Three albums in, and U2 were the Bunnymen on steroids. A guitar-heavy irony-free zone, they waved their silly giant flags, planked their pixie boots firmly on their monitors and, with collar-bothering bouffants blowing gently in the stage fan-assisted breeze, set their sights firmly on world domination. Bravely, a change was required. Less bombast, more European was the brief.
Much to the horror of a label getting used to the ever-increasing ker-ching of units being sold, they parted ways with trusted producer Steve Lillywhite. Initially sounding out Conny Plank, mastermind behind much of Can and Kraftwerk’s decidedly unbombastic and very European music, the band, only after much courting, began working with ambient soundscaper Brian Eno instead. It would prove fruitful and important.
Boy 2, with tough, anthemic, post-punk guitars and a wham, bam, slam of tribal drums would not be forthcoming. Instead, between them they produced The Unforgettable Fire, a multi-layered record full of darkness and light, gossamer thin textures side by side with sledgehammer unsubtleties, pinging atmospheric guitars and fluid, flowing basslines. The drums rattled, rolled and occasionally rifled, but Eno smoothed the toughness from them through a combined use of technology, considered microphone placement and a golden touch that had first come to the fore on those early Talking Heads albums.
Take Wire, the third track in. The third track is always the important marker for an album (first track is the statement piece – ‘dig the new sound!’ and the second is usually the familiar first single. Track 3 is the deciding factor; new sound for real, or false dawn?) Wire delivers.
The Edge plays seven shades of groovy, ratttttling shit from his guitar. He ping-pongs effect-heavy harmonics across the intro, divebombs his way across the verses, pulls interesting textures and notes from the spaces where Bono shuts up for a second and scrubs and scratches his guitar throughout with a metaphorical brillo pad last heard all over Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music. It’s very much in keeping with the breathless, anthemic rush of those first few albums, but placed to break you in gently, wrapped in that woozy Eno blanket of atmospherics that would come to define the record.
If Bono isn’t exactly your thing – and no one’s judging you on that – you might like the calorie-controlled Dub version that was included with a free NME single all those years ago. I must admit to having a real soft spot for this rare-ish track on account of it following a live version of The Smiths’ What She Said on the record. U2 and The Smiths, as you know, were poles apart. You weren’t really supposed to like them both. But when laziness wins out over hipness and you fail to shift yourself from sitting position to turntable commander, you might find yourself falling increasingly for this mainly Bono-free riot of clashing guitars and out-there ’80s production. Rock, yet not rock, I played it far more often than I’d ever have admitted at the time.
U2 – Wire (Dub)
Credit must be given to a band keen to break what was fast-becoming a successful mould. Much of The Unforgettable Fire‘s sound is due to where it was recorded. Eschewing any sort of traditional studio, U2 and Eno, along with engineer Daniel Lanois relocated to Slane Castle, an 18th century stately pile in the Irish countryside and set up makeshift recording rooms in the grand ballroom and library. The ballroom provided the natural reverb ideal for the wafty atmospherics and free-flowing arty stuff. The library was the place for close-miked rock outs. Being both rockin’ and out-there, I’d imagine Wire was recorded somewhere between the two spaces, but I may well be totally wrong on that.
Great art is borne from the most challenging of circumstances, and U2’s fourth record is no exception. The castle’s power supply was driven by a water wheel which, in turn (ha) was powered by the nearby River Boyne. When the river levels dropped in the summer time, so too did the power levels. When the levels dropped sufficiently, recording was halted. As a back-up, ‘king Bono and the band turned to an ancient diesel generator that was temperamental at best. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes when it worked it would burst into flame. An unforgettable fire indeed.
What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.
The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.
Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.
There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.
Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.
The Stones – Tumbling Dice
My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.
As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.
The Stones – Good Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)
The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…
Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.
The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in Nellcôte, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.
By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.
Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.
Plain Or Pan turns 15 this week. Since publishing the first post back in January 2007, the (ahem) power of the blog has seen to it that I’ve been commissioned to interview Sandie Shaw, rewrite articles for the national press (by ‘rewrite’ I mean take out the irreverent turns of phrase and my non-fact checked opinion) and write an actual book (The Perfect Reminder) very much in the style of Plain Or Pan. I’ve charmed half of The Smiths, pissed off an angry Boy George and remain on email-friendly terms with a handful of minor movers and shakers in the world of music. My clever and generous sister even compiled a ‘Best Of Plain Or Pan’ into a physical, one-of-a-kind coffee table-sized book for a big birthday a couple of years ago. If I never wrote another word, my legacy, it seems, is long and reaching.
