1984 / Television Personalities / Jesus & Mary Chain / ‘Social Surrealists’ – Extract, C86 Sleeve Notes

Back in the real world there was, of course, a far more serious rupture in the shape of The Miners’ strike, which lasted from March 1984 to March 1985, and effectively amounted to civil war without guns.  The stark political dividing lines became even more pronounced with many indie bands stepping up to play benefits for the miners and their families. In some instances the connection was personal, as in the case of Alan Brown from Big Flame. ‘These gigs were weird for me,’ he later recounted in John Robb’s excellent book, Death To Trad Rock. ‘I was bought up in a mining area… Watching on the telly as southern police ran riot in Goldthorpe was unbelievable. Surely this wasn’t happening in the UK…?’ 

 

The country never recovered from the shock of the Miners’ Strike, but coming out the other side of the IPC dispute felt for me like the crossing of the Rubicon.  I’d started to write more about bands that were recognisably ‘indie’ (in modern terms) – bands like the June Brides – and was gearing up for the moment when I’d be venting spleen in much the same way that Mick Mercer had (and had continued to do) the year before.   It was suddenly clear that there was a line be crossed and that it should be crossed.

 

The weight of history is a burden for any artist.  Three bands whose names were constantly on the lips of those at gigs I went to at the time and featured prominently in the fanzines that were being sold at those gigs were The Membranes, The Three Johns and The Nightingales.  These were part of a group of elder statesmen bands spat out of the punk maelstrom but still knocking on the door – the genuine, talented and more interesting links between the influenced and the influencers.   I wasn’t alone in finding that trying to get coverage for them in the paper usually ran into the criticism that they (and just about any other new dissonant band) were ‘Fall copyists’.  (In co-forming with Derek Hammond the band Yeah, Yeah, Noh, guitarist John Grayland, had made a virtue of this, recording a demo called ‘Backing Tape For Mark E Smith Impersonators’.)  The Fall were a massive influence, but in truth, by the end of 1984, their best work was long behind them.

 

The Nightingales, The Three Johns and The Membranes created the kind of noise that perfectly epitomised the discordant side of indie – scratchy guitars with overloaded treble pumped through catalogue store amps, bass cranked up really high and prominent, warbled vocals scrambling to keep up, no guitar solo.  And, in time-honoured fashion, the song usually sped up at the end. Elements of this sound emerged in the music of C86-era bands like A Witness, Bogshed, The Wolfhounds, Big Flame, Stump, Noseflutes, Pigbros, and The Wedding Present.

 

This discordant, hard-edged aspect of indie has been largely overlooked by those who have sought to dismiss C86 as nothing more than a wimpy, washed-out imitation of what Josef K’s Paul Haig once referred to as ‘our jangly noise’, or the sound of Postcard Records.  More recent revivalists have tended to overlook it as well, preferring a nostalgic view of the time, focusing on a look and culturally positioning the indie 80s in a similar way to how the Pop artists of the time positioned that other cultural myth, Swinging London.  

 

The ‘Sound of Young Scotland’ in the shape of Postcard Records was undeniably a major influence on a particular kind of indie band that emerged in the time leading up to C86, but another equally as non-discordant influence, and arguably a greater one, was the group of bands and artists clustered around the activities of The Television Personalities, the band that had punctured the pretentions of the weekend-punks back in 1978 with ‘Part-Time Punks’, and had gone on, importantly, to play shows in the early months of The Living Room.

 

Stripped down to its essence (as it tended to be) Dan Treacy’s work reflected an unpretentious, often spontaneous, and usually straightforward approach to the craft of song writing, creating work that was sometimes naïve but equally as often charming. Its simplicity and honesty was disarming, an antidote to the endless sophisticates claiming to be ‘the new Motown’.  There was methodology as well in Dan Treacy’s madness, and rugged determination. His approach was DIY in action rather than as just a clichéd punk slogan.  The same can be said for other pioneers such as Young Marble Giants, Marine Girls and Swell Maps, all of whose influence was enormous. This far-from-twee antecedent sound took in the more noisy and devil-may-care attitude and approach of The Raincoats, the abrasive honesty of Patrik Fitzgerald’s punk poetry, and the textural guitar sounds of Durutti Column and early Felt.

 

The journey from punk parodists to the moment in 1984 when The Television Personalities released their dark masterpiece The Painted Word had reflected another influence, that of the 60s’ garage underground bands like The Creation who had motivated not just The Television Personalities (and later Creation Records) but also mainstream acts like The Jam, who by the end of their career were openly looking over the shoulder to such cult acts.  The Television Personalities had become involved in the New Psychedelic scene that had sprung up at the start of the 1980s that looked set to cross over into the mainstream.  Clubs like The Groovy Cellar and The Clinic, and fashion outlets like The Regal and Sweet Charity, were the focal point for a motley assemblage of revivalists which included Mood Six, High Tide, Miles Over Matter, The Times, The Marble Staircase, Dr & The Medics and The Barracudas. Regency jackets and crepe de chine shirts were the order of the day. The brief bubble of popularity was such that WEA, having signed with high hopes Mood Six, hastily released a compilation album, A Splash Of Colour, in 1982, and the moment was immortalised in the film The Groovy Movie, before fizzling out.

