The Promised Land: The Story of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Bruce Springsteen in 1978.

It has often been commented on that it is hugely ironic that the man who best represents blue-collared, working-class America in the arts is a man who has never had a proper job in his life. It is an irony that is not lost on Bruce Springsteen. He is also very aware that his nickname, The Boss, also carries a certain amount of irony given he’s never had one in the traditional sense.

Bruce Springsteen’s life changed immeasurably and permanently in 1975 with the release of Born to Run, an album which saved and arguably still defines his career to this day. After years of trying and falling short, he had finally hit on the formula – on what was arguably his last throw of the dice – which brought him the success and critical acclaim he had craved. Nothing, it seemed, could blot his apparently permanently sun kissed horizon. He was up and running and nothing could stop him, or so he thought. However, by the time Springsteen came to record Born to Run’s follow-up, Darkness on the Edge of Town, he had found out the hard way, and to his own financial cost, that fame and success can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

Within a year of Born to Run being released Springsteen was in a heavy legal dispute with his manager Mike Appel to regain the rights to his own songs, which he had unknowingly and naively signed away on a contract he didn’t even take the time to read. As Springsteen became increasingly suspicious about his deal with Mike Appel he sought counsel in John Landau, a music critic whom Springsteen had befriended and was beginning to trust above anyone else.

Landau agreed to help and arranged for his attorney to review the contracts which Springsteen had signed, and as suspected they were heavily weighted against Springsteen and in favour of Appel.

To suggest that Springsteen was being taken for a ride is an understatement. In fact such was the poor nature of practically every clause in Springsteen’s contracts that top entertainment lawyer David Benjamin – who Landau had brought in and who would later take on Springsteen’s legal work – audibly gasped in disbelief when he read them. Benjamin suspected that the contracts were so loaded with ‘every trick in the book’ that it was highly unlikely that a relative novice to management like Appel could be responsible and suggested that Appel’s lawyer, Jules Kruz, was more likely to be the man behind them. However, regardless of who the culprit was, Springsteen’s sense of injustice and paranoia had been pricked by the revelations and he wanted out. Landau took over responsibility for looking after Springsteen’s affairs – starting a working relationship that is still running to this very day – and the legal battle to release Springsteen from the cash draining deals with Appel began.

The process was long (10 months of courtroom exchanges) and arduous, and it meant that Springsteen and the E Street Band – which included the likes of Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons and long-term collaborator Steve Van Zandt – didn’t enter the studio until June 1977 to begin work on Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The sessions started in Atlantic Studios in midtown Manhattan and latterly moved to the Record Plant. Landau and Van Zandt oversaw production duties. The sessions were long and blighted by technical issues, the first being a faulty rigging in the studio which impacted on the sound of Max Weinberg’s drums – an issue that was never really fixed.

Springsteen was aware of the pressure he was under to deliver an album of similar magnitude to Born to Run and confided in Elvis Costello that he was feeling the heat stating: “In the end my music was always about identity, identity, identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the code I am trying to live by?” The fact was that by this point Springsteen was unsure of himself and couldn’t answer any of these questions.

The switch in mindset on Darkness…. is obvious. On Born to Run Springsteen promised us that we’d “get to that place” and “walk in the sun” and told his sweetheart Mary in ‘Thunder Road’ that they were in a town ‘full of losers’ and needed to get away in order to attain their hopes and dreams. On Darkness… Springsteen seems to be offering hints that he had chased his dreams successfully and came out of the experience bruised and questioning the point of it all.

In ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, a song that charts Springsteen’s troubled relationship with his father, he tells us: “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain. Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame. But you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.”

In ‘Factory’ Springsteen sounds even bleaker: “Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain, I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain. Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life, The working, the working, just the working life.”

The overriding sense on Darkness… is one that Springsteen – the boy who has never had a job in his life – has discovered a sense of what it is like to face the daily toil of the steel mill, the factory or the kitchen. To put the effort in and get very little back. He has discovered what it is really like to be powerless in the land of the free. For the first time his optimism has been pierced, and he is shaken as a result.

Although he has never had a job, Springsteen’s childhood meant he was well versed in how working class communities operated, stating in his autobiography: “My sisters and I grew up in blue-collar neighbourhoods, somewhat integrated, filled with factory workers, cops, firemen, long-distance truck drivers. I never saw a man leave the house in a jacket and tie unless it was a Sunday or he was in trouble. If you came knocking at our door with a suit on, you were immediately under suspicion. You wanted something.”  The experience with Appel appears to have reawakened Springsteen’s inbred working class suspicion of authority. The result being that the hopes and dreams of Born to Run are replaced on Darkness… with a more sinister realisation of what working world can do to you. There is anger and hurt on this album – something that wasn’t prevalent on Born to Run. However, despite the overriding bleak mood of Darkness…  , it does provide one glimpse of optimism on ‘The Promised Land’ – a song borne out of a road trip with Van Zandt and photographer Eric Meola.

