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

Friday, November 15, 2002
HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED
or: Nick Heyward, the Unknowing Alchemist

March 1982 was a particularly sunny month, not long succeeding the arcticity of February. I don't remember much about the latter apart from the pavement at St Clements being a skating rink and the train drivers being out on strike. We needed light. It was still less than two years after Ian Curtis' death. In my college, the big albums of the time were Westworld by Theatre of Hate and La Folie by the Stranglers. It wasn't the greyness which annoyed me as regards these two; but the transparent fakeness of the grey. The unentertaining fakeness of the grey, I should perhaps say. For New Pop's shiny yellowicity was scarcely less transparent or fake, but infinitely more entertaining and welcoming. And no record announced "Spring Is Here" in a less ironic way than Pelican West, the debut album from Haircut One Hundred, complete with its free stickers (collect the set!) and pastel-coloured sticker album/lyric booklet. It was a deliberate return to the idea of childhood, a return to the child's obliviousness to things like responsibility or reason. Unimaginable perhaps without the precedent of Orange Juice - and Edwyn Collins was certainly pretty bitter at the time about what he viewed as soft Southerners tidying up his carefully chaotic act. Was it worth taking sides? Only on two sides of a C90 as far as most of us were concerned - You Can't Hide Your Love Forever on one side, Pelican West on the other. Both valid. Dolphins or triangles. One could live with both.

Nick Heyward was artful about his lyrics not "meaning" anything. Of course they did. They existed to justify his life and to add punctum to the music (hear what Haircut One Hundred minus Heyward ended up sounding like a year or two later; essentially, a low-budget Shakatak). The "surrealism" worked because it was not intended to be surreal; like Billy MacKenzie, it just seemed to come out of him. It felt necessary at the time.

Listening to it 20 years later, what strikes me most about Pelican West is the almost perfect fusion which Haircut One Hundred achieved between three very separate strands of then-contemporary pop developments; firstly, the franticity inherited from the No Wave/James Chance/Ze Records mob - hear the near epilepsy of the rapid funk guitar strokes in "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" complete with horn section deliberately laying back half a beat, knowing when to come in or to stay out. Secondly, the apparent effortless proficiency and attention to middle-range sonic detail which came from the still unheralded Brit-funkers of the time - Beggar and Co, Light of the World, Central Line, Freeez - and in particular the way in which ambiences from American funk/rock were appropriated and adapted easily into a British environment. Thirdly - and this is the most obvious legacy from the Orange Juice/Postcard side of things - an alert awareness of "pure pop" elements (Beatles harmonies, McGuinn guitars, even a foreshadowing of the lo-fi of Beat Happening/K) without being trapped within the Camden Town Good Music Society cul-de-sac.

Even the two elements of the title "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" attend to this duality, as did the visuals - Heyward in his daintily knitted Fair Isle cardigans, one shirt collar dutifully poking out from underneath, guitar held high and at right angles to his body. No suits, no "sweat" even. Girls loved it and knew immediately what he was trying to communicate, particularly in front of what would otherwise have come across as a bunch of weekend jazz-funk scratch band. Except of course they were no scratch band - despite the artful naivety of the music, the songs demanded chops. "Love Plus One" is driven by a marimba, which always results in great romantic pop ("Just My Imagination," "And I Love You So"), and its amiable canter is counterpointed by the double-time attack of the drums and guitars. Hear in particular how Heyward's guitar excitedly speeds up into "Favourite Shirts" mode in the final chorus as he exclaims "Ring ANNA ring ANNA!" Sublime pop on at least four different levels, and deservedly their biggest single (# 3, Jan '82).

Chops? "Lemon Fire Brigade" saw to that. And the blissful spring in this track's step is what Danny Baker picked up on in his brilliant review of Pelican West in the NME. Here, at long last in British music, was a group throwing the gauntlet down to the Americans and able to compete. The lovely, largely instrumental, track is, as Baker noted, worthy of Steely Dan, and is made all the better by Heyward's sole, plaintive lyric, "Why, oh why?/Lemon Fire Brigade/WHY?" It was this element on which less astute descendents like Simply Red and Wet Wet Wet subsequently picked up and polished to the point of lifelessness, without any of the mischief or interest, of course. Not to mention, of course, Hue and Cry, who, despite borrowing an album title from Baudrillard, always came across to me as Haircut One Hundred with a Lanarkshire Ben Elton on vocals. The fascination with the showbiz Americana (sorry guys, LL Cool J was doing it much more pointedly than you even then).

