A Room of Your Own

Originally published October 2014

I shared a bedroom with my older sister until I was 11 years old and I used to dream that if I had my own room the walls would be painted Chelsea blue with a big white number 9 (Peter Osgood‘s number) on one of them. Sadly, when the glorious day came that I got my own room after we moved to a bigger council flat it didn’t live up to that fantasy and turned out to be a tiny box room with ugly orange wallpaper. But I didn’t care, it was mine!

Having the freedom of your own bedroom is a big deal when you’re a kid because your life is dictated to in so many other ways — what to eat, what time to get up, how long to stay out — and while you might not get to pick the furniture, how it’s arranged and what’s on the walls are about the only way you can stamp your personality on your environment at that age (like making the David Bowie bin on the book cover above). Personal space is even more at a premium when you live in a small council flat and have a sibling.

I wasn’t a solitary kid but I was perfectly happy to be on my own and the room was my very own Fortress of Solitude where I could daydream and let my imagination bloom. I had really bad hayfever in my early teens and spent a lot of hot summer days alone in my room with the curtains closed to ease my sneezy and red-eyed misery caused by the pollen-rich air outside. I think I basically “missed” a couple of summers that way, and though it makes me sound like I was some adolescent Marcel Proust I didn’t write an epic novel but I did draw a lot, read piles of comics, and listen to the radio, often while drowsy from anti-histamines. To this day getting woozy from medicine still gives me a Proustian rush back to my shady bedroom.

Once I got later into my teens the room became an even more important refuge, somewhere to go with all those confused thoughts and raging hormones (if you know what I mean). I’d moon in frustration over some girl I didn’t have the nerve to ask out, stew about how unfair life and the world was, and draw rather gloomy pictures. It was also where I spent nearly every week-night listening to John Peel, which is probably what I’m doing in this photo.

See what I mean about the wallpaper?

Even though it was small a lot of big things happened in that room. It was where my life-defining love of pop music and graphic art developed; where I first heard about the deaths of Ian Curtis, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon; where I first heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and most of the other classics that would define my youth. It was also where I got a girl’s bra off for the first time.

I left home in my mid-20s after I graduated from art college and moved into a flat with some mates. My mum finally got rid of the horrible wallpaper, painted the walls blue (10-year-old me would have been very happy) and turned it into a storage room full of junk and boxes. Whenever I went home I’d peek in there and it looked so different I struggled to imagine all the days and nights I’d spent in there and what that room had meant to my youth. All I had was the ghosts of memories of that tiny little space where I became me.

Download: In Your Room – Bangles (mp3)


New Monday

Default Genders is a project of LA-based electronic musician James Brooks whose second album under that name Main Pop Girl 2019 is as wonderful as it is hard to categorize. It has the crazy mixtape quality of the first Avalanches album with Jungle breakbeats, dream pop, chill-out electronics, and the above track which Brooks described as what “Bob Dylan would make if he was an extremely online millenial who’s really into the Beastie Boys”, all mashed together for a trippy listening experience.

Hear it/buy it at his Bandcamp page.

Not What It Used To Be

Originally published May 2013

With all the hand-wringing about how the internet is destroying our attention spans, I also wonder… oh look, cats that look like Hitler!… sorry, where was I? Oh yes… I also wonder if it will screw with our our memories too.

When all human knowledge and culture of the past — from the epochal to the hopelessly trivial — is catalogued for instant call-up at the click of a mouse button it’s almost impossible to forget anything. In the probable future when our brains are literally hard-wired into the web you won’t even need a mouse or keyboard, your subconscious will do a Google search so quickly you’ll “know” something a nanosecond before you’re even aware that you’d forgotten about it. In this world we’re all trivia experts and pub arguments end in the time it takes for someone to whip out their iPhone.

The internet makes it a lot easier to literally own the past too. It used to take a JR Hartley-esque effort to find, but now everything that previously only existed in your foggy memory is there for instant purchase in a vast nostalgia marketplace. I know I’m not the only one who’s used eBay to buy lost items from my youth — records, magazines, Whizzer and Chips annuals — but I find the pleasure of winning an auction doesn’t match up to the thrill of accidentally coming across something in a second-hand record or charity shop because that really does feel like discovering buried treasure, not something you just Googled and bid on.

And what’s sad is the reality of the thing itself rarely matches up to the romanticized image you had in your head either. That old copy of Look-In loses its mystical power the minute you hold it in your hands (or see that old TV show on YouTube) because you have to face the cold, hard truth that it was actually a bit rubbish. Some things are probably best left un-bought and unseen.

So while the internet has enabled nostalgia by allowing us to wallow in every trivial thing we ever enjoyed as kids (and write blogs about it), it’s also killed it a bit by taking away its mystique and that lovely, hazy quality things have when they’re only vaguely half-remembered.

But I’m sure that if you’d described the internet to me thirty years ago I’d have said it sounds like the most wonderful thing ever invented.

