/ Weekends and bleak days (hot summer), Transgressive, 2006
There’s no denying the aesthetics of the 45 on geometric and graphic design levels, but that would be of little consequence without the relationship of the form to its content. In the late 1940s, the pop song demanded a medium through which it could flourish, and it was this overriding commercial imperative which fostered the 45’s development as format wars broke out between Columbia and RCA Victor. The former evolved the 33 and a third Long Play record, forcing a piqued RCA to retaliate with the 7 inch 45. We have J. P. Maxfield of the Bell Laboratory to thank for the chosen size. The 7 inch’s label was half the diameter of the vinyl as a result of his scientific analysis to determine the best pay-off between sound quality and playing time. It has become something of a golden section to fans of pop music, spellbound since the fifties as the needle set in the groove of the two, three, four minute pop song has repetitively spiralled towards the spindle hole.
Spare time ebbs and flows, and just now it’s at a premium, so for me personally the song comes to the fore and the set of songs recedes, just as at a socio-technological level the song has risen again, conveyed by downloads to players which can mimic the effects of the ball-shaped transistor radio I had when I was a kid. Attached to a metal chain, with two silver dials, it was sky-blue and totally pop. I listened to it through a single earphone. There was no sequence to what I heard, just as now nothing need ever be sequential again. And let’s not worry about diminishing attention spans, for that’s a false spectre when whole libraries of music can be carried on a player smaller than a C90 tape.
7 inch vinyl has survived the march of technology, but we should not flatter the format by kidding ourselves that this is merely to do with its romance. The vinyl release is a player in the marketing battery, a loss-leader enticing record-shop ghosts to purchase the money-generating CD album. Extra heavy vinyl, ever-varying sleeve design, B sides unavailable elsewhere; both the fan and the casually curious chainstore habitué are easily tempted by the weekly 99p deals. I’m sold. What I’m less sold on is that we should ignore the ongoing harvest of post-punk influence, because it was all so much better first time around. That didn’t seem to apply when the early Creation groups were busy processing the inspiration provided by the garage and psychedelics of the second half of the 60s. Despite Andy Partridge’s satirical name for the average group aping or diluting the sounds of the avant-garde element of the previous generation – Future Dogs Die in Kaiser Ferdinand’s Hot Hot Car Party – I think we should be charitable souls, and give the odd one of Paul Weller’s ‘little fuckers’ a chance. There’s always the possibility that what they and time passing add amounts to more than the source ever delivered (take a bow, Gang Of Four). So it was one week I bought samples of the work of the Young Knives, with their gatefold sleeves, themed postcards, clear vinyl and ‘Buy all three formats for £3’ stickers, counting the gauche and geeky provincial intellectual image portrayed in the press in their favour.
Often an A side will show up a group which is trying too hard. ‘Weekends and bleak days’ is just such a case. Bellicose and bellowing, its hooks irritate rather than charm. When less is at stake, less of a statement is being made, and a group relaxes, it can help their cause no end. ‘Guess the baby’s weight’ is very possibly too trivial a song in its subject matter for it ever to have been in serious contention either as an A side or an LP track, but its ringing, propulsive chords and freakish suggestion of the scene of an English fete is touched with the Young Knives melodic gift and the observer’s comic sense of displacement: ‘Feels just like a rat-trap / But it’s a tombola’. This is a group as archetypally English as XTC, though more inclined to celebrate the country’s culture by denigrating it. When all that youthful spleen and vigour subsides into something more considered, I hope – as happened with XTC – that the Young Knives, and others of their ilk such as the Futureheads (whose yearning and earnest Mackem tone calls to mind the great moments minted by their Geordie neighbours and antecedents, Hurrah!) might retain their spark and write crafty and crafted pastoral or urban pop songs in the best of the English tradition.
But enthusiasm for a B side is still not quite enough to make an old sceptic buy the Young Knives’ album. Not until it’s discounted further. There’s nothing to beat the surprise of great pop songs at bargain prices, and nothing more irritating than an album that falls flat in the face of hype. I’m sticking with the 7 inch. For now.