Ooh look

I was never the sort of kid who was interested in planes or trains or automobiles, but even I got a kick out of seeing Concorde. It started commercial flights in 1976 and used to fly over our school one afternoon every week on its way from Heathrow to Bahrain. For a while that was the only route it flew out of England so spotting it was something of an event. We were usually in the playground on our way to the next lesson when it came over, everyone would excitedly look up when we heard its roaring engines and kids inside would rush over to their classroom windows to try and catch a glimpse.

What made Concorde so great was that it was (at least partly) British. It started flying during the dark days of the 1970s when the country was falling apart and we had little to be proud of except our “glorious” past, but here was this gorgeous, futuristic thing we helped design and build — easily the most beautiful passenger plane ever created. With it’s sleek, sexy lines and thrusting nose it was like the E-Type of aircraft, an object that stirred the loins of national pride. The fact that the Americans wouldn’t allow it to land at their airports made our pride swell even more, they said it was because of noise pollution but we thought they were just jealous because they hadn’t built the world’s first supersonic airliner themselves.

The Concorde project started in the 50s but to me it evoked the British “can do” forward thinking of the 1960s, that optimistic period when when we’d never had it so good and Harold Wilson was talking about the “white hot heat” of the technological revolution. It didn’t last of course, by the time Concorde was ready to fly the country was in the toilet and the oil crisis meant there wasn’t much demand for a petrol-hungry supersonic plane. So it was a bit of a white elephant that cost a boatload of money and ended up in limited service for the wealthy, but it was a magnificent white elephant and it was ours.

John Peel played some bizarre music on his show but “There Goes Concorde Again” by …And The Native Hipsters from 1980 must rank as the one of the most completely bonkers. This is nearly seven minutes of spoken word whimsy punctuated by tuneless electronic bleeps and bloops and the occasional clattering of typewriter keys. “Vocalist” Nanette Greenblatt sounds like some batty old cat lady who spends too much time indoors, watching the comings and goings of the world from behind her net curtains. You either love this or it will drive you from the room screaming. Me, I think it’s a lovely piece of peculiarly English eccentricity and never get tired of it no matter how many times she says “ooh look!” — which is a lot.

Surprisingly this was a big hit on the indie charts and I swear I remember Peel playing a parody version of it someone did about looking out of the window and seeing two Joy Division fans walk by carrying copies of “Unknown Pleasures” under their arms. Anyone else remember this or did I hallucinate the whole thing?

Download: There Goes Concorde Again – …And The Native Hipsters (mp3)


The sun has got his hat on

Summer officially arrived last week which is a good excuse to dig this old chestnut out. One of my favourite records from the famous “punk” summer of 1977 wasn’t “White Riot” or “God Save The Queen” but, I’m afraid to say (I’m not really), the sugary sweet “Oh Lori” by Alessi. It always reminds me of a camping trip our school took us on that summer which was memorable because we got to see our sexy young English teacher Miss Cowan in a bikini. Though we also discovered on the trip that she was having it off with our Maths teacher Mr. “Ziggy” Zbigniew which made him go right up in our estimation.

This was on the radio a lot that summer along with “Telephone Line” by ELO and “Peaches” by The Stranglers but with it’s breezy, sunny vibe this one sounds most like the soundtrack to a carefree teenage summer — though I spent a large part of that camping trip avoiding school bully Ian Smith who wanted to beat me up for some reason, so it wasn’t all that carefree. Wonder what that chubby twat is up to now. More importantly, I wonder what Miss Cowan is up to now.

Download: Oh Lori – Alessi (mp3)

Suburban Gothic

Strange things happen out on the edges of cities, suburbia produces all sorts of weirdness from serial killers and cross-dressing accountants to Goth. Picture, if you can, young Susan Ballion living in Bromley in the mid-70s. A girl with a Bowie and Roxy fixation who dreams of reinventing herself a la Ziggy Stardust (Bowie grew up in Bromley too) and escaping the dreary suburban hell she lives in. Maybe she has a Saturday job behind the make-up counter at Boot’s like other girls, but she also has a taste for “outsider” culture and spends her evenings at local gay discos. Then the Sex Pistols come along and she leaps at the moment, becoming part of the infamous Bromley Contingent that follows the band around, gets herself chatted up by Bill Grundy on national television, and plays her first gig with mates Steve “Spunker” Severin and Sid Vicious under the name Suzi and The Banshees.

