Saturday, November 22, 2008



(chapter 14 in the American edition)

page 281

>first number one single would actually be a live EP,

The Special A.K.A Live! EP: the lead track ‘Too much Too young’, a live version of the album’s standout track, and covers of ska classics ‘Guns of Navarone,’ ‘Long Shot Kick de Bucket’, ‘Liquidator, and ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’

page 282

>The Specials versus Metal Box

In starkly different ways, they showed how deeply Jamaican music had shaped British popular culture of the late Seventies. (I’d always assumed that the name The Specials just meant “better than the rest”, but suddenly I wonder: does it come from the ‘specials’, the dub plates and pre-releases that sound systems played?). But where the postpunk vanguard were responding to contemporary reggae and working from the spacey production and bass-heavy apocalyptic dread of dub, The Specials and the 2-Tone movement were looking back to an earlier phase of Jamaican pop: Sixties ska and rocksteady, music oriented around the mono 45 rpm 7 inch, whereas Metal Box required 12 inch 45 rpm vinyl and high-fidelity stereo reproduction for its depth and spaciousness to be fully heard.

page 283

>”Concrete Jungle”

Written by, and as far as I can tell sung by, Roddy Radiation.


I'm going out tonight
I don't know if I'll be alright
Everyone wants to hurt me
Baby danger in the city

I have to carry a knife
Because there's people threatening my life
I can't dress just the way I want
I'm being chased by the National Front

Concrete jungle, animals are after me
Concrete jungle, it ain't safe on the streets
Concrete jungle, glad I got my mates with me

I won't fight for a cause
Don't want to change the law
Leave me alone, just leave me alone
I want to get out on my own

I'm walking home tonight
I only walk where there's lots of lights
In the alleys and the doorways
Some throw a bottle right in your face

Concrete jungle, animals are after me
Concrete jungle, it ain't safe on the streets
Concrete jungle, glad I got my mates with me

I'm walking home tonight
I only walk where there's lots of lights
In the alleys and the doorways
Some throw a bottle right in your face

I won't fight for a cause
I don't want to change the law
Leave me alone, just leave me alone
I want to get out on my own

Concrete jungle, animals are after me
Concrete jungle, it ain't safe on the streets
Concrete jungle, glad I got my mates with me

Initially I misheard the lyric “glad I got my mates with me” as “glad I got my Mace with me”!

page 284

>”Huge monoliths of planning diarrhea…. slabs of gloom”

Dave McCullough feature on Specials, Sounds, April 7th 1979

>that other motor city, Detroit

Something like the U.K’s Detroit, Coventry specialized in engineering and motor manufacture. “Coventry’s where they made the black cabs for London,” recalls Neville Staple. “It was great living in Coventry, you could get jobs like nobody’s business”

The Midlands as a whole was very industrial proletariat: 35 percent of population worked in manufacture.

>Thatcher’s monetarist policies

Staple: “It really started getting worse when the Tories came in.”

Thatcher’s monetarist policies raised the value of the pound calamitously high, which not only made British cars too expensive for foreign markets but meant that imported cars were now much cheaper in the U.K. With government abandoning interventionism and forcing businesses to sink or swim, cutback induced lay-offs and companies going out of business led to rising unemployment; consumer demand for cars fell in Britain itself as even those still in employment tightened their belts in apprehension. Between 1979 and 1981, British manufacturing production fell by 20 percent, with the Midlands one of the worst hit regions

> soul bands… Coventry

In Coventry, a focal point for this post-mod sensibility was the record store Soul Hole, which was co-founded in 1973 by by local DJ Pete Waterman, a Motown obsessive who worshipped Lamont Dozier of the Holland Dozier Holland songwriting team. In the Eighties, operating out of a studio called the Hit Factory, Waterman would modernize the Tamla conveyor-belt approach to pop production as the dominant member of Stock Aitken Waterman. But back in the late Seventies Waterman briefly managed The Specials, helping them record their early demo and influencing--or so he claims--Dammer’s conception of 2-Tone as a new Motown.

>“Before the New Wave… songs,” “It wasn’t… own songs”-- Dammers. MM 12/15/79

page 285

>rebellious son of a clergyman

The son of an Anglican Dean (if not then, then eventually the Dean of Bristol Cathedral), Dammers was born in India. He told Melody Maker (December 15th 1979), “I grew up in a vicarage… It was a bit weird… It was a bit oppressive. It was very respectable…. I didn’t enjoy having to go to church and being made to sing in the choir… It was quite a strict upbringing… But when I was about 13, I started to rebel against it. I refused to accept all those things my family stood for.”

>specialized in animated films

Dammers made three short animated films: a boxing match, a classic bout between Rocky marciano and the british heavyweight champion Don Cockell; one titled Disco and featuring girls dancing to a soundtrack of disco/reggae recorded by Dammers and a friend; the third was a mixture of live and animation, involving street scenes, chases, and climaxing with an IRA man placing a bomb under a car, the explosion sending blood and guts everywhere.

>“It was just… hour,” “I'd never… still,” “meaningful glare”

Hall. NME February 9th 1980.

> resident rude boy

Staple told the NME in 1979: “I class myself as a rude boy 'cos me rude, me cool and me hard. Me dress slick and me know what kind of music I like."

>support stint for The Clash

This was during a frustrating period of the Specials being semi-managed by Bernie Rhodes, where they joined his second-priority roster of Subway Sect and, briefly, Dexy’s Midnight Runners. When they toured with the Clash, they were still in that confused formative stage of mixing up fast punk and slow reggae.

