For The Record #9 – Offshore Banking Business / Hit The North / Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

I’ve lately been trying to diversify the artists I’ve written about, and this article brings two who I’m yet to write about. These records were chosen while back at home in London and are some of my favourite in my collection.

Offshore Banking Business B/W Solitary Confinement – The Members

The Members have never been a band I’ve ever raves about or held any particular affinity to. I have found, however, that ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’ (introduced to me by Punk Britannia at the BBC) aptly summed up many parts of my time growing up in suburbia with ‘Heathrow jets crashing over our homes’ and sitting in a dark room playing guitar, separated from the world around me.

I also have a soft spot for Nicky Tesco after I found out he starred in one of my favourite films ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’, in which Joe Strummer played his stunning ‘Burning Lights’. It wasn’t the best dramatic performance, but it’s a nice bit of niche punk history for anyone as geeky as me!

Anyway, ‘Offshore’ is a swipe at tax havens in far away lands, with ‘international crime happening all the time’. It saddens me to say this song has aged very well, and will probably remain a strong piece of social commentary for years to come too.

I remember having a listen to this during the news of our beloved David Cameron revealing his profiting from his Father’s offshore tax fund after the release of the Panama Papers, and I haven’t touched it since. As nerdy as this sounds, I’m a politics student who doesn’t hold much love for Dave, so this was a moment of superficial punk redemption (he did remain in power, after all).

Starting with a solid reggae beat, we’re joined by a stunning bass and trumpet riff, before Tesco joins with some brilliantly sardonic lines about rich people who ‘do more than growing bananas / they got a tax dodge going on’. So great. About 30 seconds in and I’m already kicking myself for neglecting this classic for so long.

The beat is infectious, the vocal delivery impeccable and the whole composition is as intricate as it gets. To release this after the success of punk staple ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’ is such a brave move, but who can blame them if they’re bringing out songs as good as this?!

Tesco continues, taking aim at the ‘Newspaper barons and oil tycoons watching their money grow’ before a final return to the chorus. It pains me to say that on the final rounds of the repeated ‘Offshore Banking Business’ line, my single cracks and repeats infinitely, bringing a never ending that reminds me of all the activities of the rich and powerful, and how powerless I am to stop them. Such sadness!

All in all, a fantastic listen, and one that I’m probably going to be playing for a long time from here on.

‘Solitary Confinement’ is much more representative of the general Members sound. Kicking off with an abrupt ‘You! Are living in the suburbs’ backed with a chugging low guitar line, it grows in stature and powers into the bridge.

I love the spoken word part, a slightly stupid sounding shire boy who’s so simple in his perception of his life and life in the city, innocently losing all purpose and friends because of his move to the city. ‘The Members, are gonna tell ya / What it’s like to be / On your own, by yourself’, and they do. The subject of the song is actually quite sad and desperate, but the musical delivery makes it more of a danceable punk song than anything else. It’s an extremely strong song, ending with the line ‘Solitary confinement, you’re so lonely’. How about that then?

In all, a fantastic single by a band perhaps overlooked by many, including myself.

A Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Hit The North Part 1 B/W Hit The North Part 2 – The Fall

A classic number from Manchester’s finest.

Charting at #57 (which, despite its modesty, was their then-highest charting self-penned single) it stemmed from, according to Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek, Mark E. Smith’s dislike of Norwich, and his desire to, you guessed it, ‘hit the North’. And with a Simon Rodgers crafted instrumental, a masterpiece was born.

STarting with a low, cutting bass sound, Wolstencroft joins with a punchy groove, and in comes the iconic two note riff joined by the infectious chant of ‘Hit The North!’. What follows is probably not worth much anlysis, more just distant admiration and confusion. From my first listen of the song, I’ve always found Smith’s announcement that his ‘cat says eeeeeeeee-ack’ absolutely absurd and absolutely brilliant. I guarantee you wouldn’t find this anywhere else.

I also love the line ‘Cops can’t catch criminals’, the way it dreamily floats around the song with the powerful groove and synth-sax hits. And then the ascent back into the chorus is simply irresistible.

