Tag Archives: 1980

37 – Talking Heads: Born Under Punches


Can you dance in your head?

I can. There’s no limit to what’s possible up there. In a static bus queue, I’m body-popping with Michael Boogaloo Shrimp. Buying wine at the Co-op, I’m actually choreographing a Studio 54 freakout. Funny how when it’s real feet, hips and arms, I fall into the old ways. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting me at a wedding, you’ll have been treated to the timid handclap, or the David Bowie knock-knee, or the shuggy boat (ask a Geordie). Of course, anything is acceptable at a private occasion. People expect the champagne to do the boogieing, and accept all manner of disgraceful manoeuvres with good grace. But this ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. Sometimes dancing isn’t just an urge, it’s an urgency.

In pop music, dance is sex, of course; but it’s also a raison d’etre . My parents’ generation invented pop music, and Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’ was the prototype, the first patent to be stamped. Mum would always reminisce about going to see ‘Rock’ at the cinema, and being turfed out for ‘bopping in the aisles’. There’s no clearer example of how pop music became a religion in the 1950s, with its own temples and devoted congregations. Nothing new there – for us bipods, the Terpsichorean impulse is as old as legs themselves, and it’s the essential motor that drives many a ritual. But the pop era has depended on multiple instances of dance being the only thing that matters. Dance is liberty itself.  ‘Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free’, chirped Madonna ecstatically. That’s what flailing and frugging meant in the 1980s. Have you ever seen Footloose? 1984: the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, miners were being battered by Thatcher’s truncheoned bullies and Ethiopian children were dying of famine. Oh, and somewhere in Oklahoma, kids were being denied their basic human right to jive. This is big stuff. Check out Re-flex’s sole hit from the same year: 100BPM recast as ideology. It brings a whole new meaning to party politics; no wonder Prince was warding off the apocalypse by dancing his life away.

There’s a tyranny of dance too though. It’s amazing how many songs actually order you to party. It’s all imperatives. Get into the groove! Everybody dance, too-da-loo-loo, clap your hands, clap your hands! Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight! I love being ordered around by those haughty Chic girls. When they tell you that ‘these are the good times’, there’s no possibility of argument. Everything they sing is incontrovertible. That’s what makes those Rodgers and Edwards records so perfect – certainty, inevitability, the sheer rightness of disco. But what if you dance out of doubt? What if you bite your nails while you tap your toes? What if your dancing shoes don’t fit and there’s the possibility of blood on the heel? Dance may well be a vertical expression of a horizontal desire – but what if there’s never any release, only a climax moving ever further out of the field of possibility? The answer you get is Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light, a still mind-blowing hybrid of St Vitus jitter and high anxiety.  Never mind the Higsons putting the punk back into funk. Remain in Light puts the funk back into funk, by reminding us that way before the f-word rode on syncopations and slap bass, it denoted something more troubled: a cold sweat, a quandary. ‘Take a look at these hands’ screams David Byrne in ‘Born Under Punches’, the Lady Macbeth of the Bowery. Two funks battling it out to the death: Byrneham Wood coming to Dunsinane.

He’s got form here, has David. The earliest, pre-Eno Heads kicked off with ‘Psycho Killer’, a stalking Parisian cat of a record – less new wave, more nouvelle vague. Twitchy of tail and twinkly of eye, ‘Psycho Killer’ led to some of the finest moments of hyperventilation in pop music – the Heads’ spidery, suspicious remake of Al Green’s ‘Take me to the river’, for example, which trades creamy soul for postmodern urban nightmare: don’t fall in love with the surface reflections, Dave, or you’ll fall in and drown. ‘Found a job’, also from the first Eno-produced album More Songs about Buildings and Food, seeks refuge from these nuits blanches in cartoon-gang disco-lite. This incarnation of the Heads, with Tina Weymouth bobbing up and down on her bass and Chris Frantz grinning at the drum-stool, would lead directly to the Tom Tom Club and the classic ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ – white hip-hop sketched with bright crayons. 1979’s Fear of Music, though, reasserted David Byrne’s penchant for troubled funk, and began to ask questions of the dance. Can you give in to disco while still worrying about the world? There are furrowed brows aplenty – ‘Life During Wartime’ imagines imminent Cold War meltdown as a Secret Seven scenario of bomb shelters and stockpiles (‘I’ve got some groceries and peanut butter / To last a couple of days’). But there’s also ‘I Zimbra’, a mad mashup of kwela and Dada that almost – almost – gives itself in to the sheer joy of the beat. Eno throws in a bit of geometry towards the end – some abstract synth shapes for the brain to ponder – but it’s perilously close to bypassing the head altogether for the loins and ligaments. And this is the blueprint for Remain in Light, a series of songs that continually rub up against themselves, staging pitched battles between the uptight and the unfettered. The single ‘Once in a lifetime’ is a perfect example of this not-quite yin-yang. Byrne’s televangelist spiel is one of the great expressions of midlife crisis; a sort of John Updike story for the MTV generation. It’s so familiar to us now – the beautiful house, the beautiful wife – but it never loses its punch. There’s almost unbearable fear in it (what will this depressed suburbanite do behind the wheel of the large automobile, pull a Willy Loman?) But I always think there’s a beautiful glimmer of hope. When Byrne asks ‘Where does that highway go to?’, he’s peeking over the horizon; when he cries ‘My God, what have I done?’, it’s the moment he realises he’s driving away, on and into the terror of freedom. Maybe, just maybe, the wondrous music has put oil in his tank. For how could the song not be life-affirming? How could those fizzing keyboard lines, like bubbles constantly rising and popping in the glass, not go to the head? How could all those percolating polyrhythms fail to cure the arthritic pains of middle age or the weltschmerz of Middle America?

