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The Indelicates – In Conversation (2020 re-edit)

Before PIFL was a rarely-updated blog, it was an even more infrequently-released fanzine. One of a few I tried to make happen in my teens and 20s.

Warm on the heels of boredom (two issues and out) and Northern Quarter (one and done) were the two sole issues of Play it Fucking Loud.

After (all-too) eagerly sticking a copy of Issue #1 into the hands of Julia Indelicate as she tidied up her gear after a show somewhere, I badgered her and joint frontperson Simon into letting me interview them for Issue #2.

The Indelicates

The interview was a thrill, but the article was embarrassingly pompous, overwrought and overwritten.

I’m not just saying that. It used the words “scribes”, “weblog”, and “dèbut” with an accent, for god’s sake. Weblog. Christ.

So I’ve given it a nip and tuck to make it a bit more readable, taken out (some of) the rambling and fawning, and gone back to the transcript to neaten up the quotes.

The Indelicates - The Last Significant Statement To Be Made in Rock 'N' Roll

Soon after Play it Fucking Loud #2 was printed up in 2008, I gleefully sold out with an entry-level part time job as a Celebrity Big Brother Reporter at Digital Spy.

It evolved into an eight-year stint as a journalist and eventually news editor before I moved on/out, but not before I took advantage of my fortunate situation to interview Simon and Julia a few more times.

They were always lovely to talk to, and more importantly were always making great art and saying interesting things about it.

The Indelicates have kept on writing, playing and recording. Listen to their stuff on Spotify and then go and buy it from their Corporate Records website.


“Once in a corridor in Memphis / Was a singer took a breath / Wrote the birth of the teenager / Now we come to write his death”

‘The Last Significant Statement To Be Made In Rock ‘N’ Roll’

PIFL has been here before. Ever since we bought our first tapes from Our Price we’ve been bombarded by journalists and musicians telling us that pop is dead.

At the same time, we’ve also seen endless magazine covers yelling the exact opposite, usually while hailing some fourth-generation rock ‘n’ roll facsimiles as our new favourite band.

Fronted by Simon and Julia, what’s striking about The Indelicates is that while their lyrics echo the first view, their songs are actually good enough to make you believe.

After a few sharp singles, their acerbic, explosive debut album American Demo was released in April.

“I’m alright about the album now,” says Simon. “I was really unhappy about it the week before it came out.

“I just felt really exposed. Like I’d walked out on stage at the school play without knowing any lines. Now it’s actually come out I’ve stopped worrying about it.”

Listening to the album, you can understand why its release might make him feel vulnerable. American Demo offers up a pretty singular take on love, life, drugs, politics and rock ‘n’ roll itself.

“I’m the most right-wing person I know, by a clear margin,” Simon says. It’s not the sort of thing you usually hear a musician say, especially one in their mid-20s.

We’ve just asked him about an unhinged review of the album that, among other things, denounced the band as rabid left-wingers and no-good feminists.

The review also suggested that Julia would be better off having a solo career, leaving Simon to write for Mojo.

“It really upset me,” Simon says of that final barb. “It really did bug me to the point where I had to talk about it in interviews and on stage.”

Julia isn’t too keen on the idea either.

“It’s really offensive to me because I’m not stupid,” she says. “I’m not just ‘a female singer’.

“When someone says that what they mean is, ‘You’ve got a great voice and I didn’t listen to a word of what you were saying’. I mean, fuck off! Seriously, what gives you the right to say that to me?

“It’s always men of a certain age – it’s always ‘industry professionals’. They’re maybe late 30s or whatever, they’re just trying to pull is what it is.

“They’re trying to be your friend and you’re thinking, ‘I’m not going to be your friend if you’re not going to be polite!’.”

Still seething, Simon half-quips: “At least The Spectator! If they said I should write for The Spectator I would have been, ‘Fine, alright’.”

The Indelicates - We Hate The Kids

Was he really bothered by the ranting of some nobody on a blog you’ve never heard of?

“The reason it got to me is that I don’t think I’ve got any right to be doing anything in music,” he says.

“I’m middle class, for a start… I can’t really sing, to be honest. I can hold a tune, but I don’t really have a range or anything like that.

“It was like, ‘What are you doing, Twat? You should be a lawyer or something. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing’.

“It wasn’t so much that he said it but that I agreed. I was in a really bad mood anyway because the album was coming out and I didn’t want it to because I was scared, but I’m over it now.”

We’re only talking to Simon and Julia today, but The Indelicates are more than a duo. It’s just that outside the music the other members of the band don’t get much of a look in.

The Indelicates up on the roof

On stage in Manchester a few hours after this interview, drummer Ed van Beinum, bassist Kate Newberry and guitarist Al Clayton come into their own. As a group they take the songs up a level, giving them a harder-edged, glammier sound.

Al especially bounces around the venue like a dosed-up Gummi Bear, offering the crowd more than just the frontpeople as a focus.

Do the other members feel deprived of a voice, as well as a place on the front cover of their own album?

“No, because they hate talking to people, so that’s the price,” Simon laughs.

“They don’t mind,” Julia says. “I think they like being the rhythm section. They all joined up because of that, so they don’t want to be in the ‘public eye’ as such, though they do on stage.”

Simon adds: “They’re our words, so it’s up to us to take responsibility for what we said.”

‘Cos if we can’t have a better world / Then at least can we be right?”
– ‘The British Left In Wartime’

Back to the politics. Simon might describe himself as the most right wing person he knows, but he hardly talks like Nick Griffin and The Indelicates aren’t exactly Skrewdriver.

In fact, the band recently donated a track to REPEAT fanzine’s Fuck the BNP right off compilation. So what does he mean by that, then?

Well, along with ‘Our Daughters Will Never Be Free’ – Julia’s swipe at post-feminism – the album has a couple more out-and-out political moments.

