The Mighty Slits

“People didn’t know whether to fuck us or kill us, because we looked like we’d come out of a porn magazine.”

Becoming a parent raises a whole load of issues. There is no right or wrong for most of us, just shades of grey. Do you allow your children to be self-expressive and free or do you set firm boundaries for example? Both approaches have their pros and cons, the more liberal among us but be inclined for towards the former approach, I certainly was until I had children of my own. On the other hand children who are brought up with strict and clear rules far from being the uptight little Hitler’s we might imagine are often well adjusted. Having been reared in an environment where rules were understood and everyone knew their place often engendered a sense of self confidence.

In the 70’s there were a lot of children around suffering the aftershock of the liberal 60’s. Their parents might have the attitude that anyone could do what they wanted, they had experienced freedom and didn’t always want to be tied down to the needs of their children who were encouraged to run wild and express themselves. When that works it works, there are no rights and wrongs remember but sometimes it could go horribly wrong.

Take the case of Ariane Daniela Forster, her mother Nora was an original rock chick, involved in the music business, friend of Jimi Hendrix and, in the mid 70’s girlfriend of guitarist Chris Spedding which had led to her locating from Germany to England. Nora’s home became a refuge for various musical waif and strays including members of the Clash and the Pistols. 14 year old Ariane was drawn towards the lifestyle and in was soon trying to form a band herself.

She connected with Joe Strummers Spanish girlfriend known as Palmolive because her Spanish name proved too challenging for Joe’s liberal hippie mates. There was a drum kit in Joes squat and Palmolive taught herself to play in a style all of her own. Ariane became Ari Up the vocalist and they were eventually joined by two other barely competent musicians Tessa Pollitt on Bass and Viv Albertine on guitar.

And The Slits were born.

The Slits always seemed to me to be comic like characters. They were as tight as could be with each other. Ari Up was a force of nature but also probably a real pain in the arse. She was 14 remember and had little experience in social conformity, if she wanted to piss on stage she would piss on stage she knew no boundaries. The Slits were a gang, if they were not in the Slits they probably would not have been in bands at all but amazingly they had all discovered, almost by accident that were in the best band ever for their talents.

There had never been a band before remotely like the Slits.

On one hand this made things easy, they were supporting The Clash on tour (Albertine was now in a relationship with Mick Jones) before they could even master starting and stopping at the same time. In fact they gave an interview to national paper ‘The News of the World’ (which described their name as unprintable in a family paper) before they had even appeared live. On one level they had it handed to them on a plate, the band were impossible to ignore, John Peel loved them and they recorded an iconic session with him, the band were at the eye of the hurricane that was punk in 1977.

On the other hand being a bunch of young women who couldn’t really play very well and clearly didn’t really care about tat fact, a band which had a singer who refused to censor her words or actions, a band who were as thick as thieves and had little regard for the opinions of others, were very vulnerable.

Just walking down the street was likely to produce, at the very least, verbal abuse. The more high profile they were the more likely they would be verbally or physically attacked. By mid-1977 it was open season on the punks from the tabloid media down to the Teddy Boys who still walked the streets of London.

As the band gained some control over their instruments they began gravitating towards reggae which led to Palmolive being ousted from the band. Like Ari Up Palmolive was feisty to say the least. As a personality rather than a musician she would be missed.

The only significant recording by the Slits was to be their LP Cut which was famous for featuring the remaining three members naked covered in mud on the cover. It wasn’t really titillating but it was very bold. The LP was produced by reggae producer Dennis Bovell who did a fantastic job of combining dub and punk, with the aid of male drummer Budgie (soon to join Siouxsie and the Banshees) the band had made a seminal and album which was impossible to categorise.

I saw the Slits on two occasions. The first time was in Derby in 1978 when they supported the Clash on yet another tour. Times had moved on, I was one of only two people in the audience with really long hair. I remember the band being subjected to a barrage of saliva and either Ari Up or Viv Albertine suggested the male members of the audience should try ejaculating rather than spitting.

That made me chuckle.

My second encounter with the band was at the Glastonbury Festival in 1979. At this point the band were hanging around with Bristol based Avant Guardists The Pop Group. During the latter’s challenging set three small bizarre looking women danced onto the stage and added to the general chaos by prancing about and hitting things. It was, of course, The Slits having a day out in the country.

They made another record ‘Return of the Giant Slits’ but Cut was good enough for me I didn’t want to hear anymore. Then the band disbanded.

As might be predicted none of the Slits lived an unconventional life for too long. Viv Albertine, after a spell making films and surviving cancer married and settle on the south coast. That didn’t last forever, her autobiography ‘Clothes Clothes Clothes,Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys’ is certainly the most brutally honest and uncompromising rock story ever written in the first person.

