Saturday, 31 May 2014

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: Welcome To The Pleasuredome





(#305: 10 November 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: well…/The World Is My Oyster/Snatch Of Fury (Stay)/Welcome To The Pleasure Dome/Relax/War/Two Tribes/Tag/Ferry (Go)/Born To Run/Do You Know The Way To San José?/Wish (The Lads Were Here) including The Ballad Of 32/Krisco Kisses/Black Night White Light/The Only Star In Heaven/The Power Of Love/bang…

“Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, intensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming.”
(Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space, translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964; from Chapter 8: “Intimate Intensity”)

“The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”
(John Berger, Ways Of Seeing. London: BBC/Penguin, 1972; page 128)

The above track listing is a compromise. It isn’t exactly what is printed on the inner sleeve of the original double LP. I have largely stripped the song titles of their mostly gratuitous additional parentheses. The track listing given for the double LP does not include all of its tracks. The CD edition (first print) is different again, and completely fails to correlate to what is actually on the CD. The track “Tag” – a 33-second rerun of the orchestral middle section from “Two Tribes” over which Chris Barrie impersonates Prince Charles talking about orgasms – is listed but does not appear at all (it is there, unlisted, on the original double LP, at the end of side two, or, if you must, side “G”). On the original double LP, “Two Tribes” appears as a very basic, and somewhat drained, remix of its 7-inch; but on the CD we get the full, definitive “Annihilation” mix, complete with the closing Patrick Allen “Mine is the last voice…” tag (a sequence not taken from the original Protect And Survive information films, but written by Paul Morley). Their “Do You Know The Way To San José?,” though listed, does not appear on the CD at all, being unceremoniously replaced by “Happy Hi!,” one of the B-sides of the “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” single, and a song which really underlined how unremarkable Frankie ended up being. There seems to be a continuing conflict whether it should be “Pleasure Dome” or “Pleasuredome.” The cassette edition was different again. I could go on.

What this all signifies – this album whose compiler loves signifiers and the signified – is that there is no definitive edition of the record, and perhaps that is why it has become so little loved. I remember reading Record Mirror and being told that the first Frankie LP was going to be a triple-album boxed set which would include neither of their two colossal hits, and that a third single – “The Power Of Love” – would be released shortly before Christmas but would not appear on the album. Christ, I thought to myself, Morley's trying to do an Escalator.



And then the album, with more than a million advance orders, came out, and went out of the shops pretty well from the moment they came in, or the boxes were opened; there were a couple of, shall we say, premature rave reviews. Pleasuredome tied with entry #310 at the top of the NME 1984 Readers’ Poll Album Of The Year list; had the NME writers’ poll not gone to press much too early, there was, I understand, a very good chance that Pleasuredome would have leapfrogged Womack’s Poet II to come, as it were, at the top of the albums list.

And then people actually bothered to open up the package, or at least remove the records from their luxuriously appointed sleeves, and listen to them; the disappointment was as instantaneous as the initial acclaim. It was a double rather than triple, with no box, and all three singles, including “The Power Of Love,” were present. There were several cover versions, bits of other cover versions, an introductory title track which took up most of side one. This indicated a lack of ready material.

Yet it had, apparently, to be a double; Frankie had become so suffocatingly huge by the late autumn of 1984 that people expected nothing less, despite the single album having been more than enough for ABC, the Human League and (largely) the Beatles. But who would have bought a single album with the title track on side one and “Krisco Kisses,” etc., on side two? The stakes were too high, and I am unsure whether ZTT were really ready for a phenomenon of this size.

And so, as a package, Pleasuredome works brilliantly (at least until you have/bother to listen to it). Or at least it looks, on first impressions, to be brilliant. A deluxe, upmarket double album illustrated by cartoons of beasts of the field doing the basic thing; this was perceived to be McLaren-level irony. Otherwise, Morley floods the inner sleeves with words, unending words, quotes, second-hand observations, letters of complaint which may or may not be about Frankie; nothing that tells me something I didn’t already know. The fan magazine pocket paragraph band interviews go back to notions of packaging adopted in the sixties. There are Python-style advertisements for Frankie merchandise, including the “Sophisticated Virginia Woolf vest for the luxury of life” and the “Andre Gide socks.” References to the models being “ordered about” and the enterprise being “an exclusive piece of ZTT exploitation” don’t make them not so. Ultimately you are conning, and laughing at, the audience who are giving you money to be told how beautiful and discerning they are.

There is even a reading list, which no doubt was intended to give off an air of something beyond ordinary pop thrills, together with quotations from fairly routine sources (the long section about “Youth ends where manhood begins…” comes from Henry Miller’s Rimbaud study The Time Of The Assassins, compulsory reading for younger Beat types). Unfortunately Paul Morley failed to take into account that another smart-aleck would look at this list and wonder (a) exactly what was so remarkable about it and (b) what the hell any of it had to do with Frankie Goes To Hollywood (I believe that the apposite phrase in this context is “Never shit a shitter”).

I’m still wondering what the Pleasuredome reading list is meant to demonstrate other than Morley’s fine taste in literature. There are the standard texts for anxious, pale nineteen-year-olds; The Sickness Unto Death, Les Fleurs du Mal, Dead Souls (you just can’t get away from Joy Division, can you?), The Picture Of Dorian Grey, and so forth. Added to that are a bunch of nineteenth-century books about hoped-for utopias written by prematurely disappointed socialists – Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist text The Conquest Of Bread, Edward Bellamy’s exceedingly hope-filled science-fiction epic Looking Backward: 2000-1887 – alas Mr Bellamy wasn’t to know about the real 2000 of PopStars, Florida and chads, but I do note that his character Dr Leete makes the following observation: “According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.” Where does that leave the business of selling and buying a Frankie Goes To Hollywood album?

Also present are examples of what can happen when utopia gets flipped over to reveal its double, Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell,” very obviously, as well as two studies of seemingly happy and satisfied families whose structure is essentially based on lies, Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck and George Gissing’s novel The Nether World. The main protagonists of both fail because they are dishonest with and about themselves in the context of people they claim to love. The protagonist of Strindberg’s Inferno (also included in the list) reacts so violently (on a psychological basis – persecution mania, they call it) against his own family that he isolates himself from them altogether and even casts a black magic spell on his daughter. This all culminates in Moby Dick – go all the way round the world to find and kill that whale, even if everybody else on your boat drowns as a result; the world and the sea roll on regardless, as the book’s ending makes clear, as if the crew had never existed. Or, one might posit, the pop group.

