Talulah Gosh

At one end of the female rock/pop star spectrum you have leather-trousered babes like Chrissie Hynde who look like they’d want hot, dirty sex on the back seat of a Mustang, and at the other end there are cute moppets like wee Clare Grogan who would probably want you to hold hands and have a strawberry milkshake with them. Her male equivalent was probably boyish Nick Heyward with his nice wooly jumpers and Lemon Fire Brigades, the two of them mainstreaming the cute Tufty Club approach to pop of Orange Juice and Postcard Records, putting out singles with collectible goodies like iron-on transfers and stickers and affecting an air of golly gosh innocence. It’s almost too perfect that she had a part in “Gregory’s Girl” which is the cinematic equivalent of twee pop. Back when Altered Images were enjoying their 15 minutes I was going out with a pretty, spiky-haired girl called Sarah who was also at the cute moppet end of the spectrum and, as it happens, her best friend was Eithne Farry who later joined pioneering twee popsters Talulah Gosh who got their name from Clare’s nickname for herself.

Of course I had a little bit of a crush on Clare too, she was such a doll and even cuter in real life. I once had the pleasure of standing next to her at the bar of the Hammersmith Palais. I’d gone there to see Altered Images supporting U2 (avant garde post-punkers This Heat were third on the bill – how’s that for a peculiar line up?) and was having a beer between acts when who should appear by me ordering a drink but the lovely lass herself. She was very, very small, but perfectly formed as they say. I didn’t speak to her but my mother worked at the BBC and got me her autograph when the band was there recording a Top of The Pops. In typical mother fashion she just had to tell Clare I fancied her which prompted this heart-fluttering message I have treasured ever since:

Though you wouldn’t know it from perky pop like “Happy Birthday” and “Pinky Blue” Altered Images started out like a junior school version of Siouxsie & The Banshees. Their 1981 debut single “Dead Pop Stars” was produced by the Banshees’ Steve Severin and is dark and spiky post-punk pop with Clare sounding like a deranged pixie. This could have been a big hit but had the misfortune to be released soon after John Lennon was shot which pretty much put the kibosh on it’s chart potential. The bubbly dance version “Disco Pop Stars” is from just one year later which shows how fast music was moving back then, from kiddie punk to bouncy dancepop in a matter of months. This appeared on the flip of the “I Could Be Happy” 12″ single and here Clare is in full-on munchkin mode, sounding as fizzy as a Sherbet Dab. This may test the tolerance of your sweet tooth.

Download: Dead Pop Stars – Altered Images (mp3)
Download: Disco Pop Stars – Altered Images (mp3)
Buy: “Destiny: The Hits” (album)



…when I said “Sheer Heart Attack” was the first album I bought I really meant it was the first proper album by a proper group and all that. I think the actual very first long player I ever purchased was “Hot Hits 15” which I’d forgotten all about until I came across its sleeve online and it all came back to me.

It was 1972 and my sister and I had each gotten 50p record tokens for Christmas so we went down to our local Woolworth’s intending to buy a single each (they cost 45p back then.) But then we saw the above album packed with a dozen chart hits for only 99p! What an amazing deal we thought, all those songs for the price of two 45s! So we pooled our record tokens and bought it, thinking we’d struck pop gold. Sadly, when we got it home we discovered to our dismay that the tracks weren’t the orignal versions at all but dreadful sound-a-likes performed (I assume) by anonymous session singers.

Even though we thought it was rubbish and a swindle we didn’t take the album back, being English we were cursed with not wanting to “make a fuss” and also thought you couldn’t take something back simply because you didn’t like it. No, we’d paid our money and made our choice and were stuck with it. Sadly, I don’t have it anymore, otherwise I could have treated you to a really bad cover of “What Made Milwaukee Famous.”

For more on the the Hot Hits albums and a really great cover gallery (“Vol. 6” is particularly good) visit Easy on The Eye.

Losing my album virginity

For those afflicted with a trainspottery love of music the first album you buy yourself is a rite of passage akin to losing your virginity. You remember who, what, where, and how much it cost (that last part may or may not apply to how you lost your virginity). In my case it was Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” at the Beggars Banquet record store in Fulham and it cost me the princely sum of £2.10.

I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure Queen are still about as unfashionable as high-waisted trousers and unlike some other pompy 70s rock bands (coughELOcough) haven’t gained even a modicum of retrospective hipness. They were probably just too excessive and bombastic and recorded ludicrous things like “We Will Rock You” which was the sort of rock music they’d have played at a Nuremberg Rally. I hate the concept of a “guilty pleasure” so I don’t feel the slightest bit bad about admitting that I quite liked some of their records. I still like some of them a lot, in fact. “Sheer Heart Attack” was their third album and is probably the first one where they became Queen with all the camp theatricality and stylistic dilletantism we either loved or hated them for. It’s funny how while the rest of the band expanded their horizons both musically and sartorially, good ol’ Brian May never stopped looking and playing like an early 70s heavy rock dude.

