I remember punk rock like it was only yesterday, to borrow a phrase from Vic Reeves. To borrow another from the Poet Laureate, it swooped into my adolescent life like a hawk into a dovecote and I was never really the same again.
Somewhere worryingly over the horizon loomed O levels and, less worryingly, girls, shaving, wages and the unlimited freedom and temptations of adult life. We were roughly between the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent and times were not good. Music, the mainstay of my life since buying The Scaffold's "Lily The Pink" as a precocious and presumably demented toddler, was letting me down badly. Northern Soul had fizzled out in a slew of novelty records, progressive rock had come to mean the dismal Genesis, and elsewhere The Eagles held fell dominion over the land. Disco hadn't been invented so I spent my time listening to old Beatles records and eccentrics such as Split Enz, Deaf School, Aphrodite's Child and Syd Barrett. Salvation, however, was just around the corner.
John Peel's was a fairly tired selection of records that evening as I recall, culminating in his rather apologetically playing Poco's Rose of Cimmaron twice when, with the air of a kindly and adventurous uncle, he put on "Neat Neat Neat" by The Damned. The effect was electrifying. I had cut my hair and sold all my Yes records before the end of that first simple bass guitar phrase. A keen student of the music press, I had suspected punk to be a scam perpetrated by shallow London trendies. Now, as Dave Vanian sang out in his attractive monotone, I realised it was all our futures.
Being a punk rocker was hard work in the Wigan of the time. A lot of my friends thought this brave new sound was a joke, lacking the musical substance of, say, Rory Gallagher or Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. Then there was the matter of the clothes. We would get changed in the toilets of the Bees Knees pub, entering as rather conventional seventies teenagers in Birmingham bags and Simon shirts, and emerging as, so we thought, art terrorists of the new Bohemia, festooned with pins and cheap jewellery hanging from torn T-shirts. Such apparel rendered our already slim chances of getting served approximately nil.
It's easy to forget in our post-everything, free-for-all Britain where young people routinely eat fire in the streets dresses as Arapaho Indians, just how shocking punk rock was. The entire top deck of a passing bus once gave me "the finger" as I set out to see Slaughter & The Dogs at Wigan Casino. A jeering mob of children shouted "Look at fucking Johnny Rotten" as I tried to make my innocent way through a public park. There was one pub that would shelter us, the Bier Keller on King Street, and each week — Tuesday nights to be specific — a score of us punks would revel in our secret vice, encouraged by a supportive overweight DJ called Tommy. It would be visited by gangs of Teds, bikers, soul boys and the merely curious, all keen to study (with a view to later kicking in) some punk rockers. It was unbearably exciting.
But if being a punk rocker was hard, being a punk rock intellectual was murder. Strummer and Rotten has suppressed their intelligence for the good of their art. There was Wire and Howard Devoto, but they were kind of aloof, and short on toe-tapping tunes. The Damned were clearly berks. Enter, sneering and blinking owlishly, Declan MacManus.
I first saw Elvis Costello on Granada Reports, our teatime magazine show. Presenting this programme was the youthful Tony Wilson's day job (by night he owned Factory Records, future home of New Order, Happy Mondays and a singing hairdresser called Andrew Berry) and he could be guaranteed to upset your dad by slipping in a short set by This Heat between the weather and an item on rates increases in Warrington. Costello played a couple of songs backed by himself on electric guitar. He wore a pastel blue suit and horn rims, and made ugly faces throughout. I think he played "Welcome To The Working Week" and "Alison," and maybe "Red Shoes." I wasn't sure whether I liked it, but I felt some kind of kinship.
Costello was obviously punk rock. His terse and pungent little songs had nothing in common with Eater but even less with Dean Friedman or Camel. He looked awkward and unbelievably pissed off. He leered. Besides, Sounds had said he was punk rock. Later that week the self same paper featured a picture of his legs. I was baffled until I realised that it was part of a composite poster that you could only assemble by buying all that week's Big Three rock weeklies, Sounds, Melody Maker and the NME. I did... simply because I always did.
