My Favourite Record, age 13

Originally published June 2008.

Some old groups resist rehabilitation, being just too irredeemably naff to ever be reclaimed by the passing of time allowing a new appreciation of their talent. There have been times when, for example, Abba, Barry White, ELO or disco-era Bee Gees were all incredibly un-hip, but now people look back and see incredible pop craftsmanship and forget they were ever put off by their lack of coolness or poor choices in trousers and hairdos.

I can’t imagine that ever happening with Showaddywaddy, they were and will always be a rather cheesy novelty act, dressed up like cartoon Teddy Boys in their rainbow-colored drapes and brothel creepers and having hits (lots of them) with limp cover versions of 1950s rock and roll tunes like “Three Steps To Heaven” and “Under The Moon of Love”. They weren’t even as good as Mud who had a similar image but at least had the good fortune to have their songs written for them by Chinn and Chapman. The only good thing I can think of to say about them was that their drummer was called Romeo Challenger which I think is one of the greatest pop names ever.

I’m pretty sure I thought they were a bit rubbish even when I was a kid but Lord how I loved their 1975 single “Sweet Music” which was one of the few hits they wrote themselves. When I was alone at home I’d play it at full blast (well, as “full blast” as our crappy mono record player could manage) and would literally pump my fist in the air to the chorus (oh, the shame) as if it was some banging rock anthem. Listening to it now it’s not nearly as hard rocking as I thought it was back then, but the chorus is catchy as hell and it has a more of a Glam Rock edge than their usual fare so maybe there was a halfway decent Glam band lurking inside their drape jackets, or maybe they really were as duff as I thought.

Download: Sweet Music – Showaddywaddy (mp3)


Sweet Home Suburbia

Originally published December 2008

“Do you know the road I live in—Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it. You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses—the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191—as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.”
George Orwell
Coming Up For Air (1939)

Most of my family originally come from London but I have aunties and uncles who moved out to the leafy suburban outskirts of the city to places like Purley and Crawley where they had children, played golf, drank sherry and led nice middle-class lives. When I visited them as a kid I think I felt a little jealous of my cousins living in these large semi-detached houses with big back gardens only a short bike ride away from actual countryside (this was in the 1970s, I imagine the “countryside” is a lot further away now). Compared to our poky little council flat it seemed that they led an idyllic life like something out of a Ladybird book, where it was always sunny, there was a new car in the driveway and two parents at home, a cheery mum who baked pies and a solid, cardigan-wearing dad who did something in accounting.

But this feeling probably had more to do with my personal family circumstances than any actual reality, after all I was the one who lived in London and inevitably my sense of city superiority took hold so by my late teens I regarded my suburban cousins as rather boring and backward people whose lives I wouldn’t swap with for all the tea in Croydon.

Being a city boy who has an existential crisis if he lives too far from tall concrete buildings I obviously have my prejudices, but that’s nothing compared to the good kicking the suburbs have always gotten in popular culture over the years; the list of novels, movies, plays and television shows damning them as awful, soul-crushing dead zones is as long as Orwell’s Ellesmere Road. This is true in every country that has suburbs but it’s in pop music that the English have really staked a claim to the subject. I’ve not done an in-depth survey or anything but there could be more English pop songs about suburbs and suburbanites than there are about almost any other subject (apart from L.O.V.E of course), and with few exceptions these songs portray the suburbs as the dull home to either angry, uptight reactionaries or sad, downtrodden cogs in the capitalist machine — usually with both hiding all sorts of sordid and kinky goings-on behind their net curtains of their mock-Tudor homes.

So why the fixation with these places? It’s not the garden gnomes and shag carpets they’re objecting to, the suburbs stand for bourgeois conformity and all the conservative values of tradition and respectability that rebellious, modern, pink-haired pop music is supposed to be against. And it’s often in the suburbs that these values, for lack of anything better to do, curdle and turn sour into reactionary xenophobia, empty materialism and dull philistinism which makes them a nice easy target for any aspiring pop poet who thinks he has something to say about England and the English.

This is just a small dip into the vast English Suburbia Songbook, none of which have anything nice to say about it.

