Into the 80’s..Rockism

Between the mid 70’s and the mid 80’s I can’t remember having a proper haircut. Gentleman’s hairdressers had a tendency to think that anyone with long hair wanted to look like a footballer rather than a member of Hawkwind so I had avoided the barbers until my hair was at it’s longest ever by the end of 1978. Despite punk having hit in 1976 the tide was only slowly turning but by 1979 not only was I cutting my hair shorter but I was also trying to taper my flared jeans.

It was a slow process, every time I cut it, my hair was a bit shorter than before but it was about a year before the nation were fully acquainted with my ears again. As I was creating this transformation with only a pair of scissors and a couple of mirrors the results were inevitably patchy but at the best, I could get close to a Nick Cave, at the worst it was a Nick Lowe but the results had an inevitable tinge of the mullet about them.

My band Butisitart? was starting to fall apart, our singer Meloni has fallen in with a bunch of 17/18 year-old middle-class lads from the local college. I was nearly 23 and already out of touch. The new breed were also musicians but punk for them was a distant memory, they had severe haircuts and wore clothes that made them look like they were in Rommel’s Afrika Corps, one day I heard one of them had made a jibe at my ‘Rockist’ haircut.

Rockism had suddenly become a thing. It had started as a joke by Liverpudlian singer Pete Wylie who announced a Race against Rockism campaign. The music papers had become infiltrated by a new breed of journalist who were either interesting/challenging/pretentious depending on your own perspective. For a brief moment rock was under the intense scrutiny and it was found wanting.

Rockism was largely undefinable but I kind of got it. It largely had any legs at all because of writer Paul Morley who was still writing articles in the Guardian about it about it over 20 years later. Morley’s obviously a lot bigger than one idea and he alerted us to the possibility of a world where blues and rock and roll had not been the cornerstone of popular music. A world where Kraftwerk were as important as the Beatles and Wire were bigger than Yes.

Rockism was not just about what music a band played it was about what instruments they played, how they payed them and what they wore. Wearing jeans was rockist (guilty as charged), guitars, especially low-slung Gibson les Paul’s were rockist. Anything with a trace of the blues was rockist and entertaining a crowd with hoary rock clichés was as rockist as you could get, in fact learning to play an instrument at all was suspiciously rockist anyway.

Consequently when Meloni formed a band with her friends we were treated to a half hour of free form noise. Having shown no aptitude in playing an instrument up to now Meloni had taken up the violin. To be fair I always enjoy a bit of noise and they had nice trousers and it certainly wasn’t rockist.

Clearly it was rather silly but so was load of rock music. At this point rock was at its lowest ebb at least in England and the notion of entitlement and deference with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd needed challenging. It was a temporary blip, the likes of Q magazine (RIP) embraced rockist values and by the 90’s the big bands were all back making money out of re-releasing their back catalogue on CD. And then Guns and Roses happened and took over the world for a couple of years and we knew that any war that might have existed had been well and truly lost

It made an impression on me though , I began to appreciate pop music more and began to realize a lot of rock gods were deeply flawed individuals rather than some sort of prophets, the secrets of relationships were to necessarily contained in the lyrics of a James Taylor song and a lot of the time most musicians don’t really have an awful lot to say, but that doesn’t stop them saying it.

Apart from my haircut, I almost doubted rockism had existed, things were moving so fast musically that it was there for a moment then it was gone. Even Simon Reynolds excellent book on the period ‘Rip it up and Start Again’ fails to mention it. However, online it appears rockism debate is back again and now there’s something called poptimism, how I wish I was young again and could give a shit.

By the way, Nick Lowe is rockist, Nick Cave isn’t, please doesn’t ask me to explain.

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Into the 80’s Scritti Politti

No band transformed themselves for the 80’s like Scritti Politti.

Formed in Leeds and then relocated to Camden London, the band were the epitome of the proto crusty indie scene of the late 70’s. Naturally they lived in a squat where no doubt they smoked a lot of dope and spent hours discussing political theory’s which led to them taking their name for political theorist Antonio Gramsci. These things were important at the end of the 70’s, it wasn’t enough to play a couple of chords on the guitar anymore you had to have at least a basic knowledge of dialectical materialism.

Their big hit in the world of John Peel was Skank Bloc Bologna a squall of jangly guitar and reggae influenced bass and drums distinguished by the vocals of vocalist Green Gartside. They fitted perfectly alongside the likes of Prag Veg or the Desperate Bicycles, it sounded great at the time, 40 years later its very hard listening indeed. Interestingly when I listened to it again a couple of days ago I though it sounded a bit like Henry Cow. Apparently they were one of Gartside’s favourite bands but their drummer Chris Cutler sent his copy back saying they should leave music business to the professionals, not very comradely !

Matters reached a head in 1980 when Gartside apparently suffered a heart attack after a gig. In fact, it was probably a panic attack but it signalled the end of the depivations of living in a squat that had been a crucial part of the Scritti experience.

Gartside returned to the family home in South Wales for several months for some rest, decent food and musical reflection. Not unsurprisingly he decided he didn’t fancy a return to the indie ghetto and that the likes of funk and disco were cheerier, sexier and more profitable. As someone who had formed a branch of the Young Communist League at the tender age of 14 he tried to reconcile the fact that Marxism didn’t always have to equate with ‘challenging’ musical noise.

Unfortunately, the rest of the band still preferred a lifestyle that didn’t necessarily include an indoor toilet or hot water and declined to become too involved in Gartside’s new accessible material. The band’s first new release The Sweetest Girl therefore featured a drum machine and Robert Wyatt on keyboards. The song was featured on the C81 cassette issued by the New Musical Express and like half the people who had been in further education I had a copy (and possibly still do have somewhere).

