Do Us A Tape #2: The Wage Slave’s Companion
Mr Len – This Morning (with The Juggaknots) (Matador)
Alan Hawkshaw – Rat Race (KPM)
Chicago Music Syndrome – Work It (BBE)
Brandt Brauer Frick – Caffeine (4AD)
Junior Delahaye – Working Hard For The Rent Man (Wackies)
The Happy Family – The Salesman (4AD)
Ringo – Working Class (Pressure Sounds)
Dennis Bovell – The Grunwick Affair (Pressure Sounds)
This Mortal Coil – Acid, Bitter and Sad (4AD)
LFO – Whistle While You Jerk (Warp)
Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free (Domino)
The Wage Slave's Companion
An annotated mixtape by Damon Fairclough
Work. It’s a four-letter word and a four-decade sentence. If we’ve got it, we’re lucky; but really, isn’t it a strange kind of luck that so often feels like a punishment?
I tried to get work when I was still at school – at British Home Stores, a Saturday job serving cheese. It would have taught me the dignity of labour, of course; but also the indignity of wearing a white plastic trilby in a public place at the age of just sixteen. Fortunately, I gave an unsatisfactory answer when my interviewer asked what skills I could bring to the serving of Red Leicester: “Er... I once had some in a sandwich so I know what it tastes like?”. Unsurprisingly, the opportunity passed me by.
“Thank you for your interest in British Home Stores,” said the store representative, her cold exhalation chilling the atmosphere between us. “If there are openings, you can be sure that we'll get back in touch.”
There may have been openings, but as I trudged up through town to the bus stop and yanked at the fat woollen tie I'd borrowed off my dad, I could almost hear her hammering them shut.
But fast forward 27 years, and I’m snatching at a rapidly diminishing hour in order to write these few words before I’m expected at my desk. My time will then not be my own; that most precious of resources will be handed to my employer in return for money, office banter and the systematic hollowing of my soul. In the period since BHS showed me the door, I’ve served drinks, filed documents, collected glasses, sold tickets, made hats, written stories, raised invoices, typed letters... countless hours spent doing things for other people, whatever crazy shit they required. Except... they very rarely required crazy shit. They usually required the mundane.
I should certainly be more grateful for the work that has come my way, but instead of giving thanks and praises for my good fortune, I prefer to dwell on the lot of the humble employee via the medium of the eclectic mixtape. It’s something to listen to while stumbling over the terrain of the day; and who knows, maybe we’ll get a glimpse of a better life before the tape finally clocks out at five thirty. So for everyone who knows what it takes to put in the hours and stare at the big hand going round, this tape is for you. Dig out your Binatone Hip-Fi, loiter where your boss can’t see you, and allow me to introduce you to my good friend, The Wage Slave’s Companion.
In the moments that follow the cockerel's reveille - or the hyper-tense bleep of the alarm clock - what wouldn't you give in return for another hour in bed? You'd give cash, you'd give jewels, you'd give your first born. But it's time to get up for work, and no power on Earth can make it not so.
The night before my first proper job – after years of unhurried studenthood, during which time the coming of morning was more a reminder that other people had it tough than a signal that forced me to start my own day – I worried that I would never make it out of bed at the requisite hour. I was concerned that having habitually rolled over and gone back to sleep for nigh on five years – ever since I’d left school – I'd somehow permanently damaged my metabolism and it would now be physically impossible to place my feet on the floor.
Fortunately, I had a feature-rich new midi system, and while making music sound good wasn't one of those features, it did have the ability to come on at a time of my choosing. You could pre-set the radio of course, but more intriguingly, you could also cue up a record with which to begin your morning.
I thought about Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back'. I remembered the spine-chilling shriek of the air raid siren that opens side one and felt sure that it would be able to rouse me from my slumbers. So I plucked my copy from the shelf, slid the LP onto the deck, dropped the tone arm into place on the shoulder of the groove – and wound the volume knob up to eleven. I set the timer as though preparing a bomb, then retired to my bed leaving the remote control well out of reach, confident that my first morning in full-time employment wouldn't be scuppered by me failing to arrive.
