Authentic Celtic Band

It’s December tomorrow and, unavoidably, the start of advent. Half Man Half Biscuit have a line for most occasions and today’s is from 2009’s Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo’ (the owner of the limb in question is pictured above, either Pete Doherty or Carl Barat, or both). Nigel Blackwell takes them to task for many things, not least this-

‘Advent on the high street
I point and sing
Busk when it’s Christmas
You only busk when it’s Christmas’

Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo

Achtung Bono, the album this song is from, is peak HMHB. Every song, all fourteen of them, is a laugh out loud funny, damning indictment of modern life. In Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo Nigel Blackwell deals with The Libertines-

‘I could have put my head in a bucket full of porridge
And moaned about the hospital parking scheme
I would have saved fourteen pounds
That I just splashed out on your second album
For that’s what it’s akin to
And furthermore
You’ve got a shit arm, and that’s a bad tattoo’

The word ‘furthermore’ isn’t used enough in popular music.

Then he takes to task people who put the letter S onto the end of the Book Of Revelation (and those who do the same to Mary Hopkin). Unfortunately Pete and Carl do this in What A Waster-

‘When she wakes up in the morning
She writes down all her dreams
Reads like the Book of Revelations
Or the Beano or the unabridged Ulysses.’
Just before the guitar solo he sings ‘authentic Celtic band’. I’ve always assumed this is also a tattoo reference but it could be a musical group I suppose.
No Christmas songs here, not yet anyway.

The Hillsides Ring With ‘Free The People’

London Calling side two, pick the arm up, place the needle carefully on the outer ring, let it find the groove, a little static, and then…  Spanish Bombs kicks straight in, Topper’s drum salvo followed instantly by organ (played by Mickey Gallagher on loan from The Blockheads) and Mick’s guitar line, a crashing, uptempo chord sequence with Joe and Mick doubling up on part of the vocals. Joe had really taken Bernie Rhodes’ advice about lyric writing to heart- forget love songs, write about the world- and Spanish Bombs is Srummer at his best, contrasting The Spanish Civil War and ‘the days of ’39’ with the growing tourist industry of the late 1970s, ‘Spanish weeks in my disco casino’. The Basque separatist group ETA were active meaning the bombs of the song could be from the 1930s and the 1970s. In the midst of all this imagery, firing out of the speakers with the music piling ever onward, Joe finds space for some really memorable lines, lines about the murdered poet Federico Lorca, a hero of Joe’s, killed by Franco’s fascists, lines about ‘bullet holes in cemetery walls’ and ‘hearing music from another time’ and the chorus in Spanish-

‘Spanish bombs, yo te quierro y finito
Yo te querda, oh mi corazón
Spanish bombs, yo te quierro y finito
Yo te querda, oh mi corazón’

Federico Garcia Lorca

In his novel Powder Kevin Sampson, writing about a fictional rock band in the 90s based loosely (or closely) on The Verve, has a character explain that the tune for Saturday Night (by Whigfield, an international pop- house hit in 1994) and Spanish Bombs are the same- you can sing the words of one over the other. Since discovering this I have never, ever got tired of singing Spanish Bombs over Saturday Night.

After Spanish Bombs comes The Right Profile, Joe throwing his subject matter net wider still with a song about movie heart throb Montgomery Clift. The song begins the staccato stabs of Mick’s guitar and a hi- hat, Joe reeling off the films Clift starred in- ‘say, where’d I see this guy? In Red River? A Place In The Sun? Maybe The Misfits? From Here To Eternity?’

Montgomery Clift (left, seated) with The Misfits including Clark Gable (right) and Marilyn Monroe (duh)

Montgomery had a car crash that left him with a broken jaw and facial scarring. He’d hit a tree leaving a party at Liz Taylor’s, pumped full of pills and booze. From then on he’d only be photographed from the correct side and angle, from the right profile. Producer Guy Stevens had given Joe a biography of Clift and suggested he write a song about the star’s life. Joe, no stranger to drugs and alcohol himself, wrote about the last ten years of Clift’s life, from the crash in 1956 to his death in 1966, a death some called the slowest suicide in cinematic history. Mick arranges the group and has The Irish Horns swinging about all over the place, everyone speeding up and slowing down, veering left and right, Paul and Topper driving things like Clift’s car with Joe garbling and gurgling the words over the top, breaking down completely for the ‘nembutal/numbs it all/but I prefer/alcohol’ part. Joe gives voices to the crowd standing and staring- ‘ And everybody says’what’s he like?’, ‘is he alright?/ can he still feel?’ and ‘it’s not funny/that’s Montgomery Clift honey!’. No other band, certainly none of the class of ’77 could have written this, the music or the words. ‘Go get me my old movie stills/Go out and get me another roll of pills/There I go shaking again but I ain’t got the chills’. Poor Monty.

