Sunday 6 September 2015

Chris REA: The Road To Hell

(#401: 11 November 1989, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Road To Hell (Part I)/The Road To Hell (Part II)/You Must Be Evil/Texas/Looking For A Rainbow/Your Warm And Tender Love/Daytona/That’s What They Always Say/I Just Wanna Be With You/Tell Me There’s A Heaven


On 26 May 1989, Don Revie died in Murrayfield Hospital, Edinburgh. He was sixty-one years old and had for some time been suffering from motor neurone disease. After leaving Leeds United to manage the England team fifteen years previously, he never recaptured his former success, either with England or the UAE and other Arabic teams which he later managed. Gigantic question marks, mainly centred on financial matters and fair play, ensured that he became a figure conveniently forgotten about by the football establishment, left in the corner, out of sight, purposely neglected.


In 1989, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest finished third in the League and won both the League Cup and the Full Members Cup. They also reached the semi-final of that year’s FA Cup. Their opponents were Liverpool. But they lost to Liverpool in the replay. A replay was necessary because the original match had to be abandoned after six minutes of play.

The original FA Cup semi-final, which was to be played at the Hillsborough stadium.

“She says that mess it don’t get no better
There’s gonna come a day
Someone gonna get killed out there”


Clough and Revie grew up about a mile apart from each other in Middlesbrough; Clough in Valley Road, Revie in Bell Street. In between used to be the old Middlesbrough ground, Ayresome Park, and there still exists Albert Park. As managers, Clough and Revie had little time for each other, as became painfully apparent when Clough surprisingly but only briefly replaced Revie as manager of Leeds United. Revie was keen and quick to get away, in the first instance to Leicester City as a player, but Clough never neglected his roots.

What is certain is that both Clough and Revie would have frequently spent time in the now-defunct establishment which was just across the road from Albert Park; indeed it was where Clough met his wife Barbara, and where he would frequently retreat for discussions with his sidekick Peter Taylor.

This establishment was Rea’s Ice Cream parlour.

“A promise to get out
That’s what it’s all about”


Camillo Rea‘s father was from New York but somehow ended up in Middlesbrough. He started an ice cream business – essentially a factory and a cafe, later to be followed by numerous other cafes through north-east England – but Camillo and his brother Gaetano took over and expanded the family business in 1946. Camillo had seven children, all of whom were expected to follow him into the business. The young Chris recalls having to work in his father’s coffee bar, serving behind the counter and washing the dishes.

Gradually becoming disillusioned with this way of living, Chris eventually opted to pursue a career in music. A rift developed between him and his father, and although Camillo Rea lived on until almost the end of 2010, there appears never to have been a reconciliation.

“Tell me that they’re happy now
Papa tell me that it’s so”


It was their last single. It came out in late September 1985, the same week as “Slave To The Rhythm,” “Alive And Kicking” and others. It was the only single from the Clash album that radio and Sony would much rather have you forget or not know that it ever existed. I haven’t spoken much here about The Clash because they never had a number one album, although both Give ‘Em Enough Rope and Combat Rock – their most “American” records – came very close, and maybe also because they didn’t quite avoid becoming the critically acclaimed albums act that they, or at least most of them, had not wanted to become in the first place. At least, not when Mick Jones was there.

But by 1985 Jones was two years gone, and there were just Strummer, Simonon, Rhodes and three new recruits, trying to work their way back to why they had ever wanted to do this, as if they had known more about what The Clash should have meant than the man who had originally formed the group and recruited them.

You hardly ever hear, or hear about, “This Is England,” but it is The Clash and Joe Strummer’s greatest and most forsaken moment. Always best when lost, alone and confused – “Complete Control” starts out as a diatribe against their record company but ends up questioning art and motive, “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” demonstrates how someone can live and grow up somewhere and not realise until too late that they know nothing about their own home, “Death Is A Star” being the romantic response to “Decades” – the song begins with a midtempo dub rhythm, slowly joined by a loop of children’s voices and a cloud of synthesiser.

And then Strummer angrily barges in with his voice, as exhausted as Lennon’s at the end of “Twist And Shout,” and grim guitar, and sings about what might be a riot, or an extermination process  (“Are they howling out or doing somebody harm?”), during which a woman grabs him coldly by the arm and declares “THIS IS ENGLAND.” The chorus follows, with the title echoed by a huge football crowd. This is the 1985 England of Bradford, Broadwater Farm and Heysel. Strummer then muses about the wretched lot of the Falklands soldier, or just the ordinary worker (“He won’t go for the carrot/They beat him by the pole”).

