Alternative Version, Get This!, Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions

Murderous Thoughts

Let’s call it here and now: Meat Is Murder is The Smiths best album.

It’s certainly not the debut, the band’s unsatisfactory attempt to chase a sound worthy of the songs. Compared to the Brasso-bright, spit ‘n polish, ring-a-ding-ding of those early Peel versions, the debut album weighs heavy; lumpen, and one-dimensional. The drums sound leaden and lifeless. The guitars – it’s always about the guitars with The Smiths – sound as if someone has taken a fat thumb to their edges and rubbed the sparkle clean off. Flat and uninspiring, the production doesn’t do those fabulous riffs any justice at all. Unique, extraordinary songs, but assembled badly.

Don’t even consider The Queen Is Dead. Those songs…man, great, great songs…but whoever signed off the running order needs their head examined. The title track aside, every other song is misplaced. Side one collapses from the music hall titter of Frankly, Mr Shankly into the death doublet of I Know It’s Over/Never Had No One Ever – undeniably serious mood music pieces, yes, but totally misplaced. Stick I Know It’s Over at the end of side 1 instead and you’ve got a great closing track. Never Had No One Ever? That’s totally ripe for the graveyard slot of second last track on side 2. Pick any ten records from your collection and look at the running order and then tell me that the second-to-last track isn’t the weakest on the album. It’s certainly not where There Is A Light That Never Goes Out should be hiding. That should be sitting up front with Bigmouth… and the big boys, or maybe even afforded the honour of being the big statement closing track. Good as Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is – and it’s one of their very best – go out on a romantic, swaying high, Smiths. Don’t relegate your best songs to the twilight zone.

Yeah, and the smart money (even Johnny’s, they say) might be on Strangeways Here We Come, but for every crashing gothic masterpiece (Last Night I Dreamt...) there’s The Smiths-by-numbers (Stop Me If You Think…), for every barely-disguised love letter from singer to guitarist (I Won’t Share You) there’s the instantly skippable Death At One’s Elbow. It’s a good album, Strangeways, probably even great, but it isn’t their greatest. That honour goes to Meat Is Murder. Here are half a dozen reasons why.

Reason 1. Little elfin Johnny, in his blown-up Keith Richards hair-do and diamante clutter, is on fire across every bit of Meat Is Murder. He runs the whole gamut of his nimble-fingered arsenal; alternative tuning on the title track…alternative tuning and Nashville tuning on the cosmic and zinging Headmaster Ritual…that fine, layered coating of acoustic liquid mercury across Well I Wonder…the Stooges Metallic KO of What She Said, the rockabilly knee-tremble of Rusholme Ruffians…the proud Chic-isms that give way to those great, ringing discordant jazz chords near the end of Barbarism Begins At Home…the clattering chatter he conjures up across Nowhere Fast‘s multiple overlapping tracks and kaleidoscope of chords…

Johnny came up with them all. On Meat Is Murder he is barely 22 and he’s not yet reached a peak that his peers, never mind his guitar-strangling lessers in bedrooms up and down the country, can only dream of.

Reason 2. Morrissey. Separating the art of the 26 year-old singer from the 63 year-old artist is necessary here. Look, not at what he’s become, but at what he was once capable of. With every lyric on the album, he’s extremely funny and articulate and political and opinionated and principled and, above all else, loveable. ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen,’ ‘heifer whines could be human cries,’ ‘belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools, spineless bastards all,’ ‘What she read, all heady books, she’d sit and prophesise, it took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes.’

Even if he pinched large chunks of Rusholme Ruffians from Victoria Wood, no one was crowbarring lyrics like this into pop songs in 1985. Arguably, no one has crowbarred stuff as unique and searing and insightful and right-on since.

Reason 3. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is one of The Smiths’ finest torch songs. From its bright-as-brass-buttons opening to its layered and textured false ending, it’s a beauty. It’s the perfect marriage of Morrissey’s moping introspection and Marr’s guitarchestra, the singer identifying with those who are kicked when they are down, the guitarist going to town with studio effects and multi-layered riffs.

The SmithsThat Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Those little echoing triplets that fall from his fingers to create rippling pools on still pond water still tingle the back of my neck when they come in (around the minute mark at first, then forever after) – an ear-opening epiphany in 1985 when I realised that guitar players enhanced their electric sound with gizmos and wizardry to create the sounds they imagined in their heads. The haunting (and haunted) backwards effects he weaves through the ‘happening in mine‘ section before the fade out are ace.

