My Life: The Discography

1988: The Waterboys / Fisherman’s Blues

Fisherman's Blues

I was so preoccupied with the records coming from the American underground in those days that I was barely paying any attention to the domestic music scene any more.  I remember having a chat with Sid Griffin of The Long Ryders in 1985 and him asking me which British guitar bands I was into.  I ummed and ahhed.  I think I mentioned The Smiths and Echo And The Bunnymen, though in truth I was fast losing interest in either of these bands.  By 1987 I’d grown so tired of Morrissey that I gave all my Smiths records away to my friend Vince.*  Other friends would tell me about groups like The Jesus And Mary Chain, or The Wedding Present, but I couldn’t get excited about any of these people.  The American music I was hearing sounded so free and so full of life, but the music being made by British indie bands seemed dour and miserable by comparison.  Where was the sparkle?  In truth, though, my attitude may have had more to do with my lifelong yankophilia being at an all-time peak.  But eventually I came across a band who renewed my interest in music closer to home.

In the summer of 1986, a whole bunch of us trooped down to the Glastonbury Festival.  I recall that it was my friend Nick from Liverpool who instigated it.  Most of us had never been to a big festival before, but Nick was very enthusiastic and his fervour was infectious.  We organised various cars and vans and proceeded to get very pumped up about the whole affair.  My friend Bill and I went down to Somerset together in what I assume was Bill’s car, though I can’t for the life of me recall him ever driving it other than that weekend.  Maybe he kept it at his parents’ house.  Taking the bus was always the easier option in Birmingham.  Bill played Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse on the way down.  I was still at the start of a steep learning curve with Neil in those days.  I recall not being able to get my head around Cortez The Killer.  I would catch up soon enough.

When we arrived at the festival site, we all met up at a pre-arranged spot.  I’d never seen so many people in one place before.  It was more than a little overwhelming.  But I had music as my focus.  Armed with a copy of the programme, I would zigzag from stage to stage, catching as many of the acts as I could squeeze in.  There were occasional breaks in my itinerary though, certain times of the day when I didn’t care where I was.  At such times I made my way to a place about half-way up the bank from the main Pyramid Stage to catch up with my friends and see what was going on.  On one such occasion I arrived in time to catch The Waterboys play their set.

I’d heard of The Waterboys.  In fact, I had one of their songs on a compilation album.  I’d sent off for the LP in question because it included an R.E.M. song that was, at the time, otherwise unavailable in the UK.  Determined to get my money’s worth, I tried very hard to like everything else on the record too, but, in truth, there were only about three or four tracks on there I cared much for.  One of these was a song called A Pagan Place by The Waterboys.  The amount of echo on the production was a bit overdone for my tastes, but the song was spirited.  I put it on a various artists cassette I took with me to Birmingham, and I played it a lot.  I thought about maybe buying an LP by them, but I didn’t get around to it.  Now they were on stage in front of me in Glastonbury.  Well they had to be worth a listen, right?

I was stood next to a lad called Tim.  He’d had been in my hall of residence.  In fact he’d taken over Jon’s room – you remember the Hanoi Rocks fan from the Psychedelic Furs chapter? – when Jon had moved on.  Tim now lived in a house with Liverpool Nick and Multiple Personality Ian.  He was at Glastonbury with his girlfriend, who I think was called Nadine.  She was a huge Waterboys fan, and she was on her feet and well into the music.  Meanwhile, my attention was all but totally focussed on their violin player.  This fellow in a battered top hat with a hole in the top where his hair poked through, who was leaping all over the stage and playing the holy crap out of a black electric violin.  I asked Nadine about him and she told me he was new to the group.

I took a walk down nearer the front of the stage and watched the band from a fresh angle.  There was this other guy over on the far side of the stage who was changing instruments every other song.  He played saxophone, then mandolin, then a slide guitar, then a Hammond organ.  Very impressive indeed.  And then there was the main dude, the leader of the band, alternating between guitars and an electric piano, and singing with so much fire in his belly.  I went back up the hill and watched with a big grin on my face as these three guys stood at the front of the stage and lead the rest of the band through this new song called Fisherman’s Blues.  Every so often they’d do a high kick in unison, and then twirl around 360 degrees.  Not only were they bloody good musicians, but they evidently liked to have a good laugh too.  The violin man was playing this fantastic little hook on his fiddle all the while.  I had to get a copy of this song!  I carried on quizzing Nadine.  She told me that the Fisherman’s Blues song hadn’t come out on a record yet.  The most recent album was called This Is The Sea, but the violin player was only on one track.  I decided to wait for the next album.  It was sure to sound more like the gig I was watching and really enjoying.

So I waited.  And waited.  It wasn’t until more than two years later that I saw a review of Fisherman’s Blues in one of the music papers.  I can’t remember who wrote it, but it described a record that was full of romance and wonder.  Filled with much eager anticipation, I went out and bought a copy on the day of release.  Reading through the notes on the LP’s inner bag, I learned the names of the people I’d seen on stage all those months before.  Mike Scott was the main man, the songwriter and the singer (I later learned that the band was, in truth, only ever Mike and whoever he chose to take along for the ride).  The multi-instrumentalist was Anto Thistlethwaite.  And that amazing man on the fiddle was Steve Wickham.  I was also intrigued to discover that The Waterboys hadn’t been avoiding the studio for the past three years.  I had presumed that they’d been touring and doing other things and had only just gotten around to making their new record, but the notes told me otherwise.  The oldest tracks, Fisherman’s Blues itself and the cover of Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing, had been recorded in January 1986, months before that Glastonbury concert; side two of the album had been recorded in the spring of 1988; the other songs on side one at various points in between.  How strange.  It seemed as if this was both a new album, but also a compilation culled from something far greater.  I had no idea at the time just how true this would prove to be.

But back there in late 1988, there was just the one vinyl album with its twelve songs.  Side one kicked off with the title track, the first thing recorded for the album.  It showcased the band’s new sound, with Wickham to the fore, and Thistlethwaite largely forsaking his sax to concentrate on mandolin.  I learned later that earlier Waterboys albums had been built up layer by layer in the studio, producing records that sounded like a 1980s take on Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”.  The recording of Fisherman’s Blues had been far more organic.  The band would play the songs live, with only minimal overdubbing being added to the takes that were selected as masters.  This new approach let the songs breathe, and allowed the musicians to play off one another.  The title track, now firmly regarded as a classic, covered by countless bar bands, busked on the streets all over the world – and second only to The Whole Of The Moon when it comes to Waterboys songs most likely to be played on the radio – retains its freshness to this day.  Scott sings it like a man reborn, and Wickham’s killer hook never fails to lift the spirits.

The album moves into darker, edgier territory for We Will Not Be Lovers, with its nagging riff full of claustrophobia and tension.  Then we’re back into calmer waters with Strange Boat, another key song and another superb example of the Scott/Wickham/Thistlethwaite chemistry.  This is followed by World Party, which sounds almost like a throwback to the previous Waterboys sound with its denser, layered production.  The first side of the album concludes with Sweet Thing which segues into The Beatles’ Blackbird towards the end.  Wickham’s fiddle improvisations are stunning on this track, and the band make the song their own.

Side one then is all good stuff, and I’d have settled for more like this and been happy enough.  But side two is something else again.  There’s a definite shift.  Maybe a little background is needed here.  Scott had gone to visit Wickham in Dublin  in early 1986, needing a change of scene.  It was supposed to be just a break, but he ended up living there for the next few years.  Recording sessions mostly took place in Dublin, but with occasional trips to California to record with legendary producer Bob Johnston at the controls.  By the end of 1987, Scott was sitting on a mountain of session tapes, with songs in various states of completion.  The material ran the gamut from structured pop and rock, to long freewheeling improvised pieces, taking in folk, country, blues and gospel influences along the way.  There was a lot of music.  And because most of it was recorded live, there were countless takes of many of the songs.  Scott was finding it hard to make decisions about which performances should make the final cut.  His solution might have appeared bizarre to those who were already frustrated by the seemingly endless wait for a new Waterboys album, but it lead to some of the finest music his band would ever record.  He decided to select a small handful of the 1986/7 recordings, and lead the band through a fresh series of recording sessions in the spring of 1988.  These sessions would be more focussed, with the band sticking with a song until they completed a master.  Only then would they tackle the next song.  In this way he hoped to complete the album.

Scott moved to the West of Ireland to prepare his latest songs for the upcoming sessions.  He rented a cottage on the outskirts of the small coastal village of Spiddal in County Galway.  He became so enamoured of the place that he decided to have the band record there too, only there were no ‘proper’ recording studios out there in the wild west.  What they did was rent a manor house just up the road from the village crossroads in the centre of Spiddal, then they had recording equipment brought in, and this is where the main sessions for Fisherman’s Blues were completed.

Side two of the record was all done in Spiddal and the ‘spirit of place’ oozes from every last note.  The nearest thing to a rock song is the side opener, And A Bang On The Ear – a journey through the back pages of Mike Scott’s little red book.  It may not mention all the girls he’d loved before, but we get to hear about the ones closest to his heart.  The lyric manages to walk a fine line between the heartfelt and the humorous.  As a song it could so easily have turned into a novelty item or a bit of light relief.  However, the performance is so compelling and so full of life and joy that it rises far above any such concerns.  Jay Dee Daugherty – who had drummed with Scott’s beloved Patti Smith and with Tom Verlaine – was sitting in for this session, and he drives the band with a powerful yet subtle swing.  And once again Wickham is in top fiddling form.  The result is a masterful example of how to achieve the perfect blend of folk and rock.  And though it’s a fairly long song, it seems to skip by you in a giddy heartbeat.

After this we leave rock music behind.  Has Anybody Here Seen Hank? could have been written by the titular country legend himself.  When Will We Be Married is the first of many Waterboys rewrites from the traditional folk songbook.  And then there’s the absolutely beautiful When Ye Go Away, with its words of melancholy resignation and its unforgettable instrumental reel composed and played by Scott’s new landlord, Charlie Lennon.  When Ye Go Away had started life as a punky Dylanesque organ-driven tune, then titled Killing My Heart, but the new setting was both more sophisticated, and better suited to the lyric.

And then, after the short instrumental Dunford’s Fancy, came the absolute jewel in the crown.  The Stolen Child was a Yeats poem set to Scott’s music.  The band tracked down local sean-nós** singer Tomás Mac Eoin to recite the poem, while Scott sang the refrain.  The vocals were set against Scott’s rolling piano motif, and decorated by an undulating flute figure played by soon-to-be full-time Waterboy Colin Blakey.  Other instruments fade in and out of the sonic picture, and the result is truly enchanted music.  It’s as if the woods and stream around Spiddal House have come to life and this is their soundtrack.  To this day I can’t hear this track without shedding a few tears.  It wipes the floor with me.

I was utterly beguiled by the second side of Fisherman’s Blues.  It had a depth and an otherworldly charm about it that resonated deeply with me.  This wasn’t rock music or pop music, this was spiritual music.  It had its roots in older, less frivolous times.  It had mystery and it had a gentle power.

I was so influenced by the album that I started wearing big sweaters and a denim cap – trying my best to look all rural and folky.  I tried to get my band Onionhead to get a violin player in, but they wouldn’t have any of it, save for allowing my friend Martin in to play fiddle on a demo recording and a solitary gig.  When The Waterboys came to Birmingham on their 1989 tour, I saw a couple of members of The Wonderstuff at the front of the audience.  They had a fiddle player in their ranks a short time later.  Miles Hunt must have had more clout than I did.

