This is Pop.. Lipstick Vogue

It’s one of the phenomena of pop music that occasionally, very occasionally, there could be a period in an artistes’ life when their career is on fire. It’s not just about songs or performances, it’s about something that is hard to create. Largely it’s about Zeitgeist and luck being in the right place at the right time but it’s also about having the right goods to fuel the fire.
In 1978 Elvis Costello was approaching that point. His first LP ‘My Aim is True’ has a lot of charm, it’s probably my favourite Costello record, I bought it then and I listen to it to this day. But for all it’s charms MAIT is probably just the best pub rock record ever. Costello was backed by West Coast country rock band Clover, they do a great job but they are still a country rock band, a couple of the songs were even shuffles which had been outlawed by punk rock.
But the bar had been set, two things were apparent, Costello was a great writer and an arsey fucker. He was already setting out his own mythology, the looser in love, the catalogue of grudges, the acid tongue and the fierce intelligence. It’s not a particularly attractive combination but this was punk rock, we liked things to be a bit grotesque.
Costello soon gathered a band around him. Steve Naïve on keyboards and Bruce and Pete Thomas (no relation) on bass and drums. None of them had a punk pedigree but each of them gave 100%, no more country shuffles just short sharp and, notably, melodic, songs.
Costello seemed to have songs pouring out of him and within seconds his new LP ‘This years Model’ was in the shops. A spikey, spiteful lump of vinyl, his second record saw him at his most wanted. Costello liked Jazz, he liked Country, he liked show tunes. Costello had no reservations about the use of ‘wanky Beatles chords’. His music was incredibly tuneful and carried a whiff of the familiar with it. ‘No Action’ and ‘Hand in Hand’ could almost have been Merseybeat tunes,’You Belong to Me’ was pretty similar to the Stone’s ‘The Last Time’ ‘The Beat’ referenced Cliff and the Shadows’ and so on.

There were two things that subverted the nostalgia process. The first was Costello’s lyrics which mainly seem to be put downs of women. It wasn’t exactly the bully boy tactics of the stranglers but the pen is mightier than that sword and 40 years on his misogyny is disconcerting. From the opener ‘every time I see you I just want to put you down’,(no Action), ‘Don’t you know I’ve got the bully Boys out, changing someone’s facial design’ ‘(Hand in hand) to the memorable ‘they call her Natasha but she looks like Elsie’ line from ‘I don’t want to go to Chelsea’. There’s a lot of hatred and anger, 40 years on its not comfortable listening, it sounded better in the 70’s.

Costello was so full of bile that apparently when it came for the photo session for ‘This Year’s Model’ he asked the photographer to play the Eagles ‘Hotel California’ so he could look really pissed off.

What has worn better is the playing, Bruce and Pete are phenomenal on this record. PT drives thing onward with some really crisp playing, a mixture of restraint and blatant showing off. BT is simply doing things on the bass that I just don’t understand; his bass lines bubble away aggressively or sometimes swoops to the fore with little bass hooks. He’s like John Entwistle with a more restrained tone, both the rhythm section gives 100% and don’t let up.
Arguably the pinnacle of the Attractions achievements is ‘Lipstick Vogue’. Apparently brought to life by a last-ditch performance by PT. Pete has had spent the previous night drinking with Larry Wallis. Wallis was ex Pink Fairies and occasional Stiff artist/producer with legendary alcoholic prowess which may be one of the reasons his solo career never took off. PT inevitably had a colossal hangover and was barely able to function. This makes his performance here all the more remarkable as he batters the drums into some mutated aggressive Bo Didley beat before backing the vocals up with a tempo of speed metal proportions.
BT on bass is similarly inspired, most musicians would be happy to hold it together with some quarter notes, maybe a bit of walking bass. BT is all over the place, I suspect his lines on ‘Lipstick Vogue’ could be a years study for a lot of bass players. The main sound of ‘This Year’s Model’ is the organ some sort of 60’s model, a Farfisa or Vox Continental, I’m no expert. It’s a shrewd move though, if Steve Naive had used a Hammond it would have sounded 60’s and a bit proggy instead it sounds both retro and futuristic.
And, of course there is Costello guitar, vocals and  lyrics

Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumour
Don’t say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour
You’ve got to cut it out
You say you’re sorry for the things that you’ve done
You say you’re sorry but you know you don’t mean it
I wouldn’t worry, I had so much fun
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
It’s you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue
It’s you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue
Oh yeah
Get to the slot machine, almost dead on arrival
Just hit me one more time with that live wire
Maybe they told you you were only a girl in a million
You say I’ve got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them
Select the control and then insert the token
You want to throw me away but I’m not broken
You’ve got a lot to say–well, I’m not joking
There are some words they don’t allow to be spoken
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
It’s you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue

If you weren’t there it’s hard to imagine just how influential this was at the time. The critics loved it because Costello was edgy and intelligent. Despite this he knew how to play the game, he was about the same age as the Sex Pistols but he was a proper musician who had paid his dues, any Anarchy was going to be tightly controlled. The band were retro and also pointed a way to the future, best of all they were exciting and tuneful. For a while Costello and the attractions were pure pop with their skinny bodies and skinny trousers and skinny ties. Teenagers bought their singles, we all danced to them at discos. Today pop is pop and rock is rock but in the late 70’s bands were managing to straddle both camps.

This was going to prove incredibly influential, soon power pop bands were springing up both sides of the Atlantic, in Britain the Jags has a hit ‘I’ve got your number’ which many of assumed initially was in fact Costello. In the States the Knack appropriated the beat to ‘Pump it Up’ and wrote ‘My Sharona’. By the end of the decade pop bands were back in a way that hadn’t happened since the 60’s

Perhaps the downside to this was that the Thomas rhythm sections would never been regarded in the same way as Jones/Bonham or Bruce/Baker because there were no long solos and we were all dancing to their music at the school disco. There’s an analogy with the Motown musicians, pop music but great playing.

Costello was already on his was to his next great pop masterpiece ‘Armed Forces’. I stuck with him for a couple more records then lost interest. I’m not alone, I recently watched a YouTube video listing his 10 greatest songs and only one of them was later than the 70’s (mind you they missed ‘Shipbuilding’). I’m sure that he wrote loads of great songs but like most artists he only had a couple of years when everyone was interested in what he had to say. But, for a couple of years we was really on fire.

Here they are at their peak.

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Roger Daltrey…Thanks a lot

When it comes to reputations context is everything. Just ask Robert Falcon Scott the second leader to reach the South Pole. For decades after his death on the way back from the aforementioned pole Scott was a hero, an incredibly brave man willing to die in his quest to be the first. I was brought up to believe that Scott was truly one of the greatest Britons. In 1979 a new biography by Ronald Huntford cast the great man in a new light, rather than a hero Scot was in fact an arrogant bungler who refused to listen to people who knew more than him about polar expedition and forged ahead regardless resulting not only in his own death but those of his men who accompanied him.
Worst still as far as Scott’s reputation was concerned was that Ernest Shackleton was trouncing him as the nation’s favourite polar explorer by virtue of having survived his ordeal. Inevitably there was a revision of this revision, perhaps Scott is an ok guy after all.Or perhaps like all of us he’s just a bit complex.

But Scott was a symbol of Edwardian times, patriotic, a member of the officer class and the general confidence of the time that brave determined men would prevail (especially if they were British). By the 70’s that was an outdated attitude and one that deserved a good kicking.

But what about Roger Daltrey ?

