No one likes us and we don’t care

The Stranglers were probably the least respected band to come out of punk. Not just because they had a drummer in his 40s and a bass player with a silly martial arts fetish, but their songs were laced with sexism and violent misogyny (“Sometimes I’m gonna smack your face” was the opening line of their debut album) which didn’t quite fit in with the revolutionary, empowering spirit of punk. They probably thought they were being provocative when they just came across like dirty old men. Still, I liked them quite a bit (though the friends I had who really liked them were also into Heavy Metal – ’nuff said), listening to their early records gave you the same kick you got from “Derek and Clive (Live)” or the sick jokes that used to go around school the minute someone famous died (“What was Marc Bolan’s last hit?” “A tree”) — they were nasty bastards but made some great records, and at that age you thought dirty words were funny.

By their standards their third album “Black and White” (1978) was quite an artistic and mature affair. It’s their most inventive musically and the first one where the “humour” didn’t involve ugly women and prostitutes. Not coincidentally I think it’s their best album. The opening song “Tank” is a classic parody of the rock and roll car song, instead of the freedom of a Little Deuce Coupe it’s about the thrill of driving a tank and shooting people. Quite a change for The Stranglers to be taking the piss out of military machismo, how very liberal of them. “Hey! (Rise of The Robots)” is a funny song about robots taking over the world (“They’re gonna want a union soon/Oil break that’s dead on noon”) driven along by some great skronky sax playing by Laura Logic. Silly stuff, but a vast improvement on what they used to find amusing. The way these two motor along shows what a seriously good group they could be aside from all the macho shithead stupidity.

Despite the departure of lead singer Hugh Cornwell in 1990 they’re still around today, gigging and making new records. Some belligerent old bastards just refuse to go away.

Download: Tank – The Stranglers (mp3)
Download: Hey! (Rise of The Robots) – The Stranglers (mp3)
Buy: “Black and White” (album)

Funny story: My Gran used to buy me and my sister an LP each every Christmas and in 1977 my sister asked for a copy of The Stranglers'”No More Heroes” album. On Christmas Day the whole family — aunties and uncles, cousins and grandparents — is gathered together and my sister decides to play her new record. If you know the album you can probably guess the rest of this story. Halfway through side one there’s this track on it called “Bring On The Nubiles” and the chorus…um, goes “Let me, let me, fuck ya, fuck ya, let me lick your little puss.” As you can imagine there were red faces all around, apart from us kids who thought it was hysterical. I still have a wry smile whenever I think of my Gran going into her local Woolworth’s and buying the album in the first place.


I’ve Got A Crush On You

Apparently my first celebrity crush was on 1960s Irish pop singer Clodagh Rodgers. I say “apparently” because I have no recollection of actually fancying her, but I do remember my mother winding me up whenever she came on the telly, saying things like “ooh look Lee, it’s your girlfriend Clodagh Rodgers!” (or Clodey Rotgut as she called her) so maybe I did. I know I always turned beet red with embarrassment whenever she did this, but any mention of girls was enough to fluster me at that age so that doesn’t really mean anything.

I don’t have any “Clodey” records but here she is singing her 1971 Eurovision Song Contest entry “Jack In The Box” and I have to say she does have rather nice legs (good choice of hot pants) but she isn’t really my type, and with that very blond hair and black eye make-up she looks worryingly like my mother did back then (though I always considered Dusty Springfield to be my mum’s pop doppleganger). Paging Dr. Freud…

As far as I’m concerned my first celebrity crush was on Raquel Welch and I can trace that back to seeing her 1970 television special — brilliantly called “Raquel!” — which had a profound effect on my 8-year-old mind. Have a look at this exceedingly groovy clip from the show and you’ll see why.

My Manor

I come from Fulham in south west London which is a fairly decent part of town, not as swanky as neighbouring Chelsea but it’s not exactly Deptford either. We have our posh parts but we also have plenty of council housing and working families — or we used to. Like most of London it was gentrified in the 1980s and the estate agents and wine bars which had previously been concentrated in the richer neighborhoods started spreading out into working class areas, devouring houses like BMW-driving locusts, driving prices up and the previous tenants out. It all happened very fast. The empty streets where I used to play football became crammed with parked cars and on summer nights the air was full of the loud, braying voices of stripe-shirted City traders hosting dinner parties in their back gardens, boasting about how much they paid for their terraced house and how the area is so much more civilized now that new wine shop has opened up the road. What used to make me really angry was the property pages of magazines talking about areas of London being “discovered” as if no one had ever lived there before.