Tessa Pollitt survived a period of heroin addiction and the death of her partner, Sean Oliver from the Pop Group, from sickle cell anaemia. Palmolive, unexpectedly became a born again Christian and relocated to the States.

But it would always be Ari Up who you would be most fearful for. Without a liberal background she wouldn’t have been Ari Up the crazy front woman who obeyed no rules. But then she wouldn’t have been stabbed twice and raped because she probably wouldn’t have been in a situation where these things could have happened to a girl in her mid-teens. Her free spirit led her to live in Indonesia and Belize before settling, in a manner, in Jamaica. Unfortunately her values had meant that her twin sons had been raised almost feral, they were actually adopted by Nora and her long term partner John Lydon who set about teaching them to read and even to speak properly. Ari Up’s values also lead to her refusing any ‘western’ treatment’ for breast cancer.

She died at the age of 48 and Lydon and Nora also assumed care of her youngest child.

For a band with such a thin back catalogue the bands legacy is huge. Rather like the with the Fall having some reference to their work would mark you out as being made of the right stuff throughout the eighties. Like the Fall the Slits were huge John Peel favourites but the difference between them and the Manchester band just highlights the differences between men and women in rock music. The the Fall’s Mark E Smith this was all he knew, if he had to go on stage in a wheelchair as happened at his final gig then that was the price to pay. In contrast the Slits had better things to do, three of them did appear on stage together again briefly but it was no big deal and didn’t last long, for the likes of Viv Albertine and Ari Up the band was just one chapter in extraordinary lives.

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Four Strings, Two Hands, One Woman

By the mid 70’s rock music was 20 years old. As an art form it had simply exploded, from Elvis recording ‘that’s Alright Mama to The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields forever’ was not much over ten years.

The evolution of music was simply phenomenal, The Beatles themselves set the bar so high so early but there was no way we could sustain that initial burst of creativity. The rock world coped with this by simply getting bigger and bigger encompassing jazz and soul, country and reggae and folk and eventually world music. It seemed there was nothing that rock couldn’t encompass.

Apart from women that is.

Amazingly 50% of the population were simply not represented in this music phenomena for the first 20 years.

Quite clearly I’m not talking about singers. From Wanda Jackson onwards female singers existed just like they had done in jazz and big bands or country and western combos. Eventually the acoustic guitar became acceptable as a means of self-expression as was the piano. The likes of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Carol King were big players as the 60’s ended and we became a bit more introspective and sensitive.

For the first 20 years however women were represented in rock music either as the front person/ singer or the singer songwriter, there was little evidence of them rolling up their sleeves and sweating away in the backline.

Just to evidence that lets take a look at the most unglamorous of instruments the Bass Guitar. For all the liberal 1960’s I can find just one British female bass player. Step forward Megan Davies the bassist with ‘Brumbeat’ combo, The Applejacks. Davies was a proper bass player, as usual she was relegated to the instrument for being the worst of the guitarists in the band but after that she got on with the job in the hand weathering the few month of fame and then a quieter life when the band became cruise ship entertainers. When the band ended she went on to train as a Nurse.


And that was it, all the way through the beat boom, flower power and the swinging 60’s that was it.

In the interests of truth and justice I should point out that Liquorish (yes!) from the Incredible String Band also played bass but as she was a girlfriend of the band who would have been expected to cook the porridge and clean the house as well she doesn’t count here.

In the early 70’s we were treated to the excitement of Suzi Quatro wearing black leather and singing and rocking with what looked like and enormous fender Bass. This was tremendously influential but cheating a bit. Quatro was from Detroit and a veteran of live playing. She clearly knew what she was up to in fact she was bloody brilliant. The USA, probably just because it was bigger offered a few more role models, notably Carol Kaye who played session bass on loads of LA recordings, not least the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’. Quatro was an imported talent, she has been playing percussion in her father’s jazz band at an impossibly young age and had then moved on to the Pleasure Seekers, an all-female cabaret band who, whether they were dressed in trouser suits or miniskirts or wigs were providing a bit of novelty eye candy despite their musical talent.

There are people who will tell you that punk was just speeded up heavy metal which is only superficially true. If you need proof that punk was more than the sum of its parts just look at what happened with woman musicians over the space of a couple of years.

Pre 1975 it seemed that women just didn’t want to play. It’s weird really when you consider that they made up a sizable proportion of the audience and bought shedloads of records. There’s a pretty strong probability that if you did want to pay a trip to the music shop to look at proper musical instruments it would have been regarded at best as a freak show which the shop assistants would have dined out on for months. At worst it would have resulted on outright hostility. There was a pretty wide acceptance that ‘chicks can’t play’. It wasn’t that all men were evil (although some of the nastiest people who have ever lived have worked in music shops), it was just accepted wisdom. Let’s be honest, how were we to know better, citing Megan Davis from the Applejacks was unlikely to make a convincing argument.