My mother in law was kind enough to buy me his autobiography ‘Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite’ for Christmas. I love biographies buy anyone older than 30. Somehow I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, I had assumed that one day in the future Daltrey’s book would appear in my local library and then I would read it, I wasn’t exactly in a state of anticipation.
As anyone who thrilled to my Who Month last year will know, my relationship with the band is complex veering from amazement to disgust. In the 70’s it’s fair to say Daltrey wasn’t exactly the people’s favourite . Townsend captured the self doubt of the rock star, he wrote columns in papers and appeared on the radio agonising about his role as voice of the people. Keith Moon was just a crazy bundle of fun, Townsend was deep, Moon was fun. Daltrey was a bit boring, he wasn’t very funny or clever, on stage he looked like he was doing his job but would never to anything as entertaining as paralysing himself with horse tranquilisers (moon) or beating up the soundman (Townsend). In fact, at one point he did an advert (I cant remember what for) where he was stood by his trout farm. That was his credibility gone for a couple of decades.
Presumably, one purpose of an autobiography is to set the record straight and make a bit for popularity, in which case Scott should have written one. It doesn’t always work, Claptons book makes him look emotionally distant and generally unlikable, Rod Stewart on the other hand comes across as a likable guy albeit a bit of a nob.
Apparently Daltrey wrote this book and took it to the publisher complete, it’s not always the way things happen but hopefully it means that this is this is his definitive story and the one he wants us to hear.
So what do you need to know about Daltrey according to the man himself?
Significantly his choices were severely limited as a working class boy growing up in post war London. The 1940’s might as well have been the 1840’s as far as Daltrey was concerned , the legitimate option was a basic schooling followed by a lifetime of manual labour.
And that’s what’s coloured Daltrey’s whole outlook on life. He wasn’t very good at school but he was ok at work but he didn’t really want that as his whole future ( the book’s title comes from his headmaster telling him he will never make anything of his life) When rock and roll came along he saw an alternative to fifty years hard labour. Daltrey made his first guitar, he’s good with his hands, when he got into a band he customised the bands van which at one point would be his home. You could say he’s not afraid of hard work, if there’s a job to be done give Roger a call.
Moving on he builds a better guitar and forms a band, as the original bend members move on John Entwistle is recruited to play bass and then Townsend on guitar paving the way for Daltrey to take over as singer. Townsend is an art student who can spend the day in bed smoking dope, Daltrey works as a panel beater then fixes the van, drives to a gig, performs a set and does the same thing the next day.
This sets the theme for the rest of the band’s life, Daltrey is the willing worker, his only alternative choice is the factory or crime, there’s not many royalties and Townsend and Moon are smashing up the touring profits on a nightly basis.Daltrey’s frustration at the lifestyles of the other three spill over when he flushes Moon’s pills down the toilet after a poor performance in Denmark. When Moon turns on him Daltrey knock him out easily and as a consequence is fired from the band, the band he started.
Obviously he’s allowed back in but a point has been reached, he resolves to become a ‘zen duck’ and when the other try to rile him he imagines their comments falling off him like drops of water. Daltrey wants to be in the Who so much there is almost no shit he won’t go through. And so there follows years of touring with three people who he doesn’t even really like that much. Because if Townsend and Entwistle’s refusals to turn their amps down he oversings and eventually they all go deaf. There is the reliance on Townsend who plays hot and cold with the band for decades safe in the knowledge that his royalty checks will keep coming in. Then in the 70’s there’s Moon unreliability. Moon never practices and gets off his face all the time, Daltrey with the ever-vulnerable voice has to play it safe and stay sober.
Moon becomes more unreliable by dying and the horror of the 80’s begins. Eventually Daltrey decides that replacement drummer Kenney Jones isn’t cutting the mustard and issues the ‘it’s him or me’ ultimatum. And guess what, Townsend sides with Jones !!!. Again Daltrey has to draw on his ‘zen duck’ eat a ton of shit and get back on the road.
At no point does Daltrey seem to moan about this and to be honest I find myself getting angry for him but again Daltrey assumes that this is the life he’s chosen which is better than panel beating or prison and he’s the one who will make it work. When Entwistle was snorted the profits of his lifetimes work it’s back on the road again, once the Who tour is in full swing it cant stop even for the bass player’s death. At the beginning of the book Daltrey describes a collapse on stage. Tests show it’s a shortage of salt caused by exertion, he reflects that every time he has toured he feels really really ill after 2-3 weeks, that was his body running out of salt, but it was a price he paid every tour

Also the tests showed that at some point he had broken his back without realising it !

Post paedophile scare Townsend is a chastened man. His relationship with Daltrey improves and he even dedicates some shit lyrics to a shit song to him.

Later Townsend claimed he’d written it for his girlfriend/wife, you couldn’t make it up!

As I’ve said before, being a successful artist /band is about so much more than talent, it takes commitment and hard decisions. In Daltrey’s case it meant spending lots of time with people he didn’t like much, people off their faces who didn’t care if they ruined his voice and made him deaf. It meant being ill a lot and still having to work through that illness. And it meant spending a lot of time away from the things that rock stars always claim are really important namely home and family.

So perhaps it’s time to reappraise Daltrey as the man who made the band happen and kept it happening . Practical ,sensible,hard working and stoic.

Theres a moment in Live Aid where Townsend, probably off his face but still alive and dangerous tries a kick and falls flat on his arse. Quick as a flash Daltrey deliberately joins him laughing as he does so. Townsend could have looked a fool, now he looks a bit better, now it’s a joke.

