Salford Folk

The Star InnA regular haunt when I was at University in the late 70s was The Star, in Back Hope Street, Salford. Ignoring the rather more easily accessible delights of the student bar at Castle Irwell (and the casino opposite), we’d walk out of the horseshoe-shaped village, down Cromwell Road, turn left, past the fish and chip shop which would come in useful later in the evening, and was also good for celebrity spotting – I stood in the line for chips next to Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley once, struck dumb with shyness (I think we both were). On past Manchester United’s training ground The Cliff, eventually turning right down an unlikely-looking narrow street. No big signs, hardly any signs at all in fact, no foot traffic.. odds were you wouldn’t just happen to walk by, someone had to show you where it was, which was part of the attraction.

Opposite was the Horseshoe, which was a pretty good pub, but the main attraction was The Star and the folk club night, run by Martin Gittins, part of a duo called Pint’n’Half who, if memory serves, would often open up the show and then hand over to the guest performers. The folk/comedy stylists Mike Harding and Bob Williamson were probably the most famous of those, and we saw many more. The politics of songs at the club fit in with my proto-lefty leanings, and the Robinson’s beer (including the lethal Old Tom) was excellently kept by one-armed landlord and local legend Wally Marshall.

On darts night at The Star, the competitors would play on a Manchester Log-End, or Lancashire, board. You think darts is difficult: well, play on a Log-End and you’ll encounter a whole new source of frustration. They’re about two thirds the size of the ones you see on telly, and have no treble ring. They have to be kept in water, or they split – they’re sawn from an elm log – so about half an hour before the match started, someone would retrieve the thoroughly soaked dart board and hang it up. I’d like to see Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor or ‘Barney’ Barneveld have a go at one of those.

This all popped back into my memory a few days ago, so I did a quick search to see how things are now. The Horseshoe is now gone, and The Star had some problems recently, but I am pleased to see it is now run as a co-operative, bought by its regulars in 2009. Good for them. It is a fine place, and if you’re ever out that way, drop in.

Memory aid for this article provided by Jim Simpson’s fine history, on the pub web site.

Song For A Friend

A particular highlight from last year was the Pet Shop Boys’ Electric album, a fine record chock full of the kind of spot-on English synth-pop wizardry that Messrs. Lowe and Tennant present us with on a very regular basis.

An old friend of mine would have really enjoyed Love Is A Bourgeois Construct .. he was always very enthusiastic about the films of Peter Greenaway and the music of Michael Nyman. Nyman’s Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds from The Draughtsman’s Contract is the sample the PSBs worked into the song.

I say ‘would have enjoyed’, because my friend is no longer with us. He was a Scot, born in the 50s, who spent a large part of his childhood isolated due to illness, and as I understand quite solitary until he went to secondary school. I met him in the early 80s when I stared work at the same company, and we became good friends. He came out a few years later. Some of his family accepted his choice and supported him but his father and sister didn’t. The torment eventually led to him taking his own life in 2005.

Through the 90s and early 00s, we worked in different places and didn’t meet up as often – when we did, we caught up, visited some favourite haunts and talked about the old days, with no pressure, and maybe that was a little bit of an escape from what he was going through. I knew he was under stress, and I hope I helped a little by being a friend. He was a fine fellow, and this song will now always remind me of him.

Closing Time at The Cobbler’s Thumb

The Cobbler's ThumbNews this week that one of my old haunts is set to feel the merciless punch of the wrecking ball – The Cobbler’s Thumb, in Brighton, is finally to be demolished after years of structural neglect. The old girl will be knocked down before she falls down, though for a while in the early noughties, it seemed likely it would be the other way around.

It became one of those pubs where everyone knew your name (or at the very least, alcohol-fuddled, tried to remember it) and a place in its heyday that always felt welcoming and snug. That wasn’t the case when two friends of mine became managers.. the pub was tired, it looked pretty desolate on most week nights, the only highlight (read: more than five people drinking) being Thursday – quiz night. But Geoff and Nicci gradually took charge: the decor was spruced up, the drinks range sorted, and attendance picked up.

Problem: the Thursday quiz became the least popular night of the week. The Cobbler’s Thumb just wasn’t the kind of place that suited the silence necessary for a serious pub quiz with a martinet of a quiz master. It needed a buzz.

