The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

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Artist: The Specials
Title: Gangsters
Description: single
Label: 2 Tone
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

There follow two fairly faithfully transcribed entries from my 1980 diary.

Sunday, 10 February
Did my Smash Hits Specials album competition entry. Rather hopeful. Only six winners. Had to design 2 Tone man for record of choice. I did Smash It Up. You never know …

Friday, 7 March
Craig bought Smash Hits for me because I have come in the top six in the 2 Tone competition. My entry’s bin printed. It’s really good to see my name in the mag in print. I’ll be getting a Specials album. Goodo.

The first Specials LP duly arrived in the post, slightly bent but free of charge. I was excited about winning this prize, but perhaps more so about having my own drawing of Walt Jabsco, the 2 Tone mascot, “smashing up” some vinyl records to echo the Damned hit Smash It Up, printed in my favourite magazine. It was a victorious time for all of us, as 2 Tone – the name of a Coventry indie label which also stood for the ska revival movement itself – was a win-win. In repackaging a Jamaican form not previously known to most of us, but refracted through the prism of punk energy, related multiracial detente and Midlands stoicism, it slotted perfectly into the tribal landscape of Thatcher’s Britain, and gave even the most provincial among us something to think about.

The broader mod revival was easy to dress for (my younger brother took to wearing his school blazer down town at weekends, matched with a thin tie and some suitable target badges from the market) and if you preferred, as I did, to fashion yourself after punk, you didn’t have to be against ska. Into my already strictly coded “punk” singles collection went 2 Tone seven-inches in their distinctive paper sleeves, and we all got along famously. My friend Craig even invested in Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, and we all danced to it, even though none of us had a skinhead. But the Specials, aka The Special AKA, had been the first to convert us, and for that they remained supreme.

Too Much Too Young, A Message To You Rudy, Concrete Jungle, Rat Race, Nite Club, there wasn’t a selection on The Specials that we didn’t rate, or stomp to. Some of us aped Chas Smash’s bendy shapes, too. We welcomed The Selector, The Beat (initially on Go Feet) and even Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers into our bedrooms. But Gangsters is where it all started and Gangsters is where we went back to. As with The Prince by Madness, released a month afterwards, Gangsters had history built in. It was a reworking of Al Capone by the Prince himself, Buster. But much was gained in translation.

The screeching of tyres and the in-joke rewording of “Al Capone knows, don’t argue” to “Bernie Rhodes” (the much-maligned Clash manager who briefly handled the Specials) announce a record that would change lives in the UK. Where our beloved punk and new wave records kicked and elbowed, this new, worldly record bounced and syncopated, its hiccuping rhythm seemingly sung as well as wristed by guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation. I hadn’t been there to witness the actual birth of punk, but 2 Tone burst from its sac before our very ears. The skies were blackened with pork pie hats. (I never had the hat. Nor did anybody in Northampton that I knew.)

It was all about the black and white, the two skin tones of the Specials, the Beat and the Selector (although not Madness), the contrast – literally – between the two. Northampton was a predominantly white bread town, but this seemed a wider, national move toward racial coalition, and there was clearly only one side to be on, that of both sides. If West Indian culture could be so sincerely and idiosyncratically filtered through Coventry and Birmingham to create this thrilling new hybrid, then mixed was the only colour in town. It’s quite a thing, looking back from my privileged position of over 30 years living in melting-pot London from the vantage point of so much enlightenment, that some seven-inch singles in 1979 and 1980 must have cast such a liberating, liberal spell over us.

The lyrics of Gangsters, a Jerry Dammers composition, touch on Cagney, Raft and Muni (“Don’t call me Scarface”), but paint a modern urban picture of distrust, paranoia and threat.

Why must you record my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?

He knows what he’s doing when he gets Terry Hall to repeat the word “dread” in the line, “I dread – dread – to think what the future will bring”, recalling as it does fear and loathing, but also the street poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood, all grist to our duotonal mill. The idea that the police state might “confiscate all your guitars” is an inspired rock’n’roll recontextualisation of Orwellian angst. “And Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.”

