A 1981 Top Ten


It was the year that Bob Marley died. Malcolm McLaren witnessed Afrika Bambaata spinning discs at a block party in the South Bronx. John McEnroe beat Björn Borg to earn his first Wimbledon title and Shergar won the Derby (which earned me a few quid). Charles married Diana but they never seemed as well suited as Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and while I’m on the subject of vile evil, the Yorkshire Ripper was finally caught and jailed for life.

The Guardian lauded Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark as ‘one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction’ and, at that year’s Oscars, The Elephant Man and Raging Bull both earned eight nominations although Ordinary People was somehow voted Best Film.

The higher echelons of the British singles charts managed to feature everything from Euro accordion nonsense (The Birdie Song) to O Superman by avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson, although neither of those tracks made it all the way to the top.

Number ones are, of course, usually rank rotten and 1981 provided us with regular reminders of this general rule. As the bells sounded in the new year, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma sat at #1 and trash like Shaddap You Face and Japanese Boy followed on.

But it wasn’t all quite as hellish. The bestselling single of the year was Tainted Love, an imaginative synthpop stab at a northern soul classic spoiled by Marc Almond’s head-nipping vocals. The Christmas #1 was The Human League with Don’t You Want Me but even better was The Specials’ finest moment, Ghost Town, a track that could rightly take its place next to tracks like Paint It Black; Sunny Afternoon; Hot Love; God Save the Queen (unofficially anyway) and Going Underground as one of the greatest records to ever top the British singles charts.

If Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco was an anthem attempting to reflect the peace and love optimism of the Flower Power generation then Ghost Town was a state of the nation address along the more depressing lines of unemployment, police racism and poverty in powder-keg Britain and as you likely know already, its tenure at number coincided with riots raging in Toxteth and around England including The Specials’ home town of Coventry.

A visit north of the border, though, has been acknowledged by Jerry Dammers as his key inspiration when writing the song.

‘In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers,’ Dammers explained to Alexis Petridis in the Guardian in 2002 while discussing Ghost Town. ‘It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong.’

There was something very, very wrong in Britain in 1981 but I certainly never witnessed any little old ladies selling their household goods on any street in the city around this time myself.

My theory is that Dammers probably strayed around the edges of the old Paddy’s Market in the Briggait and somehow failed to realise that it was a longstanding market place. Maybe his visit was early in the day, just as trading was being set up.

Paddy’s, it would have to be admitted, was a dump. To the extent that it made the Barras look positively swanky.

Cluttered with all kinds of junk, clothes were often arrayed on stalls, crates, deckchair loungers, palletts or even just on sheets laid out on the ground. I would visit many a Saturday morning in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There used to be a good barber and you could occasionally pick up the odd interesting old record or unusual item of clothing in among the general kitsch and crap. Actually I miss Paddy’s and still believe the town became a little more bland the day that it was forced to close.

With a video shot by graphic art genius Barney Bubbles – who also designed record sleeves for Ian Dury, Generation X and Elvis Costello – this is The Specials with Ghost Town:

The Specials might have sang of all the clubs having been closed down but luckily this wasn’t true throughout the land – although I can think of a few cattle markets in Glasgow that should have been shut down back then albeit I lived in England for the majority of the year.

Maestro’s on Scott Street was not one of these even though there was an annoyingly high percentage of posers there on any given night – you know, the kind of person that read in The Face that jazz and salsa were going to be the next big thing and so immediately started dressing like Blue Rondo à la Turk. On the plus side there were always plenty of good looking girls there and you would hear an amazingly eclectic mix of tracks from electronic, post-punk and New Pop through to mutant disco and early Rap and Hip Hop.

Floor-fillers at Maestro’s and the cooler end of the club spectrum in 1981 included ESG’s Moody; Pete Shelley’s Homosapien, Pigbag’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag; DAF’s Der Mussolini; Computer Love by Kraftwerk; The Magnificent Seven by The Clash and this epic and audacious audio collage of tracks spun on the Grandmaster Flash’s double decks featuring bits ‘n’ pieces of Chic’s Good Times; Blondie’s Rapture; The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache and The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight.

