Tag Archives: The Blue Aeroplanes

#31Songs (extra): Gunning the Works, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31Songs (extra): (No particular cue)

‘Gunning the Works’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Bop Art (1984) and Friendloverplane (1987)

(This is the point where the highly engineered 31 Songs master plan falls apart: I like this song, but there’s no suitable cue for it.  So I’ll write about it anyway.)

There are two versions of this song, significantly different in pace, one on Bop Art (1984), and the other collected on Friendloverplane (1988).  I heard the Friendloverplane version first and still vastly prefer it: it goes at a much higher tempo, and Gerard’s vocal performance feels  more confident and committed.  If there’s a slight loss it’s that the bass gets somewhat buried in the mix, but it can have its effect even when the listener isn’t particularly conscious of it; it’s a very busy bassline, especially at the faster tempo.  In the Bop Art version the bass has a fatter, softer sound, and is more prominent.  The Bop Art drums have a crude echo on them that makes them sound like a weird kind of rockabilly.

Bop Art version on Spotify

Friendloverplane version on Spotify

I like the way they’ve more or less abandoned conventional verse-chorus structure, and yet it’s still a catchy pop song.  There’s the ghost of a refrain, in that the song returns several times to ‘I didn’t know people could be so unkind / divided’, but it’s just the one line.  Musically speaking, on the first appearance it seems as if this phrase will be marked by the repeated pair of chords played in unison in power-chord style; but on the first repeat those chords come after the refrain phrase, and then lie beneath a sort of guitar solo (though the instrument could be a mandolin); on the next repeats of the chorus the power chords don’t appear at all.  On Friendloverplane the guitars are very distinctive: not altogether likeable, in that they’re tinny and thin sounding, but riffs they play have a kind of demented energy to them, like flies spiralling around inside a glass bottle, occasionally hitting the sides.

I’d known this song for some years before I heard the phrase ‘gunning the works’ explained. It seems to be Gerard’s variant on ‘gumming (up) the works’, but what really matters is the idea of throwing a spanner in the works. It dates from an era of industrial relations and worker-power that perhaps disappeared in the late 1970s: if management were pissing off the workers on the factory floor, as a last resort someone could always ‘accidentally’ drop a spanner into a crucial piece of machinery and cause a partial closedown. The device that ought to be constructive becomes destructive.  Whether ‘gunning’ is a local variant on ‘gumming’, or a mishearing of it, or  whether it’s a deliberate reworking of the phrase to give something more aggressive, there’s no way of telling.  It works, and I was surprised that I can’t find any trace of ‘gunning the works’ as an accepted variant of ‘gumming’.

Here it’s the central metaphor for destructive impulses in relationships, though if we follow through the industrial-relations roots of it, it could be a metaphor for the things we do to secure some self-determination in a potentially oppressive space.  In this song, at times the destruction is self-destruction: ‘she wants the thing that holds her back’, and later ‘the boy’ who does so.  The narrator, likewise, likes not only to see ‘you’ sing and dance, but also to point him out.  The ‘crook’d and pointed finger’ is odd: is it supposed to be witch-like?  Or a crook that captures him and draws him in?  Even odder is the baby behind glass, ‘eating dirt and being independent’.  This comes across as a parody of liberal parenting: the parents observe, but remain non-interventionist, letting the baby do stupid and self-destructive things while congratulating themselves on its impressive independence. Is it the same for the factory workers who wreck the machinery and the lovers who wreck their relationships, but who pride themselves on their new-found autonomy?

With the exception of the slower pace for ‘She wants the boy that holds her back’, the mood of the music is determined by the opening line, ‘I like to see you sing and dance’. It’s exuberant and joyful, even when the song is about destruction, and so there’s a curious contradiction: the lyrics hint that this behaviour is stupid and regrettable, but the music is gleefully committed to it.




