3. Fetisch, X-mal Deutschland

July 13, 2017

Or: I was a teenage goth.

I was a teenage goth

As soon as I picked this out of its cover, I thought: I bet I don’t like this as much as I used to like this, and I was right. It all seems quite the dirge now – same pace (plodding), same drum beat (pounding), same guitar (fuzzing)– and I don’t really remember what any of my standout tracks were then. I can barely muster a standout track now.

It seems laughably downbeat today. Sample lyrics from ‘Young Man’: “Young man may die” (repeat three times). All this gloom and death was a natural progression from macabre-obsessed early adolescence: reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards, witchcraft, spontaneous combustion and the part-work The Unexplained. Maybe being a goth was just about coming to terms with your own mortality.

Being a goth was definitely about coming to terms with your own sexuality. What does pop music do for adolescent girls and boys? They say it’s about belonging, being in this tribe, not that one. It’s also about separation. Pop let me to quantify my difference and protect myself, projecting a self that was something else. It let me to keep the world at arm’s length while I tried to understand it. Being a goth and a punk and a psychobilly were place markers along the track to the biggest difference of them all. I’d made it clear I was weird already. They’d get used to it.

So would I.

To like Scottish-German industrial bands made one a sore thumb in a world of Wham! (never liked them then, don’t like ’em now).

It’s also why I sound a bit posh, when I’m not a bit posh: little gradations of separation. It’s no coincidence that in my old goth circles there were plenty of us who ended up L, G and T.

Which one of these do I wish they’d play at the disco? I have no recollection now of what song I wanted to dance to but I do remember the kind of disco I wished I could dance at.

One day, me and my friends were were sitting on some steps by the beach, on a sunny afternoon (it’s hard being goth at the seaside: so much physical activity; so many healthy glows), discussing what we’d call our nightclubs. I don’t remember what theirs would be but mine was going to be called the German word for “prison”, whatever that was. I didn’t know what the German word for prison was but I knew that it beautifully captured what a disco should be.

Now I have a working knowledge of the language and I do know what the German word for “prison” is, I know damn well it doesn’t. (Look at those lyrics though! More hilarious gloom: ‘Verrachte dich/mishandel dich’, a snippet from ‘Kampfen’, one of the numbers I think I liked best then, though don’t ask me why.)

I only dipped my toes in the rusty waters of industrial pop. No Einsturzende Neubauten for me (though I know these were the most interesting and enduring), only Xmal and the disco-din of SPK. My heart really belonged to Siouxsie and Peter Murphy.

Would I buy this record now? Hell, no. Sex moans, echo chambers, pulsing drums – at best, it sounds like a series of Bauhaus b-sides.The cover is a po-mo delight though, with gorgeous typography. I would copy it over and over with my calligraphy pen, with dreams of being a record cover designer.

Fetisch by Xmal Deutschland

Label: 4AD.

Release date: 11 April 1983.

Chart position: This didn’t trouble the upper or the lower reaches of the album charts

Run-out message: Bubo Tapgore (?)

PS: The band were quite pretty.


2. Baggy Trousers, Madness

December 28, 2016


Along with every other pupil at a state school in 1980, I loved Madness with a passion. I walked like them, One Step Beyonding up and down the back garden, and the chewing gum-grey concrete schoolyard, and the deep purple pile of the front-room carpet.

I loved their cartoon antics and their black-and-white clothes. I wanted Doctor Martens; I did not not get Doctor Martens. I wanted monkey boots; I did not get monkey boots. I got 2-tone plastic badges from the stalls at Swansea Market. I played my sister’s copy of One Step Beyond… repeatedly, pretending the lamp was a microphone stand. I joined the preteen cohorts at the Studio Cinema to see a matinee of Take It or Leave it in 1981. I wished I was a Nutty Boy. I looked like a Nutty Boy, in a trilby hat and borrowed wraparound sunglasses.