But even if this is a case of Morley setting himself up as a sort of Harold Biffen against the multiple Jasper Milvains of 1984 pop, he surely envisaged Pleasuredome as being more than New Pop’s Mr Bailey, Grocer (ironically, like Duncan Thaw in a different country and time, Biffen dies because he is completely incapable of understanding or giving love). But I’m not sure that it isn’t. To match what the hype of the package itself promised, Pleasuredome would have had to have been the greatest album ever made; anything less would have been viewed as an effrontery. Unfortunately the reality of the album seems to bear out the sleeve’s Measure For Measure quotation about “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.”

Indeed, when placing one’s needle at the beginning of Side “F,” one wonders for some time when exactly Frankie are going to make themselves known. The side begins with an apocalyptic shriek for (possibly synthesised) soprano and Fairlight which makes the listener think more of Rick Wakeman’s myths ‘n’ legends on ice capers than the Sex Pistols. This dies down to allow Holly Johnson to belch “The world is my oyster” followed by one of his unappetising chuckles.  As with Disco Tex on the cover of Manhattan Millionaire, the immediate reaction is who cares?

Then we get a meandering passage for acoustic guitar and John Barry-type keyboards which appears to have nothing to do with the group whose record this is meant to be. This in turn is followed by a seemingly unending sequence of zoo noises. Perhaps bucked up by the inaudible cat-calls of “Gerronwivit!” from the gallery, the title track finally stutters into life. Inspired by Coleridge, or possibly more so by Rush’s seven-year-old “Xanadu,” Johnson’s introductory spiel is cheekily compelling. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A pleasure dome…EEEEEE-RECT!” is great…but Johnson doesn’t follow it up. There’s an embarrassing pause and then: “Moving on…keep moving on.” The impetus is gone.

Indeed, the song – if it can be said to be a song (perhaps that was the hidden intention; the ultimate pop package, down to hiring David Frost to do the voiceover for the television commercial, containing almost nothing, cover versions and “The Power Of Love” partially excepted, that could be construed as a song – Frankie’s schtick is all chants and slogans) – highlights Johnson’s extremely limited lyrical repertoire. “Keep  moving on,” “Gotta reach the top, don’t stop,” “Shooting stars never stop,” “There goes a supernova/What a pushover” – he is the missing link between Tom Peters and Noel Gallagher.

But there are over thirteen-and-a-half minutes of album space to fill with the title song, and it does so very draggingly, again with an arrangement and production which have little apparent connection to the group. There are quiet bits, slightly louder bits, pauses, acoustic and electric guitar solos, from Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin respectively, a very horrible, dated harmonica puffing its way throughout the entire song, and a ghastly Ladybirds backing vocal group towards the end. It doesn’t reach the same heights as epics like Gil Evans’ “There Comes A Time” or Sun Ra’s “I’ll Wait For You” because, as Lena pointed out while listening to it with me, Frankie do not really swing, or even shuffle; there is simply that dead Linn drum beat pounding nearly all the way through, like a particularly fascistic metronome. The track ends with Johnson thrice reiterating that the world is his oyster, with some New Number 2 laughs which are Fairlit into darkness.

Then side two, and the hits. I can’t think of a single soul in Britain who wasn’t heartedly sick and tired of “Relax” and “Two Tribes” by November 1984 but they return regardless; “Relax” in particular is a very pallid, doubled-up remix whose impact is the polar opposite of that of the original 7-inch mix on Now II. Then it was something new and startling; now it’s the same old same old. 1984 was, to borrow one of Johnson’s phrases, a year where you had to move at a million miles an hour if you weren’t going to get rapidly left behind. “War” has Chris Barrie’s Reagan quoting Hitler again and musing about Che Guevara, George Jackson and Malcolm X, and love being “the prime mover of their struggle,” but Holly Johnson is no Edwin Starr and Trevor Horn, finally, no Norman Whitfield. The appearance of the Annihilation mix of “Two Tribes” on the CD edition seems designed to shame the rest of the record, so obviously and hugely does its symphony-like structure stand out and tower over its supposed peers.

On to side three (side “T”) and will we, can we, learn what Frankie really say? No; there are cover versions. Beginning with the dole office sequence from their cover of “Ferry Cross The Mersey” (which doesn’t actually appear on the album other than in tiny particles, although Gerry Marsden still got royalties from it), we get a thoroughly misguided pub rock cover of “Born To Run.” One does initially admire Johnson’s sheer chutzpah at deciding to have a go at this then nine-year-old monolith of rock (but it is pop!), but by the time we get to the Great Gate of Kiev (i.e. might as well be Keith Emerson) organ in the final verse there is no evidence that the group have actually understood what the song and its writer were trying to communicate. Performing the song onstage in America more or less killed their career there stone dead; audiences not unreasonably saw it as an act of blasphemy and booed them. Had they known anything about Springsteen they would have realised that Born To Run, the album, was a proto-New Pop exercise, full of implied quotes from and references to pop history, both musical and lyrical, being reshaped in ways that would speak to the disenfranchised inhabitant of post-Watergate America (you really couldn’t imagine Frankie making anything more than a dog’s dinner out of, say, “Meeting Across The River”).

But the song’s appearance here suggests another chapter in Morley’s rather pointless history of pop reflitered through ZTT, as does “San José,” done entirely, and boringly, straight, in a 1975 Johnny Mathis manner – another American road song whose deeper implications are overlooked or ignored. Is this what Sid Vicious, or even Ian Curtis, had died for – MoR that would sound nice on Steve Wright In The Afternoon?

Matters are not improved by “Wish (The Lads Were Here),” a dully frantic indie-rocker with some mirthless, laddish studio chat (the overall impression left by Pleasuredome is: what if the first Oasis album had been Be Here Now?) which soon falls asleep and becomes “The Ballad Of 32,” a Pink Floyd soundalike (Wish You Were Here – geddit? Oh, don’t bother) with sub-Gilmour guitar over a porn movie sample, and frankly it’s hard to detect whether any of the group are on this at all; was this Horn and Morley’s great New Pop scandal – sell a record as though it were punk rock resurrected, but actually trick punters into buying a prog-rock concept album? There are points – usually involving Steve Howe – on the title track where one thinks that it has been nearly eleven years since Tales From Topographic Oceans and nothing has moved an inch further (indeed, there was a story that did the rounds in 1985 that there was an abandoned concept album which Howe had recorded with Horn, about somebody who falls into, and gets lost within, a computer – I can’t remember what it was called, but the rumour was that substantial chunks of that lost concept album had resurfaced on Welcome To The Pleasuredome).

Finally, to side “H,” presumably for “Hell,” and here’s the big payoff – you want to know, Horn and Morley appear to ask us, what this group are really about? What they truly sounded like before we got our hands on them? Well, here it is – the band themselves!

