The Infinite Jukebox: Omerta’s ‘Synchronise Your Smiles’

Stop me if I’ve told you this before.
I remember a Friday night after work, back end of 1979, going for a drink with a guy I’d gotten friendly with where I lived in Nottingham.
The conversation turned to music, and I explained one of the things that I saw as a glory of the Punk/New Wave scene. Punk had rejected the standard Seventies rock meme about paying your dues, namely the gigging night after night, small venues, on the road, honing your chops.
Instead, bands were forming out of nowhere, bringing sometimes no more than crude enthusiasm and energy, and minimal technique, and independent labels were putting their records out without that two years of grind.
And some of those records were brilliant. Two to three minutes in which everything the band had got was concentrated into a moment that was awesome. Maybe/probably the band could never do it again (I cited The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’, their only release at that point, as an example of a band who would probably never produce anything else worth listening to…) but so what? We had that three minutes of brilliance.
Why did it matter that we didn’t get the boring, predictable stuff? Some bands only have three minutes of brilliance in them.
I know virtually nothing about Omerta. They were a Manchester band who were around in the mid-2000s. Very popular live, expected to be big, released three singles and disappeared. ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ isn’t even an a-side, that was a song called ‘One Chance’. I never heard them, or heard of them, when they were live. It’s only because I’ve researched this that I’ve discovered they involved into the equally highly-respected and longer lasting Slow Readers Club.
I found out about ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ when it was used as background music to a short video on the FC United of Manchester web-site. I thought it was brilliant. Thankfully, someone before me had asked what the music was and it had been identified, which enabled me to rush to YouTube and hear the whole thing immediately.
‘Synchronise your Smiles’ is one of those songs that’s a marriage of rock and dance/electronica. It begins shyly, slyly, with some beeps and tweeps, an almost rhythm, to which a solo bass that grows in regularity, cymbals dancing quickly behind, over which the lead singer(s) croons the title and follows it with the purely Mancunian advice that ‘you look so dumb’.
The electronica pulses throughout the song, which gathers in tempo as guitars and drums cut in, and suddenly, from a standing start the song is flying along on a yearning melody that drags the listener in its wake. The song becomes a rush of sound, the vocals mixed down so that the lyrics can’t easily be distinguished, except in certain moments, such as the chorus. which feels as if the song is accelerating: meet me down the (something) of Justice, don’t stand in line and they’ll see through all your bullshit lies in time, where has it all gone wrong?
And whilst that seems to be the key line, the one that repeats, the one that ends the song as the music fades to leave only that electronic riff that has underpinned the entire song is the fantastically optimistic I will see you again. Loss, pain and hope, whether justified or denied, in a three minute sugar rush.
I’ve no idea and I can’t begin to guess. I only know that this is just short of three minutes of brilliance, that this is in that sense you can’t define in words but can only know from living here, completely Mancunian. This couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else and sound like this and be like this. I don’t know what brought Omerta together and what drove them apart. I just know that here was a band that had three minutes of brilliance in it and here it is.
Where has it all gone wrong?


The Infinite Jukebox – The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’

