In the first wave of punk’s angry snarl, I can only imagine Buzzcocks were a breath of fresh air. Not for them the stare-down-the-lens-of-the-camera Lydon sneer or the guttural, phlegmy Strummer howl. Instead, Pete Shelley stuck to his Mancunian roots and inflected/infected his vocal with a camp twist, one eyebrow permanently arched while stealing side-long glances at the camera like a not-that-hard-to-get Saturday night tease down the Wheeltappers And Shunters.
If The Undertones were The Ramones on happy pills, Buzzcocks were the punk Beatles. Most punk acts played a ham-fisted, snot-encrusted take on Chuck Berry’s 12 bar blues. ‘This is a chord. This is another. Now form a band‘, to paraphrase the famous slogan. With a Buzzcocks’ record though, you’re never far away from a weird and wonky chord or an unusual time signature or a proggy sound effect. Buzzcocks mattered.
Overarchingly, Buzzcocks were all about the three minute thrill of the pop rush. I challenge you to pick a Buzzcocks’ track that’s not a few seconds away from a brilliant hookline, be it a singable guitar riff, a perfectly-placed drum fill or a wobbly backing vocal. Buzzcocks really knew the value of a melody. It might’ve been hidden behind a same-sex symphony and the happy clatter of twin guitars, but it was always there.
“These Promises (ah-ah)…”
“Reality’s a dream (ooh, ooh,ooh)…”
“I just want a lover like any other, What Do I Get? (clang clang)…”
Buzzcocks – What Do I Get?
The whole of What Do I Get is basically Punk Go The Beatles, from the fade in and giddy rush of the verses via the triple vocals in the chorus and middle 8 down to the “tricky guitar solo!” in the middle. By the breakdown at the end, the whole band have come in on flat backing vocals, Shelley’s off and ad-libbing his “at all at all at all at all” vocals and the whole 2 minutes and 57 seconds comes to a perfect end with a none-more-Beatles “you-ooo!” and major 7th chord. It don’t get much better than that, if y’ask me.
Buzzcocks – Noise Annoys
Buzzcocks ability to make melody matter (even on the baiting Noise Annoys) is why Singles Going Steady still sounds fantastic 40 years later. It’s basically The Beatles in flares and M&S v-necks.
In the serious world of discussing records, it’s not really the done thing to champion a Greatest Hits compilation, but drop the pretence for a minute. Singles Going Steady should be in every record collection. As, for that matter, should Complete Madness, Snap! By The Jam, Blondie’s Greatest Hits and maybe even The Best Of The Beatles (copyright Alan Partridge). But you knew that already, eh?
The Blue Nile‘s A Walk Across The Rooftops is, as you know already, a landmark album. Made possible by the boundary-free, anything-goes attitude of post-punk, it eschewed the era’s preference for jagged, scratchy guitars and political posturing and took the unfashionable route of grown-up, adult-orientated sophisto pop, where sleeves were rolled up to just below the elbows and bass guitars were worn just that little bit too high. No style then, but all substance.
Equally influenced by and an influence on other single-minded furrow ploughers such as Kate Bush, Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel, A Walk Across The Rooftops is literate, arty and perfectly self-indulgent. 35 years later, it still sounds timeless; not of today’s musical landscape, bereft of fad or fashion, forever out of step with the rest of music.
The Blue Nile had recorded one self-financed single which brought them to the attention of Linn, the high-end hi-fi manufacturer who were (and still are, I think) based on an area of prime green belt on the outskirts of Glasgow, close enough to the city should they need to be, yet far enough away from any noise pollution that might prevent their audio technicians from creating the superior equipment they’ve built their reputation on.
Linn set up a record label purely for the basis of showcasing their turntables, amplifiers and new-fangled CD players and asked The Blue Nile to record an album that would suitably bring to life the sonic qualities of the Linn palette. Over the course of 7 tracks, the band managed all this and more. Their combination of standard band instruments with the cutting edge Linn synth drum and electronic keyboards (similar in set-up to New Order, but a million miles from execution) created the ideal audio spectrum for which to hear Linn products in all their high-end glory.