Side two, track three is Lost In The Supermarket. Near Joe’s flat in the World’s End Estate was a supermarket, the International (numbers 471- 473 King’s Road). After a disorienting late night shopping visit Joe went home and wrote Lost In The Supermarket, a song about the alienating effects of capitalism, commercialisation and the way the world depersonalises the individual- Joe only came in for a special offer, ‘guaranteed personality’ and left bewildered and broken. Mick wrote a lovely, slick tune for the song, a gliding chord sequence. The rhythm section, led by Topper’s brilliant drumming, complement it completely. Joe sings about the suburbs (where he’d lived) and life in high rise flats (where Mick lived with his Nan, overlooking the Westway). As the song grooves on, a smidgen of disco in the drumming and guitars, Joe develops his theme-

‘I’m all tuned in, I see all the programs
I save coupons for packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discotheque album
I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free

The kids in the halls and the pipes in the walls
Makes me noises for company
Long distance callers make long distance calls
And the silence makes me lonely’

Joe gave the song to Mick to sing, a gift, saying he wrote it partly with Mick in mind. From intro to fade out Mick sings and plays beautifully and Paul’s bass playing is streets ahead of where he was two years previously.

Three magnificent songs into side two and there are a pair of songs to come that are as good as anything the band ever did. Clampdown opens with a squeal of feedback, the tsk- tsk- tsk of Topper tapping the cymbal and Mick bawling ‘1-2-3-4’ off mic before the descending riff plays through for a few bars. Joe mutters over the top, words that are almost inaudible-

‘The kingdom is ransacked
The jewels all taken back
And the chopper descends
They’re hidden in the back
With a message written on a half-baked potato
The spool goes ’round
Saying I’m back here in this place
And I could cry
And there’s smoke you could click on’

… and then the smoke clears, leaving Topper’s boom thwack boom thwack, Mick counting everyone back in again and then the question ‘what are we gonna do now?!’

Joe answers with a song about the rise of the far right, the dignity and indignity of labour, the crushing of youthful dreams and becoming what you once stood against, conformity and coercion, and a final part about ‘evil presidentes getting their due’. The band are on fire, fully amped up, Mick leading the charge, and the effect is electrifying. Paul’s bass playing is upfront and centre, especially in the remastered version from Sound System. Joe and Mick trade lines, call and response, intuitively- the segue from Mick’s spoken middle eight to Joe coming back in with the ‘But you grow up and you calm down’ is hair raising.

It’s worth pulling a few of Joe’s lines out, starting with the astonishing first line of the first verse-

”Taking off his turban
They said ‘is this man a Jew?’ ”

Joe follows it with ‘they put up a poster saying ‘we earn more than you’, the divide and conquer politics of the far right dissected in a few lines.

”We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers”

Forty years on from the National Front’s resurgence we’re right back where we were. The racists and immigrant scapegoaters that have dragged our politics and public life into the gutter over the last decade are still at it, people now emboldened by the rise of the populist scaremongers. If as he said last week the Clash are his favourite band it’s pretty clear that Boris Johnson wasn’t listening to the words.

‘No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown’

Joe urges the youth not to give in, not to fall in line, warning them of the older generation-

‘The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, boy, get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal’

He also warns of being co-opted by them-
‘So you got someone to boss around
It make you feel big now
You drift until you brutalise
Make your first kill now’
The song was originally called Working And Waiting and the lyrics must have started as a warning about the grim realities of work. School leavers in the 70s were factory fodder and with the destruction of manufacturing industry and rising unemployment even that vanished.  As the song fades out and the group bash away Joe and Mick continue to hammer it home, ‘work, work, work/ I give away no secrets/ work, work, more work, more work’. A major piece of work by Joe (the words) and Mick (the tune) and the group rise to the occasion pulling together a hard rocking song to match the lyrics. In a way it’s a much an epic in its scope as (White Man In) Hammersmith Palais was a year before or Straight To Hell would be a few years later.