That was just about the end of my interest in Scritti Politti. They were soon to sign with Virgin Records (they had previously been with indie darlings Rough Trade) and had a big-name producer Arif Mardin. The result was a very 80’s sound, Fairlight Synthesiser, gated snare etc. The songs may have been great, what I have heard sounds quite Prince like but he’s another person for whom the 80’s sound marred a brilliant talent. Its just me I don’t really like classic 80’s music that much.

Like us all that was just something Gartside had to live through, more recently he’s been involved in a tribute to Nick Drake and is apparently making more organic sounds without gated snare.

And he’s still one of the brainiest men in pop>

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Into the 80’s… The Passions

The Passions had their roots in the London squat rock scene of the mid 70’s. Guitarist and soon to be lead singer Barbara Grogan and Drummer Richard Williams had been in the Derelicts, a band that probably played more benefits than paying gigs and the high spot of their career was appearing on the cover of International Times the underground paper for trendy Trotskyists.

The Passions started out in a similar vein formed around the two Derelicts, bassist Claire Bidwell, a guitarist who soon left and a singer Mitch Baker. Soon to join on guitar was ex 101ers guitarist Clive Timperley now looking more like a member of Kraftwerk than the moustachioed hippy of Joe Strummer’s band.

Their first single, sung by Barker is something of a classic in the genre that would soon be labelled ‘indie’. Unfortunately for the singer he broke his leg and took a bit of time out. The band decided they liked the sound of Grogan’s voice and Baker was history.

Their first album, Michael and Miranda was resident on my turntable for the first year of the new decade. Jangly guitars and ethereal vocals were a new sound but soon everyone from the Au Pairs to the Cocteau Twins were exploring similar noises. Lyrically there was some pretty hardcore feminism, paranoia and other negative mental health states, relationships and an accident with a pedal bike. At the time I thought it was great but now it seems the sound of the squat, some of it just seems dingy but that was my life at the time so perhaps its more about me than the band.

When the band emerged on vinyl again there had been several small but significant changes. Bidwell had left, she was a good player but also rooted in the lesbian/anarchist/lefty scene (she joined a more hardcore punk band). Her replacement was the more generic David Algar who could sing and play guitar a bit if needed. The band had also shifted from the Fiction record label to Polydor.

And Timperley had an Echoplex device. To be fair, it sounds like he was using it on the début album on occasions but this time he was turning it up to 11. Combined with a bit more effort in the production department the band now had a newish sound, they sounded like an 80’s band !

The apex of the new sound was their single ‘I’m in Love with a German Filmstar’ written about Rodent, a Clash and Sex Pistols Roadie who also acted in German Films. It’s the sort of mildly aspirational lyric that the 80’s loved, combined with shimmering guitarwork which will forever be getting the Passions into playlists with A Flock of Seagulls and Altered Images.

The latest LP Thirty Thousand Feet over China was a big shimmering chunk of vinyl which I bought out of respect for their debut. It’s not even as if the songs are that different, some had even been written by Bidwell before her departure, but the first record had a start black and white cover and the follow up was an impressionistic splash of colour, it seemed to reflect the change in the band over the space of one short year.

1981 was a busy one for the band as finding they had a hit on their hands, they had to capitalise on it as much as possible playing everywhere they could. One such place was Trent Polytechnic where I caught them playing angsty feminist songs to a gaggle of rugby players trying to form human pyramids in front of the stage. It was a bit of a sad spectacle, they didn’t want to be there, and the crowd only knew one song of theirs. They had entered into their ‘Tour Till We Crack’ phase which finished off Timperley who left as a result of ‘serious political differences’ .

He was replaced by Kevin Armstrong a seriously professional guitarist who would go on to play with Iggy Pop and Bowie among others. More significant was the recruitment of a keyboard player. To be a band with just guitars in the 80’s was, with a few significant exceptions, career suicide,the band were moving with the times, there was a final album, which I’ve never listened properly to but what I have heard sounds more conventional 80’s rock.

And that was it for the Passions, like the Only Ones they were known for one song which has risen to the point of being iconic although they had plenty of other songs equally good, I suspect ‘Filmstar’ made them as much money as all their other songs put together.

Amazingly that was the pretty much the end of their musical careers (apart from Armstrong). Timperley and Williams are now retired which is a sobering thought. The latter appeared on ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’ a popular music/quiz format part of which is where an ex pop ‘star’ appears in an ID line-up. The panel failed to identify him, at the time he was apparently curating the bands material for another compilation which should be a good afternoons work. Barbara Grogan collaborated on an album with French experimentalist Hector Zazou nearly 15 years after the split, it’s a good use of her voice and you wonder why she hasn’t done more of this sort of thing.

Just a couple of bars of Timperley’s guitar intro and its 1981 all over again.

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17: Keys to your Heart..the 101ers

I was going to write a more substantial piece about the 101ers but I found I had already done this a couple of years ago, that’s the great thing about a failing memory; life is full of surprises.

Here’s my original article.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2016/08/14/101ers/

By the time ‘Keys to Your Heart’ was released the 101ers were almost finished and frontman Joe Strummer’s career was just starting.

I love Joe Strummer, he was the punk John Lennon full of contradictions and flaws, but you felt his heart was in the right place. Strummer had been hugely influenced by seeing a Bruce Springsteen live show. If Springsteen had hailed from west London rather than New Jersey its not impossible to imagine him making a similar noise to Strummer in 1976.

Inspired by has relationship with Spanish girlfriend Paloma (later drummer Palmolive of the Slits) Strummer had started writing songs to flesh out the rock and roll covers that had been the staple of the 101ers. The band got to record some of them in the studio thanks to Ted Caroll who ran a Stiff type record label called Chiswick.