> patois-gruff

Staple’s contribution was also strictly speaking anachronistic because it was a 1970s Seventies style of mic’ chat that wasn’t heard on the original ska records. But this again shows the extent to which 2-Tone wasn’t a straightforward revival but a postmodern pick’n’mixed pastiche (see below: “wind back pop history”)

> “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”

see also other examples of 1978-79 punky-reggae: Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives”, The Ruts “In A Rut”

>wind back pop history

Jerry Dammers, NME May 16th 1979: “It's not that we're just trying to revive ska. It's using those old elements to try forming something new. In a way, it's all still part of punk. We're not trying to get away from punk. We're just trying to show some other direction. You've got to go back to go forward."

and (same interview) “What we’re trying to do is form a new British beat music… Although we enjoy listening to modern reggae, we don't feel at ease playing it, whereas original ska is much closer to rock music because it was just like a basic rock drumbeat with offbeat guitar thrown in”.

page 286

< “We had songs… people off.” “religious music… dance music"

Dammers. NME May 16th 1979.

>Upside down R&B

Because ska shifted the rhythmic accent from the 1st and 3rd beats to the 2nd and 4th.

page 287

>released more than six hundred singles in the UK

Via Melodisc’s sub-label Bluebeat. They can’t all possibly have been sung by Prince Buster; this figure must include his productions.

>Love of Prince Buster’s music united the UK ska revivalists

The Beat for instance covered “Rough Rider”

>”Ghost Dance”

I wonder if Buster picked that title in awareness of its origins in Native American culture? In 1890, despairing and dispossessed, the tribes who had been uprooted from their traditional homelands and shunted into reservations succumbed to a kind of millenarian craze, at the centre of which was a five day ritual dance that aimed to deliver believer to the equivalent of Zion or the Promised Land--i.e. a lost golden age before the pale-face, forked-tongue invaders came.
More info here

>”we’re just continuing the line… the skinheads”

"We're just… skinheads”
Dammers. NME August 25 1979

Dammers also said: “We’re trying to keep alive the true spirit of the mods.”

page 288

>in 1979 a host of tribal revivals

As well as disenchanted veterans of the original punk mobilisation, the populist ranks were swollen by new recruits: just-missed-punk teenagers looking for an identity (and a tribal uniform) of their own. Galvanized by hearing their elder siblings’s copies of Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash, but uninvolved by the downtempo and at times downright “muso” directions being pursued by Lydon and Strummer (with Metal Box and London Calling respectively), this audience weren’t likely to warm to the kind of music played by John Peel. Mod’s social constituency was upper working class and lower middle class, kids who defined themselves against the lumpen undiscriminating proles on one flank, and scruffy bourgeois-bohemian students on the other. Sounds journalist Garry Bushell championed both 2-Tone and the Mod Revival before becoming best-known as the crusading ideologue of Oi!. In a series of rants in March 1980 he articulated the widespread belief that postpunk had turned into new prog, in the process forfeiting the populist appeal and squandering the political momentum of the original 1977 punk. Railing against “bands raiding Pink Floyd and Doors back catalogues quite shamelessly in the interests of their Art,” he recalled how until 2-Tone came along, “the music papers were crammed full of solemn young people, very serious and quite pious, who spoke like dictionaries and wore those dowdy clothes that only the children of the wealthy or the middling wealthy would dream of wearing. It was bleak scenarios all around and neurotic time had by all.” For their part, the writers associated with bleak postpunk and vanguard sounds tended to regard the mod and ska revivals as reactionary. Paul Morley, for instance, deplored “the new tribal warfare and the depressing fuss over the clumsy exhuming of a dead culture.”

Although 2-Tone had certain things in common with postpunk (see note to page 302), its core social constituency was different from that for postpunk (students, art school types, etc). And as much as 2-Tone and postpunk overlapped in its opposition to Thatcher, some of the ska/mod/nu-soul bands went in for a bit of trendy-lefty bashing: Dexy’s surly singer Kevin Rowland daubed puerile sexist comments on gig posters for their Birmingham neighbours the Au Pairs, the epitome of right-on agit-funk. In the song “This Is What She’s Like” he memorably if mystifyingly denounced the CND as “scum,” for some reason associating them with white rastas from Notting Hill and Mosely (the area in Birmingham where the Au Pairs hailed from). After Vivien Goldman critiqued the misogynist streak in songs on the debut Specials album like “Stupid Bitch” and “Too Much Too Young”, lead singer Terry Hall dedicated the latter song to “the stupid cow who reviewed it in Melody Maker” at a Brighton gig and then responded to barracking from a feminist contingent in the audience by dismissing the women’s movement as “a lot of stupid slags”. One of the bigger Specials hits was “Rat Race”, a crude caricature of a student who combined fashionable politically-correct opinions with careerism.

> The Jam … mini subculture in its own right

As a UK pop institution they both preceded and stood slightly to one side of the mod/ ska revival. But The Jam shared many attitudes and approaches in common with 2-Tone. (Indeed for their 1978 album All Mod Cons, the group tried to cover Prince Buster’s “Rough Rider” but gave up because they couldn’t get the feel right--if they had they would have got the jump on The Specials).

