Sunday, May 05, 2013

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn (Virago Press 2013)

I had never met anyone quite like Ben before. He was on the one hand simply posher than anyone I was used to, while at the same time less conventional and suburban through having grown up in a bohemian household. His dad had been a jazz musician and big-band leader, his mother an actress-turned-journalist and he was the fifth child in the house, the other four being half-brothers and a half-sister from his mother’s first marriage. Though three months younger than me, he had somehow managed to cram in a year off between school and university, during which time he had worked as a groundsman at a sports club, mowing lawns and marking out pitches. He seemed older than me, infinitely more self-confident and assured (which he wasn’t), and at first, after he interrupted a lecturer to correct a mistake the poor man had just made in his introduction to Beckett, I mistook him for an intellectual (which he certainly wasn’t). The displacement of the desk by the record player in his room should have alerted me to that fact, but it took me a while to realise that all he cared about was music, and it wasn’t until I noticed he was choosing his courses purely on the basis of which ones required the least reading that I finally let go of my initial misapprehension that he was cleverer than me.

So we would never share a passion for reading long Victorian novels, but at least he liked Vic Godard. As for the rest of his record collection, well, it reflected the fact that punk itself had largely passed him by. There were no Sex Pistols or Clash records. The band who really first inspired him was Joy Division, followed by other archetypal post-punks like Magazine, Wire, This Heat. Along with these bands Ben had records by people I had barely even heard of: Eno, Kevin Coyne, Robert Wyatt and Captain Beefheart. In 1977 Johnny Rotten had famously broadcast a show on Capital Radio where he played his eclectic record collection. Many of the records he had played were also in Ben’s collection, alongside Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box. Then there were things like Neil Young’s Decade, and John Martyn’s Island albums, Solid Air and One World, all records Ben loved for their emptiness and sonic open spaces. A sprinkling of soul – Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Chic, Earth Wind and Fire. And jazz, of course, via his dad – Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Clifford Brown. Not much pop, though. No Undertones, Buzzcocks or Orange Juice. Ben had more albums than me, but fewer singles. I thought that might need addressing.

He had played guitar in a couple of bands during 1979 and 1980. First, the startlingly named Fléau Moderne (French, apparently, for ‘modern scourge’), who dressed in grey sweatshirts and digital watches to look like David Byrne, except for the lead singer who was allowed to get away with wearing make-up and red trousers. They played one triumphant gig in front of an audience of two hundred and fifty at a church hall in Twickenham, at the end of which the drummer performed the customary salute of throwing his drumsticks into the crowd, only to have one thrown back and catch him in the eye as he left the stage. The local rivalry inspired by this gig was such that another nearby school formed a band called Macabre.

In 1980 Ben met Mike Alway at Snoopy’s, the club in Richmond where Mike promoted gigs, and asked if he could do a solo slot there one night.

‘Sure,’ said Mike, ‘what do you sound like?’

‘I sound like The Durutti Column with songs,’ said Ben, and on the strength of this Mike offered him a slot supporting the then unknown Thompson Twins, in ten days’ time. At this point Ben had never played a solo live set, or recorded anything, or in fact even written any songs. Surely this was audacity gone mad? But remember, the DIY ethos, still firmly entrenched, suggested that you could and should do anything you wanted, so he simply went home, wrote ten songs in ten days and did the gig. Performing under the name of The Low Countries (possibly to avoid identification, should it all go horribly wrong) he stood up with an electric guitar, a cassette player playing pre-recorded drum-machine patterns and sang desolate, atmospheric songs with titles like ‘Communion’, ‘A Darkness So Deep’, and ‘Ice’. It wasn’t hard to spot the Joy Division influence, and it all sounds about as far removed from the Marine Girls as you could possibly imagine. But the common strand came from the philosophy of the moment, which embraced more or less anything as long as it wasn’t hoary old rock music. Both of us were making quiet, minimalist music but within the context of rock-gig venues, where playing at low volume was in itself a confrontational thing to do. Music journalist Simon Reynolds quotes Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants replying to a heckler, who demanded some rock ’n’ roll, with the words: ‘Anyone can do that. They’re doing it all over town. But we want to do this.’

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