The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name.
There is still that unfinished article on the role of music in Len Deighton's '60s spy thrillers, or I could be extolling the virtues of the most recent hip hop adventures into the unknown from Company Flow or the collective wizardry of the Quannum crew. Yet that seems too obvious, and there is the danger of Tangents being too tasteful. We need to lower the tone for a moment or two, and tread on some toes.
For, as out there as parts of the Company Flow record is, and believe me, Little Johnny from the Hospitul is essential, the most seriously out-there sounds I have heard recently are on a budget LP called On Target.
Now, for anyone not paying attention, the Music Club/Music Collection International empire for a good few years now have been busily putting out a mad collection of cut-price CDs. Some are cheap and nasty, some you would want to run a million miles from, but occasionally they get it spectacularly right and for a little more than £6 or £7 you get a set of totally essential music. The Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs and Lovin' Spoonful compilations spring immediately to mind, as does the Cooler Shakers! And the Northern Soul Floorshakers sets. There was a great Ennio Morricone collection too.
Anyway, I recently came across a CD on MCI, On Target, compiled by Weller biographer John Reed, featuring '20 Direct Hits from the Mod Revival'. Yeah, it felt great taking that up to the counter at my local chainstore, I can tell you. quite right, too, because it features some of the most dramatic. Avant garde art statements ever committed to vinyl. Quite simply, there have been no contenders since.
So maybe the Mod resurgence at the turn of the last decade is not exactly renowned for its revolutionary nature and stance, but whose fault is that? Look who wrote the history books. The brief spurt of activity captured nicely on this CD is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood period of pop, and that's a shame.
John has done a good job in putting together a pretty complete picture for posterity. Alongside the ten or so classic recordings you would find the risible, the patently absurd and the excruciatingly embarrassing; the stuff that got the new thing a bad name; the bandwagon jumpers and the ill-advised opportunists. Yet, I was so strongly struck by the urgency and invention of the best songs here. I had forgottenÉ
I had better declare my interest here, to be open about my allegiances. I was a right little Mod. Sure, PiL, Teardrop Explodes, gang of Four, pop Group, Prefects, Vic Godard, ATV, The Fall, Joy Division and many more were all around, and the new mod thing at its best fitted in right alongside and provided a very valuable learning process, complimenting the other names.
Is it understood that this started out totally as an underground thing? Naturally, it was a lot to do with one young man's very personal religious obsession with the mod philosophy, look, lifestyle. There were, however, plenty of other clues for pilgrims moving in the same direction, moved in the same way. Other major punk players like Clash, Subway Sect, Buzzcocks, generation X used mod imagery, style and sound in one way or another. What is important here is the early Clash philosophy of using other people's cast-offs, and a lot of the new interest in mod related things came from all this. You have to remember the clothes came from charity shops, market stalls, Army surplus stores, your older relations' wardrobes, school outfitters and the like. Similarly, books like Generation X, Revolt Into Style, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, were just lying around with all the mod detail in, ripe for use, and the art connection too, like Lucy R Lippard's Pop Art tome.
I've always argued that the new mod thing was an underground revolt into style, initially against punk orthodoxy. It is a view also expressed in the liner notes of the Endless Soul Josef K compilation, where Malcolm Ross states: "It was modernist. I was quite interested in the original mod movement and that was one of the influences in wearing suits. Again, it was a reaction to the whole dirty, long haired thing that punk reacted to, but punk wasn't too far off it either. Punks were just as dirty. I didn't like that. I wanted some kind of dignity. We were forward looking."
So, at the end of '78, early '79, scattered pockets of mod activity sprang up around London. By Easter '79 enough was happening for the NME to run a special feature focusing on mod folklore and new initiatives. The folklore piece by the legendary Penny Reel was a total revelation in its mod mythologizing, and became a very real religious text for the new generation. The new initiatives side focused on the new groups like The Chords, Purple Hearts and The Fixations. The latter disappeared straight back into nowhere, but The Chords and Purple Hearts briefly bloomed and harnessed their teenage energy enough to produce some of the best pop of the next year or so.
Anyway, the Mods Mayday '79 live LP appeared that summer, and from there the whole thing gathered momentum. So much so that, given the success of The Jam, the advent of Two-Tone, the filming of Quadrophenia, the release of Richard Barnes' totally erotic Mods! book, and all the inevitable commercialisation and desperate big business cashing in, it all got out of hand and became a bit of a bad joke.
Of course, of course, of course, we all know the whole thing was essentially against the nature of the original mods, and that the soul boys were the true heirs. Yet, let us not forget this brief flurry of activity was very punk, initially very underground, and produced some great pop moments. Some of which, thankfully, are collated on this CD. So, credit where credit's due.
The collection opens appropriately enough with The Jams's 'When You're Young', the (albeit ironic) anthem for the mad mod summer of '79. It is, however, track two where we have blast off! The Chords' 'Maybe Tomorrow', their second single and a relatively minor hit, is an astonishing, ferocious symphony with guitars clanging and crashing seemingly from all directions, together with handclaps and layers of urgent vocals. You are left with an overwhelming sense that their life depends upon communicating in those few minutes, even if you are never quite sure what it is all about.
Bobby Gillespie once described 'Maybe Tomorrow' as the ultimate Jam tribute, though that is a little unfair. The Chords may never have been afraid to show their roots, but they had their own very strong identity. Billy H was a great frontman, and their songs were filled with grim, gritty minutiae; proper little kitchen sink dramas. They certainly never believed in understatement, and their string of bruisingly claustrophobic pocket symphonies have only been rivalled by the likes of Shambeko Say Wah!'s 'Remember' and The Visitors 'Compatibility', and who remembers those anyway?