If all this sounds a little too clinical, a little too contrived and corporate, a million miles away from the attitude afforded by post-punk, well, maybe that’s just what The Blue Nile were/are. In the early 80s, Glasgow was a grubby, scabby-kneed runt of a place, still desperately shaking off the ‘No Mean City’ image of the 60s and 70s and looking towards its eventual European City of Culture status in 1990. The Blue Nile looked beyond the horizon and recorded a cultured, European record long-before any fancy-pants titles landed at the City Chambers. Nowadays, Glasgow is a metropolitan tourist destination, a city of West End delis and pavement cafe culture, with an arms-open-wide embracing attitude. For The Blue Nile, it always has been.
It’s an album full of great, meandering songs, all ebb and flow rather than 3 minute bluster. Signature track Tinseltown In the Rain is the big one. It’s a strange song in a way. Lacking in ‘standard’ structure, there’s no verse/chorus/middle 8/ solo but, like all the best songs; Bowie’s Where Are We Now? perhaps, or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, it burrows deep within, implants itself and slowly unravels.
The Blue Nile – Tinseltown In The Rain
Guitar strings ring as tight and taut as a spinster’s bed springs. The backing, all free-flowing bending bass and gated snare is retro-futuristic. Real strings fight for ear space with synthetic keyboard washes. It runs and runs and never ever outstays its welcome. At one point the band drop out and leave a squeaky Chic-y guitar, itchy and scratchy Glasgow grit before being swallowed whole by the swell of the strings. Paul Buchanan’s voice, forever on the edge of stifling a yawn, is Scottish Sinatra, baring his soul on an eyes half-shut, half-crooned love song to someone or some place. Perhaps even Glasgow itself. Tinseltown In The Rain. Even the title conjures up poetic images in the mind’s eye, as anyone who’s ever walked the city in the middle of a drizzle will tell you.
* That terrific landscape picture at the top was taken by Stuart Brown. You can visit his stall in the Merchant City Square every weekend. His pictures are really brilliant.
* the one above of Donald Dewar contemplating Buchanan Street in yer actual Tinseltown in the rain was stolen from online. I’m happy to remove if it’s your shot, although it does complement the text perfectly. Please get in touch.
Did he really sack a sound engineer for ordering a salad? Did he really read out the football results live on the telly? Did he really leave a hapless member of the band in the middle of Sweden? Or, on the way to spending an unplanned night in the cells, have a full-on fisticuffs punch-up on stage in New York with one of his more loyal and long-standing Fall members?
Yes. Yes he did. He was Mark E Smith. One of our greatest cult figures. It was his business to be as caustic and obtuse as possible, the abrasive scraping fingers down the chalkboard of contemporary music. His was real working man music, approached in the same way you or I might approach our own 40 hours a week job. It wasn’t for everyone though. He couldn’t stand poseurs or pretence, cared not a jot about chart positions. He changed the players in his group as regularly as the England team manager freshening up his options in attack.
“There’s a two/three year cycle. Sooner or later you’re going to need a new centre forward.”
I never met Mark E Smith. I never even saw The Fall live. I know….I know…. Every time I’ve ever driven over the border from England back into Scotland, though, just as we’ve passed the blue ‘Welcome To Scotland’ sign, I’ve broken into a spontaneous 5 second burst of The Fall’s Hit The North. Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Duh-Der HIT THE NORTH!! No one else in the car has any idea of what’s happening, but it’s over as quickly as it started. In the words of the man himself, he is not appreciated, in my car at least.
The Fall played in my hometown a few years ago, supported by no less than John Cooper Clarke. Did I go? Did I heck. I think it was around the time our eldest was born, so I’ve a reasonable excuse, but it’s no excuse really. I’ve form for this sort of thing, as you might know if you’re a regular on here, but missing The Fall when they roll quite unexpectedly into your hometown, even with little in the way of fanfare or basic promotion? It’s just not the done thing to do. And I done went and did it.