“Tenement Funster” doesn’t sound much like a Queen record at all, probably because it’s written and sung by drummer Roger Taylor and like a lot of his songs (“I’m In Love With My Car” being the most famous) has more of a gnarly tone and is quite atmospheric and edgy sounding with some very Mick Ronson-ish spacey guitar. Apparently this is a tribute to Marc Bolan (he was still alive then by the way) and has lots of glam Bolan-y imagery like purple shoes and open cars going at the speed of light. For far more than you ever wanted to know about this track, go here. Who knew it’s signals were heavily flanged!

Download: Tenement Funster – Queen
Buy: “Sheer Heart Attack” (album)

Chelsea Girls

Is it possible for anyone to listen “Handbags and Gladrags” these days without thinking of “The Office”? It’s sad when bad things happen to great songs – not that there’s anything wrong with “The Office” – and the personal images they conjure up for you keep getting interrupted by things like dreary Slough roads.

The song was written by Mike D’Abo, lead singer of UK beat combo Manfred Mann, and is about the shallowness of being trendy and desiring expensive clobber. Even though it’s actually aimed a teenager, it always made me think of a certain kind of girl you’d run into in bars and clubs around Chelsea and the posh bits of Fulham. Beautiful girls with names like Natasha and Amelia who had some vague job in magazine publishing and affected a devil-may-care, bohemian attitude which you knew was because they came from stinking rich families and could afford not to give a shit. Charlotte Rampling in “Georgy Girl” (above) reminds me of that type: a free-spirited princess with a vaguely plummy voice, perfect bones and lustrous hair. I can imagine her at 2am in the Cafe Des Artistes off the Fulham Road, chainsmoking Marlboro, dressed in something from Harvey Nichols, talking to me about me about the skiing trip she just came back from and I’m simultaneously thinking “Christ, you’re annoying” and “Christ, I’d love to sleep with you.”

Though Rod Stewart’s version of the song is by far the best known (please don’t mention Stereophonics when I’m in the room) I don’t think a lot of people know that the original was by white soulster Chris Farlowe, he released it as a single in 1967 and it was only a minor hit. Farlowe’s singing style might be a little overwrought for some – he sounds like he’s going to burst his trousers on the line “they told me you missed school today” – but I love the hyper-passion he brings to it which matches the grand production perfectly. Even better, this version doesn’t ever once make me think of Slough or Tim and Dawn.

Download: Handbags and Gladrags – Chris Farlowe (mp3)
Buy: “Handbags and Gladrags: The Immediate Collection” (album)

The Bard of Salford

All revolutionary moments in history inspire great poetry, the French Revolution had Wordsworth, the Easter Rising had Yeats, and punk had a snotty rake from Manchester called John Cooper Clarke.

Looking like Bob Dylan if he’d grown up on a diet of fish fingers and cold baked beans, his spittle-flecked, 100mph delivery had the amphetamine rush of punk with the salty language of a northern working man’s club comedian. Thankfully he wasn’t the sort of poet who wrote tortured odes to the painful beauty of council blocks, instead his muse led him up lurid and surreal paths to psycle sluts, homemade porn, monsters from outer space and teenage werewolves.

I wasn’t a huge fan of his studio albums where he read his poems over a rather avant garde musical backdrop provided by post-punk supergroup The Invisible Girls – maybe if he’d been backed by a funk band or drum machine he’d be seen today as a pioneer of white hip hop 20 years before Eminem and The Streets – but it was live that he really dazzled. His act was a cross between Pam Ayres, Johnny Rotten and Les Dawson, confrontational and full of piss and vinegar but funny as hell. Which is why it’s surprising that he only ever put out the one live album, “Walking Back Happiness” from where these four tracks come. This came out in 1979 on 10″ clear vinyl (another reason not to like CDs, they don’t come in different sizes and colours) but has sadly has long been out of print and never reissued.

I’m not going to go into detail about all these but “Twat” deserves special mention, this is a masterpiece of invective (aimed at Michael Heseltine appparently) which should be taught in a class on how to verbally tear someone a new arsehole:

People mention murder,
the moment you arrive.
I’d consider killing you
if I thought you were alive.
You’ve got this slippery quality,
it makes me think of phlegm.
And a dual personality,
I hate both of them.

Sheer bloody poetry, as they say.

