Double Exposure: ‘A-Z’ by Colin Newman and ‘Positive Touch’ by The Undertones

Reviews / April 18, 2017

By Colin Newman
Beggar’s Banquet, 1980

It must have been difficult to imagine, when art-punk band Wire’s guitarist and vocalist Colin Newman released his first solo record, that he could have much to add to the evocation of the strange tensions of contemporary life that Wire had elucidated over the course of their first three LPs: Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979). But 1980’s A-Z was wholly its own creature and had its own uneasy comments to make on the world in which it found itself. That it did so from a more domesticated perspective than that of Wire was predictable—Newman was always the member of that most reluctant of “bands” who seemed most willing to engage with the structural impositions of pop and rock. That perspective actually added to the sense of unease, though: these incongruously jolly nightmares were happening not outside some smartarse art gallery in the gentrifying part of town but within the snug confusions of your front room, your own life, and your own psychology. And the fact that A-Z adheres more closely (if ever so slightly) to the patterns of standard pop makes it in some way more worrying—like watching a car faithfully following the curves of the road while driving along the pavement.

To most of those Brits born before digital technology rendered paper maps an absurd anachronism, the phrase “A to Z” brings instantly to mind the London street guide of the same name, and in fact the cover of the album—painted by Newman, a graduate of Watford College of Art—shows blocks of stylized street formations against a forbidding black background, effectively recontextualising the endless mundane suburbs contained in the guide as something less literal and more forbidding. Newman’s name itself is also an accidental agenda of sorts, the reassuringly bland Colin—so ubiquitous as to be practically invisible in the Britain of the day—clashing with the tabula rasa undertones of Newman: as powerful a contrast of the mundane and the arresting as a Billy Idol, a Sid Vicious, or a Steve Ignorant.

Produced, like all of Wire’s output to this point, by Mike Thorne (who also played synthesizer on the record), the texture of A-Z‘s music is created by the repetition of clanging, jangling, shuffling phrases, their nursery rhyme repetition building and fusing into a nightmarish yet compellingly cheerful racket over which Newman sings in several voices—a wheedling melodic one, a sing-song one, a lazy one, and an urgent, earnest one, to name but a few—whose combined effect comes off like an automated music hall playing for an empty auditorium. When the mood becomes urgent, as it does on Life on Deckthe song’s bounce, as jaunty as it is queasy, is driven by swathes of searing guitar—the balance between breezy mirth and sneering worry vanishes, and fear gains the upper hand, the song ending with a repeated phrase that gradually mutates from ineffectual self-hating whine to incomprehensible terrace yelps, until it all stops with an echo: “The cat sat on the carpet, I just lay here like a lump.”

The superficially straightforward Not Me, with its Peter Gunn bass line and the ambivalent boast/complaint of its refrain (“you didn’t touch me”), was covered by This Mortal Coil on their 1984 LP It’ll End in Tears, while Inventory is another looping, pounding skit. Its catchiness paralleled by the growing sense of panic and melancholy as horn parps and glassy guitar figures build to a conclusion of hysterical piano, Inventory was released as an unlikely single, as was the album’s closer, the hysterically perky B, which sounds like a preemptive pastiche of some of the music that was to come in the following decade. The much-imitated video resembled nothing so much as a children’s TV program from an alien world.

Throughout A-Z, it is impossible to tell whether Newman is messing about or trying, po-faced, to scare us into submission, like a playful punch that stops a millimeter from your face. But perhaps that is the point, and A-Z‘s enigmatic aim is to reveal how, in this future, a lark can also be a mechanism of menace. Are these songs metaphors for the way we live now, or is Newman just playing with nonsense, stringing together random phrases and melodies to create something that moves inexorably forward? Or are these perhaps two faces of the same phenomenon? With its fidgety, uncomfortable mantras, A-Z is the sound of a world crumbling cozily into its own worrying future.

