Get Up And Use Me
Shop Around … part 41
I really wasn’t going to go for something so obvious. I intended to recount my reactions to recent shopping successes with the likes of Reparata and the Delrons and Lori Burton showing the brilliance of ‘60s femme soul through to some wonderful records which are very now like Broadcast and Ils.

But like a lot of people I’m sure I gave into the temptation of getting a blank video cassette from Poundland and sitting absorbed for the best part of four hours in the Scorcese directed Dylan documentary. Culturally it’s dwarfed most things this week. There’s been an overexposure, but I still absolutely loved it. I’m not the world’s greatest Dylan disciple, but I am a huge fan of a lot of things he has done and there is no denying the effect he’s had on the world. Leaving that aside, if you treat the documentary as a work of art by itself, then it was a huge success in that it caught both the history and the mystery, but didn’t destroy the poetry.

The only thing is that I watched it with a growing sense of unease and jealousy. I can remember first hearing Bob Dylan singing 'Hurricane', when it was a minor hit in the mid-70s and a minor distraction from my beloved glam and glitter greats. But Dylan’s not mine. I was sitting there thinking that this is a fantastic piece of film, but it’s not my truth.

Ironically it was my own truth that had been rather more quietly exposed to the world again at the same time that Dylan’s No Direction Home was shown. That truth’s the Fire Engines, who had a collection of demos and live recordings released by Domino this week in the shape of the Codex Teenage Premonition set. It sounds so wonderful I can hardly bear to listen to it.

The Fire Engines in the early ‘80s were the boldest and most brilliant of a crop of young Scottish pop groups. They were only around for a short while, and made few recordings. Even fewer recordings of theirs are available now. They were actually more than a pop group. They were a complete artistic statement. They were a new way of thinking. They were a way of life.

Domino deserve credit for the packaging of the Fire Engines set. Historic detail is kept to a minimum. Brilliantly they simply reproduce the Paul Morley NME feature on the Fire Engines from January 1981 just as their fantastic first single, 'Get Up And Use Me' c/w 'Everything’s Roses', was released. I was 16 then. It was a fantastic thing to be 16 and hearing the Fire Engines for the first time. I was 16 again and hearing the Fire Engines for the first time.

That article of Paul Morley’s is probably the greatest piece of pop writing ever. It’s completely over-the-top and patently absurd. But it captures the excitement the Fire Engines generated. It also captures forever the forces that shaped the Fire Engines.
One of the great things about that Dylan documentary is that it delineates the forces that shaped the “musical expeditionary”. So, we got wonderful clips of Johnny Ray, Billie Holiday, Gene Vincent, Odetta, and so on. And Dylan, as he does in his excellent Chronicles, tries to explain how a lot of the things that influenced him were really not readily available. I can see a definite link here to the Fire Engines. The Morley feature focuses on the influence of the early Buzzcocks and Subway Sect. The name Fire Engines surely comes from the early Television cover version of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ 'Fire Engine'. The first Television single, 'Little Johnny Jewel', is pure Fire Engines. An early review of the Fire Engines said they were like Dead End Kids locked away in a cellar by some kindly Pat O’Brien priest with just guitars and a copy of Trout Mask Replica and Blank Generation.

But a lot of this stuff, the forces at work, were only available then as secrets. The Devoto-d Buzzcocks captured on the Time’s Up bootleg, the Rob Simmons-era Subway Sect caught on a collection of live recordings and demos, the Richard Hell-era Television caught on a bootleg of Eno-associated demos and live recordings. It was all based on music not officially there. Like the records Dylan “borrowed” from Paul Nelson. The Fire Engines spoke about wanting their first single to sound all wrong. Their second set was a set of songs stripped of words and stretched-out to make active background music in the way say dub and disco mixes would. Their third single was deliberately completely over-the-top pop, like T Rex. They would only record one more single after that. Their closer contemporaries were people like the Contortions and Lizzy Mercier-Descloux. They dreamed of putting on spectacles like Grace Jones. The only TV show I know they were on though was an arts show called Riverside. They played with their drummer standing up. They split up very shortly afterwards. The odd thing is how few people have taken the Fire Engines as a jumping off point.

Somewhere else Paul Morley tried to explain to the geezer from the Grateful Dead that the Fire Engines would play fifteen-minute sets. The Deadhead had real trouble understanding that. One of his guitar solos could last that long. Elsewhere Morley mused that it was such a shame that pop stars were taking cues and clues from Elton John and Phil Collins, or whatever, rather than the Fire Engines and the Prefects. This is almost what the Boards of Canada have been saying about pop taking a wrong turning in 1982.

I like the idea of people going back and listening to the rough edges and “beat noise” of the Fire Engines. It’s what pop was like for me. Maybe one day we’ll have something like No Direction Home that captures their magic too. In the meantime please treat yourself to Codex Teenage Premonition.

© 2005 John Carney