Thursday, 17 March 2011

Decade in music: withstanding the 1980s, or The Gentle Art Of Procrastination, part two.

…in which our hero goes down to WHSmith armed with 45p to buy his first single. Wants more.

If you’ve just come from my previous blog entry, welcome back. Now, where were we?

Oh yes, the 1980s. Gosh, how I despised them at the time. I left Primary School in the summer of 1983. I had been the oldest boy in the school, a positively glowing ball of confident, plump enthusiasm that burned brightly for all to see whether you wanted to or not. Come the autumn: disaster, damnation, separation. My best friends had gone to another school across town. Big School put me right back in Square One. No, worse than that: larger classes, with a greater number of kids my age who didn’t know me and were not impressed by my bluster; six years’ worth of older children intent on lording it over all of us as surely as we would do so on the unfortunate incumbents of our position a year later. I remember feeling deeply resentful; my old school had been a cushy little number. In one stroke I had become a small fish, swimming delusional in a big pond with only raging hormones for reliable company. If that sounds a bit overwrought, well, it didn’t feel like it at the time. Over the first weeks of Secondary Education, my exuberant good humour eroded and warped daily into overt rambunctiousness. Lots of mortal, schoolboy fights ensued — BANG! OOF! YAROO! OW THAT’S MY HEAD! etc. My confidence remained undented as I won most of these petty playground brawls, to be fair, but it only served to force me to keep my own company and counsel more than ever. There’s nothing more stubborn than a sullen, embittered, cocksure adolescent who hasn’t yet fully discovered masturbation.

Almost everything about my Secondary School, I imagined then as now, was a rinky-dink-Mickey-bloody-Mouse operation of the most tedious order compared to the idyllic, efficient quaintness of my old Convent. Music in particular was very badly managed indeed. I had had two years of piano lessons at my old school, taken once a week during lunch hour, to the extent where I could play with correct fingering and sight-read the most basic pieces. This immediately ceased on my transition over to the new place. No piano lessons on offer. The Head of Music there was a tall, lanky, bearded individual called Mr McAuliffe who had the nervy bearing of someone, I’m now guessing, had been invalided out of National Service. To my mind he was a thoroughly useless teacher, unable to impart even the most basic tenets of musical instruction without getting into jerky paroxysms of comically impotent ire. I vowed never to involve myself with any practical music making on behalf of my school or this most contemptible of music masters. I’ll say no more on him.

Never mind teachers — they’re such easy targets for children. My contemporaries were fools, I fumed, for even trying to find anything of musical value to engage with in the benighted outset of the 1980s. How I lambasted them in teenage rage for liking Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood. ABC and OMD? NBG, as I think they used to say in the RAF during WWII. Shame on you, Yazoo, Depeche Mode and your poxy synth-raddled kind for even existing, I asserted coldly as only kids can command. Worst of all, how disappointing it was to a twelve-year-old who’d not quite started to ‘get’ the magic and mystery of girls to find my more precocious schoolchums banging on about how ‘horny’ Madonna was. Cah, the old ways were better, I rumbled, with attention-seeking zeal. The delightfully danceable disco pop and the chippy-yet-commercial New Wave singles I had loved passively at the end of the previous decade were receding, becoming something else I decided I did not like. To me, the bright and warm 1960s were more immediate, vibrant and vital to me than any of the pathetic offerings I heard my friends talk about — and in the early 1980s, the Sixties, with their flares, flowers and patchouli, were about as unhip as you could get. How cool, detached and dismissively different I thought I was. I must have been an insufferable little bastard.

Nonetheless, everyone wants to fit in sooner or later, and by the autumn of 1984 I was getting increasingly aware that while I was ready to sneer at other people’s consumer decisions, I was a fan of nothing by way of reply. Not such a cool pose. Wearing thin, in fact. It was time to take a stand. Get partisan. Find something else to spend my pocket money on beyond Star Wars toys or sweets. Shit or get off the pot. I got on a bus to Eltham High St and the branch of WHSmith there: the best place I could think of to buy my first pop single — and after so long telling everyone else what not to buy I knew exactly what I wanted to kick off my record collection. A supercool, proper bloody tune: the theme music to the BBC TV series The Tripods.

