Wednesday, 25 May 2016

FLEETWOOD MAC: Behind The Mask



(#407: 21 April 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Skies The Limit/Love Is Dangerous/In The Back Of My Mind/Do You Know/Save Me/Affairs Of The Heart/When The Sun Goes Down/Behind The Mask/Stand On The Rock/Hard Feelings/Freedom/When It Comes To Love/The Second Time


Part One: Mrs Moss’ story

But she refused to die.

As she drove her royal-blue Lexus LS400 – it had originally been bright red, but she had made sure to respray it - into the car park of her new-build office headquarters in Brentwood, listening to the lilting tones of “Save Me” coming from the car’s hi-fi CD player, she reflected that it was a lovely spring morning and marvelled at how glad she was to have lived to see it.

She thought back to when her husband had died, leaving her quite a considerable sum of money – as well as the house; heart attacks do not allow time for wills to be altered – which she eventually re-invested in putting together her own cosmetics company, LBM (Laurence & Beverly Moss) Beauty. What else was she supposed to have done? Wear a veil for the rest of her life? Die a ruined alcoholic in a damp bedsit in Wanstead circa 1985?

Yes, it was quite a lot of money for an estate agent; she had thoughts about where the rest of it had come from but quickly banished those to the attic of her memory. Then again, they had had no children, and even in the seventies one could save a decent amount without children to bring up and pay for. She thought of her friend Susan, whose daughter back then had just turned fifteen; a daughter who subsequently changed her name, who now lives somewhere in London and won’t speak with Susan, or Beverly for that matter.

LBM Beauty did very well and expanded as a company throughout the eighties; when floated on the Stock Exchange in 1986 Beverly felt that all of her Christmases had come at once. One year later she got the call from Central Office. Go and cheerlead at the Tory election rally in Wembley. Maggie, she’s all right. Speaks her mind, doesn’t take any crap from those greying men, put the country back in order, saved it from itself. At the meet-and-greet after the rally she was touched that Mrs Thatcher got her name wrong. If she really didn’t care who Beverly was she wouldn’t have done that.

Yes, it was a different world now; she had been awarded the CBE in the 1989 Queen’s Birthday Honours. That memory – of meeting Herself, and how small yet charming She was - was set to last for the rest of her life. There was now even talk of ennoblement. That’ll show poor Laurence, who wasted all his time on van Gogh and Beethoven, who was really right, all along.

Laurence. There’s a name from the past. Did she know him? Blimey.

What hadn’t changed in all of this was her love of music; at least, the music she knew, recognised and loved as music. For in many respects the prospect of the nineties scared her a little. Why should she have been scared? She had enough money to last the rest of her life – she kept that chain of launderettes in Billericay; she wasn’t stupid – even if she lived to be eight hundred years old.

But she didn’t quite recognise the world as she had done before. Especially the music. She turned on Top Of The Pops last Thursday and it gave her a headache. Where are the songs? What are they singing about – if you call that singing? You can’t tell what they’re going on about, nor whether they’re a boy or a girl. All this stuff that Abi…that she raves about so much; Beverly just didn’t get it. Stoned Roses, Spinal Carpets, Harry Mondays – where was Frankie Laine or Engelbert?

But she got the old stuff. She got the nice-looking CDs from Woolworth’s every Monday. She bought ChangesBowie – all the nice songs that he did. She bought Only Yesterday – no one except her knew how Karen really felt about life. It was a bulwark against this noise that threatened to froth over and, in her mind, suffocate music completely. A barrier against tomorrow.

And, of course, she purchased Behind The Mask, a record by a group calling itself “Fleetwood Mac.” They were all right, Fleetwood Mac. Rumours – what a fantastic, singalong record, and they were all in such pain, living the life, when they made it. OK, that one with the dog on the cover was a little weird, but the last one was tremendous; their old style brought up to date, sounding modern-style, like Dire Straits or Genesis.

She wondered whether Laurence – occasionally she’d struggle to remember his name – really ever understood anything at all. Not to mention all of those so-called music critics who mope on endlessly about why listeners should always “move on.” Moving on! What are human beings, chess pieces? No, what Beverly understood best of all was how and why people listen to music. They don’t do it out of some misguided notion about heritage or history. They listen to music because their favourite music tells a story.

I mean, Beverly thought, even I can tell that that guy who was in Fleetwood Mac isn’t there now. Two other guys – dishes – have taken his place. And, to be frank, he was a bit of a weird one, that guy, wasn’t he? That girlfriend of his, Stephanie, she hardly knew where to turn, did she? Always frightened to sing what she really felt or meant because he’s watching over her all the time. Well, she’s well out of that now.

That’s what people just don’t understand; you don’t come to music for a lecture or dissertation. You come because you want to know the story, the latest chapter, what’s happening. It happens a lot, you know; Madonna and Sean Penn, all that kind of thing. It may well be, she imagined, that in twenty-five years’ time pop music will be generated by gossip columns, which in turn keep the engine running so that both feed off and feed each other. It’s about the singers and their stories, not the songs, not as such.

* * * * * *



The first question has to be: who are these people on the cover? They are not Fleetwood Mac. According to photographer Dave Gorton, the band themselves were reluctant to appear on the front of the record – why? Were they afraid modern music buyers might find them too old-looking, even though they were nearly all in their forties, and one member had not even reached forty yet? – and so Mick Fleetwood suggested the concept of a “surrogate Fleetwood Mac.” Or a mask behind which they could hide. I will not even venture into the symbolism of the severed head lying in the bushes on the sleeve’s rear.

And who were this band in 1990 calling themselves “Fleetwood Mac”? Those who recall where we left off with the Fleetwood Mac story may remember that Lindsey Buckingham quit the band rather than have to go on tour around the world with them; Tango In The Night had been strenuous and not always joyful work.

But the record was a big success, the tour dates had been booked and the band needed to tour the record. Yet how to replace Lindsey, who had been so central to Tango’s impact? Scouting around, Mick recalled a guitarist named Billy Burnette, who had worked on various F/Mac side-projects throughout the eighties and was known as a reliable singer and songwriter as well as a guitarist. He got in touch and asked Burnette to join; Burnette hesitated for a moment – at the time, he was working on what would become Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl – but liked the idea of hooking up with the band and touring. He agreed to join provided – shades of Buckingham-Nicks coming as a pair – his pal Rick Vito, who was also known to some members of the band, could additionally be recruited as lead guitarist.

Thus the group ended up as a six-piece, including four singer-songwriters. Enough to make up for Buckingham’s absence, surely? Around the time of Behind The Mask’s release, Christine McVie spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of the band returning to its blues roots, even invoking Peter Green. You may recall that once Creedence Clearwater Revival briefly attempted to carry on following the departure of John Fogerty.

This is an era of the band’s music that is almost never spoken of. The early seventies line-ups, incorporating at different times Bobs Welch and Weston, have their champions. But, a quarter of a century on, nobody talks about the Burnette/Vito Fleetwood Mac. It is a time which people have chosen to forget. The album wasn’t exactly a runaway success elsewhere; in the States, it barely scraped into the top twenty, and the album yielded no major hit singles.

Yet it was number one – just for one week, but straight in at number one – in Britain, and stayed in our charts for five months. Did the British fans really miss Lindsey that much? After all, Stevie and Christine were still on board, and one may have to face the uncomfortable proposition that many record buyers here viewed Buckingham as the dispensable third of the triangle. Moreover, I suspect they were curious to hear what Stevie in particular had to say, without her ex peering sternly over her shoulder. Now, finally, the “truth” might be heard.

The record begins with one of Christine’s briskly optimistic love songs, “Skies The Limit,” and it’s a pleasant facsimile of the familiar Mac sound with vogueish nineties production that puts the tune up there with, say, “You Won’t See Me Cry” by Wilson Phillips. Yet even at this juncture, one can tell that there is something missing. The arrangement is serviceable but never startling. Next is Stevie (and Rick’s) “Love Is Dangerous,” but unfortunately it would seem that Nicks used up her good songs on 1989;s The Other Side Of The Mirror; “Love Is Dangerous” falls back, and not for the last time on this record, on shopworn clichés (“Standing in the shadows of love,” “Standing at the crossroads”). Crucially there is no Buckingham to rub up against; we hear Vito’s guitar quiver with modest excitement at the line “Ooh yeah, this is wild” but there is no transcendence.

“In The Back Of My Mind,” written by Burnette and Nicks, is quite captivating for its first two-and-a-quarter minutes, with atonal ambience, backwards vocals and indecipherable whispers, almost as if to say with some defiance, “look how we can still experiment, even with Lindsey gone!” When the song rolls in, however, ordinariness heaves its buckskin butt back into centre stage; Nicks taunts her former lover, rages against him, but musically and emotionally the song gives her nowhere to go. Burnette and Vito seem unable to take off like Lindsey did.

“Did You Know” – Billy and Christine – is a nice Everlys tribute but not much more, while “Save Me,” the song I remember hearing on the radio at the time, is yet more Christine briskness. Stevie’s “Affairs Of The Heart” is stillborn – “Rooms On Fire” this is not – and listening to Nicks falling back on dull cracker-barrel philosophies like “it’s better to have loved and lost/Than to never have loved at all” is suggestive of reduced circumstances. She sounds as though she is ‘phoning the song in.

Then, the omen of disaster; “When The Sun Goes Down” is Burnette and Vito. If Billy Burnette was in at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll – son of Dorsey, nephew of Johnny, cousin of Rocky – there is little evidence in “Sun Goes Down,” which is Bob Harris country-rock time for sure. This is the band who were once capable of “Gold Dust Woman” or “The Green Manalishi”? But, of course, it isn’t.

Buckingham himself turns up obligingly for a cameo on Christine’s title song and the difference is immediately palpable, even though he is only guesting on acoustic guitar; suddenly there is concentration, commitment, menace, even a Goth backdrop to the music. He gets a solo and his careful yet penetrating notes, like a battering ram cutting its way through a packet of Rich Tea biscuits, give us a melancholy idea of what might have been.

Afterwards, however, the record falls back into its colourful and opulent gutter with Vito’s lame Cajun two-step “Stand On The Rock” (sample lyric: “Stand on the rock/Stand on the rock/Stand on the rock/Stand on the rock”). With Burnette and Vito’s drearily endless “Hard Feelings” one might as well be listening to REO Speedwagon. Nicks’ “Freedom” is yet another of those non-committal make-the-world-better songs which proved so popular and were never skipped over, oh no, on so many number one albums of this period with yet more cliché-factory offcuts (“Poor little fool”) and “authentic” (i.e. inaudible) African percussion*. “When It Comes To Love,” with Burnette up front, was co-written with Simon Climie and is as great/intolerable as you’d expect (you can sense some eye-rolling; we’ve come this far to end up as Climie fucking Fisher?). Stevie sees the record out with “The Second Time” which she doubtless intended as a meaningful statement – she ends the song with the line “She could never look back” – but there’s no one else in the band ready to respond to her.

