, was my first Fall purchase, in 1980, and it led to a lifetime of future purchases. I believe my Fall collection is the largest of any artist. They must be my favourite band.

Why L.A.? Well, This Nation’s Saving Grace abides as my favourite album, maybe because it was the first one I’d purchased the week it was released, like a real fan. My friends at the time were not Fall fans. My devotion was one that defied peer pressure. Some nights I felt it was between me and John Peel. And then I arrived at the NME in 1988 and found a modest but passionate support group. When features editor James Brown whisked Mark E Smith through the art room where I worked and I was suddenly breathing his Rothmans air, I was dumbstruck. He asked, out loud, “How do you spell ‘appalling’?” and I opened my mouth and something came out. It was this: “A.P.P.A.L.L.I.N.G.”

Why L.A.? Because it’s driven by a chuffing synthesised sound and a keyboard pulse, and some of Karl Burns’ heaviest but metronomically tumbling drums, and most of it feels like an instrumental, with that dirty twanging guitar and guttural bass, the vocals more of a wash than a foregrounded detail: Mark E Smith sort of coughing along and occasionally spelling out the title: “L – L – L – L – A – A – A – A – A- A …” He squeals in the distance, then intones words and phrases that add up to little more than “Odeon … sky … canny … bushes … something something … heat”, after which Brix drawls something garbled about a “happening” that “freaks me out“. And yet, for all its confusion and smoke and blurgh, it says Los and it says Angeles. It’s certainly a long way from Salford and the dark, satanic mills on the sleeve illustration. This is a cool group.

I’ve always defined Mark E Smith as a beat poet, but with a trucker’s beat (a trucker’s beat poet), and one who knows the value of a good riff.

Why L.A., above all others? Why the fuck not? It is my happening, and it freaks me out.

 

P.S.: It has been pointed out to me that L.A. was Peel’s least favourite Fall track. That’s rather poetic.

The Wedding Present, My Favourite Dress (1987)

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Artist: The Wedding Present
Title: My Favourite Dress
Description: single; album track, George Best
Label: Reception
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

That was my favourite dress you know
That was my favourite dress
Ohhh

I feel fairly certain that the first song by The Wedding Present I ever heard was their rumbustious cover of Felicity, which must have been the version from their first Peel session in 1986, when I was still at college. I know I sat up by the stereo and taped the songs I didn’t already have from his Festive Fifty at the end of that year and counted Felicity (number 36) and Once More (number 16) among numerous other cherishable gems on that live-paused cassette, like This Is Motortown by the Very Things, Kiss by Age Of Chance and Truck Train Tractor by The Pastels. In another year dominated by The Smiths – indeed, in an era dominated by The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain and New Order, the three Colossi of Indie – The Wedding Present felt like young, short-trousered pretenders, and were all the more thrilling for it. (Though of course they, too, would come to dominate the Peelscape, and with perhaps more purchase on Peel’s soul, a possession more akin to that exerted by The Fall.)

Remember that feeling of suddenly being overcome by the need to commit? I don’t mean to a girl in a favourite dress. I mean to a band. You’ve heard them on Peel, you’ve taped them off the radio, you’ve read about them in the NME; now it’s time to buy the album. You don’t have bottomless pockets; to fork out for an LP is a major declaration of love. Remember how stung you felt when you spent that week’s allowance from your grant on Dali’s Car by Dali’s Car because it was Pete Murphy and Mick Kahn from pre-accredited bands and you’d found the single hooky on Max Headroom or some other video show? An LP you wished you’d never bought was a shot through the heart. A waste of money. When I bought George Best on the strength of all those Peel tracks I knew it would be a sound investment. Well, if I didn’t like the record, I would always want that sleeve in my collection.

I loved the record as much as I loved the sleeve. I loved it more. Its locomotive guitar and drums combined under Chris Allison’s sympathetic, heads-down production to provide a new way to travel for the grown-up indie kid. There was something so right about David Gedge’s lovesick northern ballads, set to he and Peter Solowka’s never-ending riffs which were as raw and plaintive as the woes of the songs’ packed-in protagonists, whom we all suspected were Gedge himself, a man near-permanently let down, finished with, betrayed or two-timed by girls. Gedge was a few years older than me, but I identified with his struggle. Being single is the great leveller. I was newly single when I bought George Best and would soon be living in my first one-room studio flat, the perfect cell in which to lose myself in The Wedding Present’s breakneck melancholia.

