There’s nary a wasted line on The Pretenders‘ Kid. Lean and low-fat yet packed full of melody and mood, it still sounds out-of-the-box fresh 41 years later. Riding along on a breeze of glistening, chiming, ringing guitars, it’s a heady amalgam of countryish punky jangle and street-sussed Chrissie Hynde sass. Listen as you read, won’t you?
The Pretenders – Kid
It’s the guitar riff that makes it, of course, James Honeyman-Scott taking his guitar for a twangin’ walk up and down the frets; bending, sliding, hammering on and pulling off one of new wave’s greatest guitar lines.
He takes a back seat during the singing, happy to answer Chrissie’s softly crooned, conversational vocals with lovely thick tremeloed chords between the gaps. First chance he gets though, and he’s back to a reprise of that riff. After the second verse there’s a crashing, tumbling middle eight before the whole band sets him up for the solo. And what a solo!
In just a dozen seconds, Honeyman-Scott fires off the perfect musical interlude. He’s further up the frets now, not too high – certainly not as high as those other uncultured guitar stranglers and string manglers who aim for the 15th fret and leap off from there – and his guitar rattles and rolls with a Mr Sheen-like Byrdsian jangle, all slurry pull-offs and bending 3rd strings, before finishing off on an audacious and perfectly executed pinging harmonic.
With little time to catch breath we’re back into the breakdown where the band drops out save for some thumping toms and accompanying bass. A high in the mix jud-jud-juddering Townshendesque acoustic chord signifies we’re on the run home. The jangle is free-form now, the band loosening their collective collar and undoing the top button of their super-tight jeans, relaxing into the multi-layered silvery mercurial brew they’ve created out of thin air as Chrissie reprises the chorus and Honeyman-Scott plays another sublime variation of the solo.
The engineer or producer or whoever it was who thought it was a good idea to fade him/them out needs their stoopid head examined, they really do. Three minutes of post-punk new wave pop joy undoubtedly deserved to stretch its skinny legs for a good half minute more, even if that meant taking it, like Chrissie’s fringe, to just about beyond the considered optimum length. I doubt anyone would’ve complained.
Flashy without being arrogant, the guitar playing on Kid is something that, given equal measures of practice and patience, any dedicated guitar player could work their way up to replicating. Just ask that other king o’ the six string, Johnny Marr…
Like many of the tracks released by the constituent parts of the group that created it, Disappointed by Electronic was released as a standalone single, a gap-plugger that sated the appetite of their fans in the period between the first two albums. A fantastic gap-plugger it was too.
Bernard Sumner’s New Order were awfully fond of (perhaps even hell-bent on) ensuring singles stayed off of albums. Ceremony, Temptation and Everything’s Gone Green didn’t make it to Movement and Blue Monday, Confusion and Thieves Like Us didn’t appear on the chronologically closest Power, Corruption And Lies, although by the time of Low-Life, lead single The Perfect Kiss was a central part of the album and from then-on in, a good proportion all of their singles were used to promote a parent album.
Johnny Marr’s Smiths gave great value for money, regularly releasing one-off singles that would eventually appear as 33 rpm tracks on compilation albums further down the line; How Soon Is Now? (originally a b-side), Shakespeare’s Sister, Heaven Knows…, William…, Panic, Ask. All started life spinning at 45rpm.
Pet Shop Boys were perhaps the more conventional of the trio. On a major label they maybe didn’t have the same clout that an indie band might have on a small label (though what do I know?) and accordingly, almost all of their singles, in that imperial run from West End Girls and Love Comes Quickly through So Hard and Being Boring to 1991’s DJ Culture and Was It Worth It? were taken from their studio albums of the time.
Disappointed is very much a product of its time and place. Chronologically, it was written around the end of 1991, when Johnny was between The The projects and just before Bernard returned to New Order to record Republic. Despite being patchy in parts (and that’s a whole other blog post), the last decent album in New Order’s original form gave us Regret, arguably the last truly great New Order single; soaring and melancholic, built on a bed of asthmatic guitar and hard-wired technology, and, from the negatively-leaning titles in, you can draw a straight line between that New Order track and Electronic’s 4th single.