(from lyrics.wikia.com, revised: I have ‘eating dirt’ where it has ‘heading death’)

I like to see you sing and dance

I like to see you jump and shout and point
your crooked and jointed finger at me

I didn’t know people could be so unkind

It’s you they call disillusioned

It’s not their fault
But they do want someone to blame

I didn’t know people could be so unkind

His body is sprung and loaded
She wants the thing that holds her back

His shoulder, a holster
Her head on his shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder
Her shoulder, a holster
His head on her shoulder

I didn’t know people could be so divided

At the crossroads by Mothercare
Clicking heels in earnest
They shows she knows what a spanner is for

It’s for gunning the works

And I didn’t know people could be so unkind

It’s you they call desperate
It’s not their fault
But they do want someone to blame

It’s cold and the baby’s behind glass
eating dirt and being independent

At home everything’s

She wants the boy that holds her back
You know it’s not his/her* fault
But she does need someone to blame

(*his on Bop Art, her on Friendloverplane)


#31Songs (4): 20th Century Composites, by Art Objects

#31Songs (4): A Song About Music

20th Century Composites, by Art Objects, from Bagpipe Music (1981)

In late 1970s and early 80s New Wave there’s a distinct and distinctive strand of self-conscious deconstruction of the conventions of pop and rock, usually done in a comical spirit. Hipgnosis’s cover for XTC’s Go 2 (1978) was one of the most conspicuous demonstrations:


Wilson Neate’s 33 1/3 book on Wire’s Pink Flag (1977) sees Wire as implementing such critiques in their song writing: their song structures self-consciously dismantle conventional pop music structures; they lengthen or shorten introductions, and in other ways play with the frames.

Much later, on Harvester, the Blue Aeroplanes covered Wire’s ‘Outdoor Miner’, so that band were clearly on their radar, but what the Art Objects do in ’20th Century Composites’ is closer in spirit to XTC’s album cover: Art Objects no more abolish the catchy pop song than XTC get rid of the outer sleeve of their record; they continue in the tradition while drawing attention to its weaknesses and exhaustion.


The acoustic guitar riff may have taken only seconds to compose, but it’s brilliant: it’s catchy, but  it derives from twelve-bar boogie; played on an electric and it could sit quite happily at the start of a Status Quo song.  But there, after the first few iterations, you’d expect the chord to shift up; Art Objects stick with the same two chords, like a stuck record, and at the end of the first verse there’s an sudden silence.  Then were back into the riff again for another verse, before the sound fills out slightly for the chorus, with a catchy but angular keyboard riff coming in.  The backing vocals in the chorus are a neat touch: ‘Ba-by’, sung with a slur between the two notes, and recorded with little or no reverb: compared to some of the band’s chorus additions, it’s minimal and it’s almost mechanical in its delivery. It’s more the evacuated sign of a chorus rather than the thing itself. The long drum roll after the second chorus (slightly phased) also feels like a deliberately performed cliche, though like all these things, one that lets the band have their cake and eat it.  The coup de grace comes with the lyrics on the play out: ‘Verse chorus / Verse chorus / Middle eight / Solo’: a standard rock-song structure that, in their more experimental pieces, Art Objects were working to go beyond, as were  The Blue Aeroplanes after them.

It’s hilarious and catchy. Where the lyric goes slightly wrong is more an ideological matter: it conflates the artificial and formally cliched art work with the artificial woman.  It might mean that it’s about the artificial depictions of women in cliched works of art (she has stepped ‘out of the page’), but it falls a bit too easily into a misogynist tradition of rejecting women for their artificiality.  (See Jonathan Swift, for example).  Particularly problematic is the denial of self-reflection in ‘There are traditions you can’t even feel / Moving in your blood’: the speaker sets himself up as the one who knows, the one who can pass judgement on the artificial construct.


LYRICS (from the liner notes)

photo 2

#31Songs (3): Batpoem, by Art Objects

#31Songs (3): Title Alludes to a Film

‘Batpoem’, by Art Objects, from Bagpipe Music (1981)

‘Batpoem’ doesn’t only allude to a film, but to the whole pop-cultural myth of the superhero.  Moreover, as the original liner notes indicate, it updates a number done by Adrian Henri as part of the The Liverpool Scene on their album The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene, which apparently appeared in 1968 or 1969 (sources differ).  Here’s the Liverpool Scene’s version on YouTube:


I can’t find a YouTube version of the Art Objects song, but there is one on Spotify:


Gerard Langley’s notes add: ‘That was the 60’s.  It’s the 80’s now and Batman’s in the White House’.  While Henri’s lyrics had been sarcastic about a culture hung-up on superhero interventions, Langley’s Reagan-era account turns the screw even tighter.

photo 1

I think Henri’s lyrics about ‘damsels in distress’ in various states of undress was a criticism of patriarchal attitudes and of the imaginary irresistible attractiveness produced by  ‘Batpill’ (or the fantasy of rape implied); Langley’s ‘The Batpill don’t seem to work no more’ doesn’t allow any space for thinking otherwise.

