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The Fourth Stiff

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Wreckless Eric: Whole Wide World (Stiff Records)

Having already featured Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Nick Lowe in this series, it’s now time for another artist from the Stiff stable.

October 1977 saw many exciting acts booked to take to the stage of the Glasgow Apollo. Dr Feelgood would play together with Mink DeVille; The Stranglers were pencilled in to make their Apollo debut backed by The Rezillos; The Clash were coming too and so were The Suburban Studs, although they were only a support act and the headliners for their show held no appeal for me. I’m still not an AC/DC fan. Then there was the Live Stiffs package tour featuring five different acts that were each playing twenty minute sets before coming together onstage to end the evening with a rambunctious rendition of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

I wanted to see all five shows but there was a problem – I was a schoolboy and money was tight. I could only afford two tickets at most if I wanted to continue being able to buy a few records and have the odd night out at the dancing.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Although The Clash was a definite.

Suffering from a touch of lazyitis, taking on a part time job was something I’d always found easy to avoid. Most of the girls in my class put in a few hours in shops at weekends to supplement their pocket money; many boys delivered newspapers, but there were no rounds on the go at this point. A guy that sat next to me in Geography said he could get me a job as a milk boy. This would entail getting up at five in the morning and then jumping on and off an electric milk float, lugging heavy crates of milk around housing schemes even in the most hellish of weather so households could drink a pinta milka day.

No thanks.

My pal would come into school knackered each and every morning and would remain knackered for most of the day. Half my time in that class was spent nudging him as our teacher attempted to teach us about the tributaries of the Amazon or tell us what the capital city of Yugoslavia was.

One day, on the cusp of becoming sixteen, I bunked off geography and all my other classes with another pal, jumped on an appropriately named 77 bus, and joined a queue in Renfield Street outside the Apollo. Back then, the best way to get your hands on a ticket was at the venue’s box office, waiting patiently while (in our case) attempting to appear much more adult than our years by affecting an air of nonchalance while all the time half expecting to be hauled out the line by some truant officer, whose daily duty might include visiting hotspots such as this where teenagers would regularly skip school.

We’d decided to attend The Stranglers’ date, although if that had sold out, plan B was to spend our cash on the Stiff night. I’m still not entirely sure that we made the right decision but, hey, since then I have managed to see four of those Live Stiffs acts, although not Larry Wallis even though I did like his single of the time Police Car. Here it is accompanied initially by some footage of Larry’s old stomping ground of Portobello Road in Notting Hill from the 1968 film Otley:

Another minimal production job by Nick Lowe, Whole Wide World is utterly wonderful from the two chord Telecaster strum that introduces the song through to Eric Goulden’s impassioned ‘Yeah’ and Nick Lowe’s Duane Eddy-ish outro. The reverb on that guitar is magnificent. The bass is magnificent and even those simple drum thuds but best of all is Eric’s reedy rasp which grows increasingly manic as the song reaches its climax, as he insists that to find his perfect partner he’d go the whole wide wirld, go the whole wide wirld just to find her.

Timeless, perfect pop.

Okay, some smart-arses might complain about the geographical blunder in the lyrics, the Bahamas being technically situated in the Atlantic, outside the Caribbean rim but I like to think that the lyrics reflect the viewpoint of a character who is fictional – and who maybe had a long milk round meaning he could never properly concentrate on his geography lessons. You don’t automatically assume that Mrs Goulden ever advised the young Wreckless that the only girl for him probably lived in an island in the Pacific, do you? Or for that matter that Larry Wallis was actually a police car?

The story of how Eric was signed to Stiff is an unusual one and I wouldn’t necessarily advise young musicians to copy it today if they’re on the lookout for a deal.

The singer got boozed up before handing in a demo to the Stiff offices in London, announcing his arrival by kicking open the door. A tall guy with a beard and a shaggy haircut asked if he could help and Eric informed him that he was ‘one of those cunts that brings tapes into record companies.’ The bearded guy incidentally was Huey Lewis whose terrible band The News went mega in America in the 1980s with tracks like Hip to be Square and The Power of Love. The tape was passed on.

Once outside the office, Eric immediately wanted to forget the way he’d acted. Before too long, Jake Riviera of Stiff phoned and a pessimistic Eric explained that they could re-use the cassette tape rather than going to the trouble of sending it back. Riviera, of course, loved the tape and the punkish bravado displayed by Eric. He asked him if he could make his way back to the office ASAP before trooping over to Pathway Studios to record Whole Wide World.

Nick Lowe on bass as well as guitar. Steve Goulding of The Rumour on drums. Bish bash bosh. Two takes before bouncing the handclaps together with some tambourines. A few days later Wreckless was back to put down his vocal. And then a very long wait before the song was paired with Semaphore Signals to become Buy 16.

Amazingly, the song failed to chart in Britain and only ever sold a tiny fraction of Huey Lewis’s output but in the forty odd years since its release it has endured and arguably grew steadily more popular.

Ten years after its release, The Monkees covered it on their Pool It! album. Twenty years after that The Proclaimers recorded a version for Life with You. Marilyn Manson has performed the song live and Will Ferrell sang it in a film I have never seen. Earlier this year, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day had a go at Whole Wide World too. Not that I have any desire to ever hear any of these.