 

Just before Christmas 1984, a band appeared that would simultaneously give the new indie a much needed shot in the arm and inspire hundreds of bands to form and in so doing spawn a whole host of imitators.  In the autumn, the NME had still been playing catch up in terms of printing its backlog of copy following the end of the strike.  One of the best and most popular bands on the circuit was The Loft who in September had released their debut single, ‘Why Does The Rain’, which showcased not just their superior technical virtuosity (they made most of the bands who played alongside them look like the amateurs they were) but also the tremendous song-writing talent of frontman, Pete Astor.  The band had played The Living Room back in June and on the bill had been a support band from Glasgow that Alan McGee was checking out on Bobby Gillespie’s recommendation called The Jesus & Mary Chain.

 

Of the few people present that night, many cheerfully admit to not having bothered going upstairs to check out the support act, whose sound, according to David Quantick’s review, was that of a ‘giant bee in a ventilation shaft’.  It had been immediately clear that they were capable of creating a racket: less clear as to what that racket signified.  But Alan McGee – ever a man sure of himself – knew that he had got his men. Prior to the show, he’d been thinking of including them on a compilation album of unsigned bands to be called Are You In Love Or Are You A Car?, but he instantly changed his mind and offered instead to make an album with them.  Many who considered themselves to be part of the Creation inner sanctum, were bemused at this point, less so later when their position in the pecking order began to be usurped by the new upstarts.

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain toiled on for the next month or two, making a lot of noise on the few occasions they played live but little headway as autumn rolled on.  They were a work in progress: it would take Bobby Gillespie joining to make the individual elements click properly.  As Geoff Stoddart, a postman moonlighting at the time as an unpaid Creation Records driver points out: ‘the difference between Bobby in and out of the band was like the difference between The Rolling Stones with and without Brian Jones.’

 

One night in October, I went to see The Jesus & Mary Chain play The Three Johns pub in Islington.  The pub was used as an occasional location for The Living Room and had a tiny side area – a pool room – which could be turned into a makeshift, if small, venue.  Alan McGee had earlier given me a white label of the band’s debut single, ‘Upside Down’, which would be the twelfth Creation single and was due to be released in November.  He had told me that they were the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the saviours of rock ’n’ roll, but then he said that about every band he was promoting. I hadn’t had time to play the record before watching the show.

 

Very few people were present, although McGee had clearly worked the room at his distributor, whose offices were literally just around the corner, since many of the 40 or so people who turned up were people I knew who worked for Rough Trade.   The band played a short set which included a handful of original songs and a couple of covers – Vic Goddard’s ‘Ambition’ and Syd Barrett’s ‘Vegetable Man’. The quintessence of their sound was instantly and recognisably apparent at this point – a dark noise overladen with a glorious if submerged melody (something that would be reversed when they started releasing records on a mainstream label).  I watched the short set then went home to write up my review, in the process stealing a phrase from Simon Down, who had lent over my shoulder during the show and whispered to me that The Jesus & Mary Chain were like ‘The Ramones meets the Devil’.

 

Those early, feedback-drenched shows polarised opinion to snapping point, as, to a lesser extent, did the single which Creation formally released two weeks later.  The band’s antics – a lit match just before it hits a powder keg – could be a distraction. Foul-mouthed on-stage tirades sometimes lasted longer than the shorter songs.  The drunkenness could be a spectacle in itself (band and audience).  The brief sets were seen as a rip-off (in truth, they didn’t know enough songs to play any longer) and the inevitable prompt for some industrial banter between punter and band. Reviewing the Three Johns gig, Sounds called The Jesus & Mary Chain ‘an exercise in gullibility’ and this tended to be the stock anti- response to them, not least by those who tended to write about them before seeing them live.  Reviewing the single in Monitor fanzine at the start of 1985, Simon Reynolds called the band ‘a con being touted’ peddling songs ‘devoid of dynamic or content’.

 

 After the Three Johns, the band went on a short Creation Records package tour to Germany, playing with Biff Bang Pow and The Jasmine Minks, where they were oblivious of the stir their London show had caused. Their next gig was at a squat venue, the (disused) Ambulance Station in London’s Old Kent Road, where considerably more people showed up than had been the case in Islington.  Chinese whispers having circulated for the best part of two weeks, there was a sense of anticipation on the night, a genuine belief that something new and different was about to unfold. There was menace in the air, as well.   As I later found out, the more sensible observers had instinctively positioned themselves handily near the exit.