I only got to own a copy of this track by buying a whole compilation LP featuring the likes of The Count Bishops and the Hammersmith Gorillas. It’s the sound of 1976 in a pub in London.

Key’s to Your Heart was the best track the 101er’s ever recorded, it’s got a similar sound to Van Morrison’s Gloria which was a show stopper number the band covered. There’s a quiet bit where the tension builds and which burst into the chorus, it’s a pretty standard device but it always works for me.

Keys to Your Heart is less than a year away from White Riot but its music from a different era. At the time people (friends, journalists, and the band themselves) thought Strummer mad to be quitting a shit hot band for a bunch of people who could barely play their instruments but he jumped ship at just the right time in a years’ time the Clash would be hot and the 101ers would be not.

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8: Cortez the Killer…Neil Young

In the 70’s the USA was simultaneously familiar and alien. Our television relied heavily on imported series from the states especially comedy, Happy Days was insanely popular, but we would also get reruns or the Monkees on a spasmodic rota. Shows were well crafted and sometime very funny, but they were also saccharine. The USA still seemed to be the land of plenty, people seemed wealthy and happy and confident. The irony was that unless you lived near a tourist attraction you were unlikely to meet a genuine American person. I was slightly the exception to this as I had an aunt who had emigrated there and every decade she would return for a couple of weeks. I must admit though that on basis of that brief encounter I had no evidence to revise my opinion, my Aunt appeared happy and confident and very proud to be an American.

Perhaps because of this cultural disconnect I was slow on the uptake with American music. The like of Alice Cooper and Aerosmith seemed a bit over confident and crass to me, nobody like a show off. Even British bands who toured America a lot seem to return changed, tougher, slicker and less fun.

The early exception was the glut of singer songwriters who emerged in the early 70’s. They were producing music that was more introspective with maybe even a trace of uncertainty. Like all sensible teenagers though I needed more than an acoustic guitar, I would be into my 20’s before I was willing to sit down and really engage with the likes of Joni Mitchell.

The reason why Neil Young was different was that he had two sides, to this day I’ve never listened to Harvest, that sort of thing didn’t really interest me at the age of 16. Post HarvestYoung ‘headed for the ditch’ away from the middle of the road where he thought he had strayed to. The next few years produced some of my all-time favourite music in the form of some troubled downbeat albums. I first picked up on Young  when he was coming out of this time with his new record Zuma.

The most important thing, in all honesty, about the album was that my friend Phil had a copy, so I actually had a chance to listen to it. Records were relatively expensive, it would be a few years before I had enough money to actually buy anything I wanted and by then it was the 80’s so there wasn’t much I did want. If a friend lent you a record you listened to it, it was free music.

The other factor in Zuma’s favour was it was almost entirely electric with his band Crazy Horse. As a band Crazy Horse were simultaneously brilliant and incompetent. It’s a bit like the argument over whether Meg White is a good drummer, their playing was hard to defend on an analytical skill level but the end result surpassed all criticism. Even by the time of Zuma the band had become looser and sloppier than they had been on their debut record ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’, 20 years later they would sound like they were on the verge of disintegrating with every verse they played, but they never did.

As an electric guitar player Young has the same qualities and most importantly he knows about sound, Young and Crazy Horse are a pretty visceral experience which is why as punk was raging, I was listening to Zuma.

The standout track is ‘Cortez the Killer’. Its long but not by the standards of his later work. It’s also lyrically intriguing, there’s not a whole load of songs about the Aztec empire. There’s an ambiguity about the words encompassing both awe and admiration of the Aztecs about to be subsumed by Cortez ‘what a killer’.

But there’s a strange magic in the music itself. I’ve played it in many settings, I jammed it only a couple of weeks ago. When I played in an acoustic duo we would jam the song for ever if an audience appeared disengaged or absent. There’s a dreamy quality to the music the chords can go around and round forever. And that’s the magic, its only three chords, three basic chords at that but chords that are altered a little with suspensions and augmentations. It sounds complicated but really its just adding or taking away a note, it’s not hard to play. What it does mean though is the song never really resolves or comes to an end, it finishes when the player(s) decide.

I’ve stuck with Young over the years, not everything of course, I’m not insane! The last record I bought by him was Psychedelic Pill which offered more of the sonic thuggery of Crazy Horse. Lets face it, I’m unlikely to feel the need to buy anything else from the Young catalogue in the future. 

Over 40 years later there’s still some magic left in Cortez though

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Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher was a constant throughout the 70’s. It was not that I would every get to see him, he was a little too big to play somewhere like Norwich. Occupying a place in the popularity ratings somewhere just above Budgie but below Status Quo, Rory was just there in the background all the time.

I cant remember his records being released with any great fanfare and it was debatable why anyone could make a strong case for preferring Deuce over Blueprint or making a pitch that Tattoo was a better record than Against the Grain. It sounds like damming with faint praise but the unassuming Gallagher was one of the greatest guitarists ever.

 

Firstly he was older than he seemed having been musically active since the early 60’s. For most of that decade he had been tucked away in Ireland and therefore invisible to the rest of the world. While in his teens he had been a mainstay of the Fontana showband  which he managed to mutate into the  Impact which in turn became more blues orientated and eventually became a trio which was to be Gallaghers’s preferred method of working.

 

By this point it was the late 60’s, he had barely turned 18. Already he was flying in the face of convention, the showbands were still pretty much the only outlet for music for most of Ireland and the blues may as well have been a Mongolian death chant for the level of popularity it could garner. It would take a pretty exceptional 16 year old to start to turn this around in conservative Ireland.

