Do Us A Tape #3: Your Sweet Sticky Summer
Santa Dog – Theme from Camberwick Green (Lo Recordings)
ARP – St Tropez (Smalltown Supersound)
Syclops – A Lovely Sunday (DFA US)
Lush – Cul de Sac (4AD)
MFSB – Sunnin’ and Funnin’ (Edsel)
Capitol K – Heat (XL)
Sun Ra – Heliocentric (ESP Disk)
DJ Bootsie – Mosquito Dance (BBE)
tUnE-yArDs – Sunlight (4AD)
Theo Parrish – Sweet Sticky (Peacefrog)
Trembling Bells – September is the Month of Death (Honest Jon’s)
Your Sweet Sticky Summer
An annotated mixtape by Damon Fairclough
You look at your watch, at its never-still hands; it is three seconds past 4.17.
The sun throws an arc across the watch's mooning face, bisecting the word 'Ingersoll' with a smile. It is a hot afternoon; a suspended afternoon. A summer afternoon without end. There's a mossy grass tang to the air – the scent of a newly-shorn playing field; and there are children and cricket bats and a detuned rendition of 'Greensleeves' – the ice-cream call of the Granelli's van. You are not a child, but it's the kind of afternoon for which childhood was invented, with its hours of daylight and no bedtime in sight. And yet... and yet.
There are cracks in the earth; the ground is scuffed, dehydrated and hard. And while the soil beneath your body feels like concrete, your forehead is buckled like a ploughed field as you squint against the torment of the sun. You twist and squirm in discomfort, and you notice how the heat has caused your wrist and lower arm to bulge a little against your watch strap. The leather-look band clutches disturbingly at your limb, and you think of the moment when a school bully turns his taunts into threat, and you realise you cannot release yourself from his grip.
Is this nice, you wonder? Is this what you were meant to look forward to through those drawn-in winter nights, with their enveloping curtains and agreeable TV schedules and cosy toes drawn up to the fire? You realise you’re unusual, or maybe even a freak; because to you, this summer afternoon feels awkward – the sun like a blazing yellow fat-ball and your blood bubbling fiercely in your veins.
What you need is some music, something to pass the time and to lift this oppressive mood; and as you think these thoughts, you notice there's a tape deck on the grass by your side. It's one of the old ones, the squat ones; before boom boxes and ghetto blasters, before graphic equalisers and an epilepsy of flashing LEDs. It's a mirage of course, a product of a heat-addled mind, but you push down the PLAY button in any case, and it works.
Or at least, you hear something.
It's the sound of heat stroke, of sun burn, of summer.
Thankfully though, this music sounds peaceful; and quite suddenly, the harsh bleached light turns to gold.
You feel the cooling churn of nostalgia around you, and allow your mind – if not your body – to be cast away on its stream. It carries you to a childhood idyll, a place where the sun always shines... on TV. Because what this band, Santa Dog, are pouring over you is the closing theme music from Camberwick Green – a tune that signifies a quaintly English pastoral perfection. To those who don't know the programme – and can you imagine the hole that exists in the formative experiences of those who never watched Camberwick Green? – its melancholic echoes must surely still carry with them an evocation of calm and tranquillity; but to those who do recall its music box charms – its miniscule stop-motion dramas and the sense of all being right with the world – well, these are memories in which you could drown.
Certainly, this is not a tune to be wallowed in following a heavy meal.
It is playfully brief, no doubt posited as a nice idea with which to fill up a minute on an album, but as a choice for a cover version it is telling. It looks backwards, with a sad kind of warmth; and to the summer-dress-wearing kidults who stand knock-kneed in the corners of indie discos – with their bobbed hair clipped back and cardigan sleeves pulled down past their hands, like the candy-faced offspring of Clare Grogan – it's as stirring as the Minder theme probably is to Jeremy Clarkson.
