‘Come On Come Out’ is a song by the band Laugh, and it features a passage that is one of the most gripping in pop music. For, about halfway through, the singer seems at the end of his tether, and snarls in a dangerously low voice, through clenched teeth no doubt, that we know he has no money, that it seems he has too much time, but that doesn’t mean he has time for everybody, and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to live his life. It is compelling, startling stuff.
Then it’s time to lose it altogether, and he barks savagely that there’s too much time, with echoes of the good Captain’s Clear Spot, coincidentally or not, and that there’s too much space, and how everything he does is just one big disgrace, and that everywhere he goes he just gets in a state and then, when he goes to sleep, he has dreams that he hates. It’s a riveting performance, a graphic depiction of how carefree dole dreams may mutate into doldrums and the darkest of days.
The singer is Martin Wright, and he had a way with words. Musically the backing is thrilling enough to provide the, ahem, right setting, with some nice, tight guitar patterns, juddering chk-a-chk-a rhythms, and the occasional surge in power, and if the algorithms were at work they might suggest you would love this song if you favour The Fall’s ‘Garden’ or Dean Parrish’s ‘Determination’ or ‘When The Night Falls’ by The Eyes or, a current favourite here, The Thrills’ ‘What Can Go Wrong?’. There is also a great extended pop-art auto-destruction electric shocker of a coda over which it is sometimes extremely tempting to chant gleefully “rock, rock, Clash City Rockers”.
This song, ‘Come On Come Out’ appears on the flipside of Laugh’s second single ‘Paul McCartney’, their big hit, a summer smash from 1987. As a great man said around that time, it's funny how you remember the summers by the records, and that really was one of the records of that summer, one that lasts less than three minutes, has a strong Northern Soul bedrock in a non-blatant, crunchy, stomping way, and is impossibly catchy. Rarely a day goes by when one is not unwittingly singing a line or two from it while doing the daily rounds.
There is a certain ambiguity to the song, almost certainly a mocking quality, a challenge to complacency sure, but a certain affection too perhaps, as underlined by their Martin Mittler using a Hofner violin bass, which he can be seen whirling around with in a video for ‘Paul McCartney’, in which the group appear quite ridiculously cool and insouciant, which is how they are fondly remembered here.
And that’s the whole group, for they were one of those rare outfits who, like the Postcard-era Orange Juice, were all as cool as one another, sort of, with the arty bassist, the smart drummer, the enigmatic guitarist, the charmer upfront, they had that in common, the OJs and Laugh. There was something of the Pale Fountains about Laugh too, not least in their misfortune and bad timing, and maybe Laugh took up where ‘September Sting’ left off. “You’ve got more money than sense but your sense does not become you” is a line fit to grace a Laugh song, just as Laugh’s “and if I had the strength to say everything that I have thought today, would it be a song or would it be a book?” is pure Pale Fountains.
It is odd how lines from Laugh songs seem to come back and haunt this listener regularly. For example, using a Bulldog skincare product, supposedly man’s best friend, can prompt a rendition of the debut Laugh single, the first of their three records on the Remorse label, which was run by Dave Whitehead who was something to do with label management at Rough Trade for a while. This single, ‘Take Your Time, Yeah!’, came out around the end of 1986, and features the immortal lines: “If I’m worried or upset and driving myself round the bend, I tell myself these few words, that patience is a man’s best friend”.
It was heard here first via the John Peel show, and God bless the day, or night even, he played it and that manic blast of wit and wisdom burst out of the radio, with all the vim and vigour of The Fall’s ‘Container Drivers’ or Roy Head’s ‘Treat Her Right’, a song seemingly on the point of careering totally out of control but hanging on in there by some divine guidance. It is a composition filled with vivid imagery, from the opening line about Martin’s girlfriend saying to him, as he’s getting up and out of bed, not to try so desperately to talk when there is nothing to be said, through to later, on a trip into town, the singer sitting in Manchester’s Alasia café with spaghetti in his mouth and nose.
