Gawd help us if there’s a war: C86 and where it got us

Some, er, I dunno, 28 years ago, roughly speaking, the NME put together a cassette that readers had to cut out tokens and send off for through the post. It wasn’t their first and it wasn’t the last, although eventually they would become cheap enough to just be sticky-taped to the cover. The bands weren’t a “scene” at the time but by being lumped together became one, and the tape became a bedrock for a particular form of bed-wetting British “indie”.

Former NME staffer Andrew Collins has called C86 “the most indie thing to have ever existed”. It surely seems to have been the high watermark.

I take it you’ve worked out where the “86” in C86 came from, and the “C” (cassette, sheesh), and the bands came from around the country: not a single city scene. It came, they went, but not without leaving a mark. We’re still talking about it nearly 30 years later.

The compilation has just been rereleased – some would say recuperated and monetised – as a three-CD box set. Is this the final pillow over the face of “a certain type of indie”? Is Cherry Red indie’s Dignitas?

I know some of the bands and I know the history, but I’ve not had a cassette player for some years. So it’s a fairly clean sheet for the team of C86 when I unwrap the new box set. It comes with a carefully written booklet containing a more detailed and loving history that I’ve got time to pull the covers back on here. But I slip the CD1 version of the original tape in — not the CD2 or CD3 bolster — and listen to it.

Primal Scream sound nothing like Primal Scream of any other era. They sound crisp, nice, Byrds-y, far fewer sheets to the wind that they would in future years. The Soup Dragons’Pleasantly Surprised could be a missing Buzzcocks seven-inch. In The Mighty Lemon Dropsthere’s something that the Inspiral Carpets were able to add an organ to, turning it up to king size, and make successful.

Therese by The Bodines, sounds closer to The Smiths — at the height of their powers as a band, if not an influence in 1986 — than anything else here. They aren’t quite as smart, the production isn’t as tightly well made, the lyrics aren’t quite there, the vocals don’t have Morrissey’s somnambulant delivery but you can place them quite easily in the family tree of indie music. When Johnny Marr did a bunk soon after, they could have stepped in.

The Wedding Present seem almost tucked in at the end (of side two of the original tape). But they’re almost fully formed — they are the C86 band that made it big without changing too much. You can hear the following year’s masterpiece of an LP, George Best, starting to trickle out.

Listening to the tracks individually, it’s clear that these bands aren’t of a musical or lyrical family. There’s a spread, but it’s not what sets them apart from each other that’s surprising. They all say — all of them, in those words, in this blanket-coverage, oral history — that it wasn’t a movement.

Sean Dickson from The Soup Dragons: “There was no big movement called C86.”

Kev Hopper of Stump: “It wasn’t as if we felt part of a movement.”

Vix from Fuzzbox: “we didn’t really think of it as a movement.”

Mick Geoghegan out of Mighty Mighty: “It didn’t feel like a movement”

So, honestly, it wasn’t a movement. But was it a shuffling in the same orientation? If there was even a nod in the same direction it wasn’t musically, it was in independence of spirit. These were the bands that grew out of fanzines, DIY, let’s do the show right here (but without the brash confidence of say, punk or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) culture. They were taking the ethos of punk and applying it to many different notions of popular music. This is what jazz, or 60s beat boom, or post-punk, or even The Smiths sounded like when played by people with ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm — but without always the skills or the money.

A band no longer have to find a label to get a record out; as the pages of this website and many others will trumpet, crowdfunding is where it is at. Bands can set their ambitions at the level of their fanbase and produce release after release: without too much risk, albeit also without much chance of it getting any further. It’s a safer form of DIY, the preordering leaves less chance of boxes of CDs hidden around the house, under the mattress and in the ottoman. Unfortunately for us fans, it also means email after email of too much information about vinyl pressing problems and the band’s medical conditions, when we’d probably just rather pop to Swordfish and hand over a tenner.

From 1986 until the advent of Britpop, the C86 bands and their ideological children inspired reams of NME copy and at some point the definition of indie mutated and transformed to meet the music press’s caricature of what C86 meant. Shambling, drippy, pacifist, Walter the Softies, the trope went. The music press would print pictures of them and their ideological children and state: “Gawd help us if there’s a war.” It wasn’t the independence they were writing about. By the mid 90s the idea of indie was changed for good and certainly wasn’t about which label you were on. The music press’s indie chart—which did at that point simply list records released on non-major labels— would be dominated by underground dance vinyl. You could pick up a sparsely recorded, scrappily packaged, limited edition single by SMASH, say and find out they were on Hut Records. If you looked harder it would become clear that Hut was Virgin; everyone was at it.

At this point Thatcherism — which C86 can be seen as a reaction against — found its place in music acceptability. It would be called “aspiration”, this was the Blair era after all, but it was all about being the biggest and the best. Oasis were on Creation, as Primal Scream had been and still were, but boss Alan McGee had long since sold out to Sony. The bands themselves at this point didn’t want to sell out — they wanted to make sure there was always stock of their product on the shelves.

The Shop Assistants, The Shrubs, Bogshed: those names weren’t of bands who really cared how many units they shifted. The look of C86 – the T-shirts and the mumbling down at your plimsolls through a lank fringe – did became a way of life for some of Britain’s finest pop talents. But the bands were important in lots of other ways. Manic Street Preachers bassist, Nicky Wire, was certainly influenced: “McCarthy, probably my favourite band of all time,” he told The Guardian *the last time people were looking back at *C86. “They were quite fey musically, but their lyrics were so political and erudite: We are all bourgeois now, The procession of popular capitalism.”

You can look more directly at Belle and Sebastian or the twee bands that populate a festival like Indietracks, and see a fashion lineage and even that do-it-yourself spirit. But they seem to be trapped in aspic, cut off from the world of culture in the same way that modern-day teds, psychobillies, punks or northern soul aficionados are. This isn’t really a legacy.

The Wedding Present, today’s Primals and a more laid back Half Man Half Biscuit are all still going. None of them fit into the mould now, as we’ve seen they didn’t really then — you wouldn’t immediately put them all on the same bill. So we don’t now have a collection of bands to look at, just a collection of nearly 20 fantastic records.

At the time, as with punk, C86 must have sounded like anyone could do it — and that would have been the reason that it sounded so wonderful.

Time to get up, turn it over, spool the header to the right place with a pencil, and play it again.


Tom Watson: Money, power and the media

Tom Watson MP is sitting at a desk in Westminster, listening to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album. That’s sort of how I picture him a lot of the time: he’ll often start his working day by informing Twitter just what the soundtrack to his parliamentary office is. Squint and you can imagine a vista just somewhere between The Thick of It and teams that meet in caffs — a nexus between the world of Westminster, the real world of West Bromwich and the other real world of the web. The web that Tom has made his home since the days when MPs didn’t get notoriety and ridicule for what they said online but just for being there at all.

I first met Tom in person in a pub in Birmingham and ended the night later crawling home at around 5am. I’d first spoken to him, of course, online. I estimate that he had seven years as an MP before joining Twitter — then a small enough concern to organise drinks for all those that used it in one city in a small pub in a backstreet rather than, say, the O2. Today we conduct this interview via Twitter and no one bats an eyelid.

I know where Tom is as it was the first thing I asked. A journalist friend of mine always starts an interview by telling everyone just where it takes place: a device that can help set a tone for the reader. Are we comfortable here or is this a transactional experience? On Twitter, here, I think we are both comfortable. I wait for the DM that tells me when my light turns green.

