Thursday, 14 April 2016

Sham 69 - That's Life (1978)


Following my review of the Buggles' first album, it was suggested to me that I might like to follow up with a review of Drama, the album recorded by Yes incorporating the Buggles' Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes in the line up. Never having heard a single note of Yes which inspired the thought that I might like to hear more, the suggestion conversely reminded me just how many days have passed since I last gave the second Sham 69 album a spin.

It would be an understatement to say that Sham 69 - and specifically the incarnation of Sham 69 which had hits and broke up in 1979 following the release of The Game - have failed to accrue a posthumous glow of nostalgia in a general sense, leaving aside tittering Stewart Maconie types and those who still turn up to see Sham 69 live, and I suppose the admittedly hilarious Alan Parker the Urban Warrior if anyone still remembers him. If anything Sham 69 have become shorthand for the worst of seventies punk, not least amongst those who probably never really liked punk in the first place. As for anyone who might actually have been around at the time, those insisting that the Clash were the best live band they ever saw will almost certainly tell you that the Clash were a much better live band than Sham 69; and those with green hair or equivalent were almost certainly greening up their hair so as to avoid having to hang around with a bunch of football hooligans; and those who might wax lyrically or otherwise about their time in the Sham Army will probably never find themselves interviewed by Jon Savage or Robert Elms. My take on this is that it's mostly bollocks and should as such be ignored. I would have been about thirteen when I saw Hurry Up Harry on Top of the Pops and it sounded pretty fucking great to me.

Sham 69's supposed crimes seem to have been grounded in the complete lack of art school credentials, and either being a bunch of working class thickies or else appealing to a bunch of working class thickies, as betrayed by all those terrible lyrics - more or less nursery rhymes based on common pairings of you and me, black and white, wrong and right, truth and lies and so on and so forth. I think the worst I've heard has been Blackpool from 1997's The A Files, a song celebrating the semi-regular Punx Picnic festivals:

Yeah, I'm a punk and I'm so proud,
I wanna turn it up, turn it up loud,
'Cos I'm the one with the safety pin,
I'm the one that said let 'em in.

In terms of both sentiment and lyrical dexterity, such lines really aren't so different from the Anthropod Lithontriptic Band's Punk Lives which stated:

Some people reckon 'cause Sid has died,
And the worms have made him into little pies,
The same has happened to punk as well,
And those who do can go to hell!

The difference is that the Anthropod Lithontriptic Band was my friend Graham from school with a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar churning out sarcastic punk anthems which probably only the two of us have ever heard; whilst Sham 69 were grown lads and they were on the telly and everything.

Yet even without the further embarrassment of Jimmy Pursey's songwriting technique which occasionally rhymed certain words with themselves, there are what Wikipedia identifies as football chant backup vocals and an inarticulate political populism, because people who like football are bad and have almost certainly never read The Society of the Spectacle.

Where do you even begin?

Let's start with That's Life which is essentially a concept album made by a band who wouldn't have been able to pull off such a bold move had they really been so crap and lacking in imagination as has been claimed in terms amounting to ideas above their station. It's a kitchen sink drama, a day in the life of an average kid without either green hair or bondage trousers still stuck at home in the late seventies. He wakes up late, misses the bus, is sacked from his job, goes to the betting shop, goes down the pub, tries to cop off with the barmaid, wakes up next day with a hangover and so on. The tale is told as songs with dramatised linking material featuring a very young Pauline Quirke as our boy's long-suffering mum.

It's not Lord of the Rings but it was never meant to be. It's working class life as viewed from the inside, as distinct from the anthropological version retold and revised by those who managed to escape and who never ended up having to do a shit job for minimum wages for the rest of their lives, or who were never there in the first place. It's populist because there's really no point in a desire to kick the boss's teeth in expressed as scented prose. It's about betting shops and football and drinking an excessive pintage of crap lager and getting your end away as these activities were understood before Nick Hornby redefined them as cheeky laddish pleasures in which one might indulge without being afraid to show one's face at the local health food shop next morning. That's Life is a comic book, a big fat burping novelty record in the kitchen sink tradition of the Kinks, the Who, and the like, and if it seems to resemble caricature, then you may have misunderstood.

We've established that Pursey possibly wasn't the greatest lyricist in the world, but there's nothing too shameful here providing you keep in mind that the directness to which you might object is probably the whole point; and he achieves a disarmingly poignant comic poetry in lines such as we're eating a clockwork orange, but I'm spitting out the pips, or the one about being a jumper on the wrong way with the label sticking out. Then there's:

Running for the bus-stop in my flash blue suit,
Someone yells out pouf so I put in the boot!

It's not Shakespeare, but it feels like it is when you're staggering home from the pub after another week of lifting concrete blocks for ten pence an hour; at least it always did to me.

Pursey yelps rather than sings, but you can at least tell that he means it because had he been faking, he probably would have done a better job and sounded more like Billy Bragg; and his yelps are surprisingly soulful once set to the backing of a band who - contrary to at least some popular opinion - were never that bothered about being the Sex Pistols. Sham 69's driving racket always had more in common with the Ramones, with maybe touches of the Who, Slade or similarly noisy English groups of the era. On That's Life they brought in piano, acoustic guitar, Hammond organ and whatever else seemed like it might help get the mood across. Now, nearly forty years later, you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact of this ever having been regarded as a punk album. It's not perfect, but it doesn't sound quite like anything recorded before or since, except possibly bits of Bob Dylan.

So That's Life is the estuary English Bob Dylan who lives with his mum and dad, and couldn't give a shit about revolution so much as just making it through a single day. By rights this one really should be turning up in the same lists as Never Mind the Bollocks and the first Clash album. Yes, it fucking should.

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