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Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Shamrock Class Clash

This album  won't be to everyone's taste... And up until the time I bought it, I didn't think it would be mine. I was Mr Alternative at the time, after all.

But it comes with two related stories.

In late summer 1984, I met a girl. I met her by chance. And I fell for her in that flat out, all encompassing way you do when you are a teenager.

I remember we were in The Coach front bar. The Coach was, at the time, one of the biggest nightclubs in Europe and the front bar is where me and my mates met most weekends at the time.

The weekend routine would be, a few cans of beer outside somewhere, then meet up in Coach bar, and then maybe "up the back" to the night club, or on to other pubs, "The Belmont," which was a hotel and had another nightclub; The Downshire for a lock in or Circus Circus for late night bring your own clubbing (and "The Circus" had at that time, a live band area).

Anyway, I don't remember why we all stayed in the Front Bar that night, whether the club was too packed or the craic was too good, but I do remember where we sat, which wasn't where we normally did. And Nigel, a mate, had brought with him his stunningly beautiful neighbour, Allison. Its 36 years ago and I still remember the white dress she was wearing. 

I remember even better, that she was funny, she was witty, clever and she seemed to find me funny, laughing uproariously at my sarcasm. I remember the bar was packed. And I remember she sat on my knee because there were no seats. 

When she had to leave, we promised to meet up the following week, and boy, did I look forward to that.

At the time, I had started to work in an Accountants Office in Bow Street, Lisburn, as a trainee auditor. I hated the job, and spent my time at the start, staring out of the window. The week after being stood up I happened to look out of the window, and there coming out of a shoe shop opposite the office was Allison and who I thought must be her sister (it turned out it was her mum, which on retelling gave me huge brownie points!) 

I rushed out of the office, and down the stairs, and searched Bow Street for her… But there was no sign. I had to tell the staff in the office why, and they (all women), thought it was "lovely."

That weekend, I was probably the first person in the bar. And I waited. My mates showed up. 

And I waited. 

And eventually, I remember Nigel walked in. My heart leapt. But no Allison. I had to be casual about it, and asked Nigel, "Allison not here, then?" 

"No, she's went sailing in the Mediterranean. Her dad has a yacht there." 

I remember this being really odd. I'd never met anyone with a yacht. The people I was brought up amongst didn't sail.

I was determined I was going to meet this girl again. So I remember phoning Nigel during the week  (phoning in those days, as a working class family, was a big thing… Not the casual thing nowadays.) I said to him he had to bring his neighbour to the Coach again. 

The following week, he did. And she and I laughed, danced, slowdanced, and kissed and arranged to meet the next day in Lurgan, where she lived and I was introduced to her family, and we all got on brilliantly. And so started a wonderful summer. A teenaged, happy, romance. 

Allison, Centre. Her friend Rachel on right, Nigel on left{Allison, centre. Her friend Rachel on her right, Nigel on her left} 

We had real fun… Joyous times. I discovered Dublin, Cork and London with her. And food and wine and (laughably now), fashion. 

Allison was of money. And I met her shortly before Stainsby Girls came out… a song Chris Rea wrote about his "posh" wife. And at first, the novelty of her being from a different class, was more than bearable, (especially when her mum and dad trusted me with their cars, a Mercedes and a soft top Black Golf GTI, which of course, I loved to drive).

But she went to public school in England, and then went to Finishing School in London, leaving for months on end, letters being our only connection. And all of these things, including my own feelings of inadequacy regarding money, position etc as I began to realise just how wide the social gap was, really played on my mind. Add to this, times, when I suffered empty, grey, bouts of indescribable depression. Indescribable, because I really had no idea what it was and why I was suffering it. 

After around three years, I had to walk away, which at the time really crushed me. The clincher being one day a family member spoke about "them," and threatening to close the family factory because of union demands. "Them," as in the people who worked in the factory they owned. And it was the last straw for this, burgeoning mini Marxist. I was a "them." I worked in a factory. I was a union member. I loathed the Thatcherism that was destroying my community and work places. Our summer romance, that lasted three years, was over. 