Download: Twat – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: The Bronze Adonis – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Gaberdine Angus – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Majorca – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)

My sister’s records

I could never understand why teenybopper girls like my sister screamed their knickers off over The Bay City Rollers, far as I could see they looked like a right bunch of twerps and made dreadful records. But David Essex I could understand because not only was he a very handsome chap – and I say that completely secure in my heterosexuality – but he also made some terrific music that even 12-year-old me thought was rather good. His records were far better than they needed to be, he could have made a mint and a whole career out of “Gonna Make You A Star” clones but his producer Jeff Wayne was far more ambitious than that. Along with Mickie Most’s production work for Hot Chocolate, Wayne made some of the weirdest-sounding, most inventive pop of the decade using all sorts of strange arrangements and studio effects (like playing percussion under water).

His 1975 album “All The Fun of The Fair” was the only one his my sister owned but I think she picked a winner. Like most of his oeuvre it’s a schizophrenic affair, divided between sweet ear-candy like “Hold Me Close” and “If I Could” (that one really made the girls melt) and darker matter like the subterranean “Circles” and the grand title track. This wouldn’t sound out of place among the lurid theatricality of “Aladdin Sane” with Essex playing a cracked actor fairground barker, rolling his tongue with relish around lines like “rrrrrroll on up, see the main attrrrract-shunnn” and leaning heavily on his Cockney like Bowie at his most Anthony Newley-ish. It gets increasingly deranged over its 6:40-minute length, Chris Spedding’s guitar fractures like broken glass and the track crashes in an ear-splitting pile before fading out into some maniacal horror-movie laughter that must have made all the Mums who bought the album for “Hold Me Close” drop their copies of Woman’s Realm in shock.

Julie Burchill once said that the musical tastes of teenage girls have never been taken seriously by rock critics and I wonder what Essex’s cred was at the time, whether he was given his due by the grand poobahs at the NME and Melody Maker or simply ignored as teen fodder with pretty blue eyes. What would you rather have? An ugly face and critical adulation or good looks and hordes of moist young girls throwing their knickers at you? Decisions, decisions…

Download: All The Fun Of The Fair – David Essex (mp3)
Buy: “All The Fun of The Fair” (album)

Pale and Interesting

Parents, be warned: This is what happens to a young man who hears “Unknown Pleasures” at an impressionable age. The milk-bottle white skin, the sullen expression, the black clothes are all outward signs of the “pale and interesting” youth. Before you know it he’s doing the hard stuff like the first Velvet Underground album and reading William Burroughs novels. I know all this because for a time I was once such a youth. Not that I was particularly depressed or angst-ridden, I just had the usual arty young man’s attraction to the dark and edgy. I must have seen “Taxi Driver” about 20 times, which in those days meant I actually went to the cinema to see it that many times, mostly at late night showings in shabby little arthouses with dirty, cigarette butt-encrusted carpets.

“Dark and edgy” was basically the zeitgeist back then – the whole country felt like a cigarette butt-encrusted carpet – and Joy Division’s records were like black holes which had absorbed all the pessimism, uncertainty, and violence that built up by the end of the 70s. With “Unknown Pleasures” they answered Nigel Tufnel’s question in This Is Spinal Tap:

It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.

For most other bands bleak angst was just a pose, something to wear with a big overcoat in your Anton Corbijn portrait, but with Joy Division it all sounded very real. Which, of course, it was. I still remember turning on John Peel that night in May 1980 and hearing him announce at the start of his show the news that Ian Curtis had died. I went downstairs with an empty feeling in my stomach and said to my mum “Ian Curtis is dead” and she said “who?” which I guess is fair payback considering my nonchalant attitude toward Elvis snuffing it a few years before. I don’t think I found out that he’d topped himself until I read it in the next week’s NME (oh, those pre-internet days. Waiting a whole week for news) I also discovered for the first time that he had a wife and kid which started me thinking maybe he wasn’t just a tortured artiste, but a bit of a selfish prick too. In hindsight, his death neatly bookended the previous decade as if some sort of terminus had been reached. The 80s were beckoning and it was time to start dancing.

Now it all seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They were the soundtrack for a country that has since been scrubbed, polished, streamlined and had it’s rough edges swept under a designer carpet where they can’t be seen. What does still sound astonishingly new is the production work of Martin Hannett, the Phil Spector/Lee Perry/Brian Wilson of post-punk. Have a listen to the 6 minutes of slow-burning menace of “Autosuggestion” from 1979. The dubby production is full of empty space but he manages to make it sound claustrophobic and suffocating with the dank atmospherics of a piss-stinking stairwell in a Manchester tower block.

This was recorded during the “Unknown Pleasures” sessions and first surfaced on the Fast Records 12″ mini-album “Earcom 2” which, I’m very glad to say, is worth quite a pretty penny these days. I could put my daughter through college if a few more of my records appreciate in value like that.

Download: Autosuggestion -Joy Division (mp3)
Buy: “Unknown Pleasures” (album)
Buy: “Substance” (album)

Lulu & The Spiders From Mars

The occasion for the glittering array of rock royalty above was a “retirement” party for Ziggy Stardust at the Café Royal, London in July 1973 (also known as The Last Supper). No doubt Lou and David are discussing heroin and eyeliner while Mick is supressing an urge for a Mars Bar. But who is the young lady on the right playing with David’s hair? Why it’s none other than wee Scottish popster Lulu who looks about as out of place as a pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah.

