Murmur by R.E.M. may well have been called Mumble. Or Mutter. Or just plain Mmmmmm. The young Michael Stipe, all doe eyes ‘n demi-wave was so self-aware of his voice, so self-conscious of his lyrics that he spent most of that first album being foggy, obfuscating and willfully obtuse in his delivery. Quite mmwhat he szings ommn trackszzz sssuch as Pilgrimage or 9-9 or Moral Kiosk is amnyone’szz mmm ggguess. That’s changed somewhat since the advent of the internet, but where’s the fun in that, kiddo? The mid ’80s was an anything-might-be-right approach to lyric learning, phoentics often replacing the actual words and I’m not even sure I want to know the real words nowadays anyway.
Behind the singer, the band stir up a heady swell of classic alternative American rock, as timeless as Tom Petty’s punkish jangle, as melodic as a Wilson brothers’ full-fat harmony, yet as scuffed at the knees as a dustbowl drifter. The instruments are easily identifiable. There’s no muddy mixing here – it’s all about the angle of the jangle.
Peter Buck arpeggiates away on his open-chorded Rickenbacker, all puffy sleeves ‘n waistcoat ‘n suspended 4ths until the end of time. Bill Berry holds the beat, occassionally popping up with a stone cold classic (Perfect Circle), contributing far more to proceedings than his mere title of ‘drummer’ might suggest.
Understated star though is Mike Mills, his solidly twanging Rickenbacker bass driving the songs with a toughness that’s offset by Buck’s clattering jangle. Mills also chimes in with falsettoed harmonies – just like those Wilson brothers’ hamrnonies mentioned beforehand – adding colour and commerciality to the band’s sound.
R.E.M. – Catapult
I never saw R.E.M. live until ’89, so I can’t be sure, but I imagine Catapult might’ve been quite the rocker at those early shows. On Murmur, it’s stretched as tight ‘n taut as the skin on a tom, the verses straightjacket-slim before it bursts in a glissando of glassy up and down the neck chords and Stipe-provided backing vocals. Catapult! Ca-ta-pult. It’s the sort of chorus that I imagine the band might’ve played over and over in rehearsals, grinning as they play, admiring the chord sequence, the vocals, the drive, the way it all fits… it’s one of my favourite early R.E.M. tracks.
A few years back, IRS released a warts ‘n all set of outtakes from the R.E.M. vaults; live stuff, demos, alternate versions and the likes – ideal for folks like you and I who love that phase of the band more than the mandolins ‘n stadiums years. There’s a terrific live version of Catapult to be found. Internet research shows it’s likely to be a recording from Seattle in 1984 – peak early R.E.M. in other words. As I suggested above, it is indeed quite the rocker.
R.E.M. – Catapult
The keen-eared among you might spot a second voice; grizzly, gruff, grainy. I believe that’s the drummer, once again proving his worth to one of America’s greatest alt. bands. If you haven’t played Murmur in a while or, gasp, ever, rectify that today. It still stands up as one of the band’s best.
The Euros start at the end of this week. That they’re occuring a year later than planned means nothing to my nation. My son is 14 and he’s ridiculously excited at the thought of seeing Scotland on the big stage for the first time. A former work colleague on Facebook last week was equally effervescent. “This’ll be the first time I’ve seen Scotland at a championship!” he frothed through heavily bearded face and a craft beer held by tattooed hands. Jeez! Has it really been that long?! ‘Young’ Chris must be 27 or so by now, and given that it’s 23 years since Scotland last crashed out of the World Cup Finals in France, then, yes, it really has been that long.
When I was my son’s age, Scotland was always at the World Cup. We had a glorious run of epic failures between ’74 and ’90 when we’d get an unlikely result against the big nations, get thumped by an unfancied smaller nation and miss out on progression because of goal difference. It was always the way.
Back in 1996, the Euros were in England. Just as now, England and Scotland found themselves pitted against one another. That particular big match swung on the famous penalty miss. England, somehow one-nil up through Alan Shearer were being out-played, out-fought and out-thought by Craig Brown’s superstar-free team. With just over 10 minutes to go, the Scots laid siege yet again on David Seaman’s goal, and, played through on goal, Gordon Durie was chopped to the ground.
Captain Gary McAllister took responsibility and a nation watched aghast as his blasted effort was punched to safety by the swashbuckling Seaman, all VO5 swish and Magnum moustache (a save that crackpot spoon bender Uri Geller claimed to have orchestrated through channelled energy and mumbo jumbo.) To rub salt into the wounds, England then ran the length of Wembley and topped off a decent passage of football with a Gascoigne wonder goal. Bastards.
Going into the final game against Switzerland at Villa Park, Scotland was still in with a chance of progressing. We had to hope England could stick 4 past the Dutch – a team that had drawn 0-0 with Scotland – while we went about our job of beating the Swiss. Four points and a decent goal difference would see us through. It’s the hope that kills you, they say…
Two nights before the game I received a call from my brother’s pal.
