Best of the Year 2016 (Part One)

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Thirty tracks, ten films and five books, so a festive 45 of sorts. Not a vintage year for music (sadly I seem to say that every year nowadays) but as ever there has been plenty of excellent new singles and albums, in fact, I could easily have compiled a top one hundred.

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This 50-something’s favourites include music by a man in his 70s, a man pushing 70 and a man who died aged 69, namely Ian Hunter, Iggy Pop and, of course, David Bowie but I’m going to kick off with some new talent in the shape of Australian singer/songwriter Gabriella Cohen.

Former front woman of The Furrs, Gabriella has been lazily compared to Courtney Barnett; well, both are female, Melbourne based and get filed under indie but they don’t really have that much in common musically apart from a flair for making instantly enjoyable music.

Cohen’s debut album, Full Closure and No Details, is a self-produced collection of ten tracks brimming with an assurance and vitality that suggest she is definitely one to watch. Here’s my favourite cut from it, Downtown:



I did think Steve Mason deserved to win this year’s SAY Award with Meet the Humans but instead the judges voted that Scotland’s Album of the Year was Varmints by Anna Meredith, which would have been my number two.

One of the things I like about Anna is that in an age where every second Scottish act sometimes seem to be playing almost identikit folk inflected indie, she does her own classical/electronic/art pop/experimental thang with a perky playfulness that proves to be sonically intriguing, sometimes even provocative.

In the past this former Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been commissioned to make music utilising MRI scanners and performed ‘body percussion pieces’ which I haven’t seen/heard but which sound more innovative and ambitious than some sensitive indie guy singing songs of yearning on his acoustic guitar.

I’m gonna have to warn you that this video contains strobing/flashing lights throughout. This is Anna Meredith with The Vapours:


And now for some of Anna’s Moshi Moshi labelmates.

A big favourite of Unthought of, though, somehow, where I first came across them, Girl Ray (no relation to Man Ray or even poor old Johnnie Ray) recently recorded a session for Marc Riley and have supported the likes of Ezra Furman and Hooton Tennis Club in the past coupla months. Hopefully we get to hear a lot more of them in 2017.

Here they are with Trouble:


Here’s six more favourites to make up the first third of my musical selections:

Fat White Family: Breaking into Aldi
Rituals: Black River
The Limanas: Garden of Love
Stoor: Witchfinder General
Cate LeBon: Wonderful
&
The Parrots: Too High to Die

For more on Gabriella Cohen:
https://www.facebook.com/gabriellacohenmusic/

Steve Mason:
https://www.facebook.com/Steve-Mason-197724901872/?fref=ts

Anna Meredith:
http://www.annameredith.com/

Girl Ray:
https://www.facebook.com/girlraylondon/

Vashti, Françoise & Dennis: Three Festive Tunes for Friday

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A post that includes some Christmassy tracks that I haven’t seen featured elsewhere this year. A Christmas post was something I hadn’t imagined doing although as Half Man Half Biscuit once sang, ‘It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas’.

First up some Vashti Bunyan, an artist not universally loved by bloggers but someone I adore.

Whatever your thoughts on her music, it would be hard to deny that Vashti has an interesting backstory. Emerging as a singer in the swinging ’60s, she signed to stable of smitten Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham and released a couple of pop nuggets, Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (penned by Mick and Keef) and Train Song, which she co-wrote.

As Oldham put it in the second volume of his memoirs, 2Stoned: ‘Alas, Vashti was viewed as an auburn Marianne Faithfull spin-off, which more than dented the trail I had hoped to blaze for her.’

A new set of songs were written as she made her way very slowly by horse and cart from her home in London to a commune in Skye and these tracks were later recorded by Joe Boyd just before he worked his magic on Nick Drake’s Bryter Later. Like the previous singles, nobody paid much attention to Just Another Diamond Day, although the LP did very slowly earn cult status, eventually being re-issued in 2000, when it rightly received plaudits across the board from critics.

I first saw Vashti play at Belle and Sebastian’s Tramway Day in 2005, by which time she had made her return to making music, releasing a brilliant second album, Lookaftering, thirty five years after her first. Bit of a gap on the CV you might say but Vashti has never been one to follow a predictable path.

