In a 1987 (or perhaps it was 1988) issue of ‘Underground' magazine there was a terrific article about a McCarthy and Wolfhounds tour in Europe. Richey Edwards once told me that reading it changed his life. It did not quite do this for me, yet there are moments even now when I’d tell you that the records of McCarthy and Wolfhounds meant the world to me; that they shaped and sculpted that world by both informing and focusing thoughts of Political, social and aesthetic form. Wolfhounds in particular delighted my sonic palate with their discordantly melodic guitar Pop. Theirs was a Pop that, like Wire, was taken apart and put back together at slight angles. Just so. Not quite. And...
‘Bright and Guilty’ was their second LP and perhaps my favourite. It certainly contains the Wolfhounds song I most regularly revisit. ‘Ropeswing’ is a disarming evocation of childhood, one that intelligently acknowledges the tension between self-mediated fictions and realities. Perhaps it is a strange song to have sung in one’s early twenties, yet in truth there is no other point in life when that distance between youth and age seems so simultaneously vast and alarmingly small. Frustrations still simmer and the memories of the void of responsibility can feel so alluring. So alluring indeed that perhaps they even blind us to the memories of the flipside, which is that searing anger at one's impotence in the face of authority. What Richard Hell once described as "all that bullshit" of being a teenager. Wolfhounds singer David Callahan sums it up as prosaically as Hell when he sings, simply: "Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I want to go back” before pointing out that "It’s when the job ties you down and the strings of your life go slack.” Never been there? Never felt that? I envy and pity you in equal measure.
‘Ropeswing’ is also perhaps the Wolfhounds song that most explicitly tips a nod to Callahan’s love of nature and as such it is a song that I have always felt sits almost magically apart within the Wolfhounds singularly impressive canon of work. The lines about “the long grass” being “ghostly and solid with frost” resonate strongly. For many years those lines and the song in general recalled for me early ‘80s years out in Fullarton Woods in my home town of Troon. Football on the terraced lawns of the long-demolished house; hide and seek in the dense bamboo; and yes, the ropeswing hung from the tree over the remains of what I now realise would have been an icehouse but what in our young imaginations was of course a dungeon. In our late teenage of course there was an afternoon spent with my much-missed friend Scot and a gaggle of Prestwick girls, all of us hiding from the pressures of school exams and finding release in the pleasure of doing nothing very much at all. Now however the song’s lines mostly remind me of moving to the country from the city some ten years ago. December frosts lit up the mornings and accompanied freezing walks to the river. ‘Ropeswing’ reverberated in my head and heartstrings.
In those recent years too I have tried to find interest in wildlife but I will be frank and tell you I find it impossible. Despite living in the countryside I find that I have zero interest in knowing anything about the details of the nature I find myself surrounded by. Instead I find most pleasure and fascination in the human interventions: Pylons; roads and trackways; isolated cottages and derelict barns; abandoned railways and tucked away chapels. Yet despite, or possibly because of this, I have found Callahan’s 2014 book ‘A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ to be a fascinating and thoroughly engaging read. Perhaps you have read it? I recommend it as highly as the entire catalogue (old and new) of the Wolfhounds, and there can be no greater praise than that.
Perhaps you have been devouring the current reissue programme of George Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ titles by Penguin? If so then you will assuredly also have been thoroughly enjoying the exposure to the photographs of fellow Belgian Harry Gruyaert, whose work has been gracing their covers. I will admit that these ‘Maigret’ covers were my own introduction to Gruyaert’s work and admit too that I have since delighted in discovering those works within several published collections. Notable amongst these is ‘Made In Belgium’ which collects many of Gruyaert’s images of his homeland.
This particular shot of Brussels was most likely not taken in 1989, but I am choosing it nonetheless. Cropped (as with all the book covers) it graces the twelfth Maigret novel ‘The Shadow Puppet’ and it is a perfect shot for this purpose since the landscape orientated composition is effectively cut in half by the red and white striped pole. It is a bold compositional move, and such obvious delineations rarely prove so effective. One of the reasons it does so in this example however is the contrast between the two halves of the same scene: The right half filled with fore and middle ground, the left punctuated only by the motorcyclist in the background and the vertical strips of light and colour. Interplay of positive and negative space is impressive, with the off-white form of the wool-clad figure on the right reflecting the similar yet inverted shape on the left framed by the two poles and the diagonal white of the crossing marking. To my mind too there is a strange juxtaposition of time: The figure in white seems somehow old fashioned, or at least, in the words of Jane Gardam’s ‘Bilgewater’, “fashioned old” and in contrast to the motorcyclist who appears utterly contemporary. There is delight too at the detailing in the colours. Just look at how the yellow of the motorcyclist’s scarf picks up the yellow bollard (and/or vice versa). You get the feeling that this could be an Edward Hopper painting, a sense that is exaggerated in the ‘Made In Belgium’ book by its juxtaposition with a perfectly Hopper-esque shot of a lone(ly) figure draped over the table of an otherwise empty railway carriage where the red (the red!) additionally nods to Eggleston (of course).
