The Icicle Works were my favourite band around 1988-89. They’d been around for a few years, and by that time the core trio of McNabb, Layhe and Sharrock had irrevocably split, but their back catalogue fell into my lap via a set of C-90 tapes and I was struck by their stance, which was – though heavily influenced by the usual music journalist approved American bands (Neil Young & Crazy horse, The Byrds, etc.) – unapologetically English. The singer-songwriter Ian McNabb had a distinctive baritone and broad vocal range that worked well with acoustic ballads (‘High Time’) or Zep-inspired rock behemoths (‘Shit Creek’). I’d heard their songs throughout the 80’s, the ones that made it into the charts, but never really heard them, if you know what I mean. One song that really stood out was ‘Hollow Horse’, and it became something of an anthem for me. The lyrics are just what someone in their early 20’s, on the cusp of major life changes, needs to hear – “Things I chose to value I no longer have a use for, I ridicule myself and all the things those symbols stood for” – and the chorus is a roar of defiance to those who delight in scorning your youthful folly: “We’ll be as we are, when all the fools who doubts us fade away.” This song makes the heart soar and reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, I was right to do what I did, and I knew it.
I stumbled across this song a couple of years ago. Seas of Years are a Swedish band who, to me, seem directly inspired by bands like Explosions In The Sky and Mogwai. There’s thousands of other bands out there who sound just like them, and it’s sometimes hard to find anything that really stands out as distinctive. This one does, and when using my mp3 player on shuffle setting, it invariably comes up when I’m halfway through another long and tedious coach journey, usually somewhere in the outskirts of Birmingham. It’s a song I’ve come to associate with the mixed feelings I have when travelling back and forth from my birthplace in the north of England to my home in the South West. I’ve been down here 20 years now, and with each passing year, whenever I go back north it feels less like the return of the prodigal son and more like the fleeting visit of an unwelcome stranger. My heart is no longer there, and when return to the safe harbour of home I’m reminded that I am where I am supposed to be.
I had, up to the release of this single, dismissed Suede as a bunch of art school fops trying to channel peak-era Bowie, and failing. But when they performed this song on Top Of The Pops in September 1994 I was forced to make a drastic re-evaluation of their worth. On a dark stage lit by flaming braziers, the band looked like a biker gang groomed for a prison appearance and the song had a powerful metal riff, seismic bass rumbles, and lyrics that seemed to capture the growing mood of pre-millennial tension in a country stuck with a redundant Tory government that carried on as if it was still 1979. The imagery evoked by the lyrics – “let the nuclear wind blow away my sins” – reminded me (inevitably) of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, but they had been written by sensibilities shaped in the shadow of Thatcherism and addressed the festering social disquiet that found expression in the media coverage of the Fred & Rose West case and the murder of James Bulger. The 1990’s were the decade of rave culture, Britpop, Spice Girls and the alleged ‘New Labour’ revolution, but there was a dark wavelength humming through those years, and Suede had really tuned into it.
I really only like this song for the first minute or so. Once it gets going it’s just another pleasant pop ditty from the early 1980’s, but that first minute – a slow instrumental build of synthesizer and chiming guitars (that, only now, do I realise is what prepared me for Mogwai a decade later) – is utterly perfect and every time I play it – every single time – I am transported back, as if riding in a TARDIS, to a particular balmy July afternoon in 1983. The song’s effect is so powerful that I can feel the drowsy heat and smell the air from that day. It’s a bittersweet sensation for me, as it wasn’t all perfect back then, but events of that summer really shaped me and rarely have I felt as intensely alive as I did back then.
