Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Housemartins - London 0 Hull 4 - October 1986

"Happy Hour"
"Get Up Off Our Knees"
"Flag Day"
"Reverend's Revenge" (instrumental)
"Sitting on a Fence"
"Over There"
"Think for a Minute"
"We're Not Deep"
"Lean On Me"
"I'll Be Your Shelter (Just Like A Shelter)

This album was largely responsible for my ongoing failure to connect with the opposite sex (and indeed my own) during first term of University. This was also a tape cassette purchase, another aspect of my ongoing dismal failure to connect with cooler vinyl. In turn this ensured my ongoing failure to connect with the cooler kids at University remained intact.

To make matters worse, the fashion crisis that had enveloped Mr Heaton and company had been revisited upon the contents of my wardrobe - 'The Summer of the Cerise Cardigan'. In a decade of fashion disasters that were visited upon my wardrobe, this cardigan was only surpassed by the awesome work my teenage hormones wreaked when I was let loose, unsupervised, in a men's boutique during the 'Year of Living Purplishly'. The purple thing reached it's nadir when I attempted an ill judged hook up with a girl from school called Kerry. I was wearing a purple and white checked short sleeve shirt. I was wearing a purple knitted tank top. I was wearing purple corduroy trousers. And I had grey slip on shoes on my feet. In my mid teens. In public. In daylight. I should have been arrested. Kerry took one look and ran back to the family newsagents. Her family had a dog - a boxer, I think - that was terrifying. Her Dad exemplified the corrosive casual racism that was (and probably still is) endemic in the town - he had taught it to bark whenever anyone said 'Paki'.

The boy who ought to have been a man was still wearing £10 jeans from the Rochdale Indoor Market. The jeans were made in the town, and were a fraction of the price of a pair of Levi's. Since my family was decidedly unbranded, we were marched into town at irregular intervals to get measured up (we grew irregularly in those days). The changing room had a denim curtain, and the stall was surrounded by pet food dealers, fruit and veg merchants, and the 'cheap' butcher, so purchases were infused with a damp, mildewy fragrance, and top notes of offal and sawdust. There was a choice of flared, straight leg or tapered, but whichever 'style' you selected, there was a peculiar bagginess to the material that caused it to bunch up around the groin. In common with many of my peers, I spent an unusually significant amount of time in my youth readjusting my crotch, but at least I had a fashion based reason to do so. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Of course, these days I'm desperate to wear subtle unbranded bespoke denim jeans, hand stitched by the provincial working class in a restored mill, but back then I couldn't give them away...

My mimicry of The Housemartins knew no bounds. In addition to the fashion issues, I had also acquired a short back and sides with a fringe on top so that I could look just like them. This was a significant move forward from the Bono style mullet that had previously graced my bonce, and represented a major leap forward in hair care and indeed basic presentation skills. Previously, my Dad had hauled me along to the local barber with both of my younger brothers on a Saturday morning for a quick trim of the mullety mess on the top of my head. A flat top haircut was acquired at some point between fresher's week and Christmas that year, so I must have moved into the world of men's haircare products too.

Lacking any other role model, the student disco was also introduced to my interpretative piece entitled 'One Legged Indie Dancing' - a phenomenon evidenced in the video for Happy Hour and slavishly mimic'd by impressionable teenage boys of all ages. There are no politically correct words to describe the twitching mass of humanity that appeared on the dancefloor when the DJ put 'Happy Hour' on the decks. The scent and sizzle of hormones drifted across the dancefloor, masked by the unmistakeable whiff of snakebite and stale vomit.

So, I really, really, really liked the Housemartins, principally because in their coy Northern charm there was something that I thought that I recognised in myself, and their outlook on life chimed with my own. London 0 Hull 4 was character forming. The music I had listened to up until now had been about the tunes, of course, and acted as social lubrication in my peer group, and I had a very vague but self important sense that I wasn't listening to 'just' pop music. This meant mainly that I could scoff at TOTP by listening to U2 rather than Culture Club. 'London 0, Hull 4' brought personal politics to the fore, and, like The Smiths, The Housemartins challenged my younger self to see the world beyond the end of my own nose. They reinforced my (minority) view that dogs that bark at Pakistani people were not cool. They reinforced the world view espoused by The Guardian, which had recently replaced the Daily Express as the paper of record in our family home. There are lines from the songs from this album that are still almost a mantra to me, a way of looking at the world that has calibrated my moral compass.

