All The Troubles In The World, On A Transistor Radio ...
|I was watching From Here To Eternity the
other day, and it reminded me of the summer of 1980. As someone once said,
it was a great summer to be 16. From Here
To Eternity has it all really. The gorgeous Montgomery Clift as the
tormented Prewitt, who ultimately raises his horn high, as immortalised on
the cover of Dexys' There There My Dear. And then Frank Sinatra putting
in the performance of his life as Maggio, the tough monkey that won't be
broken. And Kevin sings in 'There There My Dear' about not believing they
really like Frank Sinatra. Then there was Vic Godard on the cover of What's
The Matter Boy looking like an even more lost Montgomery Clift.
And in all the interviews of that time, like the one with Robin Banks in Zigzag, Vic enthuses about Frank Sinatra, a natural move in his war on rock orthodoxy. Elsewhere Ian Curtis was said to be listening to Sinatra before doing his vocals for 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', another hit of that summer. Thus the one enduring image of Sinatra for many would be that one of him singing for only the lonely, lost and alone late at night with one more drink, at home with the losers and the despairing, like something out of a David Goodis story.
Vic would later aver that Tony Bennett was the crooner for him, and if we are staying on the bleak side there is little to beat the 1975 Tony Bennett and Bill Evans album. Some cracked performances, some bad habits, some real sorrow and bitterness, and just the piano and the voice. And it starts with a lovely rendition of 'Young And Foolish' appropriately. Listening to it now reminds me of wet Sunday afternoons tuned in to Benny Green on Radio Two going into tortuous detail about the songs and songwriters of his heyday, and the many linkages and lineages down the ages. Well, it's what I imagined Vic would be doing, with his French literature and Sporting Times, and eternal cigarette spilling ash over the paperbacks at the side of his bed, so I had to do it too.
That suggestion of the tormented torch singer would colour the best of the recordings young Edinburgh punks Josef K would make for Postcard Records. Skinny souls dressed in drab suits, the Josek K crew would juxtapose a terrific funky trebly racket with cool crooning. Paul Haig as a foxy young Francis Albert Sinatra can be heard in his full glory on the archive Josef K live recordings released on his own Rhythm of Life label as The Sound of Josef K live at Valentino's, and the packaging is suitably melodramatically black and white. Allan Campbell in his sleevenotes rightly reminds us that one immortal Valentino's bill (Josef K, Scars, Fire Engines, and Associates - wow!) was arranged as a tribute to Frank.
Paul Haig and Josef K typify the Postcard players by refusing to ever realise their true potential. This was a Vic Godard trait his young disciples took too literally. Ironically Postcard ne'er-do-wells the Jazzateers would see a relative design sleeves for Spandau Ballet who would be the ones to have the 'True' middle of the road universal radio hits, with a very dodgy hamfisted crooner who would appropriately end up acting the fool in a Carry On farce.
Interestingly if the Postcard pack had more than a passing interest in crooners and torch songs this owed as much to the bells of old Bowie and the Ferry man as it did to the Hollywood musicals. And this obsession reached its apogee with Paul Quinn and the Independent Group's mid ï90s Will I Ever Be Inside of You country soul set, which reprised Brigitte Bardot and Joe Simon's dramatic Misty Blue performance. Quinn himself remains a strange, luckless figure, and all the more romantic for it.
If I remember rightly at some point Paul Haig in his Rhythm of Life role performed a cover of Suicide's 'Ghost Rider'. I wish they had covered 'Be Bop Kid'. Anyway, I still argue that Ze's best records were not the no wave and mutant disco ones, but the twisted torch songs Suicide, August Darnell, Cristina and Lydia Lunch produced. Yes, the Lydia Lunch that as Teenage Jesus created the most unholy of rackets. Yes, the Lovely Lydia that put together the pop noir of Queen of Siam, where she looks so unbelievably sexy and scary on the original cover.
A few tracks from Queen of Siam are featured on the recent NY No Wave Ze set, and we must continue to lobby for a full salvage operation. It is one of the great records. Seductive and funny as hell. Big band arrangements and Robert Quine's punk rock guitar. There's not really been anything like it since except perhaps some Tom Waits and Nick Cave sets.
Lydia would follow it with the clatter and glamour of the back to basics garage noir of her contemporaneous Eight Eyed Spy project, where she again worked with Pat Irwin and various Raybeats, Contortions and future Bad Seeds. Arguably she never sounded so vital again, but I still argue Lydia is one of the great pop figures, and more will be written about her here.
She may have been involved in more than her fair share of gothic rocky horror shows, but we must not forget her part in Sonic Youth's huge rumbling underground hit 'Death Valley '69'. She would again team up with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon on the Harry Crews project. Kim herself is the other great US 80s/90s female pop icon, and totally cool too with her X Girl clothing line and just generally being everything that dreadful phoney Patti Smith was meant to be.
Anyway, are you wondering how all this links back to Vic Godard and his comrades out there dreaming of their songs being played as a Radio Two afternoon delight? Well Lydia could do the best ever Nancy Sinatra covers, and the Sonic Youth pop sensibility was rightly taken with the artistry and strangeness of the Carpenters. And genial Joe Foster was saying something recently about how the ones caught up with the madness of Manson and all that were Dennis Wilson and people creating such exquisite pure ultra-pop rather than the straight forward rocking hardmen.
Quite where that leaves the Swingle Singers I am not sure, but suffice to say not even Mike Alway arranged for them to cover any Vic Godard compositions. As far as I know ...
© 2003John Carney