Category Archives: Normal music

THE SMITHS: I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish (12″, Rough Trade RTT 198, 1987)

The Smiths – I Started Something I Couldn't Finish

The Smiths are, for me, an odd band. I’ve got a few of their records, but I’d never really describe myself as a fan. Whenever I hear any of the vast majority of their songs, I’m reminded that I like them, and ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘How Soon Is Now’, in particular, I really like. Yet still, I’d never really describe myself as a fan. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve an inkling that the root of the problem is… Morrissey.

His singing voice often threatens to slip into self-parody, and the way he carries himself has always been kind of a bother. His questionable use of the Union Jack, and more so, his vocal support of Brexit, set him out as somebody who clearly has a very different worldview to me – to put it kindly. Obsessive Smiths fans are a weird phenomenon, too, although I used to enjoy seeing Morrissey-haircutted groups of scrawny lads hanging about in town.

‘Sleeve by Morrissey’, it says on the back of this 12″, and I guess that for all his faults, at least Moz had a certain sense of style or what would now be referred to as ‘branding’. The Smiths’ record sleeves were unfailingly good things – very simple, very effective, very consistent in their approach, and a pleasing connection between sound and image.

On this cover is Avril Angers, in a still from The Family Way from 1966, which I haven’t seen but have just read about. It starred John Mills, grandfather of Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills, so there’s a six-degrees-type connection between The Smiths and Kula Shaker, if you want one. Despite it being a ‘sleeve by Morrissey’, there are also credits for Caryn Gough (layout) and Jo Slee (art co-ordination), which perhaps brings to mind an Apprentice-style scene with Morrissey sitting next to trained experts, telling them how to do their job. What fun.

According to Wikipedia, Morrissey fronted Slaughter & The Dogs in the late 1970s, which I didn’t know – and which I’m not quite sure is true? He was also a huge New York Dolls fan, which makes me warm to him. A little.

VARIOUS: Impact: The Breakthrough To The Exciting World Of Stereo Sound (LP, Columbia STWO 2, 1968)

Various - Impact The Breakthrough To The Exciting World Of Stereo Sound

I have quite a number of these ‘demonstration’-type records, no end of them were released through the 1960s and 1970s to show off the worlds/galaxies/spectra/etc of new stereophonic (or, in some cases quadraphonic) capabilities of, at the time, modern music-playing equipment. Most of the ones that I own were bought in the 1990s, during a time when I – like many others – influenced by a strange combination of Britpop, kitsch and Stereolab, scoured charity shops for records that might include a glimmer or two of easy listening excitement. The hit rate is generally pretty low with these records, but what they do offer is a tiny glimpse into what may have been spinning on the stereograms of shagpile-carpeted, wooden-panelled ‘dens’ or listening rooms during a very decadent time in history.

Here’s the track listing for Impact: The Breakthrough To The Exciting World Of Stereo Sound. Your call on whether any or all of the below represent a breakthrough, or indeed something exciting:

Side One

  1. David Rose And His Orchestra: ‘The Stripper’
  2. Norrie Paramor And His Strings: ‘Soul Coaxing’
  3. Mr. Acker Bilk And The Stan Tracey Big Brass: ‘Stranger On The Shore’
  4. Pepe Jaramillo And His Latin-American Rhythm: ‘Sucu Sucu’
  5. Franck Pourcel And His Orchestra: ‘Love Is Blue’
  6. Ron Goodwin And His Orchestra: ‘Legend Of The Glass Mountain’

Side Two

  1. Joe Loss And His Orchestra: ‘Wheels’
  2. The Norman Newell Orchestra: ‘Live For Life’
  3. Basil Henriques And The Waikiki Islanders: ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’
  4. Ralph Dollimore And His Orchestra: ‘The Fool On The Hill’
  5. Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains: ‘A Man And A Woman’
  6. Jack Emblow (Accordion): ‘Ritual Fire Dance’

It seems that every Joe, Ron and Norman had their own orchestra back in the day. The tracks of note here are Mr. Acker Bilk’s swingin’, sexy and ever-so-slightly-sleazy ‘Stranger On The Shore’, the rhumbas and cha-chas of Pepe Jaramillo’s ‘Sucu Sucu’ and Joe Loss’ ‘Wheels’ respectively, and the marvellous Hawaiian gliding melodies of Basil Henrique’s reading of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’.