Firstly, the Jam shared 2-Tone’s belief in the power of the 7 inch single:-indeed they were arguably the consummate singles band of the entire New Wave, and certainly the most consistently successful. Secondly, like 2-Tone, Weller had no truck with punk’s Year Zero, raze-the-past rhetoric. The Jam reworked Sixties music--an embrace of tradition that would always make the Jam seem conservative in the eyes of the sterner postpunk groups. Like the 2-Tone groups, The Jam did lots of cover versions, but their own original songs often “sampled” elements from the past-- a Motown bassline underpinned “A Town Called Malice”, for instance, while “Start!” is essentially a new vocal melody superimposed on the rhythmic chassis of The Beatles’ “Taxman”. Above all, Weller as the original Mod Revivalist, genuflected towards black music. “Take a pinch of white and a pinch of black/Mix it together and make a movin’ flavour” was his aesthetic manifesto, but he didn’t have too many good things to say about the white part of the equation. “A lot of my attitude was based on Mod,” he told Uncut. “I was never into rock bands. We were more purist--I was totally into black music”. Mod, as he conceived it, was essentially anti-rock. In the NME (December 25th 1982) he declared “I’ve never really seen us as part of the rock thing. I see us outside of that, anyway. I think I have done for quite a long time.” In The Jam, Weller was a guitar hero, in the slashing and windwilling Pete Townsend mold, but his post-Jam group The Style Council was a guitar-free zone.

At the centre of the Jam was also the idea of the Sixties as the ultimate moment of British youth culture, in which class and race barriers were smashed down and the idea of youth itself was young and invincible. He explained in one interview, “I suppose I was too romantic about it really when I was young but it seemed like such an exciting time to me. There were loads of things happening. There was young, working class people making it. The young kind of swept themselves up and made their own establishment that seemed quite separate.”

I liked The Jam quite a bit at the time--great singles band, although the only one I actually bought was “Down in the Tube Station At Midnight”--but there was something uncharismatic about the group and their music that deterred full fandom. The reasons for this ambivalence was articulated for me in a brilliant live review by Barney Hoskyns, NME March 20th 1982, during the course of which Barney noted the Weller lyric about taking ‘a pinch of white and a pinch of black/mix it together and make a movin’ flavour” and argued:

“Pinch’ is the key word , for by ‘pinching’ the ‘60s and its endless memories, the Jam have somehow attracted vast legions of the disaffected, the non-aligned, and the nobodies, who flock to Weller because no one style confines him and because he has not been ‘corrupted’ by his fame.” The Jam’s Lonsdale sweatshirts were “eloquent symbols of [their music's] rigour and sobriety: what we are really witnessing is a gymnasium of exhortation. Weller never preaches, but he never sings either. Where the Stones made up for not being black by being camp, The Who and The Jam strip R&B of its soul and sexuality. By using it as a basis for social anthems, they kill off the humour and narcissism of its live performance.” The review concluded that “Paul Weller no longer challenges anything, he simply fits the bill, meets the demand for a certain sanity with the contrived authority of his voice and its equalized emphases.”

>“clean culture”

Paul Weller, NME December 25th 1982.

Paul Weller here is echoing the famous remark made in 1975 by Peter Meaden (manager/publicist for The Who) in an interview with the NME, where he declared: "Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances."

After the Jam split, on the eve of forming The Style Council, Weller listed a personal lexicon of negative and positive words/concepts/attitudes for NME: style-less and square were “dirty’, “rock’n’roll”, “rock”, “out of it”, while and stylish and hip were “clean, keeping straight, cappucino, spa water with a slice of lime… soul, Europe; jazz, modern; classical, symmetry”

> Northern Soul

Down South, in London and the Home Counties, tastes followed the shift in Black American music towards slower, funkier grooves. But up in the Midlands and the North, the preference was for uptempo beats. ‘Rare Soul’ clubs sprang up all over the place, the common fetish being ultra-obscure or never-released soul singles from Detroit and the industrial mid-West of America: essentially Motown-copyists and records that had failed in the overcrowded pop market of the mid-Sixties. The West Midlands was a major heartland for ‘Northern Soul’. In a sense it was a place where mod never really went away.

Dancers wearing the classic Wigan Casino vests, and one guy doing the classic Northern Soul move, the backdrop

>“You talk to someone… listen to”

Northern soul fan quoted in Idris Walters, “Is Northern Soul Dying On Its Feet?” , originally published in Street Life, 1975, reprinted in The Faber Book of Pop eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (London: Faber & Faber, 1995). P. 448

page 289

“Kids are starting… guitar hero”
JB. NME June 14th 1980. Dexy’s Midnight Runners feature.

>keyboards came next

As played by Jerry Dammers, Madness’s Mike Barson, or Mick Talbot (who started in mod-revivalist outfit the Merton Parkas, did a stint in Dexy’s, and then joined The Style Council).

>mod and skinhead both loved dressing sharp

Terry Hall told NME in 1979: “I always class ourselves as being on the edge of the mod thing. We're not specifically a mod band or a skinhead band. It's more a mixture of both”.

>“The clothes are… concerned"

Terry Hall. NME August 25th 1979.

> Racial harmony and musical hybridity

Like the mixed-race composition of The Specials, The Beat, and The Selecter, this black/white clothing transmitted a “multitracial message” that “could be inferred by a broadly sympathetic audience,” as Dick Hebdige put it in Cut ‘N’ Mix, without too much need for overt preaching or speechifying in the songs.

“like some kind… spiders”

Dammers. Sounds April 7th 1979.

>more for anti-racism than a thousand Anti-Nazi League speeches

Of course the 2-Tone groups showed their commitment to the Rock Against Racism cause by playing numerous benefits. In June 1981 The Specials organized a Peaceful Protest Against Racism at a sport stadium, in response to the fatal stabbing of an Asian youth in Coventry city centre; a few weeks later, they participated in the Northern Carnival Against Racism, organized by Rock Against Racism and taking place in neo-fascist hotbed Leeds. But The Specials’ greatest contribution was their music, proof in itself of the irreversibly multiracial nature of British culture. This was the point Dammers was trying to make at an American press conference when asked if the Specials would continue to play Jamaican music: “‘We don’t play Jamaican music, we play English music.”

