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Sunday, 9 March 2008

Written in granite: a bad education

I think I've read too many books, seen too much TV.

I think I've paid too much attention to a bad education

The Blue Orchids, Bad Education, from The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain).


So wrote Martin Bramah, presciently, on the first Blue Orchids album which came out as we tiptoed across the ice and into the winter of 1981, only to find there was no need to tiptoe because it was going to be the coldest winter since before our memories kicked in and the ice was very thick. If he were updating the lyric now he might very well add "I think I've heard too many reissues of 'classic' albums with bonus tracks". And of course, at the time when he wrote this lyric, TV programmes were ephemeral, or if they lived on they did so only by occasional repeats or in the memory (or, at least for comedy, the Chinese whispers of the playground). You couldn't buy a boxed set containing every episode of something you'd loved the previous month, and if you happened to have been too young to have caught some touchstone of popular culture when it originally aired your only chance was to keep an eye out in case it got repeated late at night on BBC2. In which case you had to make sure you were in front of a television set when it went out – I remember planning my evenings around repeats of The Prisoner shown on ITV in the early eighties because I'd been too young to catch it first time around and never having seen it felt like a gaping chasm in my (bad) education.

The article in the Guardian mentioned in yesterday's post can be read here. I'm not sure whether this means that nowadays everyone is receiving a bad education or whether, on the contrary, nobody is. Either would be a bad thing, I suspect. My own education was a fairly haphazard affair, it's fair to say. I've certainly had a lot of it, much self-inflicted, but it's all been fairly disorganised. On the other hand this probably accounts to some extent for the kind of lyrics I write. I'll start off writing about one thing then I'll make some seemingly random connection halfway through the first verse and before I know it I've veered off at a number of different tangents. Sometimes, when I'm on form, I may manage to link things back up again and produce something which I at least feel has a proper arc of some kind. At other times the result is chaotic and, in some cases, we get both, which can be good or it can be infuriating - or again both.

The Blue Orchids album was a very important record, although I suspect probably only for a fairly small group of us. The band's Fall connections were intriguing, of course, but it soon became clear that this was a very, very different proposition. Somehow you couldn't really imagine Mark E. Smith setting W.B. Yeats to music. Nor could you imagine him making unambiguous statements of the kind found on the Blue Orchids' The Greatest Hit, which is full of slogans: "keep a low profile", "climb the mountain", "the hole in my pocket belongs to the State", "this gets me that". It's a political album, perhaps more so than any in the canon of, say , The Clash. But it is also a thing of beauty, of poetry, quite literally, with the aforementioned Yeats-inspired Mad As The Mist And Snow, of aspiration and (from severe to serene) inspiration. Another very unusual thing about the record was that it seemed to have that rare thing, a male/female balance. The lyric sheet included with the original LP did tell us which lyrics had been written by Martin and which by fellow ex-Fall member Una Baines. Interestingly this wasn't always immediately obvious. There were, of course, other groups who were, to quote the Au Pairs (themselves one of the most obvious examples), "playing with a different sex". But in most cases it seemed to be about a tension between the male and the female elements – often that was the great thing – and usually the lyrics would be written by one gender or the other. Or if not it was generally pretty clear who'd done what.

The Blue Orchids didn't last long. There had been two extraordinary singles, The Flood/Disney Boys and Work/The House That Faded Out, before the album, after it there was the Agents Of Change EP, one of the finest records ever released in EP form, in my book, suggesting there would be great things to come. But unfortunately they split. Bramah has put together new line-ups on a few occasions over the years and has made some very, very fine records. I recommend you visit http://www.blueorchids.net/ for more information, there's a new solo album, apparently. Most of the back catalogue is available from LTM Records, including the superb expanded reissue of that extraordinary debut album.

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