By about 1985, I was into The Smiths but nobody else was, not at my school, anyway. Morrissey in particular was viewed with much derision by the kids I knew. Not me though: I thought he was brilliant. A couple of the cooler kids might grudgingly admit that Johnny Marr was alright, but that was as far as it went.
Music can be a shared experience as well as a private one and, at that age – about 14 – I found it hard to be stranded out on a limb with the spirit of Morrissey whining gently and metaphorically next to me. Probably encouraging me to ‘throw your skinny body down, son.’ Like most kids, I wanted what I liked to be accepted by my peers and it wasn’t. Not in the slightest. So, in order to experience the thrill of being part of a gang with shared ideals, I made a point of getting into what the my mates were into.
What my mates were into, apart from chart music, was the nascent Hip Hop scene which had begun to flourish at my school. It was a different world to The Smiths and The Housemartins, who were popular. The Hip Hop bands weren’t even bands. There wasn’t even singing on most of it. It was hard to know how to find a way in.
On the youth club jukebox, there was a copy of the 7” edit of White Lines (Don’t Do It) by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. That got played a lot and I enjoyed it. Blondie had done Rapture, but that didn’t seem all that Hip Hoppy to me, despite Debbie Harry in a bandeau top and hot pants, rapping in front of some weirdo in a white suit and top hat combination.
In the end, just forcing myself to listen to things I couldn’t really relate to worked. I started to enjoy it and taped records off Mark Webster – who, spoiler alert, doesn’t die at the end of this story. For a change. Nobody dies.
Mark Webster was nearly as short as I was, if slightly more rotund. He had unusually long hair for the time, which was a constant source of annoyance to his dad. His dad was a carpenter who had done up his garage down the tenfoot (Hull expression for alleyways or ginnels) so that he didn’t have to tolerate his son’s mates being in his house at the same time he was. He’d stuck carpet tiles on the floor, put some battered old settees in, a record player and a table football game. It was good, providing it wasn’t cold, which it usually was. Webbo’s dad bought him a storage heater the very first winter after he’d done it up…
Diversion – Juliet Bravo
Juliet Bravo was a cops and robbers programme on BBC1, on Saturday nights in the 80s. It’s probably on Dave or something now. I wouldn’t bother. The only thing that we learned from Juliet Bravo was what glue sniffing involved and how to do it, because they showed it.
In addition to the home comforts that Webbo’s dad had installed for us in his garage, he’d keep some of his work gear in there as well. Nobber, a friend of Webbo’s regularly had to get taken to hospital after arsing about with Webbo’s dad’s jigsaw. Not the carved up cardboard pictures you have to assemble, but the hand held machine that gives them their name. The other thing he’d left in there, apparently forever, was about five million gallons of Evo-Stik, which had been the Juliet Bravo glue sniffer’s choice.
My M.O. in terms of drugs has always been the same: be a chicken. I mean, have a look and see how other people get on with it and, if it looks like they’re having a good time, count me in. If they don’t, I wouldn’t bother. And that’s why I’ve never taken cocaine, or ‘Twat Powder’, as I call it because when you add twat powder to a human being, it turns them into a twat. Whoever you are, so far as I can gather. It turned out that Melle Mel was right about White Lines. Don’t do it, kids. Unless you’re trying to be a twat, in which case, knock yourself out. Just not around me, alright? Cheers.
Anyway, following Juliet Bravo’s rudimentary lesson on ‘How to sniff glue’, Webbo decided that he was going to give it a go himself. Webbo clearly did not share my M.O. because the kid who was doing the sniffing on Juliet Bravo dropped down dead as a result of it, which didn’t strike me as being a lot of fun. So I didn’t bother. Like a chicken, I guess. Even before the glue sniffer was dead, all the talk was about his terrible acne as a result of sniffing glue. I was lucky not to really suffer with spots at all and didn’t fancy doing anything to encourage their development on my chops. I said I’d sit with him while Webbo attempted to emulate the fate of the glue sniffer off Juliet Bravo. For reasons I didn’t really understand. Nothing new there, however.
He sat himself down on the floor with his plastic bag, loaded it up with Evo Stik, shoved his face in it and began to inhale. He did this wordlessly for quite some time, which was quite boring for me, so I took my book out and started to read. Super cool, huh? Yeah, I always had a book with me. Whack! As they said regularly in Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo. So, yeah, I was cool, actually...