“We’ve a spare ticket for Villa Park….”
“I’ll take it!”
“...d’you want it?”
“I’ll take it!!”
“…’cos the thing is, our bus is full, so you’d need to make your own way to Birmingham. We’ll meet you outside the ground when you get there. Big Alan…d’you know Big Alan? He’ll be wearing a massive tartan hat and a Jimmy wig. You won’t miss him.”
Ah shite. After phoning around, I found a space on a bus that was travelling at sunrise from Paisley. It was full of headcases and hardened away-day drinkers. “Drink up, pal, there ye go…” The journey was long, with one guy rat-a-tatting on a snare drum for hours on end and at least five piss stops before we’d crossed the border. Eventually the driver pulled into a layby on the outskirts of Birmingham. “Lads, the polis’ll be on the bus a mile from here. I’m stopping so’s ye can get rid o’ yer empties and anything else you might not want them to find when they get oan. So drink up and empty oot.”
A mile up the road, two police officers wearing those tall, rounded, English police helmets – an unexpected sight, though I’m not sure why that should have been a surprise – came on board. One affable, one looking for bother, a busload of hardened, steaming Scotsmen smiling glaikitly back. “Alroight lads. There’s no booze on board this boose is there?” Naw, ociffer, naw, there isnae, came a handful of muttered replies as bad cop rummaged without success in seat pockets and luggage compartments. “Enjoi thu match, lads!” said good cop before they turned and left. You could’ve punctured the paranoia with a kilt pin.
We arrive at Villa Park. The bus parks alongside 30 or so other supporters’ buses at the Aston Leisure Centre and we pile out, blinking into the afternoon sunshine. I’m looking for Big Alan in his big bunnet and Jimmy hat, but my new-found pals, having been here the week prior when we played the Netherlands, have other ideas. The Aston Working Men’s Club is just over the road. A tiny wee building with a bar. Somehow, I’m at the front of my new gang as we enter the door. A wee old guy looks us up and down. The state of us!
“Oim sorry, lads, this is a members’-only cloob….”
He looks beyond me and my new pals at the thirty or so supporters buses alighting on his doorstep.
“…but you can join today for a pound.”
The place was quickly rammed. The snare drum rattled. The singing got louder. The cheap pints went down quickly and often. Kick off fast approached. It dawned on me that I still had no ticket. I mean, I knew all along that I had no ticket, but I knew one was waiting for me. Either my brother’s pal had it, or Big Alan did. But I had no idea where to find Big Alan. I didn’t even know Big Alan. Mobile phone? This was 1996, mate. The bar started emptying as supporters drained their pints and turrned their attentions to the game. I wandered outside, stoating about amongst hordes of Jimmy hat-wearing Scotsmen, all merrily pissed up and heading to the game, in the unlkely hope that the mysterious Big Alan might make himself known to me. I happened upon a chipshop and found myself suddenly starving. I think I was too drunk to order, but I left with food.
“Gie’s a chip!” I hear outside, and my tea is swooped upon by half a dozen blootered Scotsmen. From out of the depths of tartan hell, up pops my brother’s pal, waving something in my face. “You’ll be wantin’ yer ticket, ya fud?” The magnetism of alcohol and its ability to bring disparate folk together is a strange, brilliant thing. Let’s go!
The game was magic. My overall abiding memory was not of McCoist’s winner – a curling, outside of the foot peach right into the top corner in front of us in the Holte End – or the hairs-on-the-neck-still sight of the crowd going nuts in that same Holte End on the TV replays as McCoist runs towards Craig Brown and the Scotland dugout (I saw it played again the other day and it places me right back into that moment in time), or Scott Booth’s half chance near the end of the second half, or the excited buzz around the stands as England unbelievably went the required 4 goals up against the Dutch, or the deflated inevitability when Seaman allowed a half-shot to squirm through his legs, giving the Dutch the goal they needed and putting Scotland out, on goal difference, again.
Nope, my overrall abiding memory is one of being absolutely ten pints-bursting but not wanting to go in case I missed anything. McCoist’s goal just before half time was a relief…but the end product following a mad sprint and hellish queue at the gents’ at half time was even greater.
England’s campaign that year was soundtracked by Three Lions, a jaunty comedy double act-fronted Britpop bash that reflected on England’s failure to win anything for years. Thirty years of hurt, pal? Best make that fifty-five and counting… It was nothing compared to the unofficial Scottish ‘song’ though.
Swept up in the euphoria that comes when your country is playing at a tournament, Primal Scream joined forces with Leithite Irvine Welsh in a West Coast meets East Coast stand-off that was confrontational, self-deprecating and about as far removed from the ethos of a football song as a is humanly possible. The record may have come stickered with one of those Paul Cannell Screamadelica suns, but don’t let that fool you. The Big Man And The Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown was produced by Adrian Sherwood and foreshadowed the dubbed-out elecronica of Eko Dek.
