Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

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Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to fuck his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away on side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and piss-taking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser test, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

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The Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

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Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned.

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

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Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days before writing this entry, along with let’s say 4,999 others, I witnessed Carter play their final, final gig on 22 November 2014 at Brixton Academy in London, which is practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their last final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago in Brixton.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the now-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

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Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Label: FFRR
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than Edwin Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.

Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.

Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political as institutionalised racism became a big issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.

Birmingham six
Bridgewater four
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?

One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant after a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.

Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools

It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.

Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek

It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.

There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustically strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.

Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action, Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.

Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teenage Fanclub, The Concept (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if we deserve swooping, sawing strings as well.

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

James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.