What he said

MeatIsMurder

MEAT IS MURDER (WEA)
Released: February 11, 1985

Tracklisting:
The Headmaster Ritual
Rusholme Ruffians
I Want The One I Can’t Have
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
Nowhere Fast
Well I Wonder
Barbarism Begins At Home
Meat Is Murder

Recorded: November-December, 1984, Amazon Studios, Liverpool and Ridge Farm, Surrey; mixed at Island Studios, London
Personnel: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce
Producers: The Smiths (except How Soon Is Now? – John Porter); engineered by Stephen Street

UK chart: 1
US chart: –

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.

That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

When they released their second studio album Meat Is Murder a few days shy of Valentine’s Day in 1985, The Smiths were aged 25, 21, 20 and 21, from Morrissey to Joyce respectively. Though Morrissey, having left school in 1976 to sign on, was getting on a bit, the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It is surely no slight to call the Smiths a student band (nor, obviously, does such a label preclude the sensitive soul in gainful employment or, like Moz, on the dole). For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s study bedrooms, draughty, Soviet-style halls and rented rooms in Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of top-up fees, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. Another Eden, protected from the outside world by subsidy, rebate and time, where you formed your political beliefs away from parental influence, coagulated as a human being, experienced the self-loathing of casual sex, and saw bands on the cheap in the union bar. Historians will need to go back to 1973 and wipe the resinous smudges off a used copy of Dark Side Of The Moon to find a record as beloved of the student class as Meat Is Murder.

The Smiths’ formative gigs were in low-ceilinged clubs and rooms above pubs, but in late 1983 they moved on to the college circuit: Warwick, Durham, Bangor, Kingston, Leicester, Portsmouth, North Staffs. As Morrissey noted of the band’s growing audience, “They don’t spit or gob, they bring flowers.” That’s because they could afford to – they were on grants.

Two years, a dose of mainstream success and a bit of trouble with the tabloids later, and The Smiths still held every safe student seat in Britain. Even though the Meat Is Murder tour would take them into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens, the students followed. And brought flowers. Support act James found themselves garlanded in prematurely-chucked gladioli, “Don’t waste them on us,” Tim Booth would humbly implore.

Is it any wonder that Meat Is Murder scored such a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency? For a start, it’s Morrissey’s vegetarian manifesto album. The seeds of his flesh boycott were sown in 1973, when McDonald’s opened its first UK restaurant in Manchester (“It was like the outbreak of war,” he said), but on the powerful title track – saved till the end – he throws down a political gauntlet to his followers (“it’s not natural, normal or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry”). It made veggies of thousands on the spot.

In tune with this militant tendency, Morrissey’s republicanism rears its lyrical head too: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen … the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.” How well this chimed with the sloganeering, NME-reading socialism of the student demo. (Moz attended an anti-Abortion Act march himself in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration.” This man could have got himself elected rector of any university in Britain by 1985.)

The album’s masterful opener The Headmaster Ritual – a much punchier affair than the first album’s Reel Around The Fountain, suggesting a new sense of drama and masterplan – was even set at a seat of learning (the unnamed St Mary’s Secondary School), another bullseye with those just putting the gym and playing fields behind them. It even tapped into trendy Vietnam-movie fetishism with an unusually doctored sleeve still from documentary In Year Of The Pig.

The abiding irony of the Smiths is that their deepest appeal tended toward middle-class kids, when Morrissey’s milieu is stoutly working class. Rusholme Ruffians, Johnny Marr’s nod to Elvis’s His Latest Flame, describes “the last night of the fair” in terms not of someone who’s been dropped off by his dad. The “tough kid raised on Prisoner’s Aid” in I Want The One I Can’t Have and the “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” in What She Said seemed like fictional characters to most Smiths graduates, but first-hand authenticity hangs heavy like a dulling wine. It was as exotic as the beat poetry of hip-hop to some pale studes.