The summer after I met her, during our absolute obsession with each other, Nigel and I decided to do the summer cycle the Belfast--Dublin and back Maracycle organised by a peace organisation, "Cooperation North,"  a two day 202 mile round trip. 

The Maracycle had started the year before, and I had watched as the 2000 participants had cycled down the newish bypass that ran behind our house. I knew I had to try this. I was a runner at the time, running half marathons and ten milers etc. I was, after an awful time at High School in many ways, trying to prove myself and trying to break out of the chains I felt pulling on, pushing on, and filling my mind with what I can describe as grey, hopelessness. 

I wanted to prove to the world I wasn't the person I had had hammered into me I was, by psychopath pupils and a teaching staff that were fighting fires all of the time. The education in Northern Ireland meant all of the social problems went in to Banbridge Intermediate /Secondary /High School (the three names it had when I was there) and the middle class, confident children went to the Grammar school. We were sifted by the awful verbal reasoning tests; the 11plus. I hadn't passed, and it meant four years of learning how to dodge having the fuck kicked out of me. I was shit at PE, because PE consisted mostly of football, which I was taught to hate.

But when I left school, I took up running, and got on my bike. 

Nigel and, I began to practise for the cycle, and one Saturday night, we decided that the next day we'd do a big cycle, around the County Down Coast. 

The next morning, I sat and waited and waited, and eventually, two hours late, Nigel pulled up in his car. He was sorry he was late, but he'd went to the all night party I had turned down because I wanted to cycle. 

Nigel was hung over… And wanted to "just do a short run," which annoyed me as I had planned to cycle at least 70 miles. So, I suggested we cycled to Newry and back, which is about 15 miles, away. Nigel agreed. 

It was a beautiful morning, and the run to Newry, mostly down hill or flat, was wonderful. We stopped at a junction in the town, and I convinced Nigel to cycle on to Carlingford in the Irish Republic as it was "just around the corner." The road to Carlingford, along the, Newry Canal, and then along the sea shore of Carlingford Lough, is a little hillier and the sun was blazing down on us. At every corner I had to urge the hung over Nigel on, saying, "just a few more corners, and we are there." He pushed on, slowly, and eventually I said, "we are nearly there. I'll meet you at the castle..," and cycled on.

About two minutes later, I heard a clatter. I turned and cycled back around the corner to find Nigel lying at the side of the road, collapsed in exhaustion (or dehydrated due to hangover!) 

I persuaded him back on to his saddle, and a few minutes later, we were freewheeling down into the beautiful medieval village. We cycled on to the old pier and sat, legs dangling over the edge, glugging our water, and munching our Mars bars (which were what amounted to energy bars in the mid eighties!) and stretched out in the sun, and listened to the new Chris Rea album, with the title he came up with as a tribute to Ireland, as it languidly, calmingly soundtracked that memory forever from a car parked nearby; my head full of romance, and my want to prove I was a not what had been hammered in to me in parquet floored classrooms and "play" grounds. 

Nb, I pushed Nigel on, and home the long way, round the coast and then the hilly back road home from Newry… He thanked me later...

{Nigel and I on completion of Maracycle 1985
Play the, album on YouTube HERE

Being Neil Scott...

It was really interesting to watch Gail Porter's documentary on mental health (Being Gail Porter) and the Luke Chadwick stuff regarding being mocked on telly by Nick Hancock and his sporting comedy sidekicks all of those years ago. I admire how they've spoken about the mental anguish they suffered. The Gail Porter documentary was really interesting as you saw how crushed she was at the time, by the mockery of Mark Lamarr. She almost crumbles into a defensive fold on the desk in front of her. 

I have always hated that kind of humour. And I say that as someone who has been the brunt of it, and as someone who even if I didn't deliver it, I certainly laughed along. That's not to say I haven't mocked people... And I won't make excuses for it, I have, but it has never, as far as I remember, been about their appearance. It is usually about behaviour, pomposity, arrogance (all of which I'm sure this media magnifies more than is actual, because of the delivery method, and on my part, the love of writing). And I am impatient with people.

