The Infinite Jukebox: Tasmin Archer’s ‘Sleeping Satellite’

We all of us have our ‘sorts of things we usually like’, be it TV, film, book, music or even food. We don’t usually describe it that way, we tend to go for the simpler and more obvious word ‘favourite’. Or just the simple declaration that we like it. We use the phrase far more often in its reverse: it’s not the sort of thing I usually like.
It’s a weak phrase, like all such passive statements, but that’s because we want it to be weak. It’s cautious, and polite, and wants to be inoffensive, because it’s what we say when someone is enthusiastically pressing something on us that we would rather eat dirt than sample, and we want to let them down lightly, without bursting their bubble.
Tasmin Archer’s 1992 number 1 hit single, ‘Sleeping Satellite’, is not the sort of thing I usually like. Except that from the first time I heard it, I liked it, and over thirty years – thirty years? Thirty years?! – I have continued to thrill to it every time I have heard it. Archer isn’t strictly speaking a one-hit wonder, but ‘Sleeping Satellite’ is the only big score of her career and it’s the one they’ll recall after she passes, and it’s a bloody good legacy to have.
It’s an unconventional subject for a single too, especially a Number 1. Usually, this kind of song would be tucked in somewhere around track ten of twelve. Side 2, track 4. It would be the one that the album reviewers would pick out for its quirkiness. Because it’s about the Moon Landings, Neil Armstrong, a Small Step for Man, or rather it’s about the fact there haven’t been any Moon Landings since 1973.
We went all the way there, and then we came back and stopped going.
The song is both a lament and a cry of frustration. That we did that, we did that, and that in 1992 and even now in 2023o it looks like we will never ever do that again.
Three verses, in turn, cry in anguish for an explanation. Did we go to soon, did we squander the chance? Did the rush of the race outweigh the true romance, the true adventure of the greatest voyage of exploration there ever could be, up, and outwards, and away. Slipping the surly bonds of Earth… Could we do it again? Could we dare to be that great? Or did we blow it, once and for all?
It’s something that affects Archer deeply, that stirs her passions. It’s a great big planet-spanning ache and she yearns for more, for all the possibilities in not just her heart and head but in the hearts and heads of everybody on this desperate planet who ever, for a moment, looked up at that sleeping satellite that hangs above all of us.
That’s what speaks to me in this song. I am conditioned to respond to yearning, to the desperate need for something we lack, that lies out of reach and may never come near enough to us. It runs throughout my life like a seam of coal, leaving me burning under the skin. Granted, it’s usually less ethereal things I respond to, the yearning for love, companionship, that single person that thinks you matter but if on this occasion the moon is more material than metaphorical, that doesn’t change the note in Tasmin Archer’s voice that vibrates to the exact pitch of what you could almost call my soul.
That note overrides the confusion I experience over Archer’s chorus, which acts at cross-purposes. I blame you, Archer sings, at her most wide open, I blame you for the moonlit sky, and the dream that died with the Eagle’s flight (the capital letter is clearly required). I blame you, she repeats, for the moonlit nights, when she wonders why are the seas still dry? And then she reverses herself to sing Don’t blame this sleeping satellite, before going on into the first verse of questions.
How do we parse this? Can we divine who she is blaming? And these seas that are still dry, though presumably we are not talking of seas of water, but rather those distant deserts, like the Sea of Tranquillity. Is she standing up a case against God for making us beings who seek outwards only to come up against insuperable limitations, or against Man, the Mankind whose Giant Leap fizzled out on the surface of a dead body that did not prove to be the stepping stone we so many of us longed it to be? I honestly do not know. I just know that the sound of her voice, as she struggles to accept what seems to be the end, triggers the same urge and urgency in me.
One day, if this planet survives the horrendous shitshow that is the Twenty-First Century, after I am no longer here, and probably after Tasmin Archer has gone into the great greyness, maybe a time will come when we can do it again, and this time fulfil the dreams. On that day, it would be only right and proper for the human beings who follow those leaders of our past, the Armstrongs, Aldrins and their pitifully few successors, they will take this song with them. God knows what format the music may be by then.


