Let’s face it, Disco was made for the instrumental, in fact disco was made for everything, just ask the Bee Gees. Slip a disco beat under any half   decent song and there’s a potential hit in the making.

At least that seemed the case 1974-78 when Disco was just about as big as any musical style could be.

Most of the earlier disco instrumental hits were basically a bit of light classical with added wah wah guitar.Take ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love unlimited orchestra, fluttery strings lead to the sort of tune Mantovani would have been proud to play in the 50’s. This time round there’s the aforementioned guitarplus two handed hi hats and Barry White has created a song its really heard to dislike. White had other hits of course in other forms but his Love Unlimited Orchestra also spawned Kenny G who would have his own instrumental hits in the 80’s.

For some reason the flute had a significant renaissance in the 70’s instrumental. Its just there on ‘Love Theme’ but right to the front on Van Mcoy’s ‘Do the Hustle’. Again there’s the silky strings and a trumpet break but the tune, such as it is, carried by the flute. Its insanely jolly which was just what we wanted in 1975. ‘Do the Hustle’ was a permanent feature on Top of the Pops as evidenced by numerous You Tube Videos featuring resident dance troupe Legs and Co in a variety of costume changes. So successful was the record that Mcoypersuaded us to do ‘the shuffle’ a couple of years later although apparently we still preferred to look at Legs and Co rather than his flute player.

Like the above composers Biddu was a very talented composer and arranger at a time when talented composers and arrangers were using their ‘orchestras’ to play disco. ‘Summer of 42’ was written by Michel Legrand, the sound he intended starts the record but soon its time for the funky guitars and four to the floor bass drum which isn’t going to let up.Apparently both members of Buggles served their time in Bidhu’s orchestra.Did it influence Yes? Probably not. Apart from being one of the very few notable Indian musicians finding a career in Britain in the 70’s, Bidhu went on to be immensely popular in South Asia and far east .

Its hard to know the difference between a song and an instrumental with disco, James Brown had illustrated the benefit of a vocal interjection in an otherwise instrumental piece but whether its ‘get up like a sex machine’ or just ‘do the hustle’ its never meant to be the highlight of the track. Hamilton Bohannon score a pretty big hit with ‘Disco Stomp’. This actually had a couple of verses of lyrics but I’m sure it was the hypnotic beat that went on and on and on that attracted people to it. ‘Fly Robin Fly’ similarly had a two linelyric and a group of women to sing it but it’s essentially an instrumental that got Silver Convention on Top of the Pops.

With that in mind the last tune is from the beginning of the disco sound. TSOP is typical of the Philadelphia sound with its lush horns and strings. Produced by MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) a group of session musicians, for the US television show ‘Soul Train’ it’s a similar approach to what Barry White was doing on the West Coast with the Love Unlimited Orchestra. There’s a smidgeon of vocals by no less than the 3 Degrees but that’s not what people were crowding onto the dance floors to hear.

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70’s Instrumentals…Synthesizers

Over the space of 5 years in the 70’s, the synthesiser transformed itself from being something of a novelty instrument. In the early 70’s it was a case, to misquote Samuel Johnson, that playing a synthesiser was not  about doing it well but being surprised it could be done at all. It’s unlikely that many of us thought that Switched on Bach was better that the great composer himself but there was a certain novelty at hearing a Moog parping its way though the Brandenburg Concerto.

One of my favourite syth instrumentals make full use of the ridiculous noise of the Moog. Originally by long forgotten band Hot Butter, Popcorn is the cheesiest of cheesy tunes, its been covered by the Muppets and Crazy Frog which must give some indication of the tune’s fan base. Its very much anovelty record , at this point electronic percussion was in its infancy so it features real drums. Sounds were developing fast, in a couple of years this would be unredeemably dated but in 1972 it was great.

Around the same period,Tangerine Dream actually used to come and play Norwich, I managed to resist, huge slabs of synths just weren’t my thing and the general public at large seemed to agree with but they were hugely significant as a band pointing a way forward. A bigger break through was just around the corner though. Sequencers were now becoming available giving a constant stream of notes which could makeup for the lack of a decent drum beat. Its all over the Who’s Baba O’Riley of course although strictly speaking that’s not a sequencer at work although the affect is the same. The big breakthrough was ‘I feel Love by Donna Summer’ featuring a sequencer but also white noise for the hi hats, the bass drum was the only instrument that couldn’t be created electronically. 

