Kept Alive by my Irritability

I recently awoke on a warm summer morning with an idea buzzing in my head. Call it the curse, or gift, of a writer. I reached for my phone and began tapping an email to self on re-connecting with the music of Manchester band, Magazine. I’d recently bought the re-mastered CD of a long-lost album from my youth, The Correct Use of Soap. Once I’d got my initial thoughts down, I performed my morning ablutions and a bit later roughed it up into this expanded article on early musical memories. We were once the young men Ian Curtis’s sang about, and I was a youth in Liverpool in the late 70s and early 80s.


How did the Greater Manchester area (yes, I know Salford is a city, Macclesfield and Stockport towns, each with their own identities) spawn so many soulful lyricists, backed up by searing post-industrial-wasteland self-taught rock musicians? We’d all grown up with 60s and 70s rock, pop and soul music ringing in our ears, but somehow the raw energy of Rock, the ragged anarchy of Punk Rock, seemed more appropriate to the task of observing, describing and reflecting life in a grim urban landscape. I’m talking about the front men of Magazine, Joy Division and the Smiths – Devoto, Curtis and Morrissey. I saw them all in concerts where I connected with their music, reflected on the power of youth to challenge, the sour lot of the working class, how to build hope out of urban decay, and how to be alone in a crowd. Add to this the notion that emerging young adults see the world around them with a clarity and purity of thought as yet unpolluted by the capitalist dogma that has created the consumer bubble in which we are trapped. I think my nostalgia for the punk and new wave bands of my youth is a recognition that the ideas conveyed through music helped with my orientation and gave me a sense of identity and location. I’m talking about roots. We all come from somewhere and home for me was Liverpool, where I had the freedom to meet up with my mates, jump on a bus and go into town to see bands at Erics Club, and others that followed, like the State, where I saw Howard Devoto and his band just after he left Magazine. He still performed some of the old classics – Shot by both sides, Philadelphia and Song from under the floorboards. A man made old and wise before his time by his sharp wit and trademark receding hairline. It’s his introspective, almost paranoid lyrics that I’ve recently rediscovered:
I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin, my irritability keeps me alive and kicking. The opening lines to A Song from Under the Floorboards – a track on Magazine’s third album, The Correct Use of Soap. I’m putting it on my funeral playlist, along with Decades by Joy Division (see below). Don’t be alarmed – I’m not ready to check out just yet.


This was in the early 80s and I was already a veteran of over 50 gigs. In my early 20s, perhaps a year or two younger than my onstage heroes, I also had a swagger and surety that I knew something, that the World and all its riches were waiting to be discovered. Armed with notebook and biro, I scribbled impressions to later be forged into pithy gig reviews for my music column in a local community news magazine. I interviewed the Stranglers at Brady’s in 1980 and chatted with Andy McClusky at a Psychedelic Furs gig.
By pure chance (or fate?) I had been the wide-eyed junior reporter in BBC Radio Merseyside’s studio on the morning of Tuesday 9th December 1980 when the breaking story that cleared the decks was the news that John Lennon had been shot in New York. I heard the news that day, oh boy. Janice Long, later Radio 1 and TOTP presenter, then Studio Assistant, was detailed to look after me. Yeah, I’ve had a mug of tea made for me by Cheggers’ sister. A truly surreal morning. Alan Jackson and Roger Phillips were true pros, conductors at the heart of a city waking up to shocking news, pulling together a reverential and sentimental wave of music and sound bites, a collage that portrayed an outpouring of grief over the fate of Liverpool’s best loved son (sorry Paul). I wince every time I hear Imagine – it was played to death that week. I’ve got a good face for memories.
The Beatles’ rock n roll legacy were the northern new wave bands I now spent my meagre wages going to see and buying their records. Echo and the Bunnymen were new on the block, my new favourite band in the fickle world of pop music, and I adopted their look with dark crombie overcoat, drainpipe black jeans and baseball boots. In those days my wild frizzy red mop of hair grew out in an unkempt afro. No gel required.