‘Better to Know’ is unashamedly pro-liberal, pro-awareness, while ‘America’ hacks at the reflexive anti-Americanism of much of the British left.

We wonder if songs like that make the band feel set apart from other musicians.

“Yeah,” says Simon, “But I’d probably be embarrassed to do it if I didn’t feel a bit out on a limb.

“‘America’ especially is something that I care about. You do get this constant stupidity from the left, which is really disappointing and irritating. It really does bug me.

“It’d be very easy to write songs about how I don’t like George Bush, because of course, no-one likes George Bush.

“Just as it’s very easy to shock the Daily Mail, but it’s kind of pointless. That’s what they’re for – the Daily Mail – to be shocked.

“Anything that runs against the grain of what the people you’re talking to believe seems a lot more worthwhile.

“If you’re having a go at the people directly in front of you, at least you’re not just talking to the choir.”

Simon Indelicate

At PIFL, we’re not demanding that our favourite bands echo our politics. It’s just refreshing to hear a band making a point of thinking for themselves before shooting off their mouths.

At the very least, we want artists to recognise the contradictions that flare up if they start preaching to their fanbase.

Too many hotly-tipped guitar bands in Britain right now seem focused on just three things: their careers, teenage girls, and drugs.

“The popstars who write operas / And make fatuous remarks / The theory quoting upstarts / Who snort fairtrade coke in parks”
– ‘America’

“Coke is the least ethically produced crop in the world,” Simon says. “People’s feet can get burned off when they have to tread it in acid, otherwise they get shot. People won’t go to McDonald’s but they’ll buy coke.”

He adds: “The bands of this generation are a lot less radical than those of their parents’ generation.

“And that in itself suggests a reversal of something which was once interesting and made changes in society as a voice for youth.

“It stopped being that when Kurt Cobain shot himself, and became just a method of selling pieces of plastic to teenagers.”

Simon thinks the idea of rock ‘n’ roll as rebellion has run its course. There’s no longer any evidence of it.

Julia takes up the thread.

“I think indie music’s dead too,” she says. “As in independent, an independent scene.

“With the alternative scene in America the difference is phenomenal. The alternative scene in America consists of a vast number of different things but they’re really supportive.

“There are all sorts of labels that are basically small businesses that will come and support that, whereas in England ours died.

“Ours died and possibly became pop music, which is fine. That’s what happens. But people forget there was a reason it was indie music. That it was independent – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

After a short stint on Sad Gnome Records, the band signed to independent label Weekender. Was it always the strategy to stay free on an indie? Not quite.

Simon admits he always wanted to release the album “on a massive label” and Julia agrees.

“In terms of sound it’s not not commercial, though maybe it is in terms of lyrics,” she says.

“It doesn’t bother me being on an indie, because you have a lot more control over what happens.

“But if a big label ever wanted to sign us up we’d definitely say yes. And we’d say yes having thought it through. We’re not dumb, so we think about it.

“I don’t really have a problem with many people being able to buy your music. The more people that hear about it the better really.”

“When they pin me to the wall, I’ll say / I’m with America / With godless America”
– ‘America’

The band went to the States earlier this year to play South by Southwest. Despite all hype, what they found when they got there was a pretty tedious industry get-together.

“No different from the Tory party conference,” Simon says. “Just lots of men in suits walking around with badges on, talking about fringe meetings and how excited they are about everything.”

The surroundings were something else, though.

“I really liked being in America,” Julia says. “The space in Texas is just phenomenal.

“I was born in Saudi Arabia and I used to live in compounds because my dad worked for an airline.

“The compounds used to be some way into the desert and I’m really used to vast amounts of space.

“It’s so nice to look to the horizon and it’s just immense… it’s such a wonderful feeling to be able to do that. If you live in a city all the time, you don’t get that.

“It’s really, really freeing and it also makes you feel like you could survive it, if you’re a positive person.

“You feel, ‘I could do this, I could walk through this desert, and I could work it out, I’d be able to stand alone’.

“I think there’s a lot of that about America, despite it having loads and loads of problems. There’s something about that, about you feeling able to do something.

“The dark days ahead / And the blood on the bed / And the cover of the NME / They gave us a cheque / And took us by our necks /
And swore undying loyalty”

– ‘New Art For The People’

Back to Blighty. Does being on the front cover of Britain’s oldest surviving pop weekly mean anything anymore? Simon says yes, Julia no.

“To be fair, I never read the NME and I was never into indie music,” Julia says. “I was into dance music and classical music.”

Simon replies: “But I didn’t grow up somewhere cool! Where I grew up, the NME was like a lifeline and I find it really difficult to slag it off because it meant loads to me as a kid.”

The Indelicates - The Graduate

Julia says: “I just don’t like the NME because I don’t like music writing. I find the NME to be particularly bad, but I don’t find Plan B that different.

“They’ll be like, ‘Sounds a bit like this band, and this band and this band’. It’s not that I have a problem with it as such, it’s just that it doesn’t make any sense to me.

“That’s what I mean about it not meaning anything. Maybe it means something to some people, but I think it means more in terms of business than anything else.

“The Wombats are on the cover, therefore they’re going get big for the next six months. And then they’re going to get shot down in flames and part of me feels a bit sorry for them because a lot of them are just kids.”

There are still some acts out there who impress The Indelicates. Former Sad Gnome labelmate Lily Rae, Jim Bob from Carter USM, Red Zebra, and The Flesh Happening all get a mention.

“They’re amazing,” Simon says of The Flesh Happening. “It feels like watching Bowie, but with this more aggressively queer, really disgusting edge, a really proper edge, something that really is quite shocking.”

Despite all the undisguised musical nods and reference points, The Indelicates themselves don’t really sound like anyone else in British pop right now.

