Some Fantastic Place

Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze

Chris Difford

Squeeze in 1980

One of the tropes of music writing I dislike the most is the “the first time I heard this band” story. I equally hate the “collection of moments from my life that are tied to a band’s songs” thing. These techniques are used as a way to prove not only how meaningful the band is to the writer but also how good the band is in general. If the writer felt something, then the reader understands that the band is worthy of contemplation and adoration. I get why it’s popular. Listening to music is a personal, subjective experience and falling in love with a band is a heady experience and it feels good to share it. I’ve avoided talking too much about my personal likes and dislikes on this blog as much as possible because I have just gotten tired of reading those stories on other blog posts, in books, and magazine articles. But here I am ready to betray all of my principles by posting a personal recollection about a band!

Our family vacations were always interesting because my parents liked to go places we could drive to (there were a few trips – England, Scotland, and Wales, Jamaica, Hawaii – which needed a plane ride) from our Southern California home. My parents were interested in the Southwest primarily for the history, Native American culture and art, and the scenery (my dad was a very gifted amateur photographer — see the glamorous family vacation shot below. We look like Ansel Adams went on the trip with us!). We went to investigate the most obvious of the Southwest – the Grand Canyon – but also explored sites like First, Second, and Third Mesa among many other places.

My mom and I enjoy the Grand Canyon

These trips required a lot of time in the car either driving or waiting for my dad to finish photographing something alongside the road. Once the radio stations started to give out in the more rural areas, I got to play DJ. Before we left home, I carefully selected the cassette tapes that would be played throughout the trip, looking to old favorites and new obsessions to clear away the boredom of highways that took us through miles of desert landscape. My command station was the backseat where within two plastic, pastel colored cassette boxes (one mint green, the other light pink) , I would carefully consider which cassette should brighten up a half hour or so. For more than one summer, I handed the cassette of Squeeze’s Singles: 45s and Under up to my mom to pop into the car’s cassette player. I was obsessed with Squeeze after hearing some of their songs on the local alternative station, KROQ and seeing them on Saturday Night Live (November 20, 1982). When I hear one of their famous songs like “Pulling Mussels From the Shell,” “Goodbye Girl”, or “Up the Junction”, I automatically begin to play the next song on 45s and Under in my head. Even though I eventually bought all of the Squeeze albums and I’ve heard all of those singles in the context of their respective albums, I still think of them tumbling one after the other; one fabulous single at a time.

My next major Squeeze memory is Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook (along with Keith Wilkinson, Jools Holland, and Gilson Lavis) appearing on that VH1 show Bands Reunited from 2003. I’d followed them a bit through their makeups and breakups but in pre-and-early Internet days, you had to work a little harder to keep up with music gossip unless the story was really spectacular and made Rolling Stone or Spin. But here Squeeze was right on VH1 and I settled in to watch my old favorites play together again.

I was shocked to see how much tension there was between them. Glenn makes a quip in the clip about how fans thought Glenn and Chris were like The Waltons as if they snuggled up next to each other, sweetly bidding one another goodnight. The reality was much different. Though they didn’t reunite on the show, Difford and Tilbrook are back together as Squeeze, releasing albums and touring frequently.

Chris Difford’s autobiography, Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze, was released in 2017, though my edition is from 2018 and includes a “new final chapter” in which Difford reflects on the publication of the book and his current relationship with Glenn and Squeeze.  As the main lyricist for Squeeze, Difford’s writing skill is obvious and he brings his facility for word play coupled earnest emotion and wry observations in his autobiography. Difford’s book is nice. He’s nice. He’s nice about his relationship with Glenn (and largely takes the blame for the breakdown of friendship and communication between them), he’s nice about his childhood (which was so nice!), and he’s nice about other bands even when criticizing them.  He’s fairly relentless, though, in condemning himself for his alcoholism and in taking stock of what it was like for friends, family, and band members to be dealing with him while he drank. He’s funny, charming, and seems both humble and aware of his songwriting talents.

Difford covers the requisite “getting the band together” story but fills it in with lots of sweet details about his friendship with Glenn. Like a lot of bands forming in the 70s, they were caught between wanting to be like Bowie or more folky, hippie bands and trying for something new. Punk became the driving force of change, though not in the “Sex Pistols were amazing!” kind of way. Difford recalls:

Suddenly, in 1977, punk happened […] but I never really liked the music. I was always looking for the lyric and I felt there was no depth to it; it was just kids trying to get a record deal. The music sounded like it was falling down the stairs. […] It was until Dot, my flatmate, played me the first Clash album that I heard a punk record that I loved. It had a depth and energy to it that was totally lacking from stuff like Sex Pistols. (77-78)

Difford wasn’t interested in writing about politics, he was rather hoping to capture simple human moments that had “depth and energy” like The Clash but which were more, well, fun. He and Tilbrook began writing songs together but eventually settled into a pattern in which he would give Tilbrook lyrics and Tilbrook would come up with the music. As their relationship disintegrated, this process would take place via the mail with each sending their part back to the other! It says something about their creative chemistry that good songs were still made in this rather remote working relationship.

