Cor Baby, That’s Really Croydon: Captain Sensible, Bowie & The Sex Pistols

Downtown Croydon, yesterday

I don’t know if it was sparked by reading MOJO’s recent article about the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, but everything’s going punk round my way at the moment.

I’ve been enjoying Steve Jones’s hilarious autobiography, revisiting Jon Savage’s essential ‘England’s Dreaming’ and the superb BBC doc ‘Punk And The Pistols’. Then I was pleased to find myself near the site of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop during a King’s Road sojourn last week.

There’s a unifying factor joining all these aspects that I’d never noticed before: Croydon. Yes, Croydon. For those readers outside the London area, it’s a large town just to the south-east of the capital (and these days officially a London borough) with a pretty bad rep as far as popular culture is concerned.

David Bowie possibly spoke for many in 1999 when he told Q magazine: ‘I’ve got this thing about Croydon. It was my nemesis. It represented everything I didn’t want in life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: “God, it’s so f***ing Croydon!” I haven’t been back in a few years but I guess things take on a certain beauty if there’s distance…’

But maybe Bowie got it totally wrong. Maybe Croydon has various claims to hipness. After all, the opening chapters of ‘England’s Dreaming’ outline what an influential place the Croydon School Of Art was in the late ’60s: key Sex Pistols agitators Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid studied there, as did future ‘Pop Muzik’ star Robin Scott who described it as ‘like nowhere else’, adding that ‘the Saturday morning market in Surrey Street was full of intrigue and corruption, very lurid.’ All three were involved in various anarchist/Situationist hijinks during their time there, laying the foundations for the Pistols.

But it’s ex-Damned bassist Captain Sensible who perhaps best evokes l’essence de Croydon. This song, performed hilariously in the aformentioned ‘Punk And The Pistols’, kickstarted his ’80s solo career. I have nothing but good memories of his music around this period and I’ll be revisiting it. It’ll be hard to top this affecting little number though – about all our hometowns.

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Why I Won’t Be Throwing My Cassettes Away

compact-cassette-157537_960_720‘We’re not in the music space – we’re in the moment space.’

Daniel Ek, CEO/Founder of Spotify, quoted in ‘The Song Factory‘ by John Seabrook

Spotify undoubtedly has many things going for it, but its boss’s comment might make many a true music fan take pause. It definitely goes some way to explaining why I’ll be hanging on to my cassettes.

Cassettes are anti-moment. They demand patience and care, both in their listening and making. The famous soliloquy in Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ explains the gentle art of compilation construction. Who didn’t try to woo someone with a well-crafted comp? (Maybe people are still trying.) It was also usually a good feeling to be on the receiving end of one, even when it mainly included dodgy ’80s Euro pop.

I’ve still got mutant compilation tapes made 20 years ago which mix up tracks from all kinds of sources: albums hired from the library, albums borrowed from friends, tracks taped from the radio and maybe even a bit of homemade Zappa-style spoken-word weirdness by myself or a few friends.

Then there are the teenage bedroom band rehearsals recorded on a brilliant Philips boombox. Wish I still had that. I swear it made better recordings than a lot of digital four-tracks I’ve heard since. And then there’s the cache of gig tapes recorded directly from the sound desk of various London venues. I barely listen to them but there’s no way I’m gonna chuck ’em.

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Then there are the official album releases. I like the way they sound slightly different on every player. My favourites are probably the grey and black Warner Bros ones of the late-’70s/early-’80s: to this day, Little Feat’s Time Loves A Hero, The Doobie Brothers’ Livin’ On The Fault Line and John Martyn’s Glorious Fool sound so much better on cassette than on CD, with improved dynamics and top-end.

Cassettes were always subtly subversive though – Malcolm McLaren masterminded his band Bow Wow Wow’s (cassette-only, of course) release of 1980 mini-album Your Cassette Pet as a reaction to the ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music‘ protest. He also named their debut single ‘C-30 C-60 C-90 Go!‘ in tribute to the humble tape.

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And the ‘punk’ element of cassettes has also definitely been picked on by Zack Taylor, director of a new documentary called – you guessed it – ‘Cassette’, showing later this month at London’s East End Film Festival. It features the likes of Henry Rollins (right), Thurston Moore and Ian McKaye waxing lyrical about the format which seems to be enjoying a resurgence in the US – cassette sales are on the up and there are reportedly more cassette-only labels than ever before.

This is all great news. Long live the cassette. But what no one tells you (at least here in the UK) is where you can buy a decent cassette player. I need a new one…

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

thomas dolbyParlophone Odeon Records, released 18th February 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

9/10

As a burgeoning ten-year-old pop fan, I was a bit young to be aware of Thomas Morgan Robertson’s famous ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ single and video. But when I went back and properly investigated that period of his career, it seemed Dolby’s ‘techno boffin’ image had blinded people (sorry) to his more subtle, slow-burning and – frankly – better songs such as ‘Airwaves’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’ and ‘Weightless’, buried in his fine 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb Wright stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me (yep, we were killing music…) and I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought The Flat Earth several times on various formats.

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Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image on The Flat Earth and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection. He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting. My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album. Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ which features some great (and much imitated) fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ is crying out for a decent cover version (or any cover version…). Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself‘ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording. And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Flat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’). But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a more-than-respectable number 14 in the album chart. But, for some, he will always be too clever for his own good, a gimmick-peddler rather than an artist of substance. I beg to differ. He was all the rage in the States though; The Flat Earth peaked at number 35 and he made a gloriously-naff appearance with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the 1985 Grammy Awards:

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout‘s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell‘s underrated Dog Eat Dog. He relocated to LA, married ex-Dynasty actress Kathleen Beller and moved into the former house of Blade Runner DoP Jordan Cronenweth ‘in the hills above old Hollywood’.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth. Watch this space…