Dexy’s first record — a trumpet-strewn impassioned plea for a better, more just, life — is firmly a document of its place and time. The music is dressed in donkey jackets as the band were and the angry cry of Kevin Rowland is that of a smart guy who doesn’t quite know how to change things for the better. Tom Watson is similarly rooted in the Midlands, fiercely intelligent, with the grammar school kid’s chip firmly on his shoulder. He thinks he does know how to change things and when the structures of democracy don’t serve the purpose he’s willing to get mad and hopefully even.

Sometimes the anger, while endearing him to many who watched him calling education secretary — and part time Pob impersonator — a “miserable pipsqueak of a man”, doesn’t go anywhere useful. At the time he blogged, “I began to make my point about the intolerable way that parents and pupils had been treated. His eyes met mine. Was his top lip really quivering? […] It was like looking at Bambi. So I shot him.”

We exchange opening bursts of 140 characters and I know Tom must be reaching the last line of track one, side one: “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.” Tom is no doubt mouthing along to the words. Everyone does.

Has Twitter made you a better MP, I ask, or is it a distraction?

“It’s certainly broadened my horizons though sometimes I worry I read fewer books and magazines.”

Not newspapers you’ll note, Tom has a history with them. Metaphorically spat on and shat on by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, including a court decision against The Sun over claims that he was behind a plot to smear members of the Tory party. (Watson won an apology and a ‘substantial sum in damages.’) It seems reasonable that he might not be the mainstream media’s biggest fan.

We’ve not had the trolling or abuse I’d have expected the interview to incite. I’m glad as I’m rubbish with trolls and hecklers,so I couldn’t help if I’d tried, but Tom claims it doesn’t bother him. And we’ve not yet had the police accusing anyone of threatening Robin Hood airport: thankfully, not living in Yorkshire it doesn’t apply.

“When I first started blogging it was met with almost universal derision,” he told me. “It’s funny but after 13 years [of being in Parliament] I barely notice the snide stuff. It’s just the wild world of the ‘net, the rough bit of the pub.”

Mainstream media versus social media sees financial capital and social capital stacking up against each other. As one of the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Tom has been in the centre of the push and pull for power — and the centre of the phone hacking trial that he says helped end his marriage. “I’ve certainly spent more time scrutinising the media than I anticipated in 2001,” he says.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he questioned Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, in a committee session in July 2011. Re-questioning James Murdoch that November, Watson was again all over the papers for his likening of Murdoch to a mafia boss.

“At its heart,” he continues, ”social media allows you to form groups very quickly, with low barriers to entry.” As an example he cites his recent campaign against the something tactics of his nemesis The Sun. “Over 7000 people signed up to notothesun after it was shared on Facebook and Twitter.” It then became a issue for the press and TV: “a classic example of an online debate seeding political arguments to the mainstream media and, frankly, the pedestrian political parties.”

“The mainstream [media] definitely try to distil social media conversations, sometimes for old agendas. Yet, when you know trust in what’s read in papers like The Sun is down to 15% then there’s no need to worry much.”

If the papers aren’t the influence they were there’s still a mainstream channel that does: “I think online will be an important component of the 2015 election campaign but TV will still be the gorilla. And ultimately, if your policies are wrong, it doesn’t matter what your online voice sounds like.” And he adds in what might be construed as a dig at Ed Miliband, if he hadn’t already given BBC radio a more direct one, “I don’t think the twitter feeds of the party leaders add much to the debate.”

He’s just about to sign off but then lets slip that he’s seriously thinking of “going out there and setting up my own little campaigning news house to see what can be achieved”. Tom Watson again actively channelling the old order by using a delicious mix of political nous, online and offline networks and an anger that drives him on.

“We need much better media. More curious, less editorialised, more engaging.”

The old order? Burn it down.

Cue the trumpets. I’ll see you all in the front row.

Is it worth it?

War is stupid, and people are stupid: and more than that it costs money. The UK’s involvement in the Afghanistan war alone has so far cost £37bn as a conservative estimate (not a Conservative estimate, that would be much lower). Wouldn’t it be better if there were just fewer guns, and bombs and things that can be turned into chemical weapons? Not having to go and fight all the time to stop people fighting might help fix our supposedly broken economy.

But it’s not so simple, a lot of those weapons are supplied by British companies, and that industry is supposedly worth £35bn, makes up 10% of UK manufacturing, and employs over 300,000 people. That’s a lot of guns, bombs, chemicals, jobs and—probably—taxes.

I wonder how the tax revenue, jobs, the all encompassing economic benefits stack up against the costs of all of these ‘interventions’, all the costs of flying the likes of David Cameron, Prince Andrew and other corn-fed suits around the World promoting sales? Add in all the costs of hiding what they are eventually used for from the press—is it worth it?

And then I realised that that was Elvis Costello’s point.


Can we work out the real costs, do these arms firms pay tax? It’s not like they have morals in other areas so I would suspect they pay as little as possible. Even the Daily Mail thinks they probably don’t pay their fair share.

Why do the Govt allow the sales – nay support them? How much does this cost, or this? How much of our ‘soft power’ is wasted making sure people are killed with British made goods? Would those factories and workers not be able to make something nice? Maybe James Dyson could have made his hoovers here.

I’m going to be naive just for a moment. How about a new type of unilateral disarmament? Let’s stop making and selling people things that kill people.


Beasts of England

Plastic chairs the weapons are the weapons of England’s most feared men. No tracking technology, just utilitarian furniture flung by arms either burnt red or clad in branded sportswear.

The English disease has returned and the seating is being aerially rearranged with malice aforethought across the country. One of this year’s League Cup Quarter Finals saw arrests, 27 injuries and a flare bouncing around between two sets of fans.

But it was no Battle of Rocky Lane.

On an evening in September 2002 150 Aston Villa fans fought around fifty Birmingham City to celebrate the teams’ first meeting in the Premier League. They fought across waste ground and dual carriageways, with fists and knives, with drainpipe and bottles, with each other and with Police.

 “Yet again Blues had to bring it to them despite the game being at St Andrew’s. They were the ones that were tooled up. They had bottles, knives, gas, bricks and sticks and they go on because one of our lot had a piece of car engine. If you watch the video (Set here to some banging grime ) you can hear the bottles landing before you see any of them. […] There were thirty of us against 150 and they call it a result as we didn’t turn them over—judge it for yourself.”

The quote from ‘Wally’ is from Caroline Gall’s book Zulus—Black, White and Blue: The Story of The Zulu Warriors Football Firm. The book itself is uncritical, trading tabloid outrage for access to the leaders and organisers of the gang. It’s part of a trend that came before hooliganism’s recent revival—a rewriting of the eighties that longs for a era grounded in working class life so much that it’s willing to overlook assault, battery and Sergio Tacchini.

Almost every large football club will somewhere have a hooligan memoir, they will be placed by the till in the local HMV around Christmas and feature expanding waistlines and expansive tales of great battles and trips away. It’s a major industry: satellite channels less secure in their sexuality will fill hours with this shit, and films keep getting made, The Firm, Green Street, The Football Factory, Green Street 2: Stand Your Ground. You can learn nothing of humanity and something about capitalism from these, all are without merit.  (ID is an worthwhile exception, despite starring Reece Dinsdale, but then its focus is the identity of the title rather than the game or the relationships.)

Part of the reason for the success of such dire tellings is popular culture’s inability to cover representations of brotherhood or comradeship—only that operating like war provides the easy skeleton for such stories. Football itself would work on less dangerous ground if filmmakers or authors could get to grips with the sport. They can’t handle the game itself, that much is certain, but they are seemingly unable to get a handle on the culture around the sport either.

Take centre-half turned old-lady-resembling Sunderland manager Steve Bruce’s Striker! which is an obvious attempt to create a Dick Francis-style franchise of murder-mystery novels around a sport. The novella is stuffed full of uncomfortable attempts to get across the mature camaraderie—that which binds all sorts of groups together in real life, full of nuanced relationships. It fails, but only in the same way that it fails with other aspects of the writer’s (proofreader’s, editor’s, cover artist’s, blurb writer’s) art—quality rather than effort or ambition.

