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Saturday, 24 May 2008

Written in granite: Looking For A Ghost

There are now very few of my very, very favourite albums which are yet to appear on CD and there's only one I can only think of released on a major label: the Distractions' Nobody's Perfect, which came out on Island in 1980. I remember buying it, it was in a sale and also in that same sale I came across an original US copy of Big Star's Third on PVC records. This was so much better than the UK version, often known as Sister Lovers that even today I always programme the CD to play the fourteen tracks from the PVC version in the order I know and love. But that's a matter for another day because today we're looking at The Distractions.

Should they have been huge? Well... In terms of their songwriting and the records they made oh yes, undoubtedly, they're so much better than their nearest southern equivalent, probably Squeeze. Except that where Squeeze were all nudge-nudge, wink-wink and undoubtedly very clever but ultimately not terribly exciting, the Distractions' records were perfect. However, as the LP title points out, Nobody's Perfect and the band's problem was... there's no getting away from it, I'm afraid – they looked like the junior staff of a bank who'd jumped up on stage at a party. Although this actually endeared them still further to people like myself, it was never going to see them become proper pop stars. A horrible irony as they were one of the first post-punk groups which genuinely embraced the pop idiom. At the time when I first heard them, on the debut EP You're Not Going Out Dressed Like That I was shocked at the sound of the thing. The guitars weren't buzz-saw Ramones/Buzzcocks at all! Pretty much every new group releasing their first record then (the EP came out as a 12" on TJM Records in 1978) had the distortion switched on. Indeed, as Mancunians I was expecting something along the lines of the Buzzcocks, a group I adored at the time as they wrote fantastic pop songs but delivered them with attitude – and a buzz-saw guitar sound. The sounds of the Distractions' instruments weren't punk at all, and in many ways I felt this made them more punk than many of the other records appearing at the time. Like Pete Shelley, they dealt in matters of the heart, but they did so on a much more down-to-earth level; there was nothing coy about them at all. After the EP, which was rough and ready, with very short songs, they released one of the all-time classic post-punk singles and, in a pre-post-modern kind of way it was a classic pop record released on Factory Records, of all labels. Not produced by Martin Hannett either, so it sounded unlike anything else Factory had done up to that point and yet seemed to fit perfectly, because what it did have was class. The song, Time Goes By So Slow, was a piece of 24-carat genius, with an intricate arrangement and a performance that sounded as though it was so breathless it might collapse at any moment until they reached the amazing middle section, with that wonderful jazzy chord at the end of each little sequence. For the first time on this single it becomes obvious that Mike Finney has one of the great pop voices, with a wonderfully broken edge, a catch in his throat that brought a lump to mine. Unfortunately, as I say, he looked like a chubby bespectacled bank clerk although for me this enhanced rather than diminished his stature, it was purely that I rather suspected that he might perhaps never get his due and unfortunately I was all too right. As a fellow wearer of glasses he was one of my heroes and to this day he remains one of my favourite vocalists. Unfortunately he came along just as we were entering the 1980s, a decade when most people agree that the way you looked could be of some slight importance.

After Time Goes By So Slow the band signed to Island and released a new version of It Doesn't Bother Me from the EP as a single (on white vinyl!), and very wonderful it was too. Then they came as close as they were ever going to with Boys Cry. It was so nearly a big hit; it picked up plenty of airplay, it started to sell but stalled just short of being a proper hit. That was followed by the album and one more single on Island, a retooled version of album track Something For The Weekend, a fine enough track but not the greatest choice of single. After that the band were dropped by their label, releasing just one more EP, well up to standard, called 24 Hours on Rough Trade before folding.