I have, though, seen and enjoyed Eric perform the song live onstage with singer-songwriter Amy Rigby. And if you don’t know, Amy, who hails from Pittsburgh, P.A. rather than Tahiti or the Bahamas, turned out to be the one for Wreckless with the pair marrying in 2008.

For more on Wreckless Eric click here.

  • Up next, a 1979 British film with one of my favourite ever soundtracks – which includes Whole Wide World.

Nah Pop, No Style: Althea & Donna – Uptown Top Ranking (Lightning Records)

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‘My reggae tastes only cover the 70s. None of your Shabba Ranks round here, sunshine. I strictly roots I think you’ll find.’ So wrote Luke Haines in his 2011 book Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll.

I stretch into the first half of the 1980s myself, and I not so strictly roots. I even thought it was a good idea to buy the first couple of UB40 albums. After the death of Bob Marley, my interest in reggae began to wane. On reflection, maybe that was partly down to a big decrease in my ganja intake.

So no Shabba Ranks round my way either, and definitely none of the ragga and dancehall artists from the era when ridiculously sexist and insanely homophobic lyrics became commonplace. Tracks like Beenie Man’s Damn which boasts: ‘I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays,’ really ain’t my ting.

Before the latest of my picks of the best records of 1977, here’s a track that I was tempted to choose in its place. This is Marcia Aitken’s heartbreaking Still in Love With You, originally released in Jamaica on the Joe Gibbs Record Globe label, while coming out on Lightning Records in Britain.

Two years ago, the song again found itself in the limelight when Beyoncé used it to announce her On The Run II tour with hubby Jay-Z in a much viewed TV ad. Payment to Marcia Aitken? Not one thin dime. Maybe Beyoncé was feeling the pinch at the time even though the tour reportedly went on to gross over $250 million.

Alton Ellis is another artist who deserves to have had much more money ponied up to him over the years. I know very little about the man other than he has been called the Godfather of Rocksteady and that he doesn’t seem to have been a litiginous man.

Obviously, if you know Uptown Top Ranking, you’ll be almost instantly struck by the similarities between that song and Still In Love With You. Both share the same riddim, which was originated in 1967 by Ellis on his Coxsone Dodd produced Studio 1 single Still In Love. Marcia Aitken’s single did credit him as its composer but he failed to gain any recognition from a number of artists, including the pair who perform our next track.

The sole hit here by teenagers Althea (not Althia) Rose Forrest and Donna Marie Reid, the lyrics of Uptown Top Ranking largely remain, all these years later, a mystery to me. What the pair meant by the line ‘Nah Pop, No Style, A Strictly Roots’, for example, I have no idea.

1977 was arguably a great year for Pop. Britain’s bestselling single of the year was Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You. Some of my fellow Scots have recently been professing their love for another huge hit, Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, but Uptown Top Ranking was surely the most irresistible pop single of 1977.

Strictly roots? I must have another definition for the term.

No style? Okay, one was often seen wearing Deirdre Barlow specs, but the lyrics suggest they both believe they’re leaders in the sartorial stakes, each in their khaki suit and ting, and gorgeous too – to the extent they brag about giving men heart attacks when they see them in their alter backs (which I’m guessing are halter tops).

Again, this is a track that I first heard on John Peel’s Radio 1 show and his championing of it played a big part in its success. Peel placed it at #2 in his 1977 Festive Fifty and the single entered the UK charts in the run up to Christmas. By the tail end of January 1978, it had knocked Wings’ dirge Mull of Kintyre off the top of the chart after its nine week stay. Althea and Donna would enjoy only one week at the top and, unlike Wings, their single failed to sell over two million copies nationwide. But it should have been the other way around.

Let’s get back to the aforementioned Luke Haines. This is from the time when the pop conceptualist teamed up with former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer John Moore and vocalist Sarah Nixey to become Black Box Recorder.

I’m a sucker for posho sounding females talking through a song, and here this is supplied by Sarah Nixey, whose deadpan and detached delivery was achieved, according to Haines in Post Everything, by her being unaware of the original and mightily hungover: ‘We write out the lyrics – mainly Jamaican patois which we cannot make out – phonetically, and she reads them out into the microphone in one take, with the enthusiasm of a cash and carry shelf stacker.’

Works for me. From the 1998 album England Made Me, here is Black Box Recorder and their offbeat version of Uptown Top Ranking:

The Hanging Debate Takes A Curious Twist

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John Cooper Clarke: Suspended Sentence (Rabid Records)

Why John Cooper Clarke didn’t pen an autobiography before, I have no idea as it has struck me for a decade or more that that the life of Britain’s premier punk poet was ripe for the memoir treatment. But good things come to those who wait, as the old cliche goes, and I Wanna Be Yours was finally published last month.

I’m now on the home straight, after reading a big chunk of it almost addictively in one go yesterday – although, as is my usual non-linear autobiography reading habit, I jumped in at what promised to be the most fascinating segment of the story for me – which was when Clarke was making the move from playing cabaret clubs in the north of England to embracing what might loosely be called the punk scene. I will get back to the start at some point, though.