And 25 years later she was still going. Long after all the Toyahs, Paulines, Poly Styrenes, and Hazel O’Connors had fallen by the wayside, Siouxsie was still standing proud — the Grande Dame of post-punk and a certified icon, surviving on strength of personality and sheer bloody-mindedness.

I had a bit of a Banshees fixation myself for a few years before I grew out of the whole teenage alienation thing (in 1983 to be precise). I think I saw them live more than any other band (four times) and they were always insanely great. Siouxsie ruled from the stage like a glorious ice queen, giving withering looks to anyone who incurred her displeasure (like the punks at one gig who kept gobbing at her and calling for “The Lord’s Prayer” — if looks could kill they’d have been pushing up the daisies). She radiated that certain je ne sais quoi which makes a person a star, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

This version of “Mirage” is from a bootleg album called “Love In A Void” which collected together the two John Peel sessions they’d taped in 1977 and ’78 before putting out any official records. A lot of fans at the time preferred that to their proper debut album “The Scream” because it was rougher and more punky. Personally I like the official album version better but this is pretty great, raw and trashy with the metallic guitar sound that used to literally make me feel a bit queasy like someone was dragging their fingers down a blackboard (which Siouxsie would probably take as a compliment.)

Download: Mirage – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)
(The Peel sessions finally came out officially last year on “Voices On The Air”)

Four years later they had guitarist John McGeoch and drummer Budgie in the band who added more colour to their old monochrome sturm und drang. I don’t listen to much Banshees these days but this extended 12″ version of “Spellbound” still sounds incredible, a blazing barrage of drums and swirling guitars. Apparently this is a bit of a Goth Disco favourite (I swear I wouldn’t know myself), perfect for modern-day Susan Ballion’s to whirl around to while dreaming about being someone else.

Download: Spellbound (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

The last Banshees album I bought was “A Kiss In The Dreamhouse” in 1982 which at the time I thought was their masterpiece and the single “Slowdive” one of the best things they ever did (though it was a flop on the charts). This still sounds great too, a tense dance number with a primitive, echoey beat and stabbing strings straight from the shower scene in “Psycho.” Shoegazer band Slowdive claim their name has nothing to do with this record. I believe them, millions wouldn’t.

Download: Slowdive (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

Popsocks and Tank Tops

It’s probably just me but I think there’s something about the name “Gaye” that is very 1970s. Like “Jackie” or “Tracy” it reminds me of girls with long, centre-parted Susan Dey hair, wearing pop socks, a stripy tank top (note to American readers: in the UK a tank top is a sweater vest) and high-waisted Crimplene flares who listened to Radio Luxembourg in their bedrooms at night and dreamt about David Essex.

“Gaye” was also the only hit for Clifford T. Ward who is the epitome of the sensitive and mopey 70s singer-songwriter. It’s a very pretty record but the lyrics are really soppy (“You’re the tray of nice things I upset yesterday”) and Ward sounds so wet it’s almost twee – Gilbert O’Sullivan could probably beat him up.

These days, girls in England are given old-fashioned names with Victorian snob appeal like Olivia and Emily which lack the council estate glamour of a Gaye or Tracy. You wouldn’t catch an “Olivia” having a snog in a bus shelter.

Download: Gaye – Clifford T. Ward (mp3)
Buy: “Home Thoughts From Abroad” (album)
Photo from the Paynes Cafe Royal Reunion website.

