Just as the vegetable-growing year has a “hungry gap” in spring, when very little comes up, so, new produce in the TV year tends to drop off around now. As noted in the new, seasonally adjusted Telly Addict, Game Of Thrones, The Fall, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Nashville, all are either done, or close to being done, having been launched in either the autumn or the winter, when people watch telly and don’t go on holiday or sit in the garden or outside a pub in the evening. However, UK-Belgian epic The White Queen is here to save us for the next ten Sunday nights on BBC1; also this week, BBC2′s scientifically pointless but cat-filled Horizon: The Secret Life Of The Cat; Dates on C4; and the triumphant takeover of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Comedy Central by John Oliver from these islands (and from the same management as me). The British are coming. And some Belgians.
On July 26, the documentary Blackfish is released in UK cinemas. It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)
Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.
The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.
The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.
SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”
You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela on Tuesday night at a private VIP screening of Blackfish laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.
In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)
I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)
Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe that’s double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.
I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.
Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish. Damn!
Who’s in here? Well, if you watch this week’s Telly Addict, which avoids spoilers for the final episodes of The Fall on BBC2 and Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic (mainly because I hadn’t seen either when I filmed this yesterday), you’ll see clip evidence of at least two supporting actors who are in both shows. Also, new on BBC3, docucircus The Call Centre, and new on C4, the terrific, glacially-paced French “zombie” drama The Returned. And congratulations and clubbable banter all round for the 500th episode of Pointless on BBC1.
Remember Keep Britain Tidy? It was a ubiquitous campaign when I was growing up, emblemised by this enduring, rudimentary graphic figure dropping litter into a wire bin. Apparently, Keep Britain Tidy became a limited company of the same name in 1984 and expanded to cover various environmental issues in this century, including beaches, anti-social activity and tree-planting. Good for them. It’s hard to argue the case against keeping Britain, or anywhere, tidy. Like charity and barbarism alike, you might say that tidiness begins at home, but it doesn’t. I actually don’t care if your house is tidy or not; it’s the outside of your house that I’m worried about. The part I have to look at as I walk past. The part that’s in public; in Britain.
The term “scum” is overused. It is also misused. Too often it is applied to denote a social class and is thus implicitly snooty, when in fact scumminess knows no economic boundary and comes in many forms.
The photo above, which I took last month but could be taken any day of the week, shows the tip of an iceberg. As I’ve mentioned before, at the British Library, patrons of the reading rooms are required to use supplied, reusable, transparent bags. This is to reduce the import and export of forbidden items into and out of the reading rooms, such as pens, umbrellas, food and drink on the way in, and books belonging to the British Library on the way out. As such, you collect your bag from a neat stack in one of the boxes pictured, and return it to the same place.
These bags can easily be patted back into a flat shape for stacking. I do it every time I go into the library. It takes seconds to do: empty, pat, flatten. However, as you can see from this pictorial evidence, even by mid-afternoon, misshapen, unpatted bags are already being frankly chucked in the general direction of the box, as if perhaps the litterbug imagines his or her mum to be coming round to clear up after them. A polythene volcano effect is the result. British Library cleaning staff – and not patrons’ mums – must then collect them all up and pat them into shape after the library’s inconsiderate, lazy patrons have left, to prepare them for the next day. In the meantime, an ugly eyesore is created. Even a patted-flat bag cannot be neatly stacked once this transparent cancer starts to grow, so the mess snowballs in mocking imitation of chaos theory.
I mention this again, with illustration, because I’m getting increasingly sick of the attitude of people who create mess or litter in places that aren’t their homes. I have re-joined a gym after about four years away, and although the gym itself is well tended, and the staff there vigilant in terms of cleaning, I have noticed some very bad habits on behalf of the club’s members. I can only vouch for men, as I use the men’s changing rooms, but despite the near-spotless surfaces at the beginning of the day, which is when I opt to use the facilities, pre-work, it amazes me how often I go into a shower cubicle and find the wet floor already littered with discarded membership wristbands (which are disposable, but disposable in the bins provided), empty shower gel bottles and – eek! – sticking plasters. It’s clear that some men, like British Library users, think it’s acceptable to drop these things for someone else to sort out.