The Infinite Jukebox: Sheila’s ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’

When ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ shot straight into the British chart at no. 16, back in 1971, it took me completely by surprise. I had neither heard it nor heard of it, and this was when I was listening to Radio 1 every hour there was. When I saw the band on Top of the Pops, I appreciated singer Sally Carr, with her long blonde hair, her hot-pants, thighs and boots but I hated the song. I might have been musically naïve, but I wasn’t bloody moronic!
The excrescence was no. 1 for what seemed like all eternity. It meant Top of the Pops, over and over, further exacerbating both my hatred for the song and my enthusiasm for a pair of ladies’ legs in knee-length boots (that’s a fashion that can come back into fashion any time it wants as far as I’m concerned).
Thankfully for musical sanity, the group’s time in British music was limited. Each of their first five singles, released over a twelve month period, were hits, though the last two of these only reached the Top 30. Thereafter, though they were popular over most of the rest of Europe, they never reached the starting gate again in their native land.
That still left two more top 5 hits to navigate through, the first of which, the direct follow up that made the autumn of that year nearly as perilous a place audibly as the summer, actually got to no. 2. You may remember this as ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’, and if you remember it at all, firstly my apologies for having recalled it to your mind, and secondly you will recall that this second excuse for a song is all herky-jerky and stuttery, and plays upon the group’s Scottish heritage by wittering on about a clannish feud between the respective clans of MacDougal and McGregor.
To be honest, when I am not furiously repressing all recollection of the rotten thing, it strikes me that the words are a bit underdeveloped and that in fact they don’t actually make any kind of sense and are completely lacking in denouement, rendering the whole thing pretty pointless. I can’t even remember if Sally Carr wore hotpants and boots again for TOTP though she did on all the European Pop Shows for which there are videos on YouTube so I imagine she did.
Now this song, and the ‘orrible one before it were both written by Scottish songwriter Lally Stott with a couple of Italian brothers, though the group’s third and last top 5 hit, a ballad that I had to conceal liking at the time, came from a different, though once again Italian, writer.
All of which, you may be saying, adds up to a massive ‘So what?’, given that I am not writing about a Middle of the Road song in this post. Or am I?
Let us leap forward a massive all-but-half century. Much water has flowed under a multitude of bridges, though not in any direction that changes my opinions of any Middle of the Road songs, except for those last two top 30 singles, which I have mercifully forgotten completely. Amongst the many things that have impressed me in that period is the Franco/Belgian comic strip Boule et Bill, written and drawn by the late Jean Roba, to which I have been introduced by reprints in English in the Sixties boys comic Valiant, under the title ‘It’s a Dog Life’.
I love Boule et Bill. So much that when I discover it has been made into a French live action film, I buy the DVD and watch it. And I listen in amazement as the film includes not one but two scenes of Boule’s family happily singing along together, very enthusiastically to a song on their car radio that I both recognise and have never heard before in my life. This is ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’, sung by a French lady identified only as Sheila (who goes on to be the Sheila of Sheila B. Devotion for Prince).
‘Les Rois Mages’ I retain sufficient O-level French from, coincidentally enough, 1971, to translate as The Three Magi, although in this I am greatly assisted by the word Galilee coming up almost instantly afterwards. But it’s the tune I recognise instantly. Because it’s the tune to ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’. And I couldn’t believe my ears.
At first, I assumed this was the original song, of which Middle of the Road’s song was a rip-off with new, anglicised words (not an uncommon occurrence) though it is indeed the other way round, and not the only time Miss Sheila has recorded a well known pop song in her native language (hint: ‘Vous les copains’, or literally ‘You buddies’, is actually ‘Doo wah diddy’).
So why am I making such a big thing out of something whose thing appears to be merely a momentary shock of recognition? Because there’s something a bit deeper going on here, namely that why, when I hated ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’ back then and I hate it now and at all points in between, do I like, no, thoroughly enjoy ‘Les Rois Mages’?
Well, for one thing, it’s better sung. Sally Carr had the better legs but her singing voice was an unfortunate combination of shrillness and semi-strangulation. Add to that the fact that Middle of the Road’s production was thin and weak whereas the Sheila version is considerably more robust, and that whilst the melody isn’t changed in any way, the arrangement renders it more consistent, closer to syncopation than to herky-jerkiness. In terms of performance, Sheila’s version is better.
And whilst I don’t understand the French lyrics well enough to translate them, they are about the three Magi, and I do understand the Scottish lyrics enough to be contemptuous of them as a right load of tosh.
But I think that the biggest reason why I can like ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’ when it is the same thing as ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’ is that it is not only fresh, as far as I am personally concerned, and that it was introduced to me in a happy, delighted atmosphere, but that it carries no connotations with it. It isn’t invested with a summer and autumn of having to hear things I couldn’t stand, because I had no way of getting out of the way. It comes without baggage. And it’s plainly better.
What a difference half a century can make (I mean, well, duh, yeah?)

Tom Verlaine R.I.P.