Professionals can only feel the bonds of mercenary colleagues, fans form an ideological grouping and the casual gangs—however misguided—have the comradely togetherness of a militia defending their home. Zulu top man Cud can confirm; reflect how the phrasing could easily have come from one of football’s more traditionally British managers:

“There was a togetherness within the firm, like a family and every Saturday we were going to war. Others go to Iraq or wherever to fight for a cause they believe in, and defending our area was what we believed in.”

Special mentions, he says, are due to (amongst others) “the B.U.G. (Billesley Urban Guerillas) […] Rockarse, Lance, Smelly, Frog, Mong, Bear, Jed and the Jellies, Cranmore Boot Boys, Jammy, Ozzy, Slim, JJ, Kibs, Ize, Clive Warstock”.

To believe as strongly as to fight has a romance, when that means altruism even more so. If the cause was yours and the war was tomorrow, would you fight? Would you leave home and risk your life, travel to defend the people of another country just because of your belief? The Spanish Civil War offers me a chance to test that hypothetically for me. I would like to think I would have gone, but I can’t be sure.

Seeing the Spanish Civil as a trial run for World War Two is to play up political reasoning over economic. Britain’s politicians, and those of France, pursued policies of non-intervention in 1936 and appeasement up till 1939—the governments fought fascism but not until it was too big to ignore. Without the wealth of weapons or aid offered to the fascists by the Hitler and Mussolini lead states the Spanish republic relied on the sacrifice of individuals, and there were around 30,000 strong enough to do so by bearing arms.

These men formed the International Brigades, they came from across the World—from Germany and Italy exiled socialists and communists fought not just for a brotherhood, but for hope of a country to settle in. Esmond Romilly, a British member of the Thälmann Battalion, wrote of his comrades (Quoted in Preston, P. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War):

“For them, indeed, there could be no surrender, no return; they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting as well for a home to live in. I remember what I heard from them of the exile’s life, scraping an existence in Antwerp or Toulouse, pursued by immigration laws[…]by the Nazi Secret Police. And they staked everything on this war.”

But the British, in essence, fought for their beliefs. Bob Cooney, a folk singer who became part of the renowned scene around Birmingham’s Jug of Punch Club, became Political Commissar with the British Battalion, returning with songs and a conviction that led him to join up to fight again at the start of the Second World War.

Jason Gurney left England to fight for “the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of fascism went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth.”

He was wounded so that he couldn’t work again.

Loach’s Land and Freedom—despite suffering severe Finlandization alongside Homage to Catalonia—succeeds in capturing the certainly of a cause and the complexity of relationships between comrades-in-arms. It borrows heavily from Orwell’s account of the conflict, but immerses the viewer in motivation and that motivation includes the power that comes from a union.

In Bloody Casuals: Diary of a Football Hooligan (I could swear I first read this in an edition titled “Diary of an Aberdeen Soccer Casual”, but no evidence of that exists) Jay Allen gives a plausible version of just that feeling: “Whenever your mob gets off a train, out of a bar or out of the ground it always looks so much bigger.[…]walking in a mob of 200 or more is a fantastic feeling—it’s probably the security and the feeling of power. ”

Lack of power both societally and over the game that unites them has to be seen as a catalyst. The rise of the English hooligan in the eighties came as political power was drawn away from the electorate and placed firmly in the hands of the rich and the corporations. It was also the dawn of the distance in the game itself, while players hadn’t started earning the millions they do now the money machine had started and the clubs that were once part of the communities were packing consumers onto crumbling and dangerous terraces.

Control had left, and by the time of the Football Spectators Act (1989) the very liberty to attend games was under threat—membership requirement and travel restrictions joined fences and contempt as tools for the powerful to use on the powerless. It became more difficult to connect with the game, except through the increasingly regulated media. Football itself was a political football.

Jorge Luis Borges was no fan of football it’s popular-opiate role, and as an Argentinian under the junta that used the World Cup in 1978 to distract from all sorts of human right abuse one can see his point. One of his Bustos Domecq short stories reveals everything to be a sham:

“There’s no score, no teams, no matches, […] The bogus excitement of the sportscaster—hasn’t it ever made you suspect that everything is humbug? The last time a soccer match was played in Buenos Aires was on June 24 1937. From that exact moment soccer […] belongs to the genre of the drama, performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys in front of TV cameras.”

That casuals took what power they could over their lives, applied organisation to the business of ‘a ruck’, created uniforms shouldn’t be a surprise. A small army needs manoeuvres to gauge itself, and as Mussolini used Spain as a testing ground the casuals used European tournaments. No face could be lost, the enemy wasn’t organised as well.

It may seem further removed than authors, sculptors, and singers taking up arms but Aberdeen were somewhat of a force in Scottish and European football in the eighties. Under Alex Ferguson the team won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final in Gothenburg. The ‘Aberdeen Trendies’ traveled across the continent stealing Fila tracksuits, and drinking themselves unconscious. The trouble they wanted wasn’t really there, however, as they couldn’t in the end find anyone to fight with.

“A Mark McGhee cross and a John Hewitt header made it 2-1. Everyone exploded—we all leap the fifteen feet down to the standing terrace below. […] When the final whistle went, some of us tried to scale the fence, but it was a really high barbed wire fence. Hundreds of police in white jackets and big clubs put us off a bit as well.”


No such problems in at home, the fights were much easier to come by. “God knows why we loved to fight Motherwell so much […]  Just after 2.15pm someone ran in and told everyone that 70 of the SS [Motherwell Saturday Service] had just got off the 11.05, someone shouted the signal “come on Aberdeen!”.

That violence is sometimes premeditated and orchestrated between firms in the UK is a given, but abroad with the national team such control isn’t so possible. England fans have been involved in trouble during every major finals the team have got to since 1990, but it’s small numbers that will go prepared to fight, and larger numbers that are to stupid not to. It’s even the case that the reputation of the English—those beasts, the disease, the physical representation of imperialism—provides an excuse for attacking travelling fans.

In 1998 I had my first experience of being caught up in trouble abroad, and the overriding feeling was of powerlessness. Less secure, or braver, men may have fought back but it didn’t occur. I’d gone to watch England play Romania. A thirteen hour drive to Toulouse from Birmingham we barely slowed down until we got there and enjoyed a thoroughly drunken evening, and a throughly drunken morning in the centre of a town with some beautiful trompe l’oeil and a very poor Chinese buffet.

We’d had a great time: seeing no trouble, getting a mate into the game without a ticket (but with a wooden sheep) after his was pick-pocketed, and attempting French. Talking more loudly in English wasn’t working as if there was a second language it seemed to be Spanish.

But leaving the stadium, the feeling of the town had changed, the steeply-banked streets were dark, the noises no longer the voices of brotherhood but of harsh recrimination. It was getting cold, we were in the Englishman’s most vulnerable attire, lose shorts, the replica shirt and flip-flops. The sound of thick shattering glass shook you each time you started to relax, like a noise you hear while sleeping and pray has stopped. We made our way back in a concentrated silence not commenting on the we felt, making it obvious that we weren’t looking at the groups of men who gathered in corners and pockets.

There had been no real warning, the pre-game euphoria and 90th minute devastation—coupled for us with what was the end of our tip—could have marked a blackening of mood, but the whole city now seemed dusty, dangerous and shadowy.

Two other fans joined our group of four, showing no shame in fear they asked if they could walk with us; safety in numbers. They reminded us of the reports of skirmishes between England supporters and local Algerian men, something we hadn’t seen as we’d stayed the night before in a village some miles away.  There were missiles thrown, the only protection was to hold souvenir programmes over our heads—we hurried without breaking stride. We weren’t going to react, but then we weren’t looking for trouble.