Writing is a funny thing – some people hate the thought of it and would wilt at the thought of putting together 1000 or so well-constructed words on the bands and records that soundtrack their life. Me? I find it relaxing. Some choose yoga. Some go running. I write. I’d write every day if I could find the time. In the old days, I used to try and write at least two articles a week. I’d time their publication for teatime – peak reading time according to Google analytics – and I’d obsess over blog traffic and stats and suchlike. These days, I aim to write one new thing a week. It’s far more manageable and still frequent enough that the blog aggregators and number crunchers know that Plain Or Pan is very much alive, unlike plenty of other blogs who’ve tailed off to the point of extinction. Writing a blog’ll soon be so retro as to be trendsetting once more. And when that happens, POP, along with a handful of those other well-written blogs on the sidebar there, will be right at the forefront.
15 years. Not bad going.
15 Step by Radiohead sounds like an entire ‘50s typing pool simultaneously clattering out the compete works of Shakespeare in a roomful of Royal typewriters. It’s jerky, juddering and in 5/4 time. Imagine a skeletal and arty take down of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and, even if you’ve never heard 15 Step before, you’ll know how the rhythm goes.
Radiohead – 15 Step
Radiohead are possibly the most-discussed band on the internet. Theories abound over 15 Step. It’s so-called, some say, because there are 15 steps from intro to vocal; a Radiohead working title that stuck.
Others maintain it relates to death – throughout the song there are lyrical references to ‘the end’ and dying. Pistol-toting duelists in the Wild West would turn back-to-back then take 15 steps before turning and firing. There are, they say, 15 steps leading to the gallows and the ‘sheer drop’ that follows. I always thought there were 13 steps to the gallows (and 13 loops of the rope on the noose) but don’t let that get in the way of a good theory.
It relates, others say, to the Bjork-starring movie Dancer In The Dark. There’s a train of thought that every track on parent album InRainbows relates in one way or other to a movie. Google the theories if you must. The only thing so far uncovered is a mind-blowing theory correlating the listening of In Rainbows to the synchronised viewing of The Wizard Of Oz. I dare say someone’s tried it though.
Radiohead – 15 Step (Live from The Basement)
But back to 15 Step. It may be rhythm-heavy and death-obsessed, but it’s also groovy as fuck, the perfect Radiohead marriage of technology and trad. Guitars play in weird time signatures (that’ll be that 5/4 thing again); all tumbling arpeggios and crunching riffs. Colin Greenwood’s bass line is pure Can; hypnotic, snaking and jazz-inflected. There’s a brilliant wee breakdown midway through that holds it all together as the players around him go off into their own orbits. There are sci-fi whooshes, sampled schoolchildren shouting “Hey!” now and again and enough head-nodding noodling parts to sate even the most chin-stroking of ‘Head fans.
Like all great Radiohead tracks, it’s not an immediate hit. It has become an inescapable ear worm only over time. More than a few plays down the years and it is, like the entire album it is featured on, one of Radiohead’s very best. But you knew that already.
Years ago, in the grim and distant past, I was doing some supply teaching work. Back then, much like it is nowadays, permanent teaching jobs were thin on the ground as to be almost non-existent, so any call from any school was gratefully received.
“Are you able to work tomorrow…?”
“…in the nursery?”
“Uh… … …Yes.”
It was that bad. Imagine trying to secure a mortgage on that kinda deal. One day I was asked to go to a school and take a primary 7 class for a couple of days. The class teacher doubled-up as a member of the school management team and was on a course, so I was asked to cover.
Two things tend to happen if you’re called in as a supply teacher. Either you go into the classroom the back of eight o’clock and on the desk is a detailed plan to follow; numeracy and literacy lessons for every differentiated group and/or individual, a selection of topic-based activities that the kids can choose to do in any order, an art lesson perhaps, a short story… far more than you’ll ever need, but enough to ensure your day is action-packed with work set by a conscientious teacher at all of the learners’ abilities. Alternatively, you might find a quickly scribbled note instead. “Feel free to do whatever…as long as they’re busy…Lucy and Emma will give out any jotters you’re looking for. Don’t let Jayden sit next to Reuben or you’ll have a fight on your hands. They’ll want to sit together, and they’ll try it on with you, but I’ll have Reuben’s mother up at the school if you do and she’s a pain in the arse, so please don’t.”
As it was, this particular time fell somewhere in the middle.
“The kids are working on subtraction. They have their own work and know what to do. They have gym after the break. We’re doing gymnastics but if you want to do something else I don’t mind. For literacy, here’s a reading comprehension book. Normally I differentiate depending on the groups, but just pick one exercise and do it with the whole class if it makes it easier for you. They also have the laptops this afternoon. We’ve been learning how to set up a class database, but again, do as you please.”
I flicked through the comprehension book. It was the usual teaching aid full of book extracts, poems and made-up news reports, all with a variety of questions that, if answered correctly, would demonstrate each pupil’s reading ability. Then, jumping out at me from the the bottom corner of one page was a picture of Bob Marley, a classic shot of him in closed-eyed freeze frame, his defiant fist punching the air like the exclamation mark on a political soundbite. It accompanied a passage about the slums of Kingston in Jamaica; crime, poverty, hardship. Stone me! I’d found my literacy lesson.
