Monday, 17 January 2011
42 The Way We Wah
Purchased : May 1985
Tracks : Other Boys / Some Say / The Seven Thousand Names Of Wah / Seven Minutes To Midnight / The Death Of Wah / The Story Of The Blues Parts 1 & 2 / Sleep / You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory / Hope / Remember
I bought this at mid-price somewhere in Leeds.
This is a compilation of material Wah in their many guises recorded for WEA before being dropped in 1983, strangely ( for the time ) just after making their chart breakthrough. Hit singles the following year for Beggar's Banquet prompted this retrospective and also my going to see them at Leeds in November 1984. I was impressed enough to pick this up when I had the chance.
Wah were of course a vehicle for Pete Wylie who changed the group name as often as the line up. He is actually most remembered for coining the term "rockism" in the early 80s to describe the conservative attitudes in music criticism that he and fellow post-punkers were kicking against. Assuming you accept its existence rockism can be viewed as either a benign attempt to elevate the best popular music to stand against the classical greats or a more malign endeavour to create a hierarchy in pop with white males at the top of it. Either way the concept has had a much longer shelf life than Wylie himself whose last hit (barring a guest appearance with The Farm in 1991) was in 1986 and who hasn't released anything in over a decade. Joe Strummer even credited Wylie 's "rockist " jibes with inciting Mick Jones to leave The Clash.
The album is roughly chronological so on Side One you get the uncompromising post-punk stuff that made Wylie the darling of the inkies while selling diddley-squat while Side Two shows how , like so many of his contemporaries, he took the New Pop shilling and headed for the charts.
"Other Boys" is one of six tracks from their debut LP "Nah Poo The Art Of Bluff" which charted for a few weeks in 1981 despite containing not even a minor hit. Starting with a whisper spelling out the title followed by an abrasive guitar blast it sets out their uneasy listening template, a brutalist drum machine, submerged bass, screechy keyboards and freeform guitar noise that looks forward to JAMC. Then you have the Wylie voice a phlegmy one-dimensional holler that always aims for the heroic but never quite gets there. There isn't even a hint of melody and I can't quite grasp what the song's about perhaps a vague call-to-arms with didactic phrases like "guess your number" and "try on new heads".
"Some Say" , a different version of which failed as a single, is more of the same although a more conventional guitar riff makes it slightly more accessible.Wylie rails against unspecified oppressors and false prophets - "they are liars, liars , liars" although the fourth verse seems to refer to Ian Curtis with the line "Dance dance to the music of the last chance man" referencing the hookline of Transmission. This is also the cue for some very Sumner-esque guitar thrashing. Elsewhere there's some very proggy keyboard abuse in the instrumental breaks.
"The Seven Thousand Names of Wah" affords a break from the Wylie voice as its almost entirely instrumental. With real drums and something approaching a melody this is a tad more accessible despite all the feedback howls and in places starts to resemble Love Sculpture's Sabre Dance with which it shares a similar tempo. Wylie comes in at the death with the line "One by one the stars are going out".
Next up is a live version of "Seven Minutes to Midnight" the most celebrated of their early singles but still not a hit. The title is a reference to the 1980 setting of the nuclear doomsday clock although the idea is used more as a metaphor (excuse? ) for existential despair in the song. And it is a proper song, the first hint of Wylie the songwriter as opposed to sloganeer. Long-term collaborator Washington lays down a Steve Severin -style pulsing bassline which anchors the song while big chords and more conventional keyboards add drama to Wylie's tale of confusion -"I've got a problem with balance now, there is no right or wrong". The self-lacerating climax - "I'm the lies that your kids should be told" - makes you warm to him.
The side concludes with "The Death Of Wah" a 5.5 minute epic which closed the "Nah-Poo.." LP.
It begins with a very Steve Morris drum pattern that runs right through the song accompanied by Washington's steely bass and echoey keyboards which also recall late Joy Division. The lyrics are very hard to decipher the most obvious phrase being "I can move mountains" . Three minutes in Wylie starts to have some fun and reveal some rather different influences. Washington's bass solo leads the way to Blinded By The Light keyboards and a verse of Everybody's Talking.