This was not quite the end; Vito quit after they toured the album, and eventually so did Stevie Nicks; recruiting Bekka Bramlett and, of all laid-back sixties Britrock survivors, Dave Mason, they released a poor album in 1995 entitled Time which spent precisely one week in the British charts – at number 47 – and was embarrassingly outperformed by a compilation of BBC sessions by the Peter Green-era Mac. Eventually Lindsey and Stevie were persuaded to return, and The Dance restored some popularity and credibility. In 2003 the band, with Buckingham and Nicks but largely without Christine, did reasonably well with Say You Will, but the combination perhaps proved too acidic for a lot of listeners. But more than a decade later Christine came out of an unhappy and premature retirement, rejoined the group, and they continue to tour the world with great success.

But it’s the story, the tale, of what Stevie and Christine had to say, even in 1990 – that is where Beverly Moss found an emotional connection. For me, it has absolutely nothing to do with the 1990 I loved and remembered (and still do).

However, that is another story.

* In long-term retrospect, it is perhaps well-intentioned hokum such as this which has enabled something like Anonhi's Hopelessness to receive such tumultuous acclaim over a generation later. I bridle at such critical descriptions as "as profound a protest record as anyone has made in decades" - wasn't there something just fourteen months ago called To Pimp A Butterfly? - but the singer seems regenerated by her imposed rage. Nobody with a brain or heart thought I Am A Bird Now anything less than astounding and affecting, yet two subsequent albums suggested a corner being painted into. Rejuvenated by the less Radio 2-friendly electronics of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, songs like "4 Degrees," "Watch Me," "Drone Bomb Me," "Obama" and, above all, "Crisis" point fingers and name names, in ways worlds beyond the collection plates that solvent rock stars of the previous generation could muster in themselves to offer.

* * * * * *


Part Two: Ms Lawson’s Story

Saturday was her favourite day for going into town. The spring that year, following an icy winter, had turned out to be protracted, warm and welcoming. She loved this city and especially the fact that you could live right in the middle of the city, do whatever you liked and pay next to nothing for it. Those neglected post-war buildings had turned out to have some use, and nobody really knew what was going on or how to regulate it – which is always the best time for something to happen.

Thank God I don’t live in a city obsessed with money, she would think to herself, as she eased into the main road and walked into town. She hardly ever bothered with buses or tube trains; everything was within walking distance if you had the energy and willingness to walk there. Straight down, then around and down again, then around once more, negotiating her way through the tourists, the landmarks concealed behind luxuriant foliage, then down the street, up the steps, past the statue and straight into town, to do the rounds of the bookshops and record shops.

It was a fine, sunny Saturday morning and the general mood of the city, despite the odd bank window that remained boarded-up, was buoyant and optimistic. She would lose herself in this city – well, hadn’t that always been the point, even when she left for university and felt that she could lose herself in Oxford? Lady Margaret Hall was a long way away from commuter Essex, in every sense, but she knew that she was no longer in school and rented her own flat in her second year. Sometimes the wind would blow in a peculiar manner and she would think of what she had left behind, if anything.

She usually found that she didn’t miss what she had left behind at all. After it happened her mother would scarcely speak with her; she generally wandered about the house with glazed eyes and a permanently startled mouth, as though having witnessed something indescribable that she could not communicate to anybody else. When Beverly came around she’d make herself scarce or crouch down in her bedroom and get on with her studying. When they passed each other in the street she’d pretend not to see her. The sooner she’d qualify to get out of that place, the better.

But now she was nearly thirty, not yet attached – for her it wasn’t a priority. She didn’t feel lonely – how could you in a city like this? She worked in a job she enjoyed and for which she was paid reasonably well. She got around town. She had friends, they hung out in different parts of the city, and every one of them could afford to live in or near its centre. Sometimes she felt that there was so much culture around that she would faint. But equally she would enjoy walking through the prosperous-looking park, over the little bridge, past the geese, seeing that building in the middle distance as though floating on its own island in space. The benches with their special, elusive markings.

And the song would break through from the skies, the unceasing refrain:

“Come…together…as one…”

In the spring of 1990, she firmly believed that this was still possible.

 

The people back home, they didn’t understand what pop music had become, had turned into. They didn’t realise – how could they, since the terms had not yet been defined? – that there was a war going on in 1990 popular music, and demographically it could be broken down to baby boomers versus Generation X. The old order refusing to move out of the way and allow the new order to flourish. Singles versus albums (1990 was definitely a year of singles), fervent fun against lifeless worship, life and death. Affluent middle-aged people buying albums full of music they already knew – they paid more and expected a full return on their investment – and then young people, hearing things in the club, on the radio, at a gig, needing to find out more and above all to listen more



She knew where she stood. The old songs, the old radio stations, the old television programmes, the old papers; they didn’t speak to, or with, or for, her or her generation. They just embarrassed themselves when they tried, like her mother doing the twist to “Mozart 40.” No. This was the 1990 that she felt in her bones, the 1990 that she knew would be remembered.

Not that Now albums were remotely hip in 1990, or had been for some time, or had ever been. By trying to please everybody, they usually ended up pleasing very few, although happenstance and serendipity sometimes played a key part in making them special. One would have bought the singles themselves at the time, and not a compilation. Perhaps all the volumes should be placed in a safe deposit box, not to be opened for, say, twenty-five years, when they might well stand as roguish markers, to mark where pop had been, to illustrate what that specific and special period of time had been all about.

This music that was made to last forever, that is today hardly acknowledged and scarcely played.



Erasure
If you wanted to be cool and hip in 1990 you didn’t start a double compilation album with “Blue Savannah.” Nothing wrong with the song – quite the contrary – but it’s a puzzling opener to what has generally turned into a time capsule. It isn’t the grandest of entrances, the hook to pull in the unwary punter; did Virgin/EMI/Polygram assume it was going to be a number one (there are just two number ones on this volume, both hidden away in awkward places; as it was, Erasure had to wait over two more years before getting their only singles chart-topper – with an E.P. of cover versions)? It’s the quiet one, inconspicuously making their way into the crowded room via the side entrance – and it’s the quiet ones, rather than the loudmouths, who prove to be interesting.



Rebel MC

“FROM THE NUMBER ONE STATION!”

1990 immediately woke up. This was the sound of that “now” and after the elaborate emptiness of Behind The Mask it’s as if someone pulled back the curtains, opened the window and let in the light. Skipping along with an affable insolence redolent of unearned sunshine, Rebel MC, from Islington, rides the crests of yearning female backing vocals, House piano, reggae rhythms and (possibly deliberately) bitonal guitar, “Destroy and erase all the badness” he insists, in almost the next breath cheerfully paraphrasing “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” He later moved into what some of us still prefer to call jungle – Tribal Bass, Congo Natty, Conquering Lion; they’ve all got something to do with him – and even though this was only a #20 pop hit, “Better World” definitely feels like the beginning of something, a long and painstakingly-constructed path that has culminated in the spectacular success of Skepta’s Konnichiwa, so nearly a number one album (and it will be written about in conjunction with the album which beat it to number one) and the crowning triumph of a quarter of a century’s work on the part of a culture, a race (or races) and ways of listening, being and living.

Paula Abdul With...The Wild PAIR!!!!

1990’s Billboard list of number one singles in the USA features lots of excellent pop records which never got an airing in Britain. There’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” by NKOTB-affiliated Tommy Page; “Love Will Lead You Back,” a tremendous ballad performance by the perennially underrated Taylor Dayne; “If Wishes Came True” by Sweet Sensation (nothing to do with the seventies Manchester “Sad Sweet Dreamer” hitmakers; they were a three-piece R&B girl group from New York); “I Don’t Have The Heart” by James Ingram; and, if you’re feeling generous, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” by Nelson (twin sons of the late Rick/Ricky).

Happily, one 1900 US chart-topper which nearly equalled the feat in Britain was “Opposites Attract.” Paula Abdul has always been regarded from a slight and wary distance here in Britain (dancer and choreographer first, pop star second, surely?) but nobody who likes pop can argue with “Straight Up” and all of its parent album Forever Your Girl is well worth keeping. “Opposites Attract” was the sixth and last single to come from the album. Its Disney Studios video featured a dancing cartoon cat – MC Skat Kat, if you must – and both song and video are a lot of fun. 1991’s follow-up Spellbound, featuring the beautiful “Rush, Rush,” was no pop slouch either. Paula Abdul added to the gaiety of the early nineties nation.

Beats International

Of course the S.O.S. Band original should have been a number one, rather than taking the best part of a year to sneak up to #13, but I've already described its time-beginning effect on me elsewhere - if anyone can find the Stylus article, since none of Stylus Magazine appears to exist at what used to be its website (don't look, it's just NFSW spam now), I'd be highly obliged - and, among its many virtues, "Dub Be Good To Me" helps put history aright.

As with Sinéad's "Nothing Compares," we are presented with a cover version which uncovers an entirely new perspective on the song. While MC Wildski's* enthusiastic variation on "The Boy From New York City" (via Johnny Dynell’s “Jam Hot”) which begins the record, with an apposite background of street sounds, indicates some Daisy Age absurdist hip hop about to be made British. But the song then dovetails into what   essentially a bootleg, with the vocal melody of "Just Be Good To Me" superimposed on the rhythm track of "Guns Of Brixton." The intermittent scratching noises sound less like an invitation to party than police sirens, or swift flicks of knives; the introduction of Harmonica Frank's theme from Once Upon A Time In The West sets the record on a defiantly downbeat canvas.

And just as the Clash original is imbued with its own guilty dread - revived with not-so-astonishing brilliance by Arcade Fire in a 2007 BBC2 broadcast, busking the song in the foyer of the Brixton Academy and making it sound not only direly relevant to the benighted, bullet-ridden SW2 of that time but also as old as the Corn Laws; in their hands, it becomes a thunderous, door-banging protest song such as the Chartists might have chanted 150 years previously (as well as providing a direct and palpable link to Paul Simonon's work on The Good, The Bad And The Queen, a record whose power and imagination increase with every listen) - so does the "Guns Of Brixton" undertow turn the original Jam/Lewis song from a defiant fuck-me-anyway declaration into a hushed, covert guilt. Layton sings the notes with enough emotion and technique to make you believe her but doesn't overdo the delivery; now she is clinging to the hope that her multiple-dealing sometime Other will find the mininum of time to devote to her, just so that she can keep breathing - the double meaning of "People are always telling me you're a user" becomes more painfully palpable in this context. The song becomes a minor-key ballad of confusion, disorientation.