A very big part of that is their lyrics. They know it, too, if their deliciously snarky ‘Too Schooled For Cool’ T-shirt on the merch stand is anything to go by.

“I’m bitter and twisted / Unaddressed and unlisted / And all of our plans came to nothing, it seems”
– ‘Point Me To The West’

“I try not to lie with everything we do and I think we succeed in that,” Simon says of what the band are trying to achieve.

“I mean, I don’t necessarily think I’m a particularly good singer, and I’m an alright guitarist – I’ve been practising long enough.

“I don’t think there’s anything we say that isn’t something we’ve thought through properly. It’s intended honestly.

“I think if we could be financially stable while not lying to people, that’d be good enough really.”

The Indelicates - American Demo

The cover of American Demo features Simon and Julia behind a freshly-painted white line, bucket and brush in hand. It’s a bold cover, and it makes bold statement.

“Being out on a limb – the cover of the album is mainly designed with that in mind – because I take responsibility for everything I said,” Simon says.

“It’s why the week before releasing the album I felt terrible, just terrified and unpleasantly naked.

“But, I wanted to be on the cover, and to have Julia on the cover as well, going ‘Yeah, it was us’.”

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Music

Luke Haines & Peter Buck – Beat Poetry For Survivalists

Luke Haines and Peter Buck. Luke Haines and Peter Buck.

The mind immediately searches for transatlantic flips of this arrangement. Anton Newcombe and Graham Coxon? Errrr, Thurston Moore and Bonehead?

The full story of how this decidedly odd couple got together is everywhere, and you can read it in Haines’s own words here.

In short, Buck bought a Haines Lou Reed painting, and they started a penpal album project.

As the guitarist in REM, Peter Buck sold a squillon records. With The Auteurs, Luke Haines did not (but absolutely deserved to).

Since REM split in September 2011, Peter Buck has released three solo albums and worked with a bunch of people on various stuff.

The same month REM split, Luke Haines said: “I’m not questing for a commercial breakthrough.”

Looking at the list of music he’s released since then, you’re inclined to believe him.

There’s been:

All of these records are varying levels of brilliant. Especially the animals one.

All (except the Electronic Sound mag freebie Freqs) are free to listen to on Spotify. It’s 2020. Click. Listen. Enjoy.

But now he’s hooked up with Peter Buck. Peter Buck. So we’re half expecting a mix of that razor sharp Haines wit mumble-mumble-mumbled over some jangle, maybe with some New Adventures in Hi-Fi FX thrown over the top, right?

Nahhh.

Despite Buck co-writing every song and laying down track after track of guitars (and Fifth REMmer Scott McCaughey playing bass), this is for all intents and purposes a Luke Haines album.

The beefiest, punchiest Luke Haines album since After Murder Park, probably, but a Luke Haines album all the same.

So of course it opens with a song about the Aleister Crowley-inspired (and L Ron Hubbard-inspiring) rocket engineer Jack Parsons who died in a lab explosion aged 37. Of course there are songs about Bigfoot hunters, Johnnie Ray, and the essential unpleasantness of Andy Warhol.

And of course, it’s great. It’s thwack after thwack of hooky, ridiculous, singular, rock ‘n’ roll insanity.

Even after joining forces with a guitarist who sold more than 85 million albums, Luke Haines still isn’t questing for a commercial breakthrough. Thank fuck for that.

Luke Haines & Peter Buck – Beat Poetry For Survivalists is out now on Cherry Red.

Luke Haines and Peter Buck are actually going to be in the same room together playing it on tour in April.

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Music

Sing Your Life: Morrissey at 60

As Morrissey releases his 13th solo studio album, the same tired debates and arguments are being rolled out.

To recap, Morrissey turned 60 last year. Elder statesman of rock age. Old enough for a free Travelcard on his rare visits to London.

But the big day slipped by with little more than a murmur. No birthday live shows, no BBC Four retrospective, and no 60-track Spotify playlists.

His groundbreaking, pop-redefining five years with The Smiths in the mid-1980s should have been enough to warrant a dizzy celebration. And then there’s his occasionally brilliant early solo career and genuinely triumphant 2004 comeback.

Morrissey
Morrissey © Creative Commons

As ever with Morrissey, it’s a little bit complicated. His bad-tempered, snarling battles with a record industry from which he refuses to cut himself free can easily be ignored, as can the middling (at best) quality of his last few records.

What’s been more difficult to set aside are the political outbursts that have seen him increasingly lurch from alt-rock to alt.right.

Every unpleasant squeak about immigration or Islam or race is followed by the same, boring Bigmouth Strikes Again headlines and an equally-reductive retread of the argument about whether or not you can separate art from the artist.

With Morrissey, both these responses utterly miss the point.

Morrissey’s public pronouncements aren’t some juvenile slur dug up by journalists scouring social feeds for cheap clicks. They’re not an ill-advised mid-interview blurt to be swiftly apologised for, if never quite forgotten.

This isn’t about “cancel culture”. These aren’t one-off rants or rambles. The ideology of his outbursts are central to Morrissey’s public being.

And while the personal is unavoidably political for all of us, in his work Morrissey has always been completely both.

Others sang your life, but now is a chance to shine
And have the pleasure of saying what you mean
Have the pleasure of meaning what you sing

Sing Your Life’ from Kill Uncle (1991)

Aside from relatively narrow concerns about whether or not fans should financially support a horrible person, in the case of Morrissey it doesn’t really matter what the man born on May 22, 1959 in Lancashire really thinks or feels.

There is an idea of Morrissey; some kind of abstraction. But in 2020? Unless you’re in the ever-shrinking circle of family, friends, or colleagues, there is no real him: only an entity, something illusory.