The steady decline continues. “I got my motorcycle jacket but I’m walking all the time”

“I’m going to Texas
I’m going to Texas

Watch me walking
Watch me walking”

both anticipates and outdoes “Motorcycle Emptiness”; the aimless and pointlessness of “rebellion” with punk having resulted in little more than the Falklands (“Ice from  a dying creed”).

Then the mood gets violent again; there are race riots – they have ended up where they started, but is all that people thought a “White Riot” meant? – and then the British beat themselves over the head with their own batons, shrug their shoulders and say well that’s the way it is, THIS IS ENGLAND, the “land of illegal dances” half a decade ahead of rave (perhaps just another, more placid baton). “The newspapers being read/Who dares to protest?” Strummer asks rhetorically. Then everything falls, dies away except that blunt guitar, grinding out its punk riff – DO ANY OF YOU DOUGHNUTS REMEMBER WHAT THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO MEAN ONCE? – seemingly forever, alone on the planet. The music discreetly fades until the guitar exhausts itself, stops and gives a feedback weep, for its country and this fruitless culture.


Cut The Crap is a mess, but the exhilarating mess punk had once promised to be; the opening “Dictator” with its arsenal of beatboxes and Video City samples, suggests the band Big Audio Dynamite might have been (the words here which ring out of the page are: “You know once there was freedom/You know how dangerous that can be”) and it is no surprise that in the following year both approaches fused and BAD put out the sometimes fantastic No 10 Upping Street – essentially a Clash-in-exile album (“Sightsee MC” still sounds like the last song you’d ever hear in London).

This record, however – it’s only the penultimate number one of the eighties, but we can close down the decade with it – begins with a different use of found sounds; there is an ominous drone in the middleground. In the distance we hear a ghostly piano, picking out a nursery song

the five-year-old piano student at home, at his piano, with his Ministeps To Music tutorial books, and a black-and-white television on the other side of the same room, the blue light, the theme songs, the fear

while closer up there are scattered voices from radio scans, coming from all across the world, as though this were the fatal and total pile-up and all that was left of the world, a vague reminder of what humanity once aspired to. But there also enter deep Cooder curves of Middlesbrough delta guitar and that drone won’t go away.

It is the M25 motorway which orbits, but does not enter, London at a twenty-five-mile radius. Travelling into the city by train from any direction, its appearance is a welcome signifier, indicating that the traveller is almost home.

But the thing is that Britain will never learn, has always been parsimonious about so many things that it becomes destructive. In fifties America they had giant refrigerators, comic books and rock ‘n’ roll; in Britain we continued to allow ourselves to be punished with ration books and Hoggart lectures. It is as if Britain, which is fatally an island, has always felt unworthy of itself, thinks that it does not deserve what it receives, and yet fiercely protects the interests of those who have received far, far more than they deserve.

Britain was never America. America has long, unbroken highways; motorways here are higgledy-piggledy things, forever winding around and narrowing themselves to protect the interests of landowners whose privileges date back to the time of agrarian enclosures. Britain is in the north of Europe and is therefore cold and damp most of the time.

Most importantly, Britain cannot, or will not, plan ahead. The reason why getting around London by road is such an arduous task is because road-widening was rejected by vested interests in the nineteenth century who preferred roads which had been built to accommodate horse-drawn Victorian carriages. And I do not suppose that anybody involved in planning the M25, which by 1989 had been in operation for around three years – indeed was opened by the Prime Minister herself – had the remotest notion that its highways would rapidly be filled up by motorists keen on avoiding London. All motorists who probably also harboured the dream of getting away, of cruising down long, unbroken highways, but invariably think it’s always the other motorists’ fault.

But the narrator here has not quite broken down; instead, he is sitting still, in gridlock. He sees a woman in the distance. She slowly comes up to his car, and when she bends down to speak to the driver, “A fearful pressure paralysed me in my shadow.” She asks “Son, what are you doing here?” He explains – calling her “Mama” with the implication that she is a ghost (“My fear for you has turned me in my grave”) – that he has “come to the valley of the rich” to sell himself. But she sadly tells him that in fact he is on the road to Hell.

If the woman grabbing Strummer by the arm in “This Is England” is Thatcher – how could she not be? – then this woman’s identity is more ambiguous. It could theoretically be a gloating Thatcher, but I note that Rea’s actual mother, Winifred, died in 1983. But the way in which he announces the song and album’s name makes it feel like the last song anybody would hear.