‘Baggy Trousers’ was the first Madness record I bought. All my classmates loved it, too. In this song, Madness were talking to us, a bunch of scruffy ten-year olds that nobody had addressed directly before. Even if we weren’t participating in the mitching and misbehavour, we were surrounded by it. The fights with other schools: Brynmelin Park, 3.30pm. Waun Wen boys against St Josephs. The oddballs who lurked about the neighbourhood: the school handyman who grabbed a boy by the ankles and dunked him in an oildrum full of water. When I was ten, Madness was my band and this was my song. I was a sometimes-naughty child, an always shy child (yet also a show-off) in an inner-city school that my grandmother had gone to (left school at 12) and my mother had gone to (left school at 14; shouldn’t have) and now here was I, with a life ahead and no map for where it would go. And now here were some musical hall minstrels singing about all that.

The song is nearly 37 years old. It was released the year Ronald Reagan became president and the Rubik’s Cube came out. It is as old as the St Paul’s Riots in Bristol and the Moscow Olympics. It marked my last year in junior school and turned me to towards the terrors of secondary school: a place where the older girls flushed your head down the toilet on your birthday, they said. Where people played chicken on the railway lines and stole the detonators off the tracks.

The 1980s were the days when everyone sold records: Woolworths, WH Smith and John Menzies, the Co-op and Debenhams. The place I actually bought it from could not have been more fitting: over the counter, at Boots. I probably bought it on the day it came out, (5 September) because I have a clear recollection of standing in its record department (Quadrant Centre, first floor, next to the exit for the bridge to Debenhams) and having to ask for it. I didn’t like doing that at all, because my shyness made ‘Baggy Trousers’ seem like the most embarrassing words you could say ever.

I must have asked for it, or made my mother ask for it, because I have it and it is glorious.

The artwork is beautiful, Humphrey Ocean’s pencil drawing of the band outside Cairo East underground station. Over the years, while I still wanted to be an artist and design record covers, I would copy it with increasing skill. I also catalogued this one using my own system (be gone, Stiff’s own BUY 84!: this one is NUT -145 – NUT for Nutty Boys, 1 for the first single of theirs, 45 for a single. So there.)

The B-side is ‘The Business’, a nice enough piano-driven piece with some echoey dubby bits. I have listened to that track three or four times at most.

‘Baggy Trousers’ never got to number one in the charts, only number three. A crime against pop music.


(7”, Stiff Records, 1980). B-side The Business

Matrix signature: A – WE HAVE LIFT-OFF B: WIND ME UP

Baggy Trousers by Madness.

Label: Stiff

Catalogue Number: NUT-145

Run-out message: A – WE HAVE LIFT OFF B- WIND ME UP

Release date: 5 September 1980

Entered charts: 13 September 1980

Top chart position: 3

1.1 Beginning.

December 4, 2016

Is it possible that I remember buying this record or am I remembering remembering? A dust-caked chain back through the decades places me in front of a free-standing bargain singles bin at Duck, Son and Pinker.

It turned out that Duck, Son and Pinker didn’t exist only at 11 Union Street in Swansea. In my circumscribed world, I thought this palace of drums and keyboards and electric drums and electric keyboards and electric guitars and Spanish guitars and tambourines and tunes and sheet music and singles and albums belonged to us alone; it didn’t. It belonged to Bath and they made pianos and printed their own music as well, and it isn’t in either of those places any more. It closed in Swansea in the 1990s and shut its doors for good in Bath in 2011.

I am in front of a bargain bin at Duck, Son and Pinker and I am buying my first record. I don’t know what year this is, although the year the single was released I was too young, so it isn’t 1972.

1972 was the year of the Munich Olympic massacre.

1972 was the year of the Watergate scandal.

1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday.

1972 was the year of Cabaret and Mastermind and Emily and Ernie Bishop’s wedding.

In 1972, Britain held its first gay pride march.


1972 was the year of ‘Crocodile Rock’, which somehow ends up unsold and a few years’ later is in the cheap racks, then in my hand and then now in the room in which I am sitting.

I don’t know in what capacity I ‘buy’ it: do I get pocket money, aged five or six, enough to buy anything bigger than a comic or sweets? Do I peel off a mitten and point a pink index finger at it and say ‘this one’?

