- Weekends - The Mighty Wah!
- Fantastic Life - The Fall
- In A Armagideon - Winston Flames
- The "Sweetest Girl" - Scritti Politti
- Music for Evenings - Young Marble Giants
- Wa-Do-Dem - Eek-A-Mouse
- Lorelei - Cocteau Twins
- Waiting On My Angel - Jamie Principle
- Shine Eye Girl - Black Uhuru
- Cavern - Liquid Liquid
- In Fear of Dub - Bauhaus
- My Heart is Empty - Nico
I jam the point of a pair of compasses under the edge of the grey plastic square. With a little force, the copy protection tab pings across the room, landing somewhere beyond my red beanbag. Now I am ready, fully furnished for the evening yet to come.
The place is Sheffield, South Yorkshire, suburbia. The time is a Saturday in 1985. And the occasion? It is the run-in to a party. Nothing special, just a gathering of school friends; but enough to set my stomach churning, my mind whirring, my nerves jangling.
I am prepared though; I am always prepared. Because at parties, I never know when the moment will come. When festivities will stop and all attendees will look my way, a freeze-frame of flat-tops and acne and cider from Victoria Wine; and gobs hanging open they'll point towards the music centre - Grundig perhaps, or Bush. "We need you now," they'll gasp. "We need your soundtrack to these days of our lives!"
So I am ready. Dressed in voluminous combat kecks from the army stores near The Limit, I've found a use for the festival of pockets that runs down each leg: where once there were stashed Lucky Strikes and packets of napalm (possibly), I now hoard my party cassettes; compilations, you understand, guaranteed to trigger hedonistic oblivion. Sticking one of these on, I hope, will be like tossing a musical grenade into a beer-sodden fox-hole of fired-up teens, all twitchy with the thrill of underage drinking and eager to face the firepower of my hair-trigger sonic attack.
When I know there's a party round the corner I plan for this moment; and in 1985, aged 17, there seem to be parties round every corner; inexplicably, other people's parents are always going away leaving homes in the hands of their wholly irresponsible offspring. So I'm ready to ker-chunk on the EJECT button; I will delve into the folds of canvas that balloon around my knee; I will rattle through the plastic boxes and pluck out the one; the tape that I know this seething mass of blood, sweat and angst is waiting for.
They trust me - the music guy; and I will deliver.
Except that, from these dreams, I always awake.
The clock is ticking. The light through the window is cold. It is time to head off to the party, and shuddering, I step out alone.
Weekends - The Mighty Wah!
Time passes. The party grows old.
A room, deserted, dark and foggy; a stratosphere of muggy fag smoke and a tint of street lamp shafting through the venetian blind. And just look at that: a bottle of Pils, upended and spilling its guts. The beer has pooled and bled across the carpet. Its stale wine-lodge stink will spoil the air for weeks to come.
It's a room that has fallen silent - more or less. Abandoned. Silent but for a hiss that escapes from speakers on the book-case in the corner. I step across the floor towards them, because I know that hiss well. It's the tell-tale sign that the last cassette has finished and is now expressing itself only through a sibilant hush; it is winding its way through the tape heads towards its final juddering stop.
No one has noticed, or cares. And there is a reason for that, but not one I wish to dwell on just yet. Because this, I know, is my moment.
Contrary to my dreaming, there is no clamour, no pleading, no collective effort on my comrades' part to will my music into existence. The massed ranks of punks and skins and rastas who populate my idle visions are conspicuous by their absence. But no matter. My time is now.
The hour of the C60 is upon us.
Ker-chunk. EJECT. In it goes. And PLAY.
And so they begin: the call-to-arms chimes with which I've always hoped to bring my legions to attention. They are like bells heralding invasion, followed hard by stomping boots, billowing banners, and in lieu of a lone piper, I imagine a vast concert grand is sailing in on the waves.
Even the name suits my imagined occasion. The Mighty Wah! Strength and emotion with a built-in screamer. I feel Pete Wylie's icy breath on my cheeks, bear witness to his despairing sense of what's possible, and what's actually under his feet:
"So how come we always end up here,
I let this biting storm slash at my arms, my chest, my face. I take it full force; it successfully shreds every one of my emotions. Like Douglas Adams' 'Total Perspective Vortex', it conspires to present me with a consciousness-pummelling image of the potential vastness of experience, always resolving itself back to the pin-prick of metaphorical carpet on which I stand - and am fated to return to again and again and again; weekends, week in, week out.