Though it’s ultimately Morrissey’s triumph – what Smiths album isn’t? – Meat Is Murder is also a notably musical album. Marr’s on scintillating form, confidently moving between skiffle, heavy metal and whatever you’d call the freight train/wailing riff of How Soon Is Now? Only on the awkward funk of Barbarism Begins At Home do our boys come slightly unstuck, although hats off to an “indie” band countenancing a 15-second bass solo.

Their first and only, it went to number one here, supplanting Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA like an agitated Dad’s Army-style Union Jack triangle. Morrissey’s ubiquity in the press meant that like ’em or loathe ’em, you could no longer ignore The Smiths.

Crunchily produced, inspiringly ordered, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums), it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

(First published in a Q magazine Smiths Special Edition, 2004)

Upriver

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When, in 1988, numb with the lack of creativity in my supposedly creative job, I founded my own fanzine and filled most of it myself with NME-influenced prose, I commissioned myself to write a two-page feature on aquatic metaphor in the work of Lloyd Cole, with tangential reference to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad. I headlined it Upriver. This allegorical fascination with bodies of water and the tidal movement towards the ocean has remained with me. Apocalypse Now is still my favourite film, on days when it’s not The Poseidon Adventure, and a dream about falling into the water with killer whales still haunts me. To borrow a line from Captain Willard, this watery thread weaves through my subconscious “like a main circuit cable.”

You can, then, imagine my delight when I received the latest album from Rob St. John, which is about a river. A committed, roving troubadour from Lancashire who first poked his head above water mid-last-decade and found purchase at Song, By Toad, an Edinburgh-based blog-turned-record label, he released a split 7″ with fellow atmos-folkster Ian Humberstone in 2011, which is where I came in. This was closely followed by St. John’s elemental deubt LP, Weald, which was my album of the year, a passion I was able to share via 6 Music, which still employed me in those days.

Four years later, I am unable to play Rob’s new album to you (I call him Rob as I was able to get my new softly-spoken hero onto 6 Music for an interview during that last mad surge of usefulness and it felt like we had been friends for years), as I no longer have a popular music-based radio station to play with, but I am able to tell you about it.

Surface Tension is right up my tributary. More than an album, it’s an instrumental “project” that explores “landscape and pollution … through sound, writing and photography” along the River Lea, which flows southeast from the Chiltern Hills and provides London with a good amount of marsh, not to mention the Lea Valley Park. Commissioned by Thames 21’s Love the Lea campaign, it exists as a 30-mimnute continuous piece of ambient music and recorded sounds, and a 48-page book of 35mm and pinhole photographs.

It’s far more bindingly conceptual than the already thematically focused Weald, but designed to be listened to as a whole, not as individual tracks. With all that said, you can sample the single on Soundcloud here. I could tell you that the work was made using binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones, tape loops, harmonium, analogue synth, tube organ, cello, piano and guitar, but you really need to hear it to appreciate it and – yes – immerse yourself in it. (Read more about Surface Tension and how to order it on Rob’s website.)

lovethelea2013 What a treat to hear music that is almost definitively ambient, certainly in its use of field recordings, many of which were in themselves recorded in fields, especially in the run-up to a business-led general election where the Green Party seem so vital again – to me, anyway – with their commitments to protecting the natural world rather than digging it up and putting a price on it. Rob St. John is one of those artists whose deep roots in the soul of this green and often unpleasant land make the very idea of recording using electrical equipment seem anathema, but whatever works. He has to put it out there. And he deserves to be heard. (Albeit magical, organic and otherworldly, Weald is more conventional in shape and sound, if you prefer a front door into his work and although the vinyl version sold out, you can still purchase it on CD or download it here. The only thing missing from the new LP is Rob’s gorgeous voice, of course!)

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Now, back to the classical music … (we quibble over terms!)

An education

Global24

Music news. First, here are two LPs I have recently paid money for in a shop. Both are new. One is by the Irish-born, Cornish-raised electronic musician Aphex Twin, the other is by Wimbledon born and raised singer-songwriter Jamie T. These are both artists I have enjoyed in the past (the former much further back in the past than the latter), and seemed like safe purchases in a recession.