There’s also a wider issue that women are just a bit more sensible and well balanced then men. Gaye Advert left the band because she was fed up with being ‘cold all the time’. Being in a band involves lots of waiting around and indeed being cold. Men seem to have a greater capacity for doing things that are essentially pointless. Like Megan Davies Gaye Advert got a job with career prospects and a pension rather than trailing round the shitholes of Britain playing to drunk people.

I wrote a few months back about the sheer impact of Gaye Advert playing bass, it seems ridiculous now but at the time it was a pretty big deal. Leaking over from the USA was news of other bands with female musicians. The Runaways had set their stall out but the goods had soon started to go stale, it only took a few months for dressing in stockings and suspenders to look a bit wrong but it couldn’t be denied that here were women actually playing rock music. More influential in the long term was Tina Weymouth with Talking Heads. There’s a story that when the band got their first record contract David Byrne made Tina re audition for the band. If that’s true he’s an idiot, she is one of the finest bassists ever, if it’s not true then sorry Dave.

So m’lud let’s examine the evidence

British woman bass players 1955-1975

Megan Davies- the Applejacks

Liquorish-The Incredible Sting Band (possibly)

British women bass Players 1975- 1978

Gaye Advert –The Adverts

Tessa Pollitt – The Slits

Gina Birch – The Raincoats

Shanne Bradley – The Nips

Enid Williams- Girlschool

Gil Weston- The Killjoys


Ok, so they are not all household names but, unless you are 70 and live in Birmingham, neither are the Applejacks. It’s pretty obvious though that playing in a band was becoming an actual option for the young women of Britain.

Once the door was open then there was snowball effect for a while from Sonic Youth to the Pixies to Elastica and My Bloody Valentine, if you were a woman it was ok to be a bass player if you wanted -until rock died and young women wanted to be in the Pussycat dolls or Little Mix and wear suspenders on stage again.

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October 1978. I’ve just started a humanities course at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. As an ice breaker I am invited to a cheese and wine party to meet the tutors. There’s some cheese and there’s some wine and there’s a record player on which someone has placed some Bob Dylan album, I’m not that bothered, I have yet to discover the man’s genius at the moment it’s just out of date 60’s crap. The tutors are in a frisky mood, after all they have probably spent all the summer in the Dordogne and haven’t got into the swing of the 10 to 4 daily grind. At some point Dylan has ended and the riff to the Stone’s Brown Sugar blasts out. Some of the tutors have started gyrating, it’s like some sort of pavlovian response this is their song.

Some of the people who will be teaching me are not that old, possibly even in their late 20’s but this is music from a different generation. The weird thing is that all these groovy liberals are dancing to song that’s about a slaver raping his slave women. There’s nothing good about it, it’s not an analogy to the Cuban missile crises or a satire on gender roles, it’s about black slaves getting raped.

OK I could be making too much of this, most of my liberal friends still haven’t really listened to the lyrics and after all as a record it sounds great, to be fair Jagger was trying to push lyrical boundaries a bit and came up with an unusual lyric. On the other hand, a couple of years earlier the Stones had promoted their ‘Black and Blue’ album with pictures of a model tied up and made up to look as if she had been savagely beaten. Violence against women was being used to sell records.

This was an environment where Ian Gillian could admit he’s tried to rape his ‘Strange Kind of Women’ or the Sweet could threaten ‘If she don’t spread I’m gonna bust her head’ and no one would really even notice it. A woman walking the streets was simply fair game to be commented on. Workmen were expected to shout out you or at the very least wolf whistle, it was in their training. Failure to respond in a positive way revealed you were frigid or lesbian or, at the very least totally devoid of humour. I knew women who would change their route at the first sight of scaffolding rather than run the gamut.

Reading the autobiography’s of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Viv Albertine of the Slits highlight how the underlying threat of violence and abuse in the rock and roll world was ever present. You were expected to know your place and to step outside it was risky, you could be a rock and roll chick but that still meant you were supposed to be subservient to the men however ‘cool’ they might appear to be with having you around.

Women in rock were tolerated in two roles, one was the singer songwriter as exemplified by Joni Mitchell or Carole King. This made a lot more sense in LA, things seemed generally looser and funkier there, assuming you managed to stay away from Charles Manson, but they couldn’t really translate that well to Blackburn or Glasgow. The other, slightly less acceptable, female role was that of singer/ frontwoman. Ideally you had to look good as well as sing well. There was a little more leeway if you fronted a proper hairy arse rock band. This was the hardest role of all, the best we had in Britain was Maggie Bell. Bell was our own Janis Joplin and therefore could get away with looking a bit rough because she was really good but she didn’t have that many peers. The closest rival was Elkie Brooks in Vinegar Joe (where she was co-vocalist with Robert Palmer). More off centre there was Sonja Kristina singer with Curved Air. The very mention of her name can still make old prog fans misty eyed but she was operating in a very male orientated arena, I’ve never met a woman who has even heard of her.