A quick consultation with Geoff and I was a DJ (hey, wasn’t everybody in Brighton in those days?), supplanting the quiz. By plugging my laptop into the pub sound system, I found my feet and aimed to please with an array of classic sounds: punk, reggae, ska, Northern Soul, 60s, glam rock, Stax, rockabilly, old school hip hop.. things which just seemed to feel right stuck together on a playlist.

I started out with around 400 songs, so requests for tunes often had to be politely negotiated. “I don’t have that.. how about this?”. But I listened and learned, and would be back the following week with additions to the collection, often whole swathes of MP3s brought in by the regulars for me to play.

Little traditions sprung up.. Andy’s punk “Triple Play”, and always some Hank Williams to end the evening (unless we all got locked in, of course). We played John Peel’s All Time Festive Fifty when the great man passed away. We played a couple of great all-dayers with fans of Brighton and Hove Albion and Leicester City contributing to charity.

What could be better than playing music for your friends and having a couple of beers whilst doing it? Because they were my friends.. not staff, not punters, not clientele, for god’s sake.. just regular folks out for a good time, ones you were very happy to see and who made it plain they were happy to see you.  The best kind of people. Those Thursday nights were very special to me.

Here’s a Spotify playlist in memoriam. Good times.

Northern Soul – The Greatest Record Ever Made

Part 4 – Pure gold, and what might be described as Northern Soul’s biggest ever ‘find’, Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) was originally released on Motown’s subsidiary label Soul in 1965. Frank wanted to concentrate on producing, and Motown boss Berry Gordy would certainly have had him do that. The vocal line isn’t quite as strong as you’d expect if Smokey or Marvin had cut the tune. Consequently the vast majority of the 250 demo discs were destroyed.

There may be as many as five in existence, and if the unthinkable happens and you find one, you’re on to a winner. In 2009, a copy sold for 25,742 pounds. That’s 40,000 dollars, Americans.

Not only a rare record, but a great record. And here’s the real zinger – it was the last record ever played at Wigan Casino when it closed in 1981. DJ Russ Winstanley explains what happened when he came to play the traditional set-closing ‘three before eight‘:

I played them, and then I played them again, because people were just handclapping to the beat when the records had finished. I don’t know why, but I then played what has since become recognised as the best and most valuable Northern track ever, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’. After that, people just sat down and cried their eyes out.

A heartbreaking goodbye to the famous venue, but a moment in time which adds yet more lustre to the pure gold of the greatest record ever made*.

* Probably.

Russ Winstanley quote taken from Chris Hunt’s article.

Northern Soul – The ‘Three Before Eight’

Part 3 – The daddy of all Northern Soul clubs was Wigan Casino, though, as this fine article by Chris Hunt says, it may not have been the coolest or the most innovative. If you wanted to dance, however, it was the place to go.

And when you’d wrung yourself out on an all-nighter, the day was breaking, and it was finally time to go home, the crowd would always be treated to a signature ending from the DJ.. songs that became known as the ‘three before eight’: Jimmy Radcliffe’s Long After Tonight Is All Over, Tobi Legend’s Time Will Pass You By and Dean Parrish’s I’m On My Way.

They’re fine songs. They’re not brilliant songs – vocal lines wobble a bit, those horn charts might not be the sharpest ever written – but because of the indelible association of time and place, once again, they become some of the greatest songs ever made.

Try and put yourself in that place: the Casino, mid 70s. It’s early morning, you’re tired but happy. You’re getting your act together after a long night of dancing with your fellow devotees. You might have found someone special to spend the last few moments with. And then you hear..

Jimmy..

Tobi..

and Dean.

Now, that’s a little piece of magic right there, isn’t it?

Read the final part of this Northern Soul exposition.

Northern Soul – Hits The Charts

Part 2 – a large part of the excitment of the underground Northern Soul scene was provided by the discovery of obscure records and the battles of one-upmanship between DJs. Find a record with that sound that no one else had, and play it at your particular venue? Pure gold. That venue may have been the only place where a punter could go to hear it and dance to it. Best not to let the collectors know too much about the record, either, or they’ll be in the bargain bins and record fairs and rooting out copies for themselves.

