Mark Hollis,The Reaction; and a mention of Peter Tork

Post Pistols there was a deluge of new bands starting up across the land. Not since the beat boom and so many young men, and women , been motivated to pick up a guitar and show off in front of their friends.

 

Invariably preceded by the definite article we had such no hit wonders as the ArtAttacks, the Drones, the Zeros and the Exile by 1978 we were drowning in a sea of cheaply produced vinyl singles. One such band were the Reaction who appeared on ‘Streets’ a compilation featuring the aforementioned bands.

The Reaction were the first band of Mark Hollis who has just passed away. Thanks to his later work with Talk Talk we tend to think of Hollis as a master of the minimalist soundscape. Spirit of Eden is now regarded as something of a masterpiece, Hollis was moving into an area where texture and mood were more important than content, if he had continued recording he’d probably be putting out records of windchimes and wordless vocal.

But in 1977 Hollis was a London Geezer. His brother Ed was the manager of Eddie and the Hot Rods. The Reaction is yet another and that probably needed punk to happen. Listening today they seem pitched somewhere between the Jam and the Count Five and their only single ‘Talk Talk’ actually sounds pretty bloody good

 

‘Oh yeah,I told you before I was up

Society was bringing me down

Twisting round and make you think

They’re straight down the line’

Hollis’s voice here is unrecognisable from his Talk Talk era, it’s like a different person.

In way it was, music was moving very fast, a couple of years previously he might have formed a country rock band, a couple of years into the future his new band was identified with the new romantics, so much did this irk Hollis that apparently, he sacked the synth player. By the ‘Colour of Spring’ in 1986 he had the crisp 80’s pop production and although I rather like the album he wasn’t a million mile from Stevie WInwood or even Phil Collins.

I’ve frequently/tediously pushed the idea that ‘making it’ in rock is about so much more than talent and it’s in that area that Hollis was lacking. Realising that the life of a touring musician was at odds with that of an involved parent he chose fatherhood, which on a personal scale is a far bigger achievement than being seen at the Brit awards .

Mark Hollis, talented bloke with his head screwed on right has left us at the age of 64. In 1978 blokes of that age smoked pipes and wore flat caps. They would have been looking forward to a couple of years of retirement before dropping dead.

I could probably run this blog by just doing obituaries in which case the title would be quite apt. Peter Tork has also left us. Tork was a different musical generation but thanks to the BBC always being up for a cheap repeat the Monkees were very much part of my childhood and teenage years. I found the series a bit tedious, we were so saturated with American imports I probably knew more about life in LA than Manchester, but I always enjoyed the music. Tork always seemed the hippest member of the group although compared with Davey Jones that’s not saying a lot. It was Tork , mate of Stephen Stills, who first left the group for a bit a credibility although he was pretty happy to participate in subsequent reunions. Unlike Hollis he was active to the end playing low key gigs solo or with his band who were called something like Suede Shoe Blues with a combination of credible musicality and warm good humour.

 

Stay tuned for more celebrity deaths, I’m sure there’s some in the pipeline

 

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This is Pop…The Rezillos

The career of the Rezillos was short and punchy, just like their songs.

Coming from Edinburgh they emerged fully formed, had a couple of hits, released an album that was in effects a greatest hits record and then squeezed out a live record of their greatest hits album before they split. It all seemed to take about a year.

 

It was slightly more complicated, they started off as a kind of art school rock covers band with drummer Alistair Patterson, guitarist Jo Callis and the drummer turned frontman who was to become Eugene Reynolds. Like all the other ‘This is Pop’ artists the band contained some pretty good musicians especially Callis  who seemed to be able to cover all bases from Berry to Clapton to Marvin (Hank not Gaye)  without sounding old school.

 

In the early days it was a little more chaotic with a sax player, another guitarist and two backing singers. With various art school influences they began to adopt stage names with William Mysterious on sax, Hi-Fi Harris on guitar, Patterson changed his first name to Angel, Callis proved immune to this wackiness ( he was Luke Warm for a while but it didn’t last) and Eugene Reynolds is the name of a person he met in a summer job which seems to have rather missed the point. On the other hand, the backing singers threw themselves into the project with the names Gail Warning and Faye Fife, the latter so called because she was from Fife. (Fife in Scotland, frae Fife-ask a Scottish friend to explain if you don’t get it).