Download: Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James – Manfred Mann (mp3)
Download: Suburban Relapse – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)
Download: The Sound of The Suburbs – The Members (mp3)
Download: Respectable Street – XTC (mp3)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Originally published April 2009

A lot of Post-Punk music tended to be 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 and Anarcho-Marxists living in 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 very 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 female and pop vibe and, compared to the wrist-slitting ditties of Joy Division, was bouncy and bright with the heavily-accented vocals of Swiss-born singer Ramona Carlier 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 and sound while the Mo-dettes seemed quite fun and friendly. 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. 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.

Download: White Mice – Mo-dettes (mp3)

In an interesting bit of trivia I picked up while writing this, Dolly Mixture’s 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 nice way either.

Download: How Come You’re Such A Hit With the Boys, Jane? – Dolly Mixture (mp3)

Light Entertainment

Originally published August 2007

It’s a Saturday night in the early 70s and I’m lying on our brown shag carpet in front of our black and white television rented from Radio Rentals (no one owned a TV set back then). I’m waiting for The Two Ronnies and Match of The Day to come on, but first I have to suffer through awful Light Entertainment shows like The Black & White Minstrels and Seaside Special, usually with dance numbers performed by The Young Generation and musical guests Demis Roussos, Lena Zavaroni, and Peters & Lee singing their #1 smash hit “Welcome Home.”

Peters & Lee were an odd couple. There were rumours (which my mum mentioned every time they came on the telly) that blind Lennie Peters had been friends with the Kray brothers in the 60s, and with his craggy face he looked more like a tough George Sewell type hard man, put him in a sheepskin car coat and you could imagine him on The Sweeney telling some slag to shut it or he’ll break his kneecaps. Dianne Lee, on the other hand, looked like the glamourous wife of a young stockbroker, passing around the sausages on sticks at suburban cocktail parties.

Posting this I feel like I’m testing the limits of nostalgia’s power to put a golden glow on things. Lennie did have a rather good, husky and Charlie Rich-esque voice but it’s drowned in a sea of easy listening strings and backing singers, and Dianne must have been there purely as eye candy because her voice hardly registers. I can’t help but hear it through a filter of memories which makes me more kindly disposed toward it, but strip all the baggage of the past away and it’s left alone in the cultural Dead Zone of 1970s Light Entertainment television and that’s a dreadful place to be — it’s all brown and Mike and Bernie Winters live there.

Download: Welcome Home – Peters & Lee (mp3)

The Man

He was 95 and had been ailing for a while but losing Stan Lee is still a major bummer.

I’ve written before about the huge part Marvel comics played in my early life ever since my mum brought home a copy of The Mighty World of Marvel for me when I was 10, and it’s safe to say that Stan was one of the major figures in my youth. Those comics fired my imagination, got me drawing seriously, and put me on a road that eventually led to art school and the career I have now. Marvel comics were as important to the direction of my life as hearing “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” for the first time.

I don’t want to get into the stupid arguments over who did what between Stan, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, because that’s like arguing over Lennon and McCartney’s individual contributions to The Beatles — they were equally important. What I think is beyond dispute though is that Marvel — and comics in general — would never have become the cultural phenomenon they did without Stan. He gave Marvel a singular and hip voice, from the creators nicknames (Jack “King” Kirby, “Jazzy” John Romita), to the catchphrases (Face Front! ‘Nuff Said! Excelsior!), and his chatty Stan’s Soapbox column in every month’s comics which made the Marvel Bullpen seem like the coolest, most creative place to work in the world — today we would call it “branding” and Stan was a genius at it. Reading Marvel comics was like being part of a community led by a groovy, wise-cracking uncle.

But all his marketing skills would mean nothing if the comics weren’t any good and Stan was involved in the creation of some of the greatest ever. They were revolutionary too. His most important innovation was turning superheroes into real human beings with problems. The Fantastic Four were always bickering, having super powers seemed like a burden for the angsty Peter Parker, the X-Men’s powers made them outcasts, and his snappy, slangy dialogue set them all apart from those dull squares Superman and Batman at DC. Anyone who has read the often turgid comics Kirby and Ditko did on their own knows how much the Pop-Art poetry of Stan’s writing brought to the table. He also made comics more relevant to the real world, having characters deal with hot-button issues like racial hatred, campus politics, and drugs.

Because of him — for better or worse — superhero comics are no longer cheap, trashy things read only by little boys before they discover girls and music, but rich, complicated universes that people of all ages enjoy. He changed pop culture forever, and my life too.

Speaking of Paul McCartney, he was a fan too.