Leaving them at their car found our way back to the bar we’d be happily shouting “bis” for Vindaloo in a few hours earlier, forgive us that; it was new, it was very much an absurdist reaction to the fake takes on national passion that big culture had offered before. The shutters were down almost to the ground, but there was activity inside. To prevent trouble, we were told, bars had been instructed not to open after the match; however the landlord’s quest for custom overrules these ideas worldwide.We banged, not urgently but insistently, the metal rattled and undulated and after establishing identity we were let in. We settled in to have a calming beer, meet the other guys and wait out any trouble but the barman was most insistent that we didn’t leave alone. Whether the locals were more or less attuned to the threat, I don’t know—but he made it clear we were to stay as long as we liked and then he’d arrange for us to be driven to the car park we’d used.

When we left it was to find the easy truce between English clubs had broken, there was apparently at least one bunch of Birmingham City fans on the hunt for Villa on whom to take out their frustration. Lennon and McCartney’s masterpiece Shit on the Villa forced itself off tiled walls and floors. We left.

Recriminations for just this sort of behaviour were long rumoured to have been the reasoning behind the unexpected levels of fighting around a game against Wolves in 1999. The firms of much smaller teams who command less fans, and so less hooligans, but often see the wider England team as something more important had arranged to teach the Zulus a lesson. This was the ruck at which a “homemade rocket launcher” apparently made an appearance, although what that would do, look like, or how it would be constructed are questions the whispers don’t answer.

Groups, factions; internal strife is seemingly inevitable. The fall of the Spanish Republic may be blamed on the non-intervention of European Governments, but it was characterised by the splintering of the Left—anarchists were sidelined, striped of responsibility in battle and eventually blamed for all manner of ills. George Orwell watched as honest men were imprisoned and persecuted for fighting for the cause under the banner of one group rather than another but for a glorious moment  her “had been in a community where hope was more normal that apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

The more strongly you believe the greater chance of you believing something different to the next man. The stronger the motivation the worse the fight.

And if you have no real motivation the fight may be all you have.

¡No pasarán! Keep Right On.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue Two.

Red and Dead

The past scares the fucking shit out of me. Not in the way that a dimly remembered faux pas leads you down the path to self harm; that happens too, but I’m no longer scared, just resigned. The past that makes me uneasy about going to our outside toilet, about looking into a darkened pane of glass, is long before I was born.

Any era most reliably pictured with a woodcut print puts the wind up me in ways I can’t describe. It’s not just the deformed people and perspective. It’s not the evil rictus grins, or the oddly curved limbs. It’s not the veiny skies and fields – they score the vista, making you view the middle ages through a bashed wire fence, but I can dig that. I’ve played a lot of five-a-side, and life during the crusades was very much like the Aston Powerleague on a Wednesday night.

What makes me dive for the comfort of Dave is the terror of time stretching back, year-on-year, each year more gruesome than the last. Peeling back every layer of social reform, of comfort, of law, until we’re eating babies and burning at the stake while Princes flay festering skin from our nether portions.

Empathy is not imagining the feelings of others, it’s worrying what you would feel if subjected to the same transgressions. There is a different type of thought used to consider the plight of the human race, empathy and horror are bedfellows with numbers and hopeful theories.

Robin Hood is the only hope of woodcut-man for compassion, so was he the birth of the welfare state — of the protection of the masses? Even as the medievalist church mis-sold empathy with fear of damnation, he strode around the Midlands propping up failed evolutionary strategy with bags of gold coin and false hope. But Robin Hood wasn’t a socialist, he was simply less of a cunt than the next Earl along. Not that he was an Earl, probably, or even gave to “the poor” (that’s pretty much everyone without a title isn’t it?). Look back at the original ballads, and the best you can hope is that he’d decided it was only worth robbing the really rich people.

My favourite ‘wither Robin Hood’ theory is that the ballads are some great fashion marketing ploy, based on the absurdly high attention paid to costume and cloth within the text – so much that it approaches the work of Bret Easton Ellis. We’re not talking designer label, but do contemporary ballads bother with such mise-en-scène? The suspicion is that the yeomanry or the guilds (prone to the wearing of hoods themselves, it was cold out, they had money for cloth) had something to do with the spread of the stories.

Robin was at best some champagne (mead?) socialist type; he wore Lincoln Graine, which was normally a scarlet red (not green, cloth-fact-fans) while his men wore the cheaper green and bowed at his feet. He’s not that bothered about the tax system, and let’s face it he’s doing nothing but playing to the peasant gallery until he gets his way. Shades of every modern politician — and this was the good guy — there’s nothing more than devotion, just to the best ruler out of a bad lot. You knew where you were with the Thatcher of Nottingham, at least he admitted he was a bastard. Does Robin take Nottingham and then plan a First International, sending Little John off to probe revolution in Derby? Nah.

For real revolt, for reform, you need Wat Tyler. Tyler led the Peasants Revolt and wanted to overthrow the feudal system — and had a good knock — although there is no record of the system that they’d thought up to go in its place. History paints the Peasants Revolt as a fourteenth century G8 protest — anarchy, Mile End and sacking the Savoy. That the protests were whipped up in direct response to the original Poll Tax is a lovely eighties metaphor, but not exactly helpful when you’re trying to work out if this was original collective altruism or just something to do in-between rotating the crops. It seems to have had very little impact on the history of the class struggle in England, if you can’t do better than a few releases on Rugger Bugger Records then you may as well be the Levellers.

Great moralist, and master of the Greek pun, Sir Thomas More is pretty much the first person to have a crack at a collective vision of society. It’s a pity that it’s a satire, and the joyless view of monastic communism is no advert for a socialism that you want to fight kings for. Particularly fat kings who are good at tennis (even if they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder). Fat tennis kings that will pick a fight with the Pope — in the days of proper hard popes, not just the ex-Hitler scouts we get these days — rather than hide the woman in the wardrobe as Brian Rix has taught us.

Was More joking? It’s hard to tell. Generations of translators have added prefaces about whether it’s pun (Utopia is either No Place or Good Place) or politic. Unless it’s some double bluff, I’d probably call a clumsy Bremner. The last translation I read even has the narrator called Nonsenseo. More loses his head, for all his humanistic leanings, which must be preferable to another round of Greensleeves on the harpsichord and sackbut.

But worse, Utopia — socialism — is set in stone from the 1500s as a rather dull place. It gives root to the ideas that creativity can’t function in an equal society, that to create one we must be drugged and the savages only can save us. From Huxley’s Brave New World, to feeding Barney from New Order Prozac — we can’t be happy and creative and fair and equal all at the same time.

Many of the misreadings of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene focus on the misapprehension that he promotes the idea that the human (the “survival machine”) isn’t capable of altruism. He certainly spends much of the book debunking any notion of group selection — which sees individuals subjugate themselves for the good of the group. Where would such an evolutionary strategy end, he says “For the good of the species? The mammals? The vertebrates?” Dawkins doesn’t mean that we can’t act altruistically, although he does a damned fine job of showing the working on why pure utopian communism wouldn’t be, what he calls, an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). I’m simplifying towards no meaning whatsoever, but Dawkins runs us through example after example of how, basically, if everyone’s good all the time, then it’s advantageous to be a cheat. It’s the genes that are selfish, not the machines — and in the second edition there’s a long chapter about how the “generally nice” will prevail — but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the ideal welfare state. Would Marx and Engels have bothered if they’d have thought about ethnology over economics?