But I am here, in town, with my mother and my sister, in the basement of the shop that sells music to the people in every shape they can get it, looking into a container of cheap singles.

My sister buys a single by Flintlock.

I buy Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’.


I never listened to the record apart from to say to myself, to new friends, to whoever’s in the room that this, this is the first record I ever bought. Listen:

“I remember when rock was young…”

And yet, although I remember the act of buying, I don’t remember what leads me to this record. It isn’t the cover (look at it; even when pristine it would have been dowdy in its mustard and moss-green tartan). It isn’t the music: I’ve never leven iked Elton John, apart from the Kiki Dee one. Maybe he is the only pop star I’ve heard of in the pile. Maybe it is because I am mad about animals and will want to be a vet when I grow up and this sounds funny: a crocodile! Rocking! Ha ha.

Whatever my reasons were, it’s mine now.

What I don’t remember is the record ever making an impression on me. No spark’s ignited when I hear it’s first bar. I don’t know all or even any of its intonations and pauses. I can sing the la-la-lala-lala-la bits but it’s just a chubby fist banging up and down a piano chugging through some standard pub rock and it only makes as much impression on my as any other song from that time. It didn’t set the pattern for my tastes and I glad for that. The B-Side is ‘Elderberry Wine’. I’ve no idea if this song sounds familiar: it just sounds like every song Elton John has ever written.

Even so. This is where it all began and it’s travelled everywhere with me wherever I’ve gone: just not in my heart.

Crocodile Rock by Elton John

Label: DJM
Run-out message: /
Release date: 27 October 1972
Entered charts: 4 November 1972
Top chart position: 5

I catalogued this myself with ‘4A Eld Wine EL’ and clearly went wild with a date stamp on 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978.

1.3 My record collection

November 21, 2016

My record buying career started early – very early, in the mid-1970s. I am always flabbergasted when people my age say the first record they bought was Duran Duran or Madonna. Madonna? She didn’t release anything in the UK until 1983 and, my dear, I was picking singles from the bargain bin when I was in short trousers.

I am cursed/blessed with a remarkable memory, so I can recall minute details of what I bought and where I bought it. Purchasing each bit of plastic is a little historic moment for me. I remember what we wore, the crackle between the grooves, which one sticks, who I leant it to, who never gave it back.

1.2 My parents’ record collection

November 20, 2016

Jazz, jazz. More jazz.

1.1 My grandparents’ record collection

November 14, 2016

My grandparents never got rid of their records, even though they didn’t have a record player that I ever remember seeing. A radiogram is what Annie and Ivor Cooze would have called it, if they’d had one. Many of my schoolmates did still have these teak-effect electronic sideboards that took up half their living rooms: even though we were firmly in the smoked glass, shag-piled, high-fidelity years, we still looked and spoke and decorated our homes as though we lived in the post-war decade. We still sang songs on school trips about German bombers in the air and the RAF from Swansea, RAF from Swansea, RAF from Swansea shooting them down. Shooting them down.)

The only musical equipment my grandparents had was a large leather effect radio (not Roberts) that took an enormous six volt batter, a single-speaker tape recorder and, as far as I could see, one Jack Jones cassette and one Frank Sinatra.

They never listened to their records (how could they?) but they didn’t get rid of them either. I was fascinated by the thick brittle density of the 78s – much heavier in your hand than they should have been and a bottomless black. I imagined they’d taste like Callard & Bowser liquorice toffee. There weren’t many of them in their collection but Enrico Caruso definitely featured (my grandfather’s taste, I think). I don’t know where these records are now.

I’d like to have them. I would add them to the column of vinyl leaning against the living-room wall that I always see, out of the corner of my eye. These records anchor me to my past and made me who I am. They mapped out ambitions to be a pop star (still holding out for that one), poseur, photographer, journalist, poet, artist, archivist (I devised my own cataloguing system at the age of 11 it seems, from the biroed codes in the corners of the covers). They armed me with knowledge that I’d take through life (I didn’t have a book-lined study but I came to know Walt Whitman through Fame).