And that’s probably all you need to know about Daltrey’s role in the Who

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Need for Speed

After the Ramones played Britain in 1976 a lot of bands upped their game in terms of speed. with the Ramones it was the shock of the new, at first, I didn’t really understand how they made that sound, it was more like a chemical process than music to my untrained ears.

Today those early records by the band seem quite sedate and tuneful, as a live band the Ramones got faster and faster but it’s a common misconception that punk bands were really fast, that was to come later.

But first a music lesson, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs

Music is measured in beats per minute (BPM). It’s self-explanatory even to those ignorant people who decided to skip this chapter. The more BPM the faster the music is. Our heart beat is somewhere around 80 bpm when resting. Early house music was 120 BMP, it got faster 140 and upwards. House music was a studio creation, there’s no limit to how fast machines can play, but people are different.

Although playing faster takes its toll on all musicians it’s the drummer who suffers most. Virtually all pop/rock is in 4/4 time so 4 beats in a bar that’s why the Ramones shouted 1234! Before each and every song. The simplest drum beat could have the bass drum on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on beats 2 and 4. Think of ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson and there’s a simple generic drum beat.

But then things get trickier.
The drummer’s right hand will usually be on the Hi Hat or ride cymbal and that’s going to play a bit more, usually 8 beats in a bar. This makes a difference, ‘Billie Jean’ grooves along nicely with 8 beats on the high hat, if there were just 4 it would plod although the actual song is still the same speed.

When drummer Rob Harper stepped in to cover the Anarchy Tour for The Clash he had no reference points for previous performances, so he asked Mick Jones how fast the high hat went in White Riot. Jones with the false confidence of guitarists the world over told him it was 8. Because of this Harper killed himself on stage every night trying to play and impossible drum part. As we now know its 4 hi Hat beats per bar-easy peasy.

Apart from ‘White Riot’ the Clash didn’t play particularly fast, The Sex Pistols were even more pedestrian, Buzzcocks could break into a slightly challenging pace at times but still just about manageable and the Dammed although more than nifty at times got by on bluster and noise that disguised the fact that the drumming might not be 100% accurate.
It was only going to take a slight shift in gear to derail amateur drummers like myself playing along to records at home and that came with the advent of the new pop bands. New pop was jerky and frantic, it worked on the premise, especially live’ that a song became better the faster it was played. Where the punks had had largely new self-taught players the next wave of musicians had been biding their time, many of them had been playing for a few years and a lot of them were really really good.
Terry Chambers from XTC was one such drummer, despite a history of metal/glam rock he soon developed a quirky/jerky style that relied on blistering precision and speed. The B side to ‘Statue of Liberty’, ‘Hold on to the Night’ was to prove impossibly fast for me to keep up with at around 190BPM (and that wasn’t even XTC’s fastest song) Let’s compare that with ‘Billie Jean’ around 120PM and the Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop at 180 BPM, ‘White Riot’ is around 200 BPM which is virtually impossible with a fast hi Hat.
Another incredibly skilled player was Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello Attractions. Thomas had a history with country rock, but you wouldn’t think it to see his whippet thin figure blasting through live renditions of songs from the ‘This Year’s Model’ LP. Stuart Copland was pushing some pretty nifty tempos with The Police. It wasn’t just the tempo alone, players like Chambers and Thomas drove and controlled the music, it was a 100% performance when they played; and drummers would never be so skinny again.
There’s been faster music played but speed can be deceptive. Take ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead, it sounds like a juggernaut but the drumming’s quite relaxed due to Philthy Phil playing 4 to the bar rather than eight with his right hand. Modern metal playing can be a full body workout, legs as well as feet but times have changed, kids aged four can play like John Bonham now (except they can’t of course).
I came to realise I’m not a really fast drummer, never will be and that going to be fine until the guitarist decides it’s a great idea to play a song really fast (it’s easier for guitarists they have un upstroke and a downstroke, all they have to do is strum away like George Formby) and I’m forced to relive the late 70’s trying to keep up with Terry Chambers on vinyl.

Here is the living proof, you’ll have to wait for the last number ‘Red’  which is cruising along at over 200 BPM !

