Not The World’s Strongest Man

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Charles Atlas appeals to America’s weaklings with a strategically placed table

 I grew up in the 1980s: in the midst of the New Romantic era in a household in which the closest thing I had to music on a daily basis was the sound of my old man singing ‘Morning Has Broken’ as he repaired the holes in the wall that my mother had made, throwing things at his head and missing.

My family was into sport.  Mainly Rugby League and Cricket.  As an unquestioning child, I accepted this as my fate and consequently fell in with the sporty kids at school as I was in the football, rugby (union though, pfff) and cricket teams.  What that meant was that, most dinnertimes, the jocks and I traipsed off to the changing rooms and spent the next hour and twenty minutes running around the field, kicking the shit out of each other and engaging in what we didn’t then call, ‘banter’, or hurling abuse at each other that was unreasonable to be offended by because you were covered in mud, bleeding and anyway, you were one of those sportsing people and too damned manly to worry about trifling matters such as Matthew Hilton telling the world that he’d bummed your mother and she’d loved it.

On the bus to away fixtures, someone’d always bring a radio with them and there would be sing-alongs to the hits of the day and conversations about records.  I kept quiet about both things as I knew nothing.

Even then, what struck me as peculiar was the tendency for these dead macho lads to prefer records that sounded – to me, at least – a bit soft.  A bit puffy.  I vividly remember one journey that was soundtracked by a coachload of twelve year old hard men singing along to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” by Elton John.  Another was memorable for the shouting along to “Frankie” by Sister Sledge.  I liked them too, I had no issue with girly pop, but I was surprised that these jocks didn’t either.

My old man had told me that when he played Rugby, he knew a bloke with a dansette who had some Donovan records and they’d listen to them before kick off.  My old man quite liked Donovan – I’m a big fan, myself, more of which at a later date – and Donovan seemed like the exact opposite to my old man: slight, a bit away with the fairies, hippy, you know the sort of thing.  My old man was many things, but similar to renowned flower child Donovan, he wasn’t.

Anyway, I struggled with the concept that proper blokey-bloke men – the type that I aspired to be – were rude to each other, laughed at people who were unlike them, hit each other a lot, played games that resulted in broken bones and teeth (my front teeth were shortened radically by a cricket ball in the face aged about eight) yet listened to music that seemed to be for girls.  I didn’t get it.  Mind you, I didn’t get most things, so it didn’t burn a hole in my brain.  I didn’t really get Rugby Union and I played that every week.

In the first year of secondary school, we spent a term on the option lessons – cooking, music, woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing, stuff like that.  In one of my first music classes I invoked the wrath of the teacher.  We’d been singing songs from ‘The Jungle Book’ (which I liked, although I wasn’t going to admit that) with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  The teacher had harangued us and demanded to know why we weren’t making more effort.  He stood and looked at us, evidently with no interest in carrying on until someone had told him the nature of the problem.  I put my hand up.

“Sir, music’s for girls,”

He went berserk.  On the plus side, we didn’t have to do any more half arsed singing along to songs that we all enjoyed but were too super cool to show it.  On the downside, he spent the next twenty minutes indignantly shouting questions at me that I had no answers to.

“What about The Beatles?”

I vaguely knew that The Beatles had been a thing.  My mother used to sing ‘Michelle’ to me at bedtime, possibly to show off that she knew some French, but other than that, I knew nothing.  I shrugged.

“My mum likes The Beatles.”

“Therefore The Beatles are ‘for girls’, are they?”

I looked blankly at him.  Durr.

“What about The Who?”

The Who?  The Who?  Never heard of them.

“Who are The Who, sir?”

“Never mind.  What about Duran Duran?”

Ah.  Now, I had heard of them.  Girls in my class either liked Wham! Or Duran Duran.  Nobody went for Spandau Ballet, thank heaven for small mercies.  The way Tony Hadley held his microphone with his fucking pinky sticking out like Lady Muck drinking tea on the veranda with Lord Charles was enough to give me a dose of the tremors.  Still, there was no question that Duran Duran were undeniably, palpably, for girls.  Even though I secretly enjoyed a fair few of their singles.

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Duran Duran working matching lurid pink accessories, like men do.

“Oh, Duran Duran are for girls, Sir,”

“But they’re men!”