It was Hall who became the overnight star, with his eyeliner, his nasal sneer and his close crop. That slight lean and the blank-eyed gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance (far beyond the kids in v-necks chickening away in the audience at Top Of The Pops) made him an instant rock’n’roll model and if anything updated ska for our concrete jungle, it was his faraway deadpan. Flanked by the hyperactive Golding and Neville Staples, his was the true punk presence in amid the night moves.

It’s rare for music to summon up the anxiety of a lyric in the instrumentation, but Gangsters does just that during the passage, “Don’t offer us legal protection, they use the law to commit crime”, where, spiced only by an Egyptian sounding keyboard doodle from Dammers, John Bradbury’s almost militarily precise snarework creates a modern malaise which may well have had roots in amphetamines of which we had no working knowledge. Then it’s back into the dancehall groove to end. Though it’s fast and furious, you can hear Ghost Town prefigured here – the howling wind, the desolation, the ironic pre-apocalyptic party mood – but for now, we’re living in gangster time.

I finally saw the Specials live in 2009, at Glastonbury, in the afternoon. Terry was still doing that lean and gaze, Lynval and Neville were still leaping around, Brad was still lock-tight, only Jerry Dammers – was he pushed? did he jump? – was absent from this viable nostalgia band. They were among the very best acts I saw over that lost weekend, even if the pies were a little porkier.

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A Certain Ratio, Shack Up (1980)

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Artist: A Certain Ratio
Title: Shack Up
Description: single
Label: Factory Benelux
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1981

Wipe out the problems of our society …

White men may be incapable of jumping. But they can funk. A Certain Ratio, from Wythenshawe, Manchester, England, were no average white band. Named after a line in a Brian Eno song and slyly sent up in 24 Hour Party People for their experimental benign-Hitler-youth outfits – but rightly slotted into the Factory story, of which they were an immortal chapter – ACR had everything a Tony Wilson signing ought to have had (he personally managed them), except success. They notched up Peel sessions and glad-handed their way to a major label advance from A&M in the late 80s, but their aching cool never comfortably converted into commercial welly. Shack Up remains their pinnacle. They didn’t write it, but why quibble over administration? They made it their own.

The United Artists original, by Banbarra (Moe Daniel and Joseph Carter), came out in the States in 1975, over here a year later, and went unheard, certainly by me. It’s a robustly funky, Chic-indebted number with a progressive lyric (“We can love together, work together, sleep together, so why can’t we live together?”) and some swooning female backing singers, but once you’ve heard A Certain Ratio do Shack, you can’t go back.

It’s the ideal copy. The arrangement and the grouting are identical and the original’s drum fills are reproduced almost to the beat by light-fingered, multi-faceted ACR drummer Donald Johnson (whose work was, I maintain, as key to the band’s appeal as Tony Thompson’s was to Chic or Dennis Davis’s to golden-years Bowie). Hearing the two version in the wrong order – as I did, as many kids of my generation must have done: 1980 followed by 1975 – means that Shack Up introduces itself as something spidery and troubling, and then becomes something straightforward and prosaic. Don’t be shy; play them back to back. Neither will ruin the other. But ACR’s version of events is coloured by the northern industrial city that staged it. Martin Moscrop’s Chic-steeped approximation of the guitar sounds just out of tune enough to introduce a prole art threat. As they tear into the funk, the band sound like they could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. I love that.

My memory of the vinyl record is linked to my school pal Craig, who must have been the one who owned it. (We were file-sharing before records were files.) Craig taught himself to play the bass as we already had a guitarist and you’ve got to love the sheer practicality of that. He will have been encouraged to do so by records as funky as Shack Up. (When we did form a band, we dabbled in funk. I learned rimshot for those occasions and listened to a lot of Pigbag.) The turn of the decade was rich with new sounds, new styles. Some days you didn’t know where to look. We had no contact with A Certain Ratio: never saw them on telly (although I expect they were on So It Goes), don’t remember reading an interview with them in Smash Hits, couldn’t have told you their names, never saw them live. Their angular name and the autumnal potato prints of the Shack Up sleeve were all we had to go on. But it was sufficient.

I remember one disco at a hired Pavilion in those Northampton days where, unfathomably, the DJ played Shack Up and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag. We in the pleated trousers and check shirts flew onto the dancefloor like dandies possessed and did our angular, jerky dancing. I will have expertly attempted to mime Johnson’s itchy drum break using my elbows and wrists, not that anybody would have appreciated it in Billing.