Cooper signed to Rabid Records, a local label that had already put out singles from Slaughter And The Dogs and The Nosebleeds, and would go on to become best known for Jilted John’s Going Steady, a #4 hit in Britain in the summer of 1978.

Founded by Tosh Ryan, Lawrence Beadle and Martin Hannett, the label grew out of Music Force, a socialist musicians’ collective that set up live shows and arranged PA hire for bands – an offshoot of this being a profitable fly-posting business that apparently helped pay for the launch of the record label.

Initially, Clarke wasn’t keen on committing any of his work onto vinyl, especially with contributions from musicians, but did see the opportunities of helping promote himself with a single. A one-off band called The Curious Yellows was assembled and Martin Hannett oversaw production duties for what became the Innocents EP. ‘I didn’t really enjoy the recording process, and the results were mixed,’ Clarke admits. ‘Occasionally, it somehow hung together by accident, and I was pleasantly surprised, but generally I could only hear the mistakes.’

Released in November 1977, I first heard Suspended Sentence on the John Peel show and failed to notice any mistakes. Late at night, likely with the lights switched on low, Clarke’s surreal vision of a dystopian Britain made for a simultaneously comic and chilling listen. Peel adored it too. On his end of the year Festive Fifty list, he placed it at #5.

After signing to CBS, Clarke grew increasingly pissed off with Rabid. In the book, he complains (or maybe kvetches might be a more Cooper-esque way of putting it) about them punting out an album with the frankly shite title Où est la maison de fromage? ‘A shamelessly cheap, probably illegal move by a bunch of no-mark chisellers, secretly recorded and marketed without any input or consent from me. Naturally, I only want to present the polished end-product of my labours, therefore its very existence is a continuing thorn in my side. It never stops hurting. If you love me, throw it away.’

Sorry, John but the chances of that happening are the same as me being able to fit into a pair of your kecks.

I Wanna Be Yours also details two appearances at the Glasgow Apollo. The first came via a support slot early in 1978 on Be-Bop Deluxe’s Drastic Plastic tour.

My home town of Glasgow, it would have to be admitted, isn’t a city where acts can be automatically guaranteed a warm welcome. If they like you, you are treated like an absolute hero. If they don’t take to you, then there may be trouble ahead. I’ve mentioned before that I witnessed Suicide receive an Apollo reception so vituperative that Alan Vega still sounded a little shell-shocked when talking about it almost forty years later.

Sheena Easton’s Glasgow Green show in 1990 was to end badly too. Recording a Bond theme, winning Grammies and hooking up with Prince count for very little when your audience consists of boozed up Glaswegians if you commit the cardinal sin of speaking with a Mid-Atlantic accent when you’re fae Bellshill. Let’s just say that adulation was in short supply throughout her set.

According to John Cooper Clarke, his first taste of the Apollo stage was not to last long. Four minutes to be precise. ‘I just stood there,’ he writes, ‘ with no indication that the hostility would ever abate. You can’t fight that level of animosity, so as soon as the volume dropped a fraction, I just said, ‘Let’s call it a draw.’ ‘

Within a year he was back for a re-match, on the same bill as Richard Hell and The Voidoids and Elvis Costello and I was there to see the great man for the first of many times. His onstage banter and breakneck renditions of poems like Kung Fu International and (I Married a) Monster from Outer Space were all met with raucous laughter and appreciative applause. You shoulda seen him go-go-go.

‘The redemption of that night was priceless,’ he explains. ‘Ever since then, my Glasgow audiences have been some of the wildest in the world. It’s a wonderful city full of beautiful people.’

He’s way too kind.

For more on I Wanna Be Yours click here.

David Bowie (& Śląsk Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble)

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David Bowie: Warszawa (Low) – RCA Records

1977 is in its early days. As the furore over The Sex Pistols’ swearing began to finally show signs of fading in Britain and just before a new template for truly independent music was about to be forged by Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch, David Bowie made his return.

David Bowie Low

On the evening of January 11th, 1977, three days prior to its official release, John Peel was going to play his new album Low on his show. Cue, me making sure a blank cassette tape was at hand, my forefinger poised over record. Wish I’d have kept that tape to hear again Peel’s thoughts on Low, although I’m assuming he was must have been keen enough, or else he wouldn’t have played it in its entirety.

I can’t pretend to remember my exact judgement as it played but I think it mostly confused me. Since it was Bowie, I would have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not that I was one of those ‘I’m just a space cadet and Bowie’s the commander’ uberfan types, but the last five years or so of his career suggested that it would be silly to write him off any of his 1970s output after a single hearing. That second side especially, though, was certainly a long way from Starman and Rebel Rebel. But I did quickly grow to love Low to the extent that it became one of my three favourite Bowie albums, together with Hunky Dory and Station To Station.

Here’s a video of a very static David Bowie performing on the final night of his 1978 tour in Tokyo. This is Warszawa, the song that opened his set that evening – with a bit of Art Decade thrown in at the end.

Low arrived with a curious lack of any fanfare. Bowie wasn’t up for interviews and there was very little in the way of an ad campaign. When the first single from the album, Sound and Vision, hit record shops, it came out in a plain sleeve, and as you’ll see from the album’s cover, he was intent keeping a low profile.

