Saturday, 19 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 3

Looking back, the mixtape was a crucial element in our little culture that formed the hinterland to Tortoise Head. In about 1987, Lee bought a car, a Ford Cortina, in which Lee, Ed, Rich and myself went to Stithians in Cornwall for a week's holiday, in the summer before we went to University. In the car played Ed's Compilation tapes, a series which extended, I think, well into the teens before they were discontinued. The Compilation tape series were what would be known now as mixtapes, audio cassettes Ed made with his record collection on his Dad's Technics midi stereo, which sat next to the Betamax in Ed's front room. Only now do I realise that we were a disconnected part of the whole mixtape culture that took place in the 1980s, that has ended with the rise of the hegemon iPod and the switch from analogue to digital.
Ed was a purist with regard to mixtapes. He would only record on TDK D90s, the bottom end of the market - no Metal Oxide or Dolby 'high' for him. (Ed's purism in this regard extended into the Noughties. When I sent him a mix CD of stuff a few years ago, he responded with a batch of 4 TDK SA90s - I barely had anything to play them on.) This DIY ethic was a kind of samizdat publication, a way of disseminating his own pop cultural preferences among his friends. Staples of the early Compilations were the Ramones (especially Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin), early ZZ Top, Motorhead, Black Sabbath of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Ed had a thing at the time of Southern Accents where he would call anything cool 'Southern') and now-disavowable 1980s rock anthems as Bryan Adams's 'The Boys of Summer'. (Most appropriately for this time, this begins: 'Got my first six-string/ Bought it at the five-and-dime'.) Except for The Damned, Ed's punk sensibilities were definitely American rather than British, whereas my first love had been The Jam, and had been a Mod, so was steeped in The Who and The Kinks and that snotty English mode.
Compilation 4 was the defining document: Ed had seen The Cult playing 'Love Removal Machine' on tv, and had fallen in love with its Deep Purple riffs/ rip-offs and half-ironic 'stoopid', Neanderthal rock. (The album was, of course, produced by Rick Rubin of Def Jam and Def American, but Ed ignored the hip-hop connection. Ed was also into Aerosmith but again blanked 'Walk this Way'.) So the majority of Electric found its way onto mixtapes, and the subsequent Sonic Temple (renamed Chronic Temple) did as well. For me, The Cult were always a guilty pleasure.
The Compilation tapes were a set of signposts to the kind of music Ed wanted to make in TNS and Tortoise Head, and his vocal delivery became inflected through an ironic take on Ian Astbury's own stylised rock-god pastiche. I brought the Stones, classic English rock like The Who, indie noise-rock like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Huskers, and of course the Pixies to the table.
Tortoise Head. File under: 'beat rock combo'.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.4