That compass pointed to Sheffield, when I discovered that The Housemartins were playing the Sheffield Octagon in Intro Week. Twenty four years on from my first live experience, I saw Paul Heaton tour his 'Acid Country' solo album in late 2010, in the confined space of King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. My wife had been to young to see the Housemartins live (this sounds like a terrible humble brag), but she was also a huge fan. Seeing Paul Heaton sing 'Sheep' onstage after all this time was a revelation; not only could I sing along word for word, I still meant every word of it.

I sang along, almost sobbing the words out, remembering the first time, remembering the young boy who sang them just as tunelessly then as I did that night, and I realised that although 'London 0, Hull 4' had widened my personal political horizons it also reduced the physical horizons of my world. It reinforced a fear of London, it secured the chip on my Northern shoulder. These days I'm even further North, and that chip on my shoulder is a hand roasted chip, marinated in a single estate Tuscan cold pressed olive oil, cooked in iron pans, over wood grown in a sustainable coppice in Umbria. It's bloody heavy too. I'm thankful for the music they gave me, but regretting the opportunities that I spurned by embracing a provincial mindset that would be reinforced in the coming years, when God Created Manchester....

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Elvis Costello - Blood & Chocolate - September 15th 1986

  1. "Uncomplicated" — 3:28
  2. "I Hope You're Happy Now" — 3:07
  3. "Tokyo Storm Warning" — 6:25
  4. "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" — 5:07
  5. "I Want You" — 6:45
  6. "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?" — 2:09
  7. "Blue Chair" — 3:42
  8. "Battered Old Bird" — 5:51
  9. "Crimes of Paris" — 4:20
  10. "Poor Napoleon" — 3:23
  11. "Next Time Round" — 3:28
Listening to Elvis Costello seemed to be a terribly grown up thing for me to do in 1986, a mature step forward from the C86 fodder that I had become used to playing, and leaps and bounds away from anything on Top Of The Pops that I was used to enduring. Prior to September 1986 my knowledge of Mr Costello was largely restricted to 'Oliver's Army'. The arrival of 'Blood & Chocolate' gently prompted me into an overdue appreciation of his back catalogue, and an obsessive/compulsive obligation to buy everything he subsequently released in the 1990's, up to - but not including - his dalliance with The Brodsky Quartet. By that point I had lost the desire to follow him up his own fundament... but for now, where was I? Ah yes, Blood & Chocolate.

Wiki will tell you more about the album, but for these purposes the key facts are firstly that it has a Pop Jubilee of 15th September 1986, and secondly, that at the time I absolutely loved it - to pieces - and by and large I still do. I'm sure that this was a 'must impress girls' purchase, spoon fed to me by through my slavish devotion to the NME, who had championed Elvis generally, and I suspect this album in particular. I seem to recollect that he appeared on the cover, and that he was possibly on a cover mount 7" single doing a version of 'Uncomplicated'. Inevitably, flush with my student grant, I bought this album on tape cassette. Elvis was back with the Attractions - and that seemed to be a big music biz deal - although his identity still seemed to be in crisis - appearing in the album credits as Elvis Costello, Napoleon Dynamite, and Declan McManus himself. I've happily existed with this record for 25 years, and I really have no idea whether or not the Elvis Costello true believers rate this album; but it's been around the block a few times with me.

It was released during Mr Dynamite's ultimately doomed relationship with the dark eyed Irish fiddler Cait O'Riordan. She was stolen from the heart of The Pogues during Mr MacManus' knob twiddling duties on the 'Rum Sodomy & The Lash' sessions. Between the fiddling and the twiddling she contrived to co-write and inspire the bulk of this album. I would venture that Elvis/Napoleon/Declan was emotionally in a good place during the writing and recording of this album, and yet Side One has two of the best and most miserable, 'I've just been dumped', end of the affair songs ever committed to vinyl.

'Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head' opens with the blisteringly brutal line 'here comes Mr Misery' and goes on to draw a series of sparsely sketched, beautifully realised and emotionally bruising scenarios about the torments of the wretched. Of course, to paraphrase Morrissey, I've seen this happen, in other people's lives, and I've seen it happen in mine. We're twenty five years on; a jubilee of experience places the universality of the miserable vignettes in the song somewhere within the realm of personal experience for anyone old enough to have heard it the first time around. In the final verse of the song Elvis spits out the line that 'the world has wiped it's mouth since then, or maybe it was yawning'. For me it remains one of the most eloquent, damningly dismissive song lyrics on the subject of obsessive one way love - and I'm a huge fan of the master of resentment, Mr Kevin Rowland.