But back to my gig memories. In 1978 I made a good choice to go and see the north’s answer to the Pistols – the Buzzcocks. I’d bought their Spiral Scratch EP (with ‘Boredom’ on it – scan pictured) co-written by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, in his pre-Magazine days. Devoto had left the band by the time of the Buzzcock’s ’78 UK tour. The speed of delivery and energy were there, but the Buzzcocks had better-formed songs than the Pistols. I’d heard their support band, Joy Division, on the late night John Peel radio show, and was intrigued. But I was simply blown away. Joy Division’s set was mesmerising, and once I’d seen Ian Curtis’s manic butterfly dance to She’s lost Control, I was hooked. It was a performance that can only be compared to footage of Jim Morrison fronting the Doors, although this was no imitation. Like Morrison, he was a driven poet with a vision to share. Curtis was locked in his own world of pain, but his thoughtful, introspective lyrics painted graphic visual images of suffering, set against a bleak landscape, but tinted with hope, defiance and resilience. In reality, he was suffering with a debilitating condition – epilepsy, treated with mood-altering medication. Add to this a self-destructive ménage à trois that he couldn’t resolve, he reached overload and took his own life on the eve of what was to be the band’s first US tour in 1980. A poet and philosopher, his legacy survives in a huge global following for Joy Division’s slim body of work forty years on. I saw them three times, the third one of their last gigs in April 1980 at the Russell Club/Factory in Manchester. Dead souls, Atrocity Exhibition, Decades and LWTUA stood out. I don’t mind admitting my eyes welled up with tears when I read Paul Morley’s obituary of Ian Curtis in the NME.
But let’s get back to the lyrics of these three great Northern poets/lyricists that are still inspiring new generations of young people. To hear today’s students singing along to Morrisey’s lyrics at a Smiths tribute band gig in 2020 was a pleasant surprise. So, now to some favourite lyrics and links to YouTube:

Philadelphia by Magazine (extract):
Buddha’s in the fireplace
The truth’s in drugs from outer space
Maybe it’s right to be nervous now
Everything’d be just fine
If I had the right pastime
I’d’ve been Raskolnikov
But Mother Nature ripped me off
In Philadelphia
I’m sure that I felt healthier
Maybe it’s right to be nervous now…

Where have I seen you before?
‘Same place you saw me, I expect
I’ve got a good face for memories’
In Philadelphia
I’m sure that I felt healthier
Maybe it’s right to be nervous now…
Lyrics: Howard Devoto – great guitar riffs from John McGeogh
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dBLEA2o3Gc

Decades by Joy Division (extract)
Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying
We saw ourselves now as we never had seen
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration
The sorrows we suffered and never were free
Where have they been?

Weary inside, now our heart’s lost forever
Can’t replace the fear, or the thrill of the chase
Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings
Open then shut, then slammed in our face
Where have they been?
Lyrics by Ian Curtis – an eerie foretelling of his fate? The track has a funereal feel and a timeless, compelling beauty…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n272UVfsciM

What difference does it make? By The Smiths.
All men have secrets and here is mine
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I can surely rely on you
And yet you start to recoil
Heavy words are so lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you

So, what difference does it make?
So, what difference does it make?
It makes none
But now you have gone
And you must be looking very old tonight

The devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole and I lied, and why?
Because you asked me to!
But now you make me feel so ashamed
Because I’ve only got two hands
But I’m still fond of you, oh-ho-oh

But no more apologies
No more, no more apologies
Oh, I’m too tired
I’m so sick and tired
And I’m feeling very sick and ill today
But I’m still fond of you,
Oh, my sacred one…
Lyrics by Morrissey
Impossible to pick a definitive example of Morrissey’s lyrics, given his wide body of work, but I’ve gone for an early hit and personal favourite, What difference does it make? I stood three feet from Johnny Marr as he played the jingly-jangly riff to this immortal classic when they supported the Sisters of Mercy at an impromptu University of London SU gig in 1983. My mate was from Manchester and had already ‘discovered’ the Smiths in early ’83, and we were familiar with their early singles Hand in Glove, its brilliant b-side Still Ill, and This Charming Man. I remember them slowing the tempo with Reel Around the Fountain – still a favourite from the first album. It’s time that the tale was told.

One of many great nights seeing raw emerging talent on tiny stages, belting out future hits. Snapshots in time, but music destined to be not only for their contemporary generation but future ones as well. Thank you Devoto, Curtis and Morrissey for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us through such inspiring and memorable songs.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbOx8TyvUmI

These songs, these lyrics, these memories have formed the soundtrack to my life. I followed my own muse and became the editor of the student magazine at the Polytechnic of Wales (now University of Glamorgan) in South Wales in the early 80s, reporting on such gigs as New Order, the band re-born from the ashes of Joy Division, in January 1983, when they first played Blue Monday to an audience at Cardiff Uni JSU. Musical taste evolves and I carried my love of now, happening live music forward with me on my journey through life, but occasionally pausing to listen to early loves and influences from the great days of my youth.
Viva music, viva la vida.

Checkout my books here: https://timwalkerwrites.co.uk

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