The The – ‘Soul Mining’

By early ’84 I’d moved in to a flat with Simon & Gary, two other music obsessives. My social group was expanding, my social life was becoming highly interesting, and as much as Snu-Peas was my go to shop for records, Bizarre Bazaar was equally frequented for second-hand vintage clobber. With new friends came new influences, and one of us would have been the first to obsess about The The, and in particular two of the band’s early singles, This Is The Day and Uncertain Smile.

Whilst the 2-Tone and post-punk scene had all but gone, a few bands emerged which kept my interest in new music on high alert. The Smiths, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera’s fantastic High Land, Hard Rain were heavily played, and topping those for sheer magnificence and, eclectic, claustrophobic and intense beauty was The The’s Soul Mining. The album was full of new sounds; some repetitive, almost Balearic beats were way ahead of their time, others were more like an industrial take on electronic synth-pop.

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Musically kaleidoscopic, this album really opened my ears and pushed me into unfamiliar sounds, and lyrically too, it was deeper, darker and more uncomfortable than much of what I’d heard before. I could though, comfortably listen to Uncertain Smile forever, and doing so nearly forty years later I’m taken straight back to my unrestrained excitement and insecurities. Matt Johnson’s fragile, breathy vocals, and unique storytelling mixed with the lush production and epic, extended piano outro by Jools Holland make this an absolute masterpiece.

“Peeling the skin back from my eyes, I felt surprised
that the time on the clock was the time I usually retired
to the place where I cleared my head of you;
but just for today, I think I’ll lie here and dream of you.”

The The released Infected and Mind Bomb in the second half of the eighties, both albums brilliant, and both made Matt Johnson one of my all-time favourite lyricists. Perfectly scathing of Thatcher and the consumerist west, his cynicism and anger enhanced my views on many things whilst opening me up to others.

On Soul Mining there were strong hints of what was to come: I’m just a symptom of the moral decay / That’s gnawing at the heart of the country” – The Sinking Feeling. But, within an album of provocative new sounds and musical eccentricity it was Uncertain Smile and This Is The Day that soothed my ears and caressed my soul. Essential listening for anyone with a heart.

The Beat – ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’

By 1980 the ‘second wave of ska’ had firmly found its place in the UK charts. Madness, Selector, Bad Manners and The Specials were having major success, and it was The Beat with their debut album I Just Can’t Stop It who cemented my love of the dance craze. By the grand age of 14 I was already checking out the roots of my chart favourites, listening to soul, ska and sixties, fascinated and obsessed as I was by the history and the culture as well as the music.

The band’s first three chart singles were all taken from this stunning LP. Tears of a Clown, Hands Off She’s Mine and Mirror in the Bathroom were all classic Top Ten singles with the rest of the album littered with covers and blatant nods towards their ska and rocksteady pioneers. As with The Specials, much of The Beat’s own writing was heavily spiced with political and cultural references born out of Thatcher’s Britain. I loved the energy of Click Click and Two Swords as much as the dubby loose-limbed groove of Jackpot and Whine and Grine, and despite some of the overtly political lyrics and cutting social comment this was still most definitely a ‘pop’ album.

It’s with far more than a large dose of dewy-eyed nostalgia that I can listen back to I Just Can’t Stop It, and still love it. I remember a constant stream of happy, innocent days full of naive and romantic positivity, and the sheer voyage of musical discovery was already an all-consuming passion, but quite simply this is an exceptional album, brilliantly of its time and forty years later as socially relevant now as it was then. The only down side – the putrid cover of Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You – despite Everett Morton’s perfect mellow ska beat – I didn’t like it then and don’t like it now. Anyway, kids… buy (download) this album.

The Specials – ‘The Specials’

By late 1979 the musical mix of post punk and new wave was dominating the UK charts, whilst ‘the second wave of ska’ was also fast becoming part of the Top 40 countdown that by now, I was obsessed with. Of course there was dross too, but when isn’t there? Maybe there has to be the crap to fully appreciate the good stuff. If there’s one thing Thatcher can be credited with it’s inspiring a multitude of musicians, poets, and social commentators to wax lyrical; to pour scorn through their chosen medium.

Well, I was yet to read poetry or any literature beyond Smash Hits, Melody Maker or the NME, but one band who were a major part of my cultural learning, of my awareness of social, political and class issues were The Specials. Their eponymous debut album was a masterpiece, and would still rank as one of my favourite albums of all time.

 

Produced by Elvis Costello and released on Jerry Dammers’ 2-Tone label, The Specials was a dance mix of ska and punk; a brilliant homage to their musical heroes including covers of Dandy Livingstone, Toots & The Maytals and Prince Buster whilst capturing perfectly the angst and energy as well as inspiring the youth of the day. Unlike debut albums from Madness and The Beat (brief 2Tone label-mates) the album never veered towards pop, instead the social messages were as persistent as the ska rhythms. At 13 I was totally naive, but my eyes, ears and dreams were being opened up and fuelled by provocative, radical visuals and lyrics.

Political correctness did not exist in ’79 and the album is full of piss-taking and social spikes that seem wonderfully sharp compared to today’s banality, not that The Specials wouldn’t have given a shit anyway.

“I won’t dance in a club like this / all the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss” – Nite Club

“The only things you want to see are kitch / the only thing you want to be is rich / your little pink up-pointed nose begins to twitch / I know, you know, you’re just a little bitch” – Little Bitch.

Welcome to being a teenager. The Specials packed a mighty live punch and whilst I had to wait over thirty years to see them live, this album alone was enough to last three decades.