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.

Is that really what it’s about? Status Quo’s “Ice in the Sun”

I missed the Sixties musically – well, except for the last ten days of it – but I heard nearly as much of it as I thought was possible to hear by listening to Radio One throughout the Seventies. You can’t get that kind of experience nowadays.

This past decade plus, my Saturday morning routine, as without fail as I can make it, has included Radio Two’s Sounds of the Sixties from 8.00 – 10.00 am, presented by the (hopefully) immortal Brian Johnson. What I used to love most about the programme was the virtually fifty/fifty split between the classics, the famous and familiar on the one hand, and the obscurities, the unknowns and overlooked. I say ‘used to love’ because under former producer Roger “The Vocalist” Bowman, the obscurities were bright, sharp and sometimes quite brilliant two to three minute bursts of melody, drive and inspiration. Current producer, Phil “The Collector” Swern (in charge since 2007) has nothing like the ear Bowman had for these quite unbelievably good unknowns. (He also has a bias towards the first half of the decade, and especially the pre-Beatles period, that’s getting increasingly frequent, but that’s another story).

Sadly, nowadays, if the programme does broadcast an unknown gem these days, it’s likely to be something I downloaded from YouTube over a year ago, and have long since burned to one of a series of personal compilation CDs.

All of which is by way of a preamble to an occasional series of reflections on well-known, very successful Sixties songs whose innocence of aspect and seeming-naievete of lyric conceals a slightly different – and definitely not innocent – aspect to the story.

For instance, today’s programme included Status Quo’s Ice in the Sun, a 1968 Top Ten hit that was the band’s second success. The was the pre-boogie Quo, the five piece band, from the time that Francis Rossi was still using the name Mike because, well, you know, I mean, Francis: that’s a bit… girly, isn’t it? The band had had its first hit the previous year with the slightly stilted but phasing-drenched Pictures of Matchstick Men, but an identikit follow-up had flopped. So for Ice in the Sun, the band went for something zippier, lighter, a straight piece of slightly bubblegum pop, mostly phasing-free, with a catchy chorus.

But what, exactly, were they singing about?

Let’s have a gander at those lyrics. ‘I’m not a little boy, I’ve lived alone and never loved so more’ it starts, ‘but when she touches me I’m on the way, I’m underneath the floor’, and then it’s straight into the chorus for the first time:

Like ice in the sun I melt away
Whenever she comes I melt away
Like in in the sun I melt away

The second verse doesn’t really make all that much sense: ‘I sit down in a chair and read a book as if I couldn’t care/But she is in the room and I must look I see her everywhere’ but it doesn’t really matter, what counts is that chorus.

Like ice in the sun I melt away
Whenever she comes I melt away
Like in in the sun I melt away

Then there’s a brief middle eight that does a bit to emphasise how completely he’s taken with this magical girl, how completely this first girl to actually go out with him so dominates his waking hours, despite all he tries to do to act otherwise:

‘She opens up her eyes as if to speak
She looks at me and I am weak
Her eyes they seem much bigger than before
I cannot think anymore’

And then, guess what, it’s nothing but the chorus until the fade-out. Like ice in the sun, he melts away, but people, let us focus ourselves upon what, specifically, is causing this melting – the presence of this gorgeous, late-Sixties, long-blonde-haired, mini-skirted vision of a carefree girl, and he keeps melting away whenever she comes. Let us direct ourselves towards what actually keeps melting away, and it’s pretty clear that this sweet, bright, bouncy, innocent pop hit is actually about the delicate subject of… premature ejaculation.

And the BBC thought it was all about ice cream.