Friday 17 February 2017

8 From The '80s

In response to being nominated by Seamus Duggan for the ‘8 from the 80s’ thread that was going around Facebook, I wrote these entries, one by one. Here they are, all together. Eight songs from the ’80s that mean the most to you, kind of thing.

#1: ‘Apology Accepted’ by The Go-Betweens. It would be very easy for all eight songs from the 80s to be Go-Betweens’ songs, but I’m going to nominate one song from each artist, to keep it representative. So let’s head straight for their best album, which is Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. This record contains at least three stone classics from the group, in ‘Headful of Steam’, ‘The Wrong Road’ and the track finally chosen, all of them vying equally, and equally worthy of, top place. ‘Headful’ is the manic, sunny yet somewhat sinister pop side of the band (contributed by Robert Forster, although he is usually thought of as the Lennon of the songwriting partnership, to Grant MacLennon’s McCartney – further evidence of how seamlessly they meet and how hard it can be to tell them apart when they are working together), while ‘Wrong Road’ and ‘Apology’ are MacLennon ballads. ‘Wrong Road’ has a lot of lyrical/poetic complexity going for it, but in the end I plumped for the latter because of its greater emotional heft. (Also, it’s relatively easy to play on the guitar.) Naivety and awkwardness in the face of more worldly-wise, experienced women is a theme shared by ‘Headful’ and ‘Apology’, but given a more yearning and wistful, less playful and teasing-the-teaser, treatment here. ‘Headful’’s infatuation is camuflaged, ‘Apology’’s is naked. I’ve no idea what was going on in these guys’ private lives at the time. Nor do I care. Just bathe in it, and enjoy.


#2 ‘Stolen Property’ by The Triffids. We stay Down Under, for a song by The Go-Betweens fellow-countrypeople, The Triffids. Born Sandy Devotional is, again, the group’s best album. Before this, they verred towards ragged punk, after this they became a tad over-elaborate and over-produced. While there are before and after songs I dearly love (‘Jesus Calling’, ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train’; ‘Bury Me Deep In Love’), this record is the sweet spot where the balance is exactly right. (I, to my shame, seem to be an inveterate albums guy, even when talking about individual songs.) As it’s a case of ‘All killer, no filler’, any number of tracks from this album could have stood in in a representative capacity: ‘The Seabirds’; ‘Estuary Bed’; ‘Lonely Stretch’, ‘Wide Open Road’; ‘Tender Is The Night (The Long Fedelity)’. I finally settled on ‘Stolen Property’ because it is the most epic track on the collection, the centerpiece that everything has been building towards (with the delightful coda of ‘Tender’). ‘You are not freeing any people from prison/You’ve got an aphorism for every occasion’. Perth, where this band were from, is reputedly the most remote major city on earth. David McComb (RIP) knew about being physically surrounded by endless desert. But he knew about the deserts of the heart, too.


#3 ‘No Sex’ by Alex Chilton. Having created something as near to perfection as you can ever get on this earth with his bandmates in Big Star, Alex Chilton spent the late 70s and 80s being degenerate and decadent, displaying his eclectic genre-hopping across a run of albums, EPs and singles. When ‘No Sex’ sprung out of the speakers in the mid-80s, it was a blast of pure punk – lyrically if not altogether musically (I seem to remember hearing a much heavier live version somewhere, but I can’t locate it at the moment) – a call back to an attitude which seemed to be dying, or going underground. ‘Can’t get it on/Or even get high/Come on baby/Fuck me and die’. It expressed perfectly mid-80s nihilsim and angst in the face of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, which everyone really did think was going to be an apocalypse back then – before the medics got to work on the problem. Conspiracy theories, mass hysteria, judgements from God: oh what times! (‘Hey Little Child’, by the way, was released in 1979, thus excluding it from this list.) William Alexander Chilton: agent provocateur; consumate musician.


#4 ‘America Without Tears’ by Declan McManus. Again, any number of Elvis Costello songs from the 80s would have an equal claim, and any number of songs from this album, King of America. Co-produced with T-Bone Burnett (they’d been buddies for a long time, doubling as country act Hank & Howard Coward), it remains perhaps his finest hour. This number is tale of G.I.s finding English brides during WWII, and bringing them home. I remember the wonderfully evocative blank and white original video, with footage of couples waltzing in dancehalls, but I can’t locate it just now on the t-idirlíon.


#5 ‘This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)’ by Talking Heads. Frequently criticised at the time as overly cerebral, this verdict ignored David Byrne’s and the band’s incorporating elements of funk and gospel , which actually began quite early (e.g. their cover of ‘Take Me To The River’). This is the band at its most yearning. By David Byrne’s admission, lyrically it is the only straight love song he had written up to that point. It’s a naive melody because the guitar and bass both play the same parts. It remains untarnished despite having its title coopted for Paolo Sorrentino’s interminable film. When my friend and former student Janey Lewis died, this was one of the songs she selected to be played at the service at her funeral (along with ‘Raised On Robbery’ by Joni Mitchell, and ‘I Predict A Riot’ by The Kaiser Chiefs). Probably not even the band's best song, and Fear Of Music is their strongest album, yet relatively atypical though it is, it sure has the resonance of all their best work.


#6 ‘Straight To Hell’ by The Clash. Given recent events in the ‘druggy-drag ragtime USA’, this song about immigration seems just as releveant as it was when released back in 1982. However, Joe Strummer does not limit himself to the plight of those Vietmanese kids - abandoned by their G.I. fathers - with the ‘Amerasian Blues’, but references hostility to immigrants in the north of England after steel mills have closed down (hey, that’s going on now too, ‘blame those Poles down the road, not the bankers’ for the recession), Latinos in Nueva York, and broadens his trademark collage canvas in the final verse to include everyone everywhere: ‘It could be anywhere/Most likely could be any frontier/Any hemisphere/No man's land and there ain't no asylum here/King Solomon he never lived round here.’ Donald Trump certainly ain’t no King Solomon. But, as always, the lyrics are only half the story, and Mick Jones supplies a very tasty, hypnotic two chord guitar and keyboard reverb figure, nailed with a throbbing bassline and fluid ‘bossa nova’ drumming from rhythm section Paul Simenon and Topper Heddon. I, of course, prefer the longer version producedby Mick Jones, which later appeared on the bootleg Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, rather than the one on official release Combat Rock which - under record company pressure - had been doctored by Glynn Johns to produce a shorter album. The thing about The Clash was, in their short career they kept churning out great stuff right up until the end (I mean until Mick Jones left). They kind of knew they’d painted (one of) their masterpieces when they’d finished laying down this track, as remembered by Saint Joe:

‘I'd written the lyric staying up all night at the Iroquois Hotel. I went down to Electric Lady and I just put the vocal down on tape, we finished about twenty to midnight. We took the E train from the Village up to Times Square. I'll never forget coming out of the subway exit, just before midnight, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we had just done something really great.’

Joe Strummer, Clash on Broadway box set booklet.


#7 ‘How Soon Is Now?’ by The Smiths. I was at a bedsit party in my student days when this song came on, and a fellow scholar instantly opined: “Probably their worst song”. I stared at him with what I believe, in retrospect, could well be termed ‘blank incredulity’. (I do hope there wasn’t a hint of scorn in there too.) But he was on to something, for although it is ‘probably their best song’ (© Des Traynor), it is also atypical. To crib shamelessly from Wikipedia: ‘In contrast to the frequent chord changes he had employed in most Smiths' songs, Marr wanted to explore building a song around a single chord (in this case, F).’ It is, of course, the heavy tremolo effect throughout which is most memorable about the song. I had always presumed, before I did my research, that this had been achieved by playing through the vibrato * function on a Vox AC30 (despite having roadtested various amps, still the only amps I have ever owned – aside from practice and acoustic amps). Turns out it was a good deal more complicated than that, and involved the use of four Fender Twin Reverbs and a lot of tape speed manipulation. Then there’s that equally memorable, intermittent, slicing slide figure, with a touch of delay. The whole thing was a bugger to play live, apparently. Oh yes, the lyrics I hear you ask. While I hold no brief for Morris (whose chief problem is that he is in the music business and isn’t a musician, and so therefore must keep resorting publicity-seeking posturing to stoke the fires of interest), and regard his solo career as largely self-parody, this is perhaps the moment where his miserablist minimalist mode reached its zenith, nay, its apogee. The scene painted over the bridge is particularly brave and affecting. ‘I’m not in with the in crowd.’ But finally, this track demonstrates in microcosm what all their work affirms, which is that despite the fact that Johnny Marr has had the more interesting and fruitful solo career, together they were more than the sum of the parts.


* Tremolo and vibrato are often confused, and the terms are used interchangeably among even the most knowledgeable and tech-savvy musicians. For the record, tremolo is modulation achieved by variations in volume, while with vibrato it is achieved by variations in pitch. But it’s not surprising that most people – even musicians – are unconsciously flummoxed, since the tremolo arm on guitars is really a vibrato arm, and the vibrato function on an AC30 is really a tremolo effect.


#8 ‘Thoughtless Kind’ by John Cale. And so we come to the last of my ‘8 from the ’80s’, and naturally there is a queue around the corner for the last available place. I’ve always had a deep fondness for ‘Long Time Man’ off of Your Funeral, My Trial by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, but it’s a Tim Rose cover, which sort of invalidates it. ‘Hairshirt’ is probably my favourite REM song (along with ‘Cuyahoga’) , (‘There were three great bands in the ’80s, REM, The Smiths and us. I just think that will become more and more obvious over time.’ – Robert Forster.), but there’s only room for one more. From the at times harrowing maserpiece that is Music For A New Society, this is Cale looking back on madness and fractured or broken relationships and friendships. You know who you are. It is remarkable for its equanimity and lack of bitterness. It embodies sad hope in the face of destructive, hardwon experience. I don’t much care for the updated M:FANS version, but then Cale always did like taking a sledgehammer to some of his back catelogue. But what happens when you take a sledgehammer to what’s already been sledgehammered? Let’s not be so unkind, but rather call them ‘creative’ reinterpretations. Actually, my favourite version is the live acoustic guitar one from Fragments Of A Rainy Season. But here’s the original, in all its twisted wonder.

  “Absent friends”, I say, raising a glass.




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