A gym is a communal space. It requires a certain degree of spatial and social awareness for it to run. You wait for someone else to finish on a piece of resistance equipment; you do not crowd other members on the exercise mats; you put exercise balls and dumbbells back on the rack after use; you wipe your sweat off the machines; and so on. But you have to take this courtesy into the changing rooms with you, and treat the showers and locker areas as if, hey, someone else might be using them after you.
There is a copycat fried-chicken outlet on the parade of shops I walk to each morning to pick up the newspaper, or to take the bus to the station, and rare is the day when I don’t walk past some discarded takeaway packaging from this outlet. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the scene: drunk bloke, late at night, staggering home, gets the urge to eat something and the only thing to eat is some fried chicken, starts eating it, stops eating it, drops packaging where he sways, staggers home. These places thrive on late-night custom and I seriously do not blame the shop for the litter. Equally, it’s hard to blame drunkards. We’ve all been pissed and bought some takeaway food we barely knew we were buying, let alone eating. It’s an occupational hazard of the leisure society. But this doesn’t stop me seething at the dropped boxes, paper bags, cups, plastic stabbers, napkins and polystyrene coffins. They really are a ghastly symbol of the throwaway culture of capitalism.
Mind you, a simple walk down the street where one lives is rarely a happy occasion, even on a lovely day, as litter creeps in from all angles. I’ve lived in more deprived and depraved areas of London than the one I’m in currently, but there are left plastic bags of dog shit in the gutter, all tied up and ready to be collected by someone else; cigarette butts and those cellophane sheaths from around the box which are often just dropped because they’re see-through and almost not there; and assorted flotsam from the refuse collection, a ritual now so complicated by the compartmentalisation of recycling and composting it takes a number of visits by a number of refuse collectors to scoop it all up, and old flyers and menus and flaps of card tend to be carried off by a gust and left for dead until a resident snaps and picks it up themselves.
And it should not be the responsibility of the refuse collectors to have to gather up all the rubbish that has been nosed by hungry foxes out of bin bags left out by fools the night before. (The main bin collection does not happen until well after breakfast, so there’s no excuse for putting the bags out the night before.) Foxes do not recognise or respect the boundaries of a thin black plastic membrane; they smell food, they get food, assuming it to be food for them, which it is if you handily leave it out at night. I’ve defended foxes before. It’s not their “fault” if your path is decorated with licked-out readymeal trays and tuna lids. Think about it.
I have written before about “broken window theory”, which I first read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point but originated in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by two criminologists: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.” This eventually leads to a rip in the fabric of order – the building’s broken into, squatted, set fire to, and so on. But the line I’m interested in is this one:
Consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.
I’ve seen this in action. You must have, too. There’s a minicab firm nearby whose drivers habitually park up in nearby residential streets as there’s no room for them outside the cab office. As long as they don’t leave their engines running or have their radio on loud at night, I don’t begrudge this. But I do begrudge their habit of eating snacky food and dropping the litter out of the driver’s door into the gutter. Which some of them do. This minor starting point of litter is the broken window. It says: litter has been left here; little can be left here; litter should be left here. (I say: take it with you, you scumbags.)
There are troubles in the world more grave and lethal than litter. Governments using pepper spray and chemical weapons on their own citizens springs to mind. Moronic “revenge” attacks on mosques in this country. A disabled man going on hunger strike to protest against being declared fit for work by Atos and losing all of his benefits. But if society breaks down, it has to start somewhere. Every inferno begins with a spark. And that spark might be a dropped gym wristband, or a lobbed British Library bag, or a surreptitiously squirrelled sandwich wrapper at a kerbside.
I used to live near a railway bridge, under which cars and vans would pull up by the cover of darkness and empty out all sorts of rubbish. This is fly tipping, by definition: “the deposit of any waste onto land … with no licence to accept waste.” This includes any path or pavement. It also includes the area outside a charity shop which has had the temerity to have regular opening hours and to close on Sundays, so that you were left with no option but to dump your unwanted clothes and a jigsaw outside their door. The often voluntary, always nice people who work in charity shops don’t deserve to have to pick up discarded junk, often soaked with rain, on a Monday morning. They are not your mum either.
Tidy Britain, tidy mind, tidy democracy.