I was skimming through The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records (published in 1983) to see what they had to say about Squeeze, and unlike so much press coverage of the band, Trouser Press was not impressed by the duo of Difford and Tilbrook. Squeeze’s entry in this encyclopedia of new wave music begins:

Squeeze’s songwriting team of Glenn Tilbrook (melody) and Chris Difford (lyrics) has been compared favorably to Lennon and McCartney that’s not only a reflection on their abilities but also an indication of how little real craftsmanship can be found in rock’n’roll these days. Like their supposed models, Tilbrook and Difford are blessed with enormous talent, which has enabled them to get by on less-than-full expense of effort. What has often passed for ingenuity in Squeeze has in fact been little more than glibness. When the competition’s weak, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference” (300).

The entry goes on to say that “Black Coffee in Bed” is one of Difford and Tilbrook’s “worst ever” efforts. Oof. Difford records his memory of “Black Coffee in Bed” (from the album Sweets From a Stranger) in his book. He notes that the song was originally:

too long but did get some plays on the radio after a brutal edit. Record companies were in the habit of playing with your art without you knowing about it. We first heard the new version of the song when a promo cassette arrived through the post. It was hilarious and very, very wrong. We were livid. Elvis [Costello] and Paul Young dropped in to sing on ‘Black Coffee in Bed’, and that was the highlight of the recording for me. […] It was a friendly afternoon filled with back-slapping banter, but I felt like I had fallen from the lyrical challenges of the previous album and had delivered some lazy writing. I was not on my game and had gone backwards into a safe but untidy mind. (127)

Difford is often hard on himself about his songwriting. What fans would deem classic songs filled with clever lyrics (I always love “I want to be good/is that not enough? from “Another Nail in My Heart” as if the desire to be good is the same as actually being good), though Chris cites that as a slight song that benefited from Tilbrook’s catchy, hook-filled music), Difford often calls a disappointment. The above memory, then, gives you a good sense of the book in whole. Elvis Costello pops up a lot! Difford is self-deprecating. And fans get a nice glimpse inside the writing and recording of favorite songs. Difford also writes about his celebrity encounters (the stuff about Bryan Ferry is WILD!), his love life, and his work with the band The Strypes (who broke up in 2018) among other topics. If you’re a fan of Squeeze, I highly recommend the book.

Not only do I love Squeeze, but I also read Difford’s book with an eye toward using it for my current project on new wave masculinities. I’m presenting a paper at a conference in the spring on the topic which I would also like to turn it into a larger endeavor. This blog is a way of keeping track of everything I’m reading and thinking about in terms of post punk music in general and New Wave and New Romanticism specifically. I’ve been gathering ideas about different categories of New Wave men – the avenging nerd, the pretty boy, the gender bender, etc. – and I believe the men of Squeeze fit into the first category. Squeeze always leaned heavily on humor in their videos and their songs are frequently written from the point of a view a smart but damaged man.

Difford reflects on the band’s image in his book, saying:

MTV was the thing to be on and we were on it all the time, along with Sting and Dire Straits, Duran Duran and the other all-male bands that wore make-up. On the screen we had none of the seriousness of some of our contemporaries – thankfully. Our childish take on life served us well and kept us apart from the pouting pencil-thin band that filled the MTV screens across the world with their well-tailored collars sticking up. (147)

Squeeze certainly wasn’t polished like Duran Duran and their lyrics reveal a world that is far less rarefied and abstract than the ones Simon Le Bon conjured up. Squeeze and Duran Duran also represent two ends of the New Wave spectrum with Squeeze more closely associated with punk and Duran Duran with pop. (See Like Punk Never Happened for an overview of New Pop in the 1980s). In his book Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, Theo Cateforis clarifies that:

To the major labels, punk appeared to be virtually unmarketable. In its stead, the music industry embraced new wave groups like the Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Squeeze, all of whom shared punk’s energy but tempered its vitriol with more accessible and novel songwriting sprinkled with liberal doses of humor, irreverence, and irony. Like their punk rock forebears, new wave musicians openly rejected the tired clichés of rock star abundance and bloated stadium extravaganzas that had come to dominate the 1970s. (10)

Difford concurs with this assessment when he reflected on the band’s first visit to America:

