Fantastic Days

If Orange Juice had grown up in a nice suburb in Kent instead of Glasgow then chances are they would have been Haircut 100. The sound of both bands had it’s roots in scratchy post-punk funk (“Favourite Shirts” is basically a rewrite of Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” — have a listen to them together sometime) and both had the same fey schoolboy aesthetic that gave birth to twee indiepop, but on record OJ were all snark and jagged edges while the Haircuts were smooth and happy, singing sweet songs about Toblerones and Baked Beans. Nick Heyward was the boy who joined the Boy Scouts and did his homework while Edwyn Collins was the one sitting at the back of the classroom and smoking behind the bike sheds. My girlfriend at the time had a crush on both of them so their audiences weren’t mutually exclusive — I liked ’em both too — but one band was clearly more Smash Hits than NME.

The designer Neville Brody recently stated that he thought Haircut 100 were responsible for the decline of British pop culture because, he said, once they got in the charts “it all became about how you were styled, what clothes you wore and not what you had to say” (as if it hadn’t before) which is a bit rich coming from the man who was art director of The Face at the time. If you have to draw a line somewhere between punk “authenticity” (zzzz) and 80s pop superficiality (you don’t) why not pick on Adam & The Ants instead? If anyone is responsible for the Smash Hits-ification of popular music it’s that lot who were in the charts first, sold cartloads more records, and had an even more contrived image. Any kid could dress in a chunky jumper, anorak, and deck shoes (and I, um, did) but Adam Ant was going around dressed as a bloody pirate. But it’s a rather stupid argument to making about any band really.

Besides, Haircut 100 made bloody good records which renders their image sort of a moot point. Though I do remember at the time that even after I’d bought and loved the 12″ of “Favourite Shirts” I thought that maybe they were a bit flimsy and wasn’t expecting great things from their album “Pelican West” (released the same year —1982 — as “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever”) but was bowled over by how stuffed with cracking tunes and more enjoyable than a bucket of lollipops it was. It could have been the start of something very good but unfortunately Nick left the group to go solo after the one album and, as is often the case, without the band his records lacked some of the snap, crackle and pop Haircut 100 had. Still, if you’re only going to make the one album* it should be perfect which “Pelican West” almost is.

Download: Snow Girl – Haircut 100 (mp3)
Download: Milk Farm – Haircut 100 (mp3)
Buy: Pelican West (album)

Nick’s first solo single was gorgeous though, if only he’d kept up this standard.

Download: Whistle Down The Wind (12″ version) – Nick Heyward (mp3)

*Yes, I am aware that Haircut 100 made another album after Heyward left but I’ve never even seen a copy of “Paint and Paint” much less heard it.


The Record Shop Blues

Have you been into a record shop recently with the itch to buy something new and felt incredibly frustrated and let down when you can’t find a single thing you want among the racks of racks of new releases and have to leave the shop empty-handed? It can happen at any age of course but as you get older it happens more and more often and the frustration becomes coloured by the anxiety that the grim day is coming when you won’t go into a record shop for a new release ever again because you’re an ancient fucker completely out of touch with the now and your record collection is frozen somewhere in the past.

Serious music fandom is an addiction which starts when you’re a teenager and though decades might go by it remains a precious link to those golden days which is why it’s depressing to feel it fading away. You can feed your habit by buying old records (and I do) which are fine for a quick fix but nothing can beat the rush you get from a pure, uncut, new record — and buying it on the day of release is the biggest high of all that makes you feel like you did when you were an eager, passionate youth and the world was full of exciting new music. I turn 48 next week and there are still about half a dozen current bands and singers I automatically buy new releases by which isn’t bad for someone of my advanced state of decrepitude (I have mates my age — and younger — who lost touch with current music trends sometime in the early 90s), but with age the fountain of discovery inevitably starts to dry up or you struggle to embrace the latest hot thing (at the moment I’m trying hard to be impressed by the new Arcade Fire album with only “it’s OK” results) leaving you with longer and longer periods when there’s nothing new to buy and you feel like a heroin addict whose supply of smack has been cut off — and equally miserable and sick.

