Wah!, The Story of the Blues Part 1 (1982)

Wah!StoryOfTheBlues

Artist: Wah!
Title: The Story of the Blues Part 1
Description: single
Label: Eternal/WEA
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

In May 2015, I had the most Liverpool Night Ever. I found myself in England’s finest city to meet, interview and watch Weekend Escapes with Warwick Davies with Ralf, Viv and Eve Woerdenweber, Gogglebox’s finest healing-crystal Goths, for what became the official Gogglebook in time for the Christmas market. I’d arrived at Lime Street that afternoon and walked to my hotel rather than take a taxi – because I knew I could and it was, and remains, my style. A later minicab took me through Birkenhead Tunnel to the Wirral and I had a splendid evening on the other side, eating ice-cream cakes, stroking cats and drinking coffee. I’ll be honest, when I arrived back at the Hope Street Hotel, I was drained from travel and the emotional pressure of meeting two sets of new people and hoping to click with them in houses I knew from watching telly. I ordered fat chips on room service and settled in for a sales-rep night of solitude …

Until a friend phoned. Having sensibly fled her adopted London for her Liverpool home, Kate was carousing in the magnetic city’s most famous pub, Ye Cracke, which just happens to be round the corner from Hope Street and, on that occasion, contained another mutual acquaintance, the comedian Michael Legge, and my friend’s husband-to-be Pete Wylie. Resistance would have been churlish.

And then you realise, you’ve got nothing left to lose

I’d crossed paths with the municipally crucial Pete Wylie before, in 1989, two weeks after the horror of Hillsborough when he joined The Mission, Mick Jones and Lee Mavers onstage at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre for a chest-swelling benefit bill that found me in the orchestra pit, gazing upwards as these driven musicians radiated outwards. (My hitherto reigning most Liverpool Night Ever.) It’s easy to underestimate his legend in Jung’s “Pool of Life”. They do things differently there. Selfless acts are remembered. Remembrance is automatically civic. Loyalty is rewarded. Only New Orleans matches Liverpool for self-mythology, and it’s earned. Unlike certain musicians who helped put the city on the map, Wylie represents the majority who still live there. Like Catholicism, it never leaves you, even if you leave it.

So, there are photos of me, and Michael Legge, bathing in Wylie’s glow in Ye Cracke, the same Mecca The La’s had taken me to on my second ever journalistic trip out of London for the NME, in 1988. (The Farm would subsequently blood me at my first Yates’ Wine Lodge a couple of years later.) It’s a city that’s been on its uppers, and has had its fair share of shit, and not just from The Sun, but its heart is as big as … well.

Bands from Liverpool punctuate The 143: the Bunnymen, OMD, the Farm, the Lotus Eaters, the Beatles, and we’re not done yet. I’ve stopped asking if there’s something in the water; there just is. Liverpool was indirectly immortalised in 1960 as a “wondrous place” by local lad Billy Fury (even though his hit was written about some other place by a pair of Americans): “Man I’m nowhere/When I’m anywhere else”; a body of water crossed by its ferry were made myth by Gerry Marsden (and re-floated 20 years later by Frankie Goes to Hollywood); the name of one of its lanes, and the garden of a children’s home, gifted to the world by the Beatles; and Pete Wylie wrote the city an anthem suitable for footballing occasions both victorious and tragic.

But The Story of the Blues is the one. A hit as big as Liverpool in 1983, two years after the terrifyingly insistent Seven Minutes to Midnight had burrowed into the brains of me and my schoolfriend Craig. Wah! Heat had streamlined into Wah! and mainstream acclaim was theirs, or his, or both. (He gets a kick out of expanding and contracting his trading name, but in maverick, dandyish essence Wylie is Wah! and Wah! is Wylie.)

It is the early 80s, so it’s immaterial whether or not the lush strings that provide this pocket symphony’s prologue are real, or cooked up by microprocessors. The majesty of the ascending violins, further warmed through soulful backing vocals (some of which aren’t the hands-on Wylie) and an incredibly polite funk guitar riff give way to wall-of-sound excess that must have provided producer Mike Hedges with a good day at the office. These deft layers feel like literal extensions of the song’s soul. The creator describes it as a labour of love, recorded over months, learning the tech as he and Hedges went along. He aimed to make something that would “last forever.” Well, 34 years down the line, and it’s in rude health. Ask the fans who sing it at Liverpool games.

There’s no taking this record’s pride. When, having peaked, it strips itself down for the epilogue – just those rattlebag drums, some fading wooos and the string section until the dot of four minutes – it’s as if the song knows you need time to decompress. If I had to isolate the very essence of The Story of the Blues, I’d hazard a guess at the syncopated rhythm at the end of each line in the verse where the snare drops out for a beat – boom, boom-boom – a stroke, if I may, of genius. Those drums are played by Linn.

First they take your pride,
Then turn it on its side,
And then you realise you’ve got nothing left to lose.
So you try to stop,
Try to get back up,
And then you realise you’re telling the Story of the Blues.

There’s an operatic quality to Wylie’s voice that suits the ambition of this gin-soaked, us-and-them anthem, which charted on Christmas Day 1982, put Wah! on Top of the Pops and summited at number 3, during 12 weeks on the chart. In the video, he’s all eyeliner, silk scarf, red kerchief and a jiggling energy that suggests either a rubbing of the gums or pentup pride.