As for that album is is absolutely wonderful. It does rather sound as though most of the budget was spent on trying to get a hit with Boys Cry, the only cover version on the LP, which has a huge Spectoresque production although we'll come to the one other big number in a moment. It opens with Waiting For Lorraine, setting out the band's stall perfectly, picked guitars of a kind that echoed later on in the playing of Johnny Marr, a great pop tune, proper chorus, clever teenage angst lyric and that wonderfully perfect pop voice of Finney's. That's followed by the LP version of Weekend, frankly one of the weaker songs (although only relatively speaking) in the standard Friday On My Mind vein and then the aforementioned Boys Cry. Another short, upbeat pop song in Sick And Tired and then one of the album's real high points, Leave You To Dream, a song of such beautiful simplicity it still produces a bittersweet smile almost 30 years on. Side one closes with Louise (see Lorraine) and the amusing Paracetomol Paralysis, a song about... er... well, it's in the title, really, delivered at breakneck pace. If side one is great, side two is even better. It starts with (Stuck In A) Fantasy, another wonderful pop song and then a new version of Nothing, from the first EP, a song well worth revisiting. Another achingly beautiful bittersweet pop song (that's pretty much what the Distractions did, as you'll've gathered by now) called Wonder Girl and yet another called, ahem, Untitled. That brings us to my very favourite song on the album. As with so many of my favourite songs, Looking For A Ghost incorporates elements of both the sublime and the ridiculous. You can pretty much work out the lyric from the title: "People wonder why I smile the way I do/They think I should be sad now you're not around/People wonder why it is I don't miss you/Perhaps they don't know what I've found" it begins. Finney delivers his finest, subtlest vocal performance and, to his enormous credit, he does so to the most over-the-top, preposterious backing vocals ever laid to tape (or any other medium). They start off as silly "boo! I'm a ghost!" ooohs and ahs and then ramp it up from there. By verse 2 you're giggling, the longer the song goes on, the sillier the BVs get. Then we reach chorus 2, and suddenly we have a choir of ghosts... They drop out for verse 3 and then the final chorus is both the funniest and the most touching thing you'll ever hear as the orchestra brought in for Boys Cry plays a few bars as the ghost chorus goes absolutely berserk. It is utter genius. The first few times you hear it you can't help laughing until you cry... But underneath the wondrous bombast there's also pathos... Well, OK, there's also bathos (and, by the sound of the choir, the rest of the Musketeers). It is truly wonderful. They then make sure things end on an even sillier note: as the phantasmal chorus disappears off into the fade-out, in comes a piano, playing Satie-like chords for a few moments... And then in come the band at full-pelt playing a daft song called Valerie at Ramones-like speed. It's a truly great second side to a wonderful album. The songwriting is superb throughout, there's wonderful ensemble playing (no histrionics anywhere, barely a guitar solo), the songs are short and very, very sweet. When I look at the sheer breadth of albums from this period that have been reissued on CD over the last 15 years or so I just can't understand why either Island haven't put it out or at least licensed it to some smaller label. You could compile the entire Distractions catalogue (the EP, Factory single, Island album, 3 singles and 'b' sides and Rough Trade EP) all onto a single CD. Why on earth hasn't anybody done this?

5 comments:

granata said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Granite Shore said...

Hi Granata,
If you'd like to e-mail me (tgs@thegraniteshore.co.uk) I can give you full details. The final EP featured "Twenty-Four Hours", "Ghost Of A Chance" and "Love Is Not For Me".
Nick

Mike Finney said...

Thank you for the article and the comments. Steve and me got together with a few people about 15 years ago and recorded 5 songs, 4 in Manchester and 1 in London. We did it for fun and I will happily send them to you (digitally) to see what you think. I'm not sure how to send them, but I will check the blog for your reply.
Mike Finney July 2009

The Granite Shore said...

Hi Mike, if you'd like to send an e-mail to:
tgs@thegraniteshore.co.uk
then we can discuss this - I'd be thrilled to hear the tracks.
Look forward to hearing from you.
Nick

ger said...

Hi!

ever come by the And then ther's-ep?

i can't find it

Bye

Ger

gerknoopridderkerk@hetnet.nl

ship
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