This opened the floodgates for electronic music, the backing was so good not every track needed a Donna on it. 1977 was the year, it was as if everyone had had a synthesiser for Christmas. Or perhaps it was just everyone on the continent, in England we were still keen on our electric guitars but in France, Germany, Italy, even Greece the electronic sound was featuring heavily.. Kraftwerk were becoming extremely influential, but they lacked the popular touch to get hits, at least in 1977. 

Until Vangellis got his act together it was the French who proved adept at popular electronic instrumentals. There were Magic Fly with Space and Cerrone with Supernature. Cerronein particular had the knack of the letting the sequencer do its own thing once that and the drums were worked out the song almost wrote itself. Cerrone was, in fact a drummer by trade who was able to master the evolving technology quickly enough to capture the moment. Supernature has lyrics (written by Lene Lovich) but they’re not really necessary the instrument version was just as good. It wouldn’t be long before established artists began to release extended remixes of their records utilising the same techniques for release on 12 inch singles. By the start of the 80’s the sequencer was everywhere.

It was another Frenchman who really made it really big with electronic music however. Quite why Jean Michelle Jarremade sold truckloads of records and Tangerine Dream didn’t remains something of a mystery. He never seemed to be taken seriously by the music critics and I always assumed that his records (lets be honest it was always Oxygene) were owned by the people who drove ford cortinas with their suits hanging in the back. As usual I was wrong, his music’s stood the test of time very well. The melodies are pretty basic, but the textures are amazing. Not that Jarre would care, he’s hugely talented in music and art and he was married to Charlotte Rampling , that s enough for anyone especially as Oxygene has sold over 12 million copies.

The gap between Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ and Jean Michelle Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ was around 4 years synths were developing at an incredible rate, the next development was bringing the costs down, it took until the late 70’s before your average working musician could afford one but as soon as they could there was another wave of electronic music which thanks to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League was largely happening in the UK .

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70’s Instrumentals..classically influenced

Lies our teachers taught us…. 

My religious education teacher told us that anyone who had taken LSD could never become a used care salesman, the logic being that they would have seen cars just melt under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs and see they were just a pile of metal. More outrageous my physics teacher informed me his brother in law used to play bass for Status Quo. I’ve since checked this and they had had the same bass player, Alan Lancaster, from the very start.

The music teacher told us that the only music that would endure was classical. The reason for this was that a version of Mozart’s symphony no 9 was briefly in the charts. Admittedly it had been tarted up by some guitar, bass and even drums to make the child genius palatable to the masses.

To be honest, that version by Waldo de los Rios  is a pretty good use of three minutes 58 seconds. Although I can accept that classical music is capable of incredible depths of emotion and sublime melodies it also tends to go on a bit between these moments, worst of all there’s no bass and drums which at least provides a groove during the filler bits in rock music.

I don’t think I’m alone on this which is why, despite my music teacher’s bold assertion, classical hasn’t endured that well in the public’s consciousness, certainly if you remove it as a source for theme music for films and, most significantly, advertising.

But one can’t escape the fact that there’s some incredible music there. Melodies better than even Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson can manage are just waiting to be exploited. In the 70’s there were quite a glut of classically trained musicians who had made it over to rock but were ever keen to show they had practiced their scales.

One such offering was Joybringer by the Manfred Mann’s Earthband. Keen to show he could play more challenging songs than Do Wha Diddy, Mann had gone prog hence his tendency to veer off into keyboard solos at every available opportunity. If you listen to the radio today you’d be forgiven for thinking that his only hit was his impressive version of Springsteen’s ‘blinded by the light’. No so, his breakthrough hit, pretty much nicked the melody from Holst’s Jupiter in his Planet Suite. To be honest this could be the composer’s best tune but it’s a great one that no amount of synth wanking could damage.

Emerson Lake and Palmer had been doing their bit for classical crossover since their inception. Even today though I refuse to listen to their version of ‘Pictures in an Exhibition’ because there will always be something better to do. On the other hand, I am rather partial to their version of Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. I don’t really like the tune so putting a pretty brutal boogie beat under it was a big improvement, plus they wore some nice leather jackets to keep them warm in the video. The long version here naturally gives Emerson a chance to do his thing but even that’s ok, see my point about bass and drums, they stop things getting boring.

Greg Lake also took Troika by Prokofiev to improve his ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ which is undeniably the best thing on the single.