It's a chill wind to send whipping through this empty wood-chipped room, where only a short time ago there were Cherry B girls and beer goggle boys celebrating the glory days of their unleashed youth.
But they're gone now; they're scattered to the four corners of... well, not the world, as suggested by the Wah, but this house; boldly going where virtually every teenager has gone before - into the underwear of sixth-form bedfellows, divesting each other of last summer's Frankie shirts, and their pixie boots, and all those belts and buckles and bangles as worn on The Tube by Madonna.
Down here though, in the eye of this particular hurricane, I'm afraid my zips remain fastened, my shirt done up to the chin. I'm in no fit state to charm my way under the hem of a stranger's skirt, being as how I'm speckled by Pete Wylie-spit and suffering self-induced spiritual devastation.
And you know what?
That's how I like it.
Fantastic Life - The Fall
It explodes out of the blocks with a 'WHUMP!', like Carl Lewis with turps on his feet. It's fearsome, sarcastic, gargantuan. Its repetitive boom forces itself through the ceiling, rattling the sphincters of the teen Casanovas rolling round in the room up above. I snigger at the thought of them being put off their strokes by Stephen Hanley's thrumbling bass and the squawks of Mark E. Smith. There are those among them, I'm convinced, who would rather be down here digging The Fall than up there duvet-snorkling and fighting over which couple gets a go on the bed.
And with an attitude like that, it's not surprising that a grin breaks out across my face as I pummel the air with my fingers; not just keeping time but pounding it into the floor. I remember the way that as kids, me and my mate Tom used to kneel on his living room sofa and pile up the cushions around us like a drum kit; and we'd nab some wooden spoons from the kitchen and bash away to Blondie or The Undertones. I make-believed I was good at it, and I asked if I could learn drums at school; but then I discovered what it actually involved: an elderly sergeant-major type taught you how to rattle your sticks on a desk top in time to a tape of brass bands. His pupils never went near a drum kit, never mind Keith Mooning themselves into oblivion, and somehow it rather lost its appeal.
But this feels amazing, and the tang of something I like to think is adrenaline bubbles up at the back of my throat. I catch my breath and plunge into this torrential river of consciousness, yelping out the refrain each time it splashes by:
I'm not sure I quite notice the irony - as I bump into the table, munch some Skips, sip at my Skol and return to my personal dancefloor, watched over by no one except some lolling-tongued ceramic dogs in a basket.
Like he says. Fantastic life.
In A Armagideon - Winston Flames
I roll back on my heels and take my weight on my buckled knees, like sinking onto an invisible space hopper. I feel Winston 'Flames' Jarrett's bassline beneath me and I move in time to its inflatable pulse - as if someone's slipped a joke-shop plate-wobbler under the carpet. This is what a moonwalk looks like; not that Alternative Carpark mime schtick that Michael Jackson's made into his own.
It's a technique I've acquired from TV - from 'Rockers Roadshow' on the still thrillingly new Channel 4. Previously, I couldn't understand on which loping beat I should bounce; I'd stared in wonder at the black lads at school for whom reggae was springy and uptempo, no matter how slowly the music seemed to move. But 'Rockers Roadshow' - which toured the inner cities of Britain with Mikey Dread in a rather massive car - revealed to me the white boy's way out. Because there, at the back of some post-war community centre - with Mikey and a roots band on-stage, unravelling their rhythms into constituent parts - there was this white social studies-type bloke with his feet planted firmly on the ground, and around this centre of gravity his body seemed to imperceptibly bob, like a Hallowe'en apple in a bowl.
And I can do that it would seem. Couldn't anyone?
So here I nod and dip and sloooowly gyrate, seduced by the two-chord skank and the track's plodding descent into what could be - though sadly isn't - an ever-lasting groove. The cyclical chants echo through the void inside my head: "Mash down Babylonnnnnnnn, dis your armagideon-on-on-on..."