Men.  Yeah, right.  Duran Duran didn’t look like men were supposed to look.  They wore makeup, which was definitely for girls.  Their clothes were all frilly and shiny.  As eighties as it was possible to be, and whatever people say about the eighties, they don’t talk about the increased prevalence of conventional masculinity in the pop music scene.  All rolled up jackets, no socks, or pixie boots, and half-mast trousers.

I gave him a doubtful look.

“They are men.”

“Well, maybe.  Just about.  But it’s for lasses, isn’t it sir?  Lasses are into pop music.  Lasses are into Duran Duran.  And Wham!  And The Beatles.”

Neither of us got anywhere with the other.  Maybe we both had a point.  Well, he did.  I was just confused about what it was that men were supposed to behave like.  There didn’t seem to be any logic to it, not that I had any skill in terms of logic either, you understand.  Not that I knew that, either, which was to prove important in a way; my lack of intellectual rigour, or possibly just ability.

As the years went by, I couldn’t competitively carry on with all the sportsings because, while everybody else was shooting up and outwards, I resolutely refused to grow.  Not on purpose, not like Oskar in The Tin Drum, but by accident, like Owen Meany in the book that hadn’t been written yet.  I was alright with cricket, but I was left behind at Rugby, in which the rest of the team were getting on for six foot each, I wasn’t yet up to five foot.  I was still about five foot nothing when I left school and very young looking with it.  The other day, a woman at work had suggested that, at school, she imagined me as a long haired rocker.  I showed her a photo of me at graduation, with a moptop.  She said, “Did you graduate when you were twelve?”

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 John Squire pictured with his 1989 haircut, which I did my best to copy, replete with unpopular side parting.

As the sportsings became increasingly dull to me and the arts became more appealing, I got back into reading, watching films and started listening to music, even though it was for girls.

I realised in the end that I wasn’t going to be one of these manly men like my old man, I’m just not cut out for it.  On the other hand, wearing tartan jodhpurs and big white blouses didn’t appeal either.  I knew that girly wasn’t the problem, it was something else that I couldn’t work out.  Then I saw The Smiths on Top of the Pops and it was like having your body and brain realigned.  Click.  Oh.

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The Smiths: Gladioli All Over

I was interested in them – they didn’t seem very masculine and made a virtue of it.  The sound of them was astonishing to me – the singing and the words swung around on monkey bars in my brain and kicked bits of it into gear.   Nor did they look like they dressed up as effeminate pirates on spaceships made of tinfoil.  Johnny Marr might have rocked a bit of eyeliner now and then but, if I was prepared to listen to Duran Duran, even on the sly, I was prepared to make concessions for him.  I listened to what they had to say because I didn’t know anything and plainly they did.  They talked about books, which I borrowed from the library, records, which I bought from second hand shops and films, which I looked out for on Channel 4, mainly.   I learned and I loved it.

Later, The Stone Roses also weren’t too butch.  They were into difficult books, films I’d never heard of and wearing flared trousers – a strict no-no from the 80s.  They looked great.  They were funny and irreverent.  The distance between The Smiths and everyone else, and later The Stone Roses and everyone else was preposterous.  To me, anyway.

I think what attracted me to them was brains.  Not that I’m making any claims for myself.  I enjoy some drummers, but I can’t play the drums at all.  Can’t get my hands and feet doing different things.  So, enjoying something that wasn’t scared of having a brain as well as a heart was what I was looking for, so it seemed.

It struck me as odd though that the audiences for both of these bands tended towards the overtly masculine, and were a bit shy about showing much in the way of brains.  I’d grown up with them – not personally, but that kind of person – and knew them.  I followed The Roses around in 88-89 and the crowds weren’t soft arses like me, they were like sportsing people.  They were uncouth.  Most of them, anyway.   They didn’t seem to mind that the sleeves had modern art on them, for Christ’s sake.  As far as I could gather, The Stone Roses – magnificent as they were – were responsible for wrecking ‘indie’, as I knew it.  I’ll write about that another day.

Perhaps the point is that The Roses, in particular, might have had brains, but they didn’t ram them down anyone’s throat.  They were there if you looked for them, but if you didn’t, hey!  Manchester La-la-la, and all that.  It worked, I suppose.  To be honest, it needed a bit of Manchester La-la-la, or else it may have become a chin stroking, pipe smoking, yoghurt knitting fest.

