Occasionally we glance at the arrangement of lobster pots, bouys and rusty chains our Art teacher has set up for us to paint, but mostly we gaze into space. In a whisper I ask my friend if he heard the Strawberry Switchblade session on John Peel last night. He rolls his eyes and says no. In English class I write their name on the cover of my exercise book. The name looks exotic and mysterious. It is my secret and this thrills me.
Later, our class travels by coach to Glasgow to experience an Art School open day. Another friend and I walk into the Vic cafe and a couple of girls in ribbons and polka dots sing some songs on a makeshift stage. This may not be strictly accurate but I am entranced by the notion regardless. It is my secret truth and hang the consequences.
Later still I walk to Central Station via the grubby Virgin record store after an interview at the School of Architecture. There I buy a copy of a fanzine called ‘Juniper Beri Beri’ and in its blue printed pages I see images of Strawberry Switchblade for the first time. I put two and two together and make seven. Arithmetic was never my strongest card.
I’ve fallen in love with Glasgow. I’ve fallen in love with the future and the present and the past, whatever the hell those happen to look like. I’ve fallen in love with two scabby witches.
It really was like this. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps that matters and of course it doesn’t. We should never attempt to be objective about Pop after all because to do so is to miss the point. Some people want to know all the historical facts and that is fine. I have done this myself up to a point (the point is always where I start to get bored and am distracted by something else shinier and newer, or grubbier and older). Mysteries are more appealing than histories, however.
There was a delicious mystery about ‘Trees and Flowers’ when I first heard it because outside of the few fractured snippets of knowledge I had, there was no real reference point. Perhaps this is true of all the records we first hear when we are growing up, for what reference points do we have beyond the spectral thrill of a voice kissing our throats and daydreams filled with bokeh spots of colour luminescing on our sunkissed eyelids? All else is irrelevant.
‘Trees and Flowers’ still sounds impossibly magical and special to me and I know this is largely because of that myriad of personal points of contact and indefinable network of memories. Yet I aver that it also simply because that as a recording ‘Trees and Flowers’ contains many of the elements that I turn to again and again in my daydreams of Pop: Melody, harmony, space and distance. Ache, emptiness, warmth and chill. We should not underestimate either the value of the edge of an accent. By which I meant that whilst ‘Trees and Flowers’ is undeniably pastoral it is also invested with the sharp tongue of the city’s underbelly. There is a Glasgow kiss hidden in these lips. Don’t go through the park when you’re on your own. You know the score.
Perhaps all these elements were instilled in me from an earlier age, listening to my mum’s sister’s early Elvis singles on an old Marconiphone record player. Or perhaps there is something hard-wired in each of us to lean towards particular aesthetics. You could go mad thinking about it, so better to simply give in and delight in the magic when and wherever you find it.
I found it in ‘Trees and Flowers’ and I find it there still. Rare treasure. Immeasurable pleasure.
It occurs to me that I do not think I have seen one of Ed Ruscha’s text works in the flesh, so to speak. This is a shame as I would like to have a handle on the scale and just exactly how a drawing made with gunpowder looks. I imagine it is not significantly different to a drawing made with graphite, but you never know. What I do have is the Phaidon collection of Ruscha’s work, ‘They Called Her Styrene’, and it is an endless source of amusement and wonder in almost equal measures.
Anyone who has worked with children in the past decade or so will know that there was a period (fading now it seems) where every damn thing was declared to be ‘random’. Language is always bent and beaten into new meanings in different contexts and it seldom really bothers me much, but I admit that this misuse of the word has often made me cross. Particularly when, confronted with something that illustrated the ‘true’ meaning of the word, children would invariably glaze over, look blank and then proclaim it to be ‘gay’. Which is another matter entirely (and one that is also fading - another case of ignore it enough and it goes away. There is an inevitability to such things, in the same way as yo-yos will become fashionable again for a week every decade).
Ed Rushca’s text works are something I have often used as a way into the ‘found’ element in art for students. Mostly they mistrust this idea. It feels like cheating to them. It is stealing. Well, it’s good to know that young people have a strong moral compass after all.
