Chapter 34 in the story of my life. I think this one is going to take a while.
It’s not that I expect to find the next rock ‘n’ roll star in a dusty little pub somewhere and have some sort of hand in their future success. It’s more that, from my living room in a quaint English village, I hope to find footage on the internet of someone who I think belongs on the bedroom walls of the nation’s teenagers. Someone who’ll make them want to be a star themselves when they grow up. Several someones would be ideal.
My success, of course, would largely depend on my definition of “rock ‘n’ roll”. Lazily, I consult Wikipedia. There, in the definition, is Bobby Gillespie.
It was about half past four on the 21st December 1990. Two decades ago. The first flakes of snow of the year were coming down. I shivered by the bus stop, idly humming Primal Scream’s Come Together. A tall, pale, skinny long-haired boy hurried past, humming Joanna by Scott Walker.
Bobby Gillespie didn’t have a biro on him that day, and neither did I, but it didn’t matter. He strode across North Street and into a newsagent, and bought a felt tipped pen with which he scrawled my name and a greeting across the magazine I’d purchased earlier. The page fell open onto Select‘s article on Creation Records. He signed his name across the part about his band.
A few minutes later I was grinning like an idiot, back by the bus stop, and bobbing up and down from cold and joy.
“I just met Bobby Gillespie,” I explained to the little old lady standing next to me.
“That’s nice dear,” she said. “Is he your boyfriend?”
Fast forward a bit. “You want to listen to this lot. He’s so sexy,” Bobby said matter-of-factly, indicating Scott Asheton on the sleeve of the Stooges record. He wasn’t wrong. It took Gillespie a minute or two to indicate through his thick Glaswegian accent that he was listening to Lou Reed. He figured I should listen to MC5. Again, he wasn’t wrong.
Over the months, I’d occasionally bump into Bobby in the street, or in that indie record store we both frequented. You couldn’t miss him: tight white jeans and a polo-necked sweater, hundred-dollar sunglasses and million-gigawatt charisma. Each time, the clothes would look more expensive, his back a little straighter, his bearing a little more self assured. The last time I saw him – maybe two years after we’d first met – he could have stopped traffic through sheer presence. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a rock and roll star.
Of course, rock and roll was always absolutely and unashamedly about sex. Not the act of sex, but its potential. In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded Rock It for Me, which included the lyric, “It’s true that once upon a time/The opera was the thing/But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme/So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll”. The “rock” was disturbance, incitement, rapture; the “roll” was sex. Rocking and rolling was secular black slang for either dancing or sex – there wasn’t much to distinguish one from the other – from as far back as Trixie Smith’s My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll in 1922. It was innuendo – nothing too direct or vulgar. A tango, not a lapdance.
Rock and roll wasn’t a sound, it was a spirit. Sure, in the strictest sense there are rules about the accentuated backbeat and use of guitars, but you don’t need guitars to be a rock and roll star. The music has long since faded, mutated and moved on, but up until very recently you could see Elvis and Chuck Berry and Jim Morrison reincarnated in a thousand different faces and a hundred different genres.
“Hail, hail, rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old”, Chuck Berry sang – and it’s the new I seek. The snake-hipped lizard kings I loved as a teenager are in their 40s and 50s by now, and I ask myself: who will replace them?
I learnt everything I needed to know from Bobby Gillespie – mostly from observation. It didn’t matter if you weren’t conventionally good-looking, you just had to project a certain self-assurance that told others they should pay attention. Back then, the rock journalists I unabashedly copied were themselves caricatures – exuberant show-offs with big personalities. They had to be in order not to be overwhelmed by the people they were interviewing. Most of these bands never, ever had any hits – they just had so much of that elusive star quality that they filled any room they were in, even if they were just playing the local dive bar.
Most people could recognise Gillespie, or James Dean Bradfield, or some of the other beautiful eccentrics I met along the way, so there’s little point discussing those. I’m going to take a minute to celebrate the less-sung heroes in my youth – the ones that never got to number one or even number 10 in the charts. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I’m looking for.
Although it was Steve who was my friend, in that histrionic way that teenagers regard anyone who talks to them more than twice as their buddy, Jeff Pitcher was the one who held my attention. He both embodied and parodied the role of traditional rock posturing, printing up “chick passes” for (non-existent) groupies. At their gigs, however, he would coil his leather trousered legs round the microphone stand, long dark curls framing his full-lipped pout, rasping languidly over the band’s skin-tight garage rock. For a local band, they had more musical aptitude than most of the bands in the charts today. Over the years, people came and went – Justin to Elastica; Steve to the Auteurs. At one point they drafted Rob – the knowledgeable guy behind the counter in that indie record store where I spent countless hours. I hear Jeff’s still making music, though I haven’t seen him in 20 years.
Back in 1995, we really thought: this time next year, they’ll be famous. They’d made the cover of Melody Maker without releasing any records. That was until they released their first single and only sold about 60 copies. Stuart was sweet and friendly – a beautiful soul. I loved the band’s attitude: “if you take somebody who’s a complete c*** and plaster them in makeup, they’ll still be a complete c***”, said keyboardist Shadric. Not exactly how I’d put it, but I definitely share the sentiment – beauty is as beauty does. Plus they got me teaming orange lipstick with a pink velvet skirt. Just like their music, it’s not something I’d want to revisit now, but it seemed like a bloody good idea at the time.
The Master of Ceremonies: David from Rachel Stamp
Rachel Stamp were formed in 1994 and signed almost immediately – the buzz surrounding the band was palpable – but WEA dropped them before they’d released a single record. It took them six years to find another label, after which they recorded their debut album in just two weeks. It topped the indie charts but made little impression on the mainstream, which means that a lot of people missed out on their electrifying live performances. David Ryder-Prangley just seemed to belong on the stage, and effortlessly engaged the audience, making us vote on such matters as whether Jaffa Cakes were in fact biscuits, and splitting us into halves for sing-a-long choruses. He embodied rock as entertainment; as pure, thrilling fun.
The Femme F***ing Fatal: Lesley from Silverfish
I never understood, as a kid, why there weren’t more female rock stars. There were more than enough for me to have a wall full of icons: Courtney Love, Katie-Jane Garside, Kim Deal, Darcy from the Pumpkins etc., but as I entered my teens I realised that I was a woman and most of my friends were girls. Girls like pop; women like rock. Girls start to wither in their 30s; women start to bloom. I didn’t dislike girls, I just didn’t feel like I was one, muting uncomfortably from precocious tomboy to full-grown woman in too few years. I liked Lesley Rankine above all others because I understood her.
Lesley Rankine is all woman. “Hips! Lips! Tits! Power!” was her catchphrase – sparking a t-shirt slogan fashion. Her band Silverfish had a few indie hits in the early 90s, and she featured on a few Pigface songs before forming Ruby with Mark Walk. What I liked about her most was that there was a playfulness to her aggression. She wasn’t just angsty and shouty like most of her peers. She could be sexy and feminine and completely f***ing terrifying, but always with that sly humour that told you that even though you really didn’t want to piss her off, she’d be a lot of fun to hang out with. It’s a shame Silverfish weren’t more popular – John Peel put it, if they’d been from New York, we’d have gone nuts for them.
I can’t really think of anyone else right now, and I think the ones listed above pretty much encapsulate the qualities I’m looking for. Of course the quality of the music is foremost – I wouldn’t even be watching the band if they in any way sucked. Knock-out charisma, a sense of poise and glamour that radiates from a good-natured personality, an exuberant sense of joy, and a certain forthright sensuality.
I’ll let you know what I find.