Electronic – Disappointed (7″ mix)
By the end of 1991, Pet Shop Boys had amassed 19 hit singles to their name (pop quiz – name them!) Anything they touched turned to sold and gold. They were the masters at minor key pop, “The Smiths you can dance to,” as Tennant famously said at the time. Arriving on a bed of synth washes and era-defining Italo house piano – conceived by Johnny’s brother Ian – Disappointed‘s hookiness (not Hooky-ness) is immediate and immersive, mainly due to Neil Tennant’s cooing ah-ah-aah refrain.
Three seconds in and it sounds like the greatest Pet Shop Boys hit that never was. Tennant employed all the best PSB tricks; minor key melancholy, smoothed-out spoken word in the verses, flying like a kite in the chorus, those earworming ah-ah-aahs and pulsing glacial synths to the fore.
It worked. On release in July ’92, the single climbed to number 6 on the UK charts, kept out of the top 5 by Mariah Carey’s helium-voiced take on the Jackson’s I’ll Be There. Ironically enough, the b-side to Disappointed was a remix of Idiot Country.
If you know your Euro-pop, and I’m sure many of you do, you’ll be aware that Tennant tips more than the brim of his trilby to Mylène Farmer’s Désenchantéesingle, a massive hit on the continent in 1991. It’s there in the smoothed-out synthesizers and mid-paced feel, the down-played vocal delivery in the verses and restrained euphoria in the chorus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that Tennant ‘borrowed’ her ‘Désenchantée/Disenchanted‘ lyric for his own chorus. Most of us in the UK would’ve been oblivious of this at the time (perhaps even Bernard and Johnny too), a fact I’m sure the pop boffin Neil would’ve been banking on.
Seemingly content to take more of a back seat at the time, Johnny has an understated role in the single. He breaks into full-on Nile Rodgers funk for most of it, riffing across the top 3 strings like he hadn’t done since 1985’s Boy With The Thorn In His Side, his right hand rattlin’ the rhythm while his left shapes the funk, but contribution-wise, Disappointed is probably 45% Neil, 35% Bernard and 20% Johnny. The sum is greater than its parts though. It’s a great single, almost a lost single really, given the ubiquity of Getting Away With It and its not-quite-as-good follow-up Get The Message, but one that deserves reappraisal.
As is the way at this time of year, lists, polls and Best Of countdowns prevail. Happily stuck in the past, the truth of it is I’m not a listener of much in the way of new music. Idles seem to dominate many of the lists I’ve seen, and I want to like them, but I can’t get past the singer’s ‘angry ranting man in a bus shelter’ voice. I’ve liked much of the new stuff I’ve heard via 6 Music and some of the more switched-on blogs I visit, but not so much that I’ve gone out to buy the album on the back of it.
If you held a knife to my throat though, I might admit to a liking for albums by Parquet Courts and Arctic Monkeys, both acts who are neither new nor up and coming. I listened a lot to the Gwenno album when it was released and I should’ve taken a chance on the Gulp album when I saw it at half price last week, but as far as new music goes, I think that’s about it. Under his Radiophonic Tuckshop moniker, Glasgow’s Joe Kane made a brilliant psyche-infused album from the spare room in his Dennistoun flat – released on the excellent Last Night From Glasgow label – so if I were to suggest anything you might like, it’d be Joe’s lo-fi McCartney by way of Asda-priced synth pop that I’d direct you to. Contentiously, it’s currently a tenner on Amazon which, should you buy it via them, is surely another nail in the HMV coffin.
2018 saw the readership of Plain Or Pan continue to grow slowly but steadily in a niche market kinda style, so if I may, I’d like to point you and any new readers to the most-read posts of the year. You may have read these at the time or you may have missed them. Either way, here they are again;
An article on the wonder of The Specials‘ b-sides.
Such is the depth of his catalogue, Johnny Marr can put together a 20 song set that has something for everyone. From the opening new wave sheen of Tracers, all electrified twang and icy synths via a giddy, galloping Bigmouth Strikes Again and a choice selection of Smiths tracks that, let’s be honest, is what the majority of the audience came to hear, a Johnny show is wholly entertaining and, in an era of triple-figure ticket prices, reassuringly recession-friendly and value for money.