On the day I was told that this was her first ever Scottish show, even though she had been living here for decades – until her artistic rebirth, she hadn’t even picked up a guitar since the commercial failure of Just Another Diamond Day years except to teach her oldest son to play.

Vashti, it would have to be admitted, is not one of the most naturally self confident performers I have ever clapped my eyes on and she cut a rather vulnerable presence throughout the show – If I had known her, I’d have invited her to join me in Heraghty’s for a snifter beforehand to help quell the nerves.

Those nerves and the fragility of her voice – Maggie Bell she ain’t – made her performance all the more compelling and her set was one of the most delightful shows I have seen so far this century.

This is Twice As Much & Vashti with The Coldest Night Of The Year:


In 2Stoned, Andrew Loog Oldham also compared Vashti to Françoise Hardy, an artist I have to admit I knew little about until she sang on a version of To the End on one of Blur’s Country House CD releases – which was far superior to Country House and, come to think of it, Roll With It too, meaning that of all the tracks released during the so-called Battle of Britpop, the best was sung partly by a French woman.

Since then I have learned more about Françoise, mostly from the Blow Up Doll website that specialises in groovy yé-yé gals. If you’re interested in that kind of thing just google Blow Up Doll and hope for the best, or alternatively, click here.

From her 1970 album, Alone, this is Song of Winter:


The Dennis Wilson of 1977 was a very different one to the Dennis Wilson of Little Saint Nick and The Man With All the Toys. Famously Dennis was the only Beach Boy that actually surfed and by the mid 1960s he’d become the poster boy for Californian sun, sea and excessive sex.

What followed though included a quickly regretted association with Charles Manson, divorce, increasingly reckless behaviour and way too much booze and drugs.

With hindsight, Dennis’s scorching rasp here seems to reflect the many regrets in his life and maybe even some self-loathing and desperation too. If you’d heard him singing this on Christmas morning, you’d dread to think how he might be feeling by night-time.

Recorded at the tail end of November 1977 at The Beach Boys’ Brother studios although the track never saw the light of day till many years later, this is The Beach Boys with Dennis on vocal duties with his song Morning Christmas:

 
If you don’t already know Dennis Wilson’s magnificent solo album Pacific Ocean Blue then I’d advise you to seek it out. I’ll write about it in more detail in 2017.

Independent Scotland #9

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The Skids: Charles (No Bad Records) 1976

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I won’t need to remind anyone reading this blog that 2016 witnessed an unusually large number of deaths of musicians and music industry figures: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Brett Smiley, George Martin and Dale Griffin of Mott being just a handful of names of talents that spring to my mind. The high list of casualties has even led some music journalists to stupidly speak of the year having a hex on it as if strangers to the notion of coincidences.

Locally, one name whose death came back in April has remained largely under the radar. Sandy (Alexander) Muir might not be the most important figure in the history of Scottish music but the owner of Muir’s Record Shop in Dunfermline’s Queen Anne Street did play a vital role in the rise of Skids, managing the band for a spell as well as setting up a label to put out their first record.

No Bad Records, like two fellow Scottish based independents of the time, Sensible (The Rezillos) and Boring (The Exile) wasn’t a name to automatically excite, more a self-deprecating joke at the label’s expense – and I should point out here that the no here is short for not, as in when asked how you are doing, you might answer, ‘Aye. No’ bad.’

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The basis of The Skids’ line-up was supplied by two former members of a covers band called Tattoo, a key feature of whose sound belonged to self taught guitarist Stuart Adamson, who’d become almost effortlessly efficient on his instrument while still at Beath High School, where his pal, bassist Bill Simpson, also attended.

Next to join was a granite-jawed punk with raccoon striped hair who could sing (kind of), had charisma in bucket-loads and who even wrote lyrics. The son of a miner, Richard Jobson had been given little encouragement at school and could easily have embraced the punk cliché of ‘no future’ at a time when many of his contemporaries were leaving school and either signing on the dole, starting a life as factory wage slave, or else, often in order to acquire an apprenticeship, signing up for a spell in the army, usually in locally favoured regiment, the Black Watch.

To complete the band, one final part of the jigsaw was required and found via an ad in the Dunfermline Press: ‘DRUMMER wanted for new New Wave band young and energetic. no hairies please.’

Tom Kellichan evidently did not have hair down his back and was in.