I'm no religious militant, far from it; but there can be no doubt that the fearsome promise of chastisement and damnation that emanates from this deep and fiery roots music ignites some angry vapours within. The music, of course, heats up the blood even as it slows the heartbeat to a malevolent throb; but it's also the concept of 'Babylon' that anyone with a rage can grasp onto. It's usefully non-specific, a catch-all for badness that beats a million repetitions of "Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out!" - so a Saturday-afternoon-shopping-centre Marxist like me can wallow in Godly righteousness without feeling like Malcolm Muggeridge.
The "Sweetest Girl" - Scritti Politti
After blood and retribution, I choose a different kind of reggae; this time sweet and luscious and, in truth, not a little peculiar. I always think Green Gartside sounds a bit like an intoxicated baby; and while the melodies are dependably solid, his songs seem about to drift away on the breeze. They feel wispy - and yet still they catch on the memory, like lamb's wool on a barbed wire fence. And this one, with its archness and its references and its deliberately odd punctuation - even this one contains an airy pop charisma that has somehow become snagged on my heart.
'The "Sweetest Girl"' marks the historical juncture at which the philosophers and Marxists of Scritti Politti decided to make a decisive break with the forces of scratchy post-punk rock, and formed a kind of entryist popular front with the very smoothest of American soul. Very many cans of Mr Sheen were expended in the course of their subsequent studio excursions, and while this track doesn't gleam quite as brightly as the likes of 'Absolute' and 'Wood Beez' - they were still recording for Rough Trade after all, and this was studio gloss bought on an indie label's budget - they were not alone in believing that there were revolutionary in-roads to be made by commandeering the sound of crystalline studio pop.
Think of ZTT's high-fidelity Situationism, with Trevor Horn's trumpets sounding from the barricades (played on a Fairlight, obviously). Or The Style Council - pianos, brass sections and checker-board loafers, all dedicated to the furtherance of the international proletariat (so long as it dressed properly). And more prosaically, there were no end of scuzzier outfits too, for whom muscular soul stylings represented the default option for Britain's activist musical youth.
But listen here: it's Scritti Politti who seem to be creating something woozily different, for all their self-conscious adoption of previously alien pop techniques. Weller, The Redskins et al - all their kicking over of statues leaves me hoping the statues might fall on them. But Scritti Politti have definitely caught my ear: see me now as I catch myself falling, and rising, and falling again to this delicious lovers' rock whisper...
I'm 17 remember, a Marxist - one with a declared sectarian affiliation to one of the miniscule sects of the age. And that means, in my arrogance, that I would love to engage Green Gartside in a battle of ideas - or rather, I'd happily shout at him very loudly while jabbing him in the chest with my fist. I tend to receive my opinions second hand, you see; and my comradely opinion providers have told me that Green likes to cite Antonio Gramsci, and for that apparent crime, I (we) have decided that he is aligned with opinions which are very subtly Not The Same As Mine (Ours). Which, frankly, makes him a traitor to the entire working class.
Politics, as you can see, isn't half as complex as people make out.
However, as well as being a Marxist, I am also a sixth former. And that means I will happily ignore all the above and take this song at face value. Its seductive sweetness is such that - despite everything I know about this band and its engagement with the dialectics of pop - I like to think this really is just a record about a very sweet girl. And that's good, because I know loads of them! My world is full of them. Unfortunately, most of them are upstairs in this house right now, being 'attended to' by my not so sweet mates. If only they'd spend a little time with me, and listen to this haunting lilt, and accompany me to invigorating left-wing study groups at which we can interrogate Lenin's 'What Is To Be Done?'. Well, wouldn't that make life perfect?
Music for Evenings - Young Marble Giants
Suddenly, I feel very lonely.
These desiccated mechanical beats seem to suck the pleasure from the room. And it's chilly now too. I look at my watch. Maybe this is just the time that the heating goes off. I tell myself I can hear the radiators creaking as they cool - though it could be the muffled strum of the Young Marble Giants' guitar. Perhaps the heating never was on, and it's in this track's chemical make-up to extract every vestige of warmth from the air.
I drop my head and involuntarily twitch. It serves as dancing of a sort. And I listen to Alison Statton's school-girl murmur:
"I don't need you to love me, I don't need you to care."
There's a ghost of someone I imagine to be like her in the room. Hands clasped behind her back, head cocked to one side, she rocks almost imperceptibly to this record's rhythmic strut. She looks like girls from school; I've seen them checking books out of the library, carrying trays across the canteen, climbing wall bars in the gym. I write poems about them. I gaze out of windows at them. And in return, I long to know what they think about me.
