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Song of the day – 200: The Distractions

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It’s great! Great, I tell you! None of the poignancy has been diminished by the passing years, only increased.

1. Chelmsford, 1979
I had a summer job at Cundell’s Corrugated Cardboard factory, a 20-minute bike ride away from my parents’ house in Rothesay Avenue, where I shared a bedroom with my three brothers. I preferred the morning shift, starting at 6am working through to 2pm. I was used to getting up early, due to my paper round of seven years. Mornings were fresher. All you did for the job was stand at the end of a conveyor belt, one other bloke stood opposite. You’d wait until about 43 sheets of cardboard had come down the chute, counting patiently, stack them neatly, and shove them down the belt to another bloke, who’d throw them on a palette. Within days, my hands were a welter of paper cuts. We’d smoke just to keep ourselves awake: frequently only the burning stub of a cigarette between our fingers would remind us of where we were. I’d sing along loudly to The Jam’s ‘When You’re Young’, tears of frustration running down my face. I’d been turned down by eight universities, the new term had already started. I thought I was stuck there for life.

I still loved my punk rock, my pop music. I still dared to dream that romance existed, that there was a future outside the nine-to-five. I had to believe that. I would play my vinyl upstairs on my Dansette when my brothers weren’t around, laying out all the seven-inch coloured vinyl on the floor (I stole to finance my habit). I played my 12-inchers and LPs downstairs on my parents’ 70s radiogram, a monstrous, cheap, ridiculously tinny affair – but at least you could stack them. I devoured the music papers with the zeal of a late-come fanatic. All of them, every week. (I also had a day job at a newsagents.) I bought records on the writers’ say-so, and because I liked the covers.

The Distractions’ ‘You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That’ 12-inch on TJM was one of my favourites. The four songs had such energy, melody, enthusiasm, awkwardness – it was The Undertones, but somehow more on a level I could relate to, no tongue-in-cheek ironies here. I loved the rough, clearly unfinished production, the way it made the songs seem way more human and personal. The lyrics spoke directly to me.

“Well, I won’t miss you when you’ve gone/And I won’t talk behind your back/The time will come when you look back and see/If the time should come when you have a reason to come back/Well, do what you want, it doesn’t bother me,” Mike Finney sang in his trembling Mancunian accent. (Most of the songwriting, but by no means all, was managed by guitarist Steve Perrin.) Man, I so wanted to say those words to even one person – one girl – that might have some sort of regret because they’re didn’t notice me… trouble was, I couldn’t even find one. So I kept playing the music regardless, imagining myself into situations that were entirely unobtainable. Guitars churned and spun, the drums rattled and thundered in their own intimate way, and throughout those damn melodies soared and hurt and twanged at my heart strings…

“When I saw you last night/I got too close again/Though we stayed apart/I clung to you like glue/And though I tried so hard to prove to you I wasn’t giving in/I forgot to give you time to prove it too,” The Distractions sang on ”Nothing’, before a minimal guitar solo as great as anything even from the Buzzcocks or The Jam – damn, I knew how that felt. There was such jubilation present, too: impossible to hide on the rampant closing song ‘Too Young’ that soared and burnt and scoured and ran wild with the  exhilaration of being young like even anything from way up in Scotland (Restricted Code or The Scars, for example). These, for me, were my pop star gods – it didn’t matter whether they sold 100 or 10 million records. These were my pop star gods.

It was the music alone that kept me going through that long hot, turbulent, deeply troubled summer.

2. Manchester 1979 (slight detour)
Maybe I even picked up the 12-inch second-hand. I’m not sure, because I came slightly late to that incredible June/July 1979 period of Factory Records when they released… oh my Bangs… FACT 10 (Unknown Pleasures – which I initially passed over in favour of the debut B-52s album: I only wish I ‘d kept listening to that and not gone back to Joy Division), the debut Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark single ‘Electricity’ (FAC 6), A Certain Ratio’s way tormented and awesomely depressed ‘All Night Party’ (FAC 5) – a single I played beyond all measures of sanity – and The Distractions’ seven-inch white vinyl slab of pop perfection ‘Time Goes By So Slow’. This was the pop music that should have been dominating the very top reaches of the charts, I was certain of that: me with my collection of The Fall and Grease and Buzzcocks and Saturday Night Fever and ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ and Blondie seven-inch singles. Each was equal, but different, to the other. Not one disappointed, not among these upper echelons. Not for a moment.

3. Deptford (Fun City) 1980
Throughout my twenties and late teens, there were a handful of songs I’d play over and over again, the lights turned completely off, volume turned up to 10 on my Dansette, inconsolable. A Certain Ratio’s ‘All Night Party’ … Hüsker Dü’s version of ‘Eight Miles High’ … Otis Redding’s version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ … Dinosaur Jr’s  ‘Freak Scene’ … The Jam’s ‘Strange Town’ … Wah!’s ‘Story Of The Blues’ … The Distractions‘ ‘Looking For A Ghost’, from their one-and-only, irredeemably perfect, album Nobody’s Perfect. (And yes, I do appreciate the irony of that description: if The Distractions had been any less of a group or Leo Sayer or The Fabulous Poodles or someone, they would have named the album Pobody’s Nerfect and everyone would have chuckled and admired their wry humour, and bought the fluorescent orange paperback vinyl edition in their hordes.) The song was so doomed, so dramatic: so helpless in its own inability to change events. I
t was so wounded, exhausted, quietly brilliant, bittersweet, earnest, laden with pathos and the relentless glare of neon, splashing home among grey puddles and failure. It had to be played at 10, you understand? Just had to be.

The rest of the album… no, wait. There are still songs, musicians, groups, albums so magical and personal to me that I don’t want to talk about them, dissect or critique them. Where’s the need? Isn’t it enough to know that The Distractions existed (and still exist) for that brief moment in time, and created something entirely magical: an equal for any from those distracted, tear-sodden years?

I ventured out to the Hope & Anchor, that famous old pub rock venue, to see them play live (see reproduced flyer above). Unusually, I can still picture the pillars in the venue, taste the anticipation in the air beforehand.


The Distractions have returned. There’s a new Distractions record – their first in 30 years – and it’s great! Great, I tell you! None of the poignancy has been diminished by the passing years, only increased. The first track on the first EP, the six-minute long ‘Black Velvet’, boasts a beating pop heart and pride that would do even Pete Wylie in his prime proud; Mike Finney is on corking form: the guitars linger and berate: it’s a ballad of course. (The Distractions did ballads like few others ever managed.) There’s a second EP, that’s growing on me by the minute. Frankly, this new stuff is as great as the old stuff, and from me that’s saying an awful, awful lot.

More words on The Distractions here at Yr Heart Out and Unpopular. Both are great, great blogs – both of which put my somewhat tawdry effort to shame.

One Response to Song of the day – 200: The Distractions

  1. granata October 20, 2010 at 3:44 am

    A fantastic piece, some highlights have added to the official Distractions website. ‘Looking For A Ghost’ is an extraordinary track and happens to be a catalyst that led to the reformation of The Distractions. The TJM EP and FAC12 45 will be included on the compilation album ‘Nothing’ due to be released on Occultation Recordings in early 2011.

    The Distractions – http://www.thedistractions.co.uk

    Occultation Recordings – http://www.occultation.co.uk

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