Martin Ditcham’s drums kick in, and the song starts up proper. The trick becomes evident to those who would listen – and Rea makes a point of making sure that the listener doesn’t miss hearing what he has to say – namely that, although this music superficially sounds like Dire Straits/yuppie-pleasing hi-fi/car-friendly AoR, he is using the uniform of the enemy to turn them back on themselves.

“I’m underneath the streetlights
But the light of joy I know
Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows”

“And at night, there came another dimension...of terror. As I prowled, I knew how scared I was, dead scared, yet not too scared to prowl.”
(Ian S Munro)

“And the perverted fear of violence
Chokes a smile on every face”

We’re really not too far away here from “This Is England,” are we? Nor indeed from Heaven 17, with the useless credit jamming up the roads.

“Look out world, take a good look
What comes down here
You must learn this lesson fast
And learn it well”

If the second part of “The Road To Hell” predicates anything, it’s Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” from three years later. Possibly the most depressing thing about the latter song is how painfully accurate all his predictions have turned out to be – “Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima” indeed. I don’t know whether Cohen ever heard “The Road To Hell” but I do know that before going solo, Chris Rea played in a band called The Beautiful Losers.

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway

Upon which guitars, played by both Rea and Robert Ahwai, scream out jagged, torrid lines which have much more to do with Neil Young than with Knopfler. Always on this album the guitars sound as though in insurmountable pain.


Chris Rea did not actually buy a guitar until he was in his early twenties; a late time to start. He taught himself to play it. Although influenced by his parents’ opera and light classical records, as a musician his main influences came from the blues, notably Sonny Boy Williamso, Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson; contemporary guitarists he admired included Ry Cooder and Joe Walsh. Although The Beautiful Losers were voted Best Newcomers in the Melody Maker poll of 1975, he had already been signed as a solo artist to Magnet Records the year before by the label’s head of A&R, Pete Waterman, but had to wait until 1978 before “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)” became a Billboard Top 20 hit. In Britain it missed the charts entirely on its first release and only scraped into the Top 30 upon reissue; it wasn’t until Elkie Brooks’ 1982 hit cover of the same song that the UK really began to pay attention to Rea’s music. He spent much of the eighties steadily building up his profile, particularly on the Continent, where he was a huge star long before his UK breakthrough. Given, however, that whenever he hit big he felt obliged to conform to what other people expected of him, it is no surprise that, following serious illness in the early 2000s, Rea resolved to revert to the kind of music he wanted to make, since when he has re-established himself as a highly respected blues performer who continues to record and tour with great success.

He comes home from work, and his young daughter is crying over something they’ve shown on the news. He is outraged – “This ain’t even dinner time!,” “What’s wrong with you?,” “You don’t have to show that stuff/Can’t you show us some RESPECT?,” and threatening “I wish you were here”s. He concludes, chillingly, “You must be evil” – a warped and twisted media ready to make children cry and a nation collapse (“You giving out some bad ideas here”).

“Looking For A Rainbow” grinds on for an agonising eight minutes and twenty seconds; he and his family have come down to the valley (of the shadow of death?) to seek their fortune – or so it would seem, because as the song progresses their real mission becomes clearer, “Maggie’s little children.../looking for Maggie’s farm” are actually here to exact their revenge...

“You can’t leave us dying this time
‘Cos we’re all around your door”

Between 2008-10 it was erroneously stated in some newspapers that Chris Rea had donated large sums of money to the Conservative Party and that he had been a long-time Conservative supporter. What the newspapers had done was to confuse him with another Chris Rea, a Sheffield businessman who is Group Managing Director of mechanical seal manufacturers AESSEAL and who had indeed donated money to the Conservatives. Although I note the strong work ethic that comes from growing up in an Italian family – and I should know – I am also aware that no one could have made a record like The Road To Hell and be a Conservative. Instead, in the album sleeve, Rea acknowledges “Everyone in all the governments.” Given that he values personal freedom and driving in particular, however, it is perhaps best to view the record as the rueful reflections of a disappointed small-c conservative, much in the vein of disappointed literary socialists such as Orwell, Huxley and Koestler.

In “Your Warm And Tender Love,” he succeeds in finding refuge from the growing storm in love, the light which pierces all darkness. By the time of “I Just Wanna Be With You,” however, his need is turning into an obsession. “I just wanna be with you,” he reiterates, over and over, “’til the final curtain falls” and as an alternative to “know[ing] nothing at all.” “I know there’s a price to pay for doing what we do,” he cryptically admits, but that is no deterrence to their doing it.

“That’s What They Always Say” is a sardonic rejoinder to those who talk all the time about getting away, making the break from the rat race, but who in their hearts know they’ll stay right where they are, gambling on that golden bridge just around the corner, “always one more thing to do.” But finally there is the realisation that there is no escape from this voluntary self-imprisonment. “The money junkie fades away,” remarks Rea, perhaps aware that he too will opt to hang on.