And it is mostly appalling. The same songs that had done the rounds of the Radio 1 evening shows s couple of years beforehand, and with “Krisco Kisses” we are given an unlovely bump back into the world of 1981 punk-funk, with bloodless tribal drumming and chanting (“Hunger, HUN-GER!”), requisite scratchy guitar and bass, Gang Of Four stop-start song structures (they make the instrumental break on “Born To Run” sound like Orange Juice – if only!) and more “take it to the top” platitudes. At this point Horn audibly sounds as though he’s lost interest in the whole project; just whack it out, no Blockheads or prog chums to cover up the gaps. “Black Night White Light” is a bloodless bore, reminiscent of a below par Dollar B-side (Paul Rutherford sounds remarkably like David van Day on the choruses), with an arrangement so bland it makes Johnny Hates Jazz sound like Pinski Zoo. Meanwhile, “The Only Star In Heaven” chunders over tedious puddles of cliché (“Live life like a diamond ring,” blaspheming Sun Ra with “Space is the place” – no Martin Fry was Johnson) with a moody, disconnected outro which sounds as though Portishead could sample it and create something genuinely interested.

Then comes, if you will, “The Power Of Love.”

(N.B.: Some of the following, but by no means all of it, has already appeared in my comment on the single on Popular.)

In its non-album context, it remains the greatest triptych of pop singles, one of the most ravishing of all pop schematas; after tackling sex and war there was only religion left – only religion? – and so the video for this particular “Power Of Love” depicted Holly Johnson as an avenging angel. Chris Barrie returned for the 12-inch to recreate Mike Read’s “Relax” ban (much to the chagrin of Read,  who would have been more than happy to come in and redo it himself) and then Reagan again, musing on faith and the passing of beliefs and people.

And yet, as befitted what surely and knowingly was intended as the last will and testament of this thing called New Pop, faith and belief were finally all that mattered. Just as the Martin Fry of “All Of My Heart” finally faced the fear and looked himself in his postmodern mirror, realising that, yes, although love can be analysed, disseminated and deconstructed, it cannot necessarily be put together again, and that the only way to stay meaningfully alive is to surrender to it and embrace it, there is no apparent irony in the Holly Johnson who sings on “The Power Of Love,” cajoled by Horn to sing better than he’d ever sung before. There is a glimpse of his impish grin in the opening pledge of “I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw/Keep the vampires from your door” but this doesn’t even begin to mask the real and warm smile of reassurance which lies beneath. I’ll be frank here and admit that for me, a little of Holly Johnson’s voice goes a very long way; like Björk, the two or three vocal tricks which he continually essays quickly become tiresome.

And, as I said above, Johnson has never been, shall we diplomatically say, as astute and deft a wordsmith as Fry, but this works to “The Power Of Love”‘s advantage; the lyric is largely composed of slogans and homilies – “Love is the light,” “When the chips are down,” “Let yourself be beautiful,” “Make love your goal” – but Johnson’s blunt candour pulls the song through; on the verge of tears in the line “Sparkling love and flowers and pearls and pretty girls,” his double octave-leading emphasis of “death defying” to reinforce “undying,” the comforting arm around the shoulder of “This time we go sublime.”

What it all conveys is a desire for the revelation that sex can be beautiful and not tacky, that war and death can perhaps both be defeated. And Horn’s production and Anne Dudley’s string arrangement rise with an urgency especial even for them; for both “The Power Of Love” may be their finest hour. Listen to how the strings cushion the suddenly ajar door of Johnson’s first “Make love,” coming in to the solitary acoustic guitar, how the track crescendoes after the second verse, following which there is an unsettling moment as a Fairlight-manipulated Johnson vibrato is echoed by sinister low fuzz guitar as if he’s about to be atomised – but no, we return to the piano of “Moments In Love,” the guitar now high and yearning, the final pause before Johnson, Horn and Dudley (and Morley) summon up everything they know for the rapturously cathartic climax; as everything rises on Johnson’s “dove” one feels the Earth’s axis momentarily disturbed. That having been achieved, Johnson walks off into the long, echoing distance, Dudley’s strings engendering a near-unbearable sadness of sustenato (but isn’t this supposed to be a happy ending?) before Johnson repeats his opening promise and the dream fades into warm unreality.

For the dream was over, and everybody involved in “The Power Of Love” knew it; for those fortunate enough to have experienced the miraculous magic of New Pop it is almost impossible not to become tearful when listening to this record, for it carries within its generous arteries the portents of its own end – it is saying goodbye to New Pop, reluctantly relinquishing all its unfulfilled dreams; and yet the Frankie Goes To Hollywood trilogy ended up being as close to perfection as New Pop could possibly get.

But in the context of the album it was a huge: so what? And so the curtain is brought down on this least satisfactory of New Pop albums. “Let’s Make It A Double.” “It’ll be a pleasure” – did any of the people involved know, or remember, what the first number one double album was? But the whole experience leaves a fairly queasy taste in the mouth. As Barrie’s Reagan takes the album out, over the Brian Wilson/Rick Wakeman-like keyboard cascade which ends Frankie’s “Mersey,” saying over and over again “Frankie Say” and then the world bangs out of existence and “Frankie Say – No More.”

That could be a literal truth – Frankie do no more than say slogans and repeat chants. But far from being the Duchamp “V” sign to the rest of its time’s pop, Pleasuredome can play like a gigantic “V” sign to its audience, who swiftly recognised it as such. And if you are going to make The Record Label your major artwork, remember that Tony Wilson had Joy Division/New Order and Manfred Eicher had (and still has) Jan Garbarek. The tale of Frankie’s frankly shit treatment by ZTT – the £250 advance, the 5% royalty deal, the signing over of their songs to the label’s house publishers – has been told many times from many different angles. Certainly, in his memoir A Bone In My Flute, Holly Johnson very angrily confirms that little love was lost between him and ZTT. Could Horn and Morley have done the same with The Smiths or James or Bronski Beat? I suspect Somerville or Booth or Morrissey would have told them swiftly what they could do with their endless remixes, the seemingly limitless milking of the public’s funds. But 1984 was one of the fastest paced of years; by its end, “Upside Down,” Run-DMC and Zen Arcade were all in the record racks, and ZTT were running out of fashion.

And were Frankie ever really revolutionaries, or was their chart feat as hollow as that of Westlife? The Roxy Music, the Pistols, of 1984; but if that were the case, where were the consequences, the revolution? They were not even the most influential act on ZTT; both Art Of Noise and Propaganda have a much more valid claim to that title. Was one artist, with admittedly the possible and partial exception of Robbie Williams, ever truly influenced by Frankie Goes To Holllywood? They did not play live in Britain until 1985, and audiences were disappointed by their old-fashioned rocking approach. Was Holly Johnson even the hippest member of Big In Japan? It would seem to me that Bill Drummond, with Jimmy Cauty, went on to square the ZTT-type equation to much greater effect with their KLF/JAMMs adventures – and let’s not even mention the Pet Shop Boys, a year away from conquering the charts and elegantly, effortlessly quoting To The Finland Station without needing to come over like a Saturday Post Harold Bloom about it?