Apart from one more track from "Nah Poo", Side Two sees Wylie cleaning up the sound and heading for the charts. It begins with "The Story Of The Blues Parts 1 & 2 " their No 2 hit from 1983 and the biggest hit to emerge from the Liverpool post-punk scene until the Big In Japan diaspora started claiming the top spot a year later. It might have reached number one if the band hadn't been barred from a second Top Of The Pops appearance for breaching the rules on recording their backing track at the TV studio. I always thought it was a bit lucky to get so far, taking advantage of the post-Christmas lull, media interest in Liverpudlian poverty after the recent transmission of Boys From The Blackstuff and saturation coverage on Radio One from John Peel downwards (it was the subject of Peel's infamous "breaking wind" comment on TOTP). You never hear it on the radio these days and I think that's because the sound hasn't dated well, the primitive drum machines and Fairlight fake brass rooting it too firmly in the early 80s. Despite an obvious debt to The Associates it remains quite a good song with a nice build up to a rousing chorus and sensibly unspecific lyrics so you can take its message of coming through trials as either personal or political. Even with a liberal sprinkling of echo, Wylie's vocal struggles to stay in tune but the pill is vitally sweetened by having a couple of gospel singers to help him out on the trickier bits.
All the above really relates just to part 1. Although the transition is seamless on here Part 2 was the B-side and is a spoken rant to the same backing track about poverty and oppression that could have come from Blackstuff's George Malone but for the supposed quote from Sal Paradise in On The Road. In fact it comes from a different character in another of Kerouac's novels which I find quite amusing; if you're going to be pretentious at least get the facts right ! Actually the whole thing is a bit unnecessary making Wylie sound like a self-righteous berk who takes himself too seriously.
We then back track to "Sleep" from the first LP subtitled "A Lullaby For Josie" the first of a number of songs in Wylie's career addressed to his girlfriend and muse Josie Jones. Although relatively accessible it's hardly a lullaby. The prowling bassline and questioning piano reveal a love of 70s soul. The song conjures up an atmosphere of late night dread with Josie exhorted to keep moving and ignore the ramblings of an ageing pub bore.
Midway through there's a mini-cover of Johnny Thunders's "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory " which condenses the song about resignation to loss into a single verse and chorus. With a near- identical single acoustic arrangement Wylie's restrained vocal is actually an improvement on Thunders and leaves you wanting more. When I saw them in Leeds Wylie thoughtfully dedicated the song to George Best who'd been committed to prison for drink driving earlier that day.
The album ends with the two singles that bookended the big hit though in reverse order. "Hope" was seen as a disappointing follow up and its failure to advance past number 37 proved that Wylie hadn't become a superstar overnight. I think it's a better song and ironically sounds much more authentically bluesy than its predecessor. With a slow soul beat played on real drums and a gospelly intro Wylie reins himself in on this unambiguously personal song of hurt and betrayal and allows the impressive backing singers to lead him on almost every line. The chorus is particularly good ; the girls deliver the lead line "You lied to me; I wish you'd believe me " to which Wylie responds with a wordless cry of pain then recovers for a bittersweet plea "Remember the time in the park remember the time after dark" underscored by a plaintive piano. The best bit of music on the LP by some way.
Finally we come to "Remember" released in March 1982 under the silliest of his nom de plumes, Shambeko Say Wah, and widely seen as Wylie's first attempt at a hit single. That didn't quite come off , competition for the charts being unusually strong at the time, but the change in the sound is quite plain. With a driving Northern Soul beat and the guitar barrage dropped for a power-pop riff that makes for a great intro it's likely the future Boo Radleys were listening at this point. Alas the song that follows is a bit disappointing. Wylie bludgeons the ear with an unfocussed rant that owes more than a little to Dexys" There There My Dear minus Rowland's beguiling eccentricity.
Wah never got out of the second division and I don't play this very often now but it is a good relection of an interesting period in pop and certainly has its moments.