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The Stone Roses, backstage at The Blackpool Empress Ballroom.  Note Squire’s deck shoes.  I had no ideas of my own at all…

As time went on, I went backwards to discover music that my parents ought to have put me off by overplaying: Donovan, Nick Drake, Scott Walker, The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Love, The Left Banke, bubblegum pop, stuff like that.  There were moments of butch posturing, but not really.  If anything, there were ideas and there was depth if you cared to look.  Even in bubblegum pop, yes.  Mainly it was gentle, loving, pretty songs played by arty farty humans we’ll loosely describe as ‘men’ for the time being.

Some of those records are still my favourites of all time but, to be honest, getting into them wasn’t easy because I was pretty much alone in my tastes.  At least among my mates.

I’ve never had a single male friend who was into The Smiths.  I’ve known a few girls into them, and they all had ‘Louder Than Bombs’ on cd.  I never had that.  I wonder why that is from time to time.  Anyhow, no, not one.  Quite a lot of my mates were into The Stone Roses by the time of Fool’s Gold, but they didn’t want to watch The Treasure of The Sierra Madre.   Donovan?  Nick Drake?  Scott Walker?  Love?  The Left Banke?  The Byrds?  Bubblegum pop?  Not so much.  Maybe I’d meet the odd kid who was into one of them a bit, but not really.

Diversion – Scott Walker

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Scott Walker: alleged purveyor of Love Boat music.

 I was into The Walker Brothers and, at the very start of my last year at university, Scott Walker’s first four albums were finally issued on cd.  I didn’t have a cd player at that point and wouldn’t for at least another five or six years, but what I did have was a grant check burning a hole in my pocket.  I’d have bought the records, but they were like rocking horse shit and so I didn’t.  As usual, I’d not bothered to sort out any accommodation at the end of the previous year, so I was dossing on a girl’s bedroom floor.  This girl, who I worked with during the holidays, also went to York – although St John’s, not the ‘proper’ one, and I stayed with her for a few days until I managed to sort myself a room in halls.  I bought all four cds and found myself a room just off campus at what was then called St. Lawrence Court, house ‘G’, room 2, ground floor.  I settled myself in and met my housemates, all of whom were female except the kid next door to me, who was a withdrawn lad called Tony.  By that point, most people had cd players, so I thought I’d make friends with someone who had one and get them to tape me my Scott Walker cds.

On moving in, I was immediately quite taken by a third year girl who was very similar to my girlfriend at the time, who had gone to do her third year at university in Bologna, Italy.  It turned out she – my girlfriend – was nobbing pretty much everybody with a Y chromosome – before and during, but I didn’t know that.  I first heard about it from her, when she rang me up during the first term and told me she had met this Italian kid with whom she’d really made a connection. He had dreadlocks and a deeper knowledge of European new wave cinema than I would ever truly have, so that was right up her street.  Mine too, but only because she’d introduced me to Bicycle Thieves and I’d loved it. I think she might have expected me to be pleased for her, but I wasn’t, even though I was vainly pursuing someone else who was possibly even more posh than she was.  She’d probably told me so I wouldn’t go and visit her that Christmas, unless I fancied holding up score cards after they’d finished shagging, which I didn’t.  When I went home at the end of the academic year, I was finally informed of her additional partners by people we’d both worked with over the previous summer, of which there were many.   Partners, I mean.  Most of whom were ‘friends’ of mine.  I was upset and humiliated because everybody knew except me.  The timeline of the cosmos’s karmic scales might have been a bit non linear because although this was my, sort of, my karma for what I’m about to tell you.  To be fair, I got what I deserved from all concerned.  Mainly.

Anyway, I pursued the third year girl clumsily and she wasn’t all that interested.  I think she enjoyed the attention a bit, but she wasn’t very keen.  She was a bit embarrassed and didn’t want to be seen with me out and about.  She wasn’t really that keen when nobody was there, really.  I think I was mainly keen because she would have been a straightish swap for the girl in Italy – southern, posh, rich, arty – and I had worked out how to behave around such girls.  I was embarrassed to have been dumped for some grebo Italian kid and wanted to fill the gap.  I’d pretty much been in one relationship or another  for the past four or five years.  It was built on laziness and purposely not seeking out anything different so as to retain a bit of security and consistency.   She had a cd player, but not a tape deck attached to it.  By November, getting nowhere fast with the southern, posh, rich, arty girl – in terms of taping Scott Walker, or getting in her knickers – my head was turned by a first year girl from Morecambe and not just because she had a cd player with a tape deck.  She taped them for me and, when she handed it all back to me and I asked her if she’d listened to it, she replied, “It sounds like Love Boat music.”  And I just melted.

