The Trendy Teacher

Every school had one, or they used to, the fresh-faced idealist straight out of teacher-training college armed with all the latest liberal ideas in education, determined to relate to the kids. In the 1970s you could identify the male version by their facial hair and corduroy flares, while the women tended to be wispy types given to silk scarves and maxi skirts.

One term at Secondary School we had this young English teacher with scruffy shoulder-length hair who, instead of making us read Shakespeare or any boring old nonsense like that, showed us clips from movies which we’d discuss afterwards. This being the 70s he didn’t show us any morally-uplifting, boys-own stories like Reach For The Sky or The Dambusters (too much like celebrations of the war-like patriarchy?) but instead we were treated to extracts from Hitchcock’s grisly serial killer movie Frenzy and Lindsay Anderson’s radical Public School drama If… Imagine the heap of shit he’d get into now for showing a bunch of 14-year-olds a film where the pupils mow down the teachers and parents with machine guns and bombs. I can’t remember his name now but I like to think of him as our school’s very own Howard Kirk.

He obviously knew the way to a boy’s heart was through nudity and violence because we actually behaved in his class, but that mostly wasn’t the case with the trendy teacher who usually exuded all the authority of a timid hamster, and in the Darwinian jungle of an all-boys comprehensive the kids are savage little sharks who can smell vulnerable fresh meat in the water from a mile away so they usually got eaten alive. Once we had a substitute Biology teacher called Mr. Bone (really!) whose life we made a living hell, and not just because of the comic goldmine that was his name. His first mistake was to tell us he was a vegetarian (the first one I ever met) which led to constant shouts of “have a nice roast lettuce for dinner Sunday, sir?” and trying to engage us in a chat about pop music by talking about Joni Mitchell’s latest album. It was like Cat Stevens trying to deal with a roomful of Noddy Holders. Every time he turned his back on us he was showered with a rain of pellets from the sacks of dried rabbit food in the classroom. He only taught us for a little while and when we asked our regular Biology teacher what had happened to Mr. Bone he told us that he’d walked out of a particularly unruly class one day and never came back. Last he’d heard he’d had a nervous breakdown and was living in a communal squat in Earl’s Court.

So if you’re out there somewhere Mr. Bone, I’m sorry we were such little shits. But you really should have just hit one of us over the head with a text book.

Download: I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing – The New Seekers (mp3)


A Riot of Their Own

Being a responsible and mature adult I suppose I have to tut-tut the violence but I must admit that seeing those students rioting at Tory party headquarters in London during the protest against tuition fee increases last week did warm the cockles of my heart quite a bit. I didn’t think students had that kind of fight in them anymore, having long ago swapped the dangerous passion of political activism for dull, conformist careerism and it brought back fond memories of my own time at college — except without all the fire-starting and window-breaking stuff.

I was at Maidstone College of Art in the early 80s (the same year as Tracey Emin — oh, the stories I could tell you) when we had clear “enemies” in the form of Thatcher and Reagan and while there I went on (non-violent!) marches in support of the GLC, CND and the striking miners. More locally we were involved with fighting a plan to merge Maidstone with the nearby Canterbury and Rochester art colleges that was being forced through by the Thatcherite National Advisory Board for Education against the wishes of not only the staff and students but even the local Tory council. Being a soulless technocrat Thatcher obviously didn’t see the point of any higher education that wasn’t “practical” like the arts so we had to be made more “efficient” and the art school system turned into a vocational sausage factory. We had a big protest march through Canterbury but the main event was an all-night sit-in at the college which turned out to be more of a party than anything with live bands and dancing but who said political activism had to be boring? It certainly felt great to be involved in something like that and what’s the point of being young if you can’t make futile, idealistic gestures?

As usual it was all for nothing, Maidstone was merged with Canterbury and Rochester in 1987 after I left (though they were stopped from closing one of the colleges down completely) and now those have been folded into one multi-campus monster called the University for The Creative Arts. It turned out that our new Principal — the very man who attended all our Student Union meetings and assured us he was on our side in opposing the merger — was actually appointed by the Advisory Board tasked with the job of helping the merger happen so basically the bastard was a mole who stabbed us all in the back.

With the draconian budget cuts his government is passing David Cameron could become a hated bogeyman on a par with Thatcher and we could be in for a replay of the 1980s — futile or not. Let’s hope the music will be as good too, we may have been on the losing side in most of the battles but we had a bloody good soundtrack.

Download: Set The House Ablaze (live) – The Jam (mp3)

Sleeve Talk

Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of the group Spelt Like This before, they were a male trio who released two singles back in the mid-80s neither of which troubled the charts with their presence and then they broke up never to be seen again. It wasn’t through lack of effort by their record company either, they were given a massive promo push with lots of big ads in all the music weeklies for their 1985 debut single “Contract of The Heart” which I noticed at the time because they were very “designery” with the same sophisticated and enigmatic minimalism used by Pet Shop Boys and New Order in their marketing.

The ads must have worked on me though because when I saw a copy of the 12″ going cheap in a sale at Our Price I bought it without having heard it before. Being a designer (or design student as I was at the time) makes me far more likely to buy a record (or book) if it has a good-looking sleeve and it almost physically pains me to buy one that looks ugly. Call me superficial but I’d walk a million miles for some good typography and nice paper stock and the sleeve of “Contract of The Heart” really lays on the designer effects with a trowel: yards of white space, obscure icons, trendily spaced-out lettering, a tiny duotone photo of the band on the back, and on the inner sleeve some arty photos of pubes, a man on one side and a woman on the other.

They must have spent quite a few bob on this (the 7″ had an even more expensive die-cut), and with such sophisticated packaging you might expect the record to be another “West End Girls” or “Temptation” but “Contract of The Heart” isn’t much more than half-decent Scritti-esque pop that probably should have done better that the lowly #91 it struggled to reach but doesn’t really live up to the promise of its sleeve and marketing. When I first listened to it I felt as if I had been lied to by the graphics, rather than being another Pet Shop Boys, Spelt Like This were in reality basically a boy band managed by pop svengali Tom Watkins (who was actually also managing PSB too at the time) who later gave the world Bros and East 17. So I’ve always seen this record as a 1980s “designer decade” triumph of style over substance and the belief (which was rampant back then) that trendy design could sell anything from a beer to a bank to a pop group no matter what the actual product was like.

The most interesting thing about “Contract of The Heart” now is that it’s an early Stock, Aitken and Waterman production done before they became the producers that ate the pop world and they do quite nice job with this, it’s a whole lot better and more inventive than the tinny Hi-NRG beats of their later work.

So, did it flop because the marketing was all wrong or because the record wasn’t good enough? You decide.

Download: Contract of The Heart (12″) – Spelt Like This