Download: Magneto And Titanium Man – Wings (mp3)

Country Life

Originally published February 2007. This post actually got a comment from Kit Hain herself thanking me for the track because she didn’t have a copy of it (the album was out of print at the time). Sadly the comment was lost when I moved the blog from Blogger to WordPress.

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson (1777)

Marshall Hain’s beautiful song “Back To The Green” is an ode to escaping from the chaotic bustle of the big city to the peaceful green spaces of the countryside. Personally I’ve always thought the countryside was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Growing up in London made me the sort of person who has an existential crisis if I live too far from a tube station, and if I’d wanted a “country” experience I could always get that in the city anyway – from the lovely vistas of Hampstead Heath to the herds of deer roaming Richmond Park, the rich landscapes of Kew Gardens, the peacocks in Holland Park, boating on The Serpentine, or lazy summer Sundays watching a cricket match on Barnes Common. Besides, the problem with the countryside is the people that live there: Tories, rich arseholes from the city, and Daily Mail-reading reactionaries who look at you funny if you aren’t from “around here” or look different (believe me, I was an art student in Kent and know what it’s like to walk into a little country pub with a friend who had blue hair.)

But even this council-estate-raised city boy recognizes the subconscious attraction of the pastoral idyll; escaping the city’s cacophonous nightmare of traffic and other people’s cell-phone conversations for a picture-postcard village where the bells of an old stone church ring out through warm summer air, willow tress hang lazily over glistening streams, and rosy-cheeked children fly kites over sun-dappled green hills. Such fantasies are the warm baths of city-dweller imaginations.

Julian Marshall and Kit Hain are only really known for the one song, the 1978 hit “Dancing In The City” which came from their debut album Free Ride. The single’s sensual synth-drummy groove isn’t much like the rest of the record which is mostly clean and modern adult pop in the jazzy mold of Steely Dan with the middle-class English smartness of a 10cc. Unfortunately the album was a flop and is now out of print* which is a shame as it’s rather good. The final track “Back To The Green” is a gorgeous ballad that ebbs and flows in an appropriately dreamy mood, languidly drifting along before building to a symphonic crescendo of strings and brass. Kit Hain has a lovely, clear-as-a-bell voice that makes me think of her as a well-spoken young lady who probably played netball at school (a thought I find vaguely erotic which I’m sure all the English boys reading this will understand.) It makes the idea of moving to the country quite a warmly appealing prospect – for a few moments anyway.

Download: Back to The Green – Marshall Hain (mp3)

*It was finally reissued in 2011.

Grim All Over

Originally published December 2006. The second ever post on this blog. The general shittiness of 1970s England was to become a theme.

Just how bleak were the 1970s in England? Well, we had a miner’s strike that brought down the government, power cuts that plunged homes into cold darkness, a 3-day work week, bombs going off in pubs, the Winter of Discontent, the National Front, a bankrupt treasury, and “Love Thy Neighbour” on television. No wonder brown was the dominant color for home decoration back then, very appropriate for a country totally in the shit.

Things were so grim that even our pop stars were making depressing movies. First there was pretty boy David Essex dying of a drug overdose at the end of Stardust, and then Slade came up with Slade In Flame in 1975. Given their image as fun-lovin’ glam bovver boys who wrote simple, dyslexic songs, you’d expect a colourful “Help!”-style romp but what you got was a gritty, cynical kitchen-sink drama about the rise and bitter break up of a Northern rock band. Though it had it’s funny moments it was generally as dour as an old Yorkshireman at closing time. If Ken Loach made a rock and roll movie it would have been like this. I only saw it once and remember liking it but my best friend at school was a Slade fanatic and claimed to have seen it 13 times.

The movie’s theme “How Does It Feel?” was another bitter pill and is probably the only time you could ever use the word “plaintive” about a Slade record. I think this is one of the best singles of the 70s, a reflective, melancholy ballad built around some very non-Slade things like piano and flute and a massive wall of brass. There’s something about that brass sound that reeks of leather coats and dirty pavements, I can’t really explain why. Much as I love their mindless headbanging numbers this gem shows that Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea could write proper songs – with proper spelling too!

The British public didn’t warm to Slade as serious artistes, the movie wasn’t a big smash and “How Does It Feel?” was their first single in three and half years that failed to make the Top 10, so they reverted back to being cartoon characters and stayed that way ever since. Shame. a few more songs like this and their reputation could have been very different.

Download: How Does It Feel? – Slade (mp3)