We got together, and it was really different to what I’d been used to.  It was just easier.  She didn’t tolerate any of my usual nonsense, which is essential and she was funny, clever and interesting too.  Actually, in terms of the time frame, which I might be wobbly on, when Clare dumped me by phone, I was in the middle of trying to impress the first year by cooking spaghetti, the result of which surprised me because she was impressed.  She might just have said it to be kind because I’d only just found out that I’d been dumped.  She was considerate, another quality I lacked.

I blew it when the third year girl got wind of our burgeoning relationship and presented herself naked in my bed when the first year’s friends came up to visit, and I was too gauche to say no to a lithe young body offering itself up to me.  I knew it was bad when it was happening and didn’t cover myself in glory with either of them.  As soon as I’d finished, I put some jeans on and returned to the kitchen to talk to the first year’s friends, leaving the third year shagged and alone and the first year’s more observant friend commenting that I appeared to have a different pair of jeans on to the pair I was wearing when I went to my room about forty seconds earlier.  I said, “Yeah, my bags weren’t working for me, so I changed them.”  They seemed quite impressed by that.  I think the only thing that could be in my favour about that sordid little incident is that I kept my mouth shut and didn’t tell anyone what I’d done.  With hindsight, of course I kept my mouth shut – I knew I’d blown it – so no, no brownie points at all for me.

When we returned after Christmas, I had a side parting which irritated the first year and anyway,  the third year told her what had happened and I was too chicken to even try to discuss it.  Scott Walker’s regretful ballads provided succor, but they didn’t sound like Love Boat anymore.  They sounded like a death knell.

They don’t now.  Now they sound like Love Boat music.

Later, quite a while after I’d blown it with the first year, I was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea at breakfast time and it was busy.  The third year came from the stairs and announced to me – but in the sort of voice that you might call ‘inclusive’ – that she’d been to the doctors’ and she had an STD, thank you very much, and I should get myself tested too.  The reason she was telling me this, she continued, was so that I didn’t give Clare the filth that I’d given her.  The room went quiet, as you’d expect.

I said, “Ah, cheers for that, third year,” And off she went, job more than done.  I suppose I might call that the ‘dancing on the grave’ phase of relationship breakdowns, in that all of my relationships were dead because I’d killed them all.  Apart from with Clare, but only then because she was even worse than I was.  She knew Clare had dumped me, perhaps she was just prescient about what would happen later.  If so, hats off.

Naturally, I went to the doctors’ and got myself tested, which was another extremely intrusive and unpleasant experience on most levels.  Later that year, I went to the doctors again, this time with broken fingers.  He asked me to take my clothes off again.  Which I did.  It was a bit weird.  He might have been worried about me because I was a skinny little bugger.  On the other hand, maybe he was a pervert.  It’s the doctor.  What are you going to do?

Anyway, when the results came back, I was clean.  Nothing at all.  I thought about breaking the news to the third year in the same manner that she’d broken her news to me, but in the end decided I’d been enough of a dick and, just kept my mouth shut.

I wondered whether she actually did have whatever it was she had, or if she just made it up because she was pissed off about something else I’d done.  Or just still living there being a shitty reminder to both her and the first year that she was sick of.  If she really did have an STD, she didn’t get it from me, which leads off somewhere else entirely where I really couldn’t be arsed going.  So I left it.  I don’t know why she bothered; my name was already mud and she’d already got what she wanted.  Maybe she was just keeping her hand in or something.

Ballsing it up with first year, I was sad about though.  If anyone had the reason and means to show me up for the twat I was, it was her.  And she didn’t.  To be honest, the remainder of that year, in terms of the first year girl, I’m hazy on.  She could – and did – leave an impression.  When she felt like it, however, she made it like she hadn’t really been there at all, and that’s what it felt like moments later – like the ghost of the first year had conversed wth you in the kitchen, but about what, you couldn’t really say.  I don’t know how she did it, but I thought it was clever.  I hated it as well.

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St Lawrence Court: note the windows in the roofs.  I misguidedly attempted to micturate out of one of them when yet another girl’s boyfriend began hammering on her door and demanding to know what was going on.  Nothing he would have like to have heard about is the answer. I was a terrifically slow learner, or perhaps I’d learned over the years that infidelity was an entirely normal state of affairs.  Mind you, I’d had a very recent, sharp lesson that it wasn’t and I hadn’t learned from that, so maybe I was just a twat.

