Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alice Cooper - "School's Out" Album

Alice Cooper
"School's Out"
(Warner Bros., 1972)

All "Vinyl vs. CD" discussions eventually reference Alice Cooper's infamous School's Out album. I had the original vinyl album that opened up like a school desktop and had see-through panties as a record sleeve. (The original release was recalled - not because of poor taste, but because the panties weren't flame-retardant!) They sure don't make 'em like that anymore!

A recent Facebook discussion about this album neglected to post any pictures - which truly are worth a thousand words. So, for the curious, here's what we were talking about.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Digging Da Diggle, Deux

F.O.C. & The Secret Public Years, 1981-1989

Best of Steve Diggle and Flag of Convenience:
The Secret Public Years, 1981-1989

(Anagram Records, 1994)

While my girlfriend Amy-the-Buzzcocks-Completist keeps waiting for Amazon to notify her when the physical CD because available, I bit the bullet and bought the compilation album The Best of Steve Diggle and Flag of Convenience: The Secret Public Years 1981-1989 from iTunes (and believe me, it wasn't easy for this AARP card-carrying technophobe - but now I can report: Mission Accomplished!). This Flag of Convenience (F.O.C.) - the band Diggle formed after Buzzcocks broke up in 1981 - compilation originally came out on vinyl from Anagram Records in 1994 and is currently only available from Amazon, Napster, Rhapsody, and iTunes as an MP3 digital download album. It's a fascinating and important collection because it represents the missing link in the evolution of Steve Diggle as songwriter, representing the defining Diggle Decade: the 1980s - the post-Buzzcocks period when he found himself as a tunesmith and came into his creative own. Or in Digglespeak, you might say he found his "Autonomy."

As Trouser Press wrote of this phase, "Diggle had played the Dave Davies role in the group — writing and singing his two or three songs per LP, getting an occasional A-side, and improving all the while — so it was logical for him to carry on the Buzzcocks' frantic, ambitious pop as Shelley opted for techno-blip dance music." Actually, a more accurate analogy would be to see Diggle as the Buzzcocks' George Harrison, for, like Beatle George, a suddenly prolific Diggle unleashed a slew of songs following the breakup of his Fab Four in 1981, much like Harrison's pent-up outpouring of tunes on the 1970 double-LP All Things Must Pass. By the time he rejoined Shelley for the 1989 'cocks reunion, he had a sizable solo back catalog - as would be evidenced by the number of tunes on 1993's "new" Buzzcocks album Trade Test Transmissions. Small wonder then that All Music Guide's Jack Rabid called the former 'cock "one of the most important and overlooked artists in all of Britain during the '80s." Sadly, hardly anything has been written about this period, with Flag of Convenience's work still remaining largely undiscovered except for this hard-to-find anthology known only to a truly "secret public".

Admittedly, on first hearing this retrospective collection and then the full-length F.O.C. albums, Amy and I both agreed: "Ohmigod, it's SOOOOOO '80s!" Which is never a bad thing in our minds; in fact, it's a rather cool thing! Yes, there's lots of that '80s over-indulgent production and an obsession with "new" electronic technology - muddily-processed vocals, airy backing keyboards (this was the era of the "key-tar"), and those flat, tinny-sounding electronic drums that were in vogue then - but the post-punk '80s were also the time of "New Wave" music, producing some of my favorite sounds (and bands) ever. As Simon Reynolds opined in Rip It Up and Star Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005), " seems to me that the long aftermath of punk running from 1978-1984 was way more interesting than what happened between 1976 and 1977, when punk staged its back-to-basics rock 'n' roll revival..."

Simon says: Rip it up and start again

Indeed, liberated from the restrictive, paint-yourself-into-a-creative-corner dictates of punk's three chord minimalism and vocal nihilism, the '80s saw a return to melody and musicianship - not to mention experimentalism. Or, as Simon Reynolds observed, "Punk installed a myth that stills persists to this day in some quarters, that the prepunk early seventies were a musical wasteland" when in fact "that period was one of the richest and most diverse in rock history" - one from which the postpunk bands rediscovered those riches, drawing inspiration from "the arty end" of glam rockers like David Bowie and Roxy Music, as well as the hardcore experimental-prog end of Soft Machine, Eno, and King Crimson. (The proof's in the pudding of subsequent groups like Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Cabaret Voltaire, The Fall, Wire, and others.) And, though many gimmicky electronic bands ("all those synth-toting Anglo poseurs prancing on MTV" in Reynold's words) emerged during this time, bands like F.O.C. and The Smiths (not to mention U2) ensured that guitars were never buried in the mix. (In point of fact, The Smiths were a clear influence on the later-period F.O.C. sound, from Diggle's vocal style and lyrics to his melodically fluid, jangly guitar playing in the Johnny Marr vein.)

Oh, but wait - what's with this "Secret Public" moniker, you might well ask? Well, the original Secret Public was a photomontage zine created by barrister-turned-music critic Jon Savage (England's Dreaming) and graphic artist/Ludus chanteuse Linder Sterling (who, with Malcolm Garrett, designed the iconic picture sleeve for Buzzcocks' 45 "Orgasm Addict"). Published in January 1978, it was the second New Hormones product – catalogue number ORG 2 – after the Buzzcocks’ already classic “Spiral Scratch” EP, and was distributed through Rough Trade and other independent outlets. Though it later found use as the title of a Buzzcocks fanzine and web site (, Savage sums up its *meaning* as an artistic/cultural signpost thusly:
It speaks of a view of the world that has been submerged by the media culture reliance on reactionary lad myths...After all, the hidden story of punk is that it recognised the public’s true secret: that, counter to the propaganda of marketing and cultural conservatives, people are not ordinary but extraordinary.

To which art critic Michael Bracewell adds, "Secret Public" is the sense "common to the best of punk and post punk creativity...[of a] largely intuitive response to the notion of modernity itself attaining critical mass, and with it (mirroring the renaissance in music) the opening of new creative possibilities." Or something like that! OK, here we go...

