the sky, the sea and the dead: Norfolk, music and the late 80s

Ray (with John)

What we find transcendent in music requires no explanation, just as the heavens do not need us to explore them.  There are moments, however, wherein the mysteries unravel themselves for us, as on those nights when the galaxy lays itself across the sky, presenting as both map and territory unto our eyes.  

We had been remarking upon The Fall’s most primally attuned and supralingually uncanny of latter-day albums – Your Future Our Clutter, The Real New Fall LP (Country On The Click), and the aptly titled Levitate – pointing, as astronomers agog at the action painting of Andromeda, to their sense of being elemental yet steeped in spirit, of hailing from both within and afar.  Talk turned to the gigs we’d attended in our more formative years, in the late 80s in Norwich.  John ventured that, similarly, there had been something more going on in those sounds, those times; something in the very notes and chords, perhaps, the beats and voices.  What was it?

We took ourselves back to those nights, and they opened themselves up for us.  It became clear that this impression was not explained simply by the fact that, back then, we had been young, cluttered with conviction and confusion, on the cusp of doing our own thing, out over the water on a fraying ropeswing.  No, it was also that music seemed culturally to matter more then, to have a more evident underbelly, naked and unashamed; it had, indeed, the guts to recognise, at least tacitly, the presence of all manner of conflict, and to insist thereon that life didn’t have to be as it was, in those days before the collapse into consensus into which so much music became increasingly co-opted, subsumed.  This sense of openness to possibility – hence, to unease – was amplified in the relative intensity, intimacy and murkiness of vinyl, the foremost format of the time before music became so routinely, and brusquely, glossed up through digital processing.

The fact that recordings then came physically constituted in sizeable slabs, rather than immediately available down a series of cables, also markedly influenced our relationship with music: it necessitated our dedicating forethought and effort to the process of getting hold of it.  Get a sweat on cycling into town to pick up the music press – when’s the album coming out?  are they touring?; the muck of ink on one’s fingers.  Ring the shop: have they got it in yet?  Forego the haircut, save the money for bus fare – or cadge a lift, take the trip from the village to the city, a full day spoken for: all this activity serving as physiological and psychic detritus to be dragged in by the stylus, so composing the surface noise behind the sounds.  And of course, gigs in those days were not full of people present largely in absentia, lost in the scrolling of devices: one went all in.  One had, then, to maintain a deeper and more enduring connection with music so as to access it; perhaps it was partly this need for committed observation of the contingencies of music’s time and place which encouraged our enmeshment in and abandon unto it, exacerbated the magic.

Indeed, it wasn’t just when, but where it occurred, that mattered.  I’m sure that similar vibrations were chiming everywhere and anywhere throughout the land around then; I hope they were.  I can only point to the particularities of the experiences I, and those around me then, shared.  This was Norfolk, an entity of itself, out of the way and aspiring to nothing else: small settlements spaciously set in open land, distances rolling away between them; by night, clear skies were arrayed with stars, resplendent in the relative absence of light pollution.  It mattered, too, that we experienced music with the sea close by; that we had those songs in our minds whilst lingering on quaysides, or watching light flit between the pines.  A ripe environment for curiosity, for wonder; it made a world of difference, inexpressible in verbal language, to the ways in which we related to sound.  

And the gigs took place in Norwich, a city in the midst of this expanse of space, with its own distinct, discernible but indescribable character.  I have scarcely been back there since, but then it always struck me, atmospherically, as if a vestige of some other, contentedly adrift, continent – the paradoxical air of gentle unease, of accommodation with the sinister; narrow passages offering glimmers of mystery, river breathing unto the sea.  I don’t know whether any of the bands who came by to play felt any such sense of it being different – this notion may be fanciful: but one could sometimes perceive that perhaps they, too, had imbibed the space, communed with something on the journey through the sticks, and consequently felt released to cut loose in ways that may have been less accessible to them in places more clogged with industry, stifled by competing conurbation.  I recall Callahan, fronting the Wolfhounds – perhaps the best live band I saw in that period – murmuring between songs, with half a smile, “Norwich, a fine city”, the slogan featured on the signs one passes when entering its territory.  It seemed, at that moment, merely a throwaway remark: however, hearing them then swoop and screech with the savage majesty of other-worldly dangerbirds whirling and plunging, his comment seemed as if it might have had more to it …  and for me, they never soared quite as high elsewhere.

An oft-visited venue was the Arts Centre, now rather done-up but back then an imposingly bleak converted church, accessed via the portal of a slender alley.  In the hall where the bands played, we stood upon the flattened gravestones: so there we were, among and the dead, awakening them with the dance of our lives, going out of our bodyminds to Blown Away.

The future unfurling; distances and contestation; the sky, the sea; the dead.  Part of me is still back there, in that time, shoving my dole quids into the slot of the village phone box under a midnight full moon, on the line to California, trying to ascertain the truth of a whisper that Neil Young would be coming over.  I recollect, too, driving in the small hours through abandoned East Anglian undulations, fields flush with snow; pulling over to step out and wonder at the sheer size and starkness of the sky, the brilliance and subtle pulsing of constellations, as tunes continued to ebb gently from the stereo.

I realise I may be accused of being a look-back bore.  That’s OK: all of this is nonetheless still true for me.  Much magic persists, yes.  But a lot is being lost.  

There was, certainly, something more going on.  John forgot that he’d left Rob’s sacredly-held copy of Pet Sounds on the roof of his van; we all clambered in and drove the half hour or so along the dry road to Wells, where Rob lived.  When we arrived, the LP was somehow still there: in a seemingly impossible feat, the slightest corner of its sleeve had caught in the shallow rim running around the roof, and The Beach Boys had clung on, waving tremulously to the sunny skies, all the way to the coast.  Those days keep hold.