After Eduardo's leg was broken in that reckless, horrendous moment in the Birmingham match, I texted fellow gooner Arthur and wrote: 'Today is the end of Eduardo's career, and Arsenal's season'. I hope I'm to be proved wrong about the former; I was right about the latter. What truly nauseated me about that day was Sky's sanctimonious decision not to show the incident again to save the sensibilities of the viewers, who all must have scuttled to their computers to download still images from the Internet instead. Richard Keys and, I think, David Platt (who seems to bear an unconscious grudge against the Arsenal, even though we provided him with his highest honours in 1998, when he retired after the team that had just won the Double) blathered on and on about how William Gallas had let the team down, how Arsenal's lack of 'bottle'/ backbone/ toughness had caught up with them. The same line was repeated by Alan Hansen on Match of the Day, when even the supine/ anodyne Gary Lineker felt it necessary to stress the horrific nature of the physical injury to Eduardo's leg, and the emotional effect this had clearly had on a young team and a volatile captain.
Keys, Platt and Hansen unconsciously replicated the very rhetoric about Arsenal's inability to 'take' physical confrontation that led, I feel, ultimately to Taylor's challenge. In retrospect, I do not think Taylor intended to break Eduardo's leg, or even intended to put him out of the match, but I do think it was meant to hurt, meant to give Eduardo pause in the next challenge, meant to 'find him out' physically. Taylor's assault (I first wrote 'challenge' but this is inadequate) was the logical end-point of the escalating attempts of teams, up to and including Manchester United, to 'stop Arsenal playing'. (This has happened for a long time, of course; with Vieira and Petit in midfield, though, this physicality often resulted in red cards, largely for our players, in retaliation. It's worthy of note that the endless media carping about Arsenal's disciplinary record has now been replaced by the assertion that Arsenal 'don't like it up 'em', as the Arsenal players react less aggressively.) Wenger himself argued this in post-match interviews, but it was lost in the furore about his call for Taylor to be banned indefinitely. Eduardo's injury was bound to happen to an Arsenal player sooner or later. And in fact it already had, to Abou Diaby against Sunderland two seasons before, against a team already relegated.
I was shocked by what happened to Eduardo, shocked by the way it was handled by Sky and the BBC, and this isn't just a cliche: the 'shock' made me feel differently about the sport, and about Arsenal. To see this young man's leg broken so badly, his foot nearly taken off by a physical assault, made me feel it wasn't worth following football any more, if a player of such skill and finesse could be brutalised in this way. Arsene has become paranoid about refereeing decisions, penatlties not given, as the Arsenal have slipped out of Champions League and Premier League running; but I would rather he kept talking about the way skilful players are not protected as they should be, in an English footballing culture which still prizes physicality over technique. And for evidence of that, watch any of England's games over the last 5 years. From Eduardo to England's failure to qualify for Euro '08: only connect.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 2

I bought a steel-string acoustic from a classified ad in the Evening Echo and my dad took me there in the car to get it. £5. It was made by Boosey and Hawkes, who mainly maufactured orchestral instruments. It had a high, high bridge and an action so high that after 5 minutes of playing you developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in your left wrist. (CTS, not TNS.) It hadn't been played since the time of Wat Tyler, or at least The New Seekers. I took some of the strings off and took them down to a music shop to see what kind of strings I needed. Wound in a circle, they looked like bailing wire. The assistant in the shop looked somewhat startled by what I showed him, then sold me a packet of Rotosound 10s. Something for the weekend.
I got a book out of the local library that showed me chord shapes, and was soon strumming Es and As and Ds. I tuned the guitar using an old Casio keyboard I'd been given for Christmas some years before. I think now I must have tuned it an octave too high, because one day, while playing, I knocked the neck against the edge of a table and the head snapped clean off. In the 1980s, Roland had a line of headless bass guitars (Curt Smith from Tears for Fears played one) but this was ridiculous. Ever the stalwart, my dad fixed the head back on with some kind of wood glue, and by God, it worked! It was always just slightly crooked, though, so not really to be trusted.
Something had to happen. A broken steel-string acoustic wasn't very rock and roll. Fortunately, I knew Ed Hill.
Ed and I were in the same group for English for A level, at SEEVIC (the South East Essex VIth Form College). I'd known him a little at King John, our secondary school, but I was really a part of the football-playing crowd, and Ed wasn't. We became good friends at SEEVIC. Ed drove in from Leigh-on-Sea on a 50cc motorbike, for some reason, and always had the helmet under his arm when entering the class. He also wore donkey jackets, and one of these jackets, for a reason I was to find out later, lived up to its name in an olfactory sense. It gave Ed a rather eccentric, almost Beat kind of persona - a development of his King John character, 'Ed Banger', as Ed was a metaller.
(I had been, for a few years, a Mod. I loved The Who, and still do. I had had a couple of coversations with Ed at school about music, where I complained about metal's 'raucousness'. He pointed out to me, quite rightly, that was was John Entwhistle's bass playing, if not 'raucous'? This was the very early stage of my entry into the world of metal, as guided by Ed. He wasn't a true believer, though - he called the Metal style mag 'Kerrap' rather than Kerrang!, so I knew irony was in there somewhere.)
I scraped together some cash and bought the Honky Tonk guitar Ed had received for his time on the Hadleigh pavement - Ed had picked up a Strat copy and that was easier to play. So I went from CTS-inducing acoustic to a semi-acoustic electric guitar whose action was only marginally more forgiving. At least it made enough of a sound, as a hollow-bodied electric guitar, that I didn't need an amp straight away. Just as well. I couldn't afford one.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.3

