Working Class Love Songs from the Moseley Border
We called ourselves Shrine, eventually, after a James Herbert novel. A bit goth, sure, but didn’t seem too bad a band name at the time. Besides, my literary tastes hadn’t developed much by then. Our song-writing started to gradually improve, until we ended up with a couple of songs that we felt were so good they needed to be recorded. Taking advantage of my Mom going on a summer holiday for a week, we decided to hire a four-track recording studio and capture our latest works of art on tape. We were unable to afford, or were too shy, to go to a proper recording studio, so a Portastudio seemed like the ideal answer. No one seemed to hire this sort of equipment out locally, so we scoured the ads in NME and Melody Maker, until we found something reasonably priced and booked a four-track for the week. The only problem being that we had to go to London to collect it.
Ash and I knocked off school at lunchtime on the Friday afternoon with a simple plan: train to Euston, get a bus, find the place that was lending us the Portastudio. All went to plan for about twenty-five minutes. Ash, unfortunately, hadn’t informed his Dad – the late, great, counsellor Phil Smith – of what was happening that afternoon. So, as we trudged towards the station (and if we’d have been ten minutes early or late we’d have gotten away with it), the screech of brakes was bad news. Phil Smith, unaware that his son was wagging school to go to London with me, ordered him into the car. I was left to negotiate it on my own.
Following a traumatic bus journey through West London, not having a clue where I was, I negotiated a couple of wrong addresses. Finding your way around a big city is much easier if you know where you’re going, or if you’re accompanied by someone to help you. It took me about an hour, after getting off the bus, to find the correct place. It was about five minutes walk from where I’d got off, but at least I was able to part with the money, pick up the studio, and start the long trek back to Tamworth. I got back sometime after midnight, but at least I had the house to myself and the means to record a demo for a band that were destined to become household names.
We pissed around for much of that week. It took a couple of days to actually work out how the Portastudio worked. When we were ready, and with The Broken Stand’s Sonny borrowed on drums, we started recording. Three songs: “Sorry Grace”, “A Day At Home” and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”.
“Sorry Grace”, musically a bastard offspring of New Order’s “Ceremony”, was as lyrically vague as anything Ian McCulloch ever came up with, sticking in the odd phrase nicked from novels and a chorus inspired by the fact that I’d recently cut myself shaving (us kids not having the luxury of Gillette Fusion razors in 1986). “A Day At Home”, to an accompaniment that ripped off “Bigmouth Strikes Again” by The Smiths so much we should have done it as a Karaoke tune, was specifically about sex: the fact that I’d had it outside Derby train station and, the following week, been caught “at it” by my Mom at home. My justification at the time was that I wrote real-life and wouldn’t shirk from subjects others would never go near. I was simply, of course, just bragging that I’d actually had sex. “Paint It Black” was chosen because even the cover versions we did had to be done by the Bunnymen first, a weird kind of approval system, I admit. It was, obviously, the best song out of the three.
The best thing we recorded that week, for Spencer and me anyway, was a song we titled “Seaside”. We’d written some particularly daft lyrics to the tune of The Alarm’s hymn to industry, “Deeside”, knocked down a quick backing track using a drum machine instead of Sonny, sat on the settee with a microphone each and started singing. The words – a very simple piss-take of The Alarm themselves – seems just as profound now:
“People can’t knock me ‘cos I’m never wrong / Me hair sticks up ‘cos me hairspray’s strong”
“In a seaside town, we four turds go around / playing on the fair and lying on the ground”
And the rhyme to end all rhymes, the passionate final bridge:
“Fire! Fire! Fire! Barry bloody Cryer! Michelin tyres!”
Comedy genius we thought, and Ash – who hadn’t contributed to the lyrics but still thought The Alarm were dreadful, really went for it vocally. Which was great for Spence and I as we’d deliberately switched our microphones off. The resulting playback was a gem, as it dawned on Ash (whose face was the opposite to how it was when he first got that Fender Telecaster) that he was the sole vocalist, singing this ridiculous lyric and ad-libbing insanely. You couldn’t hear myself or Spencer at all. On the back of it, we took the piss out of Ash for months, as did everyone at school, particularly the Alarm fans. In fact, I’m not sure we were forgiven for the rest of his duration in the band.
“Demo” complete and four-track returned to London, we had grand plans for promotion: which record companies we’d consider (are we okay signing to a major or would we get more control with an independent?); which venues we’d play (“Birmingham Odeon’s fine, but don’t we want a place where people can jump about?” “What about the Powerhouse?” “Yeah, but it’s a bit small isn’t it?” “The NEC then?” “God, that place is horrible!”); which countries we’d not perform in on moral / ethical grounds (Cuba was in, South Africa out), just the usual stuff would-be megastars have to consider, I guess.
We got the tape cover designed by James, kid brother to my girlfriend of the time, who happened to be good at calligraphy. The title was a tribute to Spencer’s family dog’s enormous bollocks, and so “Who or What are Benji’s Trolleys?” was born. A masterpiece unheard by the world. Largely because in the time it took for Peter Varden, our English teacher and one of the most influential people in my life, to sneakily run us off a few photocopies of the cover, we had concluded that our demo wasn’t, in fact, much cop. And even when you turned your cassette player up to ten you could barely hear it.
We then spent months, having realised we needed to write better songs, either rehearsing at Ashley’s or writing in my bedroom. I became somewhat obsessive about lyric writing, jotting lines down in a notebook as I thought of them. Ash, as he got better and better as a guitarist, started providing most of the music.
On April 24th, sat on my bedroom floor, we finished what I thought to be our first genuinely great song. It built up slowly and went barmy for the last two-thirds. I knew it was a set-opener, along the lines of the Bunnymen’s “Going Up”. “A Room At A Slant” – Ash’s title and something to do with my Mom’s ability to not quite hang wallpaper in a straight line – was a disguised “drug” song, with knowing references to speeding and tripping which simultaneously castigated organised religion for the sham that it is. If I’d actually taken any drugs by that age, maybe it would have been a better song. The chances would have also been increased if I’d known anything about organised religion.
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