The Screaming Lurgy

Only 20 years in and the 21st century is the gift that just keeps on giving: 9/11, 7/7, Iraq, the financial crash, massive hurricanes and tsunamis, Arctic ice melting, droughts, wild fires, bees dying, bird flu, swine flu, and now COVID-19. I hate to be a Debbie Downer but I worry that this is the track we’re on now, just lurching from one crisis to the next. I guess you could have said the same thing 100 years ago after World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic, but at least the planet wasn’t fucked up back then. Now the combination of a worldwide plague together with environmental disaster doesn’t seem like something out of a dystopian SF novel.

Being British of an older generation you’re raised to accept that life is often a bit crap and you have to make do and muddle through — I grew up in the 70s with the 3-day week, power cuts, inflation, and the Winter of Discontent — so I usually take things like this on the chin, but I’d be lying if I said that, as a 57-year-old former smoker, this virus doesn’t make me anxious.

At least one thing I don’t have to worry about is my job. I’m very lucky to have one I can do from home, but I know people who work in the restaurant business who aren’t so lucky and have been laid off. Who knows if they’ll ever get those old jobs back? When we all finally leave our houses again and go back to work I’m dreading how many businesses I used to frequent — restaurant, book shop, indie cinema, barbers, comic shop — won’t be there any more.

Still, though it doesn’t come naturally, I guess you have to stay positive and look forward to the day this is all over — and it will be, at least until the next disaster.

And on that happy note…

Download: Infected (12″ Mix) – The The (mp3)


Ooh Look

Originally published June 2007

I was never the sort of kid who was interested in planes or trains or automobiles, but even I got a kick out of seeing Concorde. It started commercial flights in 1976 and used to fly over our school one afternoon every week on its way from Heathrow to Bahrain. For a while that was the only route it flew out of England so spotting it was something of an event. We were usually in the playground on our way to the next lesson when it came over, everyone would excitedly look up when we heard its roaring engines and kids inside would rush over to their classroom windows to try and catch a glimpse.

What made Concorde so great was that it was (at least partly) British. It started flying during the dark days of the 1970s when the country was falling apart and we had little to be proud of except our “glorious” past, but here was this gorgeous, futuristic thing we helped design and build — easily the most beautiful passenger plane ever created. With it’s sleek, sexy lines and thrusting nose it was like the E-Type of aircraft, an object that stirred the loins of national pride. The fact that the Americans wouldn’t allow it to land at their airports made our pride swell even more, they said it was because of noise pollution but we thought they were just jealous because they hadn’t built the world’s first supersonic airliner themselves.

The Concorde project started in the 50s but to me it evoked the British “can do” forward thinking of the 1960s, that optimistic period when when we’d never had it so good and PM Harold Wilson was talking about the “white hot heat” of the technological revolution. It didn’t last of course, by the time Concorde was ready to fly the country was in the toilet and the oil crisis meant there wasn’t much demand for a petrol-hungry supersonic plane. So it was a bit of a white elephant that cost a boatload of money and ended up in limited service only for the wealthy, but it was a magnificent white elephant and it was ours.

John Peel played some bizarre music on his show but “There Goes Concorde Again” by …And The Native Hipsters from 1980 must rank as the one of the most completely bonkers. This is nearly seven minutes of spoken word whimsy punctuated by tuneless electronic bleeps and bloops and the occasional clattering of typewriter keys. “Vocalist” Nanette Greenblatt sounds like some batty old cat lady who spends too much time indoors, watching the comings and goings of the world from behind her net curtains. You either love this or it will drive you from the room screaming. Me, I think it’s a lovely piece of peculiarly English eccentricity and never get tired of it no matter how many times she says “ooh look!” — which is a lot.

Surprisingly this was a big hit on the indie charts and I swear I remember Peel playing a parody version of it someone did about looking out of the window and seeing two Joy Division fans walk by carrying copies of Unknown Pleasures under their arms. Anyone else remember this or did I hallucinate the whole thing?

Download: There Goes Concorde Again – …And The Native Hipsters (mp3)

The Jingle Jangle Morning

Originally published July 2007

“Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn’t care though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”
J. D. Salinger
The Catcher In The Rye (1951)

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read The Catcher In The Rye (I still have my old Penguin Modern Classics copy which cost 30p) but I was the type who identified with Holden Caulfield and still am a little. He was the clever, sarcastic kid who wasn’t very good at games and was prematurely cynical about the world, but had a sentimental streak a mile wide. Holden was a teen rebel but not in any wild, living-on-the-edge, rock and roll sort of way. His awkwardness and love of childish innocence made him more of an indie-pop sort of rebel, the patron saint of quiet boys who start fanzines in their bedrooms, make mixtapes for pretty girls, or form indie bands.

