Sadly, despite choosing one of their songs to take to her desert island, Ali Smith does not seem to have filled pages with mentions of Orange Juice, unless a reference to the line “step we gaily on we go” in Girl Meets Boy (which Edwyn Collins sings in ‘Tender Object’) counts, though as this comes from an old Gaelic folk song (and Ali chose one of those to take with her too) that is questionable.
Mind you, she goes on to mention obliquely Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and the OJs briefly called their label Holden Caulfield Universal, and one of Postcard patron Alan Horne’s imaginary groups was The Secret Goldfish, another Salinger reference to those wise children in the Glass family, so it sort of fits.
Another wise child, the wonderfully precocious character who takes centre stage in There But For The, receives some advice about cleverness being great, but that knowing how to use it is the most important thing: “Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.”
The original incarnation of Orange Juice were a right bunch of cleverists, which is a huge part of the appeal of Orange Juice specifically and Postcard Records generally. ‘Falling and Laughing’ was a remarkably precocious debut, and generally the group exuded wit, were outrageously gifted, even if their technical ability was outstripped by ideas and ambition (though this added to the magic).
Orange Juice were absurdly audacious, cocky, charming, flippant (the irony of the time is mentioned by Ali), contrary, decidedly awkward but appealingly elegant, and happy to send themselves up, with simultaneous cheeky grins and punky sneers. They were open to all sorts of influences, but deliciously intolerant. In an eccentric way they were unutterably cool, artful antagonists with a talent to irritate and inspire in equal measure.
Ali’s Desert Island Discs choices almost accidentally, or not, reflect the anti-rockism of the time when Postcard rode the crest of a new wave. As Orange Juice sang in their immortal ‘Poor Old Soul’: “No more rock ’n’ roll for you,” echoing the chant by the assembled Subway Sect, Slits, and Prefects personnel on the last night of White Riot tour. This, the early 1980s, was a time when there was a growing openness to and celebration of anything that was not solid rock music, the ‘everything else’ that the group Weekend called La Varieté.
As well as Dusty, Sylvie Vartan and Orange Juice, Ali chose as part of her Desert Island Discs selection some jazz manouche, and Ella singing ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, with the Delta Rhythm Boys, which she frolics through with perfect ease. Ella also appears in Ali’s story ‘The Second Person’, from her collection The First Person and Other Stories
That book comes with a cover photo from William Eggleston’s archives, not for first time, as Ali’s The Accidental has another Eggleston shot, the same one of Marcia Hare which is also on cover of the Primals’ ‘Country Girl’, no doubt an extension of Bobby Gillespie’s long-time passion for Alex Chilton and Big Star. There is some great background information on the Chilton family connections to Eggleston in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis. Alex was mentioned in passing as a possible producer for the OJs’ debut LP.
That story of Ali’s featuring Ella mentions her singing ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’ (and that song, like ‘Paper Moon’, really swings and skips along). In the story Ali brilliantly describes Ella’s performance in a breathtaking passage. She says: “The song is a piece of blunt charm, the way it courts misery then glances away from it with a loss at the heart of it that’s not really a loss at all, or a loss that’s pretending not to be a loss, and the slight hoarseness of Ella Fitzgerald’s younger gruffer self as she sings is so blithe, almost as if unaware of the modulation her voice will soon be capable of when she’s older and wiser”.
Ali also compares and contrasts this adapted nursey rhyme with Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’: “They’re both all about colour, but one’s about what’s really happening in the world, and the other’s a piece of absurdist nonsense, like a denial that words could ever mean anything.”
‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ is by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Ali includes Yip’s words to ‘Paper Moon’ in her anthology The Book Lover (and, who knows, maybe that title is a tip of the hat to Trish and Broadcast): “Without your love it's a honky tonk parade / Without your love it's a melody played in a penny arcade / It's a Barnum & Bailey world / Just as phony as it can be / But it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me.”
Yip Harburg was a lyricist whose song credits included ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘April in Paris’ and ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ (those last two songs being closely associated with Frank Sinatra). Yip also wrote (with Burton Lane) the musical Finian’s Rainbow, a perfect mix of Irish mysticism and anti-capitalist subversion, from which the wonderful standards ‘Old Devil Moon’ and ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra’ come.
Yip turns up in Ali’s There But For with a story, perhaps surprisingly, not about his left-wing political views which got him in all sorts of trouble, but about when Yip was at college in New York sitting next to Ira Gershwin. Now what are the chances of that: two of the great lyricists, thrown together willy-nilly, by fate? Ira, himself, turns up in the book, in a lovely passage, a mini-lecture, where Ali writes: “Now Porter has wit, but is shifty, a little seamy, I know, and I couldn’t not love him for it. But, Ira, he’s kind, he’s always kind, and for genius to be kind takes a special sort of genius in itself.”