But as we have said, these are some of the greatest records ever made, and the greatest records ever made are not going to stay underground for too long on a thriving club scene. What are you going to do: swear 100,000 people to secrecy? Like that’s gonna work.

So when I was a teenager, Northern classics would pop into the charts on a regular basis, and some of them would hit the heights – most memorable for me being R. Dean Taylor‘s There’s A Ghost In My House. Originally released in 1966, given a re-injection of pace by Northern devotees, the re-issue reached #3 in the UK. It sounds alien, it doesn’t sound quite like your regular Motown record.. it’s totally distinctive and leaps out of the speakers even today.

It joined records like Robert Knight’s Love On A Mountain Top and The Fascinations’ Girls Are Out To Get You in the upper reaches of the charts in the early 70s. And there’s a dilemma.. when those records became super-popular, did they lose their lustre? No longer a record for the devotee, but a record that practically everyone in the country with a working set of ears and a transistor radio had heard. Your exclusive Northern Soul club scene just became a little more inclusive.

Note: The Fall covered There’s A Ghost In My House in 1988. Their version is still their highest UK chart placing. Here’s another original Northern Soul stomper from Gloria Jones you might have heard somewhere before. That cover would be Soft Cell’s highest chart placing too. You see, it’s the influence of.. the greatest records ever made.

Read part three of this four part Northern Soul exposition.

Northern Soul – The Greatest Records Ever Made?

Part 1 – No music genre more perfect than Northern Soul? Mix a fanboy’s dedication to unearthing obscure record releases, the regimentation of fashion, and a nonpareil club scene, each venue with its own distinctive politics and sound. Songs that were unheralded, failures by any commercial consideration, but songs that had a certain something, that were evocative of a time and a place, songs that felt like they were yours, like they were written just for you to dance to. And because of that atmosphere, that association, for the feelings they inspired in Northern devotees, they were the greatest records ever made.

And there’s no better way to kick off a soul session, if you want to separate people from their seats and get them out on the floor pronto, than a certain track from Shirley Ellis. Not one of her most famous recordings, though the nagging two-four-six-eight-ten hook in this song is rooted in the out and out novelty of The Clapping Song or The Name Game.

But this song means business from the word go: a twanging guitar figure, shuffling congas and a blaring clarion call of a horn riff, the rhythm section fires up and Shirley’s vocals ride in on the back of a terrific rattling drum-driven groove. You’re hooked, you’re dancing.

What time is it here at The Riverboat Captain? It’s Soul Time, with some of the greatest records ever made.

Read part two of this four part exposition on Northern Soul.

In The Pines With The Triffids

Australian indie band The Triffids were ruined by a big budget for their fourth album, conflicting ideals from the label and the band leading to a long, drawn-out, over-produced disaster. Well, that’s an opinion, and one I read recently on F*c*b**k. I reckon Calenture is a damn sight better than that, but let’s look a little further back at what the band produced whilst living off the smell of an oily rag in the middle of nowhere. Compare and contrast the making of In the Pines with its successor and it becomes a little easier to understand why Calenture draws flak even now.

Spring 1986, The Triffids headed out into the wilds of Western Australia, armed with an 8 track machine and a mixing desk, to record an LP in a shearing shed owned by the parents of band members David and Robert McComb.

It would be a relaxed affair, completely low-fi, and maybe “not suitable for the likes of Virgin”. If the sounds of the wild found their way on to the tape, no problem.  David McComb wanted all of the atmosphere to be preserved in the recording, and a room microphone was used to capture as many of the noises and as much of the back chat as possible. There was so much leakage across the tracks, it was almost mono. The band made good use of ‘instruments’ found in the shed: water tanks, brooms, floorboards.

..in five days the Triffids and some friends ate one sheep, drank more than several slabs of beer, glimpsed a disappointingly faint Halley’s Comet and recorded 19 new songs – (Evil) Graham Lee

The budget was laughably tiny – Recording equipment hire $300. Food from F.E.Daw & Son Ravensthorpe $310. All sheep from Woodstock. Beer from Liquorland Coles Nth Perth/Wine & vodka from Hopetown Ravensthorpe hotels $340. Petrol $240, cars – Datsun 1803/2 Toyota Hiace/ Campervan/ Tim’s Renault – but the results are marvellous, heard at their best in the remixed and remastered version. It’s a fan’s favourite album, precisely because it doesn’t have the adornment of a full on studio: it’s the most honest representation of the band on record. You can feel the isolation in the evocative lyrics of the stripped down melancholy tunes, especially the lilting Born Sandy Devotional and the faux country-soul of One Soul Less On Your Fiery List. If Robert Smith had been born in Austin, maybe he’d have made music like this.