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I hadn’t heard a note (or beep) of Syro by Aphex Twin before purchase. I trusted the reviews I’d read (especially this really long one by the eloquent Sasha Frere Jones in the New Yorker), and the very fact the album was his first new record under the name since 2001 and apparently a sort of compilation of all the musical styles he’s drifted through in his career. (Frere Jones writes, “It’s Aphex Twin saying, ‘Yes, that was me,’ rather than ‘Here is the new frontier.'”) I have listened to it through once so far, in order, on my headphones, on public transport and walking along, and I am very glad I bought it. The packaging, by Designers Republic (whom I interviewed for an NME article on record sleeve design when there were still records in about 1989), is exquisite – clever and witty.

I had heard three songs from Jamie T’s album, his third, Carry On The Grudge, thanks to Later … With Jools Holland, a lifeline for middle-aged music fans who would no more listen to Radio 1 than drink bleach. So I went in with my ears wide open (and had enjoyed his 2007 debut Panic Prevention and the single Sticks ‘N’ Stones from its follow-up). I have yet to listen to it.

And here are five reasons why.

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Two Mondays’ ago, I had an email from the comedian Stewart Lee. Not a total surprise; we occasionally exchange emails, although it is not a method of communication he seems entirely comfortable with and the emails are not long or flowery. He asked me a favour, which involved me having contacts in BBC Radio – contacts that I wasn’t sure I had any more. With low expectations, I pulled the only string I could think of, and due to the kindness of that particular contact handing the request onto a more relevant one, I was able to effect a resolution by the next day. (If I worked at a help desk, I would have been very pleased with myself.)

Anyway, as a thank-you, Stewart promised to send me a compilation CDR. In the event, he sent me five. I checked with him and he doesn’t mind me publicising his act of musical philanthropy on this blog. I wanted to write about these five CDRs – Global Globules Volumes 9, 21, 22, 24 and 27 from a home-compiled series of 38 – because they have improved my life, and continue to do so.

I’ll get back to Jamie T, I promise. But right now, I’m listening to a varied diet of Swedish prog rock, Irish poetry, music concrete, reels, Krautrock, Eastern-influenced jazz, yogic West Coast psychedelia, Fort Lauderdale metal, and “British Invasion” folk-rock. That’s 47 tracks over five discs themed around nationality or intent, many of them coming in at around ten minutes (Stewart likes a song that defines the length of its own welcome), and one – Sommarlåten by Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stones) – a full 26 minutes and 42 of your Scandinavian seconds.

I’m not going to track-list all five volumes, as Stewart has plans to at some point turn them into a radio series, which I wouldn’t wish to preempt. But I can promise you, they are a head-expanding experience, especially if, as I have been diligently doing, you avoid random shuffle and experience them in the order they have been prescribed in. (It would seem rude not to.) So, Volume 21, the promisingly named Black Acid, begins with a band I know, Funkadelic, but a track I don’t, Maggot Brain from the 1971 album of that name, which I’d not knowingly dipped into.

Global21 It’s blinking incredible, a ten-minute effects-pedal odyssey by guitarist Eddie Hazel recorded in one take and “directed” by George Clinton on LSD, whose decision it was to fade the other musicians and leave him to it (none of which I knew while first listening to it). Now, this is one track, and already my life – and a journey home from Hammersmith on a chilly evening – have been enriched. It’s followed by Ball Of Confusion, a song I know well and could sing along to, except it’s a cover by The Undisputed Truth, who I don’t. Another shot in the arm. Cane & Able next, then Cannonball Adderley … and by the time I get to By The Time I Get To Phoenix, an 18-minute way-of-life interpretation by Isaac Hayes, I have been picked up and put down somewhere else. All because a man made a playlist and burned it onto a CDR for another man.

