Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Originally published August 2007

There are few more beautiful places on this Earth than the English countryside on a hot summer day (we do get them occasionally.) When we were kids my sister and I used to spend two weeks every summer staying with our auntie Carol in Derbyshire where we’d fill our days cycling along country lanes, fishing for sticklebacks in shady streams, picking berries, and generally being happy-go-lucky youngsters frollocking about England’s green and pleasant land.

All that was over 30 years ago and my memories of those days are very hazy so it probably wasn’t anywhere near as utopian as it sounds, but my heart still swells when I see rolling green English hills and I drift off into a wistful reverie of long ago perfect summers.

Elusive as butterflies though those moments are, Virgina Astley tried to capture them on her 1983 album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure which evokes the warm, lazy glow of an English country summer day with ambient piano instrumentals that float along like dandelion spores, dressed up with field recordings of chirping birds, church bells, creaking garden gates and baa-ing lambs. It’s as precious as little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and when I hear it I get all dreamy and reflective and have the urge for a cold glass of Robinson’s Barley Water.

It could just be my advancing age and sentimentality but I can hear a heavy sadness underneath the pretty surface of this record. Not just because even the most perfect summer day has to come to an end, but there’s a yearning for an Arcadian idyll that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did. Yes, even on a perfect summer day we English can find something to be depressed about.

Download: A Summer Long Since Passed – Virginia Astley (mp3)

Photo: Surrey Hills by Clifton Royal Adams, 1928


Bloody Pulp Fiction

Originally published May 2012

We all know the Lord of The Flies cliche about boys being little more than savages beneath a thin veneer of civilization, and anyone who has gone to an all-boys school knows that this is pretty much true. My comprehensive was no different, a pressure-cooker of raging hormones and cruel adolescent power games where the strong mercilessly preyed on the weak, the bookish, the different, the short-sighted.

Not surprisingly our tastes in reading material leaned toward the violent and nasty, and if it had a sprinkling of smut in it too so much the better. There was a sort of underground lending library system at school with certain parent- and teacher-unfriendly books being passed from one kid to another, often with the “good” pages marked for easy reference. Popular reads were Richard Allen’s Skinhead books and Jaws by Peter Benchley, but it was The Rats by James Herbert that was the must-read book we all couldn’t wait to get our hands on. I remember that it had such a cult, talked-about status at school (and a controversial reputation elsewhere), that when I finally got a copy passed to me I felt like I was handling radioactive material and immediately hid it in my Adidas bag until I got home.

Published in 1974, The Rats is a gruesome novel about London being terrorized by giant mutant rats with a taste for human flesh, and is full of lurid descriptions of people being attacked and killed in very, very nasty ways:

But as he stood, one of the larger rats leapt at his groin, pulling away his genitals with one mighty twist of his body. The tramp screamed and fell to his knees, thrusting his hands between his legs as if to stop the flow of blood, but he was immediately engulfed and toppled over by a wave of black, bristling bodies.

As you can imagine we — pardon the expression — ate this up with glee. A tramp had his knob bitten off by a rat! That bloke had his eyes chewed out! They ate a baby! I read it again recently (well, skimmed would be more accurate) and while I wouldn’t exactly call Herbert a good writer he’s an effective and efficient one; the story motors along from one horrific scene to another with no distracting subplots, and the only chapter that doesn’t have any bloody carnage in it has a sex scene instead — x-rated, vividly-described sex of course (chapter eight if you’re interested) — so the book managed to get our adolescent blood pumping into more than one organ. No wonder it we loved it so much, it was if it had been written by a committee set up to produce a book just to satisfy our particular bloody and lusty imaginations.

It’s been claimed that, under the schlocky horror, The Rats is actually a damning portrait of the run-down, dysfunctional state of London — and England — in the 1970s, and reading it again with grown-up eyes I did think that if you took away the killer rats you’d have a social-realist polemic. There are lots of angry references to slum neighbourhoods in the East End, dirty canals, neglected bomb-site wastelands, people living in poorly-built “concrete towers” with stinking rubbish chutes, and at one point the dustmen go on strike forcing the Army to be called in to clear rubbish from the streets which actually happened during the Winter of Discontent in 1979. The rats may have been mutant freaks but the novel makes it clear that they bred and thrived in a city one character curses as “Dirty bloody London!”

So if a teacher had caught me with it and asked me why I was reading such junk, I could have replied “Actually sir, it’s a devastating critique of the social, political, and environmental conditions in London today” — and he probably would have given me a clip ’round the ear and confiscated the book.

Download: Down In The Sewer – The Stranglers (mp3)

Sleeve Talk

Originally published March 2015

There is some dispute about who originally coined the word “Yuppie” and when, but it first came into widespread use around 1983 and became one of the defining words of the 1980s: synonymous with “designer” lifestyles, conspicuous consumption, and Phil Collins albums.

But when Heaven 17 released their debut album in 1981 I doubt anyone knew how the decade was going to turn out. That was the year of the riots in Brixton and Toxteth, IRA hunger strikes, unemployment reaching 2.5 million, and Maggie Thatcher being the most unpopular Prime Minister in polling history. Though the wedding of Charles and Diana and the introduction of the Sinclair ZX81 home computer were signs of things to come, it’s fair to say that year the country was still struggling to escape the 70s.