This is nothing to do with wanting to stay “hip” — God forbid — but about not wanting to turn into one of those sad blokes who mutters grumpily about “music today” and only listens to music he bought 30 years go. Contemplating this future is like staring into the black hole of your own mortality and the death of that last link to the kid you once were.

Download: You’re History – Shakespears Sister (mp3)

Oooh Betty

One of the pleasures of living in a big city is the cosmopolitan cultural pleasures it offers and when I was a fresh-from-college designer working in London in the late 1980s I took full advantage and went through a phase of seeing tons of foreign films. And there were a lot to see too, back then it seemed like every week you’d open Time Out and there’d be a Jean De Florette, Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Au Revoir les Enfants, Cinema Paradiso, or Delicatessen that was packing them in at The Lumiere, Screen On The Green, Chelsea Cinema, or the Riverside Studios, and few things made me feel more like a sophisticated boy-about-town really living the metropolitan life than going to see a film with subtitles.

The one that really reminds me of that era and stuck with me ever since (not just for the reasons you might think) was Betty Blue from 1986 which is about the Frenchiest French movie I’ve ever seen. The plot is the classic Gallic cinema story of l’amour fou or “crazy love” with everything turned up to 11: a man living in a state of existential ennui falls for a wild, emotionally-unstable girl given to burning down houses and stabbing people with forks, they spend most of the film bonking the merde out of each other and the affair leads to madness and death — Fin. It was something of a succés de scandale at the time because of the amount of naked flesh on display and the lusty nature of their rumpy-pumpy — as a friend of mine said at the time about it’s notorious opening scene: “that’s not making love, that’s fucking” — but it was also memorable for the explosive performance of the astonishing-looking Beatrice Dalle as Betty.

Betty had to be played by an actress who could make you believe a man would happily follow her to Paris even after she had attacked his boss and set fire to his house and Dalle was the sort of girl who could make you kill your own mother if she asked you to. I used to wonder if there was a factory in France somewhere that did nothing but turn out pouty nymphettes for their movies as there seemed to be a never-ending stream of them from Bardot onwards and Dalle was like the model they produced the day they had an excess of parts to use up, giving her the most swollen bee-stung lips and biggest gap-toothed Gallic overbite you’ve ever seen. She looked like she’d just been punched in the face but also almost obscenely sensual as if she was permanently quivering with sex and just one look could melt you to a puddle on the spot.

I was a little obsessed with the film for a while, buying the video, poster, soundtrack album, and the (excellent) novel it was based on. If they made Betty Blue underpants I probably would have bought those too. Several years later I had a fling with a “Betty” of my own too, a dark-haired girl with the same voluptuous lips and big wonky overbite together with the same volcanic emotional ups and downs. Girls like that can be addictive, like Betty’s lover Zorg I put up with all sorts of crazy behaviour and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth it. Men, we’re such idiots sometimes.

Aside from it’s luscious cinematography the other part of the movie that was as gorgeous as Dalle was the soundtrack by Gabriel Yared, one of the few scores I can listen to on it’s own as a piece of music, with the best saxaphone theme in a movie since Taxi Driver.

Download: Betty et Zorg – Gabriel Yared (mp3)
Download: C’Est Le Vent, Betty – Gabriel Yared (mp3)
Buy: Betty Blue (DVD)

Always Crashing In The Same Car

I’m under the cosh of an impending deadline at work right now so I’ll have to leave you these for your brains to chew on for a bit. Two old BBC films with the creepy atmosphere that 70s telly did so well featuring the great JG Ballard talking about the eroticism of cars and car crashes. Even if you think he’s talking a lot of silly bollocks (I’ve been in a car crash and believe me there wasn’t anything sexy about it) there’s still lots to enjoy: Sweeney-esque cars, the Westway, and Gabrielle Drake getting saucy with a gearstick.