Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Muzak of the Wastelands

This week I've been pondering a minor musical mystery. While digging around for Faith Brothers tracks and some Debut magazine compilations I have, I saw a track by Messengers, the touring band that supported Ultravox around the time of Quartet, and it got me thinking about Concrete Scheme by Modern Man, which is one of those (many) LP's I bought on eBay a few years ago and never paid much attention to. The history, as I understand it, is that around the time Midge Ure joined Ultravox in 1980, he discovered Modern Man playing locally in Scotland and offered to produce them. The band released the album and a couple of singles and then broke up, with the drummer Colin King and guitarist Danny Mitchell then forming a duo called Messengers which subsequently released a couple of singles through Chrysalis and supported Ultravox - most famously receiving a shout-out on the Live Ultravox LP, Monument - The Soundtrack. 

When I pulled the album out of storage I was reminded that the last track on side A was "Wastelands", which would later pop up on Midge's solo album The Gift and it is this particular track that I find mysterious.

I began listening to Ultravox in 1985 - all my friends had a copy of The Collection compilation which came out at Christmas 1984 - and Midge Ure was my first musical hero, looking so cool in all the group photos and doing Live Aid. Then he released "If I Was" which I found easy to like - even if the video with Midge wielding his 'axe', 'dancing' with voluminous trousers and 'acting' like the poet, painter and sailor he was singing about seemed to be faintly ridiculous. So the album release in October 1985 was a big deal for me. The cover was great, all moody matinee idol, there was a free poster, and then I got the album and played it quite a lot. It never hit the heights of the Ultravox albums I was familiar with, but it was mostly enjoyable - if a little slight in places. For example, several of the tracks were instrumentals, there was a Jethro Tull cover, and a 'reprise' version of the title track which was a lengthy and bombastic piece in the first place. Several of the tracks were credited to Midge and Danny Mitchell, who had become his significant songwriting partner for the project. I bought the second single "That Certain Smile" and the third which came out in January 1986, which was the aforementioned "Wastelands".

In hindsight there was always something about that song which seemed out of place. The lyrics seemed at least pseudo-autobiographical - 'The boy is listening to the records from the past, he wants to make them last, for they make him feel alive'. The tone is angry, even political - 'a martyr's blood is nourishing the wastelands'. Also, the turns of phrase are striking, odd even - 'For them he'd take the test'. What test? A test of loyalty perhaps, maybe a gang initiation. Midge's version credits the track to himself and Danny Mitchell, just the same as the other singles from the album. In fact, in an interview on the Old Grey Whistle Test, he specifically mentions that Danny co-wrote the song with him. So far, so what?

Here's the mystery. The original version of the track makes much more sense to me. The arrangement is sparse, with heavy guitar patterns, and the Modern Man vocalist (Jim Cook) attacks the song in a plaintive, unadorned fashion. It's the sound of young Scottish punks, in other words, not a warm, indulgent mid-career release by an established star. And like all the tracks on the Modern Man LP, Danny Mitchell receives sole songwriting credit. So is Midge's version a cover version in the truest sense? Why change the credits five years later when it's obviously the same song in terms of lyrics and structure? After so much time, do I really want to believe that Midge took a co-writing credit on a song that had never been his at all? Or is it fairer to say that potentially he co-wrote at least some of the Modern Man material, but could not take any credit on the album due to contractual issues with the record labels (Midge was with Chrysalis in 1980, and Concrete Scheme came out on the more obscure MAM Records).

At the very least it suggests to me that Danny Mitchell's involvement with Midge's solo career should not be underestimated. Midge would go on to develop into a thoughtful and communicative songwriter on his own terms - that's for certain. Which makes this earlier spell all the more fascinating and just a little bit mysterious, at least to me.

And here's the Modern Man version by way of comparison:

Modern Man - Wastelands

Saturday, May 5, 2018

National Euphoria - Danceability

7" Single, released in 1983

National Euphoria were Nicky Ager on bass and vocals, Paul Tempest on guitar, and Steve Sinclair on drums. This was, I believe, their only single release. On the Amidisque label.