Claire Hamill – Ultraviolet Light
We’ve already discussed, on numerous occasions, the sad demise of physical singles and bemoaned the loss of their many secondary pleasures. No more ruinously creased ‘giant’ posters folded countless times to fit the 5” CD case and free stickers or transfers which were obviously never going to be stickered or transferred anywhere. Lost forever are the extortionately priced ringtone offers and ‘enhanced’ CD’s, which nine times out of ten inexplicably contained the video for the previous single rather than the one you were buying. Gone are the ‘two for the price of one’ deals on double-packed 12” singles and there’s definitely no MP3 alternative to the beloved picture disc. Who wouldn’t want a 7” piece of vinyl enlivened by a picture of Nik Kershaw with a frustratingly positioned hole slap bang in the middle where his face should be?
But perhaps it’s the most fundamental things associated with singles which we pine for most. I could talk lyrically about the experience of taking a single (7”, 12”, CD or even cassingle) out of its sleeve for the first time, checking for tiny details of information on the packaging or labels, the secret messages scratched into the vinyl ‘run-out’ groove – and nothing gets you ‘inside’ a song quite so completely as reading and re-reading the lyrics on an LP’s inner-sleeve. But undoubtedly the greatest loss for future generations is the joy of flipping your latest purchase and discovering a half decent B-side. While a sleeve which bragged ‘double ‘A’ side’ always seemed a little arrogant to me, almost apologetically concealing an unheralded masterpiece on a B-side somehow feels far more British – “What, that old thing? No, really. Don’t listen to it. It’s rubbish, honestly.”
Sometimes a great B-side was merely a clever marketing tool. Wham’s Last Christmas was given a second wind, long after the unwanted jumpers had been returned to M&S, by the inclusion of Everything She Wants (arguably one of their finest moments) as its flip-side. Kraftwerk’s Computer Love only narrowly missed tumbling into the Popvoid on its original release (peaking at no.36 in the summer of 1981), before radio programmers decided to play the song languishing on its B-side. The Model then went all the way to no.1, sealing its status as one of the defining songs of the 80s (even though it was actually recorded for the 1978 album, The Man Machine). The B-side would eventually become the ‘bonus track’ in the CD age, with that concept reaching its peak during the late 1990s and early 2000s. During this period many singles would be released on two (or even three) separate CDs and the number of bonus tracks spread across all formats amounted to something akin to a free mini-album.
When I first started buying singles, back when it was simply a piece of black vinyl, housed in a full-colour picture sleeve (if you were lucky or quick off the mark), the B-side often got as much of my attention as the A-side. Situation, the B-side to Yazoo’s debut single Only You, showed a different side to Vince Clarke’s newly introduced post-Depeche Mode project and every single from Duran Duran’s debut featured a noteworthy flip-side (Late Bar, Khanada and Faster Than Light are amongst my favourite Duran tracks to this day).
The ultimate piece of hidden treasure was the B-side which far surpasses the intended A-side, which neatly brings me to one of my all-time favourite B-sides, Ultraviolet Light by Claire Hamill, a unexpected corker of a song which could originally be found on the flip of her 1980 single, First Night In New York.
Hamill was one of only a few women who found any degree of recognition on the folk-rock scene during the genre’s somewhat male-dominated initial explosion in the early 1970’s. She toured with the likes of John Martyn and Jethro Tull, gaining a reputation as ‘The British Joni Mitchell’ along the way. By 1980, she was looking to toughen-up her sound and turned to some more contemporary musicians, who had a better understanding of electronic keyboards and the emerging synthesiser sounds, to help her diversify.
The first product of her newly formed relationships was First Night In New York, which featured contributions from future Phil Collins sound engineer Hugh Pagham, and Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the studio wizard who produced much of The Jam’s early output. While distinctly un-folk-rock, First Night In New York sounds like the sort of thing Julie Covington or Barbara Dickson might have recorded in 1980 in order to sound a bit edgy or hip, but ending up sounding very distinctly neither of these things. But hidden away on the B-side was Ultraviolet Light, Hamill’s collaboration with the synthesiser pioneer Gary Numan, then in the midst of his own game-changing breakthrough and at the height of his powers.
Ultraviolet Light is simplicity itself – a fragile, crystal clear and uncluttered vocal soars above layers of cold and brooding synths, awash with the kind of atmospheric, electronica buzz Alison Goldfrapp would later make her stock-in-trade. This is music to soundtrack late-night prowls through Blade Runner-esque cityscapes, evoking the same sleazy eroticism as Eurythmics‘ This City Never Sleeps and, as such, wouldn’t sound out of place as the sensually overcharged backdrop to Kim Basinger’s somewhat ‘handsy’ slide-show in 9½ Weeks or, more recently, accompanying some lingering close-ups of Ryan Gosling in Drive.
As a recording artist, Hamill existed on the periphery of the music scene, failing to spend a single week on either the UK singles or albums chart, but I still listen to Ultra Violet Light (some 35 years later) on a regular basis – although, unlike Miss Basinger, I maintain a degree of self control, despite my mind sometimes wandering and falling into daydreams of Mr Gosling and the bumper sticker on the back of his car which reads, ‘R & S 4 EVER’.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? – Surely Natasha Khan’s attempts at metamorphosis, steadily transforming herself into Kate Bush, have run their course and it’s time for a new direction for her next Bat For Lashes project. Something purely digital, with harsh, but sexy, electronics might just do the trick. Thank me later, Nat.