While the song might have once been oh-so-mistakenly misread as a reference to Everton FC, its emanating aura of togetherness has seen it recently adopted by fans of Manchester City FC, and before that Chelsea, leaving Wylie understandably touched.

From one man’s pocket comes “front page news”.

A postscript: at the end of that memorable night in ’89 at the Royal Court, the power went out, plunging audience and participants into darkness. Wylie led a spontaneous community singalong, lit by the light of lighters: You’ll Never Walk Alone and, if I remember correctly, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. Except you can.

Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

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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 …

Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

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Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.

The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

Squeeze, Up The Junction (1978)

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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.

Prefab Sprout, When Love Breaks Down (1984)

 

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Artist: Prefab Sprout
Title: When Love Breaks Down
Description: single; album track, Steve McQueen
Label: Kitchenware
Release date: 1984, 1985
First heard: 1984

I’m not even sure why, but it was a standing joke that Prefab Sprout, critical darlings clearly capable of mainstream commercial embrace, kept on re-releasing When Love Breaks Down until it was a hit. In fact, they released it once, prior to its parent album Steve McQueen, in 1984 – when it failed to make the Top 75 – and again, in 1985, when it scaled to number 25 and made Top Of The Pops. I’m not sure the embellished version of events was even meant to denigrate the band, or their doughty label Kitchenware, merely to underline their determination to break on through to the other side. Which they surely did. (Come the next album, they were a Top 10 certainty, and shampooed their hair accordingly.)

Prefab Sprout shone for all the bands forged on the anvil of post-post-punk, who appreciated the here’s-three-chords-now-form-a-band ethic, but had broader musical aspirations and tended toward the windswept and interesting: Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Associates (all Scottish, so far), Win, Deacon Blue (still Scottish), ABC, The Christians, Danny Wilson, Wet Wet Wet (and we’re back in Scotland). Not all as cool as each other, but all willing to admit to an appreciation of Steely Dan, the collective sense of ambition was palpable, but there was further to fall. Once you’ve cracked the actual charts and become what used to be called a “housewives’ favourite”, the only way is down or Las Vegas. (Or a comfortable dotage on Radio 2, which is less of a comedown these days, of course.)

Paddy McAloon never aimed low in his life, and continues to defy a string of crueler-than-cruel medical jokes by finding new ways around his disabilities, a spirit undimmed. His songs have always been intricate, opaque and one step ahead of you. I bought Steve McQueen and Swoon in the wrong order during college, and thus experienced them getting less accessible, and thus more intriguing. Swoon beguiled me before I knew the meaning of the word. It was terrible background music, as it demanded you pay attention to its curling lyrics and unpredictable tempo changes. Steve McQueen was a more approachable affair, full of potential singles, not least the locomotive country opener Faron Young, and this one.

Torrid and aching in arrangement and thrust, after some of the cryptic crossword clues on Swoon, it’s pretty straightforward: McAloon’s love and he “work well together”, but are “often apart”. Nothing too melodramatic, just a couple separated by distance. Instead of fonder, “absence makes the heart lose weight” (even when he’s playing a straight bat, McAloon still hits a six). When love breaks down, we tell lies, we fool ourselves, we do all sorts of stuff to “stop the truth from hurting”, but soon, we’ll be as “free as old confetti.” More given to Sondheim than Strummer, Paddy brings a great gift to the masses: eloquence with wit. Prefab Sprout are like punk never happened.

It’s hard not to swoon to the desaturated Hollwood pose on the sleeve of the album (I don’t know about you, but I never imagined McAloon could ride that Triumph), and the clean lines of the production from either Thomas Dolby (the longer, album version) or Phil Thornalley (the single). But most of all, I admire the daring Americanisation of the imagery, building from Swoon‘s basketball, cornball, Bobby Fischer and “Chicago urban blues” (carefully tempered by tea-rooms, A-Levels and Jodrell Bank), to take transatlantic flight with blueberry pies, bubblegum, “the songs of Georgie Gershwin” and Pearl Harbor. McAloon imagines and interprets like a novelist, of course. He was sort of leapfrogged by Lloyd Cole in this department, who made America his lyrical, then spiritual, then actual home. All roads lead back to Tyne and Wear for McAloon.

Let us praise his bandmates, for this was a band, whose lineup remained steady until after Andromeda Heights in 1997, and a one that was fleet of finger and foot. McAloon and Wendy Smith’s vocals work well together, her angelic hosts, treated in the manner of I’m Not In Love, a constant, breathy presence. Brother Martin McAloon’s air-conditioned bass never falters. The exactitude of Neil Conti’s clockwork rimshot and feathery snare fills were good enough to get him recruited for Bowie’s band at Live Aid.

Even the LP take, at just over four minutes, ends too soon. But Prefab Sprout make alchemical pop at all lengths (on Steve McQueen alone there’s Blueberry Pies at two-and-a-half, and Desire At over five), and in any case, the lyric has quietly come to a conclusion. You may have missed it. Here’s where the story ends: with the protagonist and his former love joining “the wrecks who lose their hearts for easy sex.” His work here is done; he’s ridden that triumph.

I realise now that Prefab Sprout are wasted on the young. They age like port.

By the way, Stuart Maconie and I subsequently spent the back end of a boozy evening in Newcastle in 1992 sitting round a grand piano in a hotel bar singing along as Paddy McAloon pounded out requests from the Sprout catalogue. It was one of the greatest back ends of a boozy evening of my life.

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.