It was a difficult time, men never spoke about their feelings, you would never see men hug each other although occasionally you were allowed to be a little bit introspective, it showed you were deep and chicks liked that.

But the rock blueprint had been set by the likes of Zeppelin and The Stones, being a rock musician was man’s business women were there by invitation only and they had to know their place. The rock world was every bit as sexist as everywhere else.

Punk however opened up opportunities for everyone, no longer did you have to be a fantastic musician with great gear and a recording contract, almost everyone could have a go.

And everyone meant women as well.

So this month is a kind of celebration of how women began to become involved in rock music on their own terms.

I am a man


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Don’t Give Up The Day Job

Writers as rock stars

Even by the mid 70’s the star maker machinery behind the popular song was still in its infancy. The rock writer had traditionally either been a slick Tin Pan Alley product churning out press releases for the teen idols of the day or they had effectively been an extension from the days of jazz (and classical) where every bass solo was treated with chin stroking introspection.

By the early 70’s the lunatics were taking over the asylum. There were still plenty of writers very happy to eulogise over a Rick Wakeman solo, elevating rock to the level of ‘proper’ music’ but the new breed were influenced by the likes of Lester Bangs for whom the lifestyle and cultural aspects were every bit a important as the actual music itself.

There was always the general wisdom, mainly among musicians, that all writers were just failed musicians. This was despite the fact that by the mid 70’s Even by the mid 70’s the star maker machinery behind the popular song was still in its infancy. The rock writer had traditionally either been a slick Tin Pan Alley product churning out press releases for the teen idols of the day or they had effectively been an extension from the days of jazz (and classical) where every bass solo was treated with chin stroking introspection.

By the early 70’s the lunatics were taking over the asylum. There were still plenty of writers very happy to eulogise over a Rick Wakeman solo, elevating rock to the level of ‘proper’ music’ but the new breed were influenced by the likes of Lester Bangs for whom the lifestyle and cultural aspects were every bit a important as the actual music itself.

There was always the general wisdom, mainly among musicians, that all writers were just failed musicians. This was despite the fact that by the mid 70’s writers had a potentially huge audience. The big three in Britain, Sounds, Melody Maker and New Musical Express were phenomenally influential, bear in mind that this was a time when it was quite difficult to actually hear a lot of the music being made, a weekly music paper was a lot better investment than buying an LP without actually hearing it.

And so writing was actually a pretty good gig, you invariably operated from the epicentre of culture ( London), you got to go to the great gigs (free) hear great music (free) and go to all the best parties (free) and if you wished, every night you could sleep in your own bed.

Despite this, some writers increasing did want to be rockstars.

My first example doesn’t really count, Mick Farren was an undefinable force of nature, mixing politics, music, writing and general social agitation. His band The Social Deviants operated on a kind of sub Hawkwind/Pink Fairies mode although  probably their role model was the American band The Fugs. The Social Deviants were sort of good/ terrible/ unintentionally hilarious. ‘Grab the tit of the girl next to you’ he extorts on a YouTube live clip. That’s not free love Mick that’s sexual assault. Farren had, by the arrival of punk, settled into a job at the NME having realised this was a better option than playing to a bunch of Hells Angels. He couldn’t resist the roar of the crowd though and  recorded a solo album Vampires Stole My Lunch Money.

With the advent of punk it seemed that everyone was getting involved so why not a rock writer ? They should at least be able to come up with a decent set of lyrics if nothing else.

Strangely enough NME writer Charles Shaar Murray decided to resurrect pub rock, he probably didn’t mean to, Murray was a blues aficionado throughout his tenure with the paper, his heart was in the right place. In 1978 his band Blast Furnace and the Heatwaves released  a four track EP. I fell for  this inspired by Murray’s assertion that he was mixing punk and blus. Unfortunately that resulted in pub rock. The record was produced by two of his mates from The Count Bishops and as a result it sounded pretty much like that band. On the stand out track ‘Cant Stop the Boy’ the backing vocals were courtesy of two other mates namely Bob Geldof and Phil Lynott. CSTB is basically Murray showing off about  what a wilful character he is although ‘hanging around with the Boomtown Rats’ line doesn’t do a lot for his credibility 40 years on. I actually bought this record, the second side was pressed so for off centre it made me feel quite queasy to actually listen to it but I’ve still got a soft spot for nervous white boy R&B.

