“I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day”
As the end of my privileged school career beckoned I found myself increasingly distant to many of my peers. Not for me driving lessons on my seventeenth birthday, nor a car for my eighteenth. If I had received a car I would have been able to join in the “shenanigans” of which there were to be no more, as instructed by one of the senior teachers whose initials were spelled out by co-ordinated car parking in the sixth form car park, directly in view from the staffroom. Nor indeed was there to be a large party in a town or city centre bar, with hundreds of tickets given away free to the whole of the sixth form (boys and girls) just to prove how popular and rich I was. We had – or so it felt – only just got a car for the family at that point, after a public transport-filled hiatus of about seven years: that blue Vauxhall Cavalier. It managed to get us up to Warkworth for a couple of holidays, but was hardly top of the range.
I celebrated my eighteenth birthday with a selection of aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, two school friends and the other half of what had now become my second band, The Fabricators, all crammed in to the front room of home. The other half of the band was Garry and his gift to me was a copy of the Communist Manifesto. This, combined with the gift from my parents of a 12-string acoustic guitar, marked the start of an increasing politicisation in young Hartley.
It wasn’t just the Chartists and the Luddites, and the history teachers who taught me about them, that sowed the seeds. Intervention from what seemed a surprising source at the time helped a little too. There was also an economics teacher, and an old boy of the school to boot. From his workroom at the back of the room my sixth form class used as its base he must have heard me discussing money and affluence with my richer peers in the wet lunchtimes of the autumn. I was too old to be chasing footballs now, still stung and unwilling to join the groups mingling with the Girls’ Division sixth formers, and the rest of what had been The November Criminals were now based on the opposite side of the school. I had nothing in common with most of my peers, so I thought, and I argued the toss with them. After one particularly gruelling debate, Mr. Mathieson joined me at the window, staring across the quadrangle, and asking if I had ever heard of The Fabian Society. They were, he said, intellectual and left-wing: that just because you were clever and went to a fee paying school, you didn’t automatically become right-wing. He lent me a pamphlet, with which I was so taken I ordered my own copy immediately: The A-Z of Thatcherism.
Energised, I soon joined The Labour Party, and determined to become an active member. This meant attending the local meetings, and in the November of 1989 I made my way up to Wingates Labour Club in the far north of Westhoughton, to talk about lampposts and local council gossip. It was here I met Garry, a good twelve years my senior. I had worn my ‘James’ t-shirt: green, with the ‘ja’ on the front, ‘m’ on an arm and the ‘es’ on the back. After that long two hours, Garry offered me a lift back: he lived just around the corner from me, and recognised the band associated with the t-shirt. I was still nervous about accepting a lift from someone I had never met, but guessed that murderers and kidnappers were not likely to be staking out local Labour Party meetings waiting for the off-chance of a newcomer to murder or kidnap. And anyway, he had been banging on about racism and equality all evening. Before too long we would form a band of sorts, and I would adopt a pseudonym that would stay with me throughout the next twenty years: Johny Nocash.
On the way home, we talked about music. Bands we knew and had heard of. He bought the NME. I didn’t think adults bought it. He liked James a bit. He thought the drummer in The La’s was the best he had ever heard. What did I think of The Chesterfields? Or The Field Mice? Wasn’t John Peel a genius? Did I say I played the guitar? So did he: did I want to go for a jam one day?
So I did, one Sunday morning, and then several Sunday mornings thereafter, as the two-piece political pop band from Westhoughton took shape. Garry wrote social and political songs that were great. I was still writing rubbish boy-meets-girl or boy-wishes-he-could-meet-girl songs. We recorded our efforts on tape recorders and listened back to them, ever-critical. And there was always time to peruse Garry’s collection of seven and twelve-inch singles, talk about the NME and listen to songs he had taped off Peel. It was through these Sunday mornings I discovered Midnight Oil – ‘Blue Sky Mining’ and its title track were great political pop songs, said Garry, and he was right. I discovered the The Pale Saints’ original version of ‘Sight of You’ to be much better than the version I had heard RIDE play in session on Peel. I also discovered The La’s were much more than just ‘There She Goes’ and although I couldn’t gel with its b-side ‘Come In Come Out’ I was absolutely smitten with ‘Endless’, the reverse to the single’s predecessor ‘Way Out’.
