Once upon a time there was a Manchester band. There have, of course, been many Manchester bands. Many of them got the success that they deserved. Many of them got the obscurity that, despite being Manchester bands, they deserved. And not a few got the obscurity that they definitely did not deserve.
One such was The Distractions.
The Distractions were, at the outset, a five piece band, consisting of Mike Finney (vocals), Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright (guitars), pipnicholls (bass) and Alec Sidebottom (drums). They got together in 1977, during the punk era, though as punks they were something of an unlikely lot. Finney, the singer, had a more soulful voice than most, and looked a bit like a schoolteacher, nicholls was a tiny blonde with a pudding bowl haircut in the mould of Tina Weymouth and Sidebottom was in his late thirties, a veteran skin-pounder with dozens of Manchester outfits. And Perrin and Wright, both of whom wrote songs for the band, were much more tuneful in their efforts than most of their contemporaries, even if such contemporaries, such as Slaughter and the Dogs, Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds, and the wonderful Buzzccks were much better known than these five.
They made their vinyl début with a 12″ EP, released through the tiny TJM Records label (I know of no other releases by TJM). Under the gloriously Mancunian title of “You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That”, the band presented four of their early songs, including two superbly fresh, poppy efforts with compulsive choruses, “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love”.
This got them a deal with the nascent Factory to release a one-off single, which turned out to be the band’s most perfect song, the wonderful, catchy, impossible-to-resist “Time Goes By So Slow”. Peel loved it, I loved it, the radio criminally ignored it, and “Time Goes By So Slow”, with its lyrics about sitting in Albert Square, its mixture of sadness and joie de vivre, and its beautifully balanced energy placed it very high in the list of records that should have been, but never were absolutely mega.
Nevertheless, the single’s reputation, and the band’s continuing live popularity in Manchester prompted a deal for an album from Island Records, resulting in the Distractions’ one and only contemporary LP, “Nobody’s Perfect”. It would be a disastrous experience for the band, with fissures arising as to the direction of their music. Finney, nicholls and Sidebottom seem to have been behind a general move to soften the band’s overall sound, to emphasise keyboards and acoustic sounds, instead of the Distractions’ original, guitar-based, abrasive approach. Their notions were more commercial in aspect, if not, ultimately, in outcome, but Perrin was left dispirited and upset by the move, and shortly after the album was released, in 1981, he left the group.
As the band’s leading songwriter, either alone or in tandem with Finney on lyrics, this was as much a disaster as John O’Neill leaving the Undertones in 1979 would have been, especially when Adrian Wright followed, shortly after. And whilst the band’s reputation is built around the partnership of Finney and Perrin, it should be noted, as few seldom do, that it was Wright who had written “Time Goes By So Slow”.
The Distractions recruited Arthur Kadnam on guitar and continued as a four-piece into 1982, when I saw them live for the only time, doing a pub gig in Romiley, Stockport. The new line-up released a three track 7″ EP, of which the lead track was “Twenty Four Hours” but this was the band’s last release, and they split up later in the year.
I’ve never heard anything as to the futures of Wright, nicholls, Kadnam or Sidebottom, but Finney went on to form the Secret Seven, a pop/soul oriented band, with twin singers (Finney and a young lady with a fresh voice). They released the superb single “Hold on to love”, a sweet concoction ideally suited to Finney’s voice, with a b-side of equal quality, but then disappeared without making any other records.
This was the story of the Distractions as I’d always known it, but a few years ago, I learned that Finney and Perrin (the latter of whom was now living and working as a teacher in New Zealand) had reconciled, and had met up in 1995 to record three tracks which were released as an EP under the leading track “Lost”. These included a remake of the Distractions’ original track, “Still it doesn’t ring”. That was all until 2010, when the due again teamed up, with outside assistance, to record another three track EP, featuring the title track “Black Velvet”.
And just last year, the Distractions recorded their long-awaited follow up, thirty-two years on, “At the end of the pier”. Sadly, though the sound is familiar, it lacks the sonic texture of their early days and the songs are old men’s songs, looking backwards into an infinity of regret for what didn’t happen.
But it’s “Nobody’s Perfect” that I’m concerned with now, the only album recorded by the original line-up. It’s very hard to get hold of, having never been released on CD (nor are there any plans that it should ever be), and copies of the LP being rare, and consequently expensive.
Nor is it a major album, a lost cultural (or even cult) masterpiece, though I’ve always contended that its sound, marrying the energy and melody of the Buzzcocks to a softer, more keyboard oriented sound, makes “Nobody’s Perfect” the missing link between the Buzzcocks and the Human League of “Dare”. But it’s still an album worth listening to, and there are at least three solid masterpieces, all from the Finney/Perrin team, that deserve to be known widely.