Global22

In order to select the volumes he sent me, Stewart asked me to name my favourite countries. My first choice was Ireland, hence Volume 22: Ireland. I wouldn’t call myself the biggest fan of traditional folk music – although Billy Bragg broadened my palette in this regard in the late 90s when I was writing his biography – but when songs like The Streets Of Derry/Derry Gaol by the Bothy Band and McMahon’s Reel by Bernard O’Sullivan are elegantly folded into the likes of Square Room, a 1967 b-side by a post-Van Morrison Them and Sign Of My Mind by Dublin’s Dr Strangely Strange, a united Ireland of aromatic variety is founded in your ears.

The songs on Global Globules are generally not new. This reflects the tastes of their curator. They are mostly old. The decades the 60s and the 70s enjoy an actionable bias. Stringed instruments predominantly feature, although Roger Doyle’s ambient Solar Eyes would make Aphex Twin blink. Not all the songs are long, but some of them are really long. The shortest on Volume 9: Sweden is 7.11, and the most luxuriant is the aforementioned Sommarlåten at 26.42. I would say they are excellent value for money …

Here is a picture of Träd, Gräs och Stenar. I think they have earned it.

Trad Gras och Stenar

If I am driving at anything, it’s that opening your mind to the more obscure musical tastes of another is a fine way of pressing “refresh” on your brain. I eagerly await Later to find out if there’s anything current that I might be missing out on. I quite liked Alt-J the other week, and even FKA twigs [sic], who is very fashionable, so God bless Jools and his producers and all who sail in the only terrestrial music programme on television outside of the Proms and 1979 repeats of Top Of The Pops. But who needs new, when there’s so much thrilling, questioning, sincere, stirring, challenging, toe-tapping, foreign-tongued and long-lost old?

Now, go and make your own compilation and send it to someone. It is a thing we can more easily do in the digital age, but which harks back to an analogue one, where we spoke to each other occasionally and cared a lot. (And lovingly make the sleeve out of the sleeve artwork in a Celebrity Squares pattern, as above.)

Here is a picture of Stewart Lee. Thank you, Stewart Lee.

SLeeBF

Jamie T can wait.

Unbelievable

GuardianKBushletter

Kate Bush is doing some concerts in London. You’ll have spotted this. It’s front page news, as she hasn’t done any concerts since 1979. I love Kate Bush’s LPs, especially the first four, which she isn’t apparently playing, and the fifth, which she is. I’ve lost my appetite for attending gigs, but these do sound rather special and a consensus seems to have been quickly arrived at that she’s on fine form, and, if you are old enough to have been at gig-going age in 1979, it was “worth the wait”. When an artist gets this much attention, and adoration, it can be a bit irksome if you happen not to like that artist, but really, move on, listen to something you do like. It’s not compulsory to kneel at Kate’s bare feet. Which is why I was taken aback to read the above-scanned letter in today’s Guardian. The full text goes like this:

• I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. Enough said.
Bill Hawkes
Canterbury

When I started reading the first line, I expected to hear from a musician she’s worked with who wanted to add his or her own special perspective on this positive music event. But no, Bill Hawkes, Canterbury, is a viola player with an axe to grind. That he goes on to call Kate Bush “manifestly overrated” is ultimately a matter of opinion (to dismiss someone as “overrated” usually means you don’t rate them and can’t understand the fuss, but it’s still subjective and thus arguably valid). But to prefix this with a cheap dig at a former employer and to reveal that you “laughed yourself silly” at the “nonsensical” lyrics to which you were paid to provide viola accompaniment is simply bad manners.

GuardianKBushletter - Version 2

I looked up Bill Hawkes and he seems to be a viola player of some note. Born in Cambridge in 1967, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a violist in both the Balanescu and Nigel Kennedy String Quartets, also playing violin for Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, and perhaps with good reason – he must be to publicly belittle someone he’s worked with and to admit to “laughing” behind their back in the studio. I don’t have my copies of 50 Words For Snow, her last album, to hand, so I can’t confirm his contribution to it, although the thorough Discogs.com listing makes no mention of him, and his own, fulsome entry on the same site omits to mention any Kate Bush album. Which leads me to wonder: was he left off the credits, and is that his beef? If so, he should have said.