And so the Heads come to the power of dance through intellectual and spiritual crisis. Listening to the first side of Remain in Light (and this is definitely an LP with ‘sides’) is like seeing a man looking in one direction as his feet carry him in another. Byrne protests ‘but…but…’ while Harrison, Frantz and Weymouth (not to mention Eno) chivvy him constantly with the enchantments of rhythm. ‘Crosseyed and painless’ relates this very story. Byrne has ‘lost [his] shape, trying to act casual’; he seems obsessively worried that he is becoming untethered from ‘fact’, but then the pulse of the music convinces him eventually that ‘facts continue to change their shape’, and the brain can expand to incorporate the change. You can indeed go crosseyed, and it won’t be painful; if you lose control, you merely open up endless new possibilities. This was the ethos behind the creation of the album, and so ‘Crosseyed’ becomes a kind of meta-commentary on recording strategy. ‘Born Under Punches’, similarly , is the sound of a guy torn between being a ‘government man’ and a ‘tumbler’ – a man in a suit with an agenda in his briefcase, and a gymnast preparing to turn spontaneous somersaults. ‘All I want is to breathe’, sings Byrne, loosening his tie. The track is constantly teetering on this edge, between limit and licence, and to hear the corporate middle-manager bursting out of his confines is almost akin to hearing a body in the process of being created. One of the many moments I love in this track is at around 1:25, when Byrne does away with words altogether: “ng-zada, ng-zada, ng-zada”, he murmurs, as he attempts to keep speech moving through the propulsive groove only to get stuck on the beat and dribble into gobbledygook. It’s panic at the disco, for sure – a ‘my God, what have I done’ moment, or rather, ‘What the fuck am I saying here?’ Byrne also has to dodge the brickbat bass-guitar and boomeranging sonic effects, like an avatar in a videogame attempting to steer a course and get through to the bonus round. But by the end, I think he’s triumphed. He has conquered his fear of music and is ready for the next level.

Apart from this, it still just sounds bloody amazing. Adrian Belew’s unhinged, blibbety-bloop Morse code of a guitar solo; the mystical, spine-tingling backing vocals; the looped offbeats that always sound like they’re about to trip up the track by the boogie-shoelaces. It’s incredibly three-dimensional music, and your arms and legs expand to match it. I urge you take the punch (see, imperatives again!), and dance in your head to the Heads. Just make sure it doesn’t come onto your I-Pod while you’re in the Co-op, otherwise you might just find you’re a-tumble in the aisles.


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21 – Orange Juice: Falling and Laughing


1941: Pearl Harbour is bombed, Leningrad besieged. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce write their final full stops. And somewhere in the USA, the teenager is born. Look up that word in the OED and you’ll find the first citation; tentative, hyphenated, but undeniably the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that would define the immediate post-war decades. It’s hard to imagine it being so recent; adolescence has always been, of course. But teenager – identity, demography, pathology –  it’s only just hit puberty, in the grand scheme of things.

