Something for the Weekend

A while ago I reconnected with an old school friend via Facebook and he was telling me that he’d recently been out for a drink with a few other people we knew from school. At one point someone asked “So what have you done since school that you’re most proud of?” and the guy who used to play drums in our school band said “I played drums for Alexander O’Neal at Wembley” which pretty much ended the conversation as everyone realized they couldn’t possibly top that.

This is still a massive banger. Though he’s from Mississippi, Alex was such a bigger star in the UK that he lives in Manchester now.


Dear Smash Hits

Originally published October 2014.

I may have mentioned before that I once had a letter printed in Smash Hits. I don’t have the issue anymore and for some reason I only recently thought about searching through the archives at the terrific Like Punk Never Happened blog to find this major event of my youth. Here it is, from the March 6th, 1980 issue:

I was 17 when I wrote that, and while there’s no denying my teenage passion, my prose style could use some finesse (no change there). I remember being shocked — and then thrilled of course — that they’d actually published something I wrote. It was the first letter on the page too which made me doubly chuffed.

The Pretenders had only just become stars with the chart-topping success of Brass In Pocket but I’d been a fan since their first single so was smugly protective of them in the way only a I-liked-them-before-you-did fan of a newly-popular band can be. I was totally smitten with Chrissie Hynde too, so when this C. Wills fellow expressed his (still) idiotic opinion in this letter I was moved to defend her from the “blinkered” opinions of the unthinking masses in typically self-righteous teenager fashion.

I’m not entirely sure why I included The Police in my angry denunciation of “narrow minded hero worship” but they had also recently made the leap from minor act to big pop stars and I guess I must have been a bigger fan of theirs than I remember.

I am rather proud of the fact that I stood up for “real” women in rock music too, though my feminist credentials are somewhat tarnished by the fact that I had one of those awful “sexy” posters of Debbie Harry on my own bedroom wall at the time, so I don’t know what I was being so high and mighty about. That last sentence is pretty good though, and I still think anyone who doesn’t love Chrissie Hynde’s voice needs putting away.

What’s most interesting to me is that this is the authentic voice of my 17-year-old self. My mother was an inveterate chucker-away of things and I never kept anything either, so I have nothing that I wrote (or drew) in my youth — no school essays, no diaries, no notebooks, none of the comics I created — so this might be the only thing written by the younger me that still exists. Reading it now is like some Back To The Future moment where I’m confronted by a teenage version of myself. It was so long ago I don’t know that kid anymore, but I do recognize the smug, superior tone common to teenagers with opinions they think are the absolute truth. It could be worse I suppose, while I was certainly too harsh on Debbie Harry (she was no bimbo) I should be thankful that I’m not expressing any of the really stupid opinions which I know I had back then. Thank you teenage me, for not embarrassing your future self.

Not using my real name was obviously a ploy to make me seem far cooler than I was.

Download: Tattooed Love Boys (Live) – The Pretenders (mp3)

Poor But Happy

Originally published January 2013

Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.

But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).

I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.

Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.

The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.

I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.

Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.

Download: Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) (12″ version) – The Valentine Brothers (mp3)

Hey Judie

Originally published June 2009

English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke was a one-hit wonder but “For You” wasn’t it unfortunately. This was her 1978 debut single which, despite being pretty as a field of daises and as soothing as a warmth bath, barely had a sniff of the charts. Kenny Everett used to play it a lot on his weekend Capital Radio show (only place I ever heard it) and it’s multi-tracked vocals were right up his alley.

I could devote an entire blog to great singles that flopped (there probably already is one) as “Why wasn’t this a hit?” is something of a mantra for serious music buffs who decry the popular success of crap records while their favourites remain unknown. As a result they turn into bitter misanthropes with a condescending disdain for popular taste (especially the ones working in record shops). But then again, when a record they like does become a hit that often becomes a reason not to like it anymore — if the general public are idiots with no taste and they like it, then it can’t be any good can it? It’s the sort of twisted logic that makes music fandom such a cross to bear.

Download: For You – Judie Tzuke (mp3)

Upwardly Mobile

Originally published March 2012.

