Not the first question I was expecting last week. My 16 year-old and myself were in the car and, in a rare change from discussing the misfortunes of football (both our team – Kilmarnock – and the local U17 team he plays for), the chat turned to music. Future Sound Of London’s Papua New Guinea was playing, all rattling breakbeats, throbbing bass and ghostly samples, but despite my enthusing over it, he remained unconvinced. Nothing new there, to be honest. I can point out a dozen great songs during any car journey and he’ll shrug, unconvinced (unwilling more likely) to admit to liking his dad’s taste in music. The electronic sheen of FSOL’s track endured though, and it clearly set off a synaptic sequence in his brain. And then he came out with it. “Dad, d’you like Aphex Twin?”
He’d already blindsided me a few months ago by unselfconsciously humming I’ll Be Your Mirror as we passed on the stairs. When I stopped, turned and asked if that was The Velvet Underground he was singing, he shrugged nonplussed as though it was the most natural thing in the world. “D’you know it, like?” he threw back, not even stopping for confirmation. Of course I did, and of course he knew I did, and of course he knew that I had a copy (3 actually) of “the banana album that it’s on.”
“How d’you know about the Velvet Underground?” I asked.
“I dunno. I just heard them somewhere and liked them. I like Beginning To See The Light too. And Can’t Stand It. And Pale Blue Eyes…(thinks)…There She Goes Again…’Ah’m waitin’ fawr ma ma-yan’…”
Jeez. Turns out he knows them all and can do a passable Lou Reed into the bargain.
“D’you remember when we were in New York last year, and I stopped to take a picture of the street sign near our hotel and you all laughed at me? Maybe you’ll get the reference now...”
When I was his age, I spent the time properly denying my parents’ record collection. Apart from Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home there was nothing much in there to shout about, although I did investigate it when no-one was looking, retaining some of the more interesting ones in the interests of cross-generational research purposes. He’s denying mine too, I think, but he knows far more of it than I’d ever have imagined. As teenagers, we had to dig deep, swap tales and stories and sometimes actual TDKs to gain access to the good stuff. Rake the record shops, sift through the shelves in the library, maybe occasionally get the loan of an album on promise of death if it was returned in less than the condition it was given to you in. Now, it seems, social media analytics throw all sorts of stuff in your direction. Act on any of its suggestions and a hundred more threads and recommendations will unravel, and all just for your ears only.
From the Velvets, he discovered The Strokes. Most teenagers love The Strokes, it turns out. Any aspiring local guitar stranglers look to them in the same way that we looked to the music of 20 years previously when we first started out. Watch out for the big Strokes renaissance when a wee local band breaks out and rides the crest of a scuzzy New York wave. It’s just around the corner.
Aphex Twin though. He’s so low profile, so uncompromising, so esoteric in a way that The Strokes and (nowadays) the Velvet Underground just aren’t. “How on earth did you find out about him?” I ask. “Tik Tok? Spotify? A video game? Somewhere else?”
“I dunno. He’s great music to study to. It’s longform and in the background and doesn’t distract you from what you’re trying to learn. It’s a bit like Minecraft music, just better. All the songs have strange titles…just numbers sometimes. I don’t know the names of the tracks I like. But I like what I’ve heard.”
Aphex Twin – Xtal
If it helps with the studying, no parent is going to complain about that, which is why, on Thursday night, our house was filled for an hour with the DIY ambience and womblike pulses of Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1, the pair of us headnodding around the living room, me the uncool dad playing him this new music that he thought was ‘his’, he the teenager, mortified at the thought of liking the same music as his dad.
Next week – “Dad, which Throbbing Gristle album should I buy first?”
(Answer: I dunno. He’ll probably be able to tell me.)
The unexpected news of the death of Andy Rourke from cancer flooded my social timelines this morning. From his old pal Johnny’s numb statement onwards, the outpouring was long and plenty. Lauren Laverne was playing William… as I pulled into the car park at work and despite having heard its 2 min 12 seconds of pathos and sparkle a million times, I stayed put until it had played out, paying particular attention to Andy’s trebly, melodic bass runs because, well, that’s what everyone tuned to 6 Music at that point was doing. After work, catching up with the minutiae of life on my phone, the roll call of people paying tribute – fellow musicians, pals, strangers – was never ending. No one had a bad word to say, not even Morrissey, whose well-worded tribute seemed genuine and sincere and a million miles from the sneering auld grump he’s become.
It’s quite amazing that someone who was only a quarter part of a group who burned brightly but briefly for roughly just 6 years should leave such an indelible mark, but that’s the power of the formative years for you.