After leaving The Human League, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh first appropriated the language of big business by giving themselves the corporate-sounding name British Electric Foundation (known by the faceless acronym “B.E.F”), and the sleeve of Penthouse and Pavement presents their recruitment of singer Glenn Gregory to form Heaven 17 as some kind of business merger. The copy proudly declares this to be “The New Partnership That’s Opening Doors All Over The World” in cliched, vacuous marketing-speak, while the power-suited band strike generic stock-photo “business” poses — shaking hands, on the phone — like it’s the cover of a brochure for some dreadful multinational corporation.

The Heaven 17: Sheffield, Edinburgh, London logo is apparently a Dunhill pastiche, and the same year those other Left-wing pop intellectuals Scritti Politti were doing similarly subversive, post-modern riffs on luxury brands with their own record sleeves. Heaven 17 took it even further by dressing as businessmen in photo shoots.

While this was all meant as a Lefty piss-take of capitalism and the pro-business rhetoric of Thatcher and Reagan, it turned out Heaven 17 were being unintentionally prophetic in their choice of visuals. Soon the power-suited, hair-slicked-back style of corporate tycoons made the leap from Wall Street and The City to become a mainstream, aspirational look driven by the new breed of go-getting Yuppies. Pop groups started wearing wearing Armani and pinstripes unironically, and the nation’s wine bars were full of young men looking like cut-price Gordon Gekkos in double-breasted suits from Next.

The 1980s ended when the stock market tanked on Black Monday, and coincidentally around the same time Acid House came along and the youth threw away their suits and chinos, and traded them in for dungarees and Smiley t-shirts. Personally I found that all a bit nursery school but it was better than looking like an accountant. Heaven 17 meant it as a conceptual gag but way too many people took it literally.

Download: Play To Win (Extended Mix) — Heaven 17 (mp3)


Originally published August 2012

Childhood heroes are usually pop stars and footballers, but growing up in the late 60s and early 70s we also had the Apollo astronauts to idolize, actual heroes who performed amazing, courageous feats that really mattered — unlike Marc Bolan and Peter Osgood. To us they were real-life versions of Captain Kirk, Scott Tracy, and our Major Matt toys. They looked so cool in those white spacesuits, blasting into space (space! outer space!) aboard the gigantic, beautiful Saturn V rocket (which I had an Airfix model of). When I lived in Florida I visited Kennedy Space Centre and seeing things like the Lunar Module made me feel like a thrilled little kid again. Great though it was, seeing the Space Shuttle never excited me like that.

The death of Neil Armstrong has brought a lot of those memories back and reminded me what a big deal it all was at the time. I watched all the Apollo missions on TV from lift-off to splashdown (with James Burke and Patrick Moore on the BBC), seeing the first moon landing in my pajamas as Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at four in the morning our time. I think I went to bed for a few hours and my mum set her alarm to wake us up for the big moment.

To us kids the Apollo missions seemed to promise that the future might be like the one we saw in Gerry Anderson TV shows, and that by the time we were adults we’d be living on the moon. Little did we know that when Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972 we wouldn’t go back again, so the moonbase we dreamt about never happened — not to mention the jetpacks and flying cars.

All the obituaries will use the word “immortal” to describe Armstrong’s place in history and I think some part of me thought he literally was, because even though he was getting on a bit his death still shocked me, as if I was surprised that such a legend would just kick the bucket like the rest of us boringly do and not ascend to Valhalla on the back of a giant, flaming bird or something. Seven-year-old me would have expected nothing less.

Download: Enchanted Sky Machines – Judee Sill (mp3)

My Dad’s Records

Originally published April 2013.

My old man was quite the cool dude in his youth, wearing sharp suits and listening to Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. But just as his marriage didn’t survive the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, his old taste in music didn’t either, by the 1970s he’d dropped all that square stuff and was listening to adult-oriented soft rock like James Taylor, Paul Simon, and The Eagles. He’d also grown a beard and wore his hair longer so he looked like a mellow Californian soft-rocker too.

As an opinionated young man into The Jam and Joy Division I was very disdainful of the “hippie rubbish” my Dad liked and knew that the older stuff he liked was far cooler. He used to have parties at his house in the summer and Boxing Day and at one of them I put the Getz/Gilberto album on the stereo only to come back into the room a little while later to find that he’d taken it off and put on Hotel California instead. I was appalled and tried to explain to him just how naff he was being, but I suppose it’s the job of your parents to embarrass you.

The record that reminds me most of my old man is Steve Winwood’s 1980 album Arc of a Diver which he played all the time, especially the opening track “While You See a Chance” which would set him off grooving around his living room in a very Dad-like way (I dance like that myself now). That synth intro always washes over me like a Proustian wave bringing back memories of those parties at his house, thinking I was very grown-up drinking Scotch and Ginger Ale, talking about movies with my Dad, and smoking joints with my Uncle Peter.

I can’t say I really loved the album at the time but I also didn’t leave the room muttering snottily when he put it on either because Winwood had one of the best white-soul voices the UK has ever produced and the synths on it made it sound fairly modern.

My Dad was in his 40s around this time which is younger than I am now, and I must admit that I do enjoy the occasional Paul Simon or Fleetwood Mac record myself these days, a lot more than I ever play Joy Division. I still think Stan Getz is cooler than The Eagles though.

Download: While You See A Chance – Steve Winwood (mp3)