The cover artwork bears the familiar, strident logo of Columbia sub-label Studio 2 Stereo, with the dynamic Impact text offset by the bizarrely staid and serious-looking typesetting of ‘The Breakthough To The Exciting World Of Stereo Sound’. No design credit is given on the sleeve, but the photograph used – which shows ‘glass fracture by shot gun pellets’, apparently, although it’s quite hard to tell – is courtesy of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, a ‘British research establishment’ that in time was subsumed into the Ministry of Defence. Friends in high places, these easy listening types!

THE HUMAN LEAGUE: Open Your Heart / Non-Stop (12″, Virgin VS453-12, 1981)

The Human League - Open Your Heart / Non-Stop

My random number generator, before picking this record for me, suggested five or six 7″ singles – problematic, as my 7″s are still not in an easy-to-handle order, meaning that I can’t quickly track down any of them in particular. Note to self: sort this out.

Anyway, to the first record picked that I can easily locate. I’ll never tire of The Human League – they bridged several musical gaps for me, from being around when I was very young (as radio/TV-based pop music), through reflecting the kind of ‘pure pop’ moments that I craved in my late teens and twenties, and ticking a variety of post-punk/electronica boxes that appeals to my more po-faced muso side.

I picked up this record at some point within the last twenty years – certainly not when it was released, but probably as a charity shop find. One issue for the record-buying completist can be a love of a more mainstream band – it’s easy to get lost in a morass of endless releases and formats; is it really necessary to track down the 7″, 12″, 12″ remix and cassette version of every old single? For me, it’s a no – such format-itis makes me realise that what I really like is collecting all of the music rather than the releases; albeit tinged with some desire to make sure I’m grabbing the music in any different versions that were released, and as its ‘original’ release, whatever that may mean.

‘Open Your Heart’ is a superb song, a fine combination of off-kilter electronics, post-punk-seriousness in the vocal style and unashamed melodic pop. ‘Non-Stop’ pushes things slightly too far in a cutesy-childrens’-TV-theme direction for my liking. Despite having a clear break between songs on the record, they’re bracketed together as a single 8 minute 15 second piece. Art, innit.

And art always seemed close to The Human League’s collective heart, in terms of their records’ packaging. Check out the white space, the careful positioning, the sparse use of colour and the typographical spacing on this record’s front cover; on the back a single line containing the bracketed word ‘Instrumentals’ is justified by spacing the left and right brackets to the edges of the measure, while the word itself is left centred. Nicely done. The band also had the whole ‘Blue’/’Red’ thing going on – their band name augmented with a colour which, according to Wikipedia, was to “to help buyers differentiate between the band’s musical styles”.

Cover design is credited to ‘Adrian and Philip’ – presumably frontman Phil(ip) Oakey along with Philip Adrian Wright (renamed as Adrian to avoid confusion?), who was the  band’s ‘Director Of Visuals’. More bands need a ‘Director Of Visuals’. There’s also a credit for ‘Layout And Co-ordination’ given to the mysterious ‘Ken (at A.S.)’. That’ll be designer Ken Ansell, then of Ansell Sadgrove, now Creative Director at London design agency Clinic. Perhaps Oakey and Wright did the conceptual bit, and Ansell gave it life?

Links: The Human League

LOU REED: Transformer (LP, RCA NL 83806, 1972)

Lou Reed - Transformer

I’m not the biggest fan of Lou Reed, although I was sad when he passed away. I did quite enjoy his notoriously confrontational and prickly persona in interviews – or maybe it wasn’t a persona, maybe he just was that grumpy; rock stars should be different to ‘norms’, through being either unpleasant, or remarkably nice, or out-there in some way. It’s just the music – it doesn’t really do it for me.

Transformer is a classic album, sure, and it includes the played-to-death-but-let’s-not-hold-that-against-Lou-Reed angst/emotion of ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’ as well as the swinging slouch of ‘Vicious’; I just can’t help but compare Reed’s solo work – Metal Machine Music notwithstanding – with The Velvet Underground, who are still for me an alarmingly strange and richly listenable band. This happened a lot as the ’60s became the ’70s – musicians who were once psychotically whacked-out and edgy seemed to dip into a more comfortable glow of success, money, classier drugs and self-reflection.

My copy is a little beaten-up and scraggy around the edges, which seems fitting. I think I picked it up from a charity shop at some point in the past – it’s one of those records that’s prevalent in such establishments.

It’s easy to forget (for me, at least, as I’m capable of forgetting this morning’s breakfast) that David Bowie was heavily involved in Transformer – both in a producer capacity and also as a musician, assisting with arrangements and as part of ‘The Thunder Thighs’, Reed’s backing band. That band also included Klaus Voorman (that single ‘n’ in his name is how it’s spelt on the record sleeve), the fellow that illustrated the front of The Beatles’ Revolver. Small world, this rock’n’roll world.

