Tu Fais Chanter Mon Coeur

Originally published September 2017

One of the many bands and musicians Chrissie Hynde hung around with before she formed The Pretenders was a Power Pop group from Yorkshire called Strangeways. They only released a couple of singles before they broke up but a few years ago a compilation album of unreleased material came out which featured this terrific French version of “Wild Thing” they recorded with Chrissie on vocals in 1978.

If you think the idea of Chrissie Hynde singing in French sounds sexy as hell, you’d be right.

Download: Chose Sauvage – Chrissie Hynde & Strangeways (mp3)

Photo from Paula Yates’ book Rock Stars In Their Underpants.


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.

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)

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)

Sleeve Talk

Originally published July 2013

I assume most people know that the sleeve of London Calling is a rip off, pastiche of homage to Elvis Presley’s first album. You might even know that the cover’s iconic photo of Paul Simenon was taken by NME photographer Pennie Smith (whose photos of the band were collected in a terrific book that will set you back a few bob these days). But unless you’re a Brit of a certain age you might not have heard of Ray Lowry, the man who actually designed the sleeve.

Lowry was a cartoonist who regularly contributed to the NME during the 70s and 80s, including the surreal weekly strip Not Only Rock and Roll. He had a sharp eye for the foibles and posturing of music fans and rock stars and whenever they got too self-important or pretentious — which they often did in the NME in those days — you could always rely on the Lowry cartoon at the back of the paper to bring things back to earth.

He became mates with The Clash after meeting them at a gig, and the band invited him on the road with them to be what Joe Strummer called “official war artist” of their 1979 tour of the US which led to the commission to design the cover of their next album. Ray had drawn cartoons for underground papers like Oz in the 1960s so he was from another generation than these young punks, but being a lover of what he called “holy rock and roll thunder” he was thrilled by the music’s primitive energy and probably bonded with The Clash over a shared passion for 1950s rock n’ roll (and its hairstyles), Lefty politics, and a belief in “authenticity”.

Judging by the early rough on this page, Lowry had the Elvis-inspired typography before he had a cover image, and apparently the album was going to be called Made In England at one point. The final sleeve is fairly plain and basic but sometimes effective design is just a matter of picking the right picture, even if it’s out of focus because Pennie Smith (who didn’t want it used for that reason) was backing away from a pissed-off, guitar-swinging Simeonon when she snapped it — and I’m sure The Clash loved the iconoclasm of using an old Elvis sleeve as inspiration.

As far as I know it’s the only album cover Lowry ever designed which is crazy when you think how famous the one he did is. Sadly he died in 2008, though the commercial work had mostly dried up he had carried on painting and had an exhibition of his work just before he passed away. But if he wasn’t completely forgotten, he’s certainly not as well known as he should be.

I don’t think anyone needs to hear another track from the album so here’s the dub versions of “Armagideon Time” that were on the b-side of the “London Calling” 12″ single.

Download: Justice Tonight/Kick It Over – The Clash (mp3)

New Monday

Had trouble finding much new music I like so far this year so I was very glad to get my ears bent by Stuffed & Ready, the terrific third album by LA rockers Cherry Glazerr.

Led by lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Clementine Creevy, the band play grungy rock with Goth and Dreampop elements that gives it more colour.

Hope this is finally the start of another good year of music.

Upwardly Mobile

Originally published March 2012.

Someone asks the question “How are British people taught to expect failure and disappointment?” and gets a lot of responses, including this rather pithy formulation:

“Many American kids are told that they might grow up to be the President. No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King”

This isn’t exactly true of course. There are, oh, three English people who were told as kids that they might be King one day and their names are Charles, William, and Harry Windsor. But I assume it was meant to be a comment on the inherently undemocratic nature of the British Constitution (if we had one anyway) because they won’t get the job by working hard at school and going to a good University, it will be because hundreds of years ago one of their ancestors married or killed someone — or both. You don’t vote for Kings as Monty Python said in The Holy Grail, which is terrible and probably has no place in a modern democracy and all that. They do have nice costumes though.

But it got me wondering, why aren’t English kids told they could grow up to be Prime Minister one day? In my experience it’s not an ambition instilled in our kids the same way that “you could be President” is an almost cliched dream for Americans. I know our countries have different histories but it’s not as if being Prime Minister is an out-of-reach, pigs-might-fly ambition these days. A lot of the recent occupants of No. 10 — Blair, Major, and Thatcher (boo! hiss!) — are all from fairly middle-class backgrounds so it’s perfectly reasonable to think it possible that even a kid from a council estate could become PM if they were clever, driven, and power-mad enough. It might help if they went to Oxford or Cambridge though.

So why not? I know us Brits are a glass-half-empty kind of people who think excessive ambition is a bit vulgar but I can’t imagine that in today’s more aspirational, fame-obsessed England old attitudes like “don’t get ideas above your station” and “know your place” have much currency — I would hope they’d been chucked in the rubbish bin along with the tugged forelock.

But I could be wrong and English schools are now full of wannabe Blairs and Camerons which, on the one hand is a good thing (ambition!) but on the other hand, what sort of kid would want to be like those bastards? Maybe that’s the problem.

Download: Ambition – Subway Sect (mp3)