28
Sep 02

Passing Through

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Jerry the Nipper on broken hearts, epic soundtracks and the immortal majesty of Baxendale

When your heart is not so much broken as subject to a spectacular compound fracture… When the plans you conscientiously drafted for months now seem as grandiose and daftly ruined as, yes, a cake, left out in, yes, the rain… When you find yourself cut adrift and washed ashore on the out-of-season seaside resort of your mid-30s… Well, when all that happens, there is nothing to do but to work out which pop song is going to soundtrack the latest scene in that long-running fiasco, your life.

As I type this I worry… this must all sound very Hornbyish: Emotionally Distant Man of a Certain Age Seeks Refuge in the Foul Second-Hand Shop of his Heart. But I’ve never been very good at compiling lists, being blokeishly anal about being analytic, stitching up a wound with surgical precision.

It’s just that I feel that so many of us, plugged into scenes and screens before we walked, now make sense of our lives as movies or tv shows, forever being re-edited. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean to suggest epic delusion or monstrous egotism. But I’d like to consider how we now have a sense of memory as not so much a passive recording, but rather something that is actively composed. Entire reels rustle forgotten on the cutting room floor, hoping for reinstated afterlife in expanded editions on undreamt-of media (with voice-overs and complaints from minor characters and notable critics). Directors and writers who handled several runs with immaculate professionalism are ruthlessly dismissed mid-season, their material reworked by ambitious newcomers, their scripts doctored to rude health.

And somewhere amid this frantic post-production, the re-casting and re-shooting, the hopeless, retrospective quest for continuity, The Studio must find time to commission the soundtrack. It’s a serious business: you can’t be slapdash. The daily rushes might be cut to a tune that later proves unavailable or unaffordable, though this can create its own dippy serendipity (think how much poorer the dawning dream of ‘Donnie Darko’ might have been if Richard Kelly had sufficient budget for his first choice of song: INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’).

Those legendary first seasons, my teenage years, have remained unaltered for a while now. They were directed, for union rates, by Hal Hartley, Bill Forsyth and the Phil Redmond of early ‘Brookside’, and were blessed by a soundtrack from Morrissey, Marr, Tennant and Lowe. You may notice that the film stock was specially chosen by Derek Jarman for its sensitivity to the very pantone blue of the cover of ‘Hatful of Hollow’.

Die-hard snobs maintain that this was classic Nipper and the show should have been quietly discontinued, before it jumped the shark, to live on in syndicated immortality with those perfect episodes of ‘Fawlty Towers’. Many feel that the ‘University Years’, complete with a gimmicky exchange season in the United States, were messy and unsatisfying, and point to the turnover of directors – including disastrous stints by Leo Carax and a young Richard Linklater – as the prime culprit. Nevertheless the soundtrack – a baggy mix of New Order, The Sundays, The Stone Roses, MBV and Mary Margaret O’Hara – continues to sell healthily.

Since then, some would say, the show has lost the plot as definitively as the post-school seasons of ‘Buffy’. But who now would give up those Mike Leigh scenes on the council estates of Stevenage? That gorgeous tracking shot down the Westway on the first drive into London, skillfully cut to Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’? The epically bleak year when the only thing on the soundtrack was the first Portishead album? (In a classic case of internet contrari-wisdom, a breakaway clique of hipsters maintain that the 1998-2000 ‘Café Years’ are as good as it gets, and a significant part of Michael Winterbottom’s wayward oeuvre.)

Critics have dismissed this latest mid-season V2 of melodrama as a typically desparate attempt by a fading show to claw back sliding ratings. But the soundtrack poses its own problem.

The wry, disillusioned classicism of The Shins’ ‘A Call to Apathy’ was an early favourite, though ever since James Mercer took the McDonalds and Gap shilling I fear he may have priced himself out of the market. The rights to ‘Goodbye Lucille No. 1’ were sadly unavailable. That damned Sophia Coppola beat me to ‘More than This’. Stephin Merritt, with the characteristic hauteur of the auteur, has failed to return my calls. And the Scissors Sisters’ ‘Comfortably Numb’ was deemed ‘too ironic’.

So, provisionally, subject to full Studio approval, I have plumped for Baxendale’s ‘I Built this City’. From the chuckles at the back, I realise that this may seem a quixotic choice. Older viewers may remember the band’s guest appearance in a 1999 club scene – much-mocked at the time as a new nadir.

But I continue to love the band, in the tender way you love your own lost causes. They showed up on the toilet-circuit at the fag-end of the nineties, with a handbag full of songs that suggested a Southern Jarvis Cocker had been rummaging through the Pet Shop Boys’ bins. But they put their swag together in a way that was all their own. They raged against the twee retreat of their spacetime, but their pop entryism owed just as much to the eponymous Leo as it did to the Human League. ‘Top Deck’ cheerily promised that they were going to ride a routemaster to the top of the Pepsi Chart. If you triangulate a point between Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’, the Smiths’ ‘There is a light’ and the PSB’s ‘Paninaro’ you will find ‘I love the sound of dance music’, neglected and forgotten, waiting for you to kiss life into it. The videos they never made were directed by the Phil Redmond of ‘Hollyoakes’ and scripted by the Kevin Williamson of early ‘Dawson’s’.