To those who remember the rotating music box that opened every episode of Camberwick Green, with its ingenious lid unfolding like origami to reveal the character around whom the story would revolve, the message is simple: once upon a time, things were easier, and sunnier, more innocent. And well beyond the realms of that cute and coy indie tradition, the urge to retreat to a golden age is a strong one. Rationally, you know it never existed; but via your mind, you have the power to go there just the same.
You begin to relax, to feel the ease and contentment that you're supposed to experience on endless afternoons just like these. You imagine tea pots and jam spoons and the rattle and whirr of a lawnmower – of the manual variety, of course, slightly rusted and retrieved from the back of a greasy, creosote-smelling shed. There is no cynicism here; no one is pissed off or jaded, no mysteries are hidden within. This is not Midwich, or Midsomer, or Middle Earth.
This is just Camberwick Green in the summer. And it’s delightful.
The music produced by Alexis Georgopoulos's ARP project is made for unhurried contemplation, for fixating on the warmth of the sun. If the rays that reach us from our nearest star could be picked up aurally, it's entirely conceivable that they would sound exactly like this; that is, incandescent sonic particles made of light. ARP's music could be beamed down to earth at sunset each evening, and no one would ever complain.
At which point, you find yourself thinking thoughts that tend to the exotic. A fictional English village green is one thing; a crescent of shimmering sand quite another. You remember a friend whose family often went to the south of France back when your other mates were holidaying in Mablethorpe. He was wealthy, at least relatively speaking; and his Riviera breaks were replayed back at school in great detail, lovingly over-oeuffed and designed to whip you all up like a soufflé.
“All the women on the beach were topless,” he reported with a nonchalant aside.
You all stared at him expecting elaboration, and when he offered nothing more, you dared to admit your ignorance.
“What do you mean?”
You were, after all, very young.
“Topless. They only wear pants.”
Individually, you all processed the information in terms that meshed with your own experiences of the world. Some of you imagined Filey, others imagined Bridlington; and those with a more sophisticated brand of parent imagined Anglesey, or Falmouth, even Brittany. But in none of these locations could you conjure up an image of nakedness that wasn't accidental and lilac with cold – a nanosecond of flesh revealed beyond the edge of a B&B towel.
What was being discussed here, though, was something quite different. And having applied the shock that would stun you, he decided to plug you into the mains.
“They lie on the beach with their bosoms out. (PAUSE). Even my mum.”
At first, it had sounded like paradise. Now, it sounded positively sub-human. You decided, individually and in silence, that you would never go on holiday to St Tropez – at least, not until you were old enough to leave your mothers far behind.
You've still never been; but as you listen to the radiating two-note chimes that propel ARP's disarmingly simple synth meditation, you know enough to fill your mind's gaze with palm trees and yacht porn and a promenade of rich women with tiny little dogs. And there's the heat of course, and a classier strain of sunlight than that to which you are used; it doesn't so much burn, you suppose, as turn you nutty brown, like an oven-baked and vinegared conker.
You listen to ARP's circular pulsing; you feel the infra-red on your skin. You could be in an Ambre Solaire ad from the seventies – all oiled bodies with a thick coat of sand. Back when the sun was still benign, the south of France was far away, and synthesizers were connected to the cosmos.
It’s in the name, of course: sun – day. And being the portion of the week dedicated to our solar neighbour, it’s only right that you should stretch out on the grass and accept its electromagnetic radiation, not in prosaic terms – as the product of a process of nuclear fusion – but as an offering gifted by a beneficent, celestial god. Albeit one made of hot plasma.
And while you’re not sure whether this unholy day actually is a Sunday, you can be certain that it is a Sun Day. You know this, because it combines all the light and heat that the solar deity can hurl at you, with the listlessness and ennui that characterise the elastic mid-afternoon of the Sabbath. You glance at your watch for a moment; and then you peer again for a closer look. It still says three seconds past 4.17.