Scoring higher on the punkometer was Chris Needs. Needs had run the Mott the Hoople fan club as a teenager and had made friends with fellow fan and future Clash Guitarist Mick Jones. Like last week’s artist Jon Ottway, Needs was based in Aylesbury and had begun writing for Zig Zag magazine. Zig Zag was originally a hippie rag. It was possible to get it occasionally in Norwich and it was a  combination of exotic, free thinking and good(ish) writing. Punk wrong footed it of course and it had to switch from writing about Richard Thompson and Mike Nesmith to the Slits and the Adverts in the space of about 6 months. Needs was instrumental in this revision and was soon to become the editor. Not content with this he decided to form a band The Vice Creems with a bunch of Aylesbury mates. The Vice Creems were quite good third division punk which, of course, meant they never got played on the radio. Needs created a flicker of interest in his music when his band abandoned him leaving him with a studio booked with old mate Jones as producer. Jones called up a few favours and soon the new Vice Creems consisted of Jones on guitar, Topper Headon from the Clash on drums and Tony James from Generation X on bass. To be fair though it all had a limited shelf life and Needs moved to New York to enjoy a drug habit for a few years. It’s  OK, he kicked heroin and is now a well respected DJ so it all ended well.

Giovando Dadamo was also a writer for Zig Zag and also for Sounds as was the bass player in his band The Snivelling Shits. With good connections the band managed to get their record ‘Terminal Stupid’ listed as single of the week in the NME. These things mattered in 1977. The trouble was it didnt matter 6 months later. Dadamo found out what all sensible people discover that being in a band is great fun for 6 months especially when your first single is flavour of the week. The Shits soon ground to a halt.

Last, and best, NME writer Nick Kent was continually dabbling in music, this is the man who claims to have tutored Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols remember? Unfortunately he had turning into  public enemy no 1 as far as the London punk scene was concerned, no one was waiting for a Nick Kent single apart from to spit on it. He was also hampered by multiple drug habits so only tended to be motivated to make music when his methadone script was stable. During one such period he produced a single as The Subterraneans. ‘My Flamingo’ allegedly about his relationship with Chrissie Hynde is a lovely guitar based song which pre dated the likes of Lloyd Cole and even REM. And Kent had the last laugh, recorded in the face of adversity, is probably the best song ever recorded by a journalist.

Unless you count Chrissie Hynde herself of course.

That’s another story

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It was 40 years ago today….John Otway

Coming from a small city city myself I’m always drawn to bands and artists who appear, as if by magic, from somewhere that a bit different and remote. A sense of physical remoteness often lends a certain individuality to their music that’s sometimes lacking in those bands that spring from the big cities. Growing up in a small town means there’s not much to copy and this was very much the case in the days before YouTube. I always hoped that Norwich could have produced something of note, I suspect that if had had ever achieved this it would have been something a bit quirky.

Mark E Smith was an individual of course but although I kind of admired him, he didn’t really speak to me, he was from the North. But, show me an individual from somewhere that’s leafy and has a bit of history and I’m going to be interested.

I’ve never been to Aylesbury but I’ve always thought it must be quite nice, it has given it’s name to a breed of ducks and it is located in Buckinghamshire which has got to be a bit posh. The only band of any note with anything to do with the town are Marillion. I can relate to that, Norwich was full of people like Marillion and it show a certain resolve to form a prog rock band at the end of the 70’s which seemed to be the last thing that anyone wanted.

The other musical export from Buckinghamshire’s county town was John Otway. Otway had been around for about 5 years, starting off in slightly eccentric country rock and had become progressively eccentric and extrovert. He had teamed up with another of the town’s musicians Wild Willy Barrett (Roger to his mum). Barrett was a bit older, one of those guys who can play just about anything, offer to repair your banjo and then sell you a bit of hash. He looked like a hippie but there seemed to be little that was idealist about him, he tagged onto Otway, providing some much needed musical input but preferred to stay well away from the crazyness. On stage he looked like a man doing his job but not particularly enjoying it.

In comparison Otway had no filter, what you saw was what you got. In many respects he was the British Jonathan Richman. Otway wrote simple songs but had a unique world-view, he also wanted to entertain.

To a certain extent his career was build around one song ‘ Really Free’ was Otway’s ‘Roadrunner’, we had never heard anything quite like this before, it was funny without really being obvious (mind you, I rather enjoyed Joe Dolce’s ‘Shutupa Your Face’ a few years later). Otway and Barrett’s first album was produced by Pete Townsend and he did a pretty good job of it. Polydor, a record company mentally unbalanced  by the shock waves of punk decided that Otway was going to be the next big thing and offered him a ridiculous sum of money to record five albums for them.

By this point the duo had made their greatest contribution to music, namely an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Here they are introduced by Bob Harris with one of the best live television performances ever !

