Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988)

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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 summed up by a story he related that ended with a Pot Noodle being tipped over “her favourite Buddha” (which sat in the fireplace, “facing the right way and everything”). He was good 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 …

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Morrissey, Everyday Is Like Sunday (1988)

MorrisseyEverydayIsLikeSunday

Artist: Morrissey
Title: Everyday Is Like Sunday
Description: single; album track, Viva Hate
Label: HMV
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

I will always look upon my relationship with The Smiths as special. It was a case of good timing. Conveniently releasing their four studio albums to coincide with my four years in higher education, they really did help me get through my exams. I graduated in 1987 and so did Morrissey.

In 1988, he released – rush-released, or so it felt, just six months after Strangeways and yet so fully formed – Viva Hate, his solo debut, which heralded a new dawn with a tinted photo not of an obscure icon from Morrissey’s hall of fame but of the lad himself, his eyes obscured under the shadow of those granite brows. Although recently divorced from Johnny Marr, he’d enlisted Smiths engineer and Strangeways producer Stephen Street for continuity and Durutti Column architect Vini Reilly to fill in the spectral guitar magic. The result: sparkling lead-off single Suedehead, which may as well have been The Smiths.

More surprising delights awaited us on the album, the biggest of which was Everyday Is Like Sunday, an instantaneous new favourite on first listen and an abiding highlight from his rich solo catalogue in the years since. A great swoon of a song, it tugs my heartstrings and forces my gaze skywards, or seawards, whenever I hear it. It frames one of his most succinctly evocative lyrics, right up there with the vivid brushstrokes of Rusholme Ruffians, This Charming Man and The Headmaster Ritual, and no less economical.

That its bittersweet requiem for the spiritual vacuum of a “coastal town they forgot to close down” has its literary roots in John Betjeman and Nevil Shute is typical magpie Moz. Wet sand, pebbles, a bench, stolen clothes, the promenade, the etched postcard, “greased tea” and that glittering prize of a “cheap tray” – this is poetry by any other name, just set to a tune capable of giving even the stout-hearted the vapours. (It’s closest cousin in the Smiths’ repertoire has to be There Is A Light.) The “strange dust” that lands on Morrissey’s companion’s hand and face may well reference the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, whose radiation clouds were figurative if not actual over Europe and in recent memory in ’87 when it was recorded; the fallout certainly stops this being a snooty attack on the English seaside and takes it into a whole new dimension of existential dread.

I remember visiting Teignmouth in Devon some time in the late 90s (drawn there because a friend at Q grew up there and whose parents still, I think, ran the local cinema). It was definitively off-season, silent and grey, and I was filled to the brim with this song as I walked its promenade and leaned on its railings. I have always liked to be beside the seaside – Welsh rather than English throughout the cherished holidays of my boyhood, although some say Moz was inspired to write by a visit to Borth in Mid-Wales. Either way, I can’t call up any other song that so deftly crystallises the windswept allure of the British coast and its lost horizons.

What I find most fascinating about this particular song, which nestles among many notable achievements in this rush and a push for new territory (Late Night Maudlin Street, Margaret On The Guillotine, Dial-A-Cliché) is that it as good as eschews the dominance of the guitar. The six-part string section provides the riffs, rich and luxuriant, whipping like wind on a shelter when Morrissey sings of the “coastal town” and swelling around him as we reach the chorus. Reilly and Street sympathetically underpin with bass and guitar – and, credit where credit’s due, Andrew Paresi provides some surgically tumbling drums – but the overriding orchestral infrastructure of Sunday seems as if it could be a rebuke from Morrissey to the Rickenbacker of his once vital ex-partner. He seems to be saying:

“Look, Marr, top of the world!”

I shall, of course, be inducting a Smiths tune into The 143 presently.

The Cure, One Hundred Years (1982)

The_Cure_-_Pornography

Artist: The Cure
Title: One Hundred Years
Description: album track, Pornography
Label: Fiction
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

It doesn’t matter if we all die …

I was 17, and on the cusp of agreeing with Robert Smith that it didn’t matter if we all die when I purchased Pornography, The Cure’s fourth studio album. Death seems entirely abstract at that age. Sex, too – or at least, it did to me, something I’m now kind of retrospectively grateful for, in the long run. Pornography, which was not even a word that meant much to me at 17, struck a chord though; a great, big, dirty, clanging cathedral chord. This was a record about sex and death, its themes heralded by an opening track to blow all other opening tracks out of the water (“Sounds like a tiger, thrashing in the water, thrashing in the water”).

