Down Another Rabbit Hole: Making Sense of The Happy Family’s The Man on Your Street
As some of you know, I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately immersed in the sounds and images of the post-punk era for a book project. Among the many pleasures that flow from my having time off to comtemplate such things is that I’m amassing a huge catalog of books that cover the bands, the record labels and the era; others that provide a broader context; and some that focus attention on the art directors, photographers and graphic designers (you can see some of the books that were piled on my coffee table yesterday in the picture to the right. A larger version is here). Along the way, I’ve also been taking the time to work my way painstakingly through nearly every available recording from the time.
A couple of weeks ago, stumbling through my exploration of the history of the record label/distributor Rough Trade, I fell down a rabbit hole. On the way down, I started looking into the less well-documented history of the short-lived Scottish label Postcard Records, one that is perhaps best-known for presenting “The Sound of Young Scotland”—a play on Motown’s slogan—and launching the career of Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice. That search led, first, to my seeking information on Josef K, one of that label’s most enigmatic groups, then to a host of articles and essays on “New Pop” (like this one) and finally, once I reached the bottom, to an encounter with The Man on Your Street (1982), the only full-length album released by The Happy Family for 4AD.
Truth to tell, when I put the disc on for the first time, I wasn’t expecting much. After all, the recording had not been on my radar—nor apparently had it been previously visible to most print writers or web commentators. Indeed, even Simon Reynolds, the status of whose Rip It Up and Start Again as an authoritative source on post-punk music is finally being questioned, did not mention the band or its lone album in his book (Reynolds does, however, write about Josef K and the career of its singer, Paul Haig, after the group disbanded). And I was a bit put-off by the bright Saul-Bass-meets-William-Claxton cover art—a stark departure from the iconic designs crafted by Vaughan Oliver for other artists on the label like the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. With so little to go on, I figured I’d listen one time to make sure I’d covered my bases.
When the atmospheric spring-day sounds, footsteps and knocking that marked the beginning of album-opener “The Salesman” seemed a bit too precious, I quickly stopped paying concentrated attention, choosing to continue reading whatever was in front of me at the time. That is, the disc sounded suitably jangly and disco- and funk-influenced to be the product of band containing a drummer and bassist who were former members of Josef K as well as the work of Calum Malcolm, an engineer who had worked on Josef K’s aborted attempt at a debut album. The band sounded more than competent, but otherwise a little too quirky by half. Then, two songs later, partway through “The Luckiest Citizen,” something clicked. I started hearing The Happy Family as one possible template for later groups like The Housemartins and The Beautiful South or many of the artists featured on the NME’s C86 compilation. The tag line of the lyrics also got my attention: “Until the empire falls / You’ll be the luckiest citizen of all.” I interrupted the track, restarted it and concentrated on the sounds and the lyrics: the treble-heavy guitar strumming, the athletic bass lines, the odd harmonic and rhythmic turns and the tale of a narcissistic seeming colonialist evaluating a potential sexual conquest.
From that point forward, I was listening intently. The fourth selection, “Revenge!,” is the kind of track that, had it not perhaps (superficially) recalled the work of Orange Juice or its imitators, might have made an excellent single. It has one of the most exuberantly propulsive bass lines I’ve heard in a long time. And the dimensionality of the disc continues expanding as it goes along. On the title track, the vocals of Nick Currie (aka Momus) at times recall those of Martin Fry of ABC, and the basslines of David Weddell wear their disco influences proudly. Indeed, by the time I reached “A Night Underground” and “Two of a Kind,” the variety and quirkiness that had been off-putting were what I was listening for. In each of those tracks, the changes from section to section are somewhat baffling on first listen but eventually start to seem as though there were no other way for them to proceed. Even the soprano saxophone features in the latter made sense.
While it backs away from some of experiments that characterize its counterparts, the track that closed the original album, “March in Turin,” is my favorite in the lot. I think I like it so much because it subtly distills the qualities that I love on the rest of the album. The bass lines are still propulsive, though more finely sculpted; the guitar patterns are more arpeggiated than strummed; the harmonic turns are frequently unconventional; and the drums—especially the snare processed almost the way Martin Hannett did for Magazine’s “You Never Knew Me”—are tasty. The lyrics perfectly and evocatively cap the loose concept uniting the album’s songs: “It’s 1982. Postcard Records and The Sound of Young Scotland. An Edinburgh literature student called Nick Currie forms a pop group with three ex-members of local group Josef K. They sign to 4AD Records, home of The Birthday Party, and proceed to record a CD with the following cast list: an evangelical detergent salesman; a Fascist dictator who comes to power thanks to a lottery win; Samuel, the son of the salesman and Maria, the dictator’s beautiful daughter, who join the Red Brigades and plot to assassinate the Fascist. Confused? Just wait ‘til you read the lyrics!” Given that scenario, when the final breakdown of “March…” morphs into the chimes from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, such a move doesn’t seem so strange.
In the time since my first listen, of course, I’ve learned a lot more about the disc and the group. Some of the most interesting material, in fact, comes courtesy of Momus. In this August 2007 entry to his LiveJournal blog, he presents and comments on the lo-fi home demo he presented to Malcolm Ross that led to the formation of The Happy Family. Scroll down that page for the link that will let you hear early versions of some of the songs on the album as well as the single that preceded it (the songs from the single were added to the end of the CD issue of the album 1992). And, in a different post, he seems particularly undisturbed by the mp3 blogs that have seen fit to post the album in its entirety for others to download. Indeed, his concern seems more to be to provide his own gloss on the album’s history and to correct the bloggers’ faulty assumptions. Nonetheless, his perspective is illuminating, and it may work, more than what I’ve included here, to make you want to give the album a listen. If you’re even marginally inclined toward unconventionally challenging pop, new or otherwise, you could do much, much worse than this…