Meet the FOC-ers

OK, so much for aesthetics! Following is my song-by-song breakdown of the 21 Diggle tracks included on the Best of Steve Diggle and Flag of Convenience: The Secret Public Years, 1981-1989 anthology - representing highlights of the eight singles and three LPs that Diggle and various F.O.C. lineups ran up the "Flag" pole in the 80s - as well as such rare and newly discovered download-only treasures as F.O.C.'s Northwest Skyline (1987) and War on the Wireless Set (1988) LPs.

Best of Steve Diggle and Flag of Convenience:
The Secret Public Years, 1981-1989

(Anagram Records, 1994)

When Pete Shelley disbanded Buzzcocks in March 1981, Diggle formed Flag of Convenience (a name suggested by his brother Philip, from a shipping term meaning no allegiance) with 'cocks drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey. The 3/4 Buzzcocks outfit released one 7-inch on Liberty/United Records in 1981 under Diggle's name ('cuz Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto owned the name "Buzzcocks"); the 3-track EP was called 50 Years of Comparative Wealth and featured the Diggle songs "Shut Out the Light (Rothko)," "Here Comes the Fire Brigade (Riot)," and the eponymous title track - which appear chronologically as the first three tracks on the The Secret Public Years digital download album. Diggle himself produced the EP and his artist brother Philip Diggle designed its cover, which depicts Steve in front of his brother's paintings. In his autobiography Harmony In My Head (Helter Skelter Publishing, 2002), Diggle characterized this release as "a little parochial EP about British life" and recalled it was his "rebellion record" - a socially-conscious response to critics who labeled Buzzcocks "just a love songs band."

*** 1981 ***

Steve Diggle
"50 Years of Comparative Wealth" EP
(Liberty/United Records, 1981)

Steve Diggle: Vocals, guitars, keyboards
Steve Garvey: Bass
John Maher: Drums

1. "Shut Out the Light (Rothko)" (Diggle)
"Shut out the sun, shut out the light/shut out the rain, shut out the pain"

Rothko, shutting out the light in his "Chapel"

This rollicking rocker opens F.O.C.'s account with its Secret Public with a solid guitar riff, catchy chorus, and that keyboard blip that sounds like a cell phone ringing (every time I listen to this I think someone's calling me!). Totally '80s, totally New Wave. As usual, though, I have no idea what Diggle's talking about, but I like the lyrical images: "I don't see the dancing man, I don't know his name/I only breathe to discover the inner light again" and "I use my body just for shelter - to satisfy my aim."

The original vinyl EP lists this song title as "Shut Out the Light (Rothko)" (the Rothko reference is dropped on The Secret Public Years compilation) which made me wonder if it has some connection to the abstract expressionist painter my Art Major pal Dave Cawley calls "one of the worst artists of the 20th Century" (which he points out is just his opinion - "but correct"). I knew Rothko's 1964 black-on-black installation at the National Gallery (currently in Houston, Texas) "shuts out the light" of color almost to the point of making it a subliminal suggestion, and suspected this was his artist brother Philip Diggle's influence at work. Amy settled the question by once again consulting Diggle's rock and roll memoir Harmony In My Head, which confirmed that Steve had not only seen Rothko's Houston exhibition, but had been gobsmacked by it. "You were meant to look at this big expense of color and go into yourself and find yourself," Diggle explained. "Most people thought it was bullshit, but I'd been schooled by my brother. It was good for a hangover, hence: Shut Out the Light."

2. "50 Years of Comparative Wealth" (Diggle)
"50 years of comparative wealth/Look around, take a look at yourself/What have you done since yesterday?/Nothing."

Diggle's dour "State of the Union Jack" address looks at Old Blightey's fall from Empire to Welfare State and concludes "...As I walk through this trash I hear a nation cry, 'Nothing is given!'" Life with the Twee Lions means: Welcome to the New Austerity program.

3. "Here Comes the Fire Brigade (Riot)" (Diggle)
"People moving 'round, to the fashion of sound/There's a man at the top, and he won't come down/Here comes the fire brigade/But there ain't no fire."

Great Clash-influenced rocker with a double-tracked, fist-pumping anthemic chorus sung a la Strummer and Co. and driving chopsticks-style piano, calling for volunteers to put out a fire of social unrest that ultimately simmers down to disillusionment. "And he's got no chutes/And the ladders are wound/There's only one thing to do." In Harmony In My Head, Diggle explained that "'Here Comes the Fire Brigade' was about how the fire brigade is used in political situations. They're meant to be a public service yet, given the order, they get the fire hoses out in order to quell demonstrations. My take on politics at the time."

Still smarting from the acrimonious breakup of Buzzcocks, Diggle contrasted his EP with former 'cock leader Pete Shelley's experimental electronic LP of the time Sky Yen (originally recorded in 1974 but only recently released): "I thought it sounded dramatic. Either way, it sounded a lot more together than Pete's solo album Sky Yen, which came out around that time. It was utter bollocks! Bad Yoko Ono, a load of electronic nonsense that I thought was unlistenable."

Steve Garvey left soon after this EP to pursue projects with his band Motivation, but Diggle and Maher soldiered on as Flag of Convenience, releasing their first single under the F.O.C. moniker in 1982.

*** 1982 ***

Flag of Convenience
"Life On The Telephone"/ "The Other Man's Sin" 7" Single/12" EP
(Sire, 1982)

Steve Diggle: Guitars and vocals
John Maher: Drums
Dave Farrow: Bass
D. P.: Keyboards

"Flag of Convenience" released their debut single in September 1982 in the UK as the 7-inch Sire single "Life on the Telephone" b/w "The Other Man's Sin." It was available in the US as a three-song, four-track 12" EP featuring long and short (edited) versions of "Life on the Telephone," "The Other Man's Sins," and a new song called "Picking Up On Audio Sound."

Back cover, 12" version of "Life on the Telephone"

The UK 7" version of "Life on the Telephone"

The three songs from the debut F.O.C. single appear chronologically as tracks 4-6 on The Secret Public Years.

4. "Life On the Telephone" (Diggle)

"We had a good solution but we let it slide/All our thoughts we said we would pass with the time."
The song that reminds us that before there were mobiles, there were those twee rotary phones. Or, as Flock of Seagulls put it, "Telecommunication." Diggle's trying to make a long distance love connection, but "When we walked we walked over the same grind/And then we talked and talked over the same sighs." Dated but quaint! And I wonder: Is that a drum machine doing the high-hat rhythm or can John Mayer really play that fast?

