This Heat
This Heat

(This Is)

I was having a look at the new issue of Mojo magazine (#148, March), just arrived, when my attention was captured by a review of a new book by Barney Hoskyns titled Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters And Cocaine Cowboys In The LA Canyons, 1967-1976. I started reading: "Essentially the story of the counterculture slowly turning into over-the-counter culture (...)"; here I had to smile: English writers love to use wordplay (often at the expense of content) - a trend that's certainly not discouraged by the length of today's reviews, which are getting shorter and shorter every day; I decided to have a look at the ending, which I bet was to be of the "shocking" type; and here it is: "Clearly, punk's wrecking ball didn't come a moment too soon". Here my first thought was: "Wow, they really have some strong stuff up there in UK!". My second one: "But what the heck does it mean?". I immediately proceed to make a list of all the styles I could remember that had put some nails in the coffin of this genre (assuming that a genre such as "California Sound" could be said to have ever existed): disco, above all The Bee Gees and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack; Steely Dan's Aja "smooth jazz"; the (so-called) "English New Wave", i.e.: Elvis Costello, the Police and Dire Straits; the (so-called) "US New Wave" in its various threads: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Cars and (the fake punk by) The Knack; last but not least, MTV: which made all those unfit for aesthetical or age reasons disappear from the market, while offering a second chance to an already famous "honorary Californian" such as Don Henley. So?

Of course, the situation was totally different in UK. Here I was about to write: "Punk provoked...". But let's try to be clear: "The weeklies, which for reasons both of taste and of commercial consideration had been trend-searchers/trend-setters since the dawn of man, found a new teen trend - a few years after Glam Rock - in a music that was elementary and sartorially cheap". Here it's easy to notice that, quite differently from the lies that circulate about this, the artists who were the main targets of punks - people like Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John and so on - never really suffered commercially; while those who did - The Who and Led Zeppelin - did because of a death in the family. "But maybe punk did not/could not do enough", is the response I usually get. Here a couple of things can be said. First, that the "punk era", which had been seen at first as an attempt to resuscitate rock, and later (especially after the birth of hip-hop) as rock's last death rattle, can also be seen as being part of the long-term trend which sees consumers being increasingly interested in what is produced by their peers - in a literal sense: all those possessing no particular technical ability, and having no original ideas to speak of (the culmination of this process today being the success of the "reality show" format). The second thing is that this trend brought the music back to those pop times before the Beatles - to put it in a nutshell, from the musical instrument to the character; and so it's only logical that while "dinosaurs" went on living their wealthy lives, a lot of English musicians who were of the "poor and experimental" type were killed by "friendly fire". And when topics such as Structuralism + Derrida were added to machine-made records (above all, those made on Trevor Horn's 8bit Fairlight) it was really the end.

It was at the end of the 70s that I noticed a strange thing: that the money at my disposal to buy records could buy more records than the records I considered to be worth buying; the funny thing was that money was really not that much, and that in the past I had had the opposite problem! While some bad records gave me much to think about when it came to the "objectivity" of some writers. It was at that time that I happened to see an album by a group called This Heat. Name of the album: Deceit. Sporting an aggressive cover, Deceit (1981) was the work of three musicians. Among them, a name I knew: Charles Hayward.

I had met Charles Hayward for the first time thanks to a "special appearance" to Diamond Head (1975), the first solo album by Phil Manzanera, who was then the guitar player in Roxy Music. Manzanera had featured a cameo by his old quartet, Quiet Sun - the group's bass player being Bill MacCormick, later a member of Robert Wyatt's Matching Mole. In the time already booked to record Diamond Head (let's give a thought, just for a moment, to a time period when it was still possible to be oh-not-terribly-impressed by an album like that) Manzanera managed to record another album, Mainstream, using his old quartet; Hayward proved to be an excellent drummer (one of the last to come out from UK?), and the "English ballad" he wrote and sang on the album, Rongwrong, became a kind of a classic (it was also sang by Brian Eno, and appeared on the live album by an occasional group, 801).

Deceit managed to be both harsh and delicate, rich with songs where it was not difficult to see traces of the past - Robert Wyatt, and then Eno, especially his choral vocals on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) - but the attention given to sound and the studio work spoke of a "contemporary" album. A "political" album, by the way, with those "hand-written" lyrics on the back cover. A nice trio: Hayward (on keyboards, guitar, bass, tapes, besides drums and vocals), Charles Bullen (vocals, guitar, clarinet, drums and tapes) and Gareth Williams (vocals, bass, keyboards and tapes). A lot of ingenuity, no empty gymnastics, Deceit was destined to remain my favourite album by the group, whose later releases I always listened to with careful attention; and while Live In Krefeld 1980 showed the group live, in fine form; and if my sadness for their splitting up was in a way made less severe by a group that in a way travelled the same path, the excellent Camberwell Now (all the stuff the group released can be found on All's Well) there remained a hole for me: their first album, released for the first time in 1979 and that I only managed to listen to about a decade later, when it was re-released on vinyl.

As it's only natural, it took me a long time before I could listen to This Heat (also known as "blue and yellow" for the colours of its cover) for the excellent album it is instead of the first episode of a story whose later chapters I already knew. What about today? After the brief first track, Testcard, Horizontal Hold could almost sound as an anticipation of some guitaristic indie-rock noisy climates made in USA twenty years later; while 24 Track Loop offers quite a few similarities with some work by Faust; but the Faust name can be mentioned only when it comes to the general "methodology" of the album, the relationship between the songs and the studio work, not for any semblance of "style". The music is tense, nervous; Not Waving and Twilight Furniture were the gems on the (former) side one, while side two is a painting where one can maybe single out the track called The Fall Of Saigon.

And since it's an anniversary we are talking about (thirty years after the line-up came into being) besides the individual albums being back in print we have a box with everything, and also a book and some unreleased stuff. Here the question is always: what if somebody should buy this CD out of curiosity and, liking it, decide to buy the box - will he have to buy it a second time? The answer is no, and a paper inside this CD tells us how.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | Feb. 13, 2006