Gallagher was starting to play abroad which was the only way forward. Finding that a residency in Hamburg didn’t want to book his trio he sent them some publicity pictures with a friend behind the organ and then went anyway.

By the time he had formed Taste in 1966 he had pretty much arrived at the format for the rest of his life. Taste supported Cream at their farewell gig. I you want blues based power trios I would have picked them over Eric’s boys any day of the week.

 

As the 70’s dawned Gallagher’s solo career was underway, joining up with bass player Gerry McAvoy  who was to be with him for the next 20 years along with assorted drummers and an occasional keyboard player he toured and toured and toured. Gallagher was the antithesis to glam and prog and punk and whatever new fad came knocking. Almost always dressed in jeans and a check shirt and playing a severely distressed Stratocaster, allegedly the first in Ireland that he had bought in 1963,he was regarded as generally humble, decent and hardworking, not always qualities associated with rock gods. Significantly he continued to tour Ireland through what we quaintly called ‘the troubles’ (also known as a war) when most English rock bands simply would not have bothered.

 

If anyone wants a dose of the 70’s Gallagher experience I would direct them swiftly to Irish Tour 74 where Gallagher wows provincial audiences onstage before returning soaked in sweat to the rankest dressing rooms ever, night after night. It’s a real delight to see these purest of performances, Gallagher seems to get by on a guitar, an amp and a lead, there’s no pedal gazing and without any sonic trickery there’s some scarily accurate guitar playing, night after night.

Don’t take my word for it; here’s wings of Pegasus

 

  https://youtu.be/f-tGEQYZRfg

And there was more, Gallagher could play slide and acoustic and mandolin and harmonica.With Taste he even switched over to saxophone, and pretty good it was to!

I liked and admired Gallagher, who couldn’t but he never really moved me. I had an early compilation LP which, naturally was a bargain buy, and I liked it enough, but post Beatles there probably wasn’t enough for me in the actual songs. In my formative musical years I grappled to understand what made his music. Most people said it was blues but it wasn’t the blues like BB King or Clapton.It was only decades later when I began to understand more about folk music that I noticed the uniquely Irish take. Listen carefully and there’s an element of the ‘diddly diddly’, reels and jigs that he must have heard growing up.

Gallaghers’s reputation has grown steadily over the years. There’s a surprising amount of footage available of him in his heyday which is a mystery and a delight. He had a sad end, having survived the 80’s which were the kiss of death for organic music, his liver began to fail. There were mentions of him being a heavy drinker, but if that was the case it never seemed to affect his career which is pretty weird when you consider the amount of out and out drunks who are still with us. I had lost track of him, he still made good records and seemed to have avoided any attempt to spruce him up for the MTV generation. It was a real shock to me to find him in the pages of the glossy new Q magazine clearly ill and bloated on steroids and it was only when we lost him that I realised I missed him. Soon the blues would be back, and the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn would be celebrating the same simple formula that Gallagher has started.

 

Gallagher worked hard, he didn’t seem to have any other interests, his brother was his manager but there were no other significant relationships. His musical achievements are magnified by the fact that he came from a country that would do little to promote his talent when he started out. And his legacy is his music, there are no bad or even poor performances by Gallagher, you could pick any at random and be impressed.

 

So here’s one of them.

 

 

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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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Into the 80’s..Altered images

Altered images entered the 80’s on a trajectory steep enough to make you dizzy. Formed by members of the Siouxisie and the Banshees fan club in Glasgow it was immediately clear where their influences lay. Tribal drumming, chiming guitars and a melodic droney bass. It was also obvious that the band were a bunch of friends who had got together to play music rather than a bunch of musos.

There were thousands of bands ups and down the country doing the same thing. In Nottingham my own band Butisitart? Were following a similar blueprint. More of their fascinating story here

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2017/06/04/the-disappearance-of-the-subway-sect/

Altered Images had a not so secret weapon in the diminutive shape of their lead singer Clare Grogan. Follow YouTube comments to any of their videos and its almost entirely aged men professing their love for her from 40 years ago. Its wasn’t just men though Grogan appealed to just about everyone under the age of 25. She was blessed with an unlimited supply of energy and enthusiasm at a time when showing any real interest in being a musician was regarded as rather uncool. Significantly she had easily won over John Peel who was probably at the height of his influence as an arbiter of taste through his radio show.

The first single ‘Dead Pop Stars’ was a witty piece of banshees influenced pop which unfortunately was released at the time John Lennon was shot so we were all a bit touchy about people being dead which stunted it’s sales. The band quite reasonably asked the Banshees for some support slots and got them. Siouxsie and her gang were just massive in 1980 and Altered Images looked set to follow.

From the beginning they had big ideas, bassist Johnny McElhone suggested they write a song with the same title as another massive song and sure enough Happy Birthday is now a sound track to just about every Birthday event and hopefully is a nice little earner for all the band members to this day.

The album was produced by Steve Severin from the Banshees and kind of kept them in touch with their goth roots, the single on the other hand was produced by Martin Rushent purveyor of shiny new pop and fresh from producing the Human League’s Dare album. Apparently, the single got to number 2 in the charts but it seemed bigger than that possibly because already it was becoming an alternative anniversary song (although literally no one knows the verses).

Inevitably, the band announced a tour in support of the album and Butisitart? sent them a pretty terrible demo tape we had recorded on a two-track recorder and asked for some support slots. What a time that was, we didn’t have to follow them on twitter or Instagram and pretend to like everything they did, we simply posted them a cassette and a couple of weeks later they wrote to us to say we could support them at Derby and Leicester.