All three flew to Salt Lake City, jumped in a red 1965 Ford Galaxie 500XL convertible and headed for the deserts of Utah, driving fully 30 hours and investigating every nook and cranny of the seemingly endless desert. When they stopped at a small gas station, Meola took the opportunity to take out the camera and take some shots. One showed Springsteen leaning on the car, the enormous emptiness of the desert sprawling behind him with a huge and extremely dark storm cloud hanging in the horizon.

Meola’s iconic image of Springsteen in the Utah desert. The inspiration for the song ‘The Promised Land’ brews in the distance.

All three of them watched the storm from a safe distance, Meola claimed he had never seen anything like it. They then drove further up the dusty road before sleeping in the car overnight. All through that hot and humid night there were dogs howling in one of the streets of the small town where they had settled. In the morning they headed back to Salt Lake City for the flight home.

Meola returned with several iconic images, but Springsteen also came back with inspiration and used the events of that night as the foundation for ‘The Promised Land’.

Lyrics like “On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert”, “The dogs on Main Street howl ‘Cause they understand” and “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor, I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm” are directly derived from the road trip with Van Zandt and Meola, and despite ‘The Promised Land’ encapsulating a lot of the overall bleakness of Darkness… – “ I’ve done my best to live the right way, I get up every morning and go to work each day, But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold, Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode” – the song’s overall mood is one of defiance and belief that there is something better out there.

By the time the recording session for Darkness… finished, Springsteen and his band had amassed 70 songs – although only ten would make the final cut.  Most were discarded, some were handed to other artists (most famously with ‘Because the Night’ going to Patti Smith) and some appeared in Springsteen’s next album, The River.

Darkness… was released on 2 June 1978 to lukewarm reviews. Jon Tobler stated in his review for ZigZag that: “I refuse to allow any sentiment to colour my feeling that this album is pretty ordinary”. Peter Silverton commented in Sounds that Springsteen “sounds a frightened man”. Such reviews, however, did not prevent the NME naming it as its album of the year ahead The Jam’s All Mod Cons, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings & Food.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a pivotal album in the Springsteen roster. Despite appreciation for it being slow on its release, it was a strong enough album to convince the wider public that Born to Run wasn’t a fluke. It also displayed a level of anger and sense of injustice surrounding class inequality that Springsteen wouldn’t revisit to the same degree until 2012 and Wrecking Ball.

But the main thing about Darkness… is Springsteen’s own realisation that, despite being the boy from the blue-collared neighbourhood who avoided having to do a proper job, he was not immune to the feeling of despair and vulnerability that was par for the course for working class America.

As Pete Silverton said: “He sounds a frightened man”.


Last orders: The story of Be Here Now

On 11 August 1996, Oasis played the first of their two monumental gigs at Knebworth. On that infamous weekend, over a quarter of a million people would watch this band of working-class scallies from Burnage, Manchester who had taken the country by storm since the release of their debut album Definitely Maybe two years previously.

The gigs were supposed to represent the next step in the seemingly eternal upward trajectory of the band. In truth, it would represent the peak of their powers, fame and musical relevance. Within a year they would release Be Here Now, an album that would prove to be the beginning of the end as far as the mania that surrounded Oasis was concerned.

Oasis had seemingly taken to the outrageous levels of celebrity with ease, but the reality was that the excess that had consumed the band since their arrival to the mainstream had taken its toll. The drugs, decadence, hedonism and excess had pushed the band to their individual and collective mental limits. Released 20 years ago this week, Be Here Now was the result of that excess.  Overblown, over produced, too extravagant and too self-indulgent, it was the first sign that the party had gone on for too long.

The first exposure of Be Here Now came at the Knebworth gigs – as well as their appearance at Balloch in Loch Lomond. The set-list for the behemoth events  included ‘My Big Mouth’ and ‘The Girl in the Dirty Shirt’. Both were received positively. If these songs were a sign of things to come then surely the Oasis bandwagon would keep on rolling?


Saturday 3rd August 1996: Oasis come on stage at Loch Lomond

However all was not entirely well within the camp. The constant feuding between the Gallagher brothers was an ever present of the Oasis circus, but as the pressure and exposure reached Beatlemania heights, the fights became more intense and things came to a head on the eve of a U.S tour in late ’96 when Liam Gallagher refused to set foot on a plane and left the band at the departure lounge at Heathrow airport. As had happened countless times previously, a reconciliation was reached – but not before Noel walked out of the same tour and flew back to England.

