The Spitfires, The Saints and Prince Buster
The arrival of the new Spitfires album has enriched the last days of Summertime. Two albums in the space of a year is an ambitious project. You have to have belief and inspiration to pull it off and those are qualities which are in abundance on this record. The opener, the title track A Thousand Times, follows on from the conclusion of last year’s Response with a subjective look inside a relationship that is falling apart and, in so doing, sets the tone for the album where the disintegration of human relations in contemporary society of minimum wages, financial pressures and generation rent is a key theme. These issues are explored from a first person perspective, almost as if each song is a short story or an episode of the celebrated and sadly long departed Play For Today. Musically, the band are on fire, gelling brilliantly, with hard-edged guitars which interplay with infectious keyboards. Day To Day is a particular standout, with its immensely danceable bassline, and Return To Me is seven minutes of heartfelt beauty, while the hook of On My Mind will be running around your brain all day. I love the keyboard break on The Last Goodbye, the guitar on Day To Day and the slowed down section on The Suburbs (We Can’t Complain). Right across the album, Billy Sullivan is at his angry and inspired best, with witty and visceral commentary on life in modern Britain. This is one of the most important albums for a long time and you know somehow that its influence will last.
I can’t believe its forty years since the release of The Saints I’m Stranded. It must have been one of the first punk singles I bought, all gleaming black vinyl and paper pic sleeve in black and white with them leaning against the wall with the song’s title spray painted and the band’s name underneath. I can remember now how I felt, as those guitars blasted out of the speakers in my bedroom and ricocheted off the walls and Chris Bailey’s snarling, distorted vocals came through and the lyrics sunk into my teenage head, telling me about alienation and being stranded and riding on a subway train where everybody looked the same and living in a world that was insane. And I remember knowing that they were the sort of thoughts I had each day and here was a band, on the other side of the world, who thought and felt just like that. All around the world, I’ve been looking for you, that’s what I thought, or maybe there must be someone, who thinks like I see. Though not as eloquently as either of those sentiments, of course. I played it again tonight, and the b-side No Time. They sound just as relevant and biting in 2016 as they did in 1976. Like Pretty Vacant and Garageland and In The City. Universal lyrics about life and existence and how you view the world. Stuff like that doesn’t have a sell-by date. In fact its still utterly stunning and hasn’t dated a day.
In a year which has seen more than its fair share of musical losses, it is sad to read of the death of Prince Buster. He who Madness famously described as having “sold the heat with a rock-steady beat” and gave them their name, was born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in Orange Street in 1938 and forged a trail for ska and blue beat. The Prince was a pioneer, influencing early sixties modernists and providing a soundtrack that was just as influential as R&B and Motown. “They could have been perfect if they'd played Blue Beat as well", wrote Pete Townshend in the short story contained in the sleeve notes to Quadrophenia in 1973, illustrating perfectly the significance of Jamaican music to the mod dancefloor and mindset. His hits included Madness, Al Capone, One Step Beyond and Enjoy Yourself, deeply influencing the ska revival of 1979 and being covered by The Madness and The Specials. You can far worse than mourn his loss by a play of one of his finest, in this case Madness.