When his mouth wasn’t full Martin sang with a fantastic blue-eyed soul growl, a little like Bobby Paris perhaps, but a lot more like Lulu. Indeed, it is impossible not to think of ‘Shout!’ when listening to ‘Take Your Time, Yeah!’, and that is fine, and oddly a reactivated ‘Shout!’ made the UK top ten again in the summer of 1986, perhaps prompted by earlier appearances of ‘Take Your Time, Yeah!’ on a flexi disc with Dave Haslam’s Debris magazine and on the first Laugh Peel session, both of which were missed here initially, when Craig Gannon was in the group before he skedaddled off to slum it with The Smiths.
‘Shout!’, incidentally, is a song viewed with enormous affection, here, for the day Lulu recorded it, well, that’s the very day one first put in an appearance. Coincidental? Certainly not. Lulu’s Decca output, covering 1964 through 1966, contains some ferociously fine recordings, surprisingly and ridiculously raw at times, and she was really just a kid but what a grrreat voice she had, a real soul shouter she was early on, and not appreciated enough for it now. Mike Leander, the man behind the first musical revolution in this boy’s life, did some great arrangements and productions for Lulu back then, but mostly it was the work of Peter Sullivan, who had recorded ‘Shaking All Over’ with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates a while before, which perhaps accounts for the occasional bursts of wild guitar from Jimmy Page.
Lulu’s greatest recordings from this period can broadly be divided between beat ballads, like the sumptuous ‘Leave A Little Love’, and mod-gospel-rave-ups like on the Goffin & King number ‘Can’t Hear You No More’, with some very cool contemporaneous soul covers, like Merry Clayton’s ‘Nothing Left To Do But Cry’. Other essential tracks include her punky sneer on the Stones’ ‘Surprise Surprise’, plus the astonishing ‘Try to Understand’ which was a number by the very great team of Lori Burton and Pam Sawyer with a touch of ‘Solid Bond’ about it at the beginning.
And then, best of all, there’s Lulu tearing through the fierce Bert Berns song ‘I’ll Come Running Over’, first heard here on the Girls With Guitars compilation on Impact, a short-lived Ace imprint, which came out at the end of the 1980s and was an incredibly important challenge by Mick Patrick and co. to the orthodox critical rock canon, highlighting some excellent recordings made in the 1960s by British girls. That collection also featured Dana Gillespie’s savage ‘You Just Gotta Know My Mind’ which is another track that’s pure Laugh.
Laugh’s ‘Come On Come Out’ also featured in the session they recorded for John Peel at the end of that summer, the 1987 one, and arguably the four tracks caught Laugh at a particular peak, and oh if only an LP had been recorded there and then, but that is a bit of a Dexys Projected Passion Revue wishful thinking situation. For some reason it sticks in the mind Peel broadcasting the session, and mentioning that the group had asked him to play something by The Meters, which seemed pretty cool, and there is no logical reason why that remains in the brain, but that’s the way these things work.
An old tape of the session got played to death here, and actually it was something of a minor miracle catching that particular programme (unless there was inside information) as the Peel show didn’t really get listened to much here back then. And if it was on, the hip-hop tracks he played were often by far and away the best things on there, and he might well have agreed. Sweet T and Jazzy Joyce’s ‘It’s My Beat’ is one track forever associated with John from that time, and it still sounds fantastic. Funny how all these Peel tribute nights rarely if ever feature hip-hop acts, but he was a great supporter of UK productions early on when few other people were, and memorably Overlord X’s ’14 Days in May’ tore out of the tinny transistor as savagely as SLF’s ‘Suspect Device’ had done a decade before.
The thing was, all of a sudden, Peel had his broadcasts reduced (to make way for the appalling Andy Kershaw) and he faced a lot of competition, notably with Radio London starting its night time youth-oriented shows, with Dave Pearce playing hip-hop on a Monday, and there was Gilles Peterson’s Mad On Jazz on a Tuesday, Gary Crowley did the Wednesday stint, having left Capital behind where Peter Young was still running his Soul Cellar, and Pete Tong joined the rota later.