We became a ‘new wave’ band when we went to America, along with Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers and other great bands that had both the attitude and the musicality that punk lacked. We were comfortable with that tag. […] We were riding that new-wave wave and getting credibility on the back of it too. But Squeeze were always a pop band in my eyes. (90-91)

So is Squeeze a new wave band? A pop band? For my purposes, I’m selfishly keeping them in the new wave category. Cateforis remarks that this confusion is common:

As new wave has increasingly become equated with the nostalgically aged technological modernity of 1980s synthpop, new wave’s deeper roots in the late 1970s have become obscured. Groups and artists like the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, and the Knack—all of whom essentially launched new wave in the United States—are much more likely to turn up on a classic rock playlist than they are to show up listed as an influence on some new wave revivalist’s MySpace page. As we find new wave increasingly collapsed, for the sake of convenience, into a mélange of synthesizers, MTV videos, and overarching 1980s nostalgia, the earlier new wavers have drifted backward into a closer association with 1970s punk. (220-221)

This is ironic given Difford’s nearly wholesale rejection of punk in the book. His dismissal of the Sex Pistols is the first I’ve found in the autobiographical reading I’ve been doing. That fits Difford, though. In his own quiet, unassuming way he has bucked the system one song at a time.

On that note, I’ll leave you with Squeeze’s latest!

I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau

I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau (2009)
Gary Kemp

After seeing the documentary on Spandau Ballet, Soul Boys of the Western World, I was struck by a wave of Spandau obsession. I’d always been a Duranie, though Spandau’s presence was inescapable, of course, as “True” was a huge hit at the same time Duran Duran fever had a hold on me. What Soul Boys of the Western World did for me, though, is to show me the depth and artistry of Spandau’s career that went far beyond “True”. I was really struck by the emphasis on their working class origins and their participation in the New Romantic movement inspired me to look more deeply into a subculture that many don’t know even existed.

spandau new york
Spandau Ballet during their first trip to NYC, 1981

If you are a fan of Spandau, are English, or frequent British based music sites, you might be aware that after reuniting in 2009, Spandau went through a tumultuous period that resulted in Tony Hadley leaving the band (before the reunion, the band had last played together in 1990 and were only to meet in a courtroom in a battle over residuals by the end of that decade). Spandau now has a new singer and recently played a couple of sold out shows in London. The response from hardcore Spandau fans has been … mixed. Some have readily accepted Ross William Wild as the new singer, or are at least willing to give him a chance. Some have declared that the band is nothing without Tony’s voice. Some blame guitarist/songwriter Gary Kemp for destroying the band. Some think Tony let Spandau and the fans down. I lurk in several Spandau fan groups on Facebook and the arguments continue as to who is at fault and if the band is renewed or doomed. Hardcore fans are very, very upset about the whole thing.

In his autobiography, Kemp reflects on what began to go wrong within a band that had been formed through genuine friendships and artistic desire:

Where did the end start? Certainly it would have gone unnoticed in 1986, so much good stuff was happening. We were famously ‘five mates’, ‘the Angel Boys’, closer than any other band, drinking pals on a permanent world bender and having the time of our lives. But at some time, something must have started imperceptibly to alter things, a mutation of a single cell, unnoticed at first, but with our fate contained within it. Where can I find the first fissure, the first footfall of the trouble that was to arrive? (243)

Kemp sees the beginning of the end as accepting the starring role – along with his brother Martin – in the 1990 movie, The Krays. In truth, though, his autobiography as a whole is an examination of the many little cuts that led to the death of the band.

krays

Death is the organizing force of the book as Kemp begins his story as a ghost looking back at his own life and ends with the death of his parents. In between there is the death of class divisions, of the band’s names and musical genres, of Spandau Ballet itself, and in the court case which finally severs Kemp’s songwriting from the rest of the band, of friendships that had lasted 20 years. It is a book largely about loss, though it isn’t joyless or without humor. Kemp is, however, interested in dissecting/illustrating the ins and outs of band life but also the role his own attitudes played in the decisions Spandau Ballet made along the way.

Kemp repeatedly returns to class and the role it played in his life and career. He prides himself on coming from a working class family but recognizes the complications of continuing to identify as working class when one becomes a successful musician. Before success in Spandau, however, Kemp and the others who made up the band – brother and bassist Martin Kemp, saxophonist and percussionist Steve Norman, singer Tony Hadley, and drummer John Keeble – would all use their working class backgrounds to their advantage in the emerging club scene in London in the late 70s and early 80s.