5. "Picking Up On Audio Sound" (Diggle)

Very slick production with wall-of-sound keyboard effects highlight this ethereal number included on the US 12" that could have been written by Thomas Dolby circa "Radio Silence."

6. "The Other Man's Sin" (Diggle)

Made in the Shades! Still from "The Other Man's Sin" video

Diggle channels the spirit of Ian Curtis as he intones "The other man's sin, the other man's sin/He'll tear you apart to bleed you thin" as Diggle ponders the existential quandary: "What can we see, then, is not what we see now/The nature of the bad and good/Will we ever spell it out?"

Watch the music video for F.O.C.'s "The Other Man's Sin."

New Wave 101 study notes: Note Diggle's dark sunglasses and the cartoony a la a-ha ("Take On me") animated-pixilated visual effects. Hmmmm...I think he borrowed that slick blue dinner jacket from Bryan Ferry.

*** 1983 ***

Secret Public tracks 7 through 9 come from the nine-song cassette-only F.O.C. "demos" recording The Big Secret (FAN1, 1983, UK), which was basically unreleased and unavailable; this recording also provided Secret Public track 12, "The Arrow has Come." The 1984 single "Change" b/w "Longest Life" may also be taken from these recordings (though not having heard this elusive tape I've attributed Secret Public tracks 10 and 11 to the single rather than the cassette album). The full track listing for The Big Secret is shown below:
1. change
2. the arrow has come
3. drift away
4. picking up on audio sound
5. life on the telephone
6. longest life
7. men from the city
8. who is innocent?
9. both hands in the fire

This is a kind of murky period for discographers because it's hard to keep track of what-came-when in the midst of all the unreleased demos, outtakes, and subsequent compilations and reissues of Diggle's F.O.C. material during the years 1981-1986.

7. "Men From the City" (Diggle)

"We are men from the city/Strangers in the home/We are men from the city/A difference in the home."

Love this song! No idea what it's about, but it could easily have been a hit single.

8. "Who Is Innocent" (Diggle)

Wherein Diggle rewrites Roxy Music's "Re-make/Re-model," right down to Andy MacKay's sax solos! I half expected to hear Diggle chant "CPL 593H" on the chorus!

9. "Drift Away" (Diggle)

Steve Diggle: Guitar and vocals
John Maher: Drums
Steve Garvey: Bass
"Said the time is right, Revolution in the sky/I feel as high as an elephant's eye/When it comes don't let it go/Goodbye to lies, show your soul...Drift away away now people, drift away"

"Drift Away," featuring fellow 'cocks John Maher and Steve Garvey, was one of the tracks slated for what would have become the Buzzcocks's fourth album before the band broke up in 1981. Produced by Diggle and Gary Hamer, it would re-appear on F.O.C.'s 1988 full-length compilation of singles/demos/outtakes, War on the Wireless Set, along with another song ("In the Back") originally intended for that abortive fourth Buzzcocks album. John Maher's drumming on this one is brilliant, as he hits his clamped-down high hat in place of the snare to create a compelling metallic beat against Diggle's undulating, snake-like guitar lead. Curious chant on the outro, with Diggle singing "With God on my side, and Lucifer on my knee/My original sin, and you by my side." (As usual, I'm clueless on the meaning, but I like the song!)

*** 1983-1984 ***

Tracks 10 and 11 of Secret Public Years are from the 1984 "Change" 7-inch vinyl single. (Note: Some sources list this as a 1983 release.) The songs "Change" and "Longest Life" also appear on the 1983 cassette only album The Big Secret. The single's sound seem very influenced by that cold/northern Joy Division/Factory Records anomie aesthetic.

Flag of Convenience
"Change" b/w "Longest Life" 7" single
(Weird System, 1984)

Steve Diggle: Guitar and vocals
John Maher: Drums
Gary Hamer: Bass
Mark Burke: Guitar

10. "Change" (Diggle)

"Something missing from this picture/It's not the portrait I carry/The bits and pieces of a puzzle/A few remains of history/But you can change"

Everybody seems so far away/In a place where the winter's cold/Too many tears in all the rivers/Too many people with hearts of gold/But you can change"

Very '80s-sounding tune that melds funk-period Talking Heads/Gang of Four guitar riffing with Diggle's Hugh Cornwall/Ian Curtis-style vocals.

11. "Longest Life" (Diggle)
"Take a round, this strange affair/Concrete lies go everywhere/Show me what is bad and good/Do you believe in a world wonderful?/It's a longest life in the shortest time"

This mid-tempo song with hypnotic neo-psych guitar riffing doesn't do it for me. Very '80s wood-block percussion claps thrown in for good measure. Not a bad song, just sorta middle of the road to me.


12. "The Arrow Has Come" (Diggle)

Looks like the Arrow has come!

"I see the line before me/And when that arrow gets to you/It will stay inside your doorway."

Diggle's sinister vocal intonations (think Hugh Cornwall or Dave Vanian) combined with the heavy organ framework makes this sound like a lost Stranglers or late-period Damned ditty. This track from The Big Secret was recorded somewhere in that 1983-84 period.

*** 1986 ***

Flag of Convenience
"New House" b/w "Keep Pushing (Live)" 7" single
(M.C.M. UK, 1986)

Steve Diggle: Guitar and vocals
Gary Hammer: Bass
John Caine: Drums
Steve Mac: Guitar
Dean Sumner: Keyboards
Mac: Sax

13. "Keep Pushing (Live)" (Diggle)

Amy loves this sax-peppered, Ska-infused live recording that was released as the B-side of 1986's "New House" single (the A-side would later also turn up on F.O.C.'s 1987 LP War on the Wireless Set - where John Maher is listed as the drummer instead of John Caine, who plays on the B-side's "Keep Pushing"). It's taken from the F.O.C.'s January 10, 1986 live show at Dingwalls Dancehall in London, which remains available only as an audiocassette bootleg. The full set list from this show is shown below:

Dingwalls Dancehall, Camden Lock London
(Jan 10, 1986)
01) new house
02) a dance
03) peoples pages
04) are you in heaven?
05) love has the power
06) the big secret
07) what am i supposed to do now?
08) people stand by
09) who is innocent?
10) harmony in my head
11) keep on pushing

The same show provided live versions two songs that would later be re-recorded with the "new"(Diggle-Shelley-Tony Barber-Philip Barker) Buzzcocks: "A Dance" - which later turned up on the Buzzcocks's 2006 Do It EP as "Trash Away" - and "What Am I Supposed To Do Now?" from the 1996 Buzzcocks LP All Set.