An early set dip focuses too closely on tracks from current album Call The Comet but when he breaks into the perennial evergreen Getting Away With It – “a disco song from England,” – the show goes into orbit. Mid-way through, white hot strobes switch to sparkling glitter ball, perfect given the Barrowland’s history, and the band’s electro disco throb gives way to Marr’s chiming guitar, little arpeggios of untamed joy ricocheting out across the heads of an ecstatic audience. He gives good face, does Johnny. Whether he’s pulling guitar hero poses from atop the monitor or fixing his eyes on the array of smartphones in the audience or leaning back with his eyes closed as his fingers coax unstoppable melody from his fretboard, he does so knowing full-well his image will be shared on social media platforms the world over.
“Any requests?” he teases before he leads his band into an impromptu run-through of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. A snippet of the riff from This Charming Man causes 1800 folk of a certain age to go heart-stoppingly weak at the knees before he slides into an imperial take on Electronic’s Get The Message. On this tour, Marr is fast becoming the indie version of his good pal Nile Rodgers, building a set of crowd pleasing hits and choice cuts from across his back catalogue and it’s the second hour of the show that truly sparkles; A brooding, gothic Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me. A trippy How Soon Is Now?, bathed in a blue and green fug with Marr wringing merry hell from his vintage Jaguar.
More Smiths follows in the encore, ensuring no-one goes home disappointed. A beautiful, lilting Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want harks back to the heady days of Smithdom, the entire audience wrung out and hung out to dry. It’s followed by an incredible There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Johnny dedicating it to “everyone in here and no-one else” before leading a euphoric call and response mass communion in the chorus. He rounds things off with a breakneck run-through of You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby, pulls another guitar pose, holds his hands aloft like a prize fighter– a featherweight, in his case, and skips off stage to rapturous applause. For generations who never saw and will never see The Smiths, this is as close as it gets. Spectacular stuff.
*this article was intended for publication in a national newspaper who were happy to run it but informed me there’d be no payment. It’s on here instead.
A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?
Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?
I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.
Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.
Patti Smith – Land
Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.
Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.
Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.
Patti Smith – Piss Factory
Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read; a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.
It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?”
“Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?”
If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.
If anyone can do long, meandering self-indulgence, Can can. For a while there it was almost de rigeur for bands to name drop them ahead of a new release. The very mention of the Germans being an influence would appear to somehow validate that band’s own music, which is nonsense, of course. For what it’s worth, I can take them more than I can leave them. When they’re good, they’re great. They soar with a fluidity and ease that’s quite extraordinary; Mother Sky, Halleluhwah, Vitamin C, Dizzy Dizzy, Soup….all feature the classic Can trademarks of skittering drums, repetitiveness, whispered chanting and weird background effects.
The problem for me starts when those background effects creep ever further forward into the foreground of the mix. Sometimes, they can be just a wee bit too out there, just a tad too hippy, just a bass solo short of full-on prog for my delicate palate. I like Can best when they’re fluid and groovy and forever on the verge of danceability…..
….Flow Motion for example.
Can – Flow Motion
It’s classic, groovy, mid 70s Can. Beyond 10 minutes long, the groove slinks slower than a tranquilised slug traversing a large leaf. Indeed, tectonic plates have more go about them than the track. Yet somehow, somewhere around the 4 minute mark it starts to take effect.
Sneaking in on a cod reggae rhythm, Flow Motion is slow motion. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but when it’s finished you’ll realise that’s the whole point. Other bands might’ve used the same aimless wandering as incidental music, the perfect between-track filler on a concept album maybe, or the ideal opener before the wham of the real opening number. Can stick to the tune and streeeeeetch it out.
The whole thing is held together brilliantly by the rhythm section. Holger Czukay’s repetitive bassline is sparse, yet non-stop. Jaki Liebezeit’s propulsive drums skitter underneath, somewhere between a Studio 1 sessioneer and a jazz club veteran. Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards weave in and out, coming in waves before disappearing and reappearing at key points. Michael Karoli has free reign on his heavily wah-wah’d electric guitar, adding texture rather than tune, feedback instead of fretplay. He’s all over it, snaking between his bandmates like an avante garde Hendrix. Even a blind man could join the dots between this and Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot album before arriving at PiL’s Albatross.