Great sleeve on this album – with subtly jarring typography that is at once ‘trad’ and disjointed; Mick Rock’s contrast-up-to-the-max photograph with the album’s electricity-themed title echoed in the green and red lines around the guitar. According to the back of the sleeve, art direction on the album was by Ernst Thormahlen; according to <a href=”http://www.allmusic.com/artist/ernst-thormahlen-mn0001762310/credits”>the internet</a>, he also had a hand in the design of albums by The Velvet Underground, Golden Earring, Steve Harley and Dead Boys.

A footnote: Extracting this record from my shelves made me realise that the R section seems to be – gulp – not in alphabetical order. I must rectify this, forthwith!

MIAOW: When It All Comes Down (7″, Factory FAC 179-7, 1987)

Miaow - When It All Comes Down

I must admit, I (recently) bought this record purely because I’m a huge fan of the American band Unrest – they covered ‘When It All Comes Down’ and held a strange obsession with Miaow singer and guitarist Cath Carroll, naming a (fantastic) song for her and using a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of her as the cover image for their Perfect Teeth album. It’s a great song, and the Miaow version is jaunty, melodic and good listening – indeed, proof that Unrest’s version is a very faithful cover.

Miaow were a band from Manchester who were active in the 1980s (including contributing a track to every indie-pop fan’s primer of choice, C86) and Cath Carroll has done a lot of interesting things. Here are a few of them, plucked from a (hopefully correct) Wikipedia page:

  • She played in a band called Property Of… in the late 1970s, along with former Warsaw drummer Tony Tabac
  • She wrote for NME and City Limits
  • She married Big Black guitarist Santiago Durango
  • She’s written books about Tom Waits and Fleetwood Mac

This record, released on Factory, sports a disarming image on its sleeve; the sleevenotes don’t mention who created it, but do mention ‘Sleeve: Cath/Brian/Slim Smith’ – yet another string to Carroll’s bow, with the input of ‘Brian’, who isn’t a member of Miaow (anybody know who Brian is?) and Slim Smith, a designer with a huge catalogue of impressive work. Oh, and here’s proof that not all Factory sleeves were designed by Peter Saville!

So, some nice connections to end with: Avant-prog group Henry Cow release a 1974 album named Unrest. Avant-indie group Unrest name themselves after this album from around 1983 onwards. Avant-pop group Miaow slot somewhere in between.

(A final footnote: if the record sleeves looks a little wrinkly, well, as Milli Vanilla would say – blame it on the rain…)

Links: Miaow (on Wikipedia) / Factory Records (fan site)

DESERT HEAT: Cat Mask At Huggie Temple (12″, MIE 020, ?)

Desert Heat - Cat Mask At Huggie Temple

MIE is a UK record label with a pretty impressive back catalogue of releases. Their early releases tended toward exquisite packaging, with no end of hand-stitched, screenprinted and hand-assembled artwork being on offer. More recently they’ve toned down the (labour-intensive) hand-finished stuff, but retain an eye for a good-looking sleeve.

This record is a 12″ in the classic sense – it plays at 45 rpm and has a track on each side. No 33 rpm is-it-really-so-long-that-I-should-call-it-an-album-even-though-it-only-has-a-couple-of-tracks worry, but also no wasted space: the tracks are good and long. The aptly-named Desert Heat recall the almost freeform, improvisational, psychedelic guitar work of (often Californian) bands from the very late 1960s and early 1970s; the music here is almost like two (vocal-free) slices of infinite groovy soloing, with an overall sense of wasted, sun-baked, heavy-lidded reflective joy. The band are actually from Dublin, but they pull this stuff off better than you might think for residents of an often rainy country. As a description on the MIE website has it: “Semi-improvised yet impossibly tight, Desert Heat can only embody the flickering mirage on the open road under the fading heat of the evening sun.”

The slightly textured card of the record sleeve is apt for the dusty music, but there’s pleasure to be had in the fact that the inside of the sleeve is smooth – it makes it easier to slide the inner sleeve, also printed on good heavy stock – in and out. Thumbs up. The photographs on the sleeves, and handwritten lettering on the record’s back, inner sleeve and labels, are credited to band member Cian Nugent (no relation to Ted Nugent, I presume); the credits also thank non-band member Richard Proffitt for ‘objects’ – meaning, I think, the odd sculptural collection of found objects pictured on the rear sleeve. Overall layout is credited to Conor Lumsden, a Dublin-based graphic designer and musician, according to Twitter. There’s no release date mentioned on the record, but I think that this came out in 2013.

