noise heat power

Pinning down the past - part two

They're only pin-backed metal and plastic, but my badges are communications from another age. As if to prove it, here are five more examples plucked from the pile and analysed to within an inch of their ephemeral lives.
Also available: part one, part three, part four, part five, part six


The Jam
Promotional item (1979)

The Jam badge
I really don't think Paul Weller would approve. The artful mod stylist - the leader of the Italo-casual Style Council - would not look benevolently on a vast prismatic badge, at least two and a half inches across, spangling in the light like New Wave diamante. Neither, I suspect, would he crack a smile at the graphic literalism that links the band with a pot of strawberry conserve.

But I cared not a jot. I barely knew a track by The Jam when I bought this badge, never mind being familiar with the obsessively trim sartorial traditions into which Weller had self-consciously slipped his band; and when I later learned what mod actually was, I was confused by The Jam's overt connection to that neat and buttoned-down modus operandi. In the slip-stream of Two Tone, the mods of 1979 were claiming The Jam as one of their own; but to me, entering Bradley's Records with the expressed intention of buying a musically-themed badge, they were just one more punk name with which I could align myself in the school yard. I wanted to be a kid no more; I wanted to be known for a love of music, and I needed to show that I meant business in the field of pop culture.

So, standing in Bradley's in 1979, with pocket money that was ring-fenced for badge buying, I selected the one that looked the most 'pop' and offered the best value for my 25p. Not for me the tiny, tasteful 'buttons' that clutched discreetly to your lapel. I wanted glitz, glamour and a huge surface area, with words that no one could ignore.

Funny that it was buying a badge, not buying a record, that marked the onset of a lifelong lust for music. The first step was to join the club, be one of the gang; the next step was to acquire the taste for black vinyl.

First 'King Rocker' by Generation X. Then a K-Tel new wave compilation. Then more Generation X - the album 'Valley of the Dolls'. And so it went on, and still does. But I realise now that despite the not inconsiderable chest-based real-estate I devoted to them in the form of this badge, I never ended up buying any music by The Jam. To this day I own nothing by them - not a CD, not a record, not an MP3 file (legal or otherwise).

All in all, I don't think Paul Weller can have bought many pairs of winklepickers with the proceeds of my less-than-frenzied passion. This badge was a mere flag of convenience, a signal to schoolmates that I was about to begin disowning childhood and was ready for pop's sweet embrace. Unfortunately it also dazzled teachers and made my school jumper sag; but for a while I wore it proudly, flashing a pretend allegiance that was enough to open the borders to the future; where as you know, they do things quite differently.


Preparing For Power 1984 - Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)
Propaganda item (1984)

Revolutionary Communist Party - Preparing For Power badge
There she stands, red flag aloft; her pennant being the international symbol of proletarian brotherhood and of being pitched headlong into London's bubbling mid-eighties revolutionary cauldron, aged 17 (just). I was heading for a Marxist summer school called Preparing For Power, run by the Revolutionary Communist Party, and in the time it took a coach to drive from Paternoster Row in Sheffield to the Polytechnic of Central London, that scarlet banner was transformed in my mind from an abstract representation of left-wing ideology into my own personal heraldry... though heralding what?

Well that's easy: independence from home; contrariness of spirit; and a rubber-necking fascination with physical street-based conflict, be it Miners v. Police or Irish v. Brits. Whatever the cause of that thrilling political punch-up, I wanted in. And in London in 1984, I found the entrance.

When I stepped off that coach without family or school friends around me, just newly formed comrades by my side, I felt the very breath whipped from under my nose and I struggled to remain standing. It wasn't the city itself that took my breath away - I was already well used to visiting London for art and for sight-seeing. It was this particular wind-tunnel of a London in which left-wing activists and associated big-mouths seemed able to talk up a hurricane of argument and invective - or more accurately, any number of individual whirlwinds that blew against each other, with each other, and that merged, split and devoured each other.

I had come from Sheffield - home of the National Union of Mineworkers, surrounded by militant coalfields - in the eye of the miners' strike storm. But suddenly, Sheffield seemed like a calm place. Because this was where the tumult was, where every opinion had its magazine and someone to sell it. Sparts, Workers' Power, RCG, WRP... it was bewildering, a sweet shop of sugared left-wing sects shaking themselves off the shelf. It was an excitement I could taste; I was terrified of it, but oh so tempted.

