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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Slabs of granite 1978-82: The View From Her Room

The period from roughly 1978 through to equally roughly 1982 seemed an absolute golden age for singles, and especially singles on UK independent labels. Oh and there were some fairly decent albums too. Things were often label-led, with the likes of Manchester's Factory, Liverpool's Zoo and Glasgow's Postcard all putting out music initially by local groups and managing to find common ground... In Factory's case this was primarily done through the use of one genius of a producer, Martin Hannett, for most of the early records. With Zoo it was far more that the bands genuinely were close, most of them had at least one member who'd been in one or more groups with at least one member of each of the others.

So this will be a series of occasional pieces focussing on one of those classic (or just important) singles. Randomly, the first to fall under our gaze is Weekend's The View From Her Room/Leaves Of Spring, released on Rough Trade in 1982. Rough Trade were in the midst of an extraordinary purple patch. They'd previously been better known as a distributor of other labels' records, although they had put out the odd few things, including the occasional classic such as the Subway Sect's Ambition, a record of enormous importance in terms of what was to happen over the following few years. However, unlike Factory, Zoo or Postcard, each of whom was associated with not just a particular genre but seemed to have its own sound, RT was more eclectic. The only real overall impression you got was perhaps of something slightly spiky, of records made on very tight budgets, often fairly politically oriented (e.g. The Pop Group's For How Much Longer... Robert Wyatt's series of singles collected on Nothing Can Stop Us, the Blue Orchids), but musically they did cover a lot of ground.

Weekend singer Alison Statton had, of course, been a kind of indie forces' sweetheart, pretty much every male in my circle of musical acquaintance (and one or two non-males) had at least a slight crush on her, if not a full-blown passion. I recently tried to explain this to my partner. Looking at a photo of Alison from the time, she couldn't understand why she might've been such a siren. "She's just quite pretty..." and that was the point, Alison was like girls you actually knew, who were pretty without stopping traffic and had nice singing voices but weren't Aretha Franklin or Kate Bush and if they were in a group just kind of stood there or wiggled a bit just like we boys. Indeed Alison's (I do hope she won't mind me calling her "Alison", it's very forward of me, I know) voice was a further embodiment of the same appeal and the fact that she was the very antithesis of the female pop or rock performer of the time. She sang almost blankly, using almost no artifice, no real vibrato, she didn't hold notes longer than necessary, the lyrics were clever in their ordinariness. The Young Marble Giants, her previous group, had made a single album which had sold an astonishing number of copies on Rough Trade, especially considering there was literally nothing to it.

For me I rather think that when I heard View for the first time, it would've been around the period when I was just discovering Joni Mitchell's mid-period masterpieces, such as Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. These remain among my favourite records, in fact I rather suspect that if there were a way of totalling such things up, these are probably the two albums I have played most consistently over the last 25 or so years. There are many other records I've played more intensively but I doubt that a period of more than perhaps 3-4 months has ever gone past without one or other of those two albums being played in my home. Not that View sounds anything like Joni, it doesn't, Alison is the complete opposite as a singer and the songwriting is totally different. But there's a languid, effortless grace and brilliance to them. One thing that stood out about Room was that it didn't sound much like a RT record; although it didn't sound especially expensive (and I very much doubt RT had the money to fund a really glossy production), it didn't sound spiky at all. It just sounded... Jazzy, I suppose.

The other fascinating thing about it was... well, the title. The view from HER room. This was perhaps the quietest, most seductive and among the most effective contributions to the feminist cause of the time. Punk had encouraged a lot of women to pick up instruments and to join bands on equal terms with the lads (and it'd forced some of the lads to accept this, although many of us were hugely relieved). However the music industry wasn't about to change the habits of a lifetime overnight, so if the girl in question was even remotely "attractive" (in the eyes of the exclusively male record executives, I never came across an A&R woman back then) then she'd have to fight unless she wanted to find herself draped across a car bonnet in something skimpy with her male colleagues sitting in the car looking on. But a lot of the independent labels had women helping to run things or in charge – suddenly the number of mixed gender bands jumped. Only a little over a decade previously Sly and the Family Stone had raised eyebrows and other body hair by not just being mixed-race but also featuring women instrumentalists clearly not there just to look pretty and sing harmonies.

Then there was the feel of the record – and its sound. It came only on 12" and quite rightly so, it'd've been a shame to edit it down and it needed the extra space offered by the medium. 12" singles sounded great, particularly if the record had a real sense of space to it. It opens with a couple of cool chords on guitar, a little flamenco guitar run and then into its groove. Like the Joni albums it's stood up to the test of time superbly. Weekend followed it with another gorgeous, slightly more mournful single, Past Meets Present and then another 12", Drumbeat For Baby, trailing their album, La Variété. The album felt slightly disappointing at the time, somehow the single – especially the 12" - seemed to be Weekend's medium. That's not to say that it's not a fine album, it is, but it perhaps lacks focus. However the current Cherry Red CD version adds all the non-LP single tracks, making it an essential purchase. Before that Vinyl Japan issued two CDs, one with the album plus a few demos and another called Archive featuring the non-LP singles plus selected radio sessions and live tracks.

The View From Her Room (and its wonderful 'b' side, Leaves Of Spring) seemed to suggest a whole world of possibilities ahead of us at the start of a decade that wasn't yet defined. That's the thing about the period we're looking at here. Little did we know that just a couple of years later every record would have to have a Linn drum on it, huge synth parts obliterating everything and your hair would need considerable enlargement, as would your shoulders and other parts of your anatomy. It also comes from the period before the 12" single format turned into the Frankenstein's monster it became for much of the eighties: at this point the medium was used for singles which were just too ambitious to fit into the grooves of a 7" or alternatively to offer four or more songs in EP form. Again, a couple of years down the line the default was to become the example of the razor-wielding engineer's art, where basically you took a 3-minute song, edited its chorus onto its front but in an instrumental version, then edited an extra verse into the middle (also instrumental), and then added an extra 2-3 minutes at the end made out of bits of tape left on the floor, then the engineer and producer had fun fiddling around with echo machines and synths under the impression that they were somehow Lee 'Scratch' Perry. The problem is that they weren't and the majority of these later 12" versions are a bit of a mess. However the 12" single could also be a medium in its own right, there are some singles that are made for the 7" format, most of them, in fact, I'm hardly the first person to note that there's something wonderful about the 7" pop record. But there are others which are in their natural habitat in the more spacious grooves of the 12". The View From Her Room is perhaps the archetype. Oh and it's one of the great summer records too. I almost forgot to mention that as we approach the end of May...

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