Being a teenager in the mid 1990s was, to quote Supergrass (one of the few genuinely brilliant pop bands of the era), alright. Indeed, if you revisit that video now – Gaz, Danny and Micky racing their choppers through Portmeirion – you might remember the time as all sunshine and smiles. We did have a couple of very hot summers; I spent one of them in the Lake District, imagining it was Peru. But otherwise I was hardly skipping around in the shine, shade-hogger that I was. I just remember long evenings after school, white shirt unbuttoned to the waist, hypnotised by the sound of Pete Sampras’ Wimbledon rallies on BBC2. Despite the surge of hormones, the growth spurt, and the sudden spike in appetites (gastronomic, sexual or otherwise), adolescence is mostly a time of boredom and torpor. There are huge crises, granted, and at the time everything seems almost unutterably dramatic, but these are just sporadic points punctuating long periods of watching the clock and perfecting the art of the lie-in and the snacking session. I had my share of turbulence, most of it sexual. The nineties were a reasonable time to grow up gay; attitudes were shifting quite rapidly, and there were a few role models popping up here and there.  At the same time, I think pop music and pop culture were friendlier to gayness in the 1980s. It wasn’t just your Jimmy Somervilles and Boy Georges and Marc Almonds; there was a lot of ambiguous, unlabelled bisexuality (Morrissey, Billy Mackenzie, Pete Shelley) and a general turn towards the marginalia of sexual identity. Nineties queerness, by contrast, was straight – Brett Anderson flopping his wrists, Brian Molko singing a lot about leather – or else crushed in the rush to keep it real. The youth culture of the nineties was all about faking a prolier-than-thou ‘authenticity’ that left little room for the slightly off-piste among us. Hilarious really, when you think of what a narcissistic diva Liam Gallagher actually was. But even the art-school bands (hello Blur) briefly felt they had to squeeze into the football shorts and do a bit of dribbling for the cameras. We’re sniffy about this time now – ‘laddism’, lager, Loaded – and naturally, that’s not even half the story. But even I bought Four Four Two for a while. It appealed to the statistics geek within me, though I suspect my real interest wasn’t too dissimilar to my compadres’ fondness for FHM. Don’t mention Les Ferdinand’s legs! Shit, I just did.

On balance, I should have been born twenty years earlier. I’m sure 1976 would have passed me by up in County Durham – all my parents remembered was drought alerts and Showaddywaddy – but I’d have sat with my NME in the library and daydreamed. To be seventeen in the late seventies or early eighties was to identify with Feargal Sharkey complaining about his cousin Kevin beating him at Subbuteo; it was to answer Pete Shelley’s rhetorical question, ‘ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?’, with a resounding affirmative. The Undertones and the Buzzcocks were particularly adept at bottling the sweaty, greasy essence of adolescence; the dizzy swings from tedium to euphoria and back again. The Buzzcocks’ brilliant first single, ‘Boredom’, says it all, Howard Devoto sneering his way through a comically affected disaffection. ‘I’m already a has-been!’ he exclaims, before delivering the killer punchline: ‘You know me, I’m acting dumb, / And the scene is very humdrum’.

I knew these lines at sixteen, but not from The Buzzcocks. I hadn’t yet heard that seminal piece of spit (there’s a double entendre the boys would no doubt have approved of). But I had heard and loved ‘Rip it up’, one of the greatest British pop singles of the 1980s, and, rather shockingly, the sole top forty hit for Glaswegian indie legends Orange Juice. ‘Rip it up’ is the epitome of the  ‘new pop’ as the pomo poseurs at the NME of the time liked to call it (and which Jess Harvell dissects excellently here), a pop which took delight in referring to nothing but itself, a pop which drily commented on its own  processes while loving their quirks. Take the title of a classic Chuck Berry track, then intone it in a whimsical, slightly effete baritone; add a squelchy Roland TB-303 bass synth and watch your song wobble into life. Then sketch some meta-lyrics about the process of writing pop songs – ‘there are times I’d take my pen and feel obliged to start again / I do profess that there are things in life that one can’t quite express’ – before admitting defeat, citing the Buzzcocks wholesale and announcing with a wink, ‘My favourite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’’. The song knows that originality is impossible. You can’t really ever rip it up and start again. It’s as if Edwyn Collins were saying, ‘those kids in 1976 thought they were resetting the clock. Now we can reference them in order to make the point that you can’t’. It should be so arch, so mean-spirited, but it’s quite the opposite. In ‘Rip it up’, originality is achieved; by giving up any claim to it, Orange Juice do indeed tear up the rulebook and dance gleefully among the snowstorm of paper. It should be clever-clever, but it just can’t be, because it’s a joyful, uncoiling spring of wonky Brit-funk in love with pop and all its possibilities.

It was years before I realised that this band had form. I’d wrongly assumed them to be one-hit wonders, though my own nineties (them again) did register Collins’s mega-hit ‘A girl like you’. Hearing ‘Falling and laughing’ for the first time was a bit of a blood-rush. In fact, I felt sixteen again; and I found myself falling (in love) and laughing (at the exuberant loveliness of it). It’s a knowing song, but it never sneers. This is what adolescence is like if you read Baudelaire instead of FHM, self-absorbed and prone to the morbidly poetic, lovelorn and careworn, yet with a welcome sense of absurdity.