It was a great gig, the only disappointment for me being that Tomás didn’t show up to sing The Stolen Child as he did at some of the other Waterboys shows from that tour.  We did get treated to an unexpected rendition of Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime though.  The band was clearly having a blast.  What I didn’t know was it was to be the last time I was to see them live for over twenty years.  I thought Fisherman’s Blues was going to be the start of a series of amazing Celtic folk rock albums, but they only made one more (the criminally underrated Room To Roam) before Steve Wickham decided to leave the band.  When he did, that whole era of The Waterboys drew to a close.  As for me, I simply wasn’t interested in seeing the band without him, and when they toured as a rocking four-piece in 1990, I stayed at home and sulked.  But in all seriousness, I was devastated when Wickham left.  I couldn’t believe he’d walk out on something so special.

Wickham rejoined The Waterboys in 2001.  Scott had just put together a CD of Fisherman’s Blues outtakes called Too Close To Heaven***.  For years I had heard the rumours about all the wonderful songs that had been cut for the original album and left in the vaults.  Scott regretted that he hadn’t put out a double (or even a triple) album at the time.  Some of these abandoned songs had snuck out on b-sides and compilations, but Too Close To Heaven was the first full-scale archival release.  In all honesty much of this second album disappointed me, with Scott seemingly determined to downplay the folkier side of the sessions and focus more on the gospel, blues, and improvisational material cut in the earlier sessions.  I was also more than a little dubious about some of the new overdubs added to the vintage recordings, especially some of the freshly recorded vocal performances.  I appreciate that a song isn’t finished until the artist has signed off on it, but I could almost hear the join of where the new was bolted onto the old.  But on the other hand, the album contains Higher In Time, a song so gobsmackingly mighty that you can’t believe it didn’t get pride of place on the original record.  The way the band kicks into the song midway through the intro is real hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff.  I was instantly reminded of just how much I’d missed Steve Wickham’s violin.  And the title track was similarly magnificent, surely only its epic length cost it a 1988 release.

A further disc’s worth of archival material saw the light of day when Fisherman’s Blues was given the “Collector’s Edition” treatment in 2006.  Again I couldn’t help wishing that Scott had left more songs with their original vocals intact, but on the whole the second disc of new material was much more to my tastes.  Highlights include the instrumental performance of Carolan’s Welcome recorded at Spiddal House – a thing of wonder and deathless beauty.  And the song You In The Sky is yet another contender in the “how did this not make the original record?” sweepstakes.

For me, an even greater thrill than hearing such long lost gems was seeing Scott and Wickham playing together again on stage.  The first time I saw them back together I spent most of the concert alternating between tears and laughter.  I must have appeared to be mentally unstable, but I was so profoundly moved by the music and the occasion that I couldn’t help myself.  The two men complement each other so well that they almost complete each other.  Mike’s songs take flight and soar when Steve plays.  As far as my ears are concerned, none of the material either of them recorded in their decade apart came anywhere near to capturing the magic that is there every time they perform together.

Over the last decade or so I’ve come to know Mike a little bit.  I can’t make any claim that we’re what you’d call bosom buddies, but we have a good artist/fan relationship.  At one point we were having an email exchange regarding the then upcoming “Collector’s Edition” version of Room To Roam, and I made some suggestions regarding possible bonus tracks.  Now, some of these suggestions didn’t float his boat, but a couple of them were taken on board.  When the expanded reissue came out I was absolutely delighted to find my name in the list of “thank you”s.  I still smile to myself whenever I remember.  Proof positive that meeting your heroes needn’t be such a bad thing after all.

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* I wonder if Vince still has those records.  If he does then I’ll wager that they are in what gets euphemistically called a “pre loved” condition by now.

** Sean-nós is a traditional Gaelic style of solo, unaccompanied singing.

*** The album was titled Fisherman’s Blues Part 2 in the States.

N.B. Fisherman’s Blues is currently available, in remastered form, as a “Collector’s Edition” double CD pack with a selection of session out-takes on the second disc.  The other CD of songs from the same sessions, Too Close To Heaven, is also still available.  However, both of these releases are soon to be superceded by the forthcoming Fisherman’s Box, a seven-disc box set which is due to be released in October 2013, marking the 25th anniversary of the original LP’s release.  I can hardly wait!

My other nominations for 1988 albums of merit:

The Icicle Works / Blind

R.E.M. / Green

Galaxie 500 / Today

The Pogues / If I Should Fall From Grace With God

Brian Wilson

Talk Talk / Spirit Of Eden

Leonard Cohen / I’m Your Man

Sonic Youth / Daydream Nation

1987: Game Theory / Lolita Nation

Lol Nat

OK, so this is something I hadn’t thought would happen when I began this project. I’ve already written a chapter for 1987, all about an album by Meat Puppets called Mirage. And as much as I like that record, I can’t say that it would be right up there with my all-time classics. Nevertheless, I thought 1987 was all done and dusted, and that it just wasn’t one of rock’s classic years, hey ho, let’s move on. What I hadn’t counted on was hearing a record from that year, or indeed any year, that would blow me away to such a degree that I’d feel utterly disingenuous if I didn’t scrap what I’d already written, and begin again.

It’s become de rigueur to write off the 80s as a decade of vacuous pap and shallow preening narcissism, and for sure there was more than enough of that. But if you were prepared to hunt around, dig a little deeper, maybe skip a few days of your formal education, or even simply keep your ears open when your friends were playing their newest purchases, then you could discover people who still played music that had true quality, and that made a real connection. I’m so thankful that those American bands were ploughing their own furrows back then. So glad that after seeing R.E.M. on the T.V., I was now looking to the States rather than to London for my music fix. And throughout my college years I ate up just about everything I could find in the import record racks. If you’d asked me any time up until last week if I’d heard the best music to come out of the States during the 1980s, then I would quite confidently tell you that I most certainly had. That was my thing. I was an expert. But no, it seems I missed out on at least one great band from that era. I’ve been humbled and yet I can’t help but feel incredulous – how did they pass me by? How come I can’t recall seeing their name in print? Man, I did my homework back in those days as well, yet until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of Game Theory.

I stumbled upon them quite by happenstance. I was looking for a recording by Big Star on the internet – the demo version of O My Soul, to be exact. The track is from the soundtrack album to a film that’s been made about Big Star, called Nothing Can Hurt Me. It’s been out on vinyl since this year’s Record Store Day, but doesn’t get a CD release until later this month (June 2013, as I write this), but so much has been spoken and written about this legendary recording, lost now for forty years, that I couldn’t wait to hear it. I figured that somebody out there would have made a dub from the vinyl and uploaded it somewhere, so I went trawling. Eventually I found the complete track on a podcast.  It’s a mighty recording and most deserving of its reputation. The fella who compiled this playlist is called Patrick Pierson, yet his podcast was called The Ballad Of Scott Miller.  “Who the hell is Scott Miller?” thought I.  Well at first it appeared that he was the singer of a solitary song on the playlist.  So I googled his name and it turns out he was the leader of a band called Game Theory and then a band called Loud Family, and both of those bands feature heavily on the playlist.  Ah, so that made sense.

I started reading more about Scott Miller and Game Theory.  It turns out that he died in April of this year.  I’m saddened now that I heard not one note of his music whilst he was still alive. And not only had I missed out on his entire career while it was unfolding, but I’d missed any obituaries that might have floated my way too. It also turns out that Game Theory made a series of albums in the 1980s produced by Mitch Easter (who used to front Let’s Active, and who also produced or co-produced the early REM records – yet another reason why I should have heard of this lot already).  Scott was a big fan of Big Star, and they had a certain influence on his own band’s songs and style. This was all sounding like exactly the kind of music I needed to hear, so I thought I’d pick up a CD or two from Amazon.  No such luck – their records are all out of print and going for insane prices.  After asking around online, I was informed that I could download all the Game Theory albums for free from Scott’s official site, www.loudfamily.com (the site takes its name from the band Miller lead after the demise of Game Theory). I’m no fan of MP3s, and I’m nervous about the whole downloading thing, but needs must – I went ahead and grabbed the lot of them, and began reassembling each album, one by one.  And by God, but they’re brilliant!  I don’t just mean “this is good” brilliant, I mean “this is some of the best music I’ve ever heard, and I’m frothing-at-the-mouth excited about a band like I haven’t been in years and years” brilliant.

I began with The Big Shot Chronicles, Game Theory’s third full-length LP from 1986. It was the one that various writers and bloggers in Cyberland told me was the most Big Star-ish. And sure enough, I heard a power pop master class from a man who’d clearly patterned his singing style after the 1970s incarnation of Alex Chilton – high and reedy, effortlessly cool, and just a tiny bit camp. It was almost as if Chilton had kept going with Big Star-style music, updating the sound with a little bit of keyboards and a smattering of new wave tendencies.  Lord knows if you look to Chilton himself for even the slightest vestige of the Big Star sound post 1975 then you’re on a hiding to nothing. You could do worse than look to Game Theory to soothe that ache. Not that Miller is a mere Chilton clone though. He’s too talented and too smart for that. He has his own bag of tricks: his own highly intelligent way with a complex yet heartfelt lyric; his own knack for writing great guitar riffs and hooks; his own reservoir of aching melodies that turn your insides to mush. Yes, the debt to Big Star remains, alongside other hip influences – at times, I also hear traces of XTC, The Only Ones, Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, even The Stranglers (at least the Dave Greenfield elements) – but most of all I hear Scott Miller.

I was/am so impressed with The Big Shot Chronicles that I seriously deliberated rewriting the 1986 chapter and deposing the mighty Lifes Rich Pageant as that year’s king of the hill. It was touch and go. I think that the Game Theory album is the more consistently excellent of the two, yet ultimately R.E.M. retain their title due to the power and brilliance of the standout tracks on that LP. The workshy part of me was glad not to have to revisit old ground, but the music fan in me that loves nothing better than the rush of a new music crush was sad not to be able proselytise about this wonderful ‘new’ universe I’d just discovered.

When I finally moved on to hearing Lolita Nation, I confess to initially having lower expectations. I already knew from reading articles on the internet that this was a more “experimental” record. And you know what that means all too often – that the art appreciator in you will salute what you hear as bold self-expression, but that you’ll find it hard to actually enjoy.

Lolita Nation doesn’t bend over backwards to make you feel at home. It starts with a short sound collage called Kenneth – What’s The Frequency? (this is 7 years before R.E.M. asked more or less the same question, though not necessarily in the same order)*. The next track has a 2-minute long instrumental introduction and is quite angular (though ultimately very rewarding). The third song is a very short song fragment with only a keyboard backing. The next track is pretty but similarly slight, and with only a bass guitar backing. Fifth track, Dripping With Looks, is back to sounding angular, with a weird, alienating soundscape of just fuzzed-up electric guitar, keyboard noises, and off-kilter harmonies, until the drums and bass make a very brief and belated appearance just before the song ends (though, again, it’s ultimately very rewarding). Then we get another song fragment, this time with acoustic guitar. And then, finally, with track number 7, We Love You Carol And Alison, we get a full blown lush, melodic, catchy, hook-filled, song of wonder that would have sounded right at home on The Big Shot Chronicles.

