Simon Says #12: Back in 1979
1979 began a shapeshifting period for our columnist, during which he went from Selfridges to gigs with Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, to joining the Cocteau Twins.
Looking back to music circa 1979 seems a popular thing to do these days. Marc Riley’s shows on 6 Music are invariably imbued with the sounds and stories of that remarkable year and, indeed, many of the new bands featured also carry a spirit of ’79 inside the cases of their Shergold Masquerader guitars. My own band from 1979, The Drowning Craze, was initially an instrumental three-piece and between us, we liked a diverse mix of music: Delta 5, PiL, PragVEC, the Mo-dettes, Wire, Maximum Joy, The Pop Group, Can, etc. We dreamed of playing shows and putting some singles out.
I was 17 years old and, along with my flatmate and best friend Stan, I was obsessed with music. We lived together in a bedsit in Earls Court, and for almost a year, slept late most days, waking only to light the bong before stumbling out into the darkness to see some bands every night. It was the best of times and, clearly, the influence of the music I saw in this one year had a deep impact on me.
In ’79, I had a part-time job working in the sub-basement at Selfridges packing boxes, and though the work was mundane, by the time I got home my brain was so active and full of music. The following year, I started work at Beggars Banquet Record Shop in South Kensington a few minutes’ walk from our flat, and our fledgling band signed a singles deal with Situation Two, who were based in a shared office with 4AD, over the record shop. We soon got our first gig at Farnham Art College, and then what seemed like the biggest leap ever, supporting Bauhaus at Portsmouth Guildhall.
Everything seemed to be going so fast. We went almost overnight from this ragged, shambolic and directionless instrumental trio to having Single Of The Week in NME!
Our new singer was a New York art student called Angela Jaeger – later to join Pigbag – and writers of the calibre of Paul Morley at NME and Dave McCullough at Sounds were writing effusively about us. It was all a bit surreal. Angela had to go back to NYC to finish school, but the momentum was with us, and within a few months we were playing with Divine at Heaven in Charing Cross and supporting The Birthday Party in London at the Africa Centre with our new singer Frankie Nardiello from Chicago. Frankie had been in the band Special Affect with Al Jourgensen, who went on to form Ministry, and we hoped he would bring a similar magic to Angela.
The Birthday Party were a phenomenal live band. Heavy and yet utterly beautiful, the perfect visual and sonic replacement for the black hole that punk had left us. Tracy Pew, the band’s singular bassist, looked like a character from Midnight Cowboy, one that would eat anyone who got in his way. I could barely believe I was getting to share a stage with him, yet as we crossed on the stage stairs, I somehow found the courage to ask if I could use his bass rig.
“Absolutely not,” he quietly intoned, no doubt imagining chewing on my feeble carcass as he ambled past.
These were our gods. And even though The Birthday Party were probably only five years our senior, it felt like we were simply blessed just to be in the same room as them.
The reality was, we probably weren’t good enough to be in the same room as them. It wasn’t working out for us with new singer Frankie; indeed he was adorable, but our styles clashed and I don’t think we had recovered from losing Angela so soon. I certainly knew this was all I wanted to do with my life, but I had doubts about the rest of the band and whether they cared enough.
Frankie felt it, too, and returned to Chicago to form the band My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. I carried on with the record shop, and also took a part-time job in a recording studio in Camden.
A Magic Meeting
I was becoming close with Elizabeth and Robin of Cocteau Twins and, one weekend, invited them to come use the studio, as the owners were away. “So what do you want to do?” Robin asked, as we entered the studio.
“Me? Nothing! I’m just here to help you, if you want to record anything, this time is yours,” I told him. “Oh! We thought you wanted to write some songs with us. Have you got any basslines?” he said, in his lovely soft Scottish brogue. Elizabeth went out for chips, Robin and I wrote a song (Millimillenary) and when she came back, Elizabeth was immediately in love with the music and sang on it straight away. It was a wonderful night, unexpected and quite magical. A week later, Robin called me and asked me if I’d like to join the band. I didn’t need to even think about it.