Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Electricity (1979)

OMDElectricity

Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Title: Electricity
Description: single; track, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Label: Dindisc
Release date: 1979, 1980
First heard: 1979

It seemed so radical, appearing on TV with a TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine in place of a backing band, a stunt both Dadaist and practical that many of the modern bands pulled at the turn of the technological decade. The Musicians’ Union took a dim view of synthesisers and samplers, as well they might; these clever boxes signalled a march of industrial automation whose jackboots were already being heard around the corner. Indeed, the Rossini-scored Fiat advert that boasted about the Strada being “handbuilt by robots” debuted in the same year as Electricity’s first outing on – ha! – Factory records. (The pioneeringly callous ad was the first to occupy an entire ad break during News at Ten. Apparently the factory where the ad was shot in Turin by Hugh Hudson was being picketed by its own soon-to-be-redundant workers at the time.)

Elec-tricity
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea
Wasted electricity

But Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys weren’t moving parts. They were flesh and blood in pleated trousers and tank tops; living, breathing musical maestros from the port city with the magic water who weren’t above using occasional drums and guest saxophone in the studio, and augmented the tape player (nicknamed “Winston” in Orwellian tribute) with an actual drummer and auxiliary second synth-player on tour, initially supporting Gary Numan, thereafter headlining. They were handbuilt for the top, playing pure pop of an almost educational bent, packaged with corporate sheen by Peter Saville, and advanced enough by Dindisc to build their own studio in Liverpool, thereby seizing the means of production.

Our one source of energy
Elec-tricity
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away

It’s the single beat between the second and third syllable of “electricity” – elec-tricity – that holds the secret to the debut single’s genius. Such control. Such command. To tame a synthesiser takes more than a soldering iron, and these two “geography teachers” as they were later thumbnailed in a Smash Hits world, not only brought the noise, they brought the expertise. Outfits like OMD, and the Human League, and Soft Cell – not to mention the second tier of Eyeless in Gaza and Naked Lunch and B-Movie and Modern Eon – were not slaves to their machines. These people could still organise a singsong in a power cut. They simply channelled electricity into more than jack-plug sockets, and their revolution would be synthesised.

The alternative is only one

There are four, if not five recorded versions of Electricity. The version I love, and which was enshrined on their first Best Of in 1988, as well as the debut album, starts with what sounds more like a giant marshmallow being struck twice – squoosh-squoosh – between alternate percussive bass notes – bom – and a presumably synthetic snare tap – crack. It’s like being counted in by a spaceship. That amorphous bass slinks into a secret melody while another, shriller riff chimes xylophonically over the top in tandem. If you’re not already dancing with your elbows, you never will be. (I’m secretly doing it right now, and I’m in a Caffe Nero.) This is one of the most infectious intros in post-analogue dancevision. Though McCluskey hogs the spotlight in formation, he and Humphreys share the vocal chores and forge a distant dual lament about mankind’s profligacy. A synth wash sustains the entire three-and-a-half minutes, and it mesmerises.

Electricity is elemental; somehow apocalyptic and yet also hopeful, ancient and modern. And from this short, sharp power surge a legend would emerge. It wasn’t a hit on its first, limited Factory release in 1979, nor its second, and nor its third in 1980. The honour of breakthrough would belong to a, yes, re-recorded Messages, after which the charts would find it hard to shake them for the next five years with their homework about the first atomic bomb, genetic engineering, Joan of Arc, Vorticism, telescopes, architecture and morality. Their LPs were still shifting silver, gold and platinum into the early 90s.

They made their Top of the Pops debut in 1980 on the same show as The Human League. Nice grouping. To love them is to love possibility. Conditions normal and you’re coming home.

The final source of energy
Solar electricity

 

Cornershop, Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) (1998)

CornershopBrimful

Artist: Cornershop
Title: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)
Description: single; track The Greatest Hits – Why Try Harder (Fatboy Slim)
Label: Wiiija; Big Beat
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow

How many number one records have made The 143? I reckon around a dozen, with the same number again for tracks that appear on number one albums. This is not necessarily because my tastes don’t often merge with the tastes of the nation. There are plenty of chart-topping groups and singers in my list, but in only selecting one song for any given artist, my final choice might not be their biggest hit. For instance, my chosen Elvis song is Suspicious Minds, which only reached number two in the UK. (It was number one in the US and Canada.) Similarly with those multi-chart-topping beat groups the Beatles and the Stones: neither Blackbird nor Wild Horses reached the top and had to stop. (Blackbird was not a single, and Wild Horses, a US-only single, reached 28 there.) All of which brings me to the rare thrill of agreeing with the British record-buying public and ending up on the same page. This happened in February 1998 when a peppy new remix of Brimful Of Asha beat all comers.