Maybe she was horrible to work with. Maybe she trod on his foot during the sessions, or stole his parking space. Maybe there’s some other bad blood we don’t know about, but there are ways and means of processing this – tribunals, even! – and name-calling in a public forum isn’t one of them.

I posted the link to his letter on Twitter, and many agreed with my assessment that Bill Hawkes is at the very least, even in the context of a personal or industrial dispute we don’t know about, an impolite man – and one who seems unconcerned that his actions may also make him look unprofessional. Assuming he is a freelance musician for hire, this looks a lot like an own goal. By all means have your say about the overratedness or otherwise of a famous artist in the public eye – write a letter to a national newspaper if you feel so moved – but don’t mock their work from the privileged point of view of someone who’s previously contributed to it. Is the current mania for Kate Bush really “rather depressing”? A female artist who dares to be over the age of 30 being received with great enthusiasm by – again – mature music fans attending actual live gigs in a recession? Regardless of who that artist is, there seems little “depressing” about it.

To reiterate, my point here is not about Kate Bush, it’s about good grace and picking your fights wisely and thinking before you press “send” (dear God, let’s hope he didn’t send the letter in the post). A couple of people on Twitter who agree with the opinion that Kate Bush is “overrated” basically defended Mr Hawkes on the grounds that he was “right” (or, that they agreed with his opinion), but even if I thought she was overrated, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the wording of this letter.

David Arnold, one of the few people I know who might actually look to employ a violist, said on Twitter, “It’s an odd way of asking for your p45.”

Personal adds

wedding george bestTheRakesCapturePublicEnemyit-takes-a-nation-of-millions-to-hold-us-back-50ab8c2ed4d8ejesus & mary chain never understandElgins-put-yourself-in-my-placeDavidbowie-lowColouroboxClockDVA4hoursBurialUntrueABCbeauty-stabAll_Things_Must_PassBeastiesOpenLetter10ccI'mNotInLove Adele21 BestNorthernSoulAllNighterEver! BillyBraggDon'tTryThisAtHome ClashCostofLivingEP TheW Nashville Skyline ELO-out_of_the_blue ElvisCImperialBedrooom Entertainment! Everything But The GirlEdenTheFallTNSG

It is a fool’s errand to enshrine a list of your favourite anything-of-all-time to print. And yet, I am having an intermittent whale of a time cataloguing, illustrating and annotating The 143, that is, my Top 143 songs of all time, in no qualitative order, based on the playlist I built for myself earlier this year and which grew to 143 by itself, at which point I stopped. The only rule was that no artist was allowed more than one entry. (Solo artists and the bands they came from, or joined, were allowed one each.) I started a separate blog to give it a bit of clout. And a Twitter account, @CirclesThe143 (based on the subheading Circles Of Life), which is currently being followed by a sweetly tiny 338 people.

It’s niche fun.

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Today, I added my 41st entry, Groovy Times by The Clash, a choice which I think illuminates the system. I could have chosen about 25 Clash songs to embody the six-year output of their “classic” lineup, most of them family favourites, but in the end, after much deliberation, I plumped for the third track on an EP, which captivated me when I first heard it in 1979 and captivates me still. I’m not being deliberately obscure. I chose Mr Blue Sky by ELO and Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manics. These choices are hard won on each occasion, as permanence is only bestowed by the click of the “Publish” button, at which point an entry enters the statute books. The full 143 is amorphous; I tinker with it all the time. Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance, have been flying around from pillar to post, and as I type, Killing Moon is their flagship. This may change before I commit it to blog. I’m finding it hard to dislodge the track Buck Tha Devil by the virutally unknown, Ice Cube-mentored rap group Da Lench Mob from The 143, but all the while I wonder if it really can take its place alongside Wild Horses and Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)? Time will tell.