Punk was happening by this time; classical music was going to be a hard sell but…

Disco was all about the rhythm, it was a dance music apparently but rhythm’s not enough on its own. Saturday Night Fever was the soundtrack to 1977 far more than punk ever was,‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ by Walter Murphy took all the good bits of Beethovens Fifth (the dadadadah bit) excluded the less good bits (everything else) and linked it to a fantastic bit of funk. It was basically an update to what Waldo de los Rios had been doing half a decade earlier. The producers had been so keen with this concept that they also turned ‘Night on a bald Mountain’ into ‘Night on a disco Mountain’ which wasn’t as successful and whole lot scarier, especially for those that had been traumatised by watching Disney’s Fantasia as children.

There were more, Barry Manilow and Eric Carman freely used the melodies from the classics for big ballads. Sky were completely upfront in rocking up Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor and ensured a pretty constant presence on the BBC as theme music to just about any thing. But the weird thing is that the classics are probably being plundered more than ever today by the likes of Mika, Lady Gaga and even Radiohead than in any previous decades. Perhaps it really is the case that we’ve run out of melodies and ‘let’s face it, there’s some pretty good ones written centuries ago still waiting to be used.

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70s instrumentals..Light Classical

Remembering Junior choice when writing about Free last week provoked a few memories about the light classical/easy listening that was having its last gasp in the 70’s.

Most of our parents had record players of some description, the stereogram, for example was a much-coveted piece of furniture. The irony of course is that most parents didn’t actually like music that much, at least not in the same way that we did. In fact, our parents had tended to listen to music as it came along without being overly critical, popular music was just that. With a need to have something to play on the new piece of furniture a popular choice (and on that seldom got played) was something light and tuneful. James Last was the choice for most, Mantovani was more suited to those who couldn’t stomach James’s rock workouts. My family had travelled so our choice of easy listening was the bohemian Bert Kampfert, his ‘Swinging Safari’ remains a favourite to this day.

It might seem incredible now, but for all of the 70’s Top of the Pops had its own orchestra. They didn’t have a great deal to do as most of the show was mimed anyway, on the other hand all music was produced by real instruments and the Musicians Union actually had some power, so the musicians remained on call for when they were needed.

That was usually for backing some middle of the road singer but occasionally there might be an instrumental nudging its way into the charts and conductor Johnny Pearson would lead his band through the track often having had the barest or rehearsals.

So here are three instrumentals from the early 70’s that have been largely forgotten by social chroniclers but warmly remembered by anyone who wasn’t a teenager in the early 70s

Sleepy Shores Johnny Pearson Orchestra.

Number 8 in the charts in 1972, sleepy shores was the theme tune to Owen MD which was an amiable drama series about a doctor. Although I cant remember where I’ve left my phone most days I can recall every note of this and that Nigel Stock was the titular GP. Although I must have been in my early teens, I loved this tune so much so that I persuaded my mum to buy the piano music for this. Such were the crazy times when buying the music for a to 10 hit was even an option. It wasn’t a hugely successful purchase, my mum wasn’t really convinced that she wanted to learn to play it and I could only manage the right hand as far as the fast run at which point I would give up. Utilising the octave jump most notable in ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ but also about to be used by Bowie in ‘Starman’, sleepy shores is pretty much what is says on the tin.

Galloping Home London String Chorale

Written by Denis King who was a kind of ITV version of BBC’s Johnny Pearson. King was very adept at wring theme tunes to TV series and with the theme to (the new adventures of) Black Beauty he won an Ivor Norvello award and had a minor chart hit. I assume Black Beauty was one of those Sunday tea time programs as listening to this again I can almost taste white bread, cucumber and tinned salmon that invariably was the family meal. I’ve always been a bit partisan about this tune as the writer of the original novel Anna Sewell was a local woman and my mum would frequently tell us how at school she would park her bike in Black Beauty’s stables. Having checked this out it seems that Sewell spent a lot of her younger life in London rather than Norwich so I suspect it’s a tenuous brush with fate  orpossibly just a lie. However Sewell did write the book near the end of her life in Old Catton the next village/suburb to where we lived.

I’m glad I cleared that up.