Morrissey – ‘Sing Your Life’

In any meaningful sense, the Morrissey you hear on record is Morrissey. Any other Morrissey is of minimal critical interest. It simply is not there.

From The Smiths on, whether Morrissey is writing in the first or third person, the art has always been the artist. The singer is the song.

And in that regard, none of this discussion is anything new. The first serious issues with Morrissey’s work came all the way back on his first solo album.

Bengali, Bengali
Oh, shelve your Western plans
And understand
That life is hard enough when you belong here

‘Bengali in Platforms’ from Viva Hate (1988)

An open letter to a first-generation immigrant, ‘Bengali in Platforms’ could – and maybe should – have ended Morrissey’s post-Smiths career as soon as it started.

Dressed up in cloying faux-sympathy (“Break the news to him gently”), the message is clear enough. This Bengali immigrant does not “belong” in the narrator’s England.

While many rightly called out the song at the time and since, some of us desperately twisted and turned to excuse it. We were all-too eager to forgive or ignore such small-minded prejudice to allow us to enjoy the brilliance on either side of it.

Morrissey – ‘Bengali in Platforms’

We stretched its meaning past breaking point. Reframing it as a character song, or even a critique of racist attitudes rather than the slightest endorsement of them.

Morrissey scholar Simon Goddard understandably-if-not-quite-excusably took that line. In his Mozipedia he dismisses concerns about Morrissey and his lyrics in turn as “misconstrued”, “misunderstood”, “wild misinterpretation”, “nonsensical”, “false”, “tired and inaccurate”, a “witch hunt” and even a “racist smear campaign”.

Others disagreed. Cornershop knew the score from the off, grabbing some of their first headlines for righteously burning a photograph of Morrissey outside EMI’s offices.

Still sticking to the text and tracks, that was far from the end of it.

Tooled-up Asian boy
Has come to take revenge
For the cruel, cold killing
Of his very best friend

‘Asian Rut’ from Kill Uncle (1991)

On the surface, the dismal ‘Asian Rut’ from the limp Kill Uncle is more sympathetic than ‘Bengali in Platforms’.

While it opens questioning what drugs an anonymous “Asian boy” is on, it soon emerges the “tooled-up” kid is out on a fatally doomed bid to avenge the (presumably racist) murder of his best friend.

The murder is a “cruel, cold killing”, the Asian boy is “brave” and the three-on-one attack that halts his attempt at vengeance “must be wrong”.

Like ‘Bengali in Platforms’, the surface-level sympathy feels false, mocking even. Scratch just an inch below and the song feels cold, heartless and emotionally disconnected from its supposedly lead character.

Morrissey – ‘Asian Rut’

In his very best moments, Morrissey is so at one with his characters that he utterly becomes them. By contrast, here he’s a detached first-person narrator “just passing through here on my way to somewhere civilized”.

‘Asian Rut’ is no morality tale. There are no lessons learned. Minimal anger. Zero catharsis. There’s a complete absence of empathy. By contrast, even Jack the Ripper gets a more sympathetic hearing in Morrissey’s dialogue-in-song, earning level-pegging with his victims.

As a one-off, ‘Asian Rut’ would be a cold, strange addition to anyone’s back catalogue. On the heels of ‘Bengali in Platforms’, it’s clear that race and racism was fast becoming a preoccupation for the solo Morrissey.

Issues with its lyrical content to one side, Kill Uncle was so musically underpowered and melodically vacant it made a serious dent Morrissey solo career.

Then along came a Spider…

We may seem cold, or
We may even be
The most depressing people you’ve ever known
At heart, what’s left, we sadly know
That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know

‘We’ll Let You Know’ from Your Arsenal (1992)

The phrase is bandied about far too often, but propelled by Mick Ronson’s production, Your Arsenal was one of Morrissey’s two genuine, unarguable, returns to form.

Sonically it fused The Smiths’ melodic melancholia and Ronson’s ’70s rock edge with a much more successful version of the rockabilly attempted on its predecessor.

Morrissey – ‘We’ll Let You Know’

But yet again, lyrically Morrissey wilfully strode into troubling territory.

‘We’ll Let You Know’ was a delightfully delirious, woozy, love-letter to British (actually English) football hooliganism, pointedly written in first-person plural (compare and contrast with the distancing third person of ‘Bengali in Platforms’ and ‘Asian Rut’).

Oh, you’re going to
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
England for the English!
England for the English!

‘The National Front Disco’ from Your Arsenal (1992)

And on ‘The National Front Disco’ a mother mourns her boy who’s been “lost” to the NF because “there’s a country, you don’t live there, but one day you would like to”.

A blistering stomp of a track, it’s certainly not unambiguously pro-National Front, though neither is it really condemnatory.

Even more than ‘Bengali in Platforms’, ‘Asian Rut’ or ‘We’ll Let You Know’, ‘The National Front Disco’ is a pure character piece that in isolation offers plenty of plausible deniability.

Morrissey – ‘The National Front Disco’

What’s more, by 1992 the National Front had long been in decline, making the song feel like a historical study to file alongside This Is England, rather than a current expression of its author’s politics.

A decade after chairman John Tyndall split off to form the BNP, the NF was an irrelevance as a political party, even as its wretched, racist ideology lived on.

But coming in a run of songs on a similar theme, it felt as though artistic preoccupation was fast becoming a borderline obsession.

After Your Arsenal came Morrissey’s solo high point Vauxhall & I, an album that thankfully shied away from matters of race, racism and nationality and was all the better for it.

Then there was the artistic dip of Southpaw Grammar, the personality-altering blow of losing a court case to former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, and the miss ‘n’ hit Maladjusted.

Seven years in the wilderness followed before Morrissey finally returned with one of the great comebacks. And when you saw Morrissey’s name up in Elvis ’68 lights at his long-awaited Manchester homecoming, it was clear he knew it, too.