And so it continues, although the recognisably great songs become more prominent on what were sides 2 and 4 in vinyl-speak. Sides 1 and 3 contain the more ‘difficult’ material – which, in terms of winning over new converts, you have to say, is either admirably perverse, or just plain stupid. Side 3 of the vinyl version includes a series of 25 soundbites, snippets of other tracks from the record (and a couple from The Big Shot Chronicles), lasting a few seconds each.  These snippets are given an increasingly bizarre set of nominal song titles that begin with a series of references to film, literature, and song, before descending into a series of faux-computer programming codes which occasionally join up to make little phrases. It’s a very nerdy bit of pretentious fun, especially as, thankfully, the whole sequence takes only about a minute and a half to play out.**

Yet along this uncertain road you encounter some amazing tunes that really get under your skin and won’t let up. You’ll hear Nothing New with its repeated stinging guitar refrain (it’s so naggingly good I keep finding myself singing it in a mouth-guitar stylee); there’s The Real Sheila, which sounds so much like a proper pop single that it was released as such; there’s the soft-shoe shuffle of Andy In Ten Years; and Little Ivory, which manages to be catchy and avant-garde at the same time, yet succeeds on its own terms so well that you can’t wait to hear it again. And then there’s side 4 of the album, just three songs, but all three are blindingly brilliant: the mighty, almost anthemic Chardonnay (cruelly butchered to fit the original maximum playing time of a first generation compact disc – I’ve read some reviews in which commentators suggest that the edit improves the song, but you can take my word for it that they’re dead wrong***); the skinny-tie new wave pop of Last Day That We’re Young; and the wistful downbeat finale that is Together Now, Very Minor with its wash of Leslie-treated guitar.

You’ll also hear, along the way, a couple of songs by Donnette Thayer, who was both Game Theory’s other guitarist and Scott Miller’s girlfriend at the time. Thayer’s songs are very good, and fit well alongside Miller’s. You also get an instrumental composition apiece from drummer Gil Ray and keyboard player Shelley LaFreniere, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Game Theory was anything like approaching a democracy. The band’s line-up changed with just about every album, and Miller alone was the constant. It’s his show. He’s the director/auteur/brains/puppet master (fairly benevolent though, I think), though special mention must go to Mitch Easter, who so ably produced all their finest records.

So, after one listen through, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lolita Nation is a bit of a mixed bag, that if only Miller hadn’t included all those song fragments, or those arty-farty bits of collage and musique concrete, that Game Theory could have made another dynamite single album to rival The Big Shot Chronicles. Shades of “The White Album”, or Sandinista!, all over again. Now I could possibly go with the argument for making “The White Album” a single disc record (as long as it’s me who gets to pick the tracks – I’m not trusting any of you lot to get it right); and, yeah, Sandinista! could easily be made into a mighty double (although anyone suggesting it needs to be edited still further gets a clip around the ear for their troubles), but the only thing that needs to be changed as regards to Lolita Nation is to make it a bit longer (see ***). Alright, you could just cherry pick the strongest tunes and throw the rest away, but in doing so I’d argue that you’d lose much of the magic. If I can beat to death that Big Star comparison one final time – if The Big Shot Chronicles was Game Theory’s Radio City, then this was their 3rd/Sister Lovers. After repeated listens to the record, you start to enjoy the way the different elements work together – they set one another up, and they create a unique environment. The album as a whole works as an experience. It may not be a ‘concept album’ in terms of having a linear plot or any clear uniting philosophy (well not that was evident to me, anyhow, but then again Miller’s lyrics aren’t the kind you can fully digest in a couple of weeks), but as a work of art or an example of what you can do with four sides of vinyl other than just fill them with as many songs as you’ve got ready, Lolita Nation feels like more than just the sum of its very unequal parts. And more than this, it really comes into its own as a CD. Changing over the records to hear four vinyl sides would disrupt the flow too much – it begs to be heard straight through in a single sitting (I know that’s a big ask – who gets time to sit and listen to over an hour of music uninterrupted these days, right?).

And then it was all very clear to me. This was no passing fancy of infatuation. Lolita Nation was the greatest album of 1987 by more than a long chalk. Apologies to Meat Puppets, who I dearly love, for having your chapter taken away like this (so much for avoiding doing rewrites!). And, also, apologies to Scott Miller for not hearing your music sooner. I can only hope that your legend grows. I can almost hear the Miller Nation increase exponentially by the seconds and minutes.

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* Both pieces refer to the story of American new anchor-man Dan Rather being physically attacked by a stranger who repeatedly posed the question “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” whilst punching Rather. Nobody seems to know why the man did what he did, or said what he said.

** The sequence in full runs as follows: “All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluid Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert / In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants to Be So Full of Sting / Paul Simon in the Park with Canticle / But You Can’t Pick Your Friends / Vacuum Genesis / DEFMACROS / HOWSOMETH / INGDOTIME / SALENGTHS / OMETHINGL / ETBFOLLOW / AAFTERNOO / NGETPRESE / NTMOMENTI / FTHINGSWO / NTALWAYSB / ETHISWAYT / BCACAUSEA / BWASTEAFT / ERNOONWHE / NEQBMERET / URNFROMSH / OWLITTLEG / REENPLACE / 27”

*** The released version of Chardonnay clocks in at 4’28”. The unedited version runs close to being a full 8 minutes in length. The record company refused to allow Miller the luxury of a double CD release, so rather than excise any of the more experimental elements of the album, he chose to prune the biggest and best song on the album. The complete take was once available as an official MP3 download from the Loud Family website, and can still be found easily enough elsewhere if you search for it on the web. Now that CDs can handle those crucial extra few minutes, I highly recommend substituting it for the far less satisfying album edit on a homemade CDR.

N.B: Lolita Nation is the only album I have yet to write about which is out of print, as are all of the other Game Theory albums. You’d hope that in the wake of his death, somebody would be doing something to do something about that. Second-hand vinyl copies can be found, as can second-hand CD copies, but only if you have lots of patience and very deep pockets – they go for insane sums of money on eBay and Amazon Marketplace. Your best bet is to do like I did and download the MP3 files of the album from www.loudfamily.com. And don’t forget to find the complete version of Chardonnay – well worth the trouble.

Oh and you want to know something else about Scott Miller? He did a blog called Music: What Happened? wherein he talked about various records made during his lifetime with each chapter focussing on an individual year. How could I not relate to a man like that? The blog is now available in book form, by the way, and it’s a cracking good read, and leads you to discover plenty of wonderful records you’ve never heard before.

My other nominations for 1987 albums of merit:

Meat Puppets / Mirage

The Replacements / Pleased To Meet Me

R.E.M. / Document

10,000 Maniacs / In My Tribe

fIREHOSE / If’n

Prince / Sign “” The Times

Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Life

Green On Red / The Killer Inside Me

Warren Zevon / Sentimental Hygiene

1986: R.E.M. / Lifes Rich Pageant*

Lifes Rich Pageant

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Three R.E.M. albums in four years is pushing the limits in terms of keeping this fresh.  Mind you, if I’d been born in 1963 then this whole enterprise would have kicked off with four straight chapters on The Beatles.  Only my late arrival to the 1960s party prevented that happening, but I confess that it would have thrown the project off-kilter from the start.  And I suppose that having this many chapters on R.E.M. so close together threatens to do something similar, but I’m sticking to my guns here.  For me to pretend that any other record from 1986 matters to me even half as much as Lifes Rich Pageant would be too bold a lie.  I know I’m taking the risk of maybe alienating some of you here.  So be it.

I ended the previous chapter drawing a parallel between R.E.M. and The Beatles, and here I am doing it again.  This is not to say that the two bands were at all alike.  They really only have being a four-piece band and owning some Rickenbackers in common.  And although R.E.M. eventually made a big splash for a few years in the early 90s, they fell well short of becoming the very epicentre of Western popular culture like The Beatles did.  And yet in my personal microcosm, these two groups will probably always be the two that matter the most – the major life changers.  The Beatles caught the attentions of a mere infant and had me hooked on pop for life.  They will always remain the kings of the hill.  Nobody will ever challenge their place as the ultimate pop group.  However, R.E.M. caught me as I was taking my first faltering steps into adulthood, and they pressed all my late teenage/early twenty-something buttons so hard that it made my heart pound and my head spin.  It was only very much later on, when they started making albums that were decidedly average, that I was able to take a step or two back and view them with anything approaching detachment.

Simon and I, sometimes with one or two others, spent a sizeable chunk of 1985 catching R.E.M. live as often as we could.  Their gigs were always a high-energy thrill ride.  Michael Stipe had become far more animated as a frontman.  He’d parted with his long curly locks.  He began the year with a peach-fuzz crop, but by the autumn he’d grown it back mid-length and dyed it mustard yellow.  He often coloured in his eyebrows purple, for a little contrast.  The results were arresting, to say the least.  On stage he would stamp, twitch, and turn, dragging his ever faithful solid and heavy microphone stand behind him like it was a lame extra leg.  Mike Mills and Peter Buck flanked him, darting to and fro.  Buck in particular was always a blur of leaps, high kicks, and knee drops.  And behind them sat Billy Berry, drumming away with concentration, and joining Mills for those exquisite backing vocals.  The gigs were a catharsis for band and audience alike.  And they were also great fun.

We travelled to see them in Manchester, and in Newcastle.  We went to the University of Warwick to see them as part of a summer festival.  The problem was that we were told that the gig was strictly for their students only.  Simon saved the day by producing a generic NUS card and buying our tickets in advance with his credit card.  Better yet, the payment didn’t even go through in the end, so we saw them for free.  R.E.M. were playing in the second hall, reserved for the less-popular attractions (remember that only the committed knew who they were back in those days).  Also on the bill in that same hall were Green On Red, Jonathan Richman, and The Jazz Butcher.  All of them playing full-length sets.  How’s that for a quality sideshow!  Richman was engaging.  R.E.M. watched him from side-stage.  Then it was their turn, and they were as wonderful as ever.  Green On Red may have had a lower profile, but they were playing a gig up in Leeds that night, so were going to be high-tailing it down the motorway before playing the headline slot.  Peter Buck hung around to catch them and he chatted to us while we waited.  They arrived late after having their van break down en route, clearly under the influence of drink.  Buck strapped on Dan Stuart’s guitar for the encores.  It had been a magical night of rock ‘n’ roll.  One of the best gigs of my life.  We’d long since missed the last train back to Birmingham, so walked slowly towards the station, stopping a milk float on the way to buy a pint of milk each.  We sat on a station bench, reminiscing about the highlights of the gig, drank our milk and waited for the first train of the next morning.  Back in Birmingham we ate a most-welcome breakfast before going home to crash.  I don’t think I could handle all that sleep deprivation, discomfort,  and hanging around these days, but back then I had youth and enthusiasm enough to override such inconveniences.

Later that same year, we caught up with R.E.M. in Birmingham and London.  In Birmingham we even managed to blag our way backstage under the premise of being student reporters for the college paper.  We were writing a gig review, and surely an interview was possible.  We found Mike Mills and Bill Berry racing around playing out a game of cops or cowboys or something similar.  We decided to leave them to it as they were clearly letting their hair down after doing their thing for the people.  But a few minutes later, out came Michael.  I don’t remember all that much about what followed.  I was all but dumbstruck with hero worship and awe.  Simon lead the way through an interview with the man, and then had the bright idea to ask him if he was hungry.  And that’s how I found myself eating a curry with Michael Stipe on Halloween night in 1985.  I remember the date because he gave me a plastic Halloween mask he’d been wearing (which, sad to say, I promptly lost).  He ordered dhal, and several cups of coffee.  We talked about food and the cities of Europe.  Well, Simon and Michael did.  I think I managed the occasional wide-eyed nod of the head, and maybe a monosyllabic grunt or two.  We walked him to his hotel and shook hands goodbye.  Stipe complained about my limp wet-fish handshake and gave me a quick crash course in improving my technique.  And that was pretty much that.  No parties, no rock ‘n’ roll excess.  No complaints though.  We walked home without our feet touching the ground.