Galloping home is quite a stirring piece, every bit as evocative as Sleepy Shores

Eye Level- Simon Park Orchestra

Like the previous pieces, Eye Level had its genesis as a TV them tune, This time for the Dutch detective series Van der Valk. Today you can watch a different Scandinavian crime drama every night of the week but in 1972 setting a series in Amsterdam was pretty radical and seemed to imprint itself on a nations consciousness at a time when we all watched shows together.

It’s a bit of a twee tune, if you mess about playing scales for long enough its almost inevitable that you will slip into Eye Level, at least if you are of a certain age. I suspect its impossible to play this to anyone over the age of 50 who has lived in Britain and they not recognise it.

Eye Level was a number one record which does rather beg the question, who bought these records? Vinyl was not cheap, I couldn’t imagine kids prioritising these over T Rex. Did middle aged (ie over 30) people suddenly make the exodus to a record shop or at least Woolworths. 

It’s a mystery but somehow these tunes seared themselves into a nation’s consciousness in the same way that Slade and Bowie did.

More instrumentals next week.

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18:Alright Now.. Free

Music is important to us because of the way it makes us feel. That’s why for nearly everyone, their favorite music is from their Teenage years. A time of change and turmoil for most of us, we are hypersensitive and having new experiences. Music is the soundtrack to those times and hopefully we’ll remember it forever.

Music was changing so quickly in the 70’s that a person’s musical taste can be quickly linked to their age. If I had been just a couple of years older I would have been more attached to prog and heavy rock, the ‘older brother’ music. A couple of years younger I would have been more attracted to the shiny pop of the late 70’s. Instead my formative years lets say around 16 coincided with the mid 70’s which was a little bit of a musical doldrum (only in relation to the 70’s, compared with what was to follow it was a veritable garden of musical talent).

Alright Now was released in 1970, I was probably only 11 years old and I was still listening to ‘Junior Choice’ on the radio. Introduced by Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’ the show had started introducing pop records alongside children’s, novelty records and even light classical. I can’t remember hearing Alright Now on the show although its not impossible, fairly heavy rock music was pretty popular, it got in the charts and was on ‘Top of the Pops’ but whether it entered my consciousness through those Saturday morning shows I really don’t know.

Somehow though, it seemed like the song had always been with me. It must have been played a lot but there’s another reason and that was it’s popularity as a cover version. It’s an easy song to play, although like a lot of Free/Bad Company songs it’s hard to play as well as the original. When I got to the stage of going out and seeing cover bands in pubs this song would inevitably be trotted out (other staples were ‘Smoke on the Water and ‘Both to be Wild’), I’ve heard it a lot, I’ve played it a lot, in fact I can manage all the instruments apart from the guitar solo-its that easy. But despite that it’s a song of far more than the sum of its parts and I’m always happy to hear it again.

It’s a fantastic sound, slightly funky bass (Gibson SG, very in vogue for a while especially with the smaller player) Overdriven Les Paul, simple and effective drumming and ,of course, Paul Rogers vocals which, for some reason, have seldom been bettered. It’s a bit strange in the sense that there’s no Bass in the verse despite being written by bass player Andy Fraser, it’s a selfless act although he makes up for it with the distinctive bass part in the solo

If a song had a smell this would have a combination of body odour, patchouli oil. Old Holborn tobacco and Newcastle Brown ale. To be honest plenty of people smelt like that its quite a comforting smell for me.

And, of course, it reminds me of being young again which is no bad thing.

But here’s the thing. In the clip below they are playing the song live and, is it just me or is this a fantastically great band? I’ve tried to reunite with ‘rock’ on many occasions and it just doesn’t do it for me but I would take 5 minutes of Free over the entire back catalogue of the Foo Fighters, are these the ramblings of an old man or is 70’s rock just better ?

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Into the 80’s.. The Human League

One of the things that most bands had to contend with in the 80’s was the decline in importance of the guitar. Take Spandau Ballet for example, two perfectly good guitarists, one of whom had to play synthesizer on their debut single, the other had to play percussion and saxophone as their career progressed. Even U2, on of the few guitar success stories of the 80’s were soon padding out their songs with various synthesized ambient noises. It seemed that soon the guitar, like real drums, might soon be obsolete.

One band who were well ahead of the curve were the Human League. Initially formed by two computer programmers they were never tempted to rock the six strings. It was a brave move, maybe it was something to do with coming from Sheffield, there was still an industrial vibe exemplified by co experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire. It was hard to imagine their slabs of noise combining from Sussex or Suffolk. Early sounds from the band were fairly uncompromising, that was the sort of noise you made with the early synthesizers unless you were Chicory Tip. Synthesizers required different skills from those usually expected of musicians, playing one was more akin to being a computer programmer than a keyboard player and Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were ideally suited to the new profession.