When the time came, I asked the class if anyone had heard of Bob Marley. Straight away, half a dozen hands shot up. With a massive, knowing grin, one wag filled us in. “Ma br’er huz a poster a’ him oan his wa’. ‘E’s smokin’ a massive doobie in it!” Righto. So we knew who Bob was. Did we know where he grew up, I asked. No-one did. We read the passage about life in Kingston, about the shanty towns and high-rise tower blocks where people lived on top of one another and where gun crime, murder and gang warfare was a normal way of life for much of the population. Bob Marley was held up as an example of someone who’d managed to escape this life and was now one of Kingston’s most-celebrated sons. The passage carried a tale of morality; work hard, be good to others and you can make a better life for yourself. I’m not sure that message got through to the kids in the class, most of whom were still sniggering at their classmate who’d said the word ‘doobie’ to this unfamiliar teacher, but there we were.
“‘No sun will shine in my day today…the high yellow moon won’t come out to play.‘ It doesn’t matter the time of day, I pointed out, if you live in this part of Kingston, you’ll live in permanent darkness. Bob Marley wrote that.”
“‘Darkness has covered my light and turned day into night… No chains around my feet but I’m not free, I know I am bound here in captivity…’”
It’s amazing when a casually-acquired knowledge of Bob Marley’s music will come in handy.
“How d’ye ken a’ that?” they asked. For the first time in my nascent supply career, I had a classroom hanging on everything I said.
I explained about Concrete Jungle, the opening track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire album. It’s basically folk music, I explained. In Scotland, folk singers sing about fishing boats and sheep farming, about the threat of nuclear war and about people they know. Bob Marley’s music is also folk music, albeit coated in sunshine and played with a reggae beat. Much discussion of what reggae was followed, ending with me asking the kids to clap out a four-beat bar of handclaps with me emphasising the stomps of my foot on the off beat while over-egging some shonky ‘ooh-yeahs’ in an approximation of Bob Marley on Jammin‘. It did the trick. Bob sang about what he knew, and on Concrete Jungle, he’s telling you how tough his life was.
In the corner of the classroom was a smartboard. Nowdays, they’re ten-a-penny in schools and there’s nary a classroom that doesn’t have one, nor a teacher who doesn’t know their way around it, but back then, smart boards were a brand new thing. I have no doubt that the smart board was in this particular classroom because the teacher, being a member of the management team, had pulled rank to snaffle one of the few that the school had sourced. I connected it up and, this being the days when YouTube wasn’t blocked by the authority’s servers, put on the version of Concrete Jungle that The Wailers had played on Whistle Test. It was dynamite.
The kids sat in studied appreciation as Marley sang the words I’d told them previously, his band playing with effortless cool. Marley might’ve been centre-stage, but it was clearly his band who were driving it. Not only did they look great, they played great too. A practically motionless and stoned immaculate Peter Tosh barely touches the strings of his guitar yet the opening notes, all open wah and weeping pain, meander fluid and free before falling into its rocksteady chicka-chicka rhythm. The easy, soulful falsetto he contributes throughout is the perfect counterpoint to the melancholy and sadness of Marley’s lead vocal. The keys, very reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition I noted to myself, (I hadn’t noticed that before) clack and squeak their way into the groove, never in the way but always there for requisite funk.
By the time the whole band has fallen into step, they’re cooking up quite a quiet storm. It’s easily one of my favourite music-on-TV clips. The kids in that P7 class loved it too. For the rest of that day in the classroom, we used the laptops to research Marley’s life and death and legacy. There was a steady stream of Bob tunes flowing from the iPod I’d rescued at break time from my car as we wrote, read and learned his story. Eking out all they could about the football-playing, ganja-smoking Bob Marley, the kids worked in small groups to create wonky and ropey but well-researched and honest presentations. Concrete Jungle is almost, in today’s parlance, a deep cut, but ask those kids (adults today) and I bet half of them would name it as their favourite Bob Marley tune.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Concrete Jungle
There’s another version of Concrete Jungle, the demo that Chris Blackwell felt needed westernised to suit UK radio play. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but bereft of the shinier production of the more well-known version that opens Catch A Fire, it’s something of a beauty.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Concrete Jungle (Jamaican Demo)
For the second day, I showed a map of Glasgow on the smartboard. “It’s Glasgow,” I pointed out unnecessarily. “But who can find anything relating to Kingston or Jamaica?” I drew an invisible circle around the Kingston Bridge and Jamaica Street and waited for their oohs and aahs.
“Bob Marley also wrote about slavery,” I said. “In fact, his song ‘Slave Driver’ is exactly about that.” We listened to that track too and discussed it before spending the rest of the day researching the Glasgow tobacco lords and the legacy they’d left the city of Glasgow. No statues were toppled, no history was rewritten. Instead, 30 or so young minds were informed and expanded in many different ways. And all thanks to a random picture of Bob Marley that was in an old book that the teacher left out for me. Stir it up, as a great man once said.