Now, according to allmusicguide's Jack Rabid, it it after these first 13 tracks that we've reached a reviewer's Rubicon of sorts:
Here at last is a chance to peruse just how good Diggle was in the eight years Buzzcocks were broken up, before their reunion. Unfortunately, since these 21 tracks are presented chronologically, the unfamiliar or unconvinced might not be instantly converted. It's not that the first 13 tracks, from '81-'86, aren't of good quality -- they are. But it's the final eight songs that should have led-off here, in establishing Diggle as one of the most important and overlooked artists in all of Britain during the '80s, despite his impressive run as an original Buzzcock hit-tunesmith. Starting off with his two brilliant '87 singles "Pictures in My Mind" and "Last Train to Safety," and continuing on to '88's mouth-opening Exiles EP and the final '89 almost-as-good but not quite "Tomorrow's Sunset," you have the ultimate proof that a fully recommitted Diggle had regained his pen, gotten together a real band, and was putting together punkish mod-pop gems with balls, heart, and instant greatness. "Exiles" and "Pictures in my Mind" alone are better than the solo work of 99% of more famous ex-band types; but since the pre-reunion Diggle was largely regarded as a has-been, they were ignorantly ignored. As for the first 13 tracks, culled from the sporadic singles Flag of Convenience released up until then, plus four previously unreleased songs, three-quarters stand up alright. The three songs from the 1981 pre-Buzzcocks split Steve Diggle EP are actually Buzzcocks without Pete Shelley. "Here Comes the Fire Brigade" is great, the other two good. 1981's misdirected and misunderstood "Life on the Telephone" single, with Maher still on drums, actually sounds better now than it did so close on the heels of the lamented Buzzcocks split, its quieter synth pop a bold experiment that alienated punk fans at the time, but was actually fresh then, and in retrospect, especially the two, way-better B-sides. The comp has a few loser tracks in the middle, but as stated, the last third is the truly vital stuff. An expensive import that justifies the outlay, both for curious Buzzcocks fans old and new.

I have to agree with Mr. Rabid that the later F.O.C. stuff really stands out and, in many ways, signaled the musical direction Diggle would pursue in his latter-day Buzzcocks and solo careers. On the heels of '70s punk's demise, the early years of '80s post-punk saw what Simon Reynolds called a "space of possibility" of new genres (synth-pop, New Pop, Industrial, Goth, mutant disco) which bands played around with to see what would be the Next Big Thing. But in many cases, the musical bag of tricks had run its course by the mid-'80s and suddenly music underwent a Retro Creep towards the past, with roots rock, rockabilly, neo-garage, and neo-psych (a la "Paisley Underground" bands like Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, and The Three O'Clock) undergoing revivals. You can certainly hear the change in Diggle and F.O.C.'s output during this period.

*** 1987 ***

Alrighty then! Those "two brilliant '87 singles" Rabid referenced were actually from the 12" EPs: Should I Ever Go Deaf ("Pictures in My Mind") and Last Train To Safety, represented here by tracks 14 and 15.

"Should I Ever Go Deaf!" 12" EP
(M.C.M., 1987)

Steve Diggle: Guitars and Vocals
Gary Hamer: Bass
John Caine: Drums

14. "Pictures In My Mind" (Diggle)
"There are things in your mind that are holding you down/There are pictures of guns with people shot down/While the Masters of War are all sat around/I remember those times/All those Pictures in My Mind"

There are starving people in the world/Who would give their right arms for something in return/And the government, they'll tell you there's no money to burn/I remember those times/All those Pictures in My Mind

"Pictures In My Mind" is the greatest Smiths song never written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr (who, by the way was born "John Maher" but changed his name to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks drummer!). Steven the Diggle sings it exactly like Steven the Mozzer, and the time signatures, minor key chord changes, and ringing guitars are all straight out of the Smiths playbook. An amazing simulation! Not to mention a great song in its own right. The Smiths connection would be further cemented when drummer Mike Joyce briefly replaced John Maher following the 1989 Buzzcocks reunion (before moving on to join a reunited PiL).

"Pictures In My Mind" appears on the October 1987 four-track If I Ever Should Go Deaf EP; the other tracks (as shown above on the EP's back cover) are "Should I Ever Go Deaf!," "Drowned In Your Heartache," and "The Greatest Sin." All four songs are repeated on F.O.C.'s Northwest Skyline LP (M.C.M., 1987).

Oh, and, for those who keep track of such trivia, Buzzcocks archivist/discographer Jeff Hall says the matrix inscriptions on the vinyl 12" are: A-Side - "FRIENDS ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN..." and "WHAT DID YOU SAY? SPEAK UP I CANT HEAR YOU"; B-Side - "TOO MANY COCKSUCKERS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS"/"IS IT SIN? YES ITS IN!"

"Last Train To Safety" EP
(M.C.M., April 1987)

Steve Diggle - guitar, voice
Gary Hamer - bass
John Caine - drums

15. "Last Train To Safety" (Diggle)
"But in the heart/Well, this is the last train to safety"

Amy thinks this title track of the three-track Last Train To Safety EP (the other tracks were "The Rain in England" and "Human Jungle") sounds like The Cure. I agree as far as the guitar harmonics intro and bass line, but once those layered acoustic guitars come in, I hear the unmistakeable sound of Johnny Marr circa "Big Mouth Strikes Again" on The Queen Is Dead (which, by the way, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year).

Diggle also released his first full-length LP this year; see the NORTHWEST SKYLINE LP review (following) for details.


Trouser Press: "In 1988, Diggle finally assembled a real, permanent band, including Andy Couzens, founding member of a then-unknown Manchester outfit called Stone Roses (he had left after one single, "So Young")...