No doubt darling Dickie Dawkins would label the basic premise of Das Capital a meme, pointing to its evolutionary replication — and he’d be right. But it’s a stupendously unstable idea as far as political theories go — and fully in keeping with the exploitative selfishness of the “cheats” or capitalists as we’ve learnt to call them.

There are photos of Marx, with a touch of the Just For Men on the tache—or was it a post-bovril portrait? So although there’s no succour for the proletariat, I can imagine him with a meaty drink. He was a rather chunky fella, so a sudden loss of income wouldn’t have been the end—I can imagine a safe world having seen the reality. Not so for the Paris Commune. Although we’ve moved on from woodcuts, and it’s easy to imagine a team of hot-shot documentary watercolorists setting up easel around the barricades, I can’t place the struggle. I can only fictionalise, and my imagination scares me. That I know that we lost doesn’t help.

Sidney Lumet’s 1965 film The Hill captures this feeling better than anything I’ve ever read or seen. You can lose—there are situations in which you have no control. Set in a North African military prison, it shows inmates helpless against a Staff Sergeant intent on breaking them, over and over again, over a constructed mound of earth. Eventually one dies of heat exhaustion, a chance to expose Ian Hendy’s vile guard, but one they’re unable to take. Roy Kinnear’s fright and Sean Connery’s temper see to it that it’s impossible to do anything but the basest fight-back. And the system wins. Forever. We’re left with sheer heat, claustrophobia and sweat (which works much better in black and white). The frustration drips like the sweat from Kinnear’s brow. The system surely must be changed, but it isn’t.

It’d never be made today, the good guys lose — something it shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One senses that Orwell was always angrier with Aspidistra’s advertisers than ’84’s oppressors, or is it that anger is one of the showier emotions – and incompatible with the totalitarian oppression – and impotence against that? He reserves special distain for the propagandists, or does he hold them and their newspeak in the highest regard? It’s more dangerous than bombs or threats.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four at exactly the right time, the same age at which I watched every episode of The Prisoner. Both affected me in similar ways, and there’s no doubt that they shaped how I react to other realities. The past is nothing if not another reality, and the less control I would have if placed there the less I’m able to comfortably deal with it. For each, the lack of control is total. Well, unless you watch one of the later Prisoners where Patrick McGoohan had stretched himself too thin and his messianic off-screen control had started to affect the story.

A year or so ago, I went on holiday to Pisa by mistake. Pisa’s nice. It doesn’t have much more than the tower though. It’s a day-trip to take when in nearby Florence rather than a destination. Something else it does have is the fading Piazza dei Cavalieri, now a sort of nominal centre for the university, but historically the administrative centre of the town. Guidebooks focus attention on the main building, with busts in nooks and just the right amount of restoration, but I read about the building across the way; home to starvation and cannibalism. At the order of an Archbishop, Count Ugolino de’ Gherardeschi and his offspring were sealed in and left to stave. The Count lasted a little longer than expected, as he ate everyone else, although he doesn’t seem to mention this bit to Dante in the Inferno3. These, I’m forced to remember, are the good guys the Holy Justice, and I couldn’t settle in the square.

I’m not thinking of how the Count feels as he gnaws on a close relative, nor even how the relative felt (or tasted), but the sheer impotence of the trapped. They have no control of the situation, and no hope of a benevolent, well, anything.

And that’s what scares me more than anything.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue One, with the standfirst “Was Robin Hood the first Communist?” and wonderful illustrations.

Being Frank

I really can’t put my finger on where I first came across Frank Sidebottom, logic would dictate that I’d have spied him on one of his regular appearances on Number 73 but there aren’t any memories I can dredge up. I know I watched it every so often, but apart from the theme tune there’s nothing on any cortex I can connect to, maybe the ungodly presence of both Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan has led to a form of repressed memory syndrome.

I guess it may have been one of the famous (how many other TV guest spots have songs written about them?) Match of the Day episodes — both when Altrincham were doing “well in the F.A. Cup” — or perhaps it was when he was booted from The James Whale Show, I used to watch all sorts of crap. Getting the Spanish archer from what was such a disorganised show was an achievement that later touring partner Charlie Chuck never managed, proof perhaps of an anarchy of spirit belied by the colouring pens and deference to his elders.

I don’t remember the first time I saw or heard Frank Sidebottom, it’s sort of like he’s always existed. But I do remember the first time I met him, or Chris Sievey to be pedantic.

The battered leather aviator’s jacket didn’t identify him, nor did the mess of black oiled curly hair or the ever so slightly bulbous nose — mind you I had absolutely no idea what Chris (as opposed to Frank) looked like at all. However there were no other middle-aged men sitting outside New Street Station with luggage big enough to house a Casio keyboard, and the boxy suitcase had a suspicious papier-mâché head shaped bulge. “Chris?”, I said. It was him.

The Reading Festival has always been the strangest mainstream gig in the British summer calendar, a three-day festival where the rock hangover meant that it was completely possible to go and find yourself after two days of indie’s finest suddenly confronted with a sea of plaid shirts and not a single discernible tune. So that’s the reason I was in the comedy tent that Sunday evening in 1995 and instead of seeing Neil Young muscularly backed by a lumpen Pearl Jam, was shouting “spiders!” in an attempt to put off the apparently arachnophobic singer. Frank was leading that, and I was as smitten as one man can be with another who has a perfectly spherical fake head.

Variery Is Back poster

So that was why, almost ten years later I’d bullied — apparently — the man out of semi-retirement to play a hugely shambolic gig upstairs in a pub in Moseley. We, mate Gavin and I, were intent on “bringing back Variety” and after one, equally shambolic but way less good, night (band, comedian, raffle, bingo essentially) we’d decided that the only act that could top it was Timperley’s finest. I’d stumbled on a fantastic set of arty pictures of Frank online and established a route in via the photographer.

So, after a gushing phone call in which the subject of money was only lightly touched upon, Chris reckoned that Frank would be able to make it, that he was looking to get back into showbiz, and that £250 and a cut of the door was plenty.

As I drove him to the venue he talked non-stop: about other gigs he’d done in Birmingham, asking after Dave Travis, about Tony Wilson and the Channel Four show Remote Control. There was one anecdote about how he’d made an African tribesman Frank and it hadn’t gone down well with the director, it was brilliant stuff that I couldn’t do justice even if I could remember it.

The show was the most disorganised I ever saw Frank perform, crawling along the floor pushing his suitcase, interrupting my weak-assed comedy turn as a camp NUM shop-steward (don’t ask), going off after a couple of songs so as to encore all night — fantastic. He even pinched my backing band Wedge Grundy and the Big Rons for a medley of hits where they didn’t know the chords. That was okay though, because Frank didn’t know the words and it became the funniest jazz-funk work-out I’ve ever seen — as well as the only one I’ve ever watched all the way through.

Frank at the Pat Kav

Frank was out of practice, not unprofessional, although Chris had definitely had a good drink. We had too, the night was wet with booze, and I even — whisper it — got to try the head on, it didn’t fit. At this stage I hope it doesn’t break any illusions to tell you that without the head it was Chris, with it, Frank. Supremely method, but there was one other piece of preparation — Chris would wind electrical tape around his nose, presumably to get the nasal voice just right. I didn’t have the heart to mention that it made almost no difference to pitch or rhythm.

After the gig we went to the curry house over the road, where Chris held court. He ordered twenty-seven poppadoms, as the World Record was “twenty-six actually” — he’d apparently eaten twenty-five in a restaurant before where he was told of the record: “I could have  eaten two more but… I couldn’t be arsed”. He then picked up the tab for the whole crew, costing almost all of his fee I’m sure.

