The Infinite Jukebox: Half Man Half Biscuit’s ‘Trumpton Riots’

Was it really 1984?
If it had been a year later, or maybe a bit more than that, it might never have happened, to me anyway. I can’t remember exactly when it came to the parting of the ways with dear old Peely. He was certainly down to only three nights then, Andy Kershaw having been awarded Thursday night and Tommy Vance still bestriding Friday night with the kind of music I would go a long way out of my way to avoid.
But it was 1984, and I was still among the faithful and one night Peely played a song from a band from the Wirral, a five piece bunch of Scouse layabouts playing a crude, post-punk blend of short, sharp, direct songs. And it was called ‘Trumpton Riots’.
I remember Trumpton. I was old enough, or should I say young enough, to not only have watched the series when it appeared in the Sixties, and indeed to have gone through Camberwick Green before it (though the third of the trilogy, Chigley, was my younger sister’s thing: it was after my time, so to speak). The song title alone had me swivelling round to listen.
I was stunned by the combination of total improbability, the high-speed energy of the song and the lyrics. Nobody had ever thought of that before Nigel Blackwell, the singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. All it was was mashing together the twee world of Trumpton and its denizens, and the real world of our society, with particular reference in this case to the countrywide riots that had taken place in so many towns and cities in 1981, including Croxteth in Liverpool.
Unemployment’s rising in the Chigley end of town, and it’s spreading like pneumonia, doesn’t look like going down, there’s trouble at the Fire Station, someone’s had the sack and the lad’s are going to launch a scheme to get rid of Captain Flack.
Genius. It was genius. It was Britain in the recession-hit early Eighties, the underlying anger of even those of us who were not affected by unemployment, and desolation and the Tories’ overt decision to run places like Liverpool down and not try to improve the lives of the people who lived there (not only were they Northerners but they voted Labour: they were not One of Us).
And this was being brought into the sharpest of focus by projecting them onto an idyllic country town of peaceful and content residents with no connection to real life, suddenly thrown into the same upheavals as all of us.
Someone get a message through to Captain Snort that he’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort, and keep Mrs Honeyman right out of sight cos there’s gonna be a riot down in Trumpton tonight!
What on earth were they thinking. What would Brian Cant think? But, with respect, who cared? Two impossibly distant worlds suddenly came into contact with each other, with rude energy and total lack of respect. The music might have been crude, the singing more energetic than tutored, but there wasn’t a single false note to this song.
It could easily be one glorious moment, but Nigel Blackwell was no flash in the pan. At first, Half Man Half Biscuit lasted about eighteen months, before splitting up due to ‘musical similarities’ (at the time, it was being said that the pressure of being a ‘star’ got to him and he sold his guitar). One album, a couple of singles, some riotous gigs and a sweep up album collecting b-sides, EP tracks and John Peel sessions.
My mate and I got lucky, we saw them live twice. I have seen bands where the audience sang along with all the choruses. I have been to gigs, usually in folk clubs, where the audience has joined in on the verse. I have only ever seen one band play where the audience has chanted along to the intros and the instrumental breaks.
The band came back. They come out with a new album every two or three years. Nigel Blackwell remains one of the most iconoclastic and observant lyricists around, acutely tuned into icons in a multitude of areas and able to bring improbabilities together in a surrealistic fusion that boggles even as it seems completely natural.
If I have never heard anything from the band that surpasses ‘Trumpton Riots’ (I love the melody and music of Reflections in A flat’ but it still doesn’t compare), that isn’t meant to talk down the rest of the band’s history. Sometimes, you can’t quite capture the same amount of lightning in your bottle. And nobody can hear something for the first time twice.
The shock came in 1984. I’m so glad I was stood under the right tree.


The Infinite Jukebox: Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’

