It’s been nearly a year since my novel Wivenhoe Park was published. As a way to celebrate, I thought a feature on some of the albums that inspired the book would be fun. I borrowed the idea from the excellent music site The Quietus who ran a feature on Cathi Unsworth’s new novel Weirdo, the best book I’ve read in ages.
Wivenhoe Park is set in the years 1984-1986, mainly at the University of Esssex in Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, England, where the protagonist Drew, an American student from Michigan spends his junior year abroad. Like the real me, Drew is obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll. Here are some of the records that play a major role in the book and spent a lot of time on my turntable and CD player (love those deluxe Psych Furs and Bunnymen reissues) while writing it. Note: these aren’t ranked in any kind of order other than Psychocandy!
1) The Jesus and Mary Chain “Psychocandy”
The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album came out in November 1985, about a month after I arrived at Essex. Like Drew, I bought the NME and Melody Maker at the campus store the day it came out (both featured the JAMC on the front cover) and skipped class to take a bus ride into Colchester city center where I procured a cassette copy of Psychocandy at Andy’s Records. Like most of the students in my flat at Eddington Tower (there were sixteen of us on our floor, each in tiny single rooms) I had a cassette player that I bought upon arrival. A few of the guys in the flat had turntables, but most of us rocked boom boxes. Anyway, I had heard some of the JAMC singles before hand but hearing all fourteen songs at once was an indescribable rush. This was immediately the best thing I had ever heard. It had the energy of punk rock, but it wasn’t punk. There was so much distortion and feedback, yet the songs were so damn catchy. Every time I popped in the cassette I heard something new. For the song sample I chose “Just Like Honey.” I know it’s an obvious choice, but the track really resonated with me then and now. I still have memories hanging out in Rome with my best friend Marc (the real life Johnny), drinking tea and coffee and watching an Italian version of MTV with some beautiful Italian girls when this video popped on. One of those fantastic moments when everything felt perfect and I wanted time to stop.
2) The Sisters of Mercy “First and Last and Always”
Though black was and still is my favorite color, I was never a full-on goth. I love the Sisters of Mercy though and was fascinated with the scene. I especially loved goth girls! Drew’s ex-girlfriend Christine, who works at a cool record store, is a goth who looks a little like Siouxsie Sioux. Like most of the characters in the book she’s a composite of different people I knew at the time. She introduces Drew to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cult (early on in the book, Drew buys the 12″ of “Spiritwalker” to impress her. The Sisters of Mercy make a cameo in the novel when Drew and his best friend in Michigan, PJ, see the band at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit in 1984, the year before Drew moves to England. PJ lies to the Sisters’ tour manager and tells him that Drew writes for Spin. He wings an interview with Andrew Eldritch and it ends up getting published in the Univ. of Michigan student paper. First and Last and Always was the stunning 1985 debut album, released just before the band broke up. Eldritch would return a few years later with a much different band, while Wayne Hussey went on to form the Mission. I loved all the early singles like “Alice” and “Temple of Love” — staples at student discos — but there’s something equally magical about the newer songs on First and Last and Always. The material is dark, yet you can tell that the band has a sense of humor (evidenced by the number of odd songs they would cover live). a trait that was missing from most of the goth scene.
3) The Psychedelic Furs “The Psychedelic Furs”
Along with the Clash, Sex Pistols, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen, the Psych Furs were what I like to call an MTV gateway drug to the alternative music scene. It’s hard for younger people to understand how difficult it was to hear good music back in the day, even in the relatively hip college town where I grew up, less than an hour away from Detroit. MTV used to be about music, not teen pregnancy, and when my parents got cable in 1981 when I was sixteen, I discovered a whole new world — they were calling it new wave back then — that would influence the rest of my life. One of the bands I really dug was the Psych Furs. Their first three albums from 1980-1982 are stone classics before they went more mainstream on Mirror Moves, and, especially, Midnight to Midnight. They did come back with a few solid albums, but haven’t released anything new since World Outside (1991). In the first chapter of Wivenhoe Park, Drew is wearing a T-shirt featuring the black and pink artwork of the self-titled debut album so I chose “We Love You” from that record. Here’s a live on American TV rendition from 1980. To this day I play the early albums a lot. Richard Butler snarls like Johnny Rotten but like the JAMC, this isn’t punk rock. The raw energy is there, but one can also hear elements of seventies legends like Velvet Underground and Roxy Music.