But the best Chris moment didn’t come then, nor the next day when he regaled us with tales of Manchester City whicle drinking shandies made with coke instead of lemonade, nor even when clinking with bottles of Bacardi Breezer he climbed into the back seat of Cookie, our bassist’s wreck of an MG for a lift back to Timperley and promptly fell right asleep. No, the story that I’m proud to tell most happened back at Woody (née-Wedge)’s flat where there was nothing but Prince’s Purple Rain that would satisfy him — it was played many time that night, and the following morning too when Chris discovered that he needn’t have slept sitting on a stool in the kitchen “oh you do have other rooms then”.

I only met Chris that once although we talked on the phone and over email a bit, most recently to arrange a slot for him on my radio show. But when I heard of the cancer I was upset, and upon hearing the news yesterday I felt a hollowness that I can only match with deaths of people I’ve known and really cared about, so I think I was touched. I saw Frank quite a bit though, each time at a bigger and better organised gig: Little Civic, Jug of Ale, Wulfrun Hall and on Manchester’s Channel M and heard him in recent months on Manchester Radio Online. He’d finally got that second Greatest Hits compilation out, the marvellous E,F, G. & H, and seemed to be heading back to something like his peak.

me and Frank

In truth he was rediscovering an old audience, one with more opportunity to enjoy him and more money to pay, rather than developing a huge new one — but it was growing again and he was playing regularly again.

More importantly he was creating again, I’ve been searching iTunes over and over these last weeks waiting for Three Shirts On My Line (his World Cup anthem) to go live for download. At the moment it hasn’t yet, but there are Internet People awaiting to propel it into the charts.

Frank never got to do Guess Who’s Been On Top Of The Pops, although he outlasted the programme, and while the power of the number one has long since faded you can bet that Frank Sidebottom would have loved it. He was pop all the way through.

A giant of light entertainment, and a man I’m proud to have spent time with. You know I am, I really am.

Thank you.

This was written a couple of days after Chris passed away, other better tributes were written: John Robb’s tribute is well worth a read, as is ex-Oh Blimey Big Band-er Jon Ronson’s article for the Guardian of 2006.

Video of the Variety Is Back gig does exist, it’s now online here.

You can back a wonderful looking documentary right now on the interweb begging forums:

Concrete and fumes

Have you heard of extreme picnicking? I’m told that some people like to ensue picturesque hillsides and secluded romantic coves to eat al fresco surrounded by concrete and fumes. There’s also extreme ironing, in urban myth, legend and Sun page seven features, where the cosy front room and old black and white film is tossed aside so people can flatten creases out of their shreddies surrounded by concrete and fumes.

The occupy movement must therefore equate to a form of extreme camping, pitching up not next to a cow pat in a damp field but in the centres of the World’s capitalist bastions, surrounded by concrete and fumes. It’s fitting then, that possibly the World’s most extreme band are showing full solidarity with those tent cities in Wall Street, London, Barcelona and round the back of the Flapper in Birmingham.

For were there a musical force that was all about life surrounded by concrete and fumes and exhorting you to be ethical above all it’s Napalm Death. So with a new album—Utilitarian—about to stencil itself upon brutalism everywhere I spoke to Barney Greenway to see if a heavy rock band imbued by fumes and musically concrete (if not musique concrète) can help change the World.

Occupy is all about communication, as Barney says “you need a multi-location attack, people in their homes…at all levels of society to engage. It can’t just be about people reading about the camps in the newspapers”. But communication is hard: sometime because of the oligarchical media because and we’re across an echoing Skype connection. That said, Barney’s points are the sort that you feel he’ll often make twice for impact as well as to make sure I can hear him.

“We know about the equality gap around the World and Birmingham’s a part of that. Naplam has been proven to resonate with people musically and ideologically. There’s past evidence. You are lead to believe that you just should accept stuff…there are matters of great social injustice and you’re expected not to react.”

Napalm and Barney certainly are not ones to do what’s expected.

“Whatever effect we have is always going to be under the auspices of the band talking about things…which has always fallen into place, we’re not a choreographed band, it’s spontaneous.”

Napalm have been going for some thirty years and the last twenty or so with Greenway up front, they invented a genre. The local council are waking up to music’s heritage in Birmingham, and the ‘Death—as fans probably call them, I’m sure—feature heavily in an exhibition about the history of heavy metal. I assumed that this must make them feel like under-pressure elder statesmen. But Barney says “Not at all…I certainly don’t feel any pressure from anyone outside.”

In fact the new LP seems to exist somewhat apart from the music industry, from any scene, from everything but what the band are thinking and feeling about. “to be totally honest, I’ve been out of the loop a bit…I’ve had no chance to check out what’s going on with music.”

“I find it hard to, you know, micro-analayse Napalm. We’ve got all these albums and one journalist might ask about the differences. We’re all these kinds of things, we’re not just a grindcore band, we’re not just influenced by metal. w’ere not just influenced by abrasive punk, there’s lots of other things besides. Every Napalm album sounds different, so I’m told, but in a good way. That’s a good place to be I think.”

“I tend to see an evolution after the fact…you think ‘is this better than the last album?’ and it’s only after the fact that you have time to think…it’s worked.”

Barney’s favourite track on this album is ‘Everyday Cocks’, which seems to work by being everything—or almost everything Napalm Death ever are all at once. And has a rude word in the title, which is another thing I think I’ve grown to expect.

“It’s one that encapsulates everything for me. It’s a really obtuse track, some of the chords on there aren’t really conventional. It has a real creeping slow aspect to it and then it goes mental and fast. It also has a sax break…everything in one track.”

The music is important, but I get the feeling that Barney at least can’t separate that from the World at large and nor should we want him to:

“I’m just showing solidarity basically…other bands should.”

This piece originally appeared in Fused.

Captain Hook

Peter Hook is a man concentrating on retaining control over his own history, but first he’s got a few other things to do.


“Hi Peter,” even over a not wonderful mobile connection I could tell it was the laconic low-slung bass icon himself. “it’s Jon Bounds to do the interview.”

“Yes, right… would you mind calling me back in five minutes? I’ve got to pick the wife up.”

“Sure, no problem.”

To kill time I make a cup of tea and take the dog outside for a wee. I’m staying at a very well turned out holiday flat at the base of the Shropshire hills. It’s perfectly placed for me to indulge my AE Housman poetic fantasies—in a modish leather-look jacket and Adidas hi-tops of course—but without a garden that the brown and white dog sharing it with me can just pop out to unaccompanied.

I’m breaking a conspiracy of silence here, not all interviews with rock gods are conducted over gin-soaked weekends on tour in uptown New York. Not all interviewers fly out first class and share hotel rooms and VIP sections with their quarry. We may strive for intimacy, but get maybe twenty minutes on the phone. I’ve not seen Lady Gaga go to the toilet. I had to carry a plastic bag for a poop scoop around the corner in case doggy number ones turned more solid outside Terry Jones’s Travel in Church Stretton. Trying to get that intimacy—or at least a bit of matey bonhomie—I tell Peter what I’ve been up to when I call him back.

“It’s nice that we’ve got normal things to do isn’t it? Picking up the wife, taking out the dog…”

“I always have loads of normal things to do Pete, I’m not a rock star.”

You get the impression that Peter Hook has lots of normal things to do too, and giving humorous, affable, honest and conspiratorially indiscreet interviews is one of those. In fact I’m pretty sure that he’s given enough of those to fill the pages of this magazine many times over, but you never tire of hearing them. The man has many stories to tell and tells them well, it’s how others may tell them that is concerning him right now. He’s just finished writing a book called Inside Joy Division, which tells the story of being inside Joy Division. Being one of only three living people that could really know must give him the insight to do that, and it’s a story not well told and that’s been he feels passed over by the others and not given enough time.

“When we started we didn’t have luxuries like a camera… it’s been hard to find photos, not like with New Order.”