Except, I almost did fail to arrive; not because I was lazy and couldn't extricate myself from the duvet's comforting cuddle, but because the sonic detonation that occurred in my room on the dot of 7am came very close to finishing me off. It caused my heart to leap right out of my chest; adrenaline surged through my veins. My limbs bulged; I was catatonic with fear. Chuck, Flav and Professor Griff may as well have been in my room, stamping all over my blubbering face.
It was a near thing, but I survived the experience, finally making it into work with wide, red eyes and a dangerously palpitating heart. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger they reckon, so here I attempt to recreate something of that trial by hip hop; not with the sound of PE's collapsing civilisations, but with Mr Len’s doom-laden, poised-on-the-edge-of-peril wake-up call: clearly, ‘This Morning (with The Juggaknots)’ is a very different proposition to This Morning with Richard and Judy. But worry not: it may be backed by a looped horror movie whistle that sounds like the distant call of a sleep-threatening car alarm, not to mention some fake crow squawks that call to mind the horse-drawn darkness of an Eastenders funeral, but I guarantee that it's a gentler way to start the day than “London England, consider yourselves WARRRRNED!”.
Think of it as a splash of cold water for your ears, or perhaps some kind of peppermint scrub for your auricular canal.
So. Feeling edgy, nerves a-jangle?
Sounds like you’re ready for what lies ahead.
Morning warriors with brollies poised like scimitars pour down escalators into the depths of the Earth. With The Times clutched 'twixt elbow and rib, we follow the ranks of these Reggie Perrins, these Jerry Leadbetters, as they parade across town in their Ministry of Silly Walks get-up, as they dream about Barbara Dickson on last night's 'Two Ronnies'. They lead lives of shag-pile and soda, but for now, they march onto suburban rail platforms like troops on manoeuvres – without the camaraderie, it's true, but still with a shared sense of doom.
It's in the stab of the brass, the roll of the Hammond. Alan Hawkshaw's pin-striped library funk conjures up a scene I seem to have cobbled together from 'The Good Life', 'The Money Programme' and a long-lost Ealing comedy; a scene unseen by my real-life eyes, but one that plays across my subconscious as soon as those urgent trombones burst into life. Was it ever like this – going to work I mean? Were there ever such legions of bowler-hatted foot soldiers, all flicking in unison through the pages of The Thunderer while checking up on pork bellies and the latest delays on the District line?
I think of my own various commutes down the years: riding the pride of South Yorkshire Transport, jammed onto the top deck, peering through the fag smoke at dank mornings beyond the mottled glass; standing in the filthy rain by the chip shop waiting for my lift, fetid grease still hanging above the pavement; walking hunched against a slicing wind, wet rave-bob dripping trickles down my neck; or waving my rail pass in the conductor's face on the antediluvian Liverpool to Manchester stopping train, calling at Halewood, Hough Green, Widnes, Sankey, Warrington, Padgate, Birchwood... and still another half hour to go.
I think of the faces that shared these journeys with me: lined and hollow, pallid in the early grey-light dawn, the drooping corners of mouths betraying inner struggles as shoulders shrug against the demands of another day. Once there were Marlboros and unfurled copies of the Morning Telegraph held like daggers, like shields; now more likely a balanced casket of foaming cappuccino, its billowing pillows concealing a drug designed to perk up reality. We sport tufts and clumps and damped-down patches – the tell-tale signs of a kitchen scissors haircut; or else high street knock-offs of a high fashion coiffeuring - equally ill-suited to fumblings in front of the early-morning bathroom mirror. We sport toothpaste down our shirts, boulders of yellow sleep in our eyes. And again, those faces: stubbled, folded, grim.
But listening to 'Rat Race', we can at least believe that we might be vital cogs in the economic machine... and not the atomised clouds of torment and angst that we feel right now; not pin-striped, but pin-cushioned with doubt, on this platform/pavement to nowhere...
Few are the jobs that don't settle down eventually into some kind of repetitive groove. The universe might tend towards chaos, but in the world of work the reverse holds true: labours that once seemed full of variety – even if only for a day – will reveal their inner drudgery over the hours, weeks and months that lie ahead.