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The Old Grey Whistle Test shifts gear

Watching the clip of XTC on the Old Grey Whistle Test reminded me of the transitional period in the program in 1978. At the before launching into ‘Statue of Liberty’ band leader Andy Partridge make some snide comment about a Rita Coolidge tune. It’s quite a shock on watching one of their other songs on the show that Bob Harris is still in the chair being insulted on his own show.

OGWT splits the generations. For people of my age it’s about hoping to catch the program, which was often broadcast well past bedtime for us school kids, in the hope of seeing Horslips miming in  broom cupboard. For anyone 10 years younger the memories are probably of a slightly more adrenaline fuelled ‘Whistle Test’ which dragged on in to the late 80’s and featured Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and Andy Kershaw. For those older than me there’s even the early 70’s period hosted by Richard Williams and featuring a naked woman painted green in the credits apparently.

By 1978 the BBC was struggling to justify the existence of  OGWT which reflects just how far music had progressed in less than a decade. No longer was it enough to lounge about smoking, grinning and mumbling, the energy level had gone up considerably and Bob Harris just wasn’t going to match that. His replacement was Annie Nightingale, a real force of nature who for long periods had kept her place as the only woman allowed on Radio 1. She was a product of the swinging 60’s but had managed to keep moving with the times, unlike Harris by simply adopting whatever music was in vogue. By the late 70’s she was a firm champion of ‘new wave’, today I believe she is a dance DJ despite being in her late 70’s.

In an era when age was crucial Nightingale was totally wrong but she was eager and willing and that’s what the BBC wants from its presenters, but the fact was she was around the same age as Harris and was fronting a show that smacked of the dead 70’s.

When OGWT was conceived it was going to be a programme for the ‘serious’ rock fan rather than the pop kids. The rule was therefore made that bands would only be invited onto the show if they had made an album. While this worked for a while, excluding the likes of Edison Lighthouse or Middle of the Road in favour of Greenslade but by the end of the 70’s credible artists were making great singles. The delay in getting the big record made has led to Harris complaining that a lot of the lesser bands appeared on the show (he probably includes XTC in that generalisation) and he missed out on the best bands who were still making singles initially. Certainly by 1978 record companies were ready to sign up anyone who looked new wave enough to make them money.

In 1977 OGWT featured one remotely punk band, namely The Talking Heads whose performance of ‘Psycho Killer’ has become one of those seminal rock video clips. 1978 opened the floodgates from Buzzcocks to Souxsie and the Banshees, to the Police and the Adverts. Despite the homegrown talent the only band to have more than one appearance was the Cars which represented the sort of shiny faux punk product that the BBC just loved. By 1979 however, according to OGWT punk had passed and a whole new load of stuff was heading our way from Two Tone and the new wave of British heavy metal.

For one year only, the new bands who had chosen to sneer at ‘whispering Bob’ and his Californian cast were given a chance to appear on the hated OGWT. For most it was too good to turn down, whatever its flaws the show had good sound and adequate production values. Interviewers at least made an attempt to sound intelligent, if a band sucked it was usually their own fault. Because of this artists either ignored their surroundings and soldiered grimly on or they attempted to be a bit smartarsed. Squeeze made a rude announcement, XTC scoffed Rita Coolidge and the Dammed smashed up their equipment.

I missed it all of course as I didn’t have a television for a couple of years and even if I did I wouldn’t have stayed home to watch it, for the first time music was stating to pass me by



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This is Pop, Statue of Liberty

One of the first things I did on my arrival in Nottingham was to pay a visit to Virgin Records.

Strange to relate, there was a time when Virgin was a decidedly edgy company releasing all sorts of records by genuinely quirky progressive artists. They had, of course been effectively bankrolled by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which gave them the means to make records with people who were destined not to sell a lot. Things were changing with Punk, Virgin had signed the Sex Pistols and were becoming significant players in the music business.

Virgin records were quite iconic with a major store in London and a few subsidiary’s dotted about the country. The Nottingham store had recently hit the headlines for displaying the Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks prominently in a window display which had led to an obscenity trial.

Being a student, even a 70’s student, I was strapped for cash and Virgin seemed disappointingly low in special offers or second-hand records. And so, my first visit to Virgin ended me purchasing just one single for the bargain price of 50p.

The record in question was ‘Statue of Liberty’ by XTC. I was familiar with the band and liked them a lot. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of life in a small town. It always seemed to me that growing up away from the epicentre led to a certain independence of thought. XTC were famously from Swindon, a place I had yet to visit. Previous musical luminaries of Swindon had been Just Hayward of the Moody Blues and Gilbert O’Sullivan, it’s not a place that inspires a lot of confidence musically.

