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)


Make Mine Marvel

Originally published May 2011

One Saturday afternoon in 1972 my mum came back from the shops with a comic she’d bought for me: the first issue of The Mighty World of Marvel. This was a weekly that reprinted the early (movie-length!) adventures of The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Spiderman in glorious two-colour, bringing real American superheroes to us deprived English kids if not exactly for the first time, at least the first time properly by Marvel themselves. It was so popular that it soon spawned a whole family of other Marvel UK reprint titles like Spiderman Comics Weekly, The Avengers, The Titans, and eventually our very own superhero Captain Britain (who was a bit crap really).

Until then my comics reading had consisted of cheeky English funnies like The Beezer, Cor!!, and Whizzer and Chips (I was a Chip-ite, and my sister a Whizz Kid) but these swinging and clobberin’ superheroes seemed far more exciting to 10-year-old me than Colonel Blink and The Bash Street Kids and I pretty much gave up all those and started getting the Marvel UK titles every week.

The character that seriously grabbed me was Spiderman whose alter ego Peter Parker was a bit of a loser despite his super powers: his family was poor, he was shy and hopeless around girls, and he was often picked on at school (mostly by that twat Flash Thompson) — just like me! In British comics, on the other hand, it was the bully or the bad kid who was usually the hero and the weedy, bookish kid was the figure of fun who was laughed at, kicked in the shorts, or shot at with a pea shooter.

I never wanted to be Dennis The Menace (who now seems like a bit of an arsehole, a thug with a nasty dog) but I really wanted to be Spiderman and would daydream about having his super powers so I could beat up whatever knuckle-headed bully was picking on me at school at the time. I got quite emotionally invested in Peter Parker’s personal life too and, I have to admit, I cried when his girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed. I think I was more upset by that than I was by Ian Curtis dying a few years later.

Back then we had to get our Marvel fix through these reprints because actual American comics were hard to come by at your local newsagent. Every now and then my mum would see one and bring it home for me and I felt like I had come into possession of some precious, rare document from another world. For a start they were in colour (or “color”) and they were full of ads for exotic things like X-Ray Glasses, Sea Monkeys, a newspaper called Grit, and all kinds of other strange curiosities — even your own nuclear submarine! — what an amazing place America was!

Then I discovered the legendary Soho book and comic shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed and, when that closed, the original Forbidden Planet shop on Denmark Street, so I was able to stop buying the reprints and get the real thing — which I bought lots and lots of every month, especially Daredevil and The X-Men which were going through classic runs in the late 70s and early 80s. Both places had a similar atmosphere to a record shop (where I was also spending a lot of money at the time), being like secret boy’s clubs with their own cliques and mythologies, and needless to say there are a lot of similarities between comic and music fandom: both are overwhelmingly the province of obsessive young males with insufferably smug opinions, a love of arcane trivia, and difficulty with the opposite sex (though there may be rather more virgins in the comics world).

I eventually stopped reading comics sometime in the mid-1980s, the last one I bought regularly was Love & Rockets which wasn’t a superhero comic at all, but even so-called “adult” ones like that weren’t doing it for me anymore and frankly started to seem a bit pointless — if I was going to read something “adult” why not just read a novel? It might be simplistic to say I grew out of them but I think that’s basically it, it’s the same reason I stopped listening to gloomy post-punk. I sold my comic collection in the 1990s which got me a lot more money than the records I also sold at the time (those Daredevils and X-Men had become quite valuable) and haven’t had the urge to pick up once since.

I’ve actually been into a few comic shops recently for the first time in nearly 20 years because my daughter developed a love for Wonder Woman through watching the old TV series, but I have a hard time finding one suitable for her as they’re all so relentlessly dark and violent now (and expensive — $2.99!) with none of the Pop-Art fun they used to have — even a Supergirl I looked at was as bloody as a Tarantino movie. Personally I think it’s all Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s fault, ever since Watchmen and The Dark Knight they’re all trying way too hard to be grown-up and gritty but to me they seem even more juvenile as a result — only adolescents take themselves that seriously.