Our singer Meloni’s dad was a miner which was about as rich as a working person could get in the 70’s. His hobby was horses and we had to rely on him to transport us to both gigs in his horse box as three of the band didn’t have any transport. Clare Grogan actually took the trouble to meet us, what a nice person, she didn’t have to, but she explained she had listened to our tape while she had been doing the ironing and decided to offer us a slot, all I remember beyond that was she was wearing a pair of jeans so shapeless the average builder wouldn’t have worn them to work. Apart from that she was absolutely charming.

We learned to stay out of the way of the roadies who all seemed very bad tempered until showtime when they all cheered up no end (I’m not sure what stimulants were involved), we played ok in Derby and pretty well in Leicester, it’s a relevant term, we were pretty terrible but it was a time when no one expected technical proficiency. I could hold down a beat and Meloni could skip about and charm the audience and sing out of tune, its only years later after watching Altered Images videos that I realise just how many of Meloni’s ‘moves’ were taken from Grogan who in turn had appropriated them from Siouxsie Banshee.

What was interesting though, was being able to see a band do the same act two nights in a row. It was clear that, despite having been a working band for a couple of years that they weren’t great musicians. Their very first number ‘A Day’s Wait’ (Lyric ‘A days Wait..because my Train’s Late) just fell apart, each band member seemed to have a different idea about the tempo and it just spluttered to a halt. It didn’t matter a great deal, Grogan just laughed it off and they started again but its hard to imagine a headline band being able to get away with it that easily today, not least that it would be all over YouTube within a couple of days.

They were still able to attract a punk audience, but they were outnumbered by the new pop kids waiting to hear the single. One of the newly cheerful road crew had pointed out to us the new keyboard which had cost as much as a family car and had been purchased just so one of the guitarists could play the intro to Happy Birthday live (and it still sounded shit!). Grogan also announced the next single ‘I could be Happy’, even a cursory listen from the back of the hall revealed it was pretty awful and I realised the band were at tipping point in their career.

In fact Martin Rushent got to produce all their next album and it was a more shiny pop beast than their debut, there was a lot of synth and slick rhythm tracks creeping in especially in extended mixes. Rushent knew what he was doing, tastes were changing rapidly and he was helping the band keep up although its likely they were losing their original fan base, he also made I could be Happy sound a whole lot better. Worst of all was a cover of Neil Diamond’s Song Blue where somehow John Peel had been cajoled to join in with chorus vocals it was a case of changing horses in midstream but somehow the band just about survived.

In the process they lost two members, it was a telling process especially as it involved the loss of drummer ‘Titch’ Anderson. It was a classic case from Pete Best onwards of the drummer being good enough for early efforts but unable to grow with the band. Anderson liked the ‘tribal’ style which meant lots of beating the toms. That’s fine for the relatively gloomy material but the band were now looking forward to a more pop sound and it sounded like he was increasing being ousted in favour of drum machines.

Anderson and guitarist Jim McKinven were ejected and in came multi instrumentalist Steve Lironi whose musical achievements were completely overshadowed by the fact that he eventually got to marry Grogan. The group’s final album Bite produced by Mike Chapman and Toni Visconti sounded more like Haircut 100 than the original band. Johnny McElhone had learned a decent funk bass style and now they had a drummer not afraid to use hi hats, plus there were keyboards, backing vocals and even a saxophone. The trouble with the more orthodox backing is it served to highlight just how wayward Grogan’s vocals could be, she had discarded her jumble sale look which had endeared her thousands of teenage girls for a more classic look. The single Don’t Talk to Me About Love was classic pop but it was very different and the album was their worst selling.

It’s a familiar story, band starts off with something really distinctive and ends up chasing the trends and loosing the thing that made them special. The band split and none of them have done a whole lot musically since except Johnny McElhone who went on to play bass with Radio 2 favourites Texas.

Grogan had been in cultish film Gregory’s Girl filmed in the early days of the band which helped lift her profile considerably. She’s had a minor career as an actress since although perhaps the royalties from Happy Birthday have enabled her to dabble in this as well as presenting and being a children’s novelist. More recently she’s been reforming a version of the band sometimes playing in 80’s revival tours. It something I usually hate but with customary charm Grogan has subverted the genre by recruiting an all woman band.

A heady brush with greatness was enough for Butisitart?, our music was fast becoming outdated and we soon split up.

Luckily, I had my writing skills to fall back on.

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Into the 80’s…Landscape

In the summer of 1977 as punk was sweeping the nation, a group of my friends invited me to join them in seeing a Jazz Rock group at the Norwich Arts Centre. Today this would seem quite a pleasant prospect, but it was less appealing for the teenage me. At the age of 18 however the worst thing that could happen to you was to miss out on what your friends are doing, there was also the incentive that Norwich Arts seemed quite a safe venue which seemed to be increasingly significant at a time when you could easily be beaten up for having your hair too long or too short.

Really the only downside was it was Jazz Rock.

The band was Landscape, I knew nothing about them but they were just fine for a Jazz rock band. As I might have anticipated, they all looked like lectures from a polytechnic apart from the drummer who had spruced himself up a bit. The evening slipped by painlessly and at the end they announced they had an EP for sale and, rather to my surprise, I purchased one. I must admit I was slightly motivated by avarice. I knew that obscure records could later be sold at a profit if the band became big. I hadn’t realised how little money was usually made or really considered just how big a jazz rock band was likely to become in the 70’s, it must have been an impulse purchase without which it’s likely I would have forgotten about the evening completely.

I played the a side of the record, the punningly titled U2XME1X2MUCH occasionally over the next few years, it was pretty good, it had an insistent beat and a funky trombone it was as much Can as Weather Report.