Behind and around her Wildski continues to be the vital element of surreal; the moment of punctum on their TOTP performance came as he delivered his wordless, guttural chant mid-song, and when the backing track briefly dropped out, all the musicians crouched down together, as though avoiding bullets. But the overall mood is disconsolate and verging on desolate, a feeling amplified by the mournful (and uncredited – Annie Whitehead? Ashley Slater?**) closing trombone solo that this is anything but "jam hot" - if anything, it provides a clear link back to "Ghost Town."

Though nominally colourful and playful, there is an undercarriage of dread to the cautious sunniness of "Dub Be Good To Me" which made it the starkly ideal number one record - it was its last day at number one - on the day of the poll tax riots. My experiences on that day are recorded later in this piece; yet it is difficult to forget emerging from Piccadilly Circus tube station into the blearily hot Sunday lunchtime sunshine and viewing the dazed wreckage all around. Almost twenty years after Dammers got it right, the first of 1990's two number ones made by lapsed Housemartins came along at its precise, scheduled moment - not just in terms of helping to make the charts interesting and exciting again, but also with regard to the broader canvas against which these beats did beat.

*I am aware that the “jam hot” rapper on the actual record may well be one DJ Deejay, a.k.a. The Crazy MC, a.k.a. David John-Baptiste, but Wildski, as I recall, did it on TOTP.
**Ignore what I said about this on Popular (I was misinformed, guv); if someone could enlighten me as to who exactly played the solo here, I’d be most grateful.


UB40



One theme running through Now 17 is the very 1990 notion of recycling and reordering pop’s past and making something new out of it. This is why the two tracks parenthesising “Kingston Town” work so well and why “Kingston Town” itself is a failure. Not that there is anything wrong with Lord Creator’s 1970 original, but UB40 had wound themselves around to producing Labour Of Love II and it was even more lifeless than the original. The enemy was clearly respecting that old stuff too much, and carefully covering its tracks with as bland a golden syrup overlay as possible. The quiet fire of “King” and “Food For Thought” seemed to stem from somewhere much further back than a decade ago.




Candy Flip



1990 was the greatest of times, it was the worst of times. Some might have claimed the same of 1967. Listening in sequence to the twenty-seven takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” hearing Lennon’s song gradually evolve from a breezily ruminative ballad that would have been in perfect place on side one of Revolver into something that no one, least of all John Lennon, had heard before is one of the most absorbing experiences pop music has to offer.



Of course it was fit for revival in the Second Summer but what Candy Flip ingeniously do is to remind us of what a strong song it is. There is a “Funky Drummer” drum break and woozy post-Acieeed comedown vocals, but the song is essentially performed straight and in the spring of 1990 sounded startlingly up-to-the-moment. Singer Danny Spencer does not overdo the pathos; we are gently rather than starkly disorientated. The song is not quite there yet is all there. There are no free-form sonic collages or other effects; it is a not yet desperate call from one era to another (don’t make the same mistakes we did) and actually it is very moving, the song coming with simple patience to a stately end, like a Liverpool ‘bus retiring to its terminus. They never managed to follow it up successfully, but keyboardist Ric Peet went on to become a producer on the indie scene, while Spencer and keyboardist Kevin Andrews make a completely unexpected return to TPL, or will when we reach entry #792. 




Tina Turner and Phil Collins

Her mother’s music. Her neighbour Mrs Moss’ music. She understands why they are here, hoping beyond hope that their time has prevailed. It is what her parents want. It is not what she wants. And its time seems cruelly limited.

Happy Mondays




The general consensus amongst British music critics was that Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches was 1990’s album of the year. Qualitatively there may have been better records released in 1990, but it was agreed that if you needed a snapshot of what Britain and its music were like in that year, it would be the third Happy Mondays LP.



Not having listened to the record for the best part of a quarter of a century, I find that it has held up rather better than I had expected. Drafting in Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne as producers might have signalled an ungainly early example of that Frankenstein’s monster of a crossover “indie-dance” but the lush Hannett diffuseness of Bummed has simply been replaced here by a crisp directness. This record was made for dancing, even if only shuffling in a semi-erect drunken heap – as most of its ten songs tend to do.



It’s so much more fun than that first Stone Roses album, the “canonical classic” you hang onto in the forlorn, unspoken expectation that one day you will find yourself equal to its challenge, deemed worthy enough to listen to it. Myself, I find its presumptive I-wanna-be-a-Great-Rock-Album stance tiresome, despite its good and occasional revelatory moments (the Ian Brown solo compilation The Greatest is much more listenable and enduring), and even at the time found myself being drawn back into the Ecstatic custard-pie Dayglo slapstick of the Mondays’ universe.



Basically the album is the Mondays’ house, in the middle of the Mondays’ street, and a chronicle of all the daft and dark stuff that goes on there. It was a blast to see “Kinky Afro” make daytime radio playlists and the top five, with its cyclical guitar riff signalling the end of something, the “Lady Marmalade” paraphrases and Shaun Ryder’s big, yellowing fuck-off/so-what voice. The likes of the Stones hadn’t sounded so vital in years.



Most of the rest of the record stumbles amiably and insolently around the same territory. As a rock group there is little in nineties Britrock to surpass the wrecked glory of “God’s Cop” and especially “Grandbag’s Funeral,” and here you can clearly discern what will be coming a few years, and a few miles, down the line; the Gallagher swagger, the drummer’s stoo-pid patience, the words which don’t quite make sense unless you grew up in seventies Salford. But here these all have a purpose, a focus. The “Sunshine Superman” quotings in “Donovan” are legitimised by the knowledge that Donovan was shortly to become Shaun Ryder’s father-in-law. “Loose Fit,” meanwhile, goes back to 1981 Simple Minds and finds something new to do with that template.



On some songs such as “Dennis And Lois” and “Holiday” the sun-dappled keyboards and eager backing vocals might be heralding Lisa Stansfield, but the Mondays soon divert the music down more enticing and less travelled roads (guitarist Mark Day might well be the record’s hero; everyone goes on about John Squire but nobody ever mentions Mr Day – a bottomless seam of musical invention).



My personal favourite may well be “Bob’s Yer Uncle,” a whispered/growled duet of lust between an unusually deep-voiced Ryder and Rowetta (whose supplementary vocals throughout the record are terrific) which suggests a brutalist update of Sketch’s “Why Did You Do It?” periodically derailed by – the theme from Rainbow (it isn’t, but the deliberately cheesy synthesiser line is highly suggestive of seventies daytime ITV programming) yet is more genuinely sexy than a lot of things before, at or after the same time which professed to be sexy. In particular the song sets the tone for the subsequent adventures of Jarvis Cocker and even mid-period George Michael.



“Step On” is the one that keeps getting played today, of course. I’ve no idea whether it is better or worse than the John Kongos original (from which it samples three guitar notes; well, the original sampled African drumming – in 1971!). Kongos’ recording was a big hit in 1971, that likewise undecided year where things hadn’t yet been worked out or codified and pretty much anything could get into the charts; much of the reason why David Hepworth’s book on that year is an unrewarding read is its author’s dogged insistence on avoiding the Top 40 in favour of a canonically-proscribed list of “classic albums.”



In 1990, things were similarly up in the air, and so resetting Kongos’ song in a post-House setting made some sense. But the Mondays bring themselves to re-inhabit the song, thus Ryder’s melon-twisting ad libs and echoing front porch whistles bring the listener back to that wonderful spring, or early summer, when everything really did seem endlessly possible. As with many other notable albums, the closing “Harmony” finds the band at sea, but happy and content to be as such, and the song builds up its rays of interlaced harmonies and guitar afterthoughts until they either converge into a locked groove or cease abruptly, depending on the capacities of your record player.



Ryder’s lyrics throughout are certainly worthy of Jack B Yeats, if not quite his younger brother, and Bez, despite being entirely inaudible on the record – one Tony Castro is credited with the extra percussion – is indispensable to it (his credit reads, with commendable succinctness: “BEZ – BEZ”). One is not too sure whether one would like to live in the same street as the Happy Mondays of 1990, but I am very glad indeed that that street once existed.


Primal Scream








Blinking through the trees, grinning like a knowing but forever concealed Cheshire cat, was the tower of the centre of power.



“This is a BEAUTIFUL day…a NEW day…”



There were many days of this nature in that year. A flawlessly blue sky, everybody acknowledging each other, talking with each other, statues, parks and the occasional taxi all co-mingling in closed acceptance of their combined need and purpose.



The egg-white sun dazzling all who chose to neglect its existence.



It felt to her like a new city. A different city. A better one.



“We are to-GETHER! We are unified, and of one accord!”



How privileged and inspired she felt to bear witness to the beginning of the end of the world.


*

I’ll admit it; I was initially sceptical. Primal Scream doing dance music? Pull the other one, Bobby. A mash-up of “Sympathy For The Devil,” sixties road movie dialogue and the occasional vocal interjection which sounded remarkably like Shaun Ryder? The instinct said “cash-in.”

And there was all that born-again ranting he did in the papers at the time and for some while afterwards. I wasn’t fooled. I wasn’t about to take lectures about the power of Acid House from somebody who less than four years before had told me to my face at Splash One that House music was shit and Kim Fowley was the way forward.

The record was good in a minimalist waiting-for-CCS-to-come-in way. A good intro awaiting a good song, perhaps. Then they performed it on TOTP. What was Bobby doing? Grooving around the stage, eyes shut, completely into the music. But he wasn’t singing. Everybody was expecting him to sing. And apart from the abovementioned, very occasional vocal interjections, that was all he did. Stand on the stage grooving, like a Baz when Ryder was stuck on the ‘bus. The compère was amusingly baffled. It looked quite radical, if you looked at it that way. The frontperson is up there and does…next to nothing, which turned out to be very close to everything. I wasn’t sold, but it was encouraging.

* *

Several more singles and a lot of slow-building thereafter, the album finally appeared. Some ingrates complained that it was a greatest hits compilation, but what are the best albums if not greatest hits compilations (Escalator Over The Hill sounds like a collection of hits from a parallel universe)? It came out as a double LP – such Scottish arrogance! – but I and most people I knew got it on cassette (the CD followed later). Moreover, I and most people I knew were completely bowled over by it.