For once, I was ahead of everybody else. Not everybody: nobody in the world, it seems, was ahead of John Peel. He had it first, an unusual, nine-minute long song on a 33rpm import single from New York, by someone none of us had heard of, by someone who wasn’t even a musician or a singer, but instead a Performance Artist. And what was one of them when it was blackleading the grate?
Her name was Laurie Anderson, and she had written/created/performed a gigantic multi-media piece entitled United States Live Parts I-IV that was so long it could only be performed over four night. The single that caught Peely’s ears was a section of Part II, a quasi-spoken word piece performed to a background of ‘hah-hahs’, running continuously throughout the number, as well as various electronic effects, rising to crescendos that marked three separate phases.
It was extraordinary. I had never heard anything like it before. The record was only available as an import from New York’s One-Ten Records, released in a limited edition of which most sales were orders from the UK, like me. I didn’t care. I loved it, and I didn’t want to rely on taping it off the radio.
But the remarkable thing was that the influx of orders from us lot in Britain led to Warner Brothers buying the rights to release ‘O Superman’ officially over here, as well as sign Anderson up to a seven album deal. The main thing was that ‘O Superman’ was now available in this country, to buy in Virgin Megastores, HMV Shops, and even in Woolworth’s.
It was still a nine minute long track, with a minimal tune and flattened, electronically processed vocals, an incomprehensible, symbolically-expressed storyline and no commercial element whatsoever. Radio 1 would never play it (not in the daytime) and no-one would ever buy it.
It entered the UK Top 40 at no. 16.
The following week, though it was October, cold and clear, I went away to the Lake District for a few days holiday, on my own for the first time, in my first car. I didn’t set off until the Tuesday of that week, and made a slow journey of it, up the A6, eventually winding up in Ambleside. By lunchtime, I was passing through Preston and looking for somewhere to get some sandwiches. I had the car radio tuned to Radio 1, for Tuesday was still the day the new Chart was announced, pre-computerisation, and I was still directly interested in such things.
I was waiting to hear where ‘O Superman’ was, this week. I waited a long time. Unlikely though it was, the single was basically selling as a novelty song, and though such things almost never happened, maybe it had dropped straight back out again.
It hadn’t. It had shot up to no. 2. No. 2. It hadn’t displaced Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s execrable cover of ‘It’s My Party’ and there was many a record inferior to ‘O Superman’ that I would have relished seeing do that, but this was ‘O Superman’, the most odd number 2 single in history until ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’ was mass-streamed to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death. And Radio 1 daytime was playing this extravaganza, and I heard it several times those few days I was away, even if they were fading it out after about six minutes.
Of course it didn’t last. The single slipped one place only, to no. 3, the next week, then plummeted to no. 18, after which it disappeared from the radio, and from our lives after only one more Top Forty week.
But for a week in our country it was the second best selling single, all nine-minutes, 33rpm that it was.
Yes, of course it was a novelty. Not a novelty song as such, but rather a serious composition that was at a ninety degree angle from anything traditionally thought of as ‘pop’ music. The shock of the new, the appeal of the new: this is novelty. But it was a novelty in the sense that Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ was a novelty, yet that had more the structure of a song to it, and a more distinct melody. ‘O Superman’ was dry, minimal and excessively repetitive. It had nothing to strike a chord with the Great British Record Buying Public, yet it still went out and did so, and even now, almost thirty years later, I cannot understand why.
I mean, I loved it. I’d gone out and bought the import months before it was released over here but, well, I was weird enough to like things like this, and I was really not used to the idea that ordinary people could like something outré like I did in such massive quantities. It was a contradiction in terms.
And looking back from now, it seems all the more an act of collective, but glorious madness.

The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Yesterday Man’

Has it ever occurred to you, when listening to any Golden Oldie show that broadcasts Chris Andrews’ colossal 1966 hit, ‘Yesterday Man’, that there is a massive gulf between the sound of the song – peppy, poppy, bouncy, delirious, uptempo, upbeat, danceable – and what Andrews is actually singing about?
After a brassy, bright intro, trumpeting to a halt to give a platform for Andrews to deliver his first line, he announces that he’s a Yesterday Man, and affirms to his friends that this is what he is. And, in case there should be some doubt about a linguistic shift that has utterly transformed the meaning of the words, he repeats it and repeats. That’s what I am, that’s what I am, a Yesterday Man, with a quick confirmatory echo behind him of ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night.’
Ok, it’s plain, and the verses make it plainer. He had a girl. She was great. He thought she was in love with him, but she’s dumped him overnight. He was sure taken in. And now he’s her Yesterday Man and he couldn’t sound more pleased about it if you’d offered him a 14″ Deep Pan Pizza with all his favourite toppings on it.
Hey, wait a minute. This is a break-up song, no doubt, break-up-I-was-conned, and Andrews is singing about it as if it was the best experience of his life, and no-one seemed to have noticed? Truly we are strange people.
Jump now to 1974. Robert Wyatt, once of Soft Machine and Matching Mole, now confined to a wheelchair after a fall from a window resulted in a broken back, records a cover version of The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ for a John Peel Show session. It goes down well enough that Wyatt records it as a single and has an unexpected minor hit and a controversial Top of the Pops appearance.
In the New Musical Express, it’s reported that Wyatt has recorded a version of ‘Yesterday Man’ that’s even more brilliant as a follow-up, but for unknown reasons, the single is cancelled. Until one day in 1977 when, listening to Piccadilly Radio, an unknown track started to play. ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night’, it began, and I dived for the tape recorder and hit Record, for I’d never forgotten about the Robert Wyatt version and this was indeed it, but what it was doing on Commercial Radio at that point I have no idea, and I never heard it played again.
Wyatt’s interpretation differs massively from Andrews. He takes the song at a slower pace, noticeably but not dramatically so. His vocal range, which is in a higher register than Andrews, lends itself to the plaintive, whilst the instrumentation is thicker, weightier. The song is immediately recognisable: the syncopation is there and the song structure hasn’t been tampered with.
But what distinguishes it most clearly is the simple difference that Wyatt is singing to the words and not the arrangement.
And make no mistake, this is a melancholy song, and incredibly so in its last line, when the singer confesses that in spite of all that I say, I’d take her back any day. And Wyatt sings it like it is and in the process turns a cheery romp into a sorrowful lament and a confession of obsession and weakness. It’s what his voice is made for, and the arrangement reflects it perfectly.
As for the original, we all know that the juxtaposition of elements in any form of art can be a fruitful form of tension, but really, singing about heartbreak in a happy-clappy jolly voice and arrangement as if you’ve won the EuroMillions jackpot on a multi Rollover week is not going to produce anything for anyone. Wyatt got it right, taking his cue from the words, and on a long ago day in 1977, I reacted instinctively and grabbed the chance to hear this, and to take it into my memory where it resonated for the rest of my life.