When Jim Morrison died, I barely knew who he was. If I’d heard ‘Light My Fire’ before then, it would have been the bloodless version by Jose Feliciano that this taste-free country took into the top 10. I think I’d heard ‘Love Her Madly’, and kinda liked it. So he really meant nothing to me, by an accident of time and interest.
But after he died, The Doors released ‘Riders on the Storm’ as a single. It came out in 1971, a year that seems to have had more interesting favourite flop singles than any other year in creation, at least so far as I’m concerned, as a study of my ‘Lost 70’s’ series will show. I’ve never added ‘Riders on the Storm’ to any of those discs, because it’s not Lost. It never has been. It may have failed to chart, peaking at no 35 in the old Top Thirty days, but it is and has been from the moment that first sound effect of the storm, the thunder rumbling in the distance, appeared out of my old transistor radio, gloriously glorious and revered.
The Doors was Jim Morrison above everything, but ‘Riders on the Storm’ was Ray Manzarek, and that cool, quiet, almost distant but forever rippling piano. From that first run down the keyboard, even as Robby Krieger’s bass begins the underlying pulse that John Densmore’s drums quickly follows, that keyboard sucks you in, combining with the sounds of the storm. Something’s going on here, and the overwhelming sense is of danger.
And Morrison joins in, intoning the title, twice. He’s cool and distant, projecting not force but presence. The Lizard King sings of danger whilst the band play music suggesting a country road, long, dark and empty, night-driving in the rain. Riders in the Storm. Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown. Strangers and aliens, not part of this society. Creatures of the night. The music lopes along, a rolling bass/drum pattern that doesn’t need to hurry because nothing can escape it. Whatever it pursues will be overtaken.
Though there’s a spiky guitar solo from Kreiger, this is Manzarek’s song instrumentally. He plays with the melody and the storm sounds drift in and out. It’s the most superbly integral use of sound effects on any record I’ve heard, the song relies upon in as much as it relies upon Morrison’s soft vocals, and Manzarek’s control of the melody.
There’s a killer on the road, Morrison sings, and immediately we look for his shadow. His brain is squirming like a toad. The threat is palpable and it makes the listener culpable. If you give this man a ride, it threatens, you in your car, out alone at night, travelling between unknown points so far separated that departure point and destination have dissolved and all that exists is the road, if you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.
And Manzarek doodles on his piano, teasing the rhythm, trickling cold slices of melody into your ears like rain down the back of your neck, and the storm crashes, and the rhythm keeps its slow, wearing down pace, that you can’t escape.
Girl, you gotta love your man, Morrison demands. A voice from another time, a much more macho time when macho was not a deliberate affectation. The world on you depends, our life will never end, he sings, immortality is the goal, the end, the promise. You gotta love your man.
There’s a long solo section from Manzarek, teasing melody out of the rhythm pattern built by Kreiger and Densmore. He toys and teases, hypnotising with the dream-like sounds of his piano, extending the night until it seems infinite and yet when he ceases and the song resumes its original motion, we are not ready. What seems infinite has not been infinite, and we feel as if we have been abandoned to the rain.
And the cycle returns to where it began. Riders on the Storm. The road will never end, the storm will never end, we are in a hell of sinuous music that traps us by its beauty and holds us by its strength. This world will never end, our life on your depends.
This was the last song The Doors recorded, the last song Jim Morrison recorded. It was played live only twice. It is the sound of night and being where you don’t want to be. Because the road has only one ending, and I may not believe in God and Hell but this song does and you are travelling with it. On the Storm.

The Infinite Jukebox: Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’

In the beginning, I hated it with a passion. Some of it was being contrarian, because it’s a part of my nature to be out of step with the broader tastes in music, part of it was the artificiality of it, part of it was the people involved, among whom only Paul Weller and Bono were making any kind of music that I actually liked, and part of it was that I genuinely did not like the song. It was in a good cause, but I believed that the cause was better for giving money to it directly, and not encouraging the bloody song.

Somewhere down the line, that changed. Band Aid 2 helped in that process, simply by demonstrating how much better the original was. ‘We are the World’ also helped because, despite the musical commentators who laud it for having genuine soulful voices as part of its ensemble, it was too treacly glutinous. No-one involved in USA for Africa could have imagined singing that line: you know, the one Bono sang.

But somewhere along the line, when I had removed myself from the time and place of ‘Do they know it’s Xmas?’s advent, and removed myself from my own time and place, I stopped hating the song, until, by the early 2000s, and the use of our Best Xmas Songs Ever! double cassette on Friday night drives to deliver the kids for contact, I found myself joining in the song, with difficulty.

The difficulty was not my usual struggle to harmonise without being  half a tone flat throughout, a feat that my ex-wife used to marvel at, but in getting through the song without the lump in my throat at its sentiments, and the genuine urge that inspired it, causing my voice to break down completely.

Like ‘A Fairytale of New York’, ‘Do they know it’s Xmas’ is the product of two half-songs being squeezed together. Midge Ure arrived with the idea for the first half of the song, and Bob Geldof adapted an already-written proto-song into the ‘Feed the World’ section that closes out the song. That the stitch marks are evident in the change in nature of the melody doesn’t matter a damn.

