Friday 4 June 2021

The Shoebox Files #2: Wah! Heat


Perhaps a little unexpectedly Wah! Heat’s ‘Better Scream’ is one of the songs that has had the most emotional impact on me while selecting lost treasures for The Shoebox Selections series of mixes. Originally the band’s debut 45, it now opens The Handy Wah! Whole, a 2CD collection issued on Castle in 2000, and it still sounds wonderful, from the opening chiming guitars, as captivating as those on Love’s 1st LP, waiting for the bass to come in with all the majesty of Joy Division’s menace and melody, and then Wylie singing over the bank of guitars, crooning here. It is really a one-off in the Wah! canon, and a rare example of anyone getting balances so right between darkness and light.

Prior to picking it for a mix the track had not been played here in a long while, but somehow it has never been far from my mind. It is also a song associated with a particular image. There’s been a lot of things written and said about the links between music and memory. In this case the connection is to a particular picture, or to be more precise a 1980 photo of Pete Wylie, dressed in an old army raincoat, one of the famous long macs of yore, and he’s holding up an umbrella, a golfing one possibly, and brandishing a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road with a Clash Police badge in his lapel, pretty much the perfect imagery then for a kid of 16 going on 17. I wish I still had the cutting, but it’s long gone.

Thinking of that photo, a few questions arise, daft ones really. Where did I see it? Which edition of On The Road was Wylie brandishing? Did he have a beard back then? Maybe, more fundamentally, did the photo even exist? Oh, yeah, definitely, it did. I think. That Clash badge is the giveaway, a pretty unattractive thing, but a regular in the Better Badges chart the NME used to run in its classifieds section. I’ve still got my badge, over 40 years on. It’s a bit tarnished, a bit rusty, but aren’t we all?

I can remember wearing it in the lapel of a jacket after seeing that Wylie photo, and on one occasion must have had it on at a bazaar or a fete because the local Tory MP, one Cyril Townshend, came up and asked about it. He seemed a decent man as a constituency MP, an officer and a gentleman. Certainly, his politics were not mine, but then his politics were not Thatcher’s either and she was his boss. He was genuinely inquisitive about the badge, and even when I explained about The Clash being a punk rock group he was still curious and attentive and, above all, polite to a kid.

The image seems to be very definitely from the summer of 1980, from one of the music press interviews of the time, possibly Dave McCullough in Sounds who gave a rave review of ‘Better Scream’ and he must surely have done a follow-up article. For some reason, I have another idea it may have (also) appeared in New Music News, a short-lived music weekly, capitalising on the NME being on strike for several weeks. There is one copy in the files here, a reminder it did really exist, from June 1980 which contains the Bill Lee review of Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? Many years later I realised this was a moonlighting from Manicured Noise Steve Walsh who in 1977 did the incredible Zigzag ‘wiping out rock ’n’ roll’ feature on Subway Sect.

That same issue features Inevitable label boss Pete Fulwell (who was part of the Eric’s gang) fulminating against fake independent record companies. It was his label that put out ‘Better Scream’ with a wrap-round sleeve in a plastic bag, a little like the early Creation singles would be packaged. ‘Better Scream’ was still in that week’s indies chart (from Revolver in Bristol), just, having been knocking-around for a few months or so.  

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to that. It all gets jumbled up, and memories and fragments of songs go round and round when there seems nothing else.  Anyway, allow me to reminisce, about the summer of 1980. Doubtless, I’ve said all of this before, but it’s about getting things straight in my mind, working out how everything fits in together, so permit me to repeat it one more time before it’s all lost or we’re all lost.

The summer of 1980: Dexys’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? were the records of that summer, and it was a great time to be 16. Bernard Rhodes knew, didn’t he? Then there was the shadow of Joy Division, the sadness of Ian’s death. That spring though Liverpool had been in the ascendancy. They were League 1 champions too, even though West Ham won the cup. The Teardrop Explodes released ‘Treason’on Zoo, Echo & the Bunnymen put out ‘Rescue’, a three-track budget-price 12” on Korova, with a great cover photo, almost as good as the one on the inner sleeve of Crocodiles (‘play it in the dark’ the adverts said at the height of summer!) and Pink Military a little later with their ‘Did You See Her?’ on Eric’s, one of the great torch songs, and those photos of Jayne Casey in her coolie hat. Add to that the mythology of the Armadillo Tea Rooms. Wah! Heat were part of that circle, and ‘Better Scream’ the best of the lot, and you imagine Wylie as the loudest voice in the crowd in those days, making plans and drawing up manifestos.