It has one of the best opening lines of all time. Collins muses, in his uniquely off-brown timbre, ‘You must think me very naive’; the way he mispronounces that last word, emphasising the first syllable rather than the second, suggests he does indeed have a lot to learn, though it may be a nice double bluff. ‘Avoid eye contact at all costs’, he reminds himself, but then he has to throw in a little compliment about her teeth. He’s trying to be Werther, all tragic and grand (‘only my tears satisfy the real need of my heart’) but every time he plays the tortured artist, he breaks into a grin. As he says, he wants to take the pleasure with the pain: ‘what can I do but learn to laugh at myself?’ If only I’d had that gift at his age! Despite the valiant attempts at Romanticism, the giggles are everywhere. David McClymont’s bass bubbles up and down, fluttering like the heart of a besotted teen, and the whole thing zips along with the unlikely funkiness of a gawky fifth former whose feet are too big for his frame. Sunshine is everywhere, so much so that you realise how much it’s absent in most evocations of adolescence. Yes, you become obsessed with a different person every month and it’s terrible, but just perving on them in assembly can keep you happy for hours, and you’re not yet too old for a hug from Mum and a hot dinner at the end of the school day. It’s all there in this song. Collins’ aspirations run earnestly up their E minor scale, but they’re always checked by the home chord of D major; flights of fancy are grounded soon enough. I hear lots of Glasgow in this – a city both rich in artsiness and earthed in honest toil – but I also hear myself, reciting Keats in my bedroom while the other kids run amok outside.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been my interpretation of the song if I had been sixteen in 1980, rather than in the womb. As I get older, I realise the clichés are almost certainly true; youth is wasted on the young. But it’s rather wonderful that you can instantly relive the good bits at the flick of the needle or the touch of a shuffle button. Edwyn’s been through some trauma more recently, a nasty stroke that left him half-paralysed; music, and his wife Grace, have rescued him, and I was moved to see him performing at All Tomorrow’s Parties last year. There he sat, performing ‘Falling and laughing’, its lyrics now resonant in so many ways that would have been inconceivable back when it was first released. You see, we ignore our past at our peril; as another great poet once wrote, the child is father to the man. We can laugh at our younger selves – the gaucheness, the folly – while accepting them as us nevertheless. In that light, ‘Falling and laughing’ is a piece of true wisdom. Cherish it.

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19 – The Cure: A Forest

The Cure2

One of the albums I played almost incessantly as a Sixth Former in the late 1990s was Whatever and Ever Amen, by Ben Folds Five. I’m not usually a fan of clever-clever geek-chic, but as a pianist dreaming of Tin Pan Alley, I liked the Real Book chords, and the harmonies were more California than Cornell quadrangle. The single ‘The Battle of Who Could Care Less’ was among my favourites: tortuous chord sequence, scuzzy bass, witty lyrics about the apathy of nineties youth. It’s all so good until you hit the punch-line: ‘This should cheer you up for sure, / See, I’ve got your old ID, and you’re all dressed up like The Cure!’ How it riled me (no danger of apathy there). Why on earth should one of the greatest British bands of all time wind up as some smartass punch line?

But then, many of you will remember Rob Newman in The Mary Whitehouse Experience, sulking his way through renditions of nursery rhymes and novelty songs recast as doomy Curism. In fact, for many people in their thirties and forties, Rob Newman probably is Robert Smith, just as for my parents the Bee Gees were synonymous with Kenny Everett’s disco dentures. Still, the Whitehouse treatment proved that The Cure were an integral part of British culture; anything so easily lampooned is clearly bedded in the national psyche.  That’s one of the eternally surprising things about The Cure. They were the most ‘pop’ of all the great eighties indie bands, even more than The Smiths at their catchiest. Where Johnny Marr made old-fashioned guitars glitter and gleam anew, The Cure made no bones about their fondness for synthesizers. Where New Order sabotaged Top of the Pops with infamous live bugger-ups, The Cure mimed and embraced the dry ice (prompting a droll quip or two from John Peel into the bargain).  And where most indie groups plumped for mufti, Robert Smith and the lads skimmed the Boots counters for product and pan-stick. In 1983, they were very 1983. The most delicious irony of all, however, is that Smith continued to smear his face long after Boy George had hung up his hairpieces. Now that’s indie.

