Come aboard the way-back time machine, where it’s the summer of ’76, and NYC proto-hipsters are abuzz about 7″ of vinyl just released on Ork Records. A la John Coltrane’s Ascension LP, Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” their debut single, unfolds over 7 plus minutes, so it’s split down the middle (or so). It offers a whole new guitar vocabulary in the timbres and phrasing, with echoes of the Velvets and the Byrds, and heralds the craft of the axe-folk of Talking Heads, Wire, and Gang of Four. Robert Christgau was on-board from the get-go, regarding “LJJ” as “dynamic and spooky … its dissolute aura is difficult to shake off.”
“Jewel,” too, served as a jewel-of-a-connection between New York and London early on. It made its way across the Atlantic and into the hands of Rat Scabies, who had a failed try-out with The Clash and eventually became the drummer of The Damned. “The first thing we heard from New York was the Television single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel.’ I remember listening to it and being blown away.” (Stealing, p. 47)
Just as so many of us did through the 1980s, Scabies constructed his fandom from bits and pieces, with the whole remaining ever elusive. “No one had seen the Heartbreakers live, but we thought they looked great. We had seen pictures of Television, Richard Hell and Blondie but nobody had heard anything. Because Danny Fields was involved with the MC5 we knew [The Ramones] had to be the right kind of thing.” The right kind of thing, indeed.
Greetings, fine readers! Right ’round 35 years ago today, the offspring of punk were charting a host of compelling directions. Sure, the loud-fast-snotty aesthetic was still the rage among the most full of rage, but the bloom was also on the New Romantics, by way of Orange Juice (among others). Against the gloom of the eyeliner and trenchcoat contingent, Edwyn Collins and crew charted a pop-friendly course, with cheery, cheeky lyrics, reverby rhythm guitar, and cymbal crashes of ebullience.
“Blue Boy,” their second single, came out in August 1980 on Postcard Records (think Josef K, too), and sustained one of the real trademarks of new wave commodities: the secret message in the run-off groove: side A asked, “When is an artist at his most dangerous?” Side B answered, “When he’s drawing a gun.”
So, rude boys, rude girls, it’s been 35 years now, since The English Beat released single #4, “Best Friend,” backed with “Stand Down Margaret”–perhaps the most danceable anti-Thatcher tune of the era. (Nuclear anxiety produced some damn fine music, as did anxiety and angst toward Thatcher-Reagan writ large.) All proceeds from the tune went to the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, which was one of a host of righteous causes the Beat supported back in the day.
I caught Dave Wakeling and his 20-something ska all-stars under the name of English Beat back in 2000 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom, and again in 2013. The first time ’round remains one of my favorite moments of fandom amidst my Cleveland rock’n’roll brethren. At the age of 32, I was among the youngest people in the crowd and, when they played the opening bars of “I Confess,” the 800+ of us started into pogoing. Mikey Mike, our surrogate Ranking Roger for the evening, went backstage, grabbed his video camera, and started recording us. I imagine it was the first time he’d seen that many people that old have so much fun before. Indeed, Cleveland rocks.