Costello quickly became an honorary member of my list of acceptable musicians. My friend Nigel, however, with whom I had formed a punk combo called The Idiots, was yet more keen, and quickly acquired a copy of Costello's debut album, My Aim Is True. We would listen to it in his bedroom while marvelling at the picture of Elvis on the back of the sleeve, looking perhaps crapper than anyone has ever done as a publicity gambit on their own record. He wore a tie and jeans with big farmboy-style turn-ups and an Oxfam jacket. He looked like someone who would get his dinner money stolen on a regular basis.
I didn't really like My Aim Is True for what I now know to be a very pertinent reason. It isn't very good. "Sneaky Feelings" and "Pay It Back" are awful old pub singalongs, and a general mood of bar-room downhomeness prevailed. This was not what I wanted at all, pedal steels and tinkling pianos. But there was something about it. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was ace. "Less Than Zero" was catchy and had an unfathomable lyric about Oswald Mosley. More importantly, there was a song called "I'm Not Angry," which struck some very peculiar chords in me as Elvis railed with lust and acidic contempt against the monstrous regiment of women. And there was "Alison," a song lovely enough to melt the hardest of punk rock hearts, even with its kernel of bitterness. Astute readers will have already guessed what was afoot. Girls were on the verge of arriving into my life big time and if ever there was a songwriter to map out with certainty the hazardous emotional terrain of the teenage Bohemian and bon vivant, it was the Elvis Costello of the late seventies.
Things were happening. I started my A Levels and fancied myself as something of a dissolute intellectual, a budding poet and novelist who nevertheless combined all this with a keen interest in drinking, girls, politics and sport. A renaissance toyboy, if you like. With consummately brilliant timing, Elvis released This Year's Model that spring. In terms of its cultural significance in our teenage lives, it ranked between Picasso's Guernica, Beethoven's Ninth and the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It was a hot afternoon and we had convened at Nigel's house for a band practice. Nigel and I were on Easter holiday but Jem, our drummer, had recently been sacked from his job at Rathbone's Bakery for nicking a tray of loaves. Nigel had been into town that morning and bought This Year's Model. It was a moment to savour. We all agreed that the cover was excellent. Elvis striking a characteristic pose in a dark suit behind a photographer's tripod. Inside, were some odd visuals that we felt sure were of major significance: a line of bright plastic torsos in string vests stood before a row of washing machines; elsewhere Elvis & The Attractions stood looking aghast at something in a hotel room and played with a tiny hand-held TV clutched in a rubber mitt. We put the record on Nigel's mum's music centre and watched as the bright green Radar label rotated.
It was obviously the best record that had ever been made in the history of recorded sound. Gone was the hoary old traditionalism of My Aim Is True, gone were the country stylings of US country rockers Clover (later, appropriately, to become The News, Huey Lewis's backing band), who had been so anonymously competent on that first album.
This was the stuff, fierce and modern and unpretentious, the full-blooded rock attack of the music augmented by almost baroque keyboard embellishments from a man called Steve Nieve, clearly one of the most talented musicians since Liszt. The Attractions were a proper band and, best of all, they all looked the part.
Nigel, a thoughtful musician, was delighted. It was his liberation. He would no longer have to pretend to be partially deaf and three-fingered for the sake of our punk credentials. In fact punk ended that day as far as I was concerned. It had been a glorious and bloody revolution. And we had won. Deep Purple would dangle upside-down from lamp-posts, Robert Plant's hair would be forcibly cut.
But now it was time to move on. This Year's Model pointed to a new and bright future. Of Farfisa organs, knitted ties, demob jackets and songs about guilt, deception and having girls you fancied go off with man-apes in IDONTGOTO UNIVERSITY sweatshirts. And they did, the bastards. And they were studying geology. Always.