Off The Shelf

Originally published July 2014

The Saturday job I had in the record department of the Putney WH Smith in the late 70s might not have been as hip as working at Rough Trade or Groove Records, but the guy who ran the department was a serious music geek as were the kids I worked with. We stocked plenty of Post-Punk and Indie records, and had a good section of 12″ singles. There were three independent record shops on Putney High Street at the time (three!), and we considered them our competition, not Woolies or Boot’s.

The naff brown blazers and ties we had to wear didn’t make us look very cool but if you came into the store on a Saturday you’d be just as likely to hear The Jam or Joy Division playing than Neil Diamond or ABBA, much to the annoyance of the store manager. One time he came over when we were playing Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle album and said “Take this off and play something more popular!” to which one of the kids snarkily replied “Actually, it’s Number One at the moment.” The first time I ever heard Unknown Pleasures was while working there.

But Smiths were still a “respectable” High Street chain better known for selling books and stationery than edgy records. One Saturday in 1979 a letter arrived from corporate HQ in Swindon telling us to remove from the racks all copies of the debut albums by Public Image and Stiff Little Fingers as the company would no longer be selling them — in other words, they were being banned.

The letter never gave any reason (it may have actually been two separate letters at different times, my memory is hazy on that point) but it wasn’t hard to figure out why they considered SLF’s Inflammable Material so controversial with it’s abrasive songs about the Northern Ireland conflict. We were a little puzzled about the Public Image album, but decided that it was down to the “sacrilegious” song “Religion” which would probably still ruffle a few feathers today.

The strange thing was that both albums had been out for a while, the Public Image album was nearly a year old, so this was a case of shutting the barn door after the horse had bolted. I can only imagine that the old duffers who ran Smiths were a bit slow on the uptake, or maybe they’d had a few Mr. Angry letters from outraged customers — I once had a woman return a Billy Connolly album to the store complaining that one of the sketches on it was “blasphemous”. The Stiff Little Fingers ban was obviously blatant political censorship though, the Chairman of Smiths at the time was a chap called Sir Charles Hugh Willis Troughton and with a name like that you can imagine what his political sympathies were. He probably went to public school with half the Thatcher cabinet.

I don’t remember any of this being in the news back then, not even the music press who you think would be outraged at the establishment once again banning rock records, but the whole event seemed to be unnoticed except for those of us who worked at Smiths.

WH Smiths doesn’t sell music anymore (neither does any other High Street store) and now John Lydon does butter commercials while Stiff Little Fingers are playing on the punk nostalgia circuit. But there was a time when they were considered an affront to the decent law-abiding citizens who popped into Smiths to get their TV Times and the latest Barry Manilow album. You can’t say this about a lot of music from back then, but these records do still sound confrontational. Still worth banning, really.

Download: Religion II – Public Image Limited (mp3)
Download: Suspect Device – Stiff Little Fingers (mp3)


The Pictures

I watched Goldfinger on the telly with my son the other week. It was his first Bond film and I was very happy that when it ended and the line “Bond will be back in Thunderball” appeared on screen he asked if we could watch that one too. More than happy actually, I came over quite sentimental because watching Bond films was always something I did with my dad — including those two which we saw on a double bill. The first one I actually saw at the pictures was OHMSS with my mum, but I saw them all from Diamonds Are Forever to The Spy Who Loved Me with my dad, mostly in Leicester Square the first week they were out.

My old man was a real movie nut and going to the pictures was always his default thing to do whenever he took me and my sister out for the day. There were occasional trips to places like Windsor Safari Park and Richmond Common but nine times out of ten we saw a movie (we never went to a museum for some reason) so a lot of my childhood memories of my dad are related to that.

Besides all the Bond and Disney films, I saw Jaws, Star Wars, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Close Encounters, and, um, Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World with him — even Zulu, which he took us to twice when it was re-released (he loved that movie). I also watched a lot of old films on the telly with my mum and thanks to her was never one of those kids who didn’t like black and white films or musicals.

So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition when my kids enjoy an old movie or, especially, when I take them to the pictures and they can experience the thrill of sitting in the dark watching something magical on a big screen — and it nearly always is magic when you’re a kid, way better than a movie at home. The first film my daughter saw at the cinema was How To Train Your Dragon, and her brother Big Hero 6. Those visits meant almost as much to me as their first words and first steps, on both occasions my heart swelled with nostalgia and thoughts of my Dad.

They saw Jaws for the first time last year and I’m not exaggerating much when I say that I had been looking forward to showing them that since the day they were born. My daughter was more upset by the dog being eaten than Alex Kitner, and my son declared that he never wanted to swim in the ocean ever again which I think means it was a success. I swear I got a bigger kick out of that than if he’d told me he loved All Mod Cons.

Download: He Took Her To A Movie – Ladytron (mp3)

Every Day Is Record Shop Day

Originally published April 2014

Last Saturday was Record Store Day — Record Shop Day if you’re a Brit — and like a lot people I have become very cynical about the whole event and how it’s gone from being a well-meaning attempt to promote record buying in actual bricks-and-mortar shops, to a crazy gold rush for overpriced RSD “exclusives” by desperate anoraks with more money than sense,and speculators who would put them on eBay for even more inflated prices (sometimes before the actual day).

I’ve only once been to a record shop on RSD and that wasn’t intentional. I popped into my local record emporium one Saturday without realizing what day it was and found the place mobbed. Getting more people into record shops is a noble pursuit but all I thought was “Where the hell are you people every other day of the year?”