Clampdown

In 1980 The Clash played Lewisham Odeon, with this blistering take of Clampdown recorded on film. Is there a better sight in rock ‘n’ roll than the moment at fifty two seconds where the three frontmen, all in black, step up to the mic to bellow the first line in unison? Here.

Also in 1980 they played New York (a whole other story) and appeared on the TV show Fridays where they put everything- absolutely everything- into this performance of Clampdown. Here.
Sometime during the Give ‘Em Enough Rope Paul realised that the money came from songwriting and during the rehearsal sessions at Vanilla brought in a song, initially known as Paul’s Tune. It would become The Guns Of Brixton. Someone wrote somewhere that The Guns Of Brixton contains the greatest bassline of the Twentieth Century. Over this thundering, reggae inspired bass Mick adds some texture, some scratchy guitar and Topper splashes the cymbals. The sound of the studio chairs having their Velcro ripped apart is in there too. Joe was given an early version of the lyrics, which Paul wasn’t sure about, and Joe encouraged him to work on them. When the words were finished and the music recorded Joe was given the lyric sheet but handed it back to Paul, saying he should sing it. Paul sings/shouts his words, South London style, a song about police brutality and the ghetto, suffering and surviving. He then brings in Ivan from The Harder They Come- ‘you see he feels like Ivan/ born under the Brixton sun/ his game is called surviving/ at the end of The Harder They Come’. The dub rhythm swings and lurches, Paul throwing the bass around, moving from one foot to the other. The Guns Of Brixton sounds massive, filling the room when played loud. It is one of the most enduring of the songs off London calling, the bassline reverberating through pop culture as a sample and a cover version. The perfect way to close side two, under heavy manners.

There are five songs on side two, five standouts, five album tracks better than most band’s singles. They must have known how good they were when sequencing the album. It has flow, range and depth, showcases their quality as songwriters, inventiveness as players and Joe’s unique abilities as a lyricist.

As much as London Calling is an album about the world in 1979, the state of things in London and the faraway towns, it’s also an album about people and their lives, the way they respond and react to the world, a world which kicks them and brutalises them and threatens to flood their homes. It’s an album about Jimmy Jazz and Rudie, the narrator of Hateful and his dealer, Federico Lorca, Montgomery Clift, Ivan and Joe dazed and confused under the supermarket striplights. The Clash were a people band, they did things for their fans (letting them into gigs for free, not over charging them for albums, not stripmining albums for singles) and they wanted to reach as many people as possible. Writing about people was what they did. As Joe pointed out much later ‘without people you’re nothing’.

In a few days- side three.

Running To Paradise

One of my favourite 12″ releases of 2018 was Craig Bratley’s 99.9%, which came with an Andrew Weatherall remix and a gorgeous piece of slo- mo cosmic Italo called Take Me To Bedford Or Lose Me Forever. Craig has just put out another four track e.p. (which the postman delivered yesterday, raising his eyebrows no doubt at the number of 12″ square packages that have been arriving at our house recently). The new e.p. is called A Message From The Outpost and finishes with this- Running To Paradise- another wonderful slow mo, cosmic/Balearic transmission gliding in from much warmer and sunnier climes. Rimini in 1991 perhaps.

Back in 2013 Craig remixed a track called One Time by Almunia (an Italian psychedelic/cosmic disco outfit) and which shows he’s been perfecting this Italo groove for some time. As this one hits the three and a half minute mark the acid bassline and synth throbs become enough to make a grown man cry.

One Time (Craig Bratley Remix)

Gran Paradiso

It’s so dark at the moment- dark in the mornings, dark from the late afternoon and murky throughout the day- that some musical sunshine is required to try to burn though the gloom. This track came out in 2017, a blast of Italo, cosmic Balearica with a touch of acid thrown in. Prins Thomas did an official edit of a Rusty track called Everything’s Gonna Change and when that was released by Hell Yeah Recordings he added two extras, one of which was this one, Gran Paradiso. Straight from the off a blaze warm and loud washes of synth, drum pads and some chirruping sounds with a spluttering synthesised bassline coming in. Four minutes of summer.