Still, it’s often been difficult to know where to place The Cure. I’m sure they have as many fans as The Smiths, but they seldom make the Top 100 album lists, so Mojo readers and their like are denied multiple reiterations of their genius. For the record, so to speak, at least two or three of their 1980s albums are the equal of any of their peers’, and often outstrip for them for verve and variety. Disintegration is the consensual favourite, and a superb record it is. All that space in the sound, the guitar that makes me think, synaesthetically, of dripping honey; the synths that seem to embody some kind of Petrarchan contrary, refusing to decide whether they are ice or fire (‘Closedown’ is musical Reykjavik – geysers and snow). And, of course, ‘Lullaby’, surely the greatest evocation of pyjama paranoia in the history of pop, and The Cure’s highest charting single in the UK to boot. While the States rated ‘Lovesong’ (a no. 2 hit over there, no less), we in Britain prefer our Cure to be Grimm. Even those love cats are characters from some dark and surreal cartoon, twanging their double basses like extras from an outtake of Who framed Roger Rabbit. When you listen to the band from this angle, taking stock of the weird slurpy grub-noises at the beginning of ‘The Caterpillar’, or the funny flutes in ‘Close to me’, Rob Newman and Ben Folds seem very distant indeed. Yes, there are nightmares: ‘The Hanging Garden’, most of the Pornography album in fact. But the joy of ‘Friday I’m in love’ is real; the sixth-form buoyancy of ‘Boys don’t cry’ never palls; and the bonkers swing-beat of ‘Why can’t I be you’ still sounds like the cousin of ‘Walking on sunshine’ – a cousin with ADHD and a habit of drinking all the squash. Standing on a beach is easily one of my favourite greatest hits packages: from the tinny existentialism of ‘Killing an Arab’ to the miracle that is ‘In between days’ (depression trapped in a solution of euphoria, like a scarab in amber), there just isn’t a duffer on there. But it’s a weedy little song from 1980 that ends up growing, growing, growing, until it towers above its neighbours and blocks out all the natural light. It’s a scary song to find yourself in, but as with most things that make the heart beat faster, you can’t resist.

A Forest’ could have been the soundtrack to an unmade Herzog film about a young man losing his mind in the middle of the proverbial dark, dark wood. OK, so it’s The Cure, and it’s probably Epping Forest rather than some romantic schwarzwald, but despite the German predilection for wyrd sisters with gingerbread houses, British woods are more chilling anyway: so unheimlich, precisely because they are half-familiar. Clearly, Robert Smith’s forest is tightly packed, or that’s what I hear in the sound. There is no looseness, no funkiness here: no liberties are taken with the beat. Maybe the fact that I see rows and rows of conifers as I get trapped in the drone is down to experience. On a school expedition, I and my friends once got lost ourselves, inside a dense plantation in Northumberland. Trees had been felled since our map was printed, creating clearings where the OS indicated greenery. We ended up thrashing our way through thick-set trunks, parting fronds and stumbling onward for hours, undone by Kielder; the solitary barking deer might as well have been a minotaur guarding the labyrinth. It was hell at the time, but now, of course, it’s one of my romantic memories, a primal communion with landscape. There’s something heroic about being dominated by nature red in tooth and claw (see Edmund Burke for further particulars).

Hmm, I appear to have got lost in the forest. Back to The Cure! Robert is still running, his feet padding in time to Lol Tolhurst’s highly phased motorik beat. He urges us to follow our eyes, and as we do, the chords shift from atmospheric to downright sinister. We feel we’re blindly hurtling somewhere, though we’re rescued just in time with a fizz of cymbal, narrowly averting collision. Everything is thick yet spindly and meagre. It’s a stunning sound, less a production than a whole sonic universe. The guitars are emaciated, yet the disconcerting amount of flange and reverb gives them an extraordinary sound profile. They may be anaemic, but that’s the woods for you; we grab onto them, skeletal as they are, to help us negotiate some sort of track through the growth. When the keyboard quietly begins to shadow the bass, we feel something might be lighting up, but in fact it’s the opposite. The vapours start to swirl, the mist thickens; as Tom Verlaine might have it, ‘the darkness doubles’. Robert’s voice gains in echo as he finds himself more and more isolated, until suddenly he stops. It’s that horrid moment of panic, the point at which you realise you are utterly lost and there is no way out. In Smith’s case, the girl he has been following is revealed to be a hallucination. She was never there, he sings, confirming that there has never been a solution, an exit, an end. The Lorelei has claimed her victim; we are left with Smith’s unsettling voice, splitting into repeated ‘agains’, boomeranging off the bark before swinging back to us and whizzing past our ears like a dart.

