clang! clang! clang!

"Yes, but who's going to haul Carl Craig over the coals for not going to see Emily play?"

The lines that follow were prompted by the realisation that 23 Skidoo produced one of the first great pop singles of the '80s ('Ethics') yet there they are at the end of the '90s still in the thick of the UK Hip Hop scene. So where are all the CD retrospectives and 12 page special reappraisals in Mojo?

These words were originally going to be a response to Pete Williams' excellent piece 'The Boy Looks At Johnny', but all you really need to say is that it was a matter of principle for many people: Soul Family Sensation is a bad enough name without adding insult to injury by calling a record New Wave!

As much as I like to propagate the idea that in the '80s people were listening to both Dinosaur L and Dinosaur Jr, and busy talking about both the Peech Boys and the Beach Boys, I do also rather like the idea that at some point in the '80s there was a sort of Drumcree stand-off with young boys holding Gretsch guitars trying to ward off advancing hordes armed with Roland 808s.

Was it really like that? I honestly do not remember. I was far too wrapped up in my own adventures. I do remember the apocryphal tales of A Certain Ratio creative fulcrum Simon Topping going to NYC to study Latin percussion and coming back so totally inspired by the new sounds he heard out there that he put together T-Coy's Carino, which was great but I would never pretend to have been carried away by sounds coming out of Chicago, though they were all around on the pirate stations. My own eyes and ears were opened somewhat later with LFO, Unique 3, Nightmares on Wax, Orbital, and I've no problem with that. However, I would strongly argue that there were signs of cross-fertilisation way back when, and if you want more than anecdotal evidence then I recommend checking through the back pages of Dave Haslam's Debris. And when you've finished I'll have them thank you very much because I lost my collection along the way and I feel that absence has made the old heart decidedly fond of Debris.

I expect that if you check the listings in Jockey Slut, you'll find Dave Haslam is still spinning discs somewhere in Manchester and good luck to him. He was always a bit of a figure of fun, and Debris could be overly po-faced and tolerant. However, it was an ambitious venture: professional even for an independent publication in the '80s, with legitimate advertising space sold and the layout properly typeset. It had some decent articles too in its time: Hubert Selby Jr, A Certain Ratio when no one else was interested, The Left Book Club, Stone Roses before anyone cared, Robert Forster's hair care tips, Ut and The Fall, and lots of Manchester-centric stuff on churches, barbers, bakers, Hip Hop and House. He was very nice about me too.

Debris did famously get it wrong on one occasion. At the end of '86 (I think, it was that gap between 'Freaky Dancin' and Squirrel and G-Man anyway) they had the Happy Mondays as number 7 in their poll of Manchester bands, which should tell you how false the Madchester myth is, for at that time the Mondays couldn't even get themselves arrested in Manchester and it was down in London that they were making jaws drop. I saw five shows that I would still put in my all time top ten live performances, and all these before they blew it with Bummed, with probably never more than fifty in the audience. I find it very sad that they have reformed without Mark Day, for it was his guitar playing that made the Mondays so special. I can't believe it when people write that the early Mondays shows were shambolic or that they couldn't play. Of course they could play, but as Vini Reilly said about Mark Day's guitar technique, it was just that they didn't play like anyone else. Mark Day was great: he looked like Steve McMahon and played like Cheese; pure rhythm and scratchy too. I really believe they knew what they were doing, though I strongly doubt the official theory that they were the missing link between the pop underground and the dance underground, when they really reached back to rare grooves, and at the very least early New Order / a√:, and were certainly at their weakest when remixed by others.

Again you can read in Debris how other Manchester groups like Twang! were joining the dots between punk basics and the new electronic dance sounds, but who remembers them?

If I do remember one thing about Twang! it was that they first appeared with Laugh on a flexi disc given away with Debris early on, and Laugh are a perfect example of how funny it is the way time plays tricks. For Laugh were briefly (1987-ish) the best pop group on the planet, eclipsing even the Happy Mondays. Essentially Laugh reflected the era's beach-combing tendency, the utilisation of cast-offs. So their huge beat noise was flavoured by Northern Soul and rockabilly, Love and The Fall, Joy Division and The Meters, and singer Martin Wright was wont to try a few Billy Stewart/General Johnson vocal acrobatics but better still ended up like Lulu on 'Shout!' Grrr! Laugh really were completely cool though, and I do not just mean in the sense that their guitars went clang! clang! clang! like early Subway Sect. I mean in terms of presence and image: some of the best haircuts since Joy Division and early Pale Fountains, and great golf-jackets, corded jeans jackets and John Smedley type jerseys. The time they appeared at the Black Horse all in red jumpers actually prompted much discussion on the dialectics of such action. Anyway, there is a purpose to all this. For in interviews Laugh would aver that their main influence and interest was contemporary urban dance music, and I guess the archives of magazines like Underground and Jamming! would bear me out here. Indeed, by the time of their third single, 'Time To Lose It', they had enlisted the help of Paul Kendall (who had worked on various Mute/Blast First projects, including the awesome In Gut's House by NYC pioneers Ut) to put together a discodub version, and from there they refined their live and studio sound by incorporating programmed rhythm tracks and electronic embellishments.

I remember hearing the demos for their first LP when they were about to hook up with Jeff Barrett's Sub Aqua set-up, and sensing this could be a great leap forward; yet the whole thing fizzled out. Now their LP Sensation Number One is one of the great lost records. Usually in the language of pop, that means a record that's become criminally neglected, which is undoubtedly true. Yet. I meant it in the more literal sense; I've lost my copy, so I am completely unable to re-evaluate its place in pop's pantheon. The great missing link between Punk Rock and Techno? I haven't a clue. So, can anyone do me a tape, lend me a copy, write up its contribution to pop culture? Come on, someone re-release it or put together the definitive Laugh compilation. This time I won't take the title of their third single quite so precisely. Oh, please yourselves.

© Kevin Pearce 1999.