Released in 1977 at the height of Year Zero (or would this be Year1?), Ian Dury‘s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was, suprisingly, not a hit. Given its familiarity, I’d always thought of it as something of a late 70s monster smash, but apparently not. Neither was it an Ian Dury & The Blockheads record. Despite both Chaz Jankel and Norman Watt-Roy playing on it, Dury’s first single was credited to him and him alone.
Ian Dury – Sex & Drugs 7 Rock & Roll (7″ version)
The low sales can be attributed to a couple of factors: it was wrongly thought of as a celebration of everything that punk was set on destroying, as bloated and offensive perhaps as anything by The Eagles or Rod Stewart. It just wasn’t cool to be seen buying a copy. Due to its title, the record found itself on the BBC’s banned list too and, unlike the unintended consequence of appearing on such state-sponsored naughty lists (see Relax, Je t’aime et al), this time round, the banning actually worked, snuffing out any possibility of Dury having a hit single. With less than 20,000 sales and next to no airplay, it was swiftly deleted.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll opens up side two of my charity shop-rescued, ‘previously loved’ copy of New Boots And Panties. Not on the original version (Dury had a strict ‘no singles on the album’ policy), but all future pressings of the album contained the non-hit following the Bockhead’s chart success with What A Waste and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. And just as well.
It’s a great tune.
The Peel Session take from a couple of years later might be even better…
Ian Dury & The Blockheads –Sex & Drugs 7 Rock & Roll (Peel Session, 12.12.79)
There’s a tin pot rattle of percussion and we’re off, all superfast snakehip slink guitar and a riff that’s slightly different, slightly further up the strings or frets or whatever than the single version you already know and love.
Coming a couple of years after its release, the Peel version finds the band dextrous to the point of muso, stretching out beyond the tight-trousered confines of their original take, because, well, just because they can.
Bopping along for a full minute longer than the original version, there are fruity keys on the offbeat, phased and flanged, thick and syrupy guitar in the bridge and a chittering, chattering guitar in the verse, clattering away like the false teeth on a couple of old chimney-smoking fishwives on the top deck of the number 37 up Kilburn High Road, surely an unintentional influence on those wee clang-a-langs that punctuate the singing in the verses of Orange Juice’s Rip It Up.
Then there’s the Hammond solo, a wonderful warm and cosy sound that predates Mick Talbot’s role in the Style Council by a good 36 months. Lovely stuff, all in.
It’s also a clear influence on the Merseyside Magpie himself. Lee Mavers cocked one ear at that riff and that clanging percussion and thought, ‘I’m ‘avin’ that.’ So he did.
Tha La’s – Come in Come Out
And talking of Liverpool…
The Blockheads were great, great players. When Trevor Horn was constructing Relax and becoming increasingly exasperated at the technical limitations of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, he roped in The Blockheads to fix Frankie’s botched job. Not for the first time in history did a band barely play on their big hit record. I’m fairly certain you knew that already though.
New Order‘s Power Corruption & Lies has just had the luxuruious, deluxe treatment. Not for any anniversary reasons it seems, but it follows swiftly on the heels of the similar treatment afforded to its predecesor, Movement. Movement is a landmark album for New Order in some ways, not least the band’s decision to continue making music in the aftermath of Ian Curtis’s death, but Power, Corruption & Lies, as you know already, is the album where New Order is truly born.
Gone are the self-conscious carbon copy Curtis vocals and mannerisms. (Almost) nowhere to be heard are the rattling, richocheting Hannett-affected steam-powered drums. The high up the frets bass is, crucially, still there, more to the fore even; post-punk liquid mercury, fluid and meandering, creating that signature New Order sound without anyone being aware at the time.
Where the synth lines on Movement were occasional and minimal, on Power, Corruption & Lies they’re elegant and glacial, polishing New Order’s confident new sound with a reflective sheen. From the flowers on the cover – the juxtaposition of old and new worlds, explained sleeve designer Peter Saville – and its code-cracking tracklisting on the back, via the grapple and struggle with new technology to Bernard finding his own shaky voice, everything about Power, Corruption & Lies screams fresh new start.
The soul of the band’s adventurous new sound can be found at the end of the 1st side.
New Order – 586
586 is, to begin with, a bit of a strange track. Those rattling, richocheting drums make a brief appearance at the start before a squelchy, squiggly keyboard line assumes the role of lead. Freeforming for a good couple of minutes, and just as you think it might be running out of ideas, a familiar ghostly synth line introduces itself, curling in like a cold, grey fog off the Manchester Ship Canal. Back in 1983 (or ’93 or ’03 or even right now,) New Order obsessives listening for the first time would have pricked their ears in a Proustian rush of recognition.
