Apologies for my absence this week, I’ve had some important real life stuff to deal with. Hopefully I’ll have all my ducks back in a row sometime next week. In the meantime, here’s a long-lost post-punk classic from 1981.
Ever since I started this blog I’ve wanted to write something about the 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film “A Matter of Life and Death”, not just because it’s one of the greatest British films ever made but it also had things to say about Englishness and the importance of our values and character in the modern, American-dominated world. I never could get it written though but with the death this week of it’s legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff I thought I’d just present the opening scene as a tribute to his astonishing work. You could argue whether or not it’s the greatest British film ever made, but I certainly think this is the greatest, most emotionally gripping opening to a film ever.
Cardiff’s most famous work was on Powell’s “Black Narcissus” the following year which must be the most gorgeous, sumptuous and erotic film about nuns ever made, due in no small part to Cardiff’s incredible Technicolor photography. Every shot of the film is worthy of framing and putting on a wall.
The scene where Kathleen Byron goes crazy is rightly famous, and even though she’s mad as a hatter what man hasn’t watched that and felt a little charge run up his leg when she puts her lipstick on? It reminds me of every beautiful but crazy girl I’ve ever known, you know they’re dangerous but you can’t help yourself. Though luckily I’ve never met one who wanted to push me off a cliff.
Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in, oh, 17 years: I bought a brand new album on vinyl, the terrific “It’s Blitz” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I think it was the cover (above) that made me buy it in that format rather than a CD, something about that image and the lack of type gives it the feel of a classic 70s or 80s album — something New Wavey by some arty NY band on the Ze label maybe — which I’m sure was intentional given the electro/disco/rock sound of the record. It just felt like it was begging to be owned on 12″ vinyl instead of whatever piddly size a CD is.
It helped that the album came with a code to get a free digital download of it too which a lot of new releases are doing these days (at least in the States) and should encourage more people to shell out the couple of bucks extra for the vinyl. I’ve noticed that in my local music emporium the vinyl section is a lot bigger than it was last year and has been moved right by the front entrance, so maybe there is a demand for it among da kidz these days which reminded me of this piece in The Guardian recently about the return of fanzines (which inspired my big post about vinyl):
“Roy belongs to a kind of retro-vanguard within the youth of today who increasingly disenchanted with Web 2.0 reality, seeing its limitlessness and hyper-linked pseudo-connectivity as the problem, something working against the intimacy of a real, grounded community. “Fanzines say ‘hello it’s me, I’m here’. The internet is a bit scary to me – it is bigger than us, beyond our control.” There’s a groundswell of revived interest into analogue formats like vinyl (especially seven-inch singles) and cassettes (often encased in elaborate, hand-decorated packaging)…”Music is associated with tangible artefacts to me. A MP3 is a file – it can be erased in one click. Collection makes recollection possible. The albums you’ve listened to, the books you’ve read, they sit on your shelves, and it is memory made visible. There is no romance involved with MP3s.”
It probably doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, just a few analog King Canutes trying to hold back the unstoppable digital tide, but I can’t tell you how great it felt to be coming home from work with a new record in a bag. I almost felt, well, at least 29 again.
As it’s so new I’m not going to post any tracks from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs album but here’s a clip of them doing the single “Zero” on the Letterman show (I notice Dave has the vinyl too!) which also gives you a chance to see the lovely Karen O in action.
I lived in Florida for several years and though it could be a relatively cosmopolitan place because of the large number of Hispanics and northern Yankees living there, every now and you’d be reminded that you were, in fact, in the Deep South. It wasn’t just the gun shops, the Confederate flag bumper stickers on pick-up trucks, the signs on shop doors saying “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” or even the fact that black people seemed to live in a completely different world from the white folks. There was also the drunken redneck straight out of Deliverance who staggered up to me in a bar one night and because I had no idea what he was incoherently mumbling on about, said to me “If you cain’t unnerstand what ah’m sayin’ then get the fuck out of mah country!” and punched me in the face. Or the guy in another bar who told me that the English weren’t worth a damn and the United States should never have gotten involved in WWII because it wasn’t their problem. When I said that the Holocaust was a pretty important problem for everyone he replied “Aw, them Jews were askin’ for trouble” which was my cue to move to another stool. As you can imagine, being a left-wing, urban sophisticate from London, there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there (easy answer actually: it was hot, it was cheap, and the girls loved my accent.)
The jukebox soundtrack to those days was usually some loud and leaden Rawk music of the hairy and chest-beating kind: Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Metallica — you know, real man’s music — but the one record I really, really hated which always plays in my head when I think about the South is “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger. The song probably doesn’t mean much to your average Brit (unless they’re familiar with this scene from Risky Business) but it was a popular blue-collar classic down there which always got the Good Ol’ Boys rocking and made me want catch the next plane home (or at least cleanse my ears with some Pet Shop Boys.) It wasn’t just that it made Status Quo sound cutting edge, what made this song worse than all the others was its proud declaration that modern music was rubbish which, mixed with the ambience of cheap watery beer, rusty pick-up trucks and chewing tobacco, sounded like the rallying cry for every reactionary redneck cracker who still thought the wrong side won the Civil War, and the line “Don’t try to take me to a disco, you’ll never even get me out on the floor” always made me think of Nile Rodgers’ assertion that the whole “Disco Sucks!” movement in America was driven by racism and homophobia — in that context it might as well been called “Old Time Rock and Roll (And Not That Fag Shit).”