It’s hard to overstate, as the summer of 1991 seamlessly merged into autumn – that year’s summer was a classic, essentially lasting from February all the way into November – how important and unprecedented Screamadelica was. It was undoubtedly Primal Scream’s moment, and the group’s subsequent quarter-century of picture-ruining must not be allowed to get in the way of what it represented, not dissimilar to what Nevermind represented in the States.

The easy way out for doubters was to faux-acclaim Screamadelica as “a great Sabres of Paradise record.” Even when allowing how unfair this description is to The Orb, Hypnotone and the late Jimmy Miller, it does not explain why Screamadelica has remained much-loved – including its own Royal Mail stamp – to this day and records such as Haunted Dancehall and Tiny Reminders are largely forgotten.

No, there had to be more to it than Weatherall alone; he (in collaboration, let it not be forgotten, with Hugo Nicolson) was best able to articulate Gillespie’s ideas but the record remains unavoidably Bobby Gillespie and Primal Scream’s idea, their vision. There is also more to it than a casual assemblage of What I Bought In The Second-Hand Record Shop This Week tricks (unlike some other 1991 album releases I could mention). No, the group are using all of this methodology in order to express something, perhaps even something more than woo-woo drugs and rock and roll &c.

I never need to hear “Movin’ On Up” again but its happy-clappy door-opening works well in a hi-there-welcome-to-our-multicoloured-world sort of way. “Slip Inside This House” is a radically reworked Thirteenth Floor Elevators cover, having already appeared on the 1990 compilation album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson. As the Byrds did with “Mr Tambourine Man,” Primal Scream prune the song down quite severely in an attempt to reach its essence. The feeling is still Madchester but the Shaun Ryder-soundalike vocal is not by Gillespie, but by the late Robert Young. The song successfully manages to get 1968 and 1990 on speaking terms.

“Don’t Fight It, Feel It,” on which Gillespie appears to play no active part (although the lyric, paraphrasing Junior Walker’s “Road Runner,” is a giveaway), and which is sung by Denise Johnson, is a super and in 1991 only slightly out-of-date Acid House rave-up, with an atonal calliope figure – tonally, keyboards, bass and vocals seem entirely non-congruent with each other, which sounds absolutely right – which makes me think of Supersavers From Hell (Supersavers was a daytime ITV programme from the very early eighties which featured comedian and former Crackerjack co-star Don Maclean wandering around a supermarket looking for bargains. At least the show knew its place; these days it would be extended to an hour and go out at peak time). By this time you have more or less forgotten about Primal Scream and are dancing madly around. You didn’t get this with Midway Still or Leatherface. 


The NME critics voted “Higher Than The Sun” the best single of 1991, ahead of both “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That would mean the record had to be really special, and for a lot of people in Britain “HTTS” was “our” “SLTS”; a declaration of anti-principles, a gigantic NO! in the face of post-Thatcher/Reagan conformity. But where Nirvana scream out their message with great joy, Primal Scream had a subtler, more gently disorientating approach.



Overlook the clunkiness of using the word “hallucinogens” in a lyric and its scratch mix of clichés (“experience and innocence,” “state of grace,” “wasn’t born to follow”). Actually the clichés might be part of the song’s point, since the words elope from Gillespie’s mouth only semi-clearly; this is not the exuberant beyond-phonetics tongue-talking of fellow Glaswegian John Martyn’s “Outside In” but more an AR Kane-ish swoon (“I live just for today/I don’t care ‘bout tomorrow,” "fanta...stical places...").



The song as such barely exists beyond that statement; the Orb mix which appears on Screamadelica foregrounds the song, with only a hint of the harpsichord harmony which stream through Weatherall’s 12” mix. There is an upward whooping of something approaching liberation, and then the spirit of (of all people) Tears For Fears (“Shout”) peers through the instrumental bridge, before the song mutters itself into fading vaporisation. You get the feeling that it could go on forever.



“Inner Flight” is touchingly patient, hoping to join the dots between Kraftwerk and the Beach Boys (as Kraftwerk had already done with “Autobahn”), its slow, elegantly-rotating globe spinning gracefully amongst the citadels of the sunnier A40, or was that Hawaii? Actually its gorgeous melody and arrangement recall Japan’s “Taking Islands In Africa,” the collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto which concludes Gentlemen Take Polaroids. It plays as a requiem for a time which, this record suggests with some side-two-of-New Gold Dream foreboding, has already come to an end – and indeed the song bears an extra rhythm track of chirping crickets, sampled from “The Great Pretender” by Brian Eno (from Taking Tiger Mountain [By Strategy]); now there is a correspondence with Eno’s The Ship, which patiently aches and lingers as though saying a long farewell to…Bowie.



* * * *



I remember reading an NME interview with Gillespie around the time the single of “Come Together” came out. There he was, walking through St James’s Park in the brilliant late spring sunshine, talking with daft optimism about the new times ahead before heading back to Victoria Station and Brighton. Me, I lived in the middle of London at that time (because in those days you could afford to) and could empathise with everything he felt and expressed. And so, through the birdsong, the Canada geese, the lake in the middle, beneath the footbridge, reflecting Buckingham Palace, one could discern, even if only in one’s mind, the distant, sunny, echoing voice of the Rev Jesse Jackson at WattStax eighteen summers before.



The Weatherall mix of “Come Together” was chosen for inclusion on the album, and rightly so. The 12” single also included a song, as such, but it sounded like a rather nondescript rerun of “Loaded” owing more than something to both “Suspicious Minds” and “Here Comes The Night.” Whereas Weatherall dispenses with the song almost entirely, keeping only its stately church organ chords and the backing vocals and horns – and, gradually, the rest of the band - which appear towards the end.



His “Come Together” still sounds like a statement of intent. Jackson tells his largely black and poor audience that “today on this programme you will hear gospel…AND rhythm and blues…AND jazz…all these are just LABELS…we know that MUSIC is MUSIC!” His “gospel” is looped to amplify fervent belief but I wonder whether that statement shouldn’t be forcibly engraved in the minds of the reverse snobs we have today (more on that later).



All of these things are, of course, primarily different labels for black music, and there has been some concern that Jackson’s comments on race aren’t incorporated into the piece. While understandable, I do not think that there is any suspicious subtext here, rather an urge on Primal Scream’s part to include everybody in their world. Everybody free themselves.

And, gradually and patiently, that is what happens. At ten minutes, the music is in no hurry at all but does not shirk an underlying determination. Weatherall builds it up, bit by bit, element by element, until the point where it begins to resemble a march, a revolt; the drums start to echo, become larger, more decisive, as in WE are going to take this city, this world, this life, our lives, back.

There later follows a more menacing Jackson sample: “The name of the game is power. If you ain’t playin’ power, you’re in the wrong place!” – and the song is ALL about power, about collective power and strength until such time it virtually transcends itself, as a oasis (ha!), a utopia of what this world could STILL be like.

On his excellent new album Electronica Volume 2: The Heart Of Noise, Jean-Michel Jarre uses a few samples from “Come Together,” speeds up the tempo and raises the key a little, and brings its misty yesterday back into a sharp focus of now. Travelling through a hot and sunny London, as I had to do a couple of Saturdays ago, taking in both West and East and seeing most of what London had to offer – just one day after its new Mayor acceded to power – I felt as if I were witnessing a new beginning, a bright new start. The city was the same. But it looked and felt different, as though the Big Bad Wolf had finally been sent away packing, as if all this talk and false anger were emanating from a world now expired. And I listened to “Come Together” again and knew that it represented a prophecy.

* * * * *
 

If “Come Together” is the album’s peak – and really could also have been the album’s climactic ending – then side three is a less-than-lovely comedown. “Loaded” gets things going, though points to the dreaded “classic rock” getting back into the picture. Then we reach “Damaged,” the album’s nadir and probably the best or worst illustration of the band’s Achilles heel. Herein flows the dreary, soporific antique pictures of Classic Rock, and the song only succeeds in reminding us why Primal Scream finally didn’t transcend themselves; too much respect being shown to that hoary old leather kek stuff, too much this-is-how-Keef-‘n’-Gram-would-have-done-it-in-’71 quackerjackery. By the time we get to Gillespie repeatedly barking “’Cos I’m STAWN! STAWN! STAWN EEN LUV WIT’CHOO” you just want to take him out to a disco somewhere in order to shake “it” out of him; the ancient and now practically unlistenable Rock ‘N’ Roll™ way of doing things.

* * * * * *

“But jazz has nothing to do with this world. Jazz is bigger than the Earth.”

(Sonny Rollins, in this month’s MOJO magazine)



“I’m Comin’ Down” almost nails it. The song is the Jesus and Mary Chain seen through a misted-up middle-range telescope and the drug comedown story is infinitely older than the rock ‘n’ roll one, of which I am growing increasingly weary.



But instead of wallowing in, or “respecting,” the past, Primal Scream try to do something different with it, to expand it out, past the Star Trek high soprano and towards the long, discursive but never incoherent tenor saxophone improvisation which dominates the song, attempt to bring it to the attention of the 1991 “now.” Some cynics might dismiss the song as a Spacemen 3 send-up, but it’s interesting to note how, with Spiritualized, Jason Pierce was eventually able to move even beyond this, such as 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space actually represents the next step on from Screamadelica, much as AR Kane’s 69 was an advance on Psychocandy (and Screamadelica itself can sometimes sound like a tentative update of AR Kane’s “i”).



Time and time again, however, it’s the tenor which sweeps to the front of your attention, and the realisation dawns that this is Primal Scream taking on jazz, or at least jazz as Bobby Gillespie might know it from what he picked up in second-hand record shops at the time…



(…and you could. Growing up in seventies Glasgow, one quickly became quite impatient with the lack of attention that city’s many record shops paid to the New Thing. Then you realised that many of the classics, including most of the Ornette Atlantics and nearly all the Coltrane Impulses, were out of print, yours for a few pence if you dug deeply enough in the bargain bins or accidentally came across them in the newsagent’s. However, I remember somebody at a record shop I used to frequent (listen, I’ll tell you the name afterwards) telling me that the only reason they ordered in such-and-such on ECM or FMP or Ogun or Incus or whatever was that I would turn up and buy it. I was told that there was no market for this sort of thing in Glasgow. The jazz section of Listen was by far the least populated section of the shop, a lonely, neglected quarter. But the general apathy and ennui were enough to drive me to obtaining otherwise hard-to-find records from shops like Honest Jon’s and Mole Jazz who advertised in Jazz Journal every month, or to request things on Incus or Ogun directly from Clapton or Haverstock Hill. Eventually I moved to London itself – and the ready availability of so many classic records was a major factor in my doing so. Those Sun Ras on Impulse with their hand-painted sleeves. I picked a whole bunch of them up one blindingly hot Saturday afternoon in 1979 for 49p apiece out of Listen’s bargain basement. I didn’t think anybody else in Glasgow was interested in this stuff except me, so I have to chuckle when Gillespie talks about being into There’s A Riot Goin’ On or On The Corner since you couldn’t buy either of these for love or money in seventies Glasgow.