Having come in with The Cure at A Forest and worked enthusiastically backwards through Seventeen Seconds and Three Imaginary Boys, I bought literally everything they put out for the next seven years (and some things that they didn’t, such as live bootleg cassettes via mail order or Camden market), after which, as a cub reporter, I was able to get them for free. When in 1989, the NME top brass identified me as a fan and allowed to me to write a full annotated discography of the band across a double-page spread – accompanied by a snapshot of me in my backcombed Goth pomp circa 1984 that Robert Smith mentioned when I finally interviewed him in 1992 – I felt I’d achieved all that I needed to achieve. The Cure had been my favourite band for a decade. I still have a lot of time for them. Work took me to Dallas in ’92 to see them play to a multitude of hyped-up plastic-beer-glass jocks in a football stadium, with Curve in support, one of the most memorable gigs of my life.

The concrete manifestations of my teenage fandom – the haystack hair; the intrepid trip to London to see them at the Hammersmith Odeon with my friend Kevin; the accumulated videotapes of every appearance they made on TV in the 80s; the wallpapered bedroom walls – strictly coalesced during the birth of their “pop” phase circa Let’s Go To Bed, when Smash Hits and Record Mirror started to provide glossy, full-colour pix. Kevin and I embraced their ascent overground, and never once flinched. Why? Because the core of their music remained true: Robert Smith was ultimately still there for the nasty things in life, however hard you tapped a toe. But Pornography had been a landmark in externalised misery. It was The Horror.

Rumbling like a God machine, some out-of-control Wacky Races juggernaut combination of the Creepy Coupe and the Army Surplus Special, One Hundred Years leads off the album in manifesto-striking style at nigh-on seven minutes, with a treated guitar riff that might be a cat wailing or a siren warning, and death-rattling electronic drums that must have pissed drummer Lol Tolhurst off, as such contraptions did to skin-and-timber drummers of the age.

We are dealing in doom and gloom, yes, but unlike the poetic, funereal pain of the previous LP Faith, Pornography replaces its shades of gravestone grey with theatrical black and red, blended to create a Grand Guignol puppet melodrama that took migraine ennui to the level of subversive art. As a boy I had been intoxicated and repelled at the same time by horror movies; and subsequently disaster movies – I was drawn to that which frightened the hell out of me. Instantly reminding me of John Carpenter’s Halloween, I can’t think of an album that sounds this much like its sleeve, or a sleeve that so accurately visualises its contents: the band, blurred and Myers-masked, seem intent on bloody murder*.

The first line we’ve already learned: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” In Smith’s adenoidal cry, set in a permanent echo chamber, this sentiment seems sincere. But it’s when his fevered imagery takes hold that the song moves from the bedroom to the masque. “Ambition in the back of a black car … In a high building there is so much to do.” Already we are into capitalism and mystery, the selling of souls, the industrialisation of pleasure. What post-apocalyptic wasteland is this? “Going home time, a story on the radio …” each line delivered as if Smith is broadcasting from a padded cell in an institute for the all too sane.

I’m listening to it right now. Remember: this magnificent sound was created by three blokes from Sussex, exhausted, drunk, high on drugs and at each others’ throats, imagining they were making their last album, under the aegis of a new producer, Phil Thornalley, who we may assume was neither drunk, nor high, nor at anyone’s throats. If you want to be really brutal: Smith has said that it was either make this album or kill himself. We should give daily thanks for its existence.

As I said, I loved their new, post-Pornographic direction and cherish the pop singles with the comic videos that nobody would have guessed they could make: Catch, Lullaby, Why Can’t I Be You, Just Like Heaven, Inbetween Days, Close To Me … The Cure are one of Britain’s greatest singles bands, right up there with Madness and the Pet Shop Boys and Bananarama and Slade and the Beatles.

But give me their gory years any time. “Something small falls out of your mouth and we laugh … A prayer for something better … Please love me, meet my mother, the fear takes hold …” This is all of my favourite dark art, film and literature in one song: Bacon, King, Dix, Poe, Carpenter, Schwitters, Leigh, Gilliam, Rothko (come on – the colours!), McCarthy, Dickinson, Cummings, Owen, Sutherland, Nash, Steadman, Scarfe, Pinter. When I was an art student, I created a calendar whose imagery was extrapolated from Robert Smith’s lyrics; for “Ambition in the back of a black car,” I stole licks from Ralph Steadman and drew a stretched, hearse-like limousine in chalky pastels, with a pair of female legs akimbo from the passenger windows. My own interpretation may not stand up to the test of time, or taste, but the lyric abides as English literature.

If I ever do curate The 143 albums, Pornography will be one of the first admitted. From this track through to the almost atonal, grumbling title track, via as close as it dares come to a pop tune, Siamese Twins (recently used for a montage in The Americans, and performed live on some Arts Council magazine show in 1983 while two fantastic, whiteface ballet dancers violently entwined themselves to it amid dry ice) and the almost heart-stopping Strange Day (in which “the sky and the impossible explode”), it glows like a nuclear sun on the horizon. One One Hundred Years, the reason we are gathered here today, Fat Bob is “sharing the world with slaughtered pigs.” One year later? “We missed you, hissed the Lovecats.” The boy needed therapy.

*Let’s credit designer Ben Kelly and photographer Michael Kostiff while we’re singing praises.

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.