But I don’t want to dump on poor old Bob Seger too much, for a start he’s from Detroit and I’m sure he’s a nice, well-meaning bloke even if he is a bit of a bargain-basement Bruce Springsteen. And while I might be a sensitive, liberal city boy who does like disco, the truth is I was once also quite a fan of his 1978 album “Stranger In Town” and I really liked the single “Hollywood Nights” and used to own it on silver vinyl. And I still think this a tremendous record which motors along with the same exhilarating rush you get from flooring an open-top Mustang and zooming down a highway, it almost makes me forgive him for the living hell he put me through with “Old Time Rock and Roll”. Well, not quite, I still have nightmares about that bloody record.
The first minute of this clip captures the atmosphere I was talking about far better than I can, and it’s funny too, which always helps. This movie may technically be a comedy but at times it felt like a documentary to me.
PS: I should add, before I get a deluge of “how dare you!” comments, that I knew many wonderful, intelligent people in Florida, including my lovely wife who I met in a bar in Tampa. And I have been punched in pubs in London and Wales so there are arseholes everywhere.
Good old Titbits, a cheesy gossip mag full of curvy young ladies in bikinis but you didn’t have to be embarrassed about looking at it because your mum bought it — the Littlewoods catalogue was similar in that respect, pages and pages of girls in their underwear but you could pretend you were looking at the toys.
I would really love to know what “Nitro Man Blows The Gaff” was all about. Isn’t that a great bit of tabloid poetry?
This issue is dated June 17, 1972, and that very same week pop pickers you could hear this little number on the charts. Not quite as good as I remembered it being though, but it has a certain charm.
Things are a bit slow here at the moment, I have a pile of half-written new posts staring at me and begging to be finished but my head’s not into it right now. I left my enthusiasm in my other trousers this week.
I’m still amazed that this brilliant, brilliant record wasn’t a monster hit but it only got to #21 in 1985. I always thought Big Sound Authority was a great name for a band too. Sadly they split up a year after this was released which doesn’t surprise me, if I’d recorded something as fantastic as this only to see it fail to make the Top 20 I’d want to throw in the towel too.
A lot of Post-punk music tended to be rather on the gloomy side, painted in shades of grey with maybe the occasional splash of blood red. It was the soundtrack to the dismal fag-end of the 1970s played by alienated boys from grim Northern council flats or Anarcho-Marxists in communal Notting Hill squats. They all wore drab colours and sounded as if their tea had gone cold, wailing unhappily over dissonant guitars and shuddery beats. It produced some thrilling music but no one ever skipped down the road happily whistling “Death Disco”.
But in 1979, at the height of all this heavy — and fairly male — gloom and doom, a perky single called “White Mice” appeared on the indie scene by an all-girl group called the Mo-dettes. Packaged in a powder pink sleeve with a romance comic parody on the back it had a decidedly girly and pop vibe and, compared to the wrist-slitting ditties of Joy Division, was as fluffy as a marshmallow, with a bouncy beat and the heavily-accented vocals of Swiss-born lead singer Ramona Carlier (I’ve still no idea what she’s singing about) giving it plenty of sexy ooh la la. There were other all-girl bands around at the time but The Raincoats and The Slits were more confrontational in attitude while the Mo-dettes seemed quite friendly, the sort of girls who didn’t make you feel like a patriarchal oppressor just because you fancied them. They had attitude too but it was in a sweeter wrapper. It certainly brightened up an evening’s John Peel show and was very popular, getting to #1 on the indie chart.
Looking back, its shambling DIY charm is one of the earliest examples I know of what became the “indie pop” sound, particularly the cute/twee end of the spectrum as played by boys in anoraks and girls in polka dots and Dr. Marten’s. I don’t know if it was a zeitgeist-y sign that the 70s were ending and we all wanted to lighten up a bit, but hard on the Mo-dettes high heels came the frothy sounds of Dolly Mixture and Girls At Our Best!, and a year later saw the first Postcard single release so maybe there was something in the air. Happy days were here again.
In an interesting bit of trivia I picked up while writing this, Dolly Mixtures’ brilliant “How Come You’re Such A Hit With the Boys, Jane?” is supposed to be about Mo-dettes’ bassist Jane Crocker, and not in a very nice way either. Ooh, cat fight!
I have no idea what this song is actually about but somehow I don’t think it’s about a hat, either way it’s a beaut though. The lyrics have always reminded me of Elvis Costello, especially the shabby sadness of “Man Out of Time.”
(Posts may be a little light and sporadic this week, work has reared its ugly head again.)
When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.
What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.
Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.
So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.
Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.