Merse. Not the blokeish, oafish geezer whose tooth falls out on Sky Sport's Soccer Saturday. Not the pathetic, tearful young man haltingly confessing his addictions at a press conference. Not the harbinger of doom for the Arsenal, whose 'I fear for them' prognostications now rival those of the egomaniacal Ian Wright. No, Merse, the player who, for me, defined George Graham's Arsenal in a way that even Tony Adams did not; the lowslung, swarming style, running with the ball stuck to the outside of one boot, arms out, angled at defenders, blond hair flopping in curtains. George's number 10, the 'son of George' whose transgressions were forgiven or blind-eyed because he was the one player with flair, with spark, with genius, who turned a powerful, disciplined and hard-running team into Champions.
I first saw Merse on telly playing for the Arsenal in a 'Soccer Six' tournament sometime in the mid-1980s. This was the period following Heysel, and the banning of English teams from European competition for 5 years. The fixture list was less clogged: there was the League Cup, sure, but the FA Cup didn't start for Arsenal until the first weekend in January and the 3rd round. (In the mid-80s, it often didn't last much longer than the 3rd round, either.) The 'Soccer Six' was an indoor 6-a-side tournament featuring squad players and youngsters from top clubs, a marketing wheeze, a filler for a free Wednesday evening on Sportsnight. These days, of course, the insurance men would shudder at the thought. Indoor 6-a-side is now the province of Sky's 'Master's football', shown in the summer when Sky doesn't have World Cup or Euro rights, the thinnest gruel for football addicts gone cold turkey, a televisual methadone. Merse plays there, too, now. But for Villa rather than the Arsenal.
Merse was a slight young blonde lad in the 'Soccer Six', a youth team product. There was something about him, though - he scored four or five goals that night, looked like an up-and-comer. As with most youth or reserve team youngsters, he looked good but you wondered whether he would make it - so many of Arsenal's touted 'next Bradys' have fallen by the wayside. Stephen Hughes, Paolo Vernazza, David Noble, Stephen Bradley.
But Merse did make it. He broke through to become a major player in the 1989 Championship side, playing up front with Alan Smith. (When Kevin Campbell came through in the 1991 side, Merse was shifted to the left, but was still crucial.) In 1989, Merse had gap teeth - shades of Joe Jordan - and long, tatty blond hair grown out in a footballer's superstition. He ran with the ball, driving at opposition defences, and scored great goals. He was too good for Arsenal, in a way - he could have been playing for Liverpool.
Merse was partly a footballer out of time. He was a last scion of the 70s maverick, for Stanley Bowles, Frank Worthington, Rod Marsh; Merse's sad apotheosis in front of press and tv cameras, his entry into the Nineties/ Noughties narrative of the three steps, The Priory, 'recovery', is an index of footballs' changing PR. No more playboys.
That's not to say Merse's lifestyle of gambling, drink and drugs was anything other than detrimental to his health, his happiness and his career, nor that his problems were partly caused by English football's internal culture. I loved Merse for what he was, what he could do, on the football pitch, and I'd rather not see any footballer off it.
I remember an evening away game at Highfield Road, then Coventry City's ground. Midweek, penned in behind Sky Blue fencing. Highbury never had fences, of course, and lost the right to stage FA Cup semi-finals after a pitch invasion following the Watford-Plymouth Argyle semi in 1984, because they didn't have fences. Growing up being taken to Highbury as a kid, being behind fences was always immensely alienating. And dangerous. Coventry were awarded a penalty, John Lukic saved it - the away end crowd surged down to the front, celebrating. There was no way of resisting - your feet were lifted off the floor as the crowd, as one body, ran down the stepped terrace to the front. Merson scored the winner, ran over to our end, slammed his hands on the fences - the surge again, down to press up against its hero. I felt fear that evening, and standing on the Clock End as Arsenal played Newcastle on the day of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, I remembered what that felt like, and cried when I got home.
Merse was sold by by Arsene Wenger in 1996, at the age of 28, to Middlesbrough, for £5 million. A good price for a 28-year-old. Dennis Bergkamp had already taken over the number 10 shirt. It was the end of Wenger's first season, the end of Merse's last for Arsenal. No more playboys.
Oh, I didn't mention one other thing. Merse and I share a birthday. He's exactly one year older than me.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.2