 

Inevitably, too many people got in to the gig and the first intimations of the mayhem that would dog the band when they played live surfaced.  Following a support set from The June Brides, which was itself disrupted by catcalls and drunken wisecracks from the floor, The Jesus & Mary Chain took to the stage and played for around 30 minutes. The evening ended with Jim Reid screaming abuse and shrieking at the audience, ‘Where were you six months ago?’  None of which seemed to bother the wall-to-wall row of major label A&R men waving  cheque books in the hope that the band would sign with them.

 

The impact of The Jesus & Mary Chain was impossible to ignore and their success had a knock-on effect for indie. ‘Upside Down’ quickly sold 40,000 copies, or 100 times the number of that of some of the earlier Creation Records singles. The June Brides album which came out in autumn 1985 sold a similar amount.  Even the lowliest indie release could guarantee sales pushing close towards 2000.  In turn this led to greater press coverage.  What had once been the obligatory half-page interview with a band suddenly crept up to the more expected and usually willingly-given full page (or more).  The Shop Assistants and The June Brides suddenly found themselves cover stars, something that was unthinkable a few months before.

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Wholesale Harmony – Shop Assistants Interview 17/8/85 NME

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“I get sales talk from sales assistants/ When all I’m trying to do girl is lower your resistence…”

 

I first fell in love with The Shop Assistants in a tiny upstairs venue known as the Room At The Top.  Like its namesake novel, the club is a seedy affair, a stitch tacked out of the crumpled fabric of a young, hep London – a night time place for any old Joe.

Under its bleary lights David Keegan plugged in his guitar, rendered it as suitably out of tune as the bass, competed with the percussion for brashness, and then delivered a mesh of noise, pausing only to allow the singer Alex’s voice to drift melodically through the maelstrom.

It was love at first sight.

Seven days later and I’m in love again, sitting around a microphone in dreary, downtown Clapham. Gone is the club, but still ringing in my ears is the unforgettable sound that is The Shop Assistants – a combination of Nico/Velvets-ish vocals incongruously matched with the buzzing saw of 100mph guitars.

More reminiscent of The Ramones than The Ronettes – of The Mary Chain than The Marine Girls – this predominantly-female band have been described by The Legend as ‘surf bunnies to a girl’, a description which conjures up images of them riding the spray upon a sun-drenched Californian beach. In fact, they originate from Scotland, a place where surfing is a rarity, and the only spray is that which covers the walls on dilapidated housing estates.

‘I joined in the summer,’ explains Alex, in between fits of giggling that characterised the whole interview. ‘Originally the band was called Buba & The Shop Assistants, with Aggi from the fanzine ‘Juniper Beri Beri’ singing, and David and Stephen Pastel playing guitars.

‘That line-up split up, and a friend of mine was moving into David’s flat, and David then played me various tunes, and I thought, “This is wonderful, I must instantly join this band!’. This was about summer ’84, and in the autumn Sarah joined on bass.’

Having formed a nucleus – Alex on vocals, Sarah on bass, and David on guitar – David and Alex set about writing songs. At the same time they set about finding a drummer. They recruited one in March this year, and then another – Laura on snare drum and tambourine, and Ann on floor toms. With a window-front of songs, and a mixture of vocals, percussion and guitars going haywire, the enlarged Shop Assistants were ready for service.

‘We usually manage to get out of tune at the same time,’ comments David, explaining their odd sound. ‘I like the idea of having extremes. On the one hand there’s the guitars going wild, and, accompanying that, there’s Alex’s vocal, highlighting the tunes that run through our songs.

‘It’s that combination of noise and tunes.  Only now do people realise that it is possible to have noise  and still have tunes in there as well – before it’s always been regarded as only possible to have one or the other but not both.’

The mixture of extremes is well illustrated in The Shop Assistant’s live set – a fluctuating register of sound that skips from the riveting faster songs like ‘Switzerland’ to the more soulful slower ones like ‘It’s Up To You’. Yet the band don’t throw together diverse sounds with the intention of shocking, but rather with the intention of showing the diversities that their music encompasses.

Their forthcoming EP contains fast songs and slow songs. It is poppy in places yet harsh and abrasive in others. As well as the above songs the EP features two other tracks: the fast, swirling, guitar-based ‘All Day Long’, and the softer, more poppy ‘All That Ever Mattered’, a song distinctive because of its repetitive drum beat constantly hammering through the back of the song, vaguely suggesting Mary Chain influences, perhaps?

‘Yes, I love the sound of Bobby Gillespie’s drumbeat,’ explains Alex. ‘It’s so simple but so effective, and it creates a hard beat without falling into the clichéd mould of rock.’

That clichéd mould is something which The Shop Assistants are keen to keep out of, but the idea of Laura and Ann standing at the back going hell-for-leather on a set of drums does conjure up images of – if not a rock band – surely a band more in keeping angry young men than four young girls?

‘Well, that’s a stereotypical male attitude towards girls!’ explodes Alex. ‘The average view is that all girls can do in groups is look pretty and sing. I think it’s good that all the girls in The Shop Assistants are instrumentalists, and good musicians too!’

