Friday 27 January 2017

Clandestine Classic XLIX - Ask Johnny Dee

The forty-ninth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Last time I did a Clandestine Classic, I bemoaned the fact that the series had fallen into something of a rut, along the lines of always asking, "What do you think about when I say <insert band name here> to you?", after which I'll rattle through the obvious choices for that band and then pull a rabbit out of the hat. I bemoaned it, and then I went ahead and did it again. Shame on me. So it's back to basics, this time, as I try to wrap some personal narrative around the chosen song. Here goes.

We have to dial the clock back for this one, to the latter half of 1988 and the beginning of 1989. I was in the upper sixth of a selective boys' grammar school, and worked at weekends in the lighting department of a now-defunct high street department store. Surprisingly, for someone who had, two years earlier, described the concept of having a girlfriend as "a hypothetical situation" (much to the amusement of my mates), I had not only discovered girls but they too had discovered me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I was any kind of gigolo, quite the opposite, I was still painfully shy and socially awkward. But I'd had a couple of girlfriends of varying durations and seriousness. The situation was no longer hypothetical.

And then... then, there was Jay. That's not her real name, by the way; even though only one person who knew me back then reads this blog, I still think it's important to preserve anonymity. Jay was in the lower sixth at the neighbouring (and affiliated) selective girls' grammar school, and worked in the restaurant at the same high street department store. She was also painfully shy but, crucially for bringing us together, she was friends with the girls my mates were going out with. She was also ferociously intelligent, funny and, most attractive of all, just a bit different. For context, this was the age of peak Neighbours, when boys tried to look like Scott and Mike whilst girls tried to look like Charlene and (not so) Plain Jane Super Brain. Jay didn't try to look like anybody. She stood out from her classmates by not trying to emulate fashion, not overdoing the make-up in a horrible 80s way, not slavishly imitating the fashions of the day. She was a fully fledged individual at the age of seventeen which, looking back, was quite something.

Jay also had terrific taste in music. When most of her classmates were interested in standard chart fare, if interested at all, the only chart Jay was interested in was the indie chart. And so it was that, as friends tried to get us together and we edged around actually going out, she introduced me to a band she adored, The Chesterfields. I somehow hadn't heard of them at all at the time and, even now, had to fall back on Wikipedia to remind myself that they came from Somerset and that, although often referred to as a C86 band, they weren't actually on the landmark NME cassette. They were, if memory serves, part of the short-lived "twee" sound; with hindsight, they sounded like a lo-fi hybrid of The Housemartins, The Smiths and early REM, with a West Country accent. Today's Classic is their fourth single and indie chart highpoint (number four!), Ask Johnny Dee, from 1987. It also appeared on their debut album, the splendidly titled Kettle.

You can probably tell from the way I've written this post that there wasn't a happy ending to the story of Jay and I. She really liked me, and I liked her too but, for whatever reason, I didn't appreciate her enough. Actually, "for whatever reason" is not strictly true. I think I was just a typical eighteen year old, one whose mates all had conventionally pretty girlfriends, and I didn't want to commit to Jay in case someone else came along. That's pretty terrible, I know. But not nearly as bad as how I treated Jay at, and immediately after, one particular party - I'll spare you the details (by which I mean I'll spare my own shame) but I was a royal git to her, heartless. She deserved much, much better.

Ten-plus years later, we were once again both working for the same company, this time a US-owned corporate behemoth. We worked at the same (huge) site, but in different divisions - our paths would never normally cross, though I did see her once, from a distance across a large atrium. She looked great, of course, still a bit quirky, a little different to everyone else, but generally great. I don't know whether she saw me or not. Probably not. But she was in the company email address book, so I penned a carefully worded message to gently say hello (our first communication since that party, pretty much) and to start to suggest that I knew I had been a git, and to say sorry. She read the email, I know that much (I put a read receipt on it) but she didn't reply. A year or so later, she left the company, and that was that.

Except last year I spotted her again, in the social media timeline of a mate's wife. Jay's married now, it seems, with kids, and looks the picture of happiness. Still a little quirky, a little different from the crowd, as far as you can tell from a timeline. I thought, very briefly, of sending another message but didn't when I realised that I was in danger of turning into Rob from High Fidelity. I also asked myself whose benefit I would be apologising for, hers or mine? The answer, dear reader, does not reflect well on me. I stepped away for the keyboard.

You can pick up today's Classic on The Chesterfield's exhaustive best of compilation Electric Guitars In Their Heart, if lo-fi 80s twee is your bag. It was my bag too, for a short while a long time ago.

In the meantime, and with all apologies, this one's for Jay.


  1. Great story, and a great song - which I'd never heard before, though the band name rung some bells. Weirdly, I just finished writing a similarly autobiographical post about my teenage years... Although the song is much more well known and no hearts were broken in the process.

    Perhaps with the end of the world looming, we need to get these stories told.

    1. Cheers Rol. Heard this on a compilation CD and was transported back. And yes, let's get these stories out there!

  2. The Man Of Cheese29 January 2017 at 10:50

    I'd love to go back to those happy days...I remember popping into the lighting section all those moons ago!!

    1. Mate, I'd love to as well. Life seemed complex then, but really it was so easy, carefree and happy. The world was our oyster, now the future's...