By this point Otway had huge appeal, he clearly was not a punk but he appealed to the rest of us who weren’t punks either but had kind of got fed up with Jazz Rock.

And so when it was announced in early 1978 that Otway would be commencing a tour which would include the University of East Anglia there was no doubt that myself and my new friends from college would be going. None of us were punks, I suspect we took our flares and greatcoats and sat cross legged while we watched the great man do his work.

To my shame I cant remember a huge amount about the gig. By this time Barrett and Otway had split I think, hence his forthcoming record entitled ‘All Balls and no Willy’. With almost unlimited record company money, he had a full band of hired hands and put on a pretty slick show. The thing that struck me most was he played an electric guitar with a rear fitting that slotted onto an robust looking belt. This meant Otway could not only remove his instrument instantly but he could also perform gymnastics such as somersaults while playing. What a great idea I thought why does no one else do that, 40 years later the idea still hasn’t caught on.

Polydor never really recouped their money as Otway failed to follow up with any hits. Yet again though this is another example of the power of punk. Otway suddenly had a following. After slogging away since 1972 he had to wait until the audience was ready, post Pistols we were all a bit more liberal minded about what actually constituted a musical performance. Although the hits had gone Otway maintained a core following. Through New Romantic, House and Techno, Ottway continued to perform. There were enough people in on the joke to indulge him in the odd publicity stunt and eventually after a concerted effort he got his 50th birthday wish another ‘hit’ when ‘Bunsen’ Burner’ reached number 6 in the charts. There’s been a book and a film and although he’s now eligible for his pension Otway keeps his brand going, he recently played a room above my local, it’s not the University of East Anglia but I am reliably informed he pack the place.

And he still hasn’t fully exploited the Otway guitar belt!

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Mark E Smith;Spector vs Rector vs Reaper

When Mark E Smith died at the age of 60 my first thought was to marvel that he had lived that long.

Smith died on 24th Jan, my father in law Ralph passed away 24 hours later, it all felt rather personal.

Smith entered my life first, about 40 years ago to be more precise. I’m sure that the Fall will be categorised as a punk band by much of the media but theirs is a perfect example of the influence of punk. The Fall’s only real alliance with punk was the disregard for the niceties of music. Smith operated a slash and burn approach to his work, he laid down a track an moved on, so if the drums sounded like tin cans or the guitar was out of tune so be it, there was no turning back.

Late to the party, only releasing their first album in 1979, the original Fall looked like a mismatch bunch of deranged ex hippies. Half the band had long hair and nearly all of them were prone to wearing jumpers (its cold up North).

And so began the most original idiosyncratic and bloody minded band of all time.

Smith would be an outsider whatever path he had chosen. A complex individual cursed with a fierce intelligence as well as Captain Beefheart he was influenced by literature notably horror fiction but also an interest in the occult, the young Smith used to finance the band by doing Tarot readings in the early days.

But as far as Britain was concerned Smith was a Northerner and in a world dominated by London media that made him very different indeed. His lifelong muse was Prestwich Manchester. Smith saw little value in travel for travel’s sake. He was deeply suspicious of the workings of the music industry and his distrust and disgust was apparent in his lyrics.

coronation street

As far as the rest of us living south of the Severn/Trent line Manchester meant just one thing. ‘Coronation Street ‘ was the first, the best and the most enduring British soap, my parents and their families were addicted viewers, like finding out about Australia by watching ‘Neighbours’ this was a flawed approach to geography but The Street was gritty, the North was gritty and the Fall were gritty. In Coronation Street everybody smoked, everybody drank (in the Rover’s Return), a further thing I realised in later life is that when Manchester men get older they tend to resemble Bill Tarmey much loved barman at the Rover’s Return.

bill tarmey

mark smith 2

Manchester in the 70’s probably had more in common with Victorian Manchester as the modern city. Despite being such a individual city musically Manchester had never really happened, it’s main contribution to the 60’s being The Hollies and Freddie and the dreamers. All this was about to change big time paving the way for the horror Oasis in 20 years time (a band that had more in common with Freddie and the Dreamers than The Fall).

When the Fall set out there was no gig circuit to support them, hence they played the sort of places touring bands usually avoided, notably the working class social club scene. These experiences were captured on the Totale’s Turns LP ‘the difference between you and us is we have brains’ declares Smith at the start of one of the songs. It’s the British version of the Stooges Metallic KO.

For me though, the Fall is a band of the eighties, its easy to remember that blighted decade as one continuous multicolour yuppie party but there was a darker side and The Fall were a major part of that. For most of this time Steve Hanley was the bass player and Craig Scanlon the guitarist. The Fall were everywhere during this period, they were John Peel’s favourite band which counted for a lot in 1983. Virtually everyone I knew said they liked the band, it was a bit like with Captain Beefheart if you like they you liked them and if you didnt it was unhip to admit it. A lot of that was to do with Smith, you could say he couldn’t sing or he ended every line with ‘ah’ or his lyrics were unintelligible or the band was a bit out of tune but that was saying snow is white, the band were exactly what they intended to be.