Kemp’s discussion of the Blitz club, fashion, working class politics and identity was my favorite part of the book. Unlike Hadley who seemed a bit embarrassed and bemused about his fashion from the time, Kemp embraces it, really seeing it as a political statement as much as an artistic one. He also discusses the scene which lead to the New Romantic moniker with great detail:

Blitz was a wine bar in Great Queen Street decorated with thirties memorabilia. It suited our theme of dancing while Rome burned. [Steve] Strange wore his hair and heels high, and tottered at the door with a silver-topped cane, while hundreds, desperate to burn brightly in these dark times, block the street outside. (93)

Kemp goes on to name Stephen Jones, Stephen Linard, Melissa Caplan, Fiona Dealey, Sade, John Galliano, Boy George, Princess Julia, Jeremy Healy, Marilyn, Rusty Egan, and Mige Ure among many others as Blitz regulars who all went on to find fame in fashion, film, and music. The New Romantic scene relied heavily on the creativity of young people who wanted to look incredible but had no funds to make it happen. The Kemp brothers were fortunate to have a mother who was willing to make her hot-on-the-club-scene sons a couple of zoot suits, while the others found would they could at Oxfam or stores with lax security measures. This working class ingenuity resulted in a glorious mix of fashion from a huge range of time periods and styles. These inventive fashions allowed the kids wearing them to transcend time and place, but most importantly they transcended class as well. Kemp and others like him became fantastical peacocks, indeterminate of gender, class strata, and any other social or cultural markers. They were inspired by punk but were most interested in surpassing it in terms of social disruption. What better way to stealthily bomb the mainstream than to infiltrate them with style and pop music? Kemp and his band of gorgeous outsiders were determined to become the soundtrack to this movement.

spandau ballet 2
An example of Spandau’s adventurous fashion in the early days of the band

Spandau didn’t immediately infiltrate the Top 40. Kemp traces the many permutations of sound and style of the band but the book is most concentrated on Spandau’s glory years which naturally reflect the excesses of top-earning rock stars. Kemp thoughtfully unravels the complex tapestry that is class and money when he discusses the band first making big money. Moving into his own place, he muses:

It was more than a physical move away from home. Those aspirational yearnings that I’d been nurturing […] all those years before were now fully fledged and allowed free flight. But as I placed art and books on the wall, church candles and interior magazines on the black enameled coffee table, I felt a strong sense of denying everything my family was. I sat on my William Morris chair – designed by the esteemed architect Philip Webb, I hasten to add – and, with a glass of claret in my hand and something light and choral on the stereo, I realised I’d become middle class […] My desire for higher things left me appearing like a snob. Or maybe I just was. Waves of pride and shame would alternately crash against me, especially when Martin and I parked our matching Porsches side by side outside our parents’ home in a street full of rusting Fords. Were the locals proud of their prodigal sons or were we rubbing salt (Malvern, of course) into the wounds of a beleaguered working-class neighbourhood? Money left me a mass of neurotic contradictions, and, as much as I wanted a more cultured lifestyle and aspired to the other side of the Essex Road, I was still riven with guilt about it and the fear that I might be deserting my roots. (178-179)

Although class issues have come up a lot in the books I’ve read so far, Kemp writes about his conflicted feelings in a touching and profound way. As an American, I don’t relate to class in the same way as the English do (or at least English musicians do). Though the American press is quick to latch onto success stories that include a performer coming up from a humble background, there isn’t as much emphasis on the loss of culture and self once that class status has changed. Most American celebrities, including musicians, don’t speak a great deal about the meaning class has had in their lives, unless it is a discussion of “authenticity” as it pertains to a performance of toughness or street credibility. But class is an issue for English musicians (and a continuing one at that – for example, check out this article in Pop Matters) and Kemp writes about it in what seems to me an honest and complicated way.

Class intersects with band’s stylization of itself, too, as Spandau left behind the more experimental clothing of their past to embrace a more traditional “pop star” look including Anthony Price suits just like Duran Duran wore. They pursued hits and reflected a sense of success in their upscale looks as well as in their slickly produced singles, their most famous of which, “True”, made them seem like romantic softies instead of the arty upstarts they were originally. The movement from their earlier songs like “To Cut A Long Story Short” to the more polished sounds of “I’ll Fly For You” felt to the band like they were moving into more serious (and radio friendly) territory, but the press was more concentrated on who the band played to and how they looked while doing it:

During our fall from grace with Diamond the common judgement from the serious rock press was that we were fashion-obsessed dandies who couldn’t play and that we’d had our run on the fickle train of youth culture and been swiftly forced to alight. There was a certain amount of glee and told-you-so in their statements. Now they saw our new, successful, smiling version as irrefutable evidence that we were interested only in financial rewards and not musical credibility. (188)

