A Mix-Tape Maker’s Best Friend #3: “Take The Subway to Your Suburb”

I bet you all thought I’d got bored of writing this series already, didn’t you? Well, truth be told I’d decided I would try to go through this list of compilation albums that I’ve bought in the same way as the main theme of this blog (is supposed to), that is in the chronological order in which I bought them. Not that any of you will know what I bought and when, of course, but I have standards, godammit.

But truth be told, I found today’s selection quite tricky to write about, as there seems to be so little info out there on that there interweb thing on a couple of the bands featured.

But what the heck, here goes anyway.

“Take the Subway to Your Suburb” is a ten track sampler released in 1986 for The Subway Organization, an independent record label founded a year earlier in Bristol by Martin Whitehead.

In the mid-1980s, if you were a new jangly guitar indie pop band you needed to be from Manchester so that you could pretend to be friends with The Smiths. If you weren’t, then Bristol was the next best thing, and if you weren’t from there either (or the west country generally), then having some affiliation to the city was essential.

Step forward The Subway Organization. (And yes, it does annoy me they chose to spell it with a Z, since you’re asking.)

Some great bands released records on Subway: Shop Assistants, The Charlottes (I went to school with the guitarist’s brother, name drop fans!), The Groove Farm, Bubblegum Splash!, Rodney Allen (who went on to join The Blue Aeroplanes), and The Soup Dragons (their wonderful 3-track Buzzcocks-sound-a-like “Whole Wide World” 12″ was released on the label).

But none of those feature here. Instead, the ten songs are divided between six bands, four of them (The Chesterfields, The Flatmates, Razorcuts, and Pop Will Eat Itself – when they were still a grebo band, and long before they had discovered the joys of sampling) getting two tracks each, and two bands (The Clouds and The Rosehips) getting one track apiece.

Oh, and just in case none of those names mean anything to you and you want an idea of what they all sound like: think of the bands on Subway’s roster as the less winsome, more shambolic brother to Sarah Records. Hope that clarifies.

I bought the album on the strength of it featuring The Chesterfields, whose “Kettle” album I was, and still am, profoundly in love with (it’s one of those albums that has “stayed with me” since the day I bought it), but this compilation introduced me to the delights of The Flatmates, who I went on to buy several records by (the two songs featured here convinced me that they were the new The Shangri-Las, and nothing I’ve heard since dissuades me from that view), and to a stone cold classic of the jingly-jangly C86-ish genre by The Clouds (a song I consider to be on a par with the blooming wonderful “Therese” by The Bodines, which featured in #2 of this series).

When I used to prepare a new mix-tape to play in the sixth form common room – something which, as I’ve mentioned before, I used to do pretty much every other evening – I would always be annoyed if there was too much silence at the end of one of the cassette sides of the C90, Side One in particular. Leave too much of a gap there, and somebody might stick the radio on instead, and then all of my Side Two handiwork would go unappreciated.

This would often lead to furious rejigging of the running order, a time consuming feat back in those days when you had to re-record them all. Luckily, one of the songs by The Chesterfields on this album is so short (0:54) that it would often feature at the end of Side One of any mix-tape I compiled with such a gap (where either “Velocity Girl” or “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time” didn’t quite fit.)

As with many great record labels – Factory, 4AD – you can tell it’s a Subway record just by looking at it, so distinctive were the designs by The Terrible Hildas, who created the sleeves for much of the label’s output.

I couldn’t decide which songs to post and which to miss out from the ten featured, so I figured, I’d post the lot, especially bearing in mind the brevity of the aforementioned track.

Now, I’ll be honest, most of these are very much “of their time”. Which is precisely why I still love them, 31 years after I first bought this album:

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Side One (or, as they put it on the album sleeve: “On One Side of This Record”)

The Clouds – Get Out Of My Dream

Razorcuts – I’ll Still Be There (Re-Mix)

The Chesterfields – Best of Friends

The Flatmates – So In Love With You

The Rosehips – The Last Light

Side Two (or “On the Other Side”)

The Chesterfields – Cupid’s Outlaw

Razorcuts – Snowbirds Don’t Fly

The Flatmates – When I’m With You

Pop Will Eat Itself – Orgone Accumulator

Pop Will Eat Itself – Like An Angel

And before any of you write to tell me, yes, I know that at some point or another, in the world of CDs, this album got a make-over and an expanded twenty-two song version was released. I didn’t buy that, I bought this ten track vinyl version. And no, I don’t feel cheated by that.

Particularly as I’ve subsequently brought the all encompassing double CD ‘The Best of The Subway Organization 1986–1989’, released, somewhat predictably, by the wonderful Cherry Red Records in 2005. Which will feature at a later date, of course.

More soon.

Tony’s Themes

The Chain is going to be a day later than usual this week. This is entirely intentional, for today I need to write about someone, today is the day that I must post it, and I’m sorry, but I don’t want it be overshadowed by a second post later on. You’ll see why, and you’ll understand, I’m sure. Back to normal next week.

Right. When I was at Sixth Form, as I’ve mentioned before, I had my little gang of like-minded (politically and musically) chums.

There was Richie, who I’m still in touch with; Anne, who lives down in New Zealand now and who I had the pleasure of a very long phone conversation with earlier this year, the first time we had actually spoken in approaching thirty years; Kirsty and Maria, wicked,  lovely people, all polka-dotted skirts and tousled up hair – I’m in touch with Maria on Facebook, but haven’t heard from Kirsty since we disbanded in 1987.

