Deal Breakers

Originally published November 2011

I’ve broken up with girls for lots of reasons in the past (or given them the Spanish Archer as we used to say), there have even been a few that have broken up with me — the nerve! Most of my relationships have ended with more of a whimper than a bang, slowly fizzling out when the initial spark faded so I don’t have too many dramatic stories to tell, but there was one girl who I caught on the phone having a secret, intimate chat with another bloke in the middle of the night in my own kitchen while she was spending the night at my place. That’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been involved in a get-the-fuck-out! shouting match with a girl and I hope you agree it was perfectly reasonable of me in that situation.

But what about the unreasonable causes? For a while I went out with a girl who told me she voted Conservative (this was when Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister) and an American who said she thought Ronald Reagan was a great President. Though I didn’t, I hasten add, dump either of these girls on the spot, the thought did cross my mind that this might be grounds for terminating the relationship. Dodgy politics are one thing, but what if — horror of horrors — she had really bad taste in music?

I’ve been lucky in that regard, my long-term relationships (all three of them including the missus) have been with girls who shared roughly the same (impeccable) taste as me, but at college I briefly went out with a girl who liked… Chris De Burgh. This devastating information was given to me by a friend of hers before our first date who passed it on as if she was telling me the girl was a Neo-Nazi or liked to drown kittens — “she’s a nice girl, but…” Sadly she turned out to be a little dull and personality-free so I only went out with her three times, but I wonder if my opinion of her was tarnished by what I knew. Did knowing that she liked Chris De Burgh make her boring to me or did only boring people like Chris De Burgh in the first place? It’s a chicken-and-egg situation! I think I even avoided the “what kind of music do you like?” conversation with her because I’d have to fight the urge to shout HE’S SHIT!!! which would ruin any chance of a second date or getting her into bed (I didn’t), but I suppose if the relationship had lasted I would have had to cross that bridge at some point. I can’t even remember her name now but she has forever gone down in my memory as “the Chris De Burgh fan” I went out with.

Is there any group or singer so bad that they would be grounds for dumping a girl? I think the only answer to that question is “depends how good-looking she is.”

Download: Love’s Gone Bad – Chris Clark (mp3)


Greetings, Grapple Fans

Originally published January 2012

“By the late 1980s the interests of the working class had changed dramatically, and we wanted to capture part of where they’d gone to, rather than where they’d been. Wrestling was stuck in a timewarp – it personified the old English working class sitting around the telly, staring blankly. That was the image we were trying to kill, so we decided to kill the wrestling.” — Greg Dyke, Head of ITV Sport

“Why did it come off TV? Because it was crap! The young person wasn’t interested anymore. We lost an audience, the younger element, because it was all big fat horrible men. You don’t go to see big fat horrible men. You go to see dolly fellas.” — Jackie Pallo

At 4 o’clock most Saturday afternoons in the early 1970s you’d know where to find me, along with millions of other British people (including the Queen apparently): parked in front of the telly watching the wrestling on World of Sport. Introduced as always by commentator Kent Walton with the salutation “Greetings, grapple fans!” this version of wrestling was very different to the slick, hyper WWF that we know today, it was rather more low-budget, Bingo Hall-shabby than glitzy Madison Square Garden spectacular, meat pies and Pale Ale instead of Big Macs and Coke.

But that’s not to say it lacked showmanship and characters. There were bad guys to boo like Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, the flamboyantly camp glam-rocker Adrian Street, the great Johnny Kwango (one of my favourites) with his lethal flying-headbutt move, the man-mountain Giant Haystacks and, most exciting of all, the mysterious, masked man Kendo Nagasaki whose ritual unmasking on television had me riveted. He had a tattoo on the top of his head! And red eyes! It was brilliant. I thought he was like a superhero (or villain) with his costume and secret identity (turns out his name was Peter Thornley and he was from Stoke — not very exotic really.)

Watching old fights on YouTube it can seem painfully cheap and creaky now (though not without a certain low-rent charm), a relic of an England that was vanishing into the past along with our factories and coal mines. Then when American wrestling was first shown in the UK in the 1980s it must have made our home-grown version look really tatty — especially when the biggest English star at the time was the middle-aged tub-of-guts Big Daddy who looked like the only training he did was lifting pints. I’d stopped watching it myself about 10 years before but if I’d been a teenage boy in the late 80s faced with the choice between some fat old man who beat people by falling on them belly-first (his famous “splash” move) and a Hulk Hogan who didn’t just dress like a superhero but had the muscles of one too, it wouldn’t even be a contest, called by the referee after a total KO — the “referee” in this case being Greg Dyke who took wrestling off the air in 1988.

A similar thing happened to English cafes when McDonald’s came to the country, it was a cultural bliztkrieg we didn’t have the ammo to defend against and wrestling was the equivalent of a stewed, chipped mug of tea in a run-down greasy spoon.

And, yes, I know it was all fake.

Download: Nutted By Reality – Nick Lowe (mp3)

Above quotes from The Wrestling by Simon Garfield (terrific book)
More posters here.

The First “Punk” Number One

Originally published July 2011

There is a persistent urban legend that the “Establishment” did some mucking about with the sales figures to prevent The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” from getting to number one in the charts during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 — can’t have these spotty oiks insulting Her Majesty, can we? — but whatever the truth behind that it was to be another year before the first so-called (by The Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles anyway) “punk” number one single. Blondie had made it as far as #2 with “Denis” earlier in 1978 but were held off the summit by the double-team of Brian and Michael (the horror, the horror) so the first to finally reach the top and plant a flag for the new generation were The Boomtown Rats with “Rat Trap”.