Released on Sugar Hill Records, here is the Grandmaster with The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel:

I did promise some more Scritti Politti in my last post but failed to find a decent video for their 1981 single The “Sweetest Girl”.

A sumptuous production with a sinuous and soothing bassline, this track was one of the great surprises of the era. Lovers rock meets Messthetics, the track opened the Rough Trade compiled NME cassette tape C81 – a much better compilation of music than the more famous C86 incidentally.

Instead of Scritti, here’s one of the most infectious tracks that you could ever hope to dance your ass off to, this is Pigbag and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag:

The Top Ten (in no particular order)

The Specials: Ghost Town
Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel
ESG: Moody
Pete Shelley: Homosapien
Pigbag: Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
DAF: Der Mussolini
Scritti Politti: The “Sweetest Girl”
Aztec Camera: We Could Send Letters
Simple Minds: Theme for Great Cities
Kraftwerk: Computer Love

Has 2016 produced as many notable tracks?

In a word? No.

Just Outside: Article 58 – Event To Come; The Passions – I’m In Love With A German Film Star; Vivien Goldman – Launderette; Laurie Anderson – O Superman; The Teardrop Explodes – Reward, Scars – All About You, Fire Engines – Candyskin; The Associates – White Car in Germany; New Order – Everything’s Gone Green.

I could go on.

And on.

It was Easy, it was Cheap, Go and Do It!

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Desperate Bicycles: Smokescreen (Refill Records)

And now for one of the most influential ever British independent singles.

What is independent or indie?

The question was asked in last year’s BBC4 documentary Music for Misfits. ‘Is it a genre of music, generally accepted to involve noisy guitars?’ presenter Mark Radcliffe suggested. ‘Is it a business model, small companies not beholden to major corporations? Is it a state of mind?’

My answers being ‘No. Not necessarily and not necessarily.’

Almost forty years after buying my first independent single I still can’t give you a definitive answer to the question but what I can say is the that some records described as indie or independent are more independent than others. Early on Stiff set up a distribution deal in Britain with EMI and one with Epic for their American releases, while Jerry Dammers arranged a deal with Chrysalis to fund 2 Tone. Independent?

When the Guardian addressed the question last year to coincide with the first showing of Music for Misfits, Jude Rogers stated: ‘Some facts remain unshakeable. At the beginning were Buzzcocks, with their made-for-£500 Spiral Scratch EP.’

Okay, to try and shake the unshakeable, I’ll mention just one of many examples that I could. During the long hot summer of 1976, just as Buzzcocks were setting up a show in Manchester for The Sex Pistols, Abercrombie Fraser – a pseudonym of Kevin Westlake, who’d played guitar in Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance – released a version of Marie’s Wedding on Pinnacle, a British independent label label – yes, they did already exist – and distribution company that had some success around this time with the highly irritating boyband Flintlock.

Some facts do though actually remain unshakeable, one of them being The Desperate Bicycles were pretty much as independent as it was possible to be in the late 1970s, no distribution deals with majors and certainly not a penny in funding from them either.

The Desperates were one of those bands like Wire and Subway Sect that made records in 1977 which now sound more post-punk than punk. They formed with the simple ambition to record a single, cheaply and without record label involvement and this before they had even rehearsed as a band, let alone played a live show.

When asked about this by fanzine New Wave, bassist Roger Stephens, explained: ‘I think the only way we could get five people to actually get interested in playing together was to say, well we’re going to cut a record straight away. The whole novelty of it was enough to make sure people turned up. It sounds crazy but that’s a part of it.’

