Monday, 14 March 2011

Decayed without music: sitting out the 1980s, or The Gentle Art Of Procrastination, part one.

Before another word, thank you. I have had several instances of positive feedback on my blog, both online and in person, over the last couple of weeks and your words really are very much appreciated, not to say a little humbling. I shall endeavour to keep up the pace.

It’s been a pleasant and stimulating week. So much so that the options for blog subjectification are many. I could even write about the subjects I considered for this week but then decided against: The Gentle Art Of Procrastination. I appreciate that, like the famous article Stephen Fry once wrote for his weekly column in a national newspaper about having ‘Nothing At All To Say,’ one can only get away with assembling an essay of this self-regarding nature no more than once or twice in a career, so I shall keep it brief for now.

Primarily, this week has been one where musical discussion has been to the fore, with some of my favourite people. This has ranged from delightful email exchanges on Elgar and the ever-amazing Cardiacs, terrific tête à têtes on Spirit and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and further fleeting Facebook postings on Primal Scream, Massive Attack and er, those ever-amazing Cardiacs again. Even Phil Collins has worked his way into the proceedings, as ever he must.

Any one of these chaps could be spun off into a blog all its own. For example, I fully intend one day to post up a loving account of Cardiacs and their leader, Tim Smith, a gentleman of singular, rarified musical vision. Tim Smith, who numbers among the very few people in the world of music I would class as a certified genius of the top order. Tim Smith, who currently lies stricken in hospital after suffering a stroke in 2008 and is largely powerless to compose any more of his utterly original, stunning pieces. His story deserves to be written about with detail and respect: qualities I will have to master fully before I attempt to do so.

Someone out there needs to do a blog on that most obscure and restricted of subjects: the quality of Phil Collins’ drumming. It may be hard to square the idea, so long maintained, that the bland, balding, tiresomely cheeky chap latterly beloved of superannuated Yuppies, the Patron Saint of Twats incarnate, was anything else. But Seriously…(sorry, I’m so sorry), the younger, more hirsute Collins was a bona fide frontrunner for the title of Greatest Rock Drummer on the planet round about 1973, he really was. Again, time and indulgence forbid me from vouchsafing these arcane, unpopular opinions until a later date. Now there’s a threat wrapped up in a promise for you.

It’s not been all pleasures of the head variety this week. One of the highlights was a trip to the London Drinker Beer Festival with my very good friend Brother JCC, the better to sink some halves and discuss 1970s Rock music and girls, as befits two gentlemen on the town. The Drinker is held in a small community building in the shadow of St Pancras station. The interior space is essentially a large dancehall overlooked by a striking Art Deco lampshade that hovers over all like a wondrous Flash Gordon-style UFO; I wonder how many of the quaffers crowding below have taken time out from their brews to peruse skywards and take in this pleasing detail? The list of beers on offer is considerable given the relatively small scale of the event and range from bitters, stouts, barley wines, ciders and perrys from all corners of the UK. We like to think of it as a warm-up to the Great British Beer Festival held annually in the summer at Earls Court, which is vast by comparison. Most of you will not be surprised to know that both Mrs M and I (not to mention JCC) are card-carrying members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). I keep meaning to write a blog on the magnificence of Real Ale and the ever-pressing need to keep its production, distribution — and consumption — thriving. It’s a constantly endangered industry and even if you’re teetotal, it takes no imagination to appreciate how the problems they face can affect all of us; we who cherish the small-but-joyous things in life and lament the passing of social niceties, cottage industries and quality products made by small businesses who employ individuals who set high standards. Pride and principles. That said, it’s hard to think of a truly original angle on the subject that hasn’t already been covered by the self-evident work of groups like CAMRA and independent microbreweries, so I’ll cease writing about it for the time being. All you need to know is that a good pint of ale, well-kept and lovingly savoured, is a transcendent thing of majesty and sensory perfection. The buzz you get on it is marvellous too, and the hangover the following day is most forgiving and disperses exactly on schedule. Happy days.