Elsewhere in Gruyaert’s photographs of Belgium the reference to painting is equally strong, yet rather than making explicit aesthetic connections it is instead the sense of careful attention to composition and detail that invokes this link. Gruyaert’s photographs are perfectly poised images that seek out the everyday and present them as the unusual; they seek out the unexpected and present them as the ordinary. Of course men dressed in Napoleonic War uniforms parade in the streets. Naturally a pair of enormous pink ladies underwear should be suspended from the restaurant ceiling. It all conjures an image of Belgium as being unashamedly quirky: A country and a people comfortable with themselves; who value tradition and yet appreciate individualism and anti-establishment behaviour in equal measure. This, I think, is at the core of the character of Maigret too, and it is a tension that weaves its way through all of Simenon’s books.
Naturally too the Belgian connection appeals to cyclists the world over and I admit to feeling that pull. The country is in the very DNA of the sport, after all. Imagine my delight then to see that in the recently published ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection there is a wonderful collection of Gruyaert's shots from the 1982 Tour de France and a quote from him graces the cover: “Even now I feel if I don’t have my bike then I’m not very happy. I love it: It’s a way of looking at the world, extremely quickly.” As a friend of mine is given to saying: It all fits.
The Go-Betweens - ‘Love Goes On’ and ‘Dive For Your Memory'
What good are rules but for breaking? With this in mind I find myself unable to choose between two images to illustrate 1988 so humbly suggest you’re going to have to look at both Chris Killip and David Moore.
1988 was the year of the first publication of Killip's influential ‘In Flagrante’ collection, and even if none of the photographs were actually taken in that particular year, we have all the excuse we need right there. Indeed the work has been recently republished by Steidl in a beautiful large format edition titled ‘In Flagrante Two’ and I have been luxuriating in that recently. Plussing as which, rules are mine, flexible and acknowledge sentence one. In any case, Killip’s work follows on from some of our previous points of connection, most notably perhaps to Raymond Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow, and Killip himself has recognised in recent years that with this work he was very much a chronicler of the de-industrialisation of Britain. As such his photographs are invaluable social documents of a truth that is largely missing from mainstream histories of the era.
Killip’s photographs certainly capture the consequences of the neo-liberal journey to a retail and financial services obsessed nation. For all the wide-boys shaking their wads and taking Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ at face value there were innumerable victims. Perhaps two of these are captured in his photograph of ‘Bever’ and friend in Skinningrove, North Yorkshire. Boy racers in their Ford Fiesta, down at the sea, living the dream. Or at least dreaming of the dream yet to come, for the hints in the photo are that it was taken sometime between the end of the ‘70s and the mid-‘80s. Thatcherism on the cusp, as it were. And so we see pride and emptiness sitting uneasily together, as do past, present and future. The angles of the composition are terrific, nothing on the horizontal except the sliver of sea in the top left and the roof of the Talbot Apline that sits parked on the slipway. The dynamic of these angles lends an aggression that you sense is perhaps not far from the surface. Perhaps also they hint at the social and economic dynamics of the time. Society pulled this way and stretched that. The ‘Bevers’ of the scene unquestionably amongst the biggest victims, though perhaps they would not have identified themselves as such (see my point about pride and emptiness in bizarre harmony/tension). One rather wonders where Bever is now.
Now if Chris Killip’s ‘In Flagrante’ collection proved to be a fascinating documentary on the underside of British society in the 1970s and '80s then at least it did so in the vernacular of traditional documentary photography. The images were black and white: A serious medium. By contrast the images in David Moore’s ‘Pictures From The Real World’ were gaudy and grimy, almost hallucinatory in their coloured depictions of Britain’s underclass. Looking at them in 2016 these photographs feel like perverse celebrations of grim realities. It feels impossible to believe that they come from the end of the 1980s. Instead they feel like rare colour artefacts from a blighted post-war Britain struggling to pull itself from the wreckage. Almost empty bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens populated with just a few rudimentary items. Care Bear cards on top of an ageing television; sauce bottles on the floor; a burnt saucepan; gaudy wallpapered walls with damp stains and a threadbare carpet; hand-me-downs and a milk bottle on formica. Photographs filled with the portrayal of voids. For the middle class voyeur it is what’s not there that impacts as much as what is. No books, no art, no signs of music. Perhaps this is what terrifies me the most: a world without those things is surely no world at all?