Johnny has since said (OK, he told me, right?) that The Smiths never quite managed to do it justice live, but with the technology available today, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore would have undoubtedly been the centrepeice of The Smiths live experience. We’ll never know.

Reason 4. The Smiths changed lives. Saved lives, even. Like, literally. The title track is responsible for a whole swathe of impressionable teenagers – and at least two Smiths besides Morrissey – to forego eating meat and adopt vegatariansim as a way of life.

“As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian,” Mike Joyce told me in 2017. “Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it. ‘Meat Is Murder’ is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

Accompanying the lyric, all sorts of magic is going on. Suitably doomy and disconcerting for the words being sung, Johnny plays around on an open D riff, cyclical and repetitive, hynpotic and ethereal.

The Smiths Meat Is Murder

It’s matched by a jangling piano – not noticeable on first listen, buried as it is underneath the abattoir grinding and cattle cries, but it’s there, tinkling along like springtime Manchester rain while studio-treated guitars echo and scrape and scratch their way through the murk, Andy’s bass as elastic and stretchy as tendons.

Reason 5. Ah. Andy’s bass. The unsung hero of the band, the thinking man’s favourite Smith, Andy Rourke can play the fuck out of that thing. While Johnny gets all the spotlight, Andy quietly goes about creating tunes within tunes, fret-surfing melodic runs that could easily stand on their own two feet (or four strings).

The SmithsNowhere Fast (Peel Session, 1984)

The trampolining rubber bandisms that carry the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians…the counterparts he plays to Johnny’s guitar in The Headmaster Ritual…the driving force in Nowhere Fast that allows Johnny to fly off-piste and back again…Andy is a key ingredient here.

The rather-too obvious track to highlight is the extreme funkability of Barbarism Begins At Home, all slap ‘n thunk, an old tune of his and Johnny’s from pre-Smiths days that wouldn’t have worked on that debut album, but here, on Meat Is Murder‘s inclusive, catholic patina, it shines brightly.

Reason 6. The Headmaster Ritual. Rusholme Ruffians. I Want The One I Can’t Have. What She Said. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore. Nowhere Fast. Well I Wonder. Barbarism Begins At Home. Meat Is Murder.

Perfectly sequenced, perfectly pitched, it is, rare for the era, an album of few single releases; Headmaster and Barbarism in foreign countries only, That Joke in the UK (a chart-busting number 49 with a bullet). The Americans couldn’t handle an album with no hit singles though, so they crassly wedged How Soon Is Now? right before Nowhere Fast at the start of side 2. They have form for spoiling perfectly perfect albums, the Americans – look at what they did to some of The Beatles’ catalogue for proof – and while How Soon Is Now? is an undoubted Smiths classic, it should remain standing alone as the greatest 3-track Smiths single ever. But that’s an argument for another time.

I welcome your misguided outrage in the comments…

 

Hard-to-find

End of Year Com-Pan-dium

There’s been a rush of traffic to these pages in the past few days since the airing of Mayflies on the BBC. Keith Martin, the real-life Tully, was a true character of the Irvine music scene and beyond and I watched from the periphery as he and his close-knit gang of pals whipped up a storm of creativity and ideology around them.

John Peel famously played Keith’s band, The Big Gun‘s Heard About Love. “I must say, I like that immoderately,” he said at the time. I bet you read that in Peel’s laconic drawl too…

The Big GunHeard About Love

Photo by Gordon Hay

Had Irvine been Manchester or even East Kilbride, I daresay we’d have had our very own scene on our hands. Well, we did, but no one knew about it until now. Those times really deserve a dedicated piece of their own, something that I should look at putting right in the new year.

When Keith died back in 2018, I wrote a piece that has been visited many times over, even more so this week. If you missed it, you can find it here.

Other articles worth a second look, or a first look if you are but a casual browser around here, follow below. Call them 2022’s Greatest Hits if you like.

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Read about Khruangbin and their whacked-out desert blues here.

If real-life Berlin Wall escapees and Cold War paranoia is your thing, click here.

Akin to Mayflies and the glue of friendship, here‘s the story of mix tapes, dirty magazines and going to see Primal Scream in Ayr.

That time when, along with the Trashcan Sinatras and Gideon Coe, I was the headline act at Aye Write.

Just how great were Buzzcocks?

Busking at the British Open. Guest appearance from Tom Watson. True story here.

The definitive article on The The, here.

Grand plans for Flaming Lips‘ Do You Realize? here.

Some writing about people-watching in New York City, here.

An article on Frankie KnucklesYour Love, the greatest house record ever recorded.

Failing to recreate Bob ‘n Suze ‘n Freewheelin’ by being in the street parallel to where we should’ve been. D’uh.