The Gilles Peterson show was something of a revelation really, and this was around the time a good number of the metropolis’ mods were getting into jazz, and the Blue Note label had been reactivated, with Gilles involved in putting together some compilations like Baptist Beat!, and there had been a very useful £1.99 Blue Note sampler (the work of the NME’s cassette king Roy Carr, one of the people behind the then just published life-changing book, The Hip, on “hipsters, jazz and the beat generation”), and that collection was the first time ‘Midnight Blue’ and ‘The Sidewinder’ got heard here. Oh, and the James Taylor Quartet were just coming through with their ‘Blow Up’ variations on Eddie Piller’s Re-Elect The President label.
One of the things that sticks in the mind about those Radio London Mad On Jazz shows circa 1987 is a countdown of the Top 50 or whatever jazz tracks, or something like that, which went on past the official midnight shutdown, and was an introduction of sorts to things like Mark Murphy’s ‘Stolen Moments’ and Jon Lucien’s ‘Who Will Buy’ and the Dee Felice Trio’s ‘Nightingale’, for which Gilles remains a hero here, though, as with the Laugh request for The Meters thing, there is always a fear that an over-active imagination has made all this up, and it is all illusory.
Those night time Radio London shows were presumably an attempt to beat the pirates at their own game, but the BBC was never going to win that war. The pirates very definitely held sway in the Capital back then, as immortalised in the Jasmine Minks’ ‘Soul Station’, which itself had a title which tipped its hat to Hank Mobley’s Mad On Jazz favourite. Thinking of 1987, and Peel and Gilles and the pirates, one track really comes to mind, a song that cut across everything and, along with ‘Paul McCartney’, rightly or wrongly Eric B & Rakim’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ is thee song associated with that summer. It seemed to be everywhere in London, but it wasn’t even a hit that time around.
‘I Know You Got Soul’ caught the mood nicely because it tied in neatly with the rare groove thing that was going on, and the pirates were playing Eric B & Rakim alongside Charles Wright’s ‘Express Yourself’, ‘Get Involved’ by George Soulé, Maceo & the Macks’ ‘Cross The Tracks’, The Equals’ ‘Funky Like A Train’, and naturally ‘I Know You Got Soul’ by Bobby Byrd, which Peel played the night that Laugh session first went out, as presumably he didn’t have anything by The Meters to hand, though that’s pure guesswork. Eric B & Rakim, incidentally, had two tracks in John’s Festive 50 in 1987.
And in and among the soul, funk and reggae, the quiet storm and the between-the-sheets selections, there was the hip-hop and house the pirates were playing back then. TKO and LWR were the two stations that most consistently or persistently could be heard out here in the South East London suburbs. TKO had the pre-KISS Steve Jackson’s The House That Jack Built, which sticks in the mind because of the Tracie song which was a favourite here, and indeed the Go-Betweens’ ‘The House That Jack Kerouac Built’ a little later when Tallulah took a shower. Then there was Jazzy M on LWR, and it must have been his show that would have the live link-up to a Chicago station to run-down the latest house music chart, and this was in 1986 and into 1987, if that too wasn’t a figment of the imagination, before the famous four went to Ibiza and whatever.
So, in 1987, that year, house was a part of the musical tapestry, not yet the dominant force it became, as was the underground pop scene which that year in London was centred around the Front Door to Babylon nights at The Black Horse, in Royal College Street, Camden, where no-one was selling revolution, just the occasional fanzine from a plastic bag. This was an upstairs room, an unloved one, where groups would play, very much in the then recent tradition of Alan McGee’s Living Room at The Adams Arms and The Roebuck in the Tottenham Court Road and Warren Street area, and Dan Dan the TVP Man’s Room at the Top, held at the Enterprise, Chalk Farm. In each of these places there was no stage, no dressing room, no barrier between artist and audience, and in retrospect a surprisingly broad spectrum of sounds.