Having been the brunt, and witnessed the almost complete appreciation of the mockery by the crowd, the mob, I wanted acceptance. So acerbic mockery of others thoughts, "style," beliefs etc, became a thing. I love satire, and comedy that bursts balloons, challenges hierarchy and politics. And I thought that's what I did. But I'm sure for some it was hurtful and unkind.

And I'm sorry.

It was a defense mechanism created in the furnace that was a school in a system that threw every social and mental problem into one building after a verbal reasoning test at 11. In the years when the solution was, "just toughen up." 

Cruel comedy really isn't my thing. I loathe it, and when a comedian resorts to cruelty, it totally turns me off them. Buzzcocks and  They Think it's all Over, were great programmes when they stuck to laughing at eighties hairstyles, or daft trends etc, or own goals, bad golf shots etc, but mocking how people looked; who they were etc, and actually the sexism in those programmes, were awful, cringey to watch. I hate Graham Norton's mockery, or Mock the Week when it becomes mock a person for being. 

It really does take years to recover from bullying... The stages of recovery are recognisable to me.. People laugh loudest when the pain is concentrated on someone else for a change; addictive personalities seek other realities and confidence through chemicals, and then, if the person is lucky they get to a point of realisation, a part of their lives when they say, "well this is me. Like it or lump it." And they actively walk away from others being mocked (though the subtleties in this, and just how naturally and quickly this can be injected into conversations can throw you). I've long admired the people who can just walk away from mockery without laughing. I'm not sure who it was, but on TV relatively recently someone said, and I paraphrase, "ah, mockery. I don't do that,"when confronted by another politicians mockery of their political leader). And I've tried really hard to make that calmly walking away, part of me. A sign of disapproval that just hopefully is subtle enough to show that, and quiet enough not to be lecturing. It isn't easy. In fact it really can really isolate you. But, you do feel better to have not been part of it... And to have made a point. I'm not perfect. I do fall. A lifetime of defense is really difficult to strip away.

I'll fall, fail...  I'm imperfect. And I apologise for that. But I'll do my best. 

Those doing the mocking are the ones to pity, I realise now. They are insecure. They worry how they look, sound and come across. They worry about their place in pecking orders.

Gail Porter doesn't any more (but has been terribly effected by her earlier life). Luke Chadwick seems confident, happy, but it must have been eating him up inside to have to say something yesterday.

I don't anymore (but it itches now and again). School was hellish. Its a long time ago. But it shaped me... In a way I hope other children really don't have to be shaped.

This is me. 

Saturday, 9 May 2020

A Smile, from Forty Years Ago

One of my obsessions as a young person, and into my twenties, was photography. The art of the darkroom. Getting that perfect picture. I had my camera stolen in Prague on a trip through Europe in the early nineties and only briefly went back to it when my son was little, to record his every day adventures... 

I have enjoyed having a wee camera on my phone, and sometimes still experiment with light and form (I love finding "lines," and horizons and trying to record them).

I wouldn't have a clue where to start with a good, basic, digital camera (with capabilities on par with 35mm slr's of the past) - any advice welcome... And as for photoshop and "processing" digital photographs, I really would have no clue... Again, advice welcome.

Yesterday a couple of ex-school friends and I were Facebook messaging about conflicting memories of high school (40 years in between really is going to mean we have very different recollections).

A few of us in the school were given darkroom lessons from one of the art teachers. 

I used this to take photos for my art portfolio and for my final art composition. "Snaps" were rare, as the whole process of taking a photo was expensive, from film to paper, so lots of the negatives I have are a bit rubbish and abstract. But after this discovery, perhaps going through them again would be a good lockdown activity. 

