JAMES (BIKINI TEST FAILURE) AND HIS ‘DESERT ISLAND ALBUM.’ (OR TWO. OR THREE…)
DESERT ISLAND. Just ONE album? Forever?
That’s a dastardly question. One that requires a system to answer. No just sitting there making lists, looking through your shelves or looping through ‘favourite’ albums in your mind. You’d never decide.
This has got to be IT. Forever. For me, after a lifetime of music fascism (it’s often said that being ‘passionate’ about, or ‘obsessed with music, very often involves hating most of it, but loving what is left to an unreasonable degree) such a system for deciding occurred to me without much thought: which albums in my life wouldn’t let me in until I’d worked long and hard, chipping away, sometime for weeks, until suddenly the block of stone shattered and revealed the masterpiece within?
Easy! 1987, The Smiths split up the week John Peel plays ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ on his late-evening BBC Radio 1 show. Being a Mancunian, I knew all about The Smiths; they used to rehearse in the room next to my band in studios in Chorlton, South Manchester. I didn’t really rate them. (I know, I know. I was very young and very green.)
I subscribed to the Daily Mail shorthand that they were, “miserable, moaning Mancs”. The song finished, it was an accessibly great tune (reminded me instantly of ‘Love Is All Around’ by The Troggs (and later, hideously, Wet Wet Wet) and the singer seemed to be saying some quite incredible things that I’d never heard said in a pop song before. (“Do you really think she’ll pull through?”)
But as ever, how miserable! Your girlfriend’s in a coma and you’re singing a song about it? That nice Mr Peel then said, “Morrissey proving once again that he’s the most humorous lyricist in the history of pop music,” and my world turned upside down. The Smiths were kidding us! Yes, they were full of songs for fey, overlooked outsiders, the young and old who didn’t ‘fit’ in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, but what’s the best way to deal with the discomfort of that? Take the piss of course! Ah. It all made sense.
I went into work next day at an office block in Manchester and borrowed the then recent album ‘The Queen is Dead’ from a Smiths-obsessed friend. “Ah, you’ve come round at last!” he said. No, I hadn’t, but I realised I might have been missing something for the previous five years. On my imitation Walkman (for our younger readers, that’s an iPhone that played music cassettes through cheap headphones) I listened on repeat, a bus and two trains to work and the same in reverse to home each day for a week, limited only by my dwindling supply of batteries. By the time I’d discerned the lyrics, “As Antony said to Cleopatra, as he opened a crate of ale, ‘Ooh I say…’” a tribute to Sid James (bawdy South African/British comic actor of the ‘50s-‘70s) character in the 1964 comedy film, ‘Carry On Cleo,” I knew my musical universe had changed.
Staring out of the train window as grimy, soggy, sometimes glorious and sunlit Manchester trundled past, I ‘got’ it. The Smiths made sense of this northern world I’d grown up in; they soundtracked the families, the schools, the lovers, the disappointments, the vaulting ambition. So, if you’d have asked me then, that would have been my answer: The Smiths – ‘The Queen Is Dead.’
But that was 35 years ago, so fast forward. 1996. I’m in another band. A failing, floundering wannabe-but-never-will-be Britpop indie guitar band. We’re really good, but not good enough. I’m a record label owner too. And I’m doing too much, excelling at nothing. Radiohead have just driven a steamroller through the UK guitar music landscape with their 1995 album, ‘The Bends.’
Suddenly all my little songs, that had compared favourably with the likes of The Verve, Oasis or… Baby Bird, sounded flat, tiny, dull. I knew the game was up. I knew I should give up. But that didn’t stop me flogging pointlessly away, unrewarded, for another couple of years. In 1997, their ridiculously over-anticipated follow-up, ‘OK Computer’ appeared.
As you did back then, if you really were into your music, you’d read articles and interviews about a new album (or even single) for weeks before it came out. And spare money, for most people, was short. You had to choose which handful of albums you’d buy each year and which you’d borrow, the rest you’d hope evening radio might play snippets of.
The one thing you couldn’t do was choose to listen to something, for free, any time you liked. You either had it in your hand or else you never heard it. The NME (New Musical Express music paper, in print 1952-2018) album review section gave it … 10/10. I’d never seen that before. That really meant something. That meant it was … ‘perfect.’ I read and re-read the review, hoping to ‘hear’ the music coming through the ink. I bought it, but no way could I just casually throw it in the CD player and listen.
It needed ‘occasion.’ I waited a couple of nights, tension mounting, until my pal Mike around the corner was home. We and our girlfriends went round with a small supply of booze and oven-cookable processed food and settled in. As the girls chattered away over there, occasionally tossing us a pitying, patronising glance, followed by an unheard comment and a snort of derisive laughter, Mike and I sat next to each other, cross-legged on the floor, between the speakers, studying this sound, this baffling sound that was flowing through us for the first time.
I had genuinely never heard anything like this at all in my entire life – a life in which I had possibly heard (and ‘studied’) a lot more music than your average pedestrian. And of course, maybe if I’d yet heard any King Crimson, or Yes or even The Pixies’ back-catalogue I might have had a few sparks of recognition. But nope, this was all new to me. As with ‘The Bends,’ I could barely tell a damn word the man was saying (I still can’t – and don’t want to know!) but my gosh the emotional resonance across my synapses of part-grasped sounds and phrases were more powerful than any emoting chanteur.
