New Order, Regret (1993)

NORegret

Artist: New Order
Title: Regret
Description: single; album track, Republic
Label: London
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Look at me, I’m not you

In the immediate aftermath of Ian Curtis’s untimely death, for Joy Division to not just carry on but fundamentally reinvent themselves under a new banner and ultimately alter the face of British alternative pop, seemed, in that cruel summer of 1980, a mission impossible. The term “regroup” doesn’t cover it. As New Order (the name itself a manifesto), they shuffled Bernard Sumner to the front, added Gillian Gilbert at the back, recorded two existing Joy Division songs in the new formation, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place, and produced an LP that looked and sounded and felt like Joy Division minus Curtis and plus extra synth. As relieved as the discerning were to have them back in business, and so soon, Movement was robbed of sunlight by the Joy Division memorial Still, and it all felt a bit like a holding pattern. Then they went to New York, and the next ten years were about bringing it all back home.

Between the rule-rewriting Temptation in 1982 and the final long-player before the band’s first split, Republic, in 1993, New Order really did bestride the twin worlds of pop and dance like four blushing Colossi. They even outlived Factory. Regret, the majestic lead-off single and a hit all over the shop, was number one in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts and Modern Rock Tracks, which just about says all that you need to know about New Order. Is it dance? Is it rock? Does it – to deploy the cliché – sound better in a club? Or in a barn? Or in a field? The answer is that it sounds better anywhere and everywhere. (I listened to it a lot, alone, in a one-room studio flat in Streatham in South London and it worked for me.) If New Order started out as three young men and one young woman with “weight on their shoulders”, they ended their first ten-year stretch on top of the world, looking down – you might say – on Creation.

That osmotic blend of guitar and synth which falteringly paints in the sky before it starts, as if touching up one of Peter Saville’s oddly sincere stock library photographs on the packaging, can surely, mathematically, never be bettered. Building on a fine repertoire of previous New Order and Pet Shop Boys hits, Stephen Hague sets a template of sleek, slick vistas and bevelled sophistication. It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio. Barney’s guitar still maintains its trademark melancholy but the overriding theme is celebration. (Hey, it’s a song called Regret that speaks of wounded hearts, complete strangers and being upset, you see, almost all the time. That kind of celebration.)

Blue Monday may have history on its side, True Faith the video, Fine Time the Balaeric cool, and World In Motion a rare sense of fun, but Regret is the crowning achievement of a little band who could. A good deal of Joy Division’s eternal appeal lies in the struggle – the quest to hew magic out of limited virtuosity – but mastering their instruments did not rob them of their personality. It is found not just in Barney’s non-classical voice, distanced and chorused in the mix, but in the idiomatic nature of his lyrics: “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known … I would like a place I could call my own, have a conversation on the telephone … I was upset you see, almost all the time”. It’s amazing how much soul there is in his childlike delivery and in these storybook couplets. (This is a man who, on Every Little Counts, on Brotherhood, actually sang, “Every second counts/When I am with you/I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo.”)

The whole of Republic is a showpiece. But Regret is pure cinema. I saw New Order on a boiling hot afternoon at Reading that year and entered a higher state of consciousness when I heard the riff to Regret, one I am physically unable to resist miming. I cannot play the guitar. This is important.

Pixies, Debaser (1989)

Pixies-Doolittle

Artist: Pixies
Title: Debaser
Description: album track, Doolittle
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

Bam-thwok!

What an injection of East Coast American adrenaline the state of Massachusetts administered into the vein of that stereotypically English-Scottish-Australian roster of 4AD in the mid-80s. First, Throwing Muses, from Newport, Rhode Island, who’d decamped to Boston and were the label’s first American signing. Then, the small-“t” Pixies, who’d formed around the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Both bands, who bent rock to suit their own fiercely cerebral, idiosyncratic, cross-gender agendas, seemed perfectly suited to each other as labelmates, shared a taste in producers and often played on the same bill. (My college friend Rob and I saw them both at the Town & Country Club in May 1988, with Pixies supporting the Muses – and, if I remember correctly, fem-dance group The Cholmondeleys on first – and again in ’89, at which the order was reversed.)

But who were these bands? As 4AD completists it was inevitable that either Rob or I would purchase Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies’ debut mini-LP, without having heard a note. Indeed, Rob has pricked my memory: we visited the degree show at the Royal College of Art of photographer Simon Larbelestier in the summer of ’87 and the hairy-backed Victorian freak-show gentleman adopted for Pilgrim’s sleeve was displayed therein. Making this link to the RCA – where Rob was about to start his own MA – he invested in the album in suitably Pavlovian manner. My clear memory of first hearing the subsequent Surfer Rosa is in a large, roomy artist’s pad in Notting Hill, where Rob was house-sitting for one of his tutors in Easter ’88. Salad days.