The star of the show for me is the high-pitched, triumphant guitar line that comes in during the closing verse. It’s absolutely stunning.

I love this song, though I never give it the time of day. Luckily, if you have the time of day, The Fall have managed to record six (!) versions of the song. And ‘Part Two’ is the b-side of the 7″ single.

It’s a lottle more stripped back, less effects and more power. It starts with a more complete drum groove and we rejoin the iconic riff again. The recording is a little bit sparse, but I must admit I quite enjoy the less-produced recording. It has a bit more toughness and edge.

However, I’m afraid I’ve never been a big fan of remixes making up B-sides unless there’s a clear and obvious variation on the song (like ‘Soldier and Police War’, B-side to ‘Police and Thieves’). I find placing a demo as the back up to a single a little bit lazy, and, as much as I like the song, it doesn’t really thrill me at all.

Still – the A-side is more than worthy of total acclaim and adoration, and it will forever be an era-defining single.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy – Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg has always been a massive favourite of mine, to such an extent that I’m toying around with the idea of writing a sociology essay on the role of the media about his fantastic ‘It Says Here’. And they say punk is dead!!

Of course, it’s a lot easier to like Billy Bragg if you align with him politically. Luckily, I find myself more than hospitable to his political commentary and his general disapproval of all things right of social democracy and all things coloured blue (in the British context, obviously).

His debut abum, Life’s A Riot is a lot less overt in its political messaging compared to the following releases Brewing Up With and Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, but is still quintessential Billy Bragg. Though, sociological and political punch still lies in tracks such as ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’, which are both stunning, but we will visit them later.

The first point of discussion is the length of the album. Seven tracks, on the face of it, seems a little short, but we’ve seen shorter albums in terms of the number of tracks, take David Bowie’s six track (and best, in my opinion) album Station To Station, for example. However, the title track on Station To Station is over half the length of Bragg’s entire album.

The longest track is two minutes and fifty-one seconds, and the whole album clocks in at fifteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds. Bragg being Bragg, really.

The albums kicks off with an absolute stunner. In any other song the lyrics would be cheesy and cringey, but there’s something so endearing and innocent in the way Bragg sings the words of ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’. The guitar is excellent, urgent and fast but fittingly complimenting of the more drawn out, conservatively delivered lyrics. I think this song showcases the brilliance of the raw recording of Bragg and his guitar, and is an excellent preview into what is to come. A fantastic introduction to the LP.

Track two is the closest thing to a promotion of communism (rather than socialism) that Bragg has ever achieved, in my opinion. It is also one of my favourite political songs of all time. Starting with a jaunty, cutting chord sequence, Bragg joins in with a tirade of criticism towards the function of the education system, one of my favourite lines being ‘Qualifications what’s the golden rule? / Are now just pieces of pay-pah’.

I’ll have to bring up my degree again. The role of the education system is something I have always had a great passion in writing about and researching, so to hear one of my favourite artists slagging off the institution is simply magnificent. Again, enjoyment comes from the fact I agree with him too, which will always be a deciding factor in any Bragg listening.

‘All they taught you at school / Was how to be a good worker’ is another line that just fires me up so much (I’m a huge nerd, I know…), and overall the song is simply brilliant.

‘Richard’ has never been a song that’s ever stood out for me. Listening to it again, it is still a top quality song (as nearly every track on the album is) but it’s still not doing much for me. I think I’m a lot more sympathetic to Bragg songs which are either about politics or love (‘The Saturday Boy’ and ‘Between The Wars’ have always been favourites), so tracks like ‘Richard’ have never sat highly in my standings. Still, it’s a good enough track.

And then Side 2 opens with the classic, iconic and utterly brilliant ‘A New England’. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m going to say anything that hasn’t been said before – the lyrics are sublime, the angst of the guitar is so powerful, and the whole composition is a thing of sheer class. I’ll let you sample it for yourself here…

‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ just isn’t really my sort of thing. It’s one I’ve always skipped, and one where I’ve found Bragg’s voice actually hasn’t done any favours to the subtlety of the song. Apologies, Bragg lovers, this one will never be my cup of tea.