Download: Memorabilia – Soft Cell (mp3)

The Girl That Paul Built

Originally published June 2014

When Paul Weller broke up The Jam in 1982 they were the biggest band in Britain which gave him a lot of clout to do what he wanted. Besides forming The Style Council, he had a go at being a pop mogul by starting his own record label Respond, and put an ad in Smash Hits looking for a girl singer to join this Motown-wannabe of his. One of the young hopefuls who answered that ad was 17-year-old Essex girl Tracie Young — or Tracie! as she was initially known on her record sleeves – who made her singing debut on The Jam’s final single “Beat Surrender”.

Like Joanna and Susan in The Human League, Tracie was an “ordinary” teenage girl with the appeal of the pretty local lass who had a Saturday job in Boot’s and danced around her handbag at the High Street disco in the evenings. On Top of The Pops she looked like the siren of the Sixth Form in her denim jacket, pencil skirt, and white high heels and was voted “Most Fanciable Female” in the 1983 Smash Hits readers’ poll. While you probably wouldn’t attempt to chat up Kim Wilde at a disco — too cooly Bardot glam — Tracie was a girl you actually might fancy your chances with.

But she was no shrinking violet pop puppet, and had a row with Weller over his production of her records, especially “The House That Jack Built” which he sped up and put a lot of tinny synths on. He wanted her to sound like a modern pop star and not, in his words, “a little soul girl”. While I do agree with Weller, his production was a bit naff but that didn’t stop it and her next single from being hits.

Unfortunately the other acts on Respond like The Questions and A Craze didn’t do so well, and by the time Tracie’s debut album Far From the Hurting Kind came out in 1984 she wasn’t having hits either and it only got to #64 in the charts which is a shame as it’s a terrific album containing some great singles like this one.

Download: Soul’s On Fire (12″ version) – Tracie (mp3)

With the lack of hits Weller lost interest in Respond and the label went belly up in 1986 leaving Tracie at Polydor where sadly her second album No Smoke Without Fire was shelved and not released until 2014, and more good singles like “Invitation” (which she wrote herself) did nothing on the charts either.

Download: Invitation – Tracie Young (mp3)

Pop career over by the time she was 21, Tracie had a second life as a radio presenter. Nice to know that she didn’t become some pop casualty because some of us are still carrying a little torch for her.

2019 update: I have to note that she follows me on Twitter now. Be still my beating heart.

New Monday

Had trouble finding much new music I like so far this year so I was very glad to get my ears bent by Stuffed & Ready, the terrific third album by LA rockers Cherry Glazerr.

Led by lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Clementine Creevy, the band play grungy rock with Goth and Dreampop elements that gives it more colour.

Hope this is finally the start of another good year of music.

The Ace Face

Originally published June 2012. Now with added images.

There’s an excellent interview here with Nick Logan, the man who was editor of the NME during the punk late 70s (where he hired two unknown kids called Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons) and then went on to independently create Smash Hits and The Face which must be about as brilliant a track record you can get in the yoof culture business.

I was a keen NME reader when The Face first came out in 1980 and carried on reading them both for a few years, but increasingly it was the glossy newcomer I looked forward to getting the most. As a design student I ate up the influential, envelope-pushing layouts of Neville Brody and it’s slick production values which were a lot more attractive than a smudgy, inky newspaper. In comparison the latest weekly news about The Smiths wasn’t that interesting to me anymore and The Face just had it’s antenna and attitude better tuned to the new decade.

Looking at back issues now is like opening time capsules of the trends of the 1980s, and the contents of my own wardrobe too. The cover of the “Hard Times” issue below is exactly how I was dressing circa 1982: ripped 501s, studded belt, deck shoes, vintage 1950s shirt from Flip. Then a few years later, I (along with every hep young man in London) was wearing my 501s (always 501s) with chunky Doc Marten shoes and an MA-1 flying jacket, a look credited to the magazine’s fashion stylist Ray Petri. I still have the dark blue MA-1 jacket I bought 25 years ago, still in very good nick too.

I don’t know if Logan was a genius or just lucky, but The Face hit the streets at exactly the right zeitgeisty moment (Smash Hits too), catching the start of a style-obsessed decade when the word “designer” was applied to everything and a pop star’s haircut and trousers were considered worthy of serious notice. But the most inspiring thing I got from the interview was that The Face was never market-researched or focus-grouped or any of that bollocks. Logan just had an idea for a magazine he’d like to read himself and filled it with stuff he thought was interesting — that was the only criteria. As someone who’s suffered through hundreds of interminable and depressing marketing meetings that suck all the life out of any good idea, that seems like a dream come true and the only way anything great ever gets done.

Download: Look Sharp! – Joe Jackson (mp3)

Multimedia Bonus: I vaguely remember seeing this ad in the cinema at the time but don’t think it was ever on television, I can’t imagine they’d have the money for that.