But there are those dreams, the dreams of “Texas.” As the skies of Britain collapse around him and his wife (“Been watching some TV...It’s all gone crazy”) he fantasises about a place that priorities quarterbacks over quarterlights – “Warm winds blowing/Heating blue sky/And a road that goes forever.” Yet he concludes: “Watch me walking.” If he gets there, however, he’ll drive in his “Daytona,” a tribute to the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona classic car, which ceased production in 1973 but of which he still dreams exquisitely (“Twelve wild horses in silver chains/Calling out to me”). As with the “sweet angel” in “I Just Wanna Be With You,” he implores the Daytona to “shine your light on me.”

Because nothing could be darker than this.

It is almost the end of the record, this story of the mad dreams of the man stuck in his car who, for the second time, comes home to find his daughter – by 1989 Rea had two young daughters; nowhere are you really made to forget that this record is the work of a parent – watching television. And now, it is about abuse, and it is about violence and death – and beyond outrage, the narrator is at a loss what to say.

“Grandpa says they’re happy now” – this is a song which involves three generations. He knows what grandpa is saying, and why he’s saying it, but he can’t find it in himself to believe it- Max Middleton’s string section freezes on the word “ice.”

She is asking him, his little girl, to tell her that there’s a heaven, that these people will go somewhere, because otherwise why is she seeing all of this?

He freezes and the strings descend into mild discordance before again settling. He turns to us for an answer: “So do I tell her that it’s true? That there’s a place for me and you?” But you can tell – “every painful crack of bones” – that he can’t tell her this story.

The key line is:
“What makes those men do what they do?”

...and you could say that this tale, this Then Play Long story, has been heading towards this conclusion all along, that the fundamental problem is not simply a question of why men do what they do, but the question of what constitutes evil.

Because the closing vocal section of this song is truly terrifying, as the timpani rolls and the camera pulls back – “And I’m looking at the father and the son” as though the end credits are rolling, “And I’m looking at the mother and the daughter” – and then the strings become atonal again, with a thudding timpani heartbeat, as he sings “And I’m watching them in tears of pain/And I’m watching them suffer/DON’T TELL THAT LITTLE GIRL/TELL ME.”

And then he sings the chorus again, but this time he’s the one asking, desperate to be convinced that it’s true, that some redemption must exist somewhere. The orchestra plays out as though this were a Lloyd Webber musical, and after some “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” oboe flourishes, the song, and the record, and its decade, are all laid to rest. There is nothing left save the silence.

The question is not just how a record like this ever got to number one, but what it means in greater terms.

We closed down the sixties with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” saw out the seventies with “I Was Only Joking,” and now we are nearly done with the eighties, by way of its epitaph.

But with “Tell Me There’s A Heaven” in particular – one of this tale’s key songs – there is the sense of a greater and more horrific truth being revealed, and revelation is perhaps the last thing that needed to be done, since it all seems to have happened, as the book title goes, in plain sight. Here we are at the end of a decade whose number one albums have nearly all been about the problems faced by men and women and/or lovers in communicating with each other, and it ends, to all intents and purposes, with the notion that it is the medium itself which is the true evil, a declaration of intent by somebody – Rea in 1989 was thirty-eight years old – who has lived through all of Then Play Long and knows the whole story. The story of pop and rock music only really concerned with alerting its very young audience to an adult world. An era which may prove to be, as the Descendants have it, rotten to the core.

And you realise why Rea might have been so keen to get his wife and kids over to Texas – as Americans glance at them on their long, endless highways and retort: “well, why do you think we left Britain in the first place?” – or anywhere that’s far, far away from evil people like Thatcher, Savile, Sutcliffe, Gadd, a country rotting because of its very own and deeply perverted traditions. And yet there is still hope. The half-Scottish Joe Strummer pointedly called his best song “This Is England.” And while many might still view the road to Budapest as the road to Hell, maybe that signifies a major turnaround in how people are prepared to act towards their fellow humans. Perhaps the corporate media’s bluff has been fatally called; get away from television, newspapers, the internet, and realise that you can still make your own decisions about how the world operates. Strip away the neoliberal gaffa tape and you’ll find ordinary, generous and welcoming people beneath.

As the cover of this album clearly demonstrates, our world doesn't have to be compacted into profitable garbage like a spent car, and even in the darkest of corners, there always lurks a rainbow.

“Change has a way of just walking up and punching me in the face” – Veronica Mars