Singles

I was thinking about the loss of singles. Not individual tracks released individually: that still happens, of course; perhaps more than ever. But back in the days of actual, physical singles — 45 rpm records, or even CD singles later — you didn’t just get an individual track.

I’m here to celebrate — and maybe mourn the loss of — the B-side.

When you bought a single you usually knew what the main song was going to be, because you had heard it on the radio, or at least read a review. Or you might just know and trust the artist’s work, and believe that the chosen track would be worth your 75p.1

But there was always the promise that there would be something good on the other side, too.

Often, of course, the B-side track was really “B” quality, or lower. It was genuinely just filler. Which was always a shame. I remember flipping Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” to find out what “My Funny Valentine” was like. I hated it, and never listened to it again. Though as (in other versions) it’s something of a jazz classic, it’s possible that I’d like it more now.

The Members’ classic “The Sound of the Suburbs” was backed by something called “Handling the Big Jets,” which always sounded slightly rude to us2 and I think was an instrumental.

But for every one of those you could get a “Jail Guitar Doors,”3 or a “The Prisoner.”4 Or almost any Beatles single.

Then there were double A-sides, wherein both sides were supposed to be worthy of being playlisted. They always felt like slightly better value for your hard-earned pocket money.

And when CD singles came along they usually had three tracks, raising them arguably into the EP category.

But now, tracks are realised for streaming or download, completely on their own. It’s very sad, and I’m sure they must feel lonely. Plus if you’re buying the download and you want what would have been the B-side, you have to pay for each individual track.

I was going to say, as well, that if you search for single on your streaming service of choice, you only get one track. But I found out the other day that’s not quite true. I wanted to listen to “Elephant Stone,” by the Stone Roses; and in fact the B-side, “The Hardest Thing In the World” was listed too. Its “Album” tag was given as “Elephant Stone — Single (2009)”.

Which apart from the wrong date (and ok, it could’ve been a reissue5) is not a bad example of misused metadata. Or maybe just misnamed: not every gathering or carrier of a group of songs or musical pieces is an “album”.

Or maybe that’s just a change of meaning: what we used to call a single or an EP is now just a very short album.


  1. Only 50p, in fact, when I first bought them. []
  2. We were schoolboys. []
  3. The B-side of “Clash City Rockers,” of course. []
  4. B-side of “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” What, you think I’m not going to talk about Clash singles? []
  5. But how you should give the date for reissues is a whole nother conversation []
Singles

Saved Life

In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.

People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.

Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that ,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.

At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school

he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.

With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.

But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.

But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:

Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2

And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.

A life can hinge on such a small moment.


  1. Somebody must have, of course. []
  2. In an amusing followup to recent thoughts, I originally wrote that as “army,” but find that lyrics sites think this plural too. Correctly, of course. []
Saved Life

Stiff Little Memories

I’ve just had two slightly odd experiences while researching Stiff Little Fingers.

SLF were the first band I ever saw live, and they had a major effect on my life — which is why I was researching them: I’m writing a longer piece about the effect they had on me.

So as I was reading the Wikipedia article about them, I became somewhat confused. Because it says they split up in 1983, and reformed in 1987. Now the breakup I’d forgotten about, but it seems right. However, I saw them on the tour in 87. I saw them two days in a row. I had tickets for the Brixton Academy gig, which I think was on a Saturday, and then when Time Out came out that week there was a small advert in the back (I’ve no idea how I came to see it), which said:

Tin Soldiers
Belfast’s finest. Shhh: a secret gig!

Or something very like that. It was on the Friday night at the Mean Fiddler. Which I don’t think I had ever been to at that time, and which was a bastard long way from Tooting. But I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see SLF in a small club.

What I mainly remember was that the Academy gig the next night was a bit of a letdown after the intensity of seeing them at the Mean Fiddler.

But anyway, the point of all of this is that as far as I remember things, this all was — or was billed as — their farewell tour. That’s why the t-shirt (which I still have) says “Game Over.”

Now obviously they’re around again, and I’ve seen them since, and bought albums they’ve released since. But my memory says they broke up in 87 (or it could have been 88, but I think not (though actually March 88 if this setlist site is to be believed)), and then reformed later. But Wikipedia and All Music both say I’m wrong.