The Infinite Jukebox: Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane’

Music, and how you respond to it, is an ever-changing process, though sometimes, and in some people, the changes are very slow and next to impossible to see. But how you react to something when you are eighteen, and how you react when you are, for instance, sixty, are likely to be very different things. Sometimes, the difference between twenty-three and thirty-five can be just as big a gulf.
At the back end of 1976, and increasingly through 1977, I found myself unexpectedly enthused about Punk and New Wave. It was difficult to get to hear much of it, since it was not exactly espoused enthusiastically by Piccadilly Radio. My lack of awareness of what was around me was a massive factor in me only becoming belatedly aware, in early 1978, that I could actually get to hear this stuff by listening to John Peel, five nights a week between 10.00pm and midnight. A more than satisfying discovery.
It was a timely move since, at the end of March that year, I moved to Nottingham for the next two years. Quite early on, I made two unwelcome musical discoveries. One was that a clear and listenable 247metres MW connection to Radio 1 was practically non-existent (when the station moved to the split frequencies of 275 and 285m, later that year, it wasn’t much better), throwing me on the mercies of Radio Trent, and the other was that whereas Manchester had been a punk city, Nottingham firmly wasn’t.
If it weren’t for Peely…
Those were the halcyon days when Uncle John was on five nights a week. Unfortunately, that only lasted to the back end of summer 1979, when the BBC decided to take Friday night away and hand it to Tommy Vance, for what became the Friday Night Rock Show.
It wasn’t immediately apparent what music we were to get, not in advance, so come the first Friday night, I tuned in as usual, ready to be impressed, if that we possible. I lasted about twenty minutes.
By far and away the best six minutes of that period was the playing of Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane’. I was not particularly familiar with Neil Young in those days, apart from ‘Heart of Gold’, and when it started, I liked the sound. I liked the guitars, I liked Young’s voice, and of course the yearning chorus is great.
But then the solo started. And went on. And on. And on. And on (this is maybe up to about the three to four minute mark). It just lasted forever, and by the time it ended, I’d gotten bored with it. Not like Punk and New Wave, which got in, made its mark, and got out before you had time to get tired of it. Shame, really. I turned 24, later that year.
Move on now to 1990, in which year I turned 35. Still, in my eyes, a young man. Still at heart besotted with the short, fast song that didn’t hang around long enough to get tedious. That year, after an apparent creative slump that had lasted most of the Eighties, Young came back with the album ‘Ragged Glory’, with Crazy Horse.
I can’t remember what first attracted it to me, but the plain fact was that I bought the CD and, despite it having more than the one song that lasted in the region of ten minutes, most of it guitar solo, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it kick-started a Neil Young phase that, over the next five years or so, saw me gradually accumulate all his albums, which I enjoyed to various degrees.
One of the earliest of those albums to follow ‘Ragged Glory’ was the 1991 2CD live album ‘Weld’ (but not the limited edition ‘Arc-Weld’ with the additional 25 minute disc of compiled and collected guitar feedback!) I’ve disposed of all but a handful of Young’s albums now, but ‘Weld’ is amongst those I’ve kept, and principally it’s for the version of ‘Like a Hurricane’ on Disc 2.
We’re years on from Punk and New Wave. We were a decade or so beyond it when I bought ‘Weld’, but my favourite band was still R.E.M., whose reputation was made and back then still rested on the lineament of the classic song: bass, jangly guitar and drums, and three-part harmony choruses. I was still a very long way from even tolerating the polyphonic sonic sprees of the Prog Rock Seventies.
But the Eighties was also the decade when I first began seriously listening to classical music, the decade when I began educating myself towards enjoying pieces of music that lasted longer than three to four minutes. I don’t know if that was the fact that began to bend my mind back towards tolerating, and then enjoying longer pieces of rock music. But something did.
Some of it was that Young is still both an utterly passionate musician, still a creative powerhouse, and still at heart a simple, out-and-out rocker. His longer tracks don’t invite me to go through the artificial structures of Prog, the self-conscious virtuosity. It’s rock, Jim, exactly as I know it. It just goes on a bit longer and it no longer makes me feel time is passing in unforgivably large chunks.
Either way, the difference is in me, and it’s the difference between finding the six minute studio version of ‘Like a Hurricane’ to be too long in 1979, and deciding in 1991 that my favourite Neil Young track is the 14 minute live version from ‘Weld’…