Primal Scream, Irvine Welsh and On-U Sound Present – The Big Man And The Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown (Full Strength Fortified Dub)
Welsh is in full-on baiting mode, sticking the metaphorical size tens into Rangers fans, the metaphorical nut on the arrogance and entitlement of the English media and their football team and holding a mirror up to Scottish fans on tour.
I was sitting outside Wembley in ’79 Jock cunts in London, massive carry-out Talking to a guy in an ice cream van So drunk for weeks that we’d gone waaaay past the point of wanting tickets It’d be horrendous now if someone was to hand you a fucking ticket You’d have to leave all this bevvy outside the ground, by they polis dumpbins? No fucking way 10 minutes into the fucking game you’d be climbing up the fucking walls to get out
Behind him, the band play big slamming guitars and a repeating sample chants ‘who are ye‘, Denise Johnson wafting in and out of the electronic stew with soulful backing vocals. Three Lions it definitely ain’t.
For what it’s worth, I think Steve Clarke will mastermind Scotland’s first-ever qualification out of the group stages. Beyond that is anyone’s guess… we have a dream, and all that. It’s taken time, but he’s fostered that hard-to-beat, no-team-is-invincible mindset that saw him take my team Kilmarnock to the lofty heights of 3rd in the league and European football. For one week we were top of the actual league too…when the news filtered across the terracing that Cetic had dropped points to Livingston, the crowd, drunk on what might be and Steve Clarke-fuelled self-belief broke into a spontaneous and lively rendition of ‘we’re gonnae win the league‘. Quite ridiculuous…and quite thrilling.
There will be, sadly, hopefully, the chance to replicate that chant at the end of this season. Killie, in a Clarke-free freefall since his departure to the national team, found themselves dumped out of the top league a couple of weeks ago. The less said about that, the better, but with luck we’ll be chanting that ridiculous chant again come the middle of May next year. Killie’s loss was clearly Scotland’s gain. I love that man and I’m sure, once we’ve gatecrashed that other exclusive members’-only club by reaching the knock-out stages, I’ll love him even more in the coming weeks.
Dr Bucks’ Letter is late-ish era Fall at their best. Taken from The Unutterable, it’s an incessant, kerb-crawling jackbooted stomp of a track; claustrophobic, indulgent and relentless, the sound of The Fall doing half-speed dub techno. The disciplined beat and fuzzed-up riff underpin a crackle of electro static and a cackle of spoken word, random keyboard outbursts that sound like guard dogs in heat and a clanging Holger Czukay bassline that fights for ear space in-between a returning signature riff. It’s not quite a kitchen sink production, but it’s getting there.
The Fall – Dr Bucks’ Letter
The cherry on the top is Mark E Smith’s spoken word vocal, the lyric referencing an unfortunate fall-out with a friend – ‘of my own making, I walk a dark corridor of my heart, hoping one day a door will be ajar at least so we can recompense our hard-won friendship.’
He may have been viewed as a grizzly, alcohol-soaked hard-heart, but Smith could write flowing sentimentality like no other, even if, perhaps to keep his image somewhat intact, he delivers it in a voice that borders on menacing. There’s the complexity of MES right there.
As the track reaches it’s conclusion, Smith bizarrely – yet thrillingly – reads aloud an abridged version of a magazine interview with superstar DJ Pete Tong, cackling to himself/at Tong’s superficial lifestyle and the vacuousness of it all.
There aren’t many folk who’d have the nerve to lift text from such disparate places – a Virgin Rail customer magazine, as it goes, but there y’go – proof, if any were needed, that Mark E Smith wasn’t yer average writer.
Dr Bucks’ Letter is a Fall track that works for all sorts of reasons. The references in the magazine article to Palm Pilots and CDs and cassettes (no vinyl, Pete?) has the track firmly dated as 2000, a portent of a new millennium with another new Fall line-up in the making and at least a further 83 albums before the fall of The Fall with MES’s untimely death in 2018.
It’s worn far better than some of its lyrical influences, has Dr Bucks’ Letter. Indeed, it never sounds anything other than ‘now’, a decent snapshot of a band who’d perhaps lost their way a wee bit at the time.
The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll…the voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture…the guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse…who emerged to find Jesus…who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s… Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob! Dylan!
These are the frenz-inducing spoken words of Dylan’s stage manager Al Santos, mic’d up and out of sight, that signify Bob’s imminent arrival on stage. They’ve been spoken for the last twenty years on the never-ending tour and will no doubt continue again, just as soon as live events become a thing once more. The words came lock, stock and barrel from a review by reporter Jeff Miers in the Buffalo News, a review that so resonated with Bob that it immediately became his adopted clarion call.
Hear these words and as sure as night follows day, ol’ Bob will come rattlin’ and rollin’ out of the traps with a lively opener. It might be a crowd pleaser – Maggie’s Farm was a favourite for a while, it might be a deliberately obtuse audience wrong-footer, or it might even be a country-punk take on an old God-fearin’ standard. No matter the first song though – it’s all about giving the sound desk one last chance at mixing to the room – it signifies the beginning of a set that, much like its creator, will be long and winding with diamonds and pearls and the odd miss-firing clunker along the way.