Stones Roses - "So Young" single

...on second guitar. The resulting Exiles EP towers over the rest of FOC's canon." That "real, permanent band" didn't last too long, but it's worth mentioning that it included another notable Mancunian musician, former Inspiral Carpets drummer Gary Goodwin. But I'm a tad confused by TP's review, because the Exiles EP credits a "Gaz Connor" as the second guitarist, not Andy Couzens. I do agree that there's a noticeable elevation of quality and consistency in the Exiles-era F.O.C. lineup. As Gong Show host Chuck Barris used to say, "This is good stuff!"

"Exiles" 12" EP
(M.C.M. Records, 1988)

Steve Diggle: Guitar and vocals
Gary Hamer: Bass
Gaz Connor: Additional guitar
Chris Goodwin (ex-INSPIRAL CARPETS): Drums

Produced by Steve Diggle and bass player Gary Hamer, this 1988 12-inch vinyl "maxi-single" is represented chronologically on Secret Public Years by tracks 16-19.

"Exiles" EP, back cover

"Exiles" and "Can't Stop the World" appeared on the cool-ass red & white "mod target" picture-disc A-side:

(The matrix inscription written on Side A's groove is "NAUSEA DEAD HUSBANDS SNOOKERED," perhaps a reference to Philip Diggle's painting "Dead Husband's Snookered.")

16. "Exiles" (Diggle)
Trouser Press: "Virtually a Buzzcocks single that never was, "Exiles" flies a "Boredom"-style guitar pattern into a furious verse and a piledriving chorus. A steam-powered hit heard by few, it proved that the writer of "Fast Cars" and "Harmony in My Head" was still capable of greatness. The EP's other three tracks are nearly as good."

The fantastic EP title track is sung like Joe Strummer as backed by the neo-psych layered guitars of Gold Afternoon Fix-period dream-rockers The Church.

17. "Can't Stop the World" (Diggle)
"I asked Howard Devoto/I asked Morrissey/But they couldn't tell me/What was wrong with me."

Howard & Steven: the usual suspects

Diggle asks the former 'cocks and current Smiths frontmen for advice, but tellingly not his former partner Pete Shelley. Oh well, probably still miffed at one another at this pre-reunion phase.

"Shot Down With Your Gun" and "Tragedy In Market Street" appear on the Exiles EP's flip side:

The matrix inscription on Side B's groove is: "MY FATHER'S A BIRD AND MY MOTHERS...."

18. "Shot Down With Your Gun" (Diggle)

An almost Ska-like choppy rhythm guitar motif propels this Clash-like tune once again sung like Joe Strummer.

19. "Tragedy in Market Street" (Diggle)

Paging Mr. Jones!
"Mr. Jones can you hear me?/Mr. Jones do you realize what's going on?/Drag yourself away from the television/And find out what went wrong"
Geeze,Diggle REALLY sounds like Strummer on this one, as he digs up Dylan's forever-clueless "Mr. Jones" and tries to clue his deaf ears to what's going ahn. There's a kind of pointless break in the middle (typical of 12" extended mixes of this period) when everything slows down before picking up speed to a magnificent jam-out finale.

In 1988, Diggle also released a compilation LP of F.O.C. demos, outtakes and previously material; see the WAR ON THE WIRELESS SET LP review (following) for details.

*** 1989 ***

Buzzcocks F.O.C.
"Tomorrow's Sunset" b/w "Life with the Lions" 12" Single
(Thin Line, 1989)

Steve Diggle: Guitar, vocals
Gary Hamer: Bass, vocals
Chris Goodwin (ex-INSPIRAL CARPETS): Drums
Andy Couzens (ex-STONE ROSES): Guitar, vocals

Trouser Press: "Ignored by the press and the public, the frustrated guitarist changed his band's name to Buzzcocks FOC, after a massive Paris concert was unexpectedly advertised under the past/present moniker. When the rechristened group issued a single ("Sunset" b/w the vastly superior "Life With the Lions"), the press stopped ignoring Diggle long enough to howl in predictable outrage. While that led (indirectly) to the 1989 Buzzcocks reunion, it also meant the end of FOC and its finest lineup. On their own, Couzens and drummer Chris Goodwin wasted little time in forming a new group, the High."

Couzens and Goodwin FOC-ed off for High Times

The "Tomorrow's Sunset" picture sleeve is a Jackson Pollack-styled painting by Steve's brother Philip Diggle entitled "Caduceus of Barnabas." The single was produced by Martin Hannett, and the Dutch 12-inch release also includes a remix called "Sunset (12" Bat Mix)."

Secret Public includes both sides of this 1989 single as tracks 20 and 21.

20. "Tomorrow's Sunset" (Diggle)
"Shooting stars in the sky/Magic's everywhere and high (high!)/But don't look back/Into Tomorrow's Sunset"
AKA "Sunset." Diggle nicks a line from Pete Shelley ("If it makes you happy, it'll make you sad" recalls the same sentiment expressed in Shelly's 'cocks tune "Sixteen Again") in this Stone Roses-friendly neo-psych raga that's drenched in layered guitars and topped by acid house drizzle.

Listen to "Tomorrow's Sunset."

21. "Life with the Lions" (Diggle)
"And I don't know if it's right or wrong/And I don't care anyway/And I don't like what they stand for/And I don't like what they say/It's just life with the Lions"

Not to be confused with the Billy Bragg song of the same title (wherein Billy sings "the chase is always better than the kill, love") idea what this is about, but here are some possible theories: might have something to do either with the Three Lions (i.e., England's national football team), the 1950s BBC radio sitcom/film series Life With the Lyons, or even John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music #2: Life with the Lions (itself a parody of the Beeb's Life with the Lyons). Or how about the four lions guarding Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar Square? OK, a stretch. All I know is: this is a really good, rocking number. The band is super-tight and the quality of Andy Couzen's second guitar really enriches the sound.

Note: The Buzzcocks F.O.C. band also played at a festival called "Berlin Independence Days" in October 1988. See the "*** Back to 1988 ***" listing later in this chronology/review for more details; also see the following "*** 1989 ***" heading for notes about their live UK television appearance.