Of course it’s not a punk record at all, and if I was being unkind could be described as Bruce Springsteen’s first number one so shamelessly does it pinch from his “Jungleland” right down to the big sax solo. But I love it anyway and great lines like “Deep down in her pocket, she finds 50p” give it a kitchen-sink feel that made it more relatable to us kids in the UK than Brucie’s Hollywood-sized epic. No barefoot girls on the boardwalk in this town.

Punk or not, The Rats were at least a “New Wave” band which meant something, a sign that the citadel had been stormed and “our” side was winning, especially when they went on Top of The Pops and Bob Geldof tore up a photo of John Travolta whose “Summer Nights” they had just toppled from the top after seven weeks.

The following year The Rats had another number one with “I Don’t Like Mondays” and Ian Dury, Blondie, The Police, and Gary Numan all hit the top slot (with more to come from The Jam, The Specials, and Dexy’s) as the charts entered something of a golden era that lasted several years. If you were a particular age back then it would have forever shaped/warped your expectations of how great the pop charts can be which is why we’ve been doomed to disappointment ever since — we were spoiled.

Download: Rat Trap – The Boomtown Rats (mp3)

Sleeve Talk

Originally published April 2007

The concept album is one of those rock ideas that got thoroughly shat upon by punk as an example of the previous generation’s ridiculous pomposity and became the butt of a million Spinal Tap-ish jokes regarding epic songs about wizards and elves. Even though I grew up reading Marvel comics and science fiction novels I was thankfully too young to also fall under the spell of Genesis, Yes, and all their Proggy brethren whose every album seemed to be a grandiosly conceived Sci-Fi or fantasy concept of some kind or other. ELO’s more poppy form of pretension got me early though and I fell in love with their 1974 album Eldorado which was a concept album (sorry, it’s actually called a symphony) vaguely about the magical goings on in a fairy tale dream world. I never paid much attention to Jeff Lynne’s lyrics so it wasn’t the subject matter (full of all sorts of silly stuff about knights, rainbows, and Robin Hood), I just liked the way it sounded. I also loved the sleeve which I still think is gorgeous.

In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a still from The Wizard of Oz which is also about a fantastical dream world. I thought it was very clever of the designer to go with an iconic image like that rather than other, more obvious routes like hiring illustrator Roger Dean who was the go-to artist for fantastical Prog Rock records at the time. In my research I found out that the idea to use that picture actually came from band manager Don Arden’s daughter Sharon who you would know now as Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy.

Apparently Jeff Lynne hated it but he was wrong. The image of the glittery, iconic red shoes is beautifully striking and the hazy, grainy quality of the enlarged film frame gives it a dream-like quality. Unlike a lot of other concept albums from the era it doesn’t look dated at all. The small, elegant typography looks like the engraving on an expensive invitation to a grand ball, a feel reinforced by the gold border around the edges. It’s certainly a huge improvement on the “here are our belly buttons” sleeve of their previous album.

This was the first ELO album to use a full orchestra and the first two tracks segue together to produce about the grandest, dreamiest opening you can imagine. “Eldorado Overture” starts with an incredibly pretentious spoken-word intro by some bloke called Peter Ford-Robertson who has the warm and plummy tones of an old BBC radio presenter announcing the death of the King. Then the orchestra comes in, swooping and crashing in madly baroque fashion, and the moment where it suddenly dies and fades into the shimmering “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” is sublime – probably the single most heavenly moment ELO ever produced.

Both tracks are here together in one file for the full effect.

Download: Eldorado Overture/Can’t Get It Out Of My Head – Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)

The Bard of Salford

Originally published January 2007

All revolutionary moments in history inspire great poetry, the French Revolution had Wordsworth, the Easter Rising had Yeats, and punk had a snotty rake from Manchester called John Cooper Clarke.

Looking like Bob Dylan if he’d grown up on a diet of fish fingers and cold baked beans, his spittle-flecked, 100mph delivery had the amphetamine rush of punk with the salty language of a northern working man’s club comedian. Thankfully he wasn’t the sort of poet who wrote tortured odes to the painful beauty of council blocks, instead his muse led him up lurid and surreal paths to psycle sluts, homemade porn, monsters from outer space and teenage werewolves.

I wasn’t a huge fan of his studio albums where he read his poems over a rather avant garde musical backdrop provided by post-punk supergroup The Invisible Girls – maybe if he’d been backed by a funk band or drum machine he’d be seen today as a pioneer of white hip hop 20 years before Eminem and The Streets – but it was live that he really dazzled. His act was a cross between Pam Ayres, Bernard Manning, and Johnny Rotten, confrontational and full of piss and vinegar but funny as hell. Which is why it’s surprising that he only ever put out the one live album, Walking Back Happiness from where these four tracks come. This came out in 1979 on 10″ clear vinyl but has sadly has long been out of print and never reissued.

I’m not going to go into detail about all these but “Twat” deserves special mention, this is a masterpiece of invective (aimed at Michael Heseltine appparently) which should be taught in a class on how to verbally tear someone a new arsehole:

People mention murder,
the moment you arrive.
I’d consider killing you
if I thought you were alive.
You’ve got this slippery quality,
it makes me think of phlegm.
And a dual personality,
I hate both of them.

Sheer bloody poetry, as they say.

Download: Twat – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: The Bronze Adonis – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Gaberdine Angus – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Majorca – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)