The End of the Pier
, August 10th, 2012 07:00
Distractions singer Mike Finney stood - literally - at the end of the pier. It was August 1983 and the location? Unlikely Skegness. Finney was choosing to escape the urban traumas of Stockport and the vulturous critical circle that hovered menacingly above the convoluted demise of the band… a band that flickered so brilliantly amid the debris of post punk Manchester before crumbling beneath the weight of expectation. What had happened here? Finney knew that the ungovernable gods of luck and timing had fled the scene. He knew too, that something special had been allowed to drift from the spotlight. The game was up. That evening, in the 50s-throwback town of Mablethorpe, Finney and co-singer Julie entered a talent show in the hall of a downbeat caravan park swilling with noisily inebriated Nottingham miners. They sang 'This Old Heart of Mine' and finished closely behind a rotund Elvis impersonator. Lost in the symbolism of the moment, Finney dropped his guard for once and submitted to beery banter. "I have reached the end of the pier," he joked. Soon he would leave his musical memories behind and escape to a welcoming family life in Pennine Yorkshire.
Although they formed in 1975, it took three years for The Distractions to shuffle nervously into position. While Buzzcocks jostled into the rush of chart success and Joy Division attained unprecedented cult status, The Distractions' sweet flow of songs gained them a dedicated local following. Here was a heartfelt pop soul brimming with angst and tender lyrical twists. Here was a lovely natural songwriting that soared about the pretentious howl of low-brow funk of the day. While less talented acts successfully courted the inky music press and, in years to come, would gain ludicrous appraisals in lofty journals and tomes, The Distraction would drift into the shadows.
The band's biog might appear typical. After releasing one raw and glorious EP (You Are Not Going Out Dressed Like That on Tony Davidson's TJM label) and arguably the most perfect single in Factory's chequered history ('Time Goes By So Slow'), they decamped for fame and fortune via a serious record deal with Island. The resultant album Nobody's Perfect, (and disappointing cover version single, 'Boy's Cry') failed to capture that momentum and, at the very moment they should have been surging on to Top of the Pops, the cute little juggernaut stalled. Suddenly, all was shambles. Chief songwriter Steve Perrin, the man responsible for infusing the irresistible melodies that gained them the contract in the first place, jumped ship, to form the shaky though aptly-named Escape Committee, to little effect. Opting to put their promotional force behind the embryonic U2, Island dropped The Distractions who, post Perrin, simmered for a while with the cerebral addition of Ex Ludus man Arthur Kadmon before splintering into Finney's ironic 80s pop act, The Secret Seven. Even here, there was a bubble of success via a bizarre record deal with the metal label Bronze, a strange home for lilting pop. One single in, that dream folded, leaving Finney and Secret Seven co-singer Julie to record vocals for The Art Of Noises' 'Close to the Edge'. Alas, again, bad luck saw the single emerge as charting instrumental.
That is the nutshell; the remotest tip of an iceberg that barely merited a mention in. say, Simon Reynolds' post punk Bible, Rip It Up and Start It Again. Perhaps that should be the end of the story. Nothing more, nothing less that one of the great lost Manchester bands (Easterhouse, Dub Sex, The Chameleons, The Freshies etc).
Had it not been for Nick Halliwell, the guiding light behind the perceptive and intelligent label, Occultation, all would remain a memory. This guitar playing, song writing, uber-enthusiast of great lost bands – The June Brides are also under his wing – managed to somehow rekindle this extinguished flame. Without his energetic input, The Distractions story would have ended there… well, save for a brief revival in an unwelcoming 1995.
It didn't help that Finney and Perrin had decamped to Holmfirth and New Zealand respectively, seemingly linked only by memory and Facebook. Even this was not enough to deter Halliwell from his quest and, last year, saw the release of two Distractions EPs which merged new Perrin and Halliwell written material plus intriguing leftovers from that fleeting 1995 session. The results strongly indicated a 'maturing' of Finney's voice that would now sit sweetly on top of a prediction of contemporary clarity. Old press allegiances – David Quantick, yours truly – returned with vigour and, within months rumours of an all new Distractions album – the first in 32 years – began to circulate around the small gathering of admirers. And, make no mistake about it, this IS a miniscule fan base. Halliwell's quest is simplistic and difficult. Get the world to listen. Even the prospect of two Manchester gigs at the back end of August will not necessarily cause a sufficient dent in the city's currently rather disconnected and disparate local scene.