Links: MIE

(And, for fun, here are the Desert Heat that did not make this record – but, instead, “one of Country’s hottest acts. Catchy melodies, passionate vocals, wailing guitars, a driving back-beat…”)

Update 23/01/14: A snippet of info via Twitter from Henry, the kind fellow behind MIE: “[the record] was released mid-13 and the band are 1/3 Irish and 2/3 US!”

THE HOUSEMARTINS: London 0 Hull 4 (LP, Go! Discs AGOLP 7, 1986)

The Housemartins - London 0 Hull 4

Not a huge amount to say about this record musically – to me it represents a very mainstream and slick side to the whole C86/indie-pop scene that was flourishing at the time of its release. Songs like ‘Happy Hour’ are super-jaunty and great fun, of course, but the more ‘deep’ tunes like ‘Think For A Minute’ unfortunately raises the terrifying spectre of The Beautiful South and their crushingly-MOR schmaltz. I don’t want my indie-pop to have a sense of social responsibility or seriousness! I want songs about flowers and/or love, either unrequited or otherwise!

It is fun seeing Norman Cook pictured on the back of the sleeve, though, in his pre-ecstasy-fuelled raves-on-Brighton-beach days.

My sister used to get the weekly pop magazine Smash Hits around the time of this record coming out, and I’m sure that The Housemartins featured pretty heavily. In fact, as memory serves a lot of bands were featured that would, I imagine, be deemed outside of the readership/demographic of such a magazine these days. I remember reading about Talulah Gosh in Smash Hits – only after one or two of their singles had been released, and recall with fondness a daft interview with Jesus & Mary Chain that asked them utterly banal questions about their favourite crisps, and so on. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Smash Hits was a great magazine. The only aspect of it I didn’t quiet understand was the need to take up around eight pages per issue printing the lyrics of pop hits of the day.

London 0 Hull 4 is, according to the rear sleeve, ‘engineered by Bodger’. I wonder what Bodger’s up to now?

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: I Don’t Want To Talk About It (12″, Blanco Y Negro NEG 34T, 1988)

Everything But The Girl - I Don't Want To Talk About It

The concept of ‘perfect pop’ is a long-standing one amongst indie kids. It’s a term often thrown back at critics of songs, almost a defense mechanism: ‘yes, it’s very badly-recorded, but it’s perfect pop!’, ‘I know it’s Girls Aloud, and they’re completely manufactured, but it’s just a perfect pop song!’, and so forth. It’s a term used often in the hand-crayoned, hairslide-heavy realm of indie-pop, and there are a few bands – mostly from the early 1980s – who are pulled out as the big guns of perfect pop; the bands that created the framework for much that followed. Everything But The Girl are one of these bands, along with many others like Orange Juice, Haircut 100 and Aztec Camera. None of these are/were thunderingly independent or fiercely different, as one might expect – and so it’s surprising that ‘perfect pop’ is so often a term used in the context of independent music ideals. Perhaps it a question of scale – pop includes all manner of dross that clogs up the charts, but perfect pop represents a strain of that larger selection which ticks boxes for people who enjoy it alongside ever wider echoes of independently-released records.

For the record, in my opinion ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ isn’t perfect pop. I find it somewhat boring and dreary. However, Everything But The Girl have a selection of contenders in their long history for the perfect pop epithet.

On the back of this record’s sleeve, within some oddly-precise liner notes, it states that ‘The cover photograph of discarded confetti is by Richard Haughton’. Some points that this raises in my mind:

  1. Why the need to tell us what the photograph is of? Shouldn’t it be obvious from, well, looking at the photograph? Or is somebody concerned that it’s not obvious what it’s of? In that case, why was it used?
  2. The photograph is actually pretty poor – it’s been blown up to the point where it’s quite blurred and the colours are dulled. More than that, it’s just not that interesting an image.
  3. If this is the same Richard Haughton, he’s snapped some pretty big names! Paul McCartney, Simon Le Bon, New Order… even Phil Collins. His website’s homepage is very odd, though. If you’re on a big monitor and you increase your browser window size so that it’s larger than the image on the homepage, you’ll see that there’s a copy of that image behind the main one, and that the copy scales to fit the browser window. I don’t know why the main image itself doesn’t scale. This kind of thing bugs me.