"Though you think you adore me, Secretly you just bore me."
Really. Sometimes it's better not to know.
Wa-Do-Dem - Eek-A-Mouse
Reggae, for me, is a music that stirs up trouble. When I commandeer the stereo in the school common room and crank up the volume - daringly, perhaps a little beyond the Tipp-Ex brush stroke with which the head of sixth form hopes to limit our fun - I sense a tightening of the cliques, a deepening of the Us and Them vibe. That's 'Us' - childish, off-kilter, beholden to the great Holden Caulfield. And 'Them' - unsmiling, self-conscious, despairing of the idiots in their midst. And while we mutually loathe each others' music as a matter of course, and heartily begrudge every sorry minute spent listening to the stuff that they choose, it is my reggae that really causes war to break out.
When I slip someone like Eek-A-Mouse into the mix, their usual unspoken malevolence turns physical. Not into actual fighting, so far; but suddenly I become aware of the strutting, of a certain type of pacing up and down. I can hear the whispers: "... get this shit off..."; "... not music..."; "... load of crap...".
I meditate on this phenomenon as I worm my way around this room, propelled by the chug of the 'Wa-Do-Dem' bassline. I wonder how such a deliciously crackpot sound could ever result in scowls and clenched fists, in hyper-tension and the hardening of hearts. And knowing that this joyously bonkers record has such a mysterious power to rile, I feel overjoyed that I have been spared such a miserable fate. When I listen to 'Wa-Do-Dem' I hear a sound that bobs and weaves with mischief; it's comical, celebratory, light of touch. Eek-A-Mouse paints a hilariously self-deprecating cartoon - "She too short and me too tall" - but at the same it's hefty, weighted by its solid drum and bass, and with nonsensical verbal flourishes that make Dadaist tone poems sound like Keats.
Eventually though, it winds through to the end. There's a hiss, and a pause, and a THUNK.
For a moment I wonder if the party is over.
But no one moves. I'm still alone. It's only the end of side one.
Lorelei - Cocteau Twins
Though my body seems to lack a religious bone, the melodious chimes that open this record would easily get me running to church every Sunday should the local diocese ever have the forethought to dispense with 'Kumbayah' and wholesome God Unplugged acoustic sets, and instead deploy whorls of ethereal feedback in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And once the punch of the drum machine hits home, and Liz Fraser begins her apparently saintly, though I suspect actually rather lascivious cooing, I'd be ready to run weekly coffee mornings and organise the scout pack's bran tub forever and ever, amen.
The cascades of ice cool guitar pour over me, and I stumble back into the centre of the room, gazing into far corners where I imagine I can see the wisps and shadows of watching strangers, people who might have been hiding from me, too nervous to reveal themselves to The Music Guy, the lad in control of the stereo. I wonder what they would think of me, if they really existed. What would they see? A boy, or a young man? Someone entrusted to mould the mood of the party - or someone who'd happened upon a vacant stereo while everyone else was upstairs having a good snog?
The glory of those sacred chimes courses through me. The skin-tingling spirit of a supernatural passion moves mysteriously over my arms, my legs, my head. I feel the candy-floss strands of Robin Guthrie's guitar as it tangles me in its sugary web. But deep within the shredding clouds of noise, I'm aware of the harsh boom and crash of the Twins' drum machine beats. Suddenly, things don't seem quite so sweet after all. And what might have sounded, at first whisper, authentic and raw is revealed to have an inorganic rhythm at its heart.
Those drums are not dreamy, or airy or lush. They're like sledgehammers, but muffled by fog.
And from Godly thoughts my dreams turn to sin. I'm not a DJ; not a conjuror creating magic to keep the party agape. I'm an empty vessel making a lot of noise; how I'd love to be filling my interior with knowledge of the profane, learning the wily ways of the world. This is my time: I'm 17. I should be being led by the hand into those dark and dangerous corners; with prying eyes, and unblinking stares, and hands that always go where they shouldn't.
For all this track's divine inspirations, I wish I was plunging into the realms of the flesh.