The Infinite Jukebox: The Undertones ‘Get Over You’

Sitting in my local pub in Nottingham, talking to a guy who lived on one of the other floors of Alexandra House, I started expounding on one of the, to me, great virtues of punk/new wave. Which was, for want of a better word, it’s ephemerality.
This was December 1978, still part of a decade in which, outside the rarefied castles of the ProgRock titans and their wannabes, the trope was that bands had to pay their dues before they could be taken seriously. Yes, in order to achieve success and build careers, bands had to have done a minimum of three years gigging in appalling conditions, living on the road, playing in every crappy place under the sun for impossibly small fees before they could be considered fit to progress to making worthy albums of worthy music. And they had to have beards.
But why did you have to spend three years of your life wasting your time on repetitive rituals? Why can you only achieve success by ‘honing your chops’ in every small town you could think of? Why, if you’ve got the ability, can’t you get down to it whilst you’re fresh?
And, I argued, some bands don’t have a career in them. Some bands maybe only have three minutes of genius in them, one song that lights up the universe, tears at hearts and feet, fills you up with its wonderfulness.
That was the glory of punk/new wave for me, with the tiny independent labels, the rushed out releases: the chance to get that three minutes of glory out there for us to hear, instead of drowning it in practiced rote and a dull adherence to the rules.
I quoted examples. There was The Tours’ ‘Language School’, a brilliant, pulsing, thrashing guitar and pumping bass with a one-note riff that buoyed the whole thing up, and nobody ever heard anything else from them that sounded remotely as good, but so what? We had that song and we were better off for it, and would it make a difference to ‘Language School’s charms if there was never an album’s worth of songs slapped around it?
Or, I said, take The Undertones. I explained about them being from Derry, and getting in touch with John Peel, and getting ‘Teenage Kicks’ not only onto his show but into the Top 40 and on Top of the Pops (by this time the song had had a three-week chart career, peaking at 31). They’ll probably never make a record remotely as good as that again, hell, they might not ever make another record at all, but we’ve got this one, and it’s brilliant, and that’s because they could go into a local studio and record it and release it, without any thought of having to do anything but bring us this song.
That’s what’s so great about punk/new wave.
Probably never make a record remotely as good as that again. Might not ever make another record at all.
I went home to Manchester over Xmas, lugging my hi-fi home because I was going to be gone for ten days. It was the Winter of Discontent, snow choking Britain on New Year’s Eve and, in order to be back at work for January 2, I had to travel by train with only what I could carry. No hi-fi for over half the month, until the roads were safe for my mother to drive over and deliver it. I had nothing for entertainment but the TV lounges and my transistor radio.
And then Peely played the second Undertones single…

The Infinite Jukebox – Teenage Kicks

Some records never age. The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ was released in the summer of 1978 as the title track of a four track EP released on the local Derry label, Good Vibrations. The ‘Tones, John O’Neill and his brother Damien, Micky Bradley, Billy Doherty and Feargal Sharkey, sent a copy to John Peel, at the BBC in England, and followed it up with phone calls, badgering him to play it. He did. He fell in love with the record, and it’s opening lines decorate his gravestone.
He played it on his show one night that summer. I don’t remember when, but I listened to his show every night, and it was still every night because they hadn’t yet taken Friday off him and given it to Tommy Vance, and I heard it and I fell for it too.
That was thirty seven years ago this summer, by one, outmoded and illogical method of calculation, which is more than half my lifetime ago, and that’s simply not true, and not possible, because every time I hear Doherty’s two-beat drum intro, I hear a song that I only heard for the first time Thursday last week. The Infinite Jukebox is blessed by such a record.
There are better Undertones songs, ones with clearer and more distinct melodies, with a better production than the thick wodge of sound that goes into ‘Teenage Kicks’. But there is nothing that so distils the Undertones into two and a half minutes of pure bliss, teenage hormones furiously throbbing, the line between nervous innocence and rampant lust so finely straddled.
A teenage dream’s so hard to beat. What other dreams are so powerful, balanced between desire and fear? Another girl in the neighbourhood, wish she was mine, she looks so good. I’m gonna call her on the telephone, have her over cos I’m all alone. The every day, the utterly mundane turns into moments of shining gold and the music reflects that directness, the raw power of the dream.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
And this came from a quintet of teenagers in a troubled city in Northern Ireland, a city whose own name symbolised the conflict raging on its streets, a conflict that gave the Undertones’ home the nickname of Stroke City, and they ignore all this and focus on the one thing on their minds. John O’Neil’s words and music are simple and direct, and they have never lost their meaning, because they speak of yearning, and the music churns and roars, Billy Doherty’s drums keeping it anchored to earth.
It has the raucousness of punk, and something of the attention to melody re-introduced by the Buzzcocks, but not quite yet unleashed. It’s about being sixteen, sixteen forever, forever drowned in wanting, in finding a focus that underneath isn’t focused at all, because if she’s not the answer to the dream, someone else will be, but for here and now, at the heart of this urging music, she is the only one there is in the world.
And there’s even a guitar solo, twiddly, plangent, constructed out of just a few notes, and gloriously it’s not where you expect it to be, two verses, middle eight, solo, third verse, but it comes right at the very end, when there’s nothing left to say, and only an impression to create, as jangling as your nerves.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
All right.