The Smiths meant the world to many, me included, and were a lighthouse on the rocky shores of mid ‘80s music. I wasn’t disenfranchised or marginalised or trying to find myself or any of those clichés. I just needed a break from bad hair and bad productions and jaggy guitars and what was being sold to me and my peers as essential listening. The Smiths, with their pint-sized and elfin guitar wizard and singer with funny – that’s funny, not depressing – lyrics came along at the right time. They jangled, yeah, and they wailed, but there was far more to them than that, as you well know. There was a proper toughness to their sound, driving and thuggish and tough as nails – see Handsome Devil and Hand In Glove as evidence, but there was a proper tenderness too. A real musicality. Listen to This Night Has Opened My Eyes or later tracks such as I Won’t Share You for proof. Much of this is down to Johnny’s mercurial way with an augmented chord and a hellbent mission to overdub everything with tracks and tracks of smirry, smartarsed guitar, but the bedrock for Johnny’s free form colouring comes from Andy’s solid and steady playing, a duo playing in simpatico as only old pals can. A band ain’t nuthin’ without their rhythm section and The Smiths were blessed to have Andy pinning it all to the floor.
Many today have spotlit Andy’s magnificently trampolining workout on Barbarism Begins At Home, an early Smiths track so packed with Chicisms and the funk, so out of step with their material that it took until album two before they’d release a recording of it, as proof of Andy’s greatness. And they’d be correct. But look, there’s not a bassline on any Smiths track that isn’t considered, clever, unique and so obviously Andy. Whether he was dripping in elasticated funk or slapping out rockabilly or meandering like McCartney around the melody, he left a mark as distinguishable as the haircut he kept for all those years. Johnny today pointed to Andy’s contribution to The Queen Is Dead’s title track, saying that as Andy recorded it, he knew it was a moment he’d remember forever. Rock solid, reliable, dead centre, a bass player who could play in the background yet step out as lead instrument when required.
Check out the Motown-by-way-of-Moss Side twang of his isolated bass runs on This Charming Man. Rubber bandy Andy.
This Charming Man – Andy’s Isolated Bass
When the news of any pop star’s passing is announced, it’s perfectly natural to feel something, especially if you’re a fan of their work. When Andy’s news gatecrashed my newsfeed this morning, a little bit of me, a little bit of every fan of The Smiths, died too. Memories of times soundtracked by The Smiths came blazing straight into sharp focus, along with the sudden realisation that while the memories remain, the principal player in creating those memories is gone. 59. No age at all, as they say.
God only knows what it’ll feel like when Johnny himself or, brace yourself, McCartney goes.
Those first two Ride EPs are, I’d imagine, a well-played pair of favourites amongst much of this readership. The red rosed and yellow daffodiled covers conceal the thrilling sounds of a band at egg-hatching stage, fresh outta the rehearsal room, their fringes and long-sleeved t-shirts just as studied as the music they are aiming for – a sound forged, so the legend goes, when Andy Bell’s mum began hoovering the living room while he listened to The Beatles. It’s fantastically evocative of time and place; loud, uncontrollable, thrashed and bashed, but with the whiff of a melody bubbling under the Panzer attack of effect-heavy twin Rickenbackers and careering, pummelling backline.
The twin vocal duties are steeped in heady Byrdsian/Beach Boys ambitions and sometimes even, like on Like A Daydream, they almost get there. Mainly though, Mark and Andy are guitar players…and don’t they know it. Heavy on the fuzz, generous with the compression and wholly feral with their whiplashed approach to the wah-wah, their tunes are scorched and scarred, dragged backwards through the edge and laid to rest on vinyl forever.
Live, Ride was an even more thrilling prospect. The rhythm section was suddenly fantastic. I mean, who knew?! Laurence the drummer played a fairly standard kit, but his cymbal splashes, his star-of-the-show scattergunning Moonisms and Bonham-ish thumps and thuds fairly shook loose the fillings. Steve – one of two Our Price alumni to play bass in a successful indie rock act – (a prize will be in the post for the first person to suggest the other) – was locked into the groove, eyes focused on his pedal board, huge slabs of thunk emanating forth.
Somewhere at the back of the room in the Glasgow Mayfair was Alan McGee, giving off full-on McLaren/Warhol vibes, his arms folded, admiring his charges, appreciating the huge Glasgow audience that had shown up so early in his band’s career, his ginger Dylan whitefro and Raybans setting off the biker jacket ‘n stripy tee-shirt combo perfectly. My abiding memory of the gig was just how rammed it was and that I had to watch most of the show by standing on one of the in-built velvet wall seats, seeing the stage and band reflected back to front, like a trippy pop promo, in one of the Mayfair’s many mirrors. Mark Gardener was playing his Rickenbacker and coaxing all manner of wild distortion and chiming echoes through a bog standard Peavey practice amp. There was hope for us all.
