After an idyllic provincial 70s childhood, the 80s took Andrew Collins to London, art school and the classic student experience. Crimping his hair, casting aside his socks and sporting fingerless gloves, he became Andy Kollins purveyor of awful poetry, disciple of moany music and wannabe political activist. What follows is a universal tale of trainee hedonism, girl trouble, wasted grants and begging letters to parents.
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Andrew Collins began his journalistic career at the NME and went on to edit Q magazine. He has written for Select, The Observer, GQ, New Statesman and is now Radio Times Film Editor. He has hosted Radio 4's Back Row, won a Sony Gold award for Collins & Maconie's Hit Parade on Radio 1 with Stuart Maconie and presents Teatime on BBC 6 Music. He was an EastEnders scriptwriter and his first sitcom, Grass, co-written with Simon Day, premiered on BBC in 2003. Author of Still Suitable For Miners, official biography of Billy Bragg, and Friends Reunited, he co-wrote and performed Lloyd Cole Knew My Father on stage and for radio.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Long Way
ROCKERS ARE GETTING COOL FEET
If you want to look like a rock star this summer, fellas, throw your socks away. Most of Duran Duran seem to favour the sockless look. Even Echo and the Bunnymen's moody Ian McCulloch has chucked away his socks. I was so impressed that I tried it over the weekend and all I can say is that it has to be the most uncomfortable fashion yet invented!
John Blake's Bizarre column, The Sun, 28 July 1983
'Dave Griffiths doesn't go out looking like that!' Mum snipes, slamming the cutlery drawer to underline her point.
We're having one of our free and frank exchanges of views, becoming ever more frequent as my need for fumbled self-expression increases. I'm on my way out to collect Sally for tonight's big party. Why does she always wait until I'm on my way out to challenge me? Why do all mums do that? In the old house at Winsford Way you could get from the stairs to the front door without passing the kitchen ('I'm off out, won't be late, bye!' slam). Not at Kestrel Close. The kitchen's between the stairs and the door, like a sentry box.
'I don't want to look like Dave Griffiths,' I protest. Dave Griffiths is my ultra-straight friend who is leaving sixth form not for university but the RAF. Where's Dad when you need him to arbitrate? He usually dries as she washes.
'I sometimes wish you were Dave Griffiths,' she shouts. Ah good, she's strayed into fantasy. I give her an eye-rolling look of derision and reach for the door handle. The argument is over. I have won the battle, and so, in her mind, has Mum.
'Won't be late, bye!' slam.
I was, to be fair to Mum, beginning to put my head above the parapet in fashion terms that year. I wore my hair increasingly blow-dried and lacquered, in deference to Ian McCulloch and Robert Smith and other pop peacocks whose aromatic, dark music I'd fallen in love with on Switch or The Tube. Boots on the Market Square did brisk business with their gender-unspecific green hair gel that year. Black pumps were de rigueur, even when it got too chilly to wear them sensibly sans chausette. October was the reluctant start of the sock season, by which time I'd be off.
There is something about me in plentiful Truprint photos from the time that suggests I am not content merely to be part of a group that stands out from the crowd. Either my jeans are rolled higher than everybody else's, or I am wearing my hair spikier, or the sleeves have been more roughly hacked from my T-shirt for that Bono soldier-of-fortune effect. And no one else seems to be wearing fingerless gloves.
You couldn't play the drums in fingerless gloves, more's the pity. The local band I drummed for and gigged with had risen from the ashes of a previous band, Absolute Heroes. We were called, with no hint of embarrassment, Sketch For Dawn, after a Durutti Column track that bassist Craig and I particularly loved. All four of us in the band backcombed our hair to varying degrees, as did the knot of kids who came to see us play at the Black Lion in town. In fact, only Dave Griffiths stayed completely square, as if he were perhaps in the pay of my mum.
It was a Northampton thing. Provincial, Middle English, suburban, it was fertile soil for the sombre flowering of a generation too young to have experienced punk first-hand and too far away from the nearest city to affect New Romanticism. A tartan cape and jodhpur ensemble would have got you kicked in down town, and perhaps rightly so. It was all right for the actual New Romantics - they lived in London and got taxis. Their look and lifestyle was never going to translate to Northampton. But second-hand overcoats, check shirts and cheap hair gel? Bring them on.
You needed nothing much to do and nowhere much to go in order to get a fix on this moody new music's A-level-friendly ennui. Minor chords and wailing vocals, it was a custom-made soundtrack for our wannabe disaffected, misunderstood years. The movement's Beatles and Stones, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, were in the process of going awkwardly overground in 1983 - fixtures suddenly of Top of the Pops and Smash Hits — but their sartorial influence was, it seems, much more heavily felt outside London. Macs, multiple T-shirts and heavy fringes were anything but the uniform of an ostracised cult in Northampton. They were everywhere, or seemed to be. Though big hair and outdoor slippers were not welcome at the town's only notable nightclub, Cinderellas, we successfully colonised select pubs and newly minted wine bars and kept our overcoats on, however hot it got.