I remember Hornby writing, in Fever Pitch, that in the mid-1980s, the Arsenal were never good enough to win anything, but never remotely bad enough to go down, and the resulting stasis made him want to scream with frustration. Now, the situation has concertinaed: Arsenal aren't bad enough to drop out of the Champions League places, but aren't good enough to win anything. The frustration also makes me want to scream.
That's why I have proposed a trial separation between myself and the Arsenal. I didn't watch the match against Manchester United yesterday, but I checked the internet occasionally to see the score. (I could have watched it at home if I wanted to.) After their inevitable defeat, I felt a sadness, a hollowness, but not anger, not real involvement. I've finished a 33-year relationship; I'm still drawn to the other person, care about them still, but proximity only brings forth sadness.
It's been a long process. For while now, I've found it impossible to listen to the Arsenal on the radio, painful even; I turn it off if they're on. Then I found it difficult to watch them on television. I thought it was because I cared too much, but really it's because they ceased giving me pleasure.
I've now had enough of Arsene's theology, his faith in players who demonstrably are not good enough: Eboue, Senderos; or his unwillingness to criticise his players, to recognise their deficiencies. Arsene has become inflexible, paranoid.
After 33 years, we're now sleeping in different beds, different rooms. It's only a matter of time until I move out altogether. After a while, maybe I'll see them again. I hope so.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 1

I always loved my friend Ed's house. He lived in the Vicarage in Leigh-on-Sea, though his Dad was no vicar. No, Dennis Hill was an entrepreneur from Plaistow who now owned his own catering business (providing high quality pies to local delis), had once been a restauranteur, and for his holidays cycled across the Pyrannees. For me, whose Dad worked for the Gas Board (as we called it), this was attractively exotic.
The Vicarage seemed ramshackle, haphazardly put together, labyrinthine even. Its twin centres were the sitting room where we would watch Airplane! and Escape from New York on an ancient Sony Betamax after coming back from the pub, sprawled on a vast, L-shaped leather sofa; and the kitchen, which had a wooden floor and an Aga, where we were occasionally allowed to sit.
At the back of the Vicarage was a large space known as the Billiard Room, which had been through a succession of uses, but when I first saw it, had a table tennis table in it. It had a high ceiling and was mightily cold in the winter. It was also the rehearsal space for Tortoise Head, our band. 'Oh no, not them buggers again,' said Dennis Hill, as we humped the gear through the kitchen. The Hills showed us quite remarkable toleration, even indulgence, in those years, I should add.
But this is the wrong place to begin.
The story should begin on the pavement in Hadleigh, my home town, a small town whose spine was the A13, Billy Bragg's 'trunk road to the sea' that runs between East London and Southend. Honky Tonk Music was a shop towards the eastern end of Hadleigh, where the town began to run out and the Salvation Army fields took over for a short urban hiatus, before Leigh-on-Sea began. It's not there now, and neither is the SOGAT union headquarters that was also in the town in the 1980s, inexplicably. I think it's an Aldi now. I don't go home much these days.
On the pavement, in 1986, are four lads: Ed Hill, Rich Laxton, Lee Ellis, Lee Cook. The local paper, the Evening Echo, had a picture of them, camped out. I imagine this was Ed's idea, to camp out. The reason? A Honky Tonk Music publicity stunt. The first four customers on a chosen day would receive guitars, amps and drums, enough to start a band.
Why was it Ed's idea? Ed always wanted to be a Rock God. He loved the Ramones, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Tom Petty, early ZZ Top. He wanted to sing, to play guitar.
The four lads got their gear. Ed got a Japanese copy of a Gibson 335 (the f-hole semi-acoustic that BB King played) and an amp. I have the guitar now, it's upstairs as I write. I've had it for nearly 20 years. Rich Laxton got a PA, for vocals. Lee Ellis, a bass and amp. Lee Cook, drums. They formed a band: TNS, for Total Noise Syndrome.
TNS recruited one Ken Crudgington to play lead guitar, becuase the technical level of Ed's and Rich's playing wasn't up to it. They rehearsed four songs: 'Chasing the Night' by the Ramones, 'Paranoid' by Black Sabbath, 'Wild Thing' by The Troggs, and a song of their own: 'Beast in my Pants'. They were 17 years of age.
The TNS were invited to play at a birthday party at a pub in South Fambridge, in mid Essex. Nerves, drink, sound problems: 4 songs were made to last 35 minutes, and they were gone. Forever. I wasn't there. TNS are only a part of my story, the Tortoise Head story, on the tape that was made of them rehearsing, played in Lee Ellis's Ford Cortina as we sipped our Budweisers. The TNS were history, South Fambridge part of legend, re-told, re-worked, laughed and bickered over.
In 1989 I bought a second-hand acoustic guitar and started to learn. Soon.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal no.1