More powerfully and more directly, 'I Want You' gets to the very heart of the matter. Misery doesn't come any more self indulgently delicious than this song; a maddening and masochistic, 'wrap me up in razor blades and tell her that I love her' paean to self pity. The minor chords, the obsessive repetition, the manifesto for possessive mania, it's all here, and I've lapped it up repeatedly over the years. Both songs have sustained me through night after night of self pitying wallowing, lying on the floor of rooms across the country with a pair of head phones on, tunelessly yelping along to 'I Want You' like a love stricken labrador sucking on gin soaked lemon rinds. I don't actually drink gin; but this song gives me the aural equivalent whenever I'm having an 'introspective moment'.

In a Trilogy Of Misery, 'Poor Napoleon' puts in an appearance toward the close of Side Two, opening with a tremendously deep and echoey organ sound courtesy of Steve Nieve, followed by Elvis in a self pitying rumination on...well, love, probably, women, certainly, and is then mocked in counterpoint duet by Caitlin O'Riordan's knowing and arch refrain of 'Poor Napoleon'. It's a beautifully melancholy moment that lifts an otherwise distinctly average second side of tunes.  

In picking out those three songs, I've established in my own mind why this album never features in anyone's all time greatest lists. The song writing across the album is not sustained, and the song selection itself lacks a clarity of focus. Elements of the material were in progress during the 'King Of America' sessions, and it's possible that 'Blood & Chocolate' also lacks cohesion due to a change in personnel and song writing direction. A track like 'Tokyo Storm Warning' was a tremendous slice of pop culture referencing (at the time), and a song like 'Uncomplicated' is a great piece of singer songwriter lyricism driven by a cracking riff. Both these songs share a loose affiliation with the trilogy of misery mentioned above, in that the subject matter is very much how the male psyche is controlled by love and lust, and implicitly how damaging that range of emotions can be for the characters involved.

Those repeated themes almost make the album a great piece of work, but unfortunately, most of Side Two is forgettable Elvis-By-Numbers, and I have very distinct memories of hitting the fast forward button on my old Matsui ghetto blaster at the start of 'Battered Old Bird'. Still, The Attractions are very much on form and they all seem to be having a jolly good time. The album is musically a very dense and a satisfying listen, but they're hardly rewriting the Big Book of Rock 'n' Roll. Elvis Costello strikes me as someone in need of a sparring partner, another song writer to work with, to edit and refine his wordiness, someone to polish the rough edges and ensure that the delivered work stands for itself. Elvis found that partner in the 1998 release of 'Painted From Memory' - a criminally underrated collaboration with Burt Bacharach that stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest achievements of both song writers.

For me, as hoped, 'Blood & Chocolate' did succeed in adding an air of sophistication to my spotty student ways. This reached it's nadir during an emotionally scarring snaring of a vaguely psychotic and barely remembered medical student from Carlisle. An unpromising Friday night at the bar in the Halls Of Residence took a turn for the unexpected. Members of our undergraduate 'posse' were adding to our already impressive collection of Newcastle Brown Ale labels, and the evening seemed likely to end, as usual, in a curry house somewhere in Broomhill. For my part, a flat top haircut, Doc Martens and a polo shirt, and a pair of fraying, washed out jeans rolled up at the ankle combined to wreak a fashion disaster in the Sheffield suburbs. Factor in some high speed, high camp spinning to Bronski Beat, and I did just enough to avoid the consolation trip to the curry house that night.

This turned out to be a relatively short burst of hormonal activity in the aforementioned self pitying student wallowing. In hindsight this was very much of my own making; I have no doubt that the emotional introspection was assisted - and partially inspired - by the maudlin nature of the songs on this album. Listening to Elvis Costello made me feel grown up and mature, and I could begin to empathise first hand with the emotional range of the songs here and elsewhere in my record collection. 'I Want You' in particular has proven to be an emotionally heavy musical millstone - providing grinding catharsis - around my neck for, oh, about twenty five years...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

James - Stutter - 28th July 1986

  1. "Skullduggery" – 2:43
  2. "Scarecrow" – 3:00
  3. "So Many Ways" – 3:46
  4. "Just Hip" – 1:46
  5. "Johnny Yen" – 3:41
  6. "Summer Song" – 4:16
  7. "Really Hard" – 4:13
  8. "Billy's Shirts" – 3:27
  9. "Why So Close" – 3:48
  10. "Withdrawn" – 3:42
  11. "Black Hole" – 5:29
'An earwig crawled into my ear, made a meal of the waxen hairs, phoned friends, had an insect party, but all I could hear was the bass drum, drum, all I could hear was the bass drum, drum'...

As opening lines go, this one beats just about any other album in my collection. In fact it's difficult for me to think of a more arresting lyric to any other song I know to be honest. It spoke to me about a world beyond love and life, and the passions just like mine that had formed the basis of the pop canon up to this point.

