We Are Time
In the 1980s live tapes were an important form of currency. The advent of tape-to-tape cassette decks made it relatively easy to exchange rare recordings with like-minded souls you might never meet. It was an important way of developing friendships. There was a massive irony in the way that the 1980s also witnessed the advent of the compact disc with its supposedly superior sound when so many of us spent so much time listening to live recordings which were copies of copies of copies of copies of ...
Somewhere around the end of the 1980s I came across a guy called Malcolm Reay. He had a group called Gravy Train, which released a great Rotten/Curtis-sampling single Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? They had some great t-shirts too. Anyway, one of the points of connection between me and Malcolm was a shared love of the early Hurrah! In a fantastic piece of one-upmanship Malcolm being from Newcastle could boast of having seen the group when they were still The Green-Eyed Children, and even had a tape of them playing live back in 1981.
We swapped live tapes as was the way. In particular we shared an obsession with the early Subway Sect, and over the years I’ve cherished a few live tapes Malcolm sent. I’ve still got old cassettes he did for me of ATV, Buzzcocks, and most importantly The Pop Group playing live at the Newcastle City Hall in August 1978 on a mini-tour they did with Patti Smith shortly after that Peel session. This recording of The Pop Group was a revelation. As Malcolm said, it sounded like nothing on earth. Most of the live bootleg recordings in circulation of The Pop Group are of later performances, and so this is something special. And people who have placed particular importance on, say, the recordings of Genius Or Lunatic and Colour Blind on the We Are Time retrospective will love this tape.
I do wonder what Patti Smith’s audience made of The Pop Group. I have to confess to not being a fan of Patti’s music. I enjoyed her Just Kids book, but the music’s always left me cold. I understand the impact she had on lots of people, but she wasn’t for me. I know Subway Sect played a few dates with her earlier on in ’78, and I’ve seen Vic Godard describe her as “a complete cow”. Rob Symmons also referred to those shows in the excellent Phil King articles for Bucketful Of Brains: “There were three nights with Patti Smith and she was horrible to us. We weren't allowed anywhere near the stage when she soundchecked. We were cleared out by her road crew and were not allowed to meet her. We were actually getting quite good then. We were getting good reviews – which hadn't happened before. I was really surprised The Clash having anything to do with her. I can remember when we played the ICA she came up onstage with them. I could never understand why they associated with people like her. A completely different generation we wanted to get rid of.”
It’s funny having such an obsession with old live tapes of Subway Sect, The Pop Group, and so on. Shows I’d never been to. Groups I’d never seen. When you’re not a direct witness it’s easy to romanticise and glamorise an event. As much as I have loved live recordings of these groups and occasions over the years there is a risk I might not have enjoyed the actual shows as much if I’d been there. I mean, watching The Pop Group perform to a crowd of Patti Smith fans, many of whom only knew Because The Night? Who knows?
I lost track of Malcolm for many years. You know how it goes. You will know also how online activities and social networking sites have reunited many a kindred spirit. And I first caught sight of Malcolm again when I belatedly saw a comment on a friend’s site which had a post about Flowers, the lost b-side by Hurrah! It could only have been Malcolm who would write:
“Funny how a group could inspire such devotion for so little reward? Rewind to 1981 and a backstreet venue aptly named The Garage. On the stage a group I’d spotted weeks before walking through the streets of town looking cool as fuck, drainpipe trousers, tie-dyed, bowl haircuts, strangely modern but retro (?) but just as important doing something new. The group I found out to be The Green Eyed Children, and they had that thing I couldn’t put my finger on. Fast forward 18 months to ’82 and Tiffanys nightclub, the flowering is nearly complete, the look (white drainpipes, the shoes/boots, the suede jackets), guitars held high (Hofner, Burns, Jaguar), the drummer with THAT style! Here they were, the lineage that followed the awkward and the strange, Wilko, Feelgoods, Subway Sect, Wire, The Pop Group ... you get the score? The rest is history, but keep looking forward baby!”
It was actually through his YouTube channel that I made contact with Malcolm again. He’d been posting clips of rare Subway Sect recordings with some fantastic memorabilia. As it turned out we’d both been busy getting old live tapes transferred to digital format, like the 1980 Northern Soul Subway Sect set shared on Your Heart Out. Unfortunately, in a timely reminder of the vulnerability of cassettes, a friend’s dog had chewed up his precious live 1978 recording of The Pop Group. You couldn’t make that one up. Thankfully I was able to save the day, once I remembered my copy had been in the safekeeping of Occultation Recordings’ Nick Halliwell ever since he was working on the wonderful Wild Swans salvage project. Nick got it transferred to digital format, and Malcolm has given his blessing to sharing it with the world. And that live recording still sounds like nothing on earth.