Coupled with the clattering sequenced electro and rapid-fire snare that follows immediately afterwards, 586 reveals itself to be BabyBlue Monday. It’s got it all going on – the tempo, the four to the floor dancefloor beat, the breakdown in the middle…but mostly, it’s in the propulsive, forward-thinking rhythm and pulsing, sequenced synths. Blue Monday was the stand alone single, released before the album, but 586 was clearly conceived at the same knee-trembling session behind the mixing desk.
It’s significantly different in other ways though. Bernard’s voice is in a higher register, falsetto occassionally, and nothing like the bottom of the boots Curtisish vocal on Blue Monday. There’s an energy of its own to it and a high synthy melody that repeats throughout, giving way to warm and fuzzy synths before the gears begin to grind to a halt and the whole track sloooooows doooown to a juddering stop, bringing both itself and side 1 of the album to a definite close.
586 began life in May 1982 when Tony Wilson asked New Order for “20 minutes of pap.” The original version was put onto video and played when the Haçienda opened its doors for the first time. A shorter version was redone for the band’s Peel Session a month later.
New Order – 586 (Peel Session)
With backwards sections and helicoptering synths, bendy bass and a rhythm track made up of heavily treated sleigh bells and jangling percussion, it isn’t the “20 minutes of pap” that their label boss asked for, but it’s very much a lyric in search of a better tune. That tune duly turned up a year later, half of it soundtracking the album version, the other half lending itself to the greatest 12″ single of all time.
New Order/Ennio Morriconebassline
Talking of which – where would Blue Monday be without that twanging, Spaghetti Western bassline? Stolen twang for twang from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for For A Few Dollars More, it became Peter Hook’s signature sound on New Order’s signature record, and a sound that’s still very much likely to prick the ears of people of a certain age forever.
When Jerry Dammers slipped off his loafers and eased The Specials into the exotica-tinged territory that constituted the More Specials album, it may have smoothed the edges from their punkish, knock-kneed ska, but their socially-aware ethos and political stance was as razor sharp as ever. You might go as far as arguing that, essential as that first Specials album undeniably is, the second album More Specials is exactly that – more special.
It’s there in the arrangements and choice of instrumentation. The icerink ska of Do Nothing, the mariachi march and doom-laden backing vocals of Stereotype, the mile high fabulousness of International Jet Set; every track a jerky off-beat work of art, presented in 2 Tone monochrome but coming at you in full-on technicolour. While most bands of the era were reinventing guitar music or pioneering synth-based pop, The Specials now lifted their influences from the lounge music of the past and re-presented it as the in sound from way out. It’s no coincidence that not long after, The Beat raided their dads’ old Andy Williams records for inspiration before crashing the charts with their take on Can’t Get Used To Losing You.
The Bodysnatchers’ Roda Dakar was a guest vocalist on More Specials. Known for just the one hit – a 100mph take on Dandy Livingstone’s People Do Rocksteady – The Bodysnatchers were already splintering into the Belle Stars by the time Dakar had taken up Dammers’ offer of joining The Specials on stage for occasional backing vocals.
An interesting band in the 2 Tone story, The Bodysnatchers had just one original track of their own, yet despite 2 Tone’s inclusive, anything goes stance, they were discouraged from releasing it. Putting her theatre background to good use, Rhoda had riffed a spontaneous freeform lyric – a true story – over the top of a Bodysnatchers groove during rehearsal and unwittingly gave birth to one of the most contentious records of the era.
Pulling no punches, The Boiler told the story of Dhakar’s friend who’d been raped. 2 Tone’s parent label Chrysalis took one look at the lyrics and baulked, leaving The Bodysnatchers’ version at the very back of the vault marked ‘unreleased‘.
Jerry Dammers though recognised the track’s importance and, during those More Specials sessions, set about recording the perfect backing track for Dakar’s story.
The Specials – Theme From The Boiler
Continuing in the vein of More Specials, Theme From The Boiler is similarly tinged with exotic mystery. In a time signature that Dave Brubeck may have had trouble with, it grooves along on a bed of John Barry beat guitar, muted trumpets and a loudly-programmed Linn drum machine. As the track progresses, a hollow vibraphone weaves its way in and out of the murk, the muted trumpets giving way to skronking background free jazz as the guitar revs its way into full-on Duane Eddy. Not yer average backing track by any means.
When the vocal was added, the track took a terrifying, nightmarish turn into the depths of despair.
Rhoda with The Special AKA featuring Nicky Summers – The Boiler
Despite very limited airplay – it vanished from most playlists after the first week – The Boiler managed to chart, thanks to an ever-growing demographic of 2 Tone devotees who’d buy everything on the label as soon as it was released. It remains one of the strangest and most unsettling records you will ever hear.