Time, it would seem, is growing listless too. And Syclops – being, as far as you know, a Maurice Fulton solo gig, though one with an amorphous heart and a spurious line-up of names without faces – create a languid swirl of a record that suits the even-breathing-feels-like-too-much-effort sense that only the seventh day can bring.
It begins with a thick bassy rumble, creating the impression that the track is gearing up for some powerful sonic thrust. But the gut-rattling churn is just a front; because the subsequent drum beats sound like a guy practising in his attic, the synth pads roll with a heavy-limbed shuffle, and then its energy seems to dissipate as it stumbles through six minutes of suspended animation.
And though the track is good to listen to on an afternoon when self-propulsion seems tricky to achieve, you remember that for all the pleasure you can find in a Sunday, it can never really be lovely, as the song title would have it. And the reason is that the next day will always be Monday.
Though at this rate – glancing again at the seemingly becalmed hands on your watch – it seems unlikely that you’ll ever see Monday again.
A dead end is what it feels like, this motionless day; a cul de sac on a suburban estate. And as Lush strum their swaying guitar lines, and a thin keyboard whistle picks out a sluggish refrain, you feel the grass beneath your body turn to tarmac, to a street made of sweltering treacle. You watch the porches, the flower beds, the door steps; you see children emerge from inside. They blow up paddling pools, and play swing ball, and wield Fairy Liquid bottles like pistols at dawn.
The first gush of water seems to surprise everyone – at least, they pretend it does. But the second and third squirts follow immediately, and within seconds, the kids are swooping great arcs of liquid into the air and over each other. Their laughter is physical, almost violent; their screaming speaks of unfettered joy. You watch yourself watching them watching you, and you wonder what they must think as they spot you on the edge of their vision. Do they imagine you share the freedom that they have – the same boundless happiness that it's sunny and it's summer? Or can they tell that you've lost that abandon, and are trying desperately to remember how it feels?
The sky is so blue you want to paint it – not with watercolour, but with a vivid acrylic blotched straight from the tube. These are Hockney skies, though not Californian. They are English, and thus startling because they're so rare. There are distant synth swoops somewhere beyond the guitar, and you see the far off trail of an aeroplane, its slash-mark-exhaust slowly puffing up and expanding; and as Lush's dreamy evocation pauses for a second, then picks up pace and transforms into some kind of lounge bar swing tune, you become aware of the adults on the streets passing greetings across the garden fence; and the coming and going of box-shaped cars with sharp angles and dash-boards made of wood.
You smell the neat lawns, the detergents, the Ronseal; the baked air as it rises from the ground. You hear the padding of bare feet on crazy paving, the sloosh and slop of cars being washed. You feel secure here even though you don't belong; and you understand where precisely this Lush track has taken you: to a place on the edge of your childhood, to a kingdom of impending chopped pork.
There are salads lurking round the corner, and that strange sense that the day is far from over even though you've been called in for bed.
Still, it's the middle of summer, and there can be more fun tomorrow; if the weather holds; if the dream doesn't fade.
Maybe it's the influence of all those cul de sac kids – and all their Mothers and Fathers and Sisters and Brothers – but finally, this summer’s day seems to be delivering that easy sense of release you always hoped for. You feel the fresh, cool sprinkle of the MFSB strings as the famous studio orchestra directs its smooth and soapy sound in your direction: you close your eyes and feel your muscles, normally permanently clenched, begin to shake out the last of their knots.
It must be the summer of 1976, you decide. The summer that dried up Britain, that left the whole country gasping for a drink, with many communities finding their taps locked off and water only available from stand-pipes in the street. Your family would drive out to the reservoir to marvel at the desiccated basin; it was like a vision of Nevada, but transplanted to the edge of the Pennines. And you would play out from first light until bedtime – that open-ended, freeform recreation that was guided by nothing more tangible than the power of your imagination. And did you worry about the drought? Of course you didn't. It was exciting; it was thrilling; you couldn't wait until the stand-pipes came to your street.
