The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

We know now – or perhaps some of you don’t – that “Britpop” in the ‘90s could have come to mean a different thing entirely. Ending up not in collective tugging of forelocks to One Concept of History but rather in a knowing riot of colour and genuine mischief. The real spirit of ’82, were that not in itself revivalism, were it not that most of the people involved in this “alternative” were active in ’82 anyway. Still, it was better than what actually turned out to happen. World of Twist, Saint Etienne, Pulp (who were briefly granted an access-all-areas pass to Britpop but who both superseded it and were rejected by it) and Denim. A shadowy world with scant documentary evidence of the impact it could have made, had you been different.

Denim was essentially Lawrence Hayward, formerly of the rather loved but underselling ’80s operatives Felt, which wound up in 1989. Frustrated, Lawrence opted to change tack completely and provide a radically different pop for the ‘90s. With this in mind he travelled to New York and spent two rather tortuous years assembling Back In Denim, the 1992 debut album by, as it were, Denim. Opting to leave both the 1980s and indie behind, he assembled a backing group of experts, including at least two of the Glitter Band (on “chants” and “heys”), to resuscitate the then never less hip musical movement of 1970s glam.

Younger readers accustomed to Saturday nights of Stuart Maconie may balk at the idea of glam being unhip, but in 1992, pre-Britpop “proper,” right in the middle of Cobainia, some kind of “truth” was fruitlessly sought in pop. Lawrence’s was a different kind of truth – one which he felt had been suppressed and illegalised, yet one which, as a teenager growing up in Birmingham in the ‘70s, formed him as surely as Cyril Connolly did Larkin.

Musically, the aim was to recapture the cliches which glam originally sought to neutralise – rock and roll itself, Hendrix guitars – to signify something which was the lyrical or visual opposite of what the music was saying, or better still to signify nothing. Sound in itself; sex in itself; for the taking. And thus does Back In Denim begin with the stomp of the title track – noticeably borrowed from “I Love Rock And Roll” (the American Graffiti concepts of RAK timelocked in a space capsule – indeed, some of this album was recorded at the original RAK studios) and with a deliberate chorus of “Denim put the soul in your rock and roll.” This song seems to suggest a return to purism – away from “the Mayfair chic/Get a penthouse ready” and berating “my generation” who are “slow” and “throw away cash on new 45s/They’re trash/Who’s selling pure gold?” DENIM? If you want to think of it as a faux-sophisticate/aphrodisiac Faberge after shave, or just an ironic tilt at his own comeback, the targets in this song are slowly subverted throughout the rest of the album.

The musical template for most of what we hear on this album come, not directly from Slade or Bolan, but more from the ground-level operatives – the chug of things like Chris Spedding’s “Motor Bikin’,” the barely updated Dave Clark Five-isms which are echoed on the next track “Fish and Chips” (which is about wanting to go to a club, to observe unnaturalness if not be part of it; just to be the antithesis of the song’s title) where we hear the “hey, hey, hey” chant which drives Geordie’s bizarre 1973 (really 1964 meets 1994) top tenner “All Because Of You” (rasped by future AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, then still wearing his cap). “Bubblehead” is a fairly vicious putdown in the “Positively 4th Street”/”Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow” mode, but catchy enough that you don’t casually detect it (“you’re just another girl/You’re nothing without me/HEY! HEY!”).

Then comes “Middle Of The Road” wherein Lawrence outlines his manifesto a la “Let’s Make This Precious” (another Brummie contrarian) over a “Roadrunner” backing track with ITV sitcom Moog squelches. He then lists his hates, which pretty much cover the Accepted Rock Canon (he says that he hates soul and rock and roll, despite having applauded them three songs earlier) – Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Spector, Gaye, Aretha; not so much them, but the IDEA of them, the MISREPRESENTATION of them, their hagiographic OSSIFICATION which now stands in the way. It is of note (apart from the fact that at least three Chuck Berry riffs are referred to during the course of the song) that he only hates “early” Dylan; the middle period’s influence being audibly unshakeable. Still, his manifesto itself is unambiguous – “I’m forcefed your so-called heroes/Don’t be told who to like/It’s your choice, it’s your RIGHT/to choose who you listen to.” The immensely danceable song (check out those 100 mph Swingle Singers on acid backing vocals) ends with a quote from, appropriately, Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” Make your own history. Make your own sense. Readjust your perspectives. Find out for yourself.