The second time we saw the Pixies in London, they were promoting Doolittle.  Rob remembers the band members coming round “all hunched with cigarettes pinched between finger and thumb” down the side of the venue while we were in the queue. With our feet in the air and our heads in the ground, we worshipped the Buddha-like Black Francis and felt the potent pop thrill of singalong songs like Where Is My Mind?, Gigantic, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation and Debaser.

It’s painful to have to single one out, but it’s ideal that it’s not a single, as the Pixies have always either chosen the wrong tracks to be their singles, or simply produced too many suitable candidates on each LP for justice to be done. Debaser is a classic single that never was: adored by the faithful and treated as an old pal, and not in any way debased by Paul Rudd belting it out in the car in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a damning indictment of cultural disconnect between the parent generation and their children, and between men of a certain age and women. (His kids yawn in the back, while his wife treats his spirited singalong with amusement.)

Got me a movie, I want you to know …

Frank Black tears into this recording with its highbrow nonsense lyric as if these were his last two minutes and 52 seconds on earth, a sentiment in line with the apocalyptic fatalism that pervades much of Doolittle (“got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey … Now there’s a hole in the sky … Everything is gonna burn … Drive my car into the ocean … A big, big stone fall and break my crown”). Black’s hymn to debasement is short on detail (“Wanna grow up to be a duh-base-ah”), but long on beret-wearing film-school cool, making an explicit reference in those sliced-up eyeballs and the “chien Andalusia” to the silent 1929 Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali short Un Chien Andalou. Neither film nor song has a plot to speak of.

The BFI’s Museum Of The Moving Image opened on London’s South Bank in 1988; ill-fated, it would turn out, but fun to visit in those happy first years for its primitive interactivity, movie heirlooms and well-stocked bookshop. I feel sure I did so within its first year, and that’s when I saw Un Chien Andalou for the first time, transfixed by its darkly playful cut-up imagery in the little dedicated viewing booth for 21 minutes. I felt like staying for the next showing (it was on a loop), mentally prepared this time for the unannounced eyeball-slicing money sequence, in which the film cuts from Simone Mareuil’s eye about to be passed over by a straight razor to a cloud slicing into a full moon and then to a dead calf’s eye being bisected. It is one of the least forgettable moments in the history of the moving image. Who wouldn’t write a song about it?

Debaser doesn’t quite cleave to the quiet-LOUD, bam-THWOK mechanic of the stereotypical Pixies song, as after that neat, buttoned-up bass intro, it leaps into life, with a tambourine hurrying along the first verse, Black announcing to the world that he’s got him a movie. The chorus invites the rest of the band along to shout, “Chien!” and it’s a frantic evocation of Iberian canine declaration. Cobwebs are blown. Ears are syringed. Black’s vocal cords are ravaged for your listening pleasure. Kim Deal offers a characteristically dry spoken endorsement of the title (and she was so … quiet about it). And it sounds for all the world that he’s already grown up to be a duh-base-ah.

British producer Gil Norton does a bang-up job on Doolittle, taking the graphic sound of Surfer Rosa and giving it a fuel injection. He would remain an ally. The LP was their first hit. Monkey Gone To Heaven – a close contender for this entry – gained college radio traction in the States and consolidated the band there. But – unlike Samson in Gouge Away – success did not sap their strength. The animosity that precipitated their break-up and made frankly mercenary their cold-war reformation was nowhere to be seen in the late 80s and early 90s when they surfed that wave of adulation. I declined to see them play when they reformed, as I’d seen them the first time, when the band might still amble past you in the queue.

Thanks, Massachusetts. Thanks, Mr Dali and Mr Bunuel. Thanks, Rob.

Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979)

Entertainment!

Artist: Gang Of Four
Title: 5.45
Description: album track, Entertainment!
Label: EMI
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1980

Libraries gave me power.

