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

Tuesday, August 05, 2003
THE SINGLE LIFE

I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by records, by shelves of music in whichever form. My late father was among the most fervent of collectors; so I have never had a particularly emotional attachment to the seven-inch single. Having known records practically from day one of my life, there was never that alien element of strangeness or newness about a piece of vinyl – simply one more item to add to the collection.

As an infant I remember being particularly fond of Slim Gaillard’s rendition/deconstruction of “How High The Moon” which my father bought as a 10-inch 78 in the late ‘40s, and it remains one of my favourite singles insofar as it was probably the one piece of music which introduced to me the notion that artistic expression didn’t always have to be straightforward. Gaillard’s recording starts out as a conventional enough reading, but it isn’t long before he starts stretching out words, playing with syllables, playing with his guitar rhythm until finally the song ceases to be a song, becomes a Cubist reflection of a “song” with syllables existing on a new, abstract basis, stripped of overt meaning. Coupled with Gaillard’s ineffable confidence and the terrific rhythm of his own guitar driving the performance, it occurs to me that this one recording is the link between Lucier and Minogue; in its unfettered joy and mischief in destabilising “meaning” and turning it inside out in order to accommodate it with the demands of the song’s rhythm, it is also the missing link between Marinetti’s art of noises and Horn’s Art Of Noise (Currently, alas, it is even more difficult to find than I Am Sitting In A Room; it has yet to be reissued on CD, though I’m sure that the boys at Proper Records will get round to it soon. Until then you have to keep your eyes peeled for the occasional used copy of the original 78 turning up in Mole Jazz or Ray’s Jazz Shop).

The record, however, which alerted and electrified me to the possibilities of pop – well, I’d responded vaguely to Cream’s “I Feel Free” in extreme infancy and had the dimmest of memories of being stirred by the video of “Strawberry Fields Forever” on TOTP, but the one performance which really cemented the existence of this thing called pop in my mind was Barry Ryan doing “Eloise” in October 1968 on a Saturday teatime pop programme entitled All Systems Freeman presented by the luridly and splendidly melodramatic DJ Alan Freeman (though I’m sure Ryan also appeared on a similar BBC programme compered by Tony Blackburn round about the same time). Freeman leered benignly into the camera, told us that this next song would be number one before it had finished, and the camera then swooped speedily (or as speedily as 1968 technology would allow) towards the adjacent stage whereon Ryan emoted hysterically in front of Johnny Pearson’s orchestra for five or six minutes. Was this a “single”? It didn’t seem to subscribe to any given notions of one – it was far too long (this was before I’d heard either “Macarthur Park” or “Hey Jude” or for that matter the six minutes of “Those Were The Days”); it didn’t canter agreeably on one level – there were fast, aggressive bits, slow, tearful bits, and my God when the slow bit suddenly leapt out and became fast again, with jumpcuts of Ryan doing his faux-Presley swivelling, this four-year-old writer nearly ran behind the sofa, it was so frightening! This was something more than what I had been told. And then came The Crazy World of Arthur Brown to perform “Fire.” “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!” screamed a burning, bearded candlestick-wearing maniac in extreme close-up, as the performance proceeded to climax in what appeared to be the group spontaneously combusting. I had nightmares for a fortnight after that. I also pleaded with my dad to purchase both singles straightaway. He went one better with Arthur Brown and came home with the album, which even more scarily demonstrated that “Fire” was no longer even a “single” but part of a longer and clearly demonic “suite” of songs, with chaotic organ and guitar noises threatening to destabilise and obliterate every “song” there was. Barry Ryan had no album out at the time, so I had to make do with the seven-inch of “Eloise” on the turquoise and gold MGM label. And then my dad introduced me to The White Album at Christmas…