The Infinite Jukebox: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Welcome to the Infinite Jukebox.
We all have this in our heads, a marvellous machine into which, at any time, we can insert the shiny 50p piece of our imagination and set up a platter to play. No buttons needed, no disappointed peering for songs we want to hear, the only limitation is memory and hearing. There are songs for every emotion we want to express to ourselves.
This is the first one.

The first time I heard this song for the first time, it was being played live on stage. Fifth song of an eight song support set at the Apollo Theatre, the Buzzcocks headlining. They were the band I’d paid to see, but Joy Division were a glorious bonus. I’d seen them live at the end of February, supporting John Cooper Clarke in Nottingham, four guys in varying shades of black, white and grey, unannounced, uncommunicative, astonishing. This was still 1979, when PA systems were still crap, when the only words you could hear on stage were the ones you knew in advance, and new songs were incomprehensible. What it was called, I hadn’t a clue: it was the synthesizer riff that captured me from the moment it first ripped across the stage, a simple, elemental riff that slid into your head like a stiletto between ribs. It was magic, and I craved it again.
The second time I heard this song for the first time, it was part of Joy Division’s second John Peel session, in the February of 1980. The moment he announced the band were on, I had my tape recorder at the ready. Surely that incredible song had to be part of the session? And it was, and it was called ‘Love will tear us apart’, and I could play it over and over again.
The third time I heard this song for the first time, I was back in Manchester and Peely had the long-awaited single, and I raced back out of the bathroom to tape this. Ian Curtis was newly dead, a suicide whose inquest had been conducted by a partner in the Stockport firm I’d just joined, who was also the Coroner. And I sat on the edge of my bed, listening to the words as if I’d never heard them before, as I’d never understood them before. Why is the bedroom so cold? Turned away on your side. The break-up of Curtis’s marriage had, I’d been led to believe, been behind his death, and the unconsidered words were a route into Curtis’s head, a path that made me shiver, made the song too personal, made me feel as if I should not be listening to something so private.
I’ve listened to ‘Love will tear us apart’ an unbelievable number of times. It’s a song that’s grown in stature ever since, rightly so, but still it shakes belief that something so personal, so open and raw, something that was a minor hit for a short-lived band, a punk band at that, unloved and unwanted and despised, should have become a top 5 candidate for Song of the Century. On Radio Two.
It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.
Nor does familiarity breed even dullness. The riffing guitar, the sonic clarity of the acoustic, so fiercely strummed, Morris’s powerful, rhythmic drumming kick-starting itself like a jet about to cram it hell for leather down the runway and, at once the backbone of the music yet gloriously alone and supreme above it, that synthesizer, that riff, that melody. The jet leaves the runway, the song soars, Curtis’s deep, almost sepulchral, itself a void, speak-sings words that even today are a window into a place none of us really wants to look. There but for grace go you and I, and some of us have had to look through windows of our own into places we no more want to see.
And on it goes, in effortless flight, powered by that unique rhythm section of Hook and Morris, until Curtis reaches the end of words. In the video, he turns his back to us, Torn Apart a final time, as the song shifts in mid-air, prepares to come to Earth.
That video was never seen when the song had its first and most successful chart run, reaching no 13. There was no Top of the Pops for two months, exactly enclosing the band’s run. It was shown in the summer, on a Saturday morning kid’s portmanteau show set on something like a ferryboat, and it was out of time and incongruous and I watched it in silence, Curtis’s eyes already dead.
I used to joke, for many years, that this was my theme song, along with the Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t have?)’ and the Assembly’s ‘Never Never’. If pushed for what is my favourite song ever, I would still pick this. It’s A1 on the Infinite Jukebox, forever.

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

It was a nothing Tuesday at work, a morning without distinction, and I took it into my head to walk over to the Virgin Megastore on Market Street at lunchtime and buy a CD. It was a time when whims like that could be indulged, if I didn’t get them too often. It was 1985, and I was still 29.
Having decided to buy a CD, as you do, the next step was to decide which particular CD I would light upon. I was still getting the NME every week, as I had done since 1972, and listening to John Peel’s still-extant evening show, as I had since 1978 when I was first consumed by most things punk, so I was aware of the gathering enthusiasm about this Scottish band called The Jesus and Mary Chain, and had heard a couple of interesting sounding tracks. Their debut album was out that week, or so I thought. That would make an interesting choice.
On the other hand, I had not long since taped Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution” off Peely, and was in the habit of playing it several times over, as loud as I could bear through my comfortably padded headphones, and generally having a good time to it. I was enthusiastic about hearing some more.
Of course, Peely had played Pere Ubu extensively, back in 1978, when he was on five nights a week, and I was living in Nottingham, but I’d never been able to get my head around their ‘fractured’ music, not then. Now I was taken by the thought of picking up their classic debut album, The Modern Dance.
Which to choose? I was still turning the options over in the back of my mind, whilst I got on with my work, trying to decide which I was most interested in. And then it hit me. This was more than a choice between two CDs, but instead a symbolic moment: a life-changing decision.
That sounds ridiculously self-important, not to mention delusional, but my moment of insight was completely true. The Jesus and Mary Chain were the future: if I chose them, I was signalling to myself that, like John Peel and like the audience that I had taken myself to be part of, the key to music was what was new. I would be reaffirming that I was still eager for new experiences, new sounds, new bands who did not sound like those who had gone before.
To choose Pere Ubu was to look backwards, to say that I was no longer driven by the impulse to hear what came next, but that I was ready to broaden and deepen my tastes, to look back at what I had missed in passing. To stop chasing what might happen, but to choose my own interest in delving amongst those things that were already there.
It was a monumental choice to make.
And which CD did I buy? In fact, it was The Cocteau Twins’ Treasure: the Mary Chain CD hadn’t been released yet and the Ubu was deleted. I never did buy the Mary Chain CD, though I taped it once and played it a couple of times. I did get The Modern Dance, when it was reissued in a Limited Edition of 1,000 copies, and I have it still, along with virtually all Ubu’s recorded career.
And that was how I chose in the end: frustrated by unavailability, but deciding that now was the time I wanted to get off the bandwagon and listen around, instead of only ahead.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that my ‘backwards’ movement was to listen to one of the most determinedly original and experimental bands to have existed for nearly forty years. I might have been bent on a look back eight years in time, but in many respects, The Modern Dance is still out there, ahead of the game, all these many years later.
The album starts with a high-pitched synthesizer whine, overlaid with an electronic pinging, over which, after a couple of ambient notes, a guitar riff leads into the explosive noise of “Non-Alignment Pact”. It’s a fairly straight song in itself, underpinned by a solid melody and a choral chant of the title, built on the punky sound of guitars and a busy, solid drum-line, but from the outset it establishes three things that are going to mark out Ubu from everybody else around them.
The first is Allen Ravenstine’s synths. Remember that this album was recorded in 1978, when synthesizers were no more than a decade old, and had been primarily the province of progressive groups and novelty pop bands – Chicory Tip, anyone? Electronic music was simply that: orthodox music performed on electronic equipment.
Ravenstine didn’t play that way. He and Ubu were into the synthesizer as sound, as possibility, as industrial noise and urban landscape, and “Non-Alignment Pact” gives full reign to that. The band play it relatively straight as a platform for Ravenstine to exploit the pure sound, dissonant, unexpected, siren-like in part, of the synthesizer, working to disturb and create an unexpected atmosphere.
The second is David Thomas’s voice. Ubu members have come and gone but the massive Thomas is the only ever-present, the defining sound of Pere Ubu. He gives notice that he’s not going to sing melodies, not going to follow tunes. He sings high, he sings low, he is gruff and hoarse, he is the steel and brick of the city made flesh, cacophony in voice, always aware, never controlled.
And as the band’s lyricist, he is a point of view, a way of seeing that does not and will not look at things from outside, and see them as they seem. “Non-Alignment Pact” is a love song, little though it sounds in the hands of the rampaging Ubu. Thomas wants to make a deal with his girl, ‘get it signed by the heads of state’, ‘be recognised around the world’, but it’s not any ‘I love you’, it’s a ‘non-alignment pact’, co-operation, co-habitation, but not conjoining.
As the song develops into its second verse, we learn that it’s not necessarily a real girl Thomas is demanding terms from. The girl doesn’t have one name, she has thousands: ‘Peggy Carrie Ann and Betty Jean/Jill Joan Jan and Sue/Alice Cindy Barbara Ann’. The stars are on fire, the world’s in flames, the girl is rock’n’roll music and Thomas is declaring Pere Ubu in: but on their own terms. Not to be part of, but not to be hostile. The game is afoot.