Smith’s attitudes to musicians are well documented, pretty much a non musician himself he had to rely on others but they were a necessary evil and no more. The original Fall was actually a proper band, setting a blueprint for future bands by incorporating (keyboard player Una Baines) one of Smith’s girlfriends. Over time replacements became increasingly replaceable, it was like being in a troupe under James Brown or Fela Kuti whatever you played you were only one gig away from a sacking.’Stop showing off and get it together’ Smith yells at his band on ‘No Xmas for John Quays’ off Totales Turns. The band are quite clearly not showing off but in Smith’s world all musicians are secretly planning a concept album. His assertion that ‘if its me and yer granny on bongos its the Fall’ was pretty much true. Weirdly most of his ex colleagues a pretty sanguine about their time in the band in a ‘thanks for the opportunity’ sort of way.

Some of this is due to the way that he ran his bands. Smith was a grafter, managing to put out a record a year for most of his career, it was his band, he took responsibility for the creative side and had little sympathy for those who simply had to turn up and play a couple of chords. Smith’s vision would never be diluted by the bass player trying to get a song on the album.

Round about the time of ‘Perverted by Language’ I lost interest a bit. With his glamorous American band mate girlfriend Brix the music seemed to be getting ready for the 90’s. My mate Neil recently recently published his own playlist on Spotify, being 10 years younger Neil’s list concentrated on a more recent time of better production values, Smith even ‘sings’ on a couple of tracks, for a casual listener like me it was every bit as good as the ‘old’ Fall but I missed it at the time.

After years of listening I still haven’t got much of a clue as to what Smith is on about in his lyrics but that is not really the point, as far as I am concerned there’s enough to fire the imagination in the song titles alone ,New Face in Hell’, ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’,’Kicker Conspiracy’ ‘Spector vs Rector’, Prole Art Threat’. These are lines that have seared themselves into my imagination I cant catch a train from King’s Cross without reflecting on the lyrics to ‘Leave the Capitol’ (‘exit this Roman shell’)

Unfortunately along with the values of no bullshit and hard work Smith had more destructive values, he had smoked heavily all his life because that’s what northern people do apparently. On his death he had lung damage. His main illicit drug of choice had been amphetamines, not surprising when you regard his prodigious output. It was the alcohol that was the real killer though. Smith liked to spend his time in pubs smoking (until the ban) and drinking. He probably had a problem with alcohol since the early 80’s. The old adage ‘the man takes a drink then the drink takes the man’ was to prove sadly true, recent clips show him drinking in a pub slurring his words and struggling with his recollections. There was also the case that most of his strident views had probably been formed by the time he was 18, he had become one of those old men out of time who are only half a paragraph away from saying something that sounds a bit racist. Performances continued as normal thanks to some enthusiastic young musicians (including girlfriend on keyboards) he had recruited. He tended to wander about fiddling with controls on amps (probably the ultimate insult to any self respecting guitarist). When he appeared at Glastonbury with what appeared to be a large urine stain down his trousers things had just got a bit too real.

Like most individualists you had to take Smith on his own terms, he said what he believed and and you either accepted that or not. People like that attract their fair share of sycophants because they are strong personality’s. Reading his biography us was stuck by his similarity to John Lydon (and curiously Ginger Baker), Smith was a lot funnier though.

Maybe it’s the nature of my Facebook feed but most of his obituaries are from 40-50 year old male intellectuals, despite such a long and active career the mainstream media seemed a lot more interested in the death of the singer from the Cranberries , I haven’t heard a mention of Smith on anything more mainstream than 6Music. I get the impression that when Paul Weller or one of the Gallagher brothers pass on there will be an awful lot of old men crying into their beer. For better or worse people really loved that music, its the sort of music that people sing at Karaoke or play at their weddings.

Like Sun Ra or Can or Beefheart, Smiths music will be admired rather than loved, at least for as long as John Peel is dead. The Fall is still music for what we used to call ‘heads’ in the 70’s the sort of people who take delight in music that is ‘challenging’.

I suspect that Smith himself would not have given a shit about his legacy. These days that’s the most refreshing thing of all. Smith would never revisit a classic line up or tour a classic album like so many of his peers have been tempted to do, there would be no 40th anniversary tours or re- imaginings of Hex Induction Hour with strings.

Remember him this way

Lets just hope there will never be a Fall tribute band

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The Bunch Rock On

One of my favourite podcasts is produced by ex-magazine The Word. Every so often ex members of the team gather to publicly shift through rants theories and conspiracies as well as interviewing people who are genuinely interesting.