I’ve been dreaming of a time when
To be English is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial

‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ from You Are The Quarry (2004)

Half a decade of intermittent touring had kept the flame alive while allowing enough of the mutual contempt that has grown between Morrissey and the media in the ’90s to die down.

And while the internal rancour from Morrissey had probably only grown in the years since his self-imposed exile, on record at least it veered away from the arguably actionable (‘Sorrow Will Come In The End’) towards almost gently self-parodic (‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’).

Morrissey – ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’

Rather than ignore the controversies of his past work, Morrissey sought to revise and recast them. Morrissey was no racist. He was a patriot. His celebration of Englishness was no different to The Libertines’ post-racial celebration of a quasi-mythical Albion.

As if to prove it, Morrissey won a public apology from The Word in 2008 and a second one from the NME in 2012 for suggesting anything otherwise in their framing of his quotes from an earlier 2007 interview.

Again, the legal settlements about Morrissey the Person are almost irrelevant. Morrissey the Artist had already outlined his case on disc by launching his comeback with ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’.

And we were so surprised by how good the songs sounded that we wilfully pushed our reservations about what they meant to the back of our brains and swallowed the argument.

Over the 15 years that followed as Morrissey’s public pronouncements veered from unpalatable to unacceptable, the quality of his music almost helpfully followed a similar trajectory.

As well as long-time fans and apologists now keeping their distance, Morrissey’s continued fall didn’t just lead to those tired and empty art/artist discussions.

It also opened the door to countless people falling over themselves to tell anyone who’ll listen that not only did they never like Morrissey, they always hated The Smiths, anyway. It’s a self-regarding, incurious way of approaching all this.

But what these people inadvertently do get right is that these issues didn’t just spring from nowhere when the post-Marr Smiths first demoed an early, more unpleasant-sounding version of ‘Bengali in Platforms’.

There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

‘How Soon Is Now’ from the B-Side of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (1984) / A-Side single (1985)

Over their four studio albums and flurry of singles in half a decade, The Smiths presented a specific version of vulnerable masculinity that was pretty much unheard of in pop before.

Rock had long been dominated by the crass Freudian guitar waving that had taken hold since the tail end of the 1960s (“I’m gonna give ya every inch of my love”).

The Smiths – ‘How Soon Is Now’

And while other expressions of maleness in rock had emerged by the mid-1980s, none were quite like The Smiths.

Sexual but decidedly not sexy. Romantic but absolutely not loved up. Essentially unrequited. Certainly not macho but not feminine nor truly androgynous either. Buzzcocks with a jangle, maybe.

The melancholy, self-pity and dark humour of those Smiths’ songs tap into a universal teenage experience.

Girl afraid
Where do his intentions lay?
Or does he even have any?

‘Girl Afraid’ from the B-Side of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ (1984)

While the importance of Marr (and Rourke and Joyce too, for that matter) is all too often underplayed, it’s undeniable that the connection of Morrissey’s lyrics with their young audience is what would rightly immortalise The Smiths.

The Smiths – ‘Girl Afraid’

The band expressed the trials and torment of teenage wildlife like no other pop group before or since.

Looking back now though, it’s possible to see how, if (over)indulged, the raging sense of teen injustice, isolation and rejection so perfectly captured and transmitted by The Smiths becomes a feedback loop.

I was driving my car
I crashed and broke my spine
So yes, there are things worse in life than
Never being someone’s sweetie

‘That’s How People Grow Up’ from Greatest Hits (2008) / Years of Refusal (2009)

Left to fester or even encouraged, resentment rides high. Emotions won’t grow. Self-pity tips into self-loathing. Mix that up with narcissism, sexual entitlement and a dose of unhealthy misanthropy and you’ve got a primordial soup for hate.

No-one would suggest that putting Meat is Murder on repeat as a teen is a one-way ticket to /r/incels (gone, not missed), or that collecting Smiths records sets you on a rocky road to UKIP.

Morrissey – ‘That’s How People Grow Up’

After all, most of the millions of Smiths fans (and three quarters of The Smiths) manage to get through a week without endorsing For Britain.

And no-one needs another unduly sympathetic embrace of supposedly Lost Boys definitely old enough to know better already caught up in the alt.right.

But if you believe that art has value, meaning and impact (which it does), and that pop is art (which it is), then a proper critical appraisal of music that explores such powerful and universal emotions must be worthwhile.

It may not get us anywhere further as a culture, but it’s certainly more valuable than pompously pouting about how unenthused you were by The Smiths 35 years ago, or asking yet again if you can separate the art from the artist.

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Music

Dried up Roses all turn to stone…

There are still questions about the (final?) disintegration of The Stone Roses in the summer of 2017.

John Squire finally confirmed the break-up in late 2019, but the reasons for the split are unknown and it seems that most of the new songs the band had been working on since their reunion are lost.

The Stone Roses live in Milan in 2012
© Alfio66 / Creative Commons

Were plans for a third album scuppered by the apparently disgruntled Reni, whose departure back in the mid-1990s led to the band’s first break-up?

Were the batch of songs recorded so far below expectations that they were shelved forever, not even worthy to sit alongside Garage Flower?

Or was the whole promise of a “live resurrection” just cover for a couple of runs through The Hits and an overdue (and well-deserved) payday?

Maybe the two limp tracks that did emerge really were all that there was.

But there were references to new material as far back as a rehearsal setlist for the 2012 comeback shows in Shane Meadows film Made of Stone. And it’s not even known if the two apologetic singles we eventually got actually came from there.

The Stone Roses: Made of Stone

Those two songs – ‘All For One’ and ‘Beautiful Thing’ – underline the problem with The Stone Roses’ presumably final run.