I suspect, sadly, that Simon Reynolds’ final assessment of Frankie is the right one; that, if anything, they set the stage for the boy band template. In time both Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh would discover that they didn’t need any art when doing, essentially, the same thing; five guys with little or no control over what they did, as though rock ‘n’ roll were nothing but the greatest of swindles. To listen to Pleasuredome is really the aural equivalent of the withering within the listener of all human hope; with the silent leap of a sullen beast, ZTT seem to have downed and strangled every joy. The paraphrase is of the fifth line of Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell”; New Pop, game over, screen off.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Paul McCARTNEY: Give My Regards To Broad Street





(#304: 3 November 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: No More Lonely Nights (Ballad)/Good Day Sunshine/Corridor Music/Yesterday/Here, There And Everywhere/Wanderlust/Ballroom Dancing/Silly Love Songs/Silly Love Songs (Reprise)/Not Such A Bad Boy/So Bad/No Values/No More Lonely Nights (Ballad Reprise)/For No-One/Eleanor Rigby-Eleanor’s Dream/Long And Winding Road/No More Lonely Nights (Playout Version)

(Author’s Note: The CD edition includes a “bonus” track, the rather dull and unfunny 1930s dance band pastiche “Goodnight Princess,” the spoken opening announcements to which make McCartney sound like a lost Gallagher brother. But I used the cassette edition. Put it this way; £14 for a used CD in MVE, or 49p for a cassette out of The Charity Shop? The answer is: it was a no-brainer. And the thing is nearly an hour long anyway. I haven’t got forever.)

If the appearance of Give My Regards To Broad Street in this tale is a surprise, then its appearance at number one at the time was equally surprising and unexpected. I suspect no one was more surprised than McCartney himself. But the plan had been that Waking Up With The House On Fire, the third Culture Club album, would top the chart. It managed only second place, beaten (by some considerable margin) by the soundtrack to a glorified home movie.

Nobody was to blame for the latter except Culture Club themselves. They spent so long touring Colour By Numbers that they didn’t leave themselves enough time to write the songs for its follow-up. Two or three weeks were set aside for songwriting, but arguments, fights and sulks ensued and in the end the entire album was written in four days – and sounds it. Sheer fan momentum steered lead single “The War Song” to number two before people removed their earmuffs and realised how rotten it was, whereupon it plunged rapidly down and out of the chart. The follow-up, “The Medal Song,” a record so anaemic it made Black Lace sound like Test Dept, did not even crack the Top 30; the album’s only good song, “Mistake Number Three,” was not even released as a single in Britain. The group’s reputation was damaged permanently.

But enough about them; what about McCartney damaging his reputation permanently? I really didn’t think we could sink any lower after Bowie’s Tonight, but Give My Regards is a far more actively unpleasant record and a far more painful listen, despite (unlike Tonight) having at least one salvageable track. Why? Because Bowie micturating on “God Only Knows” is one thing, but listening to an artist effectively crapping on his own work brings a level of badness which this tale has not previously known. It is not that this record lacks good songs; indeed, some of its songs are among the best ever written.

But it’s what McCartney does to them that really rankles. It is as if he commissioned an artist to paint an elaborate, extravagant, finely detailed portrait of himself and then proceeded to draw comedy moustaches and eyepatches all over it. I do not recommend seeking out the parent film, as that would involve using up one hundred and nine minutes of your life that you’ll never get back again. If McCartney wanted to make an expensive home movie involving his family and friends with “wacky” video sequences, then that was entirely his business, and had it been a TV special it would have harmlessly passed the time of an evening on BBC4. But only Tracey Ullman appears interested in doing any acting; Sir Ralph Richardson appears briefly as a weary-looking bartender, and died not long afterwards. Otherwise the script appears at times non-existent and is certainly free of wit and interest when it does exist. Basically a series of music videos knotted together by a thin shaggy dog plot about missing album tapes, the performances and spectacle are generally so wooden that they cry out for a health and safety inspection.

Broad Street appeared to have little to do with 1984, or how to come to terms with the eighties. Had it been merely another rich man’s folly it would not merit further serious thought. But was Magical Mystery Tour – a project chiefly thought up by McCartney, and when all is said and done a not dissimilar one to Broad Street – really that much better, or different? George Harrison was not interested; Ringo (with Barbara Bach) loyally turned up for both film and album.

No doubt the internet is full of Macca fan sites and message boards whose contributors can see the good side of Broad Street and strive to point out its hidden merits. Good luck to them. I tried, and I could not. The one song worth saving was the most prominent new one, and the single: “No More Lonely Nights” was the strongest song McCartney had written in years, and proved that when he could be bothered to pull his finger out, he was more than capable of bringing back the old magic. Eric Stewart and Linda McCartney’s backing vocals remind us of “I’m Not In Love,” Dave Gilmour turns up to play a propulsive, anguished guitar solo, and it’s all very acceptable in a late 1975 kind of a way (and a far more deserving number two single than “The War Song”).

Otherwise, the soundtrack is a mess, full of random sound-effects, mirthless studio chat (as an actor, George Martin is a great record producer) and loveless, mechanical re-workings of old songs that sound as though they are being tortured. What was there to lose – Abbey Road, George and Geoff at the controls, Ringo back at the drums (although at least three other drummers turn up elsewhere on the record)?

Actually, quite a lot. Who the hell succeeded in thinking that the way to improve “Here, There And Everywhere” and “Yesterday” would be to add a brass band? “For No-One” gets taken down an octave (and of all Beatles records, why does this album include no less than four songs from Revolver? Did McCartney hate it that much? One is relieved that he didn’t feel the need to tackle Lennon songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “She Said, She Said”). “Eleanor Rigby” is spun out into an interminable – just over seven minutes, but listening to it felt like seven decades – dirge of dreary orchestral soundtrack hackwork. Recent songs like “Wanderlust” and “Ballroom Dancing” from the barely two-year-old Tug Of War, not to mention the year-old “So Bad” from Pipes Of Peace, do not remotely benefit from McCartney’s revisionism, and nor does the only Wings song, “Silly Love Songs,” a mere shadow of the lithe, subtle, supple record it once was (and Linda sounds decidedly unhappy having to go through it once again), improve matters.

Worst of all is McCartney’s own voice: gruff, grainy, disinterested, sounding as though he hates these songs. At least on Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits it was down to underappreciated session musicians to draw graffiti on the pop of the day. But to witness an artist exhibiting such craven disregard for his own music takes Broad Street far beyond Self Portrait territory. Of the other two new songs, “Not Such A Bad Boy,” is a run-of-the-mill rocker, while “No Values” is an inglorious addition to the Whiney Macca canon: “I hear them telling me that you’re selling off the furniture/And even keep (sic) my personalised autographs,” it begins, and really – who gives a shit? It’s as bad as George on Waking Up moaning about “John Blake and your big value Sun.”