Despite the froth and Proustian rushes triggered by those first two EPs, it’s the band’s fourth EP that I’ve returned to over the years. Today Forever bridged the gap between the band’s first two albums and distils perfectly all that was great about the band at this time. If you were being generous, you might even consider this less of a single (or an EP) and more of a mini album. Less noisy (in places), certainly more refined and considered, it flirts with proggy undertones (their next single, Leave Them All Behind, was an all-out prog assault, but that’s for another time) and benefits from the band’s unshakeable confidence that everything they approached would be spectacularly great. Each track is unique in its own way. Each track is as essential as the last.
Ride – Unfamiliar
The lead track Unfamiliar fades in on a wave of controlled guitar and is carried along by one of their best basslines, underpinning heavily-treated guitars and more of Laurence’s unpredictable drums. There’s a great bit, just before the vocals come in, when the beat drops to half tempo and the guitars, whacked out and dubby, suddenly conjure up images of Lee Perry and Black Ark. And, just as that notion hits you, here comes the vocal, submerged in sadness and melancholy, two voices singing about who knows what – that’s not important, it’s how it sounds that matters – and man, this sounds great! Smart arses point to Chelsea Girl and Leave Them All Behind as the high points in the group’s back catalogue. Smarter arses known it to be Unfamiliar. Every time.
Ride – Sennen
Just as you’re catching your breath from Unfamiliar‘s bruising and relentless yet ear-friendly assault, along comes Sennen. Named after Sennen Cove in Cornwall (and where the song’s video was filmed, I think) it’s built upon a lovely mesh of clean-chiming Cocteaus’ 12 strings and fuzzed-out riffage, topped off with more of those white boy indie rock vocals that make Home Counties girls called Emily and Rachel go weak at their stripy-tighted knees.
Sennen incorporates a lovely, subtle keyboard line that provides texture to the overload of overdubbed guitars. Since first hearing it, and on every play since, I’ve thought The Charlatans would do a great, Hammond-led version of this. There’s still time, Tim, there’s still time.
I heartily recommend pulling this record from your filing and giving it a fresh spin to what will be appreciative ears. It’s been playing an awful lot round here recently and so far no one has complained. In our house, that’s the mark of a good record, a very good record indeed.
In the UK, we meekly accept whatever our masters think is best for us. Rising cost of living? Fair enuff, guv. Can’t heat your house? I’ll just nip down to the local Warm Space, shall I? Dragged out of Europe? That’s democracy, mate. We’ll just need to get on wiv it. The French though – they know the score. Any time they feel hard done by, any time their world appears unjust, boom!, out come the Molotovs. Over a million French citizens took to les rues recently to protest the government’s planned raising of the pension age from 62 to 64. Pffft. Work-shy slacquers. It’s 66 in England, mate. 66! Bobby Moore, Nobby Stiles, Sir Geoffrey ‘Urst. Anyway, where woz I?
Decided without a vote and pushed through by the will of a persistent Macron, it was firmly decided. The workers were suitably enraged. In Paris, fireworks were thrown indiscriminately at hastily drawn police lines. In Bordeaux, the town hall was set ablaze. Tear gas was fired, hundreds were arrested, everyone lost their Gallic cool. The pension age would still be raised, but not without Macron and his ministers knowing exactly what their citizens thought of them. The one plus point to come from the dissenters’ actions was that the city of Paris would not now play host to the first state visit by the new King George, whose aides quickly kyboshed the idea. Parisienne republicans sniffed the air and shrugged with typical je ne sais quoi.
55 years ago, in May 1968, rioting in Paris became so severe there was a real threat of civil war. The city’s student population, liberal and left-leaning by definition, occupied the universities in protest at fellow students’ arrests following an anti Vietnam demonstration. The authorities were quick to react and a heavy-handed police operation resulted in skirmishes, baton-wielding beatings and more mass arrests. The conflict between the Parisienne students and police intensified. Barricades were put up and knocked down. Civil order descended into disorder. Police used batons. Students threw torn-up paving stones and Molotov cocktails. Two nights of stand-off on the Left Bank ended after police set fire to cars and they themselves used Molotovs to disperse crowds.