I first heard The Boiler between Rat Race and Gangsters on an old 2 Tone compilation taped from my pal, and as a 12 year old with a healthy obsession for the fast dance-based excitement of Madness and The Specials and The Beat, it was the last thing I expected to hear.
It’s the most shocking record I own. When it boils down to it, most ‘shocking’ records are really just swear-filled schoolboy gigglers. That’s you, Bodies. And you too, Relax. The Boiler deals in actual human pain, as shocking as a sudden slap across the face but a thousand times worse.
The opening line – I went out shopping last Saturday – is fairly disarming and you quickly settle in for the listen, unaware of where the record is going until it’s too late. Possibly the first record to address the subject of rape, it was raw and brutal and left this pre-teen listener feeling decidedly uneasy. Forty years later, it still does. Those screams as it ends….
“It is the only record,” said Dammers solemnly, “that was ever made quite deliberately to be listened to once and once only.”
A Taste Of Honey was written by playwright Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19. Set in Salford in the mid 50s, it tells the story of a 17 year-old girl, Jo, and her mum, Helen – ‘a semi-whore‘ – who leaves her daughter to go and live with a younger, richer man. Jo begins a short-lived relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant but he is sent to sea, oblivious to the situation he has created. The girl takes in a lodger to help pay the way. The lodger, a gay man, cares for her and looks after her – “you’re just like a big sister to me!” – and promises to be there for her at the birth of the child, until Helen storms back into Jo’s life and he is forced to take a step back.
As openers go, it doesn’t get much more scene-setting than that. The whole play is a brilliantly-written kitchen sink drama that zings along with unpretentious Northern honesty and questions class, single-parenthood, ethnicity, misogyny and sexuality. Choosing not to sweep the irregularities and complexities of life under the carpet, but to highlight that such things are in fact normal, I can only imagine that for the times it was fairly groundbreaking.
Born in Salford in the 50s, Morrissey was naturally drawn to the writings of Shelagh Delaney.
‘You told me not to trust men calling themselves Smith,’ says Jo to Helen at one point in A Taste Of Honey, and, like a flying bullet, the words leap of the page.
Seed planted firmly under the quiff, when the time came to name their band, the singer presented the group with the perfect, Delaney-influenced moniker. In an era of forward-thinking acts with multisyllabic names and the latest in musical equipment, The Smiths had defiantly set out their stall.
Morrissey would use Delaney’s image on a couple of Smiths sleeves – that’s her on the Louder Than Bombs compilation and the cover of the Girlfriend In A Coma single – and in reshaped form in the title of Sheila Take A Bow – and in the early days, the moping magpie wasn’t shy of stealing a line or two (or more) to help flesh out the narrative in his songs.
Reel Around The Fountain‘s “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,” for example is taken straight from A Taste Of Honey. And the phrase ‘Marry Me!‘ – scrawled on Morrissey’s skinny torso and revealed in heart crushing fashion midway through a Top Of The Pops performance for William It Was Really Nothing is a recurring phrase in the play.
Then there are key lines such as ‘six months is a long time,’ ‘I’ll probably never see you again,’ ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad‘ and ‘the dream has gone but the baby’s real‘ – the line around which he based the entire plot for The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes.
A Taste Of Honey, it’s fair to say, provided a rich seam of lyrical plunder for Steven Patrick.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel Session, Sept 83)
‘In a river the colour of lead‘, it goes, again a straight steal from A Taste Of Honey, ‘immerse the baby’s head.’ (also a reference to a line near the end of the play.) Hot on the heels of the Suffer Little Children/Moors Murderers scandal, this line caused many a management bristle when it was first heard. ‘Wrap her up in a News of The World, dump her on a doorstep, girl.’
The song is basically A Taste of Honey set to the perfect musical acccompaniment; downbeat, introspective, black and white in epoch yet technicolour in ambition. It features a prime slice of brooding, counter-melody Andy Rourke bass. Johnny’s dual lead and rhythm guitar playing is soulful and considered, mercurial and slinky yet choppy and jazzy, a zillion miles away from what most other 20-year old guitar players with a Stooges fascination might conjure up. It’s a great example of the early Smiths in action.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hacienda, 24.11.83)
This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a bit of a mongrel within The Smiths small but perfect, imperial catalogue. An early staple of live shows, its melancholic and delicate undertones were considered a bit too fragile for the debut album. It was first magnetised to tape at the band’s second Peel Session in September 1983, just a month or two after the aborted Troy Tate sessions that largely failed in capturing The Smiths electrifying live sound.
A year later, just as the group was recording another version with John Porter, the Peel Session version appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. It remains the only recorded version of the track to be officially released.
Quickly dropped from live shows as setlists changed to keep up with the rapid, prodigious writing talents of the prinicpal Smiths, This Night Has Opened My Eyes wasn’t played live again until, serendipitously, at The Smiths final show in 1986 – “There was a sense of resolve and closure,” relates Johnny Marr, “which is why we played that song that night. I remember when we made the decision to do ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ feeling a strong sense of awareness of our own history.”
