Gray Days and Gold, December 2022
Hello, friends. Neither a holiday special nor a year-end round-up, this episode finds me trying to give overdue airplay to artists whom time constraints caused me to omit from previous shows, along with the usual eclectic mix of new discoveries plus tributes to Terry Hall and Angelo Badalamenti. Like Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel, there’s only one tried-and-true formula here at Gray Days and Gold: maximum melody and moderate melancholy.
(This month, I’m throwing in the bonus of Fine Fidelity, which is to say that in sub-zero temperatures I actually turned off the heat while recording my voiceovers so that you won’t have to struggle to hear me over the sound of the central air conditioning. Please send hazard pay, or at least a St. Bernard with a neck cask of brandy.)
You can listen to this episode via the embedded player just below in this post—if you don’t see it, try turning off your ad-blocker then reloading the page—or on the Mixcloud website, via the Mixcloud mobile app, on your Sonos system, etc.
There’s also a more barebones iteration of this episode’s playlist (minus my commentary, as well as tracks missing from their library) on Spotify and Apple Music.
If you like what you hear, please support the artists. You’ll find buy links to all the tracks in the bulleted list below.
Gray Days and Gold, December 2022
- Martin Newell, “The Dark Days Down to Christmas” (2007) • FREE
- Plantar, “Theology” (2022) • BUY
- Fun Boy Three, “The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight Off the Body)” (1983) • BUY
- Cain Price, “Truth Truth Truth Truth” (2022) • BUY
- Bernice, “Imagine Someday” (2022) • BUY
- Daniel Zaitchik, “Diego” (2022) • BUY
- Bread, Love and Dreams, “Artificial Light (Of All the Living Lies)” (1969) • BUY
- Dylan Mondegreen, “A Sound Rings True” (2022) • BUY
- Royal Crescent Mob, “Goin to the Hospital” (1989) • BUY
- Howls Road, “The Bees Will Hear My Grief” (2022) • BUY
- Momus, “Dgaf” (2022) • BUY
- Frail Jonny, “Pick Up Your Daydreams” (2022) • BUY
- River Westin, “Made In the Shade” (2022) • BUY
- The Spanish Amanda, “Watch the Man Burn” (2022) • BUY
- Terry Hall & Mushtaq, “Stand Together” (2003) • BUY
- Andy Partridge, “Prince of Orange” (1994) • BUY
An appreciation of Fun Boy Three’s Waiting (1983)
Having left The Specials not least because of Jerry Dammers’s increasing penchant for studio perfectionism (and we all know how that turned out for him), Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding’s first Fun Boy Three album, released in 1982, was a relatively primitive affair, meant to reflect—despite its pervasively dour tone—three boys once again having fun with music. None of them were composers, per se, so that debut album consisted mostly of one-finger piano lines over simple, almost artless drumming. For their cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” released as a single that summer, Nicky Holland was brought in to provide a fuller musical backing. Holland, who’d studied composition and arrangement at the Royal Academy of Music and was known in the UK pop scene as a member of The Ravishing Beauties (with Virginia Astley and Kate St. John), swathed the track in an arrangement that’s somehow simultaneously spare and lush, colored with piano, strings and throaty trombone, a sound that’s immediately reminiscent of high summer in the American south, humid, heavy and languorous. The single was such a success that she was brought aboard as an unofficial member of the group for the sessions that would become Waiting.
Importantly, I think, Holland chose to hire all female musicians: June Miles-Kingston on drums, Annie Whitehead on trombone, Caroline Lavelle on cello, and Bethan Peters (ex-Delta 5) on bass. After the casual misogyny on display in some of The Specials’ songs, Waiting has a refreshingly more feminine energy. And while Terry’s lyrics still take lovers to task for their life decisions (“The Tunnel of Love”), I do wonder if being surrounded by female colleagues influenced his new reapportioning of blame equally among all parties instead of heaping it on women (as in “Too Much Too Young”).
Just as importantly, Holland’s classical training made her skilled at writing and arranging for piano, strings, horns… the sorts of instruments not typically used by post-punks. In her hands, the band is as deft as a small jazz combo, with the most common tools of the trade—guitars and synthesizers—pushed to the sidelines and only used to provide color. The result is far greater swing and musicality than FB3’s debut record, with no reliance on the fashions of the day…just completely organic instrumentation that leaves the album sounding timeless, which can’t be said of much pop music produced after 1980.
Likewise, the songs’ subject matter subverts every pop music trope while remaining almost equally timeless. While Northern Ireland’s Troubles are no longer a going concern, the way Terry tackles them in “The More I See (The Less I Believe)”—as a bewildered observer who can’t fathom how society allows such violence and suffering in its name to continue just beyond its borders with no end in sight—is a sentiment that resonates today no matter where you are. Side note: It took me years for the penny to drop about why the song’s preceded by the theme to the 1961 film Murder, She Said, an Agatha Christie adaptation in which Miss Marple witnesses a crime on a passing train but can’t convince the authorities to investigate. What a subtle way to bolster the point that one sees a tragedy occurring in real time but is helpless to effect a change because no one will take it seriously.
As someone who’s always appreciated pop with an unorthodox bent, I think the album’s other songs are a treasure trove of unusual topics, including:
- the experience of those who’d immigrated to the UK from the colonies at the government’s urging, with promises of well-paying jobs, only to face racial resentment and calls for repatriation
- the plight of low-paid Caribbean farmers at the ground level of the global marijuana trade, trying to eke out a living as their profits and harvest are siphoned by corrupt officials and the fruits of their labors are blithely enjoyed by privileged bohemians with no idea what goes on at the other end of the supply chain
- a recitation of daily activities that firmly refutes public perception of what a pop star’s life must be like
- a startlingly-vulnerable account of the sexual abuse Terry suffered at the age of twelve, at the hands of a teacher on a school-sponsored trip to France, a topic he hadn’t even shared with his friends or family and about which he wouldn’t frankly speak on the record until many years later. It’s only recently (in my day job, pertaining to the business of educating writers) that I’ve been exposed to the writing maxim “If it’s hot, write it cool,” i.e. if the content of a scene is inherently emotional, write it dryly—let the emotional weight speak for itself instead of using ornate writing to unmistakably point the reader’s attention at it like big flashing arrows. Terry’s reportage-style approach in this song’s lyrics and delivery is the gold standard of that concept, and makes it as utterly chilling as a pop song is capable of being.
Terry wasn’t inclined to stick with a project after he felt the aim had been achieved. FB3 were over and done by the summer of 1983, leaving behind what a select few of us hold dear as one of the greatest albums of the ’80s.
RIP Brian John Duffy, aka Jet Black of The Stranglers (1938–2022)
While this episode didn’t contain a tribute to Jet Black, I wanted to mark his passing by devoting some space to another of the most remarkable set of musical minds to ever operate in the idiom of a pop-rock record. To wit, please enjoy this Stranglers set at the No Nukes Festival in Utrecht on April 9, 1982, consisting mostly of the brilliantly-disjointed songs from 1979’s The Raven album.
As always, thanks for listening. If you have questions, suggestions, etc. please feel free to contact me. And if you’d like to receive these posts via email, you can sign up here. Take care, and happy new year!.
Ooh thanks for the shout out! 😀
Your 15 minutes of fame begins now! Will your constitution be strong enough to withstand the invasive crush of public attention? Can ‘normal’ life ever again measure up to such giddy highs after this?