(In fact, Barry Ryan’s work between 1968-70, in tandem with his twin Paul (as songwriter and producer) remains some of the most bewilderingly daft, and therefore most profound, pop music ever produced, the missing link between Scott Walker and Jim Steinman. The quietly desperate psychosis of “Love Is Love” which proceeds from its “glad to meet you” mumblings to demonic declarations like “And when I’m gone….there will still be my son!!!” “The Hunt” which sees Ryan screaming “tally-hoooooo!!” over absurd over-phasing. Above all, the encroaching waves of “Kitsch” which blends Ryan squealing “Prawn cocktail stiiiiiick!” over a paranoid orchestra and inhuman choir – Joe Meek conducting the Mayflower Pilgrims in the afterlife - with a Terry Riley-meets-James Last knees-up (“Go go GOOOOOO!!!!”). Truly astonishing)

When punk, and more importantly (given my age) post-punk, happened, the format of a piece of music was frankly (a) irrelevant and (b) unplaceable, and in several hundred ways this made that particular adventure more of an adventure. Every Saturday morning trip to Bloggs’ Records in Glasgow’s St Vincent Street was a doorway to new ways of making and responding to music about which you wouldn’t necessarily have known even five minutes before setting foot in there. 7, 10 or 12 inches, picture discs, cassette-only, no discs, albums, singles, things in between – you didn’t know what you were going to get except the full and certain knowledge that all of it would be interesting and life-changing in even the remotest of ways. And that’s not even counting the disco 12-inch singles – Donna Summer’s 17 minutes of “Love To Love You Baby” above all, but also Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent,” Sylvester’s “Mighty Real,” T-Connection’s “On Fire”…

All of this means that, although I cared enough about the seven-inch single to have, and still have, thousands of the damned things, I cannot find it in myself to weep in nostalgia for their loss. I suppose that this is where Paul Morley (in his Guardian Review piece of Friday last) and I differ, although I can feel how he felt, even if his piece is just two hastily-built streets away from It Were All Fields Around Here – besides which, if it really were all fields around here, he was steering the bulldozer – the attachment to artists, groups, as one would attach oneself to friends; people whose singles you would never really desert, even when at times they heartily deserved it. Morley cites Bolan, Bowie, Mott, Roxy; and well he knows the vague distress rising towards betrayal when each seamless sequence of singles culminated in, or deviated towards a “Truck On (Tyke)” or a “Knock On Wood” or a “Foxy Foxy” or an “All I Want Is You”; that moment when you realise with a muted horror that people you trust don’t always know the way ahead. But then you continue to live, and make new “friends.” Or one-night-stands who, like the Nova Mob, come and do their job and then promptly go away again (“Ambition,” “Let’s Start The Dance,” “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”) even though really none of them does.

Morley speaks of showing a seven-inch single by New Order to his 11-year-old daughter, and remarks how the feeling must have been equivalent to his grandad showing him a George Formby 78. How deliberate the choice of artist must have been there, for New Order certainly played a central role in the ousting of the seven-inch – as well as the ousting, not to mention outing, of much else – with the release of “Blue Monday,” when (not quite for the first time, but certainly most prominently) one started to observe the sign in the HMV singles chart rack: “AVAILABLE ON 12-INCH ONLY.” Or perhaps it was “Temptation,” the 12-inch version of which starts immediately from the point where the 7-inch stops. You needed them both. Or perhaps it was “Atmosphere” by Joy Division, which, if Factory had waved a flag as white as its sleeve and given it a proper 7-inch domestic release, might have become the Xmas #1 of 1980 – rather than “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma,” which, realising the role cast for it, was obliged to take its place. But no, “Blue Monday” needed its seven-and-a-half minutes, and it needed the wider and deeper grooves of the 12-inch to drive home its multiple puncta most efficiently and effectively.