Against all the odds and in the face of a justified amount of cynicism, the comeback gigs themselves were thrilling. It felt as though the band had pretty much picked up where they’d left off. In fact, it felt less like a continuation of 1996 and more an alternate timeline branching off in 1991.

With a setlist almost entirely made up of songs from the Roses’ 1987-1990 imperial phase, and just a smattering of the messy-but-overmaligned Second Coming (I like it), the shows (re)captured a moment in time and almost threatened to transcend nostalgia.

But the reunion couldn’t quite manage that without offering something genuinely new. And so to the comeback songs.

And what goes up must come down
Turns into dust or turns into stone

The Stone Roses – ‘One Love’

The last single of the band’s first (pre-break) run was ‘One Love’. That track dazzled and shimmered, but at the same time there was a sense of it treading water, rather than following the leap forward of the genre (re)-defining ‘Fools Gold’.

A quarter of a century on, ‘All For One’ magnified that sense of disappointment many times over.

A vapid murmur over a meandering shuffle, it sounded like the work of a band who had wilfully ignored the last 25 years of pop music. The will-this-do lemon-aided sleeve was almost an apologetic admission that this was little more than a regressive retro retread.

Follow up ‘Beautiful Thing’ was significantly better, but it was still too little, much too late.

What was so disappointing is that – collectively and individually – the band had in the past already proved themselves more than willing to evolve.

For all the poor reviews and disappointment at the time, their belated Second Coming was a real shift from what came before.

Despite conventional wisdom you can usually judge a record by its cover, and the drastically different artwork showed that this wasn’t going to be The Stone Roses 2.0.

Released as the Britpop scene the band had so inspired was exploding, it sounded both unlike everything around it and markedly different from the band’s own past

And with ‘Breaking Into Heaven’, ‘Daybreak’, ‘Love Spreads’, and especially ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Begging You’, they came up with a clutch of songs every bit the equal of The Stone Roses.

More than that, after the split each member of the band moved on in very different directions in the following two decades.

First out of the traps was Mani, who revitalised a stuttering Primal Scream and within four years was a vital part of two of their three best ever albums.

After John Squire popped up to frazzle all over Oasis’s Knebworth encores, he had a false-if-temporarily-successful restart with The Seahorses, whose cookie cutter Britpop at least felt of the time (though not a second beyond it).

A second album was promised but never came. Bootlegs of the sessions show a painfully straightforward and essentially tuneless Britrock. It wasn’t much worse than a lot of the stuff being released around the time, but it wasn’t much better either.

Squire went on to (self-)release the underappreciated Time Changes Everything (with olive branch ‘I Miss You’ and self-mythologising ‘15 Days’ among the standouts). Edward Hopper tribute Marshall’s House followed.

John Squire – ‘I Miss You’

If you can get past or even enjoy Squire’s strangled Dylan drawl they’re both lovely, shy, understated records. He then called it a day, giving up pop for painting and sculpture until the reunion.

Remember when we were heroes?
When we are gold?
Said I miss you
And I know deep down that you
Miss me too

John Squire – ‘I Miss You’

Despite being the first to leave the band, Reni all-but disappeared from view, surfacing only briefly for a few gigs as frontman of The Rub.

But Ian Brown was the real suprise. His first solo album still doesn’t get the love it deserves, but it did at least launch him as a successful standalone artist. That’s something few thought likely after the Roses’ Squire-less (and Reni-less) Reading ’96 disaster.

The Stone Roses off key at Reading ’96

Unfinished Monkey Business was the most Roses-dominated post-split release from anyone in the band. ‘Ice Cold Cube’ was salvaged from Reading and ‘Can’t See Me’ was based on a Mani Roses demo.

Late era Roses Aziz Ibrahim, Nigel Ippinson and Robbie Maddix pitched in. The album was sparked by Ippinson’s gift of ‘What Happened To Ya?’ (another Squire sideswipe).

It remans the most personal, singular and interesting record any of the band has ever released. It’s certainly the most fun.

What happened to ya?
Did you change your mind?
What happened to ya?
We were one of a kind

Ian Brown – ‘What Happened To Ya?’

An unfortunate jail stint meant Brown never properly toured Unfinished Monkey Business, and while follow-up Golden Greats cemented his solo status and pushed up the electronics, it didn’t quite have the same quirky spirit as its predecessor.

Brown’s next four albums before the Roses reunion saw him continue to stomp his own path and were bouyed by some real highlights (‘F.E.A.R.’, ‘Keep What Ya Got’). But it felt like he had lost his momentum by the time the band finally reformed in 2012.

The sense of suspicion around the comeback was dented by a joyously irreverent press conference and obliterated with a burst of energy at the first batch of comeback gigs. But there was still something missing.

When Reni stomped offstage before an encore that never came in Amsterdam it was clear the imagination necessary to make a pop group really matter just wasn’t there anymore.

The Stone Roses stutter in Amsterdam in 2012

Reni’s dodgy ear monitors and hissy fit could be easily shrugged off, but rather than yelp his apologies and call it a night as he did, nothing was stopping Ian grabbing John and kicking into an acoustic ‘Tightrope’ and ‘… Resurrection’ to send the crowd home happy instead.

Nothing perhaps, except a lack of vision and desire that rock ‘n’ roll needs for a truly live resurrection.

But it wasn’t to be. The gig ended in acrimony and the two comeback singles offered only an apologetic rehashing of past glories a quarter of a century past their sell-by date.

So what happened next?

When he rejoined the Roses, Mani was replaced in Primal Scream by Simone Marie Butler. I guess he’s kind of unemployed now.

Reni has disappeared again, and John is back at the canvas. And so it falls to Ian once again to carry the musical torch.

His first move was ‘First World Problems’, an ambiguous swipe at his now-ex bandmates.