A nice man on Twitter asked if this will ever become a book. I’d like that, but I am realistic after the poor sales of my last two books. Who would pay money for the 143 favourite songs of a man? That said, I slave over the entries for way longer than I should, sculpting my thoughts and working in anecdotes; this is, after all, unpaid writing. I’m doing it because I want to do it. (This explains why I have entered very few entries recently – I’ve been hard at work, with no spare time. A good and a bad thing.)

What I’m finding interesting – and I hope the handful of you who follow the blog do too – is the very personal nature of each choice. Many are connected to a formative memory. But nostalgia alone will not get you past the gates. I loved 4 Hours by Clock DVA the moment I heard it under the bedspread on John Peel in 1981 and I love it today. I play the 143 playlist directly into my head from my ancient iPod constantly. Having almost logged a third of the tracks in the blog, I feel closer to those, and at the same time desperate to describe the remaining little beauties. I’m listening to Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow right now. I must enter that soon. Oops, just given one away. What fun!

Why do we feel the need to quantify, order, list and catalogue? By which I mean we men. I wouldn’t insult women by endowing them with a deeper emotional response to the things they love than to sort them out and place in order, but it does seem anecdotally to be a male deficiency. Our love for songs is no less profound, it just needs putting in a labelled tin before we can sleep at night. (I’m all for a debate about this – all rules are proven by exception.)

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While some artists demand to be included – Dylan, Bowie, The Fall, the Wu Tang Clan – I’ve yet to find a chair for the Beatles. There’s time. But with George Harrison already enrolled (The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp), and both The Plastic Ono Band and Wings in the wings, it may be that The 143 has no need of the Fabs. You mustn’t force these things. If All About Eve by Marxman makes it in, and Paperback Writer doesn’t, so be it. It’s not definitive. It’s not concrete. It’s not right, or wrong. It’s mine. All I know is that no song in this eventual list will ever fail to light up my life when I hear it.

More enterprising folk than I have been following The 143 and turning it into a Spotify playlist. If you are one of these folk, please throw your links at me. In the meantime, I’m off to start writing an entry about the Psychedelic Furs album track Fall.

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Velocity rapture

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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) …

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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).

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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.

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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?

Find out about, and pre-order, Scared To Get Happy (and explore the rest of Cherry Red’s catalogue) here.

Kazoogazing

MBVcover

Better late than never. And I actually mean that. It has been 22 years since My Bloody Valentine released their second album, Loveless, and I dispatched myself to interview Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, Bilinda Butcher and Colm Ó Cíosóig at the Mitcham home of their manager, for the attendant NME cover story. It wasn’t an easy interview, but then, they weren’t an easy band, and they didn’t make easy records. They stood alone, despite being roped into a fabricated “scene”, cheekily christened Shoegazing. (It was the effects-driven, languidly-paced, pale-faced guitar bands who bloomed in MBV’s wake who really deserved the tag. Oh, and we gave one of them a cover, too – Chapterhouse – a notoriously poor-selling issue, as I recall, despite a decent story written on the road in the States and a fantastic coverline: “Here’s Looking At Shoe, Kid.”)

I fell in love with My Bloody Valentine on first listen, which will have been Strawberry Wine on the Lazy label’s EP of the same name in 1987. Not their first release – I can’t claim to have been in at the ground floor, but then, I was never a tastemaker – but my first listen. It was, of course, You Made Me Realise, in August 1988, that took them to a new level of originality and raw power, and if you weren’t smitten then, you were never going to be a convert.

I had arrived at the NME by the summer of ’88, and, as a result, from my vantage point within the citadel, their subsequent releases arrived, for free, in 12-inch record envelopes from Creation, with my name on. (I would have bought them had my life taken a different turning.) I only saw the band live once, which was at the Town & Country Club in December 1991 on the Loveless tour, but it blew my mind, as promised. (Our deputy editor, Danny Kelly, had been to see them at the beginning of the tour to review, and claimed that during the now-legendary ear-bleeding take on You Made Me Realise, his plastic pint glass flew off the edge of the balcony through the sheer sonic force. We believed him.)