The records that now slouch in the corner? I listened to them constantly, obsessively, so that I can pre-empt every gouge and scratch (I know that the Selecter’s Too Much Pressure will stick on the final drum roll of ‘James Bond’ – and that it always sounds flawed in its pristine digital version) and Tom Tom Club has been played so often and mishandled so much that it songs are barely audible beneath the fuzz).

Then I played them inconsistently and, latterly, not at all.

I’m not a geek. I won’t spend half my wages on a rare pressing of anything – but I would spend all my pocket money on this twelve inch or that picture disc. I’m just a dilettante. I loved vinyl when it was mainstream, although my tastes didn’t often run to that. (I once finished with a girl because her favourite artist was Billy Joel). There’s no Now! in my collection nor Wham! and my singles and albums and disco mixes barely show the 80s they love on Friday night compilation TV.

I was just a girl for whom music was everything for a bit of a life.

Slide the record out of the sleeve. 45 rpm.

Pop life.

November 13, 2016

Fizz, swizzle, bump.

Fizz, swizzle, bump.

The needle is stuck in the groove and though the song is over, the record never ends.

Fizz, swizzle, bump.

Fizz, swizzle, bump.

Fizz, swizzle, bump.

The fuzzy clicking signalled so much: the best of nights, too drunk, too tired, too happy to get up to switch the record player off. The start of love: too busy kissing, too busy undressing to pick the arm up and place it back in its cradle. The end of love: too unhappy to move, too miserable, the crackly repetition going round and round like your mind’s going round and round too, stuck in the groove of a dead affair.

Fizz, swizzle bump. Fizz, swizzle, bump. Fizz, swizzle, bump. Fizz, swizzle, bump. Fizz, swizzle, bump. Fizz, swizzle, bump.

Do you miss it?

But before the record ended, it had to begin. A warm, crackling hum beckoning you in to a new world, unheard, or heard and now possessed.

Let’s play.

Book review: Jane & Serge: A Family Album

January 1, 2014

This article was originally published on Diva magazine‘s website in November 2013

Serge Gainsbourg was a difficult character. He was often sexist and even more often drunk. As he slid, half-cut, into old age, he became a parody of the dirty old Frenchman. When he died of a heart attack, in 1991, at the age of 62, he was hardly in his prime. Five years previously, he’d humiliated Whitney Houston on Michel Drucker’s talk show (plus French singer Catherine Ringer of Les Rita Mitsouko on a different show that same year) in the sleaziest, drink-sozzled, most predictable way. He’d turned out a few pedestrian, 80s-by-numbers albums. But my goodness, before the bottle throttled his creativity, the man was a creative colossus, a musical genius, a style icon.

These golden years have been captured in a new book, Jane & Serge: A Family Album by Andrew Birkin, film-maker and brother of the more famous Jane of the title, who was Gainsbourg’s lover, muse and mother to their daughter Charlotte. The beautiful volume is text free, like a true family album (it comes with an accompanying booklet of “essays” by both Birkins, plus glossy prints, stickers and even an iron-on patch) and pictures Jane then Serge from 1963 to 1979, with the couple’s 12-year relationship as its core.

Gainsbourg is usually portrayed in the UK as a sort of singing Hugh Hefner, a louche lounge lizard who was lover to some of the world’s most beautiful women (including Brigitte Bardot). But he was more complicated than that, and there was always something rather feminine to him: he was defined by the women he was consort to, rather than vice versa. He wept (as Andrew and Jane both mention in their essays). He was extremely sensitive about his looks, and despised French newspaper coverage that framed him and his girlfriends in terms of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Andrew Birkin also reveals in his text that Serge kept Nana the bulldog as a pet because “compared to [her] Serge felt beautiful.”