One of the benefits of being in a cultural backwater is you are thrown into using your own resources and imagination, sometimes all that energy is motivated towards leaving, it’s a classic tale, just ask Bruce Springsteen, but for some, and Andy Partridge was one of them, a hometown can be a magical place.

Partridge has been drawn towards music from an early age and was old enough to have been motivated to play by the Beatles and the Monkees. Inevitably the early 70’s would leave their mark and he developed into a pretty proficient guitarist capable of playing well beyond the confines expected from a punk band. He was helped in his development by the best guitarist in Swindon Dave Gregory who he got to know through the town’s music shop.

But, of course, XTC were never really punk. In the mid 70’s the NME ran a short series giving unknown bands what would these days be called a ‘shout out’. The feature didn’t last long, I don’t know why, but one of the bands who did get a mention were the Heliium Kidz. Four hairy young men from Swindon featuring Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers and another guitarist called Dave.

When Dave showed less than willing to commit to a life on the road he was fired and replaced by keyboard player Barry Andrews and XTC was born.

Like Squeeze or the Police, XTC were thrown into the London Punk scene where they didn’t really belong but where they needed to develop certain attitudes to survive. Some early XTC songs were impossibly fast. Their first LP is a frantic jerky affair, a bit like the Talking Heads played at 78 rpm. Highlights are pub standard ‘All along the watchtower’ deconstructed to sweaty dub rock and the itchy and scratchy ‘Cross Wires’. Despite the surfeit of energy Partridge still maintained a part of his soul that worshiped the Monkees, there are some excellent pop songs to be played ‘Radios in Motion’, ‘This is Pop’ (ha!) and, of course the peerless ‘Statue of Liberty’, a song so full of lyrical and musical ideas I still marvel at it to this day.

The first time I saw you standing in the water

You must have been all of a thousand feet tall

Nearly naked – unashamed like Herod’s daughter

Your love was so big

It made New York look small

You’ve been the subject of so many dreams

Since I climbed your torso


My statue of Liberty

Boo Boo

Impaled on your hair

What do you do

Do Do to me

Boo Boo

I leaned right over to kiss your stoney book

A little jealous of the ships with whom you flirt

A billion lovers with their cameras

Snap to look and in my fantasy

I sail beneath your skirt

There are stories that the BBC got a bit upset about bit about sailing beneath your skirt which they probably did but believe me, it still got played on the radio.

The band were to follow up with more jerky pop on GO2. A record I had probably not listened to for 35 years until recently. It still sounds pretty good but marked the end of the Barry Andrews era. Andrews had written a lot of songs and wanted them on the record. A lot were omitted for the simple reason they weren’t that good and so Andrews left. Song writing was going to be a lifetime issue, Bassist Colin Moulding wrote occasional songs which all got recorded, Partridge was a lot more prolific but had to concede album space to his band mate. New recruit, best guitarist in Swindon, Dave Gregory posed no song writing challenge but brought a greater sonic palette to the band.

Post Andrews XTC became more musical and less edgy. Their commercial position shifted thanks to one of Moulding’s occasional songs ‘Making Plans for Nigel’. For a short while XTC were one of the new pop breed with Haircut 100 or even Duran Duran. The band always seemed to be on Top of the Pops or some kids show. Partridge was an intelligent and witty interviewee, this was clever pop.

I lost contact with the band round about the time that drummer Chambers left, what little I heard after that smacked a bit of 80’s production. Like the Beatles, XTC had become a studio band, partly due to Partridges stage fright which in turn was probably linked to his addiction to Valium. I missed the energy of 70’s XTC and soon had developed a real aversion to the sound of the Linn Drum.

One day I will just sit down with the band’s back catalogue and see what I missed, but in the meantime, this is what I consider to be their greatest moment.

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This Is Pop…Outlandos D’Amour

By the end of 1978 the punk gold rush was coming to an end. A whole load of new bands had been formed and hastily named with The… followed by just about any noun that had not been taken. The smell of desperation hung heavy in the air not least around a bunch of muso’s who had been hastily formed around a Jazz Rock bass player and a Prog Rock drummer.

The Police were not policemen nor had ever been in the police or had any connection with the police or even been employed as security guards. It was a shoddy name which became even shoddier post internet when a google search would see them subsumed by proper emergency services.