I like repetition in my music, and I fear that I quite like it in my job too. How else to explain the years I've repeated the same basic processes over and over and over; there may have been muttered grumblings that greeted another task just like the last – but aren't they always followed by unverbalised baulking at the prospect of change? After all, there's comfort to be had in routine. Get up, get out, get on. Comfort also to be had from the stultifying thud of this kick drum, the musical mechanics that chug backwards and forwards, interlocked like an engine, granting us the reassurance of perpetual motion.
This is the 'Chicago Music Syndrome' – suggesting an illness, a terminal condition. I was infected by this acidic bug over twenty years ago, and still it's the music I use to propel me through another monotonous day. Somehow the beat has bored into my marrow, and my teenage dreams – allegedly, so hard to beat – have been eaten away and replaced by lists of chores, the minutiae of an office-bound existence. I can't help feeling that this is four-to-the-floor thinking. As long as this beat keeps thumping, I'll keep following the scheme that's been set.
Not for me the action plans, agendas and screaming deadlines that I deal with on behalf of other people - “The client's just rung and they need ideas by TONIGHT!!”. At the back of my mind there may be awareness that other lives are also available, but it's this steady and unchanging groove that delights.
I don't mean to sound ungrateful for music – or a life – like this. It traps me – but I like the security. Really, I never complain.
Now… after all that deadening exertion, how better to heighten that tired-not-tired sensation than by dosing up on something warm, brown and instant? It's good enough for Una Stubbs, so it's good enough for us.
Brandt Brauer Frick – the German trio who entwine Steve Reichian acoustic mathematics with an unsettled and restless-legged techno – look too crisp and well groomed to have coffee breath. But the mildly propellant property of their music is unmistakeable, perfectly timed given that mid-morning caffeine is prescribed in order to maintain our status as fully functioning economic units, twitchy of muscle and wide of the eye, able to remain productive, at least until lunch. In his psych bible 'The Food of the Gods', Terence McKenna explains: “Their stimulant properties made caffeine in coffee and its close cousin theobromine in tea the ideal drugs for the Industrial Revolution; they provided an energy lift, enabling people to keep working at repetitious tasks that demanded concentration. Indeed, the tea and coffee break is the only drug ritual that has never been criticized by those who profit from the modern industrial state.”
So there's caffeine to keep us percolating. Alcohol to deaden the spirit. It's the speedball The Man wants you to enjoy; and we should perhaps remember that this
everyday cup of coffee – one heaped spoon of granules from the jar, generous glug of milk before the water goes in, cup filled to the brim from a kettle just off the boil – is a pharmaceutical product that we cook up with the relish of Zammo in the Grange Hill bogs. Perhaps we believe that we're savouring three types of the finest coffee bean – roasted, desiccated, pounded to dust, then using trickery beyond the ken of mere mortals, turned into stuff that dissolves! - but of course, we're actually just fending off withdrawal, postponing the terror of cold turkey.
Put that way, it should be a secret thing. The office kitchen should be an illicit corner, hidden from polite society. But here we are, not only making a brew for ourselves, but generously dosing up the rest of the workforce as well! There is a random selection of cups on the worktop, like the plate-smashing stall at the fairground – World's Best Dad, the logo of an IT support firm, You Don't Have To Be Mad To Work Here But It Helps; and along the line we go, dropping in tea bags, mounds of Nescafé, a sugar here and there; then the milking, the pouring, the stirring – taking care to rinse the spoon between coffees and teas so that no-one suffers cross-contamination. Then clutching fistfuls of mugs and doing the shuffle-walk around the desks, fingers tightly knotted through handles and knuckles almost scorched, each steaming cupful placed gingerly – so gently! - by the allotted mouse mat.
Job done. And all that remains is to sit down ourselves, giving the keyboard a tap to vanish away the screensaver, and to lift up the mug and feel the hot mist of vapours on our face.
It’s an obvious trick – to turn a track called ‘Caffeine’ into a wired, edgy affair. But it’s how I feel at this moment, as I stare into the curve of the meniscus and wonder at the hours left to burn.