This song came out when I was fourteen. I had no ‘tribe’ at the time, though there were plenty around – Mod, Punk, Metalheads, Goths, New Romantics and what we called ‘Dressers’, apprentice football hooligans in tacksuits and expensive jumpers – to choose from. I liked a bit of everything, an eclecticism born of the radio stations I used to listen to, where the DJ could go from Hall & Oates to Saxon to Adam & The Ants in the space of ten minutes. Nick Heyward had been in a band called Haircut 100 that made slightly-offbeat pop charts fodder, and I’d never really paid him much attention until he went solo in 1984 and released this as his first single. What initially struck me was the picture on the back cover:
Something about it captured my imagination, something about the lonely windswept poetic desolation of what I took to be the Pennine backdrop. It looked like the fields at the back of our estate, right down to the yellow grass and the collapsing fence, and that’s where I increasingly found myself wandering alone, trying to work out what the fuck was going on. I was fourteen, and there was all kinds of turmoil going on in and around the family, and it was doing my head in. I needed some distanc from it all, and found it in the fields and woods that sprawled all the way off to the horizon. I think it’s during this period that I started to realise I was something of a introspective and melancholic (in a good way) character, and the prose poetry of the lyrics and the elegaic tone of the song really opened my up to that understanding. The mood of it is like that of my favourite paintings – a kind of wounded romanticism, a gratitude for the learning that comes with loss, and a guarded hope for the future.
Widely recognised as the first ever punk single released, ‘New Rose’ is, for me, where punk should have ended. It never got better than this. I know, I know – Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Clash, etc. – but I was too young to have seen any of those bands live and in their prime, so I can only go by the records, and this is the pure unadulterated spirit of punk : Fun House-era Stooges filtered through minds raised on Valiant comics, Richard Allen paperbacks, shoplifted cider and World of Sport wrestling on a Saturday afternoon. The tribal drumming, the growling riff, the breathless sense of urgency, and all finished in well under three minutes. Top it off with a drummer who called himself ‘Rat Scabies’ and a singer who looked like a young Dirk Bogarde understudying the role of Dracula in a Hammer Horror film and how could I at twelve years old have ever possibly resisted? Over the years I’ve had stand-up arguments with people who’ve resented my assertion that The Damned were better than The Clash, and I still stand by my words to this day. The Clash were for those stood outside Smith’s in Leeds aggressively selling Socialist Worker, whereas The Damned were for those of us who didn’t know anything except what we didn’t want, which seemed to me to be what ‘punk’ was all about.
It’s been several weeks since I posted anything. During that time I’ve noted that my lack of posts have made not the slightest bit of difference to the volume of traffic to the site. I get the same daily average, which adds up to the same number of people you could probably squeeze into a telephone box. The conclusion: no-one is paying attention. That’s quite liberating in a way. It means I can post whatever I want and know it will make no difference. It made me think of sending out messages in bottles, hoping they wash up on a beach somewhere, which in turn led to thinking about ‘Desert Island Discs’. As I’ll never be invited on that programme, I decided to simply follow the format and come up with 8 songs that I would want with me were I to ever find myself stranded on a remote island. The selection process was difficult, but I ended up choosing only those songs which, whenever I hear them, I’m transported back to a certain time and place that has significance for me. Over the next week I’ll reveal one song per day from my list, starting with this one:
This was the first ‘proper’ single I ever bought. I was twelve years old. For about a year before that I’d been buying 7″ singles from car boot sales, just grabbing anything that I liked to cover of, before discovering the Virgin Records reissues of all the Sex Pistols singles. I used to go to HMV in Leeds and buy a new one each week, and in there they had a blackboard that listed all the records that John Peel was recommending on his radio show. One of those was ‘Ceremony’. I was completely ignorant about the band, or Joy Division, or anything surrounding the mystique of Ian Curtis’ short life and sudden death, but I liked the graphic design of the cover and the evocative one-word title, so I bought it unheard. Back at home I put it onto my shitty Decca reord player and sat down to listen to it. There was none of the silliness of the Pistols or The Dickies. It was serious music, and I think I understood on an instinctual level that I would not really “get” this until I was older. And I was right. It took years for me to get educated about the mythos surrounding Curtis and his band. I never ever really liked New Order, and don’t really consider this one of their songs. It’s a Joy Division song, spawned in that era between punk and goth where bands were trying to forge a new sound that addressed the truly bleak period in British history of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. Whenever I hear it, I’m reminded of that time, walking through Leeds city centre in a permanent twilight, the streets covered in slush that never melted, the shops boarded up and the Yorkshire Ripper still at large. Cutting through that grimness was Hooky’s chiming bassline and Curtis’ inscrutable lyrics that always sounded to me like a statement of defiance (“I’ll break them down, no mercy shown”) against a world that won’t listen.