I still hold Loveless to be one of the great albums of all time, never mind one of the great albums of its era. Though it has individual tracks – and a single, in the rave-inflected Soon, which Shields neatly calibrated at the end – it’s one of digitally recorded music’s most persuasive arguments for the Long Player. I had MBV’s early releases on vinyl, but Loveless arrived on CD, and it feels tailor-made for the single listen. You can’t shuffle it. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t, you philistine.)

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVSo, to their third album. (Not a sentence I thought I’d write in my lifetime. Certainly not until the band reformed for those Roundhouse shows in 2008 and Shields started dropping tantalising hints about the record they’d started in 1996 being “three-quarters” finished!) Titled, annoyingly but with scorched-earth defiance, m b v, it arrived on February 2 with almost no fanfare, like the David Bowie single. But would it be any good? I only got my hands on it two days ago, but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait – a wait, lest we forget, during which you could have given birth to a child and watched him or her leave home for university.

Due to the arse-over-tit way I uploaded the album from WAV files to iTunes – and because of the unbearably non-intuitive, counterproductive latest version of iTunes, particularly its search facility – the first time I fired it up from the laptop, it would only play randomly, which was a crime against humanity. I’ve fixed this now. Fortunately, my maiden listen was via my iPod, where it plays in order. So when I’ve been listening to it in transit – and it really suits gazing not at shoes but out of train or bus windows – I’ve experienced it as a whole, in full, from one end to the other. It’s a glorious piece that runs to about 46 minutes over nine tracks. (Loveless runs a little longer, but over 11 tracks.)

Along the way, considering the langorous timeframe, during which time dictatorships have been toppled and wars begun and ended, not so much has changed in the My Bloody Valentine universe. The palette of multiple slightly and not-so-slightly distorted guitars, washed over with sounds that appear to have emanated from synths but, unless the Shields manifesto has changed, won’t have done, is recognisable. (Their tricks have been much copied, and adapted, but still nobody sounds like them.) While the dancey nature of Soon bamboozled us in 1991, it’s the jaunty nature of New You that’s the album’s most generous, head-turning surprise. While opening salvos She Found Now and Only Tomorrow remind us of Loveless, New You, brilliantly named, reminds me of Can’s I Want More in feel, and adds a bona fide bounce to proceedings, as Butcher coos somewhere in the middle distance. It’s a cornerstone track. You have to hear it.

Elsewhere, the drone, screech and aerobatic stream are present and correct, and uneasy listening is the captivating result. If someone listened to m b v, or Loveless, and declared it “noise”, you wouldn’t argue with them. It is. But a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond might have had it. And nor would you try to convert them. For many, this music will go in one ear and, eventually, out of the other. Presumably this is why, with all the hype and expectation, Loveless only got to 24 in the charts 22 years ago. You really do need to tune in, and if not, walk out.

The changes are subtle. An optimism seems to come out in the vocal in Who Sees You, although I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. Is This And Yes bears the unmistakable addition of a keyboard pulse, atop which the vocals positively glisten. If I Am cruises along on a ragged snare beat with woozy vocals that almost take it into Stereolab country. The rhythm on In Another Way is furious – albeit tempered by the balm of Butcher’s serenade. Not so on the instrumental Nothing Is, where this same rhythm is almost repeated but to a much grungier end. Most adjustments, though, are closer to imperceptible. But then, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? (For alphabetical reasons, when the album ends on iTunes, it goes straight into the mechanically rhythmic Machine Gun by Portishead. A sympathetic transition, actually.)

Yes, m b v sounds like the entire sonic cathedral has been filtered through a single kazoo, but the genius of that! And it ends with a mighty six-minute track that seems to have been sculpted from sampled train and plane noises, Wonder, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that it’s for listening to between A and B. Where Soon brought Loveless to an accessible close, Wonder might be the most difficult movement on m b v. It climbs and climbs as if barreling up a mountain with no intention of coming back down.

I actually don’t mind if the fourth MBV album comes out in 2035, if it’s this good. I really, actually don’t.