It’s the dawning of a ne-e-e-ew era for television, and for Telly Addict. Just over two years in the chair, and I’m reviewing my first ever television programme that I didn’t watch on my television. I’m talking about season four of Arrested Development, which can only be viewed by subscribing to video streaming service Netflix, which I have now done. I can’t make the sound work when I connect my MacBook to the TV, though, which is why I’ve only watched the first two of 15 brand new episodes on a laptop screen. Meanwhile, back on steam-driven TV, I’ve been beaten by Chris Packham’s games on Springwatch on BBC2, re-educated by Horrible Histories on CBBC (shouldn’t there be some kind of adult-lock that prevents me from watching this channel?), entertained by Psychobitches on Sky Arts (which is the best female-centric comedy that started last week), and gripped by The Americans on ITV1, which is money well spent by the network. There’s also time for a quick clip from Five Years on BBC2, which I failed to review last week because of the stupid Bank Holiday/Memorial Day Weekend.
Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …
I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.
It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”
It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)
Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.
So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.
While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.
I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.
I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK
That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.
When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.
As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.
Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.
It may seem a little prosaic, but do you mind if I just list some band names? Jasmine Minks. The June Brides. Mighty Mighty. Big Flame. Grab Grab The Haddock. The Wolfhounds. The Dentists. The Servants. The Seers. The Brilliant Corners. The Close Lobsters. Is this painting any kind of picture for you? Cherry Red records, the label who were at the epicentre of the birth of indie, are about to release a five-disc box set entitled Scared To Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989. It’s out on June 24, and there’s a gig in London on June 22 to mark its arrival.
The compilation boasts 134 tracks by 134 artists, beginning in style with Revolutionary Spirit by the recently reactivated Wild Swans on Zoo in 1982, and ending with Catweazle by future hitmakers the Boo Radleys on Action in 1990; in between, you will be transported back to a simpler time, when t-shirts had horizontal stripes, fringes were worn sticking out of the front of Greek fisherman’s caps and guitars were played in a masturbatory style that somehow perfectly crystallised the raw, undersexed emotion that lay beneath. I have been immersed in this grand testimonial for a week, repressing squeals each time a new memory is unleashed: Delilah Sands by the Brilliant Corners, Toy by the Heart Throbs (the first band I ever interviewed as a cub reporter for the NME at a picnic table outside a pub near Rough Trade’s Kings Cross HQ), Almost Prayed by the Weather Prophets, Every Conversation by the June Brides (a defining anthem of my early student years, which took me and my friend Rob to the Venue in New Cross) …
It’s also great to hear early efforts by bands who went on to greater things in the grown-up chart on major labels: Sick Little Girl by Pop Will Eat Itself, Quite Content by the Soup Dragons (whom I interviewed prior to their chart explosion and became good pals with), Motorcity by Age Of Chance (whose baseball hat I proudly wore to my first days at the NME, only to have it frisbeed across the art room by Steven Wells), Vote For Love by Jamie Wednesday, who would become Carter USM. It’s personal for me, this music.
As much as anything, it reminds me of being largely single and occasionally lovesick, which is apt, living on my own, subsisting off boil-in-the-bag Findus meals and large panfuls of mashed potato and cheese, and taping everything but the reggae off Peel and quirkily naming the cassettes (actually, I did record some dub, and certainly remember loving Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound at the same time, although there is no place for that here).
It’s also amazing to hear Grab Grab The Haddock again, the group formed after the Marine Girls by Jane Fox, whom Rob and I adopted as “our” band and followed around a bit. (How bitter the disappointment when they put us on our first ever guest list at the old Marquee, and the doorperson told us that the support band had no guest list.) And the Marine Girls’ Don’t Come Back, all the more poignant for my having sort of befriended Tracey Thorn – certainly remotely – in middle age, as well as Jim Bob, and Miles Hunt (the Wonder Stuff are represented by A Wonderful Day).
There are some “big songs” here, as well as ones that may only mean something to the lucky few: Up The Hill And Down The Slope by The Loft (whom Rob and I saw split up, without knowing it, at Bay 63, supporting The Colour Field, and whose bassist Bill Prince would become my colleague and friend at NME and Q); Velocity Girl by Primal Scream; Just Like Honey by Jesus & Mary Chain; Shine On by the House Of Love. National anthems, all.