As a performance the Art Objects’ version exposes the Liverpool Scene one as a fairly pale and lame late-evening joke.  This is the punkiest and most savage performance I can think of from Art Objects or the Blue Aeroplanes: the drums are solid, the guitars fuzzy and crudely reverbed, and Gerard’s delivery is hoarse and vitriolic.


#31Songs (2): Hard Objects, by Art Objects

#31Songs (2): A Political Song

Hard Objects, by Art Objects


The origins of The Blue Aeroplanes lie in a band called Art Objects, and in the light of the many changes of personnel in the Aeroplanes, and the minimal difference between Art Objects and their successor, it makes sense to start here. Art Objects played their first gig at Aston Court festival in the summer of 1978, at which point they consisted of Gerard Langley on vocals, Wojtek Dmochowski as a dancer, and J. J. Key on guitar and other noises. (My account comes from a piece by Bill Stair, who joined the following year as a bassist.)  It’s clear that from the outset the band had no intention of being a standard rock unit, and though the following year they added a drummer, another guitarist, and the aforementioned bassist, their approach was experimental. That said, as is clear from one listen to ‘Hard Objects’, they were perfectly capable of writing catchy tunes.  ‘Hard Objects’ was recorded early in 1980 and released on newly formed Bristol label Fried Egg Records.

Many elements of the Aeroplanes’ sound are in place: Gerard doesn’t sing, and so the usual melodic focal point of popular song is denied us; but the backing vocals compensate by twisting a vocal melody around his declaimed lyrics; there are melodic elements in the guitars and in the bass, but there are also more experimental, guitar-derived shriekings and groanings.  The style of the ending anticipates the end of ‘And Stones’ from the Swagger album, with the climax of the music coinciding with the end of the lyrics; and the delay-pedal guitars also anticipate that song.

Lyrically, though, it’s much more direct and message-oriented than Gerard Langley’s other material: it’s a protest song, and one can imagine it working well in a scene of CND and other leftish gigs.  The opening line is pure blues, of course, but I like to think of it as being derived indirectly, via W. H. Auden’s blues-poems from the 1930s, of which ‘Funeral Blues’ is now by far the best known.  The delivery is punchy and direct. Something that I can’t quite put my finger on goes wrong in the conclusion (‘The nuclear bomb …’ onwards): I don’t think it’s so much that the lyrics spell things out too obviously and are a little overwrought, but rather that the sneering tone in the delivery is over-emphatic: the sneer is intended for those in power, for sure, but the implication is that we as listeners won’t get the point of the lyrics without it; and given that the lyrics are very direct at this point, that seems to be a failure of nerve or lack of faith in the audience.


LYRICS (my transcription)

I woke up this morning I walked to the wall (HARD OBJECTS)
The size of their guns did not worry me at all (HARD OBJECTS)
The beauty of the morning was a wound still ahead (HARD OBJECTS)
The gaunt stab of weapons and things better left unsaid.

Living in the shadow of — HARD OBJECTS
Carving at a road with — HARD OBJECTS
Another cut or two with — HARD OBJECTS

I was living at the heart of one room space
With a badly twisted body and infected face
The hole in the ribs had exposed a [? giant lung]
Oh what it is to me, young

I’m threatened day and night by — HARD OBJECTS
Suffering death by — HARD OBJECTS
Hung about and weighted with — HARD OBJECTS

Well the front page is full till the flags have been raised
A captive beast staggering bloody and crazed
It’s a myth, an old myth of cruelty that we shared
That you can die as you live or bring pressure to bear.

Without listening for the sound of — HARD OBJECTS
Looking for the prying of — HARD OBJECTS
The ticking and the clicking of — HARD OBJECTS
The whirring and the grinding of — HARD OBJECTS
The spokes and wheels and ratchets of — HARD OBJECTS
I hate the uses made of — HARD OBJECTS
The authority invested in — HARD OBJECTS
Beaten in the face by . . .


The nuclear bomb is a blunt instrument in the hands of disturbed children playing […] marbles.
The law is a blunt instrument for the use, as they so wish, of those in a position of authority.
The mass media is a blunt instrument in the hands of men whose sole desire it is to rob a bank.
The economy is a blunt instrument with which the politically wealthy can have the poor or subservient systematically beaten to ensure the minimum resistance.
Desire and affection are blunt instruments effectively employed by professional […] whose hands are permanently stained with hypocrisy and printer’s ink.
Education is a two-edged weapon which after a certain point those in power would like to keep for their exclusive use.
And the voice of protest and dissent is the only weapon possessed by the majority of victims and it’s lying unused at the feet of people too busy living and dying to bother to pick it up.