Bob Dylan has always been there. He was there when I first started noticing these things called ‘records’, my dad’s copy (now mine) of Bringing It All Back Home sticking out between the Trini Lopez and Buddy Holly albums, the cover alluring and just beyond the comprehension of my young years. My mum worked at Irvine Library and came in one night with a video of Don’t Look Back, the on-the-road documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. It more than resonated – some of the songs on my dad’s record were in the film – and as I watched and rewatched, I was wholly sucked into the world of Bob. It was the hair and the permashades, the houndstooth and polka dots, the Beatle boots and the stripey trousers that did it – a popstar as outlandish as Adam Ant but with an impenetrable depth and downright rudeness that set him apart from any popstar I’d ever taken a shine to.
In the film, Dylan sped from venue to venue being confrontational and contrary, aloof and arrogant, sneering and sarcastic…unlikeable in lots of ways, although he could be wickedly funny at someone else’s expense, (and that’s always something that anyone who tries to fit in with the gang will lap up) but then the film would cut to him singing She Belongs To Me or It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and he’d be instantly forgiven, his voice; the annun-ci-a-tion,the phhhhrasssing, the barely whispered quiet parts to the rasping roof raisers delivering the songs with an intimacy I’d never heard before…and still haven’t heard since.
I went through a particularly heavy Bob phase in the mid ’90s. I’d marvel, (I still do), standing at that same spot on St Vincent St in Glasgow, just outside what is currently the Counting House pub, where, in 1966, Bob and The Band stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of locals watching a pipe band march past. The Americans are easy to spot; eyes hidden by shades and hair like free-growing birds’ nests while their pasty-faced Glaswegian counterparts still sport the slicked back Brylcreem ‘do of their youth. “See the guy in the middle, twirling the thing!Do they do that in the middle o’ winter?‘ asks Bob of the swinging kilts off camera. Jump ahead to 3.17 and you’ll find it.
The back catalogue, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, would spin for days, weeks and months on end. By the turn of the decade, I had a mini disc player loaded up with hours and hours of Bob and it would shuffle endlessly, leaping from Woody Guthrie folk blues and raggle-taggle gypsy ballads to Mick Ronson-riffing alternate versions and bootleg recordings of Bob around the world.
By the turn of the next decade I’d seen Bob more than a handful of times, always the same, always different, from through the drizzle at Stirling Castle as my pal pointed out, ‘that’s Bob Dylan playing Mr Tambourine Man up there,’ and the bleachers in the SECC where a spiritual, transcendental Boots Of Spanish Leather fought its way to the ears across the draughty divide, to the intimacy of the Barrowlands the very next night, not only my favourite Bob show but one that’s acknowledged as one of his very best, close enough to see him smile as his audience wrestled with Girl Of The North Country and Just Like A Woman, close enough to watch the drips of sweat fall from the brim of his hat and onto his keys as he punched out a jerky but faithful version of Ballad Of A Thin Man, close enough to witness a rare bout of audience interaction at the very end of Like A Rolling Stone. There’s something happening here indeed, etc etc.
Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone (Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom, 24.6.04)
Somewhere in time, as my Bob fascination became a quiet obsession, Dylan turned the ripe old age of 60. Sixty! Man! I remember thinking, “That’s ancient!” That I’m currently eight and a half years from 60 myself is both shocking and sobering. And it’s got me thinking, why haven’t I created a Blonde On Blonde-type masterpiece? When do I get my Jesus phase? Will I ever near-kill myself on a motorbike? Who will call me Judas and boo me when I turn up at my place of work? Will anyone rake my bins for evidence of the life I supposedly lead? At what point do I embark on my own never-ending tour? And now, ol’ Bob Dylan is 80. Eighty! And I’m thinking, where are the book deals, the Nobel Prizes, the honorary rectorships, the Oscars? He’s packed an awful lot into those first eight decades of life.
The numbskulls will point out that he can’t sing (wrong!), that his songs are unrecognisable in concert (wrong again!), or that ‘Bob Dylan? Is he not dead?’ (wrong! wrong! wrong!) but those that know, know. He’s one of the greatest and will be forever. Here’s to the next eighty years.
Two Sevens Clash by Culture is, to me, ubiquitous with the John Peel show. I’m probably distorting fact with reality through the wonky prism of time, but I’m sure he played it regularly throughout the mid ’80s. Entry-level reggae, if you like, for roots ‘n radicals explorers wanting to dig deeper than Bob Marley, Two Sevens Clash is everything that’s great about the genre; it’s cavernous, it features a head-nodding groove and it’s sweet ‘n soulful. You knew that already though.
Before they went by the one word moniker, Culture were known as The Cultures and cut Trod On. Released in 1977, Trod On foreshadows the constituent parts that made Two Sevens Clash such a great record at the end of the same year.