>autumn 1979

This was 2-Tone’s breakthrough moment. The absolute peak of the movement/craze came in February 1980: The Specials “Too Much Too Young” A-sided five track live EP reached Number One, Madness’s biggest early hit “My Girl” peaking at #3; the Selecter 'Three Minute Hero” in the Top 20 and The Beat’s “Tears of A Clown” still lingering on the way down from its #6 peak.

page 290

>2-Tone and Chrysalis

The deal wasn’t as massive a ceding of control to the band as it might seem: the recording budget for each single was small, and 2-Tone’s royalty on top of what the band received was only 2 percent--small compensation for what proved, at least initially, to be superb A&R work. But the arrangement at least allowed 2-Tone to appear like the new Motown that Dammers had dreamed of creating. In its first year of existence, the label seemed unstoppable: the first seven singles all went silver with sales of 250 thousand plus each.

>2-Tone/Chrysalis like alliance with Arista

It was a similar arrangement where the Beat could sign up six new acts to Go Feet every year. (Did they, in the event, sign any?)

>“high energy with fluid movement”
Dave Wakeling. NME August 16th 1980.

page 291

>almost too good to be true

The Beat even impressed Julie Burchill, who was still mourning punk and proclaiming loudly in her famous “Rock’s Rich Tapestry” column that the Sex Pistols and Motown were the only music worth caring about, EVER. But despite this “tunnel vision”, she allowed that that The Beat were “a very healthy group.”

>Anti-nuke benefit album

In a December interview, December 12th 1981,
Dave Wakeling poured contempt on the Special Relationship between America and Britain, as writ with the deployment of Cruise Missiles from US bases in the UK: “We’re just the fender on the front of the car: not an ally at all, just a cushion,”

In another interview, NME November 27th 1981, Wakeling noted that “I read that 59 percent of young people think there’ll be a nuclear war. That’s two-thirds of young people! That’s enough to make it happen.”

see also UB40 and “The Earth Dies Screaming”
in a December 6th 1980 NME interview, Al from the band contextualized the single, which gloomed up the Christmas Top of the Pops as I recall: “Everybody’s shitting themselves basically. Ronald Reagan’s becoming president and there are 20 million people in the Evangelist Right. They’re going to start blowing places up. Reagan will put one on Vietnam, just for spite!… Seriously, the world seems to be in the middle of a wild plunge into right wing madness—America, Jamaica, the Islamic thing. That’s one of the reasons that the CND thing is getting stronger. It’s blatantly obvious that everyone’s going mad.”

>“It is embarrassing… that”

Wakeling. NME December 12 1981. Anti-nuke compilation feature

> North London seven-piece

Madness’s sensibility was shaped as much by the classic Ealing comedies and the Mockney music hall pub rock of Ian Dury’s first group Kilburn and the High Road as by the ska of Prince Buster et al.

>“odd robotic dances,” “the top half… the knees”--
Hebdige, Dick. Cut’N’Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Methuen, 1987. P. 111

“amongst the rosy… face”
Suggs McPherson. Undercover, July 1998.

page 292

>with their Sieg Heils

the Nazi skins were seemingly oblivious, as they moonstomped to “The Prince,” that the song payed tribute to a man who was not only black but a member of Nation of Islam

>hit big with ‘on my radio’

The Selecter also scored with the skanked-up Stranglers of ‘Three Minute Hero’ and had a couple more much smaller hits

>one of the few women in the 2-Tone stable

2-Tone’s all-girl the Bodysnatchers scored one small hit with “Let’s Do Rocksteady” then mutated into the pop group The Belle Stars.

“It's funny really… about it”

Suggs McPherson. Undercover, July 1998.

page 293

>Joe strummer goes Stax

Or to be more precise about it: Joe Strummer trying to imitate General Norman Johnson of Chairman of The Board. C.f. Edwyn Collins aping Al Green, the very struggle-over-innate-limitations and shortfall of Kevin Rowland’s singing became part of its charm and even authenticity

>“I was totally fed… markets”

Rowland (here identified as Carlo Rolan). NME January 12 1980. Dexy’s feature

>“a soul group… a bit postpunk”
Archer (here identified as Kevin Archer). Tangents, 2001.

>“we wanted to be… just random.”--Rowland. Ibid.

On the idea of being a “formed” group, it sounds like early on they had a total masterplan worked out to an almost Malcolm McLaren (or Manic Street Preachers) degree:

In Sounds, July 24th 1982, Rowland revealed that the plan was to have a huge hit album, then the next year make a film that had Dexys in but nothing to do with music, and then the third year “we’d blow up the Houses of Parliament and go to jail. We were prepared for it. I think Big Jim Patterson and myself would have gone to jail. It was either that or start our own political party. You know, it was to be the group to end all groups.”“

page 294

“religious fervor… of it”
Rowland. NME July 3rd 1982.

“It definitely helped… The togetherness of running… at that point”
Rowland. ibid.

In the same interview Rowland declared: “I like to watch athletics on TV, I’d rather watch athletes running around the track than watch a fucken group, because at least the athletes are stretching themselves. Feats of determination are definitely an interest.”

page 295

“an elite… Emotional Fascism…. no laughter”
Mark Cordery. NME November 21st 1981. Dexy’s live review.