With hindsight, one of the main problems with Be Here Now is that it was recorded directly after the frenzy that had followed (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. It was felt by Alan McGee at Creation and Noel Gallagher that they should strike with their third album whilst the hype was still at its peak. But that proved to be easier said than done and with the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that a break from the madness could have benefited Oasis.

With all that came with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – touring, promotion, endless appearances and interviews – Gallagher had not written anything new in eight months. When he did sit down to start Be Here Now he discovered he had writers block, and fear and doubt gripped Gallagher for the first time.

There was a time when Gallagher was so confident and consistent in his writing powers that he would casually disregard genuinely great songs as B sides. Now in the middle of the biggest party of his life and financially secure, he found the motivation to write hard to come by. It took a break in Mustique with regular producer Owen Morris for Gallagher to finally sit down and start writing. But even then the experience was different, with Gallagher having to be disciplined and committed in order to get the songs out. For the first time in Gallagher’s life, writing felt like a job rather than escapism.

“You’ve now released three albums, Noel – how many of them are good?”


Recording started in Abbey Rd, however due to excessive press intrusion the sessions were scrapped and the band decamped to Ridge Farm in Surrey. But even away from the capital and all that it has to offer, Oasis could not free themselves from the bloated excess that had now come to define them.

Noel Gallagher initially said of the sessions that it felt like being in a band again. However as the years rolled past the true extent of the excessive cocaine use at Ridge Farm would come to light. In terms of the end product, Oasis were careering down the wrong path with no one within the band, the wider circle or the record label willing enough or capable enough of stopping them.

The result of this was the two main problems with Be Here Now: layer upon layer of heavy guitars – and an average track time of over six minutes. If there is an album that is a metaphor for the overbearing, overly loud guy on a night out who just doesn’t know when it’s time to stop, Be Here Now is it.

The first product of the sessions released for public consumption was the single ‘D’You Know What I Mean’, which was received well. The single was almost like a ‘return to arms’ statement – a theme that was extended to the military-esque style video. But despite the single reaching No 1 – and shifting 750,000 copies – there were signs contained within it of what was to come. Lasting over six minutes with excessive distortion, Morse code and guitars, the warning signs were there.

Even the album cover became an exercise in excess. Originally planned to have four individual shots of the band members – with Liam making a cameo appearance in each shot to ensure all five band members were accounted for, things soon had to change when concerns started to grow about the cost of such a cover. Ideas from individual band members for their shots ranged from relaxing by a swimming pool with a Rolls Royce submerged in it, to lying on a beach in St Lucia. The former – by Bonehead – was deemed a great idea and would make the final cut of the revamped proposal which would be a single shot of all the band members.

The shoot for the cover took place at Stocks Hotel in Hertfordshire, which was the former home of Playboy magnate, Victor Lownes. The first problem for the shoot was that the hotel was a working hotel, and so it soon became besieged when word of Oasis’ attendance became public. Secondly, the excess that followed Oasis wherever they went kicked in again and alcohol consumption reached levels that made it almost impossible to work. By early evening, the shoot had become a chaotic shambles.

Sitting by your pool on your classic Zündapp Bella scooter, whilst admiring the semi-submerged classic Rolls Royce – just another normal day in the world of Oasis.

It was widely believed that the cover held many cryptic messages. Bonehead is holding a giant Yale key in the style of a guitar, Noel is looking through a telescope at giant inflated globe, Liam is standing next classic Zündapp Bella scooter… All these things led to speculation about the hidden messages within.

But the reality was they were all props selected at random. The only messages that could be described as cryptic were the license plate on the submerged Rolls Royce (SYO 724F) which is the same as the police van that appears on the cover for The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and the calendar which shows Thursday, 21 August – the date the album would be released.

Critically the album done very well. However this was largely down to most of the music press being lukewarm in their reception to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?  When it had gone on to be a huge success, reviewers overcompensated with their assessment of Be Here Now in a bid to avoid further embarrassment – only to get it catastrophically wrong for a second time. Q magazine gave it five stars and basically described it as the best thing in the history of mankind ever, but within the hype there were reviewers who weren’t convinced.

Simon Williams at the NME wrote: “Be Here Now is one of the daftest records ever made…tacky and grotesquely over-the-top, Oasis have blithely carried on doing what they always have done…the only difference now is that the songs are louder, longer and a darn sight more expensive”.

Fans were also unconvinced and after the early promising sales, the album started to slow. Not only that, within a few months thousands of copies flooded the second-hand market as unconvinced fans relieved themselves of the chore of having to listen to it again.

History will never look back kindly on Be Here Now. But it has its own legacy. Firstly, it halted the juggernaut that was Oasis almost overnight. Instead of the album taking the band on to new, never before reached levels of hysteria, the spotlight moved away from Oasis almost completely and would never to return.