I seldom venture into second-hand record shops these days, principally because of the ghastly people one routinely sees in them now. I go into HMV or Rough Trade to buy new things; all of the old stuff I get online. It rules out the serendipity factor but when you are besmirched by sixtysomething numbskulls sauntering in with porkpie hats, hornrims with no glasses in them, Mungo Jerry sideburns but no hair on top and blabbering on at ludicrous volume about their “collection” and what it’s “worth” then believe me, it’s a small price to pay.)



…and it would have been even more enticing had the saxophonist in question been credited on the album sleeve. But he, or she, was not. Questions arose; was it really Pharaoh Sanders himself, absent from the credits for contractual reasons (listen to him on Sonny Sharrock’s contemporaneous Ask The Ages and make up your own mind), or some session player required to “do” Pharaoh Sanders? No satisfactory answer has ever been given. The solo is so remarkable that it’s a pity that, like the Beatles, Primal Scream elected to make us believe that they did and played everything on their records (my guess is that the comparatively sparse packaging of Screamadelica represented a conscious throwback to the time when albums gave you little or no information about the artists; you had to construct your own story).



Nonetheless, so central is jazz to this song – and to the underlying ethos of Weatherall’s “Come Together” – that one is compelled to stamp one’s feet angrily about the recent asinine comments of those who really should know better regarding jazz allegedly being “anti-people” (the last person I can think of who uttered sentiments of that kind was Hermann Goering). The trouble is that such arrant stupidity draws into severe question everything else they have ever said or written; how can you trust what somebody says or does when they get jazz so spectacularly wrong? “Jazz has never been a popular music,” says Rollins in this month’s MOJO (calling Rollins, one of the music’s principal architects, “wrong” is a gesture of breathtaking and unearned arrogance) – and he’s right. For twenty or so years, music which people believed was jazz but was not in itself jazz (though closely related to jazz) was popular. Go back to 1928 and see how many copies the 78 of Armstrong’s “West End Blues” didn’t sell, compared with, say, the average Paul Whiteman offering.

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of jazz, that it somehow represents “elitism” and “snobbery” (I would counter that few areas of any field of music have demonstrated as much unbending elitism and snobbery as white British indie music over the last thirty-five years). It demonstrates an absence of understanding of the music’s history, the racial politics and struggle for palpable identity which have contributed to its advancement, and finally the music itself. Parker, Monk, Mingus and Ayler have never been about “fun” (though all have often been intentionally funny). It has been all about trying to find this elusive, mysterious chimera called “the truth.” No popular music movement of the last century has been untouched by jazz, and in comparison with all other popular music movements of the last century, jazz has remained untouchable. The smartest operators in rock and pop have always known this.

Hence the tenor solo on “I’m Comin’ Down” stands as the song’s absolute cynosure, its central point, even as its singer desperately fades from view, his voice rapidly submerging in a pool of dead, with the bedroom door closing like the last coffin nail. A pity Weatherall chose to destroy the entire mood of the piece with an absurd and misplaced Natashja Kinski dialogue sample from Paris, Texas as a postscript. But make no mistake; Screamadelica may finally stand as a plea to its listeners to open themselves up to all genres of music, illustrating the multicoloured dots of life beyond the grilled bars of the indie ghetto. Anybody who imagines that they can tell the story of popular music while taking away and deriding its most important building block may perhaps be advised to go away and begin again.

“How high’s the sky? How high’s the moon? It’s there. That’s all you need to know.”
(Rollins, op. cit.) 


* *



The record’s final side prepares for a comedown. Weatherall’s reworking of “Higher Than The Sun” is neither dub nor symphony, but plays some stimulating hide-and-seek with the harpsichord/”John Barry” motif until their eventual emergence has the impact of the most beneficent and lasting sunrise. Guest bassist Jah Wobble riffs enjoyably during the second half, and the dream-like slow fade/sudden reappearance of the music is hugely reminiscent of another Scottish enterprise from the decade before: “White Car In Germany” by the Associates.



And so to bed; “Shine Like Stars” is sung in the most hushed-up lullaby of a voice Gillespie could muster, as though putting rock ‘n’ roll to sleep. An accordion, or perhaps a concertina, accompanies him; Scotland, yes, but this is also an addition to the sleep-well-Britain-do-not-fear library of soothing music, somewhere between Mantovani’s “Theme From The Moulin Rouge” and, particularly looking at Gillespie’s vocal with hindsight, Blur’s “Yuko And Hiro,” that uneasy farewell on the part of people who may no longer be people. The song fades forever, like the gold 1990 dream of a new London which then steadily began to diminish, as did Primal Scream themselves, firstly with 1994’s unspeakable Give Out But Don’t Give Up – number two behind #498 – and then Vanishing Point (1997) and XTRNMTR (2000), two adventurous and challenging albums to which I never listen, followed by a decade and a half of sloughily reverential crud. They may have been lucky to find their moment with Screamadelica, but one moment of brilliance trumps half a century of amiable mediocrity.



*



Glaring through no trees, teeth clenched like a knowing but forever exposed white tiger, was the tower of the centre of power.



“This is a BEAUTIFUL day…a NEW day…”



There were no days of this nature in this year. A permanently grey sky, everybody hating each other, avoiding each other, everything that made this city worth coming to and living in being forcibly destroyed in open acceptance of their combined irrelevance and unaffordable happiness.

The flashing of new money, dazzling all who chose to overlook its existence.

It felt to me like a dead city. A used-to-be city. A worse one.

“We are to-GETHER! We are unified, and of one accord!”

How could I be so happy as to overlook the beginning of the end of the world?
*

Depeche Mode



Despite their being eligible for the Now series since its first volume, it took seventeen volumes for Depeche Mode to make their very belated entry, which coincides with the time when I had really started to lose any remaining interest in them. In the course of my research I was reminded that the very complimentary 8/10 review Violator got in the NME (punning headline: “Violators Are Blue”) was written by Helen Mead, who had also written the very damning and vituperative 3/10 review of Erasure’s Wild! in the same paper. So one knew whose side she was on.



Many in 1990, still enslaved by the deeply misguided notion that you could only like what music you were told was “correct” to like, agreed with that aesthetic divide. But age and experience have inclined me towards the idea that Vince Clarke was the real genius in Depeche Mode. Listen to Speak And Spell; fresh, bright, insolent, funny and only a little pervy. Then Clarke left and Martin Gore took over in a Bobby-Rydell-oh-pity-lonesome-and-vaguely-arty-me-but-with-added-electronics sort of way, and the band turned in on itself, became gloomy, listening to their albums a successively more fatiguing experience. I don’t doubt that when you’re a gloomy teenager and nobody understands your pain you’d find much empathy in the grooves of A Broken Frame and Black Celebration, but, rather like The Cure, they shouldn’t really be speaking to or for you once you’re past eighteen and have opened your bedroom curtains. Besides, by 1984 an equally gloomy fetishism seemed to have taken hold of Gore’s songwriting (“Master And Servant”).



Violator was unquestionably put together with the principal aim of breaking the band definitively in the States, where they had been making patient headway since 1987. There isn’t really any other explanation for something like “Personal Jesus,” which thematically and lyrically is not that different from, or any more radical than, Genesis’ “Jesus He Knows Me”, except that the sentiments sounded hipper and cooler coming from four dissatisfied twentysomethings from Basildon than from three conservative middle-aged men from elsewhere in the Home Counties. Likewise, I doubt whether even the Depeche Mode of Music For The Masses would have entertained couplets like “When I need a drug in me/And it brings out the thug in me” (“Sweetest Persuasion”) – perhaps they were aiming to convert kids bored with Young MC.



“Enjoy The Silence” was the album’s big hit – in Britain it was their biggest single since “People Are People” six years earlier – and it ambles around in vague shards of charcoal uncertainty, complete with characteristically clunky Gore lyrics (“Words are VE-RY/Unnecess-ARY/They can only do HARM”). After a while the song wanders off, chewing its own tail rather aimlessly. It reminded me of how good and affecting “Blue Savannah” was, and is.

Jesus Jones

Needless to say, there are always the carpetbaggers, the ones who think they can ram Classic Rock and 1990 Dance together and it’ll still get bought. Given that the second Jesus Jones album went to number one – although that was as much as a result of clever immediate post-Christmas marketing by EMI than anything else – you might think that this approach has some merit. In 1989 they released “Info Freako” and a wildly acclaimed first album Liquidizer which went on to prove that no music dates as quickly as that which proffers to be up to the minute.

“Real Real Real,” as with much of their other work, seems put together with the aim of reassuring ageing rock audiences confused by all this dancey/ravey stuff that it could co-exist with Classic Songs like they (who are they? Not The Who, for a start) wrote in 1966. Thus it sounds forced and ponderous \(the late eighties work of Pop Will Eat Itself and Age Of Chance, to whom neither of those adjectives could be applied – at least, not at the time – has fared much better to the 2016 ear). Naturally, it came out on EMI, who later the same year tried their own Madchester with Forest Of Dean input (EMF) to equally depressing commercial omnipotence.

Inspiral Carpets

Decaffeinated Teardrop Explodes (whereas “Twenty Four Hour Party People” by the 1987 Happy Mondays sounds like Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights band locked in the club’s basement at 2:28 in the morning doing the Teardrop Explodes)? That assessment might be overly harsh. Let me just say that the Inspirals were a dynamic and powerful live act who never quite managed to transfer their stage power to records, that they were a terrific singles band who never made a great album (1995’s The Singles compilation, tip-top from start to finish, is really all you need), that “This Is How It Feels,” amidst the dayglo ecstasy of its times, is a sad and sober song about what happens to people who can’t join in the fun, who are excluded from life because of poverty or alcoholism or despair. The song goes to places where the sun didn’t shine, and has remained resonant for that reason; alas, it could be released today and its lyric wouldn’t have dated a jot.

The House Of Love

A lot of the time, it’s all about timing. When “Shine On” burst out of the traps on Creation in 1987 and helped dismantle the corner into which C86 had in gteat part painted itself – look! Here be bustle, colour and excess! – it felt like the polite start of something, and it’s a matter of record that Alan McGee thought the same; in the late eighties, it was the House Of Love, not My Bloody Valentine or Primal Scream, who were the favourites to achieve crossover stardom.

