IN WHICH THE AUTHOR IS KICKED IN THE SHIN BY THE DRUMMER FROM A WELL-LOVED BRITISH SKA BAND
Everybody alive in the post-World War II world, in which music became commodified and efficiently distributed, can plot – and revisit at will – a soundtrack to their lives.
The first musical memories are usually those imposed by the record collections of their parents. These will include the first pop song to which they can remember knowing some or all of the words (for me, this was B.J. Thomas’s 1969 hit ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’),1 and the first record they can recall deliberately, voluntarily listening to (the 1968 Original Broadway Cast recording of Hair, a favourite of my mother, the fervour of whose hopes that I didn’t understand a word of it can only be wondered at).
Then there will be the first artist or group about whom they’re pretty sure they consciously thought, ‘I like this artist or group.’ This will almost certainly be someone who just happens to be big enough to be on the radio a lot in your parents’ car, and in the cars of the parents of the other kids at your primary school (almost nobody discovers individuality before high school, as almost nobody turns into a desperate, insecure solipsist – and therefore a rampaging snob – before they’re a teenager). This will also almost certainly be an artist or group who play songs with tunes, as children like tunes because they haven’t yet turned into desperate, insecure solipsists – and therefore rampaging snobs – and parents like tunes because they’re too tired to like anything else. So: Abba.
There will be, possibly around the age of ten, the first single purchased with your own pocket money (Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, a choice so preposterously precocious that I wouldn’t dare invent it; I cheerfully and candidly balance this implicit boast with the confession that I subsequently saved pocket money for no end of inexplicable drivel, up to and including at least two singles by Racey).2 And the first video that made music look like it might be more than lyrics and a tune, that it might be a life, a world, more interesting and dangerous – and/or stupider and sillier – than yours. I don’t know exactly what this was, but I do know where I saw it, as does every Australian of a certain age – on Countdown, a weekly music program hosted by a mumbling man in a cowboy hat. This was Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, who now enjoys, through a combination of career longevity, nostalgia and (in fairness) seeming a basically decent egg, near universal affection in Australia. Indeed, a serious domestic accident in 2011, and his spirited recovery from same, almost certainly qualifies Meldrum for modern Australia’s highest national honour, only conferred upon well-loved celebrities following the overcoming of tribulation. This is, of course, the Our (see also Our Kylie, Our Delta, etc). While it would be churlish to deny that Countdown introduced some great international artists – Blondie not least among them – its local content was, overwhelmingly, inane provincial mediocrity. Though such is the dialectical nature of pop, and such was the dominance of Countdown, this may have been the reason that the Australian underground of the 70s and 80s was so vibrant. So thanks, Our Molly.
Around that time, there will also have been the first artist or group you got properly into via your own peer group, heedless of the tastes of your parents, and the appeal of whom was probably related to the degree to which your parents found them baffling, repellent, obnoxious, tuneless and witless (Kiss). The first artist or group whose poster you affixed to your wall (Kiss – the staggeringly crass photograph in which they are depicted, bloodied and bandaged, in a pastiche of a portrait of wounded Civil War veterans). The first album you asked a friend to record for you onto cassette (Kiss’s Double Platinum). The first album you successfully pestered your mother into buying for you (Kiss’s Kiss Unmasked). The first album towards which you experienced vague but discernible stirrings of disappointment and dissatisfaction (Kiss’s Kiss Unmasked again – although this landmark may be peculiar to the evolution of that chronically querulous stripe of person destined to become a rock journalist). The first artist or group whose name on a magazine cover enticed you to purchase said edition (Kiss, again – the issue of Juke which claimed to contain photographs of Kiss sans makeup).
I should state for the record that my views on Kiss today are broadly congruent with those held by my parents at the time, and that I’m therefore grateful – yet mildly reproachful – that the folks didn’t restrict my rations to gruel and pond water and dispatch me to the doghouse until I stopped bringing this rubbish into their home, and started listening to proper rock’n’roll like AC/DC instead.
