Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…
For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).
First, there was “New Love Songs”. Kind of. First there was hearing half of “New Love Songs” on the radio (John Peel, of course) and somehow contriving to forget the name of the band while remembering the details of the record label. Yes, I woke up the next morning determined to find… er, that single, by… that band on Object Music, from Manchester.
So then there was a Digression, involving the work of Steve Solamar. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but his real name was Steve Scrivener, and he was in his late twenties when punk happened; he’d been in bands for some time by then, initially under the rather drastic pseudonym of Sol Amar. By 1978 he was running both a band – Spherical Objects – and the aforementioned record label. I’ve got vague memories of owning a copy of the first Spherical Objects single, “The Kill”, with its bizarre sleeve design (featuring a neat parody of Magazine’s Odilon Redon image), but I can’t remember a thing about it. I know I used to own their second single, “Seventies Romance” – it was released (rather late for the subject-matter) in 1979, and it was dire.
Don’t stop – to think -
There is no second chance!
Welcome to the seventies romance!
Welcome to the seventies romance!
But then, I never did like shouty vocalists trying to make trite lyrics sound dramatic. That style had quite a vogue a few years later, but unfortunately by then Steve Solamar had jacked it in (and had a sex change, as it happens, which puts that jokey band name in another light).
Anyway, thanks to what I’d heard on Peel I was deeply committed to finding out whatever it was they were doing in Manchester. I got the first Grow Up single (six tracks of avant-garde chamber pop), and I’ve still got “Up and about”, the first single by Solamar’s friend and label-mate Steve Miro (born Escott) – it isn’t bad, in a sub-Kevin Ayers kind of way. All of these people had one thing in common: they made music which sounded, in different ways, just exactly as if punk had never happened.
Which you could never say of the Passage. Somehow I never did track down that single – or not until some years after the Passage had split up – and consequently missed my chance of becoming an instant fan of the band. The Passage at that stage were a three-piece, consisting of Dick Witts on drums, percussion and vocals; Tony Friel (he of the Fall mark 1) on bass and vocals; and Lorraine Hilton on organ. Witts, like Solamar, was in his late twenties, and had a background as an orchestral percussionist. The sound of the band tapped into that Doors/Seeds garage-punk bass/organ vibe, but with a snotty urgency which was very (post-)punk – and lyrics which could never be mistaken for Kevin Ayers.
I love you
-’cos I need a c**t!
I love you
-to use you back and front!
(Needless to say, this was on the side of the single that John Peel didn’t play.) That’s how the first song (which is called “Love Song”) begins; it continues with a series of reasons why he ‘loves’ her. It doesn’t get any more obscene (I’m not sure how it could), but it’s a fairly extreme portrayal of sexism at its most brutal -
You’re not a human being, dear,
Just my private convenience, to prove I’m not queer
Except that each verse ends with one final, clinching reason -
…but most of all, because you look like me
Hang on a minute… He’s obsessively expressing contempt for… himself… while denying it to himself, by insisting on how utterly different she is from him, this difference and supposed inferiority encapsulated in her femaleness, which protects him from the effects of his own self-hatred, which in turn is aggravated by his brutality towards her… Heavy stuff, and I’m not sure I could have processed it at the age of eighteen. But it’s very much of its time – or perhaps, like the rest of the Object Music catalogue, of a slightly earlier time. The fallout from the women’s liberation movement, refracted through post-hippie libertarian leftism, was very much in the air in the mid- to late 1970s; writing honestly about sex was a revolutionary act (whatever that meant – although at the time it did mean something). This was a recipe for a lot of troubled self-interrogation – particularly from men – but also for a tremendous sense of liberation, of possibilities opening up in bed and in the street. One of the interesting things about the Passage is the way they caught this libertarian moment and continued to evoke it over the next few years.
Nearly 900 words in, and I realise I still haven’t said anything about the track that turned me on to the Passage in the first place. A Witts composition, it’s called “Slit Machine”; again it seems to be about sex, and about sexism, although this time it’s hard to be sure. Formally it’s an extraordinary song; it’s composed in a series of call-and-response exchanges, with Witts’s lines met by a series of set phrases from a “mechanical” voice (Friel), beginning “You’d better…”, “You’ll have to try and…” and so on. What it’s about is harder to say, although we certainly seem to be in similar territory to “Love song”:
…that’s why you were built, just like a dog or a woman!
So it’s about sex; sex and money; sex, money, capitalism and alienation; sex, money, capitalism, alienation and self-doubt. Or it could just be an sf vignette about hiring a sex robot:
With my coin in your handle
We give and take the same needs
Either way it’s a terrific piece of work, more or less thrown away on side two of a 7″ single on an independent label. Which in itself says an awful lot about that particular moment in musical history.