This is real 3D recording. Why isn’t there a headphone equivalent of those funny specs they hand out in cinemas? That’s the thing about ‘A Forest’, you see; you want to be lost in it. You want to experience that disquiet physically. Yet there is an artifice that keeps the possibility at bay. The producer Mike Hedges has said that ‘nothing was quite natural’ in the recording process; the mix was laden with as many effects as it could take. This is what lends it an air of Hoffmann or Tieck; it creates the illusion of the slightly fantastical seeming more real than the ‘real’. It’s a song about the terrors the human mind can conjure, terrors that occur naturally but manifest themselves in surreal visions. That’s why ‘A Forest’ is the very, very best of The Cure: in fact, it is exemplary. They’re a band in which the natural, unnatural and supernatural are warped together into gnarly shapes, until there is no clear distinction between any of them. Supposedly ‘natural’ guitars are heavily processed; supposedly ‘artificial’ synthesizers sound more authentic. Supposedly ‘indie’ kudos is challenged by a gash of scarlet lipstick and a dash of self-mocking pop-gloss. And do you know what, I think it may just be funnier than Ben Folds Five. With The Cure, we really can be happy underground.

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17 – Martha & The Muffins: Echo Beach


Working for the rat race? You know you’re wasting your time. Working for the rat race? You’re no friend of mine!

Ah, how I love The Specials. They made urban British disconnection and the malaise of the barely employed sound like so much fun. Still, ‘Rat Race’ is an uncomfortable listen for me. ‘I’ve seen your qualifications, you’ve got a PhD / I’ve got one art O-level, it did nothing for me’, sings Terry Hall with the kind of hangdog sagacity only a twenty-one year old in a band could pull off. I chuckle every time I hear it, but then it fills me with dread. He’s bang on the money. I know my own research degree means bugger all in most circles – all that labour and self-doubt merely leads to more of the same. In academia, you’re only as good as your last article or book, and the way the profession is audited and assessed according to ‘output’ is brazen in adopting the rhetoric of the market. How naive I was to think that by choosing an academic path, I’d found a tranquil refuge from the tyranny of competition! For Terry and the boys, we’re part of the problem anyway. Establishment. Bourgeois. The sort of people who write about music instead of, you know, actually breaking their nails on a guitar string. I hold my uncalloused hands up – guilty as charged.

You might think that this was the tenor of their times, of course. Early 1980 – a depressed country, sludgy and sclerotic yet prone to outbreaks of spit and rage. The Specials had many targets . There were the architects who bequeathed a legacy of underlit crime-scenes in ‘Concrete Jungle’, and the youngsters who sprog ‘burden[s] on the welfare state’ in ‘Too much too young’; and most of all, there was the Thatcher government. The Specials face stiff competition for the title of most anti-Tory band ever (there’ll be a fair few others dotted about this blog, no doubt), but no artists better captured the almost comical despair of the early eighties. Despite being inseparable from its context, ‘Ghost Town’ never palls; the absolute peak of Britain’s short-lived but miraculous 2-Tone movement, it breaks your heart and splits your sides at the same time. I’m too young to remember 1981 (I was born in 1980), but it sounds as if Britain was one large fairground full of bad drugs and Clockwork Orange droogs, a dystopia of citizens forced into miserable leisure by a government determined to destroy their livelihoods. The hammer-horror organ rises, and you quite expect Mrs T to emerge from the coconut shies disguised as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Their version of Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is more unsettling still. It’s positively Orwellian: Terry Hall sounds like Boxer the workhorse giving up the ghost. Far better make an unholy racket than labour to put tax pounds in that woman’s pocket.  Do they run a YTS in drum construction?

There were lots of songs about work or the lack thereof in the early 1980s. UB40 were obsessed by it. Of course, they got rich soon enough; they should have changed their name to Capital Gains around 1983. Meanwhile, ‘Wham Rap’ features George Michael’s most politically charged couplets: ‘I may not have a job, but I have a good time / With the boys that I meet ‘down on the line’’. No ‘Careless Whisper’, is it? But work isn’t always politically charged. It’s what we do day in day out, and for most people, it’s merely structured boredom. With the explosion of British guitar bands in the mid-2000s, we got some fine commentary on the rather prosaic subject of work-life balance. There was the Rakes’ ‘Work work work (Pub club sleep)’, whose title is self-explanatory, and special mention must go to The Young Knives’ ‘Weekends and bleak days’, with its immortal opening whinge, ‘Hot summer, what a bummer!’ But the greatest ode to the banality of the photocopy queue, the greatest paean to the desk tidy and the franking machine, is a song by Canadian one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins. It’s probably playing in thousands of people’s heads right now.

‘Echo Beach’ is a contemporary of the Specials’ ‘Rat Race’, though it looks at wage slavery from the opposite end of the telescope. The woman in this song isn’t interested in anti-establishment social commentary. She’s more the type of person you might meet in the kitchen over lunch hour, spearing pasta salad from her Tupperware or showing you her holiday snaps. Martha Johnson circa 1980, with her bouncy hair and chequered earrings, fits the bill perfectly. Without her the song might have seemed ironic on first listen, a case of new wavers being arch about the nine-to-five masses, but when I watch old clips I really believe in them; it’s as if Martha was dreaming one day at her desk, imagining herself in a band, and hey presto, the Muffins materialised. She’s prone to these sorts of mental escapades anyway. As she confesses, she can’t help it; she’s a romantic fool. She spends most of her time distracted by thoughts of elsewhere.