At some slightly later point, usually in mid-adolescence, the meaning of music changes. It develops from merely being words and notes arranged in an order you happen to find pleasing into a keystone of your personal culture, a constitution of codes and rituals to which you ally yourself as a means of joining some sort of community, and as a way of representing yourself to anyone who cares to take an interest. This is also usually happenstance, based largely on where you happen to go to school in your mid-teens.
I went to a lot of schools, as children of military personnel do. The primary schools I attended – one in Sydney, one in Point Lonsdale, two in Canberra – were okay, I guess. The first secondary school I attended, Holder High School in Canberra, presented a forbidding brutalist concrete visage which earned it the nickname ‘Holditz’. The prevailing musical tastes were standard-issue suburban, which is to say that the girls listened to Duran Duran and other such blouses in blouses, and the boys listened to Midnight Oil. I didn’t much care for Duran Duran, and I did like Midnight Oil, but I don’t recall possessing any especially militant opinions about these, or about music in general.
The second secondary school I attended, for third and fourth form, was the Catholic boys’ high school St Paul’s College, at the top of Darley Road overlooking Manly, in Sydney. It wasn’t anybody’s first choice – it was just the only school within walking distance of our new home inside the barracks of the School of Artillery on North Head, where Dad had been appointed commanding officer. St Paul’s was the only single-sex school I attended, the only private school I attended, and the only religious school I attended. Not coincidentally, I hated it.
My difficulties at St Paul’s were not, when measured against the lurid pageant of human suffering, noteworthy – probably no more or less than might be expected for the new kid, the (at the time) quite short kid, the lippy and sarcastic kid, the kid who was a calamitous liability to any sports team encumbered with him, the kid who wouldn’t kneel during church services (I’ve never understood why this refusal so upsets the religious, just as I’ve never understood the inability of people who are dancing to leave alone those who are not. My theory is that both the worshippers and the rug-cutters fear that they appear ridiculous, and that this concern will be assuaged if they can compel everyone else to participate in their nonsense.)
With a few treasurable exceptions, my classmates – and, I’m sure, not a few of the teachers – thought I was an insufferable smartarse, and I thought they – and quite a few of the teachers – were a herd of oafish dimwits. An impartial observer would probably have concluded that everybody was at least half right. It was, however, at St Paul’s that my hitherto altogether normal interest in music – which is to say the sort of interest most people have, where they like the sort of thing they like, and regard everything else with amiable indifference – began metastasising into something more consuming.
Noel Coward cannot have known how right he would be proven when he made his famous quip about the strange potency of cheap music. One of the charms of working as an itinerant hack in an age dominated by the popular culture of the West has been witnessing the radiant hybrids that occur as accelerating technology wafts assorted cultural pollen over ever greater distances, sprinkling seeds upon incongruous landscapes.
I have, in my time, sipped Guinness with the singer of an Irish-style folk band in Belgrade,3 watched an Abba tribute act from Russia conduct singalonging revellers in a park in Ulan Bator, listened to Seattlesque grunge outfits rehearsing in sandbagged basements beneath the ruins of Sarajevo, and quaffed bootleg grappa with members of an XTC-influenced rock group in Tehran.4 None of which seems any weirder than the fact that, in 1983 and 1984, at a Catholic boys’ high school in a beachside suburb of Sydney, a goodly proportion of at least one form were besotted with the ska scene which had flourished in the United Kingdom a few years earlier.