‘What separates us from other ‘girl’ groups like, say, Bananarama is anger. I don’t want to sound 1976-ish or anything, but there’s a lot to get angry about at the moment…’

‘Things like young Toryism, butts in David, ‘and the way that people today seem resigned to accept it so complacently.’

‘It’s not just that,’ continues Alex, ‘it’s apathy on all levels that is depressing this country.  Music has been suffering for years, but toady apathy is like a disease that is spreading through every area of life. People seem to be retreating into themselves and becoming selfish, rather than going out and actually doing something.

‘I accept that as musicians we ourselves can’t change anything – we can’t become revolutionary leaders – but I think that if we can write songs, songs that we believe in, then we stand a chance of breaking down at least some of that apathy.’

Much of the anger is exorcised in The Shop Assistants’ live set, but whether that power can be discharged on vinyl – with all of a record’s subconscious influences working: the way the sleeve looks, the production, etc – is something which only the release of records will tell.

‘Production is a gamble,’ comments David, ‘and it is so difficult to get the sound you want in a studio. It’s difficult to give a sound that is suitable for broadcasting the edge you can give it when performing live – people like The Jesus & Mary Chain [who achieve it], I admire. I admire them for their attitude, and I admire The Pastels for the same reason.  It is strange that of the two The Mary Chain should be so huge yet The Pastels still relatively unknown.  I think the importance of The Pastels is largely overlooked. They are easily the most important band in Scotland, and probably the most important band in Britain today.’

It is in the best punk tradition that The Shop Assistants have taken those influences and loves that are so dear to them – The Smiths for Alex, The Mary Chain for Laura, The Pastels for David  – and added them to their own talents to create a sound which is unique.

Competent with the nausea of being careerist, wonderful without the likelihood of being one-hit wonders, when the damaged goods of pop have lost their shelf-life, The Shop Assistants will be selling produce of a far more durable quality.

CREATURES FROM THE BOGSHED (NME INTERVIEW, 1985)

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It is five thirty in the morning in Room 335, The Queen’s Hotel, Leeds and Phil Bogshed, completely naked, rolls over in my bed, digs his kness into my back and snores.

He’s going to rape me, ravage me, or just plain reject me. Whatever happens, it’s a hell of an interview.

Phil has already been thrown out of the hotel once. He’s been thrown out of a pub, he’s insulted a local band, and he’s drunk at least ten pints. He’s lost his money, train ticket, keys, way home, and – saddest of all – his beer. He’s wormed his way into my room for the night, talked the spools off two C90 cassettes, and now – after a four hour pause – he’s back in business: he wants to talk. And talk, and talk, and talk….

‘When will the fat lad come home?!’ (‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’) 

‘We all turn up at two o’clock on every weekday in a room in Hebden Bridge. We switch on the equipment and it’s one-two-three-GO!  We’ve either got a song in five minutes flat or we haven’t, in which case we pack up instantly and go home. If the song is fine, we work on it for about a week until one of us comes up with a brill idea. One of us thinks, I like the song but you won’t get the kids liking it. So, you speed it up five times and it’s like, ace baby, and all the kids like it – they thank you for playing it.’

Phil Hartley is a genius. He is also a periodic lunatic, and at the moment he is temporarily insane. He founded his ‘babies’, his band, his Bogshed, one and a half years ago when he and Michael Bogshed decided to form a group. They enrolled Mark Bogshed on guitar and Tristan Bogshed on drums, and played the local Trades Club before hibernating in Hebden Bridge.

‘The romantic ideology around The Trades Club is that it is a ‘Working Men’s’ club but basically, like Hebden Bridge itself it is just a place for THINGS!’ intones Phil.  PJ Proby is a faded thing and as a matter of fact he’s recording a single in Hebden Bridge and at the moment that is the big buzz in the place.

‘The other big thing about Hebden Bridge is us,’ asserts Phil, ‘and the thing about us is that we are all such different characters that being in Hebden Bridge means that we will probably have to kill each other at some point very soon. This is essentially because we are all, um….. different shapes. Mark’s a big shape, and I’m a wide shape, and Tristan’s a shape that you never see very often but is there, and Michael’s the sort of shape that is there to tell Mark to not be such a weird shape…’

A successful interview with is an impossibility. He thinks about what he should have said to you four hours after the interview – sometime when he’s tucked up in bed with you – and in a disparate fashion, eclectic but brilliant. He never answers questions directly but drifts off at a tangent, going in any direction that he thinks is important, tripping out words that surpass your traditional interview and drift into the realm of the theatre of Beckett.