And so, the credibility of The Police in mid-1978 was virtually zero. Formed when two ego’s collided namely Gordon Summer genuine working class dirt poor Geordie and spoilt American brat Stuart Copeland. They had some reason to be self-confident, they were both phenomenally gifted musicians. Sumner, who had been nicknamed Sting because of his stripy jumpers had been playing with Last Exit, a Newcastle based Jazz Rock band who were predictably going nowhere fast post punk. Copeland had been the last drummer in Curved air a kind of prog rock band who were as popular round the polytechnics for the charms of singer and Copeland’s girlfriend Sonja Kristina as their music. Sting had exchanged phone numbers with Copeland at a curved air gig as had Corsican guitarist Henry Padovani.

Realising the pointlessness of being in Newcastle’s answer to Weather Report Sting had located to London where he hooked up with Copeland and, by default, Henry Padovani. Copeland had realised that, for the moment at least, the smartest money would be in punk and persuaded the nakedly ambitious bass player to come along for the ride. Sting’s commitment to this was evidenced that he was also, at the same time, playing in Strontium 90 a band formed by ex-Gong Bassist Mike Howlett which one might imagine was firmly not punk.

And so, with a crap name, some crap songs and a crap guitarist The Police set out doing what every band used to do in the 70’s which was play any shitty venue that would have them. They were, of course, slightly ahead of the game by having a drummer who had been in a medium league band but also this drummer had a brother, Miles, who was making inroads into music management.

One of Mile’s first brainwaves was to get the band to back Cherry Vanilla an ex Warhol acolyte who despite being fairly talentless and now in her mid 30’s had enough rock chick history to stir up a frisson of interest in among the punk youth. For £15 a night and a support slot The Police were willing to offer backing band duties. The band also supported Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, a more credible if not musical experience. The pairing was fortunate for Padovani as he was about to be bounced from the band and would turn to the Electric Chairs for a gig more commensurate with his musical skills.

Growing frustrated with the limitations of punk, Sting was seeking to employ his Strontium 90 bandmate Andy Summers. Summers was a decade and musical generation older than the others having played with everyone from Zoot Moneys Big Roll Band to Neil Sedaka via Soft Machine and the Animals. If the Police had had any credibility Summers would have destroyed it but they didn’t, pretty much everyone saw them as desperate muso’s trying to hitch aboard the punk bandwagon. They had released one single with Henry Padovani which sounded like a punk band fronted by Jon Anderson of Yes. It wasn’t going to take off, but with Summers on board the balance of power tipped, Sting unveiled some new songs and Summers found some interesting things to play on them. Copeland found some hyperactive reggae beats and all of a sudden, the band weren’t so desperate at all.

I had been aware of ‘Roxanne’ their first proper single through a grudging play by John Peel but the first time a was struck by the band was on finding a copy of their ‘I can’t stand losing you’ single in Woolworths. I didn’t buy the record, after all it  probably cost at least 50p, but I was impressed by the sleeve which featured Copeland with a noose round his neck standing on a block of ice which had a two-bar fire in front of it. It would provoke a twitter storm today and a moral outrage in 1978 if the right papers had been paying attention.*


This marked a turning point in the Band’s fortunes. ‘Roxanne’ had been a bit of a damp squib but now it was re-released and all of a sudden, The Police were the best new band on the block.

And so, onto Outlandos D’Amour, and what is noticeable about what a work in progress this album is. Miles Copeland still really wanted a credible punk band but he was very wrong. About half the album is still flirting with punk thrash, notably in the opener ‘Next To You’ which sound close to the Henry Padovani period band until Summer subverts it with a key change and a slide guitar solo. Elsewhere the likes of ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Born in the 50’s’ are solid shiny new wave offerings. 40 years on this has weathered well, far more so than the Dammed or Buzzcocks but also this is game changing material packaged for a mass market and ready to send to America.

This is a record that we will remember for a couple of great singles and the introduction of the Police Sound. It’s easy to forget that the album also featured ‘Be my Girl’ which features a spoken word piece (by Summers?) about an inflatable sex doll. Outlandos D’Amour is a typical debut album where a band hasn’t really decided who they are yet and as a consequence are producing some quite off the wall material. Even when the songs are a bit slight or just a bit irritating there’s still the pleasure of hearing three great musicians playing together. Copeland in particular can come up with more ideas in one song that most drummers come up with in a lifetime.