The trade unions, no fans of President de Gaulle or his policies, were moved to declare sympathy action. At the height of this action, most of France ground to a halt as 11 million French workers (almost a quarter of the working population) went on general strike. Despite talks between both sides, the strikes and the riots continued. The President ran off to Germany, worried that rioters would attack him in Elysee Palace. He would return at the end of the month, bolstered by a notion to dissolve his cabinet and reform his government in a way that would appease the strikers. But anyway…
In the early days of the Stone Roses, Ian Brown had hitch-hiked his way around Europe. On his travels, he’d met someone who’d been in Paris in 1968 and this man’s tale became the lyric to Bye Bye Badman. He told the story of how, during the riots, the activists learned to combat the effects of the tear gas being used to control their movements by sucking on lemons.
It’s no concidence at all that the artwork on Stone Roses’ debut album cover features an unobtrusive, brush-daubed tricolour and a couple of lemons (albeit added after John Squire had ‘completed’ his painting)… a piece of art he called Bye Bye Badman.
Smoke me, choke the air. In this citrus-sucking sunshine I don’t care.
Here he comes, got no question, got no love
I’m throwing stones at you, I want you black and blue
I’m gonna make you bleed, gonna bring you down to your knees…
It’s all in there.
Stone Roses – Bye Bye Badman
It’s a tune that belies it’s appearance. Lightweight and breezy, with skiffly, shuffling drums and a rich tapestry of interwoven guitars, it could well have floated off the grooves of a Mamas and Papas or 5th Dimension record.
The guitar runs throughout though, they mark it as something a bit special, a bit unique; the phased and chugging electric backing that allows the sun-dappled acoustic splashes to shimmer, the cleanly picked counter-riffs, the fluid and chattering fret runs at the end that bring to mind Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, all of it underpinned by expansive and expressive bass playing. It’s no real surprise that Stone Roses became the touchstone for enthusiastic amateur guitarists and wannabe hit bands everywhere.
And the melody. It’s sing-song and nursery rhyme-like…until you begin to decode the lyric. The title itself is seemingly a veiled reference to President de Gaulle and, as the song unfurls line by line, it’s apparent that this seemingly insignificant track (song 4, side 1) is in fact a pop art statement of political intent, revolution disguised as art. That it’s done so with lovely doubletracked Ian Brown vocals makes it all the sweeter. In the live arena, Brown can’t sing for toffee. Thank goodness John Leckie had the golden touch when it came to coaxing a tune from his vocal chords.
Here’s the demo that Stone Roses presented to Leckie. As you’ll hear, never underestimate the role of the producer in helping a group to realise their ambitions.
Stone Roses – Bye Bye Badman demo
I listened to Stone Roses’ debut album the other day and it still causes as many little rushes of uncontainable excitement as it did on first hearing it 34 years ago. Let it sink in that more time has passed since the day I bought it from Walker’s at Irvine Cross than the time between the riots in Paris ’68 and the Stone Roses writing a song about it.
Ian Brown famously pumped an arm aloft and bellowed, “This is ‘ist’ry!” from the Alexandra Palace stage in November 1989. No, Ian, your band, their album, THIS is history. D’you feel old yet?
It’s not the first time Chris Bell‘s I Am The Cosmos has been mentioned round here, but it’s the first time (surely not!) that I’ve shone the spotlight on the single’s flip side, You And Your Sister.
The only solo material released in his lifetime, the 7″ is the perfect distillation of Bell’s loose and melancholic approach to his music. On one side, the imperial I Am The Cosmos, a sky scraping anthem dressed to kill in revved up ringing guitars and double tracked harmonies. You don’t need me to point out that it would prove to be something of a lightning rod for many ambitious bands around the Glasgow area.
Chris Bell – I Am The Cosmos
On the other side, the naked and raw You And Your Sister, teenage angst set against highly strung and gently picked acoustics, sighing cellos and voice-cracked harmonies. Sadness in a bottle and sold back to the heartbroken with a keen ear to the musical underground.
Chris Bell – You And Your Sister
If this is your kinda thing – hi, Norman! Hi Gerry! Hi Raymond! – you could do worse than track down I Am The Cosmos, the album that was pieced together posthumously from Bell’s scattered demos and rough recordings. Most of I Am The Cosmos is frazzled and low-slung, packed full of beaten riffs played on beaten guitars and very much in the acoustic/electric vein of the single…or indeed Bell’s previous band, Big Star, a teasing glimpse into what coulda/shoulda been had the artist not crashed his car and died.