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Brixton, 12.12.86)
Had they been happy with the John Porter-produced version – faster, sparkling with effervescence and slighty jauntier than the Peel Session take from the year previously (although that may just be pitch issues with the bootleg tape from whence this version was borne), it remains to be seen where This Night Has Opened My Eyes would’ve fitted into The Smiths discography.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (John Porter, June 1984)
Certainly, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the debut album at all, but the next 12 months were ridiculously productive. With classic singles being frisbeed out on an almost bi-monthly basis, by the time of Meat Is Murder, Morrissey and Marr had proven themselves to be in a unique world of their own.
Perhaps, like so many of the best Smiths tracks, it would’ve been the ideal stand alone single. Maybe released between the feral and stinging What Difference Does It Make and the stellar Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, a soulful interlude amongst a peerless run of releases.
It remains though a curio that has aged well through lack of over-familiarity. Whatever, I wonder, became of the young, handsome, literate, funny, unique, quirky, lovable and worshipped Morrissey? The dream has gone but the baby’s real, you might say.
Happy Mondays‘ Bummed was something of a slow burner. Released in November ’88, it was arguably a full 12 months before its clattering industrial funk had travelled its own lolloping path from the margins to the mainstream. I picked up on it in the great summer of 1989, my pal and I each buying it from the old Fopp at the top of Renfield Street. Keen to have a proper look at our new records on the train on the way home, we opened up our respective bags, slid the inner sleeve from the pink-faced portrait of Shaun Ryder and very, very quickly returned the pouting, pube-free porno nude back inside again. Who expected that?!? It made for a ton of pink-faced nervous laughing and some strange stares that didn’t stop until long after after Paisley. Even still, by Christmas ’89, with Manchester in the area and an epoch-defining Top of the Pops episode featuring both Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the bag, it was the follow-up – The Madchester EP, with lead track Hallelujah – that finally elevated the Mondays from cult act to the band that your mum knew. Loads of folk worked backwards from there, Bummed was that Christmas’s most asked-for LP and suddenly, Happy Mondays were everywhere.
Slower coaches who were still to get in on the act did so a few months later when Step On was released, its rinky-dink Italo house intro a call to arms for the loose of limb and slack of jaw in every provincial indie disco in the land. An almost thrown-away track – it was originally recorded as part of a tribute album for Elektra, the band’s American label, and their version of an old, forgotten John Kongos’ track came to define everything about the Happy Mondays of the era. Suddenly, they were no longer the preserve of Factory Records disciples and switched-on fans of left of centre non-chart music. You were as likely to hear your postman whistling Step On‘s intro as you were to see your local fruit ‘n veg assistant hold up a honeydew or a galia and gurn the words that will surely one day appear on Shaun Ryder’s tombstone.
By this point, the band was already well into the recording of their next LP. With a third new producer in as many albums, Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches eschewed the shouty funk of John Cale and the dark embryonic haze of Martin Hannett and, using Step On‘s success as a jumping off point, was buffed to a glossy sheen by dance producers Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold. A true marker of where the band now was success-wise, the album was written and recorded at Capitol Studios in L.A. The daily mayhem and freakscene that followed and surrounded the band fed into the music and the lyrics; a lack of E meant the band switched their allegiances to opium; half a dozen or more dealers would be at the studio every day; the lead singer got so into it and so out of it that he took to wearing a ski mask – “it’s the only thing keeping my head together,”- his fried eyes and half-masked hooked nose freaking out the locals in the sizzling Californian heat.
To paraphrase a line in an interview Ryder gave in his Black Grape days, Happy Mondays didn’t get into the music business and discover drugs, they discovered drugs and got into the music business. Being big business in L.A. meant access to better pharmaceuticals and freakier people. The Mondays soaked it all up and spat it back out on a record where influences and subject matter as disparate as Donovan, Bruce Forsyth and intrusive airport searches co-existed within the grooves.
‘I’m here to harass you, I want your pills and your grass you,
You don’t look first class you
Let me look up your ass you
I smell dope, I smell dope, I smell dope, I’m smelling dope.’
(Happy Mondays Holiday)
Despite the distractions, Ryder remained totally focussed during the sessions. The band had rented an apartment in one of L.A.’s more notorious neighbourhoods, sharing ammenities with petty criminals, porn stars and, bizarrely, Mick Hucknall. Mondays’ drummer Gaz Whelan played tennis with his fellow corkscrew-haired Mancunian everyday while the others sat around the pool eyeing up their neighbours and feeding the experience back into song. Ryder kept a notebook close by, scribbling lyrics whenever they came to him, writing and re-writing with an unchracteristic determination and drive. He’d take rough cuts home from the studio and work the lyrics into finished songs while the others partied.
