Sometime in 1987 or '88 I saw British Summertime Ends play at Sheffield's regular improv music night, The Foot and Mouth Club (I've tried googling the club to see if its history is recorded anywhere, but all I get is other posts on this site! so go there and see the authoritative version). I'd never heard of BSE before that night. I've only heard of them about twice since. But among their improvisations and original songs, they played a couple of cover versions that I'll never forget. In fact, like great sex, it feels as though the memory gets richer with time, even as the details fade.
From this distance, I can't be sure which of the two came first, but let's say it was Love Potion No.9. Neither can I be sure whether Clive or Sylvia took the lead vocal, but the drama of the delivery coupled with the sparse arrangement seemed to be distilled essence of rock'n'roll. Then Stuart Jones started making a noisy, skronking squall with his cello. It was the kind of white noise assualt that begins all the live versions of Like a Hurricane by Neil and Crazy Horse. And, like Hurricane, it's the random Brownian motion which makes the eruption of form, when it comes, so powerful. Though in this case, the form wasn't the ringing guitar line of Hurricane, but the thunderous, abrasive distortion of the riff from You Really Got Me. When I say distortion, I don't think I mean that literally because I suspect the cello was unamplified, but you know how the strings of a cello can really scratch if you bow them the right way? Well, this cello riff was clawing your eyes out. You know, too, how it's become fashionable recently to do Nirvana-songs-on-a-ukulele and milk the comic flouting of expectations created by the unlikely arrangement? Well, this experience was nothing like that. Yes, Stuart was playing the riff on a cello, and, yes, Sylvia's percussion was a tea tray. I can't remember which of his many instruments Clive was (ab)using. But if I had to pick one moment in my life when the power of rock music — the shere visceral force rather than the jouissance and mise en abyme of Crazy Horse — reached and grabbed my spine, this would be it.
It happened once, half my lifetime ago, in front of an audience of — what? — 30-40 maximum. Put the 45-year-old me back in that room and play me the same music, maybe I wouldn't even tap my foot. So it's just as well you can't do that, because I don't want to be stripped of that memory.
I think they must have had a record for sale that evening — because the title Pop Out Eyes lodged in my mind — but I didn't buy it at the time. I regretted that decision many times over the years that followed. Then, a little over a decade later, British Summertime Ends came back to Sheffield for a gig at Mick Beck's place. M and I went, and in the interval I spoke to Stuart Jones in the garden, telling him how fondly I remembered the gig at the Hallamshire those years before. He couldn't remember it at all, and even seemed slightly doubtful that they might have played Love Potion No.9 and You Really Got Me. So when I asked if there was any chance of a repeat performance of either of those, the answer was clear: "None." Stuart also explained that no copies of Pop Out Eyes were available at this gig, as the record had been released on a French record label, and not even members of the band could get copies. Hence I bought solo CDs by Sylvia and Clive instead.
Then the eBay era arrived, a massive boon to anyone looking for rare records. I actually got this from CDandLP.com around five years ago, shipped from somewhere on the continent (less than half the price it is now).
After all that anticipation, it was going to be a binary affair: either it knocks my socks off, or it doesn't. It doesn't. There's nothing here that captures the feeling I had upstairs in The Hallamshire when I was a young man. Possibly I sensed that at the time, which is why I didn't buy it then.
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