The Wilfully Obscure blog's author argues that, while admirable in its own right, The Best of Steve Diggle and Flag of Convenience: The Secret Public Years, 1981-1989 is still incomplete:
"The compilation however did not adequately represent material from two of Diggle and Co's proper albums, Northwest Skyline in 1987, and War on the Wireless Set a year later. Independently released and hard to come by, even when they were originally minted, these records bore a much more mature and sobering hue, almost as if to be taken as Diggle solo albums at points. There were still traces of sprite, punky pzazz to be found however, including "In the Back" and "Graduate of Pain" on Wireless, and Northwest Skyline's "Just Like Mr. Trendy Said." Oodles of great songs between these two criminally ignored disks."

Thankfully, the Wilfully Obscure site provides links enabling fans to downloads of these two albums for free:

Northwest Skyline:

War on the Wireless Set:

As a result, reviews of these "hard to come by" and "criminally ignored" albums follow...

*** Back to 1987 ***

"Northwest Skyline" LP
(M.C.M., 1987)

Steve Diggle: Guitar and vocals
John Maher: Drums (3 songs only)
Gary Hamer: Bass
John Caine: Drums

Northwest Skyline is Diggle's first real album under the F.O.C. aegis - and easily my second fave Diggle record (after 2005's masterful Serious Contender). Though original Buzzcock and Flag of Convenience drummer John Maher left F.O.C. in 1986, he sits in on three songs (including "Northwest Skyline," "Pictures In My Mind"). Recorded at Salford's Twilight Studios and originally released on vinyl in 1987, it recently became available for download as an MP3 album on Amazon, Napster, Rhapsody, and iTunes. And shows the clear influence of The Smiths - then at the height of their popularity - on at least five of the album's 11 tracks ("Pictures In My Mind," "Hell Is Other People," "Drowning In Your Heartache," "The Greatest Sin," "Day To Day (And Other Days)"). Maybe that's why I like it so much - all those hooks, sumptious melodies, and chiming guitars are so Smiths-like. And, lyrically, I don't think Diggle ever topped himself for maturity of wordplay and subject matter.

From Diggle's autobiography Harmony In My Head: "Northwest Skyline was my 1960s kitchen sink drama album. I wanted it to be the musical equivalent of one those great paperback novels or films: Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Poor Cow. It was my take on life in the North. We did the sleeve in black and white. Instead of Albert Finney leaning on a lampost, I leaned against an old chimney...The songs have enough of a thread running through them to make it conceptual. It starts with the line "As the sunset time on the poverty and crime, you lose your mind over the northwest skyline." I was (am) really proud of that album. An interesting contrast to how I felt about myself at that time."

From Trouser Press: "Though seemingly more cheaply recorded than War on the Wireless Set, Diggle himself sounds more committed and more convincing, especially on social-issue lyrics (concerning such topics as racial prejudice and northern England's chronic unemployment). Both "Northwest Skyline" and "Pictures in My Mind" (with Maher's easily identifiable buzzsaw rolls) are especially impressive."

Side A:
(The matrix inscription written into Side A's grooves is: MAKING LOVE TO ME LIVING DEAD.)

1. "Northwest Skyline" (Diggle)

"As the sunset time over the poverty and crime/Shattered dreams and lose your mind/So many people can't be wrong/The weakest link has got to stay strong/All over the Northwest Skyline"

Diggle's depiction of the bleak industrial north has a very Jam feel to it, like Weller's epithets decribing city life in "Down in the Tube Station At Midnight."

2. "Pictures in My Mind" (Diggle)
Op. cit.: Should I Ever Go Deaf! EP.

3. "Just Like Mr. Trendy Said" (Diggle)

"I don't wanna live my life like an illusion/I don't wanna live in designer world full of confusion/Designer minds for designer kinds/I don't wanna live my life just like Mr. Trendy says"

This spry and bouncy poke at flavor-of-the-month conformity has a Ray Davies feel to it (especially when Diggle calls out "Mr. Trendy" in a posh, Toff-nosed accent at the end). Mr. Trendy takes his place in rock history alongside Mr. Pleasant, the Well-Respected Man About Town, and all Dedicated Followers of Fashion - not to mention Diggle's own Mr. Jones.

4. "Hell is Other People" (Diggle)

"Hell is other people/They take your mind, wanna chain you to a church and steeple"

Such a Morrissey title! - and yes, it's another song that would have fit in nicely on Louder Than Bombs - but actually a reference to the famous line from French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play No Exit.

5. "Should I Ever Go Deaf" (Diggle)

"There are so manythings that I just can't stand/There are so many dreams they try to sell me/But I see it all now/It is over and out/It's all the things I don't wanna be"

"Should I ever go deaf to the sound of your heart/Should I ever go deaf to what you're saying/Should I ever go deaf to the things we've blown apart/Should I ever go deaf to the music they're playing"

"It's so wrong to believe that the boss is always right/It's so wrong to be a slave to the leaders/And your country only wants you/And it wants you fight in wars like stupid bleeders"

A folksy singalong wherein Diggle says it's time to block out all the meaningless white noise of meaningless distractions - false leaders, unnecessary wars, Mr. Trendy's flaves-o'-the-month - and lend an ear to the things that matter, like love and music.

Side B:

(By the way, the matrix inscription written in Side B's grooves is: I'VE NEVER KNOWN SUCH BEAUTY AS THIS!)

6. "Drowned In Your Heartache" (Diggle)

"I read all the papers, but there was no news/I knew you had nothing - nothing to lose/Not a sound to be found in your heartache/No one around when I was drowned in your heartache"

Diggle sings this all tough and manly like solo Iggy Pop circa Brick By Brick's "Candy" in a tune that has an irresistable beat. I can't make out one line, though, but I kinda like it: "Career-empty people mean nothing to you/All they want is money and nothing to do." The song seques right into another keeper, the song he co-wrote with bass player Gary Hamer...

7. "The Destructor" (Diggle-Hamer)

"The Destructor keeps her colony back home/The Destructor keeps her country in control/Tears my mind, breaks my soul/Takes me apart, rapes my soul/Makes me feel I'm losing control"

The Destructor is none other than Reagan-with-a-vagina, Margaret Thatcher. Don't forget, this was the neo-con right-wing-in-ascendency 1980s, when Old Blightey worked up a hot flash for the good days of Empire and order.