Are Ruscha’s texts stolen? Of course they are. Words and phrases re-purposed; swiped and spliced into new meanings or no meanings at all. Is it decoration? Is it challenging our very understanding of words? And is it even Art? Yes, yes and yes again. That last one the kind of resounding yes that falls on you like love… Of course.
There appear to be at least three iterations of ‘Hollywood Is A Verb’ and I like that this is the case because it shows we revisit ideas and themes and things we like in our work. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. It soothes and irritates in the same instant. A tongue seeking out that toothache. Does it still hurt? Yes it does. Does it still hurt? Yes it does. Does it still hurt? Yes it does. And so on and so forth.
Many of Rushca’s works are clearly phrases lifted wholesale. There is a great Elvis reference in ‘I forget to remember to forget’ for example (and it’s twisted twin ‘I remembered to forget to remember’), but I often wonder if ‘Hollywood Is A verb’ falls into this category. Is it instead two separate texts conjoined to make a new phrase? ‘Hollywood’ as a text is so emblematic in isolation of course. Splice it in with something, anything else and you are bound to come up with something intriguing. Alternatively, was it plucked from a focus group at some advertising agency? I imagine Don Draper having the idea and giving Peggy Olson the leg work to do. “Peggy!” He’d shout. “Give me a hundred ways to finish the sentence ‘Hollywood is…’ I need it in an hour.” Perhaps, perhaps not.
So what else can we say about ‘Hollywood Is A Verb’? How about it being one of the phrases from Ruscha’s work that found its way into the song ‘I Want To Hang Out With Ed Ruscha’ by David Stephenson and Richard Bell back in 2000? Those of you who are up on such things probably recognise Bell from the early incarnations of Blue Aeroplanes where he lent the group an artful skewed guitar angle. The song, recorded and released on CD in a signed edition of 500 to coincide with a Ruscha show at the D’Offay gallery in London is marvellously deadpan and appears to be ludicrously collectable. Tangentially, Stephenson also recorded a number called 'I Will Return To Memphis With Eggleston As My Guide’ with Anthony Reynolds of Jack/Jacques fame (or obscurity, whichever you prefer) and of course Eggleston photographed Graceland in 1983. It all fits.
John Londei ‘Mobile Shop’ from ‘Shutting Up Shop’ p86
In 1973 John Londei took a photograph in Morrison’s Chemist shop in Leather Lane, London. It became the starting point for a fifteen year project in which Londei photographed what he felt were disappearing traditional small shops, their owners and (occasionally) their employees. Leafing through the collection now (‘Shutting Up Shop’, published in 2007) what’s startling is how the images so unequivocally buck the visual stereotypes of the 1980s we have become burdened with. This may hardly be a surprise when one considers that the premise of the photographs was to record a past that was fading and disappearing from view, yet it reminds us that the reality of any particular period cannot be easily encapsulated by one dominant theme, in spite of what mainstream media might tell us. So forget for a moment notions of leg-warmers and Princess Diana hairstyles and instead consider that the 1980s were inescapably informed by the preceding decades. So in fact what we see in these photographs are elements of the ‘70s, ‘60s, ‘50s and post-war years flickering like the failing filament in a 40 Watt lightbulb. The ghost is about to be given up, but not quite yet. Not quite yet.
Londei’s entire project is worth picking up and picking through. It is endlessly rewarding. Through these photograph we (re)visit a universe where the sprinkling of specialisation once illuminated diversity, and whilst one suspects that there must still be businesses that specialise in such things as Scales and Measures, Foam, Latex and Plastics and indeed Contraceptives (see Frank Gedge’s extraordinary shop in Stoke-On-Trent) they are now entirely consigned to faceless units in Industrial Estates instead of being central to their communities.
Every bit as vital as the photographs are Londei’s accompanying texts which often as not are touching tributes to the people whose businesses (and lives) he documented. Often these people seem to mirror the businesses they inhabit. These are the ends of the lines; lives that seem to have fizzled out. In spite or because of this there is a faded dignity in Londei’s photographs that lingers long after you have looked away. A quiet and highly personal refusal to conform too. Not going with the flow. Doing your own thing, partly because it is all you know and partly just because.