With this “Long And Winding Road” one really does have to draw a line in the sand. If McCartney stormed out of the Beatles because of Phil Spector and Richard Hewson turning his song into alleged schmaltz, then what to make of Dick Morrissey’s Super Sexy Seventies Sax, blowing over an arrangement so bland and starchy that the Jimmy Young Show would have rejected it for being too conservative? This is wilful artistic self-harm. The closing uptempo revisit of “No More Lonely Nights” – see, he can’t even leave his “new” songs alone – features a five-man battalion of British jazz/session brass and saxophone veterans parping inane riffs over a rigidly unfunky backbeat, as though this were Haircut One Hundred or some other such modern-style pop act whom the youngsters dug.

So it would be one thing to treat Broad Street as an expensive little joke and forget about it as quickly as possible (in the USA, it climbed to a reluctant peak of #21). But I think there’s something more dreadful at work here, and it’s not just about McCartney being reluctant to tour, and therefore having too much time on his hands to dabble with his past, and the dangers of shuttering yourself off from the world when it no longer agrees with you. No, I actually wonder whether, by re-recording these songs, McCartney thought he could do better than the Beatles. Get them right, shape them up, with no John at his side to tell him that it’s crap, and shut up and play the bloody bass. It is about not coping. Like Brian Clough at Leeds United – do what Don did but do it better – and failing for the same reason (no Peter Taylor/no John Lennon).

It is about refusing to accept that, for some musicians, their moment had passed – and pop is nothing if it is not about the moment. Would anyone looking for 1984 film music to listen to take this over Music From Purple Rain, just in the same way that Prince could come back now and make the greatest and most radical music of his career and it would still count for nothing because his moment had passed, dissipated by a quarter of a century of formless, overlong jam sessions? The McCartney of 1984 needed someone to talk back to him, argue with him, dissuade him – and he had nobody strong enough to do that.

It is also about living far too much in the past, an idealised past that probably never existed in the first place, with all the painful stuff having been carefully edited out. It is why Britain’s overnight retreat to a horrible past feels like a similar exercise in angry futility. An “aural grapefruit,” Lena called Broad Street, in the sense that if you make a fruit salad, you don’t put grapefruit into it because it messes up everything else in the salad, texture and flavour-wise. The cover’s Hawaiian shirt and Radio 1 DJ haircut are regrettable, as is the project as a whole. Julian Lennon’s Valotte, which came out the same week and peaked at #20, was neither new nor brave but was certainly an improvement on Broad Street, which is a bit like saying that Callaghan was an improvement on Wilson.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

BIG COUNTRY: Steeltown





(#303: 27 October 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: Flame Of The West/East Of Eden/Steeltown/Where The Rose Is Sown/Come Back To Me/Tall Ships Go/Girl With Grey Eyes/Rain Dance/The Great Divide/Just A Shadow

‘”’Garngad’s too low to be seen from here. I’m trying to see McHargs. It should be near those cranes behind Ibrox. Aye, there! There! The top of the machine shop is showing above those tenements.”

“I should be able to see the art school, it’s on top of a hill behind Sauchiehall Street – Glasgow seems all built on hills. Why don’t we notice them when we’re in it?”

“Because none of the main roads touch them. The main roads run east and west and the hills are all between.””
(Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life In 4 Books. Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited, 1981; Chapter 20, “Employers”)

“And he didn’t believe that the Lord created people to be unequal. That he created one set of people designed to rule the earth and others, you know, to just be the hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
(Harold Wilson, speaking to Bill Shankly about Robert Burns, Radio City (Liverpool), 1976, quoted by David Peace in Red Or Dead. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2013; Chapter 61, “I Am A Christian And A Socialist, Despite You”)

“But the only ‘son’ you ever saw/Were the two he left you with”
(Big Country, “Chance”)

Two weeks ago I was in Scotland, in and around Glasgow, on family business. Lena has already remarked on the immediate difference you feel once you are a few minutes out of Carlisle on the train and have left England for Scotland. The hills, even the clouds, look different. And for me there is still this slowly escalating sense of a homecoming, once I am out of the Lowlands countryside and have reached Carstairs or thereabouts; by the time the train patiently pulls across the bridge, over the Clyde, past the Gorbals, the distant and derelict but still intact building which used to house the Bridge Street Library, into town, the feeling is manifest and palpable. So much of the city has changed and yet so little of it; this, Glasgow, is my home, the place from whence I came. This is how Ian S Munro described the place at the beginning of his 1975 radio monologue, “The Artist in Search of a City”:

“Glasgow. A smoky haze, a smouldering blaze of sheer vitality. A city grey at the edges but coloured fire in its belly. Shoddy, shabby, rugged, craggy; broody, braggy. An unstopped twelve-ring circus of tumbling humanity. A mood, an expression, a nightmare. Clattering, shattering. Confusing…but complete.”

Glasgow is different from London. I should clarify what looks like a crass statement of patronising obviousness. The air is different and so are the people. You emerge out of Central Station into Union Street. The buildings are high, frequently taller than those in London, but never arrogant or threatening in their tallness. Everything seems to know where it is going. One feels more comfortable here. Nobody runs for a bus; they wait, very patiently, and file onto the bus when it comes with equal patience and grace. Once out of the city centre, there is very little in the way of traffic lights. Drivers are trusted. There is the very secure feeling that everything gets done.

Oh, they have done up bits of the city all right, but none of it seems obtrusive or cosmetic.  There is a certain pertinacious quality about Glasgow and the Glaswegians which has nothing to do with inflexibility but everything to do with what one might call a benign stubbornness. I should know; I was born and grew up, went to school, here. Most of what I learned about music, literature and art I learned walking around here, reading, listening, watching and always paying attention.

And yet, does it make me, or has it (that is to say, life) converted me into being, an incurable and unalterable London tourist to enjoy myself so much spending time in Hillhead whenever I visit? For when you think about it, Hillhead is a sort of mini-London within Glasgow for visitors, complete with its own Waitrose, very decent book and record shops (new and old), trendy restaurants (despite being generally perceived as a new phenomenon, the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Ashton Lane has been in existence since 1971), a fine university and a world-class art gallery (the Kelvingrove). But of course that is far from all there is about Glasgow, and even if I might feel queasily nostalgic about the now defunct record and book shops which I haunted like a spectre in my teenage years, I still know enough about the city to realise that it is nothing without its people (and yes, Tam Shepherd’s Trick Shop is still in Queen Street, and likely to remain such a century hence). A people who, like the Scottish people in general, are immediately approachable and empathetic precisely because they feel attached to what sentimental old twentieth-century bagpipes like me refer to as a greater good; that is, the value, the worth, of the society of which they are an immutable part. This is not something that I have felt after being in England for approximately three decades.