Hopefully you’ll find something new, or rediscover something you read previously and then disappear down a rabbit hole of words and tunes. It’s all about the words and tunes. Always. Thanks for reading.

Back in 2023.

 

Alternative Version, demo, Hard-to-find

Christmas Rapping

This was timed to go out a couple of days ago, then hastily postponed to make way for the Terry Hall stuff. By comparison it seems trivial now, but I can’t save it for the new year, so on with the show, as they say.

Yule dig this…

Remember Flexipop!? Back at the start of the ’80s, when the freshest of music was borne from a creative and punkish, DIY attitude, a couple of disillusioned Record Mirror writers started Flexipop! magazine. Adopting a maverick approach to publishing that was similar to the bands of the music it would feature, Flexipop! flouted the rules of their game and, in a blaze of cut ‘n paste ‘n Letraset ‘n day-glo fonts gave Smash Hits, Number 1 and even the hallowed trio of inkies a run for their money. Their star would burn briefly – 37 issues (one issue a month for three years) – but brightly.

Their USP? Every issue of Flexipop had a free 7″ flexidisc stuck to the cover. Sometimes single-sided, sometimes double, and sometimes even a 4-track EP, each flexi contained a unique, can’t-be-found anywhere else recording of that issue’s cover star; The Jam‘s Pop Art Poem on see-through yellow plastic, for example, or a luminous, Fanta-orange pressing of The Pretenders Stop Your Sobbin‘ (demo, of course), even a 23 second recording of Altered Images wishing you a happy new year, and this… Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy riffing and rapping, some of it loosely Christmas-related, across the top of the demo to Rapture.

Blondie & Fab 5 FreddyYuletide Throwdown

Ice-cool Debbie: Hey – you don’ look like Santa t’me. I never saw a Santa  Claus wearin’ sunglasses!

Freddy: Cool out, without a doubt!

Ice-cool Debbie: Merry Christmas, ho ho ho!

And off they go, Freddy telling the listener where he grew up, Debbie pre-empting Run DMC and the Beastie Boys by double tracking him on the line ends, referencing guns, disco and ‘the nicest snow’ – which is possibly not a reference to the inclement weather. 

Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Tracy Wormworth (bass, The Waitresses), Chris Stein

Christmas duets come in all shapes and sizes; Bowie ‘n Bing, Shane ‘n Kirsty and now Debbie ‘n Freddy. Lost to the archives, Blondie re-discovered Yuletide Throwdown a year ago while pulling together the material that would make up their catch-all box set.

It’s an interesting peek into their creative process, the version here replete with those descending chimes and rinky-dink funk guitar, the horn motif and Debbie’s ‘Ra-ah-pt-yoor!‘ refrain, yet sluggish and sludgy…and pretty good as a result. I don’t know why they chose to speed it up before release.

“When we first recorded Rapture, it was slower. This was the first version,” Stein said. “We decided to make it faster. The slower tape was just bass, drums and guitar doubling the bass, I don’t think much else. I took the tape to my home studio and added stuff, then Debbie and Fred did their vocals.”

I’m a sucker for a demo or an alt. version, and this version of Rapture certainly falls into that category. Play once, and once only at this time of year, file it in the section of your brain that’ll serve you well come the toughest of music quizzes and then forget all about it until next December.

*Interestingly, the b-side of the Blondie/Fab 5 Freddy single sounds like it might be totally magic. Credited to mystery band The Brattles, it turns out they were a band of pre-pubescent punk rockers aged between 8 and 12: Werner, 12 (Guitar), Dagin, 8 (Drums), Jason, 9 (Vocals), Emerson, 9 (Bass) and Branch, 10 (keyboard). Makes Musical Youth look like the Grateful Dead.

The record shows that The Brattles opened for the Clash twice, shared a rehearsal room with the New York Dolls and we were produced by Chris Stein of Blondie. Ah, so there’s the connection. I suspect Bartholomew Carruthers, if he’s reading, will be able to give me the full rundown. Until then, must investigate…

 

 

Cover Versions, Hard-to-find, Sampled

Cavernous

Housed in a sleeve that suggests free movement, fluidity and motion; the gentle, undulating swirls, the band name written on two contrasting axes, Liquid Liquid‘s Optimo EP is a product of New York’s imperial post-punk phase, a fertile, ‘anything goes’ period that encouraged – demanded, even – individualism and originality. For extra homework, you might want to check out ESG, The Contortions or Bush Tetras. For now though, find your feet with Liquid Liquid.