Whatever it was I was reading must have been gripping because the next time I looked at Webbo, he appeared to be dead on the floor. I put my book down and went to see if he was alright. He was breathing okay, so I tried to wake him up, but it was no good, so I sat back down and picked my book up again, checking he was breathing periodically. When I remembered.
A couple of hours later, I was distracted by Webbo’s pitiful whining and coughing. He was still lying on the floor and I asked him if he was alright.
“Can’t move my fucking head, can I?” He said, agitated.
“Eh?” The kid on Juliet Bravo couldn’t move his head either, but that was because he was dead. I didn’t know what had happened. “Why not?”
“Cause it’s stuck to the fucking floor, isn’t it? Give us a hand Mid.”
I got up and inspected closer. He’d gouched out and rested the side of his head on the bag, which was partly open, gluing his head to the floor by his hair. I laughed.
“What are you fucking laughing at? It’s not funny, man,” We referred to each other as ‘man’ in the vain hope that people would believe us, I expect. They didn’t. “Come on, you’re going to have to give us a hand here,”
I crouched down and looked closer but didn’t touch. It was his hair that was stuck to the bag and the carpet tile underneath it.
“Has your old man got a Stanley knife?”
“I don’t fucking know, do I?”
“Helpful, aren’t you?” I teased and went for a rummage through his dad’s bags. There were a lot of Stanley knives, actually. I took one and crouched down by the prostrate Webbo.
“I’m going to have to cut you loose, man. Keep still.”
And I did. I cut around his head on the carpet tile, removing a circle with difficulty, due to it being stuck down by his dad, probably with Evo-Stik, then went about hacking the hair off that was stuck to it. He complained a lot. It probably hurt, but I, sanctimonious twat that I was, had no sympathy. If anything, his pain made it even funnier. You know what kids are like.
Once I’d finished, he looked a bugger. His outrageously long hair remained on the other side of his head and at the back, but he looked like a female French Nazi collaborator in late 1945 on the other side.
“I think you’re going to have to get yourself t’barbers, man,” I told him, incapable of stopping myself laughing.
He did, and when he came back and went into his house, his old man looked up at him over his pink Sports Mail, saw his number one all over crop and announced, “Finally, you’ve done summat useful with your life. Welcome to the human race, son,”
I thought that was funny too. Webbo didn’t. I daresay Morrissey wouldn’t have either. Mind you, Webbo’s old man didn’t think the hole I’d hacked out of his carpet tiles was very funny when he found out later. Webbo told him it must have been rats and got a smack on his shorn head for his trouble.
End of Diversion.
So, on the odd occasion that Webbo wasn’t gluing his head to the floor or Nobber wasn’t being rushed off to Casualty, or I wasn’t ‘reading a fucking book’, what we did in the garage was listen to hip hop, like the suburban English gangsters we thought we might be.
Hip hop wasn’t just about listening to records and shouting, dancing was a big part of the scene. Not dancing like girls did at the youth club, in a circle, putting one foot alternately in the middle, like a semi-professional Hokey Cokey, but a totally new type of dancing, called Breakdancing.
I don’t know if the film Breakdance ever came out in England at the pictures, we’d certainly never heard of it, but when Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo came to the ABC in town, we all went down in our Adidas trackies and had our tiny, provincial minds blown.
In my Junior school days, when you’d watched a film, what you did was go out and play it with your mates. War, James Bond, Cowboys and Indians, Robots, Space, whatever it was, we’d play it. Now, a little too old for that, we did more or less the same thing: trying to pull off those outrageous moves on Webbo’s old man’s carpet tiled garage.
The carpet tiles didn’t help, but there were several rolls of linoleum curled up in one corner and, as we’d been shown, rolled one out and started working out rudimentary breakdance skills. Nobber turned out to have a natural gift for it, despite being pretty tubby – maybe that helped, I don’t know – and, with Webbo hanging onto his feet and twisting them around, Nobber was halfway to spinning on his head unassisted within a couple of hours of getting off the bus.
Personally, I could pull off a swan dive into a decent caterpillar and do the windmill for a very limited period of time, but Nobber was off – don’t worry, he doesn’t die either – and on the way to becoming quite impressive. Webbo had plenty of break battle moves which were lost on me because I couldn’t work out what was going on anyway. Like an American watching cricket for the first time, I suppose.