Their compatriots, the Purple Hearts, also managed to capture an urgent, raw yet full and fluid sound on vinyl. Their three singles (two are on this CD) for Chris Parry's Fiction label and their Beat That! LP sound incredibly fresh today, and the use of controlled feedback and Simon Stebbing's slashing guitar work interplay with Rob Manton's deadpan downbeat persona adds weight to any theories you would care to advance about the Purple Hearts being the missing link between Subway Sect and The Wolfhounds. Indeed, wasn't there a Stebbing in The Wolfhounds, and did they not both hail from Romford?
Of course, the whole mod thing was something people chose to look down on. So, it is ironic that when the Purple Hearts reformed for a short wile in the mid '80s, Rob Manton's sleeve notes for Pop-ish FrenzyÉ mentioned Zola, Coltrane, Phillip K Dick, Lee Dorsey and James Brown, and that's why I am rewriting history here. It is also ironic that the sound of Pop-ish Frenzy is so close to the Stone Roses' first LP, and 'Made Of Stone' particularly.
The third big new mod outfit included here are Secret Affair, and even now it is hard to contemplate their particular strangeness. John Reed does make a very valid point in that they were the only group to not to be indebted in any way to the intensity of mod pop noise. I would also give singer Ian Page credit for the way he would play trumpet live at shows, which was a really nice touch for the time. Since punk year zero, only The Saints had used brass live in any significant way. In fact, original Saints bassist Kym Bradshaw later appeared in Small Hours, one of the best underground mod groups. Indeed, Small Hours are THE glaring omission from this CD, and all tracks from their 1980 (sole? Soul!) EP on Automatic are essential!
It is with the less well known, underground mod groups that thrills can be found on this CD. It is a joy to hear Back To Zero's 'Your Side of Heaven' again, and Long Tall Shorty's 'By Your Love' sounds awesome. More great use made of hand claps! Jimmy Pursey's production is a delight, and it's a shame his other great mod production, 'Keeping In Touch' by the Low Numbers, is not featured.
I will always have a special affection for the Teenbeats, whose 'Strength of the Nation' is a delightful inclusion, but that's personal and all to do with being 15 and seeing them walking down the Charing Cross road. Strength of The Nation is a lovely Generation X style call for youth unity. John Reed notes that this was a recurring new mod theme. Of course it was. They were grim times when you could quite easily receive a very nasty beating fro dressing how you wanted to dress. "Why must the youth fight amongst itself" sang the Specials a little later. The Chords were shrewd enough to use imagery from Paris '68 on the cover to show what could be achieved.
It is good to see The Jolt on here, and trivia royalty will be pleased to hear 'See Saw', the song Weller graciously threw away. I wish that 'I Can't Wait' were on here instead, for as a completely over the top tour de force it is second only to my beloved 'Maybe Tomorrow'. The Jolt, for the uninitiated, were pioneering Glasgow punks who went on to become Polydor's reserve team for The Jam. The same three-piece tension, the same three-button suits, just a lot less luck, for by the time the mod renaissance went overground, The Jolt were over. Ironically, drummer Iain Sheddon resurfaced with Kym Bradshaw in Small Hours, and to make the circle complete played with The Saints in their New Rose days.
One of the other tracks to mention is The Nips' 'Gabrielle'. Perhaps it's a tenuous link to the new mod thing, but it's a beautiful song so any excuse will do. This is Shane McGowan's great moment, a blue-eyed soul ballad of great poignancy featuring the immortal line: "Take a 73 to the city, you sitting there looking so pretty." We loved Shane at the time. It was a real treat to go up to Soho Market and the Rocks On or Rocks Off stall where he worked and buy fanzines from him, and now it's all gone.
You could accuse me of being unremittingly positive. So let's redress the balance. There is enough on this CD to show why so many mocked mods, and you can perhaps guess the culprits. The saddest of the offenders is 'SX225' by the Killermeters. One of the few northern mod groups, the Killermeters in 1979 released the awesome Buzzcocky beat ballad 'Why Should It Happen To Me', on the obscure Psycho label, with Vic Sczesnowicz (or Vic Vespa if you prefer) posing on the sleeve looking extraordinarily like Eric Cantona. They then signed to a major, were neutered, and set the tone for one of the '80s recurring themes. Mod hardliners Detour have archived on CD lots of lost Killermeters recordings, so I hope posterity judges them kindly. Detour have also salvaged the legacy of the Accidents, and their 'Blood Splattered With Guitars' would have been an ideal choice for this CD.
I suppose for the sake of complete accuracy, I should mention the pop art set here represented by Ed Ball in his Times and Teenage Filmstars guises with characteristic, contrived references to the original UK flowering of mod/psyche sounds and '60s TV. This was never a scene I felt comfortable with, but I guess one has to acknowledge Ed's past (along with his old partner Dan Treacy's Whaam! label and TV Personalities recordings) in awakening many to the likes of Joe Orton, The Creation etc. Then there is the link to Alan McGee and that Creation via TVP Joe Foster, but we won't go into that now.
So, I think I have got all this out of my system, and I hope that I have provided some food for thought in doing so. Play some of these songs alongside the first Dexy's LP, and you'll feel ready to fight another day.
Now, let me tell you about QuannumÉ
©Kevin Pearce 1999