Richard McKenna

Positive Touch
By The Undertones
Ardeck, 1981

The Undertones are remembered almost exclusively for their 1979 eponymous debut LP, a punk touchstone that featured the single “Teenage Kicks,” the first line of which is inscribed on John Peel’s headstone. Hypnotised (1980), the band’s second LP, was a mix of Ramones-inspired burners and more traditional R&B arrangements, including a cover of The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” By 1981’s Positive Touch, an evolution was at hand. Like British contemporaries The Damned, The Undertones had largely dismissed their bread and butter, now experimenting with new instrumentation and recording techniques, as well as creatively redeploying elements of ’60s power pop and psychedelia. Though the band members—the original line-up included Feargal Sharkey, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Michael Bradley, and Billy Doherty—hailed from Derry, Northern Ireland, the cradle of the Troubles, their lyrical output to this point focused on the teenage preoccupations of “chocolate and girls.” Still, there is a deep sensation of anxiety about Positive Touch, which defied the band’s happy-go-lucky reputation and the album’s very title.

The album starts strong with “Fascination,” a pop gem that sees Sharkey’s distinctive warble wrapped in a newfound Roger Daltrey-esque swagger. The tone immediately shifts with the second track, “Julie Ocean,” a moody, Velvet Underground-reminiscent ballad that anticipates 1980s jangle-pop (1980s post-punk also owes a debt to the eerie and beautiful “You’re Welcome”). “Life’s Too Easy,” yet another standout, is built around a slow-building blues riff highlighted by a twinkling piano, and “Crisis of Mine” is a clear homage to The Beatles’ “Taxman,” complete with a three-way vocal harmony. The lyrics, however, are something else entirely:

What’s wrong with millions today?
If no one’s got nothing to say
As one more secret explodes
Succeeding what nobody knows

I don’t feel fine
In this crisis of mine
I don’t feel fine

Far from the gentle soul-searching of Rubber Soul, the emotional unraveling is kin to the Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension (1979), another album that definitively breaks with the “punk” past and lays down a dark, jittery, experimental vibe that was crucial to the formation of both alternative and indie rock.

Side One closes with “The Positive Touch”—not quite a title track, interestingly—in which we find another counter-intuitive pairing of upbeat blues (a lounge-appropriate xylophone graces the quirky chorus) with more lyrics about emotional breakdown:

She’s screaming
In the night
There’s no one to help her
There’s no one to turn on the light

What she thought was strange was fascination
Yesterday it rained all day long
She can’t slow down manic depression

It takes the positive touch
It takes the positive touch
It takes the positive touch

The entire album revolves around the first and highest-charting single, Side Two’s “It’s Going to Happen!,” a horn-fueled soul-meets-punk classic made sublime by the creeping desperation of the chorus. The song’s lyrics were written in response to the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland:

Everything goes when you’re dead
Everything empties from what was in your head
No point in waiting today
Stupid revenge is what’s making you stay

Happens all the time
It’s gonna happen, happen, till you change your mind
It’s gonna happen, happen, happens all the time
It’s gonna happen, happen, till you change your mind

The strike was initiated by Irish Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland who were denied “Special Category Status” previously granted to POWs, including many of the basic rights laid out in the Geneva Convention. Bobby Sands, who led the strike, died on May 5, 1981 (nine additional prisoners would die of starvation before the strike ended). That day, the Undertones performed “It’s Going to Happen!” on Britain’s Top of the Pops. Damian O’Neill, who wrote the lyrics, can be seen wearing a black armband in mourning of Sands.

Overall, the second half of the album is not quite as strong as the first, but it’s close. “When Saturday Comes” uses Stones’ and Doors’ minor key psychedelia to tell a story about mundanity, longing, and regret (“Teenage bop from a nervous holiday/Attracting lips from a hidden stowaway”), Sharkey’s voice is surprisingly intimate on “Sigh and Explode,” an innovative cross of jazz and music hall, and “Hannah Doot” might have come off the first album, if not for the aching melody and lament of the chorus: “She’s crying/I’m trying/Not to feel so sad/It’s time to say goodbye/It’s time to say goodbye.”

Positive Touch is not a political record, and the Undertones are not a political band. (Punk and post-punk’s “rebellion” and “activism” came largely from passionate youngsters well out of reach of bombs and violently repressive police states.) But the album exudes crisis, both musically and lyrically. The irony generated by the bouncy, flawless pop of the former and the unease of the latter make for something unforgettable. While the Undertones’ debut is deservedly legend, Positive Touch is even better.

K.E. Roberts

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