He also wrote some of the most extraordinary love songs ever, which float up, up and way beyond pop into pure poetry; in fact, in France he’s regarded as much as a poet as a pop star. From his pen, love is superheroes leaping skyscrapers (‘Comic Strip’); love is criminals on the lam (‘Bonnie & Clyde’); love is like a cup of coffee (‘Couleur Café’). Yet, unlike many love songs, his work is sung by both men and women and completely belongs to whoever sings it: and his songs have been sung (or sampled) by everyone, from Petula Clark to Kylie Minogue via Nick Cave and Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

Birkin’s book shows Serge in all his joli-laid glory and provides a glimpse into the everyday life of a couple whose life was far from everyday. This was one of the original celebrity couples, who lived out their love affair in France, the nation that gave the world Paris-Match and thus the template for Heat and Closer, and an entire newsagent’s worth of imitators. When Caitlin Moran tweeted this summer that “Everything I understand about the world is being thrown into revolt by OK! doing a feature on Serge Gainsbourg” she was wrong. This man lived his life in front of a clicking shutter. One of the shots from 1973 shows Serge gurning in mock-horror at a full-page newspaper feature spread about his and Jane’s home life. This is what makes the book so touching: as well as some beautifully posed shots of a man who was a pro at public image (he and Nana in profile together, Birkin looking languorous, Serge looking rumpled, both draped across a bench in Oxford; posing with the omnipresent Gauloise between his lips for the millionth time), there are also cute, intimate pictures of Gainsbourg en famille, with a tiny tomboy Charlotte, playing bogeyman with his stepdaughter Kate; at a wedding.

A Family Album is also essential reading for anyone interested in picking up tips on androgynous style. Serge in his jacket-T-shirt-jeans-dance-shoe uniform (a look Charlotte would later adapt into her own), or dandy in wraparound shades and leather bomber, both Gitane and a delicate jewel necklace always present. Jane – who looked extraordinary at the time, all gamine cheekbones – wears white men’s shirts, black polo necks, aviator shades and singlets, every pared down masculine piece she wears picking up her couture glamour.

The book ends in 1979, a year before the relationship did, and the accompanying booklet makes clear this is a book of love letters: Jane to her brother, Andrew to Jane and Serge, the whole thing to a brief moment in history: Paris in the 1960s, a place and time that anyone who has ever entertained any bohemian feeling still longs to run away to.

Carmarthen Road

December 30, 2013

The road I grew up on, at the time I was growing up on it.

Swansea Recalled

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La Chanson de Pervert

December 30, 2013

Fifteen years after his death Serge Gainsbourg is going global, and there’s a fistful activities in his memory
Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 2006

‘I was living in France when Gainsbourg died and suddenly the whole country was in mourning. Every time you turned on the radio there was Gainsbourg; every time you turned on the TV there was Gainsbourg. We had this old farmer as a neighbour, he was crying and the young people were too, and I thought: this is a real testament to the sad state of French pop that this guy who’s only done one song has got everyone in mourning.’

That was in 1991. Like the rest of the non-Francophone world, rock journalist Sylvie Simmons only knew Serge Gainsbourg as the ‘dirty old man who made Jane Birkin famous’ with that one song ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. In fact, he wrote more than 500 songs, and this year, the 15th anniversary of his death, has seen a surge of interest in Serge, including the current homage, which culminates on Saturday night in Paradiso.

Simmons will be there, reading from A Fistful of Gitanes, her biography which has played no small part in spreading Gaisnbourg’s reputation around the rest of the globe since publication in 2001. Alongside the writer, Jean-Claude Vannier, arranger and producer of Gainsbourg’s influential 28-minute masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, will perform excerpts from the album, while Radio Oh-La-La’s DJ Nataska, aka Natasha Cloutier, will DJ with Amsterdam Beat Club.

Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg in 1928, to Russian parents who fled to Paris after the revolution. His childhood in occupied France scarred him, particularly since he was Jewish and had to wear the yellow star. As a young man, Gainsbourg wanted to be a painter, but made a living playing the piano in nightclubs; eventually, the means of making ends meet became a career and in 1958 he released ‘Poinçonneur de Lilas’, the suicidal lament of a bored Metro conductor. Over the next three and a half decades he would be astonishingly prolific.

All at once, Gainsbourg was chansonnier; jazz tinkler; Eurovision hit-maker; ladies’ man (seen on the arm of Greco, Bardot, Birkin, Deneuve); intellectual; director (his films are showing this week); novelist (there’s be a reading of Evgenie Solokov in Dutch on Saturday); actor. He was a provocateur, burning banknotes, reggaefying the national anthem and, in 1984, releasing ‘Lemon Incest’. The video, showing father and 13-year-old daughter Charlotte lounging on a bed semi-clad, caused outrage. Yet he was also a cherished establishment figure, whom, when he died, Mitterand compared to France’s greatest poets.