Flow Motion is the last track on the album of the same name. The album opener I Want More was an actual, bona fide chart hit for the band, Top Of The Pops appearance ‘n all.
Can – I Want More
The young Johnny Marr recalls a time being in the back of the family car, driving to Wales for a holiday, listening to I Want More on the radio. When he was writing How Soon Is Now, the sticky fingered Johnny channelled the rhythm and feel of Can’s hit for his own means. I’m sure you knew that already though.
It’s a strange album, is Flow Motion. On release, fans hated the numerous nods to disco and reggae, lamenting the loss of the ambience that made albums such as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days so special. Listening to it as I type, I’d suggest it’s better than it may have been given credit for. Of course, I was only 6 when it was released, so I come to the album from a different time and place. That last track though……s’a cracker. Everyone agrees on that.
My work today took me to Kilmarnock’s grand old Grand Hall, scene of the Ballroom Blitz and the venue in which during October 2015 Johnny Marr played a one-song soundcheck (The Headmaster Ritual) to an audience of one (me) before playing then signing my trusty old Telecaster and a couple of Smiths records before being joined by his band for the soundcheck proper. I was there today for a multi-agency course, part of which involved networking the room by finding the other lost souls who happened to have the missing parts of the same jigsaw that I’d found on my chair when I arrived. “Snowman?” some fellow room circulator would ask uncomfortably in your general direction. “Sorry, I’m an elf,” was my standard ridiculous reply. Once located, my fellow elves and I were allocated a table and a task, part of which involved telling a story to someone at your table. Given the venue and the fact that the chap next to me had already mentioned Gruff Rhys and Super Furry Animals, I fancied that he’d quite like my Johnny Marr story. As it turns out, he did, especially when I got to the punchline about how he played Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others on my guitar, his silver nail polish twinkling with each open-stringed twang.
There’s a version of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others that appears on the new-ish Queen Is Dead box set. It’s listed as a demo and has all the hallmarks of a band finding their uncertain way with a new tune, but it’s quite spectacular. Johnny’s riff hasn’t quite developed into the full-blown shimmer of the album version, but, much like a moonlit sea in your favourite Mediterranean bay, it sparkles with a lucid quicksilver glisten, 80s chorus pedal effects ‘n all . It’s worth stopping to consider that Johnny was only 22 years ‘old’ when he wrote and recorded it, which brings more than a tear of frustrated disbelief to my eyes every time I think about it. When I was 22 I was still trying to master the bastard F chord. Johnny, of course, would choose to play his F by sticking a capo on the 4th fret and playing the much easier C chord, but how was I to know that back then?
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (demo)
There’s a general feeling amongst the Smiths community that there was a great opportunity lost with the box set. I have to admit to a creeping sense of disappointment with it. It looks great and it sounds great, which is surely all that really matters, but at the eyewatering retail price (that I happily paid) I can’t help feeling a wee bit let down. I’ve lived with it since October and rather than dive in feet first with a hamfisted and potentially regretable review, I’ve waited this long before making my mind up.
It does look great. Sturdy and big, with the black shadow of the famous album cover looking righteous and regal on the front. (It is The Queen Is Dead, after all). But what was wrong with the original’s iconic racing green colour? Or the inner sleeve artwork? Where’s the Salford Lads Club image? That’s as much a part of Smiths’ heritage as the music itself. The new image, the girl wearing the Hatful Of Hollow t-shirt at the Westminster riots is a cracker. It says more than 1000 words ever could, but it’s a modern image. I get it. I appreciate why it’s there. But to include it at the expense of the original is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps Stephen Wright, the photographer that day at Salford Lads Club wanted a hefty fee for including his picture. Who knows?
And what about sleevenotes? Most box sets of this gravitas carry an extended essay from one or more of the makers and shakers. The Queen Is Dead has nothing. Smiths geeks such as myself love eeking out new information. When Mike Joyce told me a few months ago about the colour of shirt Morrissey was wearing when he recorded I Know It’s Over, well, stone me! I had to lie down in a darkened room for over 4 minutes. It’s mindless minutae to some but total treasure to me. And I’m far from alone in Smithdom. Where were the pictures of the recording sessions? The Smiths larking about with half-filled tea cups? Andy Rourke making bunny ears behind Morrissey’s untoppable quiff? They just weren’t there. That’s what was disappointing.
