Note The Detail
Messy aesthetics ... pt one
I saw Dexys Midnight Runners this week, and have thought about little else since. I don't think I am ready to write down everything I thought about that remarkable show at the Royal Festival Show. I will say, however, I had not been to see a live music event in years. So I like the idea that the only shows this boy goes to see are ones of such stature, ones so exceptional that you feel like punching the air in the same way Kevin did at the end of that astonishing performance.

And wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to say the same about records? But there is so much temptation out there. I sometimes think there should be a new verb in up-to-date dictionaries. To fopp, or to walk into a chain of record stores and feel some odd urge to take a chance on a CD that winks its left eye saucily and asks you if you fancy a whirl. And at a fiver a time, it's hard to resist.

Like me picking up a Rich Kids compilation. Did I really need it? Nah. Will I even keep it? Dunno really. And yet it did trigger what I will insist on calling some sort of Jonathan Coe-sy flashback. I saw it and was whisked way back to the end of the summer of 1978, when I was on a trip up to the capital and had enough money to buy one LP. Would it be the Buzzcocks' Love Bites or would it be the Rich Kids' Ghosts of Princes in Towers? I think in an act of defiance I opted for the latter.

I say defiance because the Rich Kids were part of an apparent reaction against punk conformity, and were thus herded into some sort of power pop playpen. What I still argue the media never understood was that groups like the Rich Kids, The Jam, Gen X, XTC, Blondie, Eddie and the Hot Rods were accessible to all. By which I mean they would quite likely appear on Revolver, or Supersonic, or Something Else, or whatever that programme with Roy North was. Meanwhile The Clash were taking their huge moral stand in not appearing on Top of the Pops. Which is why people of my age still talk about The Jam doing 'All Around The World' on Marc Bolan's TV show one afternoon in the summer of '77 as the life defining punk moment, rather than Strummer and some sweaty gig.

I liked the fact that the Rich Kids bridged what was for me a natural gap. I am thinking of Glen Matlock being one of the Sex Pistols at a time when I was still so taken with ridiculous glitter/glam noisy upstarts. And anything on Bell records was cause for celebration, and still the soul is stirred at seeing one of those silver labels in a charity shop. So Glen hooking up with Midge Ure fresh from Slik and their string of classic pop singles seemed perfectly natural.

And I still would argue strongly that a handful of Rich Kids' songs sound wonderful. Pop singles really don't get much better than 'Ghosts of Princes in Towers', and its 'you've either got it honey or you ain't' punch line. Yet this EMI compilation is as irritating as hell. The sleevenotes are pathetic, and would send any apostrophe watchers into instant apoplexy. There is not even any information on or context to place the extra tracks.

The irony is that context, packaging, and design, were important parts of what the Rich Kids were about back in the day. They were managed by Al McDowell, who is one of the most important, shadowy figures at the aesthetic end of punk and what happened next. He was part of the Rocking Russian set-up which is rarely credited enough, but they were among the first to stress the importance of the total pop package. Perhaps one of their most famous designs was the 7' EP for The Clash's 'Cost of Living', if I remember rightly.

McDowell was also involved in the State Arts design set-up which produced remarkable t-shirts for a select number of artists. I hate pop group t-shirts, but these were beautiful, and I desperately wish I still had my Scars Ski State Arts t-shirt. And yes, the beautiful Scars were another group I am sure McDowell managed at one stage.

It seems such a world away now but McDowell was also there at the beginning of the i-D magazine. The i-D of the first few issues would I am sure shock people now in its crude fanzine-format (printed by Better Badges, which was so central to the punk and afters diy process), and I wish I still had mine. I do at least have the Scars flexi given away with issue number three, which I am sure featured the great Ludus too.

And one other person associated with Rocking Russian who left his fingerprints all over the early 80s was Neville Brody, whose sleeves for labels like Fetish and Rough Trade remain gorgeous works of art. Which is not to forget the way he developed the look and tone of The Face, and even the books of Colin MacInnes which in the early 80s were a lifeline still.

All of which makes it sadder still that this Rich Kids comp is such a mess aesthetics wise. But to bring it back full circle, thinking so much about Dexys this week, it is important not to forget the stand and the pains Kevin Rowland took to ensure every aspect of Dexys' art was so spot-on and projected the right message. And only Dexys went this far. For after all the likes of McDowell and Brody may have sat around talking about complete packages, but their acts still 'just' got up on stage and whacked out a set of songs. Yet Dexys still take it one step further, and I am still thinking about the extraordinary grace, courage and dignity with which he took the stage this week to sing 'The Waltz'. You just know he had thought so long and hard about getting his entrance right. The devil is in the detail.

© 2003 John Carney