It was the pre-Heavenly v-hirsute Jeff Barrett who ran the nights at The Black Horse where, as the genial host, he would hold court at a little table at the top of the stairs, with a steady supply of beers, enthusing about this and that, whether it be a new Kent compilation, Fred Neil, Richard Hell, Richard Price, Jim Carroll, Phil Ochs, whatever. The atmosphere was friendly, the music occasionally great, and for part of 1987 the place served as sanctuary for a mixed crowd of students, those signing on, enterprise allowance schemers and scammers, poorly paid pen-pushers and paper shufflers, all of us, no-hopers with the anti-Midas touch, (still) singing along to another song of that summer, the summer of another calamitous Conservative landslide: “They are many, we are few”.
Two bands stand out from that time, partly because they were so different and mainly because they were so startlingly great. One is Happy Mondays who played at The Black Horse twice. The first time they were supporting an unsuspecting Jasmine Minks, and this would have been around the release of their superb debut LP Squirrel and G-Man etc., a pre-release cassette of which had been a constant companion during the ridiculously prolonged freezing cold spell in January 1987.
This was the occasion when a kid got up from the audience, in a battered leather coat, and seemingly spontaneously rapped over ‘Little Matchstick Owen’. Later it seemed quite possible this too was a dream, a bit like the people who contact Richard Searling on his Northern Soul BBC radio show to ask for help trying to track down a song they have ghostly memories of hearing in 1973 or whenever one morning as the sun came up over the sea in Cleethorpes and they have never been able to place or trace it since.
The second time Happy Mondays played at The Black Horse, they were headlining, and this is where it gets silly, with all the patronizing rubbish written about the Mondays, for that night, oh they knew exactly what they were doing. Shaun was, what, a foot away from us, less perhaps, and Mark Day the same, and both were word and note perfect, way ahead of anyone else poetically and musically, and while later they played up to their given roles, then they were one-offs.
This show sort of tied in with the release of ’24 Hour Party People’ as a single, and there were more people there, with momentum beginning to mount slowly, maybe fifty upwards which was a lot back then for the Mondays. Oh, it was so good. Shaun was handing out cans of beer to those of us at the front, and though teetotal this gesture of friendship was accepted with good grace and the can soon emptied. And talking of Can and that single, much later came the thrill of recognition hearing Delay 1968 and their ‘Uphill’, and all the rushing round the Greyhound, and the rushing ’cross the wayside or whatever, suddenly sounding so close to the Mondays running around their racetrack, and it all makes sense, or could be coincidence, but there is a theme there, with Can and The Meters and Manchester and the repetitive groove, and yes that other group was Laugh.
Laugh played at The Black Horse, on 15 August 1987, a Saturday night, with the Jasmine Minks headlining again, a tough task to follow Laugh but they were on top form too. Laugh were very different from the other groups that played The Black Horse, but in a very subtle way. For a start, their manager (was this the Ang the sleeves or run-off grooves refer to?) was a cut above, and she cut an impressive figure shepherding her wayward charges, fiercely protective of her dreamers who never really came across as the pushiest of characters. And the group looked so great around then, in a naturally cool non-macho you’ve-either-got-or-you-haven’t-got way, all dressed militantly that night in red jumpers, like a Subway Sect of yore, again coincidentally or not, and Spencer the drummer’s black cord jeans jacket sticks in the mind.
And they attracted a very small group of followers, a few lads down from Manchester presumably, and it was funny bumping into them on the tube up to Camden, that thing where you give the eye to anyone dressed the same way as you, which in this case would be one of those jumpers with the collars and three buttons at the neck, last year’s jeans, golf jacket, and probably the ubiquitous, utilitarian Doc Martens shoes. Then there they were later at the Laugh show, which was fantastic.
And there is still a Sony HF90 cassette here to prove how great it was, a spectacularly short sharp shock of a set, taped on the trusty Walkman, which lives on, thank god, and, while all the people filming live shows and taking photos nowadays may be a pain, often there has been a yearning for more enduring proof about how wonderful some of these shows were. Even a diary would have helped. Jeff Barrett used to claim he had seen Laugh when mid-song Martin Wright performed a perfectly executed Northern Soul backdrop and bounced back up to strike a chord on his guitar: clang! Brilliant. Imagine being able to see that again and again on YouTube.