A new band name was required and after a run of daft suggestions such as Dr. White & The Plastic Bags, they settled on The Skids and under that name played their debut show in the summer of 1977 at the weekly Friday rock night at the Belleville Hotel in Dunfermline, where they supported the memorably named Matt Vinyl & the Decorators, an Edinburgh outfit whose punky R&B riffs proved reasonably popular when I saw them later at Satellite City in Glasgow, albeit they never looked likely to make any kind of real breakthrough.

Playing with a mix of borrowed and hired instruments, Richard and the boys excelled, unleashing their energetic rough and ready, though already distinctly Scottish, punk/new wave sound.

One interested member of the crowd at the Belleville gig had been Sandy Muir, who the band had personally invited to come along.

Muir was no punk aficionado but was immediately struck by the band’s talent and potential, in fact, so impressed was he that – after discussions with Bruce Findlay, the man behind Zoom – he agreed to help out the band, speedily setting up AIM Enterprises Ltd to promote them and No Bad to release material by them.

Some punky pseudonyms were adopted and used in press releases – Alex Plode (Bill), Stevie Cologne (Stuart), Tom Bomb (Tom) and Joey Jolson (Richard) – and these names were how the band members were known for a time, such as when they were being lauded in early issues of Fife fanzine Kingdom Come, where the photo below is taken from incidentally, although by the time of the release of Charles they had reverted to more conventional handles.

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Three Stuart Adamson compositions were laid down at Edinburgh’s REL Studios (produced according to the record’s back sleeve by ‘Skids etc’). The Charles E.P (NB-1) was launched in March ’78 with Reasons and Test-Tube Babies making up the three track single.

Best-selling crime author and Fife boy Ian Rankin was an early fan, admiring the lyrics of Charles with that that twist at the end. ‘Charles’ was about a guy who worked in a factory like the one I worked in,’ he told Stuart Adamson biographer Allan Glen in the book In a Big Country. ‘It was about the kind of life waiting for most people in Fife back then, It was saying, ‘Don’t get stuck in a rut, don’t think that’s the only option – be bigger and braver’. Their songs were exciting and anthemic – and from very early on you knew they were destined for great things.’

According to Ripped and Torn fanzine Charles was ‘the best punk record to come out of Scotland yet’.


The song helped create a real buzz about the band with John Peel yet again becoming an early champion.

Within a year of their formation The Skids agreed to sign with Virgin. Sandy Muir telling the local press that the boys had been given, as big, if not a bigger break than Nazareth to prove themselves in the world of rock music, Nazareth just in case you don’t know being a successful band that had also been formed in Dunfermline but who would never have advertised for no hairies.

2017 will see The Skids back touring, dates including Edinburgh Liquid Room, Glasgow O2 ABC (where I’ll be going to see them), Montrose Town Hall and the Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline, Scotland.

skids-2017-tour

Burning Cities, their first album in thirty five years should also be out sometime next year. For more on that, click here.

For more on The Skids, here you go.

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No Bad continued after The Skids departure to Virgin, although with acts that would never enjoy the same level of media profile of The Skids, releasing a single from Biocar, a Dunfermline five-piece rock act whose other main claim to fame was supporting Girlschool at the Kinema in the summer of 1980, and a couple of albums by folk act Heritage, Some Rantin’ Rovin’ Fun (1980) and When the Dancin’ It’s A’ Done (1981) neither of which I have heard.

An episode of Andy Stewart’s STV early evening show Hear Here was devoted to Heritage in March of 1982, while When the Dancin’ it’s a’ Done made Scotsman critic Alistair Clark’s best folk albums of the year list. The band are still on the go.

 

Independent Scotland #8

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SHOP ASSISTANTS: SAFETY NET (53rd & 3rd) 1986

This week a group whose evolution began in 1981 in Newtonmore, a town in Inverness-shire better known for its shinty team than for its independent bands.

This was a relatively short-lived version of the band that later gained some success as Shop Assistants, but who, according to the fanzine Groovy Black Shades, played live for the first time under the name – wait for it – The Crispy Crunchies.

Now there’s a show I would likely have avoided like a Coldplay convention.

Mercifully, the music was far superior to the moniker.