We all have our reasons for doing what we do. The lesson of Junior Delahaye's bitter sweet resignation to his fate is that while sufferation can cause such inner pain – he's working every day, but still he can't get no pay, a situation that should perhaps prompt a visit to the Citizens' Advice Bureau – its outward expression can lead to an irresistibly plaintive melody like this one. He's not kicking at the walls of Babylon here, calling down blood and fire on the heads of his people's tormentors: this is a musical shrugging of the shoulders, an acceptance that this is just the way it is. For all that he sings of making a better world “for you and me and the future boys and girls”, I'm afraid the tragedy of 'Working Hard for the Rent Man' is that every other element of the song speaks to a fear that nothing will ever change. That chugging rockers rhythm and the heartbreaking jazz-styled guitar – these are not weapons in a war against the system. This is a story that will chug on and on forever and only the names will ever alter. And that's what's so bloody unjust about this world; that in the face of endless injustice we remain – after hundreds of years of struggle – essentially individual units of experience with pessimism in our hearts. Though if we're very lucky indeed, a song as gorgeous as this might result.
Personally, I'm working hard for the mortgage, for the wife, for the kids, for the cat. I'm working hard to keep food in the cupboard, beer in the fridge, a wide range of cleaning products under the sink. And then there are all those items that I never imagined I would ever have to buy: double glazing, lino floor tiles, a private pension. I'm working hard for all these things – for the present, and for a future that we can't yet know. Maybe it will turn out to be a better world, though on a cursory reading of current conditions, I wouldn't bet on it.
With lunch now an imminent prospect, I, too, am shrugging my shoulders and continuing to work hard for the rent man. And with the aching soul of a song like this to help me along, that's easier done than said.
As we return to our desks, wiping sandwich crumbs from our shirt fronts and licking the last oaty flakes of flapjack from our lips, and the afternoon’s remaining hours seem to elongate most woozily, it may do us good to consider for a moment those jobs that, in all seriousness, we really wouldn’t do if you paid us. Personally, I would gather up my worldly goods in a knotted handkerchief and make my way to the Poor House rather than become a salesman of any type: cold calling, hot calling, the temperature of the sales would make no difference to me. I think of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross: “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado, second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is… you’re fired.”
The Happy Family, in this curious tune, clearly seem to share my terrors, though they have a clever way of showing it. In fact it puts me in mind of a lost song from Trumpton, one that might have signified the career, hopes and dreams of a character like Chippy Minton, Miss Lovelace or Captain Flack. This stylistic homage to the BBC’s stop-motion legends pre-dates the more explicit references of Half Man Half Biscuit’s ‘Trumpton Riots’, but in giving Watch With Mother melodies a satirical bite, they share at least a little sensibility.
‘The Salesman’ was released in 1982 on the 4AD album The Man on Your Street, a concept LP of sorts that turned early-eighties’ Scottish indie pop into a theatrical narrative worthy of thirties’ Berlin. And despite the jauntiness of its whistling and the zither-like sound on the chorus that speaks of nothing more chilling than Rent-A-Ghost, its lyric is enough to give a salesphobic fellow like me a deadly quiver in the heart:
“Here I have detergent,
These boxes are my life,
I flog them round from town to town,
To feed my son and wife.”
I imagine standing on the front step, my curled fist about to strike the door but somehow unable to consummate the knock. I’d be frozen there forever, running through my script in my head, never quite managing to finally present my wares. And this image, and this song, have done the trick. Whatever else I’m doing, I’m not a salesman.
Some advice. When choosing a career, make sure Arthur Miller never wrote a play about it.
I used to talk about the working class a lot – when I didn’t work, as I recall. Now that I do work for my living, and have done for a long time, I note that the phrase ‘working class’ seldom if ever passes my lips. After all, we never really know what we mean by it, unless of course in the strictly Marxist sense of ‘proletariat’ – i.e. those without ownership of the means of production. The trouble is, while being short on means of production, the proletariat does own rather a lot of other stuff these days: simply by flicking through the catalogue that falls out of the Radio Times each week, I conclude that this ‘stuff’ includes zip-up blankets for cosier telly viewing, devices for reducing turkey neck, machines that lift you out of your armchair and a decoy heron that protects your pond from birds – and this material wealth is often hard to reconcile with our notion of what it actually means to be one of the workers.