Listening to their eponymous 1988 debut album – also on Creation – you could understand the fuss. In place of Classic Rock excess came subtlety, even symbiosis; the voice and guitar of Guy Chadwick and the guitars of Terry Bickers really did seem to stem from two reunited halves of the same soul. In songs like “Christine” and the peerless “Love In A Car” – the greatest continued build-up without climax by a British rock band since The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” – everything sonically relates to everything else but the colours seem situated in different perspectives (like The Edge at his best, Bickers’ guitar sounds as though somebody, or some deity, is dictating notes and chords into his head).

But band quarrels, drugs and other things got in the way. By 1990 the band were on a major (Fontana) and finally found some modest commercial success. The “Shine On” that appears here is a re-recording, but the quietly persuasive power of the song is not diminished. Indeed, one could regret that the band’s timing was, in a lot of ways, so off, since the Chadwick/Bickers relationship foreshadows almost precisely what Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler will be doing a couple of years hence. I remember attending a strange three-gig night of theirs one Saturday, when they played three entirely different sets at the  Town and Country Club (as the Forum was then known) in Kentish Town, and finally the Dome in Tufnell Park. Had the House Of Love emerged in 1993 or 1994, they would probably have become superstars. As things turned out, they became Britpop’s reluctant John the Baptist. Neophytes wishing to understand what they were about are best directed to two excellent compilations: The House Of Love 1986/88 (The Creation Recordings), a definitive 23-track collection of everything they recorded for that label, including the debut album in its entirety and the essential non-album single “Destroy The Heart,” complete with sleevenotes by McGee himself; and The House Of Love: The Fontana Years, a 2-CD collection of the best of their early nineties work, before they imploded.

Faith No More

Meanwhile in San Francisco, rock was undergoing parallel but equally and probably more important changes. You could have said as much about Boston or Seattle, of course. But Mike Patton’s Faith No More meant it more fiendishly than most. 1989’s The Real Thing begins with an unbeatable two-hit punch of “From Out Of Nowhere” followed by “Epic,” and even if they hadn’t quite yet figured out what they were singing about, or what they cared for (other than “a lot”), there is great power, dynamism and cheek in what now looks a clear forebear of what was set to explode in 1991. Keep posted for our extremely controversial views about the music of the nineties, specifically American music and British music, and which was really the better and the more important of those two.

The Quireboys

At this point in 1990, however, it really was no contest. From London via Newcastle, they were  compelled to change their name from the Queerboys, and “Hey You” is a terrible stew of the worst of 1973 cock-rock-schlock. From the unappealingly titled A Bit Of What You Fancy which, like Violator, peaked at number two. Don’t be looking at me.


DANCE DANCE DANCE!!



Technotronic featuring MC Eric



If Rupie Edwards could do a whole album of dub variants on “Everyday Wondering” then Technotronic surely had the right to do an entire album of “Pump Up The Jam” “versions.” Actually Pump Up The Jam: The Album is a really enjoyable pop blast and will still give you far more pleasure than those Bob Geldof and Mega City 4 albums the NME of the time were insisting you should be listening to. This Beat...” is one of the very best of the “versions”; anyone who proclaims “I saw your posse, but now it’s me who’s bossy” has to be good. I mean, MC Eric! You didn’t get that at the Camden Underworld.

Lonnie Gordon

Note that there is only one Stock/Aitken/Waterman song on this album, and it was effectively their last non-Kylie stand; Gordon was given an album full of songs originally intended for Donna Summer (but she had gone back home) and “Happening All Over Again” bears the seeds of self-destruction, with Gordon singing the hell out of it and taking the song to places it wasn’t expected to go. It was perhaps SAW’s own “River Deep, Mountain High”; the wall being shaken down.

The 49ers

Off-the-peg Italian House, based around a Jody Watley sample, unlike the debut album by the Charlatans, based around “Indian Rope Man” by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity.

Jimmy Somerville

A righteous and furious TPL farewell.

Cliff Richard

Cliff on the dance half of Now 17? But the song was written and produced by Alan Tarney, who maybe understood him better than anyone this side of Bruce Welch.

Jam Tronik

Who’s to say boring old uncle Phil Collins wasn’t asking for it? These German House producers took his CONCENRED FACE (© Justin Lewis) song and made it infinitely better by speeding it up, having a singer with no idea what the song is about sing it, and best of all, inserting that “AH YEAH!” sample when the listener is being told to think.

It is like the former Abigail getting the final revenge on those old people she used to know.

JT and The Big Family

About a dozen years before somebody in London decides that bootlegs and mash-ups were trendy, the Top Ten included this mongrelisation of “Moments In Love” and Soul II Soul’s patented rhythm track (again with that "AH YEAH!" sample as a bonus). And yet a free pass was given to the La’s for their charmless recycling of the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Searchers.



Mantronix

Kurtis Mantronik was born in Jamaica but raised in Canada, and then New York. Listening carefully to the first Mantronix album – which bore the utilitarian title of The Album – you recognise a peculiarly Canadian respect for space between the beats and MC Tee’s bragging. The record signified hip hop being patiently led to a new concordance with what was once known as electro. Their second album, Music Madness, released towards the end of 1986, was damned as the end of music by pompous music journalists who demanded that everybody be forced to listen to Aretha for half an hour every morning, to teach them some dignity.

Happily Mantronix had enough followers by that time to give the manly, rarely groovy London style police the finger; Music Madness was free of recognisable samples (except, at one absolutely appropriate point, the theme from The Old Grey Whistle Test); everything was cut up into microdots flashing with such momentary and hypercoloured resonance to a level that would suggest post-music. The closing “Mega Mix” represented Cubist abstraction to levels that Braque might have found daunting. There was no suggestion anywhere on the record about keeping it (what?) real, which was just great.

Mantronik was also responsible for producing landmark albums from the period such as Just-Ice’s Back To The Old School, Joyce Sims’ Come Into My Life, T La Rock’s Lyrical King and Nocera’s Over The Rainbow; Sleeping Bag was, for a moment, the pop label to follow. But a major label move in 1988 wasn’t so encouraging. I tried hard with In Full Effect but “Simple Simon” sounded like Men Without Hats and, in the context of spring 1988, not a little dated, while “Love Letter (Dear Tracy),” a rapped “ballad,” was a brave but not successful experiment.

MC Tee then quit - I refer you to his Wikipedia entry to see how far he subsequently fell – but with new associates Bryce Wilson and DJ D, a fourth album, This Should Move Ya, appeared in 1990. “Got To Have Your Love” was sung by a jazz singer called Wondress (Hutchinson) and was done pretty much in order to get a hit. As a pop record, it remains remarkable; the breakdown to the solitary, patient bass synth line after the first chorus, the nod to Soul II Soul in the rhythms, and evidence of the old block-rocking electro magic throughout, especially in its furiously exciting twelve-inch mix, where Wilson raps and suddenly we are back in the multifocal age of “Bassline.”

Bizz Nizz

How many records like this were in the charts of their time, and how many remain studiously ignored by 21st century radio? “Don’t Miss The Partyline” was admirable Belgian minimalism (not really New Beat but parallel to it) which demonstrates that perhaps Vince Clarke had a greater influence on the development of Eurodance than Martin Gore, complete with perky “Situation” synth lines, jolly sampled vocals and the obligatory crowd cheer. What happened to Bizz Nizz? They augmented their line-up with two vocalists and became 2 Unlimited.

The future appears where you least suspect it.

E-Zee Posse

The ghost of Hendrix’s Woodstock blood-spangled banner. A crowd cheering. Whatever did happen to Haysi Fantayzee? They’re back…sort of. And is that Boy George? A pro-drugs pop song? Naughty, naughty, but absolutely in the pores of its time and still sounding thrilling today (needless to say, I do NOT agree with its sentiments, but will fervently stand up for the artists’ right to express them).

Its times? Here is what I wrote twenty-six years ago:

There’s A Riot? Go On!


It was a lovely and bucolically warm Sunday morning; the re-energising aura of early spring, the blissful sort of day which dares you to stay inside. We felt good, reasonably mellow – windows wide open to let in the Chelsea morning, both London and ourselves ready for anything. Also somewhat relieved, but that’s not necessarily another story. Put on Ulmer’s now decade-old Are You Glad To Be In America? - the sort of benevolent record which comes with its own inbuilt smoke. Then a little Axis: Bold As Love; then tentatively out into the city to inspect the wreckage.

One record not played, because we had played it over and over, perhaps hypocritically, the evening before: Fear Of A Black Planet, the third, and by several leagues the greatest, album by Public Enemy. Did you think that the age of hip hop attack had ended, receded and reversed into the divine dayglo of De La Soul? Well, no one’s advanced on what 3 Feet High And Rising proposed – not yet, anyway, though keep an eye on A Tribe Called Quest – and there’s no one attacking or hustling except NWA. LL Cool J thinks he’s George fucking Michael (don’t rearrange those last three words). The question is: have NWA forced PE to raise their game? Was their game even raiseable after Nation of Millions, that most solipsistic and self-referential of rap records – a record which, as sonically blistering as it was, concerned itself entirely with how controversial the previous one was?

We found it on Saturday morning, freshly in on import, in Bluebird Records in Berwick Street. An equally sunny day, we were doing some browsing/consuming before heading out west to Putney for the Boat Race. We very rarely come into London of a weekend, but if spring’s like this it’s sometimes irresistible. Had to have it. Not sure whether we needed to have the Professor Griff solo album, which was also in on import and which we also bought – I haven’t heard it yet and am regretting the £8.99 already – but anyway, Mandela’s out, the Berlin Wall’s down, the Roses and Mondays are in the charts; things are turning to spring generally. Let’s not worry about details. Details such as the procession of smiling mothers, weekend Londoners and kids strolling down Piccadilly in the opposite direction to the 14 bus which we have just boarded – they are off to Trafalgar Square for yet another poll tax protest. Not many Daily Mail readers evident among that lot. The ejection of Thatcher remains remote. And here we are, with our Public Enemy import album, off to break bread with High Tory nitwits, or at least stand on the same bridge as them.