I can’t find it on the Guardian‘s web-site, which is a horrifying omission, but I saw it in a forum and the American Press confirms that Tom Verlaine, lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of Television, has become the latest to leave us, aged 73.

It took me longer than it should to get into Television, but their debut album really is one of the great albums of all time (and the much less well-respected follow-up Adventure still isn’t half bad). I remember coming across at least a dozen copies of their early single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel (Parts 1 & 2)’ in a long-gone second hand record rack in Stephenson Square, leaving them behind and then later discovering it was so rare I could have made a 1000% profit or more selling them. Typical, really.

Both the title track, ‘Marquee Moon’, in severely edited form, and it’s follow up ‘Prove It’, which I understood better, crept into the top 40 but it was the song below, heard one Saturday afternoon on Radio 1, that set my ears alightm and which I offer in memory. How much longer can we go on losing people like this this?

The Infinite Jukebox: Madness’s ‘House of Fun’

Welcome to what is probably the only British No. 1 hit single to be openly and unashamedly (not to mention hilariously) about trying to buy condoms in a chemists on your sixteenth birthday only for well-meaning neighbours to pop in and screw it up for you. I say probably because, for all I know the past twenty years could have held dozens of no. 1 hits about buying condoms, though given the exact context in which ‘House of Fun’ presents itself, namely excruciating embarrassment, that ‘probably’ is pretty certainly spot on.
The thing about ‘House of Fun’ is that, more than merely being Madness’s only official British No. 1 (with their twelfth single), it is in both lyrics, music and accompanying video the perfect encapsulation of their career. You could watch this video and grasp the essence of the band without ever needing to listen to/watch a single other track, though frankly you’d be doing yourself an absolutely massive injustice if you did that.
It was three years since Madness had emerged in the wake of The Specials, the ska revival of 1979. Where The Specials were serious, Madness were goofy: either ramshackle or unpolished depending on your viewpoint, a good-time gang grinning and gurning and laughing it up, hitting the funny-bone as much as the dancehall. And they parlayed that goofiness into a solid run of hits that decoyed people away from taking them seriously, though if you listened that little bit closely so that you could hear what they were actually singing about, you might have started to cotton on a bit quicker.
What lay beneath Madness’s glossy surface didn’t start to become overt until the release of ‘Grey Day’, the first single from their third album, which was naturally titled 7. A lot of people didn’t like it, wanted Madness to stay in their one-dimensional place, but I was still reading the New Musical Express back then, and they were full of praise for the breadth the band were displaying, and how beautifully they balanced the bouncy music and the sober lyrics.
‘House of Fun’ is a perfect gem, from the moment of its first drumbeat, Woody Woodgate pounding on a couple of dustbins out of which pop Kix Thompson and Chas Smash playing sax and trumpet respectively. The video stages the lyrics, with Suggs hurrying into a chemists and up to the counter to start his trial. He’s both cocky and shy, a grown-up sixteen year old boy, going to a party that night and needing something absolutely essential. I mean, he’s official now, he can do it, so he needs some condoms. There’s nothing necessarily to say that he’s on a promise, as opposed to being stupidly over-confident, and Suggs keeps all that vague, sixteen, big boy, full pint in my manhood.
Yet he’s not confident enough to come out with the ‘c’ word openly, and the moment someone who knows him comes in, he’s skittering wildly towards more innocuous products, because god forbid it should get back to his mother what he’s buying!
Suggs, however, is the Neddy Seagoon, the simple and misguided figure trying to keep his balance whilst all around him is chaos. Suddenly, Msieur Barso, Chas Smash and Kix bound in to do a madcap dance at the back of the shop whilst the camera lingers on a little lad in the doorway, poking his head in to see what’s going on, a wonderful, magical accident adding the exact precise final degree of surreality to what’s going on.
The song is big and bursting with vim and vigour and the video plays up to it. Suggs tries again to make his purchase despite the complicating presence of his unfortunate neighbour, Miss Clay, who sees him only as a little lad, a role he’s trying to get out of, but it ain’t going to happen.
The chorus comes as a great irony, buoyant and brassy, Welcome to the house of fun, now I’ve come of age, welcome to the house of fun. Welcome to the lion’s den, Temptation’s on his way.
Welcome to the house of fun. But nobody’s worked it out. He doesn’t want Miss Clay to get it but you’d think the Chemist would, for all Suggsy is going round the houses. We don’t sell party gimmicks in this shop, he intones, this is a chemists! Yeah, that bit’s clearly deliberate.
Now he gets desperate, trying to find the right code word. Party hats, simple enough, clear? Comprehende, savvy, understand, do you hear? A pack of party hats with the coloured tips… but no, all he’s going to get is Many Happy Returns of the day. Sometimes, you wonder if it’s worth it, growing up?
‘House of Fun’ wasn’t just the consummate Madness song, nor yet just the best video but it was the perfect match between music, word and imagery. Even at the time, I had the sense of the band hitting a peak they would never quite match again, and indeed they didn’t. ‘House of Fun’ is not the only bloody great Madness moment, but it was the essence and, like the One Ring, once the band had poured their souls into it, it could never be quite the same again. But what a peak!