But, worry not, ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’ is definitely one that appeals to me a lot more. It’s, in its simplest form, Bragg slagging off the idea of traditional gender roles (‘Where she can learn / Top tips for the gas cook’), the beauty and fashion industry and the idealistic perception of the always happy always smiling nuclear family. Admittedly, it’s a sociology student’s dream, and it’s an absolutely brilliant song that I feel doesn’t get enough praise.

And, after only fourteen minutes, we reach the closing track, ‘Lovers Town Revisited’. A nice, slightly slower song with Bragg sounding absolutely fantastic. It’s a bit more solemn too, and the eruption of the crackly guitar against Bragg’s voice is brilliant. It’s only one minute and eighteen seconds long, and it makes you want more from Bragg. As a closer though, it’s simply superb.

As a whole, it’s fifteen minutes of brilliance, of raw and untouched class. The innocence and vulnerability of both the recordings and Bragg’s voice are vital in the development and creation of one of the finest debut albums we will ever see. And, considering it’s short length, it should be held up as a lesson in minimalist bliss.

Side One: 4.5/5 Side Two: 4.5/5 Sleeve: 4/5

Punks On Film #2 – Joy Division on Something Else

It surprised me to see that I hadn’t actually written about Joy Division in any length whatsoever throughout my twenty article run despite the total love I hold for all their material. I’ve read Peter Hook’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and had them playing for practically all of my life.

Playing Joy Division to my friends overtime garnered a questionable array of responses, some good, some bad, however most of them usually revolved around concern for my happiness and wellbeing when listening to such macabre, haunting sounds. Overtime response has generally become more positive (as it would with greater musical maturity) but many seem somewhat reluctant to embrace the Joy Division repertoire in all its glory.

So, after my coming to grips with the aural aspect of proceedings, imagine people’s faces when I came to show them this performance! I remember various scenarios of me and someone held hostage to my music taste sitting in the school library watching the display, my eyes wide, my face a look of glorious wonder and dazzlement, and then my friends, confused, worried for Ian Curtis and mostly worried for me.

Like many other bands I’ve written about, this appearance was my introduction to Joy Division, featuring on the Punk Britannia At The BBC video compilation in around 2012 or 2013. The clip shown was only of ‘She’s Lost Control’, excluding its seminal predecessor ‘Transmission’, so there was even more for me to obsess over later in life.

Some context now – not being from the time my knowledge may be a tad patchy, but as far as I can gather Something Else was a music magazine show that had a short stint on BBC Two across the punk and post-punk era. It broadcast the only BBC appearance of The Clash (who played ‘Tommy Gun’ and ‘Clash City Rockers’) and, looking at it’s Wikipedia page (being the meticulous researcher I am) had a stunning array of artists perform throughout its innings – a punk’s dream, it seems.

Joy Division’s appearance came in only the second edition of the show which also featured performances from John Cooper Clarke and The Jam (you see what I mean by a punk’s dream?!), and came just four months after the release of debut album Unknown Pleasures, which charted at the extremely modest #71 on the U.K. albums chart.

As stated, the performance kicks off with the influential non-album single ‘Transmission’ and the infectious minimalism of Peter Hook’s bassline, the iconic aspect of the Joy Division sound. Quick to follow is a relentless, machine gun-like Morris groove and an admittedly cagey lead guitar line by a very controlled, perhaps slightly nervous Sumner. After one quick slip on a note, however, they’re in full swing.

Curtis comes in, a gentle half-croon of ‘Radio, live transmission…’. It’s just one of those songs, isn’t it? The pace, the power, the sheer energy put into every instrument and note to make the performance so brilliant.

What I always found was so good about this song is the simplicity to each part. There isn’t a high degree of difficulty in anything played, no real musical complexity, just a uniquely punk attitude and charisma into the layering and structuring of the song. It’s a song which builds and builds before turning into a warring, hard-hitting and oh-so powerful closing act.

Even a brief introduction of chords from Sumner brings out a fantastic moment of tension, a foreshadowing of the explosive ending coming soon which always grabs me, a warning of what is to come.

