I was quite disdainful of Gazza Numan at the time because he was such a blatant Bowie rip-off, but that’s the kind of sniffy attitude you have when you’re a late-teenage boy. I still think he was a Bowie rip-off but I also think this is a cracking record anyway and love that primitive synth noise — they sound like wheezing, gas-powered robots trying to march up a hill.
As you can imagine coming back to work after a whole week off means I have a mountain of shit to deal with and a looming deadline next week so the pages and pages of new posts I’ve started writing will have to wait even longer to be finished. I’m going to call myself a Slow Blogger from now on, it sounds so much better than “lazy bastard”.
While I was at home last week I did some digging around in the neglected corners of my record collection and pulled out some albums I probably haven’t played in over 20 years, specifically the sort of gloomy post-punk I used to listen to when I was a tortured teen and these days wouldn’t play when the wife and kid were in the house. In the process I rediscovered a few real gems of album tracks I’d forgotten all about. Why, I almost felt 18 again, but without the black clothes and severe haircut.
I think that as a teenager you have a duty to play music that annoys your parents but my mother got off pretty lightly with me considering what I could have been listening to in the post-punk years. I played my fair share of noisy records but I think my tastes were relatively conventional compared to some of the more extreme and atonal stuff you’d hear on John Peel in the evenings which often sounded to me like someone dropping a piano on a cat. Even 30 years later the discordant din made by bands like Throbbing Gristle, Einstrzende Neubauten, The Pop Group and You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath (what a delightful name that is) still sounds completely deranged and makes you go “What the fuck was that?” If I was blasting that sort of barmy racket out of my bedroom stereo I think my mother would have called for the men in the white coats to come and take me away. Though to give her credit one time I was playing “Atmosphere” by Joy Division very loudly and she stuck her head round my door and said “This is nice, who is it?” – but I guess “Atmosphere” is a very pretty record when you think about it.
But lest you think I was some nancy boy who couldn’t take the hard stuff I did occasionally dip my toe in the deep end of the post-punk pool like when I bought the hair-raising 1980 single “The Friend Catcher” by Australian terror noise merchants The Birthday Party. It opens with a wall of eardrum-splitting feedback and a monster guitar riff that sounds like the gates of hell opening, over which lead singer Nick Cave growls and yelps like someone who’s just escaped from the loony bin. Cave, of course, later had a very succesful solo career and made a record with Kylie Minogue. It’s completely batshit but brilliant and a record I still like today, something I can’t say about a lot of the weirder stuff I bought all those years ago. Not that I’d play it when my little girl was in the house, hearing this might scar the poor little lamb for life.
Even though I was mostly listening to Northern Soul when I was at art college in the early 80s, there’s something about this ancient Everything But The Girl video that perfectly captures the feel of those days. It’s not just the hair and the clothes or their pale, skinny frames that look like they could do with a good meal, but together with the maudlin wetness of the music it’s like a Proustian sensory experience of what it was like to be a student back then. The dishwater-gray Northern sky and industrial bridge give it a real “Thatcher’s Britain” vibe too.
Of course Ben and Tracey were students themselves at the time and when they joined together to form EBTG they created the uber student couple. Art college was probably a little weirder than regular university (at least I hope it was) but I’m sure the same rules still applied: everyone listened to The Smiths and New Order, lived on beans on toast, got their hair cut by the local barber (mine was called Eric The Razor), bought their clothes second-hand from charity shops or vintage 50s emporiums like Flip, and Ben and Tracey’s gentle acoustic pop was what you heard drifting from student rooms late at night — the soundtrack to many a miserable night alone with a book or, if you were lucky, inexperienced fumblings with the bra of some cute indie girl. We were all so much younger then.
Bryan Ferry recently got into a spot of bother for saying that he thought Nazi iconography was “really beautiful” and found himself having to deny that he was a closet goose-stepper. Quite ridiculous really, Bryan may be a bit of a Tory these days but I don’t think any man who names his first son after Otis Redding could be considered a Nazi.
The thing is, he was right. On a purely aesthetic level the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speerare beautiful, as are the posters, the rallies, and the suave uniforms — the Nazis were masters of staging and presentation, selling something terrible by making it look sexy.
The Skids flirted with similar controversy when their 1979 album “Days In Europa” appeared with a sleeve image of a noble, God-like athlete and an Aryan beauty that looked lifted straight from a poster for the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics complete with very Germanic Gothic lettering (in fact it’s a pastiche by illustrator Mick Brownfield.) I don’t remember anyone seriously suggesting that the band were Nazis, they were just being very naive in their plundering of art history, but the sleeve (and song titles like “The Olympian” and “Dulce et Decorum Est (Pro Patria Mori)” which translates as “It is a sweet and glorious thing (to die for one’s country)”) did bring up the same unfortunate associations that Joy Division were also dogged with, and the late 1970s weren’t a good time to be mucking about with fascist imagery when there were real neo-Nazis marching on the streets of England. So when the album was remixed a year later (the record company wanted to put a more commercial gloss on Bill Nelson’s original production) it was issued in a completely different sleeve. Though the band put their foots in it again when their next album came with a bonus record called “Strength Through Joy.” You think they’d have been studying their history books a bit closer by then.
But let’s face it, a lot of post-punk did sound like fascist music. The thundering dynamics, martial drumming and violent guitars (not to mention the severe haircuts) of The Skids (and Joy Division, Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate) had all the aggressive Wagnerian Sturm und Drang of a stormtrooper blitzkrieg. With his hearty singing over their big, anthemic songs like “Working For The Yankee Dollar” lead singer Richard Jobson came across like a General leading troops into battle, and the slower “Animation” marches along like the Wehrmacht rolling over Poland. Still tremendous bloody records though, U2 stole a lot of their sound but they were such nice Catholic boys they made it sound wholesome.
(I met Richard Jobson a couple of times, he was friends with a bloke I used to work for. Very nice chap I must say and surprisingly unpretentious, more interested in talking about football than art — or Hitler.)