On their own Refill label, this is that debut single, Smokecreen, yes, the very first independent single I ever bought:

Call me lazy but if you want to know about the band and the basic details of how they made their first two 45s, then here’s what they said themselves on the back cover of their second DIY release The Medium was Tedium:

‘The Desperate Bicycles were formed in March 1977 specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label. They booked a studio in Dalston for three hours and with a lot of courage and a little rehearsal they recorded ‘Smokescreen’ and ‘Handlebars’. It subsequently leapt at the throat. Three months later The Desperate Bicycles were back in the studio to record their second single and this is the result. “No more time for spectating” they sing and who knows? They may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of “Smokescreen” was 153 pounds). The medium may very well have been tedium but it’s changing fast. So if you can understand, go and join a band. Now it’s your turn…………….’

And if you’re wondering what 153 quid would be in today’s money, then adjusting for inflation that would be the inflation adjusted equivalent to is £664.63. According to Moneysorter.co.uk anyway.


Refusing to advertise, the band only played live sporadically. Word of mouth was their main means of spreading the word until John Peel began repeatedly playing Smokescreen, before inviting them in to record a session for his show in the summer of 1977, which kicked off with a version of Smokescreen that surpassed the single.

The Desperates punted their record to independent music shops like Small Wonder and Rough Trade. Happily the initial Smokescreen pressing of 500 sold out with the band putting the profits into a second pressing of 1000 which again sold out allowing them to put the further profits into a second single. That pressing soon also sold out and this time they used the profits to press up 2500 more copies of each of the two singles and to buy some new equipment.

In his book Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds described the Desperate Bicycles as ‘DIY’s most fervent evangelists’. Buzzcocks might have got in there before them and significantly the Manchester group used the back cover of their EP to help demystify the process of making a record by listing the number of takes and guitar overdubs on each track. This would be an obvious inspiration to the Desperates but as Buzzcocks were lured relatively quickly from New Hormones to United Artists you could easily argue that it was The Desperate Bicycles who were more influential to many new DIY bands emerging around this time.

Here’s Simon Reynolds again in the same book quoting Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps: ‘It wasn’t until Desperate Bicycles did their first single that we realised you could actually book a studio and make a record. We thought only major labels could hire them. Which seems ridiculous now!’

Scritti Politti, a bunch of puritanical Camden squat dwellers who spent their days scrutinizing far-left samizdats and post-structuralist theory while plotting the best way how to bring about the immediate downfall of capitalism – and likely existing on a diet on brown rice as they did so – also undoubtedly took encouragement from the example of the Buzzcocks and Desperates, listing not only the cost of making their debut single on the sleeve but also breaking down precisely each of the costs they’d incurred as well as giving out contact details for each of the companies they had used.

The Television Personalties are another band that found inspiration in records like Smokescreen and, in turn, they influenced the next generation like Alan McGee, who had by the mid-80s (when this type of music would be regularly termed ‘alternative’ rather than ‘indie’) established a reputation for signing some of the most exciting independent acts in the country like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream to his label Creation – and, of course, later McGee went on to sell around half of Creation to Sony Music in the early 1990s.

Here’s a question, a hypothetical one.

Would The Desperates have been tempted if – unlikely I know – a major had taken a serious interest in tempting them to sign on the dotted line with a hefty advance?

As far as I can tell, they seem to have refused the opportunity to ever license any of their material for a re-release on CD or as a download, although they have spoken of doing this themselves.

So, the band do still strike me as genuine outsiders.

But hey, you never know.

By the time The Desperates had petered out in the early 1980s, Scritti were becoming frustrated by the limitations of being on an independent (in their case Rough Trade). As the decade progressed, singer Green Gartside took the not very democratic decision to elect himself leader of Scritti, eventually using the band to all extents and purposes as a solo vehicle.

Bob Last was appointed manager. I’m guessing because Green approved of how he’d handled the mega-success of The Human League. When offered the chance Scritti moved from egalitarian Rough Trade to hippy capitalist Richard Branson’s Virgin, something that Green would surely have laughed at back in the days when he would rail against everything from the usual capitalist suspects through to the experimental London Musicians’ Collective (castigated as ‘bourgeois imperialist improvisers’) and fellow leftist acts such as The Pop Group.