So, there he was in that lost photo holding up his battered copy of On The Road, an early edition probably, and a couple of years later recalling Sal Paradise’s words about the city intellectuals of the world being divorced from the folk body blood-of-the-land and just rootless fools, which forms part of the spoken part of ‘Story of the Blues’, that incredible song which forms a huge reason why there is such a reservoir of goodwill for Pete even today. That song, the Mike Hedges production, the bridge between Sulk and Sin of Pride, is special. And it really doesn’t matter what else you do in life, for just to know you have composed that song, something that has given so much solace down the years, particularly of late, as we get older, for what else can you turn to when desperation takes hold and you are down on your knees, sobbing, praying, in private.

Funnily enough, forcing myself 40-odd years to read On The Road again, it is the ragged sadness that seems so striking, the hollowness and the loneliness at the core of all that rushing around getting nowhere fast, all the wearying wanting to fit in, trying too hard to have fun, the hard work of simply kicking for kicks, and that’s where the poetry can be found, especially the heart-breaking ending which it is impossible now not to hear Mark Murphy reciting.

Wylie was our amalgam of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, a hurricane of energy, in perpetual motion, it seemed, yakking away nineteen to the dozen, haring from one end of the country to another, on the road with The Clash, impetuously jumping in someone’s car to go and see Dexys, rushing to catch a train up to London to catch a Blue Orchids show. And he was always good for a memorable quote or anecdote, on the radio talking about signing to a major for 10s 6d and a year’s supply of fish and chips, or getting down on his knees meeting Geoffrey Hughes in the corridor of some TV studios, as in Eddie Yeats who gets a mention in Vic Godard’s ‘No Style’.  

Vic and Subway Sect and their “we oppose all rock ’n’ roll” stance surely fed into Wylie’s rockism position, as in ‘out with the tired old ways of doing things’, which prompted a Ray Lowry mickey-take in The Face, a badge of honour coming from the man who drew for The Clash who themselves incidentally came up with the best rockism pun in Combat Rock. Oddly, by that time, into 1981, Wylie was wearing a quiff, leathers and a beard, and back then facial hair was as problematical as a rocky riff.

Beards? Well, we’ll let Wylie off, and Beardy Pegley, yeah, and Peter Hook, Robert Quine, John Peel, even Rick Buckler can be excused perhaps, and a beard’s better than a moustache, he says, remembering the sniggers over photos of Northern scooter boys and disquiet over Alan Gill of Dalek I Love You joining the Teardrops after Mick Finkler was ousted, being very much in the camp of Finkler as secret hero ousted, like Rob Symmons and James Kirk, and nothing’s quite the same again. But, having said all that, there was Dexys and those taches which worked, so there you go. And Roger Eagle, too.

Back in the day ‘Better Scream’ seemed biblical, with visions of Wylie as a sort of Old Testament-quoting Robert Mitchum Night of the Hunter figure.  It was much later that I realised it was about the CIA and Cuba, but then that ties in anyway with the “evangelist American right” to borrow a phrase from The Midnight Swimmer, the excellent Edward Wilson novel which has the Bay of Pigs failed invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis among its themes, and which listening to ‘Better Scream’ made me want to revisit.

Wilson’s series of books featuring the appealing British spy Catesby forms an incredible body of work, complementing John Lawton’s historical entertainments featuring Troy and Joe Wilderness, wonderful tales of anti-disestablishmentarianism, inside outsiders, and insightful snapshots of 20th century political history from WW2 onwards, which form a revealing and refreshing montage of perspectives on the Cold War era, incredibly moving at times, rich in detail with lots of neat cultural references and plenty of poetry, aptly as Wilson’s prose is often beautifully poetic.

One great thing about The Midnight Swimmer is the glimpses of Che as a person, memorably having fun car surfing in a hurricane shouting “Hasta la Victoria siempre” into the waves and wind. And there’s a great passage at a baseball match in Havana featuring Fidel’s Los Barbudos, the bearded ones. With reference to Wilson’s most appealing espionage characters, in the book he writes about WW2 as “a tragedy that deepened wells of compassion and wisdom – and fine-tuned their benign intelligence. Suffering didn’t turn their hearts into stone but made them more generous and warm.” Clearly that is a dig at the CIA’s paranoia about anyone with humanitarian or socialist leanings, which brings us back to the words of ‘Better Scream’ really.