I never figured out how this happened. It’s possible that the phenomenon gestated in tapes sent home from London by someone’s travelling older sibling, but that doesn’t account for the half-decade time delay. It could be that someone in my form liked Madness, who’d had actual hits in Australia and been shown on Countdown, and wondered if there was more like that where they came from – though I can’t imagine how they’d have found out, given that Australia barely had a music press to speak of, and British music magazines, usually months-old sea-mail copies, were generally only to be found in bigger newsagents in the city (although at this point I didn’t know that, either). 2JJJ is another potential culprit – but that wouldn’t explain why I didn’t know of any other school in Sydney at the time where kids were reporting for roll-call sporting Terry Hall-style flat-top haircuts, incorporating crepe-soled suede shoes into their uniforms and even, in a couple of cases, rocking checked porkpie hats until instructed to desist by bemused teachers.
I don’t remember when I first heard any of this ‘ska’ stuff, but I do remember vividly how I felt when I did: relieved.
Relieved because I actually, genuinely liked it – and therefore probably hoped, as a result, to be spared at least some of the (half-arsed and low-level, but nonetheless debilitating and tedious) bullying inflicted by the flat-tops-and-crepes faction. I wasn’t, of course – the flat-tops-and-crepes faction merely adjusted their opinion of me from annoying dweeb to craven parvenu, and continued breaking eggs in my schoolbag. Though I’d prefer not to think that the passion for music which has since nourished my soul and provided part of my living might be a lingering symptom of some adolescent outbreak of Stockholm syndrome, the first album I ever paid for with my own money, four years after its release, was The Specials’ 1979 self-titled debut, The Specials.
This was swiftly followed into the corner of my parents’ record cabinet that I’d annexed by The Specials’ audaciously titled 1980 follow-up, More Specials, Madness’s Complete Madness, The Selecter’s Too Much Pressure, The Beat’s What is Beat? and a couple of 2 Tone label compilations, all purchased from a Manly record shop clearly attuned to the quirks of its market. Even though there seemed little prospect of it ever being any real concern of mine, I was disappointed that Adrian Thrills’ sleeve notes on the This Are Two Tone compilation referred to the ska scene in the past tense. It was some consolation that at least one local band refused to admit this: I also bought D-D-D-Dance, the debut album by Sydney ska band The Allniters, and a T-shirt flaunting their name.
I had no idea that I wanted to be a journalist, still less a rock journalist – I doubt I had any idea that such a thing as a rock journalist existed. I hadn’t the blurriest notion who Adrian Thrills was, and no way of finding out, other than perhaps approaching strangers in the streets of Sydney’s hipper districts, wherever they were, and asking, ‘Excuse me, have you the blurriest notion who Adrian Thrills is?’ (He wrote for the NME, but I didn’t know what that was, either.) I wanted to be a doctor or a fighter pilot – ideally, a surgeon who also flew F-111s for the Royal Australian Air Force and on Saturdays played centre half-forward for Geelong, except during the summer, when I batted number four for Australia.
It is probably an unsolvable problem, but it cannot be beneficial to humanity that every man is an aching disappointment to his teenage self.
I still have a lot of those ska records, or digital representations thereof. Most of them, I think, have held up splendidly, at least the British ones. A twenty-first-century reacquaintance, via YouTube, with The Allniters’ breezy version of Bobby Bloom’s ‘Montego Bay’ – specifically, with the sound of white Australians affecting Caribbean accents – prompted a curling of the toes which may require surgical correction.
Those two Specials albums in particular are nigh flawless. The first, produced by Elvis Costello, is a bracingly articulate expression of young manhood, strutting awkwardly, preening uncertainly, radiating terrified bravado as it grapples with those questions which young men quaintly suppose have answers, specifically: i) why women are weird, ii) why people are unpleasant, and iii) why stuff just isn’t fair. The second, one of the great lost classics of the post-punk era, released just twelve months later, sounds like the work of people who have grown up vertiginously quickly: a clammy, queasy hallucination of apocalypse, topped and tailed with readings of the cheesy standard ‘Enjoy Yourself’, the first defiant and exuberant, the last possibly the most sarcastic 107 seconds of popular song ever recorded.