Not being thought of as serious musicians is a recurring theme in the autobiographies of 80s pop stars I’ve read so far. Though each musician/singer embraced their teen appeal with degrees of bemusement, they all also felt the hard graft they’d put into their musicianship or songwriting was being overlooked. This idea of respectability is something I want to delve into in the journal article I am planning on writing on what I’m (tentatively) calling “New Wave masculinity”. What hinders getting the respect of the press is primarily the band’s fanbase, not the actual musical product. And that fan base? Teen girls. They are the kiss of death. A recent article in Pitchfork clarifies:

When fame is girded by a swelling teenage, female fanbase immediately, that celebrity becomes false, temporary, and unearned. We’re always grappling for a reason to disregard the value of a popular—and populist—product because blindly embracing it means the market research and Simon Cowell-eque figures behind it have duped us again. The presence of teen girls offers up a handy barometer: if they like something you can be rest assured it’s not worth a serious listener’s ear [,,,] female fans are seen as less legitimate, so their adoration is an instant credibility-killer. The crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display when it comes to their favourite bands.

Even Kemp describes an encounter with teen girl fans as having witnessed a flock of “Hitchcockian birds” as the girls screamed, cried, and threw themselves against a plate glass door while watching the band walking into a radio station.

spandau fans
Are there any other kind? 

Spandau, of course, soldiered on in their career, making more albums while the in-fighting between them increased. Kemp writes a great deal about how controlling he was, from writing all of the songs to dictating how Tony Hadley should sing a particular line. This control is what lead to the court case Hadley, Keeble, and Norman brought against Gary in the 1990s. Kemp characterizes it as a decision to have his personal publishing company to stop contributing to the costs of running the band (since he was the lone songwriter in the band). He says that long-time manager Steve Dagger “told the others” and that “there was no confrontation about it, but it was a decision that would have a very slow-burning fuse indeed, and more destructive firepower than anything [he] could possibly imagine” (259). Well, yeah! It seems a little naïve to say that you couldn’t know that making a decision to stop sharing monies with the band would result in such anger. I think the court case, though, wasn’t just about the money but about the idea that somehow Kemp was the only important member of the band.  But as Kemp says, by the time Heart Like a Sky was being recorded, it was obvious the band was falling apart. He wanted to hurt the band for taking him for granted and to prove to them that he was the real center of Spandau Ballet.

spandau sporty
In photos, however, Tony was usually posed as the center of the band because he was the tallest (sorry, Gary!)

Kemp concludes the book with the band’s reunion a decade after the court case in which he was triumphant. The story of their getting back together is interwoven with the story of his parents’ death. Kemp’s father practically died right in front of him and he along with his brother Martin was tasked with telling their mother of her husband’s death while she was hospitalized during a battle with cancer. After they’d told her, Kemp says that, “the second or third thing my mother said through her tears after she’d hear what had happened was this: ‘And he was so looking forward to [the reunion of] Spandau Ballet’ (310). Four days later she, too, died. These profound deaths make the whole “let’s get the band together!” ending of the book pretty melancholy to read. Knowing that the band wouldn’t stay together in their original form also makes this ending a bit sad. But it’s an excellent book in which Kemp is honest about his flaws and he’s willing to laugh at himself in the process of exposing them. There’s also stuff about his acting career, his love life, and lots of tales of excess while on the road. An overall good read, whether you are a fan or not.

In terms of my New Romantic research, this book is indispensable. I really admire Kemp and I’m grateful for his continuing triumphing of the importance of New Romanticism. (He also also liked a few of my tweets which was, like, the greatest thing ever!)

Please enjoy a few of the following selections from the Spandau Ballet oeuvre:

 

Like Punk Never Happened

Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop (1985)
Dave Rimmer

This book has a provocative title, one that I read for the first time in an article I’d come across by a former professor, Neil Nehring. The phrase “like punk never happened” was used as a jab against Duran Duran and how their existence belied the disruptive presence of punk just a few years before. What was the point of punk if it begat Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet? While making this point, Nehring cited Dave Rimmer’s book. I knew I had to track it down, particularly because I took the charge against Duran Duran and Spandau very, very seriously!

Like Punk Never Happened was published in 1985 and is a mash up of Rimmer tracing the development of the genre known as New Pop and a tour diary written while he was in Japan with Culture Club during their 1984 tour.  Rimmer’s bio on the back of the book notes that he was a “freelance writer” for Smash Hits magazine and he thanks Neil Tennant (yes, from the Pet Shop Boys) for being his “agent, editor, and collaborator” on this book. A the editor of Smash Hits, Tennant undoubtedly has a ton of amazing pre-Pet Shop Boys stories and thus I declare that he needs to write his autobiography!