Someone asks the question “How are British people taught to expect failure and disappointment?” and gets a lot of responses, including this rather pithy formulation:

“Many American kids are told that they might grow up to be the President. No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King”

This isn’t exactly true of course. There are, oh, three English people who were told as kids that they might be King one day and their names are Charles, William, and Harry Windsor. But I assume it was meant to be a comment on the inherently undemocratic nature of the British Constitution (if we had one anyway) because they won’t get the job by working hard at school and going to a good University, it will be because hundreds of years ago one of their ancestors married or killed someone — or both. You don’t vote for Kings as Monty Python said in The Holy Grail, which is terrible and probably has no place in a modern democracy and all that. They do have nice costumes though.

But it got me wondering, why aren’t English kids told they could grow up to be Prime Minister one day? In my experience it’s not an ambition instilled in our kids the same way that “you could be President” is an almost cliched dream for Americans. I know our countries have different histories but it’s not as if being Prime Minister is an out-of-reach, pigs-might-fly ambition these days. A lot of the recent occupants of No. 10 — Blair, Major, and Thatcher (boo! hiss!) — are all from fairly middle-class backgrounds so it’s perfectly reasonable to think it possible that even a kid from a council estate could become PM if they were clever, driven, and power-mad enough. It might help if they went to Oxford or Cambridge though.

So why not? I know us Brits are a glass-half-empty kind of people who think excessive ambition is a bit vulgar but I can’t imagine that in today’s more aspirational, fame-obsessed England old attitudes like “don’t get ideas above your station” and “know your place” have much currency — I would hope they’d been chucked in the rubbish bin along with the tugged forelock.

But I could be wrong and English schools are now full of wannabe Blairs and Camerons which, on the one hand is a good thing (ambition!) but on the other hand, what sort of kid would want to be like those bastards? Maybe that’s the problem.

Download: Ambition – Subway Sect (mp3)

Sleeve Talk

Originally published March 2014.

If the sounds on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk threw a lot of people for a loop, the front cover was also a radical departure from Rumours. Gone was the ornate type and hippie-mystic imagery of the previous album, jettisoned in favour of a sharper-edged and more modern style.

Instead of a picture of the band there was this curious snapshot of a little dog snapping at someones ankles which could represent the often spiky tone of the record and the feral nature of some of its rhythms, or maybe the dog was meant to be a coked-up Lyndsey Buckingham attacking their audience expectations. I’ve no idea, but it’s a way more evocative image than a picture of an elephant would have been.

The cover’s speckled background, abstract shapes, spaced-out type, and randomly-scattered layout was influenced by a design style known as California New Wave, an American version of the radical “Swiss Punk” typography of Wolfgang Weingart. It was most well-known in the work of April Greiman (below) and the cult arts magazine Wet.

Very cutting edge at the time, California New Wave was like the anarchic, torn-paper aesthetic of Punk design transferred to a warmer climate where the sky was bluer and the colours brighter and more vivid — though the colour palette of Tusk was rather more earth-toned, a reflection of the album’s ethnic influences.

The sleeve was designed by the firm of Vigon/Nahas/Vigon (who also did the previous two Mac albums) and is quite the production as befits what was, at the time, the most expensive rock album ever recorded. Instead of a gatefold the two records were housed in double inner sleeves which made the process of taking them out to play as much of an anticipated event as its release was – nearly three years since their previous album! Normal now, but an eternity back then.

The four sleeves were illustrated with the dense, African-inspired collages of Peter Beard and more arty photography which added to the feeling that this was a record made in some abstract, druggy dream by a band who were a bit fractured.

This surreal group photo is very reminscent of this famous poster April Greiman designed for CalArts the year before in 1978 (see the whole thing here.)

The signature visual elements of California New Wave would eventually become very identified as 1980s design, and Fleetwood Mac would be one of the few 1970s AoR bands to make a successful transition to the new decade, unlike their peers The Eagles who put out an album the same year with a drab, funereal cover. Subsequent Mac sleeves were far more conventional and they were never as experimental again, but in 1979 they (or at least Lyndsey Buckingham) were looking forward musically and visually.