There’s more than a glimmer of playfulness there too, shining through the gloom, demonstrated best by a singalong cover of Bill Anderson’s country classic Once A Day. And there’s a taste of things to come, with three songs that were held over for a ‘proper’ studio: A Trick Of The Light, Blinder By The Hour and Jerdacuttup Man all feature on Calenture in revised form.

In The Pines is a classic. Every home should have it.

How Blue Can You Get? – B.B. King

Just had to share this one with you.. a terrific clip of B.B. King in blazing form, electrifiying festival goers at the Medicine Ball Caravan, Placitas, NM, in 1970. I’ve seen Mr. King live a few times in his later years, and whilst his star is now waning, videos like this emphasise just what a vital blues force he was.

At Home With King Of Limbs

Pre-order, wait until Saturday, log in, press the download button..

..and hey presto, here’s the new Radiohead album, following the virtual trip home from the record shop. Anticipation at a peak, it’s time for the first listen, track-by-track. Let’s put the word atmosphere to one side before we begin.

Bloom
Shuffling samples, drum and bass-led.. ah, here’s Thom pulling it all together. Pretty. This wasn’t written, it evolved.

Morning Mr Magpie
A guitar riff scuttles. Quiet funk and a terrific sinuous bassline. Fade. Mean Mr Mustard it’s not.

Little By Little
Trying to resist using the word motorik, but I can’t. That’s three tracks of intriguing rhythms. Plucked riffs as Thom croons and gets a little cheeky.

Feral
OK, let’s get further out there. Vocal and instrumental samples fade in and out. Tape loops across the studio. A relationship-breaker if played on repeat. One for Radio 2? Maybe not.

Lotus Flower
Some say Thom sounds like Prince. Hmm. Lyrics wrap round the song structure like honeysuckle.  Here’s the video, see for yourself.

Break for cup of tea and quick game of Mousetrap.

Codex
The classic,  right here. Beautiful. A liquid production, glorious piano and strings fade in. Must see that one in live performance.

Give Up The Ghost
Pastoral feel, over the first few bars, and in comes Thom, swathed in effects. Lovely acoustic moods from Jonny. Is this Radiohead?

Separator
Phil kicks out another spattering rhythm. Thom’s lost in the effects, it’s almost a suggestion of a vocal, voice as instrument. Beautiful.

So:

No big crunchy Jonny moments for you Bends fans, but you know in your heart of hearts: that was then, this is Radiohead now. King of Limbs feels slighter, moodier, more soulful and certainly more understated than In Rainbows, but I am just as immediately captivated by it. Depth and intrigue.

Press play. Again. And again.

Black Postcards – Dean Wareham

Nothing caught my eye in the pulpy crime fiction section of the library the other week, so I mooched over to the music books and borrowed what turned out to be one of the best rock and roll biographies I’ve ever read.

Dean Wareham was the frontman of cult indie proto-shoegazers Galaxie 500, a band I thought were just fine, but were no great heroes of mine. The best thing I liked about them was their fantastic cover of Joy Division/New Order’s Ceremony. They did, however, have a decent and incredibly dedicated following. As did Luna, Wareham’s subsequent band, praised by Rolling Stone as “the greatest band you never heard of’ (though that line may be a little over-used).

Black Postcards is a brutally honest account of life in the music business, detailing in plain terms the tightrope walked between artistic integrity and commercial acceptance, independance and corporate control. He tells us just what it means to be penniless when unsuccessful and following a dream, then skint when successful but in debt to a major label, and how that affects relationships with the people around you: bandmates, soon to become enemies, tugging in opposite directions. The burn-out. The break-up of families, the infidelity, the bitterness, the wounds. Friends and relations trail in the wake, lost or forgotten.

And the life affirming moments when, all too briefly, the hype and the music and the effort and the desire coalesce and bring the rewards.. world tours, critical acclaim, high living and commercial success.

If you’ve been in a band, at whatever level, you’ll recognise the moves, the infighting and the frustration described here as the depths are plumbed, but this makes it all the more enjoyable when Wareham and company pull it off and scale the peaks. If you have any interest at all in human nature, you’ll find this book a worthwhile read too – you don’t need to know anything about the music.

If you’re not a fan and would like an intro to the sounds, Wareham notes that Galaxie 500′s debut Today“..made for $750, including sixty minutes of one inch tape” – and Penthouse by Luna are his favourites, Penthouse being “the first difficult album Luna had made, where we fought and were set against one another. Where things took longer than they should have. Where we went over budget. But it was also clearly our best album.” So here’s a track from each, bracketing Ceremony.

If you see the book, grab it. Five stars.

P.S. Dean Wareham continues to perform today, with his wife and former Luna bassist Britta Phillips, as Dean & Britta.

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses

(The final album in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

Our own particular brand of Northern Soul, the Roses were. Self-belief in bucketloads, strong instrumental ability and a staggering ambition to make their debut the next ‘Electric Ladyland’ or ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’.

The Roses railed against the pessimism of the post-Smiths years, ignored the London trendsetters, and stood up for what they thought was right in the face of media criticism. They had a sense of purpose rare in established bands, let alone those who are relatively wet behind the ears. They weren’t ‘Madchester‘, to me. Their music was, and is, timeless.

From the opening bass rumble and subsequent guitar chord shower of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ to the closing wig-out of ‘I Am The Resurrection’, the Stone Roses and producer John Leckie pull together the individual threads of spaced-out dance freaking, psychedelia, folk-rock and situationist lyricism and knit them together into something unique. Music for the head, the heart and the soul.

More than 20 years since The Stone Roses was released, and I’m struggling to think of a more significant musical event during that time, or a better album. You’ll find a fair few who disagree with that point of view. But when I find fellow believers, like-minded souls, The Stone Roses brings us together strongly. Nostalgic, yet forward-looking. Brethren.

Precious few bands can do that.

P.S. And a word about Mani..  how good is Mani? The Stone Roses and Primal Scream.. not a bad CV when all’s said and done. Top bloke.

OK, folks, that’s it, I’m all done with listing my favourites.. until another excuse comes along. Find all ten of my ‘Sacred Days’ album selections here. ‘New music’ writing coming soon.

The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise - Alex RossClassical music.. how do you approach it? There’s so much of it. How do you find out what you like and what you don’t, where to begin, which direction to go? There may be a temptation to just ignore it. Don’t get it, never will.. which would be a big mistake.

Classical music is boring? How about The Rite Of Spring, music by Stravinsky? At it’s premiere in 1913, there were riots worthy of a Sex Pistols or Jesus And Mary Chain gig. Arguments, fistfights in the audience, the Paris police failed to restore order, chaos reigned. Anything but boring.

Classical music is highbrow? Let’s take the tritone, for example, a musical interval that spans three whole tones, the augmented fourth or diminished fifth. It’s an unsettling and unstable noise. Not interested? Well, it’s also called diabolus in musica, the devil in music. Remember the intro of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze? It’s a tritone. You’ll hear it in the music of Black Sabbath. And you’re going to find it in classical works by Saint-Saëns, Benjamin Britten and many more, from the Middle Ages onward. And in jazz. And in film music.

So you could pick up a book or two to help you along.. start with Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, which will tell you about 20th century music and how modern composers pushed the classical music envelope, creating an array of sounds as yet unheard. The book looks back for references to the late romantic period of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and tips its hat to The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

I was lucky. My much-missed old friend Gillan Meek prompted and gently pushed music in my direction. “Try this”.. “Did you like it? Great. Here’s something a little different.” That’s how I discovered beautiful sounds like the Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan-Williams (1910), Arvo Pärt‘s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977, modern music indeed) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartók (1936). Those are YouTube links, so try them for size.

It’s easier than ever to try classical music.. Alex Ross’ web site has iTunes playlists and the majority of MP3 download sites will let you grab just one movement of a symphony, say, to sample it.

And if I had to recommend just one place to get you started on a classical music odyssey, let’s pick something from a time before Alex Ross’s book begins. Take fifteen minutes out of your day to listen to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic play the fourth movement from Gustav Mahler‘s 5th Symphony. There’s no finer interpretation of the Adagietto.

Here’s Part 2. Did you like it? Good. There’s a whole lot more to discover.

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Jesus And Mary Chain

Psychocandy

(#9 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

I’d just like to say to all you young folks that if you’re playing in a band and your raison d’être is complete indifference.. if you’re playing that card, “look at us, we’re chaotic and we don’t care about anything, least of all our fans”..

Don’t. Pack it in, think of something else. You couldn’t hope to do it better than The Jesus And Mary Chain, and if you wanted to try, you’d actually have to put some effort in. And of course you’re not supposed to care that much.

For Jim and William Reed, the blistering sound of distortion and feedback said everything they wanted to say. Rank amateur Bobby Gillespie behind the “drumkit”, slovenly vocals, murky bass, amplifier hiss.. an unholy racket.

Penetrating the murk, however, were proper pop songs. Echoes of Phil Spector. The classic sound of The Crystals, The Ronettes and The Beach Boys.

Played by lazy slackers.

Drowned in screeching sheets of white noise.

Lovely stuff. Twenty five years ago, I’d heard nothing like it.

I didn’t see The Jesus And Mary Chain live until much later. Less daunting a prospect.

P.S. The final part of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1989

Mick Green 1944-2010

Mick Green & Johnny Spence - photo by Yukiko AkagawaJohnny Kidd and the Pirates were in the vanguard of the 60s rock and roll movement in Britain, and Mick Green was head of the line of aspiring British guitar players with both the attitude AND the chops to pull it off. Kidd died in 1966, but the late 70s saw the Pirates storm back into action, cementing their reputation with a series of raucous live gigs and a major-label signing. In those days, up-and-coming punk and new wave acts were blown off stage by a bunch of angry men sporting mean expressions and pirate clothes!

In recent years the Pirates sailed on, impressing old and new listeners alike with their high-powered brand of rhythm and blues. Appearances become more scarce as the gentlemen grew older, but a fair amount of the old fire and skill was always in evidence. Unfeasibly loud and forceful, for a bunch of old fellas!

In the last ten years or so, Mick had stints as a sideman with Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Bryan Ferry.. plus his share of health problems, which have, sadly, now taken their toll.

And it IS sad, because the Pirates meant a lot to me and always will. I first saw them in that 70s renaissance (at Hudderfield Polytechnic, supported by a Cambridge new wave band called The Push, and a Pakistani escapologist!) and many times since then. An understated kind of guitar genius: Paul Burlison and Wilko Johnson rolled into one, more dextrous than either and do you know what? I never ever worked out how Mick Green did what he did.

I’m just happy I saw him do it. RIP, Mick.

After the jump, a Pirates gig review I wrote for Blues in Britain..
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The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Smiths

Hatful Of Hollow

(#8 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

We took a deep breath and held it, in the late post-punk era. Not much joy in serried ranks of earnest young men in long grey raincoats poking desultorily at synthesisers. And that’s definitely what we were missing.. delight, glee, abandon. But we got what we wanted in the end.

Seems odd to take joy from a band oft accused of plumbing the depths of miserabilia? You had to be there. It’s hard to imagine the sheer animal hysteria in a Smiths audience, but I’ve never seen.. devotion like it, before or since.

Peals of chiming chords torn from Marr’s Rickerbacker, Rourke tunefully locked in with Joyce. The stage strewn with gladioli, callow youths a-faint with adulation hurling themselves at Morrissey.. Morrissey flailing, arms aloft, dizzy, elusive.

A few short days after the debut album release, they played Brighton Polytechnic. An impossibly long wait for the band (wasn’t there always, in the 80s?). A rapturous howling response and a lucky thirteen songs, the stage besieged. I was thunderstruck, back out into the midnight air, dazed but euphoric.

Alas, you ruined the first album for me that night, gentlemen. Though the lyrical impact remained, it was no longer the sound of the majestic Smiths I’d seen, it was just too flat.. dry, distinctly un-thrilling. But later that year, out popped Hatful Of Hollow – their true debut, for me.

Each time I listen to it, I’m half my age and back in that audience, rapt.

P.S. Part 9 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1985

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Human League

Dare

(#7 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

Punk didn’t really hit the English northern industrial city of Sheffield as hard as it did elsewhere. “Rebel? What against? I’ve been doing it all my life, mate, every day. I work hard, I play hard and I’m nobody’s fool. There’s only one person in this world who looks after me.. and that’s me. Spotty London w*nkers with cheap guitars? What do I have to listen to that racket for? I want something a bit more glamorous, mate, something that takes me away from grey skies and the noise and heat of the steel furnace, takes me to a different place. Get away from it all, like. Dream a bit.”

1980 – The Human League had come to a grinding halt. A couple of albums of austere arty electronic noise, some critical acclaim but also a fair amount of ridicule from the mainstream, they stalled, unsure of a direction. At a time when virtually anybody with a synthesiser could get a hit (Numan, Foxx, OMD, Ultravox, Visage..) the League couldn’t get past first base.

The major players split. Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (perceived as the creative core of the League) went to pursue their electronic music ideal. Singer Phil Oakey, and director of visuals Philip Adrian Wright wanted to move in a purer pop direction, but how? Less than half a band, a tour looming, promoters insistent..

Down the Crazy Daisy one night, Oakey saw what he thought might be the League’s salvation. Two teenage girls on a night out, happy, dancing, they looked good together.. Phil took a deep breath and invited them to join the band and tour. Complemented by local musician Ian Burden covering on a variety of keyboards, the second line up of the League took its first few faltering steps.

1981 – New boy Jo Callis knew the value of a good tune, veteran producer Martin Rushent knew how to arrange. The League were a band. The accent was on songs, not style, and finding their soul, they produced one of the most extraordinary albums of the 80s in Dare. Rushent pulled all the strands together: listen to the album today, pick on any stray squiggle or bleep from the electronics, and it works in isolation as a hook, as music. As pop.

Three UK top 20 singles released before the album. The totally bonkers weeping and wailing of ‘Sound Of The Crowd’, the insistent miaow of the opening bars of ‘Love Action’. A semi-autobiographical song about relationships with an irresistible pulse beat? Made for the charts, just made for them. And the teaser for ‘Dare’ in the dreamboat chorus of ‘Open Your Heart’ – a ‘Blue’ song, for Abba fans (according to Phil – ‘Red’ songs were for Spandau Ballet fans).

Then the album, plus a massive hit and Christmas #1, no less, in the days when that actually meant something. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ racked up sales of more than a million, with its classic noir promo. Everyday girls, Joanne and Suzanne, not superstars. Top Shop and Woolworths. Roxy Music and Donna Summer. Dance round your handbag, get off your face on Southern Comfort and lemonade, and have a major hit record.

You can’t ignore the power of popular music. Not when it’s as completely lovable as this.

P.S. Part 8 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1984

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Muddy Waters

Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live

(#6 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1979 – I was still loving the blues, more often than not blasted out by a rash of speedy punky British R&B merchants like Nine Below Zero and The Inmates, so what’s a music fan to do but go back to the source, to find out where all that stuff came from?

I was lucky, as it happened, to find Muddy Waters at a time in his life where he was given license to do what he did best.. play the blues, of course.. unencumbered by studio chicanery, no pigeonholes, no commercial considerations (other than to put him back in touch with his fans), under the watchful eye of an empathetic producer and guitarist in Johnny Winter, and backed by like-minded souls sensitive to every on-stage and in-studio move of the Godfather of the Blues, the Man himself.

Muddy electrified and defined the blues for the post-war generation, and over the course of four late-period albums, put himself back in the spotlight for an amazing swan song. The live album was the one I bought first, quickly followed by Hard Again and I’m Ready, Grammy winners all.

Undisputably the real deal: I’d heard nothing like it before: the swarm of angry bees that was Johnny Winter‘s slide guitar, the unmistakeable tone of the slide of the King Bee himself.. Muddy, the black Buddha, pouring out the deep, slow blues (because that’s “where the soul is”, right?). The tasteful restraint of Bob Margolin and Luther Johnson, the contrasting bass styles of Charlie Calmese and Calvin Jones, the rumbling piano of Pinetop Perkins, the literal pattering economy of Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith on drums.. and James Cotton and Jerry Portnoy, who showed me that you could really play harmonica (rather than just breathe in and out of one and make a good noise). That’s quite some roll call.

And perhaps for the first time, the music I was listening to had space: it was concise and crisp. Not so much about what was played, but what wasn’t – creative tension, undertow, timing.. what ever you like to call it. Soul, most certainly. The unvarnished truth.

Muddy Waters was my conduit to a world of blues and soul music, past and present.. a path I’m still walking. Muddy passed away in 1983, but those six years with Blue Sky Records displayed him at full power – an essential final portrait of a legend.

P.S. Part 7 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1981

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Thin Lizzy

Live And Dangerous

(#5 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste – a little sidestep here, maybe not so.. predictable)

1978 – Two years before, some of us were staying up all night at parties, deafened by The Song Remains The Same, mixing cider with Newcastle Brown and ‘waiting for the sun-rise, man’. In ’78, I’m still feeling the punk shockwave in the North of England, but I wasn’t going to entirely throw all that good old music away, even if it was the done thing. Punk (and post-punk and new wave) was vital, but some rock bands still fit like an pair of comforting old furry slippers or.. er.. (struggles for hipper analogy).. broken-in cowboy boots? Yep, cowboy boots. Definitely.

Gig-going at the time produced some.. eclectic line-ups. Bill Nelson (surely Wakefield’s finest rocker?) and Be Bop Deluxe at the Vic in Halifax, supported by punk poet John Cooper-Clarke. Rejuvenated 60s rock and rollers The Pirates, alongside obscure Cambridge band The Push and a Pakistani escapologist, at Huddersfield Poly. The best of both worlds, you could say. Country and western.

But here’s the seismic event, the blinding revelation of that fateful year: I didn’t have to listen to hard rock any more. I didn’t realise this at the time, of course, but I may as well have just given up right there and then. Hard rock didn’t die. Oh no. It just never got any better** than Thin Lizzy‘s Live And Dangerous.

Spiky little south Glasgow teenager Brian Robertson and Californian Scott Gorham complementing each other perfectly on guitar. The quiet genius of drummer Brian Downey – economical, fluid, sensitive  playing. And Phil.. a poet, a dreamer and impossibly cool. Such confidence.. foot on the monitor, punching the sky in such glee, a wink of the eye, a flash of his mirrored bass guitar. Lyrical songs: myth and legend – a man who loved to tell a tale and celebrate life.

The badge of the gig!The King’s Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester, the tour of the live album – 30 years on, I still remember the lights going down, sirens and red police car lights atop Downey’s drum riser, the stage fills with smoke.. Lynott steps through it on the opening chord of Jailbreak, raises his arm, and instantly my friends and I are just lost in the wonder of our first big gig. Christine and I still have our memories: I don’t know where Jon is these days but I’m sure he won’t have forgotten that night either.

Live And Dangerous (gently massaged, shall we say, by Tony Visconti in the studio) is electrifying from start to finish, genuinely the best representation of that line-up and the heights they scaled. Sure, Side 4 stumbles a little in the middle. Sha La La has a drum solo of more than a few bars and loses me somewhat (I’m sorry, Brian), and Baby Drives Me Crazy is just a rabble-rouser, but those two are bracketed with the thundering swagger of Suicide and a blistering The Rocker. No complaints about any of the rest.. Robertson’s properly tasteful solo on Still In Love With You, a lush Southbound, the shuddering funk of Johnny The Fox Meets.. and a damn near flawless paint-stripper of a Side 3: Don’t Believe A Word, Warrior and Are You Ready, plus THE all-time perfect hard rock moment when Cowboy Song segues into The Boys Are Back In Town, the pause in Phil’s “A cowboy’s life…. is the life for me” and BLAM. Fireworks, chills up the spine, out of your seat and dancing with delight. I’ve heard it a thousand times and it never fails to slay me.

We were lucky to see Thin Lizzy at the top, the zenith. Within a few weeks Brian Robertson had gone, Gary Moore stepped in, Brian Downey took a break (and did return) but despite a few bright flashes of inspiration in later years, Live And Dangerous was the pinnacle, for me.

Hard rock’s high water mark too.

** I grant you Motorhead’s debut (on white vinyl) and AC/DC’s Powerage come close, but when were they released? 1978. I rest my case.

P.S. Part 6 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: we put our leather strides away and move on to 1979