9 October 2010

He realises those tears must have been poisoned...

Everyone is talking about John Lennon this weekend. As someone who still thinks his solo stuff was largely tedious and the man himself was far from likeable, I'm loath to join in. I was only seven when he died anyway, and that was the first I'd ever heard of him. My memories of it are of the immediate aftermath and the impact it had on the pop charts.

Then I remembered this.

EMF, whom I'm sure you remember. Their big hit was the debut Unbelievable at the start of 1991, which got to No.3 in the UK and No.1 in the USA. They followed it up with another Top 10 hit called I Believe, then a less well-received song called Children, and finally for the first album, this.

Lies, as a song, is distinctly unremarkable. It's not a poor composition, but it was released as an epitome of fourth-single-syndrome, in that only avid collectors would buy it as everyone interested in the band had purchased Schubert Dip, the well-received but craply-titled album. And this single version is very different to the album version - indeed, of the four singles, only Unbelievable wasn't entirely remixed when becoming a single release.

But it is that album version that brings me to John Lennon. Upon the release of Schubert Dip, I'd saved enough of my wages from the pizza restaurant I worked in at the time and so was able to buy it on the day it came out. I'd never done that before. I have many albums, in all formats, but have never been so desperate to acquire and hear one that I've been in the shop on the day of delivery. But, there I was, at the branch of HMV on Whitefriargate in Hull, immediately after sixth form, having caught the bus straight into the city.

And it is a good, thumping, naive, satisfying album. The band claim to have done masses of bedroom songwriting and rehearsal and you can feel that ethic in the final version of many songs. Of course, they were already establishing a reputation as semi-hellraisers, enjoying plenty of female attention and swearing in interviews, not least when admitting what those initials stood for (something I first read in Rave magazine - yes, this is 1991 all ends up).

One thing they did on the album was put random audio clips at the beginning of some songs as introductions that were apropos of nothing. There was a Radio 3 announcer (quite possibly John Marsh, of later Wake Up To Wogan fame) introducing a Schubert composition (relevant to the album title but not the song that followed), there was Bert from Sesame Street, a TS Eliot reading and a couple of clips of the band doing unspeakable stuff, most notably keyboard player Derry Brownson chucking something through a closed window and shouting: "I'm gonna smash the f**king place".

And, at the start of Lies, there was a clip of somebody reciting a line of what I assumed at the time was poetry.

Well, it was poetry, but it was more than that. It was this:

People say I'm crazy, doing what I'm doing
But they give me all kinds of warnings, to save me from ruin.

Yep, the opening lyric to John Lennon's Watching The Wheels, a gentle song from his Double Fantasy album, the one he released three weeks prior to his slaughter. The song was released posthumously as a single and though I had heard it on a handful of occasions, I wasn't interested or aware enough to recognise the lyrics. To me, it was some random bloke reciting some random words and I reacted only with the same teenage intrigue as I did with the rest of the album.

The speaker was very distant and spoke nasally with an American accent. The recording quality was extremely crackly. I thought no more of it, as the clip was only five seconds long before the intro to Lies kicked in.

Then, at the end of the week, the papers began to report that Yoko Ono was metaphorically smashing up her house in disgust and rage at the antics of EMF and had issued lawsuits at this bunch of half a dozen chancers in baseball caps from a leafier part of Gloucestershire. It was while reading this stuff in the papers that I learned that the rhyme was from Watching The Wheels - and the speaker was Mark Chapman, killer of Lennon, recorded in custody in New York just hours after firing the bullets.

EMF's people panicked like buggery and, as far as I remember, the record company recalled every unsold copy of Schubert Dip from the shops and pulped them (well, they'd have pulped the vinyl albums; I assume they crush cassettes and snap CDs). Very quickly, re-issued copies - without Chapman's interlude - were in the shops and all was well. Aside from the following outcry about the track called, er, EMF, which contained - via the band name - the expletive to end all expletives and was hidden and uncredited at the end of the album. Epsom Mad Funksters, my arse.

My CD copy of Schubert Dip, which I've not listened to for a while but have never grown to dislike, still has Chapman doing his mentalist's thing. EMF and their production overlords got mega publicity over it - there would have been quite a clamour to buy the album and hear the offending cut before Yoko's heavies got their way - but it was still a daft thing to do. The only real effect it had on me in the end was that I really like Watching The Wheels now, and without EMF I might not have found that song for years and years afterwards.

Naturally, when Lies was released as a single there was not a sign nor mention of the Chapman incident. Had they had the nerve to tack it on to the single for the first week it might have got a hell of a lot higher than the No.28 it eventually hobbled to. Though they may all have been sent to jail too.

And to be honest, the biggest surprise as far as controversial material from that album remains unnoticed, unheralded and regularly repeated. Throughout Unbelievable, that memorable lead single that the Americans took all the way to the top, is a sample of Andrew Dice Clay shouting "What the f**k" and, at the end of each chorus, the clip is extended to the full "What the f**k was that?". And when you think of the stick the USA gave Lennon for his comment about being more popular than Jesus...


Mondo said...

How much do these copies go for- have you checked the rates on the 'bay?

Matthew Rudd said...

I haven't actually. Quite happy to cling on to mine. EMF aren't going to be collectable, are they?