And drifting through the shimmers of radiant heat was the glistening vapour of music like this: a rich, immaculate orchestral sound that was both warming and cooling simultaneously – like silk, of course. And to call them silken strings would be a cliché, but only because that smoothness and sheen describes so precisely what they sound like. MFSB was the session orchestra of Gamble and Huff at their Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. But by 1976 – and the release of 'Summertime', their fifth album as a named entity in their own right – they were no longer mere Philly soul functionaries; they had moved to the top of the bill, having formulated the string drenched cocktail in which disco bobbed like a cherry.
You wonder what summer 1976 was like in Philadelphia. You imagine skinny tees and flowing hair; Wrangler hips with sew-on patches; blue collar steel men drinking ice cold Pabst; and rainbow kids running through a monsoon of fire hydrant rain.
Back at home, you would never have thought to call it “sunnin' and funnin'”; rather, you were just playing while the sunshine “cracked the flags”. But no matter how it might have been described, you were young and you were desperate to get out there – simply happy to enjoy some care-free days and nights. And... as this perfect sound cascades around your ears, you feel ready now to drink the summer dry.
As you begin to stretch and unwind, preparing to peel yourself off the grass and stride out across the remains of the day, you glance at your watch. You are surprised; the hands still don't seem to be moving. You unstrap it from your wrist and hold it to your ear while gazing at the reddened, sweat-slicked depression it leaves behind on your fore-arm. The mark itches and you scratch at it, and the skin begins to buckle as angry heat bumps rise; then you listen again to the watch, but still there's no ticking. According to its inscrutable face, it remains three seconds past 4.17.
As you fix your eyes on the horizon and attempt to step out in its general direction, you hear the campfire crackle backing track to Capitol K's 'Heat', and you realise that expending energy on an afternoon like this is going to be a lot more difficult than you ever imagined. Not only is there a conflagration occurring in your ears, you can feel the sun beginning to crisp up your skin like a burns victim on a surgery wall chart. This isn't just a warm summer's day, you realise; this is a heat from which it's impossible to escape.
After the optimism and humanitarian embrace of MFSB, you needed music that would fizz through you like Lucozade. Instead, you've got smouldering folktronica with a sound like a far-off forest fire. And as this mirage of a tape plays through to the end of side one, you reach over to flip it around, desperate now for relief from this debilitating, ever lasting day.
But there is to be no relief. What you get instead is a track that ignites like a fuse: with a low woodwind hum, it snakes through the tinder-dry grass and bursts into circles of flame; great flickering spear heads of flute and trumpet in orange and red. Above you – far above you – the sun seems to treble in size, at least. Sun Ra is feeding it, stoking its furnace; and as it gorges on a fuel made of crazy, ecstatic free jazz, its solar flares seem to lick at your face.
You remember all those summers that damaged you. The ones that scorched at your body, that blistered your skin.
You think of the time you had your head shaved for a fortnight in Greece, and on your first day down at the beach you smeared yourself in Boots Soltan Factor 30. You felt so smug, so perfectly protected; but, forgetting that you'd had your hair rasped off at the barber's, you neglected to put cream on your head.
And that evening you looked in the mirror.
Body white: head burnt like a match.
A hat was sufficient to spare your blushes over the blazing summer days that followed, but it couldn’t bring back the deep relaxation that you’d hoped would be yours for the holiday. Instead, you muttered about the tyranny of sun cream – the daily smearings and constant re-smearings that left you greased up and oven ready; and with your freedom stolen, you never again felt at ease.
And while you’re thinking this, you listen to the fiery innovations of Sun Ra’s ‘Heliocentric’ as it singes the air round your nostrils. You feel intimidated by its freedom; you want a melody you can hum. But just like those kids with their giggles and squeezy bottles, this music is in no mood for limits. It’s summer, it’s hot and it’s rampant!