One of my friends, Roy, had in the past referred to an incident in school that at first I didn't remember... But now it has hazily come back to me. Roy and I were comic readers. One of the comics had a section in it where their target audience, pubescent boys, sent photos of their most attractive teacher, and these pics were published in a kind of beauty pageant (this is a sign of the times, one that looking back is absolutely incredible... Who in that comic's staff thought that this was acceptable?). I can't recall which comic it was. At first I thought, Krazy Comic or Cheeky Weekly. But I'm more inclined to Action or Speed now. Anyone recall?

Anyway, it was decided between us, we'd ask Miss McKee, our Geography teacher, if I could take a picture and send it. She consented. The pic of her outside her Geography room, room 16, a space that doesn't exist as it was demolished, is below. 
This picture is Miss Mckee, smiling at the nervousness, cheek and slight idiocy of young teenagers, from circa 1981. Roy found it amongst stuff he has kept from school. 

Reasons aside, this picture, for me, is remarkable. It really does bring me back to that time. And even to that room. And to my "hobby," which did at times, supplement my income (though the local newspaper would only pay me in film rolls as I wasn't part of the NUJ... Principled times!)

Advice welcome, for the questions above. And for the first time ever, this is Miss McKee (later, Mrs Hanna), published to a wider audience, though a much smaller one than comics during that golden age of printed art and weekly stories.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

The Associates... Those First Impressions...

I went through an "Associates" phase (again) this time last year (and the bones of what I've written here comes from a Facebook post during a phase of  Associates in 2018...). In fact I go through an Associates phase most years. And I've been doing a Lockdown video search of all I can find of theirs today. I may be in the early stages of Associates phase 2020. This has been going on since late that Friday night, watching BA Robertson on my black and white "portable telly" in my bedroom. 

The singles, Party Fears Two and Club Country are two songs that I would rank in amongst my top ten tracks. Musically innovative, vocally wild, these tracks really should be a go to for new bands wanting to break norms. 

I don't know what would have helped Mackenzie - saved him from the tragedy of his torch song of a short life... Out of all of the musicians I liked, his inability to at times, use that amazing talent to take on the world-win the world for those of us on the outside- frustrated me as a music loving, Sounds, NME reading pretentious teenager a lot, but I "got" him (I never met him... what I mean is, I "got" /understood his nervousness, his stage fright, his distracting/talking to hide it. 

His hiding. 

His uncontrollable self destruction. His need for perfection, but messy organisation... ). 

He was, is, a huge loss to music. 

We can really only imagine where his voice would have taken us had he not have found living too hard. 

Party Fears Two and Club Country, at the time for me, were laden with the promise of music way far away from the predictable  Duran Duran on a boat, or Spandau Ballet working until they were muscle bound. Laden with a glamour away from Banbridge. The songs were absolutely incredible chunks of modernity, sung at us in delight; in a wild, extravagant, exuberant blast of Dundonian North Sea wind on a balmy, hot summers day. Lyrics that I nodded to, and was completely baffled by at the same time (most of the nodding was to Club Country; a song about exclusion, and that video of people like me, invading that sacred, monied, place). 

I remember just totally and utterly and absolutely falling for this band, a band (or duo) of mavericks, around the same time as discovering The Mighty Wah! Wylie, another madly talented, frustrating person to be a fan of... These people seemed like kindred  spirits. (Imagine the vocal-off a duet between Mackenzie and Wylie would have been?) 

The story of another maverick... Pete Wylie

The songs released as singles after Club Country were at times, in my unimportant, untalented opinion, not the best choices- sometimes Mackenzie's in order to give them, the executives--the finger; sometimes his record company's in order to find something they could make money on. There were so many amazing, original tracks they could have raked it in with -or astounded with- from Sulk and loads of the latter stuff, including the reignition of the original relationship with Rankine. Music that really did take you somewhere. Jazz influenced, soaring pieces of innovative, indefinable music. 