Over the next few days, many better words by better and more qualified writers will be written about Mark E Smith and the uniqueness of The Fall. I’m not going to try. Here’s a true story instead.
No, I’ve never met him. No, I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I’ve spoken to him. Or, to be exact, he’s spoken to me. Around 1990 we had a rehearsal room in Kilmarnock’s Shabby Road, home to the Trashcan Sinatras – The Next Big Thing – and a ragbag collection of sundry acts who thought they were already the next big thing. I class my own band in this category, of course. The Trashcans were on Go! Discs, so all manner of folk would be around the place. Half Man Half Biscuit came and recorded some stuff and played football on the waste bit of ground/(cough) ‘garden’ at the side. The Stairs borrowed a guitar string from me. Chas Smash was ‘avin’ a fag and a cuppa tea in the kitchen one time. And John Leckie, fresh from sprinkling his magic atop the Stone Roses’ debut, was in for a few days to work on some songs with the Trashcans. They’d end up on their 3rd single, Circling The Circumference, which itself was enhanced by one of Leckie’s trademark Stone Roses’ whooshes midway through. You should seek it out if you’re unfamiliar with it.
At one point, Leckie left his notebook/Filofax unattended, and this is where the real fun began.
I took a Shabby Road business card from a table and quickly copied out some telephone numbers; Steve Mack (‘Petrols‘), Phil Saxe, Happy Mondays’ contact at the time, Steve Lillywhite, Lee Mavers and at the bottom, the Hip Priest himself, Mark Smith (‘Prestwich‘). It was funny, because we were sitting just up the road from Prestwick. We’d never heard of Prestwich until then. Anyway, fast forward a couple of hours….
….back in home territory, The Crown, and fuelled by Dutch courage, we fired a few pieces of loose change into the public phone at the end of the bar and picked a number. Lee Mavers was first. We dialled. It rang. “‘Allo?” a voice answered. Unmistakably Scouse. Shit! I passed the phone to Rab. Pause. Five of us stifling sniggers, daring not to breathe. There’s a muffled voice on the other side. “Aye,” says Rab. “Aye. Is Lee in?” Pause. Shit! Rab hangs up. Cue lots of nervous laughing and “I can’t believe we did that!” mutterings.
Buoyed by youthful bravado, I gulped the dregs of my pint and dialled Mark Smith. Three rings at most and then it was answered. On the other end of the phone was the unmistakable voice of Mark E Smith. Not Mark Smith of Prestwich, contact in someone’s phone book, but Mark E Smith, the pop star who was soundtracking my life presently with the Extricate album and the Telephone Thing single. “Yeah?” he drawled, totally Mark. Pause. “Yeah?” Louder this time. “Who’s this?” I panicked. I hung up. Of course. I Iike to think he looked at the silent receiver, irritated, before dropping it into the cradle and muttering how dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you. He definitely didn’t though.
In hindsight, I wish I’d told him how fantastic these two tracks are, but then, he knew that already.
The Fall – Spoilt Victorian Child
The Fall – US 80’s – 90’s
If you’ve yet to acquaint yourself with his work, it’s never too late. But much like the musicians on those Fall records, it’s not for everyone.
Late 1970’s Britain was grimy and unpleasant, the era of strikes, dead bodies unburied, rat-infested rubbish collections and mass unemployment. Not for me though. I was happily oblivious in the suburbs of Ayrshire, whizzing everywhere on my bike, cardboard clattering the back spokes, playing in fields where houses and hotels now stand. But when you see footage of the era on the telly, it’s as if everything’s in black and white, a monochrome world where everything and everyone was kept in their place by Margaret Thatcher.
Driven by righteous fury and social discontent, the 2 Tone movement blew in like some sort of multicultural whirlwind, an era-defining mash of black and white houndstooth, Weejun loafers, button-down collars, Harringtons and Crombies. The label dropped off a perfect discography of 7″ singles and just as suddenly disappeared again.