‘Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio’ Curtis announces, each time getting more aggressive, before the verse is just an absolutely tunelessly beautiful shout down the microphone, fulled by anger and an inability to control the velocity of the performance, summed up aptly by the fantastic ‘and we can DAAAAAAAAAANCE!’ which just about shreds every part of his throat to pieces.

A few more ‘Dance, dance, dance’ lines before a cataclysmic final few fills and a quietening groove from the workmanlike Morris, and the song seems over before it even begun. What a way to introduce yourself to the nation, and what a song.

Song number two, and the one which introduced me to Joy Division and one that many others were reluctantly introduced to by myself. Morris’ double hits of the drums are joined by the classic bassline of ‘She’s Lost Control’.

This version has a bit more pace and vigour compared to the more refined album take. The pitch of Hook’s bass is brilliant, and Curtis is, despite slurring practically every word, note perfect, slowly descending into what will become one of the moments of punk history. Summer joins in, giving an extra hit of buzz to the song. The engine is running, and the tune seems to grow and grow into a deadlier beast, Curtis shaking, swaying, before letting out a restrained yet utterly vicious growl of ‘She’s lost control’, which he has to stop himself from completely screaming.

And it begins, a quick cut to Sumner returns back to Curtis, dancing like a madman, completely taken by the sounds closing in on him, the chilling bassline, the thumping guitar and the unrelenting smashes of Morris’ drums. These are the first glimpses of the complete pandemonium waiting around the corner.

Curtis returns calmer, hardly able to open his eyes and observe his surroundings, but this facade is quickly removed by the return of the gradual buildup into the instrumental, Sumner’s distorted, crushing chords, and another incensed roar from Curtis signals that all hell has most certainly broken loose.

His eyes, his demeanour, everything about him looks utterly, utterly possessed. Uncontrollable. I love the brief cut to the camera view behind the audience who sit so innocently still, so passive, probably unable to fathom a justifiable or poignant reaction to what is taking place in front of them. They simply sit and observe while Joy Division take them on this macabre, dark but fascinating journey. I imagine their reactions were similar to those of my friends who had to sit through something that seemed to me so confusing but so intriguing; the sound, the dancing, everything.

Peter Hook’s continuously looks up from the bass to witness what’s unfolding in front of him while Sumner’s gaze is glued to to his guitar. I think the contrast between all four in terms of their body language is also something which adds an extra something to the performance – did Sumner see Curtis’ dance? Was Curtis ever in control of what he was doing?

The instruments slow, as does Curtis, and the song is brought to a gentle close by a slick line from Sumner and a gentle rumble of bass before Morris’ final two hits of the drums. Curtis leans over, some can call it a bow, some can call it getting his breath back, but it adds another layer to this iconic showing.

At the time of first viewing I wasn’t aware of Ian Curtis or his history with epilepsy, and I can’t confirm or deny whether it had a part to play here or whether he was simply intoxicated by the music itself. I think it’s safe to say, regardless of what was the key player, this performance is one of the greatest of all time. Meticulously backed by the band, Curtis leads the viewer down a path of unease, intrigue and pure musical beauty, and one that will never be forgotten.

Musical Epiphanies #3 – Wire – Pink Flag

My Dad has been complaining about the fact that rather than mentioning the influence he’s had on my musical taste in these articles, I talk about his automatic resignation from Strummer-induced mosh pits or how I annoy him by playing and talking about The Fall endlessly. Whatever the case may be, The Fall are the greatest band to ever bless the world with their sound and all should be in worship of them and all they’ve given us.

Anyway, it was 2014, and a month after discovering and exhausting Magazine’s first three albums I was running thin on new music, and having only dipped my toe in the ocean of punk I was eager for more. I headed downstairs to Dad, who was sitting at his work desk looking mildly bored and in need of a distraction; who else was better equipped to provide it than me?

I asked him to give me a new punk band to listen to, and after some brief deliberation with himself, he told me to listen to Pink Flag by a band called Wire. I thanked him for his never-sought-for wisdom and returned to my room intrigued as to what lay ahead. The name ‘Wire’ struck me as quite edgy, quite rough – I wanted to hear what they had to offer.

