Wednesday, 5 June 2013
I left high school in June 1986 after sitting my 'O' Levels, running away as fast as I could. School and I had never really got on, and although I was reasonably academic and had some good friends there, I couldn't wait to leave, even skiving the last few days of parties and celebrations in my desperation to get away and put it all behind me.
The summer holiday between leaving school and starting 'A' Levels at the local college has stuck with me ever since. "Ridiculous and sublime" describes it pretty well. The hitherto unparalleled freedom afforded by no longer being at school certainly made for a heady summer on its own, but there were also illicit house parties, the discovery of alcohol and exciting fashion mistakes to be made (a friend recently commented that he'll never forget me turning up at school on results day with bright red back-combed hair, a mohair jumper and PVC trousers, even though I would perhaps rather he did). My appetite for new music showed no sign of waning, and several times a week, I would walk the two miles from home into the town centre to plunder the seemingly vast archives of the record library, before returning home with the maximum allocation of six records under my arm and a new triple pack of blank C90 tapes.
Many happy hours were spent that summer at a friend's house whilst his parents were away, sitting in the garden listening to PiL's "Album", The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" and Half Man Half Biscuit. We'd regularly form bands ourselves, most lasting no longer than a few days, writing songs with daft lyrics to the accompaniment of a tinny drum machine and barely-tuned electric guitar plugged into the microphone socket of his parents' hi-fi.
The first track, the synthesizer prelude "Silence, Sea and Sky" gives way to "Perfume Garden", a song in many ways typical of The Chameleons' sound: the chiming, intertwining guitars of Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies; John Lever's drumming, the very epitome of solidity and drive; and Mark Burgess' bass undertow and often plaintive, pleading vocals. Burgess' lyrical themes expressed wonder at the world, yet were never far from a sense of helplessness and frustration, a wish for the world to be a better place, a despair at the way people treat fellow human beings. The album had been released in 1985, in the midst of the Thatcher era, so such thoughts were never far from the minds of many. Burgess had an uncanny way of expressing these feelings eloquently and poignantly, though, at the point where the personal meets the political. "Return of the Roughnecks" is perhaps the album's highlight for me: "Shake your hand, they'll always shake your hand without a moment's hesitation. Burning bridges and snapping strands that support a generation. You want to climb but when you try to climb, you see the ladder getting shorter. You want to drink but when you try to drink, there's someone pissing in the water." This was how many people in the UK felt at the time: undermined, frustrated, sold short, hung out to dry.
The Chameleons didn't release that much music during their original lifespan (1981-87), although they have been greatly influential and have garnered a sizeable cult following over the years. You can hear their influence most explicitly with bands like Kitchens of Distinction and Interpol, a band whose first album borrowed The Chameleons' interwoven guitar sound wholesale. Continued interest in The Chameleons also ensured a market for the steady stream of posthumous releases of radio sessions, live performances, demos, remastered material, rehearsal recordings and surely pretty much everything the band ever committed to tape. The band reformed in 2000, touring and sticking around long enough to release a handful of albums, none perhaps as good as their earlier material, but still head and shoulders above most bands. All of the band's members have also done other projects, of which I would particularly recommend The Sun and the Moon, Invincible and The Reegs. John Lever and Mark Burgess have fairly recently reunited to tour under the name ChameleonsVox, playing a wealth of Chameleons tracks to still-eager punters. Many people I've met over the years love The Chameleons, which must surely make them the most popular band that comparatively no-one has heard of.
"What Does Anything Mean? Basically" arguably isn't even their best album. Whilst it is stunning, the debut "Script of the Bridge" and third album "Strange Times" perhaps have the edge. But that's splitting hairs - they're all essential. "What Does Anything Mean? Basically" simply has an extra resonance for me, tied up as it is, with a summer of freedom and discovery that had an incomparable soundtrack.
Wednesday, 1 May 2013
Friends, meanwhile, had made similar lineal discoveries: for some, it was the wealth of excellent electronic music on Mute Records - Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, The Normal and so on; for others, it was the releases on the enigmatic and 'arty' Manchester label Factory, home to New Order, The Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. Although we listened to music from across a fairly broad spectrum, many of us had an allegiance to, and fascination for, one label's output.
This was a surprisingly common occurrence at the time, at least among young, white, single males. In his book, "How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005", Richard King notes that this 'brand loyalty' was a key factor:
"The labels this generation started: Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, Beggars Banquet and Creation, would trade on an ethos and identity no brand consultant would now dare dream of. Their releases enabled a fierce loyalty from their fans, resulting in confidence on the part of the consumer to buy whatever the label released. As well as the music recorded, the distinctive logos and typefaces found on releases by Factory, Mute and 4AD were signposts to a secret knowledge."
The story of 4AD's rise and fall under founder/owner Ivo Watts-Russell has already been well documented and will no doubt be further examined in Martin Aston's forthcoming book "Facing the Other Way" ("Facing the Wrong Way", surely?). But suffice to say, by the early 90s, although still a fan of much of the label's output, it was evident that Ivo had started to lose his enthusiasm and that the label was starting to lose its Midas touch. Ivo eventually sold the label to the Beggars Banquet group in 1998 and whilst it continues to exist to this day, 4AD is now a greatly expanded and far less focused concern. However, for me, and many others, the name 4AD is synonymous with much of the best and most imaginative music of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the label was truly a beacon of excellence. The 'golden years' of 4AD continue to be held in high esteem and inspire considerable devotion, with the result that many of the label's releases and associated promotional materials (posters, t-shirts, catalogues, postcards), admittedly very fine works of art in themselves, fetch high prices on eBay.
Anyway, here's a selection of some of my favourite moments from those years:
Richard King (2012) "How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005" London: Faber and Faber Ltd
Martin Aston - "Facing the Other Way"
Lengthy interview with Ivo
Excellent fansite detailing the 4AD discography from 1980-1999
Monday, 1 April 2013
About ten years ago, in one of these messages, Jan Willem asked how things were going, as you do. As it happened, I was going through a rough patch, being in the midst of splitting up with my partner of the time. I mentioned this and Jan Willem said that if I needed some time out, I was welcome to come and stay with him and his family. This struck me as fantastically generous - although we had 'spoken' by email, we had never met or spoken in person, yet here he was, offering to help when frankly I really needed it.
A week later, I flew over to Amsterdam and took the train to Weesp, to stay with Jan Willem, his wife Barbara and their children. I had a fantastic few days, Jan Willem and Barbara making me feel very much at home but allowing me as much space as I needed to get my head sorted out. Jan Willem and I sat up into the small hours every night, listening to music, talking freely and consuming vast quantities of red wine, cementing a friendship that has lasted ever since.
This evening, after 18 years, Jan Willem will present his last 'Senzor' radio show. I've often wondered how he has the time and energy to do everything he does, with his radio show, his journalism, being a fantastic father to four young children and partner to Barbara. He's not retiring from the world of music, though, promising to keep up his journalism and maintaining a weekly MixCloud of new music.
I'm very grateful to Jan Willem for the years of tireless and enthusiastic support he gave to my music, but moreover I am thankful to have made such a good friend. I shall be raising a glass of red wine in his honour tonight, as I'm sure a good number of musicians, labels, fans and friends will be too. Cheers, Jan Willem.
You can listen to the final 'Senzor' online this evening, 1st April 2013 from 21.00-22.30 CET (20.00-21.30 in the UK) at http://dfm.nu/ Jan Willem's music review site is at http://www.subjectivisten.nl/caleidoscoop/