“We started New Order the Monday after Ian [Curtis]’s funeral…Bernard didn’t like the intensity of Joy Division which is why he doesn’t like playing those songs.”

“Our manager Rob Gretton held a wake for the band and he said ‘don’t worry Joy Division will be big in 10-15 years. That was the was he put it to say that the music would last forever.”

At the moment Hooky’s new band The Light is playing Joy Division albums in their entirety. And it seems to be going well, despite what he says was a cynical reaction when it was first announced (there were some “sarky barbs”, which sounds fantastic in that familiar North West burr).

“I thought it would be just fat 50-year-old blokes that came to see us, but it was 19-year-olds and I thought ‘wow, the music lives on’. The themes are the same as ’77… I wrote it so I’m biased but there’s still an appeal.”

I ask him if that’s something to so with the country being in a similar state now to that which it was then: I’m thinking something about the unemployment, the distrust of authority, the cold. I’m thinking mainly of the cold as it snowed unexpectedly last night and despite my tea I’m still not warm, I can see the grey sleet sliding down the hillside roads.

“I don’t think so, I’m not sure. The appeal of the music hasn’t changed. Also it isn’t nostalgia, it’s not a tribute band. Doing the LP as a whole gives it purity. I’ll leave that to the likes of Joy Revision. It’s got credibility, we’re not pretending to be Joy Division. Not like the others pretending to be New Order.”

“People remember the records but not the band. I was listening to the records and thinking what a genius [producer] Martin Hannett was—the records are sort of a cross between Joy Division and Martin Hannett. Joy Division live were much more raw, post punk.”

Yesterday we took a rough path straight up a hill near the Long Mynd, it took not minutes to get to a point where civilisation vanished. If you look the right way you can see not human invention before the sun breaks your sight over the horizon. If you look the other way, there’s a golf course; flattening, landscaping, commercialising what was once a force of nature. It’s the course designer’s take on reality. We’re most of us lucky that no-one feels ownership of our pasts, but if you’re part of cultural history you don’t get that protection due to lack of interest. I mention that Peter is the only person I’ve ever talked to that I’ve seen being played by actors in two different films.

“Ha. I didn’t recognise myself in 24 Hour Party People. It was obviously a comedy, they wanted to make Carry on up the Factory and they did. The funny thing was that Ralf Little who played me had worked a lot with my ex-wife so you’d think he’d have picked up a few tips.”

“It broke my heart watching Control. Anton wanted to bring out the tragedy, he’d known us for a long time. I knew he’d get it right.”

The end of May marks the 30th anniversary of the Hacienda, and it must be built. Again. By many other people, in clubs around the country and even in museums. The V&A are to host a ‘facsimile’ recreated by original designer Ben Kelly, but Peter and friends have a more fitting tribute perhaps.

“The Hacienda is coming back. The people that own the flats that are now where the Hacienda was are letting us have the car park for one last rave. I wasn’t sure, but I was told. You’ve got to do something for the 30th, you might not be around for the 40th.” You don’t get the impression he had to be persuaded too hard.

I get the feeling that Peter Hook is enjoying being in control of his own story, he tells it well and in many media. Only a couple of days later I’m sitting round a friend’s kitchen table and being shown a spatula bearing the scrawl “Happy Beating! Peter Hook”. Hooky, king of bass, guardian of history, autographer of kitchen implements. The past is safe in his hands.


This has been previously published, in Fused.

Ding Dong, Society is Dead


Yes, it’s childish and puerile, sexist and disrespectful. And apart from being all of that the Daily Mail is angry. Angry that Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack has swung into the charts, by some sort of campaign by ‘the left’.

The song is childish (or at least high-pitched) too, and anyone buying it to make a political point is childish too. They know that and, like booing George Osbourne at the Paralympics, the British public have a remarkable history and humour of childish protest. It works so well as it’s not easy to debate against—we both get covered in jelly and ice cream and the kids like it. I also doubt that being respectful is in the minds of anyone at this point.

And, yes, the use of the gender specific insult is sexist. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable.

Oh and, yes, most people who are buying it are probably to the left of Margaret Thatcher politically—but then most people are.

But, they aren’t doing it en masse by an orchestrated campaign and they aren’t all doing it for the same reason. It’s 1000s (and only that many seeing how few sales it takes to get a song into the charts these days) of different decisions for different reasons. It’s a true meme, evolving as it passes through people’s heads—there are those who wouldn’t have dreamt of supporting it getting pissed off by the pious who would tell them not to and clicking ‘buy’ with abandon. In the full knowledge of how they don’t have the heights of moral ground they could otherwise.

There isn’t a single point where this idea comes from, it’s a simple idea and a very well known song. That’s why it isn’t Shipbuilding, or Tramp the Dirt Down—or any number of better, and more politically correct, choices—a campaign on Elvis Costello’s behalf would have failed, people who didn’t know or like him wouldn’t have bought the track, no matter how cheap or easy. A playground ditty got traction.

Some haven’t thought about the sexism, it’s society’s job—if it still exists—to educate them.

Some don’t have huge encyclopaedic knowledge of music or social history—likewise.

Some, like me don’t agree with the song choice, but agree with the protest. And we’ve bought it because of who it pisses off, we make compromises like that when battling an ideology.

Excuse me if I go a bit Mark Steel for a moment, but the use of the group term ‘The Left” is dangerous. It’s as dangerous as any grouping and labeling of disparate people. The Left—it’s me, Billy Bragg, Caroline Lucas, Castro, Tony Blair, a woman from no 42 who once voted SDP, and Dan Hodges all meeting every Wednesday in the Pig & Whistle on Lug Trout Lane. Seven o’clock, back bar, knock on the side door and ask for ‘Attlee’. I did miss last week’s meeting, I was out picketing the local grocers. The Left decided in my absence to pick a song & campaign on it, sent message of solidarity to striking miners in Guam and shared a bag of pork scratchings.

Castro wanted dry roasted nuts, but he lost the motion on a simple show of hands.

The King and I — my Elvis Marathon.

Pleased to have one less thing in common with the Wonder Stuff, I do love Elvis. I love the hillbilly cat and the jumpsuited entertainer, and to prevent disillusionment I find it fairly easy to avoid watching the films — it’s not as if they are in heavy rotation on our mainstream channels these days. A love for the King is an isolating love these days. Elvis has become a rubber hat and plastic sunglasses, a jumpsuit and a remix opportunity. Elvis has become, like every dead musical artist worth remembering, a tribute and moneymaking sinkhole.

And I’m as much to blame as anybody, I own an officially licensed Blue Hawaii Hawaiian shirt (see what they did there?), an ‘Elvis pig’ (in mitigation, a gift), and book-after-book both scurrilous and fanboy. But I love the King, it’s where me and Chuck D part company (“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”) and one of the few touchstones that I’m sure I would have with bum-sex comedian Frank Skinner (who paid silly money for a shirt that may have belonged to EAP).

It’s a love based on the iconography as much as the music, the belts and glasses as much as the sultry vocals, That’s The Way It Is as much as the Carson show and really; ’75 as much as ’56. We’re around the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley, and if there’s anything more undignifying than “dying on the toilet” it’s Elvis Week 2010. A week long excuse to bombard fans with emails for inglorious tat: Jailhouse Rock Flip Flops, the Elvis Hot Sauce Sauce Gift Set (including Elvis Don’t Be Cruel Hot Sauce), the Elvis and Dale Earnhardt Fantasy Race Car Magnetic Guitar Bottle Opener and left over Elvis Week 2009 Golf Balls. But, there’s still the music. In October a new Elvis Complete Masters 30 CD set is being released at the paltry sum of about £573.78 plus shipping, containing all 711 master recordings and a hundred or so rarities — no better way to make sure that it’s the music that matters.