I suspect I first heard this song in 1980, and not in its year of release, as I know for a fact that I borrowed it from Northampton Record Library, an Aladdin’s cave for audiophiles I first tapped into around this time, and which granted me access to a whole range of exciting vinyl long-players, which I hungrily and methodically borrowed from this glorious, state-run, municipal resource: XTC’s Drums & Wires, In The Flat Field by Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous debut, The Crack by the Ruts, so many thrilling new wave platters, each one stamped out at a desk, just like a book, except with records, you took the disc out of the sleeve and compared its scuffs and scratches to a card wherein any such imperfections and blemishes would be logged in biro. (A bit like the illustration of a rental van with the scratches drawn in – although I couldn’t have known this at 15.)

Through this route did I come upon Entertainment!, whose most-likely-to single, At Home He’s A Tourist, had crossed my radar via its lyrics in Smash Hits the year previously, but which – as is now legend – had been denied its Top Of The Pops shot because the band refused to amend the lyric about “the rubbers you find” and had thus failed to breach the Top 40. Never mind. Gang Of Four were a band designed to exist outside of the mainstream. I might not have fully understood their Situationist influences or Marxist politics at 15, but I sure liked the idea of what they were saying about consumerism and war and whatever linked guns to butter.

And I sure loved the way they were saying it, with their minimalist arrangements, atonal duets and all that white space which ran through their white funk. Having been intoxicated at the right age by the guttural, inclement fury of punk rock, it was head-turning indeed to hear the elements in Gang Of Four’s sound so clearly separated and slotted back together: the twanging bass, the precise drums, the sparing guitar, and of course, Jon King and Andy Gill’s arresting vocal symbiosis, perhaps never bettered than on Ether, in which King croons about digging “at the root of the problem” and “father’s contradictions” and Gill simultaneously barks out “H-block! Long Kesh!”

Entertainment! turned out to be my favourite album of all time. I loved it in 1980 when I taped it and played the cassette until the magnetic coating was worn off. I loved it again in the mid-80s when, as a student, I finally purchased the LP I’d previously been loaned by the public sector. And I loved it all over again on CD soon after. It literally never fails to excite me. I never saw Gang Of Four the first time around (and have never seen them in revived form), so the music’s hold on me is purely aural. And intellectual and political, obviously. And I think the reason that 5.45 always rises to the top is that it rose to the top 33 years ago. And lodged there.

It may not have the urgency of Damaged Goods, nor the squalling audacity of Anthrax, nor the sensual throb of Tourist, but 5.45 has a simplicity and directness that’s almost a capella. And it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk. Of course it begins – as so many of my favourite songs do – with a bare drum beat, typically unshowy and literal from Hugo Burnham, and easy for an aspiring teenage drummer to copy with two rulers on a stool, as I diligently did. Then that polite, wheezy melodica from King. And when Dave Allen’s bass grumbles in, the shooting match begins.

King wonders aloud, “How can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?” Even as a kid, I understood this. I was not one for the news at that age, but mainly because it all looked so grey and severe at the end of the 70s. When King paints pictures of dead men lying “flat on their backs” (echoing the “beetle on its back” from Anthrax), assassination “down on the street”, and a “blood war” on a “bourgeois state”, it’s no leap to the footage of “guerilla war struggle” that will have filtered into my brain in that decade from unknown zones in Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala and, closer to home, Northern Ireland (whose troubles were more specifically addressed in Ether). This was vivid stuff. And he said “eat my tea.”

Repetition is a weapon in the Gang Of Four’s best work – honestly, it’s like The Teletubbies, except with Sandinistas – and so it proves with the mantra, “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is a new personality.” King and Gill sound like they cannot stop singing this until a ceasefire is called, at which we can all get back to the fried egg we have for our “tea”. And it’s called 5.45 – “quarter to six” – could it be any clearer if it was titled After Noah & Nelly?

I wrote recently about how literate pop music was in the 70s and 80s. Gang Of Four may have not quite made it into the charts, but their debut LP did much to rouse me from my apolitical slumber, aged 14 going on 15. Let’s not post-rationalise; it did not “politicise” me on the spot (I wouldn’t become a Neo-Marxist until I’d left school), but from Entertainment!‘s attention-demanding sleeve, with its “red” Indian and its “white” cowboy shaking hands (“He is glad the Indian is fooled – now he can exploit him”), to the unequivocal chants of “H-Block torture!”, it provided a running buffet of food for thought.

I shall remain forever grateful to Gill, King, Allen and Burnham for the factory reset they gifted me. (And I owe a lifelong debt to Northampton Library and its recordings wing, the sort of place the new government in 1979 would have considered surplus to requirements – glad those days are behind us, right?)

Clock DVA, 4 Hours (1981)

ClockDVA4hours

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

A piano falls from above
And smashes in front of me

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

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

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

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

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

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