My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer

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My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient date..in The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.

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one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’

My Pop Life #102 : Israelites – Desmond Dekker

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Israelites   –   Desmond Dekker & The Aces

Get up in the morning slaving for bread sir

so that every mouth can be fed

poor me Israelites

We didn’t really know what he was on about ’til we were older, but Israelites reached Number One in the hit parade in Britain in May 1969, the first Jamaican ska song to reach that lofty pinnacle.  (Milly Small’s cover of My Boy Lollipop reached Number Two in 1964).    Desmond Dekker had irresistible syncopated rhythms and cool rude boy threads – and an extremely visceral way of shaping his words (whatever they were!) – I was eleven years old and transfixed.   So was my mum.   We were living in a house in the deep Sussex countryside between Lewes & Eastbourne just north of Bo-Peep Hill in Selmeston.

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view from Bo-Peep Hill towards Selmeston

Dad had left some 3 years previously and was living in Eastbourne, we saw him once a week – I think – maybe once a fortnight – on Saturdays, walking up to Beachy Head, coming back in time for the football results.    Paul and I did anyway, Andrew was only 3 years old then.   The whole country went Desmond Dekker crazy though.  It was a phenomenon.

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Ska had been around in Jamaica since at least 1961, some say earlier.  Prince Buster, Ernest Ranglin, Laurel Aitken, Jimmy Ciff, Duke Reid, Derrick Morgan, Toots & The Maytals, The Skatalites were all there at the beginnings.   Laurel Aitken had the UK’s first single release on Blue Beat Records, a song called Boogie Beat which was a kind of loose R&B shuffle with the guitar on the off-beat, embryonic ska.  The more choppy sound we associate with classic Jamaican ska came later with singles like Guns Of Navarone by The Skatalites and Al Capone by Prince Buster.

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Desmond Dekker signed with Leslie Kong‘s Beverley label in Kingston Jamaica in 1961 but didn’t release his first single until two years later: “Honour Your Father and Mother”, and a string of hits followed – all morally and culturally decent christian songs – until he recorded a song with Derrick Morgan.    Tougher Than Tough was part of the rude boy trend – the court was in session, judgement was being passed, but Rudies Don’t Fear.   This was ghetto life in Kingston writ large – and Dekker’s next song 007 (Shanty Town) made him an icon in Jamaica, was a hit in England in 1967 amongst the mod crowd as well as the West Indian population, and is rightly considered a classic.  Despite it reaching #14 on the charts (the first Jamaican-produced song to reach the top 15) it wasn’t until 1969 that the mighty Israelites took the country by storm.

We had a cousin, Wendy, who was older than us and who would come and stay now and again.  She must have been seventeen or eighteen when Mum invited her up from Portsmouth for a week, and they decided to go into Eastbourne one night to see Desmond Dekker & The Aces live on the Pier.   Mum only told me about this quite recently.   Amazing what you find out if you actually ask !

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Mum had also decided that it was high time that Wendy made out with a man – she claims now that Wendy had never been kissed.   I think they took the bus into Eastbourne along the A27, had a few drinks, then got onto the pier and saw the electric Desmond Dekker & The Aces in the flesh (I never did manage to see him!) then danced the night away to all the latest hits.  I think they both found some willing snogging partners and stayed out so late that they had to take the milk train back to Berwick – about 3 miles from Selmeston.   It was dawn when they started walking back, hitching a lift from the hugely embarrassed milkman, and getting a discreet worldly wink from Cedric the postman as they finally reached home.   We were all asleep upstairs, none the wiser.   I think Mum remembers that night now as one of the great nights of the 1960s for her, and I’m rather hoping that Wendy does too.

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It was many years later when I finally truly established what the actual lyrics to the song really were :

Wife and a kids they buck up an a leave me

Darlin’ she said I was yours to receive

Look – me shirt dem a tear up, trousers a go

I don’t want to end up like Bonnie & Clyde

After a storm there must be a calm

if they catch me in the farm you sound your alarm….

Poor Me Israelites

It became like a magical spell cast across the radio, across the dance floor, bouncing out of car radios, in shops, a mantra of phrases that ring around your head.  The rest of 1969 found us listening to The Liquidator by Harry J & The All-Stars, Return Of Django by The Upsetters (Lee Perry) and apparently (I never heard it at the time but older kids did ) Wet Dream by Max Romeo.   Songs like Israelites reaching Number One in Britain is one of the reasons why I love the UK.  It’s not all bad, however it may seem.