I couldn’t justify a pre-order for that, but I could beg and borrow all studio recordings released to date—and I can listen to all six hundred and ninety-eight of them in order. I could do the listening bit as I was ill with a stodgy cold and home alone as my other half was away to visit friends for the weekend—had she have been in situ there would have been no chance of getting through it in a sitting. A ferociously opinionated music fan, Jules has banned many of my favourites from play in her presence, mainly what she calls “wimpy indie music” (The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Black Box Recorder amongst them) but my recent obsession with listening only to covers of the Stones’ Satisfaction didn’t go down well either.

So I did, I loaded them all into iTunes, ordered by recording date as best as I could, from 1953’s My Happiness to 1976’s recording of Way Down (a posthumous Number One in the UK in 1977). That’s 1.2 days according to Apple. I started at 1pm on a Saturday, with intentions of attempting it in one go.

I wasn’t actually sure what I was attempting: it had something to do with sorting out my reactions to Elvis, something to do with wanting to make my own mind up on all those film soundtracks and deciding if the early years and the Vegas years were the same guy in anything more than physical body. Also, it was there, er, they were there, a mountain of Memphis to drag myself up with the use of ropes and crampons.

The foothills are easy, and seem so far in the past: the first couple of recordings were self-financed, are scratched beyond repair, and seem odd song choices if they really were presents for the venerated mother Presley. They, and almost all Elvis songs are based on love—romantic love to start with, then there’s the love of God, you sometimes have to look past the hard headed metaphors (cows, lots of cows early on. And moons). It’s not until Old Shep, 53 songs in for me and the King that there’s anything other than the birth of rock and roll. We’ve passed the echoing inventions of Sam Phillips, heard the bass slapped and the snare ratted, we’ve heard Elvis’s voice buckle country music out of recognition and into something dangerous and now it’s time for the dog. I’m a huge fan of epic, maudlin, Elvis whether it’s lost love (ooh loads), society’s ills (In The Ghetto), eternal damnation (all of the gospel recordings by implication) or a dead pooch.

In the fifties we get the templates for almost all of Elvis’s later output, and much of everybody else’s too — there are times, especially in the first big rush of success (Tell Me Why, 61 songs in) in 1957 where the material available to band isn’t anywhere near good enough. The vocals hold it together, and it’s a relief when the gospel recordings start they have a depth and sound less old—by virtue of sounding ancient to start with— than (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear (1957, 76 songs in) et al.

Could anyone of a similar pop standing (not that there is anyone) pull this off today? Could a major star change tack and record such openly religious music? Even 80s Dylan struggled with a Christian phase, maybe a chart-y soul singer could have a go but it’s unlikey that anyone would have the guts. It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) (68 in) has a wonderful oo-ee-oo at exactly 1:39.

It’s a while ’til we hit real movie detritus, but recordings from Jailhouse Rock offer a deathly foreshadowing of that which is to come—poor lyrics and simple melodies. It’ll get worse, but we’re okay for a while. What was Elvis in jail for in Jailhouse Rock, are these the stylings of an innocent man—did he just want to “stick around” to “get [his] kicks”? Forget this for a while, I tried to. Like I tried to forget that I’d made a terrible error at the Asda before starting the marathon and bought sugar-filled Pepsi rather than the similar looking caffeine-and-sweetnered Pepsi Max, a mistake that may well have lead to my dozing off later during a particularly one-note run of soundtrack sounds.

Crawfish from Kid Creole (122 songs in) was, I thought for a while, a new piece of non-metaphoric Presley. Was it the forerunner of the first few Beatles songs to leave that basic love/sex pop fascination—a song as dirty as this about a fish would have been way ahead of its time. Further reading or actual listening to the words revealed the crawfish to be ‘little Elvis’, and I was disappointed. By this stage I was keeping a tally of odd metaphors, three about cows, four moons (three of them blue) but this the first fish. I lost count eventually while looking for Elvis Firsts—and as I was so excited to find the classic ‘Elvis Talky Bit’ so early. Are You Lonesome Tonight (1960, 155) is the one with the “someone said the World’s a stage” line and is the most famous and best time that the King drops out of character, turns directly to you and solves your problems.

It finishes on the line “and then came act two” and that’s a good a point as any to really hit the long dark movie years of the soul.

Everyone knows that Elvis movies start okay, with proof that when given the right roles (young punk singers in the big city, not too much of a stretch) there is acting talent, and songs that mostly wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘proper’ albums. Everyone knows that the  movie business was eventually what killed the King, that Colonel Tom loved the film deals and the art could go hang. Everyone can point to Elvis’s Greatest Shit the in-no-way official compilation of the biggest musical atrocities and say that it’s almost exclusively from the movie years. Song of the Shrimp (Girls! Girls! Girls! 1962, 279) Old MacDonald (Double Trouble 1966, 411), and Dominic (Stay Away Joe 1967, 485)— a song about a shag-shy bullock—prove that.

But everyone is wrong. A bit.

Without exception, unless I was hallucinating on Onion Ring-style corn snacks, every film contains at least one great recording—the single from the album if you will. I started to save details of these lesser spotted flashes of ’56: Black Star (from Flaming Star 1960, 164) is county cowboy Roy Rogers done right, Charro! (Charro! 1968, 489) is the title track from his only non-singing role film and has a Joe Meek-eque production that really works.

In the days of limited media access, it’s frightening to think that the films were the only way you’d glimpse your favourite artist, and the awful soundtrack albums with terrible artwork. There no wonder that a whole pop and rock tradition built up while he was away. I took many an opportunity to pop to the toilet around this time.

The bad-film era does give us the first real batch of those gospel classics—enough to keep me going until the promised land of 1968. The ’68 special is, by some, held up as Elvis Presley’s last great work, but I find it a rehash of stuff that had gone before. Necessary to cleanse the palette perhaps, but nothing new recorded around this time has any great worth, we really do need to wait for the full big band sound to get into place before he becomes great again. I’ve been listening for over 24 hours now (I did drop off, but restarted at last remembered song) and I’m aching for the big sound of the Vegas years.

He can sing anything by this point, it’s all in place—band, producers, strings, horns, the Jordanaires. The only way it can go wrong is the song. When the song is right—I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water (1970, 570)— it’s perfect. When it’s wrong l’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen (1971, 615) it just doesn’t work.

Elvis is making me cry with regularity now, no-one hits a note of drunk self-pity better and even when you’re not inebriated you can remember those pissed moments when the only man that can understand how wronged you are is Elvis Aaron Presley. Well, him and Him. For we get that gospel thread back at this stage.

I spent most of my time at this point musing not on lyrical content, for Elvis is long past hiding behind anything the truth (whoever is writing) is laid bare, but on how Elvis is very much a religious figure. If my experience is coloured by the traditional Irish household I first heard Elvis records in, then perhaps that’s it. I see the EAP, JFK, and the Pope as the parts of a Catholic trinity almost as holy to people in the late seventies as the ‘real’ one. It’s something to to with the redemptive power of song, the way in which Elvis confesses every  sin—all borne through love—powerfully and honestly. Though they are others’ words, it’s Elvis’s truth. The greatest interpreter of song and emotion ever.

It takes Elvis 690 songs before he has a knock at Danny Boy (1976, 690) and it breaks the spell a little. Drawn in to the religiosity and expanse, I’m not buying that sentimental guff and it’s obvious that his heart isn’t in it.

Way Down (1976, 698) picks me up—despite containing the lowest note sung by a human on a recorded release by J.D.Summer— it’s a fitting end. I still love Elvis.

I tweeted throughout the experience at @elvismarathon, an archive of the Tweets is here.

A Spotify playlist of my ‘discoveries’ is here.