A few short years later. 1981 to be precise, Landscape where actually in the charts with ‘Einstein a Go-Go’ a frantic slightly novelty synth pop number featuring drummer, now singer Richard Burgess. All traces of Jazz had gone, the reed and horn players were now doubling up on keyboards. This included bald trombonist Peter Thoms looking rather unconvincing in his futuristic outfits by virtue of keeping his 70’s moustache. The band had a follow up single Norman Bates and an album, From the Tea Rooms of Mars …to the Hell Holes of Uranus . They explored the same music landscape as the more successful Thomas Dolby, its hard to imagine just who their audience was or whether Burgess regretted the years of honing his drum technique to be replaced by the most simple of drum machines on most numbers. Certainly it gave them a couple of years of making money before they inevitably got rid of the more diehard jazz members before the survivors lost the will to carry on.

Burgess actually had a pretty interesting career as a producer for the like of Spandau Ballet and Adam and the Ants as well as being something of a go-to guy for computer technology, being one of the first people to learn to work the Fairlight. Even more excitingly, Andy Pask, the bass player, wrote the theme tune to the popular TV series ‘The Bill’ which we all heard twice a week throughout the 90’s.

Back to the present day… I must still have my copy of U2XME1X2MUCH in the attic. Searching for it on YouTube is pointless as their stupid search engine remains convinced I want to listen to U2. I’m determined though, everything’s on the internet somewhere. Eventually I locate it on Discogs with a YouTube link, the bad news is that should I wish to sell my investment it is now valued somewhere between 99p and £2.49!

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Into the 80’s….

Clearly the idea of decades being separate entities is fairly ridiculous, but the eighties seemed to arrive with full force almost on cue. The music of 1981 was quite different to the music of 1979, by the mid 80’s music consisted of sounds completely unrelated to anything from the 70’s.

It was largely down to technology. Synthesiser technology was coming on in leaps and bounds, soon there would be the Fairlight synthesizer, it cost more than most peoples houses but it was capable of making a whole lot of sounds that we had never heard before. Recording technology was also advancing at an amazing rate. The consequence of this was the rise of the producer. Up to the 70’s the producer was the bloke (always a man!) who tried to get the best performances out of a group of musicians together in a studio. By the mid 80’s a lot of those musicians had been made redundant thanks to synthesisers and drum machines, all a producer needed was a singer or two and unlimited studio time and they could produce a hit single.

It wasn’t all shiny happy people of course, by the time I finished at Trent Polytechnic I was actually of no fixed abode although I managed to upgrade to a property with an outside toilet and no hot water. Like a lot of the population I was unemployed for a long time but when I got on the gravy train things were ok, we didn’t really expect a great deal.

There was plenty of plenty of alternative music but it could get quite depressing listening to stuff that was lo fi and challenging and for me, bands that did continue some sort of rock tradition like REM or U2 didn’t really stand the test of time. By the mid 80’s I had become disconnected from rock/pop for the first time.

And John Lennon was dead.

But the transition from the 70’s to the 80’s is a fascinating one, sounds were changing from a guitar-based sound to one where keyboards were prominent, all of a sudden saxophones were everywhere. Even ZZ Top were rumored to be using drum machines and even if they weren’t the dreaded gated snare drum sound meant that a lot of great records sounded horribly dated after 5 years. For a lot of bands this was what was needed, it was a case of adapt or die. So, I’m going to look at some of the bands who were made that decision and in the process became very different groups indeed.

Here’s the 80’s sound in its full pomp

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16: Janie Jones….The Clash

The conventional story is that punk hit hard in 1977 and things were never the same again. That might have been the case in the London world of the New Musical Express or even the Factory Records world in Manchester. In most of the provinces however, it was a slow trickle effect and it was only with the rise of bands like the Stranglers, Squeeze and the Police who introduced a more musical element that the general public really got on board by which time it had become new wave anyway.

Like most young men not mired in prog rock or heavy rock I found punk pretty exciting in the small doses of the 45rpm single but while I might thrill to New Rose by The Dammed there was no way it made me want to wear narrow trousers or get my hair cut any more than Bowies’s ‘Starman’ had encouraged me to wear gold lame and put my arms around other men.

For this reason, I had delayed buying the Clash’s first album buy a good 12 months. Buying a ‘punk’ record was a pretty big step, it was a statement, there were a lot of people, and many of them worked in record shops, who believed that you should only like one sort of music, preferably the sort they liked. Simply liking the wrong sort of music could get you beaten up, these were serious times !

The fact was though I couldn’t ignore just how good the Clash were, there had been the singles ‘White Riot’ which I considered ok followed by ‘Remote Control’ which the band didn’t rate but I loved. The band were pissed off with their record company releasing this so they then issued the stand alone single Complete Control which was also great. Apart from that I’m sure I had heard ‘London’s Burning’ on the radio but clearly if I wanted to hear more, I would need to buy the album which, thanks to the dole and casual jobs, I had the money to do.

Janie Jones wasn’t the first song by the Clash I had ever heard but its track one on the record and the first Clash Song I heard that I had owned.

It starts with a deceptively simple Drum beat, it is in fact a variation on what drummers call rudiments, I never bothered with these, there didn’t seem much point but here the drummer, Terry Chimes, demonstrated, even in punk rock there was room for a bit of technique. Chimes was actually the real rebel in the Clash, unable to get along with bullshit Bernie Rhodes’s various managerial manifesto’s he never really meshed with the others. He had already left once and was recalled for the album where his name was ignominiously recorded as Tory Crimes. He was recalled yet again when they needed a drummer for a final tour of the USA and since then has managed to reconcile diverse roles such as being a practicing Catholic, a drummer for Black Sabbath and a Chiropractor.