We have a fine afternoon, wandering aimlessly around Bishops Park and the Palace of Fulham. It’s only when we cross the bridge to the Putney hostelry when we learn of the riots via the pub TV. Everyone scratches their head in bemusement, as though this were a parallel London, one which Baudrillard just invented. There’s blood spilling, hopeful but hopeless tugging at the iron gates to Downing Street; it’s a ruck, all right – Arsenal fans fighting with Millwall fans, but in two different sets of uniforms. We are in sunny, leafy, Tory Putney as “London” doesn’t quite burn but certainly disintegrates with the aid of bathetic batons. It’s no revolution; that’s abundantly clear – the riot’s already being contained, no it isn’t, they’ve broken off to Piccadilly, up Charing Cross Road and on to Oxford Street, or up Regent Street, smashing windows, looting (but are they running away with anything, or running away from something?). We exchange anxious looks. Our stuff is in Chelsea; we will have to get back there one way or another. Have the mobs reached the King’s Road yet? It’s reachable. With great trepidation we troop onto a number 22 bus. Stopping at Hyde Park Corner – no bus is going any further, and the conductor tells us we might well stop at Sloane Square. Fine by us, we only need to get to Chelsea Town Hall. Traffic builds up steadily and uncertainly, but it’s just a supra-standard backlog; we disembark and run back inside. It’s about quarter to seven. The sun’s still high; it’s still uncommonly warm. No signs of disturbance anywhere. King’s Road does its usual Saturday teatime closing down routine. As the sun sets we watch cautiously through the windows for dim, not-so-distant red skies aflame. Easy for Piccadilly mobs to jump on a 19 or 22 – let’s go down the King’s Road, dick-a-dum-dum a few of those Sloaney cunts, teach ‘em a fuckin’ lesson, trash ‘em! But the tube has been closed down and buses aren’t going within a mile of central London. They are isolated and already too tired to run another couple of miles. So nothing’s going to happen at our end.

We put on Fear Of A Black Planet. And my God is this an album. The quantum leap which rap needed; it’s already clear that Public Enemy, even without Prof Griff, have upped the bar and done a Fosbury flop into the bargain. The brilliant shotgun marriage between The Last Poets and Pere Ubu which characterised Yo! Bum Rush The Show will surely sound as monodimensional as a Bush radiogram when set against what they have achieved here.

The sonic layers which the Bomb Squad lay on FOABP are multiplex and mutilating. For the first time (except for De La Soul at the opposite end of a spectrum which I rushed out and invented) rap sounds as though it’s emerged into 3D. PE have taken what Eric B & Rakim suggested in Follow The Leader, combined it with a rationalised and more deadly version of NWA’s rage, and given you a blitzkrieg. The opening salvo “Contract On The World Love Jam” (why doesn’t Prince come out with titles like that anymore?) refers to “terrorists” and states that “the future of the group is in doubt.” Well, if they’re disintegrating, then they are dragging us all down into heaven with them. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”’s avant-JB assault, constructed as if from Asimovian remnants of dead Soul(s), imposes on us the subtext that things are NEVER gonna work out. Like Gil Evans’ arrangements, you can listen to each musical element singly and be fascinated by them, or submerge yourself in the bliss of the whole. “911 Is A Joke” is moderate when compared with “Fuck Tha Police,” perhaps – a different but parallel protest to that of Tracy Chapman - but PE know what time it could be. They continue to idolise and glorify themselves, but they are turning their faces back onto the world. “Welcome To The Terrordome” (which we saw a drunken Pete Waterman rave over on The Hit Man And Her - “This is the REAL punk rock!” He resembles Tony Wilson more and more every day) is a calamitous rave-up where we clap the hands of corpses. Best pass over the queasy “Meet The G That Killed Me” (there are better targets, chaps, as well you know) straight onto the beyond-bizarre “Pollywanacraka” which stumbles along as disturbingly as George Clinton having just lost the key to his dormitory in the rehab clinic – smiling with crooked teeth which singe your neck with its mockery of blood. “Anti N****r Machine” spits along in contrabass – Christ, if Archie Shepp were 23 today, this is what he would be doing! Forget punk rock, this is the REAL New Thing.

By the time we get to “Burn Hollywood Burn” with its cameo from Ice Cube, we are definitively aware of just how unprecedented in its inspiration of awe this record is. “As I walk down Hollywood Boulevard” as though he’s just about to shoot the whole place down, strings smouldering behind. We gasp at the horror of the realisation that this is a record to be played in a riot. Should we have stayed in Piccadilly and bled? Well of course not – the record would long have been nicked. Hypocrisy piles upon doublethink. We haven’t understood a thing, least of all a second of this record. Still we listen. “Who Stole The Soul?” by virtue of its very existence destroys “soul.” About time too. Abort the inverted commas.

As regards side two, there’s not much to say except sit back, or lean forward, and be stunned by this unrepeatable assimilation of the ascending fissure of Miles’ On The Corner combined with the benign destruction of, yes, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The determination – rhythmic, politic, lyric – freezes you in its avant-garde ruthlessness. I can’t think that any other record this year could harness the power of “Revolutionary Generation” – a track where, yes, PE finally learn respect for women. A divine duality of double bass lines power the piece, winding in and around each other in spinal liquidity, but never losing the essential blood flow. And after that, the assault just keeps on doubling, trebling, the intensity now blindingly white in its heat until, finally, everything comes to the boil halfway through “War At 33 1/3” where the music atomises, explodes into freeform rebirth with a closeness and courage that I’ve seldom heard anyone achieve on record before now. No one could possibly hope to emulate, let alone surpass, the feat PE have achieved with this record.

Well OK, they could have ended the album with the Do The Right Thing soundtrack version of “Fight The Power” – in that (Motown) form, there are few greater singles – rather than the radio edit, but perhaps they felt we needed to be let down gently after this mindfuck of a rollercoaster of a record.

And some people say it should have been blared out in the streets as they burned and bled. Anyone can say that the day after, when they have the luxury of not actually having to dirty their hands.

Central London at Sunday lunchtime. We had to see it. Tourists standing about uncertainly, as if still waiting for yesterday evening’s buses. Every window broken, only a couple boarded up. All the banks, Tower Records, Lillywhite’s, Liberty, even the Woollen Mill (“hey, let’s loot the Woollen Mill! Anarchy!”) – they all got hit, and more besides. It was like wandering through a semi-dismantled stage set…not very populated, but not dead. Nothing much happening here. It’ll rebuild itself; why do you think we have an insurance industry? We have the whole of the city at our disposal now; and how little we have done with it, or to it.
(March 1990)

D-Mob

Play THIS instead of the three records the O’Jays made.

Killer

There is something rather heartbreaking about the eagerness of Liveandirect, the mini-album Adamski released at the beginning of 1990. With titles like "The Bassline Changed My Life," "You Me House," "A Brand New World," "Into Orbit," "Love And Life" and "M25," you could trace out a pocket proposal of how rave culture should have turned out; a genuine communality, a multicoloured rose of newness and togetherness. The record's bouncy, optimistic toytown electronica reminds me somewhat of the hopefulness of B.E.F.'s Music For Stowaways.

But there was also the facade which Jarvis Cocker later pinpointed with sore accuracy ("It's six o'clock! I wanna go home - but it's 'No way,' 'Not today'...makes you wonder what it meant to them"), the pretence of community by people who'd hug you when high and then spit in your face if you approached them on the street, sober. Before long, the mutually assured forces of big business and the Criminal Justice Bill would render the whole enterprise neutered. And Boring Old Politics which, however old or boring, refused to go away and allow people a future; there were the riots, the unrest, Thatcherism tottering towards its inglorious demise (you might be able to sense how, the day after the poll tax riots, the strident siren song of "I've got the power!" sounded like insurrection, or a triumphant rebel refrain), the racism, the no such thing as society...

"Killer" was a disturbing record from its cover inwards - Adamski's pet dog scowling at the camera, at an angle, while a queasy orange psychedelic backdrop swirls in the background - and perhaps its most disturbing factor was the fact that the title is never uttered at any point in the song. Yet it didn't need to be; the backwards boomerang of the fade-in intro quickly gives way to a brutal variant on post-Acieed beats, with a rhythm and right-angled bassline which are demonstrative and in your face but also questioning.

Both lyric and vocal delivery - both provided by an unknown singer named Seal - personify anxious urgency. Seal's vocal here is like a grainier, colder rationalist Richie Havens, but he is pleading for warmth and bonding and, indeed, a true society. "Solitary brother! Is there still a part of you that wants to live?" he cries as the music gradually escalates behind him; the car horns following in the trail of the charity fundraising sideswipe "Will you give (if we cry)?," the scythes of stuttering cymbals which enter with "Tainted hearts," the stately string synth lines which essentially halve the speed of the song's topline in preparation for the chorus; all seem like totems of a crumbling Establishment which Seal is urging that we bring down. The cut-up of the "be" in the line "The way we wanna be" symbolises the attempts by unconcerned government to turn the living human into a docile machine but is instantly defeated by Seal's half-ecstatic growl of "Yeah!" which in turn leads directly into a minor key Jack-The-House piano line, percussion dots and loops - and a sampled dog bark - raining all around. In the third line of the final chorus Adamski's synth plays a tortured, high-register melody, like a weeping computer; and finally it settles with Seal's closing, out-of-tempo warnings: "Racism in amongst future kings can only lead to no good...and besides...all our sons and daughters already know how that feels" before culminating in a sad smile of a 1967 memory: "Yeah, yeah, yeah...Love, love, love." It is one of the most minimally articulate anti-New Right protests in all of pop - and little wonder that neither Adamski nor Seal ever surpassed this, that Adamski settled for novelty Elvis covers (and, later, anonymous ambient techno) or that Seal (with the aid of Trevor Horn) became a slightly higher-tech Cat Stevens. "Killer" is the necessary conscience of a culture which should have changed everything.


Orbital

“I risked my life and hers to come back here, home, because I thought it was different. It is, isn't it?........ISN'T IT DIFFERENT?!”
(Number 6, “The Chimes Of Big Ben”)

Nobody in my office knew what to make of Orbital performing “Chime” on TOTP the next morning. They were wearing Anti-Poll Tax T-shirts. They weren’t even pretending to mime, standing around as though waiting at Sevenoaks station for the next train to Charing Cross. And you call that MUSIC? It’s just the same thing repeated again and AGAIN.

You wouldn’t really get it from listening to the record on the radio or seeing it on TV. You had to be in the club, on the road, out in the fields, in the shop, perhaps even in the pub where Paul Hartnoll went after recording the track’s prototype demo. You had to experience it as an active participant, not simply receive it passively.