>“shallow… bubblegum”
Dexy’s ad/communiqué for “Liars A To E”, NME october 131st 1981

The communiqué continues, on the subject of pop, “it could never be really important or bring about any change, but it need not necessarily be so proudly disposable”.

page 296

>There, There My Dear… trendhopping music journalist or pretentious musician

The Robin might refer to Robin Denselow from the Guardian or Robin Scott of M… but it’s most likely an imaginary or composite figure. At any rate,
the faddish “Robin” gets dressed down for shallowness: “Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac, Kirkegaard, Michael Rennie…. I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.”

Another metapop dimension to the song is the title’s echo of Marvin Gaye’s Here, Here My Dear album

Lyrics to “There, There My Dear”

Dear Robin
Hope you don’t mind me writing, its just that there’s more than one thing I need to ask you. If you’re so anti-fashion, why not wear flares, instead of dressing down all the same. It’s just that looking like that I can express my dissatisfaction.

Dear Robin
Let me explain, though you’d never see in a million years. Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie. I dont believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

Dear Robin
Youre always so happy, how the hell do you get your inspiration? You’re like a dumb dumb patriot. If you’re supposed to be so angry, why don’t you fight and let me benefit from your right? Don’t you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things,

Dear Robin
I would explain but you’d never see in a million years.

Well, you’ve made your rules, but we don’t know that game, perhaps I’d listen to your records
but your logic’s far too lame and I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincerity.

You see Robin, I’m just searching for the young soul rebels, and I can’t find them anywhere. Where have you hidden them?

Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.

>the new soul vision

On the sleeve of 1981’s single “Show Me”, Dexys attempted to clarify what they meant by ‘soul’:

“We’re not talking specifically about 60s, 70s or 80s black American music, we’re talking about soul as an emotional force. When you hear the record does it convince you that everybody involved in the making of the record truly believes what they’re saying? For us soul goes much further than just records. We believe there are soul books (Seb lists John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’), soul films (Kevin swears by Mean Streets and Midnight Cowboy) and soul life, we take strength from our soul…. We all belief in self-discipline, as a group we practice hard. We also physically train hard together. Self improvement and self preservation, that’s what’s important today.”

>“I wanted a picture… from Ireland”
Rowland. Uncut December 2000. Classic Albums Revisited: Searching for the Young Soul Rebels piece.

>Projected Passion Revue

The Projected Passion Revue was structured in a traditional showbiz style as adamantly opposed to rock, c.f. James Brown and the Famous Flames’s revues

This tour, in the spring of 1981, came with a ban on alcohol in all the venues at Rowland’s insistence (alcohol affected the audience’s unbefuddled enjoyment of the music, apparently) and came with a programme that contained quotes from Revelation and (according to Gavin Martin from NME) “barely concealed diatribes against laughter”

>suspicious vagueness… the mission statement

There were many who shared Elvis Costello’s doubts as aired in a 1983 NME interview: “my bone of contention with Kevin Rowland [is] that he spends his time saying ‘I’m gonna tell you, I’m gonna tell you…’, but what does he tell you?”.

“I don’t know…. really”
Rowland. Uncut December 2000. Classic Albums Revisited: Searching for the Young Soul Rebels piece

“the dishonest, hippy press”
Dexy’s ad/communiqué, NME July 26th 1980

The full communiqué:

“From now on Dexy’s Midnight Runners will not take part in any interviews with the New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror or any other music papers.

Instead of filling these pages with the usual boring LP adverts, we have decided to use the space to accommodate our own essays which will state our point of view. These essays will appear regularly as we have strong views on several subjects and feel it is important we are understood.

We are doing this because we are totally disillusioned with the music press. We have attempted at least one interview with each of the papers but have never been represented properly. Instead these ‘journalists’ conduct their own two hour schoolboy analyses which always reflect their own, oh so predictable, personalities.

Though some descriptions of us have intended favour, we have found them so persistently inaccurate, patronising and standardised, that it is obvious to us that these ‘writers’ are so out of touch, they should be frightened. They are probably not. Instead they try to cover their total lack of understanding behind a haze of academic insincerity.

We won’t compromise ourselves by talking to the dishonest, hippy press. We are worth much more than that.”

>The Bureau

A communique/ad published in the March 7th 1981 NME explained the fissure of Dexys into two groups:
“For those interested, some of the previous members of the group left suddenly after hatching a plot to throw Kevin out and still carry on under the same name. What happened was, Kevin discovered the scheme and asked the would-be overthrowers to leave. At the time of their exit the gentlemen were far from impressed with the group’s future plans as well as with suggestions that they might learn new instruments…..

“For totally different reasons Al Archer recently decided to leave….

“Meanwhile Big Jimmy, Kevin and six new fusiliers have, for the last few months, been busily working on our next live venture, the Midnight Runners Projected Passion Revue. More of that soon. Please don’t expect this group to be exactly the same as the last one. It has to be better, otherwise there’s no point.”

page 297

“2-Tone has… monster”
Dammers. Melody Maker, June 21st 1980

>exhausting traipse across America
An experience that Specials bassist Horace Panter described as “putting in high-energy performances at night and and travelling huge distances by day in a mobile padded cell” (Guardian September 13, 2000)

> 2-Tone exploitation merchandise

In Japan, they even sold 2-Tone cigarettes!

>ska revival clone bands

“Rip-off merchandising” and the 2-Tone copyists were two reasons why The Selecter, who co-owned 2-Tone with The Specials, announced they were leaving the label in July 1980. Their press statement declared “the time has come when we want to take risks again… we originally wanted to stop Two-Tone completely.”

page 298

>muzak and EZ listening

Dammers, Melody Maker, 1980. “There’s no such thing as good and bad music. I’d really like to destroy people’s idea of good and bad music so that eventually people will hear a record and won’t even know if they like it or not.”