Wiki has all of the usual dull stuff, the key facts being that James' debut album was released on Rough Trade at arguably the very acme of that label's output, releasing 'Stutter', 'The Queen Is Dead' & 'Giant' in a six week frenzy in the summer of 1986.

This album was James before God Created Madchester, before the hits really hit, before Tim Booth really enjoyed his rock star phase, before Britpop, before the fallings out and the makings up, before the t-shirts and the hooded tops. In my view it is still their best album, and I still listen to it on a regular basis. Rather enviably and admirably - and in common with the other summer of '86 Rough Trade releases - it still doesn't sound much like anything else released before or since.

Where did I begin with James? I think it was in Sheffield, via an Asian lad from Salford who produced cheapo Xeroxed fanzines and spent most of his time away from University, hanging out in Manchester with A Witness and other indie glitterati. He eventually dropped out of college - long after I dropped off his radar - but during our brief friendship he convinced me that James would be massive. He was right, but he was out by a few years. No one else liked them. No one else played them. The student union indie disco shunned them. I guess Peel must have played a part in keeping them going after the Sire disaster

So I bought Stutter and I loved it like a brother. It was my brother Mal who picked up the James torch, buying One Man Clapping (on tape) and keeping the faith with them through the difficult late 80's before the hits kicked in. I dipped in intermittently, buying Come Home on CD Single in a cardboard slip case sleeve (original Rough Trade issue, I will entertain any serious offers) and recognising it's limitless potential for good vibes long before the record buying public fell victim to the PR machine of Parlophone Records.    

Their 1990's albums bore the big hits and the successful songs, but it was 'Come Home' that carried them to stadium rock status, and the roots of that song lie in the folk rock tradition of the songs on 'Stutter'. Stutter contains the essential humanity found at the heart of every James song, the songs possess the positivity that emanates from Tim Booth in an almost visible aura, and the album as a whole remains a deeply satisfying and uplifting listen.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Woodentops - Giant - 30th June 1986

  1. "Get It On"
  2. "Good Thing"
  3. "Give It Time"
  4. "Love Train"
  5. "Hear Me James"
  6. "Love Affair With Everyday Living"
  7. "So Good Today"
  8. "Shout"
  9. "History"
  10. "Travelling Man"
  11. "Last Time"
  12. "Everything Breaks"

Up until mid 1986, my musical adventures had (principally) involved men with shouty Northern accents, although some special allowances had been made for input from the men of the subjugated Celtic fringes of the British Isles. Some of those people sometimes pretended to be from the United States of America when they did their singing. I tolerated this, but I didn't listen to any of the bands from the actual former colonies. This was principally because I felt that they had nothing to say about my life - my life being largely lived out on the lower slopes of a gloomy rain swept Pennine, whilst they were living in either drug addled California or drug crazed New York. I did make an exception for The Dead Kennedys, who taught me how to hate their homeland as much as they did. I became very down on 'Amerikkka' for political reasons, but more truthfully it was from the sheer and unadulterated jealousy that seeped down into my soul every time it rained in Rochdale. Which was often. Still, with Jello cheering me on from the stereo, I found that it was easy to scoff at America, with it's cowboy President. I did carry out further research on Amerikkka on Saturday evenings, watching American TV shows such as The Dukes Of Hazzard, happily confirming my prejudices.

My narrow musical world was based on other odd preferences. Aside from a misspent record voucher irredeemably redeemed on a Toyah album (a purple tape cassette in a purple cassette case), I didn't listen to any female singers at all. Into this avowedly blokey heterosexual musical upbringing minced Rolo (yes, that's Rolo) McGinty with an urban sophisticate swagger that culture only really recognised in etymological terms twenty odd years too late - Rolo was my first encounter with metrosexuality. Back in the North, in the still largely unreconstructed days of 1986, the likes of David Bowie were still viewed with suspicion. Rolo was wearing beads - a behavioural trait that had him marked him out as a poof anywhere north of Stoke. In my confused mind, 'Giant' seemed to be a quite frightfully middle class voice amongst my other music - in the sweepingly generalising sense that Rolo has a decidedly southern accent.

Opening an album with a track called 'Get It On' was, with the benefit of hindsight, quite telling. I missed the T. Rex reference at the time due to musical illiteracy, but it makes a lot of sense now that I've grown up and seen naked ladies and suchlike. And I've since got around to listening to T Rex - for the reasons outline earlier, Marc Bolan was given short shrift round our way at the time. To those naive and unsullied young ears, 'Giant' sounded like an decidedly grown up album, principally because Rolo sang about actually doing stuff with women, rather than placing them on Unreachable Pinnacles of Indie Longing (Gedge, et al). Up until this point my musical education had involved a lot of shapeless and unrewarding yearning. Songs such as 'Good Thing' were describing the sort of relationship that I could only dream about (at that age). The songs on 'Giant' were something altogether different - a positive pop message, and a very different proposition from the tense and fractious C86 noise that filled up most of my listening time. This was quite novel for a tongue tied boy from the provinces, and in turn I was quite novel within my peer group, because almost everyone else I knew at the time just ignored them. Although it has just occurred to me that maybe my peers were simply ignoring me.

The purchase of 'Giant' was part of a general approach (I'd hesitate to label it as a plan) to make myself more intense and then presumably more interesting by association with this sort of thing. Even though I was still buying tapes. My format of ownership suggests that although it's extremely doubtful that I had this on day of release, I must have bought it around the time I went to University, or possibly in the first few weeks of first term, around the time that I discovered Xeroxed fanzines. Most of the early to mid-1986 releases were delayed arrivals, either through lack of funding on my part, or lack of credibility on my part. Usually the latter. 

Wiki has very little to tell you about 'Giant' or the band; the interwebs concentrate on the Puppets ahead of the Popsters. Oddly enough, one of the few direct references to the album can be found on my learned cousin's music blog Both Bars On. There may be a great rock tale to be told about why these Woodentops never broke big, but there are some clues on 'Giant'. Firstly, this is one of those albums that still doesn't really sound like anything else or anybody else. This is only a 'Good Thing' if you're the actual and verified true prophet of a musical revolution. They weren't, they were just another false prophet wading through pop's River Jordan. Secondly, The Woodentops were part of the wider post punk/alternative music scene that had nothing to do with C86, or the post-The Smiths clones that were being championed by the music press at the time. So although they had reasonable press coverage they never really fitted into any particular scene. People in the press like pigeon holes. Thirdly, their musical sound rapidly developed through the lifespan of 'Giant', resulting in the release of 'Live Hypnobeat Live' in 1987. At that moment in time pop music was undergoing some, um, ecstatic changes, and the early claims that 'there's always been a dance element to our music' were beginning to be muttered by E'd up indie boys. The Woodentops do have a legitimate claim to that kind of musical evolution, but the problem with being a prophet is that you can end up with your head on a plate, and I think that was ultimately the issue for The Woodentops. Where Rolo once trod, Bobby Gillepsie followed, but then Wee Boaby struck out on a path of his own that would ultimately lead to him to Screamadelica - Rolo found his way to 'Wooden Foot Cops On The Highway'.

When The Woodentops split a few of years later, there were indications that issues with Rough Trade were a reason for their failure to make the leap into the wider pop consciousness. In that untold rock tale it's worth observing that 'Giant' was released two weeks after Rough Trade had seen 'The Queen Is Dead' go to the toppermost of the poppermost, and it came out a month before the label debuted the 'Stutter' for James. That's a heck of a summer schedule for an independent label, even one as lauded as Rough Trade. Did someone drop a juggling ball? Did the press office lose the plot at Glastonbury that month? Or was it just a case of the album not being good enough? Or were The Woodentops really moving too fast?

Twenty five years ago, even as the musical sands shifted, 'Giant' sat at odds with the Indie jangle being championed by some factions within the NME. There is a complexity to their sound, a density to the instrumentation, and a maturity to the lyrics that went way beyond many of the three chord wonders on C86, and in hindsight it undoubtedly signposted the way forward for many of the bands that broke through in the next 2/3 years - mixing synths and guitars, rhythmic drumming and danceable bass lines, love & peace lyrics, a very open and affirmative message. That kind of affirmation is at it's most explicit in 'Love Affair With Everyday Living' - it's a simple refrain that I haven't quite managed to embrace, but I'm still moved by the ambition. If The Woodentops had moved to Manchester in 1987 they could have been immense. Instead they went to Ibiza and found peace and the second summer of love, and in doing so maybe they missed a different kind of moment in the sun.

The Woodentops reformed a couple of years ago, and they've been gigging here and there, supporting Belle & Sebastian in May 2011. Rolo McGinty now has a Linkedin profile. Alice Thompson is now an Edinburgh based author. The world has really turned, but for a brief moment in 1986, The Woodentops surfed atop a breaking wave that would turn musical culture on it's head. "Giant' still sounds huge, too big for 1986.

There's a handy YouTube playlist here that has many of the tracks from Giant.

'Giant' is available on iTunes or Amazon download. 

Amazon and eBay have LP & CD copies kicking about.