One of the theories the team has come up with is one that musicians can only really love the music of their childhood. The general idea being that not only is this a formative time in our development but it’s also a period when the budding musician is innocent of all the factors that are part and parcel of their further career. The simple fact is that as soon as anyone starts making music in any focussed way all other music becomes competition, it is there to be dissected, derided or feared because all new music becomes a threat. That’s not always such a terrible thing, Brian Wilson, for example, was spurred on to create something better than the Beatles. The fact remains though that he probably never loved the Beatles in the same way he loved the Four Freshmen.

And so it was in the 70’s after a period of immense creativity, productivity and innovation that artists would look back to the music of their youth for comfort when things got tough and stressful. Bear in mind that in the early 70’s this music was only around 15 years old, Elvis was still alive, Chuck Berry was still something of a God to any aspiring guitarist, on a chronological level this was not old music but things had moved at such a pace in the 60’s that rock and roll had been left behind. David Bowie, one of the younger faces on the scene was to release Pin Ups, his own reworking of the Beat Boom, John Lennon, just that little bit older was going to record his own Rock and Roll album harking back to a few years earlier.

First on the scene in the nostalgia stakes was a group called The Bunch.

The Bunch was the fairly uninspired brainchild of Trevor Lucas one time bass player in psychedelic multicultural rockers the  eclection prior to that an Antipodean singer songwriter and more recently guitarist singer of Fotheringay and, significantly, partner of Sandy Denny. Opinions are divided about Lucas, he was either a fairly talentless performer who attached himself to real talent to further his career or he was a genuine guy who put up with Denny for as long as he could before saving himself and their daughter from the impending trainwreck. Whatever the case he was well liked and good at all the smoozing boozing and bullshitting that becomes a part of a musician’s life.Apparently Lucas and Denny used to hold monopoly parties so you can see why they were so well liked.

Lucas had managed to convene a bunch (Ha !) of associates who seemed similarly between jobs in the winter of 71-72. Richard Thompson had left Fairport Convention but had yet to record his first solo album Henry the Human Fly. Holed up in the Manor studio complex over the darkest days of winter he was able to further his acquaintance with singer Linda Peters who had been brought along by her new best friend Sandy Denny. Also present were recently unemployed members of Fotheringay, drummer Gerry Conway and bass player Pat Donaldson . Most of the piano was courtesy of Ian Whiteman previously with top British Psychedelic combo Mighty Baby. Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks also presumably had no commitments over the new year as he was present on about half the tracks. Last but not least was a horn section ‘The Dundee Horns’ who provided a punch to even the most pedestrian tracks.

There used to be a recurring sketch on the British comedy series The Fast Show in which a spoof advert stated something along the lines of ‘if you like peas and you like cheese you’ll love our cheesy peas’. Well I liked Fairport and I liked rock and roll so in theory I should love The Bunch.

I had to purchase the record on spec, there was no way I could hear it played on the radio, it was released in 1972 and by the time I started buying records it was ancient history. At the time it sounded a bit disappointing, it was the cheesypeas effect. Early rock and roll has a charm related to the sound of it’s time, re recording it seldom made it sound better, not that that stopped anyone trying through out the 70’s.

Listening some 46 years later it’s not a bad record, Richard Thompson’s renditions of ‘Crazy Arms’ and ‘Jambalaya’ rock big time thanks to Conway’s drumming. Having said that there is a dip in quality when Lucas sings and Mattacks takes over on drums such as on ‘Dont be Cruel’

Sandy Denny, as might be anticipated provides some highlights notably on the poignant closer ‘learning the game’ and sharing the vocals with Peters on ‘When will I be Loved’. But my absolute favourites are Thompson singing ‘My Girl the Month of May’ a song I’ve never heard anywhere else before or since. The other highlight is Ashley Hutchings covering ‘Nadine’. Hutchings isn’t anywhere else on the record so presumably just popped in for the afternoon. At this point he was deep into his rediscovery of English Music but chooses to cover Berry’s song in an enthusiastic half spoken American accent, bizarre but engaging.

It’s hard to imagine the influence of American rock and roll on this generation of musicians. For a lot of the 70’s it seemed we were always looking over our shoulders. We don’t live like that now, a contemporary band would be unlikely to record an album of britpop or shoegazing classics from 20 years ago we have learned to repackage rather than recreate our past.

And so the Bunch dissembled. Richard Thompson would soon marry Linda Peters, Denny and Lucas would join Fairport Convention, Conway would be the drummer for Cat Stevens and the horn section would head north, possibly to Dundee and become part of the Average White band

Oh, and the Word podcast is available through the Apple app and I Tunes,do give it a listen.

Posted in folk rock, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments