2. DEATH TO TRAD ROCK 1980 - 1984
Punk was a life jacket for most of us, the Island of Misfits those drowning in the sea of conformity swam to. But by 1980 that island was prime real estate built over by consumerism and eroded by the never ending waves of orthodoxy. The possibilities that had seemed so real in 1977 had disappeared as though they had never existed.
I can recognise now that there was a great deal of hurt and damage disguised in punk that took me decades to resolve. Some of it was standard teenage stuff, the kind of issues we all have in the struggle to be heard above the roar of the machine, but much of it was not. And yet that doesn’t excuse how someone barely out of his teens who believed so absolutely in the freedom of punk and its cultural year zero found himself confined in a prison of his own making with a wife, a new job as a Traffic Engineer at the local council and a mortgage on a rot infested, inner city terraced house in Swansea Road with one gas heater and a colony of flea ridden cats.
Looking back I still can’t believe how my bid to forge a life free of the immutable beliefs of my mother had pushed me into the arms of a girl who would become similarly controlling and overbearing. An unruly tomboy dragged up on Dee Road, one of Reading’s most forbidding council estates, initially I mistook her wildness for a free spirit and a hidden, unconventional intellect when what she was really doing was seeking the attention of her emotionally abusive father whom she worshipped, despite the fact that at just eighteen years old he’d thrown her out on the street with nowhere to go. I guess in our own very different ways we were happy to cling onto every crumb of comfort we could find, but it was naïve and foolish of us to believe that getting married at such a young age was going to solve anything.
Thankfully my marital status was the last thing on my mind when I chose to spend the spring of 1980 in a tripped out, magic mushroom haze, tramping through the ancient fields and woodland surrounding the village of Bradfield Southend with my young hippy friend Dominic Wright and his clan of spotty, long haired boys and beautiful girls, hunting down the mystic fungi before retreating to a tiny cottage where his Mum served up mushroom tea, mushroom cake or just a plateful of our freshly picked crop. The whole world turned mushroom as we ruminated on our inner selves, free love, Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Gong's Floating Anarchy, Pink Floyd’s Animals and moving en masse to live in a tepee in deepest Wales. Providing a sanctuary from the tedious, nuts and bolts reality of my day to day, it only ended when Mummy Mushroom and her urchin brood refused to return a loaned drum kit until I threatened to smash up their cottage. The spell they had cast lifted and I was wrenched from my vegetative state to chase the future anyway I could.
In the past I had daydreamed about a career in pop music without ever really knowing what I was dreaming about or having the faintest idea of how to achieve it, convinced that the technicolour version of life was happening elsewhere. I had been involved in punk from its earliest days but after numerous musical escapades and cul-de-sacs and writing the occasional piece for No Cure fanzine, I had finally come to realise that my true interest lay in running a record label. And so, with the encouragement of the few connections I’d already made such as Another Pretty Face’s, pre-Waterboys Mike Scott and The Lines Rico Conning, I set up X Cassettes.
Cassette culture had proliferated like weeds since the late seventies when self-taught musicians and non-musicians alike realised they didn’t even need a record to unleash their efforts into the world, which to my mind was the ultimate fuck you to the music industry, at least it could have been if it hadn’t been populated by C60 after C60 of infantile nonsense. While most of it consisted of poorly recorded, characterless group demos or noisy, primitive scrapings, I was determined to raise the bar creatively, certainly as far as design, presentation and packaging were concerned.
I had largely ignored Reading during the punk years due to the close proximity of London, but when I began to look for potential cassette releases, I found it bereft of any kind of scene or action with just a few old lags and ‘local legends’ sticking to their own impenetrable cliques. With increased resolve and the help of my good friend Richard Griffin at No Cure fanzine, I widened the search to uncover some hitherto unknown hot spots of activity in the surrounding towns and villages, eventually hooking up with two very different post punk outfits.
With future Transvision Vamp and Bush bassist Dave Parsons in their ranks, Dig Dig Dig were all leather jackets and slashing Gang Of Four guitar, dance music for those who either couldn’t or didn’t want to dance. They became the mainstay of my early learning years, yet no matter how much they tried, they never truly believed in their own ability, content to be a decent local outfit with a small, devoted following of friends and casual gig goers. However, The Stills were a different case entirely.
Shrouded in dark, Joy Division atmospherics and Bunnymen classicism, they were fresh out of school, dripping with charisma and permanently teetering on the edge of chaos, a gang of supremely confident musicians aware of their own brilliance with songs and a live presence to match. A little uncertain of what their next step should be, I offered my slightly older, slightly more experienced guiding hand as I set about releasing a Dig Dig Dig single on No Cure Records, a label funded by four hundred show starved teens packing into Drayton Labour Club on the outskirts of Abingdon. While the single proved to be a great document of the times, as did the second No Cure release by teenage punky popster’s Quality Drivel, the label wasn't set up to be a long term proposition, and neither was its successor the equally disastrous Open Door Records.
Through sheer, bloody minded determination and persistence, I had secured a useful manufacturing deal with Illuminated Records of Fulham to release a compilation LP of Reading groups. Both The Stills and Dig Dig Dig contributed as did The Ballistics, an outfit I would meet up with again some four years later, but overall the album was as disappointing as the plethora of similar compilations documenting local scenes across the land. Beyond The River was no different and no better, The Stills ‘Obsession’ the best thing on it by far. I thought them so far ahead of the pack they couldn’t possibly fail, but in the end my blind devotion and warped vision proved woefully inaccurate. With our joint inexperience, a dull twelve inch EP and internal fisticuffs they barely got off the ground.
In hindsight, I spent far too much time and energy trying to generate local interest which even if it had come off would have been of no value whatsoever. Numerous hours were wasted chasing the local media or persuading pubs, clubs, art spaces and theatres to put on shows. One person who repeatedly made meaningless promises with much trumpeting in the local media was infamous, Goring based producer Martin Rushent. At one point he even offered to produce The Stills for free at his Genetic Studio but like everything else he said, nothing came of it. The one highlight of this period was a headline show at Readings Hexagon Theatre, the night I met Pete de Freitas and an eighteen year old Sam Brown for the first time. And yet that high was offset by numerous lows at sparsely attended ‘pay to play’ London gigs in pubs like The Moonlight in West Hampstead, The Fulham Greyhound, The Hammersmith Clarendon and The Rock Garden in The Piazza, Covent Garden. Piss stinking shitholes the lot of them!
One night, in the late summer of 1982 after yet another shitty London appearance with no-one there, we made the first of many visits to The Batcave, in Dean Street, Soho. A vortex of the early goth scene, it was a lightbulb for those from the sticks who wanted a bit more from life, and with our jumble sale suits, motorcycle boots and vertical quiffs we fitted right in. A hedonist’s dream of drink, drugs and fucking in the toilets to a soundtrack of fifties rockabilly, classic glam and cabaret, on any given night you could bump into Marc Almond, Steve Severin or Nick Cave with Robert Smith propping up the bar.
While I was enthralled by all kinds of music, from impenetrable industrial noise to the brilliant colour and shiny optimism of new pop, I was particularly drawn to the sickness, dirt, madness and darkness of rock’n’roll encapsulated within The Batcave that had developed as the antithesis of puritanical post punk and hardcore social realism. Fuelled by the pursuit of pleasure, it promised a flight from the crushing boredom of the everyday into a common wildness of magic, mystery, ritual and ceremony. Fuck Thatcher, fuck inner city riots, fuck the Falklands war, fuck grim reality!
UK hardcore or ‘real’ punk was the big seller in 1983, the younger kids determined to create a harder, faster ‘77. A dumbed down, violent, comic strip of musically primitive and politically unsavoury working class nonsense, it was a sad indictment of what the eighties generation believed punk to mean. I struggled to like any of it, but when Illuminated offered me the chance to set up a new hardcore label I didn’t think twice. The Stills Yaron Levy joined me as fulltime partner and we named it Criminal Damage, a suitably hardcore name even though we had absolutely no intention of releasing anything remotely like it. Thankfully Illuminated, who rarely took the time to listen to any of our records, never mentioned the ‘h’ word again.
From the outset I was determined to leave the whole Reading, local group thing behind, and as luck would have it the first couple of groups to attract our interest were the Stunt Kites from Firth Park, Sheffield and Twisted Nerve from Edinburgh. Driven by instinct and enthusiasm, we still didn’t have a clue what we were doing and had no idea how hard it would be to establish the label as a viable entity, but that was probably just as well.
The Membranes were our first long term signing and certainly helped our cause and credibility amongst the fanzine fraternity if nowhere else. Their leader John Robb was, indeed still is, an incredibly charismatic character with the ability to speed talk for hours in his native Blackpool twang before sitting back and cackling like a loon. In the beginning neither of us had regular, easy access to a phone, so at least twice a week he would send me these long, genius letters in his inimitable scratchy, misspelt style. But the thing I liked most about him was his infectious enthusiasm, his positivity and his down to earth realism. Having run his own label and been through the music industry mill a few times himself he knew the score, an extremely rare trait amongst the vast array of musicians I would get to work with.
During those early days I was still holding down a full time job at Reading Borough Council. When I wasn’t running the label from the work phone, making full use of the giant photocopier or posting out promo material free of charge, I was bunking off to the pub or further afield to the Capital. Therefore it didn’t come as any great shock when I was asked to resign in the autumn of 1983 or get the sack. With my first son Daniel due to arrive at any moment the timing could have been better but it meant that I would be able to devote all of my energy to pursuing what made me happiest. I had no worries about the lack of a regular wage either. Signing on again after a five year hiatus proved remarkably lucrative, and with the black market economy in full swing there never seemed to be a shortage of cash in hand jobs if so required. And with the label starting to earn a few quid, I could even afford to have a phone installed in Swansea Road.
Together with their handful of financed, boutique labels, Illuminated were based at 452 Fulham Road, now an ultra-modern Methodist Church but then a shabby, ramshackle collection of old warehouses. A short walk from Fulham Broadway tube station and close to Stamford Bridge, it was a rabbit warren of offices and storage rooms packed with records. We were given our own tiny office on the first floor and for the following year practically lived there; meeting up with groups, going to shows and spending an inordinate amount of time in the pub where we indulged in every kind of potion, powder and pill we could lay our hands on. In fact, it’s a miracle how we managed to get anything done and soon found it necessary to take on the incredibly efficient Caroline Reed to help out. The manager of Mercenary Skank who were signed to the label, she would go on to guide the very early career of the Stone Roses. Hanging out and sleeping overnight on the floor of our cramped, sweaty office surrounded by artwork and the general paraphernalia of running a record label, we had a rare old time dreaming up any number of outlandish schemes, the most ambitious involving the legendary Fall.
In the winter of 1983 word got out that disillusioned with the compromise and machinations of Rough Trade, Mark E. Smith was seeking a new record label. While it sounds somewhat unfeasible now, we were ultra-keen, but not for the first time money proved to be our undoing. A few phone calls to start negotiations made it clear that an advance of at least £35,000 was being sought. I happened to mention it to Illuminated who much to my surprise agreed to stump up half, leaving us to come up with the rest. Regrettably, bearing in mind that my house was worth around £20,000 at the time, there was no way we could get hold of that kind of sum at such short notice. Ultimately The Fall signed to Beggars Banquet where they would go on to release some of the greatest work of their illustrious career under the influence of Mark E.’s new wife Brix.
While signing The Fall may have been a bit pie in the sky, one of my more realistic ideas was re-releasing the Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More soundtracks. That seed had been planted when I tried to find a replacement copy of my much loved, vintage cassette copy of the Sergio Morricone’s classics only to find they had been deleted from the RCA catalogue, a common practice within the music industry until the boom in compact discs created the profitable reissues market of the early nineties. Taking matters into my own hands I hatched a plan to re-release both, phoned RCA the next day and found them agreeable. They biked over a bible sized contract but once again finance, or rather the lack of it, proved problematic. RCA were demanding what I believed to be a fairly reasonable £5,000 advance on licensing royalties but this time Illuminated refused because ‘no-one would be interested’. How wrong they were!
Musically the early to mid-eighties was the best of times to be running an independent label. It definitely felt like we were in the right place at the right time. Just as we were getting into our stride styles that had once been subsumed within the larger, post punk diaspora emerged to be named and identified as specific genres in their own right, not least goth which I had first witnessed at The Batcave but remained deep underground until the NME proclaimed the arrival of ‘Positive Punk’ in February 1983. Goth in all but name, it may have been a cynical, manipulative attempt to connect the latest bunch of rising groups resonating with the disenchanted youth of the country, but it did spark a massive surge of interest that outfits like Southern Death Cult rode for all they were worth. In fact goth would soon become such a dominant force that almost every indie label of note had at least one similarly minded group on its roster, and we were no different.
Initially we pulled out all the stops to sign Blood and Roses and Brigandage, two of ‘Positive Punk’s leading protagonists, on one off singles deals before discovering to our cost that the NME piece had corrupted them beyond repair. After a couple of meetings in expensive West End pubs we realised that we were being given the runaround and both groups were hanging on for the big deal that would never come. That kind of thing happened a lot back then, over the top press attention generally leading to massive ego wanks and hugely inflated visions of grandeur. Nonetheless, by the winter of 1984 we had released records by Look Back In Anger, Ausgang, Anorexic Dread, The Leather Nun, Goth supergroup M.A.D. and Geschlecht Akt and had unwittingly garnered the reputation of being almost exclusively goth.
Renowned journalist and goth historian Mick Mercer gave us the nod on some signings, eventually working part time for the label scribbling nonsensical press releases to bemuse his fellow scribes. Through his girlfriend Look Back In Anger singer Mich Ebeling, we befriended Billy Duffy, who was only too happy to offer his services as a producer for expenses only. Unfortunately, due to his increasing number of Cult commitments he only had time to complete the Look Back in Anger mini LP, but that connection allowed us to freewheel around goths inner sanctum and blag our way onto The Cults Dreamtime tour and their Wembley Arena show supporting Big Country. Fantastic times and all the while juggling the label, a wife, a kid, a mortgage and signing on every two weeks back in the old hometown.
JOY DIVISION ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Single A Side May 1980)
Musically punk united a motley array of malcontents as a force against, a force screaming ‘fuck off!’ But when the question shifted to ‘what now?’, it fractured and dispersed, each shard nurturing its own version of what punk meant and its own vision of where to next. And yet, even as the inevitable arguments raged and the different tribes formed, the common ground remained; punk’s revival of belief in the power of music, the by-product of which was a fabulous diversity of sounds and ideas.
Nobody embodied that power and belief more than Ian Curtis. His suicide in May 1980 at the age of 23 made for instant myth, the sheer commitment of going all the way confirming the authenticity of Joy Division’s words and music in a way that was logical and inevitable. As Curtis always intended, he joined the pantheon of those who lived too intensely and felt too deeply to make it in a world of half measures and continual disappointment, free of ever tainting his name or iconic work with something as inconvenient as the rest of his life.
THE BEAT ‘Two Swords’ (I Just Can’t Stop It LP May 1980)
The Beat’s debut is a prime example of how the new pop of the early eighties was informed by the dread and the questioning of post punk. The ultimate in danceable depression, I Just Can’t Stop It was packed with fourteen songs about suicide, male possessiveness, insanity and self-disgust, the extraordinary ‘Two Swords’ even questioning the ska revivals anti-Nazi raison d’etre by suggesting that we were only fighting to ‘Always attack those things in someone else / Reflections that you can’t face in yourself.’
THE SLITS ‘Man Next Door’ (Single A Side June 1980)
From the outset The Slits were labelled too unruly and just too damn female for stardom, but they staggered on regardless with their unique take on John Holt’s neighbour slagging reggae classic. Performed most famously by Dr. Alimantado and Dennis Brown, as contrary as ever they chose to go in a different direction by turning the originals wish for peace and quiet into a plea for a late night rave up, Ari Up whispering and wailing like a ghost over Viv Albertine’s spidery, spaghetti western runs, a Middle Eastern vibe borrowed from PiL and Adrian Sherwood’s adventuresome, dub madness.
GRACE JONES ‘She’s Lost Control’ (Single B Side June 1980)
Released as the B Side to her version of Chrissie Hynde’s ‘Private Life’, Grace Jones fantastically demented reinvention of Joy Division’s menacing original was the perfect demonstration of her genius. Taking the liberty of changing the lyrics to the first person, she transformed the song into a statement of defiance while stupendous rhythm brothers Sly and Robbie moulded it into their own brand of irresistibly funky, reggae gold dust.
A CERTAIN RATIO ‘Shack Up’ (Single A Side July 1980)
The angular thrust of post punk marked the start of a prolific period for a new crop of sonic outsiders embracing punk’s democratic philosophy to describe their own jaded worldview. One outfit who consistently slipped under the radar were Manchester’s A Certain Ratio who resolutely refused to fit into any scene or style, choosing instead to follow their own musical compass. Mixing an unlikely array of funk, jazz and the avant-garde with their baggy shorts and whistles, ‘Shack Up’ was a giant leap forward from the doom and gloom brigade, seizing on the edgy weirdness of Banbarra’s soulful, 1975 original to gorge in arty, mutoid delight with the glorious awkwardness of a sparsely attended social club knees up.
ORANGE JUICE ‘Blue Boy’ (Single A Side August 1980)
The immediate post punk years carried with them a surfeit of ‘miserabilism’, a dead end of despair, but from their name to their tangled, jingle jangle guitars, everything about Orange Juice immediately felt very different. Like their heroes The Velvet Underground, they were one of those groups whose potential was only ever partially realised, but whose fearless originality bore an influence on guitar music that was thoroughly disproportionate to the number of records they sold.
As the second of four singles they released on the legendarily dysfunctional Postcard label, the powerful punch of ‘Blue Boy’ was typical of their early sound, more Buzzcocks punk than Byrd’s jangle. Culminating in some fantastically cackhanded, out of tune guitar, it was indecently exciting and a brilliant example of the shiny, new, independent pop that was beginning to see the light.
THE SPECIALS ‘Do Nothing’ (More Specials LP September 1980)
More Specials encapsulated the sense of melancholy in the early days of Thatcher’s Britain, the woozy end of pier Wurlitzer, the muted tones of Rico’s sax and Terry Hall’s voice of doom adding to the drab, suffocating despair and lack of self-worth. ‘Do Nothing’ may have conjured up the aural vision of a blissful, easy listening utopia, but in keeping with the albums ruinously bleak theme, beneath the surface everything was fucked up and about as far from the cheery Madness of ‘Baggy Trousers’ as it was possible to get!
THE LINES ‘Nerve Pylon’ (Single A Side October 1980)
Shut out of post punk’s retro mania, perhaps it was the incredible volume of post punk groups springing up in the early eighties that relegated The Lines to the margins or maybe it was because they weren’t exactly the most revolutionary outfit in the land. But to me, a nineteen year old music fanatic desperately trying to gain a foothold in the DIY underground, they were the first group to actively encourage my somewhat naïve and annoying enthusiasm, even going so far as to provide an exclusive track for my final X Cassette compilation,
Starting out in 1978 with a series of singles and EP’s that were typically angular and jittery before progressing to become more and more atmospheric and dubbed out, even as a blindly appreciative fanboy I wasn’t prepared for the revelation of the masterful ‘Nerve Pylon’, whereupon they shed their experimentalist nature and went for it with a record that in an alternate reality would surely have been a huge hit.
THOMAS DOLBY ‘Airwaves‘ (From Brussels With Love Cassette Compilation November 1980)
An arty as fuck cassette compilation from Factory Records wannabes Les Disque Du Crepuscule, From Brussels With Love woke me up to the possibility of art in music and that such intelligent dilettantism might be one way out of the malaise. Embedded as I was within early eighties cassette culture, such an aesthetically pleasing object was something for me to aspire to. Very much a snapshot of its time with a Brian Eno interview alongside John Foxx’s synth sketches, a Richard Jobson poem, a Durutti Column instrumental, Howard Budd’s gorgeous ‘Children On The Hill’ and Thomas Dolby’s poignant ‘Airwaves’, it’s still not an easy listen. Then again, it was never meant to be.
D.A.F. ‘Der Rauber Und Der Prinz‘ (Alles Ist Gut LP March 1981)
D.A.F were a Düsseldorf duo of kinky leather boys who used their brutalist Eurodisco stomp and guttural voices to flirt with forbidden taboos although ‘Der Rauber Und Der Prinz’ is really no more than a nursery rhyme played on what sounds like a toy piano about a prince who falls in love with a thief. A bit like a sinister fairytale but not!
SOFT CELL ‘Memorabilia’ (Single B Side March 1981)
Soft Cell came from a similar place sonically and spiritually to D.A.F. but there was no-one quite like Marc Almond. 22 years old and wonderfully uncool with a voice wavering all over the place yet bursting with an all too human passion, he liked to explore the seedier side of life, living out his fantasies in the darkened doorways, alleys, queer joints and clubs of old Soho.
BIRTHDAY PARTY ‘Nick The Stripper’ (Prayers On Fire LP April 1981)
KILLING JOKE ‘Tension’ (Single B Side May 1981)
Unable to get past the kitsch horror leanings, the death obsession and the funereal clothing, outsiders enjoyed ridiculing goth. Knocking around in the same circle as most of the leading players, I was far too close to pass judgement. And yet given how much the genre dominated my life in the first half of the eighties, I’m surprised how little of it has stayed with me.
Of course neither The Birthday Party nor Killing Joke were truly goth, but like The Banshees and Bauhaus they were the cornerstones of the sound and the sensibility. At first Killing Joke seemed vaguely political before that notion was swept away by the dark energy swirling around them while The Birthday Party introduced one Nicholas Edward Cave, who even in the early years filled his work with Old Testament imagery and his own particular brand of death rattle‘n’roll.
THE CRAMPS ‘Goo Goo Muck’ (Single A Side May 81)
Another goth touchstone, The Cramps made me realise just how wrong I’d been about Elvis and how fifties rockabilly, sixties garage bands and seventies punk were essentially the same thing. Obsessed with an underground rock’n’roll subculture of hair grease, girl groups, science fiction B movies and comic books, their rockabilly monster mash was irresistibly cool.
PIGBAG ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’ (Single A Side May 1981)
How odd that Pigbag’s motorised, free jazz, funk groove littered with squalling, squeaky horns and underpinned by the Tarzan TV theme from the sixties should become the shock dance hit of the era.
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN ‘No Dark Things’ (Heaven Up Here LP May 1981)
Heaven Up Here was when I realised Ian McCulloch wasn’t just a gobshite scouser in love with himself, and that The Bunnymen’s soaring mix of post punk and pomp possessed the brilliance to stir that anything is possible feeling deep within, its eleven songs seemed to recognise that amongst all the angst and the pain, what life is really all about is seizing onto each precious moment of hedonistic chaos while trying desperately not to trip over in the mad dash to escape the prospect of a living hell on earth. And whether you’re twenty, forty, sixty or presumably eighty, that need for occasional, blissful relief never really goes away.
BOW WOW WOW ‘Prince Of Darkness’ (Single A Side July 1981)
Musically Bow Wow Wow were extraordinary; joyful, pure pop choruses, highlife African rhythms, spaghetti western guitar and rabid vocal chants. Cut by Malcolm McLaren from the same cloth he sold to Adam Ant for £1,000, the extraordinary subject matter of their songs boasted ahead of their time concepts that would not be acknowledged until the 21st century; the celebration of the absence of work, the total rejection of fathers as necessary parents and how the rise of portable technology would make music omnipresent in people’s lives but infinitely less important.
DURAN DURAN ‘Girls On Film’ (Single A Side July 1981)
No matter how much I sneered at the part they played in the death of music as rebellion or provocation, Duran Duran’s irresponsibility and cheap glamour were undeniably exciting, even for an ex-punk immersing himself in an underground of noise and independence. My wife’s seventeen year old sister was obsessed with them. On the cusp of womanhood, to her they encompassed every teenage fantasy there ever was with the promise of a fabulous life ahead packed with beautiful boys, glamour, wealth, cars and yachts. What could possibly go wrong? I saw her a few years ago for the first time in over twenty years. Aged and battered by life’s bitter blows, her hopes and dreams crushed by the harsh reality of an alcoholic husband and a neurotic son, I barely recognised her.
HUMAN LEAGUE ‘Hard Times’/’Love Action’ (Single A Side July 1981)
Phil Oakey is a top bloke in my book. We all knew that pop was about the endless self-regard and ego of the performer, but he knew instinctively that pop exists to make us feel that our lives are worthy and to transform the mundane into the magical. Somehow, with the help of two, everyday, shop girls, he reconstructed what was effectively a prissy art project into a new pop concept that sold millions. Genius.
SCRITTI POLITTI ‘The Sweetest Girl’ (Single A Side August 1981)
Scritti Politti and Green Gartside were a refreshingly weird punk paradox. Once DIY to the point of death, Green did a complete about turn and became the first post punk musician to talk about pop as the way forward. I knew what he meant and embraced the new Scritti whole- heartedly, their precision tooled, contemporary dance pop hiding words that on the surface were rinky dinky love ditties but underneath were angry hymns for the disillusioned. The problem was, for all of Green’s wolf in sheep’s clothing, punk rhetoric, in the end, buying in or selling out, was there really any difference?