He had even recently been speculating about how much longer he could hope for his music to sell in high numbers. Maybe, I guessed, he would concentrate on acting after impressing in Nicolas Roeg’s remarkable 1976 movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. Maybe once punk peaked, he would seem irrelevant. In March, he did get round to performing live, not to promote Low, but to play keyboards in the background as part of Iggy Pop’s band.

Maybe he would retire in the next few years. Quit while he was ahead. He was about to turn thirty. A grand old age I might have thought at the time.

Being half that age, I was definitely naive, and also lacked nearly all the reference points that might have helped to better understand Low.

Eric Satie? Uh uh.

Harmonia? Nope.

Minimalism? What?

Śląsk? Say that again.

The Śląsk story goes roughly like this. Bowie and Iggy hit on the idea of heading out of California, moving to Berlin and getting drug free. Bowie’s stay in LA had seen him disintegrate into a wreck of a man, convinced by all manner of crackpot theories and surviving on a diet of peppers, milk and cocaine. The side effects of the latter doubtless being responsible for him coming out with the kind of appalling statements that make the present day Morrissey sound like an avid Guardian reader.

While based in Berlin, Bowie and Iggy (and some colleagues) take a trip to Moscow. Their train stops off at Warszawa Gdańska Station for a period due to some technical issues. Passengers are told they can stretch their legs for the next forty minutes or so.

Bowie decides to briefly investigate Warsaw, a grey and bleak city with brutalist concrete everywhere. As he walks around the area surrounding the station, he stumbles into a record shop. These would be very different to their equivalents in Britain or America at this time. If you were looking for anything even remotely hip then you would have to go down the black-market route in the Communist Bloc.

But the Thin White Duke works in mysterious ways. Amazingly, he manages to find an album of Silesian folk music from 1959 that he feels he should buy. One track on it, based on a traditional chant that animal herders would sing to pass the time as their cattle grazed, will makes a big impression on him and impact on one track on Low. This is Helokanie by the Śląsk Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble, founded in 1953 by Stanisław Hadyna.

As Bowie does his ‘Sula vie dilejo’ bit in the final third of Warszawa, I’m sure you’ll hear echoes of Helokanie. The track, incidentally, was recently made available in the September issue of Mojo as part of their Crash Course For The Ravers cover CD.

If you want to find out more about Bowie’s short time in the Polish capital, here’s your link.

Dark Alley / Black Star / Four Turkeys in a Big Black Car

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Brian Eno: King’s Lead Hat

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Anagrams aren’t really my thing. Offhand, I can only think of one that someone else has coined. That is King’s Lead Hat, which you likely know is an anagram of Talking Heads. I bet Eno, the great intellectual of pop music*, could rattle off a list of thousands of them and given a few seconds could generate one off any random letters he was given to work with.

Eno had been impressed when he saw Talking Heads support The Ramones in the early summer of 1977 in London. He hooked up with them a couple of times after the show and struck up a friendship with David Byrne in particular. Before the year was out, Eno travelled to New York where he met up again with The Talking Heads. He was hired to produce their second album on this visit.

1977 was to prove a vintage year for Eno. He earned glowing accolades for acting as what Tony Visconti called ‘zen master’ on the classic pair of albums Low and Heroes that proved David Bowie truly was music’s great chameleon; he additionally teamed up with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius on the album Cluster and Eno and produced three albums that would be released on his own Obscure imprint, including Harold Budd’s The Pavilion of Dreams. Eno also appeared on a Camel track Elke – which I had never heard of until a few hours ago. It’s certainly better than I had imagined it would be although I doubt it’ll be making its way into my collection any time soon.

Most importantly for the artist, he finally finished off his fourth solo album Before And After Science, an eclectic collection of songs that ranged from the melancholic Julie With through to the aforementioned King’s Lead Hat.

The latter track owes something to the jerky, agitated sound of early XTC with an added dash of Devo (who would also soon hire him to produce an album) but at base it’s a salute to Talking Heads. Eno had even originally hoped that the band would accompany him on the track but due to a scheduling clash this couldn’t happen.

Still, he managed to assemble an interesting ensemble of musicians to take their place, including former Roxy pal Phil Manzanera, and Robert Fripp.
With nonsense lyrics such as ‘Dark alley / Black star / Four turkeys in a big black car’, Andy Fraser’s quakes of whiplash bass and unhinged plinky plonky piano supplied by Brian himself, this was Eno at his most infectious. Best of all is Fripp’s usual left side of the brain guitar lines.

Despite the age and experience of these musicians, it’s a track that didn’t sound remotely out of place in the year of punk’s big breakthrough. At the end of November, Eno was showcased on the front of NME with the first of a two part conversation with Ian McDonald inside. There was Old Wave, there was New Wave and there was David Bowie. And Brian Eno.

NME placed Before And After Science 14th best album of the year in their end of year poll, three places above Talking Heads’ ’77. Here is track five, side one:

If you were hoping for more of this kind of glorious racket from Eno, you’d be disappointed as he turned his attention increasingly to ambient music. Before then, he did release a remixed version of the song which came out on 45 in January 1978. This was accompanied by a way ahead of its time B-side, R.A.F. Although to be applauded for its innovative use of sampling, it’s not one that I listen to on any kind of regular basis (mainly due to being allergic to anything played on a fretless bass).