Duran Duran became fans and Green found himself in the pages of Smash Hits as regularly as NME, where he would be as likely to praise Tiffany as Marcel Duchamp. In all probability far more yuppies bought his records than squatters.

He took to wearing glossy lipstick and employed Arif Mardin to make his sound even glossier.

Worst of all, though, he somehow started to believe that it was a good idea to wear a shellsuit. Made by Nike.

Uploaded by Hell From The Eighties, sorry, Hello From The Eighties, this is Absolute:

More Scritti to come shortly as, believe it or not, I am actually a fan and should maybe say before I finish that Green/Scritti signed again to the reactivated Rough Trade imprint around a decade ago.

A Modern Soul Three for Friday


A civil war would emerge in the Northern Soul scene during the mid-70s with DJ Ian Levine’s decision to spin the ultra rare It Really Hurts Me Girl at the Highland Room of the Blackpool Mecca being its catalyst. The Carstairs track was recently recorded with a sound that retained some of the feel of Northern Soul but fused with a more contemporary beat. A shuffler rather than a 4/4 stomper. It Really Hurts Me Girl was Modern Soul.

Holidaying with his parents in Miami during the summer of ’73 – when this kind of thing was about as common for Brits as a copy of Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You, well where I lived anyway – the teenage Levine came across a Goodwill thrift store where he painstakingly sifted through piles of second-hand vinyl singles from the moment the shop opened until the shutters finally went up. Not just for one day. But every day for a week. Fanatical yes but at least sunstroke wasn’t going to be a problem for this young crate digger.

While in Miami, he also tuned into a local radio station playing It Really Hurts Me Girl which he soon discovered had only appeared as a promotional copy, having been pulled when label Red Coach lost its distribution deal with Chess Records/GRT. He wanted a copy of the record as desperately as vocalist Cleveland Horne seemingly wanted the heartache of a recent breakup to end – the lyrics of the song, which he co-wrote, being largely autobiographical.

Despite his best efforts, Levine found the task of tracking down a copy in the States as difficult as finding a record needle in a very large haystack but he did eventually secure a copy from Glasgow born dealer John Anderson, who ran Soul Bowl Records, a mail order and wholesale distributor in King’s Lynn. For a while only two British DJs apparently owned copies, Levine and Ian Dewhirst, who unearthed his copy at an all-dayer in Hanley for fifteen quid.

‘If you want everything on one record, then this record’s got it,’ Dewhirst enthused when interviewed for Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s book The Record Players. ‘The most passionate vocal, scintillating beat, brilliant strings, produced by George Kerr, the fucking archdeacon of Northern Soul!’ He claims to have spent almost a week just looking at the 45.


The problem at the time for the northern die-hards was that, despite an increasing number of obsessives making the pilgrimage to the States to plunder record shops, charity stores and warehouses, the unrelenting conveyor belt of new finds of ’60s stompers was inevitably going to eventually dry up. Yes, there were thousands of Goodwill and other thrift stores spread across the States but I doubt that even a small minority of them held a tiny fraction of the treasure trove of soul discovered by Levine in Florida.

One potential solution to maintain the vibrancy of the scene would obviously be to start incorporating newer songs with different tempos like IRHMG and this is the path chosen by Levine when, back in his home town of Blackpool, he landed a residency at the Mecca.

Other forward thinking DJs including fellow Mecca stalwart Colin Curtis embraced the new soul vision and began introducing many examples of the contemporary sound into their sets, Hung Up on Your Love by The Montclairs being one high profile example along with Paul Humphrey’s Cochise and I’m Your Pimp by The Skull Snaps – and how that latter track somehow managed never to appear on any Blaxploitation soundtrack of the era remains a mystery to me.

