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Jimmy Nail's Multiverse of Madness [July 12, 1992]
Plus: Prince, The Shaman, The Wedding Present, and The Orb
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of July 12, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Yitzhak Rabin becomes Prime Minister of Israel, Bill Clinton becomes the official Democrat presidential nominee, and John Smith becomes
President of Gallifrey the new leader of the Labour Party.
📽️In the cinema, UK audiences finally get to see Marissa Tomei’s Oscar-winning performance alongside Joe Pesci and Ralph Macchio in legal comedy My Cousin Vinny.
📺On TV, ITV run their third and final Telethon. As part of the day’s entertainment, Granada TV organised The Blackpool Roadshow, featuring a number of local acts, including a brand new band from Manchester called Oasis. Their first-ever TV appearance (which is sadly lost) began with Liam Gallagher calling Alvin Stardust a dickhead.
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🎶 In the charts, Erasure’s ABBA-Esque EP has fallen to Number 4, which means that there’s a brand new Number One…
This week’s Number One: ‘Ain’t No Doubt’ — Jimmy Nail
Multiverses have become a common media trope in recent years. First, there was Rick and Morty, then the Spider-Verse, and now Marvel’s big spaghetti junction of colliding realities.
Perhaps the best of these stories of alternative realities is the recent A24 movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, starring an infinite number of Michelle Yeohs.
I don’t want to spoil this film if you haven’t seen it yet, but Yeoh plays multiple versions of the same character. Each one is someone (or something) she could have been if she’d made different decisions, or she’d been born in another environment.
This concept appeals to us because it asks something that’s always on our minds. How would life have been if you chose a different path? What lives could you have lived? Who else could you be? Are you the best possible version of you?
The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote:
What makes hope such an intense pleasure is the fact that the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible. Even if the most coveted of these becomes realized, it will be necessary to give up the others, and we shall have lost a great deal.
Or to put it another way, the problem is that we choosing to take one path means choosing not to take another, and we are always haunted by those untravelled paths.
James Bradford was born in Newcastle in 1954. Like all kids, he dreamed thousands of possible futures for himself.
One dream was to follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a professional footballer. His father, James Bradford senior, had managed half a season with Huddersfield Town in the 30s, back when the Terriers were a big team.
He also really liked poetry and quite fancied being an English teacher.
But when Jimmy was 10, local band The Animals had a global smash hit with their cover of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. From that moment on, Jimmy only wanted one thing: to be a rock star.
However, life took him in a different direction. He ended up in a rough-as-arseholes secondary school where teachers and students took turns beating the shit out of him. Some senior kids once threw him through a plate-glass window, giving him the first of five broken noses.
Jimmy decided that the only way to survive would be to become the hardest, maddest bastard in the school. He started fighting, and eventually got expelled for trying to burn the place down.
In the mid-70s, English football was going through its Mad Max phase. Jimmy joined a gang of Newcastle United-supporting hooligans and spent every weekend knocking lumps out of rival fans. He slugged a policeman during one fight, resulting in a six month stretch in Strangeways.
His dad came to visit him in prison and burst into tears, ashamed at what his son had become. This turned out to be one of those crucial nexus points where you think about your life’s path and choose an alternative direction.
After prison, he took a part-time job at a factory, where he managed to impale his foot on a six-inch spike. His sympathetic colleagues nicknamed him Jimmy Nail.
Bad decisions can lead us away from our dreams, but so can good decisions.
In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman says, “Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t.”
He goes on to quote Robert Goodin, who wrote a whole thesis on the idea of striving for a better life vs. settling for what you already have:
“You must settle, in a relatively enduring way, upon something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,” [Goodin] writes: you can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first ‘settling’ on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them.
In 1982, the BBC came to town looking to cast a new show set in the North-East. Although Jimmy had no interest in acting, his girlfriend bullied him into auditioning.
Imagine being that casting director. You’re looking for someone to play Oz, a psychotic, hard-nut brickie. In walks this guy who’s 6’ 3” and a face like a crashed lorry and who says his name is Nail.
They cast him on the spot.
Auf Wiedersehen Pet was a sensation, plugging perfectly into the zeitgeist of early Thatcherism. Jimmy Nail was now a famous actor, a legitimate star.
But he was still pushing to achieve his real dream of becoming a famous singer.
The world first heard Nail singing when Auf Weidersehen Pet allowed him to do a musical number as Oz. One of the other characters asked, “how can such a lovely voice come out of such an ugly face?”
In 1985, he managed a Top 10 hit under his own name with a cover of ‘Love Don’t Live Here Any More’.
It was fine, but it didn’t made him a rock star. He was just another bloke off telly who had put out a record, like Nick Berry or Dennis Waterman or Anita Dobson or Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy or Glen Hoddle and Chris Waddle.
Shortly after, Auf Wiedersehen Pet went on hiatus, leaving him to ponder his next steps.
Where does the path lead next? Which version of Jimmy Nail will Jimmy Nail become?
Warren Buffet has this technique for organizing your priorities.
You make a list of the things you most want to achieve. Then you pick the main one, the thing that is most important to you, and you put all of your energy into that.
Most importantly—you stay the hell away from everything else on the list.
Every other item on that list is something that will split your focus. They’re things you’re interested in, but that you don’t really care about. It’s very easy to waste time and attention on those things.
At the start of the 90s, Jimmy Nail had his attention split between two goals: becoming a singer, and becoming a leading man.
It seemed like he would go down the latter path when BBC cast him in the title role of detective show Spender, which was a big hit and put him firmly in the spotlight.
Then, almost out of nowhere, he released ‘Ain’t No Doubt’.
‘Ain’t No Doubt’ (co-written by journeyman musician Guy Pratt, who also appears on this week’s Album Of The Week, U.F.Orb) is actually really good.