And for those who did get it, it was a revolution. “Chime” did more than most “pop” records to question, undermine and redefine the notion of what constituted a pop record. Its carolling could last forever or not at all; it had its peaks if you absorbed it really carefully, but beyond everything this was the “Chime” of freedom, the liberty bell, Big Ben freed from its obligation to time its citizens, inhabitants and passing tourists, politics redacted and redefined as an all-inclusive utopia. The song got in your head and you couldn’t and wouldn’t evacuate it. A decade of fine records – and a storming “imperial phase” performance by the Hartnoll brothers at the Royal Albert Hall in the spring of 1996, with this writer in attendance – was to follow. But “Chime” drew the friendly line. That was then, THIS is now; if the past was so great, we’d all have stayed there.

What’s so wrong with leaving Peckham Rye to train with the Bolshoi Ballet?



Cool Down On Your Way Out, Mind How You Go

Perhaps realising that the double hit of “Killer” and “Chime” could not be topped, the collection finishes in a subdued fashion with three chill-out sort-of-hits. Of course, there were other stories from that time and those charts to tell, but you have to go to competing compilations by other record company conglomerates to know about “Love Shack,” “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Ghetto Heaven,” “Escapade,” “Mamma Gave Birth To The Soul Children,” “Black Velvet.” For “Nothing Compares 2 U” you have to wait until Now 18, a flimsy collection with an awful cover which crept out just before Christmas. For the song of the end-of-March-1990 moment, “The Power,” you have to investigate the superior Smash Hits 1990 double compilation.

Here, however, we begin the fade to grey with Tongue ‘N’ Cheek. Who were they? I know no one who claims to be an ardent fan of Tongue ‘N’ Cheek yet the records tell me they had half-a-dozen singles in the midriff of the UK singles chart in the late eighties and early nineties – you may recognise the first of these, 1988’s “Nobody (Can Love Me),” as forming the basis of one of the great rave era classics, Acen’s “Trip To The Moon” – plus one modestly successful album. They have even been the subject of a question on Radio 2’s impenetrable PopMaster quiz.

“Tomorrow” is indeed standard make-do-and-mend chart midriff fare, not unpleasant but not exactly memorable either. Those who recall ITV’s The Chart Show may remember they were always on. Somewhere I think the band had something to do with mid-eighties hitmakers Total Contrast (“Takes A Little Time”) and there’s the link – it’s the fading embers of eighties Britfunk, segueing seamlessly into the don’t-offend-anyone variety of tasteful easy listening with a soupçon of trendy. When Radio 2 finally get around to doing Sounds Of The Nineties, you just know that it’s going to be full of this kind of stuff – the type of music nobody really likes but which ends up in everyone’s car CD player because it stops them from thinking.

“Talking With Myself” is much more shadowy and interesting. Originally released independently as a single in 1988, it got a second chance on a major label after Electribe 101’s singer Billie Ray Martin – birth name Birgit Dieckmann, from Berlin – guested on S’Express’ “Hey, Music Lover.” The rest of Electribe 101 came from Birmingham, and their music remains satisfying nocturnal and anti-reassuring. “Tell Me When The Fever Ended” was the group, and Martin’s, finest moment but “Talking” stands almost as an elegy, a requiem for a form of House music that no longer really applied, all shadowboxing, curlicues of smoke in distant corners, mid-eighties twelve-inch imports absorbing dust without protective cover. The title of their only, and excellent, album, Electribal Memories, stands as a gatepost between old eighties and newer nineties.

The story here is brought to an end by reliable but parallel-worldly Sydney Youngblood, who mumbles the old song in an offhand fashion, as though walking down a street without people or hope, remembering someone’s old days, humming to himself, patiently persuading the past that its role was not lost. Its fade is arbitrary; rather like “Chime,” it could theoretically go on forever. The sky is the limit, he appears to be thinking; how can we fail? And then you remember that the most popular version of this song in Britain was the 1969 recording by Chicken Shack, and the song was sung by their then lead singer, Christine Perfect, later Christine McVie.

The perfect circle, she thought, as she contemplated a future city she might no longer recognise.



Part 3: 2016’s Story

She returned to London for the day. It was early spring. She seldom returned to this city after moving out and it was easy to understand the reasons behind both. The traffic moved much more slowly, possibly intentionally so. In the old days London had felt like her playground but now she did not really recognise the city at all. On her way she passed other, younger, happier people who treated the city as their playground. She smiled at the notion that every generation thinks its London is the best. Perhaps it had been time to give the playground over to others.

Yet this playground seemed so determinedly joyless. She scarcely recognised the place. The old familiar landmarks were there, but in the middle of an amorphous, global broth that she did not find particularly tasted of anything. Most of the old book and record shops in which she used to spend entire days, weekends, browsing were long or not so long gone, replaced by identical-looking, uninhabitable “luxury” flats bought and sold by overseas investors without once looking at them. Bitcoins for oligarchs, someone had called it. And chains, chain stores, chains of fools, balls and chains.

She knew that everywhere looked like everywhere else now and that this was the end result of globalisation. A return to the nineteenth century of dubiously-obtained private wealth and the chronic public privation which it allowed. She saw people sleeping rough at the backs of hotels, beneath public monuments. What sort of tourist, she thought to herself, would or could be attracted by this spectacle?

She continued to rent, even in Brighton, although for how much longer she could afford to do so she did not know. She had never bought a house, not even in the eighties or nineties when houses were available at competitive prices. She was not a mortgage kind of a person – neither did she marry or have children – and didn’t think this a crime worth punishing. Londoners being forced out of London because of something they didn’t do thirty years ago.

Of course the network of destruction had already been set in place by then; she wasn’t blind or stupid. But the process could have been controlled. Whether Camden or Kensington, there was now no reason to stop. Ghost towns, furnished by Farrow & Ball.

For one thing, there was nowhere in the few record shops remaining in London where she could buy the bentcousin record, whereas it was on display in Resident Music. What had this place allowed itself to become?


The bentcousin record is something else. They appear to be led by two twins, one called Amelia and the other called Pat, who also write and produce songs for other local Brighton artists and may well be the Xenomania one used to be able to trust. The record is a satisfying listen where they serially but carefully work their way through different eighties and nineties styles of music, seeing which ones fit best (or most awkwardly). “Fuck The Queen” superficially plays like a jolly old C86 romp with its talk of Peel and cassettes but Ms Lawson sensed some merde plus sombre in the song’s undertow. “We drove for miles and miles,” “animal noises,” the tagline of “you got to me.”

Ms Lawson shuddered and remembered “The Boiler” by Rhoda Dakar and the Special A.K.A., a record you’d have to be a psychopath to play more than once but which had to be heard once, and once only.

The talk of Ben Ratliff about how the meaning of a piece of music depends on what the listener, rather than the creator, makes of it. Or of Gilbert O’Sullivan, who once said that every interpretation of his songs was the correct one, even if it was the wrong one.

Elephants and seals. The elephants in the living room and the seven seals.

It goes on. Their careful re-reading of “Freak Scene” would thirty years ago have earned them a place on ZTT as part of that label’s doomed repeat anthology of Classic Pop. They do it like New Order. “Baby You’re My Jesus” balances Pat’s melancholic recollection of spread diseases against Amelia’s cheery tra-la-las. “HID” is a folk song with idling violin which may or may not be a sequel to “Fuck The Queen.” “Where Do I Belong?” finds its singer lost and her ruminations are rashly superseded by Lord Gabe’s labial rap (conjuring up immediate memories of Fresh 4’s “Wishing On A Star”). “Rock & Roll Me” rolls along on House piano and synthesisers; with its “you make me feel like Donna Summer” refrain, it plays like a younger, hungrier and happier Saint Etienne. Unlike other operatives, possibly including Primal Scream, bentcousin are students of pop not stymied by their own knowledge of history. They are the type of people who would know that the Bee Gees are called the Bee Gees and not “the Gibb Brothers,” who see Donovan and Dylan as two sides of the same happy Monday of a coin.

Back to acoustic pastoralism for “Uncertain,” but not really (“Spend the day smothered in my room/I go outside to come inside”); the singer has been abandoned, left: “Feels like I’ll never belong/So softly spoken” – perhaps a bookend to “Where Do I Belong?” She speaks of the Slits, the Go-Gos and Soho, unaware that approving of these was a punishable sin in the eyes of money-printers. “Everything Is Everything” is a very funny anti-duet with a good New Order (again) melodica riff; he thinks he loves her, she just wants rid of this creep (it’s “I Know Him So Well” from a different angle).

Then it all breaks open; Keith Levene, no less – speaking of the Slits – pops up in the concluding “Widening The Vision” and his guitar forces the song into three-dimensional colour. He provides the record’s aesthetic glue, as did his former bandmate Jah Wobble towards the end of Screamadelica.

The message, Ms Lawson knew, was pop is daft and you’re daft to think that, and what is there left if you choose to disregard it, and extend the options to include love, and life, and well it’s pop music and we’re only here for I don’t know how short a time, as I note to myself with hushed satisfaction how quietly influential I have been these past fifteen years

BUT

The middle-aged aesthete is anonymous. I go about my entirely anonymous business in record shops and bookshops and you’d never know it was me, or us. Perhaps I enjoy that more than I ought. Yet I write because I must, because who will if we don’t? Or, much, much worse, who would write worse and pass it through as gospel?

It’s best to look at it all as the story of a life, of certain lives, and how they have been shaped or misshaped by music, and – far more importantly – how they were seen to respond to music.

Mrs Moss and Ms Lawson – I could say more about who they became, but the lawyers of certain celebrities would become antsy. But they form a semi-visible thread throughout the entire tale. I can never let either of them die.

* *

On her way back to Victoria Station, Ms Lawson stopped at a pedestrian crossing, at the busy end of Vauxhall Bridge Road. As the light changed to green she spotted an elderly, distinguished-looking and actually very familiar-looking lady tapping impatiently at the wheel of what looked to be a handsome and prosperous Rolls-Royce. Their eyes locked for a fraction of a second. They momentarily thought that they knew each other, before deciding that they probably didn’t know each other at all.

* *

I walk through this city as if on pilgrimage. They’re building a desert, and they call it progress. Is it just me? But then there’s life, not where the impatient tourist walks, but at the edges, where the city survives miraculously, if precariously. And there’s music, which speaks to us in recent times or returns from a lifetime ago to remind us why we do not simply roll over and give up.

* *

Back home, the woman formerly known as Abigail climbed into her attic. So many boxes, as yet unpacked, covered by a layer of plastic bags. She had forgotten what was in them; it had been what felt like centuries since they had been packed.

Hours later, when she had reached the smallest and remotest box of all, she knew the moral of this story.

She clambered down back into her front room and looked through her window. If the sun hadn’t been shining so fervently she could have seen the sea.

When all is said and done, she concluded to herself, to the absent Mrs Moss, and most of all to the unavoidably absent Mr Moss, our future is looking higher than the sun.