My Favourite Dress is my favourite Wedding Present song. I think of it as definitive, and for all the constant pleasures Gedge has supplied since, as The Wedding Present and Cinerama, it remains unassailable. It pretty much breaks my heart each time I listen to it. Gedge’s pained recollection of uneaten meals, a lonely star, a long walk home, the pouring rain and a six-hour wait, leads inexorably up to this image of an ex’s dress. We who have fallen under Gedge’s spell have all imagined what that dress might look like. My first imagining – a floral print dress, maybe Oxfam, perhaps worn under a cardigan – is hard to shake.

There are two reasons why this song is magic. One is the decisive moan Gedge delivers after the last line. There are a lot of important “oh”s in pop music, but this is one to bruise your ribs from the inside. The second is the one minute and 24 seconds of outro, which rises and falls from that thousand-words “Ohhh” to the final, undressed jangle. I wouldn’t mind if it lasted a bit longer. It’s not even the end of the album, merely the end of side one.

When I finally met Gedge and interviewed the band in 1991 in snowbound Minnesota where they were recording their third album Seamonsters, he and I agreed to disagree that George Best was a classic album because it wasn’t perfect; he felt it could be improved. I don’t have that copy of the NME to hand, but if you do, look it up.

George Best and its zenith My Favourite Dress could not be improved.

Clock DVA, 4 Hours (1981)

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Artist: Clock DVA
Title: 4 Hours
Description: single; album track from Thirst
Label: Fetish
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

A piano falls from above
And smashes in front of me

There are some songs in The 143 that may only have entered my personal pantheon in the last few years; instant classics, you might call them. There are others which were instant classics when I first heard them – in this case over 30 years ago – but which have never left me in the interim. Those songs that you turn to frequently, and regularly, for sustenance. Not necessarily the most famous songs in the canon, but the ones that literally never fail to do it for you. As The 143 grows, a number of these will crop up: Little Fluffy Clouds, She’s Lost Control, Heart Of Glass, Le Freak. And this.

Because of the vintage, this might be one of those singles that I bought sight unseen – or rather, sound unheard – having liked the name of the band and read a rave review of it in the NME or Smash Hits and then taken a flyer. Or, I could have heard it on John Peel. I have a feeling it’s the former. I started meaningfully collecting seven-inch singles in 1979, suffused with a 14-year-old’s urgency to buy into punk just as it was burning out, and, I admit, dazzled by the “picture sleeves” they almost always came in. (I’ve mentioned my later love of 4AD sleeves; this magpie attraction started with punk single, whose stylish arcana I pored over.) The magazines would illustrate their singles review columns with postage-stamp reproductions of the sleeves of the day, and these were the pocket-money-clutching consumer’s flags.

The sleeve of 4 Hours – an indie single recorded by an unknown-to-me Sheffield industrial-experimental funk-punk outfit comprising Adi Newton and the late Judd Turner whose name couldn’t have been more starkly post-punk if it had tried – was murky and obtuse, but its horror-movie imagery drew you in. Who was that lurking figure, and who were the couple horizontal? The equally murky and obtuse record within revealed the source: “I see two people, asleep,” groans Newton, delivering a protracted fever dream of vivid, cinematic vignettes which to this day never fail to do it for me.

Over a grumbling bass, a blunt-instrument drumbeat and the pained wail of a sax, we are indoctrinated into a neo-noir nightmare of taxi cabs, falling pianos, distant clarinet, stained sheets, indistinct cities (“this could be New York, this could be London, I don’t care any more”), the pressures of some kind of Orwellian statism (“I could go to work, I know where it is … they will not have to force me, I will go there willingly”), black tie, black suit, black case, and what sounds like a “suction entanglement” but may be “such an entanglement”. The groan is augmented by a muttered version of the same lyric, lagging behind, adding to the unease. Hey, this is uneasy listening. I was so taken with the four-minute 4 Hours, I never thought to check out the album, Thirst, and only heard it years later; it was disappointingly not much like 4 Hours, more squonky, more experimental, less linear.

I’ve read that Newton has reconvened Clock DVA many times since they first split in 1981, and you sense that he is driven, creative man, kept going by the more arty pockets of Europe, and long may that be the case. In this one uniquely intoxicating slab of Gothic “pop concrète“, he has sealed his place in the Valhalla of post-punk immortality.

Let us join them in their dreams. We’re only four moments.