He is like Bogshed the band, and takes any influence from anywhere and uses it, abuses it, and loses it for his own ends. He tells me that Bogshed are ‘a pop band’ – a fact substantiated by the tumbling beat of a song like ‘Hand Me Down, Father’, a Bogshed fave. He tells me that Bogshed are a blues band because he’s been watching a blues programme on the telly while thinking, ‘this is ace, this is us, this is Bogshed!’. He tells me that Bogshed are ‘dead shit and dead miserable’, that punk was cheap because why did pogo-ing punks need to do what they were doing so fast? And he tells me that two years in Liverpool at the height of the recent ‘cool season’ taught him nothing except that bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were and are ‘nonchalent, that is it, baby, respect me’-bands.

‘Come out with your legs behind your backs!’ (‘Panties Please’)

‘Hey, I’ve got these words, Fellas, and they go like this!’ Phil is explaining to me how Bogshed came to write ‘The Amazing Roy North’s Penis Band’.  On the 32 occasions that Bogshed have played live, it has been a much-requested song, second only to the immortal ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’.

‘’The Amazing Roy North’s Penis Band’ illustrates how we write songs,’ says Phil.  ‘I say to the lads, “Hey, Lads, the song goes like this”, and they say, “No it doesn’t, it goes like this!” And then the whole song becomes a co-operative effort and becomes a real song. I could never understand all that “this is a Lennon and McCartney song” crap – songs are for everybody.  But ‘The Amazing Roy North’s Penis Band’ is very special  because of what it means,’ he rambles on hurriedly. ‘Roy North was Basil Brush’s sidekick, and he went on to do a programme called ‘Get It Together’ with a woman called Linda Fletcher. Every week Linda would sing requests of songs that had been in the charts six weeks before – the worst possible time to cover a song.’

‘I thought, “God, this is a cheap programme, we have got to be called Roy North’s band.” I can’t think of anything more boring than being called Roy North’s Band, except perhaps being called Bogshed.’

The process of writing ‘The Amazing Roy North’s Penis Band’ is a process which Bogshed make great fun of, but one they have actually used to phenomenal effect. As Phil would like it, their music spans terrific boundaries – rock, pop, blues, anything. Their methods of writing is eclectic, and because they work so instantly, each member contributes equally.

Live, their set is a shuddering, reverberating blast through manic guitar songs like ‘Spencer Travis’, or a stuttering, irregular whine through bluesy, bass-heavy numbers like ‘Slave Girls’. In between, pure genius lies in the form of songs like ‘Roy North’ and ‘Panties Please’, number which defy description.

‘The main reason why I write lyrics the way I do is because I love the sound of words,’ taunts Phil. ‘In “Slave Girls” the whole purpose of the song is to get in the line “This week the score draws are plentiful!”. That sentence is a bloody excellent thing to shout in any open space whatsoever!’

‘I feel so totally bloody alien to people like you who come up from London to interview me,’ he says suddenly. ‘I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with you! But I can say to you, “This week the score draws are plentiful!” You see, real things have nothing to do with what we say but with what we feel, and I can shout those bloody words out but you can’t know what I feel, and that to me is dead important.’

‘Cap snap bottle cork poppin’ in the town/ He’s the best gardener that ever gets around’ (‘Spencer Travis’)

Being insane and having lived in isolation, Bogshed have very little contact with the music business, and any influences that that they do have tend to be sporadic, momentary, and vary rarely musical. Phil is interested in trivial things, particularly, er, small children…

‘Small children, especially small girls, are very, very small, usually.  But I’ve noticed that some small children are much bigger than others, even though they’re the same age. Some have large features, even though they’re the same size. This is because their fathers were probably country and western singers who sand Everly Brothers numbers in Working Men’s clubs, and hence rejected them.  My father was never, in fact, such a glitter suit being, but I myself am. I am a glitter suit being, but sadly the rest of the band are very much pitchfork and trowel.’

As for the rest of the band, their influences are a little bit more conventional. As a result of the numerous supports they’ve played with them, Bogshed are often compared to The Membranes, yet Bogshed sounded like The Membranes before they’d even heard The Membranes.  As for other bands, Bogshed could probably not name more than four other contemporary bands between them.

‘Since we have been touring I have actually seen a lot of support bands,’ explains Phil, ‘and I think, “Jesus Christ, what the hell are they thinking about when they are doing what they’re doing!?” I mean, this is 1985, baby, this is the age of, er….  worn out video recorders! Video recorders were in a few years ago and already we are on to second-generation ones. It’s a fantastic thought! Working Class people are such ungrateful sods when you think that God has given them video recorders and they’re still not satisfied!  They want to replace them! And yet still they give us crappy support bands!’

‘Actually, we were going to be a crappy support band.  We were going to sign to Creation and we went down to London to see Alan McGee. I thought, “Hello, this Alan McGee, he’s a real train driver type”, but he gave us loads of free records so I thought, maybe he’s alright.  We took the records away and listened to them and thought, “God, this is awful!”. The whole bloody lot were awful! Really bloody terrible! And we thought, “What the hell is going through this Fella’s mind?” All these sort of Loft/strumming guitars songs – all thi “I love my baby” crap. I hated them! I hate my baby! If I have my baby I’ll teach it a lesson! I’ll hit it with a bloody big stick’

‘Then Alan McGee – who by then we thought might be a landlord of a pub – bought out The Jesus & Mary Chain  single and things got more serious.  I thought, “This is it! This is music for small children!” With a Fella knocking microphone stands over in an arrogant way. I could never do that. I respect microphone stands too much – they cost a lot of money.’