I was lucky enough to see Cornershop play before they were music-press darlings. I’d been sent by the NME to review the Rockingbirds at a club in Leeds in 1992 and Cornershop were the support. They were good and I met them afterwards. My main impression of them was that they seemed shy and polite. I don’t recall being that shocked that two members of an indie band were Asian, or that the Singh brothers used their ethnicity as both sonic turbine and sentient gimmick. It sometimes felt as if their adoption of Asian signifiers was partly done to bait an Anglocentric music press (or perhaps just Morrissey at the time); it was certainly deployed as an ironic weapon. You may recall the “curry-coloured vinyl” release of their first EP (which I still own), the Punjabi version of Norwegian Wood, more than one use of the thankfully now-moribund term of abuse “wog”, and of course, there’s their name. They are a fiendishly clever band, always one step ahead and one step to the side.

The smash hit version of Brimful Of Asha is 90% Cornershop’s achievement, and 10% Norman Cook’s. (I’m sure Norman would humbly accept this share, and I expect Cornershop thanked him kindly for unleashing its beast within.) Their original 1997 iteration of what would be their defining song – a langorous paean whose only signs of danger are a tambourine and a teasing string sample on the playout – reached number 60 in the national charts. Once Cook had got his hands on it, spotting its potential for immortality and universality, it roared back into national consciousness and topped the poppermost: a victory for “our” music over “their” music in those still-entrenched times before file-sharing and giveaway NMEs, and a red-letter day for the independent sector and in particular the Rough Trade-birthed Wiiija.

It was already a uniquely warm, personal and witty evocation of growing up against a rarefied backdrop of Hindi playback singers epitomised by Asha Bhosle (ennobled in the lyric as “sadi rani” or “our queen”), set to a lazily summery indie riff ideal for its original August release and appealingly sung by Singh; Cook simply sped it up, spiced it up, changed the key (or so I’m told by musicologists) and added a bigger beat, the kind that had only just been defined as “Big Beat” and twinned with Brighton. Like the Bollywood tunes that feed into the heritage singalong feel, it’s a tune for dancing. The beachfront remixer spotted that and splashed it up in massive letters.

There’s dancin’ behind the movie scenes

It informs as it entertains, listing Bhosle’s contemporaries Mohammad Rafi and
Lata Mangeshkar and going on to namecheck All India Radio, Trojan Records, Marc Bolan and French singer Jacques Dutronc. It’s a song about singers; it’s music about music; it’s a lyric about lyricists. It says, “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” Brimful of Asha is a celebration of itself, if you like. Even if you’re not on Cornershop’s actual wavelength, you get the gist. They care about RPMs. They acknowledge the power of radio. They love 45s. And so do you. After all, you’re holding theirs. And everybody, regardless of backdrop, ethnicity or accident of geography, needs a bosom for a pillow.

Cornershop continue to produce the goods on their own fluid terms (Tjinder and Ben Ayres survive from the founding squad), albeit away from the treacherous eddies of the UK chart. Their subsequent singles have been no less catchy and colourful, and who cares if Asha was a commercial fluke? It got higher than Strawberry Fields and Vienna. I reviewed their sixth album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in Word in 2009, and wrote that they “continue to forge a singleminded path between English pop kitsch and Asian birthright”, noting the use of “supplementary tambura and sitar,” and a preoccupation with “a surreal form of pacifism.”  I also stated that “a soulfulness roots Tjinder Singh’s elusively quirky lyrics in sincerity.” Hold that thought.

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.

