Our Friends in the North

In which The Author has some unexpected visitors

I’ve promised a few times to tell you this story, but I’ve never got around to it until now.
I’ve decided to write this entry today for a reason, as you’ll see. If you’ve already read an earlier entry called Where Do We Draw The Line? you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu to begin with. There’s a good reason for that – I’ve copied the first couple of paragraphs wholesale from that entry, simply by way of scene-setting.
Back in the late 1980s, my friend Leigh was running a DIY punk label from his parents’ house in Penderyn. This period was the height of the anarcho-punk scene which had been inspired by Crass and their contemporaries. That itself had been a direct response to the initial punk rallying cry of, ‘Anyone can do it!’ It reached its peak around the end of the 80s and early 90s, with dreadlocked, alcohol-fuelled grindcore bands playing wild gigs in small venues up and down the country.
Phil, Leigh, some of the Carpenters boys, and I used to go regularly to Cardiff, to see the likes of Carcass, Doom, Filthkick, Extreme Noise Terror and Chaos UK. One record label which played a seminal part in the growth of the anarcho scene was Peaceville, run by the legendary Hammy. Leigh had some of his LPs, which he was distributing at his band’s own gigs and those which he helped to organise.
At the time I was working with an Apple Mac-based system, and was able to do some typesetting for Leigh’s flyers and cassette inserts (remember them?) during my lunch breaks. I was also operating an offset litho printer, and ran off flyers and handouts for him during work time, in between printing the in-house newsletter. It’s the nearest I ever got to Anarchy in action. The scene operated a strict barter economy, so Leigh used to pay me in records instead of cash.
One of his stock items was the debut LP by a Leeds-based band named Gold Frankincense and Disk Drive – Where Do We Draw The Line? A slab of chunky, beefy, musically-interesting, intelligent, politically-astute, keyboard-driven prog rock, in a gatefold sleeve with the lyrics printed on the inside, it was very much out of kilter with the rest of Hammy’s output. It had only been on Leigh’s turntable for about thirty seconds before I decided that it would settle his tab nicely.
I took it home and listened to it in one sitting. Then I listened to it again. It was extraordinary stuff – hard-edged Progressive Rock with a punk sensibility, unlike anything else I’d heard before. I became the band’s champion in South Wales, telling everyone I could about this remarkable artefact which had come into my hands. My copy of the LP did the rounds of Aberdare for a while. Pam and Jason W. loved it. Some of my other friends didn’t know what to make of it. It was very different from the rest of the scene, after all.
Back in those days, the Internet had yet to come along and change pretty much every aspect of modern life. Independent LPs and self-pressed singles would sit around in independent record shops gathering dust for a long time, as I noted in Snap, Crackle and Pop. They’d be gradually marked down in price until somebody bought them, or the shop closed, or the owner converted them into novelty plant pots, whichever came soonest.
For the most part, the anarcho scene communicated by post, with fanzines changing hands across the world and ‘interviews’ in the form of questionnaires. Even those few of us who had phones at home hardly used them to make long-distance calls. Mobile phones were huge and prohibitively expensive toys for Yuppies. This was the age when hundreds of fanzines were in circulation, photocopied from pages of A4 typescript and illustrated with photos cut from newspapers or hand-drawn cartoons. There was one notable exception locally – a remarkably professional magazine called Artcore. The brainchild of a lad known only as Welly, Artcore was produced on a DTP system, used proper photographs, and came on glossy paper with a two-colour cover.
Where Do We Draw The Line? had a similar visual distinction from most other LPs of the time. The front cover showed a black and white section of an Ordnance Survey map, with Hadrian’s Wall highlighted in red. The back cover had the track listing and a photograph of part of the Berlin Wall. The inside of the gatefold had a small picture of the course of Hadrian’s Wall, a photo of the band, a long list of acknowledgements, and – get this – the song lyrics.