I’ve been playing the record a lot recently, coming to it on the back of This Mortal Coil‘s contentiously superior version, a track that jumped back into my conscience after a misheard acoustic guitar strum on an advert had me convinced the advertisers had borrowed it. They hadn’t, thankfully.
This Mortal Coil – You And Your Sister
With knee-weakening vocals from Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly, This Mortal Coil’s take is something of a breathy cry from the heart and fairly leaps out against the arty, Euro-goth torch songs that make up much of Blood, the album from which it is taken.
With intertwined voices and fingerpicked acoustics blending into one stop-for-a-moment recording, it’s plaintive and pastoral and pretty much the definitve version. Sung from the female perspective, the ‘your sister says that I’m no good‘ line takes on a whole new slightly sinsiter perspective when you hear it. I’m sure there are whole Guardian pieces on such things. For now though, enjoy a great version of a great song.
There was a brief period at the tail end of the ’80s when two music cultures collided to create an exciting new sub-genre. Partly brought on by Happy Mondays’ in-print enthusing of Detroit techno and partly by the Stone Roses’ approach of playing dance music before they took to the stage, a movement of youth who’d lapped up their own Stones and Beatles dared to cross the divide between guitars and grooves and, arms aloft and flying high, wholeheartedly embraced the best of both scenes. In Irvine’s Attic, you could dance yourself dizzy to Pacific State and State Of The Nation in the same thrilling ten minute sequenced spell, our own Saturday night fever soundtrack that was absolutely replicated in provincial towns up and down the country.
The bands that sprung up around this ideal took the cross-pollination of clashing cultures and ran with it, for as long as the record companies were happy to throw their money northwards in the vain hope they’d land themselves another Mondays or Roses. Some of the acts – The Charlatans, obviously, broke out in their own right. Some of the others had one or two good songs, one great song, even – The High’s Box Set Go, Mock Turtles’ Can You Dig It – and some of the acts might even have managed to squeeze out a decent album – World Of Twist’s kaleidoscopic and swirling Quality Street springs to mind, but many of them burned briefly then fizzled out, shrinking back to the suburbs as the dirty exhaust fumes of American grunge spewed forth in Nirvana’s Converse-trod trail. ‘Baggy’ or ‘Madchester’ (eugh) or ‘Indie Dance’ was, then, a placeholder in time…but those great songs live on.
The best of all is arguably Paris Angels‘ All On You (perfume). A track, I think, rather than a song, it magpies the best of everything into one era-defining single that still thrills over 30 years later. Take a monochromed Curtis-ish vocal and team it with the sort of girlish adlib that’s floated straight off an anonymous house stomper. Stick them atop some chiming, Marr-esque guitars. Throw some sequenced acidy squelches across it and then polish the whole thing to a see-your-face-in-it brilliance; All On You (perfume) is a proper rush.
Paris Angels – All On You (perfume) – with added John Peel at the end.
Quite how they managed to sow the shiny seeds of All On You from the unholy clatter that represented the band’s sound at the time must be down to the producer, so kudos to Michael Johnson (engineer on no less than Blue Monday) for coaxing such an airbrushed sound from the band’s grizzled indie.
The band’s roots are easy to identify from the swirling slab of industrial Mancunian twist and shout below. Very of its time, it rattles and ricochets like a stretching out ACR or Happy Mondays at their esoteric best. Dark, dense and serious, with the tentacles of the baggy beat and a wandering electric guitar – all bent 3rd strings and chorus pedal – creeping through its cracks, it’s a signpost of where they’d come from and where they’d briefly be going…
Paris Angels – Stay (Peel Session)
Should such things matter to you (and of course they do), it’ll have you double-checking the label on the record for a Factory logo or catalogue number that isn’t there. Yes, despite all necessary Factory ingredients being present; a clattering, enthusiastic rhythm, hot-wired chicken scratch guitar, a shouty Mancunian frontman oozing oodles of effort over ability – all housed in a subtle and arty sleeve, considered typeface ‘n all – Perfume was released on the perfectly-named Sheer Joy label. All bands have one great song to their name. Perfume (All On You) was Paris Angels’.
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 Smiths – That 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 Smiths – Nowhere 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.
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 Gun – Heard About Love
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.
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.
Grand plans for Flaming Lips‘ Do You Realize? here.
Some writing about people-watching in New York City, here.
An article on Frankie Knuckles‘ Your Love, the greatest house record ever recorded.
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.
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 PretendersStop 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 Freddy – Yuletide 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.
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…
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 Liquid – Optimo
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 Liquid – Cavern *
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 Flash – White 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.