The Cultures – Trod On
It features a steady Eddie one-and-two-and-three-and-four rhythm, all concrete bass and chicka-chicka offbeat guitar, a toasting singer (Ranking Trevor) backed by some lovely falsetto vocals (that’ll be The Revolutionarys, you’d have to think) and a horn refrain that carries the whole track from beginning to end. With its ricocheting rim shots and vapour trailing vocal-ocal-ocals, the extended version above nicely skirts the outer limits of dub. It’s a great wee record.
As happenstance and kismet would have it, Trod On‘s earthy groove found its way east to 185 West Princes Street, Glasgow. Or to be more precise, it found its way east to the ears of Orange Juice, resident happening band at Postcard Records, the label that championed the sound of young Scotland and whose maverick supremo Alan Horne resided in the 2nd floor flat at that very address.
Orange Juice had barely learned to walk when they stumbled upon (trod on?) Trod On. In need of a flip side to accompany the frantic knee tremble of their debut single Falling And Laughing, the band set about deconstructing The Cultures’ mid-paced groover and appropriated the horn refrain to their own ends.
Orange Juice – Moscow Olympics
Like all early Orange Juice tracks, when the band was still learning how to play together, and doing so in full view of the listener, Moscow Olympics fairly gallops along on a rickety bed of enthusiasm and wide-eyed self belief.
Amazingly/inspiringly, it sounds no different to the dozens of rehearsal room tapes that were recorded down the years in the bands I played in; ghetto blaster facing the wall and ‘record’ depressed in the hope it might magnetise some of the magic swirling in the air (sometimes it even did) but if you are able to focus between the the gaps in the scratchy ‘production’ and the faraway racket of drums (played somewhere near Sauchiehall Street while the other three apparently thrash it out over on Argyle Street), you’ll hear that Davy McClymont’s bass line on this recording is fantastic, a proper tune within a tune. The horn-aping guitar line is supremely confident too, never out of time or tune, and with nary a bum note to be heard.
The boys are on fine form, with drummer Daly and svengali Horne (Alan Wild, indeed) enthusiastically barking, yelping and football-chanting ‘Moscow!‘ at all appropriate points. It might only be the b-side of their first single, but despite the knees-out-the-new-school-trousers approach, the shambolic seeds of something special are being sown right before your very eyes and ears. It’s there in the interweaving guitar interplay and disco hi-hats; cheeky and Chic-y.
Being Orange Juice of course; arch, wry and post-punk rule breakers, they stuck two versions of the track on the b-side. Just for good measure. Because they could. And why not?
Zoom!, the opening track on Love Kraft, Super Furry Animals‘ 7th album begins with a SPLASH! – the sound of guitar player Huw Bunford diving into a Catalonian swimming pool in a hopeful attempt to shake off the stifling sticky midday heat.
Super Furry Animals – Zoom!
At once you’re baptised, immersed in a new rich Super Furry sound that comes steeped in an MOR AOR FM sheen; the heady sound and heavy vibes of ’70s California, of the Holland-era Beach Boys and the coke-flecked Fleetwood Mac, arranged perhaps by David Axelrod. The Super Furries’ kitchen sink approach to their writing finds interweaving melodies and harmonies coasting atop a backing of tinkling, descending keys, a sprinkle of ascending spectral chants, skittering drum breaks and crisp, electric guitars – the sort of guitars where you can hear the fingers scrape across the fretboards as the chords and riffs change shape.
Midway through, the metaphorical clouds darken and those wordless, classical chants come to the fore, bringing with them an uneasy, end-of-the-world feeling that at times recalls The Smiths’ Death Of A Disco Dancer, itself a heavy, lengthy, descending journey into the mind.
‘I can’t get enough of this,’ goes Gruff Rhys. ‘Kiss me with apocalypse.’ The lyric throughout is suitably obscure and wide-ranging. Over the course of 7 headswimming minutes, it takes in Lord Lucan and Shergar, the Virgin Mary crying blood, driving to the Kwik Save in a Ford Mustang and a dalmation whose spots have fallen off. Proof, if it were needed, that the Super Furry Animals can pack more musical and lyrical ideas into one verse than a lot of bands can manage in a lifetime.
The second track, Atomik Lust, continues in the same lush vein. Lighter, more pop, it introduces itself on a bed of electrically enhanced backwards stuff, kept in check by rhythmically jangling sleigh bells and western saloon piano. By the second verse, honeyed Bacharach horns slide into earshot, subtle strings provide the counter melodies and the whole thing grooves smoothly into outer space. It’s fantastic.
Super Furry Animals – Atomik Lust
A Super Furry change of pace finds it moving into sludge rock in the middle and again toward the end, a super-melodic track worthy of inclusion on, say, Pacific Ocean Blue, sandwiched between a squall of Spectorish drums and squealing guitars. It’s not all smooth LA vibes round here, they say without saying.