At the label’s peak, between ’79 and ’81, just 17 singles were released. They went on releasing right up until 1985 with diminishing returns (The Specials finished what they’d started with Sock It To ‘Em, JB , the 32nd and final release) but it’s those 17 tracks released during 2 Tone’s golden spell that really endure. Many of those tracks are indelibly inked on the brain; Gangsters, The Prince, Do Nothing, Tears Of A Clown, Too Much Too Young, On My Radio, Nelson Mandela, Ghost Town….. classics one and all.
I had loads of them. Now and again on a Saturday morning I was given £1 and it always went on a 99p single. A few years later I gave them all away to a ‘Feed The World’ jumble sale, regretting it even as I handed them over. Geldof might never have said, “Give us yer fuckin’ money,” but I’m pretty sure he did say, “Give us yer fuckin’ Specials’ singles!” A selfless act but stupid too. I still rake around in the darker corners of record shops, hoping I’ll discover one of my old records, identifiable by my initials on the inside of the cover. I’d seen my dad do this with his records, so I just thought that’s what you did. Anyway, I’ve yet to turn up a Baggy Trousers or Stand & Deliver that has my pre-teen scrawl on it, but one day I might.
I do have a wee collection of 2 Tone singles though, bought for not much more than I’d originally paid for them, waaaay back when records were far from the trend they currently are. They’re great. Identifiable by the generic Walt Jabsco sleeve, they’re a portal to something special (no pun intended). Owning them, you’re part of a club, a tribe. Play them and you’re transported back to the time, the grimness of the era swatted away in 2 and a half minutes of punkish, skankalong ska. Flip them over to the b-side and you’ll often find a gem the equal (or even greater than) the better-known a-side.
Stereotype was The Specials‘ 5th single. By now dabbling in exotica and playing the sort of instruments you might find employed on an Andy Williams record, Stereotype mixed skirling bullfighter trumpets with flamenco guitars and some rudimentary primitive drum machine. The reverb-heavy backing vocals were the blueprint for what would appear on their Ghost Town single, Hammer House of Horror by way of Coventry.
The Specials – International Jet Set
Stick on the other side though and you’ll find International Jet Set, a fantastic slice of wonky ska, descending basslines, eerie vocals and Rico and Dammers playing what sounds like an extremely drunk call and response of The Sun Has Got His Hat On on slide trombone and keys. Rico aside, the band were all in their early/mid 20s at the time, which, given the fact that they conceived this tune out of mid air is, to coin a phrase, really sayin’ something, bop bop shoobedoo-wop. It’s extremely well-produced, and, I say this knowing full well how wanky this will appear, it sounds really terrrific on vinyl.
The Selecter – The Selecter
The first 2 Tone release was The Specials‘ Gangster on one side with The Selecter‘s self-titled instrumental on the other. With more time spent on the a-side than anticipated, the b-side was flung together when John Bradbury, The Specials’ drummer suggested an old instrumental that he used to jam with an old band. Hastily reworked, more slipping and sliding trombone is offset by the offbeat rhythm guitar and filling-loosening bass. There’s spaghetti western guitar, sk-sk-sk hi-hat action and enough groove to fool you into thinking this was a tune played by a band who’d been playing it for years. Indeed, The Selecter appeared really before the band of the same name. As would appear to be the norm with 2 Tone, this is another rich production. When it plays, you feel as if you’re right in the room with the band. The mark of a great record.
Those 2 Tone sleeves were designed by Jerry Dammers after seeing a picture of Peter Tosh (above, right) on the cover of The Wailers ‘Wailing Wailers‘ LP. Liking his ‘defiant and Jamaican and hard‘ image, Dammers created the ubiquitous Walt Jabsco. But you knew that already. Pop art for disenfranchised youth. And wee boys like me who rode the Sillar’s Meadow speedway with all the fearlesness of Evil Knievel.