‘Wie ist der Purer Fuhrer?’ (‘Hand Me Down, Father’)

On 17 August 1985 Bogshed enter the studio to record their debut single for John Robb’s Vinyl Drip label. In true Bogshed style, they intend to decide what songs to record five minutes before recording them. They may well write them ten minutes before.

On 23rd August they are headlining London’s Lie Detector, taking to the stage for the 33rd time in their history.  For their first 28 gigs Bogshed were virtually ignored: four the last four the venues have been packed.

‘Oh well, that’s easy to explain,’ says Phil, leading me up what I am sure will turn out to be the proverbial creek. ‘You see, Bogshed are Number One Ace crime solvers,’ he continues. ‘When we played up north recently the pub went wild and we thought , “God, this is dead cheap”, and so as we neared the end of the set I looked over to the barman to see if he wanted us to stop playing. He said, “No, keep playing!” He said, “If you don’t play another number I am not paying you.” So we played any old rubbish and eleven came and then ten past and I thought it was all odd.  Later, it turned out that the safe in the place had been blown and someone had pinched the brewery’s money.  But to do that, you had to blow down a door, and you couldn’t do that unless there was a lot of noise, such as a band playing. So we reckon it was an inside job, and we helped along innocently in a sort of robbery, like. But Bogshed also solved the crime! Mind you, we did have to get the CID to force the landlord to pay us!’

Other events in Bogshed’s live past have been less illegal but have been equally as lively. On stage, Phil is apt to parade around wiggling his (clothed) bottom, and collectively the band do tend to play twice the speed of sound – their sound that is.  Having built up a healthy following, Bogshed should be on to a winner with the release of vinyl.  But there’s always the possibility, of course, that Phil will blow it.

Why aren’t you ever fucking arrogant? I ask him as he’s climbing into his Marks & Spencer X Large white underpants at six in the morning.

‘Because I never want to be,’ he replies, ‘and if you ever tell me that I am then for once in your life I’ll sit up and take notice of you. I’ll listen and then I’ll tell you to go and piss off, you little squirt.’

He’s angry, but it’s only talk-talk, and he’s off again…

‘Have you noticed how small girls have dead small arms….’

Note: I can’t remember now whether I met Phil and the band in the foyer of the hotel or just Phil.  The group he mercilessly ribbed was The Wedding Present, who were present when Phil arrived.  I’d interviewed The Wedding Present earlier in the day and the plan was for Bogshed to arrive and we’d all have a quick drink before I interviewed Phil.  It did not go well.  I was really pleased with the interview at the time and even now I think Phil says a lot of interesting things, albeit buried under a Da-da-esque front.  It is amazing really that the NME allowed me so much space to write about a band that had yet to record a single.  But then the paper was in the entertainment business and Phil Hartley was never, ever less than entertaining.  Sadly, Tris King died in 2008 – RIP.

Hamburg ’85

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SOMETIME in 1960 George Harrison walked into the Meyer-Schuchardt Sport Und Leder store in Hamburg and purchased a leather jacket. It had elasticated cuffs and waist, angled pockets and was zip fastening. It was the only jacket he wore professionally when The Beatles played Hamburg, which they did on 281 occasions, including a staggering run of 91 consecutive nights (usually playing 12-hour sets) in 1961. George’s look, captured in the photograph above, reflected the archetypal ‘early’ Hamburg look of the band, consisting of leather jackets, cowboy boots and jeans. Not too long into their Hamburg period, the look mutated, the jeans being replaced by leather trousers (supplied by Paul Hundertrunk), making them look less hokey and more dirty, or, as John Lennon put it, more ‘like four Gene Vincents’.

Both looks are immortalised in the famous photographs of Astrid Kirchherr, who became the girlfriend of doomed Beatle Stu Sutcliffe. The Kirchherr photographs show the youthful exuberance of the band (who were off the leash for probably the first time in their barely-adult lives), but also hint at the menace and threat that the proto-rock/Wild Ones look suggested to the band’s elders and betters who had been taught to fall in line and shuddered at the thought of Teddy Boys, Ton-Up Merchants and Wild Youth generally off the rails. They suggest also the menace of Hamburg, with its seaport grubbiness, raw energy, and tension, awash, as it was, with amphetamines and readily-available sex and home to prostitutes, sailors and gangsters.