Some randomly-selected ‘perfect pop’ links from a Google search:

THE GO-BETWEENS: Before Hollywood (LP, Rough Trade ROUGH 54, 1982)

The Go-Betweens - Before Hollywood

Item number one, inspired by the selection of this record

2345. As I fired up the random number generator to select a record for this post, I noticed that the number of records in the list of possibilities now stands at 2,345. That number must surely have some kind of numerological, Kabbalistic meaning? I bet it represents travel, or progression, or something along those lines. Regardless, it’s a very satisying number to type: 2345. Get to a keyboard and try it.

Item number two, inspired by the label that released this record

I’m constantly, overwhelmingly impressed and in awe of the selection of bands that Rough Trade Records have released. Look at this quickly-compiled list of a few of them:

  • Cabaret Voltaire
  • Subway Sect
  • The Raincoats
  • The Pop Group
  • Robert Wyatt
  • The Slits
  • The Fall
  • Wire
  • The Pastels
  • The Smiths
  • Galaxie 500

…and that’s just a handful Any label would (or should) have been proud to release one record by one of those artists. But here’s a label that released many by them all, alongside many more. I don’t know why this is impressive – it’s just pressing records, it’s just shifting product, ultimately – but it is impressive. It speaks of a long-term sense of quality and class that should be an inspiration to all record labels.

Item number three, inspired by the players on this record

Lindy Morrison (drums, backing vocals) once stood as the candidate for the Australian Democrats party in New South Wales.
Grant McLennan (bass, guitars, vocals) very sadly passed away in 2006. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral.
Robert Forster (guitar, vocals) has appeared in a large number of Hollywood movies, including Mulholland Dr., Jackie Brown and the remake of Psycho.

Item number four, inspired by the cover of this record

Band photographs are a funny thing, aren’t they? It’s always difficult to find a photograph that sums up both a band’s collective personality along with that of its individuals; let alone their music. This record’s cover photograph, by Tom Sheehan (who has also shot a massive number of other artists – look him up), does a pretty good job. It’s informal yet strangely confrontational and distracted. The band members look deep in their own thoughts, but are drawn together by the colours of the composition. There is what looks like a blurred clock at the front of the image; what does it mean?

TALKING HEADS: Remain In Light (LP, Sire SRK 6095 NP, 1980)

Talking Heads - Remain In Light

I have a strange relationship with Talking Heads. They’re one of those bands that I feel I should really like, because they – at least the context of endless name-dropping by music reviewers the world over – tick several of my ‘this is my kind of thing’ boxes:

  • ‘edgy’, slightly angular music
  • weirdness
  • art-school sensibilities
  • post-punk/new-wave era
  • pop music at heart

For some reason, though, today they don’t really click. You can perhaps see from the beaten-up sleeve of this record that it’s not been particularly well looked after. That’s not actually down to me, as I purchased it second-hand for around ten pence from a charity shop a couple of years back, but the fact represents something. I don’t care about the band enough to have purchased immaculate quality copies of their records; to be honest I doubt I would have spent more than a pound on this, even if it had been in much better shape than it is.

Why is this? Why doesn’t this band really do it for me? I fear that the reason might be bound up in impossible pretentiousness. Let me explain. I used to love Talking Heads when I was in my early teenage years. My dad was a big fan, and I became aware of a couple of their albums by osmosis, before finally taking the plunge and making cassette copies for myself. (Hey – taking the plunge in this case may well have been piracy, but no way would I have had the money to buy an actual record at the time…)

I was once in a school play (I forget which play – perhaps The Wizard of Oz, where I played the Wizard himself as well as ‘farmhand’, but that’s another story). During rehearsals and scene-painting chores I took in my Talking Heads cassette for us all to listen to. It didn’t go down well. People thought it was ‘weird’ music.

Maybe that’s the point? Back then, it was weird music, because my frame of reference was very slim. Nowadays, though, Talking Heads seem too normal to really get me going. Have I spoilt myself with years of increasingly obscure, increasingly bizarre music? Perhaps if I wasn’t now in a musical/mental place that sees me happily (nay, rabidly) buying a 3xCD box set featuring Rhys Chatham playing the same chord for three albums’ duration, I’d still retain a happy, open approach to my music appreciation?

Perhaps I have spoilt myself? To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think the solution is for me to continue listening to music, and accept the shifting tides of enjoyment that naturally occur. In a few years’ time, I may be waxing lyrical about the brilliance of this album, whilst wondering how the hell I used to listen to extreme noise music for enjoyment. Such is life. Such is music.