The good old days. A world of half-day closing and half-pints at lunchtime. A world of “‘allo Mrs Jones, ‘ow’s your Bert’s lumbago?“, black and white telly where “Leeds are playing in yellow” and pop groups are “bigger than Jesus.” A world where you got today’s news tomorrow and change from a two bob trip to see two top films at the La Scala. A world of Dansettes ‘n desert boots, when the 7″ was king and the clothes you wore were an extension of the music you listened to. Aye, the good old days, when R’n’B meant rhythm and blues rather than Rihanna and Beyoncé.
Sittin’ On My Sofa by The Kinks is a fantastic piece of throwaway pop. On the b-side of 1966’s Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, it’s rarely mentioned when the genius of Ray Davies is discussed. And why would it? It’s hardly a lyrical tour de force. There’s no wry observational wordplay going on. And there’s no interesting baroque pop arrangement or well-constructed melodic break to hang your hat on. It’s a 3 chord R’n’B stomper, flung together with insistent urgency. That’s all. And that’s all y’need.
*( I find if you read the above paragraph in the style of the much-loved Brian Matthews, it adds to the overall feel of the piece).
“OK chaps,” Shel Talmy perhaps said from the control room that day, inbetween long drags on a Rothman’s King Size. “We need a b-side. We’ve got half an hour then we’re outta here. Whadayagot?”
They had this.
The Kinks – Sittin’ On My Sofa
It’s battered and bruised but plays as good as it first did, 51½ years ago.
Wall to wall AC30s at room-rattlin’ volume. Snarling guitars. Ropey backing vocals. A bit of feedback in the sloppy solo. They even found time to overdub a barrelhouse pianer. Four perfectly turned-out heads, bobbing in time to the glorious racket they’re making. It sounds as though the band enjoyed playing it. By 1966 The Kinks were writing increasingly sophisticated songs and on the cusp of a run of concept albums, so it must’ve been great to get back to the days of dusty coffee houses and 12 bar blues. I’d love love love to have been in the same room when they recorded it. Great, innit?
Bands nowadays who describe themselves as ‘mod’ because they’ve got a Pretty Green top and a Small Faces CD between them really need to up their game. Look, listen and learn, losers. Look, listen and learn.
Sometime around the beginning of January, Plain Or Pan celebrates its birthday. This year I celebrate completing 11 years of writing. No mean feat, as anyone who blogs will tell you. Were it not for this small corner of the internet I doubt I’d have been able to muster up the necessary clout to meet and interview some of my heroes and favourite artists.
A blog that began as an outlet for me to share all manner of what I thought was great music/alternate takes/demos and general trainspottery flim flam now has a powerful reach. On any given day there will be visitors from around the world; Buenos Airies, Brisbane, Bolton…. I used to be obsessed by stats and internet traffic figures. If I wrote a new article, how many people would read it? Would anybody read it? Nowadays it’s less of an issue. As I go boldly into year 12 I’ve realised that my best articles endure. There are things I wrote in 2007 that turn up via a Google search and still prove popular today. There are articles that I thought were fantastic when published that proved to be slow burners but have now been read, reTweeted and shared on social media thousands of times. It’s very humbling. And satisfying.
Up until a couple of years ago I always shared an annual compilation for download, a ragbag collection of the most popular tracks from the previous year. Problem was, Plain Or Pan started to become a bit too popular and the internet police metaphorically popped round a couple of times and asked me (politely at first) if I wouldn’t mind removing the download link. In order to keep the wolf from the door, I no longer do this. Instead, this year I’m going to share a few links. For anyone who’s a recent visitor to the blog you might find something of interest. To any long-time readers, there might be something here that you missed first-time round. As always, feel free to link/share anything that piques your interest. Thanks for popping round, leaving comments and generally giving me the green light to keep writing. And that thing I mentioned about stats and internet traffic? Bollocks! I want as many hits on here as possible.
Ian Rankin picks six of his favourite songs. From 4 and a half years ago, this is the most-read article ever on Plain Or Pan.
Here‘s an article on the enduring appeal of The Beatles‘ It’s All Too Much. This article was Plain Or Pan’s biggest hitter in 2014.