Cinderellas - or Cinderella Rockefellers, to use its full, disagreeably aspirational title - remained off-limits. Until, that is, it opened its doors to the great unsocked by advertising its first ever Alternative Night. This meant no door policy, and Northampton's raincoat brigade jumped at the chance actually to see inside the place. They were playing 'Mad World' by Tears For Fears — an approved record — as we pushed through about the third set of silver-laminated double-doors, but the mythical Cinderellas was no better than a hotel disco really. And no bigger either — once you'd taken into account the ubiquitous mirrored surfaces. It was not a wild success. The dance floor was too keen and obvious and needy, with its pulsing floor and flashing lights and remained forbiddingly empty for much of the night. On reflection, we preferred the dour ambience of the Masonic Hall.
Northampton's more conservative soul boys, who were legion, might have considered us avant garde — actually, poofy's more accurate — but despite an isolated attack on Richie Ford at a house party after a Dentist Chair gig, violence rarely broke out. If you wore a tie you were, in our parlance, a 'rugby player': you went to Cinderellas and lived out the unfolding Eighties dream of chrome and money; if you wore the ripped-off hem of a T-shirt wrapped round your wrist as a kind of bangle-cum-bandage, you went to a house party in one of the terraced streets near the Racecourse and feigned existential doom. Nobody got hurt.
One member of our big-haired circle, John Lewis, had made a premature break for it at Weston Favell. Mistaking the relative laissez faire of sixth form for real freedom, he turned up to school one morning with his hair intricately beaded into plaits, like some Vivienne Westwood clone out of The Face. He looked a bit silly — he looked bloody stupid - but the rest of us would have defended to the death his right to do so. He was promptly sent home by Mr Cole to reconsider his position.
I now realise that what we were doing that summer was pretending to be students. Which, apart from Squadron Leader Griffiths, is what most of us were about to be. If by throwing away our socks we were trying to look like rock stars, then it was the type of rock star who looked like a student! Why? Because student life, with all its imagined freedoms and possibilities and subsidy, is as aspirational to fifth- and sixth-formers as Cinderellas is to rugby players. It meant leaving home, wearing second-hand clothes and attempting to become an interesting but sensitive individual - another Eighties dream for some of us.
The Metro is neatly parked outside and Sally and I quietly decorate the dark shallows of the Masonic Hall. I don't know if it's the weight of expectation, but tonight it's just not working. Too many interchangeable sixth-form parties have been held here, each with the same, almost Masonic codes and practices, the same cliques and sarcastic catchphrases, the same dash for the dance floor when 'our' music comes on. The evening seems destined to be fogged with the same mood of anticlimax as the informal buffet. Celebration brought down with the anxiety of major change.
A tyre exploded in Bert Tilsley's face on Coronation Street tonight. He might die. But nobody's talking about it — we're too cool for that. The talk is of Ian McCulloch on Top of the Pops and Richie Ford getting beaten up for trying to look a bit like Ian McCulloch. I might have been at that ill-fated house party if me and Sally hadn't been babysitting my sister. I might have had my head kicked in. I lean towards Sally as 'Billie Jean' starts to fade out.
'You OK? Let me know when you want to make a move,' I ask in the quiet voice reserved for talking to your girlfriend amid a larger group.
Of late, it's increasingly me who wants to make a move, and Sally who wants to stay.
The sixth form marked the start of what we view as 'serious relationships' — Craig went out with Jo, I went out with Jo, Neil went out with Liz, Mick went out with Lynsey, Craig went out with Lynsey, Craig went out with Jo's sister, I went out with Jo's sister, Pete always looked like he'd go out with Het but never actually did. We've grown used to couples becoming the prime unit within our gang. That's cool, as long as they don't interfere with our catchphrases. We drink cider or Fosters or Britvic for the drivers and dance to whatever approved records the DJ has.
Tonight's bash is called the Hello Goodbye Party, in that it sees off one year of maroon blazers and welcomes another. I'm ready to say goodbye. Sally wants to say hello for a bit longer.
Our conversation is curtailed when we hear the frenetic opening guitar on 'The Back of Love'. Our siren call, we all rise reflexively and head to the floor for the allotted three minutes of elbows-out raincoat dancing. It ends with that sustained chord. We repair to the edges of the hall. It's back to Shalamar.
I return to pretending I'm having a good time and manage to sustain it for another half-hour before subtly renewing my theme.
'Ready to go?'
My Great Escape mood is hardly alleviated by the fact that it seems I'm the only one who's spotted a couple of blokes from the gang who rep...
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