The Price Of The Ticket - Wendy James (self released)
Confession time. I love Wendy James. But not in the way you're probably thinking. The five bottles you see at the end of this review are well earned but some will not share my enthusiasm. Wendy’s blistering hysterical British syllables may well strike terror in the sensitive ears of some. Fuck ‘em.
You'll immediately remember Wendy from '80s pop punk band Transvision Vamp. She'd tell that girl to shut up. She wanted your love. But baby she didn't care. A fierce blonde strumpet in a short black dress. The pin up girl who launched rather more than a thousand lustful teenage fancies for those too young to have noticed Debbie Harry.
But that was all of 30 years ago and she’s probably featured in at least a couple of “where are they now” segments. And although the songs of Transvision Vamp are the stuff of fabulous and immortal 45rpm singles they were not the stuff of career longevity. Her voice was distinctive but prone to a little waivering and wandering around the tune. Like her hero Bob Dylan, she never heard a note she couldn't miss.
Whilst that's a trait considered essential for male punk rock and rollers, their female compatriots are expected to follow a more mainstream path; the fascist imperative of a TV talent show. If you can’t make the note, auto tune it within a half mile of its humanity. Youthful pouting is (y'know) cute but the expiration date is short.
When she broke up the band, her face earned her the inevitable solo album if not the television variety show. There was always the chance she could outgrow her past in the throw mud at the wall and see what sticks world of this business we call show. She even lucked out when song writing chores fell into the hands of Elvis Costello.
Writing out of character bought out the best in him, taming his native misogyny and misanthropy. "Now Ain't the time for your tears" was a proto Brit-pop post-modern masterpiece riffing off of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Clash. Tales of London lowlife, music business shenanigans and the fate of a puppet who cuts her strings were one part reportage to two parts prophecy. Born out of time, the album sunk without trace and, as we all know, most pop star lives have no second acts.
Ten years passed before she reappeared in alternative rock band Racine. And by band, I mean she seemed to be playing, producing and writing everything. So – that’s kind of a band, isn’t it? The album that emerged "Number One" was... it was... um... interesting. Not bad. Not particularly good. It just was. She followed this up with a solo album called "Racine Number 2". This time she was playing with a band.
Confused yet? Bear with me. As a bonus, the album included a demo version of "Number One", this time played with a band. It was a great improvement on the original release even if it sounded like the television was left on in the background. For me, "Racine Number 2" was where business seriously began to pick up. I don't mean in terms of sales. I mean in terms of art.
She found herself a footing. With that album, she seriously began her foul mouthed one-woman war on the rhyming couplet. And, as a writer, I can tell you it is a thing of beauty. But don't take my word for it...
You forgot something.
I got my pot, my pills and my pussy
Four seconds in this whorehouse'll get you
Gagging for air
Get the chewing gum out 'a your head
We're gonna eat your fucking cookie
Like an ice pick in the ear
Harsh functionings of consciousness
(from "Bitter Funny")
Okay. I’ll be honest, I can only hazard a guess at what that was all about but there's certainly a tall tale in there somewhere. And what fabulous turns of phrase. What a glorious disregard for tired old song writing protocols. What a wonderful potty mouth! Marvellous!
And better was yet to come. 2010 unleashed "I Came Here To Blow Minds" which did just what it said on the cover. Let me give you some song titles. "You're a fucking mess, but you sure is pretty." "New wave flowered up main street acid baby." "Don't shoot - I ain't Dillinger." Trust me when I tell you the lyrics exceed your expectations of bad, mad and dangerous to know. You can take the girl out of East Sussex, but you can’t take East Sussex out of the girl.
If you're thinking this is sounding a little too close to outsider art, it probably means you're not as smart as her. You need to read more comic books. Spend a few English winters huddled around the endless BBC 2 screenings of cult movie classics. Maybe read a book. She gobbles up popular culture references and throws them back in your face. Sometimes dancing. Sometimes screaming. Be a good fellow and keep up!
So, it’s 2016 and here's the new album. After close examination of the sleeve, it doesn’t look like an actual record company put it out. It’s called "The Price Of The Ticket". The album itself features James Sclavunos of Sonic Youth on drums. Glen Matlock on bass and Lenny Kaye on guitar need no introduction.
There are some bonus tracks featuring James Williamson on guitar. Late fellow Stooge Steve Mackay joins in on a blistering cover of Dylan’s "It's alright, Ma". Wendy’s clipped venom vocals prove particularly suited to the material.
If you have any interest in rock and roll, the last two paragraphs should have sold the record to you. Do I need to say more? Well, yes.
Band wise, the drumming is the star of the show. Bass and guitar are adequate in their setting. But this is music designed around a stripped aesthetic. The big names help raise interest but one suspects Matlock probably lay his track down first take after a pint and a quick glance at the chord chart. It’s not a phoned in performance by any means. It’s just not studied. And given the shape of the material, that may be to the record’s advantage.
One also suspects Williamson’s involvement was a chance to go in to the studio one afternoon and familiarise himself with technological advances in recording techniques. Recorded before “Ready to Die”, there certainly isn’t a classic roof tearing solo blowing out the speakers.
Overall, this album has a sort of post punk no wave kind of sound. Throw in some '50s and '60s references filtered by watching too much David Lynch and the album pretty much comes into focus. The songs and vocals are the stars here. Once again, this isn’t classic great song writing but these are still great songs, none the less.
I’d probably hold up Lynch’s “Crazy Clown Time” as one of those stupid “If you like that try this” things. It’s not quite as foul mouthed as “I came to blow minds” but it still remains compelling. The closest it comes to the old Transvision Vamp sound is probably the cover of the Sonic Rendezvous Band’s “You’re So Great” with Williamson handling guitar duties. There will be those who cry sacrilege. But, as you know, there always are.
My favourite track is the gloriously titled "You're a dirtbomb, Lester." Against the backdrop of a Velvet Underground two chord progression, the story begins with Wendy living the rock and roll lifestyle and just wanting to play music. Given the mention of Gramercy, new wave rockers and graffiti, one suspects drugs may have been involved. Autobiographically (one suspects), things promptly head south and decide to stay there for the winter.
Without much warning. she starts quoting passages from Tom Sawyer - as you do. It's the bit where Tom is trapped in the cave (just so you don't have to strain your brain trying to work out why it sounds familiar). At the end of her rant about the perception of time during periods of isolation, she remembers to credit Mark Twain before the song clatters to an end. Pure fucking genius. Or madness. Or both.
But it’s an album of highlights. It’s an album of someone not giving a fuck and taking chances. It’s an album of someone seizing the day and trying to make the best record ever made. Contradictions? Only small people can’t contradict themselves. Let’s face it, there is no way a song called “Bad Intentions and a bit of cruelty” can be in any way terrible. I can only give you my highest recommendation. Buy it and see. If your taste is in your arse, that’s your problem. I’m sure Wendy will find a way to make you shut up.