Of course, she isn’t a fool at all, merely one of the many millions who live for the weekend and save up their meagre pay-checks for two weeks of summer bliss. The scenario is so familiar I’m astonished that nobody thought of its hitmaking potential before. Naturally, I’ve been there myself, and most people I know can readily identify with the lyrics. My Dad spent thirty odd years as assistant manager in a provincial branch of Barclays Bank. His caravan in the Yorkshire Dales was everything to him, a retreat from the public’s demands and the boss’s orders. Or take some of the people I met while doing holiday work at a solicitor’s office, the series of office juniors who occupied their downtime penning romantic novels on WH Smith feint-ruled jotters, or sat at reception dreaming of Corfu. These are people we all recognise. They are us. Martha is you and me.

The sound of the record, however, has little to do with the drudgery of the office and everything to do with 5pm on a Friday: that moment when you put your last item in the out-tray, gather your hat and gloves, and say cheerio to the cleaners as they come to do their shift. You’re dancing before you’ve even cleared the revolving doors. It’s all down to the Muffins’ super-tight playing; ‘Echo Beach’ is easily one of the most propulsive, exuberant pop songs of a limitlessly energetic era, a fantastic band performance in which the most minute cogs of the wheel produce tiny coruscating sparks. The looped, phased guitar that begins the fade-in (or is it a keyboard?) is the sun winking over the sands. Then the unmistakeably 1980 lead – trebly, skinny and flanged – followed by that busy bass and crisp, metronomic drumming, and finally the keyboards: it’s a song that lets you in on all its layers one by one, includes you generously in the discovery of freedom, takes your hand as it hurtles down the stairwell and out into the light. As if all this weren’t brilliant enough, you get a borderline crazy saxophone solo that is actually good. The early eighties were full of them, you know – thank Madness and Hazel O’Connor. And to think that this was their only hit in the UK. Sometimes it’s better to have the one corker than a trail of also-rans, particularly when the subject is so everyman. It suggests that we all get a crack of the whip – our Warholian five minutes – and that it’s quite possible to put your all into a perfect confection of hiccupy vocals and compulsive new-wave disco-ditty. The Muffins made other records, with ever-shifting line-ups, but ‘Echo Beach’ is their indelible statement. Wherever the eponymous bay is, I have a feeling that if you wrote its name in the sands, the tide would never wash it away.

There are lots of things I’d like to do to ‘Echo Beach’. I’d like to take an old-fashioned ghetto-blaster to the seaside and play Frisbee to it. I’d like to wear black and white and dance to it under bare lightbulbs. I’d like to pipe it round offices every summer solstice. It almost convinces me that work is worth it, that the boredom somehow licences the dreaming. Much as I love ‘Rat Race’, ‘Echo Beach’ is much the most subversive of songs about the daily grind; the grind becomes a twitch, the twitch a dance, and the dance the best weekend you’ll ever have.

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6 – Grace Jones: Private Life


What’s your favourite venue? It’s a rather muso question, isn’t it? I’m not sure I can answer it really. I do know that some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to were at the Roundhouse in Camden. Roisin Murphy danced the robot and wore a lampshade (Lady Gaga avant la lettre and all the better for it). John Martyn mumbled and giggled into his beard (rest in peace, John). But nothing comes close to Grace Jones sticking a microphone down her cleavage. Actually, nothing much in life has come close to that.

Such behaviour warrants only one response: ‘well, that’s Grace for you’. These days she’s an institution, and we all know what that means. Institutions are unimpeachable, immune to criticism. They’re also homely, even cosy: the Queen Mother, Dolly Parton, Thora Hird. Institutions are above the law. They carry the diplomatic bag through customs. Grace Jones could turn up at Heathrow painted head to toe silver, carrying a Gucci bag full of drill heads, and security would just wave her through. It’s a shame really, as I know she’d like nothing better than to be frisked by a severe man with a scanner.