It’s easy to be queasy about the project, and about the line-up. Geldof called on his mates, practically all white male rockers, Bananarama the principal exception. Frances Rossi and Rick Parfitt were there practicing their ‘we-wuz-so-aht-of-it’ schtick, and you look at some of these people in the video and ask how many of them were really there for a good cause, unmixedly.

But Geldof and Ure, neither of whom I normally have much time for, especially musically, Band Aid was a thing of desperate honesty and the urgent desire to do something. Their drive is strong enough to purify the record, and make any less than stellar commitment from others both whole and pure.

Yes, it’s paternalistic, yes, it’s patronising, yes, it does snow in Africa. Yes, it doesn’t have even a single black Briton on it, let alone anyone with African connections. Yes, it’s still a colonial legacy. But listen to it. Listen especially to the choral sections, to the plea to feed the world, the link to Xmas that makes the record’s poignancy. It’s flaws are manifest, but it was conceived in something close to pure goodness, and there aren’t enough such things of which you can say that.

Thirty years on, you couldn’t get away with Bono’s line, not in the way he chose to sing it. It would offend too many sensitivities and I’m not going to get into an argument about whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a line without which the song could not be everything it is. Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you. It’s the anchor to the reality that is in each of us, the unavoidable, completely human, shadow that paradoxically lends strength to our efforts: it wasn’t me.

Everything that’s been justly said about Bono can be set against the moment he showed the strength to sing that line with passion, with a despairing honesty about the blackness within us that cannot be ignored when we attempt to be the best we can be.

‘Do they know it’s Xmas?’ is a modern anthem, a modern hymn. It shares no characteristic with a hymn, but it is, nevertheless. Bono’s line is the only reference to god and it’s hardly a Christian thought. But the events that made Band aid the vital thing it was may not be here in the same manner but the song and its spirit will always be part of this time of year.

And I will never again be able to sing along without that lump that destroys any attempt to sing rather than live the words.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t’ve?)’

