Man of Few Syllables by Big Flame was the greatest indie single of the 1980s and that’s a fact. I would say that though, wouldn’t I? I released it. This spiky two minute something (cubist pop) song captured the subtlety and mayhem of the Mancunian trio and reflected the constant artistic and political tensions that hallmarked this most astringent of bands. It had an intensity that they never recreated, but which bands like the Age of Chance never approached: cycling jerseys notwithstanding. NME single of the week, Peel favourite, top ten indie hit: for all that, sales of little more than 3000 copies worldwide. So… greatest indie single of the 80s? Maybe not.
The problem was there were so many independent releases at the time. In the earlier days when the likes of Rough Trade were issuing Cabaret Voltaire’s Do The Mussolini Headkick, Fast Product the Human League’s Being Boiled, Mute The Normal’s Warm Leatherette and Step Forward The Fall’s Bingo Master’s Breakout: not to mention New Hormone’s Spiral Scratch by Buzzcocks; in those fledgling days record sales generally were higher than they would become just a few years later, and astronomical compared to their equivalents now. And in the “indie scene” – which did not really exist by name in 78-79-80 – there was a manageable level of competition. By 1985 when Man of Few Syllables blazed out of Cargo recording studios in Rochdale, dumped to tape by the inimitable Mr Brierley, there were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of such hopeful discs being launched into the clay pigeon shooters’ sights: and, inevitably, the majority of them feel into obscurity without a trace.
Big Flame were the perfect cubist pop group. But they were pointlessly swamped and sank to the bottom of the pool like everyone else, dragged down by their flailing drowning contemporaries.
Big Flame made the front page of the NME, they made the C86 cassette, the played the ICA, they had numerous John Peel sessions: they had a manifesto and they stuck to it – unlike the Sex Pistols, the Pop Group, Gang of Four and any number of other so-called punk/political bands that espoused an anti-capitalistic, anti-Pink Floydist stance, and who we now see plying their (rough) trade 30+ years later at £20 a pop. Big Flame were the perfect cubist pop group. But they were pointlessly swamped and sank to the bottom of the pool like everyone else, dragged down by their flailing drowning contemporaries. The poor indie kid going into the famous Nottingham Selctadisc in 1985 would have such a bewildering choice of hymns ancient and modern to choose from that his £2.50 wouldn’t know where to spend itself. He may have sat on the bus for an hour with the singular intention of buying the latest Ron Johnson release, but when he got into the dark recesses of the shop there may have been obstacles or distractions. I’m sorry says the guy behind the counter, the distributor didn’t send them yet. I’m sorry says the guy behind the counter, we sold the last one of those five minutes ago. Or there’s an album by PiL on special offer for the same price and oh, I really do like PiL too.
Man of Few Syllables by Big Flame is the greatest indie single of the 1980s: and that’s a fact. And it’s a fact because, for me, it ticks all the boxes: I love it on all levels, and it’s a part of my personal history. And that’s the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa would say: the “best tunes” are the best tunes, not because of the collection of notes, beats and lyrics that comprise them, but because of the emotions that those notes, beats and lyrics set off in you as the individual listener – and because of the context in which those notes and so on are experienced: as an accompaniment to your first kiss; to your adolescent angst; as a comfort to the suicide of your best friend; the death of your hamster; or as the soundtrack to the best nights of your life. Whatever the contexts, positive or negative, certain moments and, possibly, certain tunes (or dischords) will earmark them.
So – fuck you all. I say it again: Man of Few Syllables by Big Flame is the greatest (indie) single of the 1980s: and that’s a fact. But good luck buying one!
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