Unfortunately a lot of Specials fans felt like that about More Specials!

And in NME, February 9th 1980, Dammers on muzak: “it’s sick really because they try and make music that actually isn't going to distract the workers--so bland that you don't even notice it. But if you actually listen to it - it's not designed to be listened to-- it can be really peculiar. Who composes it, that's what I want to know?"

In his post-Specials career as deejay Dammers later became something of a connoisseur of a variant of muzak called library music: incidental music for use in radio, cinema advertisements, industrial films, and other non-glamorous contexts, recorded by session musicians and moonlighting composers working for companies like Bosworth, KPM, Chappell, Boosey & Hawkes, etc etc, who sold the records by subscription not via shops, and issued them in numbered series wrapped in institutional-looking sleeves. The idea was that the subscriber would have at their disposal a library of emotion and mood suitable for every occasion; hence the helpful track descriptions ( ‘neutral underscore’, ‘pathetic, grotesque’) on the back of the albums to facilitate finding the right theme or atmospheric interlude. Dammers provided the foreword to the book The Music Library, a 2005 collection of library sleeves put out by the design publisher Fuel and compiled by library music archivist Jonny Trunk. Dammers also provided some of the ultra-rare album covers reproduced in the book. In his foreword he pinpointed the appeal of library music in the way it “seems to get every musical genre just wrong enough to make it sound twisted and different - ie, great.”

page 299

> “Do Nothing”… fatalistic

This great, plaintive song was written by Lynval Golding, which again makes you wonder if Dammers had let the future Funboy 3s have more input into the band how much stronger and longer-living the Specials could have been.


Each day I walk along this lonely street
Trying to find, find a future
New pair of shoes are on my feet
Cos' fashion is
My only culture

Nothing ever change, oh no
Nothing ever change

People say to me just be yourself
It makes no sense to follow fashion
How could I be anybody else
I don't try, I've got no reason

Nothing ever change, oh no
Nothing ever change

I'm just living in a life without meaning
I walk and walk, do nothing
I'm just living in a life without feeling
I talk and talk, say nothing

Nothing ever change, oh no
Nothing ever change

I walk along this same old lonely street
Still trying to find, find a reason
Policeman comes and smacks me in the teeth
I don't complain, it's not my function

Nothing ever change, oh no
Nothing ever change

They're just living in a life without meaning
I walk and walk, do nothing
They're just playing in a life without thinking
They talk and talk, say nothing
I'm just living in a life without feeling
I walk and walk, I'm dreaming
I'm just living in a life without feeling
I talk and talk, say nothing
I'm just living in a life without meaning
I walk and walk, do nothing

>“The thing about… really tense”
Dammers. NME January 8th 1983

page 300

> “Why”

Lynval Golding was attacked by racist thugs when he went to see the Mo-Dettes play at the Moonlight Club

The horrible thing is that he was attacked again in 1982, at a Coventry club called Shades, as a result of which he was in intensive care for 12 hours and required 28 stitches to his face and throat. When the news was announced on local radio, with his full street address, thieves broke into his house and stole his stereo and video player. Golding later released a statement: “My music is about peace, and I’m sure the guys who did this to me will feel sorry for what they did, because I’m a guy who wants to live in peace with people… It’s funny, you know, because I’ve never thrown a blow at anyone.”

>that’s what I used to do every weekend

More on “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” from Terry Hall: “I was always getting turfed out of clubs and chased and beaten up. Then I got to 21 and began to think, Fuck it, I don’t want to get beaten up anymore…. It’s a mundane song about a mundane lifestyle

page 301

>In the Studio’s protracted gestation

Jerry Dammers, NME September 1st 1983: “Music should reflect your life. When it becomes your life it’s a problem. You can end up making records about records, writing songs about the bleeding mixing desk.”

The first Specials album took two weeks to record.
More Specials, the second, took six months.
In the Studio, the third, took somewhere between two and three years.

>only Madness seemed to prosper… The Rise and Fall

As well as the genius of Mike Barson (he co-wrote nine of the songs on their third album “7”, arguably their best) Madness’s rapid growth and sophistication phase owes a lot to producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who produced everything by the band up until 1986. Langer had been in the wacky late glam/proto-New Wave band Deaf School; that band’s singer Bette Bright ended up marrying Suggs.

Fun fact: through the Langer & Winstanley connection, Madness drummer Bedders ended up playing drums on Robert Wyatt’s version of “Shipbuilding”, written by Langer and Elvis Costello.

>Parliament Hill

ERRATUM: It is of course Primrose Hill. A favorite place in London and an area I know like the back of my hand having lived in nearby Belsize Park for a year. So am at a loss to explain this momentary lapse.

>Mike Barson/Art school versus commercial art

Barson hated all the jargon-laced discourse surrounding modern art, the way you could use theory to talk up your work into seeming more substantial than it really was. Intriguingly, Barson was also unimpressed by punk’s lack of craftmanship and musicality. “Nobody in the group liked punk much,” he told The Face in April 1982. “I agreed with the things the Pistols were saying--I just didn't think their music was very good.”

More on Barson’s art school background:
He went to Hornsey Art School in 1975 with the intention of becoming a commercial artist. "I used to like advertisements and things like that. I never particularly liked any great works of art. I preferred commercial art and cartoons."In fact quite a few people in the group really like cartoons, and can get into the good aspects of them."