With its pots ‘n pans poly tempo, the lead track Optimo borrows the feel of its window-rattling rhythm from Booker T’s Soul Limbo, before firing off in brave new directions; jittery, staccato lead vocals, bass-as-lead-instument, the piston pattern of steaming hi-hats, the sum of its mish-mash of musical styles old and yet to come making something that’s altogether inherently brand new. It’s no coincidence that the multi-genre embracing ’90s club night at Glasgow’s Sub Club was named after the track.

Liquid LiquidOptimo

The EP is most interesting and celebrated, perhaps, for the track Cavern. It’s the bass line, obviously, that pricks the ears. It leaps, flying off the record to skelp you round the chops with a ‘wherehaveyouheardmebefore,eh?‘ smack of familiarity. A chrome-covered aerodynamic pulse, its cave-like sound, moving-ever forward and flowing was, for all I know, an influence on both the band’s name and their best-known track. It was certainly an influence on hip-hop, that bassline, although more of that later.

Liquid LiquidCavern *

The drums, shuffling, sparse and fat-free, showed that the most powerful music doesn’t always need an earthquake of percussion to propel it forwards. There’s some lovely shaker action all the way through, keeping it less rock and just on the right side of funky. I’d imagine Reni of the Stone Roses would enjoy playing along to this. The vocals, sparse and infrequent, almost an afterthought to the groove, throw up little melodic phrases and half-lines that, funny this!, were also an influence on the hip-hop community. Indeed, if you can’t hear the recognisable melodies and key words (and musical interludes and tempo and general vibe) that form the vocal for Grandmaster Flash‘s White Lines, where have you been all this time?

Yes, not content with copying – not sampling – the bassline, Flash took a liberal dose of the vocal’s style and phrasing and – ooh-whu-ite – created a version of Crystal that was far more reaching than anyone could ever have anticipated.

Initially, Liquid Liquid were flattered. Hearing White Lines adopt their bassline (and vocal inflections…and melodic interludes…) and have it boom from the subway-shocking soundsytems in Manhattan’s clubs – higher baby! – hearing their vocals aped and added to – higher baby!! – hearing their track get an epoch-defining makeover, replete with a boxfresh rap and more hooks than an Ali 15-rounder – higher baby!!! – was quite the thrill, until – don’t ever come down! – the thorny issue of copyright and plagiarism reared its dollar-happy head. Slip in and out of phenomena, indeed.

Grandmaster FlashWhite Lines

There’s only ever one winner in this type of fight, and it tends not to be the creators who benefit, Both Liquid Liquid and Sugarhill Records, the label who’d issued White Lines, were ordered to pay legal costs that ultimately led to both parties winding down, citing lack of funds as the reason.

Full Time from the City of New York:

Finance 2 – 0 Culture

 

* there are two versions of Cavern on this one sound file. I’ve no idea how I did this or how to fix it. So enjoy Cavern Cavern by Liquid Liquid Liquid Liquid.

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find

Johnny Cash And I Spent Some Time In The Joint Together.

It’s the time of the year when the world falls into two camps: those who like to dress up in fright wigs, cake their face in plaster of Paris and smudge some tomato sauce around their dad’s old ripped shirt to wander the street for sweets from strangers…and those who think it’s all a load of nonsense.

I’m firmly in the second camp. I hated Hallowe’en as a child and I hate it just as much as a parent. Our kids are older now and they wouldn’t be seen dead (no pun intended) in a skeleton costume or a zombie outfit, yet we still persevere with entertaining doorsteppers and (euch!) ‘trick or treaters’ – like Hallowe’en itself, an Americanism too far- because, as my selfless wife points out, our kids benefited from the neighbours when they were younger, whether those neighbours had young children or not. Fair enough, I suppose.

Someone who loved dressing up, who made a whole 40+ year career of it, was David Bowie. After he died, everyone I know went on some sort of back catalogue pilgrimage, reappraising the seemingly ‘weak’ records and finding previously disgarded or misunderstood gems within their grooves. One such album was Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). One step on from his holy ‘Berlin’ trilogy, Scary Monsters… found the magpie-ish Bowie stepping into the ’80s and embracing the nascent New Romantic scene, taking the most interesting parts and presenting them as his own. Everything on the record, from the clown costume on the front cover to the synthetic squall and squeal of Robert Fripps’s wandering guitar parts deals in artifice and pretence.