But, if there’s one song that encapsulates the whole Police masterplan it’s the hit that never was ‘So Lonely’. A bit of rock, a bit of reggae, a bit of jazz rock guitar solo and some great dynamics. We might regret it later but for a moment we were all in love with the band.

* Wikipedia claims the BBC banned it which clearly they didn’t as I remember hearing it…a lot !

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This Is Pop

A quick perusal of this month’s Shindig magazine has convinced me that 1968 is back in fashion. It’s 50 years ago of course and so it is time to convince the ageing punters that still buy CD’s that now is the time to but another version of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or The White Album or Electric Ladyland.

We all love nostalgia of course we do, I remember in 1976 that the New Musical Express was listing all the great albums that had been made in 1966. To be fair they had a point, it was a great year for music, but then 1966 seemed as far away as 1968 does to the present day.

And so, with my Futureispast head on I thought I would look at 1978 to see if it held the same sort of treasures as 1968. The latter, of course was when psychedelia and ‘progressive’ music was becoming heavy and ‘rock’ was being born. You can hear the Beatles doing it before your very ears on ‘Helter Skelter’ on the White Album.

So, onto 1978, a mixed bag as might be anticipated, the nearest to a classic might be Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town which has grown in stature over the years. A genuinely great British eccentric, namely Kate Bush was emerging and there was interesting stuff from the likes of Pere Ubu, Television and The Only Ones.

Inevitable there was going to be variety, these were interesting times, my overall memory of the end of the 70’s however was the emergence of post punk and the re-emergence of pop.

These days pop is hotbed of force-fed acts where the songwriter and producer are king (or queen). It is the sound of radio one and the X factor, I don’t like it, it’s too artificial. But then again, I am 60.

In the late 70’s however pop was a broader church, the weight of the Beatles still laid heavy on us all, they had been the ultimate pop band, they had spent years playing covers in clubs trying to entertain everyone with everything from showtunes to Elvis. There was a lack of snobbishness about the band but also a lack of desperation. The Beatles were happy to play pop.
After a couple of years of punk, we were beginning to consider there might be more to life than going to be insulted by a bunch of people who couldn’t play very well and risk being beaten up by whatever local subculture had turned up looking for a fight. However, Punk had opened some kind of door to other possibilities and one of these was the need for a bit higher energy playing.
All of a sudden, the time was right for a bunch of people who had been biding their time on the side-lines waiting, watching and making sure they could play their instruments. Notably  Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids were ahead of the pack. Since leaving the Sex Pistols Matlock was free to indulge in ‘wanky Beatle chords’ and this time we were willing to listen. In his new band he had recruited Midge Ure, a talented and opportunistic young Scottish Guy who would have been laughed offstage in 1976 but now was newly credible.
The Rich Kids were a very short-lived phenomena but others were in it for the long term (which in the 70’s was about 4 years)

Blondie had been lurking around as a kind of joke band since the mid 70’s. They had toured Britain with Television and during the attractive women shortage of 1977 Debbie Harry was everywhere. Blondie never got that good at playing live but Harry was a brilliantly charismatic front person. Their other strength was their songs were melodic and energetic. Likewise, Elvis Costello was transforming from county influenced  angry young man to angry young man with good pop songs. His Armed Forces was in the pipeline, chock full of tunes that had allegedly been deconstructed from Abba. Costello’s old producer Nick Lowe had released Jesus of Cool which mixed rock with pure pop. Spikey Swindon band XTC were on the verge of jettisoning their experimental keyboard player for Drums and Wires. Squeeze had suddenly revealed a real flair for melodic song writing as had Buzzcocks. The Police had now left their individual Jazz Rock and Prog Rock projects behind and after flirting with punk for a while had stumbled across a kind of pop reggae that would take over the world.
All of a sudden musicians seemed to be having a bit of a good time and getting paid for it. At the Polytechnic Disco we could dance to ‘Oliver’s Army’ ‘Heart of Glass’ ‘Can’t Stand Loosing You’ and ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ without any real self-consciousness. These were all proper bands with proper musicians who just happened to make great records. There was more to come, the Two Tone movement and then the advent of electo pop recognised the importance of tunes. We had a couple of years before it all started to get a bit silly or miserable.

But by then it was the 80’s

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