In the midst of all this activity, the band recorded and released their third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction/Reconstruction Of The Fables (the title was intended to be cicular).  Many of the songs included saw a return to the melancholy and mystery of Murmur.  Sure, it was somewhat marred by a production job utterly lacking in clarity and dynamics, but then again it was hard to be all that bothered by such things when you listened to your records on a stereo which cost less than £100.  As far as I was concerned, my favourite band had managed to release three classic LPs in a row, and it didn’t look like they were going to falter any time soon.

What I didn’t know was that the band had come close to breaking up around this time.  They’d been working too hard, touring America and Europe endlessly.  And bear in mind that they were still touring in a van in those days – no luxury coaches or limos for these boys.  They’d also made the decision to record Fables… with Joe Boyd in his stomping ground: London.  And London in late winter/early spring was more than likely wet and cold.  Certainly not what four fellas from Georgia were used to.  Stipe in particular was less than impressed with British food and complained that all he could find to eat that agreed with him were potatoes.  Thank goodness we found him some dhal.  But in truth, his problems went a lot deeper than that.  He became acutely depressed and still looks back on this period with a great deal of discomfort.  Simon and I may have been having a blast watching Stipe and the others exorcise their demons on stage, but we were utterly oblivious to there being any such suffering.**  I always think of these lines from Good Advices (a song from Fables Of The Reconstruction) when I think about this period:  “a familiar face, a foreign place, I forget your name/I’d like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away”; culminating in the heartfelt cry “home is a long way away”.

Maybe much of the problem was indeed homesickness, because when the tour ended and they’d had some time to rest and recuperate in their hometown, they dismissed any thoughts about throwing the towel in, and came back loud and proud in 1986 with Lifes Rich Pageant.  1985 had been miserable for them, so they made sure they didn’t fall into the same traps this time around.  They recorded it in Indiana, where the sun was shining.  They took the decision to use a more mainstream rock producer, Don Gehman, and when he turned up the drums, or asked Stipe to both write and sing with greater clarity, the band acquiesced.  They weren’t looking to sell out or make hit records, simply to shake up their modus operandi.  And after they made the album, they played a much shorter tour which took in the States and Canada only.

I remember buying my copy of Lifes Rich Pageant in London from a specialist shop on some back street.  I forget the name of it now.  Simon had tipped me off that they had a few copies in the racks a couple of days before the release date.  That was a big deal for me.  I had the new R.E.M. album in my hands and it didn’t even officially exist yet!

R.E.M.’s feeling of a new dawn rising is all too apparent when you put the record on.  The first track is called Begin The Begin.  It sounds full of energy and a sense of purpose.  Stipe sings “let’s begin again”, and he sounds like he means business.  And no sooner does this opening salvo stop, than These Days comes thundering in.  R.E.M. had never sounded this crunchy, this angular, this raucous before.  I wasn’t even sure that I liked all this bluster at the time.  Simon was already calling it the greatest one-two-punch pair of album openers ever, but I was relieved when things settled down for the more familiar folk-rock textures of Fall On Me (that song so should have been a hit!), and Cuyahoga.  Slowly but surely I came around though, and I now recognise Begin The Begin in particular as being one of their milestone songs with one of Stipe’s finest lyrics and one of the band’s most impassioned performances.  For me, though, the greatest of the new songs was I Believe.  It starts with a deceptive back porch banjo introduction, before Buck switches to guitar and leads the band through a giddy, careening roller coaster of a song which builds and builds.  It marries the energy of the album’s opening songs with the homespun folk wisdom of the songs they wrote for Fables Of The Reconstruction, but here the mood is more playful, more joyous.

It was no accident that I Believe recalled Fables Of The Reconstruction, because the song’s initial draft was titled When I Was Young and was recorded for that album.  In fact it’s even listed on the inner sleeve.  The band may have had a new lease of life, but they hadn’t managed to work up an entire album’s worth of new material.  Hyena was another holdover from Fables Of The Reconstruction.  They had played the song countless times during the 1985 tours, and I recall Simon and myself being utterly baffled when it hadn’t appeared on the album.  It had seemed like a shoo-in.  The similarly spirited Just A Touch was even older – they’d been playing since their earliest gigs and had bashed out a live in the studio version during the Reckoning sessions.  What If We Give It Away was of a similar vintage, being a revised version of another ancient live song, Why Don’t They Get On Their Way.  Sad to say that neither incarnation of the song is up to much, and this was arguably the weakest cut on the LP.  They even included a cover version on one of their albums for the first time with Superman, which saw Mike Mills given his first lead vocal on an R.E.M. record.  It was fun, but disposable.  Ditto the brief side one closer Underneath The Bunker.  In fact neither of these tracks were even listed on the album jacket and were only included on the record at the eleventh hour.

So, on closer inspection, Lifes Rich Pageant isn’t quite the bold new manifesto it would like to be.  It arguably contains more filler than any of their other 1980s albums.  Yet ultimately this doesn’t matter very much.  It’s the joyful energy and spirit of the record that makes a lasting impression.  And it sounds so great, so fresh.  When I’ve listened to these early R.E.M. albums in recent years, I’ve noticed that the first three LPs are beginning to show their age.  They’re still very special records, but they’ve started to sound (whisper it) a little dated.  Lifes Rich Pageant doesn’t though.  There was a risk in going for a bigger drum sound that they’d have been victims of that awful 80s production trap that so many great artists fell into.  Thankfully Don Gehman steered them just the right side of that.  The album was built to last.  It has legs.  And my appreciation of it has grown steadily over the years.  I now think of it, or at least the best tracks from it, as being the most vital recordings of R.E.M.’s whole career.

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* No, I haven’t abandoned the rules of grammar; the apostrophe was left out deliberately.  I have no idea why, but it’s likely to be nothing other than a whim on Stipe’s part (cf the song title “Swan Swan H”).

** At one show, either Manchester or Newcastle, Stipe took to the stage with the word “DOG” scrawled across his forehead.  We thought it was punk rock theatre of the highest order.  It turns out he’d spent much of the previous 24 hours vomiting and shitting, and really did feel like one.

N.B. Lifes Rich Pageant is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with a contemporaneous live show on the second disc.  An older, single-disc remaster in the ‘I.R.S. Years’ series is also still available which contains the original album plus a small selection of bonus tracks.

My other nominations for 1986 albums of merit:

Game Theory / The Big Shot Chronicles

fIREHOSE / Ragin’, Full-On

Paul Simon / Graceland

Talk Talk / The Colour Of Spring

The Smiths / The Queen Is Dead

Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers / It’s Time For

Elvis Costello / King Of America

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Blood & Chocolate

Hüsker Dü / Candy Apple Grey

1985: The Replacements / Tim

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Look at that album cover up there.  Isn’t it awful?  What kind of music are you expecting to hear?  Some kind of bombastic arena rock, maybe, or perhaps something bordering on the prog side of things?  I wonder how many Marillion fans picked it up thinking they were in for a treat.  It certainly doesn’t say “blue collar” or “punk rock” does it?  But then it’s fairly typical of The Replacements to deep six their major label debut by dressing it in the worst sleeve of their career.  Never did a band appear to delight so much in acts of self-sabotage as these guys.  They’d get rip-roaring drunk before important showcase gigs and play a stinker.  They’d get much-needed TV exposure and blow it by swearing on air.  For their 1983 LP Hootenanny, they included a lame blues jam on which they played each other’s instruments.  Badly.  And then made it the title song, first track, side one.  They prided themselves on knowing how to fuck up with style and with humour, but the end result was the same – they still fucked up.  Gloriously.

Simon was on the same English course as me in Birmingham.  He was friendly and outgoing and introduced himself to me sometime in late 1984.  He was a London boy and full of confidence.  One of those people who had taken a year out and seen a bit of the world before moving on to higher education.  I was your archetypical nerdy provincial kid, fresh out of school.  But we had two things in common – we were both obsessed with music, and we both liked a good laugh.  I remember Simon losing it completely during lectures and seminars.  Something would set him off and he’d be gone – face bright red, tears streaming down his face, utterly mortified that everybody was staring at him and that he couldn’t help himself.  He’d repeatedly try and say sorry, but he couldn’t talk for laughing.

Simon was also an R.E.M. fan.  At last, someone else with the same disease!  And even better, two or three of the other guys in my hall of residence were also getting the bug.  We’d crossed paths too late to go to that gig at Birmingham University together, but now we were all committed to investigating not only the bands that influenced them, but also the scene that was growing up in and around them.  College was two bus rides away from where most of us lived.  We’d regularly stop off in town, maybe have a burger from this place that Simon had discovered.  They did these amazing, enormous burgers with everything.  Then we’d more than likely go to the record shops, before catching the second bus home.   We started buying up old Byrds LPs.  Creedence too.  Simon turned me onto Native Sons by The Long Ryders, which I think he bought on the strength of the record sleeve – they looked so much like Byrds and Buffalo Springfield fans that they had to be worth a punt.

The UK pressing of Native Sons was on a new label, Zippo Records.  An offshoot of Demon Records set up to put out the music of the up-and-coming new American bands.  I noticed that the catalogue number was 003, so I decided to buy Zippo 001 and 002.  Whatever they were.  Maybe I’d discover something wonderful.  In those days, you couldn’t look that stuff up on the internet, but luckily my quest was made easier by the local Virgin record store on Bull Street.  Someone on the staff there was obviously sharing our passion for these new bands and they’d set up a discrete LP rack for contemporary American underground rock.  A few minutes of flicking through yielded the two albums I was looking for.  I paid for them and took them home to find out just what it was I’d got.

Zippo 001 was an album by The Rain Parade called Emergency Third Rail Power Trip.  They were clearly in thrall to 60s psychedelia, which was fine by me.  This was surely going to be right up my street.  002 appeared to be a much riskier proposition.  It was an album called Let It Be by The Replacements.  Looking at it in Virgin, all sorts of alarm bells were ringing, telling me that this record wasn’t for me.  For starters they looked like old school punks.  By 1985 punk had become a tired joke in England.  The bands all had mohicans, wore leather jackets with identikit white daub and studs on the back, and stuck rigidly to the least sophisticated blueprint of what punk rock could be.  All those “oi” bands and their ilk.  No intelligence or imagination.  They all seemed to be screaming “punk’s not dead” whilst remaining utterly ignorant of the fact that they were the very people who were killing it stone cold.  The bands with more wit and depth had moved on to pastures new.  Yet here was an American band looking like it was still 1977 or 1978.  Lots of messy hair and plimsouls on display.  And they’d dared to call their LP by the very same title as a Beatles album, so they were clearly a bunch of jokers.  I tended not to like bands who tried to be funny.  I flipped the jacket over in my hands and things got worse.  They had a song on there called Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.  And another called Gary’s Got A Boner.  And what was this – a cover version of a Kiss song?!  This was going to be awful!  But who was that listed as playing guitar on the first track?  None other than Peter Buck of R.E.M.  And if Peter had given them his blessing, then they had to be OK, right?  Truth is that the Buck credit probably still wouldn’t have sold me on buying the record.  It was solely the desire to collect all the Zippo LPs that had me buy that record.  My inner trainspotter trumped my inner music snob.  Thank God.

