Black Box Recorder

TrackAlbum
Girl Singing In The WreckageEngland Made Me
England Made MeEngland Made Me
Child PsychologyEngland Made Me
Uptown Top RankingEngland Made Me
The Art Of DrivingThe Facts Of Life
The English Motorway SystemThe Facts Of Life
The Facts Of LifeThe Facts Of Life
The School SongPassionoia
British Racing GreenPassionoia
Andrew RidgeleyPassionoia

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Black Box Recorder photo

 

Contributor: Duncan Harman

Black Box Recorder. I’ve seen them described as art pop; a specific categorisation, and I’m far from certain what that entails. Were Roxy Music with Eno in the ranks art pop? Sparks? Sigue Sigue Sputnik? Nobody tells you these things – or at least no-one I’d trust – and whilst music commentary is awash with the genre politik, I rather suspect that the Haines/Moore/Nixey axis is somewhat above all that.

In fact, having tussled with this very issue, the only possible conclusion is that the BBR back catalogue is indicative of both art and pop. Which in turn makes the band a very different proposition to The Auteurs (see Toppermost #440), where the vision was singular, property of Haines, and the visceral nature of the musicality was far more overt. BBR strived to be pop – even if subverting the medium was their modus operandi – and as such, their three studio albums: 1998’s England Made Me; The Facts Of Life from 2000; and Passionoia, which arrived three years later – ripple with subterfuge (and a most enticing version at that).

The collaborative nature of the material is important here, John Moore a pernicious songwriter in his own right. Briefly a member of the Jesus and Mary Chain, he then headed John Moore and the Expressway before spending most of the nineties recording esoteric ballads he wouldn’t release for years, and playing the musical saw in ragtag avant-garde ensembles no-one’s ever heard of. Which is where Sarah Nixey makes an entrance; her of the voice – enigmatic, icy and seductive. Femme fatale. Posh totty. The latter being a horrible, bloke-ish, and vaguely misogynistic phrase that I’d never dream of using in the real world, but as with Deborah Evans-Stickland of The Flying Lizards or Penelope Keith’s portrayal of Margo in The Good Life, it does convey a certain image. An élan. The attraction of aloofness, perhaps. Or just plain male fantasy figure …*

Whatever this essence, it’s something that the songs of Moore and Haines co-opt to devastating effect. Albums defined by coquettish innuendo, camouflaging the acidity Luke Haines usually sprays across his songs. And in fact, by routing each track’s subject matter through Nixey’s lead vocals, the trio can get away with far more than had it been Haines alone at the microphone, dispassionately mouthing impure sentiment.

One final note of interest; there’s a liberation behind having the female perspective added to the mix. As mentioned in part one of this Haines-related Toppermost (and examined in even more detail in the forthcoming look at his solo material), the themes he works through are heavily warped by nostalgic subterfuge. This is all well and good for your average fan-girl and boy, lapping up caustic, memory-sponsored asides from the front row, but the application of lady protagonist throughout the BBR universe introduces an additional dimension. Subtle layers and different vantages that weave in and out; this way, hit records arrive.

Right, some songs…

(* The author would wish to point out that he doesn’t have a crush on The Good Life’s Margo Leadbetter. Well, maybe just a little …)

 

Girl Singing In The Wreckage

“My dress is torn, my hair is wild, girl singing in the wreckage.” This would have been the first BBR track to stumble across my radar, the poise and distended observational subtext within its lyrics immediately demanding attention. It’s cold, dispassionate – the musical equivalent to novels such as Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers or The Accidental Woman by Jonathan Coe, the protagonist there but never there. An examination of home-baked alienation, the dialogue fatalistic in tone, and married to a wonderfully languid guitar break and tipsy bass combination.

That Girl Singing In The Wreckage works so sharply as proposition is due to its conniving detail. Haines does it with hand-claps on The Auteurs back-cat; here, it’s the false stop, and buried so deep in the mix it’s easy to miss, Mr John Moore on the musical saw. Take a bow, Mr Moore.

 

England Made Me

So there’s 70s glam-rock wrestler Adrian Street – the pretty boy of the grapple world – taking time out from entertaining the kids and grandmothers of dreary northern towns by popping down the mine to visit his dear old dad. A promotional shot – obviously – but also an image loaded with subversive contrast; it’s been used elsewhere (including on posters for a recent portraiture exhibition in some Paris conservatoire), but to great effect on the cover of England Made Me (we’ll ignore for the moment that Street, father and coal mine were all Welsh).