Alas, I realise now, the calm that I sensed back in Sheffield was simply the soundless cry of the desperate, of the families whose communities were no longer known to them, controlled as they were by police with shields and their ID numbers covered up. Those people were rapidly running out of options, and could only face their tormentors with arms outstretched, or faces smothered, like Munch's silent scream.

This London storm merely whipped across the surface of everything, creating havoc and yet disturbing nothing. No one was crying out in pain down here, but it was a wind in which I was caught, and I flapped and tumbled and bowled down that street, through the door at Preparing For Power, and into the heart of my own revolution.


Sheffield City Morris Men
Promotional item (circa 1980)

Sheffield City Morris Men badge
Not so much a morris dancing troupe as an anarcho-communist gang in knee-breeches, Sheffield City Morris Men prowled the wind-blown concrete acres of my late-seventies youth; their natural habitat circa 1978 was a flagstoned pedestrian precinct thronged by shoppers agog.

The shoppers would form an undulating mob, ringed around this riotous assembly of hirsute lecturers, teachers, a few mature students; the dancing was muscular, expressive, and at times, frankly, intimidating. The wheeze of their melodeon joined the chudder of the internal combustion engine and the plaintive cry of the left-wing paper seller as my recurring Saturday afternoon soundtrack; and once the dancing was done, we would decamp to the enveloping hug of a public house, savouring the guff of fags, ale and sweat that billowed out as we opened the door.

There can be few nine year-olds as familiar with the insides of pubs as the nomadic offspring of morris dancers.

At which point, it seems, the truth is out:

I am indeed The Son of a Morris Dancer.

This badge was designed by my dad, apparently as a self-portrait - that was the jibe at the time anyway, as the bearded hankie-twiddler captured thereon bears an uncanny resemblance to dad in mid-caper. Though to be fair, give or take a few tweaks round the mid-riff, it could have been pretty much any of them. Because yes, they all sported the necessary decorations of the nineteen-seventies folk revival: beards (damp with the foam of freshly pulled cask ale), Citroëns (elderly, and festooned with stickers), hands cupped round ears as they broke into another chorus of 'Dido, Bendigo' ("Gentry he was there-o...").

But don't be misled; these were morris dancers with a difference. Creators of their own made-up tradition - or 'Meddup', as they called it, in deference to the Sheffield dialect and in defiance of the hermetically-sealed and sterile world of The Morris Ring (like the Rosicrucian Order... but with bells on), they made it their business to jump higher, play louder, hit harder.

While my friends had misbehaving rock stars as their anti-heroes of choice, my bad role models were morris dancers doing things my parents never did: puking pure red wine on a coach to Brittany; forever bed-hopping, trailing divorces in their wake; singing paeans to Stalin's five year plan; lending me records by Ian Dury, X-Ray Spex, John Cooper Clarke.

Formative experiences all. So although I ultimately spurned the lure of the flailed handkerchief, their spirit made my heart beat like a tabor.

An abiding memory: walking through York on a blazing weekend having danced in front of the Minster (always the year's most financially lucrative display), my dad and his pals are done up in their baldricks, their beards, their bells; replaying the scene now, I picture a righteous slow-mo swagger - like Reservoir Dogs but with a little more jangle. We pass through a busy precinct, where Doc Martened, Fred Perried fascists are dispensing magazines on behalf of the British Movement. They look harder than any men I have ever seen in my life. And as we pass, one of them thrusts his papers towards my dad.

Dad breaks stride, and in his knee-length breeches, with handkerchiefs slung at his waist, he looks the fascist in the eye and says, "You must be joking sunshine."

And we move on.

I gulp, tremble and shiver with pride. For when you walk with Sheffield City Morris, truly, you walk with lions. (And a fat man dressed as a horse.)


Promotional item (nineteen seventies)

Clothkits badge
Here it comes! It's the Sign of the Rusting Dove™, bringing glad tidings of peace and love direct from somewhere over the sixties' rainbow, and in its beak it carries... what? Recreational drugs? Copies of Oz? A stack of Incredible String Band LPs?