Love Kraft is a happy product of circumstance. Following the demise of Creation, the band found themselves signed to major label Columbia. Happy with their charges, the label funded recording in Spain and mixing in Brazil. Beastie Boys and Beck producer Mario Caldato was brought in to produce, and using the label’s funds, embellished the record with strings and brass and musical decoration that the band could only have dreamed off in the years previous. The result is an album that Gryuff Rhys himself says is the band’s pinnacle to date.
If you’ve never fully investigated Super Furry Animals, you might try their debut Fuzzy Logic and it’s follow-up Radiator, but I suggest you fast forward to album number 7 and work your way outwards from there. These days, bands never really split up. They take an extended hiatus, release solo albums and side projects, produce other bands perhaps, but eventually they always find one another again. Lets hope Super Furry Animals, one of our greatest, most-inventive, unique and special bands do likewise before much more time has elapsed.
Yard Act may well be the most important new band of this year. Judging by all that can be found online, it’s quite possible that they’ve written just four songs, but all appear on their super-limited, super sold out debut EP, Dark Days.
D’you know those two choppy minor chords that play behind the chorus on Roxy Music’s arty, decadent and oh so European Love Is the Drug? Yard Act have nicked them, welded them to Joey Santiago’s fire-spitting Uriah hit the crapper guitars from Pixies’ Dead and, by adding a sullen, gobby vocal, half Mark E Smith and half John Cooper Clarke, have gone about creating the most thrilling of title tracks on an EP that’s bursting with originality, vim and the odd sweary word. I think you’d like them very much.
It’s a never-ending cycle of abuse, I have the blues and I can’t shake them loose, goes the singer, spitting piss and vinegar through a megaphone for good measure, choppy basslines and a no-frills drummer holding it all in place. The vocals, all northern rap and Yorkshire tang are what sets it apart. There’s no singing in the traditional sense, until the choruses, when the monotone dark days title is repeated by the rest of the band. It’s a fat-free track, bereft of any superfluous nonsense. There are no obvious overdubs, no gimmicky production, just bass, drums, one guitar and the vocals on top, all in clear separation. Repetition is discipline said Mark E Smith and on this track…this EP…Yard Act have proven themselves to be the most disciplined of all.
Peanuts is two songs welded together in a spoken-word sandwich; the noise-clash first half, all discordant, cheesegrater Telecasters and drawling vocals that sound as if they’re being orated through a mouthful of Juicy Fruit, before giving way to the spoken word second half with a weeping Disney ambience in the background. Great punchline too, before the band kicks in for the last wee bit. I can guarantee, you haven’t heard a track like this ever.
Fixer Upper takes Jarvis Cocker’s take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse sentiments to the next level. I can’t believe I’m a two home owner, proclaims our protagonist, it’s a fixer upper though. The Polish builders’ll take care of it, cash in hand like. You can be sure of that. Great wee bit of percussion at the end too.
The Trappers Pelts grooves along on a bed of fuzz bass and hip-hop drums, not a million miles away from those Pixies again, twisted electric guitar sound effects and a vocal about, what, exactly? Entrepreneurship in the 21st century? The gig economy? You’re really all so desperate. Desperate! Despera-tuh! (Subtle influence clue there). HMRC, pay as you feel! I’ve no idea what it’s about, but in a head-nodding-to-the-groove kinda way, it sounds fantastic.
You might listen to all four tracks as they play on the Bandcamp app above, but can I suggest you watch the session below. All the visual clues point to the band’s peerless influences; a set dressed like The Smiths’ This Charming Man video, a Curtis/McCulloch grey mac, a singer that’s humourous, intelligent and charismatic, leading a band where each player knows his part…Yard Act are, like all the best bands, the sum of their influences and something inexplicably more. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.
Check the band’s Bandcamp page for merch, music and suchlike.
There was a time before the first lockdown when I was approaching something that I might have considered (cough) peak fitness. The waist line was slowly reducing in inverse proportion to the kms clocked on the treadmill in the gym I’d started frequenting. Thanks to the ten minutes here and there on the rowing machine with the temperamental display and sqeaky seat, my shirt buttons no longer gaped and strained when I sat down. Even the odd punishing 3 minutes on the cross-trainer had, it seemed, its benefits. And I felt better.
By the second lockdown though, I was well on my way from 5K to couch. Before January was out, I’d smashed it. I’d tried running in the street. It was too cold, too wet, I looked daft, it made me too wheezy, whatever. Most of the time, I was gubbed and I could still see the roof of my house – and this was when it was pitch black at four in the afternoon. I went from hero to zero in one and a half lockdowns, a couch potato happily binging on McCoy’s flame-grilled steak crisps and marathon telly sessions. And it felt just as good, to be honest. Better even, if I’m being really honest.
Last week I had to return to my place of work, a roof under which I hadn’t been since the third week in December. The government’s advice of ‘if you can work from home, you should work from home’ was strictly adhered to and that work was duly done; more than normal some days, less than normal on others, just about balancing out come a Friday afternoon. But now, the frontline called. I popped the work trousers on last Monday and, oof! It was hard to believe that I’d ever managed to get the belt to the well-worn leather at the fourth notch at all. Here I was breathing in deeply and yanking it all the way to the second pathetic notch, the loose little bit of belt too short to tuck properly into the buckle. Nobody’ll notice, I figured, as the overhang obscures most of the buckle anyway. The state of me.