And then there was Tony.

Tony Plant was a little bit older than the rest of us. He was with us because he had some health problems which meant he was a bit behind his peer group, physically not intellectually. We all knew that he had some kind of problem with his heart, but I don’t think we ever really knew the extent of it. If you asked him, he would just wave you away, saying “Oh, it’s just a thing…nothing to worry about.”

Tony would have been 50 today. You’ll notice the tense of that sentence.

A couple of years ago, I bumped into Richie and he broke the news to me. I was visiting my parents at the time, and they found the fact that I’d bumped into someone I knew – in a B&Q car park, in a town I hadn’t visited in over twenty years, of all places – highly amusing, until I divulged the content of the conversation.

Tony had died, on the operating table, finally having the operation that was hoped to have sorted out once and for all the issues which had put him back into the same Sixth Form, and circle of friends, as me.

It’s a weird situation. I’m so glad I knew him, but I only knew him because of the heart condition that ultimately killed him.

I only knew Tony for a year, maybe a year and a half at the most, a long time ago. But he was one of the loveliest, funniest, warmest blokes I ever met, one of those rare people that the moment you meet them for the first time, you feel like you’ve known them all your life.

He was as much a part of my musical awakening as anyone else that I may attribute that to elsewhere on these pages, pointing me in the direction of some bands he thought I’d like, nodding appreciatively when I told him about ones I’d discovered by myself. It pains me that I will never be able to catch up with him again.

Let me give you an example (or six).

One day I was round at his, sitting in his bedroom at his Mum and Dad’s, listening to records. He played one, which he said he loved because it was precisely in his vocal range. A girl, who he refused to name, had pointed this out to him once. He sang along for me, and he was right. He loved the fact that both she, and I for that matter, had been blown away by his rendition of a record that I had thought was by Heaven 17 until that moment, when I found out it was this:

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The The – This Is The Day

It was on this occasion that he first showed me his party trick: “The Man With the World’s Smallest Mouth”, which I cannot even begin to do justice to. Imagine Rob Bryden’s “Man in a Box” and then take it back 20 years. That was Tony.

He sidled up to me once in the Sixth Form Common Room; a mixtape I had made was playing, and suddenly I was aware that Tony was standing by my side.

“This should be number one, shouldn’t it, mate?” he whispered to me.

In an ideal world, Tony, yes, it should have been. (It got to Number 11.)

This record:

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Westworld – Sonic Boom Boy

And he was right, it should have been Number One because it’s bloody great, far better than most of the old tosh that was cluttering up the UK Singles Charts at the time. Who cares that they released nothing else of any note? That is a great record. Westworld were The Ting Tings of the 80s, only without the number one hit record.

I bumped into Tony one day, in a record shop in Peterborough. It was called “Choices”, a short-lived place just off the main drag, which I often visited because nobody else ever seemed to, and I picked up many recued-to-clear bargains in there. Also, a guy I knew from junior school was working there, so he would happily order stuff for me. It was odd seeing him there, as he was not someone I particularly associated with music – I remembered he and I when we were much, much younger extolling the virtues of Bucks Fizz’s “The Land of Make Believe” and Tom Baker-era “Dr Who”.

Anyway, one day, Tony was in there too, we chatted about what he’d bought, and about a gig he wanted to go to, The Wedding Present, not just because he loved them, but because he’d heard the support act, The Flatmates, were pretty good too.

Desperate to please, moments after our conversation ended, I picked up this :

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The Flatmates – Shimmer

And so began a life long love affair with indie bands with female lead singers.

He was also very supportive. Around this time, having had a guitar for a few years, I was getting to grips with playing chords and being able to perform songs. I once told him I could play the next one, did it for him, and the next thing I knew I was wheeled out in front of his parents and a few friends, being encouraged to do it again:

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The Wedding Present – Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft

It’s the 30th anniversary of that record next year, and I’m going to see them perform it in it’s entirety. Tony will be with me.

I see Tony whenever I hear those records. But none more so than this next one.

Christmas 1986. Sixth Form Christmas Party. Tony and I have ended up sitting on some tables, all the chairs having been snuck off by people less drunk than we.

We talked about records, as we often did, and when we got to this one, we both sat, cross-legged on the table, singing the 82-second life out of the C86-opening track:

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Primal Scream – Velocity Girl

To finish off, I remember how excited he was when he first heard the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa”, not least because it’s a brilliant, brilliant record, but more so because it had this on it:

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 Pixies – Tony’s Theme

That little group of friends I mentioned earlier: I guarantee that every time we hear that, we think of him, thank our lucky stars we knew him, and curse our luck that he’s gone.

After I found out he had passed away, I got in touch with Anne and broke the news to her. It was a shitty way to reconnect with someone after so many years, but I knew she would want to know. After the initial shock, she sent me a collage of pictures she had from when we all used to hang out. It included this one:

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He couldn’t play the bloody thing, but he was going to try and look like a member of The Bluebells if it was the last thing he did.

And that is exactly how I want to remember him.

It’s such a cliché to say that you wish you’d stayed in touch with someone, but I don’t really care that it’s a cliché. Tony is someone I wish I’d tried harder to keep in my life. And now it’s too late. He’s gone.

As we approach the festive season, perhaps there’s a message there for us all.

Rest in peace, old buddy. And happy birthday.

More soon.