So, just as the theory has arisen that one cannot completely understand The Prisoner unless one is a Celt, it is, I think, equally the case that unless you come from Scotland, you are not really going to understand musicians like Simple Minds and Big Country, how crucial an understanding of their society is to appreciating their art.

But Big Country, despite the common use of Steve Lillywhite as producer, are not really like Simple Minds at all. Jim Kerr is an amused, if slightly cynical, citizen of the world; but you do not listen to a second of Stuart Adamson, his voice or his guitar, without knowing, feeling, that he is a citizen of Dunfermline, right in the middle of Gordon Brown territory. Ah, Fife; you can go over the Forth Rail Bridge, ten or so minutes out of Edinburgh, and amble up the jolly coastline – Kinghorn, Aberdour, Burntisland, Kirkcaldy, Markinch etc. – without ever having to go through Glenrothes or Dunfermline, to see how people in Fife actually live. But travelling up the East Coast brings its own implications of magic; one theory of British music is that the further north you travel, away from the workmanlike south, you encounter otherworldliness; think of the Associates’ Dundee (or even Linlithgow), or, for that matter, on the other side of Waverley Station, the track that runs down and at one point diverts in the oil refinery town of Grangemouth. Look at these huge mechanisms, the iron, the ore and the distilling funnels, and you discern a parallel, if less immediately comprehensible, song of Scotland, one which became available just four weeks after the second Big Country album:



You travel through the monstrous nothingness of Grangemouth and you can understand why people here would want to make music that sounded like nothing else on Earth, or nothing else in Stirlingshire, though at the time like everything else in Scotland. Treasure was the Cocteau Twins’ third and most fully realised album, with its ten songs and their Victorian girls’ names of titles. Like Big Country (and Simple Minds) the music’s cumulative effect depends on implied hugeness; the fusillade of drum programming (sometimes, for instance on “Lorelei,” reminding the listener of no one as much as Phil Collins), the ability to amplify and overdub one or two guitars until they sound like the electrical current charging the Earth’s core, Elizabeth Frazer’s voice as instrument in itself, like Coltrane or Garbarek, and a profound seriousness  - the whispered “Otterley” sounds as though one is standing at the world’s final frontier before falling off the edge, or maybe it was always only Portobello seafront on a Wednesday teatime in November – which slowly and patiently works its way towards a liberating, cathartic climax (“Donimo”; the dreams of “Sealand” now fully worked through to reveal the kiss lurking, or just patiently waiting, behind the foghorn warnings). It doesn’t matter what Frazer is singing – you feel it rather than feel compelled to decode it (the Bono of “A Sort Of Homecoming” understands this instinctively). It is as if they have stumbled upon or struck the biggest gold mine human beings have ever known. And yet it sings for its home country, a message that is unavoidable, even if you don’t necessarily (phonetically) understand it.

Stuart Adamson had begun slowly extricating himself from The Skids at some point in 1980 – his ability to create hill-leaping guitar melodies was evident as early as “Masquerade” – but Joy, the band’s final, under-promoted and under-selling album, from 1981, does point fairly decisively ahead towards the New Celtic Pastoralism; Adamson was involved in its second single, “Iona” (which, though not a hit, was at the time talked about as a serious contender for the 1981 Christmas number one single), and indeed the many participants in the album included Peter Wishart, future member of Runrig (and eventually an SNP MP), who was in the initial Big Country line-up. By the time the group had settled, however, Adamson was their only Scottish member – bassist Tony Butler was from Shepherd’s Bush, drummer Mark Brzezicki from Slough, and guitarist Bruce Watson, despite his Scots accent, came originally from Timmins in Ontario; thus there is a Canadian dimension to Big Country’s work, though it is not an obvious or particularly major one.

There was never any doubt, however, that Big Country was Adamson’s group, and therefore a fundamentally Scottish one. Their 1983 debut album The Crossing hit big (#3 in the UK, rather more than that in Scotland) because it sounded big at a time when bigness was allegedly being called for. The bagpipe guitars, the thrusting shrieks and chanted choruses; they were all designed to raise the ghost of auld Scottish myths and legends and make it live again – you’d trample over the heather, look out over the promontory at North Berwick, hear “Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)” or “In A Big Country” on your Walkman (the cassette edition, with its second side of 12-inch remixes, was the one to have) and feel elated and proud about the country across which you were striding. Only the slower “Chance,” the record’s best song and biggest hit single, gives an idea of what was to come, telling a fairly bitter, if compassionate, story about a woman who had been left behind, abandoned, by both father and husband in a “cold new town.” “Oh, Lord, I never felt so low,” wailed Adamson, making the “low” sound like “alone”  – and the song cut deeper. “Now the skirts hang heavy around your head” was not the sort of sentiment or imagery deemed fitting to the thrusting Thatcher-cheerleading of most 1983 mainstream pop.

And so Steeltown, a year later, refused (like Springsteen in the same year; see entry #310) to settle for easy answers or a formula-repeating follow-up. Here the chords, beats and voices are harder (and yet at times, e.g. “Girl With Grey Eyes,” also softer) than they were on The Crossing. It is as if Adamson has come face to face with these myths and legends – and is now trying to prevent them from being destroyed by Thatcher’s wrecking ball. The subject of the title song – and, I think, also the location of the inner sleeve photographs of the group – is not Dunfermline but Corby in Northamptonshire, the place where many Scots (particularly Central Scots) moved to work in the steel industry (Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks, before the firm was assimilated into British Steel) before successive governments decided to curtail the experiment. The song plays like an extended death rattle with scenes more in keeping with Goya than Leslie Hunter (“Grim as the Reaper with a heart like Hell/With a river of bodies/Flowing with the bell/Here was the future for hands of skill”) as an angry Adamson contemplates “the end of everything” (“Finally the dream is gone/Nothing left to hang upon” – a decline from the opening “I’ve had enough of hanging on,” although it is hard to listen to any of it, in the context of what would happen to Adamson seventeen years later). Brzezicki’s onomatopoeic foundry drumming raises the spectre of the worker being crushed by the wheels of his industry.

Whereupon I feel it necessary to introduce an album released a couple of years previously but which stands as Steeltown’s acoustic blood brother:



As the seventies ended, Dick Gaughan was not in the best of ways. Born in Glasgow and raised in Rutherglen and then Leith, he had been a member of Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel but was now a solo artist. But by 1979 he was in poor health, much of it, as he readily admits, of his own doing. Moreover, Thatcher had come to power as an indirect result of the failure of the Scottish Devolution Referendum – this failure was not down to the Scottish people, as a majority of eligible voters had voted in favour of devolution, but by certain careerist Labour MPs (chief amongst whom was, apparently, the late Robin Cook) who pushed through an amendment demanding a 40% majority vote. The 40% mark was not quite reached, and Callaghan’s government were accordingly humiliated and made to look incompetent and embarrassing; thus the pathway for eighteen years of Conservative rule was consolidated.

