the passage

trackalbum
fearpindrop
anderton's hallpindrop
from the heartpindrop
dark timesfor all and none
the great refusalfor all and none
shave your headfor all and none
love is asdegenerates
(ourselves)degenerates
dogstar/8th dayenflame
clear as crystalenflame

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Contributor: Rick J Leach

love

power

fear

– these were the three words and the three themes and the three ideas which ran through the passage’s work like a vein of diamond-sharp crystal in a particularly grim and dark underground rock face.

From 1978 to 1983 they released a handful of singles and EPs and four albums that still, after all this time, are as relevant today as they were back then, back in those stifling and oppressive times. Possibly, they are even more relevant today; time being cyclical. Maybe the similarities between then and now are more than we care to admit to.

I loved the passage. Not only because that they were an early offshoot of The Fall; Tony Friel, The Fall’s first bassist left them and formed the passage alongside Dick Witts, a classically trained musician who was a percussionist for the Hallé Orchestra, but because they produced music that was different.

It was so unlike anything else that came out of the late 1970s and early 1980s that whatever pigeonhole you tried to stuff the passage in they never really fitted. If you look on Wikipedia they’re described as “post-punk” and “synth-pop”. Post punk I suppose, as that’s the period when they were active, and synth pop because they used synthesizers. Maybe they could be described as percussion pop because they used drums.

And although they were from Manchester, they never really fitted into the late 70s/80s Factory scene. They always seemed too precise, too intelligent, too cerebral and masters too much of their own destiny to align themselves with that particularly manipulative axis. Whereas artists who were signed to Factory appeared to have a certain depth, a certain ethos, it actually ran quite shallow. Style over substance, if you wish.

However, the passage, just like The Fall, were possessed of a fierce intelligence and directness. They tackled complex issues and themes in a complex way. Everything was considered; it was theory put into practice and yet it didn’t seem that way. The music they produced was unsettling, dark and uncompromising and for me, much more significant and important than anything Joy Division ever came up with.

the passage were the true voice of the grim “North”, whatever that might have been.

It’s very difficult to pick just ten tracks by the passage, but I suppose that applies to many artists. All their four studio albums were re-released in 2003 on CD and incorporated most of their singles and EPs.

A useful place to start is their first album, pindrop, from 1980, and the first track, fear. If anyone would ask me to explain what the passage were like, then it’s all here. In this one track. It’s a nightmare of a track, an unnamed “they” asking “us”, who runs this place, over and over again, like an extended interrogation in an underground cell (possibly heightened by the murky production on the record, it should be said.) The answers come back in turn; power and love. That seems to be enough. “We” are told that we are free to go if “we” say the word “love” again; but we respond finally and emphatically with the word “fear”. The music comes to an abrupt halt. There is the sound of birdsong in the background. An echoing voice tells us “that one word fucked their hearts”.

This was not just a one-off. The rest of the album was similarly powerful. It’s tough to pick out ant tracks, but from the heart, 16 hours, locust and anderton’s hall (the latter track, about the especially nasty Chief Constable of Manchester at the time, Sir James Anderton), are particularly outstanding.

Their second album, for all and none, continued with the same themes and if anything, was even darker and more focussed. It contains what is my favourite passage track of them all, shave your head, which has the best use of dead air in any song ever as well as the brilliant opening line, “It’s 2 in the morning/It’s always 2 in the morning”. Never a truer word said when you wish to deal with dark times.

You can’t go wrong really with either of the first two albums by the passage, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the final two, degenerates and enflame. A slightly different change of style, veering more into overt electronics, did not diminish their power one whit. If anything the darkness (from a production point of view) shown in the first two albums, was replaced by higher, crisper values which seemed only to place the music and lyrics under an incessantly blinding, unblinking white light. Love, power and fear are still the predominant themes and incredibly, a track like dogstar, recorded in 1983 and dealing with “meanest John Bull” Britain, resonates so strongly that it could have been written yesterday, not 30-odd years ago.

When they disbanded after just four albums I thought it was far too early, and that surely there was more to come. However, those four albums are just the perfect legacy to leave behind. Sometimes it’s best to know when to stop.

dancing through dark times: a tribute to the passage

Richard Witts website

the passage biography

Read more about the passage in Rick’s “Totally Shuffled – A Year of Listening to Music on a Broken iPod” available as a Kindle book here and in paperback here. He is also the author of a trilogy of books about going to the Glastonbury Festival: Turn Left at the Womble;Left Again at the Womble; Tea and Toast and Rock and Roll.

TopperPost #422

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