David BowieScary Monsters

Interestingly, the title track got its name from the blurb on a Corn Flakes advert. ‘Scary Monsters and Super Heroes‘ were the novelty toys of the time and the singer, forever switched on, adapted it for his own needs. It’s a beauty, Bowie in full-on Anthony Newley, his cockernee vocalisms cutting through the racket of the band, hellbent on bashing out their own take on post-punk and sounding not a million miles away from some of those more straightforward Joy Division records. The drums, repetitive, clattering and full of interesting fills, sound like they could’ve been played by Stephen Morris himself. And the pedal-stomping Fripp is all over the track like a free-riffing rash; outrageous and discordant, the grit in the groove. Violent, aggressive, and straight-up avant garde rock, I doubt the track would’ve been half as colourful or interesting without him.

You can compare it to this 1996 bootleg version, recorded in Atlanta.

David BowieScary Monsters (acoustic)

Stripped back and acoustic, it’s presented in a no-frills blues arrangement, Bowie introducing it with very tall tales of his time spent with Johnny Cash, a subtle nod to Rick Rubin perhaps, to get in touch and make Bowie his next unplugged vanity project. Mere speculation, of course. And something we’ll never know.

 

Hard-to-find

Keep Off The Grass

We’re in New York. We’ve been before, for my 40th – just the two of us – and the kids were apoplectic to say the least that we’d chosen to leave them behind with the grandparents while we hot-footed it across the Atlantic like the pair of goggle-eyed tourists we were. This year has seen/will see a number of family milestones – 50ths, 21sts, big anniversaries and the likes, and the kids weren’t letting us away with it this time. So here we are.

The first thing you notice in New York these days is the sickly sweet smell of weed. Now decriminalised (legal?) in NYC, its omnipresent smell overpowers even the heady wafts from the street food sellers that line the streets. The yellow cab driver that delivered us shaken and slightly stirred from JFK was reeking of it, his low-pulled hoody blanketed in a thick fug of the stuff.

“I’ll have you in Midtown in no time, man,” he smiled through glassy eyes, one hand on the wheel, the other scrolling through the satnav on the phone wedged between his knees, and true to his word, he put the foot down the moment we were on the Van Wyck expressway.

“Asshole!” he shouted indiscriminately. “Goddam she-it!” Fingers flipped, lanes were cut, horns were honked and, after he’d cheerfully told us that he’d been “up in front of the goddam judge for two traffic misdemeanours this week – speeding, and maaan, I wasn’t goin’ that fast! – and dangerous drivin’ – that’s fair ’nuff. Two fifty penalty later and I’m back on the roads. Shit! There’s the cops…” (and so on and so forth), the Manhattan skyline gracefully swept into view and, like the boggle-eyed tourists we were, Ramon’s cartoonish patter faded into the background.

On our first full day, we walked 35,000 steps, spent eye-watering amounts of money on (admittedly good food) in diners and pizza joints that, back home would’ve taken us by golden chariot to our favourite ‘fancy’ restaurant and left us enough change for a night in the Crown to wash it all down. You gotsta eat, though, as they say ’round these parts.

The view from the Empire State Building at night was spectacular, a movie scene come to life right in front of us. All the neon lights are bright on Broadway, indeed.

The endless walking…the people-watching…the snippets of conversation overheard as they bullet their way around the streets in expensive trainers and mismatching clothes because, frankly, they don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of them…the endless walking… the scene-seeing bus tour…the stiff necks from looking up, down, all around…the endless walking…the Staten Island ferry – just about the only thing in NYC that’s totally free – with its close-up views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s iconic photo-friendly skyline kept everyone snap-happy and excitable.

Today we chose to brush aside Ramon’s advice about the subway – full of loonies, with frequent muggings and people-pushing seemingly the latest craze, he warned – and survived to negotiated the complexities of the city’s underground system and make our way downtown. Overshooting our stop (of course) meant a 15 minute amble back to our intended destination at the 9/11 memorial, its long queues forgotten about once inside. It’s a fascinating exhibition and one which brought memories of watching it unfold on TV 21 years ago, with our two-week old daughter being sick on our laps.

This afternoon into tonight we really enjoyed a walk back along the Hudson Park walkway and then on the appropriately-named High Line after eating in Chelsea Market. Sadly, for me, we never found the famous Chelsea Hotel though. On the High Line, a reclaimed railway track that snakes it’s way above street level and between warehouses, commercial units and some spectacular apartments, I was, given how lightly toasted much of Manhattan seems to be, particularly tickled by the ‘Keep Off The Grass’ signs every few metres.

Next stops will be Central Park, a boat trip around lower Manhattan, a visit to latest high-rise tourist trap The Edge, a walk over the Hudson to Brooklyn and later that night a visit to the Brooklyn Nets’ season opener against New Orleans Pelicans (“Go Nets!” as we likely won’t be saying). With luck, I’ll maybe find some spare time (and money) to smoke out the record shops and musical landmarks of Greenwich Village. Pictures no doubt will follow.