And of the title track: the lyrics are trademark Haines, using allusions to the 1930’s Brighton Trunk Murders – “I killed a stranger, and left him in a trunk” – as a state of the nation address, the mournful musicality loosely reminiscent of the soundtrack to a generic late 60s gangster flick. The counter-play between chorus and verse; the song’s backlit posture – there’s a great deal here to get your teeth into.

 

Child Psychology

“I stopped talking when I was six years old. I didn’t want anything more to do with the outside world.” Throughout the BBR back-cat, Nixey narrates rather than sings – on the odd occasion that she does join in with the melody, usually in the chorus, you understand that her singing voice is too breathy to qualify as chanteuse. And BBR don’t need a chanteuse; it’s not what they’re about. Instead: sly assembly, sharp sentiment. The narrated verse – it never really prepares you for the “Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it” of the chorus. This is not the type of lyric you’d usually find stuffed behind pop’s overstuffed couch; it forces the listener to sit up, take notice, culturing an environment in which tweezing out context and the angle they’re peddling feels like the right thing to do (clue: it’s called ‘Child Psychology’).

Uptown Top Ranking

Yes; that Uptown Top Ranking, Althea and Donna’s chart-topping single (and a one-hit wonder at that), refracted through a mesh of ennui and broken glass.

It’s an incredibly brave thing to do – Nixey mouthing Jamaican patois like some Roedean prefect slumming it on the checkout at Woolworths (and suddenly captivated by her nails). It could have gone so, so wrong; the trio recorded a couple of other covers to pad out 7” flip-sides (Seasons In The Sun; Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide), and to be honest they’re no great shakes. But this: it arrives so unexpectedly, and at such a deliciously slanted angle, beginning with a cough (as if by apology), then slipping into a concussed, unremitting groove that feels like you’ve fallen over in the house of mirrors again.

 

The Art Of Driving

HAINES: You’re quite precocious.
NIXEY: I know which buttons should be pressed.
HAINES: Let’s go out driving.
NIXEY: I’ll wait until you’ve passed your test.

Actually, I’d always presumed it was Haines on speaking duties, yet having listened to the opening of this track 438 times in succession (I’m nothing if thorough when it comes to the research), I’m no longer 100% certain; it could be Moore all along, which is kind of dumb considering I’ve heard both of them speak on multiple occasions, and should be able to tell one from the other.

Personnel issues aside, there’s not a great deal more to say about The Art Of Driving beyond the implications embedded in that opening exchange. Interplay. Seduction. Flirtation. All those ungainly comments about femmes fatale and posh totty shoehorned into the intro of this piece. I’ve got this down as one of the most evocative opening stanzas in the history of art pop (whatever art pop is), and if England Made Me is heavy on the former, The Facts Of Life LP flaunts its pop credentials without ever losing sight of all that is arch and wry.

But wait … the chorus: “Because a heart-felt seduction lasts a lifetime.” Ye gods – that hits. For whilst Haines and Moore are known iconoclasts, married to sarcasm, waspish sentiment and whatever distillery “Just for the hell of it” originates from, here comes a lyric in which universal truth arrives with all the consideration of a headbutt yet all the grace of a Sarah Nixey delivery.

The English Motorway System

Over a beat that wouldn’t be out of place backstopping Vienna by Ultravox: the intro. A slip road, if you will; junction 7 of the M6 with a long drive ahead of us. “The English motorway system is beautiful and strange.” Well, yes, it kind of is; triple lane hypnosis, coy scenery, nothing to do but watch the clouds unfurl (“All you’ve got to do to stay alive is drive”).

It’s an intelligent and duplicitous journey, the motorway network working as metaphor for end of relationship. Yet it’s also something more than that; because I’m not Julian Cope I’m loathe to wave about words such as Gnostic, but as a description it works in this context. “It’s been there forever, it’s never going to change.” “It eliminates all diversions, it eliminates all emotions.” This works as setting as much for allegorical intent; the active and the passive motoring in concert. Take the next exit ramp, will you?

 

The Facts Of Life

BBR’s biggest hit, #20 in the hit parade back in 2000, and it’s a lesson in sex education. Invited onto Top Of The Pops, and there’s the nice lady making references to what we’ll euphemistically call “male self-awareness” (this is a family website, after all). And whilst Turning Japanese covered the subject of onanism on TOTP twenty years previously, The Facts Of Life isn’t – unlike The Vapors’ hit – one-dimensional or dependent upon dubious colloquial metaphors for its kicks.

Instead: slippery rememberings of awkward adolescent love, subverted at key stages because: Luke Haines. The third verse is worth quoting in its entirety:

“Small-town dating differs from more urban situations
In particular if there’s few places to go
Adolescents normally gather in a café or an arcade
If they have to almost anywhere will do
A family car, a disused coal mine
A rowing boat or a shed
Experimentation, familiarization
It’s all a nature walk.”