Secondly, it was the first chink in the armour of Britpop and the hope and positivity that surrounded youth culture at that time. Within three years of the album’s release the hedonistic 90s were gone, Robbie Williams and Coldplay dominated the charts and New Labour had turned out to be Old Tory under a different banner. Within ten years of its release, the banks crumbled and we headed into more austere times where the youth of today’s idea of having it large involves securing two shifts in the same week at their zero hour contract, minimum wage job in a bid to afford the £120 to see Ed Sheeran play live.

The band themselves would never recapture the glory days of Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? From Be Here Now onwards they would only show fleeting glimpses of what they were once capable of, most tellingly on 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth, before eventually crashing and burning in 2009.

Be Here Now is neither Oasis’ best or worst album. But it’s a significant one that deserves its place in history. It was the beginning of the end of Oasis and in a wider context a major mood changer. The previous year at those famous Knebworth gigs youth culture had seemed invincible and in control of its own future. Be Here Now’s lasting legacy could be that it exposed a chink of doubt in that invincibility, and allowed normal service to be resumed.

Joining the vinyl revolution.

There is a scene in T2: Trainspotting, the extremely enjoyable sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s original classic novel, where Renton, Sick Boy and Spud revisit the spot in the highlands where Renton famously declared that it is “shite being Scottish”.

The journey has been retraced to pay respect and homage to Tommy, their departed friend from the first movie who made the original journey with them 20 years previously.

Bored and unmoved by the experience, Sick Boy takes the opportunity to have a pop at Renton and accuses him of being “a tourist in your own youth”.

The comment is a salient one and it highlights the films main theme: obsession with the past.

The theme reoccurs constantly throughout the film and this is heightened by a sense that all the main protagonists from the original have a deep sense of unfulfillment with middle-age and all that it has brought them; loss, insecurity, health issues and a realisation of their own mortality. This is what makes the film connect with its audience, particularly with the forty-somethings of today who were the twenty-somethings of two decades ago when the original swept on to our cinema screens.

It is certainly what resonated most with me when I watched it for the first time, and it is a theme I had thought about long before T2 hit the cinemas in January.  At the age of 44, I am discovering the hard way that there are more and more things that I used to do, or at least take for granted, that have now started to feel uncomfortable because of my age.

Clubbing, for example, is completely off the agenda these days – and has been for some time. On the very rare occasions over the last five/ten years that I have found myself in a club I have felt old, out of sorts and very uncomfortable. If there is any hope of me being a “tourist in my own youth”, it’s not going to be at some trendy city nightspot.

Playing football has also started to feel very different in recent years – especially since I hit 40. At my weekly five-a-side game, for example, I now feel a bit-part player where once I had an impact. Also, I move very differently these days – and not in a way that I can claim to enjoy. I am obviously slower, that’s a given, but there is also the fact that when I run now I literally look like my dad – all his mannerisms are there. Mannerisms, I should add, I used to mock.

I also now have to deal with young players who can’t kick their own arses getting the better of me because they’re quicker and fitter. This is arguably the most frustrating of all the things that middle-age has brought me – that and the three days of aching limbs after a game.

Also, whenever I put a football top on for the fives these days, I look like a fat old man in a football top – again, the type of fat old man in a football top I used mock.

Even the humble trainer is not guaranteed to survive middle-age. Noel Gallagher commented a year-or-two back that any man over the age of fifty shouldn’t be wearing trainers. I have to say that I agree with him on this, and even although I’m six years off that number I am already starting feel uncomfortable in a training shoe – unless, of course, it’s my Adidas Samba’s at the aforementioned fives, which is the mandatory trainer for any man over 40 still kicking a ball.

All-in-all it is fair to say that middle-age has felt pretty bleak so far, and that the mood in T2 is certainly one I can relate to. To paraphrase Renton – “It’s shite being middle aged!”

The realisation of middle-age hits Sick Boy, Renton and Spud in T2: Trainspotting.

Thankfully, however, I have recently discovered – or rediscovered – a salvation which will allow me to be a tourist in my own youth without the indignity having to run like ma da at the fives, wear clothes that are twenty years too young for me or hang around a city nightspot like some sad, seedy devotee of Peter Stringfellow – and that salvation is vinyl.

As many of you will be aware, vinyl has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years. A format that was once considered dead and only for the use of luddites and hipsters, is apparently now cooler than a June afternoon in Glasgow.

My journey back to the past started when the missus bought me a record player earlier this year for my birthday. Middle-age has brought me an ability to be unimaginably unmoved by presents I receive at birthdays and Xmas, but I must say that opening this genuinely put a smile on my face – both in terms of the surprise and, most importantly, the opportunity it presented.