I don’t think that Joe Strummer plays on this track, it’s the band at their most punk basic. Mick Jones had been playing for a while but never really seemed a natural guitarist (unlike the Pistols Steve Jones). On other tracks he attempts some simple lead lines but I always sense he’s concentrating really had to get them right. I loved the slight fragility of the band, there were two basic guitarists, a bass player who had just started learning and a stand in drummer, but you get the impression that they were all trying really hard to make a great sound.

For a listening world used to Supertramp or ELO this was a big ask. The Album wasn’t universally welcomed by the critics. I remember the fanzine ZigZag being pretty dismissive. Up to now they had been championing the likes of Richard Thompson and Mike Nesmith, in a year they would have The Slits on their Cover. Times were changing. The big criticism they made was if the Band had such a big message how come you couldn’t hear the lyrics properly.

It wasn’t a big problem to me I consider lyrics to be pretty overrated anyway. I have realised through that I’ve been kind of singing the lyrics in my head for over 40 years without any real idea or what they are a lot of the time. A little bit of research reveals that even lyric sites don’t have a huge consensus on the exact words. I knew a little about Janie Jones who had scandalised the nation by running a prostitution ring or possibly providing ‘favours’ for the rich and influential at her parties. It seems a weird thing to write a song about and I think Strummer just used her as a starting point for writing about a guy in a boring job hoping to have fun at the weekend (which they covered more obviously on ‘48 hours’ also on the album). It was obtuse due to the subject matter, as well as the fact that I couldn’t understand the lyrics, and I like that in a song.

The Clash were my soundtrack for the summer of 78 but I was spoiled for choice, great music was happening every week. The band themselves seemed to be progressing at an alarming pace, Their eponymous debut was already out of date, soon they would release ‘White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’ and go on to further ambitious and sometimes overreaching projects. Janie Jones stayed with them throughout their career playing it live on stage from beginning to end.

The real Janie Jones has been a nightclub singer and recorded a single ‘House of the Ju-ju Queen’ backed by members of the Clash and at least one of the Blockheads. It didn’t set the world alight but, unlike Strummer, who apparently idolised her, she is still with us today.

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Going Mad pt3 Madsongs

After the 60’s the 70’s was a bit of a comedown. Most of the optimism was reserved for the new artists setting out on their careers. For the hero’s of the 60’s its was a period of being a bit lost. The Beatles had split, the revolution hadn’t happened and some of them had just taken a few to many drugs. A lot of people were asking a lot of questions and wondering if they were going mad. There was not a whole lot in the way of positive psychology, no one knew what ‘well-being’ might be. Here are 5 songs from musicians grappling with their their mental health

Octopus. Syd Barrett

Isnt it good to be lost in the wood

One of the more coherent track from Barrett’s solo career, full of rich but rather nonsensical imagery. Virtually all his solo work is the sound of a man unraveling, not helped by the fact that any backing musician had to play along, often to recordings, of his solo performance which, at best were a bit wavering and at worst had no real tempo at all. Octopus contains the words ‘The Madcap laughed’ which kind of got appropriated to describe Syd himself. Dave Gilnour has since reconsidered that the words may have been the Mad cat laughed but lets not ruin a good story.

All The Madmen David Bowie

Here I stand

Foot in hand

Talking to my wall

Bowie revisited mental heath many times in his career. He was troubled by his half brother Terry’s schizophrenia and he would revisit the concepts of metal illness on just about every album he made in the 70’s.

‘All the Madmen’ is an obvious choice for title alone. Being a consummate professional he wont let the subject matter get in the way of a cracking tune but here Bowie is playing with a familiar concept that maybe madmen are not that different to us.

Behind Blue Eyes. The Who

When I smile tell me some bad news

Before I laugh and act Ike a fool

Townsend seemed to be determined to spend the 70’s being as unhappy about being in the greatest rock band of the time as he could. Unwilling to just to write great songs for great musicians he continually overreached. Firstly there was the grandiose Lifehouse project which was whittled done to their finest album ‘Who’s Next’ from which this songs comes.

With the sheer bravado of a Who performance its easy to miss the often downbeat subject matter. Despite channeling his songs through Daltrey this is still an extremely confessional song. Townsend was to go on to overreaching further with Quadrophenia and further confessional songs on Who by Numbers and Who are you. Unsurprisingly given his mental state he was drinking heavily and eventually turned to heroin by the end of the 70’s.

Nick Drake. Know

Know that I love you

Know That I don’t Care

You Know that I See You

You Know I’m not there

Drake’s career is one of a man steadily retreating from the world, firstly stopping live performances then recording then ceasing all human contact apart from his family.

By his final album ‘Pink Moon’ it was just Drake and a guitar. This was the first record I ever heard from Drake and initially I didn’t recognise its misery but in retrospect its not really about unhappiness just a sense of not really wanting to be too involved in the world. Drake was a heavy cannabis user which couldn’t have helped his mental state at all but he also seemed acutely depressed.

The above lyrics are the entire song, musically its just a sketchy, its the sound of a man giving up which Drake finally did when he overdosed on antidepressants at the family home.

House on the Hill. Kevin Coyne

The rooms are always Chilled

They’re never Cosy

Pre becoming a professional musician Coyne had worked in psychiatric institutions and probably over identified with the residents within. Coyne rather enjoyed being the underdog, he even turned down the chance to audition for the Doors who were looking around for a new singer post Jim Morrison.

Despite a guitar technique which relied on him making chords with his thumb Coyne could turn out songs by the bucketload which inevitably led to a bit of a loss of quality control. House on the Hill reflects his time working in psychiatric care and its bleak and and beautiful . It’s possibly his best song.

Coyne’s own mental health would take a slow side downwards exacerbated but a serious alcohol problem to the point where he ended up homeless in Germany where he managed to turn things around to the point where he sustained a career there until his death.