The Infinite Jukebox: Yes’s ‘Wonderous Stories’

Sometimes it’s about being there at the time, and just marvelling. Marvelling at the quite clearly unbelievable.
Yes were a progressive rock band, utterly massive in the Seventies, part of my inescapable music education, be it round at my mate Alan’s on a Saturday, or at any of John, Ken or Steve’s in midweek, whosever turn it was to host. I never really liked them, but you couldn’t say things like that then. Not when you’re in a minority of one.
Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Or, rather, ELP and Yes, in that order. Nos. 1 and 2 of the Progressive superstar, at least amongst my friends and acquaintances. I could get on with some ELP. But when it came to Yes… Rick Wakeman quit the band because he hated playing ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ but I bet he didn’t hear it as often as I did, and not one bit of any of its four sides ever made the least bit of musical sense to me. Not that I could ever say that, not with my reputation when it came to music.
And that was long before I got turned on by punk. That was a time that was a great rush, the best I’ve ever had in music, responding to the energy, the simplicity and the sheer fun of all those great records, five nights a week of John Peel, everything pouring in, further separating me in musical terms from all my mates. Then, in the midst of this, the sheer irony, Yes release a single, it reaches the top 10 – Yes, in the Top 10, which parallel Universe have I suddenly stumbled into? – and not only that but I like it.
The sum of the improbabilities that come together in this track exceeds the capacity of any calculator.
Given the entirety of their musical tradition, Yes work the not-inconsiderable trick of being utterly themselves yet melding and compressing themselves into a genuine song of mostly orthodox structure. The result is almost angelic, between the ethereality of the instrumentation and Jon Anderson’s high, almost soprano voice.
The lyrics, of course, are utterly mad. The first verse gives off the pretence of being a love song, albeit one conveyed in pompous words, with Anderson telling of how he awoke one morning, love laid him down by the river. There’s a sweetness to the music that matches the lyrics, the faint sense of a dream-idyll, expanded by Anderson drifting up the stream, bound for his forgiver. That must mean her, or rather Her, but far too quickly Anderson’s breathlessly eager words turn from that inference and instead imply that he is in search of a guru, a swami, a wise hermit who will place him in an adoring trance whilst he listens to the Master’s wonderous stories.
The rest of the song is all about this disciple-like yearning: like I said, totally mad but very much traditional Yes. Yet Anderson’s voice, soaring high above, holds the ear and entrances this listener just as much as the Anderson of the words is entranced by his teacher. The meaning is blurred by the ecstasy in his voice, until it’s that which we respond to instead of the actual meaning.
That we can so easily do so is a testament to the music created by the rest of the band, Messrs Squire, Howe, White and Rick Wakeman, whose unexpected return to the band was brought about by hearing early demos of this very song.
Initially the song is carried by subdued music, acoustic decorated by layers of subtle synthesizers, bright and thin from Wakeman. Percussion is minimal, buried deep in a mix in which Squire’s bass is a central element, disregarding rhythm for a major role that is not melodic as such – that element goes to Anderson, Howe and Wakeman – but is playing a counterpart to the song. When White does become more prominent, later in the song, it’s primarily with cymbals rather than drums.
The overall effect is to create a fantasia, an otherworldliness that, as I said, is typically Yes, yet is placed in service to an actual song. And one with notable commercial appeal. I just wish they could have been induced to play the single on Top of the Pops, but I suppose there are some improbabilities that can’t be made concrete or else the world might split asunder and turn into a Roger Dean gatefold cover… Amazing record.