Download: Comic Strip – Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot (mp3)

2019 Update: I am actually reading more comics now thanks to my kids, but I’m still a Marvel kid.

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)

Numanoids Dream of Electric Sheep

Seeing as we are now living in the year that Blade Runner was set I thought I’d repost this from May 2017.

There’s a Blade Runner sequel coming out later this year which you may or may not be wetting your pants about. Though the original is regarded by many as a classic now it wasn’t when it came out in 1982. It got mixed reviews and wasn’t a big hit either. Even the cast were a bit dubious about it. I saw it at the pictures back then and remember being a bit underwhelmed too. Obviously it was a visual knockout but I thought the script was clunky, Harrison Ford was dull, and his voice-over narration like something out of a bad “hard-boiled” detective novel.

A lot of great films are underappreciated at first, but Ridley Scott must have thought it had problems too otherwise he wouldn’t have kept tinkering with it over the years. I have a DVD set with three different versions of the film and apparently there are seven in all. I do like it more now than I did in 1982 and watch it whenever I want to inhale some pure cinematic eye candy, but I still don’t love it as much as some people or take it as seriously as it does itself.

The film might have been a flop but I’m sure Scott made a few quid out of these ads he did for Barclays Bank.

As any fule knos, Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which differs from the movie in several ways. In the book Deckard takes the job of killing the androids because he wants the money to buy a real animal to replace his robot sheep. The terms “Blade Runner” and “Replicant” aren’t in it either. I still have no idea why a cop who kills androids would be called a Blade Runner which always sounded like a generically meaningless Hollywood title to me (in fact it comes from a completely different science fiction story).

Philip K. Dick was one of those cult authors often name-dropped by Post-Punk musicians in their NME interviews along with William Burroughs and JG Ballard. Their dystopian visions of alienation, drugs, violence, and tower blocks made them perfect for the bleak late-70s mood, and a well-thumbed paperback of one of their books was a lifestyle accessory as essential to the moody young man as a copy of Unknown Pleasures. Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” was named after a Ballard novel, and The Human League called their first demo The Taverner Tape after a character in Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

But Dick’s biggest influence was on young Gary Numan. With its songs about androids (Machmen) who murder humans, and characters with false memories (“Little white lies like ‘I was there'”), Tubeway Army’s 1979 album Replicas is basically Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set to music. Just the title alone of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” shows the influence of the novel. On top of that, Numan often acted like a robot pretending to be human himself. I wonder if he would pass the Voight-Kampff Test.

I sometimes think that Replicas might have been an influence on Ridley Scott and the movie. Numan’s dark synth music and vision of shadowy figures in long coats and grey hats smoking cigarettes certainly evokes the noir atmosphere of Blade Runner more than the trippy and paranoid discombobulation of the book. I even wondered if the scriptwriter got the word “Replicant” from the album title, but apparently not. That’s another great theory ruined by internet research.

Download: Me! I Disconnect From You – Tubeway Army (mp3)

The Art School of Rock

Originally published September 2014

“The art schools from my time specialised in old-school teaching methods of brutalising your students with some wild thinking that was off the map.” — Pete Townshend

“The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp’s most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there – but on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way.” — Jarvis Cocker

“I had no talent as an artist, no real interest in art. I really wanted to get into a band. And it seemed like all my favorite musicians had gone to art school. So I went to art school. I just figured my first day, I’d walk into the toilet and there’d be a bunch of guys with guitars, and we’d be all set.” – Mick Jones

Where would British pop music be without art schools? They’ve been the incubator for some of our best talent since the 1950s, the place where kids with creative inclinations can be in an environment with other outsiders and rebels who don’t fit into traditional higher education or want a job in a bank or office. Many of them end up picking up guitars instead of paintbrushes as a means of expression.

The list of pop/rock art school alumni includes John Lennon (Liverpool College of Art), Keith Richards (Sidcup Art School), Jimmy Page (Sutton Art College), John Cale (Goldsmiths), Pete Townshend, Freddie Mercury (Ealing Art College), Ray Davies, Adam Ant (Hornsey College of Art), Syd Barrett (Camberwell), Bryan Ferry (Newcastle College of Art), Brian Eno (Winchester College of Art), Malcolm McLaren (Croydon Art College), Ian Dury (Royal College of Art), Joe Strummer (Central School of Art & Design), Viv Albertine (Chelsea School of Art), Paul Simonon (Byam Shaw), Sade (St. Martin’s), and PJ Harvey (Yeovil Art College).