Nope. As you can see, our Rusting Dove™ is a messenger for Clothkits, supplier of screenprinted textile fashions to the children of the counter-culture. So inside that brown paper package tied up with string we find the constituent parts of dresses, trousers, T-shirts and hats - but don't get excited, because no one's going anywhere just yet. These are not clothes as anyone born after 1988 - when Clothkits closed - would recognise them. These are vast expanses of patterned fabric printed with dotted lines and a few instructions - it requires the application of scissors, thread and one of Singer's finest before we're wearing this gear down at the play scheme.

But believe me, regardless of the fact that there was hard work involved in bringing the clothes to life, that Clothkits kit schtick was popular. Their catalogue was the house journal of Britain's leafy urban enclaves, and when we got together - all us kids in our Clothkits clobber, maroon and navy, stencilled like a tea chest - it was like baby bohemia on the march; with our liquorice root and our screenprinted corduroy, we would one day claim those artfully scuffed Victorian villas as our birthright.

Though if that Rusting Dove™ should come a-calling these days, it can take its box of fabric and come back when the clothes are in one piece, thank you very much.


Promotional item (1984)

Aswad badge
Maybe this isn't official Aswad memorabilia at all - it doesn't feature their name or image, as you can see. It features, of course, the red, the gold and the green; the colours of Rastafarianism, as worn by the followers of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God. And so, given the colours' spiritual significance - as Rasta as dreadlocks and the holy herb itself - it was an irony typical of the times that upon attending a gig by Aswad at the Sheffield Top Rank in 1984, I should buy a badge bedecked in those glorious hues - me being a wide-eyed middle-class white atheist who'd told his mum he was going with his mates but who had, in fact, gone alone.

Clearly, it was a possibly-misguided appropriation of someone else's signs and symbols, but there was nothing false about my devotion to Aswad's sound. To many, they will be remembered only as sugared pop reggae thanks to their 1988 hit 'Don't Turn Around', but earlier in the decade they had been purveyors of a myriad of reggae styles - righteous roots, silken lovers' and crisp live dub - all delivered by a band that played tightly, militantly, yet who were unashamed of pleasing the crowd.

And please crowds they did. For years they crowned the Notting Hill Carnival with joyous black-British reggae that was a stirring-up of Jamaica with Ladbroke Grove and Brixton - though not Carterknowle, or Millhouses, or the other leafy Sheffield suburbs I called home, please note. Not that it mattered; while I had never been to the Carnival in person, I had listened to Aswad's 'Live And Direct' on cassette - over and over and over again. And even via the medium of a tinny Panasonic tape deck, that recording of their 1983 Carnival performance carried a 'being there' quality that no other live album I know can capture. Simply, it is magnificent. And every chk and every thud, every rumble and every scream, floats on an atmosphere of sweaty London streets, kids on shoulders, ganja mist and steel bands, and of course, coppers in shirt-sleeves dancing with semi-naked black girls for the cameras.

So that was the spirit I took with me into the darkness of the Top Rank, where I waited and waited for Aswad to appear. I'd implied to my mum that a bunch of us were going, but in fact my reggae was a rather personal pleasure and I ended up going by myself. Too aware of being under-age to buy a drink, I just stood in the gloom and learned how those kinds of gigs worked; I soon realised the band would not be on at 8pm, or even 9pm, or 10pm. This was a late-night experience, and I would be pushing it to reach the crazy hubbub of the 1.30am bus home from High Street; in fact, I had to leave before the end of the tumultuous encore, simply because my carriage awaited.

But of course, the waiting was perfect. Because by the time they appeared, it felt as though I'd waited all my life. My emotion wasn't pent up; it had been dammed for a decade and a half. How different to those sullen guitar bands whose audiences stand with beers, looking forward to the moment they finish. Suddenly, I realised what communal music could be - and I don't think I experienced it again until the unhinged days of rave.

Why not try it for yourself? With just a few clicks you can buy 'Live And Direct' and feel the power of Aswad, 1983 vintage. The drum and the bassline, the Aswad horn section, the dummy reverb and the chanting down Babylon: "How about a different style?" screams Brinsley Forde, and Aswad switch yet again, one moment lilting, the next moment all blood, fire and Jah.

It was pure showmanship, or maybe some kind of Rasta magic. But supernatural or not, this badge is a relic of the night I saw them; a remnant from a lesson in reggae that stays with me still.


Also available: pinning down the past part one, part three, part four, part five, part six

And don't forget - exclusive Noise Heat Power pin badges are NOW AVAILABLE from the Noise Heat Power shop.


© Damon Fairclough 2008