Yes kids, this is how awful things were before the internet was invented. We actually had to go to places and talk to real people. I really don’t know how we survived.
ABC’s “The Lexicon Of Love” album is one of the high watermarks of 1980s pop, released in 1982 it’s shiny surfaces and theatrical romanticism pretty much set the template for the flashy, hedonistic, post-modern decade to come. Which makes it a little ironic that the day I bought it I found myself in a place haunted by the once-glamourous ghosts from another pop era and as a result it’s always linked in my mind with rather more dismal surroundings than the grand, velvet-draped ballroom you imagine ABC playing it in.
I bought the album one Saturday afternoon when I was down the King’s Road in Chelsea with some mates and when we stepped out of the Our Price record shop with our purchases it started to piss down with rain — real monsoon-like buckets of it — so we ran to take shelter in the nearest boozer, which happened to be The Chelsea Drugstore.
This was the first and only time I’d been in there and had no idea then about it’s legendary past, to me it was just this dingy place I’d walked past a million times that never looked very inviting. But when it opened in 1968 The Chelsea Drugstore was one of the epicenters of Swinging London counterculture and hangout for the beautiful people, with three glitzy floors containing a bar, restaurants, clothes and record shops and a late-night chemist. They even had a delivery service made up of young girls on motorcycles wearing purple catsuits — it doesn’t get much more groovy than that. It’s most famously mentioned in The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the place where Mick Jagger went to get Marianne Faithful’s “prescription filled” when they lived together on nearby Cheyne Walk and she had a heroin habit. It’s also where the record shop scene in A Clockwork Orange was filmed.
But the youth culture parade is always moving on and the place must have already seemed like a relic from another era in 1976 when Punk and the Sex Pistols emerged from Malcolm McLaren’s shop “Sex” down the other end of the King’s Road, and far as I know The Drugstore’s last fling with pop history was in 1980 when it was an early hub of the new futurist/electronic music scene with it’s Monday night “Sci-Fi Disco” run by a young DJ by the name of Stevo who later founded Some Bizzare records and discovered Soft Cell, The The, and Depeche Mode. By the time I ran in there soaking wet in 1982 it really looked like the party had gone somewhere else, the place was almost empty and with it’s dingy lighting, dusty black walls, tatty black carpet and cheap chrome trimmings the vibe I got was more of a working man’s club for ageing Motorhead roadies. The rather shabby atmosphere was compounded by the appearance of a stripper on the little stage, a young girl who had that pasty-skinned, bored Reader’s Wives look common to nearly every stripper I’ve seen in a grubby English pub. It was all a bit sad and felt more suited to a seedy Pulp song than the glamour of Swinging London.
Looking back now, it might have turned into a shabby dive but at least it had some character which the King’s Road is sadly lacking these days as it’s become just another bland British high street with no trace of the vibrant counterculture and underground scenes it once spawned. When I walk down there now all I see are the ghosts of what used to be there: The Great Gear Market, Shelley’s, Fiorucci, Robot, Flip, American Classics, Acme Attractions, Johnson’s — they’ve all gone, replaced by mobile phone sellers, supermarkets and dry cleaners, not exactly the sort of places you can imagine a youth explosion starting from. The Chelsea Drugstore is long gone too, and in a perfect illustration of how far the King’s Road has fallen, on the site of what was once the hippest, most-happening scene in London there now stands a McDonald’s. There’s a giant metaphor for all of modern pop culture right there too.
I don’t think anyone needs me to post any tracks from “The Lexicon of Love” so how about all the b-sides of their first three 12″ singles instead?
Download: Alphabet Soup – ABC (mp3)
Download: Theme From “Mantrap” – ABC (mp3)
Download: Mantrap (The Lounge Sequence) – ABC (mp3)
Download: The Look of Love (Part 3) – ABC (mp3)
Download: The Look of Love (Part 4) – ABC (mp3)
Read: “King’s Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World” (book)
Alec: We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters.
Laura: It isn’t all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters, and decency.
No one has ever asked me about the picture in the banner at the top of this page so I assume everyone knows it comes from the 1945 film Brief Encounter — and those that didn’t know couldn’t care less what it was. I grew up knowing that film by heart, it was one of those old British movies full of plummy voices, stiff upper lips and dreary tea rooms which the BBC used to show all the time on Sunday afternoons (along with Genevieve, The Way To The Stars, and The Dam Busters) and it’s atmosphere of monochrome miserablism was perfectly suited to that post-lunch rainy Sunday dead zone where there was nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire and watch a great old movie.