My Secret Head-Banging Shame

The second concert I ever went to was Thin Lizzy at the Hammersmith Odeon in what I guess must have been late 1978 because their current album was “Live & Dangerous” (which is the one I would tell anyone to buy if they only wanted one Thin Lizzy album) and Gary Moore was occupying the lead guitarist slot. It remains the only “hard rock” gig I’ve ever been too and I remember being startled at how loud it was – it made my jaw hurt – but the mate I went with had seen Motorhead and Ted Nugent at the same venue and thought it was nothing (“you think this is loud? Ha!”) By that time I was well aware that heavy metal was about as duff and retrograde as you could get in the late 70s (and the terrible clothes!) and was faintly amused to find myself getting caught up in the atmosphere, excitedly pumping my fist in the air and vigorously nodding my head along with all the other greasy long-hairs in the audience. Even today, when I play heavier Thin Lizzy tracks like “The Rocker” I can’t stop myself from playing a little air guitar with my fingers while nodding my head and pulling the eyes-closed, white-man-overbite expression. Oh, the shame.

But trendy or not, Lizzy were yards better than your average hard rock outfit with a lead singer who oozed charisma and Irish charm and wrote romantic, lyrical songs about vagabonds, cowboys and bikers heavily influenced by Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. It’s usually cringe-inducing when hard rockers get all soppy and sing ballads, wailing over crashing power chords about how their sweet lovin’ woman left them, but “Still In Love With You” is a beauty in any genre, especially in this live version. A sad torch song as deep as the deepest Southern Soul ballad which Phil Lynott sings delicately without a hint of hard rock chest-thumping. The blazing twin guitar solos by Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham are pretty wonderful too and I usually hate guitar solos.

Though this was credited to Lynott apparently the song was mostly written by Gary Moore when he had a short spell with the group in the early 70s. Nice one Gary, though at the gig I had a feeling Phil didn’t appreciate you trying to hog the spotlight by showing off with the solos a bit too much.

Download: Still In Love With You – Thin Lizzy (mp3)
Buy: “Live and Dangerous” (album)

Sleeve Talk

I only know one graphic design joke which goes like this:

Q: How many graphic designers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

A real thigh-slapper huh? What the punchline is (attempting to) make fun of is how designers are taught (or should be) to question assumptions when presented with a problem. These days they call this “thinking outside the box” but I won’t because I don’t want to be the sort of person who says things like thinking outside the box. Like, does a record sleeve have to be a cardboard square that opens at the side? Why can’t it be round? In a tin cannister? Die-cut like a floppy disk?

The original UK sleeve of Elvis Costello’s 1978 album “Armed Forces” takes similar liberties with the traditional sleeve format. On the front (above) is a rather naff painting of elephants (which I’ve always assumed was some conceptual joke about the military) with the amateur, cack-handed quality of art you’d find at a jumble sale. But flip it over and things get a bit more interesting. The album doesn’t open at the side but has four brightly-decorated, interlocking flaps..

… that open out like an Origami puzzle…

…into a riot of Jackson Pollock-, Kandinsky-, Pop Art-, and Mondrian-inspired graphics.

Remove the inner sleeve and you get the image that was on the front of the American version of the album (they added “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” to the tracklisting too, which sound-wise doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album at all.)

This is the work of a designer called Barney Bubbles who is a cult figure among other designers but is barely known outside the field. Unlike contemporaries and followers like Peter Saville, Neville Brody, and Vaughan Oliver there has never been a book published or a museum exhibition of his work. Barney was publicity shy, never gave interviews and was rather nonchalant about credits (his name doesn’t appear anywhere on the “Armed Forces” sleeve) reasoning that it was just packaging and there’s no designer credit on a box of soap powder. He was closely associated with hippy rockers Hawkwind before making the transition to a more punk/new wave aesthetic working for Stiff Records in the late 70s where he produced an amazing body of work marked by a wit and conceptual brilliance that have kept them fresh today. He designed all Costello’s sleeves up to the “Imperial Bedroom” album and other notable work included The Damned’s “Music For Pleasure” and Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” but his most famous design is probably the brilliant “Blockhead” logo.

“Armed Forces” is probably his Sistine Chapel though, an inspired example of what a great designer can do when given the opportunity to stretch his wings. Costello’s previous album “This Years Model” was a big hit so I imagine Barney was told to make a splash with the sleeve of the next one. Above all, it looks like he’s having fun, piling on the visual puns and references in a way that matches the intricate, dense wordplay of Costello’s lyrics.