I’m not being unkind to the bands who were at the forefront of the scene, but in most cases a lyrics sheet would have been pretty much irrelevant. Check out any of the bands I’ve namechecked on YouTube or Spotify and you’ll see what I mean. The list of acknowledgements was even more mysterious: members of Chumbawamba were listed as collaborators, along with ‘direct steals’ from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Flux (formerly A Flux of Pink Indians) and Peter Hammill. It was fairly obvious that GFDD (I can’t be bothered to type it out every time!) were ploughing their own, very distinctive furrow. Take this piece from the inside gatefold, for example:
Hadrian’s Wall was built by forced labour just less than two thousand years ago. A staggering feat of engineering, it stretched eighty miles from Newcastle to Carlisle. Its purpose was to provide a physical barrier between the northern edges of the tyrannical if “civilised” Roman Empire and the “Barbarians” of what is now Scotland. It was the first wall of its kind in the world. It could be patrolled and was defended by now primitive weapons – catapults, swords, spears and the like.
So to the south – the Romans, to the north – the Barbarians. The physical differences between the two groups? None.
The wall in Berlin grew physically and psychologically across Europe during the years following World War II. The bricks were placed there by the East, but then, this wall is so much more than bricks – it’s made up of fear, distrust, propaganda and maliciousness. It is defended by a bristling arsenal on both sides each capable of destroying all life on the planet several times over. To the east – The East. to the west – The West. The physical differences between the two groups? None.
Not exactly your average fuck the multinationals anarcho-punk diatribe, is it?
In keeping with that post-based communications system we all used, GFDD had a contact address on the inner sleeve. The LP had been recorded during the summer of 1987, and I’d acquired it about a year later. I thought I’d drop them a line and see what they were doing to follow up such an impressive debut. A couple of weeks later, I got home to find that Dad had taken in a mysterious package when I was out. It was a square cardboard envelope with a Leeds postmark. It contained a letter from the band’s main songwriter, Andy Tillison. I mislaid the letter years ago, but I can still remember the first sentence: ‘Good god, a fan letter – we’re going to put it in a gold frame!’ That was typical of Andy’s self-deprecating humour.
That wasn’t the only thing in the envelope, mind you. There was a sheet of contact prints from a gig which GFDD had done a while before, at a club in Bradford, and – most exciting of all – a copy of their second LP, Life Cycle. It had been issued on a German label called New Wind, and in the letter Andy said, ‘If you’re skint don’t worry about it, but the retail price is £5.00.’ I sent him a cheque the following day.
Life Cycle was more ambitious and abstract than its predecessor, utilizing samples and synthesizers to bulk out the sound. (It also name-checked my friends in the Welsh band Life Cycle, apologizing on the sleeve for any possible confusion that might have arisen from the clash of names.) Towards the end of Side Two (note for younger readers: records used to have two playing surfaces, not just one) Andy performed a piano ballad about his young children, in which he wonders what the world will be like as they grew up. To my mind, Hands Together, Eyes Closed is a masterpiece, the standout track on a very fine LP.
But we weren’t finished yet. At the end of his letter, Andy mentioned that his wife Jill’s parents lived in a village north of Caerphilly. ‘We might look you up when we’re visiting,’ he wrote. I assumed he was kidding, and didn’t think any more of it.
I think it was Easter Saturday in the following year when our paths crossed again. (It was definitely a Bank Holiday weekend.) I’d gone into town in the morning to do some shopping, and then called into The Carpenters for a couple of pints with the boys. In those days the pubs didn’t open all day, so at closing time I made my way home as usual. I was planning to have something to eat, have a bath, and get ready to go back out in the evening.
When I got home, Dad was sitting in his usual chair, chatting to two strangers, a man and a woman. Two small children were playing in front of the fireplace. Dad introduced them as ‘Andy and Jill’ and explained that he used to know their family when he was in the furniture trade. They had Yorkshire accents, but I still didn’t catch on. I knew that Dad used to travel the country to visit trade shows, so it was quite possible that they’d crossed paths years before.