In 1984, when I presumed to imagine that the striking miners of the South Yorkshire coalfield would like a baby-faced juvenile revolutionary like me in their midst, the cry from many strike-haters was, “But the miners have video recorders now!” – the implication being that ownership of such technology should preclude them from the organised withholding of labour. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how many consumer durables we have stacked in our homes: when push comes to shove – whenever that might be – it will be abundantly clear to us all which side we’re on. Whether we’re all too comfortable in our Cuddlewrap Blankets to lift our fingers is another matter entirely.
So perhaps we might like to think about Johnny Ringo’s meditation on his own sense of class solidarity, his willingness to embrace even doctors and lawyers as potential comrades in arms, and his determination to never leave his class behind. To the gentle yet relentless accompaniment of the ‘Cuss Cuss’ rhythm, he presents what now seems like an unfashionable pride in his own lowly position and by the time the track fades out, I’m feeling more than a little ashamed that not one of my work colleagues would think to claim such kinship with me.
And if that’s the case for other people too, maybe we’re being remiss in not feeling more of a sense of union with our fellow workers – even that guy that nicked your last Cup-A-Soup, and the bloke who never holds the lift doors when he sees you coming, and the ranks of twenty-something female colleagues who all sign their work emails with a kiss. One day, we might need each other – and not just for the loan of some Post-Its.
How appropriate then that this tape continues with some solid British dub that celebrates, or at least marks, one of the most significant industrial disputes of the nineteen seventies. Released in 1978 under the 4th Street Orchestra name, this track is a Dennis Bovell production; as an instrumental, it’s fair to say that its urgent reggae exhibits no explicit connection with the bitter Grunwick dispute that ran for almost two full years from August 1976 – other than in its title – but still, it somehow smoulders with militant rage.
The dispute centred on the Grunwick film processing laboratories in Willesden where the dismissal of Devshi Bhudia for working too slowly – in the heat of the legendary summer of ’76 – flared into a confrontation between strikers, who walked out in support of their colleague, and a spectacularly intransigent management. As I sit here at my desk, bathed in the warm glow of a computer that both connects me to the world beyond these four walls and yet also separates me from those working on the other side of the room, it is easy to feel overwhelming admiration for the determination of those fierce class fighters with their palpable sense of having nothing left to lose. There’s a flippant nostalgia too: they were days when strikes really were strikes – all out, all or nothing – rather than half-hearted days of action flagged well in advance and coming across as barely more than a duvet day with a rally attached.
The Grunwick strikers picked up phenomenal support from a still strongly unionised wider workforce. Postal workers in particular refused to handle Grunwick’s mail, almost paralysing the company which was built on its mail-order photographic processing service. Huge mass pickets invariably resulted in the kind of violent news footage that these days gets soundtracked on YouTube by ‘Babylon’s Burning’ or Two Sevens Clash. The Special Patrol Group were used in an industrial dispute for the first time. There were more arrests throughout the strike than during any dispute since 1926. Even the mighty forces of children’s TV were ranged against the dismissed workers, with Norris McWhirter from Record Breakers piling into the fray with his right-wing National Association for Freedom.
Ultimately, as so often, the strike was defeated; but whatever your point of view, those gargantuan confrontations of the seventies remain awe-inspiring. And this tune, with its trumpets calling from the barricades, can still conjure up something of the end-of-times atmosphere that clouded even John Craven’s Newsround. Whereas much of Bovell’s 4th Street Orchestra output involved creating dubs of smooth lovers’ rock, this track is clearly propelled by something more flammable. It’s very reminiscent of his work with Linton Kwesi Johnson – be it 1978’s Dread Beat an’ Blood LP, or later albums like the stupendous Making History.
During the Grunwick dispute, a government inquiry was commissioned chaired by Lord Scarman. Four years later, the same man would lead the inquiry into the Brixton riots, an event that prompted LKJ’s unapologetic masterpiece, ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’. With the backing of Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band, he hurled the machinations of the law makers back where they came from, concluding with a message that could perhaps be a gift to the Grunwick strikers as much as to the militant youth of Brixton.
In his own words:
“Never mind Scarman.”
This, then, is the fearsome power of dub: from Grunwick to Brixton and beyond.
It's all very well feeling a sense of kinship with the past – with fellow workers who were willing to put themselves on the front line in the hope of an incrementally better life – but they are now retired souls; and here I am – here we are – with our heads down, our fingers on our keyboards, our mouths chanting the mantras that our bosses want to hear while our minds wander untethered elsewhere.