When I got back to the halls, I played The Rain Parade record first.  It was cool and it was groovy, but although I enjoyed it, I never grew to love it.  It was OK.  However, my low expectations of The Replacements were knocked for six as soon as the needle hit the plastic.  It was great!  Sure, some of it was a little too raw and boisterous for me (the aforementioned Gary’s Got A Boner, for example), but the best tracks had more of a power pop sensibility.  They had tunes and riffs.  It was ragged as hell and the singer sounded like he had a very sore throat, but it was spirited and engaging and fun.  They played with being dumb, but there was clearly intelligence at work here.  Paul Westerberg could write the stupidest set of lyrics you ever heard, and then turn around and write something with emotional resonance and depth for the very next song.  I hoped they’d decide to do more of the latter and cut down on the former, and I waited for their next album with interest.*

The roots of The Replacements can be traced back to lead guitarist Bob Stinson giving his 11-year old kid brother Tommy a bass guitar to keep him off the streets of Minneapolis.  It was a caring and loving gesture from a man who would spend much of his life being misunderstood.  Bob soon made friends with drummer Chris Mars, and the three of them used to jam cover versions in the Stinson basement – lots of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, and also a garageband version of Roundabout by prog rock giants Yes.  Bob would remain an unlikely yet devoted fan of Yes guitarist Steve Howe for life.  Paul Westerberg, working as a janitor at the time, used to sit outside on the street listening to the band play.  Westerberg also knew Mars, though he had no idea that Mars was playing in the band he used to listen to on his way home.  The penny only dropped when Mars invited Westerberg along to hear his new band rehearse.  And sure enough, before too long Westerberg was in the band, and pushing them in the direction of punk rock.  They were unwilling at first, but Westerberg was a master manipulator.  By 1980 they were playing their first gigs (with Tommy still a baby-faced 13-year old) and had even landed a record deal with local indie label Twin/Tone Records.  Their reputation for being an unpredictable, but often brilliant, punk and disorderly live act spread by word of mouth and underground press and radio.  Their records sales were also growing exponentially.  Hootenanny became a college radio favourite, but Let It Be became one of the most talked about independent LPs of 1984.  The major labels started taking notice, and by 1985 the band had signed to Sire Records and were working on a new album, with former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi producing.

When it arrived in the shops later that year, not only did Tim have a bad taste sleeve, but it also had that ludicrous title.  Tim.  Who in the world calls their album Tim?!  You can imagine the conversation.  Some suit from the record company asks that new band of drunken wasters what their new album is going to be called, and they fire back with “Tim”.  They give it a human name as a joke.  Not even a cool one.  Chances are they were thinking of Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but that still doesn’t make it a good name for a record.  Calling your record Tim is a funny idea for about half an hour, but The Replacements refused to rethink the idea.  They even junked the far better comedy title Whistler’s Mammy.

So, shit sleeve and crap name.  So far, so bad.  But for anyone with the determination to make it as far as pulling out the record and putting it on the stereo, it was all good news from here on in.  The album roars out of the starting blocks.  Hold My Life and I’ll Buy sound big and bold and rock hard.  Kiss Me On The Bus and Waitress In The Sky are a bouncy pair of skiffle-pop tunes with sharp lyrics and even sharper hooks.  If Dose Of Thunder and Lay It Down Clown are the token metal-punk blasts to keep their old fans (and Bob Stinson) happy, then the unpromisingly titled Bastards Of Young sees them write a hard edged anthem that manages to both rock hard and dig deep.  There’s also a couple of character portrait songs that’ll tug hard on your heart strings in Little Mascara and Here Comes A Regular.  Though the latter wasn’t the first time Westerberg had played a solo unplugged song on a Replacements record, Swinging Party was definitely the first time the full band had played with such breezy lounge lizard charm.  And if Big Star’s influence on Westerberg’s writing was becoming increasingly apparent, a mutual appreciation society was firmly established when Alex Chilton arrived to sing and co-produce Left Of The Dial, a tribute to the independent spirit of American college radio.

Westerberg’s lyrics were getting better with every record.  How’s this for an accurate snapshot of the underdog from Bastards Of Young:- “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung/Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled/It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten”.  Or this portrait of the hopeless drinker from Here Comes A Regular:- “Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst/After a hard day of nothin’ much at all/Summer’s past, it’s too late to cut the grass/There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall”.  Westerberg had found his niche, depicting his gallery of lowlife misfits in stark terms, yet with a poetic eye for detail, always treading a path midway between humour and melancholy.

If Paul Westerberg was the group’s yang, then Bob Stinson was its yin.  Though their reputation for hard drinking and crazed pranks made for great copy and a lifetime’s worth of legends, three-quarters of the band still seemed to have things under what you might generously call a near-neighbour of control.  And then there was Bob.  He’d always been the supreme joker in the pack.  Bob would play gigs dressed in a tutu and fishnets, or appear for encores wearing nothing but his guitar.  And believe me, if you’ve never seen pictures of Bob, this wasn’t the height of sexy gender-bending cool – Stinson was a slightly overweight, balding, blond hulk.  He looked deranged and truly frightening.**  During the Tim sessions, more often than not he wouldn’t show up for the tracking dates, leaving Westerberg to put down all the basic guitar parts.  This was partly because every step away from the hard rock songs of their earlier records only served to lessen Bob’s enthusiasm for the group.  He didn’t want to play slow songs or soft songs.  But the other reason for his absence was more serious – he’d not only become a full-blown alcoholic, but was now well on his way to becoming a junkie too.  When he did finally show up, he unleashed what Tommy Erdelyi called his “flame-thrower” guitar and made the songs sound so alive and so thrilling.  But it wasn’t good enough to keep his seat in the tour van and by early 1986, Bob became the first Replacement to be replaced.  At first, I didn’t mind about Bob.  I was even a little relieved that the scary one had gone.  But looking back, the band became so much more ordinary afterwards.  They were still great, but Bob helped to make them special.  They felt safer, tamer, more sanitised, and less fun without him.***

Tim catches The Replacements at the perfect mid-point of their ‘career’.  Their major label debut, but their last album with Bob.  grown-up enough to be invited to the party, but not enough to be trusted to behave themselves when they got there.  They made three videos for songs from Tim, but none of them showed the band.  Just footage of a stereo and its speakers.  They didn’t trust the music business and they didn’t like music videos (the track Seen Your Video from Let It Be had already spelled that out loud and clear).  They became the American underground rock scene’s rebel poster children.  They may have looked a bit like an American version of The Clash five years too late, but they were also the template for Nirvana, and all those other grunge bands, a decade too early.  Like Westerberg’s beloved Big Star, they would forever remain a cult act while others got to cash in on their sound and their attitude.

I remember when Tim was released that Simon and I had just blagged our way into writing album and gig reviews for the college paper.  We didn’t stick at it long, but it was fun while it lasted.  The first thing I wrote was a review of Tim.

It’s to my lasting regret that I never saw The Replacements play live.  I’m not sure, but I seem to recall them only ever playing over here the once.  It was in London.  Simon went.  That was always the major advantage of being a London boy in my eyes – you had all the great bands playing on your doorstep.  I don’t think I had the money or the energy to get down there.  Wrong decision.

When deciding which album to talk about for 1985, I might easily have made it three in a row for R.E.M.  Fables Of The Reconstruction is an album filled with haunting songs that get under your skin.  They had rediscovered much of the spook that they’d downplayed on Reckoning, though Fables… was somewhat marred by its decidedly murky production.  But just as The Stones could do some things that weren’t in The Beatles’ DNA, so it was with The Replacements and R.E.M.  The Replacements were the rowdy bacchanalians.  They had swagger and a hint of danger.  R.E.M. were more cerebral, more enigmatic, and were far better house-trained.  Even when they were kicking up a storm, you still knew they were nice boys who would remember to say their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s.  The two bands both complemented and completed each other.  And I needed both in order to have all my moods and emotions catered for.  I think Tim is the greatest example of The Replacements doing what they did best.  It’s tough and tender, stupid and smart, and finds the perfect balance between raw energy and well-honed songwriting.  Just don’t look at that sleeve while it’s playing.

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* There was actually another new Replacements release between Let It Be and Tim.  The brilliantly titled The Shit Hits The Fans was a cassette-only ‘official bootleg’ of a live gig, and their parting shot to Twin/Tone.  It captured The Replacements in all their sloppy glory.  They manage to play a good two thirds of a set fairly OK, but then they start taking requests for covers from what sounds like a relatively small crowd.  Most of these cover songs begin well enough but few make it to anything in the vicinity of a satisfactory conclusion.  In fact, few make it past the first chorus.  Some gig-goers, and also people who have heard my copy of the tape, probably found this horrible, amateurish and beneath contempt.  I find it hilarious and highly entertaining.  It’s by far the greatest thing I ever bought on cassette.  Incidentally, it was taped by an audience member.  The band’s soundman saw him recording the gig and confiscated his tape towards the end of the gig.  The band had just started playing Let It Be by The Beatles, of all songs.  The Shit Hits The Fans has never been issued on CD, but it’s available as a download out there in cyberland for the curious.

** Not that Bob was the only one of The Replacements to indulge in such madcap behaviour onstage.  On occasions when the normally serene drummer Chris Mars had imbibed a few too many, he would transform himself into his alter-ego Pappy the Clown, complete with creepy clown’s makeup, just minutes before hitting the stage.  Such gigs usually started out wobbly before heading swiftly downhill.

*** Bob Stinson died of organ failure in 1995, aged 35.

N.B. Tim is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with bonus out-takes, including the band’s first attempts at recording the song Can’t Hardly Wait which would become the standout track on their next LP, Pleased To Meet Me.

My other nominations for 1985 albums of merit:

R.E.M. / Fables Of The Reconstruction/Reconstruction Of The Fables

Meat Puppets / Up On The Sun

Minutemen / 3-Way Tie (For Last)

Kate Bush / Hounds Of Love

Dexys Midnight Runners / Don’t Stand Me Down

Green On Red / Gas Food Lodging

Green On Red / No Free Lunch

John Fogerty / Centerfield

The Pogues / Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

The Waterboys / This Is The Sea

The Long Ryders / State Of Our Union

1984: R.E.M. / Reckoning (File Under Water)*

Reckoning

I didn’t have to wait long for a second R.E.M. album.  Just six months after buying Murmur in London, I picked my copy of Reckoning from a local shop called The Record Cabin.  I had it on advance order – R.E.M. were still too underground in those days for their LPs to make it to the racks of a tin pot Yorkshire record shop.  During the months in between albums, the British music press had begun its love affair with the band, and I pored over every gig review and interview.  I could barely stand the wait for ReckoningMurmur had made such an impression on me that R.E.M. had already become my band, and in a way that resonated on more than one level.  They were my new favourites, right enough, but what made it all the more special for me was that I’d ‘found’ them all by myself.  R.E.M. were the first band that I didn’t get switched onto via Marcus, or one of his friends, or one of my own contemporaries.  The downside of this was that, for the time being, I was also enjoying their music all by myself.