Like a lot of bad things that have happened to London (and England generally) in the past 25 years you can blame a lot of it on Maggie Thatcher. Her policy of selling off council houses to private buyers started a property gold rush and local authorities were only too keen to offload their housing stock and take the huge profits that were to be had. The Faith Brothers’ 1985 recording “Fulham Court” is about an estate our Tory council were trying to sell off and force out the original tenants. If Bruce Springsteen had grown up on a council estate he’d have written a song like this, full of passion for social justice and romanticism for the lives of ordinary working people. Though I must admit it’s hard for me to feel the romance about a council estate in Fulham — not exactly the Asbury Park boardwalk is it? It’s still a beautiful record.

In the song, singer Billy Franks calls the estate “the dumping ground of the borough” where they placed their “trouble” tenants and I remember it having something of a bad reputation. Unfortunately this caused the council a bit of a problem when they wanted to sell it, a lot of the residents refused to leave so they resorted to heavy-handed policing and bureaucratic bullying in an effort to force them out. The council won of course, Maggie’s side won every battle back then.

There aren’t that many good bands from Fulham, while surrounding areas gave the world The Who, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols, far as I know we’ve only managed the punk bands Eater and The Lurkers (though I’m not 100% sure about those two actually being from Fulham) and the Faith Brothers who didn’t exactly set the world on fire, despite making some fine records. “Fulham Court” was the b-side of their second (and best) single “A Stranger On Home Ground.” Billy Franks is still gigging around town and I wonder if he still lives in Fulham Court. Like a good socialist he’s offering free downloads of much of the Faith Brothers back catalogue on his web site, including all of their terrific debut album “Eventide.”

Download: Fulham Court- Faith Brothers (mp3)

Devil Woman

The 1972 hit “Lady Eleanor” by Geordie folk-rockers Lindisfarne used to give me the willies when I was a kid. It wasn’t the sinister mandolin (yes, a mandolin can sound sinister) or menacing atmosphere that did it, but the lyrics that spooked me because I hadn’t a clue what it was all about and the imagery put all sorts of funny ideas into my innocent, 10-year-old head. Even reading the lyrics in a copy of Disco 45 was no help, what was I supposed make of this at that age?

Bashee playing magician sitting lotus on the floor
Belly dancing beauty with a power driven saw
Had my share of nightmares, didn’t think there could be much more
Then in walked Roderick Usher with the Lady Eleanor

She tied my eyes with ribbon of a silken ghostly thread
I gazed with trouble vision on an old four poster bed
Where Eleanor had risen to kiss the neck below my head
And bid me come along with her to the land of the dancing dead

I knew that it was probably a bit naughty, but that was one the many unexplained and murky things about the adult world beyond my experience, something to do with what was on BBC2 late at night when my sister and I were in bed. Kids these days are so terribly worldly and sophisticated, what with their wireless computers and stereophonic telephones. They spend their evenings ripping out other people’s spinal cords in video games and have a whole world of sexual perversion at their fingertips on the internet, so they’d find it highly amusing that my generation was so innocent something as cheesy as The Daleks could make us leap behind the couch in terror or that I’d be perturbed by the imagery in a pop song.

Over 30 years later I know that Roderick Usher is a character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of The House of Usher.” There are several, real life Lady Eleanor’s, the best known being the 12th century Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of both King Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and quite an interesting woman who went on Crusades and was a believer in Courtly Love. Then there’s the half-gypsy aristocrat Lady Eleanor Smith, one of the so-called Bright Young Things who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel “Vile Bodies” and led an eventful, bohemian life which involved running off to the circus and writing supernatural novels about gypsies and flamenco dancers. None of these people are connected in any way and the “secret” of the song I was looking for doesn’t really exist. It’s just surreal, all-a-dream nonsense, a Gothic-novel sex and horror fantasy. Basically, this is what you get when folk singers take drugs — it’s all Bob Dylan’s fault.