I can tell: we're feeling defeated without ever having been called on to fight.
So what better way to soundtrack our tumbling despair than to turn to This Mortal Coil, the dream pop collective that swept the 4AD label's tangle of back-combed guitars into a teetering candy-floss sound sculpture: a streak of Dead Can Dance here, a strand of crystallised Cocteaus over there, the whole delicate construction so air-whipped as to hardly exist.
In 1987, when 'Acid, Bitter and Sad' emerged on the album Lonely Is An Eyesore, defeat was everywhere. Miners, steelworkers, print unions and more had all been roundly trounced by the controlling political ideology of the time. There was another election victory for Mrs Thatcher; for the old certainties, it really felt like the end. We can debate till the end of time about what was lost and what was gained in this process, but that it happened, and that there was a mass resignation to their fate on the part of many people, is hardly a contentious point.
And here at our computers, our steering wheels, our conveyor belts, our shop counters, our coal faces, our ovens, as these celestial bells and surging tides wash away that burgeoning sense of hope that had begun to settle in our hearts, all we can do is accept that lines were drawn back then that have never since been crossed.
I know my place. You know yours. And if we want something better, we can whistle for it.
There’s nothing for it now but to forget.
Forget there was ever a struggle. Forget you had ambitions and dreams. Forget you’ve got a home to go back to. Forget you once had a sense of control. Because you belong to someone else now; your time is not your own.
This is about pounding out the hours that are left, every second of every minute thumping you in the skull leaving you stumbling, dazed and confused. This is about grinding you down, pummelling you, forcing you to submit. No more coffee, no more tea; no more flirting over the copier, or running out for chocolate, or sending LOL Cat links with aggressive repetition. There’s nothing for it now but to knuckle down and forget.
LFO were always capable of pushing things too far – sonically, I mean. From the earliest tracks on Warp, the needles were always flicking into the red – although despite its memorable sub-bass and clattering drums, the track ‘LFO’ is mostly characterised for me by the chilling melancholia of its synth work. When it first pounded dancefloors in 1990 it sounded like a siren from a harsher age, but at the side of 2003’s ‘Whistle While You Jerk’, its crisp rhythm track seems positively sedate. This tune, the one that’s now marmalising our sense of identity and leaving us blank-faced and joyless, like the Epsilons from Brave New World, is a dense and crushing burst of noise. You can try and dance to it if you want to, but it’ll kill you. And besides, there’s work to be done.
So give in to the clamour of Mark Bell and his heavy machinery. You have no need for union recognition, free collective bargaining, health and safety precautions, legally binding contracts, industrial tribunals, free eye tests, protective clothing, disciplinary proceedings, appropriate behaviour, IT support, takeover rumours, pay as you earn, flexible hours and the rest.
It’s all about the work. This time... there is to be no release.
Or is there...?
Robert Wyatt’s masterful cover of Chic’s equally masterful ‘At Last I Am Free’ might make you think so for a moment. Because there’s that feeling, as you down tools for the night and head out of the door, that at last you are free – of petty regulation and the dictates of others. You’re leaving it behind; exquisite liberty has returned.
But… at last I am free, I can hardly see in front of me.
What kind of freedom is that?
And surely, it is precisely this kind of ambiguity that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards intended when they wrote this heartbreaking song, and that Wyatt actually seems to intensify in his reading of its hooded truths. There is release here – there’s a cascade of joy as the chorus breaks, but almost immediately we sense the creep of disillusion, and we realise that the lethargic drum beat on which the track rides is never going to send us tripping lightly down the street like Tommy Steele after a lungful of helium. For all the air in the melody, this is a plod of a song: it’s for people with their shoulders hunched, their dreams demolished, their spirit finally in bits.
As I descend the office stairs with Wyatt’s strange thin voice in my ears, I give a nod to the cleaner – about to start work – and emerge onto a rain-sheened pavement, my path into the future clearly laid out before me. It leads away from here, and it leads back again. The song plays out to a fade. The tape runs through to the end. And I know I’ll be back tomorrow.
© Damon Fairclough 2010