My first foray into vinyl occurred 37 years ago in 1980 when Adam Ant released the single ‘Dog Eat Dog’. I was very young at the time – seven – but it opened a new world to me. Initially I was probably more struck by the look of Adam Ant than I was by the sound; the Hussar jacket, the stripe across the nose, the cane…it all called out to me in a way nothing else had at that point in my life.

But gradually the music also got to me, particularly the multiple waves of drumbeats and the Native American screams and yelps. The seeds for my love of music were sown.

Where it all began: Adam Ant

The King of the Wild Frontier album – from which the ‘Dog Eat Dog’ single was taken – was duly procured, although initially on cassette, and I was off and running in terms of a music collection.

The next stage was acquiring a record player, which my dad got for me, as well as a rake of old 45” singles from a work colleague who no longer wanted them, which included some gems like Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ELO’s ‘Livin’ Thing’ on blue vinyl.

For the next two or three years I collected vinyl – mostly singles – ferociously. Adam Ant was the fuel that powered my interest but I also bought several other notable releases including ‘A Town Called Malice’ by The Jam, ‘Senses Working Overtime’ by XTC, ‘I Could be Happy’ by Altered Images and ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk. I may not yet have been in double figures in terms of age, but I was already displaying an admirable taste in music.

But by 1983 I had lost a bit of interest. Adam and the Ants had crashed and burned, his solo career turned out to be very disappointing and I satisfied myself with getting my music fix every Thursday night on Top of the Pops rather than physically adding to my collection.

The bug to buy again never really returned until the late 80s. In August ’89, at the tender age of 16, I started my first full-time job and took out a hire purchase agreement on a Sony stereo system. By then, however, vinyl was on the way out – replaced by the CD. As if to prove this the vinyl section in Sleeves, my local record shop, was vastly reduced to allow room for the new, superior format.

See that is good thing to about joining the current vinyl revolution, not only does it allow me to be a ‘tourist in my own youth’ without suffering any indignity, but it also allows me the opportunity to recapture what was arguably denied, or at the very least cut short, back in the day due to the assent of the compact disc.

Since I received the record player I have made a weekly jaunt to Record Fayre in Glasgow’s Trongate and slowly but surely started to rebuild a vinyl collection. I have also frequented Fopp and HMV to pick up re-issues, but they tend to be more costly than the second-hand market – and they don’t provide the same sense of nostalgia.

I also recently popped along to a record fair in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Sports Centre. If you’re considering getting back into vinyl I would advise caution at such events. These are the equivalent of an opium field to a junky to those newly reacquainted with vinyl. Within five minutes of entering the place I could have re-mortgaged the house – twice!

My new Wednesday lunchtime hangout: Record Fayre in Glasgow’s Trongate.

I have only been to one so far but my overall advice would be have a budget, stick to it and try and shop about. The urge to buy the first decent thing you find is overwhelming, but given the overall environment is one of being quite over-priced, you might just save a few bob if you apply some patience and look about before making a purchase. I came away with second-hand copies of Bowie’s Low and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul for not too outrageous a price. So they can provide a good hunting ground, but common sense needs to be applied or you could spend a fortune on overpriced goods.

Even on a recent family holiday to north Wales I succumbed to the call of vinyl. With the family enjoying the sun on the beach in Rhyl, I sneaked off to visit to record shop I had Googled prior to the visit. Again I done not too badly, coming away with Springsteen’s Born in the USA, The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus and Let it Be by The Beatles – not to mention a few original 45” singles by the Fab Four.

The delve back into the format of the past has also provided me with the opportunity to have more shared experiences with my daughter. Despite only being nine she has taken an interest in music, with Little Mix being to her what Adam Ant was to me – not to mention her taking a wee shine to The Beatles. So we have had a couple of days out in the record shops of Glasgow having a shared experience that might not have been were it not for vinyl.

A recent article in the NME suggested that the current increase in vinyl sales was a bit of a con. The article claimed the format remains inferior in terms of sound quality, still has the age old issues of jumping etc, is over-priced and all-in-all is a bit of a scam.

Are these accusations true? Maybe. There is certainly merit in more than one of the accusations. However it feels that my current interest in vinyl – which could legitimately be called a mid-life-crisis – will go on for some time yet.

Is that foolish of me? Maybe.

Do I care? Not one bit.

Am I writing this on returning from HMV with a vinyl copy of The Ramones’ self-titled debut album? You can bet your life on it!

The Future is Unwritten: 40 Years of the Clash

Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones adorn the front cover of The Clash’s classic debut album – released 40 years ago today


Since the financial crash of 2008 and the age of austerity, and all that came with that, my friends and I have often sat down to chew the fat and commented on the lack of a reaction from the youth of today.