The slowly-demisting "Marine Boy" initially reminds me, at least instrumentally, of Joy Division; that vague fog of uncertainty, before the skies clear, as they must. "Milk Film" is exuberant power-pop (there's no other word for it) but with a distinctly English sensibility. There's little more exhilarating in 1982 pop than Heyward singing at this song's climax "Glad that I live am I/Glad that the sky is blue/Glad for the country lanes" - and this is no John Major-misquoting-Orwell utopia either, but a more palpable one. The song tells you, in its own sweet-natured way, not to die (listen out for the brief Elvis Costello pisstake when Heyward sings "mountain").

Thereafter the album switches between pre-post modern jazz-funk and blissful 1968-as-it-never-actually-was pop. Of the former, "Kingsize," "Baked Bean" and "Love's Got Me In Triangles" are essentially a poppier Pigbag, elevated by Heyward's escalatingly bizarre non-sequiturs and untranslatable yelps. If anyone today quoted Toblerone in their lyrics (as Heyward does in "Triangles") it would be beyond the Robbie Williams-imposed pale. Here, it strikes you as entirely logical.

"Fantastic Day" is "Milk Film" as spring liquefies into summer (the "Penny Lane" trumpets). I love how Heyward always gets more excited - and the way in which the band surreptitiously speed up - the nearer he gets to the end of the song. Listen to his "'cause I'm SO in LOVE with YOU!" in the final verse of "Fantastic Day," puncturing the opiate shimmer of the saxophones in the mid-ground (excellent sax playing by Phil Smith throughout, by the way, even indulging in a few harmolodics on "Baked Bean").

"Snow Girl" would be a number one for anyone now; but would they have the arranging genius to include the orgasmic, out-of-tempo blissout which arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the song, Vincent Sullivan's trombone sliding into infinity behind Heyward's craving for the Other's "elbow"? I doubt it. And the Butterflies of Love would have to labour for several further decades of archiving before coming up with such a "perfect pop" song as "Surprise Me Again." The song is constructed as a double-bluff; initially Heyward seems to be breaking up with the Other ("At the start it was great/In the middle I stayed/But at the end I was sick" is a precis as good and acute as Costello at his hungry best), but listen to how the whole band suddenly swings up into the sunlight with him as he sings "then suddenly you smiled." Such an ecstatic chorus. Such hope. Such a future.

Nothing left to do now but to wrap everything up, which they do with "Calling Captain Autumn." Another funkout, but crucially parenthesised by mock cricket commentary, staged as though they were listening to it on the radio. So this stands as a complete redefinition of "Englishness," incorporating black elements, unimaginable without them (the Brixton riots were still fresh in everyone's memory at the time, bear in mind), and a subversion and ultimate rebuttal of what the Mail/Telegraph would want us to accept as England.

The "autumn" in "Calling Captain Autumn" was of course what the band then entered. There was one more single in August 1982, "Nobody's Fool" which already looked distinctly autumnal; and the 12-inch B-side "October Is Orange" made this abundantly clear (although the exuberance of its second half looks forward to Working Week's "Venceremos"). Then, who knows; the band were fed up with Heyward's whimsy, or vice versa; Heyward left to go solo. North Of A Miracle, his first solo album, is full of fine songs like "Club Boy At Sea" and the storming "Atlantic Monday," but the session musician feel is palpable and unavoidable, and there's a feeling that his heart just isn't in it - see for a prime example "Take That Situation," an attempt to BE Haircut One Hundred again (complete with a longer Costello impersonation). The public wasn't fooled, however, and the song as a single peaked at # 11. After that - long silences, a bizarre "rap" record ("Warning Sign", Nov '84), then pastoral (but not pastel-coloured) guitar-pop in the Lilac Time antechamber, occasional reunion gigs with Haircut One Hundred. Oh dammit, they had their moment - let's leave it at that.

(N.B.: The album is currently available on CD as Pelican West Plus, with the whole album plus B-sides, 12-inch mixes and both sides of the "Nobody's Fool"/"October Is Orange" 12-inch).


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