The album begins with jittery guitar, skittering into your hearing, before a solid riff, having its roots in the band’s punk origins, leads the band on a busy hustle. “Waiting for Lorraine” is a love song, but it’s a peculiarly Mancunian love song, with its feet set firmly upon the ground. Finney’s waiting for Lorraine: she’s his girlfriend, he’s sat by the phone because she’s supposed to be calling him back, but he’s not hearing from her. The longer he doesn’t hear from her, the more he starts to doubt her. He doesn’t want her to love him forever, just to stop her telling lies. Perrin rips in with a fast guitar sole and Finney shoots back, washing his hands of untrustworthy, heartbreaker Lorraine, until he’s now waiting for her to go drop dead.
It’s a love song of disillusion, set to a fast, melodic sound,guitar based, with little snippets of voices behind Finney’s upfront tones, yet it’s only his side of things. The twist is that we have absolutely no idea whether Lorraine is a cheater or if it’s Finney’s anger at being stood up (even if it’s only a non-returned call after a phone argument) that’s creating this image.
As I said, Mancunian.
It’s followed by “Something for the Weekend”, an equally up-tempo, energetic song, driven by sharp organ riffs and an underlying pounded piano. Musically, it wears it’s rock’n’roll roots pretty close to the surface, especially in Perrin’s trebly solo, but the busyness doesn’t disguise a certain thinness in the song. The chorus repeats insistently, as Finney pleads for something to stop the pain, ease the strain, numb his brain, make it real again (so, nothing to do with drugs then). It’s all to do with his mysteriously unexpressed behaviour, that makes him an outcast.
The song also features a technique that the Distractions increasingly used over what little was left of their career, that is that guitars and keyboards would drop out, leaving only drum and bass to support Finney’s voice. It works here, because the percussion keeps the rhythm of the song, but elsewhere it tends to render the song choppy, disrupting its integrity.
Track three is the album’s biggest mistake. It’s a full-sounding, swirl of guitar and organ cover of Eden Kane’s 1964 hit, “Boyscry” (though Kane sold it as two words). This was the only single to be pulled off the album (“Something for the Weekend” was re-recorded as a single) and though the sound was representative of the band in this album, the archaic nature of the song and the lack of confidence shown in the Distractions’ own music was a colossal own goal.
It slides into “Sick and Tired”, an uninspired retread of “Waiting for Lorraine”, heavily featuring synthesizers over a niggling rhythm that breaks out into a brief but vicious chorused title line. Once again, Finney’s waiting for someone who’s not showed, though this time he’s out in the rain, smoking a cigarette and trying to look cool. A vicious solo from Perrin overtakes the end of the song, but there’s a lack of conviction to the song, or perhaps the production doesn’t entirely believe in the rawer sound of the band’s origins.
It doesn’t matter because we now approach the first of the album’s three undoubtedly classic moments. “Leave you to Dream” is an airy confection, a pure pop moment, its lightness promised in its exuberant intro an confirmed in its first line, as Finney cut in, effortlessly, his voice floating over a beautifully smooth keyboard riff that frolics and gambols.
It’s again a love song, a hopeless and unrequited love. Finney’s found his girl, and she’s truly lovely. She’s asleep and dreaming: he holds back from waking her because he fears (knows?) that she’s too good for him, yet he dreams that in her dreams she dreams of him.
And yet… Though he’s stoical about it at first, accepting of his non-place in her affections, aware that his only recourse is to get pissed, but whilst he watches her and longs for her regard, he wishes for her the things she dreams of, and the hope remains in there that, in that unknown land behind her closed eyes, that maybe there is a place fr him, by her side.
It’s a stunningly lovely, oddly hopeful song that should have been far better known.
It’s followed by “Louise”, a sharp-edged little song with another Mancunian take on the problems of love. Finney’s singing to his mate, who’s pissed off at the Louise of the title, who used to be his girlfriend, but they’ve broken up now. She’s with Finney now, and if this guy should blame anyone, it should be Finney, not the girl he never properly made his feelings known to, and whose name he’s been trying to blacken (you can just hear the sound of the unspoken words ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’).
Finney’s stepped out of his own head now. Where, in “Waiting for Lorraine”, he could only see and blame the girl, now he’s looking at just such a guy, and telling him off.
“Paracetamol Paralysis”, which closes side one, is very much The Distractions in full-out punk mode, riffing ferociously, with hard-edged guitars and pumping drums, in the middle of a night out. Finney’s been down the disco since quarter to nine, getting into the groove, and he’s taken this handful of pills someone’s slipped him. Heaven knows what he thought they were but they were actually paracetamol, and everything’s bloody strange.
It’s an intense, nervy, but almost comical track – I mean, bloody paracetamol! – that is a draining experience. The brief pause whilst we turn over the record is quite welcome.
Because we’re into a totally different sound as “(Stuckina) Fantasy” flies out as us on sheets of organ, underlaid by a pulsing rhythm, on which Perrin builds little guitar figures until the chorus hits like a dream. The story on this side of the album is different: where Finney sought love from girls who stood him up or were too good for him, now he’s found love, and lost it. They lived together and she left him: the fantasy he can’t leave is that she hasn’t.
