Upside Down In Acocks Green: Pete Paphides’ Broken Greek

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Broken Greek, Pete Paphides recalls the strange glamour of Roxy Music and Chic

The next few days followed a similar pattern. I’d go downstairs, pour myself a bowl of Frosties, watch TV, mooch down the road to Acocks Green and stare at the records in Easy Listening, Preedy’s and Woolworths, keeping a running total of what I could afford and what I might buy next. With each new single, Roxy Music were starting to seem more and more important. I’d picked up somewhere along the line that they had been around in the early seventies and recently returned after a period of inactivity. People who remembered them from before seemed more enthused about the old stuff than their current run of singles. They talked about innovation and originality, as though these qualities were determinants of listenability. About a year later, I’d finally get to see and hear what it was about early Roxy Music that got people excited. As the closing credits of Mike Read’s Pop Quiz rolled, Roxy Music’s Top of the Pops performance of ‘Virginia Plain’ revealed a confusion of androgynous aliens marauding into uncharted territory on their sequinned sonic steamroller. Bryan Ferry’s hair was longer and his eyelids were brushed with something shiny. He wore the collar of his black top up and his pointy shoulders gave him a camp, vampiric air – a hypercaffeinated younger brother to the casually coutured ghost who fronted Roxy Mk 2: Heathcliff dressed by Antony Price. In time, I’d come to appreciate the former, but from the moment I set eyes on Bryan Ferry, I was a little bit enraptured by the latter.

Had I been a little older, I could have seen how Roxy Mk 1, coming along at the right time, might save your life. Those songs would be like a club filled with outsiders you’ve yet to meet, the outsiders you didn’t know existed – outsiders just like you. But what would you listen to six months later when one of those outsiders broke your heart and left you feeling like the world and your place in it had forever been changed? What would be your lifeline at the lowest moment? I’d never had my heart broken. But Roxy Music’s run of singles from 1979 to 1981 were a periscope into that world. They were the first band I heard that depicted sadness as a space you could lovingly furnish and luxuriate in. The genius of ‘Oh Yeah (On the Radio)’ was that it explained this to me in almost literal terms. ‘Oh Yeah’ is not just the name of the song – it’s the name of the song that the song is about. It was the very thing it was describing.

‘One day,’ Bryan Ferry seemed to be saying, ‘you might be driving somewhere and this song might come on the radio, and it will be your “Oh Yeah”.’ Five years later, music journalists would be falling over themselves to heap praise on Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout for releasing singles that tried to forge new ground by being the very thing to which they were simultaneously paying tribute. But with ‘Oh Yeah (On the Radio)’, Roxy Music comfortably beat them to the punch.

As Chic’s Nile Rodgers would make clear in his autobiography Le Freak, without Roxy Music there would almost have certainly been no Chic. And without Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to write and produce it for her, Diana Ross wouldn’t have been enjoying her biggest hit in almost a decade with ‘Upside Down’, which had just been released. Chic were enjoying a run of imperial dominance which didn’t just stop at their own records. They had turbocharged the hitherto modest fortunes of Sister Sledge by writing and producing 1979’s We Are Family album for them. The method they used for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross was identical to the one which had made Chic such a huge success. The Sister Sledge album was a testing ground of sorts – proof that the Chic formula could be wholly transplanted to another artist. By the time Rodgers and Edwards were introduced to Diana Ross, they had earned the right to face their heroine and effectively hire her as Chic’s star vocalist for an album. ‘Upside Down’ was Chic through and through – opulent melancholy from the heart to the hip and back again. Diana Ross might have hated the song – at least she voiced grave doubts about it until it raced up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic – but she still managed to deliver a vocal turn which was freighted with all the embattled nobility that the song required. For a song about being hostage to the emotions you feel for an unworthy recipient, nothing less was needed.

As a Chic single in all but name, ‘Upside Down’ felt familiar from the off. By contrast, the outergalactic otherness of David Bowie’s return to action ensured that there was nothing stylistically familiar about it – a fact that prompted Smash Hits reviewer Deanne Pearson to confidently declare that it was ‘not a hit’. Its total ubiquity in this of all weeks was uncanny. I don’t know what the grown-ups were getting out of it. But I can tell you this. If you tune into Top of the Pops, aged eleven, while your father is at work and your mother is lying in a hospital bed and unable to move for fear of aggravating the incision across the middle of her body, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ sounds overwhelming. Not upsetting, you understand. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ didn’t make what was happening to my mum any sadder. It was more that my mum’s situation somehow authenticated the sentiments of the song. Furthermore, Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. In the right hands, the chasm between knowing exactly what awaits us and not knowing at all what awaits us can be turned into a gallery space. Bowie had created such extraordinary work in that space, we didn’t imagine that, this time, he was facing that abyss for real. With ‘Ashes to Ashes’, Bowie explained that he was trying to write a nursery-rhyme requiem to the 1970s and, indeed, to childhood itself – a song that made children and adults in 1980 feel the way he had done when he first heard ‘Inchworm’, performed by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen. ‘There’s a child’s nursery rhyme element in it,’ he told Performing Songwriter magazine in 2003, ‘and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult. There’s a connection that can be made between being a somewhat lost five-year-old and feeling a little abandoned and having the same feeling when you’re in your twenties.’

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides is published by Quercus

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