On came album-opener Reuters, slowly growing with powerful hits of strings before the ugly, frankly disgusting chords piledrive in. I liked it. Really liked it. It’s a slap in the face of all things sterile and serene, invading the room with the foulest spits and coughs through the speakers. Gloriously grim. Deliciously dark.

What would follow? What could top it? Field Day For The Sundays! It’s fast, it’s tough, it’s stop-start mayhem!

It’s over within twenty-eight seconds.

Okay, fair enough, I thought to myself. So much for prolonged enjoyment, eh? Three Girl Rhumba follows and it’s oh-so good, a very simply but very effectively layered tune with an infectious bassline. Easy.

Now, I would go on about every song individually – they all have infinite merits – however I risk the possibility of the article becoming an essay. There are twenty-one songs in thirty-five minutes. So, considering only three tracks are over three minutes long, the album is a punk lesson in making the most of practically nothing.

For me, the jewel in the crown finds itself in the middle of one-minute-wonders. The drums rumble intensely, and are met with firm hit of the strings. Another stirring of percussion follows, and in comes the eruption of a rough rolling E chord, each strum as sinister as the next. It’s the title song, Pink Flag, and it wants you to remember it. I remember first hearing this and thinking ‘What the hell is going on?’ – the chorus consisted of a two-second rise into a C chord, and predictably back down again to E. The structure was so alien. What happened to four chord verse-chorus-verse-chorus?

‘How many?’ asks vocalist Newman. And again. And again. Something’s growing, everything’s becoming red-hot, angry, aggressive. The drum rolls in and the growth continues still, the singing has become shouting in its most raucous form, every member joining in, every guitar getting more and more powerful. It’s frightening, it’s so unnerving. You can’t take yourself away.

Chaos hits. Absolute uncontrollable, unfathomable destruction. ‘I’m alive!’ screams Newman repeatedly, the guitars now a juggernaut of rampage and the drums sounding as if a sledgehammer has been taken to them. Newman lets out a prolonged cry one more time, before all seems to calm. But the storm is yet to pass. Drums clinically rumble into life again, sinisterly brooding. ‘Yeah!’ screams Newman. One more roll – ‘YEEEEAAHHH!’.

Honestly, I’d never been so fucked up by a song. It’s the only way I can describe the experience of listening to Pink Flag for the first time after nine songs that certainly aren’t too forceful, bar the opener. It’s the second longest song of the album at three minutes forty-five seconds, though it sits seemingly innocently within six songs all under eighty seconds long. Never had I been so lost for words or thought after a song.

Mannequin is a stunningly surreal and anthemic punk staple, an emphatic shot of joyous carelessness which sums up the general motif of the record – an uncaring, minimalist creation that challenges your ears at every turn yet maintains a rarely attained level of musicianship and skill which still remains unchallenged, even today.

I think it’s fair to say that Wire’s first three albums gained a level of critical appreciation that was unparalleled in the punk world – their second album, Chairs Missing, is probably my favourite of the three – it’s such a brave departure from the much-loved and fashionable punk sound, but followed in the footsteps of Magazine and Public Image Ltd in old punk figureheads (namely Devoto and Lydon) forming a new sound and freshness to a dying movement.

Pink Flag, however, is underappreciated and essential listening for all who want to ‘get’ what punk was truly about; musical freedom made with a sort of refined amateurism, accompanied by a blissful disregard of musical structure, form and snobbery.

With the short length of the songs Pink Flag does seem to fly by when listened to in full, but it’s hard to forget, especially with the aural ransacking that the title track so graciously provides. I remember instantly buying it on CD after listening, and quickly delving into Chairs Missing and its successor 154.

It was a fascinating musical discovery, and Wire remain one of my favourite bands of all time. Their sound is a well-blended mix of artfulness and punk that provides an autonomous and independent sounds in a time of growing sameness and repetition. Simply divine.

I suppose there are only two more words for me to say:
Cheers, Dad.

 

Next: Musical Epiphanies #4 – Juju – Siouxsie and The Banshees