Wednesday, 10 June 2009

'Oh no my clothes have all fallen off, and The Clash.'


The other day I was challenged - by Does That Make Sense?, no less - to say something pertinent, or even just dim, about Transvision Vamp. Panicking like Blears, I plumped for the latter. Here goes.

Transvision Vamp were, essentially, Wendy James and - one of the best rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tex Axile, an old punk who'd been in the fag-end version of X-Ray Spex and silly controversy-mongering non-band The Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde and Steve Strange. Tex provided the proto-Grunge mellow chiming verses and stock power chord choruses over which Wendy would alternately pout and scream in a manner often, and not entirely unfairly, likened to Bonnie Langford throwing a wobbly in Just William. In fact, most people's first encounter with the band was via James's thcweam at the start of their first big hit, I Want Your Love. The lyrics were textbook frowny bedroom nihilism, full of clumsy rhymes ('I love your motivation/And I love your desperation') which were - perhaps fatally - mixed high enough for every word to be intelligible.

They found themselves lumped in with a load of other bands who did vaguely power-poppy songs and had a blonde frontwoman, and all appeared round about the same time, as the '80s were being smoked down to the filter. Thus James was constantly compared to Andrea off The Darling Buds and - one of the worst rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tracy Tracy off The Primitives. I don't know if someone tried to tie them up in one of those freshly-minted micro-genres that were all over pop journalism in those days. (I'm hoping 'peroxide power pop' is something I've just made up).

For better or worse, James was ahead of her time. Let's take the worse first. There are two things about Wend that got the music press's collective goat, which just wouldn't be issues today. First, and most obvious, was her willingness to shed as much clobber as possible if there was a cover shoot in it. Actually, it was all very chaste by today's standards - arms and militaria experts on the Antiques Roadshow have cavorted in less - but back then for an actual singer, rather than some model who mimed to Loleatta Holloway, to set the controls for 'shirtless' was an invitation to be priggishly lambasted in the pages of the inkies (who illustrated their thesis with copious examples of the evidence, natch). No-one, with the possible exception of Carol Decker, had a harder time from the music press in the late '80s.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, The Vamp wanted to be 'credible' without being 'indie'. Explaining the arcane rules of the 1980s independent music scene to anyone under 25 is like summarising pounds, shillings and pence via the medium of dance, and it really is an unquestionably Good Thing that selling a few records now and again is no longer considered an instant bar to musical worth. But back then it still - just about - was. So Wend and Tex's bangings-on about Joe Strummer in interviews were reported with a vertiginously raised eyebrow. How dare these self-confessed wannabe chart-toppers flirt with the trappings of 'proper' music? Such snobbery was on the way out, though, for the good of all concerned (the staff of Melody Maker aside). It just came a little too late for the Trannies.

Best not to go overboard with the revisionism, though - there are few pop songs feebler than Born to Be Sold, for a start. But at a time when just about everything else from the 1980s has been salvaged, polished up and stuck on an ad (Westworld on the telly in 2009? I'm all for it, but... how?) it's odd we haven't heard those workmanlike power chords and that girlish 'Waaaaaagh!' being used to flog a Kinder Bueno or a Ped-Egg... yet.

10 comments:

Matthew Rudd said...

Marvellous, you never let me down. I remember Wendy appearing on Des O'Connor Tonight to promote the awful Born To Be Sold (which was essentially We Didn't Start The Fire written before going into the library) and because of all the stick over her semi-nakedness in the mags, turned up in a full suit and tie. Des was a bit disappointed.

She did look fab, whatever she wore, there is no hiding from that. I suspect Fuzzbox stuck pins in a knitted effigy of her for a good while.

Matthew Rudd said...

I should add, actually, that BTBS is even more dire when Wendy James is miming it, and miming it very very badly.

Simon said...

My friend Garry proudly wore a denim jacket with Ms James' signature in the back throughout our college years. I jumped ship for Daisy Chainsaw though.

Phil Norman said...

I think I remember that trouser suit riposte, Matt. No falling sideways off the sofa for Des *that* night...

Also, I think I got my wires crossed, and it's I Don't Care, rather than I Want Your Love, that begins with La James screaming like a toddler denied her Infacare bubble bath. Though even now I'm still not sure...

Matthew Rudd said...

It is Baby I Don't Care indeed that includes that scream. They had a single called Tell That Girl To Shut Up before that, of course. How prophetic.

Steve said...

What (IMHO) also did for Ver Trans was their appropriation of retro imagery (all those cardboard Elvises in the video and, well, just look at that band... they can't make up their mind if they're the Pistols, the Smiths, Blondie or Bad Manners), which seemed very calculating the post-jingly-jangly indie '80s.

Of course, La James went on to try the "cred" collaboration with Elvis Costello (he knocked out an album's worth of material in a weekend for her to record), and then marry one of The Clash (no?).

She's not gone away, either: http://www.facebook.com/pages/WENDY-JAMES/213741245108 Has a bit of the Marianne Faithfulls about her these days.

Nick said...

It must be getting on for almost a decade since we were all invited back to his by Lee B., wayward brother of old friend and cab driver, to hear stories about who keeps what weapons under their seats and also why. He's totally out of it, announces an open stereo for those who can still manipulate CDs, i.e. everyone but him.

Up I go and instantly whittle his collection down to Pop Art and Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of the Worlds. I put on the Jeff Wayne, but we hadn't even reached slowly but surely before Lee had puked down his cab driver's v-neck and fallen asleep.

On the basis that a) he claimed he'd never played it once and b) I was drunk, I made off with that Pop Art. Largely because I wanted to solve the age-old riddle of whether William B. in Andy Warhol's Dead is referring to Burroughs, Blake or Brown. Of course, I've never played it once, and I never will until I'm able to transfer it to a C90 and have it blaring out the windows of a boxy yellow Datsun as I'm driven back from a Call of Cthulhu session.

So long story short I should probably pop it back through his letterbox, assuming he's still alive.

I think you could have dedicated a couple of paragraphs to the Halo Jones angle, to be honest. I know you were there at the Roadmender.

Oh, I'd almost forgotten Sex Kick for a moment there, that'll never lose its comedy edge and yet nobody to my knowledge has attempted a cover version, even Paul Anka.

Tex Axile said...

Excellent summation Phil, Im glad I came in with the best rubbish pseudonym in pop, I always intended it to be so. Peroxide power pop, you may have made up,( but you miss the fact that one of my earliest bands was called Peroxide Romance). I hope that you have a profession writing about music, in my opinion you are much better than the fakes that used to write for NME, Sounds, Melody maker et al. I always preferred Wendy's fabulous scream on a B side called "Kiss Me". Carol Decker deserved the hard time she got, they were crap. Cheers Tex

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Tiny Banquet Committee said...

I had Transvision Vamp on cassette when I was 10 years old and I thought they were so cool. I didn't pay any attention whatsoever to music press at that age and wasn't aware of the controversy you mention so that's very interesting.

Surely peroxide power pop is too big to be a microgenre! Maybe . . . pouthouse?