While the more open minded Northern fans embraced these groundbreaking singles, the shock of the new alienated at least as many traditionalists.

Arguments raged about this turn of events at soul venues across the country and within the pages of the soul music press. Both factions were equally passionate and their bitter rivalry has been compared to that of fans of two football clubs.

A ‘Levine Must Go’ campaign was launched which was kinda similar to what happened to the last manager of the Scottish national football team except that wasn’t as nasty and was promoted as ‘Levein Must Go’.

Anti-Ian Levine badges and banners were produced with the man being branded a traitor and abused regularly in person. One night his car was attacked while he was inside.

None of this, though, stopped him from pushing ahead with his new policy and he steadily incorporated even more new sounds, with out and out disco and jazz funk making an appearance in his sets. He also began producing his own ‘tailormade’ singles, new songs with the (supposed) feel of the 1960s and these were promptly banned by DJ Russ Winstanley at the Wigan Casino. Levine himself had to stop visiting that venue due to the regular hassles he would inevitably encounter any time he visited.

Of course, in the end the arguments began to die down and today more tolerant attitudes generally exist at northern nights. Many events cater for differing tastes in separate rooms at the same venue with many club-goers happily moving between the two.

As Stuart Cosgrove explains in his highly recommended book Young Soul Rebels: ‘Looking at it today, the Mecca wars were arcane, concerning records that the vast majority of young people in the UK didn’t know even existed. But that was the secret strength of northern soul: even its civil wars were underground.’

He could be describing the young me here. During this time I was mainly listening to Bowie and Roxy Music and Slade and Mott the Hoople and was completely oblivious of all the fuss.

Modern Soul – yes, it is strange to hear that term still being applied to records that are maybe around forty years old – isn’t something I listen to regularly and I obviously couldn’t remotely claim to be any expert on it but I have to say I just can’t get my head around the idea of anybody objecting to records as good as, for example, Eloise Laws’ Love Factory, a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition from 1973 that went on to became a floor-filling favourite at the Mecca:

Finally an Ashford and Simpson track from 1977 which gave a Glaswegian band their name. Ashford and Simpson wrote many songs that will never make their way anywhere near my music collection but I can’t be too harsh on them since the pair also penned California Soul, the track usually associated with Marlena Shaw; the Ace Spectrum classic Don’t Send Nobody Else and a string of hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

The better known version (with lyrics) of Bourgie Bourgie is by Gladys Knight and the Pips but this is the original, a lush soul instrumental with spiralling strings and a gloriously supple bassline that is, em, as solid as a rock. Enjoy:

Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Archie Gemmill 2


‘You’re an addict. So be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.’

As soon as the new trailer for T2: Trainspotting hit the internet yesterday, fans began speculating about what music Danny Boyle might potentially select for the soundtrack. Wolf Alice appear on the trailer with their not terribly inspiring Silk which will presumably crop up somewhere in the movie but apart from that the contents of the soundtrack remain seriously hush-hush.

There must be many other bands out there desperately hoping that one of their songs might be chosen for what is inevitably going to be the most hyped British film for years with its potentially big selling accompanying soundtrack album.

So what music will be accompanying Renton and pals on their latest drug – or maybe even non drug – fuelled escapades?

Well, I reckon the gang might like the rough and ready rock’n’roll swagger of The Libertines, a band not yet in existence when Trainspotting was launched in cinemas across the world and Boyle has already utilised one of their tracks, Don’t Look Back Into The Sun, in Steve Jobs, so they must surely be in with a decent enough shout of an appearance.

Produced by Mick Jones (and Boyle is a massive Clash fan) this is the first single from their eponymous second album, Can’t Stand Me Now:

What about The Fratellis’ Chelsea Dagger? Maybe, although possibly a bit on the populist side and just too obvious. Franz Ferdinand with Take Me Out? Again maybe just too obvious. Drag Queen by The Strokes? Some new Iggy from Post Pop Depression? Howsabout Blur and Go Out? Or, as Boyle obviously knows the high failure rate of sequels, a self-mocking Bad Cover Version by Pulp for the opening credits?