He completed the first year foundation course but didn’t get in for the next part “I didn't really like it there - they were all sort of ponces. Art schools don't really seem to be into art. They're more into talking about it. It shouldn't be to do with how many A levels you can get, because they don't have all that much to do with intelligence at all. They just reflect your abilities to learn things. But that's all they seem to want, so they do a lot of talking at them…. A lot of those people are really useless at drawing or painting. They just have a lot of waffle. Being able to talk about what you're doing has a lot to do with how impressed people are about it. If you talk really confidently about what you're doing, people think that maybe it is good. People tend to agree with what they're told.”

"I didn't really like it, and I didn't go in very frequently. I applied for another three-year course at the London School of Printing, but I turned up two hours late for the interview and they never let me in. "But I wasn't really that bothered."

page 302

>“Come On Eileen”… impure thoughts

Dexys Midnight Runners took the nouvea mod’s ultra-masculine, asexual quality to the limit. Kevin Rowland even wrote the sourly sceptical “Love (pt. 1)”, a demystified view of romance to rival Gang of Four’s “Love Like Anthrax” for its acrid tone.

Lyrics to “Love (pt. 1)”

They all dedicate lines to you
Thin lines, easy seen through.
Of course they do to be like others, who
all feel something I won’t pretend to feel just for you
because I’ve never ever wanted anything from you.
I’ve watched them marry up
their wives and lives with ties and lies,
I’ve seen them fuck infatuation
And call it you so they feel safer
I hope you’ll stay with them forever
Let them sit back and never dream thoughts like mine
Scared hearts running from you
Take longer to prove
They can sit back and laugh while others do
But still they hold you in awe
Am I the first to ever question you exist?
Why do I throw up when she says she gives me herself only for you
Or her belief in you is only for me
Sometimes I almost envy the need, but don’t see the prize.

>nose jobs

In an Uncut interview, date unknown, Rowland recalled “I’d had two nose jobs done, in ’82 and ’83, and I was tortured about that, I beat myself up for having that done. I’d let myself down; I felt such a fraud… I felt somehow beaten.”

He also felt that Too Rye Aye had been compromised and that he had become a pop puppet: “I felt what we were doing was shallow. The live band was nothing like what the ’81 band had been, and I felt the album had been a compromise…. I liked to give this impression of a guy who always stood up for himself, but I was actually being ripped off and I wasn’t even able to say: ‘look, what’s happening with our money?’

>meta-soul… ‘The Occasional Flicker’

During which Rowland approached self-mockery with his lines about “that burning feeling… a little matter of a burning nature”.

>independent label autonomy

It was Rough Trade who distributed “Gangsters” and persuaded The Specials to press up twice as many copies as they’d planned--5000 to the Specials original 2500. 2-Tone was initially founded as an independent label (although it soon formed the alliance with Chrysalis and went through major-label distribution, so doesn’t technically qualify as an indie). UB40 followed the path of total independence, first through Graduate and then with their own label Dep International.

page 303

>countless remakes, tribute songs

There were cover versions galore in 2-Tone, but unlike postpunk covers
(Devo’s “Satisfaction”, or The Flying Lizards’s “Money”) these weren’t subversive vivisections or whimsical inversions of pop classic.
Instead they were tippings of the pork pie hat to honored ancestors, and the choices were usually obscure unless you were a ska afficianodo. “We aim to please with tribute versions of songs and instrumentals by The Skatalites , Prince Buster, the Maytals and the Harry J. All Stars,” said Dammers. All these covers of course generated publishing royalties for the artists.

>Lloyd Charmers’ “Birth Control”
Dammers made a point of giving an acknowledgement in the publishing credits

“We are reviving… second hand culture”
Dammers. Quoted in Frith, Simon. “The Coventry Sound--The Specials”. Originally, New Society, 1980. Reprinted in Frith, Simon. Music for Pleasure. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.


interviews with members of Dexys about Too Rye Aye

The Specials official website with full history of the band

Garry Bushell on the mod revival

A critical appraisal of the Madness videos

Dexys fan site


Below is my critique of mod culture from Unfaves 2001 (I must say I feel more sympathetic for the mod/soulboy syndrome these days, especially compared with the self-segregation in music in recent years, the fading of the white hipster who projects towards black music/culture syndrome. At least the mods were looking to black music for an answer, a “way out”, even if, being a scruffy sod, I’ll never understand the demented obsession with clothes. )


Thoughts prompted by three near-simultaneous irritations: seeing the video for Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" on VH1 Classic (Weller and Talbot as Tour De France cyclists); reading Kirk De Giorgio's Invisible Jukebox in the Wire; perusing the suspiciously dapper and small-faced Paul Gorman's In their Own Write, with its excessive number of quotes from Paolo "Cappucino Kid" Hewitt.

I'm using "mod" here to signify not so much a specific period in the Sixties, or even its revivals and explicit echoes, so much as a UK youth cultural continuum, a perennial space in the sociocultural field of possibilities. And it's something whose appeal almost entirely bypasses me; it consistently non-resonates. And obviously in this respect I'm just as much trapped in my own class identity (middle middle class, as opposed to lower middle class). What irks? Mod's non-Dionysian, neat-freak retentiveness? Its refusal of both "revolution" (mod is essentially about resignation: youth as brief burst of energy and hope before capitulation to the humdrum) and "bohemia" (which as someone wise said, basically replaces politics with art as solution to/salve for the contradictions of late capitalist society)?