Download: Lady Eleanor – Lindisfarne (mp3)
Buy: “Nicely Out of Tune” (album)
Photo: “Mrs. Edward Mayer as Medusa” by Madame Yevonde

Fight The Power

“They are the first band not to shrug off their political stance as soon as they walk out of the recording studio. The first band with sufficient pure, undiluted unrepentant bottle to keep their crooning necks firmly on the uncompromising line of commitment when life would be infinitely easier — and no less of a commercial success — if they made their excuses and left before the riot.”
Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons
“The Boy Looked At Johnny” (1978)

It’s hard to overstate what a ballsy move it was for Tom Robinson to follow his catchy, radio-friendly Top 5 pop hit “2-4-6-8 Motorway” in 1977 with the strident anthem “Glad To Be Gay” but that was a time when lines were being drawn all across Britain and a lot of people felt they had to declare which side of the barricades they were on. These days it’s almost hip and trendy to be gay (an exaggeration I know) but it certainly wasn’t back then, being gay meant you were either a perverted kiddie fiddler or John Inman. My best mate at the time told me he threw away his copy of “Motorway” in disgust when he found out Robinson was “a bloody shirtlifter” — but he joined the Young Conservatives when he left school so I guess he had issues.

Their third single “Up Against The Wall” is one of the most blistering records to come out of punk, a riot of guitars and pulverizing drumming (the terrific Danny Kustow and Dolphin Taylor) that hits you like a boot in the groin — or a truncheon over the head. This led off their classic 1978 debut album “Power In The Darkness” which, along with the first Clash album, is the best snapshot of the tense, angry atmosphere in England at the time. Some of it seems like naive sloganeering now but back then it felt like life and death, you were either on Tom’s side or you were with the National Front and the SPG.

Download: Glad To Be Gay – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Download: Up Against The Wall – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Buy: “Power In The Darkness” (album)

(Posting has been a bit light this week as I’m recovering from a rather nasty stomach bug)

Sleeve Talk

The concept album is one of those rock ideas that got thoroughly shat upon by punk as an example of the previous generation’s ridiculous pomposity and became the butt of a million Spinal Tap-ish jokes regarding epic songs about wizards and elves. Even though I grew up reading Marvel comics and science fiction novels I was thankfully too young to also fall under the spell of Genesis, Yes, Barclay James Harvest and all their Proggy brethren whose every album seemed to be a grandiosly conceived Sci-Fi or fantasy concept of some kind or other. ELO’s more poppy form of pretension got me early though and I fell in love with their 1974 album “Eldorado” which was a concept album (sorry, it’s actually called a symphony) about the magical goings on in a fairy tale dream world. I never paid much attention to Jeff Lynne’s lyrics so it wasn’t the subject matter (full of all sorts of silly stuff about knights, rainbows, and Robin Hood), I just liked the way it sounded. I also loved the sleeve which I still think is gorgeous.

In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a still from “The Wizard of Oz” which is also about a dream world. I thought it was very clever of the designer to go with an image like that rather than other, more obvious routes – like hiring Roger Dean – and was all set to write about how a lot of design is about making intelligent choices and how a designer’s brain is his most important tool, but in my research I found out that the idea to use that picture actually came from band manager Don Arden’s daughter Sharon. Digging further I discovered that “Sharon” is none other than Sharon Osbourne – yes, that one, Mrs. Ozzy Osbourne. Still, it is a great idea no matter where it came from; the image of the glittery, iconic red shoes is beautifully striking and doesn’t look at all dated unlike a lot of other concept albums from the era. The small, elegant typography looks like the engraving on an expensive invitation to a grand ball, a feel reinforced by the gold border around the edges. It’s certainly a huge improvement on the “here are our belly buttons” sleeve of their previous album.

This was the first ELO album to use a full orchestra and the first two tracks segue together to produce about the grandest, dreamiest opening you can imagine. “Eldorado Overture” starts with an incredibly pretentious spoken-word intro by some bloke called Peter Ford-Robertson who has the warm and plummy tones of an old BBC radio presenter announcing the death of the King. Then the orchestra comes in, swooping and crashing in madly baroque fashion, and the moment where it suddenly dies and fades into the shimmering “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” is sublime – probably the single most heavenly moment ELO ever produced.

Download: Eldorado Overture/Can’t Get It Out Of My Head – Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)
Buy: “Eldorado” (album)

We Are The Mods

Though I worshipped at the altar of Paul Weller I was never a (nouveau) Mod myself. I was never anything really (you can’t pigeonhole me!) though I did have a blue-striped, button-down shirt exactly like one Terry Hall of The Specials wore (there was a very thin line between Mod and Rude Boy). But during the Mod revival of the late 70s lots of my school mates really got into the scene: buying Vespas, wearing Parkas, Clark’s desert boots and mohair suits, fighting (skinheads mostly), doing lots of speed, and trying to dance like Sting in “Quadrophenia”. One of them even bought a Rickenbacker guitar (because Paul Weller played one) and started a band whose short career highlight was playing an end-of-term gig at the local girl’s school. Most of them eventually morphed into being Soul Boys during the 80s which was the contemporary equivalent of being a Mod anyway.