This show, the Black Horse one, took place a couple of weeks before Laugh recorded that Peel session, which featured ‘Time To Lose It’, what would be their third and final single on Remorse in the New Year, more of that Wright time obsession, a song which starts with a kind of ‘She’s Beyond Good and Evil’ squall from the utterly cool guitarist Ian Bendelow, who it seems sadly died in January 2017, and really this single was their contrary The Only Fun in Town moment, and actually there is a bit of Josef K’s The Missionary about the way it propels itself along.
Laugh on this single simply couldn’t care about pleasing daytime radio controllers, and made a ferocious racket, which was nevertheless still exceptionally danceable. There would have been a lot of talk then about American noise, and the output of labels like SST, Homestead and Blast First, but really only UT’s devastating In Gut’s House comes close, and there was a Paul Kendall connection somewhere in there, but even UT at their best, say on ‘Evangelist’, were not as tough or as funky as ‘Time To Lose It’.
Due to complaints about noise the fun at The Black Horse was curtailed at the end of that summer sometime. After a brief spell at Portlands, a sociable basement on Great Portland Street, in the autumn of 1987, which included another memorable Mondays show, Jeff and co. reconvened in 1988 at The Falcon in Royal College Street, for the Phil Kaufman Club, in the proverbial dusty pub back room, with a different vibe somehow. By this time Jeff’s publicist capers were gathering pace, and he had started up the Sub Aqua label, shrewdly signing Laugh who were out of contract elsewhere, releasing their fantastic Sensation No. 1 LP at the end of 1988, with the title track released as a trailer on 45, the extended mix of which is exceptional.
The single was a revelation, showing the group getting to grips with the eternal dilemmas of how to age, how to evolve, and how to respond to new musical developments, challenges which faced everyone in that century from Shostakovich to Blondie. Being naturally musically curious Laugh had been seeking ways to absorb new club sounds into their music, and the song ‘Sensation No. 1’ showed they had succeeded splendidly, with electronics and programming integrated neatly at a time when most groups hadn’t even thought about getting a well-known DJ in to do a remix or using a Funky Drummer backbeat and wah-wah guitars.
The new Laugh sound was essentially more fluid, less of a glorious racket, less rush and roar, so more subtle and supple, and decidedly less rockist than the contemporaneous Bummed which had been too long in the pot perhaps, losing something of Happy Mondays’ natural flow. So one of the many enduringly great things about the Sensation No. 1 LP is the complete absence of guitar solos. Was there ever an orthodox guitar break in a Laugh recording? Plenty of rhythmic patterns when the vocals fall away, sure, and pioneering hypnotic grooves, definitely, but a traditional rock solo? No, almost certainly not.
The newfound spaciousness in the Laugh sound allowed the listener to appreciate better Spencer’s inventive drumming and Martin’s exceptionally smart words. It still sounds like a great record, particularly on the songs that were presumably newer like ‘Up’ and ‘Hearing Sound Having Fun’, and the magnificent ‘Good To Feel Good’, the titles giving a clue to the way things were going. And that was pretty much it for Laugh and, while its members continued to be active for some time, Martin Wright was never heard singing lead again, preferring perhaps a supporting role, which was such a waste.
And yes, Sensation No. 1, an old friend now, contains a very effective if calmer reworking of ‘Come On Come Out’, with an ending that is less The Clash clatter and more Piper at the Gates of Dawn overdrive, which is apt in many ways, and, to illustrate once again how Laugh lines have continued to haunt, there is that opening where Martin sings about how he dunno know what in the world is gonna happen, and how he doesn’t know if he’ll ever understand it, and that he dunno what his next step is but that he knows what a mess he’s in. Oh yes, that sounds familiar, and maybe a little too close for comfort, which is partly why it’s such an enduringly dramatic and great song.