Youth unemployment is at an all-time high,  millions of those young people who have gained employment are having to get by on minimum wage – and those are the lucky ones who have avoided the dreaded zero hour contract scenario – and yet the charts on a Sunday display nothing in terms of discontent. It seems that in a time where there is much to protest about there is nothing coming from the very demographic that has traditionally been the most vocal on such matters.

Instead of protest, the youth culture of today seems to be presenting an image of contentment in its art and music, with Ed Sheeran as its alpha-voice. The less said about that, though, the better.

It was all so different 40 years ago.  If 1976 was considered “year zero” for punk then 1977 can undeniably be declared as its peak. By 1978 it was all gone, the movement having become a parody of itself with Sid Vicious being months away from killing himself, his girlfriend and any notion that punk remained a positive thing.

But in 1977 there were many good things – and one debut album would stand out above many in a year of outstanding music.

The punk movement was a reaction to the grandiose nature of the music scene in the mid-70s. The likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and their extravagant and intricate arrangements had disillusioned many teenagers who could not replicate the complicated chord structures of many bands at the time. Punk’s “three chord” solution appealed to many.

One hippy who was prepared to jump ship to this new movement was one John Graham Mellor. Mellor, born in Turkey, was the son of a British Foreign Office diplomat who attended boarding school and could count Cairo, Mexico and Bonn as places he could consider childhood homes. He was the very embodiment of privilege.

However, his exposure to the boarding school system would also expose him to a power structure and a level of authority that he would resent for the rest of his life, and it would influence his movements and decisions from thereon in. When Mellor became a musician the experience of boarding school would shape him to such an extent that he and his band would be seen as a pivotal “anti-establishment” band, key players in punk’s peak year of 1977 – and arguably the band of that year – and the only band who successfully navigated themselves past ’77 and beyond. For John Graham Mellor was Joe Strummer, and his band, the Clash, whose debut album was released 40 years ago today, would become the voice of a disenchanted youth in 1977.

Strummer’s journey to becoming a punk icon started as a hippy. His band in the early 70s, the 101’ers, had a medium amount of success. But after the seeing the Sex Pistols live Strummer realised his musical journey lay on a different path. After being approached by Bernie Rhodes in May ’76, Strummer joined what would become one of the best bands of all time.

Their early live gigs created a lot of buzz within the punk scene and the Clash, although not quite seen as anything like the stars of punk, the Sex Pistols , were deemed as solid performers. Their impact would not go unnoticed – which would create problems for the Clash before they’d really got started.

On 23 January, the Clash signed to CBS records – a major label. Such a step by a punk band was deemed as sacrilege – and affront to the spirit of the movement. Indeed the main fanzine at the time, sniffin’ glue, described their signing to CBS as “the day punk died”.  Unabated, however, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon entered CBS’s Studio 3 on Whitfield St, London on 10 February 1977.

The album would be recorded over three weekends and produced by Micky Foote. Guy Stevens had been tipped as producer for the album but his work on early Clash demos had been viewed as “lack lustre” and so Foote moved in.

The first problem to deal with in the recording was the lack of a drummer, as the previous incumbent Terry Chimes has already officially left the band. He was persuaded to fill in on the recording sessions but does not appear on the cover shot of the album. To add insult to injury he is credited in the sleeve notes as “Tory Crimes”.

Other issues included the dilapidated state of the band’s equipment. Indeed Strummer’s battered Telecaster guitar was deemed “unrecordable”. He was offered a replacement by CBS but refused. The result was that Strummer’s efforts on rhythm guitar were largely removed from the final version of the album.

The other key component in the Clash is Mick Jones. Hugely influenced in ’77 by The Ramones, New York Dolls, Mick Ronson and The Kinks, his contribution to the Clash’s debut would be key.

He and Strummer would initially write songs individually but they would slowly become a writing team, encouraged by manager Bernie Rhodes. Strummer commented on Rhodes’ involvement by saying: “He didn’t suggest anything specific, just to leave the songs alone and to write about what was important”.

Strummer and Jones met both requirements with vigor – particularly the latter one.

To listen to The Clash is to listen to the anger, angst and concerns of young people of Britain in 1977. From “Career Opportunities” to “I’m So Bored with the USA” to “White Riot”, the major issues affecting the youth at that time are covered.

“White Riot” caused a particular storm. The call to arms was deemed a step too far by the conservative press and drew heavy criticism. The song, which was the album’s lead single, was borne out of the riot which occurred at the Notting Hill Carnival in the August of 1976.

That day had ended with pitch battles between young blacks and the Metropolitan Police. Strummer, Paul Simonon and Bernie Rhodes had been caught up in events – even trying and failing to set fire to an overturned car. This apparent siding with lawlessness drew predicable scorn from the mainstream media. Strummer insisted the song was a reflection of his admiration on how the black community was prepared to stand up for itself in the face of severe provocation. Muddying the waters even further for “White Riot”, however, was the National Front’s claim that the song represented a call to the white youth of the UK to rise and fight. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The critical response to The Clash was mixed but with an overall air of positivity and it sold well in the UK. America took some time to be convinced, however, with CBS’s American wing only deciding to release it in the U.S after it had sold 100,00 copies on import. The American version would have an updated track listing and include “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – arguably the Clash’s finest song.