The Hamburg look of The Beatles resurfaced, in Indie sometime around the start of 1985, primarily in London. The capital wasn’t exactly overrun with prostitutes, sailors and gangsters, and its thoroughfares weren’t quite the alleys of fear that the dockside haunts of early1960s’ Hamburg may have been. In truth, the refined Hamburg look said more about fashion and perhaps just a little bit about the way that marketing as a notion was even infiltrating the so-called counter-culture. (1986 would be the first year that NME would employ a Marketing officer, incidentally, to promote itself.) The photographs at the time of leather-clad indie kids certainly carried no threat or menace, in much the same way that degeneracy would be the last thing suggested by a contemporary image of someone dressed in bondage trousers.

One of the best indie bands to emerge in 1985 was The Mighty Lemon Drops, whose extraordinary ‘Like An Angel’ was one of the best songs of the era. They carried off the early Hamburg look with great panache, originally dressing all in black, but later augmenting their leather jackets with uniform, lighter-coloured (drill?) trousers. The whole effect was laced with a touch of what guitarist Dave Newton has called their ‘Black Country charity shop spin’. They were fond of groovy black shades, as well, injecting a 1960s’ element that brought to mind The Doors and Velvet Underground.

For the late Hamburg look, we need look no further than The Jesus & Mary Chain, who not only carried off the full leather ensemble look but did manage to suggest menace and threat, not least to the music business establishment who, post their infamous concert at North London Polytechnic in March 1985, held them equal part in awe and fear. (There was a touch of the self-destructive about them, as well, which never fails to pique attention.) The Jesus & Mary Chain were just one band on the Creation (or wider Creation) Records roster to embrace the look, in particular the leather trousers, which for a while became a sort of corporate uniform over at Creation HQ. Biff Bang Pow, Primal Scream, The Weather Prophets, The Jasmine Minks and even The Pastels took to wearing them, although Stephen Pastel sometimes wore his leather trousers at the same time as wearing his more famous anorak.

One of the earliest shows I recall someone in an indie band was wearing leather trousers was a show at The Three Johns, Islington, in February 1985 when The Jasmine Minks played there with The Bodines.

‘That gig was maybe notable for one thing,’ Adam Sanderson of The Jasmine Minks recently told me. ‘I had no clean breeks of my own and wore a pair of leather trousers belonging to my flatmate. McGee went nuts for them, saying they were “rock god” trousers and asking where to get them. I inadvertently started something that became a label cliché.’

Seven months later what had started as a fashion accessory had indeed become a cliché. Poor Pete Astor of The Weather Prophets was left to justify it right at the start of an interview published in the NME in October 1985. He rejected the idea that the wearing of them was cashing in on what was perceived to be the hip of the now – after all, leather trousers went back to The Beatles and before, as he pointed out – but he also refuted the charge of traditionalism, arguing that he was ‘a traditionalist, but not in a retrogressive way. I believe in the history of music: I’m quite happy to be placed next to whatever’s gone before. What I do comes from a lineage of all the best things, and I hope will contribute to that.’

By 1986 the trend had all-but gone away, but the underlying signal the wearing of them sent out hadn’t, the signal that said we deserve our place in the pantheon. We too can be rock gods. 1986 was also the year that the idea of independence fostered between roughly 1983 and 1986 began to carry less currency. Many of the pioneers at that point willingly wanted to be a part of what they’d originally set out to oppose.
GeorgeHarrisonHamburg

‘A PILE OF CRAP FROM RON JOHNSON’: Dave Parsons & Ron Johnson Records

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As a prelude to interviewing Dave Parsons for C86 & All That: Indie 1983-86, I’ve been looking back through the archives at the releases of the label that more than any other epitomised the discordant or ‘shambling’ sounds of the times. Shambling was a term dreamed up by John Peel (specifically referring to the band Bogshed, who were the one band who probably did fit the description, in all sorts of ways). I’ve always found the use demeaning – there was so much more in terms of the experimental and the avant-garde in the sound of the bands involved and less that was awkward, lazy and ungainly as the word suggests. ‘Social surrealists’ was how Steven Wells described them, a much cleverer and more apt label.

Dave Parsons set up Ron Johnson Records to release records by his own band, Splat!, and the first two releases on the label, Ron 1 and Ron 2, were Splat EPs, the first a seven-inch (featuring ‘Yeah… The Dum Dum’, ‘Bookface’ and, my favourite, the intriguingly-titled ‘Biggles Bloodbath’). As was the case with so many bands at the time (the EP was recorded June, 1983), there’s a hint of The Fall and a touch of The Birthday Party in there: had there not been, I guess, they wouldn’t have been keeping up… The second EP came out in 1984, both as a seven-inch and as a twelve-inch, which, post punk, had become the new-fangled format of choice. The tracks were ‘Taxi’, ‘Bloom’, ‘A Foolish Crawl’, and ‘Morbius 4’, and the record, following a couple of plays by the ever-faithful John Peel, sank without trace.