As I discussed in my post on Adam Ant’s autobiography, Rimmer traces the beginning of New Pop to Ant, declaring him a “monomaniacal success robot” with some affection, actually (11). Rimmer stresses that the point of the book is to explore New Pop, not to judge it, and so he writes about Adam’s arc toward stardom with an anthropological curiosity, using Ant as the ur-popstar on which all other 80s popstars are built. Adam’s roots were in punk and as most people already know, he was mentored by and then stolen from by Malcom McClaren (who lured Adam’s original Ants away to form Bow Wow Wow), a figure Rimmer sees as another harbinger of New Pop. McClaren always wanted to be a success and he always wanted the Sex Pistols to be famous. Their look and attitude was punk but McClaren’s desire was pure “imaginative entrepreneur” who wanted “to make the most of an easily manipulable music industry” (14).  Rimmer, like Simon Reynolds, sees punk as germinating from pop music, destroying the boundary between the radio friendly hit and the sneering, tuneless punk song. Both pop and punk are used as delineating lines between those “in” and those “out”, and once punk blew itself up, pop merely shuffled back in to fill in the void. Rimmer argues:

The irony of the situation is this: to those who cling on to the spirit of punk, everything about the New Pop is utterly abhorrent and devoid of heir precious ‘credibility’. The New Pop isn’t rebellious. It embraces the star system. It conflates art, business and entertainment. It cares more about sales and royalties and the strength of the dollar than anything else and to make matters worse, it isn’t the least bit guilty about it. (13)

Beyond Adam Ant, Rimmer sees the New Romantics as ushering in the age of New Pop. He says in the first chapter of the book that Culture Club “were the perfect New Pop” group: “Colour by Numbers was the nearest thing to a perfect pop album the decade has produced. ‘Karma Chameleon” was the nearest thing to a perfect pop single: pretty and sickly, complex and singalong, meaningless and meaningful all at the same time” (5). After he theorizes about the transformation of punk into New Pop, Rimmer spends the rest of the book detailing Culture Club’s 1984 tour. The tour tales are interesting, though they mostly focus on Boy George and Jon Moss constantly fighting, breaking up, and making back up. Boy George discusses their relationship in his autobiography if you’re interested in the details of their volatile love affair. It’s quite a story!

culture club

Something I found really helpful in Rimmer’s book is his discussion of money and New Popstars’ desire for success. Money and success comes up frequently when writers attempt to define what New Pop was. The music that came after punk was a lot of things: Postpunk, New Wave, New Romantic, and New Pop. It’s difficult to define what exactly makes each one of those categories because there are overlaps, slips, splits, and fissures among all of them. In a 2005 Pitchfork article, “Now That’s What I Call New Pop” by Jess Harvell provides a useful definition of New Pop which focuses both on sound and desire:

New pop, the UK post-post-punk movement, is too porous to be rigidly defined. It contains everything from ABC’s Arcadian soul-disco, to Orange Juice’s Byrds/Buzzcocks jangle, to the Human League’s supersonic Abba update. Much of it could also be called post-punk or synth-pop or leftover glam. There was no shared manifesto; many of the bands couldn’t be more different.

If anything defined it, it was a strange mix of DIY (spurred by punk) and ambition– to make the charts, make TV appearances, make newspaper headlines. Sometimes this was for money; sometimes just to see if it could be done; sometimes simply to reach as many people as possible. But clearly, for many bands, merely selling a few 7″s was no longer an option.

Rimmer reflects Harvell’s emphasis on ambition when he critiques the charge that New Pop was “Thatcherite” or “Falklands Pop”. He continues, “In some was that’s a profoundly stupid description. Culture Club aside, the consensus among today’s pop musicians is broadly left of centre. Even Andy Taylor of Duran Duran – the group most usually lumbered with the ‘Thatcherite’ tag – was recently heard remarking that it made him ‘sick to watch what she’s doing to the country.’” In other ways, however, Rimmer confirms the connection between New Pop and Thatcher in that New Pop’s orientation toward success mirrors “the Thatcherite ideal of how to revitalize the economy” (76). The connection to Thatcher always sits uncomfortably with me, particularly given the working class background of almost all of the New Romantics as well as a large swath of New Popstars. I loved this quote from Jon Moss in the book: “Duran Duran reflect what people can’t have in life. We reflect what they can have” (121). What can they have, though? Not Culture Club’s money but perhaps an audience could have their multicultural, gender bending approach to life? Along with how to define New Pop via success, Rimmer clarifies New Pop’s connection to Black dance music and he investigates the issue of sex, seemingly important because of Boy George’s (at times unexpressed) sexuality.