It was followed by ‘From Chaos To Harmony’ – maybe the closest thing we’re likely to get to a formal dissolution notice.

Dried up roses all turn to stone
Too much poison to ramble on
Thinkin’ for myself with my own brain

Ian Brown – ‘From Chaos To Harmony’

So far, so bitter, but it also might also be his best song since ‘F.E.A.R.’. It packs the sort of sort of wry, genuine emotion the Roses’ studio comeback lacked.

The rest of the album didn’t have all that much going for it. And so not for the first time with The Stone Roses, we’re left wondering what might have been.

But a great album (and a half), a smattering of singles, and a triumphant live return is more than most bands can ever hope to look back on.

And like Ian said at the band’s last gig in Glasgow: don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy it happened.

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Music

Special Needs interview for the unpublished State of Play magazine [2019 re-edit]

Back in 2005, I was given my first proper writing commission. I was to interview an up-and-coming band called Special Needs for a new magazine called State of Play.

I thought the article would not only propel one of my favourite groups into the charts, but also launch my career as a music journalist.

© Digital Sneakers

I wanted to be a mix of Jon Savage, Lester Bangs and Nik Cohn, and I all-too-often wrote like a low-rent, self-conscious knock-off of all three.

As it happened, State of Play‘s publisher ran off with everyone’s money on the eve of its launch, leaving a trail of unpaid debts and no magazine.

I didn’t become music journalism’s Next Big Thing (or any sort of thing), and Special Needs split up soon after without having put out the album they’d just recorded.

But there was an epilogue. Funfairs & Heartbreak got a posthumous release a year after the split, and even after the dust had settled it was a really, really good album.

Special Needs- Blue Skies (Live at Camden Proud in 2011)

Don’t take my word for it. You can buy it on Amazon for less than a fiver, or listen to on Spotify for nothing.

The band had a short-lived reunion in 2011-2012 before calling it a day for good, signing off with a couple of freebie farewell songs ‘It’s Over’/‘Back in the Day’.

And here’s that article for the forever-unpublished State of Play, re-edited for 2019. A bit less breathlessness, a lot more paragraph breaks.


There are changes taking place at Needs HQ. By the time you read this, Special Needs will be known more snappily (and less offensively) as The Needs. More importantly, the band will be back on the road and on the verge of releasing their first album.

Special Needs have been bubbling under the surface for some time now. They’ve picked up positive reviews for their first few singles and ever-increasing attention from fans and media alike. But for a while, things seemed to falter.

“In a sense, our honesty has been our biggest downfall,” says lead singer Zachery Stephenson. He’s wrong of course.

The emotional honesty bound into Special Needs’ music and attitude is in fact their greatest virtue, despite the career-threatening stubbornness and volatility that often comes with it.

Zac, guitarists Andrew Pearson and Daniel Shack, bass player Phil James and drummer Neil Allan are hunched around a table in a pub on Kilburn High Road in north west London. “The same pub we used to go to two years ago when we were playing in London every week,” says Andrew.

He’s concerned that the band haven’t spread their music as far and wide as they would like. All that is about to change.

© Re-Action Recordings Ltd

Later this year, industry wrangling permitting, The Needs will release their recently-recorded debut album. Given the many preconceptions about the band, it promises to surprise a lot of people.

Whether or not you’ve heard Special Needs, it’s likely that you’ve seen their name bandied about, either in the music press or the broadsheets.

Special Needs have often been lumped into a collective of other garage rockers in London, all making similar post-Strokes music aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s fair to say the band resent that.”

It’s as if they think we’re idiots, like we sit around sniffing Pritt Stick, but we pay council tax,” Andrew says. “We’re not buffoons.”

Daniel adds that the image of the band has always been “London, ramshackle, sloppy rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s never what we were”. The album, however it sells, will banish those comments for good.

Special Needs made the record with producer Ian Grimble on the back of some high profile engineering credits.

“There were a couple of people, trendy east London rocky-type garage producers that we spoke to about doing it, but we wanted that big, full sound,” Zac says.

Special Needs – Francesca

“With the stuff that Ian has done in the past, McAlmont & Butler, the Manics’ Everything Must Go, he was able to get that.”

The album has a very lush sound. It’s full-on, but delicate too. Andrew calls the songs “aggressive lullabies”.

“Me and Daniel always used to talk about [Phil] Spector and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, who were really powerful but soft at the same time,” he adds. “You can ram your fist into something, and it’s kinda like the energy of that, but it happens in slow motion. I think when you do that it becomes something special.”

The hope is clearly to make an album that endures. One that isn’t just a burst of noise and aggression.

“You can have a great song and you can do it with energy, but energy only lasts five minutes,” says Andrew. “The album’s got a real tenderness to it, a real softness, and that lasts for years.”

Special Needs have put out three singles to date. Their first, ‘Sylvia’ (backed with ‘Tarts’), is a record they all-but disown. “If anyone tries to claim it was a single release we’ll sue them,” Andrew says, trying his best to look stern but not really succeeding. “It was a demo that got put out.”

© Re-Action Recordings Ltd

It’s a bit rough around the edges, sure, but it certainly isn’t a bad record. Follow-ups ‘Francesca’ and this summer’s ‘Blue Skies’ give a much better indication of where Special Needs are as a band right now.

It’s a (budget) Wall of Sound with melodies that drag you in with their sweetness, disguising the sadness behind it all. “We’re just struggling to survive, trying to make the best of it. That’s the way everybody is, and if we sound like The Monkees when we do it, then that’s the intention,” says Andrew.

There are smart flourishes all over the album, from the music hall piano on ‘Martin’s In A Fix’ (played by James Blunt’s touring pianist Paul Beard), to the layered a cappella breakdown on ‘The Girl From The Laundrette’.