There’s plenty more of course. Ray Davies was struggling and had suffered a breakdown in the 60’s. The Album ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ is full of desperate songs slightly lost in the trad jazz musical backing.Richard Thompson was producing songs of almost unbearable bleakness as was Roy Harper. Pink Floyd of course went on to explore and market madness with Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here’. That’s all been covered by better writers than me a million times. If theres anyone I’ve missed out, do let me know in comments.

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Going Mad pt 2… Madmen

There’s probably quite a high correlation between music and mental health. Certainly creative types are prone to mood swings, often it’s what makes them creative, throw in factors such as unconventional lifestyles and drink and drugs and it’s not surprising that a lot of musicians have fluctuating mental health. In the 70’s various big names, to pick a few at random, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies and David Bowie appeared to be ‘loosing it’ a bit. Others like Nick Drake and Keith Moon lost their lives in overdoses of the very drugs that were supposed to be helping them.

To thin the list out considerably here are 4 people all British, who in the 70’s became ill enough to see the inside of a mental institution.

Syd Barrett

Everyone knows the Syd stories, how at the height of his fame somehow lost the plot. Once the creative force of Pink Floyd Syd had become withdrawn and would often just play a few notes onstage. Dave Gilmour was drafted in to assist onstage but one day the band just decided not to pick him up for the gig and carry on without him. Flatmate keyboard player Rick Wright was then in the awkward position of having to tell Barrett he was popping out for cigarettes whenever he had a gig.

At one point some of his colleagues has allegedly gone to RD Laing (see last weeks post) for help and played him a tape of Syd. Laing had apparently called him incurable which if it was true but have been one of the shoddiest diagnoses in psychiatric history although I’m sure far worse have been made.

Certainly, Barrett became a very different person after taking quite a lot of LSD, he was always cited as a cautionary tale to potential astral travellers. What is on dispute is the actual nature of any mental changes. Roger Waters states he is convinced Barrett was schizophrenic and spent the next decade writing songs about it. It must be said though that Waters isn’t a psychiatrist and it seems like no one who is or was a psychiatrist agreed with him. Barrett did spend some time in some sort of psychiatric institution and did have some therapy sessions but was never treated for mental health with drugs.

Barrett just really lost interest in music and returned to live in his mother’s house in Cambridge where he continued to live a low-key lifestyle painting and gardening. Luckily, he had a supportive lifestyle and a financial cushion from Pink Floyd royalties. He dies at the age of 60 but his later life sounds pretty happy

Peter Green

Unlike Syd Barrett there seems a fair consensus that Green had Schizophrenia and presumably still does. Like Barrett Green came from a close supportive family who continued to support him after his withdrawal from music. It must be said that early Fleetwood Mac was hardly a bastion of good mental health but most close to him pinpoint the change in Green to an LSD episode in Germany.

Green undoubtedly received treatment as an inpatient including electro convulsive therapy. Like a lot of Schizophrenic people he took a long time to get stabilized but he also continued to make music off and on although really the spark had gone. His later band the Splinter Group made quite a few albums but it appears that it was quite an effort to get Green ready for participation in music. Maybe that some of the tragedy of Green’s situation was that he couldn’t really leave music behind because every time he was well enough there were plenty of people wanting to get him back in the studio and on the road which isn’t the healthiest of environments for someone struggling with their mental health.

On a positive note Green is the only person here who is alive today, mental health takes its toll physically, not least due to the side effects of medication .

Robert Calvert

If there could have been any band which was the antithesis of a bad mental health environment surely it must have been Hawkwind. It’s surprising therefore that Calvert was an occasional member . Being Bi Polar he could be incredibly creative. Calvert is all over the bands finest album, the live Space Ritual with vocals, spoken word and general conception of the project. He was the nearest the band had to a frontman and he reappeared as such on the band’s later 70’s renaissance record Quark Strangeness and Charm. In between music he was sometimes disabled by his mental health, on occasions being admitted or sectioned to institutions. Despite this he was fiercely creative and with a number of collaborators made a couple of solo records (basically concept albums) as well as writing poetry and plays. One reasons he’s not that well known is that he died of a heart attack aged 43.

Viv Stanshall

Like Calvert, with whom he collaborated in the 70’s, Stanshall was incredibly creative but relatively unfocused. Unsuited to the rigors of band membership he had quite the Bonzos at the end of the 60’s. Allegedly he shaved all his hair off on Christmas Day before coming down to the family dinner (how many of us have felt like that?) It was a sign that something was wrong and he was soon hospitalized with what most of us would call a nervous breakdown.

From then on it was a slow and fluctuating downhill struggle. Quite what his mental health issues were have never been clear but the situation had been exacerbated by doctors prescribing him Valium for anxiety and his dependence on that, often with alcohol meant that Stanshall was mentally and creatively all over the place.

For a long while he kept going with appearances on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, a few solo albums and his greatest work Rawlinson’s End. Stanshall was incredibly creative but kind of lacked the focus needed to turn that creativity into success and inevitably that creativity was blunted with drink drugs and mental health. By the 90’s he was living in a small flat in Muswell Hill and becoming one of the regular collection of crazy people walking the streets of North London.

He died in a fire at his flat in 1995.

In the 70’s mental health services were even worse than they are today, drug and alcohol services were in their infancy. Community treatment was relatively minor and inpatient treatment far more widespread, there was help but it was patchy and preventative treatment was unheard of. Going into hospital was a last straw and it wasn’t always easy to get out again. Eccentricity was encouraged but with the likes of Viv Stanshall and Syd Barrett it disguised some serious mental health issues for a very long time.

In the world of music however these ‘madmen’ had an opportunity to express themselves and the world is a better and richer place for them having shared their creativity with us.

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