TOM TOM CLUB ‘Genius Of Love’ (Single A Side September 1981)
In 1981 Blondie's ‘Rapture’ and the Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ pushed me into paying more attention to the new rap thing. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s follow up to their chipmunk infected smash was even better, ‘Genius Of Love’ a reverential tribute to black music that continues to be played in old skool DJ sets to this day.
JAPAN ‘Cantonese Boy’ (Tin Drum LP November 1981)
Japan singer David Sylvian was once described as ‘too fragile to fuck’, but what attracted me more was Japan’s reputation as the ultimate Anglo art fag nightmare, when in fact what they were really doing was rebelling against the mundane realities of grey day, urban Britain just as much as the Sex Pistols. Tin Drum was their final statement and as such featured songs with titles referencing communist China while not actually being about China, sung by a dandy singer who was the epitome of western decadence. They sure as hell don’t make them like that anymore!
FUN BOY THREE ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ (Single A Side November 1981)
Terry Hall may have been a miserable bastard but on the first Fun Boy Three single, somehow he managed to say what we were all thinking and feeling better than anyone. And all in a little over three minutes too.
AFRIKA BAMBAATA & THE SOUL SONIC FORCE ‘Planet Rock’ (Single A Side April 1982)
In the spring of 1982 a fresh faced, sixteen year old black kid called Jeremiah turned up on my doorstep clutching a cassette of his own electro material and a twelve inch copy of ‘Planet Rock’ he’d brought along for reference in case I didn’t know the genre of music I was listening to. Having just released the Beyond The River Reading compilation, he was hoping I could help him turn his dream of releasing his own record into reality but soon realised that his initial instinct had been the right one. As good as his two track demo and the extraordinary, genuinely ground breaking ‘Planet Rock’ sounded, to my eternal shame I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that rap, electro, hip hop or whatever you want to call it was still just a passing novelty!
Ridiculous maybe, but within the context of the times perfectly understandable because in 1982, apart from a few switched on fashionista’s, the British smalltown majority knew literally nothing about New York rap culture. In 1982 the only thing I knew about was white boys with guitars and in reality I didn’t know too much about them. When I finally bid farewell to Jeremiah I asked him to stay in touch but I never heard from him again. However, one thing I did do was rush out to buy ‘Planet Rock’ and to this day, every time I hear it I wonder what became of him.
THE CLASH ‘Know Your Rights’ (Single A Side April 1982)
The Clash disappeared off my radar soon after London Calling. There was just too much other stuff going on. As they trooped off to America, any trace of what they had once been turned to dust. Then came Combat Rock. Introduced by ‘Know Your Rights’, their angriest song since 1977, they were back again, although this time they were just passing through on their way to the knackers yard.
ASSOCIATES ‘Party Fears Two’ (Sulk LP May 1982)
A year or so after I met The Stills they began renting a flat together in Starling Drive, Tilehurst. Everything you would expect from a space inhabited by five eighteen year olds, it was filthy, chaotic, drink soaked, laced with pharmaceuticals and semi naked girls. Strangely, despite the clear signs of debauchery going on around me, the one thing I remember is The Associates splendidly grandiose Sulk and Billy MacKenzie’s quasi-operatic vocals being played so often that it ended up covered in scratches, snakebite, fag burns, various powders and other unidentifiable goo; a metaphor for the times and that flat.
ABC ‘Date Stamp’ (The Lexicon Of Love LP June 1982)
Early in 1981 Martin Fry posted out a cassette of ABC’s first recordings with a stylish, handwritten manifesto to every UK fanzine including my own Bits, a new, glossy ‘super’ fanzine I was working on with Richard Griffin. Fry’s ready to go piece took pride of place in the first issue, mainly because it fitted right in with our efforts to up the ante and produce something of quality and distinction. As a result I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when ABC began to contribute a more thoughtful, intellectual approach to the new pop theories emerging from post punk, and proved that it really was possible for gawky, ordinary boys from Sheffield to make literate and creatively ambitious pop that was far better than most.
YELLO ‘Pinball Cha Cha’ (Single A Side June 1982)
In my visits to The Batcave during the high summer of 1982, there was one song that seemed to capture the spirit of the place and yet I had no idea what it was called or who it was by. Somehow I managed to get hold of a mixtape of the regular DJ set and there it was slotted in amongst The Sweet and Eddie Cochran, although without a track listing I remained none the wiser as to its identity. Thirty years later, with the cassette long gone, I tried in vain to hunt the song down one last time until one evening, while idly sampling songs on iTunes, there it was in all its glory, bursting out of the speakers like a long lost friend.
DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS ‘Let’s Make This Precious’ (Too-Rye-Ay LP July 1982)
On first listen Dexy’s were little more than an entertaining sideshow vaguely aligned with Two Tone. While I eventually warmed to their young soul rebel rhetoric, it was only because I was reminded of Joe Strummer with a holdall full of classic soul instead of rockabilly. Then came the seriously curved ball of Too-Rye-Ay’s new, ‘new soul vision’ with Dexy’s as raggle taggle gypsy’s swinging their banjos and fiddles. Amazingly the music was even better second time around, with Kevin Rowland toning down the clever, clever pretensions to ramp up his undeniable passion and the rousing Irish melodies.
SIMPLE MINDS ‘Glittering Prize’ (New Gold Dream LP September 1982)
Like Dare and The Lexicon of Love, New Gold Dream was an album which for one dazzling moment made us all believe that the new pop ideology had won out, and from punks doubt and endless questioning it was perfectly possible for hit records to be made that had the ability to crash through all the misery and celebrate life no matter how hard actually living it might be. ‘Glittering Prize’ captured the moment perfectly, although we would soon find out that our new belief was a lie just like all the others.
SHRIEKBACK ‘My Spine Is The Bassline’ (Single A Side September 1982)
Shriekback started out in the avant funk zone making a weird kind of quasi disco. By the time they got to ‘My Spine Is The Bassline’ most of that experimental stuff had been dropped and they were very nearly groovy.
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES ‘Slowdive’ (Single A Side October 1982)
On record Siouxsie was just too icy, too detached, the musicians scratching away behind her almost completely bereft of melody. That changed when Magazine guitarist John McGeoch joined the party and yet A Kiss In The Dreamhouse remains the only Banshees album I can bear to listen to in its entirety. Following the enveloping darkness of Juju, for once the imagery was light, sensual and exotic like Siouxsie herself, ‘Slowdive’ itself showcasing their emergence into full blown eighties psychedelia with a dance groove so hypnotic it made perfect sense when LCD Soundsystem covered it over twenty years and a lifetime later.
MARK STEWART & THE MAFIA ‘Jerusalem’ (Single A Side October 1982)
After The Pop Group’s demise, Mark Stewart continued to carry his own punk values with him by refusing to fiddle while Babylon burned. As a select, moneyed elite danced till dawn in hedonistic oblivion gorging on eighties pop pap, he confronted the real world, chopping up well known lyrics and micro samples to document the growing sense of alienation creeping through the cracks of modernity. Predictably his dubbed to fuck remake of William Blake’s unofficial national anthem failed to make it onto The Last Night of the Proms, the skeletal instrumentation, painfully discordant vocals and ironic samples not exactly conducive to a triumphant, mass sing-song.
MALCOLM MCLAREN ‘Buffalo Gals’ (Single A Side November 1982)
As John Lydon trotted off to America for a career in stadium punk panto, his old bete noire Malcolm McLaren headed home to monochrome, smalltown Blighty bearing a new bag of goodies. Convinced that a rediscovery of the earthy and ethnic was imminent, ‘Buffalo Girls’ and its video brought the technicolour explosion of New York hip hop culture into every pop kid’s living room. And they haven’t looked back since!
TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Mad World’ (The Hurting LP March 1983)
With a name, album and songs inspired by Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream Therapy, Tears For Fears were never going to be a giggly bundle of raucous, riotous laughter. Mistakenly pigeon-holed with new popster’s like the Duranies, The Hurting’s darker, intelligent edge connected in a way Simon Le Bon never could. Chronicling the pain, hurt and hope surrounding the transition from childhood to adult- hood, the earworm quality of songs like ‘Suffer The Children’, ‘Mad World’ and ‘Pale Shelter’ demanded attention, and continue to resurrect some wonderful, long forgotten memories of an earlier, angst ridden age of ridiculous seriousness while reminding me what brilliant tunes they were in the first place.
THE MOB ‘Prison’ (Let The Tribe Increase LP April 1983)
I’ve been looking for a way out of the rat race my entire life and the early eighties were no different. Exploring every option, a couple of years after my mushroom induced brush with hippy, the puritanical ideology of Crass read like a viable alternative until I realised that in practice it was more or less the same thing; laudable, worthy but impractical unless you happened to live in a large, rambling cottage on the outskirts of Epping Forest.
The Mob operated inside but existed outside of the joyless Crass manifesto, even if the dog on a string, anarcho punk lemmings didn’t know it. They made one brilliant single ‘No Doves Cry Here’ and an album which underlined in no uncertain terms that no matter where you go and no matter what you do, no-one can ever opt out completely because the world will always be there to sneak up and bite you on the arse.
BAUHAUS ‘She’s In Parties’ (Single A Side April 1983)
Deep in the black heart of gothic splendour I was overdosing daily on tribal drums and could spot a goth and their music from a thousand yards. But being both the first and the best, Bauhaus were very, very different, the subtle, metallic, dub influence beneath the scraping guitar scree on their final single a genre or two away from the standard tired clichés. At the time there was so much else going on I don’t think we realised quite what we had lost, but today their influence stretches as far, often further, than many of their more lauded contemporaries.
23 SKIDOO ‘Coup’ (Single A Side November 1983)
Punk had denied all forms of black music apart from roots and dub, but in the early, glorious post punk climate the name of James Brown began to be whispered, funk being another way out of the ‘What now?’ impasse. Much of it coalesced around The Pop Group and Bristol where in any club on any given night you could hear a cultural meltdown of punk, soul, funk, jazz and early hip hop. 23 Skidoo were from North London not Bristol, but they had followed the same path by allowing black music back into their intellectual post punk rhetoric and releasing the classic ‘Coup’, the absolute peak of alternative, British, punk funk.
MALCOLM X ‘No Sell Out’ (Single A Side November 1983)
The simplistic cut ups of Malcolm X speeches grafted onto hardcore computer beats dragged the Nation of Islam protagonist and hip hop into this nation’s consciousness when political comment in pop had virtually stopped and hip hop records were still difficult to find on the High Street. Minor hits like this helped send it overground.
HASHIM ‘Al-Naafyish (The Soul)’ (Street Sounds Electro 2 LP November 1983)
Morgan Khan’s Street Sounds Electro series took eight or so American dance imports, turned them into one continuous mix, and presented upwards of 25 quid’s worth of twelve inch singles on an album for under a fiver. As a business plan it was inspired, all ten of the original volumes released between 1983 and 1985 charting nationally. But as a scene creator it completely changed the sound of UK dance music. For a large proportion of British youth, it was the first time they’d heard anything as strange and radical as Hashim’s ‘Al Naafyish’, Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines’ or Rammellzee v’s K-Rob’s back to basics ‘Beat Bop’.
THE FALL ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ (Single A Side August 1984)
Once upon a time the idea of The Fall recording a song as straightforwardly catchy as ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ would have been laughable, but Mark E. Smith’s musical doctrine noticeably shifted with the arrival of his first wife, the Los Angeles born Brix. In fact, the five year period between 1983 and 1988 would prove to be the most creative, commercial and lucrative period in The Fall’s twisted history, their songs driven by the tension between her pop sensibility and his natural inclination towards minimalism and repetition. However, there was to be no let-up in the witty rancorousness of his worldview, ‘C.R.E.E.P.’s charming riff carrying with it a vicious pen-portrait of ‘a horrid trendy wretch’ who had committed the ultimate sin of being influenced by the lairy northerner himself.
LLOYD COLE & THE COMMOTIONS ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (Rattlesnakes LP October 1984)
Another twangy, Scottish, pop record, Rattlesnakes crept up and caught me by surprise. Whether it was Cole’s glaringly obvious love for Lou Reed or his songs about what it was like being male, educated and intelligent yet completely obsessed with girls and sex, for a couple of months I believed it to be was one of the greatest albums I’d ever heard.
THE SMITHS ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ (Hatful Of Hollow LP November 1984)
In 1984 nothing looked like The Smiths and nothing sounded like them either. In seriously adult times they bought adolescence back to the charts, providing fantasies of innocence for those in the awkward space between childhood and adulthood who dreamt of wanting something more from life but knew deep down that ultimately they would relinquish those dreams and buckle down to decades of terminal mediocrity. In an age when mock sophistication and money was everything, The Smiths spoke of retreating from the world, hooked on the glamour of the misfit; those pasty youths at parties who cling to the dark corners in chaste disdain driven by the vague conviction that all merriment is a lie.
JESUS AND MARY CHAIN ‘Upside Down’ (Single A Side November 1984)
I met Alan McGee of Creation Records at his tiny Living Room Club and a Reading University Membranes show. Needless to say I took an instant dislike to him. A big mouthed, Television Personalities influenced, sixties obsessive keen to perpetuate the bullshit myths of rock’n’roll, his philosophy from the start was to throw enough shit at the wall until something stuck and then when it did, sell out to some conglomerate as quickly as possible. I questioned whether he even liked music, the only ‘punk rock’ thing about him being his dog shit breath.
Naturally I desperately wanted to hate ‘Upside Down’, the record that really made his name, but as the most terrifying rock noise of all time and a genius leap in the dark, how could I? And yet that didn’t change my opinion of McGee. Before the Mary Chain everyone considered him an arrogant, annoying twat. Immediately after the singles release, he was suddenly being revered as some kind of genius. But I still didn’t rate him and even now I struggle to reconcile the weedy pussy he so obviously was with the rocknrolla gangster he’s perceived to be.
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome‘ (Welcome To The Pleasuredome LP November 1984)
Songs about sex, love and the Cold War, a fourteen minute song referencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a song in which Ronald Reagan quotes Hitler. A song in which Prince Charles discusses orgasms, and even a song about fisting. Songs banned by radio stations, their videos banned by TV controllers. Songs that bore little resemblance to those written by a group who scarcely even played on them. Out of all these things came a record that for Thatcher’s children was their Never Mind The Bollocks while for my Generation X it was very much punk’s last blast.
Emulating the Sex Pistols in almost every way, Frankie Goes To Hollywood shone so brightly and raged so hard that they blew away any remaining trace of new pop, and post Bob ‘fucking’ Geldof and Live Aid led us back to the arid musical wasteland of our childhoods. Much more than just music, Welcome To The Pleasuredome was a manifesto, a satire, a historical document, and a masterpiece whose weaknesses were obvious but whose strengths were overwhelming. Our pop lives would never be the same again!