I went to one myself in the early 1980s. I had no thought of what sort of job or career I’d get out of it but I was, as the cliche went, “good at drawing” at school and didn’t fancy reading books for three years at a university, so art school it was.

To begin with I took a one-year Foundation Course which is designed to make you try everything before deciding what to study for your degree, so I dabbled in painting, sculpture, environmental art, printmaking, and even performance art (sadly my piece “The White Brick” wasn’t filmed for posterity). But going from my rather mundane secondary school art lessons to the radical, experimental atmosphere of an art school was a real challenge. My tutor was a hard-core conceptual artist who called my work “shit” at one point, and I was close to leaving the first term as I struggled to get to grips with some of the projects we were given. But I stuck with it and by the end it turned into one of most rewarding, transformative experiences of my life, as important to who I am as hearing The Jam for the first time.

A lot of my non-student friends thought I just drew pictures all day but art schools aren’t there to teach you how to draw. Instead they encourage creative thinking and rule-breaking expression. At least the good ones do. Even the graphic design degree course I took was more about teaching us to think originally than learning technical job skills, and we were hanging out with painters, sculptors, photographers, and video artists, so it was a very stimulating environment to be in. We got drunk a lot too, of course.

You can point to Pete Townshend smashing up his guitar, Bryan Ferry treating songs as collages, and the early visual style of The Clash as the direct result of their art school experiences, and there is a definite link between them and what makes British pop so distinctive: The synthesizing of influences, the emphasis on visual presentation, the conceptual cleverness, and the sense of playful, subversive adventure. At it’s very best it’s a fusion of avant-garde art theory and rock and roll.

Sadly I’m not sure how true any of this is anymore with higher education in the UK being more results-based now, and the introduction of student loans means that fewer kids are able to spend four years just pissing around being “creative” at art school without a proper job at the end of it. Maybe one reason British pop has lost its edge is that most of our new stars come from stage schools instead.

In case you’re wondering, I never started or joined a band at art school myself, but some of my mates did. They were called He’s Dead Jim and only played one gig, in the student canteen during an all-night sit-in. I did “play” keyboards for them during one garage rehearsal though, my technique very one-note and droney owing to the fact that I couldn’t actually play the instrument. But that never stopped Brian Eno, did it?

Download: Art School – The Jam (mp3)

All The Lonely People

It was the artist Edward Hopper‘s birthday last week, he died in 1967 so he wasn’t around to celebrate it. My first year at art college my tutor was a Conceptual artist of the kind who had declared painting dead in the 1970s, especially figurative, narrative painters like Hopper whose work was considered mere bourgeois decoration. Some of that attitude rubbed off on me and for a while I never saw Hopper’s paintings as much more than commercial illustration.

That changed when I saw his 1931 painting Hotel Room in the flesh at an exhibition and was quite blown away. For some reason I always assumed Hopper’s pictures were small, precise little things, but Hotel Room is about five feet square which isn’t quite Abstract Expressionist size but still big enough to lose yourself in. Stand close enough and it feels like you’re actually in that room. Beside the aching sadness of the picture I just love the simplicity of the composition, take the woman out and it’s close to being a flat abstract painting.

The other thing I realized was that, though his paintings are superficially attractive, they’re often as bleak as a late Rothko. He was a real master at capturing the loneliness of modern life and his most powerful images are the ones like Automat and New York Movie which capture solitary people in quiet moments of reflection. You can read a lot into what the people in these paintings are thinking but the overwhelming sense is one of melancholy. We’ve all seen these people on the bus or in a pub — staring out of windows, avoiding eye contact, wanting to be left alone — we’ve probably been them ourselves. I know I have.

Here’s some Northern Soul that’s almost as sublime as a Hopper canvas.

Download: Ask The Lonely – The Fantastics (mp3)