Like Punk Never Happened ends with Rimmer arguing that 1985 is year New Pop’s bubble burst. With increased fame, New Popstars had steadily increased the space between themselves and their fans. Additionally, fame obliterated the original philosophy that underpinned bands like Spandau Ballet or Culture Club. Along with Band Aid and general chart success, Rimmer also pins the blame on Wham! who “aimed to be nothing more than they seemed to be: two nice middle-class boys busy making a fortune. After their first couple of singles, their songs didn’t even seem to spring from their own experiences. It was all just George Michael playing with imaginary emotions and situations. Scratch the suburban surface of Wham! and you’d find nothing beneath but nagging delusion” (185).  Poor Wham!! I do remember, though, in Graham Smith’s book on the New Romantics, We Can Be Heroes, that several New Romantics lamented that Wham! stole their fashion (seen in “Wham Rap”, “Young Guns” and “Bad Boys”) from the “Hard Times” look (as the New Romantics called it) after visiting the Blitz one night and seeing patrons sporting rolled jeans and greased-up pompadours. It seems even in a movement that eventually jettisoned credibility, the illusion of cred was still important!

Boy George hated the video for “Karma Chameleon” so I decided to post a live version of it (complete with a dig at Siouxsie Sioux at the beginning!)

Here’s Wham in all of their stolen Hard Times glory:

Coal Black Mornings

Coal Black Mornings (2018)
Brett Anderson

Though this blog is primarily dedicated to the reading I’m doing to satisfy my post-punk itch, I do have other musical obsessions: mainly Britpop and Cool Cymru which are two sides of the same 1990s coin. My devotion to the Manic Street Preachers not only lead me to read every book published about them (more on those in another post) but to also read about Super Furry Animals (Ric Rawlins’ excellent bio) as well as Gruff Rhys’ American Interior, and assorted other books on the Welsh music scene commonly called Cool Cymru (there aren’t really any directly on Cool Cymru but there is one book called ‘Blerwytirhwng?’ The Place of Welsh Pop Music by Sarah Hill that covers a vast amount of bands included in the movement and there is an excellent chapter about the scene in Wales Since 1939 by Martin Johnes). Once I’d exhausted the Welsh scene, I turned to Britpop and books on Blur, Oasis, the genre in general (Britpop!: Cool Britannia And The Spectacular Demise Of English Rock by John Harris is a great one), and Suede (fabulous bio by David Barnett). I was thrilled, then, to discover that Suede’s lead singer, Brett Anderson, has recently undertaken the task of writing his autobiography. The story of Suede’s place in Britpop is fascinating, especially since they are often attributed with starting the scene in the first place although as with most declarations about who started what in music, that declaration is also keenly argued about. It was, however, Suede who made it to the cover of the NME before Blur and they made it before they’d officially released their first single!

brett
Anderson looking a bit moody in front of his Bowie poster

Coal Black Mornings wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. In the Foreword, Anderson clarifies that “the last thing I wanted to write was the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir” and so he “limited [the book] strictly to the early years, before anyone really knew or really cared” about the band. He did this in order to “achieve [a] sense of tone […] to stray beyond [the early days of Suede] and to keep my voice fresh and void of cliché would have been impossible, and right now I have no desire to rake over those days again” (ix-x). Anderson dubs the book a “prehistory” and indeed, most of the book is about his childhood and college days with the book ending just as Suede gelled as band, creating a ruckus in London and in the music press. He discusses his relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and he is very complimentary to her. Though he notes that their relationship eventually ended because she became involved with another man, he never says it’s Blur frontman Damon Albarn. For a truly juicy going-over of that love triangle, I recommend Barnett’s authorized biography of Suede. There are tons of good stories about how much Brett and Damon hated each other. One can only surmise that Anderson continues to hate Albarn given the digs he makes at Britpop bands who sing in false accents about lives they know nothing about (ahem, “Parklife”).

Anderson’s lyrics betray an obvious interest in class, in elevating the unseen experiences of the working class and the marginalized to art. His autobiography does the same as he carefully and poetically evokes a vision of his childhood that is pocked with disappointment, poverty, and an angry father but also punctuated by that same father’s love of classical music and a mother who supported her artistic children. Unlike a lot of biographies and autobiographies, I found the portion of the book about Anderson’s childhood to be fascinating reading. He is an excellent writer with a good sense of how to season brutality and sadness with humor.

