Monday, 10 March 2014

The College Years: Part One - Smiths and Dragons

When I left school at 16, I was a rather confused young man. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and my musical preferences were all over the place. I loved Queen, Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel, Saxon, Billy Joel[1] and the Pet Shop Boys, but had a hankering for discovery. I wanted to try new things but knew not where to look. I had pretty much exhausted John’s record collection by now, and my friends’ influences were fading.

Fearing I would just spend the best years of my life hanging around the house doing nothing but playing records (which to be honest sounds like absolute bliss), my mum encouraged me to enrol on a business studies course at the local FE college in Barnstaple. I say ‘encouraged’ – it was more an ultimatum: get a job or go to college, or else! The ‘or else’ was unspecified of course, but it remained enough of a threat to not want to find out what it meant the hard way.

While initially rather nerve-wracking, being in a new place with totally new people reaps tremendous rewards. It was in the 10 short months I spent at North Devon College that my eyes were opened wider than ever before or since at the possibilities a music fan has of having his or her life changed by music. My new college friends were, fortunately, music fans too, and one in particular, Simon Greetham, played a big part in my music taste development. Now, I wasn’t really sure how to take Simon. He came across as pretty arrogant, even obnoxious at times, but then I lacked his confidence and couldn't really relate to anyone who was as cocksure of themselves as he was. Yet, he latched on to my music obsession and attempted to educate me some more. He liked Queen too, but more importantly he was into indie music.

The only indie band I had ever really gotten into prior to college was Half Man Half Biscuit, who I was introduced to by longtime friend and neighbour Megs thanks to him lending me ‘Back Again In The DHSS’. Naturally, I thought it was hilarious and it led to me buying its predecessor, their debut ‘Back In The DHSS’. Megs had also attempted to get me into the Housemartins’ debut ‘London 0 Hull 4’ with little success.

That exposure to quirky, lightweight guitar pop though, as minimal as it was, left me open enough to accept offers of new music along similar lines. It was Simon who made those offers. I’m not entirely sure where it all began, but I’m fairly certain it was pretty early on as I attended my first gig within a few weeks of starting college – The Wedding Present, a band so distinctly ‘indie’, they’ve become synonymous with both the word itself and the genre. I seem to recall, probably inaccurately, that before that watershed moment in my life, Simon had chucked me a cassette tape featuring numerous early tracks by the Soup Dragons and That Petrol Emotion. At that time, the Soup Dragons were at their very best, churning out single after single of Buzzcocks-inspired punk-pop of the very highest order. Those early Soup Dragons records still sound awesome: Head Gone Astray, Hang Ten, Can’t Take No More – brilliant, each and every one, and some cracking b-sides to boot.

As often happens, a bond was forged. On the strength of the Soup Dragons tape alone, I was happy to give pretty much anything Simon suggested a spin. Thanks to him I discovered the Primitives, the Sugarcubes, the Wedding Present, and a band he adored that I had always been rather wary and suspicious of – The Smiths.

I think my problem with the Smiths was the same one that many unfortunate unenlightened souls had (or still have): the misconception that they – Morrissey in particular – were depressing. How I pity those who still don’t get it. How ashamed I am of myself for not catching on for so long. So long, in fact, that I never actually appreciated just how wonderful a thing a Smiths record could be until Simon offered me a loan of his prized new possession towards the end of that astonishing year. For it was the Smiths’ final album ‘Strangeways Here We Come’.

Oh how they sneer, those Smiths fans who were there from the beginning. See how they flippantly smirk at the naivety of the latecomer, the poor, sad fool who missed all the finest moments of that seminal band’s career as they occurred. Well smirk away, go on. I happen to think I got it the right way around. You see, it’s generally accepted that ‘Strangeways…’ is the Smiths’ weakest work (though both Morrissey and Johnny Marr rate it as their best). As magnificent as some of those songs still are, it has never been comparable to some of those extraordinary earlier moments. And this is where I had the upper hand, you see.

I didn’t ‘get it’ until I had listened to ‘Strangeways…’ a few times. But when it finally clicked – my god – how it clicked. And then I could work backwards. I could work back from that supposedly inferior work and discover everything on the higher plateaus. Yes, while the snooty purists had experienced a disappointing low with ‘Strangeways…’ with nothing to follow, things could only get better from my position as new fan on the block.

I’ve never looked back. Once I had wandered into the world of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, I never left. Each new discovery was a joy to behold: Panic with its wondrous refrain of “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ” sung by kids; Reel Around The Fountain, arguably one of the greatest lyrics ever penned and a beautiful, effortless, almost laissez-faire melody – how it never became a single is one of music’s greatest mysteries; and of course the spectacular, astonishing, breathtaking [insert additional superlatives of your choice here!] ‘The Queen Is Dead’.

I’m digressing now of course. My real appreciation of the Smiths grew in my post-college years, but the seeds were sown thanks to Simon, and my interest in ‘indie music’ – whatever that is – continues to this day.

While my relationship with Simon couldn’t really be deemed friendship (I think he found me rather irritating at times), there was some kind of mutual respect there otherwise why would he have bothered introducing me to so much great music? And why would I have bothered taking any notice of him? Seven or eight years later, our paths crossed for the first time since we left college. I was working for the local rag as a junior reporter, and Simon was looking for some photography work. My boss asked me if I knew a Simon Greetham as he had mentioned he knew me in his application. Subsequently, Simon joined the team. By now, both of us were a little more mature, and I found him a much more likeable chap. I like to think he found me a bit more bearable to be around too, but you’ll have to ask him that. I haven’t seen him now for 15 years or more, and nowadays he’s working as a photographer in Australia so I doubt we’ll bump into each other anytime soon. But whether he likes it or not, I’ll forever be in his debt for the profound influence he had on my music appreciation.

But Simon can’t take all the credit. In fact, someone else at college introduced me to my first life-changing record, and a band that would consume me for the next decade…


[1] Saxon and Billy Joel – not my proudest moments, but when I started this blog I vowed not to pretend some things never happened. So there you have it.


  1. It is an interesting concept, this: to start at the end and then work your way back to the beginning. Obviously this is just a question of age, but I started listening to the band when the first singles came out and I still think they never did better than on the debut album.

    So all in all I'm quite jealous about your experience!

  2. As someone who was lucky enough to latch onto The Smiths from the very early days, I am more than happy to offer the opinion that 'Strangeways...' is their best studio LP.

    Unlike Dirk, I find myself struggling with a lot of the debut LP as the versions I had grown to love via taping Peel and Jensen sessions sounded superior to those on the LP...which is why, of all the the releases, Hatful of Hollow will always be my most treasured.

    There's been a few acts that took me a while to appreciate who now rank very high on the list of personal favourites - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and R.E.M. spring to mind - and it was a great experience going back and appreciating the greatness of most of the earlier material.

    1. Interesting JC - my relationship with R.E.M. is coming up tomorrow, but like you I wasn't there right at the start. Nick Cave too - knew very little of his work before I bought 'Murder Ballads'. Now I feel like I've been with him all along.