A precursor of 1981’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts collaboration with David Byrne, which itself was way ahead of the curve, R.A.F. was credited to Brian Eno and Snatch with the songwriting divided between Eno, Judy Nylon and Patti Palladin.

It combined spoken vocals by Nylon and Palladin in the role of passengers on a hijacked plane with a studio recording made by Eno and others a few years previously. The sonic collage was then completed with recordings supplied by Nylon of snippets of West German police telephone communications containing RAF (Red Army Faction) ransom messages and other ominous material. Hear this hybrid of the new, the recycled, and the readymade here.

Roxy Music - Trash

‘Are you customized or ready-made?’ Bryan Ferry asked in the first line of Trash, Roxy Music’s first single since Both Ends Burning in 1975. This wasn’t the high-profile return that Ferry had hoped for. The song sneaked into the charts, peaking at #40.

It’s a decent enough wee ditty but clearly far from the flamboyant retro futurism of Virginia Plain and Ladytron. The new rather staidly dressed Roxy just didn’t look right either, with those shirts and ties and with a former pub rocker (Paul Carrack) and ex-Vibrator (Gary Tibbs) in the line-up. You might argue that image isn’t important but have a gander at either of the photos on the inside gatefold sleeves of the first two Roxy albums, and you’ll immediately realise which of the two line-ups would make the more vital music.

Roxy Music For Your Pleasure Gatefold Sleeve

Finally, if you like Japan (the band) then you’ll love the B-side of Trash, titled Trash 2.

* As I began writing, I chose an Eno Oblique Strategy online. It was Use Cliches and I don’t think this helped. I also decided to devise my first ever anagram and struggled to come up with what retrospectively strikes me as the highly obvious Brain One. Which it now strikes me I’m sure I’ve heard before.

White Face, Black Shirt, White Socks, Black Shoes, Black Hair, White Strat, Bled White, Died Black

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Sweet Gene Vincent – Ian Dury & The Blockheads (Stiff)

Ian Dury Sweet Gene Vincent Collage

The words ‘tribute song’ seldom fill me with great expectations while the mere mention of ‘tribute album’ brings on a feeling of downright dread. A concept beloved of small labels hoping to attract your attention to an artist you love, the typical tribute collection is packed with a bunch of completely inferior cover versions by acts you have probably never heard of and will routinely only ever listen to once.

Of course I am generalising here but as the winter of 1977 set in, the idea of a tribute song really was anathema to my punkish sensibilities with Danny Mirror’s saccahrine I Remember Elvis Presley still hovering around the British charts in the wake of the death of Elvis. (I Remember Elvis Presley? I should hope so, he was hardly in his grave when you rushed into the studio to record your cash-in single).

That November the one and only single lifted from New Boots and Panties!! was released by Stiff. Written in honour of one of Presley’s contemporaries and of one of Dury’s teenage favourites, Sweet Gene Vincent obliquely told the tale of one of the original bad boy rockers, a star who dressed in black leather and possessed a penchant for, well, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. & Guns.

In 1977 I don’t think I would have heard any Vincent song bar Be Bop A Lula and at a time when teddy boys and punks were increasingly involved in regular punch-ups on the King’s Road and elsewhere I wasn’t inclined to look favourably on any song that celebrated a teddy boy hero. And why would anyone want to look back to rock and roll anyway? That was twenty years ago, almost an eternity to the teenage me.

But then again, this was Ian Dury, a witty lyricist, unique vocalist and all round one-off.

On Sweet Gene Vincent, he divides his song in two, the first half being a poignant and poetic ballad with something of a lullaby feel looking back at the singer’s short life. ‘Shall I mourn your decline with some thunderbird wine and a black handkerchief?’ he asks before going on to confess: ‘I miss your sad Virginia whisper / I miss the voice that called my heart.’

The second half gives way to some pure rock’n’roll dynamite with Dury referencing some of Vincent’s best known tracks like Blue Jean Bop, Who Slapped John and Pistol Packin’ Mama throughout.

And, of course, while Danny Mirror had attempted to mimic Presley’s tenor and baritone vocals, here Dury as always sounded 100% Essex geezer. And he was never going to trot out rhymes as predictable as sing and King. Before the song had ended I might even have been blue jean bopping and I was definitely much less likely to knock the rock.

Is Sweet Gene Vincent the best tribute song that I have ever heard?

Very possibly.

The song was ranked at # 13 on NME‘s Tracks of the Year for 1977 and Robbie Williams provided a cover version for Brand New Boots and Panties, the tribute album issued following Ian’s death in 2000 (which you might be able to guess I have never heard). It also featured on the very fine soundtrack of Christopher Petit’s 1979 film Radio On.

Here’s a live version, featuring a guest appearance from a kinetic Wilko Johnson:


Just as tribute songs or albums hold little interest for me, the description ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’ seldom intrigues me. I doubt I’m alone in this regard which is why albums by the likes of Jakob Dylan, James McCartney and Julian Lennon, unlike their fathers, aren’t going to be appearing in any Greatest Album Ever lists any time soon. And sorry, but when Lisa Marie Presley dies I wouldn’t count on any tribute singles appearing.

That said, I have enjoyed the recently released albums by Charlotte (daughter of Serge) Gainsbourg and Baxter (son of Ian) Dury.