The word “Mod” comes from “Modernist” so the whole idea of a Mod revival is actually fairly oxymoronic, and though The Jam were hardly the most original band in the world themselves they spawned an army of imitators. Secret Affair, The Chords and The Purple Hearts were probably the best of the bunch (the least said about The Merton Parkas, Squire, and The Lambrettas the better) who recorded a few cracking singles between them. The Purple Hearts and Chords tracks sound the most Jam-like, full of blazing Rickenbackers, while Secret Affair’s “Time For Action” is a bouncy brass rave-up. These were all released between 1979 and 1980 and the Mod revival pretty much died (in the public eye anyway) when The Jam split up in ’82. I saw them on their farewell tour and was very disdainful of all the 14-year-old boys in cheap, knock-off Parkas in the audience. I was only 19 myself at the time and felt old in that crowd. Once a “movement” has got to that stage it’s time to call it a day – which is just what Paul Weller did, and moved onto ripping off Curtis Mayfield instead.

Download: Somethings Missing – The Chords (mp3)
Download: Jimmy – Purple Hearts (mp3)
Download: Time For Action – Secret Affair (mp3)
Visit: Mod Culture

Goodbye mama, goodbye youth

I do seem to like pictures of children in this blog, don’t I? Getting older naturally makes one wistful for lost childhood and things like conkers, grazed knees, jam sandwiches, untied shoelaces, jumpers for goalposts and all that soft-focus nostalgia malarkey. But this isn’t about that, despite it’s title Andrew Gold‘s “Lonely Boy” has nothing to do with my own childhood except for the fact that my sister and I loved it and always turned it up when it came on the radio. I still think it’s one of the great pre-punk singles of the 70s.

A hit in 1975, this is the epitome of West Coast FM soft rock, immaculately played by session musicians with a polished, driving production designed to make it sound great on the radio. And sound great it did, in comparison to Gold’s other hits (Never Let Her Slip Away, Thank You For Being A Friend) this actually rocks quite a bit, the piano really pumps and the guitar solo is pretty hot. I do remember getting swept away by it in our living room and being quite exhilarated by the big chorus. Thankfully I was young enough not to know I was supposed to be embarrassed about liking such a record.

Download: Lonely Boy – Andrew Gold (mp3)
Buy: “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (album)

The School of Hard Knocks

There’s a lot of water under the bridge between these two photos of Marianne Faithfull. The top one was taken in 1964 (at the beautiful Salisbury pub on St. Martin’s Lane) and the one below it in 1979.

In those 15 years she’d had a handful of light folk-pop hits, given birth to a son, been Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, become hooked on cocaine, had a miscarriage, taken her kit off and romped with Alain Delon in the erotic psychedelic biker movie “Girl On A Motorcycle,” written The Stones’ “Sister Morphine,” been in a drug-induced coma, split up with Jagger, lost custody of her son, become a heroin addict, spent two years living rough on the streets of Soho, suffered from anorexia, lived in a squat, and married The Vibrators’ bassist Ben Brierly.

If that’s all there was to the story Marianne would have been remembered mostly as a kind of English Edie Sedgwick, a beautiful party girl destroyed by drugs, more famous for who she was shagging than any actual accomplishments of her own. But she managed to drag herself out of the shit in 1979 and recorded the brilliant “Broken English” album which, given what she’d been through, was something of a human triumph as well as an artistic one. If I’d been through half the things she had I’d barely have the will to stick my head in a gas oven, let alone make such a vital, alive record. The album had a stark, edgy post-punk sound and in Marianne’s voice you could hear the life she’d lived, with her previously wispy and delicate tones replaced by a snarling, throaty croak ravaged by booze, drugs and fags – it was like Vashti Bunyan turning into Tom Waits.

The punky-reggae track “Why D’Ya Do It?” really put the cat amongst the pigeons with it’s explicit, x-rated lyrics written by the poet and playwright Heathcote Williams (who apparently wanted Tina Turner to sing it originally, the mind boggles at the thought.) It’s a vicious kiss-off to an unfaithful lover full of language that would shock your Granny – hell, it makes me blush. This is a very grown-up song with an emotional anger that makes some punk band saying “fuck” on a record sound a bit juvenile in comparison. I’d hate to be the bloke she’s thinking about when she sings this.

Download: Why D’Ya Do It? – Marianne Faithfull (mp3)
Buy: “Broken English” (album)