One final digression before I get to the nub of my gist for this week. You may recall my definition of what I like to call 'Emerson Lake & Palmer Syndrome' from the other week, which could be expressed succinctly as: once you’ve heard of something, you seem to hear about it everywhere. I offer you a similar, related sensation which happens frequently to me, and I suspect may do for you too. I’ve decided to call it, following the spirit of my previous foray into this phenomenon, ‘Spacemen 3 Syndrome’ and it runs like this: you’ve heard of Spacemen 3, but never done any research on them. Then a friend whose opinion you value on numerous matters mentions Spacemen 3. Then another friend, on an unconnected occasion less than a week later, refers to Spacemen 3. And still yet another friend some time after that, so now you’ve heard talk of Spacemen 3 three times over ten days. After that, I’d have to be a fool to ignore this manifestly persistent prod by the finger of fate: it’s clearly time to check out Spacemen 3.

The practical upshot of all this speculative phenomenising is that I have had a nostalgic session browsing online for albums by Primal Scream, Massive Attack, U.N.K.L.E., Asian Dub Foundation, Spiritualized and the like: bands I was peripherally aware of in the last twenty years, and maybe would have dug at the time were it not for other bands’ prevailing plays for my attention. Oh, and Spacemen 3 too. I’ll have to let you know how I get on with the goodies I’ve ordered at such agreeable prices. I could write a quite lengthy list of bands I have been put onto with reliable success by this method over the years, but I won’t for the time being. It rightly belongs in a detailed blog on my reminiscences of Nineties music, but — you guessed it — the prospect of writing one right now quite frankly seems a massive and awesome undertaking. Perforce, I’ll confine myself to covering a formative — but for me more musically barren — decade: the 1980s.

We start, not too surprisingly, with the dwindling days of the 1970s. I was eight years old at the end of 1979 but I recall certain things — especially musical things — with eidetic clarity. The breakfast show on Radio 1 was hosted in those days by Dave Lee Travis, the ‘Hairy Cornflake.’ Like many Radio 1 DJs of then, he’s now regarded as terminally unhip, possibly a bit reactionary and the possessor of a crap beard, but I daresay his blend of charting singles, terrible music quizzes (the ‘Monday Cringe’ being one that leaps to mind: a series of clues that would provide a tortuous phrase that punningly suggested a song title to the listener — with predictably ‘hilarious consequences’), spoof songs based on popular tunes and generally amiable banter — specifically devised to cover the intros and outros of tunes you were hoping to home-tape — wouldn’t come as a complete shock to people raised on the likes of Mark & Lard or Chris Evans in that last great era for popular music radio, the Nineties. Anyway, he was pretty much all I had back then; John Peel was beyond my ken and my bedtime.

Every school morning, from my seated position at the dining table awaiting Ready Brek porridge with a blob of jam in, or sausages and bacon lovingly prepared by my mum, I’d hear what was out there as selected by the British record-buying public. This is the interesting part about my memory of things back then: some people will recall the late 1970s as a time of Disco mania; others will cite the abrasiveness of Punk and its more intellectual, but still nervy New Wave offspring as the driving soundtrack of their lives. I’m pleased to be able to confirm that both are true. It is said children are often the harshest critics; I suspect I was actually quite unprejudiced in my views at the time. To me the Bee Gees could sing of ‘Tragedy’ in falsetto quite readily alongside Lene Lovich, adorable in pigtails, as she AH-oo-EE-ooh-ed her way through her ‘Lucky Number.’ Jeff Wayne orchestrated a Disco apocalypse from Mars to London with his version of The War Of The Worlds, Boney M cheerfully offered a ‘Night Flight To Venus’ by way of alternative and The Jam, true to their urban roots, preferred ‘Going Underground,’ possibly taking the Tube to ‘Funkytown’ with Lipps Inc. Such fun and games.