The Infinite Jukebox: Toast’s ‘Summer of Miranda’

It can be difficult to write about music recorded by completely obscure bands.
The only thing I know about Toast is that they released a single in 1970 consisting of their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall’, whose b-side was an original song titled ‘Summer of Miranda’. The writers of this song are credited as Marsh-Parry and Byrne. There is no evidence to suggest the band ever recorded anything else again.
So where do you go with that? In 1970 I had started listening to Radio 1 compulsively, but if the a-side was ever played I have no memory of hearing it. And listening to it now, after nearly a decade’s familiarity, it’s calm authority, its composed and tight performance, it’s superb production certainly doesn’t fit in with the idea of a band dumped by their record company (CBS) after just one single. Not that year.
The only other reasonable guess is that Toast broke up. Again, you wouldn’t think it from the tightness with which they play: these guys are in the same groove. But it’s not impossible to imagine a split between two founding members, a difference in musical opinion, pulling in different directions, but in that case why does there seem to be no follow up? No solo acts, no two or more new groups? No trace of any member slotting into another group afterwards, their musical ambitions being subsumed.
No, it’s a complete mystery and all we have are the two songs. One Paul Simon cover, and one they (presumably) wrote themselves.
It’s a long story but, after downloading – legally – a 5CD set of ‘nursery/sunshine’ pop, I started trawling YouTube for things similar. This led me to discover the strange, wonderful but seemingly completely without influence or repute genre of pop-sike. So, tracking from sidebar to sidebar, punching up songs that seemed worth checking, I came to an entry, available to this day, for ‘Summer of Miranda’, to which the suffix (magical pop) had been added to the title. This was one for me to try.
And from the very first play, I thought it was great. I’m not the only one who thinks this was better than the a-side, but I suppose that was chosen to lead because it was more ‘commercial’: in the year of Bridge Over Troubled Water, choosing to electrify a Paul Simon number made more sense that going with an original song, but in the end it did no good for sales.
‘Summer of Miranda’ is a love song, a vision song of a beautiful young girl that the singer wants to meet, to talk to and convince her that he is the one she looks for. She’s a vision that he sees over and over in real life but whom he can never meet. In part, this is because of his shyness, his inability to think of something he can say to her, but she too is shy and runs away.
She walks alone every day, enjoying the sun of a glorious summer. One day he’ll stand in her way. He must have something to say, but the end result is still the same: he’s missed his chance, she’s running away. But for all his failings, his inability to just approach this girl who seems like a Goddess to him, to settle once and for all if she will give him the time he desires, and lay her smile on him, this is the Summer of Miranda, and he will remember her and it for all his life.
Ironically, it’s the summer that prevents him from making his move. She’s immersed in the sun, and cannot be drawn away from it. There’s no sign of the summer being interrupted, but if it were, if it would rain, he feels then that she might spare a thought for him, and might then become his.
The song opens with a wonderfully fluid guitar line before settling into a gentle groove, underpinned by a vigorous set of drum fills, and a bass melody line played on high notes that permeate the song from first to last. The singer is in good voice, his nervousness not showing in how he addresses the lyrics, and there are plentiful harmony aah-aahs that well into the buoyant chorus. It’s a rock song, with plentiful pop roots, and it’s sweetened by strings that complement the melody in the latter half.
If it were a one-off then it was a great one-off, however little it’s known, and a song of this quality, performed with such confidence, even if thrown away upon a b-side is nothing to be ashamed of. There are plenty of better, long-lasting, widely-known bands who didn’t even produce one song half this good, for all their fame. The band may not think this way, but I’d be prouder of something this magical than of a shelf-load of landfill million selling albums. I’d take the money, though.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pavlov’s Dog’s ‘Only You’