And then, the centre of the whole album, the slow and delicate eight-minute “homage” to the ‘70s, “The Osmonds.” During this impossibly sad lament, Lawrence cites a string of signifiers from (significantly) the early ‘70s; starting with rock cliches (prayer mats, crushed velvet flares), moving on to the still hip (Natty Dread, Kung Fu, Lee Perry), all the time punctuated by the chorus of “there were lots of little Osmonds everywhere,” sung wistfully instead of sardonically. Still looking at what was “good” about that time.

And then the song abruptly darkens with the entry of sometime AMM member John Barker’s low-scored strings, as Lawrence sings about the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings with a barely suppressed anger that has nothing to do with irony and which the Maconies of this world could never hope to understand. “They blew my hometown up/And lots of people were killed on the news/The relatives cried/Everyone knew someone who’d died/…We asked for justice/But it never came in the ‘70s.” And then, with almost equal brutality, he goes on to namedrop intentionally naff references (Hughie Green, Lieutenant Pigeon, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero”), attacking us for thinking that the trivia can overcome the horror and grief. It wasn’t all a laugh, he reminds us as he intersperses the murder of Lesley Whittle and the jailing of the Black Panther with the Rollers and Cassidy. Finally, he confesses to his own inadequacies: “I soaked it in/Now it’s all dripping out,” like a replicant programmed with selected memories of the ‘70s – except he was actually there. There is of course no mention of the second half of the ‘70s. He’s nailing our collective amnesia right on the head.

Following that, as if to underline the emphasis on “early” Dylan being dissed on “Middle Of The Road,” the song “I Saw The Glitter On Your Face,” is a wistful but stinging ballad sung in a determinedly Dylanesque tone, and could well have come off Blood On The Tracks (something else apart from, but still part of, what he mentions in “The Osmonds”). “American Rock” starts off as a benign-sounding, straightforward “who’s that girl on our block” Springsteen-style pop ode, but soon darkens as he sets about knifing to death his rival for her love on the other side of town. The tarnished reality behind the superficial feel-alright bonhomie of the music; straight out of S E Hinton, of course.

“Livin’ On The Streets” is an attack on an unnamed operative (Thatcher? Heseltine?) who drives around luxuriating in the misery of others. “I’ll watch your cities burn down!” Taxi Driver reimagined by the Adam Smith Foundation. “Here Is My Song For Europe” seems to be a broadside against a manager/a pop star/former colleague at whom the singer cannot bear to look any longer. “While you’re riding in your chauffeured limo/Spare a thought for me” – the previous song staged from the opposite angle.

The record finishes with a final attack on “standards,” “I’m Against The Eighties” which seems to be a highly entertaining moan about how no one bought Felt’s records (“I made a new sound and they put it underground”). There is also a jibe at unnamed personas out of Duran Duran (Le Bon? Duffy?) – “I knew you when you were at school/You were nothing then/And when you left the band you were nothing again” – before we get to the closing Rowlandesque rant: against “bands that couldn’t play” and “singers with nothing to say.” However, this concludes optimistically as he declares his love for the ‘90s (“We’re into Ravesignal III ‘cos ‘we’re in love with the modern world’ – another reference to “Roadrunner” of course) as well as the ‘70s. A song, then, which could easily have been sung, albeit from different perspectives, by Roy Wood or by Jarvis Cocker.

How do we assess Lawrence’s final assertion that “I’ve made a new sound/This ain’t going underground” a decade later? Only to say of course that, in that aspect, Denim failed; perhaps something to do with the almost anti-pop vocal style of Lawrence (nearer to Devoto but at the same time not sufficiently far away from Devoto to become pop), perhaps (as Jeff Lynne’s dad commented about early ELO) “the trouble is your tunes have no tunes.” It wasn’t “true” enough to be Britpop, and probably still wouldn’t have been, even three years later. Indeed this latter was proved by the equal commercial failure of his follow-up, Denim On Ice (could he ever have recovered from Francis Rossi giving the thumbs up to “Novelty Rock” as “a great little pop tune” on GLR at the time?), which foresaw Britpop’s abject failure in songs like “The Great British Pub Rock Revival.” Ironically, when he moved on to form Go-Kart Mozart, he came very near to a hit with “Selfish and Greedy and Lazy” without even trying, just as “Primitive Painters” had so nearly done a decade and a half previously. It’s enough to make you wonder whether he didn’t really disappear into the whirlpool of echoes on Felt’s “Trails of Colour Dissolve.”

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