The mod/soul-boy continuum occupies a thin strip of sociological terrain--basically suburban upper working class/lower middle class--and is defined on one side through its disdain for the "studenty" (that bedrock of all things "progressive", Floyd to Radiohead) and on the other through its recoiling from the base pleasures of the un-sussed plebs (your proper proletariat). Caught between these two equally unattractive prospects and with the dire fate of suburban mediocrity staring it in the face, Mod escapes England through a massive projection towards Black America (never, crucially, rock'n'roll America) and through its flirtations with European-ness. As per Style Council's Our Favorite Shop, what's imagined is a utopia of perfect consumption: transcendence achieved through the details of a lapel, the iconicity of a label.

At the core of the mod self-conception is the idea of being one of a select few white boys who truly understand black passion and black style, simply through strenuous self-education in all its crucial details. The original mods were at least dealing with contemporary Black American music, but by the Seventies, with Northern Soul, the mod continuum became increasingly and paradoxically opposed to Black Modernity--it was equally horrified by white misappropriations of black music and by black musician's own deviations from the true path.

For Energy Flash, I was interviewed by Robert Elms on his GLR show, and during a desultory interrogation, with one eye kept on the Test Match playing on a little TV above the studio console, the former doyen of the style bibles opined that as far as he was concerned, house and techno had been the death of the British working class's love affair with black dance music.

Like everybody else from a certain mid-Eighties moment in style culture/London clubland, Elms seemed to have imagined that rare groove/"the jazz revival"/go-go should have just have extended itself in perpetuity: a Thousand Year Reich of refinement and righteousness.

Elms's inability to accept house and techno as "proper black music" (let alone all the things that followed like jungle and 2step), then gets weirdly echoed by your Terry Farley types who went a bit further than Elms, falling in love with deep house, but stopping there. Read his house review column in Muzik and you sniff the tell-tale neo-mod whiff of "we are the custodians", signaled by phrases like "proper black dance music" and "this is real black house music for those who know". Then there's Kirk DeGiorgio with his historically confused insistence that Detroit techno came entirely out of black synth-exponents like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Bernie Worrell, and owed not one whit to Kraftwerk/New Order/Depeche. DeGiorgio operates some kind of web-site project dedicated to documenting early Seventies black music year by year down to every last record released---so far as he's barely got to 1971!.

I've strayed a bit far from mod here (DeGiorgio is probably as much a case of a jazz curator or Steve Barrow-style archivist type as anything, he certainly doesn't look terribly dapper from the pix I've seen) but the syndrome is essentially the same: what typifies the mod/soul-boy mentality is this weird self-effacing relationship with black music, where the best one can aspire to is to emulate/simulate black music as closely as possible. These white people are continually complaining about other white people ruining black music, making it too "white boy."

Like the house bods referenced earlier, these guys always seemed destined to become curmudgeons, disenchanted by the direction that their beloved black music has gone. Because their attitude to black music is so reverential, conservationist, and purist, they cannot comprehend black musicians own impulses to be faithless and heretical, to miscegenate. Your actual black musicians, on the whole, give or take a few real cultural protectionist/Afrocentric/black power sorts, don't think like this: in fact they think as musicians first, responding to excellence wherever it comes from. The examples are too numerous: southern soul singers who loved the plaintiveness and everyman's-woes aspects of country, George Clinton loving the Beatles and Vanilla Fudge, Ice T's penchant for Phil fucking Collins and making bad hard rock records, jungle with people like Goldie being into The Stranglers, David Sylvian and PiL as much as Loose Ends, Maze, Marley Marl; Jeff Mills's digging post-DAF Euro Body Music and actually playing in an industrial band called Final Cut.
For your mod/soulboy types, this sort of swerve is a real headfuck. And so electro and the hard, drum-machine driven rap of the early Eighties totally wrongfooted the chaps at Echoes and Blues & Soul, and most of your style bible clubland guru types consistently backed the wrong horse, rallying to go-go or rare groove rather than rap or house. All hand-percussion and call-and-response, go-go corresponded to their received ideas of proper blackness; Troublefunk's shows in 1986 were wall-to-wall white hipster funkateers, barely a black face in sight.

Black music has an inherent mutational drive that is continually pushing it into directions that are "un-black"--in the process challenging and complicating the reified notions of blackness ("swing", "funky", "soulful", "warmth" etc) cherished by the white believers. (And sometimes the black believers too: in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George's ideas lead him towards the paradox that, post-electro, the true conscientious custodians of black music, the people who really cherished and had a gut-understanding of its principles, were all white and mostly British: your George Michaels, Phil Collins, Daryl Halls, Mick Hucknalls etc.) Time and time again, a younger, upstart generation of black musicians will find themselves attracted to some new white music and embrace its qualities (hard attack riffs, distortion, machinic angularity), and the result is the next quantum leap for black music. Time and time again, the white soulboys huddle in horror and disdain, holding tightly onto models of black innovation that have become essentially antique.

And here's the truly perturbing twist---quite often it's been the "pale theory boys", the studenty, art-school, pretentious twats that your mods and soul-boys love to mock--who are not only the first to grasp the new cutting edges of black music (I'm thinking here of your Cabs, New Orders, Mark Stewarts) but who even occasionally have reciprocal influence back on black music (DAF and Throbbing Gristle with the Chicago house pioneers; Pop Group deeply shaping members of Massive Attack, etc). Standing to one side of this fruitful dialectic of funklessness and refunktification, the mod/soulboy types condemn themselves to irrelevance and redundancy. Can you imagine any black musician being inspired by, or finding some re-deployable element worth stealing in, the music of Jamiroquai or the Style Council?

All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated


Unknown said...

thank you for recalling, contextualising, legitimising and clarifying those fun-filled endless days. Looking back it seems so bleak in some ways but so fucking vigorous and committed too.

Unknown said...

ps must buy the bloody book!