Gaughan himself suffered a nervous breakdown around this time, and decided to pull himself together and make himself better. He did a few low-key solo tours, joined the hard Left theatre group 7:84 and made one or two records. Finally, by the spring of 1980, he felt ready to record a full-blown album, and Handful Of Earth was the result.

It is one of the great and most truthfully passionate records of its decade. Its opening song, a setting of the traditional “Erin Go Bragh,” is as fast-paced and menacing as Martin Carthy’s “Reynard The Fox.” The title is Irish Gaelic for “Ireland forever” and the song deals with prejudices against both Irish and Highland Scots in the ancient Lowlands.  “Now Westlin Winds” is another traditional song, with words by Robert Burns (deemed by Bill Shankly in the interview cited above as “one of the instigators of socialism”), and is lovely and heartfelt; a love song not just to the loved, but to the nature which makes up its author’s country.

“Craigie Hill” is perhaps the record’s most hard-hitting song; a story of how the Scots were forced into emigrating to America, away from their loved ones, which Gaughan sings with a vulnerable glide which strives with cloths of grief to hold life together like the ships’ unstable masts, which he sings as though leaving Scotland and its people, and his people, is the last thing he wants to do; he clings to vowels, clutches at consonants, on a shaky wave of suppressed grief as though willing himself to awaken at any moment and decide that this was just a dream. And he is going away – “to purchase a plantation.” Thus the cycle of slavery, as enlarged upon in “The Workers’ Song,” is propagated.

Gaughan then tackles Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down,” a tale of jaunty fury, about the Diggers, their ideals and their ultimate annihilation. “The Snows They Melt The Soonest” is incredibly moving, a song of love and belief about and on behalf of the working class; no matter how bad their situation is, they never do forget about love and delight, and Gaughan’s performances touches the heart as easily and profoundly as did Stewart on this song’s direct descendent, “Mandolin Wind.”

“Lough Erne” takes a more optimistic view of the Irish emigrant; here he and his love positively cannot wait to reach America and their new lives; this dovetails perfectly into “First Kiss At Parting” instrumental coda. Another instrumental medley follows (“Scojun Waltz/Randers Hopsa”), and then Gaughan performs “Song Of Ireland”; the migrant is over there now, in America, looking at the Atlantic from the other end, wondering how things are back home and whether the falcons still fly.

Then comes the majestic “The Workers’ Song” from which the album gets its title (“And expected to die for the land of our birth/When we’ve never owned  one handful of earth?”), which Gaughan sings in a low, clenched-teeth, threatening manner, and it all comes out; the rotten system of masters and servants – note the subtle emotional alterations between the phrases “keep up with the times” and “they’ve streamlined the job” – the non-sacrifices of war and starvation, the rooted unfairness. The album closes with “Both Sides The Tweed,” a slightly rewritten traditional protest song against the 1707 Act of Union which emphasises both the importance of Scotland being in charge of its own destiny and the need to cooperate with, rather than wage war against, your geographic neighbours. Even in a world of “Town Called Malice” and “Dead Cities,” this was uncomfortably direct stuff (but then isn’t “Dead Cities” also another Edinburgh folk song – “I’m getting wasted in this city/Those council houses are getting me down”?) but by facing the things most eighties pop strove very hard to avoid seeing, Handful Of Earth remains an essential, if searing, listen.

Steeltown’s themes really are not that far away from Gaughan’s, although sometimes their more general expression can result in misinterpretations of bombast, for instance the Constructivist Bolshevism of the cover illustration and typography, or the opening “Flame Of The West” which howls against Reagan and the credulous masses who kept him in power with an anger rivalled only (but by no means surpassed) by the Reagan-Hitler analogy on “Two Tribes” (Big Country are much less camp and far more genuinely angry than Frankie). Musically it is “Up On The Catwalk” gone to Cecil Sharp House – never does the listener forget that Big Country are, essentially, a folk group, with their songs’ Aeolian and Dorian cadences and rhythmic rhyming schemes.

I cannot improve on the comments Adamson makes in his sleevenote to the 1996 CD reissue of the album (“The songs are very dark and dense, they come from hard times, fearful places…”). In terms of “the words of the powerless” and “people whose traditions denied them any show of emotion,” Adamson is actually placing himself very close to Bob Marley, giving a voice to the dispossessed and detested underclass. And yet the album was in great part recorded in Abba’s Polar Studios – hence the curiously familiar bigness of its sounds – in a manner which makes it sound as if the group could not express themselves fully without leaving Scotland. But the group never truly “leaves” Scotland; if anything, they are worried about Scotland leaving them.

“East Of Eden,” a possibly reluctant choice of lead single (from the record company’s perspective), paces back and forth on an emotional boardwalk of its own making, Adamson desperately trying to find some meaning to the whole thing, but whichever way he walks, heartbreak is in first (“I looked West in search of freedom and I saw slavery/I looked East in search of answers and I saw misery”). It plays like “Big Country,” or in particular “Wonderland,” gone askew.

There are few more harrowing sequences of songs on any mid-eighties number one albums than the sequence of war songs which constitute the core of Steeltown. On “When The Rose Is Sown,” the group set up a confrontational call-and-response arena where, on one side, The Man cajoles the hapless conscript, who then gives his baffled responses (“WE ARE STRONG! It wasn’t us/WE ARE RIGHT! Who started this?,” “SOUND ALARMS! The school bell rings”). Bass and drums, too, demonstrate contradictory stances; hard triplets for the propaganda, ruminative quarters for the response.* He goes to fight – or sits around in the trenches, playing impatient poker – and knows that he is being sacrificed for nothing (“The Workers’ Song” again). The song was a single, but loses a great deal of its impact when uncoupled from its linked sequel, “Come Back To Me.” Beginning with Cocteau-y guitar ambience, the song quickly builds up force and intensity; this is the wife, or the lover, of the soldier who has gone off to die, and she is pregnant with his child, a child who will never know its father, and this is a song of undiluted mourning which subverts its predecessors’ devices; hence “We give life to feed the cause” becomes “I knew this house had lost the cause,” and as the song dies – growing in intensity, with Watson’s E-bowed guitar almost out of control, as the years, rather than the skirts of “Chance,” hang around the protagonist – Adamson yells contemptuously, “And one day I will lie down/Where the rose was flung.” Although the song suggests a First or Second World War setting – perhaps the latter, with its “He handed out cigars” line (Churchill?) – the ghost of the Falklands is lurking behind every thought unarticulated.