1990 was proving to be something of a special year for the music and the bands I liked, especially those emanating from the Manchester area. Inspiral Carpets had found a cuddly niche with their organ-driven indie pop, with each single doing better than the last until they signed for Mute records and brought out songs via their own ‘Cow’ imprint. The Soup Dragons had reinvented themselves from the 60s influenced rockier edge of indie for which I had garnered a taste to a rougher sounding band with a couple of ‘dancier’ tracks in their canon (they even made the Top 10, with a dance floor-baiting cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I’m Free’. It was awful, and their career nosedived from thereon in) I had discovered the aforementioned RIDE through the ‘On’ pages of the NME, and their first three singles were getting better and better (although in a reverse of their treatment of The Pale Saints’ opus, the single version of ‘Dreams Burn Down’ was not a patch on their Peel version).
James meanwhile went from strength to strength; ‘How Was It For You’ was their first release by James on their newly acquired major label, and brought with it promise of a forthcoming album, different b- sides stretched across two twelve-inch singles and a seven-inch (as well as a CD and a cassette single thrown in for good measure), and a stencil to make your own James t-shirts with the second twelve-inch. On the basis of their cover version of ‘Sunday Morning’ for Peel I bought the Velvet Underground’s album with Nico – the album with the banana on the cover, spending the best part of my week’s wages on it. The following week I bought The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’, as my cassette copy was running thin. ‘Every Beat Of the Heart’ and ‘Music Stop’ had provided promising chartings for The Railway Children, who were just about to release their third album ‘Native Place’. Being TV-friendly and cutely named, the band had been able to secure slots on children’s TV programmes.
And then there was ‘Cake’… released the same day as ‘Native Place’, The Trash Can Sinatras’ debut album was something of a slow burner. It was only once I had actually left home for a two month working holiday in Ireland that it began to make some sense to me. The work was supposed to take place in the This was a summer of growing up quickly, what with such a long journey being undertaken in isolation, away from the security blanket of family if anything went wrong (like not being met in Limerick as planned. Or then even at Cork Station for half an hour: what was I going to do if my hosts didn’t turn up? ) I met a father in the middle of an alcoholic episode who threatened to set the IRA on me, who hit his wife and trashed the family’s shopping before disappearing for a fortnight only to return home sober and as pleasant as the next person. I saw Prince play live – not through choice, but it was not an opportunity to spurn. I smoked cannabis for the first time and found it not to my taste. And, as the mother drove erratically to who knows where with me in the passenger seat, nearly having to grab the steering wheel to avoid a crash through abridge and into the river below, ‘Cake’ side one track two came onto the car stereo: ‘Maybe I Should Drive’.
History however will tell that there was only really one place to be musically in the summer of 1990, and the star of Manchester’s The Stone Roses was most definitely at the highest point of its ascendency, with the release of ‘One Love’. The NME was fuelled and filled by everything Mancunian, especially the scally scene involving Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses but now increasingly by peripheral Johnny-come-latelies like Northside and The High.
The Stone Roses will always be synonymous for me with driving through the streets of Bolton with acquaintances from school, on the way to another one of those big eighteenth birthday parties the rich kids held at some club or other in Manchester on the very last day of term. I never saw them play live, never really wanted to. I didn’t buy the album for ages, and even then it was only on cassette. I didn’t need to buy it; everywhere I went that summer the album was being played in all its glory. Parties, friends’ houses, the radio, shops, obscure pubs in the south-western corner of the Republic of Ireland.
Despite the hype and the ubiquity of the album, there was one song that really made it for me. Forget the triumphant and epic ‘I Am the Resurrection’ or the psychedelia-tinged ‘Made of Stone’. Discard the brooding album opener ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ or the slyly treasonous ‘Elizabeth My Dear’. Vinyl was what I loved, and ‘She Bangs The Drums’ celebrated that in its first two lines. It was more than just those first two lines, though, the ones at the start of this chapter. On top of those were the brooding bass line that starts the proceedings, full of swagger and confidence. Then there’s the hook-filled chorus. And finally there’s the fact that the two b-sides could easily have been a-sides themselves, especially ‘Standing Here’. And for once in my lifetime, I was in the right place at the right time.