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)


No One Likes Us And We Don’t Care

Originally published April 2007

The Stranglers were probably the least respected band to come out of punk. Not just because they had a drummer in his 40s and a bass player with a silly martial arts fetish, but their songs were laced with sexism and violent misogyny (“Sometimes I’m gonna smack your face” was the opening line of their debut album) which didn’t quite fit in with the revolutionary, empowering spirit of punk. They probably thought they were being provocative when they just came across like dirty old men. Still, I liked them quite a bit (though the friends I had who really liked them were also into Heavy Metal – ’nuff said), and listening to their early records gave you the same kick you got from Derek and Clive (Live) or the sick jokes that used to go around school the minute someone famous died (“What was Marc Bolan’s last hit?” “A tree”) — they were nasty bastards but made some great records, and at that age you thought dirty words were funny.

By their standards their third album Black and White (1978) was quite an artistic and mature affair. It was their most musically inventive and the first one where the “humour” didn’t involve ugly women and prostitutes. Not coincidentally I think it’s their best album. The opening song “Tank” is a classic parody of the rock and roll car song, instead of the freedom of a Little Deuce Coupe it’s about the thrill of driving a tank and shooting people. Quite a change for The Stranglers to be taking the piss out of military machismo, how very liberal of them. “Hey! (Rise of The Robots)” is a funny song about robots taking over the world (“They’re gonna want a union soon/Oil break that’s dead on noon”) driven along by some great skronky sax playing by Laura Logic. Silly stuff, but a vast improvement on what they used to find amusing. The way these two motor along shows what a seriously good group they could be aside from all the macho shithead stupidity.

Download: Tank – The Stranglers (mp3)
Download: Hey! (Rise of The Robots) – The Stranglers (mp3)

Funny story: Our Gran used to buy me and my sister an LP each every Christmas and in 1977 my sister asked for a copy of The Stranglers’ No More Heroes album. On Christmas Day the whole family — aunties and uncles, cousins and grandparents — is gathered together and my sister decides to play her new record. If you know the album you can probably guess the rest of this story. Halfway through side one there’s this track on it called Bring On The Nubiles” and the chorus…um, goes “Let me, let me, fuck ya, fuck ya, let me lick your little puss.” As you can imagine there were red faces all around, apart from us kids who thought it was hysterical. I still have a wry smile whenever I think of my Gran going into her local Woolworth’s and buying the album in the first place.

Suburban Gothic

Originally published June 2007

Strange things happen on the edges of cities, suburbia produces all sorts of weirdness from serial killers and cross-dressing accountants to Goth. Picture young Susan Ballion living in Bromley in the mid-70s. A girl with a Bowie and Roxy fixation who dreams of reinventing herself a la Ziggy Stardust (Bowie grew up in Bromley too) and escaping the dreary suburban hell she lives in. Maybe she has a Saturday job behind the make-up counter at Boot’s like other girls, but she also has a taste for “outsider” culture and spends her evenings at local gay discos. Then the Sex Pistols come along and she leaps at the moment, becoming part of the infamous Bromley Contingent that follows the band around, gets herself chatted up by Bill Grundy on television, and plays her first gig with mates Steve “Spunker” Severin and Sid Vicious under the name Suzi and The Banshees.

And years after all the Toyahs, Paulines, Poly Styrenes, and Hazel O’Connors had fallen by the wayside, Siouxsie was still standing proud — the Grande Dame of Post-Punk and a certified icon, surviving on strength of personality and sheer bloody-mindedness. And talent of course.

I had a serious Banshees fixation before I grew out of the whole teenage alienation thing circa 1983. I think I saw them live more than any other band and they were always insanely great. Siouxsie ruled from the stage like a glorious ice queen, giving withering looks to anyone who incurred her displeasure (like the punks at one gig who kept gobbing at her and calling for “The Lord’s Prayer” — if looks could kill they’d have been pushing up the daisies). She radiated that certain je ne sais quoi which makes a person a star, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

I don’t listen to much Banshees these days but these tracks still light my fire.

This version of “Mirage” is from a bootleg album called Love In A Void which collected together the two John Peel sessions they’d taped in 1977 and ’78 before putting out any official records. A lot of fans at the time preferred that to their proper debut album The Scream because it was rougher and more punky. Personally I like the official album version better but this is pretty great, raw and trashy with the metallic guitar sound that used to literally make me feel a bit queasy like someone was dragging their fingers down a blackboard (which Siouxsie would probably take as a compliment.)

Download: Mirage – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

Four years later they had guitarist John McGeoch and drummer Budgie in the band who added more colour to their old monochrome sturm und drang and this extended 12″ version of “Spellbound” still sounds incredible, a blazing barrage of drums and swirling guitars. Apparently this is a bit of a Goth Disco favourite (I swear I wouldn’t know myself), perfect for modern-day Susan Ballion’s to whirl around to while dreaming about being someone else.

Download: Spellbound (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

The last Banshees album I bought was A Kiss In The Dreamhouse in 1982 which at the time I thought was their masterpiece and the single “Slowdive” one of the best things they ever did (though it was a flop on the charts). This still sounds great too, a tense dance number with a primitive, echoey beat and stabbing strings straight from the shower scene in Psycho.

Download: Slowdive (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

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)

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)

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)

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)

My Favourite Year

Originally published September 2013

If you’re a reader of David Hepworth’s excellent blog (2019 update: or read his also excellent book) you’ll know that he considers 1971 to be the best-ever year for rock albums. He’s beating that drum again by listing the albums that would have been on the Mercury Prize shortlist (albums released by UK and Irish acts) if they’d had one that year.

A very impressive list it is too (if you can ignore the presence of Yes and Jethro Tull) and in response I offer what would have been on the Mercury Prize shortlist in 1979. I’m leaving off some out of personal preference (The Fall, not my cup of tea) and I’m sure there are others missing that will be pointed out in the comments.

Metal Box – Public Image Ltd.
Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division
London Calling – The Clash
Entertainment! – Gang Of Four
Armed Forces – Elvis Costello & The Attractions
154 – Wire
The Raincoats – The Raincoats
Squeezing Out Sparks – Graham Parker
The Specials – The Specials
Forces Of Victory – Linton Kwesi Johnson
The Undertones – The Undertones
Setting Sons – The Jam
Drums & Wires – XTC
Cut – The Slits
Broken English – Marianne Faithful

Not that I want to start a generational war or anything, but: Eat that 1971!

I was 17 in 1979 so obviously I have a sentimental dog in this race but I think it wins this one by several noses. Not only is that a list of great records, many of them are great records which had a huge and lasting impact on rock music. 1979 looks even better when you see the NME albums and singles of the year.

Was it a better year than 1971 overall? We could argue about that until the cows come home but that’s what we like doing best isn’t it? Having completely pointless arguments about things that can never be proved one way or the other.

Download: Careering – Public Image Limited (mp3)
Download: Discovering Japan – Graham Parker (mp3)
Download: Sonny’s Lettah – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
Download: No Side To Fall In – The Raincoats (mp3)