I still marvel at things.
Once upon a time, nearly fifty years ago, I read a review by Max Bell in the New Musical Express of an imported album called Pampered Menial by a band named Pavlov’s Dog. It never happens now because I no longer read album reviews but from time to time I would read one and, without the least idea of what the band sounded like, I would be convinced that I would like the music. This was one of those times.
Later the same year, which was 1976 if you were wondering, Bell reviewed, again on import, a second album by the band, At the Sound of the Bell. I had the same reaction but no opportunity to hear the music for myself.
I turned twenty-one in the November. At the time I was at Law College, at Christleton, near Chester. As it was an afternoon course, and one of my mates from School was on the same course, we could reside in Manchester and drive across five days a week for our lectures. This suited me. The week after my birthday, and with a couple of pounds of Birthday money still unspent, I popped into Stockport for a couple of hours in the morning. There used to be an old record shop down a back street off the Town Centre, dedicated to all manner of old fashioned music, but with a couple of racks of albums of contemporary stuff. I found Pampered Menial at £2, and took a chance.
For most of the decade that far I’d heard mostly progressive music, music that I was growing increasingly tired of. Pavlov’s Dog fell into that bracket, down to the mellotron which, despite my long years of listening to The Moody Blues, I was also getting seriously tired of. Punk was on the rise, and within just a very few months I would start listening to Peely, and my horizons would be transformed.
But I absolutely loved Pavlov’s Dog, their air of epic grandiosity, David Surkamp’s high-pitched voice that seemed to repel everyone but me, the sheer sonic force they could muster. I was used to being out of step with everyone around me, it was perhaps not surprising I was out of step with myself.
I got the second album for Xmas, loved that too. And then nothing. Two albums, nine tracks on each, eighteen songs. And silence, impenetrable in those days when only the music press disseminated information. Nothing, for three years until, in the NME’s queries page, came the awful news that not only had the band broken up, but that they had recorded a third album and CBS had refused to release it because the sales of the first two were so bad.
You have to be seriously in love with an obscure, a cult band, to understand what that felt like. Another album. Another album of brand new songs. That I would never, ever, ever get to hear.
The third Pavlov’s Dog album, the ghost album, because a personal legend for me. I would think about it when I played the two canonical releases. I would talk about it when discussing music. It was the dream, and of course it was the impossible dream. These were days when music that was locked into record company’s vaults stayed locked in there, like murderers serving life without parole.
At this point, a decade goes by. I have a girlfriend, all too briefly a fiancee. Every other weekend, whilst her kids are with their Dad, I stay at her house. We do things, go places, get out of Manchester even if only for an afternoon. One dark, late Autumn-shading-into-Winter, we go to Liverpool, wander round, seeing what there is to be seen. It’s cold and wet, with rain first threatening then pouring down.
We’re not far from Penny Lane Records so we went in there, had a long, leisurely look round the racks, I going round anti-clockwise, as I always do, she clockwise. We kill half an hour that way, and it dries up outside. Having found nothing, we meet up by the door. She stops to look at a rack beside the door. There’s a parallel one on the other side that I’d walked past without seeing when we entered so, whilst she investigates what’s caught her eye, I thumb through that.
I find an album. Plain white sleeve, cartoon drawings of five long-haired dudes, nothing on the cover except The St Louis ‘Hounds’. Even before I read the little sticker that identifies this record as what it is I know, know to a degree of conviction that could split the planet, what it is. It is the ghost album, the never never album, it is the third Pavlov’s Dog album. God knows how.
I stare at it in shock and then, fearful that someone may reach past me and grab it, I snatch it up, with a grip that would have required someone breaking my fingers to release it. Mary is staring at me in shock, frightened by the expression on my face into fearing I may have had a stroke or something equally debilitating. In the car home, I explained the significance of the record. She is thrilled for me.
Later, I discovered that Pavlov’s Dog lead guitarist, Steve Scorfina (ex- of Blue Oyster Cult) had kept a tape copy of the album and had 1,000 pirate copies of it pressed up. One thousand: and somehow one had arrived in front of me in a place where, if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend, I would never have gone.
Of course, there’s still more delay. Mary doesn’t have a functioning record player so I couldn’t even listen to it until I got back to my home late Sunday afternoon. A whole twenty-four hours. I popped it on the deck, waited for the first notes. You were fair, David Surkamp sang, with gold in your hair…
Since then, the album’s come out on CD three times, once bootlegged, twice officially. The band reformed a couple of years later and started recording again. What once was a repertoire of two albums, an almost invisibly thin slice of my record collection, is now a whacking great chunk of a drawerful of CDs. That I never imagined as a likelihood, not even in Earth-2.

The Infinite Jukebox: Rhoda and The Special AKA’s ‘The Boiler’