I don’t know. Who would you trust?

Actually probably not me. I’m becoming more convinced as I look at that setlist site, that I must have seen them several times at the Academy, after moving to London in 87, and the supposed farewell tour must have been later. In which case the Mean Fiddler was a bastard long way from Walthamstow, but that’s still true.

The second odd experience was that I clicked onto the Wikipedia talk page to see whether the history was disputed at all. It isn’t, but around five sections in there’s a section entitled “the?”, in which someone asks whether they were ever referred to as “the Stiff Little Fingers.”

And back in 2007 some guy called “Devilgate” answered firmly in the negative.

Stiff Little Memories

Little, Feat…

Many songs these days involve one or more other artists guesting with the main one. Rappers adding a part to a singer’s track, for example. Nowadays such guests are always credited. Quite rightly: we’ve come a long way from the days when Billy Preston played keyboards on some Beatles songs uncredited (though visible in the famous Apple Music rooftop performance).

As featured artists, such guests are nearly always credited using the abbreviation “feat.” “The Beatles feat Billy Preston,” to give an example that was never used.

But “feat” is a word on it’s own, of course, as well as an abbreviation. Which I think may be why I always find the formation slightly amusing. And there used to be a band called Little Feat, if I’m not very much mistaken (I’ve never knowingly heard them).

So I’ve been wondering how the modern crediting style would have worked if they had ever been guests, or had featured guests, on any of their songs. “Little Feat feat Joe Feet.” “Legs & Co feat Little Feat.”1

Alas, it was not the way back then. Though their Wikipedia article suggests they’re still around, so it could happen.

More surprisingly it tells us that they changed “Feet” to “Feat” as a “homage to the Beatles.”2 I had no inkling of that connection when I mentioned the Beatles above.


  1. Yes, I know Legs & Co were dancers. I’m just trying to make up mildly amusing names. I invented Joe Feet. []
  2. I’m assuming that refers to the story of the Beatles naming that involved them wanting an insect name like Buddy Holly & the Crickets, but changing the spelling so it read as beat music. []
Little, Feat…

Memorials

The Quietus reports on a crowdfunding proposal to build a memorial to David Bowie in Brixton. I like the look of it, but they’re going to have to go some to make the required £990,000 in 21 days, given that they’re only at £45,000 now.

In other news, the new series of Broadchurch started tonight. Strong start, powerful stuff. But it now seems weirdly old-fashioned to have to wait a week to see the next episode.

Memorials

Ticket Captcha Fail

Just tried and failed to book Dylan tickets. Three nights at the London Palladium in April. I got an email from Songkick telling me about it yesterday, and jumped straight on it.

To learn that tickets didn’t go on sale till 10:00 today. At which time I was going to be traveling to King’s Cross to get a train to Edinburgh, which is a wee bit inconvenient.

As it happened by just after ten I was at KX, and buying my lunch for the journey. But of course at that time I had forgotten about the tickets. By the time I remembered it was 12:44. The Palladium only holds just over 2000, so there wasn’t much hope.

But I wasn’t helped by Ticketmaster’s ludicrous captcha overkill. Seemed like every time I moved from one page to another I had to click an “I am not a robot” checkbox and then select all the pictures containing street signs, or pickup trucks, or storefronts, from an array of tiny shitty pictures. Pickup trucks and storefronts? We barely have the former in this country, and we don’t use the latter term. And sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s in the pictures. I was doing this on a phone, after all.

I wonder how serious their problem with automated ticket-buying bots is. I guess it must be an issue, given that the whole business of an inflated resale markets and touts at venues still exists.

Anyway, all gone in London, but you may have a chance elsewhere.

Ticket Captcha Fail

International Clash Day

I saw a hashtag on Twitter this evening: #InternationalClashDay. Well, it doesn’t take a lot, and now my actual favourite Clash song is blasting out of the Sonos: “Death or Glory,” from London Calling.

I say “actual” because if asked I would usually say that “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” is my favourite Clash song (if not overall favourite song, and very probably that too). And then I listen to London Calling again, and am reminded of the glory of “Death or Glory.”

If anyone ever asks who my favourite band is I’ll unhesitatingly say, “The Clash.” Almost unthinkingly, which may not be good; but some things become part of us.