Funnily, I didn’t think that much of this track in 1981 but, fifteen or so years later, I dug out this album and out it on a tape to play in the car whilst away on holiday in the Lakes and it hit me right between the ears. Its pace, the compelling chorus, the sheer drive of the song: just as the Bluebells’ “Young at Heart” had reappeared out of nowhere to hit Number 1, I could suddenly see the band performing this in Top of the Pops after a top Five entry.
It’s something in the balance between light and shade: that compelling intro followed by a starkness of sound, of mostly rhythm before re-engaging the full sound for the chorus. And such a painful lyric, as Finney recounts his crippling obsession with almost price: his sprinkling of her perfume on her pillow at night so he can dream of her is a painfully observant detail but it is the final lines, when he reveals that after he switches the TV off at night, her ghostly face appears to him, laughing like a clown, that push in the knife.
Stunningly brilliant, and so bloody commercial too. This, not “Boyscry”, should have been the single.
Next up is a re-recording of “Nothing” from the “You’re not going out dressed like that” EP, which polishes up the song without adding anything to its original version. Like “Fantasy”, it’s about lost love. Finney’s got it wrong and would like it to go back to the beginning, so he can try again, but it won’t happen
He’s back in the hopeful mode of “Leave it to Dream” in “Wonder Girl”, worshipping from (not very) afar, in his corner at the dance, looking at his Wonder Girl, who’s got something she doesn’t seem to want to let go. How she’s come to have his heart when neither of them has let it show is an impenetrable mystery.
But the song offers an unseen moment of joy: Finney wakes alone, wondering if something was a dream, apologising for apologising. But the door lies ajar, and maybe even the lost and lonely who are too prone to fear can have satisfaction.
Love preys on his mind, and he’s once again waiting for her to call him, but “Still it doesn’t ring”. Finney’s in suspension, not knowing if he still has a girl or not. The music swirls around him, not going anywhere as much as we is: he can’t do anything until that phone rings, his life can’t resume and it’s not going to ring whilst the band weave smooth patterns around him
There’s a sharp cut again to the punk edge that Perrin needed to espouse in “(Untitled)”, which might as well be called Don’t trust nobody but yourself. This has nothing to do with love, but life: Finney the awkward object that fits nowhere. In a side whose sound is directed to the mellow that would drive Perrin away, the song sticks out like a sore thumb.
And then there’s “Looking for a Ghost”.
And this album reaches out and strokes its hand against the flank of greatness, because this ethereal, 10cc I’m not in love-esque masterpiece, all easy, gentle, drifting guitars, and its soaring, swooping and diving voices filling the air with a sussuration of sound is gorgeous beyond belief. So much so that my sister, then aged 18 and with tastes diametrically opposed to mine, taped this for herself to listen to.
It’s “(Stuckina) Fantasy” moved forward. Finney sings without emotion, quietly, not flatly, but with utter calm, allowing the multi-tracked voices to cocoon, whilst he explains, with infinite care, by just how much he has accepted madness. All he wants to explain is why he smiles the way he does, though she’s left him and she isn’t coming back.
And it’s because he has her in his head. The girl never understood him, he only ever made her feel bad, so he’s replaced her with a fiction that floats by his side, ‘unable to feel good or bad’. The voices swell and rise around him as he gently sings that plain but powerful chorus, then they drop away, leaving Finney alone as he makes the final confession, without regret, in pride at how he’s conquered the universe of being alone.
My only lover lives encased inside my head/No-one can ever take her away/The Ghost now belongs to me and, if she ever knew/I wonder what the real thing would say?
And one last time the chorus swells again, the soaring voices louder and wider. And if you see me hanging around in places/where we always used to go/maybe its just because I’m looking/for a ghost I used to know. And the voices soar even higher then you could imagine as Perrin begins a liquid, reaching, despairing guitar solo that rips apart whatever tiny pieces of your heart that are still left intact.
Most bands would have left it at that, would have closed this album with that soulcrushing song, but not the Distractions. Not for them ethereal perfection, but with joyous energy they finish off with a minute and a half of raucous guitar and drums on their stage favourite, “Valerie”, which distils everything they’ve had to say in this album into ‘I love Valerie but now I think it’s true/I love Valerie but Valerie loves you’.
It shouldn’t work after “Looking for a Ghost” but it does, beautifully, because never has heartbreak sounded so much bloody fun! And it’s so short, you want more of it…
So: a mixed bag, in sound, with its switching between the past and the not-future of a band that deserved so much more, with its sad, grounded love songs and its exuberant melodies: the epitome of bittersweet. There are three stone-gone classics on this album, in “Leave you to Dream”’s melancholy melody, “(Stuckina) Fantasy”’s energy and drive, and “Looking for a Ghost”’s soundscape of beauty and horrific pain.
As I said, musically it’s the missing link between the razor-edge melody of the Buzzcocks and the electronic aura of “Dare”-era Human League. If only more people had seen it as such.