I hit the gym again a couple of days ago. And then again yesterday. I wasn’t quite queuing up to get in, but I did have the run of the place to myself, which was just as well. I swear my old friend the treadmill laughed at me as I eyed it up. Then it groaned as I stepped onto it. Who’s laughing now, eh, treadmill? I took it easy and slowly. After a few minutes I cranked it up to a speedy snail’s pace and then, with an extreme burst of lethargy and my aimed-for target somehow creeping up within reach, I managed to clock an impressive three kilometres. I ran three and a half yesterday, alongside 30 minutes of endurance work on the exercise bike, riding the Toblerone-shaped hills of the Swiss Alps whilst staring hollow-eyed at the playing fields of north Ayrshire.
The old trusty iPod soundtracked these sessions of pain, shuffling its way through a library of music it probably thought it would never play again. This long-forgotten rattlin’, reverberatin’ riot of dub reggae really hit the spot during the last ascent of those murderous fake alps.
King Tubby – King Tubby Dub
A whacked-out instrumental take on Rare Earth’s Motown standard Get Ready, King Tubby Dub is just about the right rhythm for pedalling up those imaginary mountainsides; hi-hats splashing in time to the wobbly legs pumping away at the pedals, horns blasting and forth as back teeth are gritted in pain, the ricocheting percussion bringing on ever-pooling beads of grotesque sweat.
The irony of a King Tubby track playing as I sweated out a year’s worth of crisps, alcohol and lockdown luxury was not lost. King Tubby? ‘king Tubby indeed.
Two sessions in and that belt is still only at the second notch though. Instant results are not forthcoming.
A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.
Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.
I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.
All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.
The Elements by Craig McAllister
The boys were taken in two cars to a police station twenty minutes away. At the station they each told their story in as honest a way as possible. They’d watched the man kill two of their friends in cold blood, they said. Everything happened so fast and unexpectedly. Several of the boys and the officers taking the statements had broken down when the explanation of how Stephen came to die was discussed.
Connor was distraught. Inconsolable. He’d found himself at Kimble because he’d stolen a few football magazines. He’d left Kimble, not yet a teenager, a murderer. Nothing the police officer said to him could appease his feelings. He feared for what sentence the judge might impose on him should he meet him again. Connor was certain he’d find himself back in court, this time on a murder charge.
By the time the sun was back up, they’d talked through the night, explaining and re-explaining in detail as best they could the events of the past day or so, the officers making sure every little nuance was spot on before being satisfied. They’d talked throught the night. None of the boys and none of the officers had slept.
At some point, someone brought in rolls with bacon and scrambled egg. There was a steaming pot of tea and glasses of fresh orange juice. As the boys ate and the officers filled in endless paperwork, the first of the parents began to arrive, eager to hug their boy and take them home, far away from Kimble, far away from the public eye.
Physically, it was easy to get away from Kimble. Mentally, not so.
The Elements was never shown again. The anger and outrage that saturated social media in the days and weeks that followed – not anger at the show being axed, but outrage at how the makers of the show had been allowed to get away with the concept of it – mirrored the editorials and opinion pieces that ran in all the major quality publications, attacking the show’s producers who’d exploited young minds and lives to such degree. Being dead, there was no way of bringing any of the principal players to justice but, with an extensive independent investigation carried out at the government’s insistence, the authorities were keen to establish exactly what had gone on at Kimble.
The day arrived when the authorities caught up with all the boys and so, the day arrived when Connor was summoned to court. Celebrity being what it is, the boys’ names had all but fizzled out of the public eye in the intervening few months, discarded eventually for whatever fads and fashions constituted social media’s ‘new thing’, but there was nonetheless keen interest in the outcome of the story.
Connor entered the courtroom again, not an empty room as before, but a room with lawyers and witnesses and a public gallery that was packed full of nosey folk with nothing better to do.
The judge, that same wizened and yellowy, beaky man with the sorry sweep of hair across the top of his liver-spotted head looked Connor up and down.
“Young man,” he said disparagingly in his soft, Scottish burr. “You recently stood before me, and I very generously explained to you that I am a fair man and a believer in second chances.” He stopped, looking at Connor to emphasise the graveness of the situation he found himself in. “I am not, however, much of a believer in third chances.”
Connor gulped, hands politely behind his back and stole a glance at his parents, holding one another’s hands in a union of shared anguish.
“LOOK AT ME WHEN I AM ADDRESSING YOU, YOUNG MAN!”
The judge’s thin voice reverberated around the wood and glass interior. Connor fearfully gave him his attention. The judge paused, checking that the boy in front of him was all his, before continuing.