That, in short, is teenage infatuation, neatly summed. Except the coal mine reference. Because even in a narrative as intuitively as straight as The Facts Of Life, Haines can’t help but help to deliver a twist – and unless the local disused mines are full of girls and boys copping off with each other behind my back, it’s another indication never to take BBR entirely at face value.

The School Song

There’s possibly folk reading this too young to remember Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life. In which case they definitely won’t recognise TV’s We Are The Champions, the weekly televised school sports day presented by BBC athletics commentator Ron Pickering. Someone to remind you of a flatulent builder – one who owned more dirty magazines than he knew what to do with – but this being the 1970s, laissez faire was the prevailing attitude when deciding who to present kids’ television. Not that Pickering was a wrong ‘un of course, but the entire show reeked of that naff, unintended kitsch that Haines in particular can’t help but gravitate towards. And this is very much the type of nostalgic hook he’s always going to sign up to.

As the show’s theme tune was planted amongst the minds of the young and impressionable by virtue of its football chant quality, and because Black Box Recorder scans with “We Are The Champions”, you could call this – or at least the intro – homage.

And then there’s the meat of the track, Sarah Nixey playing the role of sultry school-ma’am down to a tee. Those of a certain age will recall Joyce Grenfell’s comic skit in which she addresses an imaginary classroom of misbehaving urchins (“George – don’t do that”); School Song is thus BBR’s ramped-up version; nothing that Nixey elucidates in each verse is remotely lewd or suggestive, but it feels like it should be. Furthermore, the chorus; “Destroy your record collection, it’s for your own protection.” One reason why I’d argue that Black Box Recorder are so much more important than posterity suggests is that there’s always a Situationist bent to their material. A playfulness never present for its own sake, but leading onto something more. That lyric alone is, in my book, worth price of entrance.

British Racing Green

The Art Of Driving. The English Motorway System. British Racing Green. It’s as if there’s a theme here. Some sort of allegorical framework dangling in the breeze. What could all this car-related material signify?

This is one of those tracks that glides across perception, lulling the listener into a false sense of security, narrative framed through twee, pastoral images of little England, like a rogue Miss Marple storyline in which nobody was offed with a candelabra in the billiard room (sweet little Jane Marple, she’s been bumping people off then attributing blame on others for years. A one-woman death machine, that broad. A sick and twisted murderess killing for kicks and cheap thrills – but I digress …)

Andrew Ridgeley

Ah, yes, everybody’s second favourite member of Wham! (if we’re discounting Pepsi and Shirlie). He of unremarkable talent, the undiscernible talent, proof (if any were needed) that a pretty boy face and not much else is an asset when it comes to the pernicious plateau of pop. Perfect Black Box Recorder subject matter, of course. The veneration of St Andrew, beatific smile beaming down from posters on the bedroom walls. The cheeky wink, the cheesy grin – he’s like a human Wotsit, under-dressed and under-appreciated by all those not in the know. (BBR – they’re in the know).

Alternatively, this could be gross simplification on my part. Because the band’s sentiment occupies the middle ground between sincerity, muck spreading and outright mischief, it’s never particularly easy to spot when tongue isn’t in cheek. Black Box Recorder keep the audience guessing, and when it comes to pop (even that of the art variety), this edge of duplicitous uncertainty is why popkids such as myself keep returning to their records.

Three albums, and that’s your lot, chum. Black Box Recorder fell quiet after 2003. Possibly because Moore and Nixey got hitched to each other, then became unhitched, which unless you’re Fleetwood Mac generally isn’t healthy for band dynamic (although it’s rude to pry). There were plans for a final album towards the end of the decade – the sessions spawning the unsuccessful Keep It In The Family single, but affairs didn’t pan out as intended. Nixey turned solo (amongst other things, recording an excellent cover of The Human League’s The Black Hit Of Space), Moore returned to his ventriloquist dummies, and Haines? Well, thankfully there’ll be another Toppermost along shortly. What Luke Haines did next. Do come and join us.

 

Luke Haines facebook

Sarah Nixey official website

John Moore official website

The Auteurs toppermost #440

Luke Haines toppermost #451

Black Box Recorder biography (iTunes)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #445

1 Comment

  1. lazerguidedmelody
    May 15, 2015

    Stop press. Haines has confirmed that John Moore is responsible for the vox on ‘The Art of Driving’. I’ll stick to that Margo Leadbetter fixation from here on in…

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