Sometimes, discovering new music is as simple as hearing a song on the radio. At other times, it can be a bit more convoluted.
In the summer of 1986 I was working for a Manchester City Centre firm. An Articled Clerk at our London Head office had qualified and was leaving, but his replacement couldn’t start until a month later, so I was asked to go to London to fill the gap, run the departee’s workload down and leave the new guy a clean slate.
It was a very interesting experience, the most time I have ever spent in London at one go, and whilst it was very disruptive to many plans I had at home, I’m glad I did it. Not that it got me anywhere with the firm, given that I was made redundant in December the same year!
Being in London gave me the chance to meet up with some of my comics fandom friends based there, including an invitation to tea one night in the wilds of north-east London: so far that by the time I got to the terminus the Underground was running above ground. During the evening, the conversation turned to music, and I proclaimed my love for R.E.M. (whose fourth album would unexpectedly appear in the Oxford Street Virgin megastore, the night before my last day).
Ah, it was said, knowingly. So I’d know about The Hindu Love Gods and The Golden Palaminos then? This was presuming a bit more knowledge than I actually had, knowledge I set about remedying once I was home. The Hindu Love Gods was an ad hoc solo project by Berry, Buck and Mills with Warren Zevon, an IRS single, but the Palaminos were an ongoing ad hoc project, put together by drummer Anton Fier and bassist Bill Laswell, with a mixture of guest musicians: Michael Stipe sang on their latest album, Visions of Excess.
It was only available on Import, and thus both a bit difficult to track down in those primitive times, and more expensive when you found it, but find it I did and bought it.
The first thing I discovered was that Stipe sang on only three of the album’s eight tracks, the first three. The second was that the rest of the album held very little appeal for me, except for one track on side two, ‘(Kind of) True’. It was one of two tracks sung by someone called Syd Straw.
Syd turned out to be a lady, and ‘(Kind of) True’ turned out to be a bloody good song and perfectly suited to her very individual voice. I loved it and, despite the fact that her other vocal wasn’t much of a song, kept an eye out for anything else by her.
Which continued the Stipe connection when this turned out to be a single called ‘Future 40s (String of Pearls)’ with a substantial guest vocal from Michael. I grabbed it of course, and later the same year (which is now 1987), a follow-up called ‘Think too Hard’, equally excellent, that I discovered at Sifters. Then, towards Xmas, I picked up the album, Surprise, that both came from.
I found it disappointing. The two singles were the two stand-out tracks, because they were the most fully realised as songs. Both had direct, strong melodies, and a degree of energy to them. The rest of the album, although I liked the sound of it, felt unfinished, in the sense that each other track had the seed of a good, powerful song in it, that had just not been developed because of an urge to divert the melody away from fulfilling its implications, diffusing its energy in a self-conscious attempt to be different. I still have the album but I don’t play it much.
Jump now to 1996. I’m in my own home, I’m in the last few months of a job I loathed, and I’m off to Nottingham on Boxing Day, because I have a ticket to see Manchester United play. I had a ticket for a United away game at the City ground back in 1979, when I was living in Nottingham, which I’d never got to use, between snowstorms, FA Cup replays and being back in Manchester when the game was actually played, so I was looking forward to this.
About ten days or so before the day, I was browsing around in Sifters when I discovered a new Syd Straw CD, this one called War and Peace. Naturally I grabbed it. I planned to keep it for a Xmas ‘gift’ to myself, and then, realising that I was going to be on the road for a few hours on Boxing Day, going down to Nottingham, I decided that I would record it onto cassette tape, with the sound off, so that it would be completely new for me once I was in the car.
Boxing Day was perfect. It was cold, clear and crisp, the roads weren’t busy, it was ideal driving weather. I got to Nottingham about midday, parked up in the City Centre, and had a leisurely and very satisfying hot lunch at my favourite pub, ‘Ye Olde Salutation’, the second oldest pub in England.
Then a long but fulfilling and nostalgic stroll down to Trent Bridge, the City Ground being on the far side of the Trent, which technically puts the ground in West Bridgeford as opposed to Nottingham, but who cares?
I was in the United end for about 2.00pm and it was a great game, United running out 4-0 winners. The pitch was cold and hard, the bounce vigorous. I saw Ryan Giggs standing under a clearance from Peter Schmeical that went so high it was coming down vertically, and he trapped it under his boot, killing all the momentum stone dead. I saw Eric Cantona nearly score one of the best goals I ever saw, catching the ball on his instep, playing keepy-uppy with it for three beats and then nonchalantly flicking it over the keeper’s head: it rebounded from the bar and Andy Cole headed it into an empty net.
What has this to do with the Infinite Jukebox? I headed off down the A6 in the morning, stopping to fill up with petrol on the A6, and as soon as that was done, I rammed my Syd Straw tape into the cassette player, and turned the volume up. And, gloriously, it was ideal driving music, and it was everything that ‘Surprise’ wasn’t. It was composed, sure of itself, full of energy and the songs had been allowed to develop their ideas organically.
It wasn’t a complete success, with the energy tailing off towards the back end of the album, but it was a hit with me, enough so that I stuck the tape back on for the return journey.
Two tracks from the album stand out for me, one of which is the subject of this essay. In some ways, the other, ‘CBGB’s’ is the better track, a straightforward, driving sound, with plenty of attack from The Silhouettes (who provide the music for the album). I’ve always had a personal video in my head for the song, which is a one-sided conversation between Syd and an unknown man she used to know at the legendary CBGB’s, and who she’s met again for the first time in ten years. She’s reminiscing about then and the difference to now and whilst the music is powerful and direct, the words are unbearably sad, shot through with unspoken loss.
But in the end, it is ‘CBGB’s’ immediate predecessor that, for all its laconic ease, it’s slow, sometimes disjointed formlessness, that is for me the most important and most effecting song on ‘War and Peace’, and the song that represents Syd Straw’s peak. That is ‘Love, and the Lack of It’.
It begins slowly, Syd singing with at first no backing, then minimal, guitar, organ, drums played mostly on the rim, until the band kick in fully on the line ‘my heart’s in the wrong place at the wrong time’. A solo, first on organ, then guitar. It’s all loose, mid-tempo, but as the song goes on, it picks up strength.
And then it goes quiet again. Love and the lack of it, I can’t keep track of it. The music slips into the background. Straw is alone. She sings about a woman of uneasy virtue, taking her chances when she can. This woman sits on the end of her bed, explaining her scars to another stupid man, and the bitterness pours into her voice as she sings the last three words and the moment she hits the word ‘man’, the music explodes in a righteous fury, a tearing, screaming, battering electric guitar backed by the full force of the Silhouettes, ramming the point home in the least subtle and most scorchingly effective manner, with a scream of rage and pain that lasts to the song’s end, and Straw adds the clinching line, with despair that this man, by being a man, is someone ‘who will never understand’.
It’s pain, and it’s despair, but it’s also rage, rage that things should have to be like that, rage at not being understood. Even nowadays, rage is still not felt enough from women, but in 1996, this was a very new explosion and it’s heat is undiminished twenty years later.
Yet the song ends, again on Syd’s voice only, a couplet that tells the future beyond that terrible anger and despair, fading into nothing. She dreamed of a life, every day of her life.
Not so much a song as a lifetime. Of despair that is quiet not because of self-containment but because of the utter lack of someone who will hear and understand. I am surprised this song is not better known, among women, that is.
There is no YouTube video of the recorded song: the live performances simply don’t cut it.