8. "Gaol of Love" (Diggle)

Gaolhouse Rock, Diggle-style

"Like Jean Genet in a different way/Stole the hearts of poets/You keep your silence to yourself/In the gaol of love.

The gaol of love is solitary, but it keeps you in your place/I can't remember the last time we tried to make a break/But if you're free to do what you please/What difference does it make?"

Wow, first Jean-Paul Sartre, now outlaw poet-playwright-provocateur Jean Genet - two French intellectuals name-checked on the same album!

The Jean genie

This one reminds me of the melancholy pop of Tommy Keene circa "The Biggest Conflict" from Based On Happy Times (1989).

9. "The Greatest Sin" (Diggle)
"I have lived and I have died and I have lied/Stumbled into it with both hands tied/'Cuz your eyes, they look at what's within/Don't let them stop you, start to begin/It's the greatest sin/Let the people all sin"

Just too Marr-velous for words!

Absolutely beautiful melody, with a song structure and jingle-jangle chord phrasing right out of the Johnny Marr playbook (think "Girl Afraid"). Rivals "Pictures In My Mind" as the greatest-ever lost Smiths song.

10. "From Day to Day" (Diggle)

"The sharks that are coming spin you 'round and 'round/From day to day and other days/Treat you like grains of sand at their high command/Want you to love this land from day to day"

Yet another song that reminds me of Tommy Keene's sound during his '80s big label days on Geffin Records, with great hooks, layered acoustic and chiming electric guitars. Diggle even throws in some harmonica to fill it all out.

11. "Mirror of the World" (Diggle)

"Death and destruction/The world's in production/The movie direction gets in my reflection/Mirror ofthe World, Mirror of the World/The harder the trouble, the hand in the rubble/Terrorists talk while the innocent walk"

Decent enough ender, with precision military beat and guitar soloing, nothing too special IMHO.

*** Back to 1988 ***

"War On The Wireless Set" LP
(MCM America, 1988)

Steve Diggle - vocals, guitars
John Maher - drums
Steve Garvey - bass on tracks 2 and 10
Gary Hamer - bass

War on the Wireless Set was produced by Steve Diggle and Gary Hamer and compiles demos and outtakes (plus the previously released 45 "New House") recorded between the years 1981-1986. It features a harder-edged sound, at times almost venturing into an American '80s cock-rock groove ("New House" could almost be a Winger song). The two tracks with Garvey (Track 2, "In the Back" and Track 10, "Drift Away") were among those slated for what was slated to be the Buzzcocks fourth album at the time of the 1981 breakup.

From Allmusicguide:
War on the Wireless just the kind of hardhitting, ballsy material you'd expect from the people involved. "Heartbreak Story" is a particularly good find, with a martial beat and "Peter Gunn" guitar line. The real killer is "Back of My Mind," one of two tracks here recorded by three-quarters of the Buzzcocks (sans Shelley) for that band's fourth LP, which was scrapped when the band broke up. "Back of My Mind" proves again (as "Harmony in My Head" and "Airwaves Dream" had during the Buzzcocks' existence) that Diggle was really coming into his creative own.

Side A:

1. "Heartbreak Story" (Diggle)

"If you've got nothing in your life/It's just a blessing in disguise/And a heartbreak story...One minute with you is like a heartbreak story/What can you do with a heartbreak story?"

All Fiction Romances are Heartbreak Stories in this tough, tight and well-produced opening number featuring a blistering Diggle guitar solo.

A martial beat and "Peter Gun" guitar line, indeed!

2. "In the Back" (Diggle)

"I feel desperate in the back of my mind/I see solutions in the back of my mind/In the back, in the back - back of my mind!"

Great song featuring the 3/4-Buzzcocks triumphirate of Diggle, Garvey & Maher. Another one that really reminds me of mid-80s, Geffin-period Tommy Keene.

3. "Danger Time" (Diggle)

"There's always danger in the city/Red lights forever flashing 'round...Danger time, someone is tumbling down/Danger time, every time you turn around"

Standard rocker. I have nothing more to add.

4. "New House" (Diggle)

"New House - we're building with bricks of hope/New House - we're building with things you've never known/We're calling the shots/We're making it pay/Using what we've got/So England'll end up in a different way"

Diggle cleans house in this socio-politico cock-rockin' A-side from a 1986 7" single on the M.C.M. Records label. I assume it's the same personnel as listed on the 45: Diggle backed by Gary Hammer (bass), John Caine (drums), Steve Mac (guitar), and Dean Sumner (keyboards). This is a hard rockin' anthem I could see Rob Halford singing with Judas Priest. Seriously!

5. "Scene of the Crime" (Diggle)

"Your silence speaks like a mirror/It all comes back to you in time...You will forget yourself one more time/At the Scene of the Crime"

Gary Hamer's pogo-bouncin' bass lines and John Mayer's irrestistably steady backbeat power this minor masterpiece of melody and precision as Diggle laments that "Nothing lasts forever/And if did that would be fine/It's just a case or now or never/You keep your secrets one more time/At the scene of the crime/If you can't bear what you want/You have to wait your time/At the scene of the crime." Basically it's what Neil Sedaka meant when he sang "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," only with a lot more edge - and body count.

Side B:

6. "Graduate of Pain" (Diggle)

"Can't feel, can't feel, can't feel anymore/I'm a graduate of pain"

More hard-drivin' rock 'n' roll from Messrs. Diggle, Maher, and Hamer that stops just short of Heavy Metal with Diggle shredding-a-plenty.

7. "No Escape" (Diggle)

"You have responsibilities/I'm trying to escape/You know yourself like anyone/And that's all hard to take/Look now, all around/And resign to the sound/There's no escape, no escape/There's no escape anymore!"

There's no escape: the quality rock won't stop, so resistance is futile.

8. "Show Boy" (Diggle)

"Ya gotta show boy, ya gotta show boy/Walkin' around like a sad man/Ya gotta show boy, ya gotta show boy/Walkin' around, you don't understand/What's goin' on"

Slow downbeat number, once again highlighted by Maher and Hamer's tight rhythm section.