Famously, as a five-year-old Baxter appeared with his old man on the front cover of New Boots and Panties!! Nowadays he gets to appear on his own album covers. His latest Prince of Tears is maybe the best of these yet, a short and sometimes savage collection of tracks that occasionlly recall Ian and just as often bring to mind the aforementioned Serge Gainsbourg – mainly due to the superb orchestration and alternating male/female vocals he favours here.

Baxter has certainly inherited Ian’s potty mouth as he demonstrates on the lead single Miami:


For more on Ian, click here and for more on Baxter, click here.

 

The Silver Jubilee & The Sex Pistols (& Iain Shedden)

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The Sex Pistols – God Save the Queen (Virgin)

Sex Pistols - God Save the Queen cover 1977

‘In early June 1977, we took a brief break from our labours to overturn a few tables and piss in the punchbowl at the Queen’s silver jubilee party,’ Steve Jones wrote in his autobiography Lonely Boy last year. ‘I never really paid much attention to all that jubilee bollocks, to be honest. That was more Rotten and McLaren’s end of things.’

As a fifteen year old schoolboy I actively tried to ignore all the jubilee bollocks myself. Apart from the Pistols’ take on events.

Nowadays we’re presented with the idea that the whole country bar a few malcontents went Jubilee crazy. In their Sex Pistols history Young Flesh Required, Alan G. Parker and Mick O’Shea even observed that, ‘No other nation can do pomp and circumstance like the British,’ before going on claim, ‘The whole country became one enormous street party and buried its troubles beneath a sea of red, white and blue bunting.’

This doesn’t convey the whole truth of the matter. Yes in Glasgow the Queen came during May and was greeted by shedloads of loyal subjects (60,000 estimated although these figures tend to be exaggerated by journos). A match to mark the occasion at Hampden between a Glasgow select and an English Football League select, originally envisioned as an all ticket affair with an 85,000 limit, ended up with organisers hoping for 30,000 fans and tickets available to buy at the gate.

The Times carried the headline ‘One million people greet the Queen on her Silver Jubilee Day’ but the slightly less prestigious Glasgow Evening Times led with a story on the whereabouts of Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin together with a report that vandals had wrecked the chances of a planned celebration in Giffnock that night by setting the proposed bonfire alight a day early.

Glasgow Herald columnist Anne Simpson bemoaned the fact that celebrations were relatively muted north of the border: ‘I know Scotland has had its official dose of Silver Jubilation but even then most of us didn’t get to the parties and it strikes me that what we all need just now is a bit of a carnival, a chance to stick paper hats on our heads and be happy.’

No thanks.

Was there a street party outside where I lived? No. Did anybody I know give a flying fuck about the Jubilee? No. Was God Save The Queen really that controversial then?

Well, yes. It wasn’t allowed airplay on Radio One – apart from a couple of spins by Peel. Commercial radio stations banned it too, the IBA judging it ‘against good taste or decency, likely to encourage or incite to crime, or lead to disorder.’

Boots, WH Smith and good old Woolies refused to stock the 45 with the latter two failing to even acknowledge its existence, leaving a blank space on the chart displayed in their stores.

Jubilee_Chart_1977

Top of the Pops refused to show the bands’ promo for the song let alone invite them to perform in their studio. Thames TV & LWT refused to air an ad for it and perhaps most controversially of all, the single was artificially kept off the number one spot.

The song infuriated some patriots enough to attack Johnny Rotten and others with a Pistols connection, as well as ordinary punk fans across the country. Years later, it emerged via former spy David Shayler that the band had featured prominently in a MI5 file named Subversion in the Music Industry.

Remarkably God Save the Queen was only the second Sex Pistols single.

Jamie Reid - God Save the Queen flag

Nowadays even the safest of safe comedians employed by the BBC can happily have a go at the Queen. Many did when her name appeared recently in connection with the Paradise Papers along with other serial tax avoiders like Gary Linekar, Lewis Hamilton and Bono.

Saying that, while hosting Have I Got News for You last year some of Frankie Boyle’s jokes were censored although he was allowed to accuse the Royal family of being ‘the products of centuries of incest.’

Certainly no anti-Royal record could conceivably cause the same kind of Gasp! Shock! Horror! headlines as God Save the Queen today – arguably no record of any kind could. And the odds of any song trying to do so and sounding as thrilling as God Save the Queen are, at best, minimal.

According to Marco Pirroni it is the ‘greatest pop rock ‘n’ roll single ever’ and I would have undoubtedly agreed with this assessment on Jubilee day. Hearing again Steve Jones’s sledgehammer guitar, Paul Cook’s no messin’ drums and Johnny’s scorching voice spitting out those establishment baiting lyrics, I still wouldn’t argue against it.

Released on 27 May 1977, here is the promo filmed at the Marquee a few days earlier:


The night of the Jubilee in London witnessed one of the most inspired publicity stunts ever. Malcolm McLaren hiring a boat (the Queen Elizabeth) which sailed down the Thames with the Pistols playing live, the boys launching into Anarchy in the UK as they passed by Parliament. This provocative jaunt ending in arrests for McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and others there for the show once the boat had been docked.