So, you're looking for melodies; and as if by midsummer magic, a Hungarian turntablist called DJ Bootsie turns up with a crate stuffed with tuneful samples, all sliced and diced and perfectly matched. The track begins with some tinkles of tight-stringed pizzicato, and it brings to mind the first of the drip-drip-drop-little-April-showers from Disney's 'Bambi', and you dare to believe that not only are you now replete with a head full of whistleable melodies, but you might even be treated to a little dust-dampening rain. Be still your beating heart!
But what happens is this. Instead of delivering a bout of cooling aural precipitation, the track seems to heat up like the bubbling of a kettle. There's still moisture in there, but it's steaming and humid, and the visions it conjures before your mind's eye are more rainforest than duck pond. And there are flying insects too – thick swarms of them. Suddenly they're around you and upon you: crawling over eye-lids, fizzing at your ears; and biting, chewing, nipping at your skin.
There was once a holiday in Scotland with your family – a summer holiday in a cabin by a loch. It was shady, forested land, and the creature that ruled that kingdom uncontested was the midge.
Oh, how those infernal clouds of malevolent dust tormented you that holiday! They came from nowhere – whisping and gathering round your head like the way that candy floss appears on a stick. How such tiny specks could deliver such bites, you have never understood. But they went at you like hyenas round a carcass, gnawing at your body till it resembled a relief map of the Cumbrian hills.
The only solution was to cover yourself in repellent every time you ventured out. And that meant more creams, more unguents, more chemicals to be massaged into the skin. And under the prickly heat of the sun, these coatings of oil and grease would cause you to sweat even more, and rivulets of perspiration would trickle into your eyes bringing their artificial contaminants with them, and as your pupils reddened with irritation and pain, you felt like you were being CS gassed on the Boulevard St Michel.
So much for the tranquillity of a Scottish woodland home, deep in the hot heart of summer.
Maybe if DJ Bootsie hadn't called this stuttering, hook-laden track 'Mosquito Dance', none of this would have happened. But there it is; he's unleashed a swarm of flying devils and, without wishing to overstate matters too much, this trip through a lazy summer's day is turning nastier than 'I Spit On Your Grave'.
You squint, and the world loses all definition. There are shadows, and shapes, and the sun seems to spangle like a star – which is what it is, so no surprise there – and you gaze not at a view with hard edges, but at an impression of a fuzzed up kind of light.
Somehow, the real world – the hard-edged, tangible world – seems to sit behind this haloed and misty in-betweeness; and the blurry impression becomes a cipher for the things you know are really there – somewhere.
You listen to the crunch and the kick of tUnE-yArDs’ low-fidelity ‘Sunlight’. While the song itself seems complete – a quirky but melodic, folk-tinged indie pop – this actual recording is clearly only halfway to being fully realised: it was made solo on a digital voice recorder by the band’s only member, Merrill Garbus, then clicked and dragged into shape using GarageBand. And it sounds like it too; it's muffled where it should be crisp, it's distorted where it should boom, and when the punch of the snare kicks in about half way through, it sounds like nothing so much as the tinny sound effect dog that Tony Blackburn used to punctuate his glory days on Radio One.
But in the creation of a half-formed sonic idea, hasn't Garbus in fact caught a moment of truth? The song feels like an emotion hawked up and spat out at the point of its conception; and it flashes like a dazzle of sunlight suddenly bursting from the crack between two buildings. It spears you for a second, and then it's gone.
You squint again through your screwed up eyes, and the world clouds and comes and goes as its images swim together. On this lazy summer afternoon – when everyone you know is relaxed, spread-eagled and sleeping in the sun – you feel coiled like a hedgehog: defensive, under attack. And the indefinable, mushed up landscape you see through your bunched-up eyelids is nothing more than a sketch – an idea for a painting yet to come. But sometimes, it's the half-thought that becomes the whole; like Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise' – dated 1897, it shocked because it seemed just a page from a sketchbook, some preparatory scribbling that was only halfway to being Real Art. It dazed and confused its viewers: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” wrote the critic Louis Leroy, but it gave birth to modern painting, and a whole new way of representing what’s right there, in front of our eyes.