There’s a case for featuring practically every single by The Buzzcocks on The Infinite Jukebox (the blog series, that is: practically every Buzzcocks single is on the Infinite Jukebox in my head), but despite my abiding love for ‘I Don’t Mind’, it is the band’s fifth single and it’s biggest hit that means the most to me, for a variety of reasons.
Ever since I first discovered music, in 1970, I’ve always had a favourite band or singer. Four times, that’s been a Manchester band. I first discovered The Buzzcocks just before I swapped the punk hotspot of Manchester for the punk-hating environs of Nottingham for two years. It was born of a late-evening recording of their second single, ‘What do I get?’ off Piccadilly Radio. It was the last to feature bassist Garth, before Steve ‘Paddy’ Garvey completed the classic line-up. I loved it from the off: I was losing my original antipathy towards punk the more I heard of it, drawn by the energy and simplicity of the music, its rawness, and The Buzzcocks were a sharper, more precise version of that, bringing back into the rush and tumble the element of melody that was the Sixties’ gift to all time.
An Articled Clerk – i.e., a Trainee Solicitor – who was a punk music fan, and open about it in the office. I remember debates about music, especially about ‘Love You More’, notorious for its brevity, and our student ‘Madrigals’ (her surname was Bell and she sang them) telling me she understood what they were trying to do but that it didn’t work, an opinion I disagreed with in a most patronising manner.
Then one night I’d gotten home, turned on the radio (Radio Trent, probably) and they announced the new Buzzcocks single. And I jumped for the tape recorder (reel-to-reel: my Dad had been an enthusiast and under his influence I was a late and reluctant adopter of cassettes) to capture it, and stayed in the corner, squatting, listening as it poured out. Steve Diggle’s riff and line, John Maher’s didactic drums, leading into Pete Shelley’s falsetto yawp. You disturb my natural emotions, you make me feel I’m dirt, and I’m hurt.
For most bands, for their most commercial single, that would have led into a second line, but the flow was disrupted, the evenness shattered by Diggle and Maher, repeating that sequence from the intro. And if I start a commotion, I’ll only end up losing you, and that’s worse. Then Diggle/Maher again and then this soaring, gorgeous, free-flowing, expansive chorus lifting the roof of, the title line, folding into and out of itself, so utterly compelling that, to my astonishment, when it came round the next time, I joined in, in my toneless tones, the record not having finished and my not having played it back a half dozen times yet, but before the song had even finished. That had never happened before.
Of course, the problem with the singles that grab you immediately is that they’re usually the ones you tire of first, and don’t want to hear again, because they often have nothing more than immediacy, but not so ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)’, not so even for forty years.
I remember the song for that immediacy, and I remember it for its title. It was the first of that trilogy of personal anthems that I carried around with me for a decade, along with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and that one-off Feargal Sharkey and Vince Clarke record as The Assembly, ‘Never Never’ (it never happens to me…). Ever Fallen in Love with Someone you shouldn’t have? Too bloody often and every time.
I remember it for being the single that, after two that had sneaked into the top 40, was the big one, big as in reaching no 13 in the autumn charts, and getting the band onto Top of the Pops more than once. It was the breakthrough, but The Buzcocks would only reach the top 20 once more, with the follow-up, ‘Promises’, and that only just made no 20, at Xmas.
And I remember it for being in Nottingham, in exile in more senses than one, including musically: alone but responsible for myself for the first time. Things like this song, and the fact it had gotten into the charts, was being played on the radio, were victories, victories for a cause that was the greatest fun time in music I ever had, the going-to-be-Solicitor who looked nothing like a punk yet who championed the music and roared on every moment that ‘we’ broke through and ‘you’ had to listen and to admit our music cut it.
The Buzzcocks, with Shelley leaking melody wherever he went, were our scalpel, their music a knife-edge of frustrated romance and realistic emotion, and ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have?)’ was the far too late warning for someone who had and who still remembers fondly and who is still drawn into carolling that chorus, even though my voice is not just toneless but cracked and broken. And the music still has a life that belied my best mate of then’s dismissive warning that no-one would remember The Buzzcocks in ten year’s time.
(The above essay was written before Pete Shelley’s recent death).

Xmas Fairytale Part 1

It’s that time of year when records I recognise are in the Top 100 and I start slavishly following the path of ‘A Fairytale of New York’ back to domination of our airwaves. The song’s leapt 48 places to no 18 in the first December chart whilst Mariah Carey’s already at no 6. Only two more weeks for the Xmas Chart so will it be top 10 again, like last year. We’ll soon see.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Distractions’ ‘Time Goes By So Slow’