I can almost remember when I first heard them properly. It was at Bob McGarry’s house. He played a single and then tried to impersonate John Peel, saying, “Those were The Clash,” which is how Peelie often used to back-announce things in those days. I don’t recall what track it was: “White Riot,” probably. I wasn’t overwhelmed, to be honest. It certainly didn’t have a life-changing feeling; not like when I heard Stiff little Fingers’s “Wasted Life,” possibly in the same house, or maybe it was in Brendan Conroy’s. I must write about that one someday.

But other songs and albums were waiting. I can’t honestly say what it was that finally did it for me. Maybe “Tommy Gun” or “English Civil War.” Maybe “White Man” itself. I do know that shortly after London Calling was released, my friend Steven Watt said to me, “I envy you: you haven’t heard London Calling yet.”

Somewhere in there, though — after I bought my first copy of London Calling for £3.991, and before I bought Sandinista for the same price — I was fully onboard, and searching for all the old singles in Glasgow record shops.

Writing that makes me think that the point of transition might actually have been when I saw my friends’ band The Varicose Veins2 doing “Clash City Rockers.” In which case a cover version was key. Which is fine. One of The Clash’s most famous songs, “I Fought the Law,” was a cover, after all.

I should probably be able to explain why they mean so much to me, but I’m not sure I can. It’s probably a combination of affinity for their viewpoint, the sheer raw energy of their early songs, and their lyrics.

But maybe not. Maybe it’s just that the golden age of music is around 14-15, and lessons learned then — lessons burned on the soul — stay with us.

“The only band that matters.” It’s been quoted so often it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.


  1. It later got stolen during a party in Edinburgh. I replaced it with a second-hand copy for the same price. []
  2. Said Brendan was the bass player. []
International Clash Day

Rezillos Gig

To the 229 venue on London’s Great Portland Street last night, to see the Rezillos, about whose reformation I’ve written about before, here. I didn’t go to see them back then, so last night I put that right. I had never even heard of this place before, but apparently it’s been around since the sixties. Nice place: good sound system, and fair beer (though the Punk IPA was off).

We had a support band called the Tuts, who are three women from Brighton, and the first band I’ve instantly fallen for since Savages.

The Tuts at 229
Despite what the backdrop and bass drum say, this was actually the Tuts.

Those are they. Check them out if you can.

And then we had the support band that I knew about in advance: Spizz Energi, who are a similar vintage to The Rezillos, and with similar SF-related sensibilities — at least as far as a couple of songs go. But on the night — and after the Tuts — they were actually quite dull.

Spizz Energi at 229

But the Rezillos killed it. They were utterly fantastic. Eugene was playing guitar for the first song or two, which surprised me, but he soon put that away and just sang, along with Fay, of course.

My only slight regrets were that we didn’t get “Thunderbirds Are Go” or “Teenbeat.” But all the other top hits were there.

IMG 4972

I realised as I was there that I only ever Instagram from gigs these days. Gig-gramming, I hereby christen it, though I expect I’m not the first.

Rezillos Gig

Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock by Amy Raphael (Books 2016, 14)

Been reading this over a period of a year or so, on and off, so it’s not really this year’s book. But that’s no reason not to write about it. It was published in 1994 and consists of interviews with a selection of the women who were relatively newly on the scene, or were established but getting some more visibility, around that time. It was the time of Riot Grrrl, among other movements.

So among the interviewees are Courtney Love, Huggy Bear, Liz Phair, Tanya Donnelly, Kristin Hersh, Kim Gordon… even Bjork. But there’s someone missing from the book. Nearly all of the interviewees, when talking about their influences or other women who were doing something interesting at the time, mention PJ Harvey. And she is not interviewed. Which is a shame. I would have loved to have read her thoughts on making music back then (or now, for that matter). And I’m sure Amy Raphael would have loved to interview her, so I’m guessing she didn’t want to do it.

But aside from that, it’s an interesting work. Very much a document of its time, though no doubt the problems and challenges that these women faced have not changed that much. A similar book today, though, would have a very different complement of interviewees; and indeed would need a different subtitle: women musicians are much more prominent in pop and R&B today, from Beyoncé on down. But maybe not so much in rock, unfortunately.

Well worth a read, though.

Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock by Amy Raphael (Books 2016, 14)