Waiting On My Angel - Jamie Principle
Dazzled by starlight, powered by the heat of phantom bodies, I continue my descent into a hedonism of the imagination. Except... I am woefully ill-equipped to gift this hypnotic throb the kind of sacred triple-X visuals it deserves. I know nothing of the perpetual grindings of the Power Plant and the Music Box; the jackings and the couplings that animate the nascent house sound. Instead I conjure with a coarsely edited and necessarily modest internal movie that jump-cuts from bandy-legged couplings splashed in orange street light and caught momentarily from the top deck of the number 75, to images captured and savoured from the more daring episodes of 'Play For Today'.
If I ever truly believed that I would have an audience to witness the playing of this cassette, I surely intended this record to signal the point at which my crowd would either stay with me - or else they would look askance and shove me aside in favour of something everyone liked. The B52's or something. Which, viewed from the future, seems incredible. Which other track on this tape could be said to have quite so accurately templated the music we would be hearing and buying and playing at parties for the 25 years yet to come? And yet as I flash my attempts at self-made head-porn in front of my mind's eye, I know that as far as my friends are concerned, this music speaks an inexplicable language: it seems to articulate a culture of robotic abandon that they believe to be dehumanised, disagreeable - discredited.
Apparently, the beat is moronic. The lyrics are crass. The repetition insults the intelligence. But Kraftwerk? Oh yeah, love 'em.
While Kraftwerk glide through landscapes of electronic, asexual thought, Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles seem to gaze into the steam that rises from orgies set in motion by their machines. Which, to the twenty-first century me, sounds rather brilliant. But here and now, in deepest 1985, hair thick with Boots Country Born hair gel and with a tatty black acrylic jumper all knotted and bobbly with endless wear, and an enamel red star badge by my heart - a vision of Thatcher's cast-adrift radicalised youth devoid of any true sense of Disco - 'Waiting On My Angel' is a choice that even I don't really understand.
Shine Eye Girl - Black Uhuru
The Simmons drum tattoo pings round the room like a super-ball hurled at smooth concrete. For a quarter of a minute I hold my breath, teetering somewhere on the edge of a groove. And then it comes. Massive. Relentless. Expanding and contracting in time to a rapid-fire Sten gun rattle.
Robbie Shakespeare's walloping bass seems to push back the walls of the room, leaving me riddled with agoraphobia as I submit to its fearsome quake.
Once, I found myself in the basement of Virgin Records at the bottom of High Street. I was rifling through the racks in search of My First Reggae LP. The names meant so little to me that I knew it would be more or less pot luck, but just buying into the genre would be enough; I was confident that whatever I plucked out would be worth listening to; it would be just the first lecture in what would surely be a long and rewarding education.
Kingston in the seventies and eighties may have had one of the highest concentrations of musical production anywhere on the planet, being cluttered with teak-framed reel-to-reels wowing and fluttering their way through an embarrassment of reggae riches, but wasn't it also necessarily the case that to achieve such a hit rate, there had to be much that was, well, just 'OK'? And the likelihood of me alighting on some such vinyl make-weight was high. But as my fingers travelled along the jagged slopes, they seemed guided, operating independent of my muscular contractions. By whatever unearthly power had taken control of them, my digits plucked at a clean white sleeve and slid it from betwixt its cardboard brethren. 'Black Uhuru' it said - which somehow, was all I needed to know.
As the two-note bassline rebounds and reforms, I realise that in this track - and in that album, Black Uhuru's 'Showcase', from which it comes - I happen to have found, quite by chance, the most coolly transcendental music I will ever hear. It may be the case, in fact, that reggae will never actually sound this good again.
With Black Uhuru, my tape takes a turn for the emptiest part of the night.
This is huge, like being stranded inside a cooling tower.
Surely, no one will arrive to rescue me now.
Cavern - Liquid Liquid
The sense of being unshackled, and yet still a prisoner inside a gaping brutalist cathedral, remains with me. I feel free - to find this track's interlocking rhythms and beat time to them with my arms, my elbows, my hands - but the myriad of reflective surfaces within which I'm held captive means I despair of ever finding a way out.
I think it must be the sound of this record that suggests such things to me, but equally, it could be its name. Both band and track seem descriptively very well appointed: 'liquid' is the term that always springs to mind upon hearing a bass played this way, its sound bubbling like a stream over rocks; and a 'cavern' is exactly what this room now resembles - as its Victorian plaster mouldings transmutate into spiked and malevolent stalactites, and my sweat drips like spring water down my back.