Orange Juice made his influence apparent when they put out records on a label called “Holden Caulfield Universal”, but if they were to make a movie of the novel I’d nominate The Pale Fountains to supply the soundtrack. Edwyn Collins had Holden’s sardonic humour, but Fountains’ lead singer Michael Head captured his wistful yearning and fragile sensibility.

Download: Just A Girl – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

In my movie version of Catcher In The Rye I can imagine The Fountains’ lovely second single “Thank You” bursting out like fireworks over the climactic scene with Holden’s little sister spinning around on the carousel while he breaks down in tears at the transcendent beauty of it all. With it’s soaring crescendos of strings there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Download: Thank You – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

By the time their debut album Pacific Street finally emerged in 1984 they had competition from new bands like the even more bookish and precious Prefab Sprout (who wrote songs based on Graham Greene novels). Flop though it was, the album did produce their best ever moment in the majestic single “(Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War” which was called “You’ll Start A War” on the album but was made even more swoon-worthy on this extended 12″ version. God I wish you could’ve been there.

Download: (Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War (12″ version) – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

Wilde Thing

Originally published April 2008

The French called Kim Wilde the “Brigitte Bardot of rock” and I guess they should know — about Brigitte Bardot that is, not rock music. But while she had the pouty, bee-sting lips and heavy-lidded, smouldering eyes of a French sex kitten she didn’t have the same sense of volatile emotional danger about her. You didn’t get the feeling that any minute she could explode in a fit of l’amour fou and start throwing plates at you, stub a Gitanes out on your hand, or throw herself off a bridge in passionate despair over some love affair gone wrong. Kim always seemed too sensible, too English for all that, and instead of some sleazy svengali Roger Vadim-type manipulating her behind the scenes, her records were written and produced by her brother and her dad.

All of which which made her a girl-next-door (if you were really lucky) sort of sex symbol, more Smash Hits than French Vogue.

Oh, and her records weren’t all that bad either. This is from her terrific debut album.

Download: Our Town – Kim Wilde (mp3)

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

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)

The Big Music

When The Waterboys released the song “The Big Music” in 1984 it wasn’t only a good description of the sort of grandiose music they were playing at the time but also became a blanket name for what a whole lot of other bands like U2, Simple Minds, Big Country, Echo & The Bunnymen and, um, The Alarm were doing too.

As a genre “The Big Music” was thunderous drums, anthemic choruses, lyrics with vaguely religious and metaphysical imagery, and ringing guitars that sounded like they were leading a charge into battle. Everything was turned up to 11 with epic, spacious dynamics like it was recorded in a cathedral and the singers were baring their souls to God. Visually it meant videos and album covers shot in desolate landscapes, and unfortunate post-punk mullet haircuts.

I think the origin of the sound can be traced back to The Skids who probably don’t get enough credit (or blame) for the influence they had on 80s post-punk rock, just the intro of “Into The Valley” alone could have launched the genre.

This extended version of “Waterfront” is like being repeatedly hit with Thor’s hammer, but it’s still quite exhilarating even if it does mark the point when Simple Minds became arena rockers. Produced by Steve Lillywhite who was the Michael Bay of The Big Music, it’s like, how much more big could this be? The answer is none. None more big.

Download: Waterfront (12″ version) – Simple Minds (mp3)

(Like A) Cash Machine

Originally published April 2013

I didn’t have a bank account until I started college when I was 20. The jobs I’d had before then paid me cash (in those little brown envelopes nicely stuffed with notes) but I got a grant to go to college and I had to put the cheque somewhere. So I opened an account with NatWest who gave me one of those new-fangled cash cards that let me get money out of a hole in the wall anytime I wanted. Quite a radical idea at the time which meant you didn’t have to rush to the bank before 3pm on a Friday to make sure you had enough cash for the weekend.

But giving a student easy access to money is not a good idea and by the time I left college I had an overdraft of £300, most of which went on beer and records so it’s not as if I wasted it. It seems like a piddling amount now but the bank got a bit shitty about it during my final term and took my cheque book and cash card away from me. I had to go to my branch every time I wanted money and tell them what it was for. Saying “I need £40 because they’re having a sale at Our Price” wouldn’t have gone down too well so I had to use it for boring stuff like food. I guess they weren’t confident that I’d be a wealthy, world-famous graphic designer one day. Very wise of them.

I paid it off once I left college and got a job, but then the fools went and gave me a credit card. Uh-oh. Big trouble.

Here’s one of the records I spent my grant cheque on. Super dirty funk music from 1983.

Download: Cash (Cash Money) – Prince Charles & The City Beat Band (mp3)