Throughout The Midnight Swimmer there is the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon, which kinds of links to ‘Better Scream’ and the second Wah! Heat single, released on Inevitable at the end of 1980, ‘Seven Minutes to Midnight’ and the very real fear at the time of impending doom: even Del Boy and Rodney (in his UK Decay t-shirt) were building a nuclear shelter. ‘Seven Minutes’ is almost as magnificent as ‘Better Scream’, and few people have come up with such a great pair of opening salvos. That second single was just the right side of bombast and bluster and it remains one hell of a wild careering ride, matched only by The Visitors’ ‘Compatibility’ on Rational which came in a plastic bag like ‘Better Scream’.

After that, I confess, I lost interest for a while, though it certainly registered that Wah! Heat also seemed to come in for stick from The Fall on Slates, and I suppose one would be a little proud to be dissed by M.E.S., though it always seemed less said with spite and more as though Mark simply liked the sound of the words Wah! Heat, as in it’s all about the phonetics, phonaesthetics, whatevers, like a lot of Fall stuff, and Kerouac too.  “Academic male slags ream off names of books and bands” he opined, which always seemed to link to Dexys’ ‘There There My Dear’, and Mark was a fan wasn’t he?

Dexys used the classic shot of Jack Kerouac, with the Brahman’s Manual in his jacket pocket, smoking on a fire escape, as captured in 1953 by Allen Ginsberg, in music press adverts for ‘There There My Dear’, though the cover used a still of Montgomery Clift (honey) as Prewitt in From Here To Eternity, where his (only) pal was Frank Sinatra as Maggio, which brings us back to Dexys again: “I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra”. There are still worlds of meaning and untold nuances in that line, and while Kevin was singing it Clash compadre Robin Banks was writing in Zigzag about Vic Godard having the sleeve of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers on his bedroom wall, and Frank himself was asking ‘What Time Does the Next Miracle Leave?’ and urging us to avoid another world war.

Where Wylie became interesting again was with the Shambeko! Say Wah! incarnation, and the release of ‘Remember’ as a single in 1982, a mod racket coming on like the great lost last Chords single we dreamed about (in defiance of all the academic male slags!), and fitting in with tales heard about Pete wandering around the ’Pool in a parka etc. The name Shambeko, Pete told us, was a tribute to a gang of German kids who defied the Nazis and were in to Sinatra, swing and dressing up in zoot suits rather than being part of the Hitler Youth.

‘Shambeko’, the song itself, emerged on the mock-bootleg The Maverick Years 80-81 which was musically more me. It featured the opening line of ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ which at the time seemed synchronicity as it was the first Sinatra performance that really connected with me, being the standout track in the parental record collection, and one hopes it was the same with Pete. Odd, now, thinking back because there is no recollection of Sinatra’s September of My Years from my youth, even though parts of ‘Hello Young Lovers’ and ‘September Song’ were always being sung around the home, and oh I’d give anything to hear them sung again now, but that’s not going to happen.

No, for some reason, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ I associate with a cassette (and what a perfect connection, too, to Tracey Thorn’s ‘Small Town Girl’ on her A Distant Shore tape), which for some reason in my mind’s eye has Sinatra in a yachting cap, again perhaps not coincidentally like Wylie singing ‘Story of the Blues’ on the Oxford Road Show with Colin of Black on backing vocals. Look up Sinatra and yachting cap, and you’ll find stills from the film Assault on a Queen which came out around the same time as September of My Years, and it’s just as likely you’ll see a shot of Frank in a Baracuta Harrington jacket, which for men in their 50s with a touch of silver in what’s left of their hair is something of a vindication. But you are unlikely to see the cassette cover which I can picture to this day. Perhaps that’s because it never existed, except perhaps in a parallel universe alongside that shot of Pete Wylie I may have mentioned. Ain’t it the truth!










  1. NME interview with Mark E Smith (31 Oct 1987)

    "...Despite a public image that makes Rudolph Hess look like Mother Theresa, Smith has continued, for a decade, to write lyrics which tower above the short-sighted attempts of his contemporaries, of whom he recognises only Kevin Rowland and Pete Wylie as being any good..."