The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

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Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

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Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

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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.

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.

Squeeze, Up The Junction (1978)

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Artist: Squeeze
Title: Up The Junction
Description: single; album track, Cool For Cats
Label: A&M
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

It’s hard to convey to the youth of today how vital Smash Hits was at the end of the 70s. In an age so pre-digital “sharing” meant literally lending things to other kids, we would pass copies of the fortnightly pop-words magazine around in the playground, eager to discover what our favourite bands of that post-punk/disco era were actually singing. Imagine it, young people of today! To care about what artists were singing! And to have no immediate method at our fingertips of finding out from one fortnight to the next!

The lyrics to Up The Junction, the third smash hit from this glowering bunch of posers from a place called Deptford, appeared across a full page in “ver Hits” – as it was not yet self-mythologisingly known – and what an unusually lengthy and involved rearrangement of the English language it was: each verse a chapter in a story and no chorus, no repetition, no deviation or hesitation. Just a minute: thinking about it, their previous hit, the snarlier Cool For Cats (which I’d exchanged pocket money for), didn’t really have a chorus either beyond the line “co-oo-ool for cats”, and it too had beguiled my fragile teenage mind with its literate turns of phrase and its Sweeney imagery. Who were these clever blokes who looked like they were trying so hard to disguise their cleverness?

In the mid-80s, by which time I’d gone off to art school in faraway London but retained my devotion to Smash Hits, my path almost crossed with that of Squeeze, when one of our visiting tutors at Chelsea School of Art (headquartered in Wandsworth, a borough I’d first heard about through Cool For Cats when London was a foreign field) made a head-turning request. Could I write out the lyrics to the next Squeeze album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti? His name was Rob O’Connor, and he ran his own design company which specialised at that time in LP sleeves. Honestly, we with a pop sensibility worshipped at his self-effacing feet, especially when we discovered that it was his handwriting on the sleeve of the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope album. You should know that my handwriting was mannered and cartoony in 1984, hence the speculative calligraphic commission. In the event, my lyrics (and I really did write them all out, by hand) went unused. But it was close. And I got paid.

It is not to in any way denigrate or underestimate the deceptively intricate power of Squeeze’s musicianship – something hard which they made look easy – but the lyrics were always the thing for me. The very fact that Glenn Tilbrook, who wrote the music, engineered such a witty yet moving job of singing the words, which were written by Chris Difford, makes Up The Junction a sort of definitive encapsulation of what made – and makes – their Lewisham Lennon/McCartney symbiosis one of pop and rock’s essential services. The lyric – a three-minute kitchen-sink drama – would be severely diminished without the singer, and the singer would self-evidently just be humming without the lyric. (I know Difford sings it himself, solo, but I hope he would agree that Tilbrook’s rendition is heavenly.)

You know sometimes when you have to just shut up and reproduce the lyric, like Smash Hits did in 1978?

I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on a windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten

What audacious rhymes. What Davies-esque evocation of the capital via place names.

I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday

Although we subsequently learn that the job with Stanley involves working eleven hours, we discover nothing more specific about the nature of the work. But we don’t need to. As for the delicate crux of this cautionary tale …

She said she’d seen a doctor
And nothing now could stop her

More fatalism. Tilbrook’s lilting tones are so free of animosity or self-pity, so devoid of judgement or blame, you’re inclined to sympathise with both parties, especially when he vouches:

I put away a tenner
Each week to make her better

Writing short stories is hard. Any short story writer will tell you that. To do so in verse, in rhyme, and in half-rhyme (“tenner”, “better”), is harder still. “And when the time was ready, we had to sell the telly”? Heartbreaking. “She gave birth to a daughter, within a year a walker, she looked just like her mother, if there could be another”? This is a man declaring his love for a woman who until recently he was referring to as “the girl.” And yet, two years later – and it really is like a country song now – she’s “with a soldier” and he’s going “from bar to street to bookie.”

It’s only at the bitter end – and bitterness takes that long to rise to the surface – that our South London protagonist admits he’s “up the junction”. The song’s title is also its punchline, its killing joke, its crowning glory. This is a London A-to-Z of emotion.

Having almost skipped over this band’s virtuosity – a trait hugely unfashionable in the white heat of New Wave – I will throw a bone to seasoned pro Gilson Lavis, whose exactitude from the drum stool lent both weight and a lightness of touch often simultaneously to the many timeless hits of Squeeze. Such an asset. Maestro Jools Holland, an uncontainable personality who dipped in and out as his parallel broadcasting career flourished, was closest to Squeeze’s only other permanent member, and he and Lavis came together in the 90s and are still going strong in the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. That’s two lasting relationships from one band of brothers.

I find it’s easy to forget how good Squeeze were – that’s how good they were. But they were the equal as a British singles band to Madness, or the Kinks before them, or Blur after them. They were what a fortnightly pop-words magazine in the steam age was invented for.