I first saw the Arsenal at Highbury on Saturday 20 December, 1975, with my Uncle Allan. They beat Burnley 1-0.This win put Arsenal 18th in the table (of 22), three points above Burnley, who occupied the last relegation place. Arsenal finished that year in 17th.

Highbury then was a grand old stadium with wooden fold-down seats, the Metropolitan Police Band marching round the pitch at half-time (the leader had a kind of mace that he would hurl into the dark winter sky and catch with an 'oooh' from the crowd, 20,000 sould willing him to drop it. yes, I said 20,000). I sat with my uncle in the Lower West stand, usually, though one time we were in the Upper West. We got there early: lunch was ham sandwiches from a box, tannin tea from a flask, and a long, long perusal of the matchday programme while we waited for the stadium to fill up. The image I hold in my memory from this match is Jimmy Rimmer standing around about the penalty spot, trying to keep warm, while the action took place up at the other end.

I was there on the opening home match in 1976, when Bristol City beat us 0-1. A lovely August afternoon. We left early to get the Picadilly line train from the Arsenal Underground station before the crush. The Arsenal station had long tunnels, divided down the middle by mesh, that wound up and down to the platforms. In later years, my friends and I always walked down to Finsbury Park station to avoid the crowds.

My uncle never took me to big or glamorous games, such as Liverpool or Manchester United, or London derbies. Threatened with slow, painful death by my dad if anything happened to me, Uncle Allan always took me to Burnley, or Bolton, or Bristol City. The last time he took me was to see Aston Villa, in the early 1980s. When we arrived back at my Nan and Jim's house in Laindon, the evening was suffused with a golden glow I remember much more than a game. (Rix did score a cracker, I remember.) We ran across the road, and I felt grown up.

We got the 400 bus that travelled along the A13 from Southend to Kings Cross, and ended in the underground coach station there that seemed, at the time, as alien and intimidating as a space station. A green Eastern National bus, the 400, more modern looking than the local Bristols with their concertina doors. It looked as though it was designed to go fast. We sat at the front of the top deck if we could.

In 1975, 1976, Arsenal were rubbish. They finished 17th in 1976; 17th! The player I remember most from that time was Terry Mancini, a bald, uncomplicated, cheery centre-half, who, as Nick Hornby once wrote, seemed to be bought for the next year's promotion campaign in Division 2. Pat Rice and George Armstrong were still there from the '71 double side, but otherwise it was a long way from the glory days of Ray Kennedy's headed winner at the Lane, or Charlie George's flat-on-your-back celebration of the Double winning goal at Wembley. Dog days, in fact.

I'm not a slave to footballing nostalgia. Arsene's Arsenal are so far beyond what the mid-70s team were capable of, even on their worst day, that you might as well call it a different sport. But my love for the Arsenal has been diminishing lately. In the 80s and 90s, the result on Saturday, if bad, was enough to cast a pall over the entire week. Monday morning's report in the paper would make me physically nauseous. Now, my heart sinks even when I watch. I take no pleasure in their scintillating football.

I've entered the endgame of giving up the Arsenal. I trained myself not to care so much. Now, perhaps, I don't want to care at all.