Dexys Midnight Runners – There There My Dear
Young Marble Giants – Final Day
Altered Images – Happy Birthday
The Specials – Ghost Town
This is the first of a four-part series of Pitchfork 500 posts, as the next 16 tracks are all from Great Britain. This was thanks to an amazing outpouring of pop and rock from the British Isles in the early ’80’s – bands that had taken the call to arms of punk and post-punk, and used the attitude of experimentation to make some rather startling new music. Some, like Dexys Midnight Runners and The Jam, would look to the past for inspiration; others, like Human League and New Order, would create something quite new. On a personal note, this period was when I really started to listen to music loads, recording stuff from my brother and sisters and taping tracks off the radio, kicking off a love that is still strong today (obviously, as I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise!).
Kevin Rowland was a charismatic Brummie with an ear for a good tune, and an eye for trouble. Passionate about soul music, driven by massive ambition, he wanted to recreate the music of black R&B artists like James Brown and Geno Washington, but twisting it in his own inimitable fashion. The track on offer here, “There There My Dear” was their second single (after the far better “Geno”, which for some reason misses out on the list), but gives you a good idea of where the famously puritan and driven Rowland was aiming for.
Get those horns! After another couple of singles, he decided he didn’t want to talk to the press any more, instead communicating to his fans by means of adverts taken out in the weekly music press. Let’s just say it didn’t make him a popular man. And after the hit singles “Come On Eileen” and “Jocky Wilson Said”, he famously went so far off the rails that by the time he came back in the 90’s, wearing women’s clothing, it didn’t even seem that much out of character:
Anyway, “Geno” is much better:
Young Marble Giants made one LP, one single and one EP1 before breaking up. And much of what they did record was hardly there, so sparse was their sound. To be honest, Young Marble Giants have almost completely passed me by. Hard to remember now, but back in the day you only had the music papers like NME, Sounds and Melody Maker to read, and radio shows like John Peel to listen to, and things passed by very quickly. There was little or no looking back; so much music was coming out that anything over a year old tended to get lost. So this is the first time that I’ve knowingly listened to “Final Day”, and what a pleasure it’s been.
A song about nuclear holocaust, “Final Day” is less than two minutes long – one of the shortest tracks on the Pitchfork list – and to the sound of odd fretless bass and muted guitar chords, singer Alison Statton sings of “Put a blanket up on the window pane” and “There is so much noise\There is too much heat”. It captures that sense of final days beautifully. Really, teenagers are lucky now – all they get to worry about is chlamydia and the occasional suicide bomber; we had the entire nuclear arsenal of a spectacularly grumpy superpower pointed in our general direction for much of the 80’s. Sure does tend to piss you off a bit, that.
Speaking of a cloying sense of dread hanging over you constantly, here’s Altered Images, with their poppy, chirpy brand of Scottish whimsy. Boy, is it annoying. I’ve listened to “Happy Birthday” three times now and I still can’t understand why it’s on this list. To be on here, a track needs to be (on average) one of the best 15 songs released that year. This wasn’t even the 15th best song released that week. I can only think that the writer responsible had a teenage crush on Claire Grogan which hasn’t quite worn off yet. What does the book say? “You can practically hear Grogan pout her lips, stick out her tongue…”. Yep, that’ll be it. Does also say something about them practically inventing twee pop like Belle and Sebastian. Sweet Jebus. Now that’s something we could do without.
There’s probably never been a song to hit number 1 at exactly the right time as “Ghost Town” by The Specials. The UK at the time was a paranoid, desperate, angry place. Simmering resentment in many inner cities boiled over into some of the worst rioting the country had ever seen just as this song, detailing the misery of inner-city life in Coventry (a grim Midlands town with high unemployment and disaffected youth living in run-down concrete high-rise flats), flew to the top of the charts.
I was 10 when the song came out, and I still remember the fear in the air. We grew up near Bristol, one of the cities plagued by the social and racial tensions at the time, and there was a palpable fear that events were spinning out of control. Then out of nowhere came this song, written by Jerry Dammers for a band that weren’t even speaking to each other. Somehow it captured everything that was wrong with the country at the time, from there being too much violence in the clubs that they were getting closed down, to the final verse which said everything:
“This place, is coming like a ghost town\No job to be found in this country\Can’t go on no more\The people getting angry”
Followed by that odd, ghostly laughing chorus. What makes the song so great is the atmosphere of dread, the contrasting voices of Terry Hall’s white boy singing and Neville Staple’s ominous baritone and the mournful trumpet and organ sounds, underlain by none-more-dub drum, bass and reggae guitar stabs. Fantastic song.
I can still remember a family trip somewhere at that time, listening to Radio 4 news telling us, in sombre tones, about the previous night’s rioting in St Pauls (inner-city Bristol), with this song going round and round in my head. No-one of my age, who grew up in Britain, can think of the song without thinking of the riots too.
The Specials broke up pretty much straight after this song was released; Jerry Dammers keeping the Special AKA name, and Hall, Staples and Lynval Golding going on to form Fun Boy Three. Of which, a little more later.
That’s the first four of The Brits Are Coming; the next four coming soon.
1 Extended Play, for you youngsters out there. Like a long single. Or a short album.
The whole list is available here.