I knew to expect a slight shift in tone with Reckoning from the reviews in the music papers.  The new album was more immediate, a bit tougher sounding, more stripped-down.  I would have been worried that I wasn’t going to like it, but these same reviews were so full of glowing praise that I thought that was fairly unlikely.  I put my copy on at home and was immediately rewarded by the adrenalin rush of Harborcoat, especially the final chorus where a whole carload of Peter Bucks muscle in to propel the song to its conclusion.  And there was the already-familiar near-perfect melodic jangle of So. Central Rain, which I’d seen them do on The Tube back in November ’83.  And there was Pretty Persuasion, a song so jammed full of rock ‘n roll spirit that you couldn’t help but leap around the room with demented youthful abandon.  And the nagging push/pull dynamics of Letter Never Sent – a wonderful, off-centre pop song.  And then there was (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville with its irresistible sing-along chorus and country leanings.  If it didn’t quite match Murmur for atmospherics and strange charm, it still wasn’t an album you could ever describe as disappointing.  Yes the guitars were a little more prominent, with less acoustic guitars being used.  There was also generally less reliance on multi-tracking, but the essential band sound remained unchanged.  You still had to wonder what the hell Michael Stipe was singing, yet he kept you coming back for more.  He sang with such a rich timbre, with hints of poetry and intelligence, but there was little you could nail down with any certainty.  He was a master illusionist in those days – the closer you seemed to get to the heart of what he was singing, the more distant any real sense would suddenly become.

Reckoning was the album that started to convince many people that a truly great new band was now amongst us.  I remember Marcus getting hooked on it fairly quickly.  I was delighted because it was the first time I’d ever turned him onto a band after many years of him leading and me following.  And, at last, the album also made an impression on my friend Ed.  He’d quite liked Murmur, but Reckoning was a much more direct hit for him.  Ed’s conversion was a very good thing in my opinion, because Ed and I had recently formed a band.

I’d known Ed since we were both five.  We weren’t close friends back then, but I’d see him around and about with his younger brother Trev.  Back in those days, Ed and Trev looked like Russian doll people – identical in all but size.  It wasn’t until we got to sixth form though that Ed and I started hanging out.  We discovered that we had a sense of humour in common, and also music.  Ed had always worn his hair short, but of late he’d started to let it grow.  And grow.  He always had this ridiculously perverse stubborn streak, so that as soon as his parents, teachers and peers started suggesting that maybe he needed a haircut, Ed dug his heels in with barely concealed glee.  By the time we both started sixth form, his hair hung in horrible lank and greasy curtains.  On the other hand, he had been playing guitar for some years and was already pretty good at it.  He had a genuine Fender Telecaster.  He also had a friend called Duncan who could play bass.  Pretty soon we had a band.  I thought it would just be for fun but these guys were serious enough about it to propose that we actually did this thing in public.  Gulp!

We changed the band name as often as we changed drummers, which was just about every gig.  First we were Red Tape.  Then we realised that that was an awful name, so we became The Transformers.  I’m not sure if we were named after Lou Reed’s album, or the robots in disguise from the cartoon, or both.  I can’t remember what else we called ourselves.  We played at the youth club, at friends’ parties, at a local hall or two.  It was amazing to finally be doing something I’d been wanting to do all my life.  We went down very well.  Heck, there weren’t that many teenage guitar bands playing in small Yorkshire market towns back in those days, so we could have stunk the place out and still been applauded, but I think we were a lot better than awful.  I’d not only been force-feeding Ed my R.E.M. records, but also the first two Television albums.  Both of those bands would have a lasting influence on how Ed played guitar.  Michael Stipe would have a similarly colossal influence on how I sang.  In fact, way too much of an influence.  It would be years until I even started to find my own voice – Stipe cast an immense shadow.

I was soon headhunted by another group.  The bass player and drummer had been in local bands that I’d really admired.  I’d looked up to these guys as local heroes.  But now they were making a cynical, desperate, last-ditch attempt at selling out, and they wanted me to be their mouthpiece.  God help me, I tried it on for size.  I even rewrote their toe-curlingly awful lyrics so that I could stand to sing them.  They were managed by Brian Sommerville, who had once been The Beatles press agent and now lived locally.  We rehearsed at his large country house.  I wish I’d pumped him for old Beatles stories, but he wasn’t a very approachable man.  The rest of the band kept their distance from him too, largely because they suspected that Brian was gay.  Now and again one of the band would be called into his office for a meeting and there would be much banter about “taking one for the team”.  Yorkshire in the mid-80s wasn’t the most politically correct of environs.  If Brian was hoping for a second bite of the pop cherry, he was out of luck.  We made one demo recording, played one disastrous gig, and then we all drifted apart.  I told the band that the music was trite bollocks.  I told them that R.E.M. were the future.  They told me I was crazy.  I wonder if they managed a half-smile between them when R.E.M. became huge a few years down the line.

In the midst of all of this activity, I left home to start college life in Birmingham.  Within weeks I found out that R.E.M. were booked to play at the University across town.  At that time I had yet to cross paths with any other R.E.M. fans, or indeed any music nuts willing to take a chance on seeing a band they hadn’t heard of.  I went alone.  It was the first time I’d been to a gig on my own, and I was a little anxious, but there wasn’t a chance in hell of me missing this.

There was no fanfare, no bright lights, no dry ice.  The band ambled on stage.  Buck sat down on the drum riser and began to pick out the chords to a gentle version of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale.  Stipe’s hair hung over his face in shaggy curls as he hung onto the microphone stand for dear life.  I remember him reeking of patchouli oil, probably his attempt to cover up the stench of ‘tour odour’.  No sooner did this most understated of opening songs conclude than Buck was up and scissor-kicking away, leading the charge into a frantic version of Harborcoat.  Stipe appeared to manifest both introvert and extrovert personality types simultaneously.  He mostly stood stock still, but would occasionally step back from his microphone to peel off another layer in what seemed to be an endless hobo variation of a striptease.  Or break into brief snatches of a capella folk ditties in between the songs.  He had charisma to spare, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

After a couple more band originals, things started to get unpredictable all over again.  Some expat Americans were yelling requests at the band.  Only these weren’t song requests, these were the names of other up-and-coming American bands – bands I’d not heard anything by yet, but would do soon enough.  So they did knockout covers of Color Me Impressed by The Replacements, and Broken Whiskey Glass by Jason And The Scorchers.  This was an early hint that R.E.M. weren’t alone in the world, but were spearheading a whole wave of exciting new American guitar bands.  They’d come in all shapes and flavours, and whilst few of these other groups could touch R.E.M. for quality, depth, and originality, they would certainly brighten up my 1980s considerably.

During one of those long college holidays, sometime in 1985, I went back up north to see the folks, get my laundry done, and eat two or three square meals a day.  Ed was still living up there.  Word got out about some music and poetry night that some local fella was putting on, and would we play?  Certainly we would.  Duncan wasn’t around, so we asked our friend Mike Blease to stand in for him.  Mike was a laugh a minute.  He’d grown his corkscrew hair into a mighty vertical gothic sculpture.  He was working on a pretty impressive guitar picking style, but, as Jimi Hendrix once said of Noel Redding, we dug his hairstyle, so we asked him to play bass.  Mike tried his level best to big up his new role by continually refering to himself as “Bass-Face Blease” during practice sessions.  Our good friend Nick, who was also fronting his own punk band, sat in on drums for us.  There was no attempt at proving ourselves with a bunch of our own material – this was a for-one-night-only gig for the sheer hell of it.  I called our band Permanent Vacation after an obscure early R.E.M. song that I’d heard on a bootleg tape.  We mostly played covers, including (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville from Reckoning.  Even the other covers we played had also been done by R.E.M., like Buddy Holly’s Rave On and Roger Miller’s King Of The Road.**  Clearly my infatuation was running deep already, and the band had barely begun their remarkable run of albums with which they’d end up pretty much owning the decade.

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* Michael Stipe has always insisted that the album has two titles: Reckoning; and File Under Water.  In the UK, this dual identity was obscured by the decision to incorporate the more familiar title under the band’s name on the front cover.  In the States, however, neither title appeared on the front.  In all markets, both titles were printed on the LP’s spine, although only the former made it to the record label.

** The old men in the audience loved our version of King Of The Road.  They were impressed that we knew a song that old!

N.B. Reckoning is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with a contemporaneous live show on the second disc.  An older, single-disc remaster in the ‘I.R.S. Years’ series is also still available which contains the original album plus a small selection of bonus tracks.

My other nominations for 1984 albums of merit:

The Replacements / Let It Be

The Long Ryders / Native Sons

Minutemen / Double Nickels On The Dime

Meat Puppets / II

Violent Femmes / Hallowed Ground

The Waterboys / A Pagan Place

The Psychedelic Furs / Mirror Moves

Echo & The Bunnymen / Ocean Rain

The Smiths

The Pogues / Red Roses For Me

1983: R.E.M. / Murmur

Murmur

Ah, 1983 at last.  I have to admit that the past two or three chapters have been a bit of a struggle for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the albums I’ve covered well enough, but I didn’t always feel totally connected to the people who made them, or to the times in which they were made.  I was finding it difficult to relate to contemporary pop at the dawn of the 80s.  It was getting harder to seek out artists with a bit of depth – bands that lived outside of the increasingly shallow and vacuous world of lowest-common-denominator pop-lite.  I was listening to Echo And The Bunnymen a lot, and enjoyed their records a lot at the time, but often they went too far the other way; of trying so hard to be cool that they sounded close to glacial.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was yearning for something with a little more heart.

In the meantime, I was also making do with lots of older music.  Especially The Doors.  My friend Ed introduced me to his friend Jill.  Jill had long golden hair which she was forever flicking back over one shoulder or the other.  She had lots of bangles on her wrists which would jangle whenever she did this.  And she wore a leather biker’s jacket.  She was actually quite posh, but she wanted to be a bad girl.  She worshipped Jim Morrison in the very sexually-charged way that only a middle-class teenage girl could.  The three of us went on a school trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to do the whole Shakespeare bit.  Ed, Jill and I sat on the back seat of the bus.  I think it’s the only time in my life I was ever a back-seat rebel.  Jill had brought her boombox and two or three Doors tapes and that’s all we listened to – on the way down to Stratford, and going to and from the theatres while we were there.  But before the trip was over, the batteries died on the boombox.  Mid song.  Morrison’s voice got progressively deeper and slower, just like the HAL computer on 2001: A Space Odyssey, before grinding to a halt.  The rest of the coach cheered.  I don’t think we realised quite how much we’d been annoying all the other kids.

Meanwhile, week in and week out on Top Of The Pops, all the latest foppish lightweights continued with their sad parade.  Lots of flashing lights and balloons and big hair and shoulder pads and utterly vacuous music.  Thankfully, by now we had an alternative.  Beginning in November 1982, The Tube broadcast 90 minutes of live performances, interviews, and features.  It aired on a Friday evening.  It instantly became essential viewing.  It also raised the bar.  There was still a fair amount of dross on there, but the live-in-the-studio format did tend to favour bands who concentrated more on their playing than their dancing.