And the music? Well, it sounds fantastic. Johnny has done a smashing job remastering it. It’s clean, vivid, shiny and new, which I can say no more about my well-thumbed original. From now on, the new version is my go-to copy. I still have the original, of course, beautifully autographed by the wunderkid guitarist, so it’s not as if it’s going anywhere anytime soon, but I doubt I’ll ever play that particular copy again.
The demo tracks sound fantastic. Compared to the slightly ropey mp3s that circulated a few years ago, these sound like freshly-minted masterpieces. My problem is the lack of demos. There are, if you know where to look, more versions of these tracks out there, the parping Penny Lane by way of Coronation Street take of Frankly, Mr Shankly for starters. It’s by no means an era-defining complete set.
The Smiths – Frankly, Mr Shankly (demo)
Likewise with the live album. I like the sleeve image of a skewed and wonky Jack Kerouac which, if you squint a bit and use your imagination, looks a wee bit like a morning after the night before Johnny. It would’ve made for a decent budget-priced release in its own right. It’s taken from a late-era Smiths show, with an interesting career-spanning setlist played by a band at the top of their game. It’s good ‘n all, but it sounds kinda flat. It certainly doesn’t have the metallic feral velocity of the Rank album. If you want to hear late-era Smiths in all their volume, stomp and glory, that’s the one for you. And as with Rank, it’s an incomplete show. Maybe the box set includes all of the show that was recorded, but I doubt it. What a missed opportunity!
For the vinyl lover – and there are literally thousands of Smiths fans who bought this boxet – the non-inclusion of the Derek Jarman-filmed Queen Is Dead promo is a glaring miss. There were other opportunities. What about a download code? That’s standard with any vinyl release nowadays. They might even have considered a second live disc of QID-era tracks. There’s that terrific Thank Your Lucky Stars bootleg that does the rounds. It’s sensational. And what about a cleaned-up version of the only ever live take of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others? It’s worthy of inclusion for Morrissey’s extra Carry On Smiths verse alone.
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (live, Brixton Academy, 12.12.86)
Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe not. But in an era when anyone from Bon Iver to Bon Jovi can get away with releasing a 10th Anniversary Edition album with all manner of bolted-on goodies, it does look like the people looking after The Smiths sold us short. The gullible fools that we are.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.
Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.
Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,” Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”
Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.
Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.
It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.
I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…
Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?
I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!
At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’
The Smiths – I Don’t Owe You Anything
Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’
At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.
The Smiths – Death Of A Disco Dancer
4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.
The Smiths – I Know It’s Over
As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals. When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!
At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. 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.
The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.
Next up, How Soon Is Now?
(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.
When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”
Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.
Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).
We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.
And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.
The Smiths – Hand In Glove
When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..
So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.
Amazingly, thrillingly, unbelievably, Plain Or Pan is, just this week, 10 years old. Somehow, some way, that’s a decade of writing about music and featuring, on the whole, bands that lasted far less than that timescale. It was always in my mind that if I ever made it this far, I’d stop, but now that I’m here, I’m having second thoughts. I might not write with the same frequency I once did, but I like to think that whenever I put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper, the words that tumble forth are meaningful to someone, somewhere. Judging by the stats on the sidebar there (don’t read too much into them though, I think Google screwed up that algorithm many moons ago) and judging by the continued popularity of some of the posts I’ve written (my Ian Rankin piece is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever published – every day, at least 20 people from some place on Earth click on it and read it – over 150 folk a week – amazing, eh?!) I have what’s called in the business staying power. I have followers (get me!) who read what I write as soon as it’s published, but I’m also high up the lists of many a Google search – the holy grail if you’re into stats, numbers and self-congratulatory schmaltz. So I think I’m gonnae keep going.