It’s followed by the album’s title track, a re-make of the track “Untitled” from the earlier Datapanik in the Year Zero EP. Ravenstine provides a more conventional backing this time, electric piano under a shuffling beat, Thomas sings about a boy: not himself, someone who’s out to keep up but unable to do so. ‘Our poor boy’ is heading into town but the girl at the show leaves early. ‘He’ll never get/The Modern Dance’.
And the song drops into near silence, a sullen humming, a city soundscape crossed only by a single guitar, occasionally strumming.
Back with the drums, the poor boy is trying harder, ‘Watch real close/Look real fast/He’s in touch/It’ll never last’. Thomas sings: a counterpart vocal caps each line with a chant of ‘Madra, Madra’. The crowd scene comes up but this time Ravenstine follows it with his sonic synth, amplifying and distorting the crowd, as the band start to heave and rock beneath him, bursting out in one final denial. The Modern Dance is something too big to be understood. Only Ubu knows the secret.
“Laughing” begins with a slow, bass-ridden, almost chugging beat, downtone. Ravenstine and guitarist Scott Krauss play over it and the song runs for two whole minutes before Thomas explodes into action, howling the song into life. ‘We can live in the empty spaces of this life’, he declares. ‘If the Devil comes/we’ll shoot him with a gun!’. Then it slows against, hollow and empty, like the life that Thomas and his girl are denying, youth in its ignorant optimism. A snarl and another verse of defiance, but that’s the modern dance for you. In the face of oblivion.
Unlikely as it all seems, this album is about love, love in the city, love in the darkness against the machines that can roll over and tear everything apart at any moment. “Streetwaves” is all attack from its opening moment, Thomas riding ‘a street wave by her side’ but it’s only a moment before he’s chanting ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’.
We lapse against into quiescence, the synthesizer wind howling down empty streets, until the band attempt to reincarnate the world, but the electricity sparks and starks and again it’s ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’ and the ending is sudden.
And suddenly we get the original side closer, side 1, track 5, the biggest, booming, most uplifting song, a real emotional uplift. And it’s called “Chinese Radiation”. It starts real quiet and slow, a guitar picking out an extended riff, Ravenstine doodling in sound. Even Thomas is subdued when he begins to sing. We’ve somehow found ourselves in China, Red China. ‘He’ll be the red guard/she’ll be the new world/he’ll wear his grey cap/she’ll wave her red book’.
Then it stops, and it explodes into the biggest sound on the album. The crowds cheer, the roof is raised, Thomas sings excitedly, finding love and belief even in such unpropitious circumstances, but he and Ubu struggle to make themselves heard under the ecstacy of the crowd that roars and soars. The rally is a hit. Until the slow, dignified end, as Ravenstine pays piano chords, Thomas repeats his early, establishing mantra, and we wonder if there really is anything to love in such times.
What used to be side 2 begins with one of Ubu’s unserious songs, “Life Stinks”. It’s a bunch of rhymes on the sound ‘ink’, howled out gleefully as the band hit fast forward, but there are still those fractures in which everything, rhythm and melody drops away and Ravenstine holds things together.
He’s all over the long intro to “Real World”, but by now we know that any world that is Real to Ubu is nothing we in our sheltered minds will recognise. But this is less a song that another, medium pace, easy-loping Ubu soundscape, built on a prominent bass riff, as Thomas hollers things that he sees, emblematic ideas ‘Out in the Real World/In Real Time’. In the end it’s all ‘Techniramic (sic) heartaches’.
None of which prepares us for the overt beauty that is “Over My Head”. As close as the album comes to a ballad, this slow, gentle, touching song is nearer to being spoken than sung by Thomas, with the band a long way away, guitar and synthesizer playing games of sweetness, with momentary surges that last a couple of seconds, sound tides reaching the beach. Thomas sings of the woman tucking him in at dawn, and how he prays not to sin again. Who she is, and what she sees is a mystery that is over his head and cannot be detected. Sim bayou.
But speaking of unprepared, the album takes a quantum leap to accommodate its penultimate track, “Sentimental Journey”. This is barely a song, more of a playlet, with words murmured not sang by Thomas. It’s a walk, around a house, an abandoned, empty house. At times the band are non-existant, at others they threaten to overwhelm with a collage of sounds that bear little relationship to one another. It’s another track to incorporate sound effects, but this is not the sound of crowds, but of small disturbances, bottles, close to the ear, being kicked, skittering, breaking at odd, unanticipated intervals. The bamd crescendos again, and again, seemingly oblivious to Thomas, drowning him out as he wanders from point to point.
It’s an extraordinary experience in breaking down what can be conceived as as music, and it’s best heard on headphones. At night. In the dark.
It’s such a devastating experience that the final track, conventional as it is in Ubu terms, comes almost as a disappointment. It’s a reassertion of normality, and just as the opening track was a metatextual claim to parity with music, “Humor Me” is an open plea for tolerance, and act of seeking forgiveness for what has come before. ‘It’s just a joke, Man!’ Thomas pleads: Humour me. But one eye is closed in something suspiciously like a wink, and behind that broad and spreading back you can tell that the fingers are crossed.
Of course it’s all a joke. But Pere Ubu aren’t letting on who the joke’s on.
An extraordinary album. Thirty seven years old and we’ve still not caught up.