#31Songs (1): Tolerance, by The Blue Aeroplanes

In July I enjoyed writing a blog a day about The Jazz Butcher’s songs. This is the first in a series about The Blue Aeroplanes, using mostly the same cues, though I don’t think I can sustain the rate of a blog-per-day.  Like the Jazz Butcher series, after the first entry this will be arranged in approximately chronological order by the date the record was released.

#31Songs (1): The First One I Ever Heard

‘Tolerance’ by The Blue Aeroplanes

I first heard The Blue Aeroplanes on a cheap and cheerful compilation album I bought on vinyl around 1987 or 1988, the Beechwood Indie Top 20, vol.2.


The song on the album was ‘Tolerance’: this exists in at least three versions, and I’m not sure from memory which the compilers used, though I think it’s the one found on The Blue Aeroplanes’ Tolerance LP or the one on their Friendloverplane compilation.  The Tolerance version begins with a melodic bass-line, and is sustained throughout by it, while the Friendloverplane version begins with delicate chiming guitars, and in the verses is altogether wispier than its Tolerance counterpart:


There’s another later version with a more emphatic drum beat which turns up on the Warhol’s 15 compilation:


‘Tolerance’ really stood out on the Indie Top 20 compilation.  The Brilliant Corners’ ‘Brian Rix’ was funny but disposable; Michelle Shocked’s ‘If Love Was a Train’ had a bit more substance, and led me to her debut album (the proper debut rather than the Texas Campfire Tapes); but something about ‘Tolerance’ stayed with me: Gerard Langley’s spoken vocals; the contrasting, passionate, Johnny-Rottenish vocal on the chorus, which at the time I believed mistakenly to be Langley; the suggestion, within the dense and difficult lyric, that the singer was siding with the female protagonist (‘She should go out more and he should show some tolerance’); no vocal melody in the verses, of course, but all sorts of melodic suggestions in the guitars and in the bassline. All these were completely new to me.  It stayed with me, but for some reason — lack of information in those pre-internet days, combined with a limited record-buying budget? — I didn’t follow it up and buy anything more by them.

On 5 December 1990 I bought the Friendloverplane compilation at the Our Price in the Westgate in Oxford —  I tucked the receipt into the booklet, £11.99, and it’s still there — and learned that the chorus vocals were actually a guest appearance by Jedzrej Dmochowski, brother of Wojtek, the band’s dancer. I think by that stage I’d bought Swagger, which had come out in February 1990, and which I remember being heavily advertised on flyposters on hoardings outside Somerville.  ‘Tolerance’ still stood out on Friendloverplane, but the compilation also gave an indication of the sheer range of their output in their first seven years: they’d first performed as The Blue Aeroplanes in 1981 (or so it says on Wikipedia); the compilation had come out in 1988.  ‘Veils of Colour’ had some similar horn sounds, though more melancholy; ‘Severn Beach’ highlighted their skill at crafting a catchy chorus; ‘Etiquette’, had the same sceptical attitude as ‘Tolerance’ towards conventional gender relations, and a funkyish new wave feel to it; ‘Days of 49’ had Rodney Allen on vocals and showed off their folk side. There were samples, there was social protest, there were lyrics of baffling obliquity, there was a Bob Dylan cover.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

‘Tolerance’ isn’t an easy lyric to understand: we have glimpses and fragments of a narrative scenario, some or all of it seen in recollection, a time (‘that time’) in the past that the speaker is trying to measure and come to terms with.  The splitting of the lyric between Gerard and Jedzrej adds a further interpretative problem: are we to understand this as some sort of duet, with Jedzrej replying to to Gerard’s lines, or is Jedzrej simply voicing a more passionate outburst on Gerard’s behalf?  It has more characters than most love songs: there’s a woman at the centre of it, there’s a first person who is presumably, like the singers, male; there’s a him; and there’s a ‘you’ of uncertain gender who ‘said she looked older’ (an insult, a compliment, or a neutral comparison?), who gave her shelter, who cried on her shoulder, and who got lost and found.  Heterosexual love-song convention would have ‘you’ be female, but it’s clear this is no conventional love song.