Maybe more probable than that latter suggestion would be a bit of Glasvegas. Begbie might prefer the radger Go Square Go but I’m going with It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry:

The film script apparently is only loosely based on Porno, Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up from 2002, which was an entertaining enough read though never anywhere near as riveting as Trainspotting. His latest book, The Blade Artist, doesn’t give much away on what might happen in T2. Renton is referred to and appears in flashback, while Spud has a few words with Begbie at a funeral. Begbie, incidentally, is obsessed with Chinese Democracy (the Guns N’ Roses album that is) but I think it’s safe to say that’s unlikely to appear here. Please tell me it isn’t?

Back in 1996, I lived a few minutes up the road from the Volcano, the club where Mark Renton picks up a younger than she looks Diane.* Around this time I also used to occasionally drink in Crosslands on Queen Margaret Drive, usually up in the balcony where Begbie would randomly throw his dimpled beer glass into the crowd below.

Back then, my internet access was limited to a couple of visits per week to the Java Cafe on Gibson Street and the term blogging didn’t exist but if in 1995 I was contributing an article to an online-journal community on what music might make its way onto the upcoming Trainspotting movie, then I would think my predictions would have been easier.

In fact, you could likely have printed off a line-up for one of the main stages at a mid-’90s Glastonbury and ticked off a whole bunch of acts that might be contenders. Being shot in the era of Britpop and dance music, it was no surprise to see the inclusion of Blur, Pulp and Elastica as well as Leftfield and Underworld.

It also made perfect sense for there to be some Iggy as Tommy is given the ultimatum: ‘It’s me or Iggy Pop, time to decide’ when his girlfriend discovers he has tickets for the great man’s show at the Barrowlands – and she doesn’t, which turns out to be a vital turning point in the plot.

Lou Reed and Brian Eno, like Iggy, were likely the type of acts that the guys would’ve enjoyed as youngsters back in the ’70s so that made sense too. Likewise, from a slightly later era, Primal Scream and New Order, who you could easily imagine Rents enjoying well beyond the mid-’90s. Both acts might conceivably find a way onto the new film so here’s Primal Scream with Bernard Sumner helping out on guitar with the Neu! inspired Shoot Speed/Kill Light from 2000’s XTRMNTR.

One advantage in compiling a soundtrack in 2016 for Boyle is that this time around I doubt he’ll require the likes of Sleeper to provide a facsimile copy of Blondie due to budget restraints – I’m assuming that was the case rather than Danny Boyle believing that Sleeper could improve on Debbie and co’s version of Atomic. To be fair they didn’t do too badly and as the whole sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ Archie Gemmill montage was so engrossing I’m not sure I even noticed it was a cover version on my first viewing.

Anyway, money shouldn’t be much of a problem securing any songs that Danny Boyle wants this time round. If he needs to pay big bucks to use any of his main man David Bowie’s work? No problemo.

I was going to choose some Bowie myself here to end on but decided to offer up something Bowie related and much less predictable instead as I thought about if Danny Boyle made the admittedly unlikely decision to go down the Tarantino route of ‘borrowing’ music from other films.

If he was on the lookout for a kind of Brian Eno/Deep Blue Day moment then he couldn’t do much better than Stomu Yamash’ta’s Eric Satie-esque Wind Words. This track has an impeccable lineage in film soundtracks, used firstly to devastating effect in Bowie’s best film,The Man Who Fell to Earth and then in 1982’s Tempest, directed by the godfather of independent cinema, John Cassavettes.

Chances of it making it on to the soundtrack though? Negligible.

From Yamash’ta’s 1973 album Freedom is Frightening, this is Wind Words:

* The Volcano being previously known as Cinders, where Alan Horne of Postcard Records once ran a weekly reggae night. Strange but true.

For more on my thoughts on Trainspotting, click here.