The Ones I Rarely Play: The Fall – The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall

Everyone goes through a phase in their life where they get into The Fall, for a greater or lesser period. Mine was the late Eighties, a small handful of albums, starting with Perverted by Language, and a couple of gigs.
I’d been listening to The Fall since 1978 and ‘Bingo-Master’s Breakdown’: well, you couldn’t listen to John Peel every night for that many years and be completely unaware of the band. But I never really took to their music: there was an ungainly, ragged angularity to it that didn’t appeal to my sensibilities, and Mark E Smith’s denunciatory voice is a taste to be acquired.
Some tracks stood out, nagging at my mental barriers, things like ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘How I wrote Elastic Man’, but even these were rushed and rough. The Fall were a band with rough edges: most of the time they seemed to consist of nothing else.
But if you are exposed to something for long enough, it’s hardly surprising that some part of their music starts to make sense. For me it was ‘Leave the Capitol’, from the Slates EP, and the Peel session version of ‘Who makes the Nazis?’, in which Smith’s sneer ceased to be repellent against the headlong rush of the band.
So I experimented: I bought Perverted by Language and struggled to get into it (though the splenetic ‘Eat Y’self Fitter’ was an instant gem).
The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall was the next album. I bought the cassette version, which included the Call for Escape Route EP, and had seven extra songs in total, a format which has been preserved for the CD. It’s the only one I’ve kept.
This is where Smith and the band – which at that point included Smith’s American wife, Brix, for a number of years before she ran off with that tit, Nigel Kennedy – came closest to being a tight, bright, melodic pop band.
Being the Fall, and being Mark E.Smith in particular, it really isn’t that close, though it’s noticeable that this is when The Fall scored their only singles hits, even if these were only two Top 40 placings and a high of no. 30 (with a cover of ‘There’s a Ghost in my House’ that never sounded anything like as good as it did in your head when the idea first appeared: they were much better on ‘Victoria’, which only got to no. 34).
And it’s not just the singles ‘Oh, Brother’ and ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ imported into the cassette/CD versions, with their chiming guitars and ringing title lines, it’s there in tracks on the vinyl itself, such as ‘2 x 4’ (what you should hit someone on the head with to attract their attention).
Even so, the ‘old’ Fall has plenty to say for itself, especially in the disjointed side one closer, ‘Elves’, a fantastic suspended gulf of paranoia and mystic leanings that suddenly gathers force and resolves into a structured chant of ‘not ever, no never no more/will I trust the Elves of Dunsinore’ that makes no sense but spits fire.
This sudden influx of conventional structure is present from the outset in the album’s best track,  the lurching, bass-dominant ‘Slang King’, an epic and forceful surge that, sonically, I’ve always been tempted to bracket with such differing tracks as Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Into the Black)’ and Joy Division’s awesome ‘Dead Souls’.
The Fall’s ‘pop’ years didn’t last long, and certainly didn’t out-lived Brix’s defection, but this album represents that influence at its most coherent and consistent, and thus it survives every cull of the collection.

The Ones I Rarely Play: The Chefs – “Records and Tea”

The Chefs never made an album in their short existence: this long-after-the-fact compilation brings together virtually everything they recorded, including three Radio 1 Sessions (two for John Peel), including the session and single they recorded under the name of Skat, a late and regrettable move that nobody seems to have liked.
The band were a feature of the Brighton scene in the late Seventies/early Eighties, a three boy/one girl post punk outfit, playing jangly guitar indie-pop with something of a country twang, which gave their songs a jaunty, galumphing appeal. They were fun, rather than aggressive or slick, and their songs had a very down home, English feel.
Highlight of this collection is the single “Twenty Four Hours”, a bustling, hustling track that’s probably the ‘heaviest’ thing the band did, closely followed by the five tracks from the first Peel session.
Collected together, an hour of the band’s music does tend to demonstrate that the band had little variation in their sound, and that their strongest feature was the differing, yet complementary voices of its two lead singers and primary songwriters, guitarist Carl Evans and bassist Helen McCookerybook (real name Helen McCallum).
It’s that lack of variety that keeps me from playing this more often: individually, the songs are fresh, bright and entertaining, for all that they’re thirty years old, but taken together en masse, the CD tends to fade a bit before the end because it’s just that bit samey.
The band broke up in 1982, after only three years,when drummer Russell Greenwood, growing heavily influenced by the ‘tribal drumming’ of Adam and the Ants, left the band. Evans formed ‘cowpunk’ outfit Yip Yip Coyote, whilst McCookerybook, who still performs locally under that name, formed an odd little band called Helen and the Horns, consisting of herself and three trumpeters/trombonists/sax players, but that proved to be just a little bit too eccentric.
The Chefs were one of those bands whose strength lay in having two complementary but distinct creative forces, neither of whom would produce anything remotely so memorable alone. In many ways, that’s practically the story of pop and rock.