It could be a story of infidelities: that would be why she concealed him with her quick arms, and one way of thinking about the lamp being the mark of ‘something new’ is to picture it occurring late at night, the lovers suddenly illuminated by a streetlight, a new and unwelcome revelation.  (There’s a scene like that in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and this song is every bit as cubist as Woolf’s novel).  There’s a lot about light (punningly in ‘old flames’), and a line about wintry air: it’s a song of dark evenings and distrust.  It’s also a song with hints of regrets: ‘it was me / Who said you should go there / And she should come along’.  What were the consequences of the speaker’s saying ‘you’ should go there (where?) and her coming along?  Did the ‘you’ and ‘she’ start a relationship in consequence?

In so far as it’s reflecting on that past history, it also asks what keeps people together: the need for shelter?  something as abstract as ‘her intent’?  And it asks at what point that becomes oppressively controlling: she should go out more? He should show more tolerance, the lyric says, though tolerance itself is still a controlling attitude.

And is it also weighing up relationships alongside the other things people fill their time with? Painting and art for example?  Pass-times and ambitions?  Are the ‘absentee notes’ lovers’ apologies, sardonically spoken of as it they were letters to one’s manager?  And is the ‘X’ a signing-off kiss, or the manager’s dismissive cross?

‘And here we are again’, says Gerard with more than his usual weariness before the final chorus,  and this seems both an admission that such situations repeat themselves (‘how we repeat these patterns’, as he says in another, later, song), but also a wry gesture towards the form of popular song in verses and choruses. An earlier song, ’20th Century Composites’, by an earlier incarnation of the band, Art Objects, had ended with the band singing ‘Verse chorus / Verse chorus / Middle eight / Solo’, so they have form in this regard.  One of the oddities of ‘Tolerance’ is that the opening line seems to cast the events into a remembered past, but the present tense of other lines suggests that the situation is present: past and present can’t be kept so easily apart.  The narrator would like ‘that time’ to be in the past, but like a chorus it keeps on coming round again. And these kinds of puzzle in the lyrics keep me coming back to it.




(Adapted from what I found at lyrics.wikia.com. I hear ‘flames’ where they have ‘flings’, and ‘pubs’ where they have ‘poems’.)

You could measure the effects of that time in light
A lamp could be the mark of something new
There were plants and frames and paintings invisible structure
She did conceal him with her quick arms
And her intent was the only thing that kept him there

And it was you
Who said she looked older
While it was me
Who stood by the door
But it was you
Who gave her the shelter
That she looked to him for

A worthwhile pass-time but a sad ambition
Absentee notes in the next room with X
She should go out more and he should show some tolerance
Ah, big ridicule such little thing
Such grip on everything we have

On everything we have

And it was you
Who cried on her shoulder
And it was you
Who got lost and found
And it was me
Who said you should go there
And she should come along

Our coat tails drag marks
Old flames don’t hold a candle
When the lights go out
at that civilised time

What do we have?
More pubs
The emptier the better
And events in the future
Like a state of undress

Through that wintry air
Kiss news down the line
And here we are again

And it was you
Who cried on her shoulder
And it was you
Who got lost and found
And it was me
Who said you should go there
But it was you who gave her the shelter

#31songs: 22: Best Guest Appearance

The Blue Aeroplanes: Whatever Happened to our Golden Birds

A busy touring schedule and a fairly high turnover of band members have meant that the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy are fairly well networked with other bands from the 1980s and 1990s.  Let’s not get into Rock Family Trees or any of that, but members of the band have also been in Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, The Woodentops, The Wolfhounds, Levitation, and Primal Scream.  There’s been a particularly frequent shuttle service between The Blue Aeroplanes and the JBC: Alex Lee, Paul Mulreany, and Joe Allen have all played in both.  Pat Fish was particularly heavily involved in the Rough Music album (1995), and ‘Whatever Happened to our Golden Birds’ is credited to Langley/Fish.  (This video, by the way, wins no prizes for dynamism.)

The guitar melody that opens the song and runs throughout is instantly identifiable as Pat’s contribution: he’s always been fond of non-European scales and keys.  This one feels like the sinister twin to the Basement Theme from Cult of the Basement.  That said, Gerard’s unique delivery, and the contribution of the rest of the band means that it doesn’t sound like a Jazz Butcher song that strayed on to someone else’s album: it’s also a Blue Aeroplanes track.