 

If it’s one thing all musician agree on is that band relationships are difficult, just ask Fleetwood Mac. Reynolds and Fife became a couple. Over time the band would split in two but for the moment it was all fun. The Rezillos were great fun live and getting so much attention that even London got to hear about them. This was partly due to the fact that they were gigging like mad through 1977. Faye Fife was promoted to co-lead singer relegating Gail Warning to the role of ex band member. Fife and Reynolds were proving to be a dynamic couple. Fife having a rather weird hunchback look as she scuttled about stage but combined with a dress sense that seemed to combine the swinging 60’s with the Flintstones and the fact that she was one of the first people to sing with a Scottish accent she was mesmeric. Reynolds was equally committed, at one point he had a suit made of plastic along with plastic boots. At the end of a performance he could literally pour out the sweat which had tricked into his boots though the course of the evening.

Local record label Sensible records but out their first single ‘ Can’t Stand my Baby’, it was pretty snappy and now the major record company’s realised there was money to be made from punk pop and came a knockin.

 

The band agreed to sign to Sire being impressed with a label that had the Ramones and the Talking Heads. At this point a couple of members left amicably not wanting to be professional musicians. Quite how playing 200 gigs a year didn’t already make them professional musicians is debatable but the Rezillos were possible the best educated band of the 70’s with a high proportion of the members going on to be architects at some point.

 

Incongruously for such a Scottish band they decamped to New York to record their first/only album. ‘Cant Stand the Rezillos’ was absolutely chock full of pop classics from originals such as ‘(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures’, Flying Saucer Attack, Destination Venus, to a couple of well-judged covers.

Then it all started to fall apart. There were record company problems resulting in delays to getting the record out, William Mysterious having switched from sax to bass got bored waiting and left, Fife and Reynolds got pissed off with the label while the musicians in the band tried to keep what had looked like a promising career alive.

It wasn’t all downhill immediately, The Band recorded ‘Top of the Pops’ with new bassist Simon Templar, it was considerably better than the LP version and is still a minor classic being kind of funny and knowing about a medium the band are bother sending up and sucking up to. A high spot for me has always been the bit where Angel Patterson refuses to mime his drum fill.

 

But that was the high spot and the beginning of the end, there was still a lot of unhappiness around Sire which seemed to be making as poor a job of selling a great band as they could. There was the split between the true love singer faction who got all the attention and the musicians centred around Callis who provided the songs and the musicality. Fife developed some vocal problems and the band called it a day bowing out with a live album which reunited them with some of the old members.

The band had been in the public eye for most of 1978, by Christmas they were no more.

As previously mentioned, the Rezillos were pretty slick musicians blessed with a lot of stamina ‘Someone is Going to Get their Head Kicked in Tonight’ probably being their fastest number and one that used to destroy me within 30 seconds if I tried to play along. They were great live but also pretty good on record with the advantage that, unlike Buzzcocks for example, they never had to sustain a career long after we had lost interest. Reynolds and Fife stayed true to the spirit with the Revillos which were a bit more kitsch but good fun. The musicians formed Shake which demonstrated the public had less interest in guitar pop than they had anticipated. Callis, of course survived into the 80’s by becoming a member of the Human League providing them with some much-needed musical input.

 

You can guess what eventually happened of course. The band reformed for a one off and then, as that was better than expected they did some more gigs then people started to leave again but the band continued to plough on playing to old fans who were curious to see what Faye Fife looked like in her 50’s.  It’s a heady drug music and one that’s hard to give up as evidenced by the fact that their drummer, despite being a qualified architect, is still Angel Patterson. If he can play ‘Someone is Going to Get their Head Kicked in Tonight’ at the original speed I’ll be well impressed.

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This is Pop.. Lipstick Vogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here they are at their peak.

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Roger Daltrey…Thanks a lot

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

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

But what about Roger Daltrey ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Need for Speed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Old Grey Whistle Test shifts gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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This is Pop, Statue of Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first time I saw you standing in the water

You must have been all of a thousand feet tall

Nearly naked – unashamed like Herod’s daughter

Your love was so big

It made New York look small

You’ve been the subject of so many dreams

Since I climbed your torso

Oh!

My statue of Liberty

Boo Boo

Impaled on your hair

What do you do

Do Do to me

Boo Boo

I leaned right over to kiss your stoney book

A little jealous of the ships with whom you flirt

A billion lovers with their cameras

Snap to look and in my fantasy

I sail beneath your skirt

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

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

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

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

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

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