The end result was an album that, from the sleeve on in was day-glo and bright, a beacon of off-it’s-head light in a landscape of floppy fringes, Fenders and fuzzboxes. Scratch a little below the surface though and you’ll soon dig up the dark matter. It’s maybe not my favourite Happy Mondays record, but it’s one of the most interesting.
All compass points lead to the big tracks – Step On, the asthmatic wheeze of God’s Cop, Kinky Afro‘s Labelle-lifting confessional, but let’s shine a light on Loose Fit.
Happy Mondays – Loose Fit
The runt of the litter, Loose Fit was the final single from the album, limping its way to number 17 almost a year after the album was released. By this point in time, Happy Mondays’ stock had fallen to an all-time low. They’d been quoted as saying some unforgiveable homophobic rubbish in the NME, they were happy to pose in a jacuzzi with Penthouse girls for The Sun and were in the middle of unleashing unhappy hell on an unsuspecting Jamaican island where they’d decamped to record what would be their final album. To all intents and purposes, their horse (and Ryder) had bolted.
Out of time and context though, Loose Fit has proven itself to be the ace up Shaun Ryder’s Gio-Goi sleeve. Wafting in on a riff that’s as airy and wide as the 25″ flares it celebrates, its mid-paced groove still delivers. Don’t need no skintights in my wardrobe today, fold them all up and put them all away. As far as songs about fashion go, only ‘she wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo‘ is better. You knew that already though.
Notice that slow exhale of breathe at the beginning as Ryder wakes up from his opiate slumber and stretches himself yawning into the verse; voice whispered, eyes hooded, goofy stoned immaculate. Backed by the ever-present Rowetta, they make for an unlikely double act, yet it works.
Happy Mondays – Loose Fix
It turns out that exhale of breathe was something else entirely. The less than subtly-titled Loose Fix version tells you all you need to know. Light up, lean in, far out. There’s a guitar line that predates Flowered Up’s Weekender by a good year, some processed beats that Gillespie and co would cop for their own experiment in dance a few months later and a production that keeps the whole thing riding the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-decade indie dance.
The revolution will not be televised solely on ABC and BBC and CBS and CNN via twenty-four hour news channels repeating graphic images Repeating graphic images Repeating graphic images The revolution will be reported by bloggers and vloggers and looters and muggers Twitters, Tweeters, fast-food eaters hashtaggers and carpetbaggers, The good, the bad and the ugly all giving their own perspective on the state of America as, overseen by a bully, a rapist, a racist, a disgrace, it swallows itself whole, a blinkered and bloated, unantidoted nation, where institutionalised hatred of non-whites is at its scraggy, entitled core and the police are given free reign to murder whoever they choose, live on camera.
The revolution will not be finger lickin’ good The revolution will be the real thing Relying on the appliance of science To get you all the news that’s fit to print Because you’re worth it.
The roots of racism run deep and long, particularly in American history and while there’s a general pretence that we’ve all moved on somewhat, that we’re nowadays more progressive, more liberal and tolerant, it’s not hard to debunk that particular myth. They say you’re never more than 6 feet from a rat, and in the same way, you’re never more than 6 seconds away from finding a racist on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it’s out and out Tommy Robinson-style hideousness, sometimes it comes wrapped in that old ‘don’t white lives matter too?’ blanket, but it’s all there. Racists walk among us; the man on the street. The cop in Minneapolis – the Minnea Polis, you might say. Even (especially) the inflammatory Twitterer hiding out in the White House. Society’s cancer that refuses to die.
The George Floyd story is, depressingly, nothing new. The reaction has been seen before too. But not like this. Perhaps it’s the pent up release of a country in lockdown, hiding from one epidemic while another rages at its own door, brought to a head by a President who’ll use the situation to rally around the WASPish right as he clings to a job he’s not fit for doing. I don’t know. I’ll never properly ‘know‘. That matters neither here nor there though – I do know right from wrong. We are not all equal, but we should be. That’s obvious, right?
Gil Scott-Heron’s most-famous track, from whence that attempt at politico-prose at the top was inspired was recorded in 1970, just Gil and his firm, quietly assured voice, accompanied by some groovy percussion. The very definition of beat poetry.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Small Talk At 125th & Lenox)
It’s an ‘answer track’ to The Last Poets‘ When The Revolution Comes, street-tough, proto-rap that leaves its cards face-up on the table – “When the revolution comes, guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays.” It was written more than half a century ago, yet seems perfectly prescient for addressing America’s white elephant, so to speak, that refuses to leave the room.
The Last Poets‘ – When The Revolution Comes
A few years after recording his response, Scott-Heron re-recorded The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with added funk and jazz musicians. Its roll-call of cultural reference points and underlying message of activism over pacifism now a relaxed, meandering soundtrack, no less hard hitting but presented in soft-focus polaroid as opposed to stark monochrome. It’s a great soundtrack by which to get political. Agitate, educate, organise.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised