At sixteen or seventeen, winter Saturdays were my favourite. When I wasn’t at my fortnightly youth orchestra, frog-throating my way through Mussorgsky, you might have found me at Chester-le-Street market with my best mate. It was your classic mix of disposable bric-a-brac. Knock-off VHS nasties with faded cases; paperbacks shrivelled with water damage. The whole place stank of fried onions and damp tarpaulin. But, you know, it was a kind of home. Flicking through boxes of old 45s or racks of secondhand CDs was the gentlest kind of pleasure; I’m still the sort of man who hates shopping but loves browsing.
After we’d filled our rucksacks with the haul, there’d be a quick run of the charity shops and maybe a custard doughnut from the Baker’s Oven, followed by a bus ride home all in time for lunch. Mum’s bread dough would be proving by the fire, teatowel over the bowl. Dad would doubtless be fiddling with one of his many radios, trying to get the best signal for the Newcastle match on medium wave, so that Mum could listen while she baked. I’d squirrel my bits and pieces upstairs, take up my headphones, and enjoy whatever it was I’d spent my paltry pocket money on. From mid-afternoon, I’d look down on the street and watch the light dim gradually; dream a little of escape, of the future I might have in some other town, but never so much as to reject what I had. The smell of fresh bread, the anticipation of the first break of crust and the melt of salted butter always brought me back.
Even though it fits the bill perfectly, I’d never heard ‘Walk out to winter’ back then. I’d probably read a little about its parent album, High Land Hard Rain, in an issue of Q or Mojo, or in the encyclopaedia of popular music in the school library (in the days before the Internet, these were the only channels for a music geek like me). But Roddy Frame (AKA Aztec Camera) was only familiar for ‘Somewhere in my heart’, a radio earworm that married an almost irritatingly tuneful melody to rather big eighties production and blowsy FM sax. It’s still his biggest hit – the only Aztec Camera single to go Top Ten – and for many people, the image of a slight, fey young chap in earnest blue denim handling a guitar way too big for him is hard to shake off. It’s a shame really, because in 1983, when he was a precocious eighteen year-old debuting with a near-perfect pop album, Frame could give any of those wistful, lovelorn indie kids a run for their money.
There were a lot of them about at the time. I’ve already written in this blog about my love for Orange Juice, but they weren’t the only misfits penning lovestruck sonnets on the top of the school bus. From around 1982 to 1985, John Peel’s Festive Fifties bulged with winsome young men, who crooned where their more chart-bound contemporaries faked soul, and took up plectra when everyone else was buying Roland Junos on hire purchase. While some of this sounds as dated as any Nik Kershaw record, it’s acquired a sort of bohemian burnish. It’s the aesthetic superiority of the underdog; youth that, like the Thompson Twins, had love on its side, but unlike the Thompson Twins, didn’t buy an extra seat for it in business class.
It was the music of a generation that was neither aspirational nor furious; a generation that neither needed the promise of social mobility nor the possibility of a revolution to inspire it into song. In the private jet – Duran Duran. In the miners’ welfare hall – The Style Council. And in the graffitied bus shelter with a packet of Silk Cut – Prefab Sprout, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, The Lotus Eaters. No matter what’s raging around you, there is always a majority who just get on with their lives. History’s just background; something you overhear on the six o’clock news in disjointed bits and bobs while munching your fish fingers, something that happens in between Grange Hill and Coronation Street. To hell with history; it’s all about record shops and lovesick poetry and buying your cigarettes from a certain kiosk because you fancy the girl behind the till.
These are the spaces evoked by some of the finest guitar-based pop from that 83-84 period: the town bus station, scene of exciting entrances and disappointed exits, or the town square, breezy with chip papers, thronged with suited office workers spearing salads from their Tupperware. In the most banal of settings, the most surprising and life-affirming things can happen; anything to lift the grey. One of my very favourites is ‘The First Picture of You’, by sensitive Scousers The Lotus Eaters. Look at Peter Coyle on Top of the Pops, and you can imagine what he might have been like at school. He’d have walked a fine line between being bullied mercilessly for his sensitivity and being fixated upon for the very same quality by a load of girls with hair like Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club. They probably thought he was Liverpool’s answer to Nick Heyward. Then listen to that dreamy, drifty music with its sunburst guitars. The summer light streams in through the chemistry block window, and more romantic souls are distracted from their Bunsen burners by a glimpse of life beyond the school gates. ‘It’s warm in and out’, he sings. He doesn’t mind being at school; he’s a nice lad, he doesn’t rebel. But at his core there’s a touch of Keats: the flowers ‘scream their joy’, inspiring him to ‘break into the peaceful wild’. As soon as the bell rings, he’s going to run into town and find the girl he loves, with nothing more than a fiver in his pocket and a conviction that his best years are yet to come. This is end of term set to music. It’s those few weeks where everything suddenly becomes richer, when everyday monochrome slips magically into vibrant colour.
If ‘The first picture of you’ is a small town at the height of July, ‘Walk out to winter’ is the same town deep into November. But though it’s nippy, and we’re well after the first frost, it’s not damp or soul-sapping. It’s one of those mornings soon after the clocks go back, when the sun cuts slices through the thinning trees and you breathe extra hard just to see the vapour before you. In fact, it’s what I like to think of as ‘scarf-pop’; a skinny, wiry student wrapped in soft woollens. He maybe even works on Chester market every Saturday. He’ll be the one who sells you a rare import and doesn’t mind when you’re fifty pence short. He’s quiet, but unmistakeably warm, and his song is pure, distilled bonhomie, a thermos of tea keeping the chill at bay. The student’s been studying, but little of it has come from his course books. It’s more a hodgepodge of Elvis Costello LPs and well-thumbed copies of classics from the Faber backlist. He likes to spend time in his room picking out some jangly chords; but he equally loves to put his boots and gloves on and go for a kickabout, or call on his mates and head off to a gig in a dodgy part of town. He has the quiet assurance of youth, and life holds no fear or doubt for him. Life literally is a walk in the park: a jog and a skip and all back before the streetlights fleck the sky with amber.
‘Walk out to winter’ is a song that seems inevitable when you hear it. Everything is in its right place. The chord progressions are lush but utterly logical – built from the sort of sequences you can’t imagine music being without. There’s a little tilt towards Tin Pan Alley, but it’s processed through skittery-jittery rhythm guitar and delivered in a voice that is pure, joyful normality: it just seems a natural extension of the singer-songwriter, with not a pose or pastiche in earshot. ‘It wasn’t youth, we hit the truth’, he sings with just the right amount of earnestness; he suspects he’ll be accused of naivety, but the smartest know that innocent sincerity is far superior to cynical ‘wisdom’. If anything, he’s already developed far beyond the usual juvenile desire for radicalism. The ‘faces of Strummer’ have ‘[fallen] from the wall’, and ‘nothing [is] left where they hung’. The young lovers have listened to London Calling but its Morse code has ceased, its apocalypticism has given way to the romance of the everyday. It’s all explained in the lines, ‘This generation will walk to the wall, / But I’m not angry – get your gear, get out of here and walk out to winter’. Strummer’s acolytes have turned away from the slogans, and some would argue that the loss of fierce idealism will see them go to the dogs. But Roddy has seen through this; the angry punks now wear pixie boots, brave the ‘L’ word, and listen to Gram Parsons. Or at least prefer Almost Blue to This Year’s Model. They’re not frustrated by the world outside; they don’t need to take to the streets to protest. Curled lips and furrowed brows belong in other songs. There will be time for a hundred visions and revisions. But for now, the air is tangy and fresh – anticyclonic – and the sky’s an intense cornflower blue. How could anyone possibly be angry with a warm scarf round their neck and a snowball to throw?
There’s only one snag to this thoroughly bonny song – the synth drums. Still, I’m sure they were perfectly innocent. It was 1983 after all. The Radio 1 session version is even better than the High Land Hard Rain original, adding some tingly keyboard parts for extra frosting. Choose that if you’d rather. But, as we drive through November, misting up the passenger side windows with our breath as ever, writing love messages with gloved fingers, make sure the car stereo pays tribute. You’ll pull up, park, and open the door on a newly minted landscape; stepping onto the pavement will be like that first footprint in the snow.