We stood, or elbow-danced, at the dawning of a new era. Punk had collided with funk and London had ceded control of the ball. In the Granada region, whose hip magazine shows we did not get in Anglia, a head of steam was forming. A Certain Ratio, whose first album came out on cassette only, sat at the revolution’s fulcrum for a brief moment. Some of us two motorways away from Manchester noticed. Not everybody did. And we jumped.

 

The Lotus Eaters, The First Picture Of You (1983)

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Artist: The Lotus Eaters
Title: The First Picture Of You
Description: single; album track, No Sense Of Sin
Label: Arista
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

It was a safe bet in the early 1980s that if a band was from Liverpool, they were worth listening to. Why? Wiser social historians than I will have their own theories. Clearly, Liverpool is a music city, the Nashville of England, and we all know about the rich cultural exchange of a port, which helped create the white, Catholic rock’n’roll they called Merseybeat in the 60s.

Hey, the early 80s were fecund and pioneering right across this isle, with electronic possibility and art-school intellectualism painting the now-form-a-band punk ethic in wonderful colours. But Liverpool, that wondrous place, revealed itself to be Britain’s most vivid and exotic cauldron with hit after nonconformist hit from the likes of Frankie, Echo & The Bunnymen, A Flock Of Seagulls, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, China Crisis, Dead Or Alive, Black, the Icicle Works and assorted incarnations of Wah! (Deeper archaeologists will already be adding the less commercially successful but equally vital Pink Military/Industry, the Wild Swans, the Pale Fountains, the Original Mirrors, Modern Eon and Dalek I.) What joy it was to cherry-pick from this rich buffet of delicacies during the best part of that decade. It was heaven up there.

Enter The Lotus Eaters. The First Picture Of You was their first single and their first and only hit. I’d like to tell you I first heard it on John Peel in October 1982, before they were signed (I must have been out that night), but I know for a fact that I heard it on Top Of The Pops the following July (“the first picture of summer”). There is no shame in this. Nor in the haste with which I tore out the lyrics from Smash Hits and blu-tacked the page to my bedroom wall.

The fey-looking, grey-shirted, Orwellian-fringed duo Peter Coyle and Jem Kelly had local form – Kelly had co-founded the Wild Swans – but hadn’t played a gig when they arrived, fully-formed, on TOTP. The song was just about perfect: a seasonal evocation of young love initially floated on a gossamer layer of synth which thumps into joie de vivre with a louche bassline and some enthusiastic but deceptively delicate drumming (from – I think – Alan Wills; ex-Wild Swan Ged Quinn is on keys).

Coyle sings of it being “warm, in and out”, which I was guileless enough in 1983 to take at face value and read in a meteorological sense and not carnal, but I get it now. “The pulse of flowing love … pleasure fills with love … the magic force of your feelings”, frankly, it’s as saucy or as chaste as you want it to be. The grey shirts, joyful flowers and fey delivery had me fooled.

That the Lotus Eaters never followed through on the promise of The First Picture Of You is immaterial. It abides as one of the most uplifting and enduring guitar-pop anthems of the time, arranged with an innate sense of melodrama and – always its trump card in my ears – a confident display of loose-limbed but watertight drumming of a type that Chris Sharrock would subsequently bring to the equally pastoral crowd-pleasers of The Icicle Works, a band with greater staying power, as it transpired, than their Liverpudlian cohorts in grey shirts (and their own prior links with the Wild Swans, naturally – if you weren’t in the Wild Swans in Liverpool in the early 80s, you weren’t there).

But even in commercial isolation, the magic force of this song’s feelings – the sort that feel as if they could actually bring on a change in season – is forever. It’s the square peg on many a cheap 80s hits compilation, but unlike, say, Cry Boy Cry by Blue Zoo or Too Shy by Kajagoogoo, it survives the test of time and retains its ability to “flood the world deep in sunlight”.

The Wild Swans reformed in 2011 around Paul Simpson but without Jem Kelly. The Lotus Eaters reformed too, and I believe are still extant. Liverpool still has something in the water.

Clock DVA, 4 Hours (1981)

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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.