I’ll not trouble you with too much detail on The Tripods, suffice to say it was a sci-fi serial made with similar production values to Doctor Who, and shown in the same Saturday teatime slot at times of the year when Who was not. It featured the eponymous three-legged alien war machines, bent on subjugating the human population of the near-future and keeping them in pre-industrial age ignorance. It seemed to go on for ever. It clearly chimed with my love for The War Of The Worlds, even if my knowledge of HG Wells’ novel at this time began and ended with Jeff Wayne’s album adaptation. My interest in The Tripods theme tune was more likely because of, rather than in spite of, this. I was pleased several years later to learn that Ken Freeman, the synthesiser wizard who composed the stark, bleakly sweeping theme, had also supplied much of the amazing keyboard pyrotechnics that made The War Of The Worlds such a gripping listen for me as a child. I’m guessing Freeman was hired for the TV show due to his connection to those other, more iconic, Martian tripod creations. Maybe I heard some inherent connection in the music too; I can’t honestly say.

Still with me? It gets better. I often used to buy books or stationery in WHSmiths, but music in the Eltham branch was upstairs. Big boys’ territory. It was Fourmatt Video all over again. I found myself ascending the staircase to emerge into the obscure and esoteric world of the record department. Some older singles and albums were deposited in browsing racks, but chart singles and new releases — more likely to sell in quantity — required you to ask for them in person at the counter. How daunting for a chap of my diminutive size then. Still, I sidled timorously up to the counter and asked, on tip-toe, if they stocked the theme tune from The Tripods, the availability of which was promised by the sonorous BBC continuity announcer at the end of the previous week’s instalment.

Well, there you go. They didn’t bloody have it. I stomped about the shop fulminating in a frustrated flap for fifteen full minutes before I decided that I hadn’t brought myself and my 45p this far to be denied the pleasure of purchase. Bollocks. So I bought the next thing I could think of. Returning to the counter, with more confidence and a touch of exasperation this time, I asked for another single I knew was just in the charts: ‘Ghostbusters’ by Ray Parker Jr.

I didn’t know how this song even went, but alone among my friends I had advance information on Ghostbusters, the film. For reasons I’ve never managed to fathom, films in America at this time would be released months ahead of their UK premieres. I understand that this trend didn’t really cease until the late 1990s, when innovations of instant communication such as the Internet rendered press and publicity — and worst of all, the plot spoilers — available simultaneously trans-Atlantically, obviating any advantage to having a film open in one country before all others. Back in 1984, Ghostbusters was about to be a Christmas box office smash in the UK, but it had played out to delighted audiences over the summer Stateside — including my sister. She’d spent the previous six months living in Boston, Massachusetts and had very kindly sent me an amazing parcel for my birthday, full of local ephemera: used bus tickets, town maps, photos of yellow school buses…little fragments of impossibly glamorous Americana to a boy whose knowledge of the States went no further than films and shows I’d seen on TV. Isn’t that how it was for all of us in the UK? The different accent that makes things so cool?

Best of all in this package was a poster of the now iconic ‘No Ghosts’ sign with the enigmatic slogan beneath: ‘Back Off, Man. I’m A Ghostbuster.’ Between this single image, the teasing snippets my sister shared with me in writing and a quite literal sweetener of an additional parcel containing large quantities of American candy (heaven knows how it made it here in one piece), I knew that we Brits were in for a spooky treat over the festive season. For now, I had the single. I went home and played it on my sister’s record player: I didn’t own one myself yet.

“…I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost!”

HAHAHAHAHA!! Totally awesome! You all know it!

It’s reasonably well-known that Ray Parker, Jr has faced legal suits and accusations from songwriters, most famously Huey Lewis And The News, asserting that they originated the catchy riff that bounces through the tune. That’s neither here nor there for me. I’m willing to bet they didn’t write anything as endearingly daft and stupidly danceable as ‘Ghostbusters’; equally enduring as it is throwaway. If I ever meet someone who professes to an extreme dislike of it, I am compelled to view their higher motives with suspicion. Owning the single was like owning an artefact from the film itself. And it was not enough. An acquisitive, rapacious desire for merchandise had set in for me around a film I had not yet even seen. Once my birthday had come around at the end of September, and with the film still several weeks shy of UK release, I determined that I should own the soundtrack album too.

Those of you who may know this album will know that it consists largely of pop music. Some of the tunes were ‘diagetic’ cues; that is, they are played from an identifiable source in the film, say, from out of a radio or by a band depicted in the movie — as opposed to being overlaid on the action. It’s hugely, unavoidably, of its time: transient synth pop rubs shoulders with the softest rock; 1950s pastiche collides with slick overcooked funk. Laura Branigan. The Thompson Twins. Air Supply. It’s a hideous and unsubtle brew, reflecting the dayglo-saturated era from whence it came. You can imagine by now that I had an initial aversion to buying what amounted to a compilation of pop tunes, being more interested in hearing any orchestral music from the film — but this was merchandise and I wanted it. How very slick it looked too, with precious, effects-laden images of the movie blazoned across the back cover. A trip to the short-lived Musictown shop in Sidcup High Street in October 1984 and the deed was done: I had bought my very first LP.

