Lines running north / Brown eyed girl
(/ Hammering heart, Chrysalis, 1985) by Del Amitri
The vast and ongoing CD reissue programme, allied with and so far not significantly diminished by the availability of free and marketed mp3s, has been a blessing for the humble flipside. Most reissued albums pick up the B sides associated with their recording. So it is with Del Amitri, the Scottish quartet’s 1985 debut, remastered by Superfecta Recordings of Hollywood, California in 2003. This was the one they made before they discovered (or at least conceded to) Neil Young, before they had hits, before they optimistically requested of the Scottish national football team that they didn’t come home from France ’98 too soon. The one that inspired a fervency among its fans that they essentially disowned with their later moves, though it was always their prerogative to do so. I should declare at this point that I could never bring myself to listen to anything Del Amitri recorded subsequently save by accidental exposure. Prejudice becomes habit, and twenty years slip by before you admit you might just have been wrong, or at least unfair. In his sleeve notes to the reissue, singer Justin Currie signs off by saying ‘too many fucking words though’ and, true enough, seeing them printed in the booklet, there are more than you’d find in the average Faber poetry collection. But what words: ‘The things I say will soon make you swoon / I’ll point to the sun and say it’s the moon’; ‘So who was first? Obviously not me / she’s locked up inside herself and I can’t get anything free’; ‘Like a ticket inspector running for a bus / irony’s revenge surrounds us’; and ‘We are just starting luxurious lives / to be drunkards and diddymen / making Gulf wars and battered wives’.
These lines hovered about me, in the air above fields of wheat and barley, in the air above the market days and snakebite nights of a once monastic Suffolk market town. If you want to know what precociously eloquent teenage yearning in the 1980s was like, listen to this album. Its contrast my own clumsily undertaken fledgling romantic experience seemed stark, which made listening to it not so much bittersweet as outright painful.
And the guitars are as articulate as the lyrics, managing to be both complex and sophisticated as well as yearning, energised and urgent; the sound of young Scotland taken to one logical end. Says Justin: ‘Of course we had a philosophy so strict that it eventually strangled us. No chords, no choruses, no distortion, no synthesizers and definitely no long hair. Melody was God. There are more tunes between the twin guitar parts and bass lines in one backing track from this era of Del Amitri than in every top-line melody I have written since.’
As for the B sides, it’s difficult to split these two, which first appeared together on a 12” (you’ll see I’m establishing my rules for Backed With as I go along, and certainly doing nothing so foolish as write them down), so I’ve not tried. ‘Lines running north’ manages to combine the two phases of the Monkees in having an intro not dissimilar to ‘Last train to Clarkesville’ and an experimental section like something out of Head. It’s another lovelorn tale enriched by the imagery of all those rails and telegraph wires which ultimately connect the Sassenach south with the old country north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Del Amitri’s cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown eyed girl’ establishes what may become another theme of Backed With, the B side as an excuse to have a go at a favourite song. Long before flash-mob performances in pubs, clubs, stations or clothes stores, the Dels hit upon the idea of afternoon busking slots in the towns and cities through which they were touring. I caught up with them in Ipswich. Aside from my friends, there appeared to be only a couple of other Amitri admirers in Suffolk, so two of the group and their manager were good enough to come to a café and chat with us. Busking on the steps of the Corn Exchange, they finished with ‘Brown eyed girl’, its sing-along chorus of ‘Do you remember when we used to sing ‘Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la-la’’ sadly failing to draw the small, celebrant crowd I had imagined might develop. And perhaps now I should concede that here were the signs of what was to come, here was the root of it – this breezy cover of a nostalgic Van Morrison song suggests Del Amitri’s future, suggests the old-before-their-time country rock while more immediately offering the same youthful-joyful-despairing outlook to be found in the early songs of Primal Scream or on the grooves of the flexi discs from which Sarah Records grew.
At the time, a young man who felt betrayal too keenly for his own good – or perceived it where none could exist – I didn’t understand what happened to Del Amitri. In retrospect it’s obvious. If you stay young and intense beyond the time for being so, you risk burning out. They grew up, they grew their hair. (Though that still doesn’t explain ‘Don’t come home too soon’.) So now I’m wondering what did happen when they threw away the dictionary and let the chords and choruses in. Perhaps I should go and find out.
© 2007 Daniel Williams