Two things followed in short succession: Ronco Records (home of the TV-promoted albums of utter schlock) threatened to sue over RJ’s use of the word RON as a catalogue prefix which they claimed belonged to them (henceforth, Ron Johnson releases would bear the mark ZRon, although Dave Parsons says he can’t remember why the ‘Z’ was chosen). Then, Splat! called it a day, leaving Dave Parsons with a back catalogue (of two records) and a distributer (The Cartel), but, sadly, no actual artists. At this point, as he once told the Louder Than War website, his immediate thought was: ‘Note to self: must find some artists.’

Step forward Big Flame, whose track ‘Illness’ off their Laughing Gun debut Dave had heard and loved on the John Peel show. As was customary back then, the band had included their Hulme address (and phone number!) on the back of the record sleeve, contact was made and, hey presto!, they became Ron Johnson recording artists. They were followed by their mates, A Witness, whose Loudhailer Songs EP from 1985 (ZRon) was one of the best releases of the year, featuring as it did a track that always went down a storm in the capital, ‘Lucky In London’, which they usually performed using a loudhailer. The EP was recorded in Leeds, late spring, 1985, and it was around that time that I first got to know Dave Parsons. There were a number of things about Parsons and the label that were immediately appealing.

I liked the fact that the label was based in Nottinghamshire (home of the scabs during the miners’ strike and of television’s most inane and inanely popular programme, The Price Is Right), where there were no hip distractions. I liked the fact that while London was awash with independent bands and label honchos walking around in leather trousers, I never once recall seeing a RJ band wearing them. Leather trousers told me that something that had once started out with a promise of rebellion now knew its place and was happy to be put in it. Finally, I liked the fact that when Dave Parsons first wrote to me his letter began, ‘This is a pile of crap from Ron Johnson Records…’ It was immediately apparent that the material he had sent was going to be special.

I did a short piece on Dave and Ron Johnson in the 30 November 1985 issue of the NME. The piece ran with a photograph of Dave, although so many people then and since then have asked me if I ever met Ron Johnson that for most Ron actually exists and I’m not sure Dave does. At the time, Dave was funding the releases through working twelve hour shifts in a biscuit factory. (Those wag NME subs had given the short article an appropriate headline: ‘Biscuit Master’s Break-Out’.) In the twelve hour shift, Dave and team would load around 15 tons of biscuits onto lorries, backbreaking work.

Even then, Dave could see that a roster of bands as eclectic as Ron Johnson’s wasn’t going to translate into chart success (and I suspect he didn’t particularly want it to, although the dosh would have been helpful.) The great indie success story of the time was The Jesus & Mary Chain, which Dave had witnessed from afar, in particular the effect their success had on the coffers and operating ability of the band’s former record label, Creation. ‘Creation stuck out,’ he told me, ‘because through the success of The Jesus & Mary Chain they were able to unify their image, and harden up all their other bands. We could never do that because our groups are so diverse – more in keeping with the way Rough Trade were six or seven years ago.’

I interviewed three Ron Johnson bands in a single month at the start of 1986 and in that same year the label and its releases were feted heavily on the John Peel show. The five bands that appeared on the NME cassette C86 virtually walked their way onto it. The label was the most represented label on the tape, although that is not always the way history presents it. 1986 saw releases by The Mackenzies (‘New Breed’), The Shrubs (‘Full Storm Into The Brainstorm’ and ‘Blackmailer’), The Noseflutes (‘The Ravers’), Stump (‘Mud On A Colon’), more from Big Flame and A Witness (the former insisted generally on only releasing seven inch records, the latter, twelve inch). There was also the double EP of songs about the Spanish Revolution released by The Ex, with a lavish booklet of archive photos. ‘Our art object,’ as Dave Parsons recalls, albeit one where production costs were horrendous.

The label added to its roster in 1987 when The Great Leap Forward joined along with Jackdaw With Crowbar and Twang, all worthy wearers of the RJ shirt, but, sadly, the label ran out of time and money the following year and in 1988 Ron Johnson became deceased. All in all there had been some 40 or so releases over a great five year period, each of them individual, often experimental, and always interesting in a non-conformist way.

(Rhodri Marsden’s excellent appreciation of the label is posted below.)

http://www.timewasting.net/ronj/

The Night The Lights Went Out In The Living Room

The Living Room - 15 October1983

The Living Room club opened in June, 1983 in an upstairs room of the Adams Arms pub in Conway Street, a stones-throw away from London’s Post Office tower. Every night three or four relatively unknown bands would play and entry on the night was £2. The first band to ‘officially’ play there was The Nightingales, but the week before there had been a dry-run, billed as a ‘Communication Blur – Here Comes The Summer Special’ when The Television Personalities played. Other bands that played the venue summer/autumn 1983 include The Jasmine Minks, Biff Bang Pow, 12 Cubic Feet, and Jed Dmochowsky, Whaam! recording artist and former member of the mod revivalist band The VIPs. The Legend was the club’s compere and often did a turn himself, billing himself (and fellow band members) in whatever guise took his fancy that night – , The Legend & His Swinging Soul Sisters, Everything…

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