It occured to me that I haven’t featured The Fall nearly as much as I should’ve. Here‘s one I wrote earlier. 2011, to be precise.
I once rather proudly wrote an entire piece on Kraftwerk in German. It never got the kudos it deserved, sadly. Either that or my pidgin German was really bad. There’s a similar one on Sly Stone that’s written in French. Et pourquois-pas?
The flawed genuius of Chuck Berry. This article appeared again, pratically word-for-word when Chuck passed away.
It’s not all music round here, y’know. Here‘s my piece on Alex Higgins, written in my head as I drove home from holiday.
Here‘s one of my Andy Murray articles. This fairly fired around Twitter, getting picked up by the sports networks and syndicates, garnering all manner of nice comments and dozens of new followers.
And here‘s one on the London Olympics. Remember them?
Mainly though, it’s about the music. Johnny Marr has long been my hero, so it was something of a thrill to secure a 20 minute phone interview with him (it ended up being almost an hour and a half) where, amongst other things, he chatted about the records he was most-proud of having played on.
Likewise, just short of a year ago Mike Joyce was good enough to play the same game. As someone who generally doesn’t get involved in Smiths articles, what followed was a brilliant interview and, dare I say it, article.
While we’re on The Smiths, the article I wrote about Morrissey nicking huge chunks of lyrics from Victoria Wood went yer actual viral on that there Twitter. I came home from work to find my phone lit up like a Christmas tree with social media notifications. More of that, please.
Lastly, unlike your favourite bands, much of my earlier work is far from my best, although this line from the end of an article on the imminent release of Radiohead’s game-changing name your price In Rainbows made me laugh…..
If you’re a guitar geek, here’s how Thom set up his gear in 1997…….
Of course, these days he plays a bit of piano, some Apple Mac and a smattering of Fair Trade wooden spoon.
And you don’t change, or I don’t notice you changing.
All my life I’ve been a glass half-full person; upbeat, looking forward to what’s around the corner, never looking back with regret.
I used to love New Year. Our house was the open house, the one with the oldies in one room doing and saying alcohol-induced daft things (“Why d’you have two Christmas trees up?” inquired a particularly wonky-eyed neighbour one year) and the youngsters in another saying and doing equally alcohol-induced daft things. You can imagine. The kitchen became a melting pot of three sets of friends (mine, my brother’s and my sister’s, with a fair amount of crossover) and young-at-heart oldies, keen to hear about the bands we were listening to and eager to discover if we were just as daft as they had been at our age.
Real, actual pipers piped and drummers drummed as they marched up and down our hall. Scott Pyper was the piper. And Neil and Angus, the drumming Bell twins (or maybe one of them was a bagpiper) literally brought the bells in. I always thought that was pretty great.
Strangers arrived and were (mainly) welcomed with open arms. The future Mrs Pan, coming to meet my parents for the first time, remarked that she had been in our house one Hogmanay in years gone by. There must have been hundreds of different people over the door between 1982 and the tail end of the 90s. It was the best of times, offset only by the thumping hangover that would last well into the second week of January.
The past few years have been different. I’m now the young-at-heart oldie in the kitchen, keen to hear about the music the young folk are listening to, safe in the knowledge that, despite that well-known phrase, youth is not wasted on the young. It would appear that they’re all having a great time.
Also, the past couple of New Years has seen my glass half-full upturn to half-empty. My dad’s illness eclipsed all my thoughts at the bells. Would we still have him this time next year? It was the unspoken question, the one you dared not speak aloud for fear of jinxing things. We now know the answer, which is why the bringing of the bells tonight will be particularly reflective. We’re having the quietist New Year in living memory, where at the bells I’ll raise a glass in my dad’s memory and kick hard the arse of 2017 as it slinks out of sight, the shittiest year of my life. What can 2018 bring that could be anything worse?
As the song says, everything flows.
If you stick the glorious Teenage Fanclub on at, oh, I dunno, five past four this afternoon, the bells will be due just as the final fried ‘n frazzled notes of Raymond’s and Norman’s twin axe attack fade away.