(*And this is the not-so-secret engine behind Mike Westbrook's Marching Song, an anti-war suite inspired not so much by Vietnam, but more World War I, the whole 50-years-on/Oh What A Lovely War scenario. Designed as specifically programmatic music, its progress makes perfect sense in that context; exultant off-to-war cheers are followed by slow, ruminative piano and flute meditations - out there in the boring trenches, just waiting, waiting. The double rhythm section also serves the function of dramatic onomatopoeia, so the occasional explosion from one drumkit or the other is a reminder that there's actually a war going on here. It's not meant to be comfortable, or even particularly logical - could one rightly apply either adjective to the business of war?)

On side two of the record, Adamson looks at those closest to him; “Tall Ships Go” is about his father, who was a merchant seaman, though the song’s references to “the enemy” being, effective ly, a mirror suggest more recent struggles. “Girl With Grey Eyes” is a straightforward and very affecting love song to his first wife Sandra (“Alexandra will never sound the same,” “You talk to me/Just like no other/Like the brother/That I never had”). “Rain Dance,” a cautiously celebratory song about being young, was smarter than the Stones had sounded in years, although its sequel, “The Great Divide,” has Adamson wondering whether he really was being wise doing what he did, although the excitement and promise of youth has been steadily diluted to conventional adult responsibilities (“I know all my dreams/I shout and scream/Until the day’s first break!” – like Coulter, of Gray’s Lanark, condemned to a life in McHargs works until he finds the wit to write himself out of it).

Hope has steadily been dissolving throughout this side of music, and in the closing “Just A Shadow” it collapses entirely. The song is told from three different viewpoints – like its descendent, the Blue Nile’s “Family Life” – firstly from the point of view of the man with hopes of prospering, or even just working, but who finally failed himself (“But some blows break the spell/That it hits you every day/Until you need to hit as well”); secondly from the point of view of the man’s wife who ends up a victim of domestic violence; and thirdly, and most dramatically, when Adamson turns to camera and addresses a nation: “It’s just a shadow of the people we should be,” the personal, the political and the national now framed in one huge, despairing WHY? “The promise comes of living fit for all,” he continues, “If we only get our back against the wall/I look at backs that pushed the wall for years/Scarred by many knives and too much fear.” Over and over the word “fear” crops up on this record – the fear that keeps a nation’s people in chains, that stops people from really fighting back, rather than fighting amongst themselves. And just as Gaughan thought, at the time he set to make Handful Of Earth, that he needed to stop observing and start participating, then “Just A Shadow” is likewise a dramatic step forward, one which I am not sure resonates beyond Scotland (although it should). The record’s final question is: well, what are WE going to do about all this? Like "Come Back To Me," Watson's E-bow sends the song into something approaching intensity overdrive.

I’m still thinking, just as I thought all the way down on the train from Glasgow, emerging back into London, this overpriced, over-polluted, over-populated, cramped, carbon-emitting, heart attack-inducing, unforgiving, push-or-be-pushed London which I am increasingly weary about and reluctant to call “home.” OK, just as Adamson asks: “Did we ever have it good while we lived in Eldorado?,” there was never a golden age when London was quiet and restrained. There were as many people here in the eighties.

It’s just that in eighties and nineties London, the city seemed like much more of a playground to people like me, whereas in the 21st century it has steadily been closing down its shutters. When I first came here you could live in the middle of town for next to nothing; everything was on your doorstep but, more importantly, was affordable. If you wanted to go to the cinema or the theatre AND buy books and records AND feed and clothe yourself AND pay the rent AND still have money left over, all on a very basic salary, you could. And the people were there, too; people like me, like us, and things could be imagined, created and realised. Things which, at the time, I could never have dreamed of doing had I stayed in Glasgow.

Now nearly all of that has gone and the situation is reversed. Glasgow has not just caught up, as I kept hoping it would do when I was here in the seventies and early eighties, but overtaken London. The book shops are nearly all gone, as are the record shops, as are the affordable temples of culture. I’m not going for the easy, selective nostalgia option – I suspect that the culture scene in London today is far, far superior to what it was even twenty years ago. It’s just that I, and we, have been priced out of it. Nor do I wish to harp on about Real Record Shops that soid Real Vinyl – unlike almost everybody else on the planet, I do not harbour a childish craving for an obsolete form of musical reproduction. Compact discs are immeasurably better than vinyl records; easier to handle and to sort, they very rarely stick, they never warp, they do not smell like digestive biscuits. But the situation is now that the present generation has no idea even what a compact disc is, or was; rather than owning music, they are leasing music from online providers, who have the right to withdraw the music at any time. You couldn’t do that with material records, in whatever format. So the physical thrill, and therefore also the urgency, are gone.

But, as I implied near the start of this piece, this would all count for nothing, except that the friends, the network of people I knew and worked with, have also now dissipated  - they “moved on,” as people are wont to do, but I wonder whether something fundamental changed after 7/7. Before then the city was open; after the bombing, it began to close in on itself, habitually view outsiders with suspicion – and that has been growing in the intervening nine or so years. What is therefore left but a city, a blank space which views people who don’t quite fit in with practically undisguised hatred, in a country whose media repeatedly hammers home the lie that “foreigners” are “ruining” things, a country in which even supposedly Left-wing newspapers cackle about “community” being nothing but a “leftie hooray-word” – a country which is making it clearer and clearer that it doesn’t want me in it? Without the people who made it so special, London is nothing.

And so I look back to Scotland, and I read reports about a fire at the Glasgow School of Art – a building which Lena and I walked past less than a fortnight ago – and most things in it having been destroyed; a building which I have known for practically all of my life, a building which plays a major part in my favourite novel (from which I quoted at the beginning of this piece)…and you know what the voice in the back of my head is saying to me? It is saying: you should never have gone, you should have STAYED, you should have FOUGHT BACK.

Or, in the words of a song I heard - and saw - while I was up there, and has subsequently resonated with me in relation to where I was:

"Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
Retribution
You were warned
Once I'm transformed
Once I’m reborn."

I don’t know what to do about it, and obviously it’s not just about me. But I listen to Steeltown in this context, and I hope in my bones that Scotland has the courage to vote “YES,” defy the threats and start again. And I look at the many orbital roads which circle the city, and how one can suddenly come out right next to Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and I survey what Ian S Munro referred to as “that cracked old gargoyle of a face” that is still the Glasgow skyline, and I know that people, nations of people, are more important than places, or personal advancement. This, Glasgow, is my home, the place from which I come.

It is also important to remember that “Steeltown” is one of the nicknames of Hamilton, Ontario, a place which was almost certainly named after Hamilton, Lanarkshire.

(To RB, the world's second real socialist who happens to share a birthday with me)