Here’s NYC’s Beastie Boys with So What’cha Want; a stroppy and thumping, squeaky-organed racket where each of the 3 Beasties takes their turn on the mic; Yauch gruff, MCA whiny and Ad Rock the epitome of a NYC don’t-give-a-damn cool.

Beastie BoysSo What’cha Want

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Hard-to-find

Double Dekker

It miek‘ is Jamaican patois for ‘told you so‘ or ‘serves you right‘. You get caught doing something you’ve been told not to do? It miek, man. It miek.

Desmond Dekker took the phrase and used it as both title and hook for his summer of ’69 smash hit. A proper slice of lilting rudeboy reggae, It Miek is aural sunshine for the start of September. Summer over? Not round here, mate.

Desmond Dekker & The AcesIt Miek

I’ve always wondered about the wee vocal precursor that opens the track. Stone me if it ain’t a sweet ‘n soulful, adlibbing vocal warm-up of Ave Maria, nudged gently aside when the skanking beat comes in, driven by rootsy bass and rocksteady drums. By the time Desmond has started his vocal proper, the guitars are doing the chicken scratch on the off-beat, a clanging bar-room piano is bashing out the chords and, most thrilling of all, honeyed horns from heaven burst their way in and herald the vocal refrain.

If y’listen carefully, you might notice the bit where it’s almost impossible to tell where the trombone slide ends and the vocal slide begins. If y’listen really carefully, you might hear a young Kevin Rowland scribbling notes and plotting his future. As I type, a little bit of bare wood floor has been worn away and polished as my feet do a soft shoe shuffle in time to the infectious rhythm. If y’don’t like this, y’don’t like anything.

Desmond Dekker was a clear influence on that late ’60s mod scene. The close crop, the three button mohair suits, the attention to detail in both sound and vision, he’s an embodiment of Mod’s ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ mantra.

Over in mid ’80s Manchester, another gang of music obsessed clothes horses with an eye for the minutiae were doing their best to steal without anyone noticing. Shaun Ryder, magpie-eyed thief-in-chief of Happy Mondays liberally went about strangulating some of the melody from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – itself a skanking reggae tune, as you know, where McCartney namechecks ‘Desmond’ – and, with the help of that clattering industrial funk that HM do so well, turned it into a new Happy Mondays’ tune called, unashamedly, Desmond.

Happy MondaysDesmond

I mean, it’s not really Ob-La-Di… is it? Maybe if Shaun had sung the first couple of lines in tune it’d have been more apparent, but that lolloping, elastic band bassline and incessant, chirping guitar steers it far from the mouth of the Mersey and deeper towards a whole new sound that was brewing at the time.

Nonetheless, Michael Jackson, who at the time owned the rights to The Beatles’ catalogue, sent his lawyers straight round and quicker than you could yelp ‘Beat It!‘ the Mondays were forced to withdraw their debut album from sale, delete the offending Desmond and replace it with another tune. It miek, Shaun. It miek.

That other tune though would be Twenty Four Hour Party People and would propel Happy Mondays onto the more discerning turntables around the country, with fame and infamy not much further away than the width of a Joe Bloggs hem. A lucky break.

*Bonus Track!

Here’s a fantastic light and sparkling, piano-free run through of The Beatles doing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from one of those Anthology albums from yesteryear. Jigsawed together from a couple of takes, this joyful and carefree outfake gives the offically released version a decent run for its money, sprightly scrubbed acoustic guitars and lightly toasted ‘la-la-la-la-la-la‘ backing vocals vying for earspace between the skronking sax and occasional ‘chick-a-boom‘ interludes. McCartney’s woody, thunking bassline is a beauty too. Get on it!

The BeatlesOb-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Anthology version)

Hard-to-find

Definitive Article

Every few years I immerse myself in Soul Mining, the debut album by The The. It’s been with me in various forms over the years – taped from the record borrowed from Irvine library, bought on cassette (since lost) for £1.25 from the back of Boots in Irvine Mall, upgraded to CD in the early ’90s and, more recently on vinyl, dug out from between the Kenneth McKellar and Marty Robbins albums in a Kilmarnock charity shop for a couple of pounds, the gold-stamped ‘Property Of CBS. Demonstration Only. Not For Sale.’ message on the back the icing on this particularly jammy cake. Re-sult, as they say.