You can draw parallels between the writing here and any number of the bands I feature; at first, I wrote short, sharp bulletins, a bit wobbbly in places, but they fizzed with youthful energy – they’re your first couple of singles. Next, I stumbled into longer-form writing, showing enough promise even if I could have done with a decent editor – that’ll be your debut album. Gradually, I’ve moved from my comfort zone (indie music, primarily that of a Scottish bent) to embrace other musical fashions – that’ll be your tricky second album – and I’ve sort of meandered along since. To date, I’ve been going as twice as long as The Smiths, and just about as long as The Beatles. To continue for as long as the Stones, or even Teenage Fanclub would take some doing, but you never know. Make of that what you will.
Writing here has afforded me the opportunity of being commissioned (!) to conduct an interview with Sandie Shaw (the only thing I’ve ever written that paid any money, not that I do it for that). It’s allowed me to ‘meet’ some of my musical heroes, albeit via the wonders of modern technology. It’s the reason I was trending on Twitter briefly after Victoria Wood passed away (I’d written a piece outing Morrissey, if you will, for his liberal borrowing of her lyrics). It’s the reason I was called a ‘middle class Pimms drinker‘ by an upset Stone Roses fan. It’s the reason Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo follows me on Twitter. It’s also the reason I have Johnny Marr‘s number on speed dial, even if I can’t bring myself to actually call him up the way old friends do. I’ll let him call me again instead…
In the 10 years since starting Plain Or Pan, it’s been disappointing that there’s not been a musical revolution of sorts. Sure, we’ve had Radiohead giving albums away for free and we’ve had the death of the CD and the rebirth of the record. Even that Supergrass carrier bag would now cost 5p, but the music!?! It’s bland. Soulless. Beige. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’ve turned into my dad. When I were a lad (and me dad were a lad), a musical revolution was just around the corner; the 50s had Jerry Lee and Buddy and Elvis, the 60s had The Beatles and the Stones, the 70s had disco and punk, the 80s had 2 Tone and new romanticism and indie music, the 90s had the good (Oasis, initially), the bad (Britpop, generally) and the downright ugly (the rise of laddism), and since then…. what? Not that I’d’ve been writing about it anyway. That strapline above doesn’t say ‘Outdated Music For Outdated People‘ for nothing, y’know. But we’re crying out for something new. And by new, I don’t mean beardy guys in jeans so unfeasibly skinny there’s no chance of their testicles working when the time arises. Here’s hoping the KLF shake things up a bit this year with a good slab of counter-culture stadium house. Its grim up North, indeed.
I was going to finish this piece off by featuring 10 tracks, one per year, that defined Plain Or Pan, but given that the popularity of the blog has on occassion led to the unwelcome sight of the DMCA sniffing around like dogs on heat, I’m going to resist the urge. Instead, here’s The Housemartins and their faithful, garage-band gospel take on ‘I’ll Be Your Shelter‘. The 4th-best band in Hull featured on the 5th best blog in Scotland. Or something like that.
“Let me hear the choir!”
The Housemartins – I’ll Be Your Shelter
…and in true Plain Or Pan style, here’s Luther Ingram’s 1967 original.
Luther Ingram – I’ll Be Your Shelter
*You wouldn’t believe the amount of time I spent trying to source a picture of The Housemartins wearing braces, just so I could use the tagline ‘Marx & Suspenders‘. When I’d exhausted that particular avenue, my next port of call was for a picture of Paul Heaton eating his Christmas dessert, just so I could use the tagline ‘Heaton Trifles‘. Again, no luck. Why don’t these photos exist?
‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ is the sound of The Smiths at their chiming, ha-ha-ho-ho-hollering, twin guitar attack peak. Written, as the band usually did, quickly and as part of a triptych that also included ‘London’ and ‘Half A Person’, it was considered as the follow-up single to ‘Ask’ before being passed over at the last minute in favour of ‘Shoplifters Of the World Unite’, a move regarded as travesty by many Smiths devotees at the time.
The ‘Shoplifters…’ single included both ‘London’ and ‘Half A Person’, the tracks on the b-side connected through the subject matter of moving to London, with the former a noisy glam racket that sticks two fingers up to those who are too spineless to leave and make something of themselves, and the latter a brilliantly put-together melancholic rumination of how just a move can go so wrong – “I went to London and I booked myself in at the YWCA…” The noisy and the melodic, the tragi-comedy of The Smiths on the same record.