Partly, I've chosen 'Cavern' as an act of musical show-off-manship; in order to demonstrate to my imaginary listeners that I've done my homework, and that I know this track had a life before 'White Lines'. And maybe that's a typically teenage thing to do, to harrumphingly imply that anyone who thinks this is a cover version is an ignoramus bent on desecrating music. I suspect that I haven't just selected a sound and a mood that I like, and that are right for this moment; I am also actively denying the creativity of Melle Mel and his team, who took some high quality raw material and made something else entirely.
I fear I am committing the misdemeanour for which, in years to come, I will scoff at Nick Hornby. In his book '31 Songs', he says "the contribution that, say, Eric B and Rakim made to their version of 'I Know You Got Soul' is minimal" - which is tantamount to admitting that his ears are made of finest cloth. But right now, I haven't learnt to take each creative act on its merits: I'm secure within my snobbery, even as I seem to be displaying the symptoms of Compulsive Bipedal Rhythmic Disorder.
Or in disco terms: I just can't stop my dancing feet.
In Fear of Dub - Bauhaus
All that's left to do now is to keep the bass coming - though it's that peculiarly punkish take on the bottom end, which turns reggae's softly-plucked, sub-quaking pulveriser into a clanking, metallic machine. Things are frantic and desperate now; this is a last ditch rush for transcendence - though one that's fated to end in exhaustion.
This shuddering remix of 'In Fear of Fear', found on the flip of the 'Kick in the Eye' EP, is Bauhaus without the ghosts. No melodramatic theatrics needed here; just that yo-yo-ing bassline, some rub-a-dub whoops and a train track rattle without end. I don't remember witnessing anything like this when I saw the band play at Sheffield Lyceum - the spook-ridden Victorian playhouse that seemed just the place for a bunch of faux-cobwebbed old thespians like these. I remember dry ice, and leggings, and a Hammer Horror vocal delivery that chilled like Carry On Screaming. But New Yorkian punk funk? Not a bit of it.
It serves my purpose right now though as my 50 minutes of music draws to a close. As I slam dance alone, attempting to knock out the teeth of the spectres who I imagine around me, the room becomes just a streak of suburbia speeding past my face. The drums seem to pick up the pace, and cymbals splash like rocks hurled from a bridge, and there's a sudden gush of atonal sax - and in the flash of a moment, it's gone.
My Heart is Empty - Nico
I open my eyes as someone pulls up the blind. Grey people emerge from the shadows of the hallway. Amazed faces peer round the door-frame as the song's thin opening chords break like blue dawn light.
There are footsteps descending the stairs and a luminescent cast across the sky beyond the window.
The people are unfolding themselves, smoothing out creases, awaking as if from dreams.
"I thought you'd gone home," someone says - my mate Paul. "What you listening to?"
I'm listening to Nico. To icy, vengeful, inexplicable music. To a fanfare of trumpety keyboards and a battering rhythm that is only matched for violence by the words she intones. It's my perfect ending; the record that says everything I want to communicate at the close of a party: my heart is empty, but the songs I sing are filled with love for you.
"Dunno," I mutter. "It was on when I came in."
Girls laugh at Nico's unearthly vowels, her strange flattening of melody. There's a cold glow behind the clouds. One of my friends pushes through the small crowd that has gathered; I notice that she drops the hand of a boy as she walks across to the stereo, and dips into a tiny leather bag slung across her shoulder.
"It's a bit miserable this in't it?" she says. "Let's put summat else on." And from her bag, she pulls out a cassette.
I'm with my friends now; no longer The Music Guy; no longer an abandoned party.
We eat crisps from a family-sized bag. We drink warm Holsten Pils from the bottle. And to the sound of 'Rock Lobster', the morning finally breaks in.
© Damon Fairclough 2010
This article was originally written for DJ History, the internet's definitive resource on dance music and DJ culture, where it was first published in March 2011.
All the tracks can be bought as individual MP3 or WAV downloads from the always welcoming, never surly DJ History download store - just click on the song titles in the article.
Many thanks to Bill Brewster for initiating the project and giving the article a well-soundproofed home.
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