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  • Review of Neither Use Nor Ornament remaster

    This was given to us by the politcal cartoonist and writer John Stuart Clark aka Brick. He used to help Gaffa in the old days with driving and shifting gear so he's heard it all... 

    Neither Use Nor Ornament

    Gaffa – 1978/2014 – ‘N’ Product

     In 1978, I slipped out of a sleeve crackling with static the most eagerly awaited seven inches of vinyl ever to cross the threshold of my collection. Every now and again since, I’ve repeated the ritual and wished the music into my ears, the music I knew so well from years of following the band round the country and genuflecting every Thursday night at the Imperial Hotel, Nottingham. I dunno, maybe I hoped some kind of osmosis had occurred during its intervening sojourn on my shelves sandwiched between Peter Gabriel and Marvin Gaye. Each time I heard what I heard when the tracks first dribbled from my speakers. My disappointment then was crushing, but my expectation was for a contract and many more releases that would promote the travesty to a valuable collector’s item. It didn’t happen, which made each subsequent play heartbreaking.

     

    Quite simply, somebody in a sound booth somewhere in Berwick Street had forgotten to wheel the band into the studio. They were banging it out in an oil drum two streets away, accidentally picked up by a spare mic that happened to be pointing at a chink in the studio’s soundproofing. There was nothing wrong with the material or running order, but the producer, engineer, cleaner, somebody had totally failed to understand the second most important selling point of Gaffa. After the inspired and witty songs, the sheer power and intelligence of the music was what made this combo a compelling listen.

     

    Thirty-six years later, I approached the digital re-release with trepidation but commitment. I dug out my CD Walkman, traipsed up to Dorket Head (from where most of Nottingham can be seen), and pressed play. It is possible my whoops of joy registered in Mansfield, but I’m certain I saw little speech balloons of ‘Wow!’ pop up and burst above flats and houses across the city. I have no idea what re-mastering does. I know the master tapes were not remix for this re-release, simply because the band of the Seventies didn’t have the readies to buy them from the studio. Whatever magic the lads and KJAMM have worked, the fireball from their wand hit me like a dum-dum from a sonic carbine.

     

    The rebel yell of ‘Throw Me to the Christians’ was the prayer answered but it was the driving bass and subsequent six-string interplay of Maslen and Smith on ‘Hollow City’ that confirmed I was now in possession of the album we all wanted of Neither Use Nor Ornament. At a time when you needed to play a bit of this band and a bit of that to achieve an evening’s aural satisfaction, Gaffa were the whole deal. Wry, incisive lyrics, melodies that could be sweet as sour, tight arrangements that revelled in throwing curve balls, ebb and flow and cross rhythms, faultless musicianship - lose any one of those components and you have the vinyl version of this now pulsating album.

     

    Music press critics of yesteryear criticised lyricist Evans for over-burdening the songs with tongue-twisting wordplay. This new pressing confirms that every syllable rings clear as a bell and that the scullery stories he weaves in numbers like ‘I Wish I was A Cartoon’, ‘Go On Then Jump’ and the pathos-drenched ‘OAP Sightings’ suck the listener into compelling narratives about characters we can all recognise, empathise with and embellish upon. What lassie hasn’t been where ‘Baby Sitting’ takes gals, for example, and what lad hasn’t felt the stingingly staccato rejection of ‘X Marks the Spot’?

     

    Possible most surprising about this rejuvenated opus is what’s revealed about the band’s liberal purloining of styles and phrasings. As eclectic as The Clash in their choice of genres, the obvious parodies of ‘Lucky Lighter’ and ‘The First Teenager On The Moon’ are good fun, but try playing ‘Rotten Role Doormat’ on repeat, logging the guitar homages. Time and again on Ornament you can hear musical brains whirling through pop, blues and jazz back catalogues, searching for and finding just the right one-bar fillip or bull’s eye riff that lifts that verse another notch higher.

     

    Which isn’t to say Gaffa are derivative. If anything, at the time, they were a tad too original for ears listening out for punk rants. Yup, you could beat y’head against a wall to them, but they were always a band that demanded listening to. They were uncomfortable, unsettling, and the selection of songs on this album illustrates how challenging their work could be. Familiarity of course breeds warm delight and, as with their live show, they know just when to shepherd in something from Jollity Farm. If only ‘Hot Doggin’’ had made it into the pens.

     

    Oddly enough, highlights for me this time around are the two guest spots where Maslen and Barratt take lead vocals on, respectively, the Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired ‘Trackless’ (check the guitar on the final verse!) and the sweet talking blues of ‘Some Are In Suits’. Having played vinyl and CD concurrently, switching between the two inputs through these tracks, it is astonishing how their voices have been animated on the new pressing. Suddenly they are forthright and character-laden additions to the vocal breadth of the band.

     

    From the ginnel brawl of ‘Back to Villany’, it is a logical move to press replay and find y’sen being thrown to the Christians once again, such is the cyclical design of Ornament. Between those brackets, Gaffa has finally provided us oldies with the album we always wanted, while at the same time injecting the juice of youth into 13 tracks that seem as pertinent today as when first released, so many birthdays ago. And thankfully, in digitalising the opus, the lads haven’t sanitised the sound. Ornament remains excitingly raw, vibrant and expressive of everything that was vital about down-home garage bands of the late Seventies.

     

    John Stuart Clark