As the album hits its 40th it could be argued that it is more relevant now than ever, with many of the issues it raises still being pertinent today.

When you see America bombing Syria and Theresa May walking uncomfortably close to a bampot President, think of “I’m So Bored of the USA”.

When you see some young guy working in Sports Direct earning minimum wage on a zero hours contract, think of “Career Opportunities”.

When you think of the inequality in the UK and the power being in the hands of the “people rich enough to buy it”, think of “White Riot”.

The Clash” is an undeniable classic album and one that captured the mood of youth culture in the UK in 1977, and many of issues on it are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. Whether that is a sign of the Clash’s brilliance or society’s inability to solve the same recurring issues from 40 years ago is another issue.

However, the next time you feel our youth are being compromised by our elected politicians then remember Strummer and the Clash and their efforts to speak up for a disaffected youth 40 years ago. And the next time you realise that nobody in today’s music industry is commenting on the horrendous political landscape for the youth of today, think of Ed Sheeran.

Sound and Vision: 40 Years of Low

Bowie as Thomas Newton, from the movie The Man Who Feel to Earth, on the cover of Low.

Bowie’s masterpiece is 40 today. Colin Armstrong looks at its recording and impact.

January 2017 was always going to be a big month in the Bowie Universe.

Firstly, the eighth of the month saw what would have been the late stars 70th birthday. The same date also represents the first anniversary of Bowie’s iconic final studio album, Blackstar.

The tenth of the month brought about the first anniversary of Bowie’s sudden and unexpected death. Granted, rumours about Bowie’s health had been circulating since the star removed himself from public view and stopped working in 2003 after suffering a heart attack, but the abrupt and unexpected arrival of The Next Day in 2013 and the subsequent release of Blackstar last year had given most the belief that Bowie, if not totally free from ill-health, was far from knocking on deaths door.

Almost immediately after his death Blackstar saw its significance rise substantially as the lyrical references contained within the album, which appeared to signify that Bowie was informing the masses of his illness and fate, were noticed.

Listening to Blackstar now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is almost impossible to come to any conclusion other than Bowie was writing about his own impending death. Lyrics contained within the tracks “Blackstar”, “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give it All Away” are particularly strong in lending weight to the notion that Bowie was using his art to deal with knowledge that his life would soon be coming to an end.

But nobody should have been surprised that Bowie would choose to use real life subjects, even one as grim as death, and use it in his music. Bowie has always had the ability to use his current life situation and turn it in to great, and on occasions, ground breaking music. Arguably the best example of this was on an album which commemorates its 40th anniversary today (14 January): Low.

Low is undeniably one of Bowie’s masterpieces. An album which was not fully appreciated at the time, it has rightfully grown over the years to be considered a classic in every aspect and, like Blackstar, the beauty and genius of the album comes from Bowie’s mental state and his desire to do something new.

On the face of it 1976 was a good year for Bowie. He had released the album Station to Station in January of that year and had starred in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was released in March. The reality, though, was somewhat different.

Bowie’s mental state at this period could be best described as fraught. His marriage to his erratic wife Angie had reached a point of no return, he was in a legal dispute with his then manager Michael Lippman and his excessive drug use had turned him into a paranoid wreck of a man who was obsessed with the occult and Hitler, had become convinced that the Rolling Stones were sending him messages through their album covers and lived almost entirely on a diet of cocaine, milk and red peppers.

Bowie had become increasingly aware that he was pushing his physical and mental state to the absolute limit and hatched a plan with friend and sidekick Iggy Pop to move to Europe and away from the excess of LA. The move would eventually see him settle in Berlin and the period would be considered one of Bowie’s most productive.

Bowie set sail to Europe, and specifically Cannes, on 27 March 1976. The initial plan, at the suggestion of his wife Angie and his lawyer, was to settle in Switzerland primarily for tax reasons, but he would eventually find his way to Berlin.

Before that however he would end up at the Cháteau D Hėrouville studio just outside Paris to produce Iggy Pop’s The Idiot album. The studio was one that Bowie was familiar with having recorded Pin Ups there in 1973. When the production work on Iggy’s album was completed he started to focus on Low.

Bowie employed the services of long-time collaborator Tony Visconti to co-produce the album and also brought in guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had also worked with Bowie on Young Americans and Station to Station. Despite having their steady hands back in the studio Bowie had an urge for something different. .