Just for the record, as it turned out I was almost disappointed when I found out that Ghostbusters was ostensibly a comedy. I wanted it to be plain scary. But then again, this is the same boy who watched a pirate video copy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial expecting a sci-fi horror flick. What a terribly frownsome, overly-serious teen I must have been sometimes. Then, finally, I saw Ghostbusters and like almost everyone of my age, I fell under its intensely likeable, wisecracking, hip, cynical and delightfully silly spell. It is a shame that Elmer Bernstein’s score, a late work for this most assured of film composers, is still not commercially available. It is written with as much wit and profound understanding of subject matter as his earlier, iconic music for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

One last thing on The Tripods single: I’m now rather glad I didn’t get it, as it turned out that the rest of the tune, freed from its impressively punchy 30-second restriction in the title sequence, proved to be a little naff extended over three minutes. I know this because I bought a CD copy of it online off Ken Freeman himself some 15 years later. Please do not assume I mean any slight on Mr Freeman: his work on Jeff Wayne’s album alone earns him the keys to the kingdom in my opinion — and more power to his elbow, I say. But I’ve since learned that a TV theme tune outstays its welcome after 60 seconds — even the best ones. Actually, especially the best ones, if they’re any good. How different things might have been had I emerged from WHSmith’s that autumn afternoon with The Tripods in stock.

I was on my way now. Soundtracks became my preferred musical form to listen to and collect. The little chap who spent his time deriding the pop charts, felt disenfranchised by the very decade he lived in, had found something to get behind and feel excited about. My best friend Chris was of similar opinion, so we had  potential for exchange. Going to the cinema was like attending a gig: equally as important for musical content as for any visual aspect or story. Thank goodness a slew of great films awaited us across the 1980s. In this aspect of pop culture, at least, I could command equal respect among my peers.

Film music constituted a vast chunk of my listening pleasure, but it was not the only place where music could be found. Before too long, me and my friends would find another curiously addictive, strangely groovesome — and oddly kind of related — source of musical inspiration. One that informs not only the things I listen to to this day, but also how I compose my own music: computer games. That’ll be a blog entry for another time. The Gentle Art Of Procrastination again!

Soon, my friends, soon...

A Happy St Patrick's Day to any of you who celebrate it.


Currently listening to:
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)
Vaya (At The Drive In, 1999)
Deloused In The Comatorium (The Mars Volta, 2003)
In On The Killtaker (Fugazi, 1994)
Thank Christ For The Bomb (Groundhogs, 1970)
Split (Groundhogs, 1971)

Currently reading:
Still nothing, I’m afraid.

Currently watching:
Doctor Who gets into the visually colourful, spiritually dark days of Colin Baker’s era: Attack Of The Cybermen, Vengeance On Varos, The Mark Of The Rani, The Two Doctors (BBC, 1985)


  1. The instrumental version of Ghostbusters on the b-side is ace! I have the 7 and 12 inch versions. The 80s weren't all bad, eh?

  2. With the trippy 'weird' bit in the middle that's not on the vocal version! My brother bought me the 12" version for Christmas in '84 — 'Searchin' For The Spirit' Mix, I believe it's called!

    I am learning to love the 1980s the harder I dig back into my mind about it...

  3. I wasn't ready at the time for the good music that came out of the 80s, i.e. early thrash metal. Compared to the 70s, the 80s were positively feeble in quality and invention. A lot of blame has to fall on drum machines and synthesizers.

  4. Agreed. I tend to think that a lot of the things we liked in the 80s were the things that were least 'touched' by the 80s ie, still real drums, crunchy guitars, real piano/organ, riffy song structures - essentially things still informed by a more 70s way of doing things. The 90s seemed to bring the 70s back into focus, only with slicker production techniques (not always a good thing!).

    I have learned to love synthesisers, but only for the original sounds they can make rather than when they're pressed into service to 'replace' a real instrument. So a noodly, widdly Moog solo is fine because it apes nothing else, but synth brass will always be hideous to my ears, for example!

    Can never beat a real, live drummer though, eh?