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

The Smiths Revisited

On Friday 6th May, 1983, my Goth-mate Jimmy dragged me along to see the Sisters of Mercy at the University of London Student’s Union.  We were students at the time, so only needed to show our SU cards to get in.  I know the date because I have the ticket glued in my scrap book.  What we didn’t know, as we huddled in the small studio-sized room, was that a relatively new band from Manchester was being showcased – The Smiths.  They had replaced Babaluna on the bill – why and how, I don’t know (Rough Trade getting them some capital exposure, perhaps?).

thesmithscoasters1984Most of the leather-wearing Goths sloped off to the bar as the weedy Mancunians set up their gear and were given a lukewarm, almost apologetic, introduction to the indifferent crowd.  Jim and I were pleasantly surprised, as we both had copies of their early singles – Hand in Glove and its brilliant B-side, Still Ill, This Charming Man, What Difference does it Make?  We stood at the front of the low stage, knee high, right in front of Morrissey’s swivelling hips and the jingly-jangly Johnny Marr.  Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce looked fresh-faced and keen, in a time before stardom and their descent into drugs hell.

1983_05_06_london_ulu_poster_the-smithsThe Smiths ripped out their early set with joyful verve, delivered in a loose and slightly un-together cacophony of the first album material to barely fifty people.  Reel Around the Fountain lingered, hauntingly in my young mind, Mozza’s compelling imagery striking home.  We loved it, and it cemented our status as Smiths fans.  The meat was not yet murdered and Strangeways had not been visited, but we had seen enough emerging talent by then that we knew.  These boys were special.

Oh, and the pre-Mission Sisters were rocking and sleek, with Eldridge gripping the mic with hand in leather glove. The room filled and we grooved and gyrated to their compulsive rock set, including early hits, Alice, the Body Electric and covers of Gimme Shelter, and yes, the Dolly classic, Jolene.  Great gig, all things considered, and not bad for two quid.

 

the-smythsFast-forward 33 years, to Thursday 8th December 2016, and I found myself at the Half Moon pub in Putney, South London, where tribute band The Smyths performed to an enthusiastic room full of Smiths fans, ranging in age from teenagers to us fifty-somethings who were around when Morissey was first warbling.

As I sipped my pint of flat lager I reflected that it was a happy meeting of creative talent when gawky teenage poet Stephen Morrisey met shy tunesmith Johnny Marr at Salford’s Boy’s Club in the early 80s.  The unremitting bleakness of Manchester’s gray post-industrial decay, high youth unemployment and the pressure to find a job, the heart-rending crimes of the Moors Murderers, all formed a backdrop against which Morrissey’s urban poetry found a new outlet as song lyrics.  Some themes keep recurring to give an oddly current feel to some of the songs.

That night I finally understood the difference between imitation and veneration.  That ‘tribute’ is indeed a sign of respect for something that deserves to live on. Here was a band performing the works of the Smiths in a reverential manner, technically accurate right down to mannerisms and nuances, fronted by a singer so alarmingly similar in both voice and looks to a young Morrissey that you had to blink and rub your eyes.

But he isn’t Morrissey, he’s Graham Sampson, a talented singer in his own right, sporting quiff, flowery shirt and charity shop necklace, giving the fans his interpretation and paying homage in this brilliant set of songs.  I reeled around the fountain once more and sang along with the other 300 revellers at this pulsating sell-out gig, re-living and celebrating the eternal charm of these songs, now passing to a new generation of fans.

We sang along to lyrics that refuse to be forgotten:

It’s time the tale was told, of how you took a man and you made him old…

Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, will nature make a man of me yet?

Park the car by the side of the road; don’t you know, time’s tide will smother you.

I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine, and it owes me a living.

Shoplifters of the World unite and take over!  Panic on the streets of London!

Because the music that they constantly play means nothing to me about my life – hang the DJ!

So what difference does it make? I’m so sick and tired and I’m feeling very sick and ill today.

…and don’t go home tonight, go out and find the one that you love and who loves you…

 The Smyth’s take a bow.

 

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JOY DIVISION: A ROCK DOCUMENTARY (BBC iplayer)

Joy Division

In the late 1970s the two big post-industrial cities in England’s North West corner – Liverpool and Manchester, were manfully struggling to stay alive.  Ignored and despised by central Government, a population proud and defiant dared to shout, “We are still here!”  It was impossible to live there at that time, as I did, and not be affected by the economic collapse that opened the door for the divisive politics of Thatcherism.  A cynical new era characterised by greed and selfishness was being ushered in, and many artists were making their feelings felt through art and music.