Bowie had been a huge fan of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music album and saw him as the man he needed to help create the new sound that he was looking for. Eno was approached and asked if he would be interested in working with Bowie.

Bowie and Visconti were keen to get Eno on board, but were equally keen to see what Eno could “bring to the table”. Eno informed the pair that he had an Eventide Harmoniser, a machine that acted as a digital delay unit and could delay a sound and change its pitch. When asked what the machine done Eno famously replied “it fucks with the fabric of time”. Bowie and Visconti could not disguise their excitement – all the pieces were now in place for Low. In October of 1976, working under the title New Music Night and Day, Bowie and his collaborators entered the Cháteau D Hėrouville studio and got to work on what would in time be recognised as a classic.

All the artists involved in the Low sessions described them as being “relaxed”. However they also conceded that it was obvious Bowie had a lot of ongoing personal issues and the tension that created was coming out in the songs. One example of this is the track “Breaking Glass”.

During one of the recording sessions Angie, who was becoming increasingly desperate the more aware she became that her marriage to Bowie was fast approaching its end, had turned up to the studio with her “boyfriend” Roy Martin. It was a move designed to get a reaction and it worked. A huge fight broke out in the studio and the sound of shattering glass was heard as a glass was thrown across the studio during the mêlée – this is referenced in the song. In the second verse of “Breaking Glass” when Bowie asks us to not “look at the carpet”, he is apparently referencing a period of his life in LA when Bowie would regularly draw occult images on the floor, much to Angie’s despair. The song ends one minute and 54 seconds in with Bowie telling the protagonist that they’re “such a wonderful person – but you’ve got problems”. In length, content and style, the song literally feels like a fight.

Left to right: Tony Visconti, Brian Eno and David Bowie

Other tracks on Low are littered with similar references. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” reflects the time that Bowie crashed his Mercedes in Switzerland, a car he was apparently trying to sell at the time to ease his day-to-day cash flow issues. ”Be My Wife” describes the bleak and lonely life Bowie had found himself in and “A New Career in a New Town”, although an instrumental, as a title accurately describes Bowie’s situation at the time. From beginning to end, the album encapsulates Bowie’s mental state. It is a bleak album, appropriately titled, which captures the uncertainty and anxiety Bowie was feeling in that period perfectly. But Low is not just a classic for this reason alone.

The daring nature of releasing an album which was heavily instrumental, or contained lyrics which could at best be described as “non-language”, is a vital factor in setting it apart. Bowie’s fascination with Michael Rother of Neu!, who had previously been a member of Kraftwerk, had been the catalyst for inviting Eno along to sessions. Eno’s influence in the sessions subsequently opened the door to Bowie achieving the “ambient” sound he had been craving. Eno’s involvement was a masterstroke and one that delivered a classic album.

But Low did not come without its problems. It is easy to describe Bowie’s moves at the time as “daring” etc with the benefit of hindsight, but such a move could have effectively killed off his career. Indeed Bowie was not completely convinced the album would see the light of day, telling all involved that he feared RCA would not release the album but it was something they “had to do”.

Bowie was right to be sceptical about RCA’s reaction. On hearing the album for the first time, one member of the top brass at RCA is rumoured to have offered to buy Bowie a mansion if he binned Low and delivered a Young Americans II. Bowie stuck to his guns and Low was released on 14 January, 1977.

The critical reception for Low was mediocre to say the least. Charles Shaar Murray of the NME savaged Bowie and his latest release in his review, stating: “I don’t give a shit about how clever it may or may not be. It stinks of artfully, counterfeited spiritual defeat and futility and emptiness.” Murray would in later years amend that view and state that Low was Bowie’s “Blues album” – and album in which he used his music to express his issues and anxieties at that time.

Forty years on from its release, and a year after Bowie’s death, Low arguably stands up now more than ever. When looking back at his body of work it can be legitimately claimed that Low was Bowie’s first genuine avant-garde album, and one that would ultimately lead to “Heroes” and Lodger , completing his infamous “Berlin Trilogy” – although it should be noted Low was recorded in Paris and only made it to Berlin during the mixing stage.

For an artist of his stature to produce such a daring piece of work, and risk destroying the reputation he had earned up to that point, is something that not many would dare to do.

But then maybe it took the situation that Bowie was in – trying to kick a rabid cocaine habit, serious financial worries and a failing marriage – to provoke the reckless abandon required to produce something as daring as Low.

Bowie himself remained proud of the album, even if it did come at a price in terms of his mental health. When asked about Low on one occasion he commented: “I was at the end of tether physically and emotionally. But overall I get a real sense of optimism through the veils of despair on Low”.

Whatever inner turmoil Bowie was feeling in 1977, whenever you listen to Low it is hard not to come to the conclusion that all his mental anxiety was worth it.