What took the rest of the world so long to catch up? For Montreal-born Cloutier, the answer is simple: ‘Because it’s not in English. The fact that British and American artists with a working understanding of French finally ‘got’ Gainsbourg helps the masses get him as well. Without Jane Birkin or daughter Charlotte acting as a bridge between Gainsbourg and the Anglo-Saxon world this may not even have happened.’ Simmons, meanwhile, thinks it only came with a broader change in listening habits: ‘People who were doing dance music were sampling from Italian and French soundtracks and they picked up on Gainsbourg. Also the world music scene was becoming big, so if people sang in French it didn’t matter any more.’

It was in the mid-90s that Gainsbourg’s reputation really started taking off outside France, when his playboy reputation and more kitsch elements were seized upon. It fitted well with the ironic times, but meant that his more difficult aspects were overlooked, and he was packaged as a kind of singing Hugh Hefner. But rather than being a red-blooded male caricature, there’s something almost feminine about his image. After all, it was never really just ‘Gainsbourg’ but ‘Gainsbourg and…’, whether it be Bardot, Birkin or one of the many people he wrote for – and he was as associated with them as they with him. What complicated his persona more, Simmons points out, is that: ‘He often used to tease, or maybe talk honestly about, a kind of latent homosexualilty’ a theme explored in ‘Love on the Beat’ and Je t’aime, moi non plus the movie.

Complexity is the key to understanding – or not – Gainsbourg. He had a restless, magpie approach, which Simmons thinks unique: ‘There’s a great courage to be a star and say: “I don’t care. I’m going to move onto something else.”‘ His subjects ranged from 18th-century literary forgers, Austrian composers, Symbolist poets to bank robbers. ‘Torrey Canyon’ at first appears to be a slice of Sixties shoo-be-doo pop, but its lyrics about a (real-life) environmental disaster reveal a startlingly prescient view of global trade and corporate responsibility. And it’s a great slice of shoo-be-doo Sixties pop. As Cloutier says: ‘It’s by no means superficial. Since it’s about sex, incest, violence, women and other ‘taboo’ subjects, you can’t just listen to Gainsbourg’s music and “get it”. It takes time.’

Even ‘Je t’aime…’ his most famous song, is a complex beast. It doesn’t bear up to comic or ‘ironic’ reinterpretations – although there have been many – because its tongue is already planted firmly in its cheek. And it is also properly sexy. Gainsbourg had every angle covered in advance. And the hand which wrote something that filthy could also turn out something as gorgeous as ‘La Chanson de Prévert’, as well as truly original love songs, which replace hearts and flowers with outlaws and superheroes.

Stylistically, Gainsbourg leapt all over, too, conquering every genre he alighted on: jazz; afro; lounge; prog rock; even reggae albums with Jamaica’s finest, Sly and Robbie. Simmons says Gainsbourg was able to make such masterful music because ‘he was good at selecting the right people to work with. He got great producers, he got great arrangers, and he let them get on with stuff. There wasn’t that ego where he controlled every single thing. He let them do what they did best.’

It resulted in thrilling music, which seemingly never ends. ‘When you get into Gainsbourg, you hear him and then go off and in every direction to discover all the stuff he wrote for other people. It’s overwhelming,’ says Cloutier. Indeed. In addition to 20-odd studio albums, there is the work he composed for others, ranging from one-off songs to entire albums. A Fistful of Gitanes, published in 2001, Lists 115 artists who have recorded Gainsbourg’s music – everyone from Donna Summer, to the Bollock Brothers to Nana Mouskouri – and in the years since the book came out there’s been a steady stream of new releases, most notably this year’s Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisted. And again, Gainsbourg’s work will be taking off in new, unexplored directions on Saturday, when Cor Gout and AU do never-before performed Dutch translations of the master’s works.
That’s one more to add to the collection, then.