Second, there was Pindrop. By now it was the winter of 1980, nearly two years after I’d heard “Slit machine”. (And of course, back then once a record stopped being played on the radio it was gone, unless you found it in a record shop – which itself could be very hit-and-miss. I spent weeks of my life looking for the Traffic Tax Scheme after hearing the A-side on Peel (not helped by the fact that it appeared to have three separate titles); thirty years on I still occasionally try to track down “Escape” by the Prophetic Four.) I was in my second year at university, sharing a house with a friend – who, happily, had similar tastes in music. I remember him saying that he found it hard to sympathise with Ian Curtis’s melancholic delivery of the line Why is the bedroom so cold? – come round to our house, mate, and you’ll really want to know why the bedroom’s so cold…
And he had a copy of Pindrop, which he played a lot. Retrospectively this was bad in one way, as it guaranteed that I wasn’t going to buy it for myself. Still, the album made a deep impression on me at the time. Right from the sleeve (which was printed on heavy, glossy black card), it was scary: a dark, claustrophobic album, just as much so as Unknown Pleasures. The sound is urgent again – this time positively rushed. Although I didn’t know this at the time, the Passage for this record consisted of Dick Witts (keyboards, percussion, vocals), who recorded the album in a week flat. It’s not surprising: as I remember it, listening to Pindrop is a lot like spending 40 minutes immersed in someone else’s fears and obsessions. It’s unsettling, sometimes incoherent – Witts’s relentless obliqueness recalls John Peel’s characterisation of Hüsker Dü as “young men with something to say, although I’m blowed if I know what it is” – but always compelling.
After Pindrop Witts got a new version of the Passage together, with guitarist Andy Wilson and Joe McKechnie on drums. The new band recorded the album For all and none, which I presume my friend at university must also have owned – I distinctly remember one track title, “lon don” [sic] – but the music made no impression on me; I don’t think it can have made much of an impression on John Peel, either.
Fourth, in 1982 there was Degenerates. The band now consisted of Witts, Wilson and Paul Mahony on drums, but the sound was heavily keyboard-based. Degenerates got a lot of attention from Peel and amply deserved it: tracks like “Love is as” and “Born every minute” were easily the equal of what New Order were doing at the time, with the added bonus of lyrics that are actually about something. (Commercially speaking, on the other hand, that might be more of a drawback.)
The album also included what should have been the Passage’s big hit, “XoYo“. “XoYo” is a return to the theme of sexual politics, but in a new and more confident mood. The song is tuneful, it’s catchy, it has a classic pop song structure, its message of polymorphous libertinage was mildly controversial, and by about the second time I played Pillows and Prayers I was heartily sick of it. (Ironically, the last lines of the song are “Enough! No more. ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”) Apart from the effects of over-exposure, there’s something about the lyrics that grated on me: the message is ostensibly “do what you will”, but really it’s more like “do what you will and enjoy it! and do it now!” The first line of the chorus is a dead giveaway –
Not a duty, just an action you’ll enjoy
Always suspect direct negations. Although its surface message is an antinomian refusal of rules and instructions (“All they’ve told you up to now, put it in reverse”), the song is surprisingly prescriptive. A spoken section in the middle eight (I said it was a classic pop song) even takes us into sex manual territory:
Don’t be ‘normal’, just relax
Take your time, lie on your back
And even then, when you’ve come
Turn over quick and have more fun
Hang on, which instructions was I supposed to put in reverse?
I’d like to think that this is one of the “levels of subversion” Witts liked to think the song had concealed about its person, but I don’t think I’m really buying that – any more than I believe the endlessly-mirrored claim that the song “applied John Cage’s notion of aleatoric composition to pop music”. (Although, to be fair, chance actually was involved in the composition of “Love is as“.) I think what you get with “XoYo” is, simply, a celebration of polymorphous sexual hedonism (“for any girl and girl boy and boy and boy and girl”) – and one which, being a celebration, ignores or represses the doubts, fears and anxieties which sex puts in the heads of all those girls and boys. It’s sexual liberation in the sense of “with one bound he and she were free” – and we can be sure they’re free because we know what they’re doing, within a broad but finite range of possibilities. This kind of “freedom to” never quite includes “freedom not to” – it’s the kind of deceptively welcoming double-bind that Dick Witts used to write about so well.
All of that said, “XoYo” was a terrific pop song and “Degenerates” was a great album. The band – with a returning McKechnie replacing Mahony – carried on for another year or so, recording a fourth album (“Enflame“), before packing it in at the beginning of 1984. You can’t blame them – if “XoYo” wasn’t their big hit and “Degenerates” wasn’t their breakthrough album, it’s hard to see what ever would be.
After the Passage, Andy Wilson moved into DJing and is now, apparently, working in Ibiza; he is not to be confused with Andy Wilson. Dick Witts moved into arts administration and ultimately into academia. Under the grown-up name of Richard Witts, he’s curated a conference on the Fall and written books about Nico and the Velvet Underground, as well as (perhaps less predictably) a massively detailed and hugely disrespectful history of the Arts Council, reviewed here. It has to be said that the book isn’t quite as much fun as that makes it sound – it’s about three parts chronicle to one part polemic. Terrific cover, though.