I had yet to become a confirmed consumer of music at this point. My pocket money, if I ever asked for any at all, was most likely spent on Star Wars action figures, or sweets. No need to buy comics; my eldest brother supplied them to us all by generously buying the entire sweep of IPC and Fleetway titles available each week. He would read them all and pass them down to my elder brother and sister, then me. Again, I feel another blog subject coming on. I would read these without discriminating between the intended demographics. Consequently, I would notice that Ron Smith’s signature drawing style for Judge Dredd in that week’s 2000AD could also be seen delicately outlining the teen angst of ‘I’ll Make Up For Mary’ in Jinty. I’d find myself equally at home with Buster comic's ‘Faceache’, the schoolboy who could scrunge his features to look like someone else as I did with the gritty realism of the footie dramas of ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ in er, Roy Of The Rovers. One week I vividly remember our eponymous hero request, finger pointing at us all from the page, that any hooligans reading the comic stop doing so. Imagine, getting a rocket from the Rovers’ Roy Race.

Anyway, back to the music. I could write up a list of songs I remember vividly from those far-flung days, but the data is easily obtained elsewhere. A sweep on Google will yield quite readily which songs were in the Top 20 in any given week — and it was mostly Top 20 radio that provided the Soundtrack To My Life. Such an oft-used expression ‘The Soundtrack Of Your Life‘ — I used it elsewhere, didn’t I? — but in my case, as we’ll see, it was going to become particularly appropriate. If there was one specific album that I enjoyed the most, it was probably the scratched copy of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds that I had shamefully pilfered from my brother’s record collection and played, for want of anything else, on my mother’s teal-blue 1960s Garrard turntable. Mono, of course, but no matter then. To my ears it had — still has — all the quality of watching a fantastic effects-laden sci-fi movie without having to pay attention to the visuals, although the album cover and inner booklet provided enough scary brain-food to match Jeff Wayne’s disco dance music of doom. Crucially, I was grappling with the idea of the son being an essential accompaniment to the lumiere.

By the time I edged into my teens I had started to know what I really liked: Star Wars. Not just the film, my love of which is disproportionately great, worthy of a blog all to itself and paradoxically something I prefer not to discuss with anyone for any length, but John William’s rightly lauded orchestral score. A couple of years earlier, when I was 11, the film had been shown, amid public fanfare, on British television — and my sterling mate Chris had it taped on his home VHS recorder. I envied him his VCR and would badger my father as to when we were getting our own (several years too late, as it turned out). You really had to be there, those early 1980s, to appreciate just how exciting it was to be able to watch something on video again and again. More immediately thrilling, for me anyway, was that Chris had recorded the film’s entire soundtrack — sound effects, dialogue and all — onto cassette tape using a combined mini TV/tape recorder device. It is both a measure of how old I am and how amazing is the modern world we live in now when I recall, wincingly, that not only was it a black-and-white screen — colour telly not a given even then — but also the size, thickness and weight of a small briefcase holding two house bricks. Please accept my assurance that it was a very cool piece of kit at the time.

Across the road from my Primary School opened two stores around this, the same time. Both traded in burgeoning entertainment technology and both were enormously influential on our fragile li’l adolescent minds. Youth of 1980s Sidcup, remember their names with pride: Silica Shop and Fourmatt Video. More on Silica Shop later. Fourmatt was tiny, cramped and seemed — since you had to climb a narrow staircase to get there — like a deeply seedy place to visit, especially for hormonal schoolboys seeking a fleeting glimpse of boob on the cover of an Electric Blue release in the Adult Entertainment corner. In those days, porn and what the government were already gleefully dubbing ‘video nasties’ were things we’d discuss, but almost never actually see. But this bright new video age was about to spring yet another surprise on us: pirates ahoy!

Well, nowadays of course, we’re all fully aware of how video piracy is a pernicious evil that funds international terrorism, makes small children take bad drugs and could even jeopardise future film production, it really could. You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t rob a bank. So why would you consider committing the victimless crime of downloading a film you wouldn’t pay money to see off a hooky website? Brr, shame on you! Piracy’s bad, mm’kay?