I could pick any of Moore’s photographs and they would break your heart, however I’m opting for the final image in the book perhaps simply because it feels the most abstract of the entire collection and yet in that abstraction perhaps best sums up the context framing the entire body of work. Vivid orange shapes of a car’s front left wing and opened hood present an aggressive contrast to the deep underexposed blue of the unblemished sky visible above the corrugated fencing. The same orange paint has been used to spray a rudimentary ’15’ on the stark white door and a watery arrow on the fence. These oranges punctuate the composition. Left, centre, right. Back and forth the eye leaps between them. Left, centre, right. Compositional politics. A mirror on our society. A mirror to a nation of Bevers, forever obscured and ignored and for most of us glimpsed only through the safety of a photograph in a book Bever would (or perhaps COULD) never think of spending his hard earned cash on. Perhaps it’s for the best. Perhaps Bever prefers it this way. Perhaps not.
What good are rules but for breaking? With this in mind I find myself unable to choose between two songs to illustrate 1988 so humbly suggest you’re going to have to listen to both. It should certainly not be a chore, for the songs are from one of my very favourite groups of any time. Mention The Go-Betweens to any number of my dearest friends and you can be guaranteed of an immense outpouring of intense love and affection. There are probably a few people I know who do not care much for their records but it is such an absurd rarity as to be barely worth a mention.
Rarely has a Pop group been blessed with two such gifted and complimentary songwriters and singers as The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. Some might mention the dreaded Beatles in comparison, but such people would be wrong, for neither Lennon nor McCartney ever wrote anything as exquisite as ‘Dive For Your Memory’ and ‘Love Goes On’. Or any number of other Go-Betweens songs, come to that. Argumentative types will counter with a roll of the eyes and glance at me askance, but let us remember that in the world of Pop discussion there is no real room for give and take. I’m right, you’re wrong. You’re wrong, I’m right. Repeat to fade.
There are any number of Go-Betweens or solo McLennan and Forster songs that I could have chosen for this series, from any number of years. Choosing the opening and closing cuts from their 1988 '16 Lovers Lane’ set feels most appropriate though, not least because that record closed out the first chapter of the Go-Betweens story. I shan’t go into detail of that tale here, for I have written at length on The Go-Betweens’ in my own past, and you can read any number of other pieces if you simply open your eyes and look. Rare treasure is to be found in the stories. Magic is in there.
Magic is assuredly in ‘Love Goes On’. It is in the purposeful strumming guitar of the opening and it is in McLennan’s first lines about cats in the alleyway and wanting so much he could bust. It is in the restrained ringing refrain that gently but confidently punctuates the song and it is in the ‘ba ba ba’s that propel the chorus. It is in the violins (simultaneously taught and supple) that tease and tempt and it is in the subtly glamorous Spanish guitar flourishes that wink from the sidelines as McLennan sings about spinning around and cutting strings. It is in the pizzicato that accompanies the lines about putting your foot flat down on the floor and it is in the delicious looping conclusion going on and on and on and knowing exactly when to stop. As the song closes McLennan tells us he know a thing about lovers. And oh, he does. Oh, he did. Was there ever a finer opening statement to an album? I can think of none that surpass it. ‘Exquisite' was invented to describe such moments.
Magic is assuredly in ‘Dive For Your Memory’. It is in the somewhat sombre opening chord sequence (that Forster humbly suggests is as good as anything he has ever written) and it is in the delicious melodic counterpoints that contrast and compliment in equal measure. It is in Forster’s typically louche and deceptively laconic delivery and it is in the plaintive, subdued oboe that echoes like the gulls from the cliffs that the bound the beach. It is in the gracious spaciousness left in the recording and it is in Forster’s almost obscured ‘yeah’s’ that accompany the song’s departure, like Kerouacs’ shefalying of the retreating tide. Needless to say, listening in 2016 there is an almost impossibly poignant sadness in the line about being lonely deep down and missing his friend. And no, of course the song is not about McLennan but that line… It could be. In the tumult of time’s passing forward and backwards it could be. It could be. And ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry? That. That and that again. And again.
Was there ever a finer closing statement to an album? I can think of none that surpass it. ‘Exquisite' was invented to describe such moments.