But that’s not all. Third, back in 1981, there was… this:
“Taboos” (b/w “Taboodub”) was a 12″ single and the only recording made by yet another version of the Passage, consisting only of Witts and Wilson. Peel liked it; for myself I loved it, although I never actually bought a copy – possibly because I don’t remember ever seeing it in the shops. (Distribution was a headache for independent labels in those days, even independents as big as Cherry Red.) In the intervening years I’d completely forgotten about it, so I’m immensely grateful to WbS for digging it out again.
The sound of the song is interesting, to say the least. For some reason, 1980-2 was a great period for percussion in popular music – Adam and the Ants/Bow Wow Wow are one reference point; die Krupps, Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept are another; and then there was 23 Skidoo’s rather dubious ‘tribal’ schtick and their evocation of gamelan, to say nothing of Pulsallama. I suspect that what you hear on some of the Passage’s work from this period, “Taboos” very much included, is the sound of a former orchestral percussionist thinking “wait a minute, I can do that…” Witts’s own verdict was that “I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ I had in mind”. I think it’s a lot better than that; it certainly doesn’t sound remotely like an Orange marching band. (I know, I’ve shared a street with one – in Manchester. Multi-cultural city, how are you.)
As for the lyrics, we’re in sex manual territory, a few months before “XoYo” and in a very different mood. The main body of the lyrics are spoken by someone who’s obsessed with having as good and authentic and fulfilling a sexual experience as possible, to the point where he’d always rather learn a bit more about how to have sex than risk giving it a go himself.
Perhaps these studies on cassette are wisest -
While they play you try the exercises
Part-work magazines, books, tapes, videos – and a final plaintive suggestion of “Just wait until you’ve seen the TV series” – it’s all fuel for his hunger for knowledge. It all offers to give him greater confidence in bed, while in practice perpetually undermining what little confidence he has by reminding him that sex is something he doesn’t know about. It’s a neat and perceptive point, put across sympathetically and with real humour. (After the bit about the cassettes, for example, there’s a line where the speaker worries that he won’t have the stamina for a C120…) The mood is anxious and reflexive (as it generally is in Passage songs) and the writing is clever and witty (ditto); what’s different is that the wit actually undermines the anxiety, treating it as something it’s safe to laugh at.
This effect is both amplified and qualified by the other two sections of the song. In one, a portentous-sounding Witts announces that he is above all this -
Whoever hopes to dance with me
Must abandon all such guides and schemes
Measure up a million ways and means
Take to heart strange choreographies
(I do like “whoever hopes” – as if they were queuing round the block.)
You could take this part of the song straight, in line with the head-on libertinage of “XoYo”. But I think it’s undermined both by its own overstatement and by the anxiety and irony of the main part of the song. In other words, it prompts us (as “XoYo” never quite does) to ask whether this vision of total sexual freedom is itself the kind of thing you read about in books, and never quite achieve in real life (I mean, “a million ways and means”?).
And then, undercutting both parts of the song, comes the chorus:
It makes you go blind
By closing your mind
Obstructing the view
Too many taboos
Reading sex manuals and dreaming of total sexual liberation teaches you taboos? If that’s the case, what could we possibly do that wouldn’t lead to “closing your mind”? Or is that the point? (I’m reminded of a badge that an anarchist friend used to produce; it said “Genitality is a fetish”.) And the idea that poring over sex manuals “makes you go blind” is wonderful. Or is it the totally liberated sex that makes you go blind (by closing your mind…)? Brane hertz.
After listening to “Taboos”, in short, it’s almost completely unclear what Dick Witts is trying to tell us about sex – except that it’s complicated and important, it’s deeply involved with our ideas of personal freedom and fulfilment, and that whatever we do is likely to leave us feeling anxious about whether we’re free and fulfilled enough. “Taboos”, in other words, is everything that “XoYo” isn’t; it’s the song about sex that follows the lead of “Love Song” and “Slit Machine”, and fulfils the promise of those songs.
It’s a great song – and the Passage, on form, were a great band. If they had a weakness it was closely related to their main strength, those witty and intelligent lyrics: theirs was always a fairly cerebral sound; you always felt there was a point they were trying to get across, and quite often you felt that you weren’t quite bright enough to get it. As a band they never really grooved; they were never simply, hedonistically, lost in music.
Well, hardly ever.
You can read a lot more about the Passage at Keith Nuttall’s tribute site, and buy re-releases of all their albums, plus a Peel sessions album, from James Nice at LTM Records. Many thanks to James for making the recordings available again, and to both James and Keith for providing some terrific Web resources on the band. And, if you have been, thanks for reading.