Download: The Ledge – Fleetwood Mac (mp3)

The Feminine Principle

Originally published November 2014

A big part of post-punk philosophy was a rejection of the macho posturing of traditional rock music, with many bands disdaining masturbatory guitar solos and playing music that was more influenced by black rhythms because white rock was seen as conservative, sexist, and reactionary.

Another revolutionary thing about these groups was that many of them were either all-female or led by women. Some were more politically strident or musically radical than others, but bands like The Raincoats, The Slits, Delta 5, The Mo-Dettes, Marine Girls, and Essential Logic all challenged how rock music should both sound and look, and brought a feminist perspective to traditional rock song subjects like love and relationships.

Birmingham combo the Au Pairs were one of the most committed to that perspective, and though a co-ed band they were dominated by the striking voice and attitudes of Lesley Woods (the NME cover girl above) who, while not as well known as your Siouxsies, Traceys, and Polys, really should be considered one of the great female icons of post-punk and one of its best singers.

In an era overflowing with classic debut albums the Au Pairs’ 1981 Playing With A Different Sex is one of the greatest, casting a savage eye on female sexuality, gender relations, and politics over some of the best post-punk-funk music ever made. There was a dryly sardonic edge to Woods’ voice that made her bitter pills easier to swallow and you could dance to it too, it’s like the funkiest lecture on feminism you’ll ever hear. Songs like “Come Again” are brutal but funny on the subject of sex, and with lyrics like “Do you like it like this?/Please, please me/Is your finger aching?” it’s not surprising it was banned by the BBC.

Download: Come Again — Au Pairs (mp3)

The 1980 single “Diet” wasn’t on the album but I think it’s the best thing they did, a devastating little Play For Today of a song about Stepford housewives.

Download: Diet — Au Pairs (mp3)

Left Back In The Changing Room

Originally published November 2014

I wasn’t very good at football when I was a kid. I played in my Primary School team and I don’t think any of my teammates can have been that great either because we only won one game all year. The only thing I remember about that victory is when it was announced in morning assembly the whole school cheered as if we’d just beaten Germany 10-0 in the World Cup Final.

I was put in defence which was a big mistake as I was too much of a wimp to tackle anyone and would back away when a forward approached with the ball. I can still hear our teacher/coach Mr. Grant shouting “Get to him! TO HIM!” at me from the sidelines which was the only instruction I remember him ever giving anyone — in typical English fashion his coaching philosophy was all about getting stuck in physically instead of fancy ball skills. He switched me to midfield for a while (less of a liability there, I think) and I wasn’t quite as bad, or so I thought. I could run a bit with the ball, was a decent crosser, and fancied myself to be a “tricky winger” type player. I was probably still useless but at least I remember enjoying those few games, the rest were miserable experiences: Saturday mornings standing on some cold, muddy pitch in my cheap Woolworth’s football boots hoping I wouldn’t have to tackle someone.

I still liked football, but having a casual kickabout in the street or the park with my mates was more my idea of fun. A “real” game on a pitch with proper goals and boots only rubbed in how rubbish I was, but playing a game of three-and-in or rush goalie it was easy to pretend I was better than that. Every goal scored was the FA Cup winner at Wembley or was greeted with a triumphant shout of “Rivelino!” — even if you were only playing with a tennis ball. Sometimes by some fluke you actually would do something skillful which you’d remember with pride for days or even longer (seriously, I can still remember one particular goal I scored in a game on my estate when I was about 13). The worst thing you’d have to deal with was getting the ball back from some old ladies garden or an argument over whose turn in goal it was.

I ended up playing hockey in Secondary School along with all the other “picked last” losers who were no good at football or not tough enough for rugby — though you felt plenty tough when you got a hockey stick in the balls — but luckily it wasn’t the sort of school where team sports were a big deal. I don’t even know if we had a school football team, I assume there was one but I had no idea who played for them or how they good they were. Thankfully there were no “Jocks” at the school unlike in American High Schools, the sociopathic bullies and sadistic PE teachers were bad enough for a four-eyed weed who was crap at games to deal with without there also being some golden-boy centre forward who was incredibly popular and got all the pretty girls to hate too.

Thank God I had pop music and comics.

Download: My Favourite Game — The Cardigans (mp3)