Free, All Right Now (1970)

FreeAllRightNow

Artist: Free
Title: All Right Now
Description: single; album track, Fire And Water
Label: Island
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1970s

Great to chew, even better to share …

More cowbell. I interviewed Paul Rodgers on 6 Music and it must have been before he joined Queen as I know this didn’t come up in our on-air chat. He was a nice, voluble guy, if a little orange in skin tone and practiced in his responses, and he must have been promoting a solo single as we were duty-bound to play it – and did so, happily. Because the 6 Music guest format was three tracks, wrapped around two hefty chunks of chat, I recall opening with the single (of which I can now find no record), during which I told Rodgers that I would be playing All Right Now – and sort of apologising for what was an obligatory choice – and also an old Free album track I’d carefully chosen as I liked it and it rarely got played on the radio. He was delighted that I’d gone to all the trouble, but his passive-aggressively controlling manager tried to intervene and stop us from playing it, as the interview was about his solo career and not his past. Rodgers overruled her and we played it. I wish I could remember which one it was, but it was from Free’s kickstarting third album, Fire and Water.

Anyway, who gives a monkey’s? Their stake in Actual Rock History is All Right Now, a thudding blues-rock keystone that’s so good it survived the chemical castration of being used in a TV advert for gum in 1990 and being a Top 10 hit again, 21 years after the first time and in a more sanitised context. This classic pick-up tune found a new, younger audience thanks to the aspirationally sweaty couple on the hot bus stuck behind a combine harvester who bond over the ulterior offer of his last stick of Wrigley’s (an act of spearmint philanthropy that causes her to get off the coach at his stop, in order no doubt to seal the deal, get a room and enjoy some mutual mastication). Free had split in 1971 (drugs, musical differences, sales charts), given it another bash in 1972, then split again in 1973. How nice for them to have an “As Seen On TV” hits album in the charts in 1991.

It would be coy to attribute the longevity of the Free name to anything other than All Right Now. It is a career in four minutes (five and a half on the album), and it’s enough to have the faces of Rodgers, bassist and All Right Now co-writer Andy Fraser, tragic guitarist Paul Kossoff and so-solid drummer Simon Kirke hewn into rock. Most bands form and split without coming anywhere near a four-to-the-floor geological event of the catchy, raw power of All Right Now. Unlike that chewing gum advert, it’s timeless.

Kirke’s industrial cowbell (more of that, please) leading a heavy-breathing beat, Kossoff’s roughly wristed riff, and just a wordless noises-off moan-and-yelp combination from Rodgers: it’s a textbook 60s-into-70s intro by a bunch of hairy blokes from London and Middlesbrough wishing they were from Memphis or Chicago, and wishing so hard it almost comes true. The blues was in these men at the time, and yet they would sell millions, fill arenas and steal festivals, just like the bluesmen didn’t. Like Mott and Zeppelin and Purple and Argent – and subsequently Bad Company – America would accept them as natives and form orderly beer queues to be near them. Somebody had to find a way of getting past the almost-academic legacy of the Beatles. In rediscovering their inner caveman, groups like Free achieved that Holy Grail.

If Fraser is playing the bass at all at the beginning, it’s too low to tell. But what’s key about the arrangement (by the band, John Kelly and future Queen man Roy Thomas Baker) is the space between the strokes and thumps. This allows the air in and accentuates each grunt. “There she stood,” regales Rodgers, his voice even at 21 sounding lived-in and world-weary, “There she stood in the street, smilin’ from her head to her feet.” You’re picturing the scene. It does that.

Much of the lyric is presented as a two-way reported conversation – no wonder it became a storyboard for a commercial. He was like, “Hey, what is this?” and she was like, “Look, what’s your game? Are you tryin’ to put me to shame?”

I love the horny protagonist’s chat-up line, “Now don’t you wait, or hesitate. Let’s move before they raise the parking rate.” At any rate, he takes her home to his place, “watchin’ every move on her face,” and it’s he who tells her to slow down when they get there. Not such a macho ape after all. He’s a sensitive lover. And at the end of the day, it’s all – beat – right now, baby, it’s a-all – beat – right now. (I love classic songs that don’t quite scan, it’s like the lyric had to be contained somehow by the tune and not the other way around.)

Highlight for me is the machine-gun snare fill by Kirke after the “parking rate” line and a Rodgers howl before the first chorus, or else the polite appearance of the bass for the bridge under a blowtorch solo from Kossoff even in the truncated single edit. A fine, serpentine vocal take from Rodgers, too – let’s hope it was live – as spontaneous as jazz in parts, and the lust never sounds play-acted.

I can’t lie, I thought of buses and chewing gum while writing this. But I didn’t go out and buy any. So that’s all right. Now …