Fast forward a few years and main songwriter and guitarist David Keegan sent a demo tape of the band (which again according to GBS was now known as Only the Worst) to Stephen Pastel in exchange for a Pastels tape. Stephen was mightily impressed by the songs on the tape and so started a long musical alliance between the two bands.

As Buba and The Shop Assistants, they recorded only one single, Something To Do, with David, Aggi (Annabel Wright from Juniper Beri Beri fanzine), Moray and John supplying the music together with a guest appearance from Stephen Pastel, who also produced the record and designed the sleeve.

The single may have been a pretty limited release but it displayed plenty of promise and was championed by Peter Easton on his Radio Scotland show Beat Patrol and also played by John Peel.

Buba and the Shop Assistants are an experience akin to, no I don’t know, being trussed up naked and thrashed with barbed wire by Clare Grogan. You want sex? Violence? This band have got it all. And beauty.  As well as chainsaw classics they have some really nice ballad type songs about things like people “Somewhere in China”.

The Buba and the Shop Assistants Story. The Underground #3 (A Subway Organisation fanzine)

Not long after the release of that debut single in the summer of 1984, Aggi left the now Edinburgh based band to join The Pastels – replaced on vocal duties by Alex Taylor, Alex and David forming a new nucleus of the band, ditching the Buba part of the name and losing their rhythm section.

That autumn Sarah Neale joined their ranks as bassist and the following spring a pair of drummers came onboard, Laura McPhail and Ann Donald.

August 1985 saw the Shopping Parade EP featuring All Day Long released by the Subway Organisation. Neil Taylor, reviewing the single for NME, praised the band as ‘easily the most original post-Mary Chain pop group’ and the Shoppies’ profile was boosted greatly when indie king Morrissey named All Day Long as the best single of the year (again in NME).

‘Not only are they the best, most important, and loveable independent band in Britain today but they double up as the most likely lad and lasses too.’

Lawrence Watson. NME. March 1986

Significantly John Peel’s support for the band grew and grew – they were given two Peel sessions and featured four times in his Festive Fifty, Safety Net being voted #8 in 1986.

This was their sole release on 53rd & 3rd, a label set up early in 1986 by David and Stephen Pastel with help from Sandy McLean. Named after the Ramones classic, the imprint proved highly influential across the globe with releases including singles by BMX Bandits, The Vaselines and Beat Happening. This is Safety Net:

 
Shop Assistants quickly moved again, this time signing to Blue Guitar – a subsidiary of Chrysalis with an A&R input from Geoff Travis and Mayo Thompson of Texan cult band The Red Crayola – where they issued their sole album before falling apart, although, with a changed line-up they did re-emerge for a while, signing this time to another Scottish independent, Avalanche – with David Keegan afterwards going on to perform a stint with The Pastels.

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This is the frenetic version of All Day Long (although I prefer the slower version myself):

 
Nowadays, Shop Assistants usually get lumped under the C86 category, a (sub)genre description I’ve never been that comfortable with, albeit it beats terms like shambling, cutie or anorak.

And, no, I never scored very highly on any tweeometer, so no oversize cardies, anoraks or duffle coats for me let alone a bowl haircut – and no real nostalgia either for that innocence of childhood thing beloved by many of the independent acts of the time, although in the age of Thatcher, Reagan and AIDS, I suppose it’s easy to understand the impulse behind some musicians and fans wanting to retreat back into a more innocent world.

Neither was I ever someone guaranteed to get excited by that many so-called ‘C86’ acts.

A frenetic and fuzzboxy, Buzzcocks meets The Velvets rudimentary sound like Shop Assistants, then fuck yeah!

But a bunch of wilfully amateurish wimps with trebly guitars who saw it as an achievement to remain underachievers, nah, no thanks, although, saying that, nine times out of ten, I would still take that over the big and bombastic, super slick post-Live Aid commercialism of the era.

More Shop Assistants in 2017, folks.

Trivia: The catalogue numbering system employed by 53rd & 3rd, AGARR, was a nice touch in the 1980s independent world often accused of lacking any real ambition and where chutzpah from anybody outside Morrissey or the Mary Chain was often frowned upon, AGARR standing for ‘As Good As Ramones Records’.

A 1981 Top Ten

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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.

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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

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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.

carstairs-blackpool-mecca

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:

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