Nothing in Scotland could compete with that but that same night Edinburgh did see the establishment of a regular new punk night at Clouds, a venue originally opened back in the 1940s when it was known as the New Cavendish.

The Jolt on Jubilee day

Lanarkshire group The Jolt played Clouds a number of times including a Rock Against Racism benefit.

Sadly, while I was writing this post I belatedly became aware of the death last month of their drummer Iain Shedden.

A great live act, I saw The Jolt a number of times, from a wee pub, the Amphora I seem to remember, in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street to the Apollo, where they performed in front of thousands while supporting The Jam.

After The Jolt split, Iain went on to record with other bands, most notably The Saints. Once a junior reporter on the Wishaw Press, he re-ignited his career in journalism when he emigrated to Australia in 1992, becoming a music critic with The Australian, a job that saw him interviewing an amazing array of talents such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Keith Richards.

Here’s a single by The Jolt. Written by Paul Weller for the band, See Saw was released in June 1979 by Polydor. Four months or so later The Jam brought out their own version as a B-side for Eton Rifles.


Iain Shedden: January 6, 1957 – October 16, 2017

For more on The Jolt click here for my post New York, London, Paris, Wishaw.

Ooh Woo Hoo Hoo! Ça Plane Pour Moi? Non, c’est Jet Boy, Jet Girl

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Elton Motello – Jet Boy, Jet Girl (Pinball Records)

Until last night I was unaware that Elton Motello had ever been captured by a television camera. It turns out, though, that they’d appeared on European TV a number of times and on mainstream shows at that. Even though the song they were performing contained unapologetic lyrics about a fifteen year old boy having sex with an older guy and the repeated lyric ‘He gave me head’.

I guess the language barrier worked in their favour here and this also likely counted in their favour with the singer’s Fuck You T-shirt.

Don’t you just have to love any act that gets their big chance on TV and the singer chooses that T-shirt and covers his hair and face in talcum powder. Which he proceeds to shake off by slapping his napper at various strategic moments. Very strange times.

  
Discussing the single’s prospects in Britain with Alan Walton in Sounds, singer Alan Ward was circumspect: ‘We knew it wouldn’t get any airtime, but we thought, what the hell, it’s a good song so we’ll put it out anyway.’

Elton Motello grew out of the band Bastard, a Crawley act that took inspiration from The Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper. And here I should mention that like the early Alice Cooper, Elton Motello is the name of the singer and band. Ward later described Bastard as a ‘pre new wave thrash band’. One of their songs, Dr Gong, has been called an ancestor of New Rose, Brian James being at the time the band’s guitarist.

The Bastard boys decided to decamp to Belgium when singer Alan Ward was offered a job as a recording engineer in swanky new Brussels studio Morgan. They had set out to find a more imaginative audience but although they performed in Belgium, Holland and France they were largely ignored, just as they’d been on home soil.

Brian James returned home and made connections with Mick Jones and Tony James, tentatively joining their band London SS before forming The Damned while Bastard morphed into Elton Motello.

Concocted in the studio with Ward and Brian James replacement Mike Butcher, together with a couple of session musicians, Jet Boy, Jet Girl is sometimes thought to be a cover version of international hit Ça plane pour Moi.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was recorded and released before Plastic Bertrand’s version. The two tracks, incidentally, also utilize the same galloping backing track.

 
Designed as a pastiche, a cash-in on punk, Ça plane pour Moi went on to be a big hit around the globe in 1978. Hollywood loves it and in recent years it’s made an appearance on Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (when Jordan Belfort is arrested) and in The Perks of Being a Wallflower during a party scene. There’s been a steady stream of covers too, including unexpected takes on the song from Sonic Youth, Thee Headcoatees, Richard Thompson and Nouvelle Vague.

Pepsi even used it for an ad recently, so, if the two songs had been adversaries and involved in a commercial mano a mano then Ça plane pour Moi really wins hands down. I do prefer Jet Boy, Jet Girl myself even though Plastic Bertrand does a good pre-chorus ‘Ooh woo hoo hoo’.

Okay, when I say that I should explain that for years there was a debate on who actually sang on the hit: Roger Jouret, the ‘singer’ who appeared as Plastic Bertrand or the song’s co-writer and producer Lou Deprijck.

After years of acrimony and threats between the pair, the argument ended in court, when a Belgian judge acted on the opinion of an expert linguist who, after hearing the 1977 hit attributed to Plastic Bertrand and the 2006 version by the producer concluded that Deprijck had sung on both.

Jouret later finally admitted that he is indeed not the vocalist on Ça plane or any of the songs on the first four albums released under the Plastic Bertrand moniker.

Wham Bam!

Strange how many feelgood songs have acrimonious stories behind them.

The Group That Should’ve Written Star Wars

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Hawkwind – Quark, Strangeness and Charm (Charisma)

Me and science fiction have never been the closest of buddies. Yes, I have enjoyed a number of sci-fi films over the years from Metropolis through to Blade Runner 2049 (a Hollywood sequel definitely worth seeing, whatever next?) If I ever had to appear on Mastermind, though, sci-fi would not be my specialist subject, believe me. In fact, I only finally got round to watching Star Wars for the first time a few months ago, aged 55.