It’s sobering to think that next year it’ll be 40 years young, its themes of existential crisis, mental state of mind and anti-government stance very much relevant to the times we currently live in. ‘I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country,’ Matt Johnson states on side one’s The Sinking Feeling.

It’s a record that comes wrapped in claustrophobia, paranoia and fear, compounded by relentless, crashing drum machines, snaking, electrified guitars and inventive technology that dates the record, maybe almost as much as the slap/synth bass that thwacks its way in and out of the grooves, but there’s not a band currently working who is as inventive and focused and visionary as Matt Johnson/The The was at this moment in time.

Much like his better-known contemporaries, Matt Johnson is neither as productive as Kate Bush nor as revered perhaps as Mark Hollis, but is every bit as much the auteur, driven by the sonic vision in his busy head. This is a man for whom music is a slow, deliberate process, sculpture rather than slap-dashed expressionism, and we’re all the richer for it.

This Is The Day might have been the obvious first choice of single from the record – gorgeous, lilting French café music with a Biblical metaphor running through it – but Uncertain Smile is the one that I return to time and time again.

The TheUncertain Smile

It’s a song in two halves. In the first, Johnson delivers a crooned, close-miked vocal, all deep breaths and slightly wobbly intonation. In an era of chart-bound bands fronted by preening and pouting poseurs for whom the actual vocals were secondary to, y’know, what mascara went with the pantaloons or whatever, Johnson’s approach can be seen as both unique and brave.

Undeniably keeping a keen ear on proceedings was a pre-debut album Lloyd Cole, who would adopt the same approach when he came to record his vocals on Rattlesnakes. It’s not even up for debate. Contrast and compare Lloyd’s grinning, gulping vocal on his album’s title track with Johnson’s delivery on Uncertain Smile and see/hear for yourself.

But enough of the finger-pointing.

Uncertain Smile is a beauty. An ear-friendly acoustic guitar strums a chord pattern, swells of synth colour the melody and Johnson plunders the Big Book of Existential Angst to deliver a well-considered lyric.

And then it all takes off. A moonlighting Jools Holland, turning up at the studio on his motorbike and still in his leathers, hears the demo once, jumps on the studio piano and lays down a masterful solo.

Holland (unjustly if y’ask me) gets lots of flack for his supposed adding of The Boogie Woogie to everything he touches, but on Uncertain Smile he freeforms over the top of it like Mike Garson riffing on Aladdin Sane; jarring notes that veer on the edge of Les Dawson but pull back just in time, clanging chords that rattle the bones, trilling high notes that cascade down to bluesy bass notes and then back again, dextrous and masterful, Holland’s knowledge of jazz being put to good use. His playing transforms the track from an interesting slice of angst to a proper work of art that’s Bowie-level great.

Holland was surprised to find his contribution used as the big statement in the outro. He’d assumed that Johnson would drop his part into the middle of the track to create a piano interlude. Instead, Holland’s playing stretches the track all the way to the end of a breath-taking side one. Sometimes I never make it to side two, preferring instead to drop the needle on Uncertain Smile for just one more time…

*Bonus Track!

Here‘s the near 10 minute New York Extended Mix. Jools-free and pitched percussion crazy.

Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions

Boiling Point, Top League

I interviewed Martyn Ware once. It was 5 days after Paul McCartney’s show at Hampden Park, should you wish to date it, and I was still flying high, buzzing on seeing a two and a half hour benchmark set of hit after hit after hit, faithfully and loudly reproduced to within an inch of the songs’ original sound and feel.

Yeah, to us, The Beatles were shit,” he sniffed in his mellow Yorkshire accent. In the mouth open, dead air gasp of disbelieving shock that followed, he continued. “They meant nothing to my generation of musicians. Nu-thing. We looked to Germany, to Kraftwerk and beyond, for our inspirations. Guitars were dead to us, even with the influx of punk groups that were springing up everywhere. To us, the guitar stood for excess and Led Zeppelin and private jets and symbols of phallic insecurity. Not all of The Beatles music was rubbish, but I wasn’t a fan and they certainly weren’t year zero for any of the people I was making music with. Punk, and the possibilities it threw up, was our point of reference. In Sheffield especially, we chose keyboards over guitars…and I think we all made a pretty good go of it.”

Had this conversation been carried out on Zoom – still a twinkle in some Silicon Valley digital developer’s eye – I’d have seen the wry, upturned smile that followed. Ware and his pals certainly made more than a good go of it. His DIY, learn-as-you-go aesthetic, first with the Human League and then with Heaven 17 and later with BEF, saw him involved in the production of some of his generation’s most well-known yet decidedly idiosyncratic tunes.