The picture of England these films painted was of a genteel and polite country which probably only exists today in the minds of ageing Daily Mail readers. It was a place of deference and impeccable manners where the last thing anyone wants to do is cause a scene or, God forbid, get all emotional about something. It’s a cliché about us English that we’re all a bit reserved and repressed and in Brief Encounter Alec and Laura are like the poster children for stiff English formality, living in a buttoned-up world of afternoon tea and polite chat about trains and library books. When they fall in love it threatens to tear that tidy world apart and they’re thrown into a panic by it, Laura in particular is completely discombobulated by her sudden feelings — “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” — and it’s heartbreaking to see them try to be sensible and frightfully British about something as irrational and powerful as love.
Before she meets Alec, Laura’s life has all the flavour and excitement of a stale British Rail ham sandwich, with a house in the suburbs and a dull husband who looks like he probably goes to bed in the pinstriped suit he wears while doing The Times’ crossword puzzle in front of the fire every night. It’s the sort of dreary suburban trap that would later be made out to be a soul-destroying hellhole to be escaped at all costs, but Laura is a sensible middle-class housewife and people like her just don’t run off with a handsome doctor. Passion and romance might be alright for the French, but she’s British! So she does the “decent” thing and gives up Alec even though it tears her apart. At the end of the film it looks like she’ll never be happy again, but you know that she’ll pull herself together, keep it all bottled up and soldier on making the best of things, hiding her misery behind a polite English exterior. Order must be preserved, emotions must be kept in check, or England and the Empire will crumble.
It’s easy to mock (and parody) their frightfully proper manners and old-fashioned English reserve in general, especially in this post-1960s era when we’re told it’s bad to bottle your feelings up and to let it all hang out, man. But really, don’t you wish more people these days would resist the urge to share the almost pornographic details of their inner selves in public and keep the lid on a bit more? And just because the “stuffy” Brit isn’t inclined to swing naked from the emotional chandelier doesn’t mean they have no feelings, we just find it a little vulgar and juvenile to advertise them to the world in great big neon letters* which is why we get embarrassed in the presence of loud Americans who will insist on talking about their bloody feelings and hugging you all the time. That’s when we start looking at our shoes and talking about the weather.
Download: Love Hurts – The Everly Brothers (mp3)
Download: I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You – Tom Waits (mp3)
Download: Show Some Emotion – Joan Armatrading (mp3)
*Or we used to, I’m sure I’m not the only one who found the national crying jag that took place after the death of Princess Diana a little unseemly at times, especially when people started demanding that the Queen open her heart and let us all cry on her shoulder too as if she was bloody Oprah Winfrey.
This might be a typically-pessimistic assumption on my part but do kids still play Cowboys and Indians these days? I find it hard to believe that they do. Why would they? The Western is nearly dead as a genre in popular culture, at least it is in any form that could be watched by children. To a 21st century kid with his video games and superheroes, Cowboys and Indians must be like playing Cavaliers and Roundheads.
I also imagine that any kid who shouted “Bang! You’re dead!” at a friend in the school playground would immediately be carted off by social services for counseling.
So that means people will one day stop writing songs like this. One of the best singles of the 1970s, presented here in its album-length, widescreen Cinemascope version.
Download: Silver Star – The Four Seasons (mp3)
One of the inspirations for this blog was the book “Lost Worlds” by Michael Bywater, an eccentric and beautifully written compendium of lost things, feelings, places, attitudes and people. So I’m going to be lazy and let him do all the heavy lifting for this post. Besides, he’s a much better writer than me.
“Anyone born before 1960 will have known Aunt Joan, or a variant of her. Neat, effective, cheerful. Aunt Joan’s response to the slenderest of pleasures was: ‘How lovely!’ She lived alone in a little house on a fixed income and did wonders for charity. All her Christmas presents for the nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews were bought carefully, with thought and love, throughout the year. Aunt Joan never had to make the panic dash on Christmas Eve, nor did she ever forget a birthday. She was tiny, courteous, well groomed, well loved and lived an orderly life, never causing pain or even upset; and at the heart of this little life was an incalculable loneliness.
Aunt Joan had a secret. It was always the same secret, for all the Aunt Joans: a young man, an understanding, plans, hopes — and a war from which the young man never returned. The end. You kept going, you did your best, you looked on the bright side and remembered that there were lots and lots of people much worse off than you were. How much of what Aunt Joan was, was because of what she had lost — or had taken from her.”
Lost Worlds (2004)
I was born in 1962 so the “Aunt Joan” in this sounds more like my Grandmother who was also tiny and cheerful (though my sailor Grandfather did come back from the war.) My aunts were more the type to just give us a 50p record token at Christmas, but it was Gran who actually took the trouble to ask us what records we wanted, which for a few years meant the poor old dear was going into her local Woolworth’s and buying Clash and Stranglers albums.
Download: If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked A Cake – Gracie Fields (mp3)
“Do you know the road I live in—Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it. You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses—the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191—as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.”