Download: Goon Squad – Elvis Costello & The Attractions (mp3)
Buy: “Armed Forces” (album)

For a more in-depth look at Barney’s life and work (sadly he committed suicide in 1983) read this excellent post at John Coulthart’s site for which I contributed the above photos (larger versions can be found here.)

Lovers, not Fighters

I almost posted “Silly Games” by Janet Kay when I wrote about school discos the other week but it came out in 1979 and by then I was already hitting the pubs and clubs of London so I was a bit beyond forlorn nights pining over schoolgirls in dingy classrooms. Instead I was spending forlorn nights at nightclubs like The Best Disco In Town at the Lyceum Ballroom or chrome-plated meat markets in the suburbs with names like Tiffany’s and Cheeky Pete’s where I’d still be pining over girls but at least I could drink and smoke (two newly acquired habits). But this track is such a classic anthem of it’s time and place I felt I had to post it anyway.

Lovers Rock was an offshoot of Reggae that came out of South London in the 1970s which was more laid back and soulful than the seriously heavy roots sounds of bands like Culture, The Upsetters, and Burning Spear who were always banging on about Jah and Babylon over thick bassy riddims. That stuff was very hip with the Rastas and Punks around Ladbroke Grove but didn’t mean a whole lot to a Soul Boy from Fulham. I don’t know how big it was outside of London but round my way it was very popular indeed, at my school there was a conflict between the Soul Boys (who were mostly white) and the Reggae-loving West Indian kids about whose music was the best — a battle often fought over the Youth Center record player — but Lovers Rock was the one thing they both liked. More importantly, girls loved it and anything that could get you in with them was good.

“Silly Games” is about the most beautiful Lovers record ever made (that I’ve heard anyway) and was the biggest hit the genre produced, getting to No. 2 in the charts. Written and produced by Dennis Bovell (who went on to work with The Slits and Orange Juice) who was trying to emulate the sweet sound of Minnie Riperton and got Janet to record the song because she was able to hit the same really high notes as her. (at times on this she reaches notes only dogs can hear).

This is the long 12″ version with the spacey Dub section at the end that was compulsory on all Reggae 12″ singles at the time. Even after all these years it sounds as lovely as ever.

Download: Silly Games – Janet Kay (mp3)
Buy: “Reggae Love Songs” (album)

My Mother’s Records

With all the interminable bollocks written about the “revolutionary” sounds of the 1960s (and still being written, I wish they’d shut up about it) it’s often overlooked that the charts then were also full of the likes of Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, and other “square” music bought by untrustworthy over-30s like my mother. Her generation was raised on Frank Sinatra and by the time rock and roll hit the scene (she was 21 when “Heartbreak Hotel” came out) their idea of cool sophistication had already been shaped by Ol’ Blue Eyes. So even though she quite liked The Beatles, by the time the Summer of Love rolled around my mother was a bit too old to be a hippy and her idea of a swinging good time was cocktails and classy music, not drugs and dancing in a field (but thankfully she wasn’t so square that she was into Val Doonican either). Besides, by then she had two kids to raise on her own and couldn’t exactly go gallivanting off to see The Stones in Hyde Park.

So in our house “Light My Fire” was by Jose Feliciano, not The Doors. In fact it was years before I even knew that this was a cover version, my mother played this so often it still sounds like the original to me and I think of The Doors’ version as the overheated, vaguely cheesy cover. Feliciano might not have worn leather trousers and written bad poetry but he sounded plenty soulful and intense on this, though I bet the hippies hated it.

Even better is his version of “California Dreaming” which transforms the breezy hippy anthem into something darker, The Mamas and The Papas were all cheery and sunny while Jose sounds very lonely and lost. I absolutely love the Spanish bit at the end, my O-Level Spanish is a bit rusty so I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. It sounds dead moody though.

Download: Light My Fire – Jose Feliciano (mp3)
Download: California Dreaming – Jose Feliciano (mp3)

Both of these are from his 1968 album “Feliciano!” which was a ubiquitous presence on the record shelves of just about everyone we knew back then (along with “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and one of the few records my Dad took with him when he left home which says something about its popularity — and something about its place in my memories.