End of Diversion 

By this point, I questioned it.  Why were these artists in music mags, and yet nobody I knew liked anything by any of them?   Obviously other people were into them, but I didn’t know who any of these other people were.  They weren’t my mates.

What are my friends into?  Kings of Leon, Ocean Colour Scene, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Oasis, stuff like that.  Not really my thing, I suppose.  I might say there’s not much in the way of innovative intricacy going on – musically, rhythmically or lyrically.  It’s meat and potatoes.  It plods.  It sounds a bit yearning sometimes.  Nobody’s dressing up like HMS Pinafore in space and nobody’s suggesting that anybody does any thinking.

It sounds like Bruce Springsteen who, as Ian Brown so memorably commented, ‘always sounds like he’s having a shit.’

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Kings Of Leon.  From left to right: Bejewelled man at C&A; Leonardo di Caprio  in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; a confused hospital porter straying into shot, and the younger brother who’s not yet learned to hide his mouth breathing tendencies.

The answer I get given to my question – how come you’re not into Donovan/Nick Drake/etc? – tends to be along the lines that it’s a bit wet.  I can see that.  It’s not even necessarily clever, a lot of it.  Especially Donovan.  I know why it is now: music mags have to write about things and it’s easier to write about things with a bit of depth than it is to describe and evaluate a 120BPM banger featuring a bassline.  It’s easy to slag off, on grounds of the same thing that might make it what it is.  It makes the writer look cleverer and more perceptive if they dig a bit deeper and find something interesting to talk about.  If you’re talking about Cheryl Tweedy’s new hair colour, it’s easier to say how ephemeral and demeaning it is, especially if you’ve got How Do You Sleep‘s possible inspiration from the painting about the beheading of John The Baptist, ‘The Feast of Herod: Salome’s Dance’ (also known as ‘Herod’s Banquet’) by Fra Filippo Lippi on your list of questions.  (It is, incidentally).  (Not on your list of questions, the inspiration).

But this sounding like you’re having a shit music is about passion and feeling and all that.  It’s not the sort of thing you can quantify.  Like pop music itself, I suppose.  But more particularly, it’s like sportsings.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t need a brain to play sport, not at all.  I think the best players do have the intellectual, abstract capacity to think.  On the other hand, if you don’t have a brain, you can often get away with it.  What you can’t get away without is the visceral ability and desire to do it.  And sport’s about passion and visceral thrills, not intellectualising.  Well, some of it is.

In the end, I think that’s where the dividing line is: people who want their music to hit them in the gut: rrrr, and people who want their pop music to give them something to think about: hmmm.

Which is one reason why The Beatles’ music from 1962-70 is so great.  They started off entirely visceral and gradually moved away from relatively banal lyrics and structures – although their chords were always ridiculously inventive -, to lyrical depth and musical and rhythmical experimentation as they went along, only pausing briefly to try to Get Back to the early, brainless rock n roll that moved so many people.  Including me.  And as they moved along and tried different things, they retained their oomph.  They became less popular as they went along, The Beatles, which is surprising, isn’t it?  What it tells you is that some people are put off by overt cleverness.  Or just plain old weirdness.  Clever can be mistaken for weird, and vice versa.

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Left: The Beatles in 1962: visceral.  Right: The Beatles in 1969: visceral and intellectually hirsute.

So, the best bands do both, just the same as the best sportsing players.   At the same time.   Most of my mates can’t handle a lack of oomph, but they’re not bothered if there’s nothing for their brain to get involved with and they get irritated if it’s a bit weird.  I can handle a trite bit of oomph for a bit, but in the end, I’m the owner of a hungry brain and it needs to be given things to get on with or it starts playing silly buggers.

Different Strokes For Different Folks, isn’t it?*

Ideally though, like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Beatles, The Who, and the songs in The Jungle Book**, the best records have both brains and brawn.

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Donovan: not bearing all that much resemblance to my old man after all.

* Except as regards The Beatles.  If you don’t like The Beatles, there’s something wrong with you.  Or, more likely, you’re lying.  More on that open minded little gem later.

** Much as I enjoy Hungry Like The Wolf and Rio, I can’t pretend that Duran Duran are punching equally on both fronts.  John Taylor is a ludicrous bass player though.  For what it’s worth.

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