And then there’s ‘A Town Called Angelica’, a song that marries its bleak lyrics with a downbeat melody that doesn’t shy away from the darkness.

“It’s about a place in the north called Annesley,” Andrew explains. “My dad used to work there in the same factory for 20 years. The whole mining community disappeared and was replaced by a Kodak factory, making film for very cheap cameras.

“That was the place which held the fabric of the community together, and it’s been closed down. I talked to my dad about six months ago when the song was written, and he was a manager there, only him and three people left, just clearing out the lockers. That’s what that song is about – the passing bell for the death of a community.”

© Re-Action Recordings Ltd

The pit in Annesley was one of the oldest in the country, making the subsequent collapse of its once-modern replacement feel all the more crushing.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. If these songs were nothing more than misery wrapped in melody there really wouldn’t be a point.

The recurring theme here is one of escape. Of realising that the world isn’t perfect and wondrous all the time. That sometimes it feels like everything will disintegrate, but you can always try to get away.

What the band aren’t saying is that escape is as easy as a trip to the funfair, even though the British seaside pops up repeatedly in their lyrics.

“It’s very apparent that people seem to think that we think the seaside is some sort of Mecca, some sort of opportunity,” Andrew says.

“‘Tarts’ was never intended to be some sort of song where, ‘We’re 17, life is terrible in the city, let’s go and live in Skegness’.

“The whole point of that song is that life is pretty hard, but living there isn’t going to make it any better. The whole point of it is the death of the English seaside – a flippant kiss down the arcade, and it just meant nothing, it was raining and there was nothing around.”

Daniel adds, “The seaside used to be something, but now it’s just a glorified fucking arcade machine on the seafront. Maybe it wasn’t better, but it was a place where people went to congregate, and now it’s the cheapest, tackiest place in the world.”

© Digital Sneakers

Andrew agrees, “You get there, and it lasts three minutes before you get bored. Someone has a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat, and you flip it off and there’s nothing behind it – if you’re lucky there’s a bald patch.”

So escape, if it’s possible, is not to be found beside the seaside. So where does that leave us to run? Well, there’s music. Andrew singles out Suede as the group who inspired him to pick up a guitar and form a band.

“Just to walk around the village I grew up in with a ridiculous dyed black quiff. You get into that mentality where you think all you have to do is walk down the road and you’re something,” he says, and he wants Special Needs to inspire people in a similar way.

“If things go to plan there’ll be a generation of young people who’ll be able to walk out of houses and comb their hair properly, and think something is possible.

“Maybe if it’s just 20 or 30 people in Kilburn who say that there was a great band that used to practice down here and we used to walk past there every day, then maybe there’s a hope.”

Special Needs’ lyrics are shot through with that dream of escape. Of being the Billy Liar who actually caught the train. “Hold on, hold on”, “I can do anything”, “We’re not broken yet, we’re not letting go”, “Run away, run away, we’ll run away”.

“‘Blue Skies’ wasn’t blue in a Sid James, luminous skies way,” Andrew says. “It was blue like Billie Holiday. That’s what the song meant, ‘I’m really, really fuckin’ blue’. The whole song was just an escape from misery.

“And funfairs and heartbreak [the band’s old clubnight and lyric from ‘Get Around’] wasn’t an optimistic thing – it was like a snapshot between being sick in the toilets and kicking your heels running outside the pub.”

© Christine Rush

The band have walked that same tightrope between happiness and despair, and there have been turbulent times when everything nearly fell apart.

Last December, Special Needs had just signed their first album deal and seemed on the cusp of something important when they chaotically imploded on stage. It all happened at a gig to celebrate some of their fans’ birthdays.

“The band’s the one thing that keeps us together, and sometimes that doesn’t even look like it can,” says Phil.

There were fists flying, recriminations yelled and, later, apologies hollered across the venue while the crowd watched disbelieving and open-mouthed.

So what happened? In Andrew’s words, Zachery, more than a little worse for wear, “turned up as Batman and tried to maim me onstage”.

It’s ridiculous, and Zac admits, “We can look back at it now and laugh… but at the time it was terrible, it was breaking all of our hearts.”

Zac concedes that he’s undergone some drastic self-improvement since that night, and the lyrics of their song ‘Convince Me’ were written in the aftermath.

There came a point where it became clear to the band that, as Zac says, “We realised that it’s the only thing in our lives.”

© Re-Action Recordings Ltd

Last year, Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell took some time out from fluffing his own ego to claim that Andrew Pearson was the one person who should be in the NME’s 2004 Cool List.

When this is brought up, Andrew quips, “It’s often said – by himself – that he’s a genius, and that was confirmation of his talent, his insights, and his visions of the future.

It’s Daniel who notes that it was the rest of Borrell’s comments that were maybe more perceptive. The singer called Special Needs “one of those bands where it feels like they’re breaking up every time you see them”.

Zac and Daniel argue that a certain vulnerability and unpredictability is maybe a necessary requirement for a band to stay honest and exciting, but all are happy that Special Needs have taken a step back from that edge they seemed so close to falling from last December.

Andrew says, “The thing I’m most proud of is that we’re still together, and we still play together, we still enjoy it. We’re still trying to get somewhere else, still trying to write better and better songs.”

Since their near break-up the band have enjoyed mixed fortunes. ‘Blue Skies’ sold well but just missed the Top 40, and while the album sessions and accompanying tour have been a success, behind-the-scenes label difficulties have delayed its release.

Despite these setbacks there’s a quiet confidence about this band – not arrogance and brainless swagger, but an assured self-belief.

As Zac says, “the songs are great songs,” and on their release, snobbery and cynicism about The Needs will evaporate.

Andrew adds with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe him, “I doubt there’s anyone in London that could come and sit in this pub and write a better song than we could.”