Gran Paradiso

To The Faraway Towns

In three weeks time, 14th December to be exact, London Calling will hit forty. My copy (pictured above) was purchased second hand at some point in the late 80s, already a decade old then. Since then I’ve ended up with three copies on CD- a plain re-issue, the 25th anniversary re-issue with the Vanilla Tapes and the remastered one from the Sound System box set. Sometimes I think I should replace my vinyl copy which has seen better days but baulked at the price of green and pink re-release. And in many ways I’m happy with my original copy- it’s lived in and we’ve all got a little worn over the last forty years.

There’s an exhibition on at the Museum of London celebrating the album with Paul Simonon’s smashed up Fender Precision bass as one of the exhibits. We can sit here and blather about punk hitting middle age and ending up behind glass in cases in museums, surely not what punk was about, and moan about them selling out- and people were accusing The Clash of selling out from the moment they signed to CBS right through to now- but instead I’m going to focus on the record, the nineteen songs spread over four sides of vinyl that make up what may very well be the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Record Of All Time. I don’t especially care for Best or Greatest Of All Time, it’s all subjective and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but if I were forced to have cull the majority of my record collection, to pare things back to the absolute minimum, London Calling would be one of the survivors. I can’t imagine my listening habits without it.

Some context- in 1979 The Clash were in a bit of a hole. They’d moved on from the purist, Year Zero-ism of 1977 and had faced some criticism for the Sandy Pearlman produced Give ‘Em Enough Rope. In 1979 they’d put out album track English Civil War as a single complete with the magnificent cover version of Pressure Drop on the B-side. In May they released the four track Cost of Living e.p. a record so red hot it almost couldn’t be contained by the 7″ of vinyl it lived within- a searing cover of I Fought The Law (more grist for their detractors, rebel chic plus someone else’s song), two new originals in the shape of Groovy Times and Gates Of The West (yet more grist for their detractors, the band who in ’77 were so bored of the USA but were now singing about it) and a new recording of Capital Radio (Capital Radio Two) to beat the scalpers charging over the odds for the original.

The group had changed management, ditching Bernie Rhodes, which led to them leaving their Camden rehearsal base and both Strummer and Jones admitted after that they’d suffered from writer’s block. For what would become the London Calling sessions Clash tour manager and roadie Johnny Green and Baker had secured them a new space, the back of garage in Pimlico, re-christened Vanilla Studios. They locked the doors, kept people out and began playing around with covers that each of the four members brought in from their background and wide range of influences- rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, ska, rhythm and blues. In the afternoon band and crew broke off for football over the road, a couple of pints and then back to the rehearsals. From this they assembled the songs that would become London Calling, three cover versions (four of you include the cover of Armagiddeon Times on the B-side to the lead single), one song written right at the end after the sleeve had already gone to print, a first song and lead vocal for Paul and fifteen Strummer- Jones originals. They recruited semi- retired, semi- legendary producer Guy Stevens to produce the album, tracked down by Joe in a pub. Stevens caused chaos in the studio, deliberately, to get the group into the right frame of mind, a rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere (which all four said they thrived on). They spent six weeks in Wessex Studios, Bill Price stepping in when Stevens went too far, and came out of it with a double album that they insisted would retail for under a fiver. Value for money was a key punk concern. London Calling may not be punk but it is made of the punk aesthetic- do it yourself, loud and fast, keep mistakes in if they add to the song, don’t do what they tell you to- spliced into roots music and rock ‘n’ roll. It is personal and political, local and global, London and the faraway towns.

Side One

Opening with the strongest statement of intent they could, the title track and single crashing in on Jonesey’s two chord intro and Simonon’s rumbling bass, a clarion call. Joe strikes out straight away, looking out from the capital to the rest of the country- ‘London calling to the faraway towns/ now war is declared and battle come down’- with a state of the nation address taking in the death of the 60s ten years earlier, police brutality, impending nuclear and climate apocalypse, starvation, the zombies of death (a line widely thought to be a reference to heroin carving its way through the punk scene) and Joe sitting in his flat on Chelsea’s World’s End estate, where he lives by the river. Joe took an early version of the lyrics to Mick, who told him to re-work them as the chorus wasn’t strong enough. Imagine that. The song ends with a burst of radio pips and Joe’s plea ‘London calling at the top of the dial/ and after all this won’t you give me a smile?’