“I have listened to your version of events. I am sympathetic, to a degree, with the situation you found yourself in. Nevertheless, you have participated in a heinous and ghastly crime. One that left a young boy beaten to death. A young boy very much like yourself, with hopes and dreams and fanciful ideas for the future. You, along with your friends, took this from him. That, Mr Stewart cannot go unpunished.”
Connor gulped into a dry mouth.
“The sentence I am about to bestow upon you, you cannot appeal. It would have been much greater but for the fact you did not act alone and were under threat of death yourself had you not complied. Nonetheless, I am sentencing you to eight months hard labour with the Department of Enforcement. You will work from their Northern Shires depot. You will be taken there today and expected to begin work tomorrow.”
As a gasp rose from the public gallery and a shout of, ‘Oh no!’ came from his parents, Connor’s knees began to give way. Two prison officers had a hold of him suddenly, each with an elbow under each armpit to steady him until the judge was finished.
“Take him down,” the judge said in closing, the sharp rap of his gavel announcing this case was closed.
If I crane my neck out of the window over my right shoulder where I am currently writing, I can just about see the windmills at Whitelee Wind Farm, a massive 215-turbine development that is capable of powering over a third of a million homes and is very likely the reason these words make it beyond my fingertips and out into the great beyond. The wind farm is situated on Eaglesham Moor, a windswept, sparse and barren moorland that lies on the fringes of East Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire, just to the south of Glasgow. Before the motorway was extended close-by, it was often the route used by commuters who worked in East Kilbride and Motherwell. Using it in winter time was usually fraught with danger; single-lanes, sudden snowfalls, low-lying clouds of darkness. It was an imposing, unwelcoming part of the world.
Almost 80 years ago (May 1941), Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s right hand man and orchestrator of much of the Nazi’s unforgiveable crimes against humanity, crashed his plane into the ground on Eaglesham Moor. Quite what he was doing flying solo over Scotland has never been satisfactorily explained, but common consensus would suggest that he was flying to meet the Duke of Hamilton – a well-connected figure – in an attempt to call an end to the Second World War. When his plane began running low on fuel, he began to bail out first his ammunition and then himself by parachuting before the inevitable happened. A bang was heard as the explosives ignited, closely followed by the stuttering sound of his plane’s engine as it crashed nose-first into the peaty Scottish soil.
The locals of Eaglesham village, realising it was a German Messerschmitt that had come down, raced to get a closer look. First on-site was a pitchfork-wielding farmer, and it was he who Hess surrendered to. He was taken to the Home Guard in the nearby town of Busby, but it wouldn’t be until the following day, when military personnel began descending on the locality, that the pilot’s identity became apparent. Within a week, Hess was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was given the Prisoner of War number 31G-350125.
As you of course know, Joy Division‘s debut release, the An Ideal For Living EP featured dubious Nazi imagery. Alongside the band’s iffy name written in Germanic font, the sleeve shows a Hitler Youth drummer boy. Call it misguided, call it punk, but when the time came for the EP to be rereleased, it’s interesting to note that the drummer had been replaced by an arty shot of some scaffolding and the band’s name – still contentious of course – was printed in a much more agreeable font. The accusations of Nazi sympathy didn’t end though.
The opening track Warsaw – the band’s original name, after the city in Poland that the Germans laid siege on at the start of the war – began with a punkish shout of numbers, but not the enthusiastic and standard 1, 2, 3, 4! that countless bands have used to herald their giddy arrival. Warsaw begins with an enthusiastic “3-5-0-1-2-5-Go!“, not quite the number of the beast, but not far from it. Joy Division laid out their statement of intent by counting off with Rudolph Hess’s Prisoner of War number. And for good measure, they repeated the 31G prefix over and over in the chorus.
Joy Division – Warsaw
Now, the mid ’70s was a time of Warlord and Victor comics, of Commando books and Sven Hassel novels, of best man’s fall in the playground. It was an era when you could ask your grandparents what they had done in the war and they still had the grey matter and compos mentis to tell you. Many cities bore the scars of bombed-out, shell-shocked destruction. Kids played on the rubble where former factories stood. For many in ’70s UK, the memories of the war were clearer and easier to recall than what they’d eaten for yesterday’s breakfast.
That Joy Division had something of an obsession with WWII was not that unusual. In fact, it was pretty normal. To put it into perspective, less time had elapsed between the Second World War ending and Joy Division releasing An Ideal For Living than the time between New Order’s Ceremony and their return-to-form of sorts album, Music Complete. Just let that sink in.
The track that brought Joy Divison to the world is an angry blast of prime punk; insistent, exciting and real, with a great wheezing, descending riff between the choruses and the verses. Even this early on, Stephen Morris’s drums have a slight tang of electronic treatment, rattling and reverberating between Ian Curtis’s punkish shout and Peter Hook’s solid slab of bass, as far removed from his signature sound as you could possibly get.
By all accounts, Joy Division were quite the thrill in the live setting, and, as self-producers, they captured just that on Warsaw and the rest of the EP. It’s essential listening and still thrilling even after all these years. You knew that already though.