My particular image of choice is from 1982 and is of Reg Milliner’s Mobile Shop in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales. It is not a place I have ever been and yet the image resonates so very strongly with me. Perhaps you too remember mobile shops (and no, supermarket delivery trucks are not the same thing)? Perhaps in places they still exist? Perhaps not. I do know that I can remember the co-operative van driven by my mum’s cousin around the village of my birth. It is a surprisingly vivid memory, considering we moved from New Cumnock not long after I had turned five.
Like the Rhondda Valley, New Cumnock was largely and historically a mining and farming community. A few years ago I understand it was highlighted as one of 'Britain Toughest Villages’ whilst in 2013 it won The Telegraph’s prestigious ‘most dismal town’ award. Such are my roots. Such is the way that the media moulds a narrative about place which may tell a truth, but not the whole truth.
Unlike Milliner’s van, the one that my mum’s cousin drove was uniformly dark brown, with perhaps a pale brown piping strip. Brown is, after all, the colour of the 1970s, is it not? I’m sure that cousin Guy sold many things from the back of that van, for I recall wooden shelves lining the insides and a profound feeling of delicious claustrophobia whenever I clambered onto its back steps (the same kind of comfortable, protective enclosure we get from secret dens and hideaways). What I most clearly recall though is, perhaps inevitably, the smell and sight of pink iced buns. As previously mentioned, I was barely five, so of course I do. Such is nostalgia.
Now we are almost up to a point where the music highlighted here is remembered as being an essential part of the soundtrack to the year in question. So whilst Weekend’s 'La Varieté’ LP was not quite part of my soundtrack for the 1982 year of its release, it certainly was an essential part of the summer that followed and that’s as near as makes no difference.
I recall buying my copy in Glasgow and depositing it proudly on my desk in the Architecture studio. A slightly older, much more fashionable fellow student sneered and called it ‘faux jazz.’ Except in his head he probably spelled it Jazz, before nodding imperceptibly and mumbling about Mingus and Bird. I didn’t know about all that then but I did know that La Variete sounded like a breath of fresh air. It still does.
Now, remember what Orange Juice were saying about there being no more rock and roll in 1981? Well that thought underpins 'La Varieté'. I didn’t know it at the time but it was all chiming with the likes of Vic Godard and destroying all rock and roll, all filtered through an infatuation with Radio Two and the middle of the road. Easy listening for uneasy listeners.
Whilst I was unfortunate not to have known Alison Statton’s previous band Young Marble Giants when they were extant, I was fortunate enough to be able to explore their records at the same time as I discovered Weekend. Such a dual delight was extraordinary. ‘Colossal Youth’ and ‘La Varieté’ became two touchstones of cool in my exponentially exploding awareness of the world of music. They remain so today and still sound otherworldly. You can trace connections back (the space of Buddy Holly and early rock’n’roll recordings, for example, or the classy skip and wink of Ye-Ye) but not so easily and not so obviously. It’s part of the appeal. Mystery and quiet abstruseness. A shy ambivalence. As an aside I recall a comment on one of my school reports that said something about how in spite of the good grades I was achieving there was an ambivalence to success in my attitude. In hindsight I am rather proud of that statement. It all fits.
Naturally Wendy Smith’s cover drawing was an essential part of the appeal of ‘La Varieté' too. There is a photograph somewhere of my bedroom wall from around this time. In it I can see some drawings I made in a style I dreamt echoed Smith's, each capturing something of my summertime obsessions. Girls. Friendships. The myth of the countryside. Girls. The drawings are long lost now yet the feelings flicker across my retinas, burnt there with the brilliant light of nostalgia. And yes I remember ‘Nostalgia’. Of course I do. It was the song that painted the stories of the aches yet to blight me; a feverish glimpse of a future, inevitable melancholia. Nostalgia for an age yet to come it may have once been, but listening again now it is so painfully real. Those aches arrived and set up camp. They never leave.