Monday, 15 May 2017

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #6

The music of Hatfield and the North plays a vital part in the Jonathan Coe novel The Rotters’ Club. The LP of the same name, which spent one week in the lower parts of the British album charts in March 1975, appears in the book in a horribly poignant moment when Benjamin Trotter brings a copy of the record along when he visits his sister Lois in hospital, where she is recovering after the Birmingham pub bombings.
How many other people, after reading The Rotters’ Club, went out to investigate the music of Hatfield and the North? It would presumably make Jonathan Coe delighted to learn that he was responsible for introducing their music to a new audience who, certainly here at least, gradually grew to love their LPs.
Before the book the name was only vaguely familiar. There was a dim recollection that the great pop writer Dave McCullough had mentioned the group in a Scritti Politti piece in Sounds, the weekly music paper that features right at the start of The Rotters’ Club. And he did too, in a great December 1979 piece where he wrote about a new Scritti single, ‘Confidence’, as bringing “all the prominent Scritti influences together. There’s still that loose, brusque rhythm section chopping out a pure concrete bass, hinting at jazz and chiefly reggae influences, above which Green’s wonderful voice and guitar playing presents a genuinely original focal-point, making me think of rock-based folk influences, like Richard Thompson, or other great obscure voices like Robert Wyatt or Hatfield and the North or Family.”
But back in 1975 the name Hatfield and the North did not register here at all. Pop was an obsession back then, and here it would have been all about Mud, the Glitter Band, Showaddywaddy, David Essex and the Stardust soundtrack, ‘Down Down’, ‘January’, ‘Make Me Smile’, Trammps, Tymes, Stylistics. All the sort of things Jonathan doesn’t mention when writing about his 1970s. That is the difference a few years’ difference in ages makes. And part of why The Rotters’ Club as a book is so appealing, being instantly familiar but strangely unfamiliar.
There is a lot of music in the book, which is only natural for a story about teenagers growing up, but there is not much what you might pure pop. There never really seems to be in Jonathan’s books somehow. He doesn’t have characters who whistle along to Dusty Springfield in the shower. But he is great at what music he does weave into his stories. And it is very likely that many people will never be able to hear Gary Shearston or anyone else sing ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ without getting something in their eye.
The music of Hatfield and the North is central to the book, and not just because their title allows Jonathan to use some lovely puns. There is in particular a pivotal passage where the book’s ‘hero’ Benjamin Trotter as a young kid is taken by his older sister’s boyfriend to see Hatfield and the North play at Barbarella’s in Birmingham. He had not heard them before, but for some very important reasons that night, and the group’s music, will stay with him. In one of the most important paragraphs of the book, indeed of any book, Benjamin muses about that night:
“It was the world, the world itself that was beyond his reach, this whole absurdly vast, complex, random, measureless construct, this never-ending ebb and flow of human relations, political relations, cultures, histories ... How could anyone hope to master such things? It was not like music. Music always made sense. The music he heard that night was lucid, knowable, full of intelligence and humour, wistfulness and energy and hope. He would never understand the world, but he would always love this music.”
In the book’s freeform freak out, ecstatic ending there is a specific mention of the Hatfield and the North song, ‘Share It’, which is an excellent entry point, and very much a favourite of those who love the poignant pop ballads in the oeuvre of the Canterbury Scene rather than the more meandering and complex instrumentals. The singing of Richard Sinclair on that song is wonderful, and there is a kind of Canterbury vocal style he shares with Robert Wyatt which is sweet, tender, often deadpan, with cheery, Cockney conversational inflections, which is detectable too in some of the early Rough Trade groups, Scritti certainly, maybe The Monochrome Set, definitely This Heat, and incidentally, coincidentally, Charles Hayward is a character in Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.
There are other mentions of music related to the Canterbury Scene in The Rotters’ Club, including a lovely passage where the delightfully exasperating Benjamin buys as a birthday present for his girlfriend (who wanted Evita) “Voices and Instruments, one of the new releases on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. One side consisted of some of e.e. cummings poems set to music by John Cage, sung by Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley. On the other, a Birmingham musician, Jan Steele, had composed some minimalist settings of texts by James Joyce.”
Is this the only mention of Robert Wyatt in the novels of Jonathan Coe? Perhaps, surprisingly so, though possibly, by association, he could be included as a Hatfield and the North fellow traveller, and his wordless singing on the miraculous ‘Calyx’ from the group’s first LP is a wonderful example of that part of Robert’s art, that style of singing he specialised in which was somewhere between jazz or Brazilian scatting and the classical choral form.
Henry Cow and in particular their guitarist Fred Frith also have a lovely cameo role in The Rotters’ Club, with Malcolm the hairy guy describing them as “The Yardbirds getting into bed with Ligeti in the smoking rubble of divided Berlin.” Their experimental pop music stimulates Benjamin’s desire for something new, and in the book the world’s ultimate indifference to this soundworld equates to the failure of socialism, all those beautiful ideas and noble aspirations.
There is a real sense of nostalgia in The Rotter’s Club, but it is easy to suggest that for once this warm glow serves a positive purpose. This book’s 1970s is presumably very much Jonathan Coe’s youth, a happy time inside his mind, and it is tempting to imagine much of him is there in the character of Benjamin Trotter. But what makes it so special is the sense of reclaiming something, setting the record straight, redressing the balance, and coming to terms with shaping forces, what went into making Jonathan Coe, the writer and person, he is today.
One of the book’s key characters is Doug Anderton, who is the one who enthusiastically embraces punk rock, and in the course of the book he looks back on the 1970s, and mentions “the ungodly strangeness of it, the weird things that were happening at the time”. He refers specifically to the fairly secret armies (and how Jonathan must have thought about David Nobbs when typing that) and the extreme racism. And elsewhere in the book the dark side of the 1970s is there with the industrial conflicts (the mentions of the Grunwick dispute and the inspirational Jayaben Desai, for example, as well as the more local Longbridge Rover plant), and the IRA campaign, and in particular the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974.
In this sense, and in a very specific West Midlands way, The Rotters’ Club forms the final part of a trilogy that takes in The Prefects’ ‘The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau’, and Denim’s ‘The Osmonds’. One of the big questions left unanswered by The Rotters’ Club is whether Doug Anderton ever went to see The Prefects play in some small Birmingham pub, or at Barbarella’s? He would, presumably, have got plenty of mileage out of wearing a Prefects badge in the lapel of his school blazer to bait Benjamin.

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