The Human League’s first single, released way back in 1978, is a case in point.

The Human LeagueBeing Boiled

It’s futuristic sounding, even now. A hissing, spitting, fizzing, electronic groove, all metronomic synthesised hi-hat and piston-powered forward propulsion that’s as industrial-sounding as the city from whence it came. Its rubberised electro bassline, part Bootsy Collins, part Larry Graham, adds requisite pop charm, offset somewhat by Phil Oakey’s monotoned vocal.

Listen to the voice of Buddha‘ he deadpans, while the rest of the band make music from anything they can plug in. Morse code dots and dashes of synth ping pong and teleprompt their way across the electrified airspace. The clickety-click of computerised clockwork maintains the tempo – slow and steady, never speeding up, never slowing down – while gently popping bubbles of Prophet and Korg and Moog coalesce nicely in the ether, the ghosts of Kraftwerk and side 2 of Bowie’s Low hanging heavy in the analogue fug. It’s a brilliant debut single, some would say never bettered, by a band who, with a different approach and new line up, would go on to ubiquity and massive chart success.

Being Boiled has long-been a favourite of mine, right up there with the nothing-like-it-at-all Mirror Man and its Supremes-ish ‘Ooh-ooh – ee-oohs’ that take me right back to a time and place. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Steve Strange was a big fan of Being Boiled too. There is, obviously, in Visage’s Fade To Grey, more than a whiff of similarity in those vibrating, humming chord changes.

*Bonus Track!

For maximum hard boiled analogue thump, you need the Peel Session version from August ’78. It’s, like, out there!

The Human LeagueBeing Boiled (Peel Session 8.8.78)

 

By the way, never trust anyone who says they don’t like The Beatles. It’s all for show. Whether it’s the throwaway Yellow Submarine or the avant gardisms of Revolution 9, The Beatles have a tune for everyone. You knew that already though.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Jumpy Record

Feel Like Jumping by Marcia Griffiths is a perfect slab of baked in the sun pop-reggae. In 1968, a few years before she was one of the I Threes, providing backing for Bob Marley and The Wailers during his imperial, ubiquitous phase, she was a young hopeful, given the chance to make her own mark on Jamaican music. Signed to the mighty Studio One and produced by Coxsone Dodd, Feel Like Jumping was written by Griffiths’ partner Bob Andy, so prolific a writer that you might call him the Lieber AND Stoller of that early reggae scene.

Marcia GriffithsFeel Like Jumping

Breezing along on a wave of jaunty, rasping brass and Motown-ish ‘woo-hoo-hoos’, Feel Like Jumping has the same great 1, 2, 1-2-3 bassline that first appeared on The Ethiopians Train To Skaville, powered Toots and the Maytals’ 54-46 Was My Number and, 20 years later, would pop up again, sampled and looped by Double Trouble to form the bedrock upon which the Rebel MC proved just how Street Tuff he was. I’m sure Paul Simonon was more than familiar with the rhythm and feel of its ten note pattern as well. Sped up, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any of The Clash’s more caustic ramalamas. Slowed down, it makes the ideal anchor for dub.

Griffiths does a brilliant call-and-response vocal with her backing singers, la-la-laing and woo-hoo-hooing her way throughout the record as the band plays head-noddingly and disciplined behind. Clipped guitars, barely-tickled hi-hat, that joyful vocal loud and centre. If music had facial features, Feel Like Jumping would be a big, round, smiley face.

Griffiths’ backing band was effectively a version of The Skatalites, known by 1968 as Sound Dimension, Studio One’s in-house version of The Wrecking Crew or The Funk Brothers. In their own right, Sound Dimension cut some brilliant instrumental records, like the whacked-out dub of Granny Scratch Scratch

Sound DimensionGranny Scratch Scratch

If Talking Heads hadn’t been listening to this before coming up with Slippery People I’ll eat my oversized white suit in shame. C’mon Byrne, ‘fess up.

As much as they were a crack unit worthy of their own album release, the musicians in Sound Dimension were encouraged more to provide the backing tracks for Studio One’s solo stars – Marcia, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown and others. Any of those artists’ records from 1967 onwards – Young, Gifted And Black, Ali Baba, Everything I Own, Money In My Pocket – songs that you will know, love and play on repeat – feature the combined, tight ‘n taut talents of Sound Dimension.

I go through phases of playing reggae and ska non-stop (usually at the first sign of sunlight) then sicken myself to the point where I send it all back into hibernation again. It’s always the perennial Feel Like Jumping that pulls me back in and has me turning the bass notch on my amp clockwise an extra notch or two. Here we go again.