At the height of the all-too brief Two-Tone era, from the late Seventies into the early Eighties, the label featured an all-female ska group known as The Bodysnatchers, who had a single Top 30 hit in 1980. The band recorded a session for John Peel that was broadcast in April 1980. The session featured the first song the band had written, all seven collectively, which they had intended for their first single, but were dissuaded from recording in favour of a song that was both more commercial and less disturbing.
‘The Boiler’ was a song about rape. About a woman with low self-esteem, hence her repeated description of herself as ‘an old boiler’. It was about meeting a guy, a bit of a hunk, who bought her nice clothes, who took her out dancing, and presumed that, because he’d spent money on her, he was entitled to have sex with her. And when she tried to say that she’d only just met him, and she didn’t know him yet, he dragged her up a back alley and raped her.
The version on the session was brash and raw, musically simple. So far as I have been able to find out, this was the only recording made of the song by The Bodysnatchers.
Two-Tone Records, for those of you too young to have been there, was owned and run by Jerry Dammers, organist, musical director and leader of The Specials. In 1981, with their landmark second number 1 single ‘Ghost Town’, the embodiment of that summer of riots, waiting to be released, Dammers started working on ‘The Boiler’, experimenting with different arrangements of the song. ‘Ghost Town’ reached no. 1 and stayed there for three weeks, still one of the greatest chart-toppers of all time.
But The Specials were breaking up. The Bodysnatchers had already broken up, with the majority going on to become the more commercially successful Belle Stars. The Specials split in half. Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding became The Fun Boy Three. Drummer John Bradbury and bassist Horace Panter stayed with Dammers (other guitarist Roddy Radiation sided with neither faction).
Reverting to the band’s original name of The Special AKA, Dammers continued to work on ‘The Boiler’, intending original Bodysnatchers vocalist Rhoda Dakar to sing it. Under the name of Rhoda and The Special AKA, it was released in early 1982, The Specials’ first post-split release. As you may well understand once you listen to it, the song received very little airplay and no television promotion. Radio 1 did not ban it. At the time, Radio 1 liked to emphasise that it did not ban records, it merely didn’t choose to play them. And it was thought that the song might be offensive. Yeah, I’m sure, I bet all the rapists were up in arms about it, bloody slander…
Nevertheless, the record did manage to sell well enough to enter the chart, peaking at no. 35.
That a song like this was being so blithely ignored enraged me in 1982, and still pisses me off forty years later. I’m older and, in some ways, more sensitive now, understanding as I wasn’t then that women who had been attacked, assaulted, raped would not be eager to be triggered by a reminder of their experience. But then, all I saw was a powerful record, not just powerful but musically brilliant, about an important subject then not taken even as seriously as it is now, being swept under the carpet.
Because whereas The Bodysnatchers’ session version, which I only consciously heard for the first time in 2022, was raw and simple, a blunt instrument, Jerry Dammers tuned it up to a fine and lethal point. The Special AKA version was a stiletto, and it was aimed at male ribcages.
The first thing Dammers did was slow the song down. He gave it a few bars of guitars, before bringing John ‘Brad’ Bradbury forward to set a drum pattern that provided the mainspring for the record (Brad was one of the greatest drummers of his generation, inventive, precise and rock solid), and then wrapping the sound around in his own organ-playing, never allowing the song to get too far away, building a spooky, disorienting sound that left the listener on edge with its up-and-down swirl.
Then Rhoda Dakar starts to talk her way through the song, not sing but talk. This is a story. It starts trying to be emotionless, calm, quiet, resigned, even though Rhoda finds herself the subject of the attentions of a bit of a hunk, who buys her the clothes she’s looking at, invites her out that night. And it’s all very new and exciting because this doesn’t happen to her because, well, she’s just an old boiler.
And she keeps the talk up, recounting what he says and what they did for half the song, and how her clothes and her hair and her looks deteriorate because she’s nothing but an old boiler.
Then it’s the end of the night, and it starts to go wrong. She’s going to get a taxi home, but he wants her to come back to his place, it’s just round the corner, go home in the morning. But she’s only just met him, it’s a bit soon, she says to ring her. But he turns nasty. He’s paid for everything, her clothes, the door fee, all those drinks and she wants to walk out on him?
And in embarrassment, not knowing how to respond, to deal with his petulance, out of some ridiculous but nevertheless real confusion over whether she does indeed owe him something, she follows him. Walking arm in arm at one hundred miles an hour. And the music’s not changed but now it’s sounding sinister and your skin is starting to crawl as she talks of empty streets, little dark alleys, not even an animal around. Until he drags her into one of those alleys and starts hitting her, bigger than her, stronger than her, nothing she can do.
And Rhoda Dakar screams, “And then… he tried to rape me…” And the music keeps playing. And she screams. And the music keeps playing. And she screams. And the music keeps playing. And the screaming ends, collapsing into sobs and gasping and gurgling. And the music keeps playing.
I’ve been that explicit so that you know what to expect when you play the record, and so you know what the record is like if you decide you will not. It didn’t go in for politics, it didn’t make any arguments either way, it just decided to make you confront what rape is, in case you were in any doubt. That it’s not about sex but about power and entitlement and violence. You should nevertheless listen to this, unless this has been your experience and you do not need to be triggered. You should hear this, for every woman who has ever undergone this, just in case there is the slightest chance that you might one day laugh at a rape joke.

No Silver Lining: Jeff Beck R.I.P.

The title is obvious, but not ironic. I’ve just this minute learned of the sudden death of Jeff Beck, electric guitarist, the middle of The Yardbird’s trio of astonishing lead guitars, iconoclast, inventor, and someone who will be missed immediately. Twice, under his own name, he hit the Top Twenty with a silly singalong song a million miles beneath his dignity as a musician, and was still one of the most compulsive choruses of a decade of compulsive choruses. I’m not going to attach ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ to this brief moment recording our irresolvable loss, though out of all the choices available I’m still going to go for something from that same era that he resented even having to record, because we each of us have our moments that stick in the heart.