Both were canny enough to realize that the market for industrial noise was limited and recruited a school friend, one Phil Oakey, to add some vocals. Despite having no real musical history Oakey was more than up to the task and had a way with lyrics as personified by their biggest hit to date Being Boiled which was about the slaughter of silk worms, a topic that has never since been revisited as a source of lyrical inspiration.

The Human League had a respectable second division career. They played plenty of gigs, sometimes being bottled off stage by rock fans irate at their lack of guitars. They made records and they got a mention in the lyrics of ‘My Perfect Cousin’ by the Undertones. Gradually they were becoming more acceptable with a slightly more tuneful approach. Their new record company Virgin (they had previously been with the ultra trendy Fast label) had pressured them into recording a disco influenced single ‘I don’t depend on You’ which prophetically had featured female vocals. It hadn’t really taken off and the label let them continue on their chosen path, they were developing new, slightly more acceptable sounds and realizing that the synthesizer was hardly a visual spectacular had added Phillip Adrian Wright to add a light show.

Despite this things weren’t progressing fast enough and Gary Newman was becoming the number one pop synthesizer act. Unfortunately, in the short term at least, Ware and Oakey were not getting on. The former being more of an electronic purist the latter wanting to diversify their sound. The result was a 50/50 split which left Oakey with the band name, an iconic haircut and the light operator who had been encouraged to poke a keyboard when needed.

Worse than that, Oakey had inherited a whole load of debt and a forthcoming tour that would be very expensive to cancel.

Despite a real lack of musician power he decided the band needed more vocals, today he’d be able to audition people over the internet from all over the world but this was 1980 so he decided to visit the nightclubs of Sheffield, finally ending up in the Crazy Daisy Nightclub on a Wednesday night. Today it seems amazing there would be anyone there midweek but they make good use of their leisure time up North and he was able to locate Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall doing their best on the dance floor. Neither were dancers, neither were singers but Oakey offered them a job and after approval from their parent (they were both 17) they were up for the tour.

The widespread opinion was that the surviving League had lost their best members and there was quite a lot of derision towards Oakey and his ‘dancing girls’. Sheffield bass player Ian Burden had been drafted in to add keyboards but left after the tour. That could have been the end of it but the band, namely Oakey, was still in debt so he retained the girls, tracked down Burden and recorded a new single ‘Boys and Girls’.

This was enough for Virgin to summon up a bit more enthusiasm but they rightfully realised the need for better production and a bit more musicality. Veteran producer Martin Rushent moved the band to record at his studios in Reading, severing the link, for a while, with Sheffield. Guitarist Jo Callis, ex of the Rezilos was brought in to play more synthesizer and help out with the song writing and the band hit gold.

No longer was the sound industrial, although there were drum machines they sounded more like drums and synths had become sufficiently accessible for musicians to actually play them. The resulting album ‘Dare’ was something of a classic, a perfect blend of the gauche and the accomplished. It was one of those albums where almost every track was a potential single and in fact three of them were actual singles.

Keen to milk the moment as much as possible Virgin order a fourth single ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Oakey hadn’t recognised it’s potential but was over ruled. With the addition of sleigh bells this could have been one of the greatest Christmas singles ever. It was played everywhere by the end of 1981 and was supported by a one of those new fangled videos which was all over MTV for the six people in Britain who could watch it (the rest of us got to watch it on Tops of the Pops every week)

It was a perfect single for the perfect time. The band had tarted up their image, no more bomber jackets or facial hair, but it just seemed like they were a bunch of people who had hit hit it lucky unlike, say Duran Duran, who just seemed to be showing off their wealth every time they made a single.

Just like all bands, the Human League, couldn’t sustain this level of brilliance and the hits slowly dried up as did the backing musicians. Being a fairly adaptable 3 piece the bad have adopted a variety of electronic styles but never again capturing the Zeitgeist. As befits hard working Sheffield folk, they still tour and they still play as live as possible whenever they make an appearance, unlike a lot of the 80’s artists they are still a working and developing band although woe betide them if they fail to play most of Dare during their live gigs.

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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..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

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 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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