9. "One Hundred Tears" (Diggle)

Herky-jerky Gang of Four guitar chomping and steady bass-drum syncopation drives this little jam-out along.

10. "Drift Away" (Diggle)
"Said the time is right, Revolution in the sky/I feel as high as an elephant's eye/When it comes don't let it go/Goodbye to lies, show your soul...Drift away away now people, drift away"

"Drift Away," featuring fellow 'cocks John Maher and Steve Garvey, was one of the tracks slated for what would have become the Buzzcocks's fourth album before the band broke up in 1981. John Maher's drumming on this one is brilliant, as he hits his clamped-down high hat in place of the snare to create a compelling metallic beat against Diggle's undulating, snake-like guitar lead. Curious chant on the outro, with Diggle singing "With God on my side, and Lucifer on my knee/My original sin, and you by my side." (As usual, I'm clueless on the meaning, but I like the song!)

*** OCTOBER 1988 ***

The Buzzcocks F.O.C. band (Diggle-guitar & vocals, Andy Couzens - guitar, Gary Hamer-bass, Chris Goodwin-drums) also played at a festival called "Berlin Independence Days" in October 1988.

Three of their songs - "Isolation" (which was later rerecorded by Buzzcocks on their 1993 Trade Test Transmissions album), "Tomorrow's Sunset," and "Watching America" - are included on the various artists compilation video Best of Berlin Independence Days '88, Vol 2 (Germany, 1988). "Watching America" also appeared on Vol 1 of this video comilation series.

Still from F.O.C.'s "Isolation" music video

There's actually a music video for F.O.C.'s version of "Isolation," though I have no idea what album or demo it's taken from. Watch Buzzcocks F.O.C. play "Isolation."

*** 1989 ***


Steve Diggle: Guitar, vocals
Gary Hamer: Bass, vocals
Chris Goodwin (ex-INSPIRAL CARPETS): Drums
Andy Couzens (ex-STONE ROSES): Guitar, vocals

Buzzcocks archivist Jeff Hall comments "Recorded live 1989 in Halifax, UK, and broadcast on late night UK TV." Apparently the band performed six songs, including "Sunset" (aka "Tomorrow's Sunset," the previously released single) and an early version of "Wallpaper World," later recorded with bassist Chris Remington and drummer Eamonn Sheehy for Diggle's solo album, Serious Contender (EMI, 2005). The complete broadcast setlist is shown below:
1. ???
2. Fall Out of Line
3. Return To Reality
4. Forever
5. Wallpaper World
6. Sunset

*** 1993 ***

Steve Diggle & the Flag of Convenience
"Heated and Rising" EP
(3:30 Records, UK, November 1993)

Though he was back touring and recording with Buzzcocks (1991's "Alive Tonight" EP, 1993's Trade Test Transmissions LP), Diggle found time to unfurl this EP under the F.O.C. banner. Track listing:
1. Heated and Rising
2. Over and Out
3. Terminal
4. Wednesday's Flowers

From Buzzcocks archivist Jeff Hall:
"Officially only a promo release. Unknown how many were pressed. Jaz Long notes: 'On the '94 tour you could buy t-shirts for this release, but not the record itself!' Distributed by Rio/PolyGram."

The song "Terminal" - which would later appear on Diggle's solo album Serious Contender (EMI, 2005) - was such an outstanding track that Nick Beaumont made a music video for it in 1993.

Watch the "Terminal" music video.

*** 1995 ***

Steve Diggle & the Flag of Convenience
"Here's One I Made Earlier" LP

(AX-S Records, UK, October 1995)

Another compilation album, subtitled: Best Of Steve Diggle, FOC, & BUZZCOCKS F.O.C. Tracks include:
01. Exiles
02. Shut Out the Light
03. Men from the City
04. Other Man's Sin
05. Can't Stop the World
06. Picking Up On Audio Sound
07. Shot Down with a Gun
08. 50 years of Comparative Wealth
09. Last Train to Safety
10. Heated and Rising
11. Wednesdays Flowers
12. Life on the telephone
13. Tragedy in Market Street
14. Life with the lions
15) Terminal


Final Thoughts: Though F.O.C. songs like "Wallpaper World," "Terminal," and "Isolation" would be re-recorded by the solo Diggle or the "new" Buzzcocks and added to the touring repetoire, there remain a slew of great F.O.C.-period songs that I wish Diggle would resusitate and start adding to his live setlists: "Shut Out the Light," "Pictures In My Mind," "The Greatest Sin," "Last Train To Safety," "Life With the Lions," "In the Back," all the songs on the Exiles EP. Maybe record label licensing limits him, but...get it sorted Steve! These songs deserve to be heard by a greater audience than the "secret public." What rock and roll have joined together, let no man (or music publishing issues) tear asunder!


Complete F.O.C. Discography:

"Life on the Telephone" (1982) Sire
"Change" (1984) Weird Systems
"New House" (1986) M.C.M.
"Last Train to Safety" (1987) Flag of Convenience
"Should I Ever Go Deaf" (1987) M.C.M. (as F.O.C.)
"Exiles" (1988) M.C.M. (as F.O.C.)
"Tomorrow's Sunset" (1989) Thin Line (as Buzzcocks F.O.C.)
"Heated and Rising" (1993) 3:30 (as Steve Diggle & the Flag of Convenience)

The Big Secret (1983)
Northwest Skyline (1987) M.C.M.
War on the Wireless Set MCM America (1988)
Here's One I Made Earlier (1995) Ax-s (as Steve Diggle & the Flag of Convenience)
Best of Steve Diggle & Flag of Convenience: the Secret Public Years 1981-1989 (1994, 2000) Anagram

Related Links:
"Digging Da Diggle" Part 1 (Accelerated Decrepitude)
Buzzcocks Discography (
Steve Diggle & The Revolution of Sound (Facebook)
Steve Diggle (MySpace)
Harmony In My Head (by Steve Diggle & Terry Rawlins)
Flag of Convenience (Wikipedia)
Flag of Convenience (Trouser Press)
Secret Public (Buzzcocks fansite) (official web site)

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