4) Echo and The Bunnymen “Ocean Rain”
During the first half of the eighties, no one was cooler than Echo and the Bunnymen. The songwriting dynamic of vocalist Ian McCulloch (vocals) and Will Sergeant (guitar) was phenomenal. Live they were out of this world. Ian with his dangling cigarettes and dances that had the girls screaming, Will stoically employing his sonic pyrotechnics. In retrospect, 1985 was like a changing of the guard. The Bunnymen released their last great single “Bring on the Dancing Horses” the same month as the Jesus and Mary Chain put out Psychocandy. While the Bunnymen would ‘break’ America in 1987 with their self-titled fifth album, they were never the same. Live, the Bunnymen still have it. I saw them in 2002 and was blown away, but I haven’t loved any of their albums since 1984’s Ocean Rain. My favorite albums by the group are the first two, but Ocean Rain was a special record for me (and Drew) when we were at Essex, especially the song “The Killing Moon.” This is another Rome memory that is forever imprinted. The girls that Marc (Johnny) and I hung out with that week had a car and they drove us all around the city playing a mix tape that featured this song as well as Simple Minds’ “Up on the Catwalk.” I can’t play either record without thinking of Rome 1986, especially “The Killing Moon”. Lyrically, it’s a masterpiece, that line about fate, up against your will almost makes me cry every time I hear it.
5) New Order “Low-Life”
Low-Life is my favorite New Order album. I love Movement and, especially, Power, Corruption & Lies, but I feel like Low-Life is the one where the group came into their own and shed the ghost of their old Joy Division bandmate Ian Curtis. The album is a perfect hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll and club culture. It’s night time music, perfect for a moonlight drive. In the Manchester chapter of Wivenhoe Park, Drew, Dave, and Brendan are listening to “5 8 6” from Power, Corruption & Lies on their way to the Hacienda. In retrospect maybe I should have had them listen to Low-Life, but I wanted to incorporate the “I see danger, danger…” line into the novel for obvious reasons to those who have read it. Peter Hook remains my favorite bass player to this day, visually and sonically, for his work in Joy Division and on cuts such as the bitchin’ live version of “Sunrise” below. I got to interview him once and it remains one of my more cherished rock ‘n’ roll memories.
6) Lloyd Cole and the Commotions “Rattlesnakes”
I love Lloyd Cole a lot more now than I did in the eighties. The Commotions’ second album Easy Pieces was out when I was at Essex and I heard songs like “Lost Weekend” and “Brand New Friend” all the time at parties and on the radio. I liked it but at the time I thought it was too slick, too mature. As I got older I revisited their work and realized what a lyrical genius Cole is. The debut Rattlesnakes gets mentioned in Wivenhoe Park and was on constant repeat while I was knocking out the book. The older me gets what the younger me didn’t quite grasp at the time. For this entry I chose the title track.
7) The Smiths “The Smiths”
I’m not a card-holding member of the cult of Morrissey (I lost interest in his solo work rather quickly), but I love the Smiths. Like McCulloch and Sergeant, Morrissey and Marr were genius composers. The group’s third album The Queen is Dead came out in June 1986, about a month before I moved back to America, and I vividly remember watching a television performance of the band performing “Big Mouth Strikes Again” with Marc and some of my friends in Eddington 5. It was breathtaking, and if push comes to shove, The Queen is Dead is my favorite Smiths album, but the one that resonated with me most at Essex was the self-titled debut. “What Difference Does It Make?” remains my favorite single by the band, but the song I was obsessed with for a long time was “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” the title culled from a Kerouac quote. To me it perfectly captures romantic loss and memories of a twenty-year boy thinking his world is crashing. Who needs girls anyway? Oh the drama!