I remember seeing lead Bunnyman Ian McCullough in a bookshop in Glasgow telling an audience that he as much as told WEA (the same record company the Associates were on) to fuck off when the big cheese summoned him to his New York office and told him to go record something like Neil Diamond. Unfortunately WEA seemed to wanted Dundonian Mackenzie to be Burt Bacharach. He was much too clever and wiley to be trapped.  He and Rankine were too talented, too original, too non-standard, to fit the holes pop stars must be squeezed through to create the pop star sculpture that raked in the dollar. 

The first time I saw the Associates was on a wee black and white telly in my bedroom on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, hosted by BA Robertson, who grated on me (I remember my school pals, Alex Adamson and Roy Wilson - or at least Roy's big brother? - liked Robertson's songs when we were at school (circa 1980-81). I liked Bang Bang, but there was nothing else he did that didn't seem like it was created for cash... Or something). 

Friday Night, Saturday Morning... That first impression... 

Anyway, they (Mackenzie and Rankine) performed two tracks that just blew me away... "Skipping" and "Party Fears Two."  I hadn't realised that it was their first time on telly (read, "The Glamour Chase," about Billy Mackenzie's life... A superb book that really does describe a time, the total madness and the incredible investment the record company placed in The Associates project. I can't imagine a record company giving today's talent such room to develop). 

I remember talking to mates about this amazing thing I had witnessed on my telly... Noone seemed to be as blown away by what they had seen as I was. What a voice! What incredible tunes! And they looked weird... Different... Alternative... Way out of the humdrum - which was important to me living in that working class, mid-Ulster town that denied culture beyond sport. I always liked weird, anarchic... Something that punched through the monotony. 

I remember hearing Kites for the first time (after I had heard PFT, Skipping and Club Country) . It stunned me. One of those, "this is the future of music," things. The Associates really were not two track wonders... Though listening to the radio nowadays you'd be mistaken for thinking that. 

I remember seeing Mackenzie interviewed in Dundee, by Leslie Ash, for The Tube. I could tell that this guy was a kidder. You can't kid a kidder. In the end, the kidder catches himself on, or not, I suppose.

The Associates were like other bands I liked--the future, but today. In the early eighties, The Associates, Heaven 17, Japan, Joy Division, New Order, early The Smiths, Fun Boy Three, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Human League, Ultravox, Altered Images, Echo and the Bunnymen, Julian Cope, Pete Wylie and the Mighty Wah, early The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees... And others, seemed to point to where the eighties should go... Where good music would go... But then kind of didn't, for the most part. That early eighties post punk, rejection of two chord punk - an innovative, amazing diverse, melodic"indie" movement (or at the time more likely to be referred to as "alternative" music) that seemed to emanate from Scotland and the North of England should have stormed across the world. But I suppose the profit taking chase of glamour and fashion meant the diversity of the mavericks, regardless of how many of them there were, could not be monetized as a sellable movement, like "New Romantics" and I suppose, "goths" could.

Sulk was a brilliant, brooding, melancholy album. A friend with money taped it for me. I played it to death, and then rather than buy it, I got it from the library and taped it again (I've since bought it on vinyl and downloaded it from official channels...)..

For many years, the only  album of the Associates I owned on vinyl, "Wild and Lonely," which is gorgeous... superb. I have managed to catch up and own as much on vinyl I've been able to find, and have downloaded as much as I can from official sources. And I wish I could go through all of that collection here. But I've chosen two very different tracks that you might not have heard before, to hopefully start you off on a bit of a discovery session. 

Anyway, have a listen to these and wonder why you don't hear more of The Associates, beyond (the admittedly difficult to surpass) Party Fears Two and Club Country.

This track is extraordinary in many ways, including the fact Mackenzie takes a vocal backseat. There are versions on YouTube of him singing this live... Go find them. But this was what was released in 1981...

Video HERE (don't click on the picture) 

The track below is on the post Rankine album, "Perhaps," which again I blagged a tape from somewhere,way back then. This is soaring pop, a bit less "alternative," but I love Mackenzie's vocal on it. 

Video HERE (don't click on picture).