Coming Up For Air (1939)
Most of my family originally come from London but I have aunties and uncles who long ago moved out to the leafy suburban outskirts of the city to places like Purley and Crawley where they had children, played golf, drank sherry and led nice middle-class lives. When I visited them as a kid I think I felt a little jealous of my cousins living in these large semi-detached houses with big back gardens only a short bike ride away from actual countryside (this was in the 1970s, I imagine the “countryside” is a lot further away now). Compared to our poky little council flat it seemed that they led an idyllic life like something out of a Ladybird book, where it was always sunny, there was a new car in the driveway and two parents at home, a cheery mum who baked pies and a solid, cardigan-wearing dad who did something in accounting. But this feeling probably had more to do with my personal family circumstances than any actual reality, after all I was the one who lived in London and inevitably my sense of city superiority took hold so by my late teens I regarded my suburban cousins as rather boring and backward people whose lives I wouldn’t swap with for all the tea in Croydon.
Now being a city boy who has an existential crisis if he lives too far from tall concrete buildings I obviously have my prejudices but that’s nothing compared to the good kicking the suburbs have always gotten in popular culture over the years; the list of novels, movies, plays and television shows damning them as awful, soul-crushing dead zones is as long as Orwell’s Ellesmere Road. This is true in every country that has suburbs but it’s in pop music that the English have really staked a claim to the subject. I’ve not done an in-depth survey or anything but there could be more English pop songs about suburbs and suburbanites than there are about almost any other subject (apart from L.O.V.E of course), and with few exceptions these songs portray the suburbs as the dull home to either angry, uptight reactionaries or sad, downtrodden cogs in the capitalist machine — usually with both hiding all sorts of sordid and kinky goings-on behind their net curtains of their mock-Tudor homes.
So why the fixation with these places? It’s not the garden gnomes and shag carpets they’re objecting to, the suburbs stand for bourgeois conformity and all the conservative values of tradition and respectability that rebellious, modern, pink-haired pop music is supposed to be against. And it’s often in the suburbs that these values, for lack of anything better to do, curdle and turn sour into reactionary xenophobia, empty materialism and dull philistinism which makes them a nice easy target for any aspiring pop poet who thinks he has something to say about England and the English. Plus, the essential fact about the suburbs is that they’re boring and what says more about England than the bleak nothingness of a rainy Sunday afternoon in a town where the major cultural attraction is the local concrete shopping precinct? That’s half of Morrissey’s songbook right there.
Download: 7:10 From Suburbia – Jackie Trent (mp3)
Download: The Sound of The Suburbs – The Members (mp3)
Download: Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James – Manfred Mann (mp3)
Download: Smithers-Jones (orchestra version) – The Jam (mp3)
Download: 10:15 Saturday Night – The Cure (mp3)
Download: Respectable Street – XTC (mp3)
Of all these songs only “7:10 From Suburbia” has what I would call a sunny disposition, the rest tell rather miserable stories, and while “10:15 Saturday Night” isn’t directly about the suburbs the song just reeks of whiny suburban ennui. Where else would Saturday night be thought of as boring but the suburbs? Robert Smith, of course, comes from Crawley — the same place as my Auntie Molly — so he would know.
Just looking at this picture I can hear the glassy ching-ching of the milk crates rattling and the electric hum of the Unigate milk float driving off up the road. Time to get up and get ready for school.
I wonder what these birds do now that everyone buys their milk in a carton from the supermarket?
Download: Love Woke Me Up This Morning – The Temptations (mp3)
Looking at this school photo of myself from 1973 it occurred to me that this was taken around the same time that Simone Palmey asked me out which makes me wonder what was it that attracted her. Do you think it was my long, flowing Donny Osmond locks? If I’d had that gap in my teeth fixed I could have been on the cover of Disco 45.
Not everyone was a fan of my hair though, I still remember my teacher Mr. Grant handing me the prints of that photo and shaking his head in old fogey disdain at my girly look. My Grandmother hated it too, I was staying with her one day back then and she took me to an old fashioned barbershop in Shepherd’s Bush Market to get it chopped off without telling my parents. The barber jokingly said “we don’t do girls!” when we walked in and then gave me a very severe short back and sides with the clippers. When my Dad came to pick me up later that day he screamed at my Grandmother “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS HAIR!!!!”
The other thing about the photo that occurred to me is that horrible t-shirt I’m wearing, it may have been the height of children’s fashion in 1973 but no amount of retro cool nostalgia could make it look good today — my sister had one exactly the same in pink too. I would have hoped that on school photo day my Mum would have put me in something a little less groovy, didn’t she know I’d be looking at this picture 35 years later?
If you’d like a soundtrack to this photo, this romantic little number was top of the charts about when it was taken.
Download: Skweeze Me Pleeze Me – Slade (mp3)