I’m not certain what aspects of these albums I related to. My experience of fleeing, as fast as two-inch soles permitted, from National Front skinheads through the mean streets of Coventry was limited. I’d never even sought admission to a nightclub, still less the sort of place that would be spelled ‘Nite Klub’. I didn’t know any girls who’d done too much, much too young – chance, indeed, would have been a fine thing. And while I’d received some instruction in the atomic paranoia which was the style at the time, from a couple of sandal-shod teachers and the recordings of Midnight Oil – the cover of whose 1984 album, Red Sails in the Sunset, depicted Sydney Harbour immediately following a nuclear missile strike – the likelihood of the beautiful view from our kitchen window being reduced to irradiated aridity never struck me as significant. The simplest explanation that fits the facts, where The Specials were concerned, was that I thought their records were riddled with belting tunes, and that the group looked imperishably cool on the sleeves: two judgements I stand by.
My discovery that I enjoyed post-punk English ska may not have impressed my dullard tormentors at St Paul’s, but it did amount to the first steps on the path chronicled in this book. Roughly ten years later, during a regular Sunday afternoon social soccer match in Regent’s Park in London, I would be – during one of my rare and fleeting interludes in possession of the ball – enthusiastically (though not maliciously) clattered by Madness drummer Woody. If only, I thought, as I subsequently pursued him down the wing bent on barbarous vengeance, shattered shin guard flapping from one sock, they could see me now.
1 This was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. I would meet Bacharach nearly thirty years later, in 1998, when I interviewed him and Elvis Costello about the album (Painted From Memory) they’d just made together. I decided, I think correctly, to spare him the revelation of his role in my personal discography, anticipating that it would prompt complete nonplussedness.
2 One of which was definitely ‘Some Girls’ – a song which, I learnt many years later, was initially offered by its composers, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, to Blondie, who turned it down. Racey’s rendering is a tinny glam shimmy in the vein of such inescapable wedding DJ favourites as Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ or Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ (both also Chinn/Chapman productions). Mike Chapman went on to produce, among much else, most of Blondie’s albums, which means, of course, that he produced ‘Heart of Glass’; something about his works clearly resonated at this point (I also remember buying Exile’s ‘How Could This Go Wrong?’, another Chapman composition, and The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’, a Chapman production). Our affinity had limits, however, which is to say that civilised countries no longer countenance punishments appropriate to having been an accessory to the perpetration of Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’, anthem for the global diaspora of people who carry their mobile phones in little holsters on their belts. Legendary as quite the tyrannical perfectionist, Chapman once appeared on the cover of BAM magazine dressed as General George S. Patton. He was born in Queensland.
3 The Orthodox Celts, whose singer, Aleksandar Petrovic, I met while on assignment in Serbia for The Face in late 2000, shortly after the revolution that had dismantled the squalid gangsters’ paradise presided over by Slobodan Milosevic. ‘When the parliament was on fire,’ said Petrovic, ‘I thought the destruction was bad – it is an old and beautiful building. But I remember thinking of the Easter Rising and the Post Office in Dublin. It was the same picture – a burning building with police and army in front of it. So it was a kind of Easter Rising for us, but it ended happily.’ Petrovic had gleaned an impressive knowledge of Irish history from the works of The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones and The Pogues, among others of that ilk. You can get pretty much anybody to listen to a lecture on pretty much anything, so long as you set it to a tune.
4 127 Band, who enjoy the dubious privilege of getting to practise their art in a place where rock’n’roll is still perceived as a threat. ‘Somewhere in this city,’ singer Sohrab Mohebbi told me in 2007, outlining the bureaucracy that burdened all Iranian artists, ‘there’s a grown man, who gets dressed in the morning, kisses his wife goodbye, and goes and sits in an office and gets paid to decide that my band can’t play in front of thirty of our friends.’ This remains about as heartbreaking an illustration of the dreariness and stupidity of tyranny as I’ve heard.
Excerpted from It’s Too Late to Die Young Now by Andrew Mueller. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Mueller.
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