Despite the existence of Oasis’s extensive back catalogue, there are remarkably few specific references to Manchester scenes and places in pop music. One splendid exception is an obscure Graham Gouldman song, written for and recorded by Herman’s Hermits. “It’s nice to be out in the morning” namechecks places like Ardwick Green, Irlam o’th’Heights and Besses of the Barn before finishing up at Old Trafford with the Holy Trinity of Bobby Charlton, Best and Law.
Off the top of my head, the only other song to reference a Manchester landmark is The Distractions’ legendary “Time Goes By So Slow”, one of the best singles of 1979 but, of course, a flop.
The Distractions were a five-piece band and a much mixed bag. Singer Mike Finney looked like a schoolteacher and sang like a white soulboy, Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright played guitars, Pip Nicholls, a tiny wee lass who styled herself pipnicholls, played a solid and pounding bass, and veteran skinsman Alec Sidebottom pounded the hell out of the drums.
The Distractions were incredibly popular around Manchester when I was living in Nottingham, which didn’t believe in punk. They were inspired by the energy and rhythm of punk but also the melody of Sixties music and, with Finney’s voice ultimately too good for the purely raucous, their sound evolved as a fruitful mixture of the two roots. Their first release was a 12” four track EP on TJM Records (which I never heard of releasing anything else) that I had to buy when visiting home. It’s rough, it’s crude, the production is unpolished to say the least, but in “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love” it contained two bloody good, energetic songs, full of urgency, melody and compelling choruses. For their second release, whilst already formulating a deal with Island Records, the band signed a one-off single deal with Factory Records, and came out with “Time Goes By So Slow”.
In a summer of great new music, The Distractions stood out for producing a perfect pop-punk single, with a glittering melody line, a surging beat, an air of undefinable melancholy in the heart of bright, joyous music that was the band’s trademark mood, and a killer chorus. They were acclaimed on all sides. Everyone loved it. Except Radio 1, of course, which didn’t play it, the splendidly essential John Peel aside.
Though the Finney/Perrin partnership was The Distractions’ main source of songs, it was Adrian Wright who wrote ‘Time Goes By So Slow’. It’s a typically Distractions mournful lost love song, conducted with great vigour, in a rush of bass and drums, guitar and organ. Never has misery sounded so much of a rush.
And at a time when I was conscious of living in another city, where I had no roots, Finney was singing about places with which I was wonderfully familiar. They put your statue up in Albert Square, he sings to the girl who has blown him out and about whom he still dreams. And all the people standing by just stare. But Albert just won’t do, Finney sings, I don’t need him but you. When Nick Lowe had gone to the Heart of the City that was it, just a generic place, every city’s got one, but Mike Finney singing Adrian Wright’s words was in the heart of a real city and I could picture its streets and, when I came home, I could drive those pre-pedestrianised streets and pass by and not care.
But it was more than the call to home that led me to take this song to heart. I was in love, and had been for a long time, with a woman from whom I was forced to conceal my feelings, and melancholy was my place, my Albert Square. I loved the brashness, the simplicity, the energy of punk whilst never foregoing my love for the stunning chorus, the line that pulls you in to lend your inadequate voice, to find a space inside the song that makes you a part of it.
If I’ve a criticism of the record at all, it’s that it’s ending is a little weak. In the first use of a trick the band would later make a regular part of their repertoire, after the second chorus the music drops out, leaving only the bass and drums, lowering the tension. Well I wonder why you had to go, Finney croons, repeating himself, and again, as the music crashes back with the timeline, but only so that it can lead the record to a definitive end instead of one more valedictory rush.
Interestingly enough, “Time Goes By So Slow” was originally meant for the b-side. It and the song “Pillow Fight” had been recorded after the You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That EP and were the only other recordings in existence when Factory offered the deal. “Pillow Flight” was offered as the a-side but the single was flipped at Tony Wilson’s suggestion. But “Time Goes By So Slow” had been treated as a b-side in the studio, recorded almost live, with minimal overdubs added and harmonies that simply consisted of following Steve Perrin’s lead. Apparently, the whole thing took about three hours total, and that just adds to the purity of the song. Maybe a more polished version might have been better, but I doubt it, because this song has no sag, no weariness, no over familiarity. It’s pure, it’s complete, and it’s raw edges complement the rawness of the feelings.
Nearly forty years later, the song is still as fresh as ever, the loss is undiminished, and when she has to go, time still and always will go by so slow.

Oh Shit – Pete Shelley R.I.P.

It doesn’t seem possible that Pete Shelley could be gone. Punks aren’t supposed to die this soon, even if he was the same age as me.

I remember hearing ‘What do I get?’ late one John Peel night, just before moving to Nottingham and away from Punk’s other great centre. I remember it’s b-side when I bought it, one of the most honest break-up songs ever, ‘Oh Shit’. I remember seeing them of Top of the Pops with ‘I Don’t Mind’, which should have been fucking mega. I remember arguing about whether ‘Love You More’ worked or not, and singing along to ‘Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t’ve?)’ the very first time I heard it. I remember the years when it was like a personal theme song, the answer to which was too fucking many times.

I remember playing ‘Love Bites’ and ‘A Different Kind of Tension’ obsessively as soon as each came out. I remember seeing them at the Appollo, the second and last time I saw Joy Division, the night I heard ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ for the first time. I rememeber them finishing with ‘ESP’ as one by one the band laid down their instruments and left until only Steve Diggle was left, playing that incredible spiral riff.

I remember ‘Homo-Sapien’ and ‘XL1’ too.

I remember the Buzzcocks and I remember Pete Shelley and I ain’t never gonna forget and this is why, because you don’t forget perfection.