So I’ve been smugly disdaining the whole event and have no intention of ever going anywhere near a record shop that day. But then someone tweeted this picture which took the snark right out of my sails and made me realize something.

See how happy she looks? Remember that feeling? Seeing this young lady with her special One Direction RSD release reminded me of how chuffed I would be when I got a new Jam single in a picture sleeve, and made me realize that this is what the day should be about. Forget about old farts shelling out a week’s rent on ancient artifacts like Springsteen rarities, REM live sets, and Nirvana 45s; Record Store Day should get younger kids into shops by offering more releases by newer acts — Ariana, Taylor, Drake — in cool picture discs, exclusive mixes, and all those gimmicks that got us to spend our pocket money in our youth.

RSD turns record shops into museums with expensive gift shops and I’ve no interest in vinyl being a rare and pricey commodity for the over-40 set. But if RSD can get youngsters like that girl to discover the magic of buying a physical record in a shop in some cool format instead of a cold mp3 download or stream on her phone, then maybe there will be a future for this record shop culture we love.

Download: EMI (Unlimited Edition) – Sex Pistols (mp3)

Sleeve Talk

Originally published July 2013

I assume most people know that the sleeve of London Calling is a rip off, pastiche of homage to Elvis Presley’s first album. You might even know that the cover’s iconic photo of Paul Simenon was taken by NME photographer Pennie Smith (whose photos of the band were collected in a terrific book that will set you back a few bob these days). But unless you’re a Brit of a certain age you might not have heard of Ray Lowry, the man who actually designed the sleeve.

Lowry was a cartoonist who regularly contributed to the NME during the 70s and 80s, including the surreal weekly strip Not Only Rock and Roll. He had a sharp eye for the foibles and posturing of music fans and rock stars and whenever they got too self-important or pretentious — which they often did in the NME in those days — you could always rely on the Lowry cartoon at the back of the paper to bring things back to earth.

He became mates with The Clash after meeting them at a gig, and the band invited him on the road with them to be what Joe Strummer called “official war artist” of their 1979 tour of the US which led to the commission to design the cover of their next album. Ray had drawn cartoons for underground papers like Oz in the 1960s so he was from another generation than these young punks, but being a lover of what he called “holy rock and roll thunder” he was thrilled by the music’s primitive energy and probably bonded with The Clash over a shared passion for 1950s rock n’ roll (and its hairstyles), Lefty politics, and a belief in “authenticity”.

Judging by the early rough on this page, Lowry had the Elvis-inspired typography before he had a cover image, and apparently the album was going to be called Made In England at one point. The final sleeve is fairly plain and basic but sometimes effective design is just a matter of picking the right picture, even if it’s out of focus because Pennie Smith (who didn’t want it used for that reason) was backing away from a pissed-off, guitar-swinging Simeonon when she snapped it — and I’m sure The Clash loved the iconoclasm of using an old Elvis sleeve as inspiration.

As far as I know it’s the only album cover Lowry ever designed which is crazy when you think how famous the one he did is. Sadly he died in 2008, though the commercial work had mostly dried up he had carried on painting and had an exhibition of his work just before he passed away. But if he wasn’t completely forgotten, he’s certainly not as well known as he should be.

I don’t think anyone needs to hear another track from the album so here’s the dub versions of “Armagideon Time” that were on the b-side of the “London Calling” 12″ single.

Download: Justice Tonight/Kick It Over – The Clash (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

Originally published February 2009

When I was about 14 my best mate at school told me that he thought my mother was good-looking. I don’t know if I should have thumped him for eyeing up my mum in that way (and maybe having secret Mrs. Robinson-style fantasies about her) but the truth is I was more chuffed than anything. I was rather proud that I had an attractive mother who got compliments — even from chubby schoolboys — and was wolf-whistled at when she walked past a building site, even though she had reached the shockingly ancient age of 40. So while she might not have been able to afford to buy me the new Gola trainers with the lime green stripe that all my mates had at least I didn’t mind being seen in public with her.

Not that she was a Bond girl or anything but because she was a single woman with long blond hair who still dated men she seemed younger and more glamourous than my friend’s mothers who were more Woman’s Realm than Cosmopolitan if you know what I mean — “proper” mums like the ones you saw in Daz commercials on the telly. That’s how I remember them anyway, but when you’re that age most grown-ups seem old and boring. My mate Paul had parents called Stan and Winnie which not only sounds like two characters out of Andy Capp they looked like them too, the sort of people the 1960s seemed to have completely passed by and you can’t imagine ever being young or having sex — though Paul was proof that they must have done it at least once. Lovely people, mind.

As you can imagine, being a divorcee raising two kids on her own my mum had a thing for songs about strong, independent women battling against the odds (men, usually) so she loved the Country record “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley. This 1968 hit was about a single parent (though widowed in this case) who scandalizes the other parents at her daughter’s school by wearing short skirts and being seen out on the town with men. The best part about it is she stands up for herself and gives them all a good verbal knee in the balls for their small-minded hypocrisy. When one-parent families were portrayed in the media back then it was usually as a “problem” — latchkey kids, “broken” homes and all that crap — so it was nice to hear a loud and proud single mum in a pop song. Not only that, but it also stands up for a mother’s right to look sexy which must have made mine pump her fist in the air and shout “right on sister!”

Download: Harper Valley PTA – Jeannie C. Riley (mp3)