A few minutes later, Andy said, ‘You still don’t know who we are you, do you?’ Finally the penny dropped. Andy was none other than Andy Tillison himself, the man I’d been corresponding with. Jill was his partner, and the little boy and girl were James and Sarah, the very children Andy’d sung about in Hands Together, Eyes Closed.
Andy and Jill were indeed visiting her family, just as he’d mentioned in his letter. It had occurred to them to make good on his promise, and that morning they’d decided to pay me a surprise visit. They’d made their way into Cardiff on the train, then onwards to Aberdare, and finally by bus to Llwydcoed, armed only with my letter and a vague sense of direction for guidance. I can imagine their disappointment if they’d knocked on the door, only to find that Dad was out as well.
Once I got over the shock, we started chatting properly. As well as the pleasure of their company Andy and Jill had brought me a couple of presents – a GFDD t-shirt, and a cassette of the band’s third (unreleased) LP. The t-shirt design was an adaptation of a cartoon Andy had seen in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas. (He recommended it highly, and I bought a copy soon afterwards.)
We chatted for ages until they decided it was probably a good time to head back to Caerphilly. I warned them about the vagaries of public transport, and wished them a safe journey. We agreed to meet in Cardiff on the Tuesday after the Bank Holiday and have some lunch before they went home.
So it was that I made a special trip into Cardiff on a day off. We had a very pleasant few hours together, and ate our lunch in a café in the shopping centre. I remember that Howell’s (House of Fraser) was rearranging its window display, and we were all highly amused by the sight of a dismembered mannequin in the window bed. I saw them off on the train, and we promised to keep in touch.
Of course, as I’ve pointed out several times, in those pre-Facebook days once you lost touch with someone, it stayed lost. Andy and Jill were selling their house, which included one of the finest recording studios in the North, and once they moved we completely lost touch. (As Andy himself had sung in The African Dust, ‘It’s dead easy to do…’)
We finally got back in contact via the Internet, unsurprisingly. In fact, when I first got online, I made a point of Googling his name and trying to track him down again. By that time, GFDD were history; however, Andy had continued writing, performing and recording, first in Parallel Or 90 Degrees, and subsequently as a member of the pan-European Prog Rock collective The Tangent. We soon reconnected via Facebook, and we’ve stayed in contact since.
The Tangent are a very prolific band, and I’ve been slow to catch up with them on the grounds of cost. I bought one of their CDs by mail order a while ago, but I haven’t bought any more. The good thing was that by buying directly from the band, we were cutting out the middleman. The Internet means that bands can connect directly with their audiences, with no need for record labels, record shops or conventional channels. That’s why I’m writing this today, of all days.
Andy is taking the exciting step of reissuing the PO90 back catalogue as downloads, with the list updated weekly. The downloads come complete with the original artwork as PDFs, so that buyers can make their own CDs with sleeves, just like you’d get if you bought them from HMV. (The difference, of course, is that you’d have no earthly hope of actually finding these CDs in HMV!)
So far, two PO90 LPs have been reissued, but today (for me, anyway) is the big one – Where Do We Draw The Line? is coming out for the first time since its vinyl release, all those years ago. My own copy is still in my collection, but my record deck seems to have died, so I can’t listen to it any more. Not until next week, anyway, when I buy the download for myself and revisit one of the outstanding LPs of my life.
Obviously, the subject matter is very much a product of the 1980s, with references to the Berlin Wall and apartheid in South Africa peppered throughout the first half. But the second half, starting with Airburst and concluding with The Railway Children, definitely stands the test of time. If you fancy some intelligent Prog Rock with a sharp edge, why not give it a try? Just check out the band’s website at The Tangent and follow the links to the download. For just over six quid (you’re lucky to get two pints of beer for that these days) you can’t go wrong!