And Merrill Garbus too, with her song that could perhaps be renamed 'Impression, Sunlight', understands that the spontaneity and low-fidelity of the moment can trump the pristine forms of a more considered, polished expression.
Plus, it kicks like a headache – just like the one you've now got thumping deep in your skull.
Just what you need when you've got a bastard behind the eyes and your brain is turning to slurry: some three-doors-away-kick-drums booming in from someone else's party, and looped disco licks that seem to synchronise precisely with your pain.
The palette from which Theo Parrish selects his sonic pigments is limited but well chosen: some loops, some percussion, an off-kilter bass buzz that seems to burst from an overloaded speaker. The beat is house, a concoction nominally mixed for the dancefloor. But in Parrish's hands, the disco connection seems theoretical, like a glitter ball described in a text book. This is dance music that you wade through, with effort: it's from Detroit, but it has nothing of the android sheen or circuit board melancholy of its techno compatriots; it drags you back even as you attempt to follow its insistent groove.
You look at your watch; and astonishingly, the hands seem to be moving. Your heart gives a shuffle, as if following that stumbling bass, and you dare to believe that at last, you are about to escape the sweet stickiness of this summer afternoon; but when you look again, and see the second hand counting back time, you realise that the world is travelling backwards, and soon your endless afternoon won't even have begun.
Thanks to the chewy viscosity of this sound, you're fated to live through the summer again – but in reverse.
You remember the sweating and the scratching, the fidgeting and itching. The aching and the paining of sitting on the ground. The dazzling and the squinting, the dizziness and worrying. The constant creams and lotions, the stickiness and oiliness. The greasing and the smearing, the sand between the fingers. The wasps and the mosquitoes, the stinging and irritation. The threat of dehydration and the sun stroke and the sadness...
Why the sadness?
Because there are faces you remember from summer holidays gone by; sweet faces that felt sticky after lying in the sun. They came into your life for just a fortnight – sharing ouzo, and swims in darkened waters – and then they vanished on a charter flight and you never saw them again. And you realise that those memories have left a void within your heart, and you realise that their power simply fused a portion of your brain; so even if you wanted to adore the summer, you simply don't know how.
This may be sweet; but it's sticky. And you're stuck.
The only thing that can save you now is the end of this tormented summer soundtrack. And the autumn of course; when finally, deliciously, the world starts turning brown.
The summer is over, the mercury is falling; you expected to feel new freedoms in your soul.
Instead, your head fills with the reedy pagan ritual of Trembling Bells and their 'Come All Ye Merrie Pessimists' clarion call, 'September is the Month of Death'. You thought you would feel elated at August's passing, but oh no. Suddenly, you are consumed by thoughts of the year's endless turn, and instead of switching the central heating back on and cosying yourself up in front of the telly, you find yourself thinking of ageing and decay, and your inexorable journey to the crematorium.
September, after all, is the month of death.
For a moment, you welcomed its bonfire Sundays, its 'Back to school' signs, its virgin pencil cases and its gradually darkening nights. But in the mellow fruitfulness of Lavinia Blackwall’s bitter sweet voice, you hear only plaintive recognition of the fact that another year is now approaching its end: as the poet Ian McMillan described it in a newspaper column you once read, “the slippery slope to Christmas has begun.”
You realise that what you have in fact done, in fixating on the moment-by-moment discomforts of a blazing summer afternoon, is to wish away a golden portion of your life. The day was there for you to grasp; and you failed, because the sun was in your eyes.
Well. September is the month of death.
Time is ticking forwards, ever onwards. Soon, you will wish for a moment when it might stand still once again. But when you had it, you wished it away.
There goes another summer.
Maybe next year, you'll get round to enjoying it.
You look at your watch, at its never-still hands. And whatever the time, you can't help but realise that right now, it's definitely getting late.
© Damon Fairclough 2011