I have often asked myself why I was drawn so strongly to the music and imagery of Manchester rock band Joy Division.  On the surface, their music is gloomy and petulant, riding off the back of the punk rock anti-establishment, anti-everything that has made life a struggle in the grim North.  But for me, their music was strangely uplifting – defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, and a determination to have the best life possible in difficult circumstances.  The positive energy that comes through their music inspired a generation of young post-punk rock fans, and still resonates today.

From the lilting love-gone-wrong lyrics of the beautiful ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to the rolling drums and pulsing beat of ‘Twenty Four Hours’.  Yes, lyrics tinged with regret and hurt, but ultimately smashing through the gloom to a brighter day.  There was hope, and through it all we must keep going.  Sadly, for singer Ian Curtis, the heavy weight of life’s problems proved to be overwhelming.  He couldn’t square the circle; he couldn’t go on any more.  He committed suicide on the eve of their first US Tour, just when they were on the verge of making the Big Time.

OK, the TV documentary points out that he was in the middle of a love triangle, and his suicide by drug overdose followed a showdown with his estranged wife.  He had a complicated love life and was battling medical problems – crushing depression and worsening epilepsy.  The impending tour was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the thing that finally pushed him over the edge.  With hindsight we can say that we should have seen it coming – the lyrics of their final album – Closer – can be interpreted as one long suicide note from Curtis – asking over and over again for help.

We heard him, through his music, and were drawn to his battle – a battle against environment, health and emotions.  Wasn’t it like that for all of us?  Trying to come to terms with an angry and increasingly divided society.  Ian Curtis spoke to me.  That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw Joy Division on stage, supporting the Buzzcocks, at the Mountford Hall in Liverpool in 1979.  He was so absorbed in his own performance, it was mesmeric.  He commanded you to watch him, and everyone in the room did.  Punks stood and watched, not sure how to dance to their distinctive music.  ‘She’s Lost Control’ a powerful memory, with Curtis’s strange, twisting butterfly dance, like a man trying to escape from a straight-jacket.

I bought their records and got into their music, fascinated by Ian Curtis’s lyrics – a man of his time, shouting to be heard.  The band had developed what many others had failed to do – their own distinctive rock music style – brooding, northern and compulsive.  I was a member of Eric’s Club where most of the up and coming punk and post-punk bands played.  I went to see Joy Division there and a repeat of their first album set – Unknown Pleasures.  Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.

In early 1980 the younger brother of one my friends called on me with a strange request – would I accompany him on a coach trip to Manchester to see Joy Division at the Factory?  No one would go with him, and he really wanted to see the band.  He was sixteen or seventeen at the time and I was nineteen.  I agreed, and we bought out coach and gig tickets from Probe Records in town.  Boy, was I glad I went on that trip.  April 1980 at the Russel Club (The Factory) in Manchester.  What an amazing set – all their second album stuff, including brilliant versions of Twenty Four Hours and Atrocity Exhibition.  Add to this, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Transmission, Dead Souls and Shadowplay, and you have the set of a maturing rock band, ready to take on the World.  I bought a cassette of the gig on the way out.  This was real.  This was special.

Barely one month later, Curtis was dead, and the band and fans were left devastated, picking through the ruins of what might have been.  I read Paul Morley’s obituary in the NME with a tear in my eye.  It was a personal loss, a bereavement in my wider cultural family.  The band decided to continue, releasing their next scheduled single, ‘Ceremony’ under a new name: New Order.  The ‘b’ side – ‘In a Lonely Place’ is a wonderfully melancholic farewell to their tragic friend.  With this single there was a belligerent sense that life goes on, and the band must play on.  Ian would have wanted it, and they still had plenty to say.

‘Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders’, sang Curtis.  Young people making their way through life…the challenge is to keep going – don’t give up.  Continue to develop yourself and look for opportunities.  Work is a means to a better life, but stay true to yourself, your beliefs, ethics and cultural identity.  I wish Ian had found the help he needed to continue the fight.  A casualty in the ongoing battle to survive and make sense of it all.  Thanks, Joy Division.  You helped show me the way through the urban jungle to a brighter day.