Hawkwind – Quark, Strangeness and Charm album cover

As 1977 dawned and punk increasingly made an impact on British music, Hawkwind seemed pretty much irrelevant to me. Past their sell by date psychedelic crusaders whose following consisted mainly of acid casualties and the kind of space cadets who might have seriously struggled to distinguish between New Year and New York.

Lemmy had been sacked and their dancer Stacia left to settle down to family life.

‘What did you do before you got married, Mummy?’

‘Well darling, I used to paint my body with luminescent blue paint and dance naked with Hawkwind.’

According to Ian Abrahams in his book Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins, Robert Calvert wasn’t making any effort to get the new generation on his side despite privately appreciating some of the music. He dismissed The Clash as ‘The most orthodox band I’ve ever heard. They just play three-minute pop songs and throw in a few slogans’ and he slagged them off for not playing enough benefits.

Which is ironic as Joe Strummer’s initial thoughts on the idea of covering Police and Thieves was to do it like Hawkwind. Famously, the pre-Pistols John Lydon had been a big Hawkwind fan and Robert Calvert was by this point on friendly terms with the younger man and surely, while I’m at it, the single Quark, Strangeness and Charm betrays a definite punk/new wave influence?

Calvert really seems to have missed a trick by declining to publically embrace punk. Doing so certainly hadn’t harmed Marc Bolan’s career.

And – speaking of Bolan – one afternoon, just over forty years ago, I came home from school and switched on the TV to watch Marc where the great man introduced the band as ‘The group that should’ve written Star Wars and didn’t.’


Doesn’t Marc look very relaxed in that clip? I suspect a few glasses of champers may have been quaffed on the day. Funnily enough, I only discovered a few years ago that when he called Hawkwind ‘my best friends’ he was totally fibbing but, hey, this is showbiz and they shared the same management.

The truth is that guitarist Dave Brock didn’t even bother turning up at the Granada studios for the recording as he’d maintained a grudge against Bolan since the early 1970s after they’d taken a dislike to one another at a party. He wasn’t very keen on miming the song either.

*

‘Even this doggerel that flows from my pen has just been written by another twenty telepathic men…’

No, that’s not me (and any telepathic twins). This is a lyric from Spirit of the Age, a chilling Robert Calvert poem set to music and the longest – and possibly best – track on the Quark album.

Here it is.


And if you’re wondering about my thoughts on Star Wars and why I’d never seen it until this year. Well, when it came out I was sixteen and very adult in my own head at least and didn’t remotely fancy paying good money to see a blockbuster featuring badly designed robots and furry animal thingies in lead roles. Nope, that money was instead likely spent on buying records by the likes of XTC, The Stranglers and Wire.

A few months ago, though, I watched a documentary Elstree 1976 which focussed on a number of the minor actors and extras who’d appeared in the movie. The main reason for seeking this out being that I’d did a number of stints as an extra myself decades ago. Not on anything as grand as Star Wars mind you.

Anyway, seeing Elstree 1976 did persuade me to finally give Star Wars a go. Even if I didn’t rate the movie myself I could at least maybe gain an insight into the mindset of the kind of uber-fan who turns up at a convention and voluntarily queues for half an hour to get their mitts on a signed photo of someone who’d only ever been briefly glimpsed in a couple of scenes. Maybe even behind a mask or helmet.

Perhaps inevitably, the film bored me at times and I truly cannot begin to understand why it ever became such a global phenomenon. The plot was predictable, the acting and dialogue often mediocre at best and I suspect if Ed Wood had still been making movies at the time, even he might have been slightly embarrassed by the scene in the intergalactic boozer.

Star Wars? It might actually have been better if Hawkwind had written it.

Goodbye, Holger Czukay

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Can: Animal Waves (Virgin)

I can’t claim to planned this series of my favourite 49 tracks (plus 1 bonus) from 1977 too much in advance but have always known that something from Saw Delight by Can would be included somewhere along the line.

With the recent death of Holger Czukay, it seems appropriate to post this now rather than leaving it till later.

As I’ve written before on here, I pretty missed out on Krautrock during my youth, mistakenly believing that the music was some form of German prog. I did, though, love I Want More when the song entered the charts in the second half of 1976.

Then punk exploded and by the time Can arrived in Glasgow to play Strathclyde Uni in March 1977, they had been forgotten. Filed under irrelevant. Which in hindsight was a mistake. A pretty big fucking mistake when you listen to music like this. My favourite version of Animal Waves is the edited one on Anthology but here’s a much longer version of the song that has never been officially released:


‘I have just turned 46,’ Holger Czukay told the NME back in 1984, while discussing a bathchair in the corner of his kitchen. ‘Still too young to marry! Ha ha. When I’m 80 I will get married and this bathchair will be the present to my wife!’

Unfortunately, Holger never did reach the 80 mark, dying earlier this week aged 79. He did though marry although I’m not sure if his wife Ursula ever received the chair as a wedding gift.

Sadly she died just a few months ago and with Holger’s Can bandmate Jaki Liebezeit passing away too back in January this really has been a horrible year for Can and their fans.

Also from Saw Delight, here’s Don’t Say No which obviously shares a very big resemblance to Moonshake:


RIP Holger Czukay (24 March 1938 – 5 September 2017)

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