The greatest legacy of my short spell at University was much needed spending money. As a less well off student I’d been awarded a “full grant”, £60 of which I brought home with me. This saw me through to December when I signed on as unemployed. I applied for clerical jobs in factories, banks and insurance companies, but the only interview I secured was with the Prudential Assurance Company in North John Street. I was very lucky to land the job. One in 10 of the UK’s working population was unemployed. 2 million were on the dole. These were hard times. I began work in the Motor Underwriting Department on 4th February 1980, filing record cards, writing out cover notes, answering phones, giving quotations – all good stuff. For the first time in my life I had more money than sense and, in March, bought a cream Fender bass guitar from Ralph on Accounts Department. At Easter my bass and I were invited to Swansea University for a jamming session with Martyn. He asked me to play something – anything – but I was just a novice, so he made up a simple sequence of 4 notes which I played for hours while he indulged in some fantastic lead guitar work. I never forgot those notes, and years later, used the same ones in the verse of ‘Television’s Home‘.
Back at home I started to take a little more interest in my bass. Bruce Foxton, Jean Jacques Burnel and Sting – all of whom played beautiful melodies – were great role models. I hit gold with the first song I ever wrote on it – ‘Dunkirk’ (later renamed ‘Hero’). I used the bass notes from Martyn and Pete’s ‘Having Fun’ in my verse, but gave them a punching beat like Argent’s ‘Hold Your Head Up’, and in the chorus I played a melody similar to TV’s ‘The Sweeney’ theme tune. My neighbour Gordon Roberts’ experience at Dunkirk (France) during the Second World War inspired the lyrics. He, and 335,000 other retreating troops, had to wait several days on the beach for boats to evacuate them back to England. Thousands died after being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe. For those forgotten souls blown to smithereens I wrote “Now you’ll always be, in loving memory, the man that no one knew. They say you were a hero.” My interest in the bass was short lived. I soon went back to writing on the 6 stringed guitar- it was far more exciting.
In the early summer Martyn, Pete, Nic and me reconvened in Nic’s cellar, but as the weeks went by, Pete drifted away. The 3 of us made significant progress and, under the name of ‘No Smoking’, booked a day at the ‘Open Eye Studio’, Whitechapel to record my songs – ‘Hero’, ‘Merseybeat’ and ‘Cover Girls’. Merseybeat was an up tempo Jam type song about the demolition of the Cavern club (the place made famous by the Beatles). Quite how anyone thought it a good idea to destroy the spiritual home of Liverpool’s greatest ever export was beyond my comprehension, but destroy it they did. I sang “Just take a walk to the street where the music played, you’ll stand there in despair. See there’s nothing there. Merseybeat is dead and gone away.” Cover Girls was a pure pop song in the style of Elvis Costello’s ‘This Year’s Girl‘ with a chorus of “Those hips, those hairs, those lips – who cares? There’s a thousand girls like that. Her wiles she bears, just smiles and stares. One thousand other cover girls like that.”
No Smoking entered the recording studio for the first and only time on 20 September. We were a shambles. Martyn’s performance was predictably proficient, but my singing was just dreadful – strained, whingeing and whining. The sound engineer tried to mask my deficiencies by piling on oodles of reverb and echo, and by “double tracking” my vocal (I sang it twice and he blended the 2 performances into one). Nic lagged an incompetent half beat behind and ballsed up every drum roll he attempted. I’m sorry to say that nothing could be done to help the poor lad. He was exposed for the duffer he was. Although the recordings were truly awful, I failed to recognise that blindingly obvious fact and instead visited Radio Merseyside every Friday evening for the next 6 weeks in an attempt to persuade them to play a song. The DJ Phil Ross succumbed to my browbeating, and with great reluctance, broadcast ‘Merseybeat’. At that point, when I realised there were thousands of other people listening, it dawned on me what a pile of crap we’d produced… Oops. Shame faced, I took back my tape and paid Mr Ross no more visits.
In October the Teardrop Explodes released a brilliantly poppy, but progressive album called ‘Kilimanjaro‘. This followed on from Echo & The Bunnymen’s less poppy, but no less excellent July release ‘Crocodiles‘. I was privileged to have been around at a time when the Liverpool music scene was at its most vibrant since the Merseybeat of the 1960s. U2’s fantastic first album ‘Boy’ was also released in October. I’d never heard anything quite like it before, and I began to emulate Bono’s high pitched vocals while still trying to sound hard and manly like Weller. I was slow to digest all this new music, and kept knocking songs out in a traditional, rather than a progressive vein. This was exemplified by a Joe Jackson inspired blues-rock number called ‘The Government’. “Evade the axe and dodge your tax, but they know all the facts – that’s the government. They make you spick, they make you span, they’re gonna make a man out of you. You act so cool but you’re a tool, coz you can never ever fool the government. They make you sweat, they make you steam, they make you wanna scream ‘Murder Blue’.”
Eat your heart out, Billy Bragg.