Did Morley @ ZTT kill the seven-inch single? In a 1983 filled to nausea with Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Wham!, Tears For Fears, Roland Rat, Cliff Richard, Paul Young, Ryan Paris, Kajagoogoo, Shakin’ Stevens, F R David, Status Quo, one might understand why Morley might have felt that the whole shameful thing needed detonating…or at least destabilising. Thus the multiple versions of “Relax,” the 15-minute 12-inch only tangentially related to the 4-minute 7-inch, but stretching out the argument as Gailliard stretched out those syllables decades before. But the 7-inch remained central to this concept, not an adjunct; it was the 7-inch which got them on TOTP, which got them banned, which got them to # 1, which kept them on the chart for a whole calendar year, which got them back to # 2, kept off the top by themselves, which got them to “Two Tribes,” which was admittedly 20 million times better on 12-inch, which still needed the 7-inch, which caused the TOTP red carpet to be unfurled for them, which even provoked the 7-inch to be remixed subtly but crucially for inclusion on Now That’s What I Call Music 3, which could only happen with the proviso that “Dr Mabuse” also be included on the album, which meant that that invaded far more heads than would otherwise have been the case, which meant that after all that Wham! ended up back at #1 anyway.

I can’t particularly feel anything about the loss of the seven-inch, or indeed the replacement of crackle by silence on CDs. I can’t pretend that CD singles are ever likely to be collectable (Blur’s “Popscene” only costs you £35 because the band are too bloody-minded to put it on any of their albums) or that they are particularly sexy. But I want to listen to music which is being created now, and I don’t want it to sound buried in crackles; I enjoy the convenience of CDs, as a householder I appreciate the absence of vinyl from my front room, and the consequent absence of what Laura always described as “the smell of digestive biscuits.” And when the occasional seven-inch still nudges its way towards the forefront of my attention, I remain thrilled that something like “Kill Or Be Killed” by Bloodclaat Gangsta Youth can engender the same unthinking excitement in me as “Eloise” did 35 years ago. I am grateful for the gasps of admiration which inevitably escape from my mouth when I listen to the Girls Aloud album and still get those pangs I got from The Lexicon Of Love 21 years ago.

Is this all affecting what pop is being created, and how it is being created? The pop song template stretches to fill the time and space necessary for it to make its point, whether it’s the ten minutes of “Born Slippy” or the two minutes of “Song 2.” Ten minutes of “Born Slippy” at number one. We didn’t have that in 1971, or even when I was fourteen. As far as the wider reaches of music in general are concerned; well, as a record reviewer it’s easy to groan when inserting a less-than-promising looking CD into the machine and seeing the legend “78:54” come up on the LCD; nearly all hip hop and R&B albums would benefit from a strict 45-minute limit, for instance, while things like Terence Trent D’Arby’s Internet-only Wildcard! demonstrate painfully the importance of editing and concision.

Then again, it’s unquestionable that classical and improv music have both benefited from the switch from vinyl to CD; one wishes that CDs had been around in the early days of labels such as FMP or Incus – their length suits the twists and turns and winds of improvisation perfectly, and the ‘70s vinyl classics now seem like a vaguely quaint repository.

And edging back towards a mainstream, if indeed such a thing remains; if it’s true that we are inured by our experience and the endless back catalogues never to expect anything truly shocking or revolutionary out of any new music, this may only be applicable to purposely over-conceptualised “albums” with their absurd concepts and over-inflated costs, and which now seem increasingly grandiloquent and old hat. Or we may be braver and venture into the world where “albums” seem to dissociate themselves from any concept other than the oldest one in the book; that wherein the artist approaches us and tells us about their lives in an aesthetically interesting and emotionally involving way. So the wider space which Morley implicitly welcomes (if he does welcome it) has to take into consideration the likes of M Ward, Gillian Welch, Dizzee Rascal, David Sylvian…records which, in the best improv “tradition” (see I told you we would win the argument in the end!), are unafraid to stop mid-song, to consider what they have just told us, to leave a bit of a mess, to not quite tidy things up. Astonishing things like the debut album by Paul The Girl, Electro-Magnetic Blues, utilising a line-up and approach which could have existed in 1971, but redeploying its own elements to tell us something new, to make the old breathe again and thus become new. Or potentially life-changing things like Kimya Dawson’s Sorry That Sometimes I’m Mean which prove the continuing ability of music to drive me to anger and tears. Tellingly all of these records typically last between 45-60 minutes, as with records of old. An alternative universe where Peter Wyngarde counts for slightly more than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The songs are already in all of our heads; but this particular revolution will require different ways of listening to them.


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