Then it’s immediately into their cover of Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac. One of the attentions to detail on this record is the gaps between the songs and the instances of split second timing. No sooner has London called than Simmo’s bass takes us into the rockabilly flash of ‘My baby drove up in a brand new Cadillac’. This was the first song recorded at Wessex, the cover version warm up sessions paying off. Topper said they’d have to redo it to, it speeds up in the second half, to which Joe Stevens replied ‘all great rock ‘n’ roll speeds up’. From there on in they were flying. ‘Balls to you baby’, Joe sneers updating Taylor’s 50s single to the late 70s, ‘she ain’t ever coming back’.

Jimmy Jazz is a change of pace, initially a laid back sounding jazz- blues song, Mick’s guitar playing decidedly non- punk, all echo and space. Joe comes in over the swinging backbeat with a tale of the police looking for Jimmy, threats to cut off his ears and head, Jimmy Dread and Satta Massagana, Joe eventually going all scat. Jimmy Jazz is the big sign on first listen, half way through side one, that things have changed, that other influences are all over this record. Jimmy Jazz, after the strum and drang of the title track and the amped up rockabilly of Brand New Cadillac, is a breather of kinds.

Jimmy Jazz

And then blam! Hateful, a three minute, three chord trick, a rocking Bo Diddley shuffle with lyrics about heroin addiction (again) and in the ‘this year I lost some friends’ a reference to Sid Vicious and his sad death in New York. Even their throwaway side one track four album songs are better than most band’s singles.

Side One closes with Rudie Can’t Fail, very much a London song, Mick responding to Joe’s instruction of ‘sing Michael sing’ with a shouted ‘on the route of the 19 bus…’ We’re deep into ska and reggae territory, horns driving the song emphatically, again with that Bo Diddley shuffle and beat. A celebration of the West London rude boys and drinking brew for breakfast, the youth being criticised for not settling down, getting a job from the paper and taking responsibility. In response Rudie loves his life, ‘I tell you I can’t live in service’ he says, ‘looking cool and speckless’ in his pork pie hat and chicken skin suit. The band’s rhythm and ska builds up, the guitars choppy and the horns parping. It’s clear whose side The Clash are on.

Side One takes in so much in it’s five songs, from apocalyptic modern rock to cool jazz, from rockabilly to funky reggae, it’s tempting to just flip the needle back to the start and go through it all again. The band are flying, Joe’s on fire lyrically and the songs up the ante from one to the next covering more musical ground than any other punk band would be able to. And that’s before you’ve even flipped the disc over and played side two, possibly the greatest run of Clash songs they committed to one side of black vinyl. And I’ll come back to that soon.

Monday’s Long Song

Based on two posts by The Swede I started to check out the back catalogue of Swedish band Kungens Män, six middle aged men from Stockholm who have been exploring the outer limits of psychedelic and drone rock since 2012- there’s a lot of krautrock in their sound and some shoegaze too. They’re playing in town in early December for the princely sum of £8 so I’m going along to that too. There’s plenty of back catalogue to get stuck into, enough to keep me going for some time. But for today, their latest release, an album with not one or two or even three long songs but four long songs.

Kungens Män’s latest album is a four track called CHEF (not a reference to the head cook but a word for the boss or the chief) . Opener Fyrkantig Böjelse (square bend, according to Google Translate, not always the most reliable source of translations) is eleven minute of dark, metronomic space rock with some trippy guitar playing. It’s followed by eight minutes of Öppen För Stangda Dörrar, dubbed out, spacey and wind swept and building slowly in intensity. Track three is the ten minute fuzz bass romp of Män Med Medel (Man With Funds I think), with ensuing guitar freak out, the drumkit taking a right old battering. Album closer is the eleven minute Eftertankens Blanka Krankhet, repeated, cycling guitar parts and a hypnotic groove.

Carino

Two random and unconnected pieces of Twentieth century pop culture for Sunday. The picture is a photograph/mixed media collage by Man Ray from 1941 titled Les Filles des Noix (Nut Girls). Forty five years later came the song below- Carino by T-Coy- a delicious marriage of Mancunian house and Latin music, created by the magic hands and imaginations of Mike Pickering, Richie Close and Simon Topping. It still sounds as fresh as you like. Carino, which has the honour of being the first UK house release and existed as early as 1985 before being released on Pickering’s fledgling Deconstruction label in 1987.

Carino