A year later, on the 18th of November 1983, I saw an episode of The Tube that changed everything for me.  To be more exact I saw an American band called R.E.M. charge through three songs in about ten minutes that made my head spin and my heart sing.  The rest of the show could have consisted of old ladies knitting mittens for all I cared – right there was the greatest bit of TV I had ever seen in my life.  It was my own personal ‘Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show‘, although it must have been The Doors rather than The Fabs that I still had on my mind, because the first thing I remember thinking when I saw Michael Stipe standing there at the microphone was “that man looks a bit like Jim Morrison”.  Of course, Michael Stipe never really looked anything like the would-be King of the Lizards, even when he had hair.  But back then he had a pretty volumous shaggy mane and I don’t think I’d seen a long-haired rock singer under 30 years of age for so long that my tenuous connection can perhaps be excused.  But, God, it was exciting!  Peter Buck was playing a Rickenbacker and leaping up in the air, and covering as much of the stage as he could.  Stipe was hanging onto the microphone stand for dear life and singing in that honey-smoked voice of his.  Of course I didn’t know any of their names back then.  Nor any song titles.  It was their first time on British television.

And the songs were just amazing!  The first one had this super-catchy chorus, though the only words I could catch were “in transit”.  It was the greatest song I’d heard in years.  Right there and then I was looking around sor someone, anyone to share this moment with because I surely wasn’t high on too much pop and sweets – this band was incredible!  But there was nobody there but me, so I turned back to the screen.  Then they did another one with another super-catchy chorus where the only words I could hear were “I’m sorry”.  Why wasn’t the studio audience going ape shit?  This stuff was making the hairs on my neck stand up like porcupine quills.  Then they finished with a more mellow song, a really beautiful melody too, and another memorable chorus that went “talk about the passion”.  It was all over so soon, but I swear knew one thing there and then – I had just seen my new favourite band.

Back at school the following Monday I was collaring anyone who might have given a damn about such things, anxious to compare notes, but nobody seemed to have had the same Road To Damascus experience that I’d had.  Jill just shrugged and said they were OK.  Ed would eventually get the R.E.M. bug, but it would take a little longer.  Was it just me then?  The next editions of the weekly music press suggested not – they had glowing reviews of the band’s London concerts.  How I wish I could have been there!  But a visit to London was on the cards anyway, so I would at least be able to buy their album.

I can’t remember exactly when and why I went to London.  It was definitely still 1983, and certainly before Christmas.  The half-term holidays must have been and gone, so presumably it was a flying visit.  There were two or three occasions when Dad booked us into a London hotel for a weekend away.  They’d combine a spot of culture – a play and maybe an art gallery or two – with the supposed main purpose of the trip, which was to meet up with Marcus and see how he was getting along.  I think Marcus always met up with us in town.  There was no way he was going to have the folks visit the hovels he lived in.  He hadn’t been living down there terribly long, and he was struggling to make ends meet.  I’m thinking now that we must have had one such family weekend sometime in late November or early December of 1983.  I always enjoyed myself on these occasions.  London was still fresh and exciting for me.  I soon knew where all the best record shops were, and which tube stops I needed to get off at.  I’d have a couple of hours to myself to do the rounds before meeting up with everyone at some specified place and time.  Then we’d spend some time with Marcus before heading out to the theatre.  The next morning we’d go down to the hotel’s dining area for one of those all-you-can-eat breakfasts.  I’d never seen those before!  The first morning I would run around trying a bit of everything.  The second morning I would usually hone it down to the quality essentials, which in my case probably included a lot of sausages and scrambled eggs.  Lovely!

My main mission was to pick up a copy of Murmur.  For some reason, I didn’t buy a new copy from Virgin or HMV.  Maybe they were a bit pricey or something.  I got my copy from one of Notting Hill’s two branches of The Record And Tape Exchange (later to become Music And Video Exchange).  These were second-hand emporiums which were great if you were shopping for records on a budget, but the very devil incarnate if you were hoping to get some cash for your old vinyl.  On another visit to London the following year I took a canvas shoulder bag filled with all my old, and now embarrassing and unwanted, prog rock LPs.  I was offered a pittance in cash or an only slightly less insulting exchange deal.  I think I took down about twenty albums and came home with three.  I never made that mistake again.  But on this earlier occasion, I spied a copy of Murmur in the racks and put the money down.  As it was still a newly released record, it was still a fairly hefty £4.50, but it looked virtually unplayed.  It also looked subtly different than the £5.99 copies back in the megastores.  It turned out I had bought an American import copy.  It had a thicker card sleeve than the European pressings, and also an inner sleeve.*

When I got it home, I played it straight away.  And then I played it again.  And again.  Over and over.  No sooner would side two finish than I’d be flipping the record back over and going back to the start of side one.  And there was no question of another record getting a look in, oh, for weeks and weeks.  Nothing else measured up any more.  I became a one-album man.  I fell in love with Murmur like no record before or since.  I was beguiled, smitten, and utterly infatuated with what I heard.  The songs sounded strangely familiar, and not just the two songs they had played on The Tube, but all of them.  Like I had known them my whole life.  There was a deep emotional pull there that I’d never experienced before, not even with The Beatles.  I could pick out individual tracks here: the perfect power pop of Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still; the anthemic Shaking Through with its jangling piano; the gentle and melodic Talk About The Passion; or the beautifully melancholy of Perfect Circle – but really it was about the whole album.  Some tracks were probably better than others, but I never once considered playing just this or that track in isolation.  No, I would listen to the whole thing and just wallow.  Putting the record on was like opening a door to another world, or at very least, a secret garden with lots of kudzu growing wild and free.

What did I find so attractive?  Stipe’s voice, for sure.  And also Buck’s ringing guitars.  Also the way that Mike Mills and Bill Berry sang backing vocals which weren’t always straight harmonies, but were often totally different parts that weaved in and out of the lead vocal.  But more than any of this it was once again the whole picture rather than the individual elements.  Murmur has a spooky, swampy, Southern Gothic murk about it.  It’s an album filled to the brim with atmosphere, intrigue, and mystery.  The record is full of great pop hooks and melodies, but they are all understated.  Stipe’s vocals are more buried than most lead singers could live with.  Nothing is laid out on a plate for the listener – they have to work hard to catch what a lyric line might be.**  On another album, this might be a muddy disaster, but the album was expertly produced and engineered by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.  It doesn’t sound chaotic or confused, like say much of The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk does.  Maybe it’s because Buck’s guitars chime out rather than wash over you, but there’s just enough clarity and punch here for this often experimental approach to work.

I took that album with me everywhere I went.  I took it to friends’ houses.  I remember sitting there in a room with my best friend Nick, and with Joanna, Marie, and Janet.  Joanna had been my girlfriend (for all of about three weeks!), but she was now seeing Nick.  There was always a lot of that sort of thing at school – it was like changing partners at a dance.  I still see it going on today.  Of course it hurt like hell, but Nick had tried his best to be a gentleman about the whole thing.  Nick caused me pain like only a best friend can, and on more than one occasion, but he was also a lovely, soulful person and a good mate despite everything.  He was passionate about his punk rock and his politics.  He later became a union rep, and though he never moved away from where we grew up together, he never fell victim to the small-town mentality.  He lived an alternative lifestyle right on the doorstep of a traditional, right wing, Yorkshire market town.  Sadly, I’ve lost touch with him, but would dearly love to see him again sometime and talk about old times.  It was not long after stealing Joanna from me that he switched his attentions to her best friend Marie, and they would stay together for many years.  I couldn’t help wishing that he hadn’t made the Joanna detour first, but hey ho.  He got both of them to sing in his various punk rock bands, though you could always tell they were doing it more out of loyalty to Nick than any real love of the music.  Janet was Joanna’s next-door neighbour.  Silly as a goose but with her heart in the right place.  I remember all of us sat round at Janet’s house listening to Murmur.  I really hoped that someone would see the light and join me in my newfound evangelistic fervour for R.E.M., but yet again there was another round of polite nods, and “it’s OK”s.  I wouldn’t find any fellow zealots until I moved away to Birmingham the following year.***

For the longest while, whenever I was asked what my favourite album was, I would answer “Murmur“, without skipping a beat, but then, slowly, my loyalty started to wane just a little.  I was even seen out with other albums under my arm!  Eventually I found myself thinking that the album was starting to sound maybe just the tiniest bit dated.  I actually felt guilty about no longer having Murmur as my favourite record – like it was a kind of betrayal.  I suppose the first flush of young love has passed, but it’ll always be up there with the very best even though a year or two may now go by in between spins.  And whilst R.E.M. themselves would go on to make many more excellent albums, they’d never quite recapture the otherwordly spook of Murmur.

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* I also seem to recall that some or all of the UK copies back then had the group’s name and album title printed in red rather than the more standard pale blue.

** For many years R.E.M. made a point of never printing the words to their songs.  In retrospect, one suspects that the main reason could well have been Stipe’s lack of confidence in his earlier lyrics, rather than the oft-quoted stance against making their records too easy to assimilate (and thereafter dispose of).

*** I’d not been in Birmingham long, when I was shocked one day to discover that Radio Free Europe had started to jump.  Had I actually worn my LP out already?  It played alright on my friend Bill’s stereo, so I bought another copy, slipped it inside my prized American sleeve, and gave Bill my original album in the new sleeve.  And so, to this day, I still have a European pressing of Murmur inside a U.S. cover.

N.B. Murmur is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with a contemporaneous live show on the second disc.  An older, single-disc remaster in the ‘I.R.S. Years’ series is also still available which contains the original album plus a small selection of bonus tracks.

My other nominations for 1983 albums of merit:

The Replacements / Hootenanny

Violent Femmes

Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers / Jonathan Sings!

Echo & The Bunnymen / Porcupine

Bob Dylan / Infidels

The Waterboys

Tom Waits / Swordfishtrombones

1982: Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners / Too-Rye-Ay

Too-Rye-Ay

Towards the end of 1981, Dad bought a video cassette recorder.  It was right in the middle of the format war between VHS and Betamax, and Dad knew nothing about technology, so, sensibly, he asked around.  He must have asked the wrong people – he bought a Betamax machine.  Actually, to be fair, many people regarded Betamax as the superior format in terms of quality, but one look at the shelves in the video rental shops told you what the bottom line was – the number of VHS titles was already dwarfing those for Betamax.*  Before the decade was out we found ourselves the proud owners of an obsolete piece of junk, and a full library of things we’d taped from the telly but would never be able to watch again.

Included in that mighty drawer full of Betamax tapes were several that I’d filled with pop music. There was still so little of it on TV in those days, that any appearance or promo video by a band you liked, or even half-liked, was well worth preserving.  Dexys Midnight Runners seemed to crop up every few minutes on those tapes.  1982 was the year they made their biggest commercial splash, and they were everywhere.  There was Kevin Rowland, his bare arms high above his head, hands clasped together, demonstrating some dance of his own invention that made him appear to be sniffing his own armpits.  Then there was that famous appearance on Top Of The Pops when they were promoting their version of Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile) in front of a video screen image of Jocky Wilson.  Rumour had it that the band were victims of some idiot researcher, who was either too young, or too hard of hearing, to know the difference between the names of the R&B legend, and a darts player.  More recent rumour has it that the jest was intentional and that Rowland always had a better sense of humour than we tended to credit him with.  He always seemed to take himself so seriously.  Even when wearing dungarees.

Kevin Rowland had been fronting Dexys Midnight Runners since 1978.  They’d started out dressing up in suits, but the style-conscious Rowland had hit upon the idea of really making the band stand out from the crowd.  By the following year the entire seven-piece band was wearing donkey jackets, leather coats and wool caps.  They looked more like a street gang than a pop group.  It was this line-up of the band that scored big with the song Geno.  I remember seeing them on Top Of The Pops looking tough and foreboding.  Geno was a great single – an unstoppable, stomping, upbeat, brass-driven salute to the power of music.  Dexys played soul with punk energy.  They made most of their contemporaries sound trite, weedy and pointless.

