Scenes. I love ’em. From the moment the gloriously simple two note intro to Echo And The Bunnymen’s Rescue kicked in and I discovered that this, apparently, was the neo-psychedelic sound of the Liverpool scene, I was sold. Disregard, if you can, the fact that it has taken 38 years to learn how to spell psychedelic. What intrigued me was the suggestion that everybody, literally everybody in Liverpool knew each other and were forming bands like a post-punk version of musical chairs. Appropriately enough, as given the tender age at which I heard the record it’s entirely possible that hitherto, musical chairs had been my primary pursuit.
I’ve always been drawn to bands rather than solo artists. Something about the urgent crusading of a gang of mates struck a chord with my earliest literary experiences spent in the company of The Swallows & Amazons and The Secret Seven. Liverpool, for a couple of years either side of 1980 was chock full of crusading gangs from the mysterious Bunnymen to the technicolour Teardrop Explodes via the intense Pink Military and to the outer reaches of the known universe with the futuristic Dalek, I Love You.
And I just assumed they all went to the same youth club.
Mind you, there was some veracity to my assumption. Most of the band cross-pollination at this time in Liverpool centered on the punk nights at Eric’s night club, Matthew Street. Just a few doors down from the site of the Cavern. Pete Frame, the author of those entertainingly complex rock family trees, could (and I’m pretty sure, did) make a beautiful spreading chestnut tree of the relationship between the above mentioned as most of them kept bumping into each other at the bar every night.
The same could not be said of my next all consuming obsession, the Scottish scene. No sane person would believe that groups as geographically diverse as Dundee’s Associates, Edinburgh’s Josef K and East Kilbride’s Aztec Camera could somehow be meeting down the pub every night. Ladies and gentlemen, I was that insane person. But if my interest in Liverpool merely left me with a love of overcoats and a lifetimes unfulfilled ambition to grow a bowl cut like Will Sergeant, my flirtation with all points north of Hadrian’s Wall would change me both musically and personally.
First up, Orange Juice, premier league signings to the iconic Postcard label (“the sound of young Scotland!”). We’ve become so inured to twee indie pop since the explosion of independent record labels apres punk, that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary Orange Juice were. For all of punk’s supposed meritocracy it was still a very agressively male scene with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Pauline Murray and The Slits only gaining parity by spitting further. Orange Juice, co-fronted by singers Edwyn Collins (verbally brash and head turningly handsome ersatz-Elvis) and James Kirk (borderline autistic modeller of safari suits and sandals) were shockingly, shockingly unmacho. These boys clearly were no “lads”, but “gentlemen”. Indeed, their manifesto, if such it were, read “1880’s, not 1980’s”. If their achingly gorgeous melodies were not provocation enough they compounded the offence with boyish grins hidden beneath floppy fringes and the kind of sensible hard wearing checked shirts your Mum would buy.
However, fey and twee they most certainly were not. To perform in front of a lager-fuelled Glasgow audience demanded the ability to “look after” yourself and Orange Juice were not content to waft a bunch of gladioli in the air and feel sorry for themselves as one former fan was later to do to great effect. Edwyn’s quest was to marry the sophistication of Chic to the romance and confrontation of Buzzcocks and like the latter’s frontmen, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley he was more than happy to turn the grin to a grimace whilst cutting the nasty bullies down to size with a Gillette-sharp tongue.
Much as I can admire the wit and irony in retrospect, at the time any sublety was lost on me. Smirking in what I assumed to be an irresistably adorable way, I challenged my inability to “look after” myself by wandering around town with a sunflower in my lapel and waiting for women to fall at my feet. No women, but plenty of teeth, fell at my feet as regular “slappings” reminded me that chivalrous romance died with Ivanhoe and that dressing like Oscar Wilde doesn’t get you very far in a hosiery manufacturing town where a high percentage of women basked in the evocative job title of “gusseter”.
The soaring twin guitar attack of Edwyn and James was as foreign to my primitive axe skills as King Crimson but after hearing Edinburgh quartet Fire Engines’ 1981 single Meat Whiplash, I finally understood the punk “anyone can do it” ethos. Actually, I never could and still can’t “do it” anything like Fire Engines but the message was clear – they’re not terribly good musicians but it still sounds great. Hey, (I thought) I’m not a terribly good musician (in every sense) but maybe I could still sound great. More evidence was needed, so on a smash and grab shopping visit to London I dug out their splendidly titled Aufgeladen Und Bereit För Aktion Und Spass album. And there on the back we find the following holy script.
Beat noise and pop songs. Just roll it around on your tongue. Beat noise and pop songs. THAT, I decided, is what I want to hear. Hey, Kid Slender. Want to form a band? Sure. Will we be playing beat noise and pop songs? Is there anything else worth playing? And the answer to this day has been no. Everything I hear has been filtered through Fire Engines’ sensibilities. The Walker Brothers? Beat noise and pop songs. Sonic Youth? Beat noise and pop songs. Thelonious Monk? Beat noise and pop songs. If it can’t, in any way, shape or form, be described as beat noise and pop songs then I’m not interested. Beat noise and pop songs hold no truck with lyrics such as Well I came home, like a stone and fell heavy into your arms. Yes Mr Mumford and your satanic progeny, I’m talking to you. Take a tip from Fire Engines’ Davy Henderson: I love the labels on food cartons; they’re so important to me.
That’s art. That’s beat noise and pop songs.
That, of course, was 37 years ago. Scenes came and went but always felt unfulfilling by comparison. The Norwich scene. The Portland scene. The Mali scene. And then salvation appeared
Elevator Operator. Courtney Barnett’s life affirming no.2 entry on the chart of all-time great album openers. A song which can have you (and in my case has had me) dancing in carparks. A band so moronically simple you wonder why no one else thought of it first. A litany of fantastic lyrics – she looks him up and down with a botox frown – I’m not suicidal just idling insignificantly – twenty years old, thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald – and in Melbourne, a hometown so far away as to preclude regular gigs in Karlstad, Sweden.
But wait. There’s more. Much more. Courtney is merely a single jewel in a much bigger crown. Join me now as we get down on our knees and pray to the Lord in His infinite mercy to hide all evidence of the Melbourne scene from Pete Frame, because at the ripe old age of 75 the sheer numbers and rate of change of same will give the poor sod a coronary. Try to keep up, this gets complicated.
The scene appears to revolve around Dick Diver who contain former members of Lower Plenty and UV Race whose drummer got together with the guitarist from Eddy Current Suppression Ring to form Total Control who shared their producer with The Stevens who suffered line-up problems when members defected to The Twerps whose celebrity fan Jessica Alba may or may not be aware of Blank Statements who along with all of the above mentioned supplied personnel that put together equal, laydeez’n’gennelmun your new favourite band and mine, The Stroppies!
Barrelling along somewhat in the style of The Modern Lovers, The Stroppies only album (you want more albums? Go and form your own band) races through its seven songs (you want more songs? Go write them yourself – we’re too busy) with the urgency of musicians itching to go and form other bands. Harmonies? Harmonies are for workshy slackers with too much time on their hands. The Stroppies just sing the same tune in unison and move on to the next song. Solos? Are you kidding? Who’s got time for solos? You’ll be expecting us to waste time mixing songs next.
In fact why are you idling insignificantly reading this nonsense when there’s plans to make and things to buy? C’mon, there’s a whole world of beat noise and pop songs out there. Get up and use them.