The part about becoming Suede is lighter and captures the humor, vanity, and earnestness involved in starting a band. There are a lot of great stories about playing to empty rooms and wry digs at the clothes the band initially wore on stage. Importantly, Anderson discusses what emerged as one the press’s repeated critiques of Anderson’s lyrics and onstage persona: that it was all a put-on. Over the years, music writers have opined that Anderson “played gay” to garner attention for the band, that his coy ducking of questions about his own sexuality was designed to fuel gossip. Anderson speaks somewhat to this charge while discussing the writing of the song, “My Insatiable One” after breaking up with Frischmann (link to song at end of essay):

Like everything I was writing at that time it was massively coloured by heartbreak, but this time I was writing about myself in the third person and from Justine’s point of view; fictionalising a situation where she was regretting her choices and where the ‘he’ in the lyrics was actually me. I found this shift in perspective really thrilling as a writer and it suddenly opened up enormous vistas, which I began to explore through other songs in that early period, looking at the world through the eyes of housewives and gay men and lonely dads […] Sadly, a year or so later, when we had become shrouded in notoriety and success, some would choose to see it as a social tourism. Given the levels of real, cynical, social tourism during that decade, when groups of patronising middle-class boys were making money by aping the accents and culture of the working classes, the irony was exquisite. (191)

Suede’s early songs always felt exploratory to me. Anderson was merely tiptoeing in and out of viewpoints in order to expose the panorama of British life to his listeners. Of course Suede often sounds pompous and bombastic! When one is trying to hew a portrait of a nation to compete with the cheerful tunes of Blur and Oasis, one errs on the side of going big.  This book feels to be both honest and crafted, as if Anderson is taking on another persona: that of a man named Brett Anderson who is writing an autobiography. I mean that as a compliment, actually. The refrain of “coal black mornings” that recurs through the book could feel gimmicky but in Anderson’s hands, the recurrence feels natural and necessary. It elevates the grubby struggle of his early life to something worthy of art. The whole book feels self-consciously shaped but necessarily so as Anderson is trying not only through his stories, but also through the writing itself to evoke a mood or tone that enraptures the reader. He wants you to feel this story, not to merely read it.

The book is quite short at only 209 pages but the length felt right. A sort of short, sharp shock to the system before Anderson recedes into the shadows again.

Dancing With Myself

Dancing With Myself (2014)
Billy Idol

The Bromley Contingent continued to make the scene with a series of wild parties, including one memorable bash at Bertie Berlin’s house, with Siouxsie, Steve Severin, Simon Barker, a bunch of workers from Malcom’s Sex shop, and Johnny Rotten. Those were the fun times. We were fine young cannibals, ready to conquer the universe, poised to become stars in our own right. (54)

I read this book primarily  because of Idol’s involvement in the “Bromley Contingent” which was a group of punks who were basically Sex Pistols fans. Aside from Idol, the Bromley Contingent included punk luminaries like Siouxsie Sioux and Jordan (more on Jordan when I get to Adam Ant’s autobiography)  and they were known for their risky fashion choices – enabled by their relationship to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – as much as they were for their disruptive behavior at Pistol shows and TV appearances. Idol was also famous in the burgeoning New Romantic clubs in 1979/1980 for being a great beauty who drew admirers like Boy George to him, even if the New Romantics had declared those still wearing punk clothes to be dirty and unfashionable. Sometimes a great face can conquer one’s aversion to torn t-shirts and tattered jeans! Idol had, in fact, lived in a squat with Steve Strange (singer of Visage and owner of The Blitz club, among many other important New Romantic clubs of the time) when both were in the early days of the punk scene. The punk section of this book is rich with information and filled with Idol’s encounters with heavy hitters like The Clash.

The book loses some of its punch once he becomes famous, though there is a great story about him appearing on the TV show Solid Gold to perform “Mony Mony” in 1981. I’ll let Billy tell it:

I was asked to do some promotion, and I agreed to go to L.A. to perform on Solid Gold, the U.S. chart TV show hosted by Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb […] We flew out for the show, on which I was to lip-synch the words to the recorded track. After doing so much TV in the UK, I was up for it.

When we arrived for the rehearsal, a choreographer had worked out all of these ‘60s steps for me to perform with the Solid Gold Dancers, but I told him, ‘I sing, they dance,’ so he got them to perform their routine around me. My long, hard stare into the future at the end of my performance let everyone know, ‘I’m a punk rock ‘n’ roller’” (147).

There truly is nothing more punk than acting tough on Solid Gold. Good for you, Billy! I  believe the camera didn’t actually capture that long, hard stare but you can look for it here:

There are the usual stories of excess here and one explicit encounter with a fan that is the first thing I think of when I tell people I’ve read Billy Idol’s autobiography. If you’re interested, pick up the book and leaf through it. I guarantee you’ll know which fan encounter I’m talking about when you find it.

In terms of postpunk research, this book provides a glimpse into how punk became 80s and then finally became New Pop.  Good stuff about the early punk scene. Idol is a real name-dropper and I mean that as a compliment!