Their first album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, came out around this time.  Listening to Marcus’s copy of it, and again I think the first time I heard it was when we were over at Glo’s house, the first thing I had to grapple with was Rowland’s voice.  I had never been deaf to the singular charms of a peculiar voice, the kind of performer who gets called a “non-singer”.  In fact I’d barely noticed that people like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or Tom Verlaine couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket – I’d been too busy being swept away by their talents as songwriters and creators of a certain style or mood.  I either liked a record or I didn’t, and yes, some of the records I liked had people with funny voices singing on them.  But even coming from that point of view, I’ve always found Rowland’s singing style hard to love.  His yelping delivery sounds like a man whose shower is running alternatively too hot and too cold.**  Not only that, but there’s someone else in the cubicle with him stamping repeatedly on his toes.  In the wrong setting, such a voice may prove to be a little too fingernails-on-a-blackboard, but in the context of the Dexys soulful brew, Rowland just about gets away with it.

The following year proved to be a period of upheaval for Dexys.  Most of the Soul Rebels line-up quit, frustrated by Rowland’s increasingly dictatorial behaviour.  Their replacements found themselves in a band now dressing in gym workout kit, with Rowland leading them on cross-country runs.  Such asceticism extended to drugs and alcohol being banned in the ranks.  This incarnation of the band didn’t get to make an album, although a later CD, The Projected Passion Revue, compiles the singles they put out, plus a concert and a studio session, both originally aired on BBC Radio One.  A quick perusal of the track listing reveals that most of the songs which were to comprise Too-Rye-Ay were already being played, although not quite in the form that most of us first got to hear them.  We had to wait for three vital pieces of the puzzle to fall into place before Rowland was ready to deliver the second Dexys album.

The first was a new musical texture.  Rowland brought in three fiddle players, dubbing them The Emerald Express, to give the music a more Celtic flavour.  In truth, he stole the idea (and one of the actual fiddlers) from ex-Dexy Kevin Archer.  Archer had been Dexys’ second-in-command right up until his departure in early 1981.  When he left the group, Archer formed The Blue Ox Babes and made some demo recordings.  Rowland liked what he heard so much that he lured Helen O’Hara away from The Blue Ox Babes and integrated Archer’s new sound into Dexys.***  Initially the fiddles would play alongside the horn section, and, for me, the recordings which used this arrangement are the ones which came out sounding the best.  The horns gave the songs an anthemic power, whereas the fiddles gave them a romantic yearning.  The horns sounded urban and put you in mind of classic 1960s soul music, but the fiddles sounded rural and more akin to folk music, and Irish folk music in particular.  The two elements in combination gave the music a more complex soundscape and a richer emotional range.  Bringing in the fiddles also meant that Rowland could now more fully explore his Irish roots.  All of which points to a key influence – Van Morrison.  Morrison, a Belfast man, had also combined horns and strings in his Caledonian Soul Orchestra (and heard to best effect on the live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now), wrote about his days in Ireland extensively, and had often covered soul classics during his concerts.  Too-Rye-Ay wore its love for Morrison on its sleeve (even literally, by including Dexys’ cover of his song Jackie Wilson Said in its track listing).

The second was another style change.  Out went the tracksuits and sweatbands, and in came those now-legendary dungarees and unkempt locks. Rowland’s seeming determination to have the band adopt a dramatically different wardrobe every twelve months was tremendously entertaining.  He sidestepped any whiff of showbiz posturing, first by downplaying the new look with a deadpan assertion that these were the only kind of clothes he wore (as if the previous incarnations of the band had never happened), but also by choosing a look that was the absolute antithesis of contemporary pop group fashion.  By 1982, both the new romantic movement and the electronic pop acts were beginning to take over the charts.  There were lots of men in suits and skinny ties, with carefully sculpted hairstyles that before long would be well on their way towards mullet territory.  Even the groups that were more inclined to raid the dressing-up box, always looked pristine and well-scrubbed.  It was almost refreshing to see a band who had apparently slept out on the street all night and that wouldn’t know what an ironing board was if they saw one.  It’s easy to laugh now at the raggle-taggle gypsy-chic of the Too-Rye-Ay-era Dexys (hell, it was easy enough to laugh at it in 1982!), but in my eyes it was something of masterstroke.  For one thing, there was no chance of you confusing Dexys with any other group.  And for another, they were also delivering a mighty two-fingered gesture at the scene around them.  As always, Dexys stood apart.

The third was a song that was almost guaranteed to take Dexys back to the top of the charts.  Come On, Eileen was one of the last songs to be written for Too-Rye-Ay.  Here, the fiddles took the centre stage and left the horns standing in the wings.  The folk trappings were further bolstered with a prominent banjo.  The resulting sound was wildly exuberant, playful and brimming with joy.  It was great fun, it was sexy (the entire lyric consisted of a desperate plea to get young Eileen between the sheets), it was spectacularly played and perfectly arranged, and utterly unlike anything else in the British charts at the time.  Down the years it’s been played at countless student discos, weddings and other social gatherings, and never once has it sounded tired (though the dancing usually leaves much to be desired).  It fully deserves its place as one of the all-time classic 45s of that or any other era.

Dexys could have stuck any old tripe on an album that included Come On, Eileen and still have sold thousands of copies, but as it is Too-Rye-Ay was no one-trick pony.  The album opens with The Celtic Soul Brothers.  It was the album’s first single, and it got nowhere.  I’m still scratching my head over that one, because it’s as catchy and punchy as anything else in their catalogue.  It was the obvious choice as the lead-off track, establishing as it does the band’s new identity: “Introducing the Celtic Soul Brothers/Featuring the strong devoted”.

The second song is my personal favourite on the album; Let’s Make This Precious.  Like The Celtic Soul Brothers, it dated from the previous year, before the band were joined by The Emerald Express, but the marriage of brass and fiddle here is so outstanding that any earlier version of the song now appears under-dressed.  The brass rasps out the song’s signature motif during the chorus, while the fiddles dance around them playing a counter-melody.

The man responsible for the majority of the musical arrangements on Too-Rye-Ay was trombonist “Big” Jim Paterson.  Paterson had been there since the band’s earliest days, and stayed loyal to Rowland through all the upheavals and line-up changes.  Rowland must have sensed that he had even more to give than just his trombone playing, because by 1981 he had become his main songwriting partner.  Rowland and Paterson co-wrote all of the original songs on Too-Rye-Ay (occasionally with a third outside credit).  Sadly though, and even before the album reached the shops, Paterson had left Dexys, taking the other brass players with him.  They felt that the fiddles were encroaching too much on their territory.  Paterson’s absence would be keenly felt – Let’s Get This Straight (From the Start), the Dexys single immediately post-dating Too-Rye-Ay, was tuneful enough, but sounded limp and weak.  Rowland would have to have a major rethink before he was properly able to forge ahead without Paterson’s talents.****  Let’s Make This Precious, though, is proof positive that there was not only room for both brass and strings, but that the group’s sound was positively enhanced by their combination.

The first vinyl side of the LP also included two slower and gentler songs, All In All (This One Last Wild Waltz) and Old, which offered not only a change of pace, but gave the album a greater emotional depth.  These songs were placed either side of Jackie Wilson Said, the record’s second-biggest hit single.  Side Two saw the band stretch out a bit more as they revisited staples from the 1981-vintage band, including the singles Plan B, and Liars A To E.  There was also I’ll Show You, a superb answer song to their other 1981 single, Show Me.  All these tracks flow into each other with no pauses for breath between the songs.  The segue from Plan B into I’ll Show You is particularly inspired – the reprise of the refrain at the end of the former was recorded as the intro of the latter.  It works brilliantly because there’s not even a join to spot.  This mini-suite of songs culminates in the extended Until I Believe In My Soul, which finds Rowland testifying over a musical backdrop that veers between soul and free-form jazz.  It might have made the ideal album-closer, but instead it’s Come On, Eileen which sends us on our way.  Thereby the album’s most sprawling and least commercial song (Until I Believe In My Soul) is followed by its polar opposite.  The effect is akin to being allowed outside to play in the sunshine after listening to a particularly intense sermon.

When fans and critics appraise Dexys, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is usually singled out for the most plaudits.  Others single out Don’t Stand Me Down, their uncompromising third album, as being their misunderstood masterpiece.  There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much love for Too-Rye-Ay.  Maybe the purists grew tired of it because the singles from it had so much exposure, and, for a while there, the band became the property of the masses.  I certainly can’t agree that those other records had better songs.  I enjoy all three records for their very different strengths and qualities, but Too-Rye-Ay is my personal favourite.

Many years later I got to know Steve Brennan, one of the fiddle players from that line-up of the band.  It took a while for the penny to drop, because he was introduced to me as Steve Shaw.  Brennan wasn’t his real surname – Rowland had bestowed it upon him to make him sound more Irish (the fact that Shaw was also the name of one of Ireland’s most famous playwrights apparently didn’t cut the mustard, despite Rowland having name-checked him on Dexys’ debut single, Dance Stance).  Steve was a quiet and fairly shy man, though he had a playful sense of humour.  I told him I’d been a fan of his work with Dexys, but he was usually loath to talk about the old days.  Maybe they had left the odd scar or two.  He did, however, tell an amusing story about the band inexplicably playing at a working men’s club around the time of Come On, Eileen taking off.  The surroundings were already more down-to-earth than a successful chart band were used to, but the real kicker came when they were interrupted half-way through the gig by the club’s MC, who, having suggested that Rowland stand to one side while he used his microphone, informed the audience that it was time for the weekly “meat draw”.  Only after various pork chops and joints of beef had been passed out to the lucky winners was the band permitted to resume.  After that, performing on Top Of The Pops in front of a picture of Jocky Wilson was a breeze.

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* It could have been worse – Dad’s friend Bill chose the now-forgotten third option, the Phillips 2000.  The recognition dawned on him that he’d made a woeful error before he’d even taken it out of its box.  It sat there in the middle of his living room, taunting him, with two or three blank tapes sitting by its side, which he was forced to use over and over, due to the format’s catastrophic plummet from favour.

** Rowland’s signature yelps and “brrrr”s were clearly inspired by not only Jackie Wilson himself, but also General Norman Johnson from The Chairmen Of The Board.

*** Rowland later expressed remorse, not only for stealing  Archer’s sound, but also for not giving him due credit at the time.

**** The third Dexys album, Don’t Stand Me Down, was also noticeably lacking Paterson’s gift for strong tunes and tight arrangements, but hit singles were the farthest thing from Rowland’s mind at that time, and Don’t Stand Me Down, although it is an often difficult and willfully obtuse record, succeeds on its own terms.

N.B. Too-Rye-Ay is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with many bonus tracks, including a contemporaneous live show as broadcast on the BBC.  Unfortunately, the first batch of this release included a serious mastering glitch on The Celtic Soul Brothers.  I don’t know if this has yet been corrected for a second pressing.  However, an older, single-disc remaster, with a differing selection of bonus tracks, is also still available.

My other nominations for 1982 albums of merit:

Richard & Linda Thompson / Shoot Out The Lights

The Psychedelic Furs / Forever Now

XTC / English Settlement

Bruce Springsteen / Nebraska

Lou Reed / The Blue Mask

The Clash / Combat Rock

UB40 / UB44

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