And, in my circles at least, they mostly met with the special disdain reserved for failed wannabees. I would see them sometimes around London, with a watery mix of duty and expectation, half hoping they might, like a stopped clock, or Pulp, chime with the times by sheer persistence and accident. They made a defiant anthem from their situation: ‘Ghetto Fabulous’, the only time Belle and Sebastian are likely to be sampled in a song that hymns Rodney Jerkins. And, just when my faith was guttering, they brought out ‘Your Body Needs my Sugar’, which, in a kinder world, was the song Kylie chose to follow up ‘Can’t Get You out of My Head’.

So… not the obvious choice to represent the mix of bitterness, regret and distant hope I need for my soundtrack. But when I came across ‘I Built this City’ – available now on the new Robopop compilation, or, in blatant violation of international copyright laws, from your favourite p2p – I fell in love all over again. Perhaps I’m just being especially sentimental, overpraising an old friend, but right now the track seems perfect for my needs. In its defiance and surprise, it warns us against the temptation of growing prematurely wistful, writing off the possibility of novelty and adventure.

It begins, choppy with funk guitar, in familiar territory: Tim Benton is out of his mind in love with a new girl. But this time he’s not content with the Spector route of building a cathedral of sound around her. He’s going to build a metropolis.

I scattered paving stones
The first night you took me home
I made a street on that first love feeling
I built the airport the following evening.

The song builds, block by block, purposefully piecing together the architecture of desire…

Carparks and traffic lanes
Connecting motorways
Follow the curving of every new bridge
Oh, I created them in your image!

…ascending, through three-part harmonies, into the title and best chorus of their career. Where they used to seem technologically dated, they’re now pro-tooled-up, if not quite in the premier league. This is a sleeker, more competitive Baxendale, but nothing we haven’t heard before.
But the song is driving on, the urgency of the pulse promising that the conceit of the chorus isn’t its final word.

The skyline in summertime
The sunset in your design
How can you say that you didn’t want this?
I stole the blueprints from your office!

Well, by now the fanfare of the chorus is less confident, not so much a proud boast as a reprimand. And then, as you listen, with your own heightened sense of the deceit of desire, keenly attuned to the potholes lying unmended in what seemed such a smooth road to the future, Alex Mayor, previously a stylish but underused player in Team Baxendale – in the way that Eric Cantona was underused at Leeds United – storms the microphone, seemingly channelling the livid falsetto of Curtis Mayfield and playing a guitar that hasn’t been touched since an early Benitez/Madonna session, and sings.

Don’t tell me that my highrise has to end
That you’re never going to be my only friend
Don’t try to tear it down to the floor
Cos it’s happened before
I’m going to build this city again.

It is – I’m afraid you’re going to have to take my word on this – a stunning moment. Not so much a band moving up a gear as discovering a gear they never even suspected they had. And as a private pop moment, happening at a certain time, in a certain mood, to a certain person, it’s IT, the reason we all keep buying and filing and downloading and listening: a piece of secret public art, out there, floating around on the airwaves and on the file servers, waiting for you to complete it, so it can read your mind and – for a moment at least – frame the very possibilities of life.

This is heady stuff, and Tim seems a bit taken aback by it himself. So much so, that he’s moved to take a breather in a classic Baxendale spoken interlude (no one since Oakey has carried these off with such rueful aplomb).

I’ll meet you at the top of the tallest building, with the sunshine on my back. I’ll be working hard to make up for that interest that I’ve lacked. Oh it’s such a boy thing, focussing on something you can see, instead of giving back the good things that you gave to me. Oh, I’ve built so many cities that have collapsed into the mud, and sung so many songs for girls I never understood, but you come up here and tell me that you’re only passing through, but I… I built this city for you.

And here’s the final melody in the song’s jarred harmony: after the pride, the anger and the denial, right here at the calm eye of the song is a terrible loneliness, the eerieness of the financial district early Sunday morning or the evacuation simulation. The relationship planned and blueprinted and built… and then deserted. A ghost town of the heart. In this part of the city, Baxendale are the number one pop group of all time, but only because I’m the only one still here, the only one still listening.

But the song can’t stop here, as much as it’s run out of fuel and hope, just as the endless agonising reel at the raw end of a relationship doesn’t stop when you’ve ticked off all those classic stages of grief. All the hurt and anger and pride and loss just have to keep whirling around, none of your moods believing in each other. It can only wind back on itself, revolving like a locked groove you’re powerless to lift the needle from. The only real way it can end is in a slow fade, drifting out until… Until it’s magically superceded by new song, a song that really understands you, that was waiting all this time for the perfect moment to teleport into your life and onto your definitive soundtrack.

I’m confident that my endorsement will be just the thing to give Baxendale that final push into the stardom they deserve. And I’m equally confident that there is still life in this old show, despite the doleful rumours that it won’t be recommissioned, that the actors and situations are tired, that the lead has seen better days. There are always new seasons, new stories, new songs. And if a romantic lead feels typecast and walks out for a better role? Well, there are always spin-offs.

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