It’s a surprisingly complex number with three distinct sections, each of which succeeds in a different way:
Verse: Nail knows he’s not the world’s greatest singer (one of his later albums is called Ten Great Songs and an OK Voice). He leans into those limitations here by doing the verse as a spoken-word piece, which allows him to utilise his acting ability.
Bridge: Sylvia Mason-James does a smashing job on the female counter-vocal. Her lines swoop and soar with gorgeous dexterity before being shot down by Nail's gruff “she’s lying”. It’s quite funny and the song’s most memorable bit.
Chorus: Don’t be distracted by the jazzy horns, this is actually a Full Metal Jacket-style military chant (“I don’t know but I been told…”), which is why it’s so catchy.
‘Ain’t No Doubt’ was more than just a hit record. It became the thing that defined Jimmy Nail’s career. It fundamentally changed the way we saw him. He is now, always and forever, Jimmy Nail: the singer who does a bit of acting.
But is he happy with this?
One of those parody news accounts recently did a gag about Nail doing an epic three-hour Glastonbury set
It’s entirely possible that Jimmy Nail lies in bed at night, wishing that this was his reality. He probably regrets the distractions that led him away from music. Maybe he even regrets his acting success. It brought him money and fame, but it distracted him from his true goal.
That’s the crushing thing about being alive, and the reason we love multiverse stories. No matter how successful or fulfilled we are, we live in the knowledge that we can only ever taste the thinnest sliver of what the world has to offer. We will always be outnumbered by the other versions of ourselves, the ones who never got a chance to live.
All of this means that true happiness is not about doggedly pursuing the optimal path in life. Instead, we must accept whichever branch of the multiverse we end up in, and try to feel at home.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 7 (New Entry): ‘Sexy M.F.’ — Prince
Has Prince ever been as swaggeringly confident as he is in this ridiculous funk monster? Even by Prince standards, this track exudes Big Dick Energy.
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘L.S.I. (Love Sex Intelligence)’ — The Shamen
The Shamen are always good value for money, with the Boss Drum era representing the peak of their crowd-pleasing stadium techno. ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ gets most of the attention, but they produced a bunch of other joyful bops as well, such as this delightful number.
Number 17 (↑ from 22): ‘Unchain My Heart’ — Joe Cocker
To a certain cohort, Joe Cocker is best known as the guy who sang ‘I’ll Get By With A Little Help From My Friends’ on the opening credits of The Wonder Years.
At the time, The Wonder Years felt like a window into the mists of distant history, but it was actually only set 20 years in the past. The first episode aired in 1988 and was set in 1968. If they had kept making it, this season would be set in 2002. Kevin would still be reeling from 9/11, and the soundtrack would feature Nickelback and Las Ketchup.
Number 22 (New Entry): ‘Flying Saucer’ — The Wedding Present
Episode 7 of David Gedge’s single-a-month campaign. This one’s notable for having a very fun video with some budget special effects.
Number 36 (New Entry): ‘I Love You Goodbye’ — Thomas Dolby
Thomas Dolby is best-known for early 80s hits ‘Hyperactive’ and ‘She Blinded Me With Science’, but he’s also responsible for something much better/worse.
During the 90s, Dolby founded an audio technology called Headspace that went on to invent the polyphonic ringtone. He is the reason your old Nokia 3310 sounded that way.
Album of the Week
U.F.Orb — The Orb
One of the most insulting things you can say to any artist is, “wow, you must have been on so many drugs when you made this!” Doing complex, precise work is hard when you’re high, which is why a lot of artists hold off on drugs until after they’ve clocked out of the studio.
A better thing to say is, “wow, I bet this record would sound really good if I was on so many drugs”. That statement implies that they’ve created something so transcendent that it cannot be fully appreciated with mundane brain chemistry.
U.F.Orb fits very much into the latter category. I’ve only listened to it in the right circumstances once, many years ago, while lying on my bed after a heavy night on the tiles, too buzzed to sleep, in those hours after sunrise where the world is silent except for the birds and the binmen.
I didn’t take notes, but I vaguely recall thinking it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.
Listening to it again in a more middle-aged style (on a Bluetooth speaker in my kitchen while I do the dishes)…it still sounds quite extraordinary. There are no chart-friendly numbers like their 1991 hits ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, but there is a bottomless well of imagination and invention.
U.F.Orb is a double album with only six tracks, starting with ‘O.O.B.E.’, which gives you a full five minutes of ambient sounds before gradually blossoming into a quite catchy dance beat:
This is the tension at the heart of the record, a constant fight between ideas of what music is. Do songs need a tune you can whistle or clap along with? Or is a song just a collection of interesting sounds themed around a single idea?
Track 2, ‘U.F.Orb’, challenges what came before by being a reasonably conventional club banger before giving way to the album’s centrepiece, ‘Blue Room’.
Again, this track is a full eight minutes of abstract, ambient sound before it just kind of evolves into a quite excellent tune:
Listening to U.F.Orb feels like astral projection, like floating in space, untethered from your body. The beats are gentle currents that blow you in a new direction, and there are stray sounds: old TV clips, a phone ring, a crow cawing. At one point, a dog barks, and then the bark is looped and mixed until it becomes a beat.
It’s always hard to tell what sounds are on the record and what sounds are happening in your own environment. This is intentional, part of the music’s inherent four-dimensionality. It’s music that exists in physical space, somehow.
I cannot advocate taking drugs and listening to this record (unless you live in a jurisdiction with legal edibles, in which case go bananas)
But it’s definitely a good idea to sit down and give your full attention to the intricacies of U.F.Orb. The Orb created something special on this record. I’m sure they worked very hard on it.
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We’re going to have to discuss that “cancer/dancer” rhyme in that Snap! record.