Marr & Morrissey, Rough Trade stockroom, 1983
But the best of the three tracks written in that early October session, ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ was left alone on the shelf marked ‘Great Smiths Tracks That Would’ve Made Great Smiths Singles’. The band had high quality control values – theirs is a perfectly-formed 4 studio album and 17 single discography, untarnished by stop-gap filler material or substandard releases; the perfect group. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘Shoplifters…’ – I’m particularly partial to Johnny’s open-wah rockist guitar solo – but better single material than ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’? Nah. They got that one wrong, I think. Even if, as it turns out, Johnny thinks ‘Shoplifters…’ is the better song.
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (The World Won’t Listen mix)
Keen eagle-eared Smiths enthusiasts at sadly-departed Smiths treasure trove Smiths Recycled spotted that the mix on The World Won’t Listen ran a touch too fast, so with the aid of modern technology and whatnot re-pitched the track at the speed it would’ve been playing at when The Smiths recorded it. clever fellas, those guys. Spot the difference…
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (The World Won’t Listen mix – Repitched Version)
The track eventually saw the light of day on ‘The World Won’t Listen’ compilation, the catch-all, semi follow-up to ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ that gathered together all the odds ‘n sods ‘n ‘As ‘n Bs from the 2nd half of The Smiths career. It also appeared in slightly different form (if you turn up the EQ on your Morrissey-endorsed NHS hearing aid, subtle nuances in the mixing can be heard, if you’re that way inclined) on the American compilation ‘Louder Than Bombs’.
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (Louder Than Bombs mix)
Those same Smiths enthusiasts at Smiths Recycled also corrected the pitch on this too…
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (Louder Than Bombs mix – Repitched Version)
The song itself was borne out of in-band fighting and the politics that would eventually lead to Johnny leaving the band. Booked for 5 days in London’s Mayfair Studios, Morrissey was keen for the band to work with upcoming wunderkid producer Stephen Street. Johnny preferred the tried and tested John Porter and in the end a compromise of sorts was agreed – Street would work the first day and Porter would do the other four. To add complication to the mix, 5th Smith Craig Gannon, who’d accompanied the band on their recent US tour but had never really been fully accepted into the group , was only just hanging on to his status in The Smiths by the finest hair on his bequiffed head. History shows that the Porter sessions would be the last time Gannon would work with the band.
Johnny’s tune is a classic Marr composition, tumbling in on a breath of fresh air, packed full of double and triple-tracked guitars as clear and ringing as Edinburgh Crystal, chiming, capo’d and open-stringed arpeggios and stinging counter-melodies, wrapped up and driven by a trampolining bass line and a stomping, Glitter band thud of drums in the chorus. That Johnny still plays it live in concert to this day, something The Smiths themselves never did, is testament to the longevity and beauty of the song.
The title and lyrical refrain is attributed to Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis who uttered the words at Morrissey after the singer asked him why he wouldn’t treat The Smiths with the importance that their status deserved. Morrissey had a point – The Smiths almost single-handedly allowed Rough Trade to flourish as a label. All money made from the band went back into other artists, many of whom would never have had a record deal and subsequent success without Rough Trade’s money – the money that came directly from the healthy sales of Smiths’ product. Morrissey was clearly still feeling aggrieved a few months later when he recycled the title as a lyric in ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’, The Smiths’ scathing deconstruction of the music business. It’s possible that, after hearing ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’, and stung by its lyrical content, Travis overruled the band’s decision to release it as a single.
“Obviously Geoff was staunchly against it,” said Morrissey, in highly dramatic fashion when quoted in Simon Goddard’s essential ‘Songs That Saved Your Life’. “Because he thought it was a personal letter addressed to him.“
A couple of years later, Marr would play on Kirtsy MacColl’s faithful remake of ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’, the original’s multi-tracked guitars replaced by a choir of Kirsties; airy, whispering, cooing and making it something of her own.
Kirsty MacColl – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby
It’s all slightly plodding, truth be told, a stodgy, sticky pudding compared to the floating on air joie de vivre that carries the original. That’s by far the best version, of course.