8) The Stooges “The Stooges”
I’d say virtually all of my favorite bands owe something to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. The three albums by the Stooges (1969-1973) are as good as rock ‘n’ roll gets. As far as I’m concerned they invented punk rock — yeah I get it that some of the sixties garage rockers were pretty tough, but did they cut themselves on stage like Iggy did? Nothing sounds more dangerous and sexier than a Stooges album blasting at full volume. And Iggy Pop is what a rock star should be: the anti-Bono. He still looks great shirtless and in black leather, and he might be the reason I still have long hair. I want to look like a crazy old man when I’m pushing 70, just like Iggy. Iggy grew up in my hometown of Michigan. Drew learns about him in high school when an older musician friend introduces him to classic Detroit rock bands like the Stooges, MC5, and the early Bob Seger. I could have easily chosen any one of the Stooges albums but I’ll go with something from the debut, a song called “1969” that the Sisters of Mercy covered as a B-side. Andrew Eldritch once said that the only groups better than his were the Stooges, Motorhead, and the Birthday Party!
9) Student Discos!
Not an album, but a category. The Entertainment Society at Essex was first-rate. They put on so many fun events. I saw countless touring bands at the University’s basement club venue and seemingly every week there was at least one student disco, if not more. Much of the music veered toward the catchier side of goth and postpunk, including the likes of the Cult “Spiritwalker” or “She Sells Sanctuary,” Sisters of Mercy “Alice” or “Temple of Love,” Killing Joke “Love Like Blood” and New Model Army “Vengeance.” I remember that groups of guys would shove each other, whilst holding overpriced cans of lager or cider, in ritualistic dances to these songs, much to the annoyance of the girls. There are several club scenes in Wivenhoe Park, including one that takes place in Florence, Italy. Here’s a sample of English goth/postpunk nightlife c. ’85-’86
10) Protest Music
People forget how dark the eighties were. You had Reagan in America and his partner-in-crime Thatcher in England selling us false visions of hope, while their policies crippled the lives of the working (and middle classes). The rich get richer… Bands weren’t afraid to speak their minds then. You had Billy Bragg, of course, but there was also a new brigade of young pretenders, including the likes of the Redskins and Easterhouse, whose viewpoints were further left than the likes of Bragg and Paul Weller, who supported the Labour Party. The music was as great as the message, especially Easterhouse whose 1986 album Contenders still gets heavy play from me.
11) The Cure “The Head on the Door”
The Cure haven’t aged as well for me as the likes of the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Psych Furs. The only albums I play these days are the first two or the Staring at the Sea singles compilation, but this was a huge favorite of mine back in the day. “Close to Me” and “In-between” days were popular staples at campus discos and on the bar jukeboxes. Robert Smith has become a cartoon character now, but he was an inspiration back then, if nothing else for what he could do with hair spray! See also, Ian Mac and the Reid brothers!
C86 was the name of a cassette tape that the NME put out near the end of my stay at Essex to document a bunch of bands that they thought might make it. Marc (Johnny) and I saw some of these groups, talked about most of them. We were avid readers of the music weeklies along with Record Mirror and Smash Hits. Bands like the Mighty Lemon Drops, Shop Assistants, Wedding Present, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox…, and the Dentists. The godfather of this scene was Bobby Gillespie and Primal Scream, who wanted nothing to do with awkward indie kids, but were associated with the C86 tag. There’s a club scene early on where Drew sees Meat Whiplash and Primal Scream and meets Bobby Gillespie and Creation Records boss Alan McGee. The Primal Scream song “Velocity Girl” pretty much invents what would later become the Manchester scene. The early Stone Roses idolized Primal Scream — listen to “Made of Stone” and “Velocity Girl” back to back. Here are two favorites from that era, that scene.
13) Spacemen 3 “Sound of Confusion”
This last entry is a case of what if I were one year younger. I’m guessing that if I went to Essex in ’86-’87 instead of the year before, I might have had a similar reaction to Spacemen 3 as I did to the Jesus and Mary Chain and Psychocandy. Spacemen 3 became one of my all-time favorite bands but I didn’t get into them until I came back from England when their first album was released later in ’86. I stumbled upon this record after reading a review by esteemed American critic Fred Mills, who mentioned the Stooges cover and something about a vibe similar to the Who c. “I Can See For Miles.” I was sold. In Wivenhoe Park, Nick comes across a Spacemen 3 demo through his journalist friend Nick Danger and there’s even mention of Drew hanging out with Sonic Boom on another coast much later. Foreshadowing to the third and final novel of the Drew trilogy.