We had no such scruples as children, especially as the majority of films we could get off a mate’s older brother’s mate who knows a guy who’s a bit of a geezer, etc were movies that hadn’t made it to the commercial video market — and sometimes before even that. How amazing it was to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as me and Chris did, fully two months before it came out in UK cinemas: we saw it round at a friend of my mother’s, who wasn’t entirely sure what it was she’d picked up. We thought it was going to be a horror film! Happy memories. It wasn’t too long, then, before Chris had acquired The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi through other, excitingly illicit, channels. A swift run through the old two-brick briefcase telly-tape-recorder, and BANG! I had something to listen to on cassette. And oh, how I listened, again, again and still yet again. My teenage brain, never better geared any other time in my life short of my most tender years to absorb information, soaked up this sonic extravaganza like nothing I ever learned in class. To this day I can still recite the dialogue, with sound effect interjections and pointed musical cues, along with the original Star Wars films to within 90% accuracy. I am not ashamed. Why should I be? The original Star Wars trilogy are cinematic masterpieces, and at this point in the decade, I was still yet to become a record buyer: this was all I needed for now. Maestro John Williams needs no further elevation from me in this blog. To mention him any more, but only in passing, through this essay would be to do him a disservice. Better I devote, I say in what is becoming a leitmotif of mine, an entry specifically all to himself in the future.

But what of pure, unadorned music itself? We like to define pop music, as I have done happily so far, as ‘1960s music’, ‘1980s music’ and so on. In reality of course, music — like all creative and cultural arts — does not recognise clear-cut borderlines of time, space or sensibility. Things do not move at the same speed. Certain places retain a dated charm and other places lead the way in architecture or style. That’s why parts of France always seem delightfully stuck in the 1970s, or why Dubai looks like ‘London, 2071’ in some futuristic fantasy film. The music of the early 1960s sounded like the fag-end of the 1950s and as David Crosby once said in so many words, the 1970s were like the better version of the 1960s. Well, I’m sure it was for the first five years or so, Dave. Ian McDonald, in his excellent book Revolution In The Head, cites 1973 as the year in which the 1960s ‘ended’ for the UK: the Yom Kippur War and the resultant economic downturn bringing an end to the prosperity and optimism that had defined the previous colourful years, starting with the white heat of Wilson’s technological revolution in 1963, through to sexual intercourse, the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP. By the same token, for some the 1960s ended in ’68: 'Paint It, Black', revolution, Hell’s Angels at Altamont and no more Summer Of Love. 

So it was for me and the 1970s. As the 1980s moved further in and further away from the sensibilities fostered in the previous decade, it moved away from whatever it was I liked in music — and at this point in my feckless adolescent opinion, I couldn’t quantify what exactly that was. I do recall having a stunningly precocious chat on a bus with Chris in 1983 about the prospect of 1984 and wondering whether it would turn out to be anything like Orwell’s novel — which neither of us had read at that time, naturally — and coming to the alarmingly early conclusion that this new decade we were living in was not shaping up to be ‘as good’ as its predecessor. I blame the creeping emergence of synthesisers — specifically their pernicious, carcinogenic hegemony over real instruments, especially brass — and the damn-foolish pursuit of most record producers to try and make a real drummer sound like a machine, which even at an early age, I knew was fundamentally missing the point. I’m afraid a poor troubled adolescent like myself found it all too easy to affect an air of Olympian arrogance for the kind of pop I now identified very firmly as ‘1980s music’. Friends would be ridiculed for their tastes when in fact they were simply doing what came naturally and listened to the radio. The scorn I poured on Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC and the like. Me, who thought Gary Numan was scary and cool, deriding what reads back to me now like a perfectly serviceable shopping list of great, fun, smart, friendly 1980s pop. But by the summer of 1984, I still had not bought so much as a single single, never mind an album, but I was ready: the time had come.

It was time to put my pocket money where my big, fat, mocking mouth was.

Re: The Gentle Art Of Procrastination: I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave the story right here, but stay tuned — it will be up before this week is out.

What was that? Oh, come on! You love cliff-hangers…


Currently listening to:
Mounqaliba (Natacha Atlas, 2010)
Drums And Wires (XTC, 1979)
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)

Currently reading:
Nothing, I’m afraid - save rereading my copy, which doesn’t count!

Currently watching:
The Doctor Who fest, still blazing away as ever: Earthshock, Time-Flight, Arc Of Infinity, Snakedance, The King’s Demons, Warriors Of The Deep, The Caves Of Androzani, The Twin Dilemma (BBC, variously between 1982 and 1984)

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