I met and interviewed and shared tour bus seats with so many of these indie luminaries as they crossed over to major label hopefuls in the late 80s and early 90s, catching them on the way up, but not necessarily that long before the way down. There are some bands I only remember by name, and not by song – the Corn Dollies, the Waltones, the Raw Herbs – but even the names evoke lazy afternoons and lager in plastic glasses and zip-up jerkins and cheap Top Shop Ray-Ban copies and plastic carrier bags full of fanzines; they speak of Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams and Ian Watson and other be-capped indie enablers.
It is a commonplace now that the word “indie” has been stripped of all meaning. But this compilation places it back on an ideological pedestal at a time when it meant beating the system and operating by its own back channel.
As I wrote in 2006 for a piece in Word, the first time I remember seeing the word “indie” was in Sounds, the first of the weekly music papers to carry the indie chart, inaugurated in January 1980 in trade mag Record Business, after an idea by Cherry Red boss Ian McNay. It was based on sales from a network of small record emporia, and was open only to records independently produced, marketed and distributed, that is, outside of the infrastructure of the major labels.
The likes of Virgin, Chrysalis and Island, though established as indies in the 60s and 70s, didn’t count in the 80s as they were distributed by The Man, and this was key to our understanding of the word. The same ideological exile had befallen pre-punk stalwarts Chiswick and Stiff, when they took the majors’ shilling. The indie charts did exactly what they said on the tin, and rapidly became not just an indicator of what was selling, but a useful business tool for the alternative sector, especially in terms of foreign licensing.
Incidentally, I can’t have been the only Sounds reader who initially assumed that the chart bluntly headed “Indies” was dedicated to artists from the West Indies, and not Eyeless In Gaza, the Marine Girls and Crass.
My Select co-conspirator David Cavanagh nailed the scene in his Creation Records doorstop My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize (named after a line in the Loft classic), producing a revolving paint dream of indie life in 1980, as Alan Horne, founder of Glasgow’s Postcard, and Edwyn Collins, leader of Orange Juice, put 800 copies of the band’s debut Falling And Laughing into the back of Horne’s dad’s Austin Maxi and head South. They arrive at Rough Trade, still primarily a shop, though also a label. Geoff Travis, hippyish boss of RT, plays the record, digs it and takes 300 on the spot. They manage to get Small Wonder, another capital-based indie shop-turned-label, to take another hundred, and head back to Scotland, “in good cheer.”
It was, in many ways, all downhill from there for the true spirit of indie. But the 134 tunes under Cherry Red’s latest umbrella (and by the way, where would indie be without their pivotal Pillows & Prayers compilation?) are flag-bearers for its finest ideals. Cheap and largely cheerful, albeit wan and apparently permanently single, these songs do it for the kids. If the golden year of 1986 has its own flag – NME’s iconic (yes it is) cassette C86, all of whose contributors are found here, I think – then Scared To Get Happy might have to be casually known as C80-89. It’s that complete.
Let us not remember indie by the snobbish panic that marked the late ’80s when Ecstasy changed the rules. It was certainly too hot to wear leather trousers and tassly suede jackets when you were “on one”. Dance music, while energising the indie scene with heady possibility – and later leading to the comedown-drone of shoegazing – also rent it asunder. Again, as I wrote in Word in a piece brilliantly headlined, by Mark Ellen, Wan Love, in the ensuing cross-pollination, the proliferation of one-off post-Acid House singles in the indie charts offended the purists.
As the Cav notes, one week in July 1992, the highest-placed guitar tune in the indie charts was at number 13. Chart compilers CIN eventually went all Stalinist and excluded these bleeping anomalies, to protect the integrity of Mega City Four, The Family Cat and Midway Still. A similar ideological panic occurred in 1989 when PWL dominated the indie charts with hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. Until Pete Waterman inked a deal with Warners, he was more indie than the likes of The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff and The Fall, who had already made themselves ineligible by signing up with majors of their own. They were followed by the next wave, t-shirt bands like Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker.
With indie a marketable property, the majors started setting up their own “boutique” labels – Hut, Dedicated, Indolent, Laurel – all the credibility of indies, none of the tiresome independence. But let’s not go there. Indie: it was alright while it lasted. Now, where’s my fisherman’s cap?