But did I ‘get’ it? Well, no, not really. The evening went on, the beer went down, and the breaded chicken drumsticks were consumed. The girls got louder, we began to comment and chat more than simply listen, as the CD, on repeat, played for the third and fourth times. I remember specifically not looking at the tracklisting – I didn’t want to know (still don’t!) so the songs themselves had to make it into my consciousness cold; no clues, just an unfathomable sound underneath this chap chanting in falsetto.
This was clearly, obviously the sound of 10/10 – I completely, instantly concurred – but getting beneath the spiky, often beautiful surface of never-before heard (by me) sounds, harmonic combinations, mixed time signatures and clearly very-emotional-indeed, singing would take a lot more work than a few listens in Mike’s lounge. We later estimated we parted at about 4am and had heard this new Radiohead album eight times, back-to-back, at which point we believed every word of hype or qualified music criticism.
This was indeed an instant classic, a masterpiece and included demonstrable flashes of that statistically negligible quality, genius. Twenty-five years later and I can still pour over the album and find new depths, doors to hidden rooms to explore. But that’s not it. You get the picture now; I need a huge and compelling reason to listen to something new, I need to quickly realise that my initial opinion was completely wrong (“Smiths, miserable”, “Radiohead’s follow-up will be as accessible as ‘The Bends’”) and I need to dig like a miner to get to the bottom of it and find true appreciation.
So, my conclusion started, again, in 1987. Released (‘sacked’) from my first Manchester band, I leapt with both feet into a new world as a solo recording artist. Novel gear and attitudes had suddenly made it possible for the average egomaniac-control-freak like myself to make entire records without the aid of anyone else. Bolshie drummer refusing to play the fill you want, sir? Here’s the Casio RZ-1 drum machine! Wonderful. For a few months I became the golden-boy, bright-young-hope client of my local eight-track recording studio, the same I’d visited a few times before with ‘the band’ – a concept which now seemed ridiculously old fashioned.
No longer was I a poorly qualified ‘80s-group guitarist (a very tricky thing to be back then – I mean, who do you want to be, Mr The Edge? Charlie wotsit from Simple Minds? Tricky when you’ve no money for even the simplest of delay pedals. I wanted to be Pete Townshend but no-one else agreed. I think I ended up as Andy-from-Duran Duran’s less-able baby brother. Just awful really.)
Now, I was transformed into singer-songwriter, composer, arranger, RECORD PRODUCER! You want violins, a grand piano and an orchestra stab, sir? Here’s the Akai S612 sampler from 1985. Perfect. Suddenly, Graham the engineer was compelling me to listen to records, not because I liked them (I more often didn’t) but for that new addition to my lexicon, the ‘production.’ Suddenly I could see beyond the twee little tunes of Michael Jackson’s younger sister’s album and hear the work Jam & Lewis had done.
New Order’s ‘Substance’ revealed layers of simplistic keyboard and guitar parts, built up into a lush, magnificent orchestra of indie techno. Kate Bush! ‘Hounds of Love,’ or “I’ve-got-a-Fairlight/Synclavier-and-I’m-going-to-use-it”. Heady stuff. But Graham’s favourite example of perfect music production, whether one of the handful of CDs in the studio (nobody owned more than a handful of CDs in 1987) or the only cassette in his Ford Fiesta, played loud and repeatedly as we whizzed across town at 3am for urgently required milk, Douwe Egberts coffee and his beloved Marlboro, was 1986’s ‘The Colour of Spring’ by Talk Talk.
Another ‘great’ album that like their previous releases had completely passed me by. I might have seen the video for ‘Life’s What You Make It.’ Maybe. But dearie me I did NOT get this at all. Another chap, making indecipherable mouth noises, combinations of instruments I’d never heard, treatments that confused (was that a guitar solo? No! On seventh hearing it’s clearly a mouth organ through an overdrive pedal.)
But space, size, drum sounds, real and programmed, tunes, melodies you could follow, that sounded as if they’d been written forever, and you were just remembering them. I wanted to hear this album like Graham did. I wanted to ‘get’ it. (I wanted him to like me.) The Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse – I was the little boy but I knew I was the one who was wrong. After months of my solo sessions, parked one night in the all-night garage forecourt in my Mini as Graham ran in for supplies, the final track, ‘Time It’s Time’ began, for the 35th hearing. The greatest but simplest bass line and rhythm, lush, analogue, organic, swirling Hammond organ (the birth of my lifelong Hammond obsession) and a voice like warm porridge (NO idea what he was on about – still don’t know.)
By the time the massed choirs and clanging guitars were three-chordtricking-it into the long, long fade and Graham returned with milk and chocolate digestives, I was transformed, no going back. I was ‘inside’ the music, all music, never again able to be outside.
So. That one. ‘The Colour of Spring,’ by Talk Talk please!
James, Bikini Test Failure: Bikini Test Failure (@Testfailure) / Twitter