However, the resultant album, The End of the Pier, has already started to turn heads. Everett True's punchy appraisal on Collapse Board among them. This is not surprising, for it is arguably the most reflective and illuminating collection of songs one has stumble across this year and will delight those with hazy memories of inebriated dancing in Manchester's Mayflower Club in 1979. Curious thing is that it is unmistakably a Distractions record, even if only Finney and Perrin remain from the original gaggle of Mancunian oiks. Quite why it is unmistakably so is an intriguing point. For gone is the young man angst…the state of semi-sexual development and sheer force of yearning that governed their previous songwriting – well, if you have sussed that by the time you reach your mid–50s you might as well give up. But what we find here is a swarming maturity, indeed, a sense of rapid ageing. It is an 'oldie' album that nods to Leonard Cohen ('Tower of Song') and even Dylan ('Not Dark Yet'). I mention those two songs because, if consumed late at night, half-way down the Merlot, perhaps, they take you to a place of serene reflection. It also faintly echoes the classic albums of Lucinda Williams. (Essence, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) in that a staunch 'believability' seems to flow from every line. Well, between lyric writers and singer here lies a great deal of life experience. Why shouldn't it be allowed to feed back into the music?
The very first line, expressed with a degree of soulful anxiety, states "We are running out of time…." While, nine songs later at the album's conclusion, Finney claims "This is the last song I will ever sing." In between lie eight more of them, all of which sit within that state of rapidly ageing angst. Oddly enough, it is almost comforting to hear someone expressing this stuff on your behalf. One thinks of a middle age man, wandering around some sunny enclave, wholly lost in a swirl of thought. "Though we may not live long I will write just one more song and we will try out luck again," he states on 'Wise', while, one song later, he intones, " Who would have thought that coming back would be so hard?"
All of which might appear to lack the exuberance on which the small Distractions legend was initially built. However, as reflective as the lyrics may seem, this is still a record that can occasionally bump along like a young 'un. This might be attributed to Finney and Perrin's partners in crime here. Halliwell's inventive guitar twists and the lovely pumping bass of Arash Torabi remains distinctive throughout. Further credits go to the keyboards of producer Nick Garside and Mike Kellie, resurrected from the ghost of The Only Ones to hold down the beat during these Exeter-based sessions.
The differences between this oddly assembled ersatz unit and the original band are wholly positive. Back in the post punk gloom, The Distractions glory belonged to the lovely musical naiveté that typified their live attack. Once they had assembled in a quality studio – and, with respect, under the guidance of producer John Astley – their precocity noticeably faded. Today's Distractions are a different beast, brimming with confidence and freed from former expectations.
Did I mention Lucinda Williams, back there? That might be more of a 'feel' thing rather than actuality. That stated, there are moments on The End of the Pier where elements of country-esque forlornness start to creep in. Such a thing might have been unforgivable back in 1978, when existential downbeat loser fayre was never on the menu. Well, not in the NME, anyway. However, Distractions young and old both enjoy drifting apart from the pack. There was always something rather incongruous about seeing the name 'Distractions' on a bill that might feature Section 25, Joy Division, The Fall and Blurt. It was by chance that Finney's soul boy threads seemed to blend with the ragged suits and short-back-and-sides favoured by the Ratios and Pop Groups. When on punkier bills, their joyous normality became paradoxically weird. The same might be said today, both in sound and visuals. Nothing really edges close to this. Not now. Not then.
There is nothing to fear anymore. There is no possibility of failure. This is a ship sailing serenely into the mists and, from that greying undertone; a curious joy can be glimpsed. As hinted, this is probably the most emotionally affecting album I have heard in many years. It nudges your perception, leaves you feeling somewhat blurry from the experience. All in all, peculiarly dreamlike and, as Charles Shaar Murray once succinctly noted, The Distractions are good for dreams. All is surreal and normal and weird at the end of the pier.