Most recent interviews have emphasised this fun-loving Grace, baying at the moon with a bellyful of champagne, or confessing her superhuman capacity for oyster consumption. Her appearance on Jonathan Ross’s BBC show a couple of years ago was so full of warmth and bonhomie that you could almost forget the infamous 1981 incident in which she slapped Russell Harty for turning his back on her. I’m chuffed that Grace is now being feted by younger generations, not only in matters of style, but also as a musical influence. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how otherworldly she was at her early eighties peak. She was a true sci-fi pop star, seemingly without origin or precedent.  For a black female performer, this was highly subversive. Though more recent songs, such as the autobiographical ‘William’s Blood’, dramatise her strict Christian upbringing in the Caribbean, the albums she produced with Sly and Robbie from 1980 to 1982 offered no back story to explain her. Instead, they ironised her heritage. ‘My Jamaican Guy’, for example, is perfect postmodern pop. She sounds like an arch anthropologist experimenting with the patois; the production behind her is a new type of reggae-funk crossover, studied, drained of authenticity. Within this sound world, all nationalities, allegiances and identities are performances. It’s the perfect sonic fingerprint for an artist who has variously seemed feminine, masculine, sexy, asexual, Jamaican, French, American, British, or all and none of these at the same time.

The ‘Private Life’ video riffs on this beautifully, grandly, austerely. Grace wears a mask of her own face, a simple gesture that can be interpreted in manifold ways. We might think of the African masks of modernist ‘primitivism’, re-appropriated and owned (this rather suggestive imagery also drives the later ‘Slave to the rhythm’). We might also take the mask as slyly self-referential; Jones was a model, a muse for Andy Warhol, before she ever recorded a note. And more than anything, the mask is an assertion of singularity, for Grace is sui generis. If she continued to unpeel herself, there would no doubt be further, identical Graces underneath, like a sequence of Russian dolls, and each would be as inscrutable as the last. You could spend a lifetime keeping up with these Joneses. I’m surprised Judith Butler hasn’t published a monograph on the subject.

Readability is one of the song’s key concerns. Grace is irritated by a friend or lover because he or she refuses to hold anything back. ‘J’en ai marre with your theatrics’, she intones, in a kind of monotonous Sprechstimme.  It’s wonderfully, knowingly ironic, for nothing is more theatrical than this Brecht-Weill shtick, yet the deep pulse of reggae bass and the enigmatic delivery contradict Grace’s throwaway confession, ‘I’m very superficial’. I suspect it’s more that she’s too deep to care. She, of course, would never reveal her private life to anybody. The listener waits for the mask to shift out of alignment, for the voice to reveal a hiccup of doubt or vulnerability, but only gets withering disdain. ‘Attachment to obligation…that’s so wet’, spits Grace, a stately Siamese cat hissing at a raggedy mog. ‘I just feel pity when you lie, content when you cry’. Blimey. This character would never guest on a charity record. She knows full well it’s Christmas, and you, mister, aren’t getting so much as a Satsuma.

The beauty of all this is that ‘Private Life’ isn’t Grace Jones’s record at all really; she annexed it and made it speak her own language. The Pretenders prototype is atmospheric but awkward, another product of the New Wave fetish for the Kingston offbeat (blame The Police if you like). Almost as soon as Chrissie Hynde heard Jones’ version, she decided that this was the way the song was meant to sound, making ‘Private Life’, like Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ or Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2U’, a cover masquerading as a de facto original. How could it be anything other than uniquely Grace? There’s a world of difference between hearing the boyish-but-girly Chrissie Hynde sing ‘Your acting’s a drag’, and listening to the same line delivered by a suited woman with a flat chest and an even flatter buzz-cut. Drag indeed.

The fact is, though, that most of Grace Jones’ greatest recordings are covers which look bizarre on paper but come up gloriously on vinyl. Her ‘Warm Leatherette’ is even funnier than The Normal’s original electro sex-drone, while Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s ‘Nightclubbing’ retains the lonely, drugged-out feel of The Idiot version but douses it in a dark wash of dub. There’s Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’, in which Sly and Robbie somehow manage to broker a trade deal between Argentina, Jamaica and rural France, and a belligerent take on Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ (not just belligerent but disingenuous – I refuse to believe Grace was ever used by anyone, unless she’s addressing the song to herself). Most impressive of all is Sting’s ‘Demolition Man’. He wrote it especially for her, then decided he would ‘cover’ it with his own band. Grace’s songs were covers before they were covers – get your ears round that, Jean Baudrillard!

But it’s ‘Private Life’ that I love best. It’s the space in the sound, its glassy surfaces and the ripples of colour underneath the wave. It’s the droll, self-centred message, so prescient of the Eighties to come: leave me out, I have my own back to watch. Most of all, it’s just the fact that this track, as much as ‘I feel love’, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or ‘Blue Monday’, plants a little flag on the moon and waits for the crowds to catch up. Actually, it goes even further than that. Light years ahead of us, in Kingston, Jupiter, where gender and race have (thankfully?) been deemed dangerously earthly parameters, some beautiful being is stalking the rocks in Jean-Paul Goude shoulder pads, sticking microphones down her cleavage. Your private life drama, baby? Count me in.

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