After so long, we discussed the possibility that the world in general might be missing out if we restricted our fantastic breakdancing skills to Webbo’s dad’s garage and perhaps it might be an idea to show the consumers of the city centre what the world was all about now.
The first problem was that we were breakdancing to Webbo’s record player and we could hardly take that in town. Nobber’s big sister had a ghetto blaster which he surreptitiously borrowed one Saturday morning after she’d gone to work at the hairdressers near Webbo’s. We chipped in for batteries, rolled up the lino and caught the bus to town.
The sense of anticipation and excitement on the bus was palpable as we talked about the possibility of rival breakdancing gangs initiating a shooting or something. Grannies tutted at the lino in the luggage space underneath the stairs to the top deck, where, as the coolest of the cool, we sat at the back.
We unfurled the lino outside Chelsea Girl – unrelated to the Nico solo album, as far as I can gather: which is a pity – at the front of a shopping centre, Webbo put his Hip Hop tape in, pressed play and we all looked at each other.
Shoppers gave us sideways glances as Rapper’s Delight – 12” version, natch – lolloped out in the otherwise still morning air and none of us did anything.
“I’d go first, but it’d just make you lot look shit,” Nobber said. He was right.
I stepped up to the lino, like a high diver approaching the edge of the highest diving board, took a deep breath and swan dived into my caterpillar, leading into a bit of a crap windmill and ending with the traditional lying down, resting your chin on one hand. The sum total of my moves had lasted approximately nine seconds. I was done.
Webbo did his solo break battle moves, which seemed mildly incongruous, but still. He hopped off and Nobber began to sway with his arms outstretched.
“What’s he doing?” I asked Webbo. He’d not busted this move before.
Nobber prowled the edge of the lino like a rhythmically proficient hippopotamus with an agenda. An agenda on which every last item was ‘breakdancing’. Crouching down, he flung his arms up, attempting to launch himself into the mother of all swan dives but, having underestimated the force required to vertically propel something of his size several feet into the air, he merely collapsed straight onto his face with a crunch that resonated far above the Sugarhill Gang’s pulsating beats. As he stood, clutching the lower half of his face, I looked down and saw two or three teeth on the floor in a small pool of blood, next to a large indentation that Nobber’s face had left in the lino.
“I think I’m going to have to go to hospital, lads,” Nobber lispily mumbled to us. “Fucked my face up, haven’t I?” Nobber, despite, or possibly because of, his size was quite hard in the traditional sense of the word. Meaning that he seemed relatively unconcerned when being thumped. Or smashing his face in on the pavement outside Chelsea Girl.
We rolled up the lino and turned his sister’s ghetto blaster off as a shop assistant from Chelsea Girl came out and put her arm around Nobber and guided him into the shop. Webbo picked up the lino – and Nobber’s teeth – and attempted to follow, me behind with the ghetto blaster.
“You’re not coming in here with all that muck,” she scolded us. So we waited until Nobber came out, biting on a bloody rag which he removed to tell us how he’d got off with the shop assistant and how great she thought he was.
“Did she fuck,” Webbo dismissed. “She’s about twenty, man.”
Nobber gave him a look that implied that Webbo was sorely mistaken. I just laughed. The collective experience around music was alright. It was entertaining and exciting, which listening to The Smiths by myself in my bedroom wasn’t. On the other hand, listening to The Smiths didn’t look like threatening anyone’s hair or teeth, so maybe there was something to be said for Morrissey after all.
“Come on,” Nobber announced, “Let’s get to the ‘ozzy. I’m going to get off with one of them nurses.” And with that, he boogalooed ahead of us, nodding at middle aged women who, as usual, just tutted at him.
“If only they knew, then they’d have summat to tut at, wouldn’t they?” I asked Webbo, who shook his head happily, but wearily. And, pulling off a near perfect imitation of Ozone from Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo, he said, “Girls are whack, man!”
“Word,” I replied, still laughing.
Then they all died.
N.b: They didn’t. But I did go home and listen to ‘Hatful of Hollow’ alone in my room, much to the continued displeasure of my old man, so there’s a bit of consistency in terms of misery for you at the end. Cheers.