Bowie thought Lulu was a “great little artiste” and when they got chatting at the party he invited her down to the Chateau d’Herouville in France where he was recording his “Pin Ups” album with the idea of them making a record together. The result was a Lulu single with Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” on the A-side and “Watch That Man” on the flip. The glamtastic version of the former gives you an idea of what it would have sounded like if it had been on the Ziggy album. Instead of the spacey folk of the original this is a chunky stomper featuring Mick Ronson on guitar and Bowie’s honking, nasal sax playing (he’s singing backing vocals too). I’m not sure Lulu understands what the song is about, but then again I’m not sure anybody does.

This was the first version of the song I ever heard and I have vivid memories of Lulu singing it on Top of The Pops trying her best to look moody and androgynous in a suit and fedora. This clip is from the German TV show Musikladen but it’s the same outfit. They should bring back suits for women, that Yves Saint Laurent look was very sexy.

I like the fact that Bowie has never been afraid to spend his artistic credibility working with acts that aren’t exactly, shall we say, trendy, like Lulu, Queen and Bing Crosby. Much as I love him, somehow I can’t imagine Bryan Ferry working with Cilla Black on a cover of “Do The Strand”.

Download: The Man Who Sold The World – Lulu (mp3)
Buy: “Oh! You Pretty Things: The Songs Of David Bowie (album)

The way we were

If this blog had a theme song it would probably be “Teenage Winter” by the wonderful Saint Etienne. They’ve always been good at mining the emotional punch of supposedly trivial pop moments and artifacts (“five to three, playing a tape you made me” is my favourite couplet of theirs) and this conjures up a whole vanishing world in such simple things as the stock in a charity shop and a pub jukebox. The last verse in particular is as evocative as a Phillip Larkin poem like “Going, Going.”

Mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury’s,
tears in their eyes.
They’ll never buy a Gibb brothers record again.
Their old 45s gathering dust
with the birthday cards they couldn’t face throwing away.

Download: Teenage Winter – Saint Etienne (mp3)
Buy: “Tales From Turnpike House” (album)

Mummy says you won’t come back

Whenever I hear “Grocer Jack (Excerpt From A Teenage Opera)” by Keith West I’m overcome with a massive Proustian rush of memories and feelings. As soon as that cooly elegant harpsichord riff starts up I’m transported back to my childhood bedroom on a cold and rainy Saturday morning sometime in the late 60s/early 70s listening to it on Ed Stewart’s “Junior Choice” show on Radio One. In my mind it’s coming out of my little orange transistor radio sitting on the window ledge, the melancholy minor key of the record blending perfectly with the chilly air and misty windows of a slate grey London weekend back when there was nothing much to do but sit in your bedroom listening to the radio and reading comics.

A huge UK hit in 1967, this is an lavishly beautiful pop record (though those of you with an aversion to children singing on records may want to leave the room now) with an ornate, paisley-shirted production that makes “Sgt. Pepper” sound like the first Clash album. But beneath the incredibly pretty surface is emotionally heavy stuff about a man dying of a heart attack and the distress this causes the children in his town. Without wanting to overload the song with too much emotional weight I sometimes wonder if the reason this gets me so verklempt is when I hear those kids pleading “Grocer Jack, Grocer Jack, is it true what mummy says, you won’t come back? Oh no.. I’m connecting to some feeling of loss or dread I had at that age. My Dad left home when I was very young and it was quite unusual in those days to have separated parents and be a so-called “latchkey kid.” Teachers at school would come up to me with a concerned look on their faces and ask me if I was OK, and I was teased by other kids for only having one parent at home. The most upsetting thing though was my sister and I were genuinely worried that we’d be put into state care (this was the era of “Cathy Come Home”), a fear which our mother occasionally took advantage of by threatening to have us taken away if we didn’t behave. So maybe I’m hearing a lot more than just a lovely pop tune, sometimes I feel like it’s my whole childhood and that fear of it being ripped away from me wrapped up in 4 minutes.

“Grocer Jack” was the first single from a planned concept album by producer Mark Wirtz called “A Teenage Opera.” Unfortunately the follow-up single “Sam” flopped and the record company pulled the plug on the project when they saw how much his lavish production style was costing them. But though “A Teenage Opera” was never finished at the time, it was recently recreated as close to the original conception as possible using demos and unused songs Wirtz later recorded with other acts. It may not be the real thing but it’s good enough to make you wonder how incredible that would have been.

Download: Grocer Jack (Excerpt From A Teenage Opera) – Keith West
Buy: “A Teenage Opera” (album)