The Infinite Jukebox: Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fifteen Minutes’

I bought the album on the last day of 1989 and it turned out to be the best album I bought that year. Had I held off buying it by just twenty-four hours, it would have been the best album I bought that year.
Though I’d heard the odd song, here or there, by Kirsty MacColl, and mostly that meant ‘There’s a Guy works down the Chipshop swears he’s Elvis’, which for all it’s wit and individuality, doesn’t even come near a Top Thirty of best Kirsty MacColl songs, I was by no means a fan of her, just yet. Her version of Billy Bragg’s brilliant ‘A New England’, ‘A Fairytale of New York’, not then assuming the place it has had in my heart for so many years now, these were just now and again things. The only album she’d released before had vanished completely, its only chart placing a number 44 on the Dutch Charts.
But I was prompted by the other top 20 hit she’d had earlier that year, a sparkling cover of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, one of my favourite Ray Davies’ songs. So, what the hell, I bought the album. I also took The Stone Roses’ debut album to the counter at the same time: don’t often get two albums that good in one transaction.
Once I’d heard the album a couple of times, one things that quickly became clear was that, paradoxically, and ironically, ‘Days’ was the worst song on the album, and the least representative.
I don’t mean by that that I suddenly didn’t like the song, nor was it merely that every other song, including the bonus tracks included on the CD version, happened to be even better, or even any slight failing in her singing of the song in the first place: it was the song. ‘Days’ is, quite simply, twee. Nice melody, sincere words but, well, twee. And if there was one thing that Kites established incontrovertibly, it was that Kirsty MacColl, god rest her much-missed soul, was not twee.
I could choose practically any song off the album to demonstrate my point. Everywhere else MacColl’s voice is brash and bright, romping with delight and glee, forceful and unanswerable, in a manner that my then Irish-ancestry girlfriend attributed to her Celtic roots, and who could blame her. But the song that caught my ears then, for its brash and cheerful cynicism and its deliberate flattening of melody to encourage a focus on the words, was ‘Fifteen Minutes’.
We’re talking Andy Warhol territory here: in the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes (to quote Diana Ross, I’m Still Waiting.) It’s a song of two halves, a vocal beginning rendered on an acoustic guitar that’s strummed to provide the rhythm rather than any melody, over which MacColl, using something of a lower register than normal, introduces what at first seems to be going to be a song about depression.
Seven times in seven days, she sings, I’ve sat and wished my life away. I know the greyness comes and goes, but the sun don’t shine and the snow don’t snow. Oh yes, she’s got it bad. But what has brought this on? Well, it’s not something personal, it seems. It’s all down to the world in which she lives, you know it makes me sick but it’s a bozo’s world.
And then she starts singing about this bozo’s world and what goes into it, and what makes it for bozos, all in this swinging tone that sounds as if she’s celebrating something, but instead she’s excoriating everyone around her, pinning them to the corkboard with the precision of a butterfly collector, showing us both the extremity of the bright colours and the sheer, empty-headed, worthlessness of this world they want, this world of fame.
Smiling at people you cannot stand.
You’re in demand.
Your fifteen minutes start now.
And this was in 1989, before the real floodgates opened, before people started doing anything, no matter how humiliating, to get on television for even less time than fifteen minutes, and Kirsty MacColl is not anticipating it, foreshadowing it, it was there already, there just weren’t the same number of outlets and opportunities that there are now, but fame and celebrity was still every bit as shallow and brittle, people who saw you on Blankety Blank, or in the Bank: your fifteen minutes start now.
And until then it’s just been MacColl and that acoustic guitar, and various, almost extraneous noises off, including MacColl layering vocal tracks, pure sounds, no words, at odd angles to the music and then the song swings into its back half, no, not a half, it’s not half the song, but it’s an extended coda as the percussion swings in, and the horns, the jazz, the fizz and buzz of a party on the edge of getting out of hand, the energy flowing into the song as the sense flows out of it, and do you really want all this?
Well, that’s up to you. Me, I’d run a mile but then I’d rather do something than be something, and so would that lady with the wonderful voice and a clearly sardonic eye. And when you look up the dictionary definition of ‘twee’, it reads ‘nothing at all like Kirsty MacColl. Definitely’. I bet if I’d waited a year and a day, it would have been the best album I bought all that year as well.