A GUEST POSTING by KHAYEM
Jarvis Whitehead and John Campbell
Ah, Go On, Bring Me Joy: An It’s Immaterial ICA
It’s Immaterial originally formed in Liverpool as a four-piece in 1980, releasing several singles and recording a number of John Peel Sessions. By 1984, It’s Immaterial was a duo – founder member John Campbell and Jarvis Whitehead, who had joined in 1982 – and this partnership has continued to the present day. Albeit not without some adventures and misadventures along the way…
It’s Immaterial joined the ranks of one-hit wonders in 1986, when their single Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune) spent 8 weeks in the UK chart, attaining the dizzy heights of #18. My first memory of seeing and hearing them was on Channel 4’s The Tube, in one of the show’s home made video slots, performing Festival Time. The clip is on YouTube (naturally), less than a minute and a half, and it immediately reminded me of why It’s Immaterial made such an impression. I went on to buy the subsequent singles and debut album Life’s Hard And Then You Die, a commercial flop at the time but which I loved (of course). Many, many years later, I discovered the follow-up album, Song, in a secondhand record shop in Gloucester. However, that seemed to be it for the band.
The truth was that the duo had started work on a third It’s Immaterial album in the early 1990s before a series of events – the illness and passing of Campbell’s partner, the collapse of Pledge music and having to start again financially, the COVID pandemic – meant that it was 2020 before House For Sale finally saw the light of day. There’s a fascinating and moving God Is In The TV interview with John Campbell from last year that explains the three decade gap between albums and It’s Immaterial’s brief dalliance with fame in the mid-1980s.
It’s a remarkable story and a remarkable body of work. Keeping with the 10-track ICA format, I’ve reluctantly skipped the early singles and narrowed my focus to the three albums, a couple of ‘lost’ versions and one of the B-sides to the aforementioned big hit.
A happy accident: when finally settled on the tracklist, I realised that the first line of the first song is “It’s a little bleak around here…” and the final line of the final song is “Ah, go on, bring me joy”. Feels strangely apt.
1) The Better Idea (Album Version) (Life’s Hard And Then You Die, 1986)
They say the rats leave the sinking ship
I’ve witnessed them get on
This song originally appeared on the Fish Waltz EP the previous year and is apparently a comment on the various line-up changes that had reduced It’s Immaterial to a duo. Even without this context, the rich imagery is further enhanced by the album version’s atmospheric soundscape. Side 1, track 4 on the album but the uncontested opener for this ICA.
2) Kind Words (‘Lost’ Version) (Lost Album #1, 1992 / Record promo CD, 2001)
Take your new car home to your new wife
Take your whole life down that road
Guest vocals from fellow Liverpudlian Eva Petersen, who has previously collaborated with Miles Kane and Will Sergeant. This song was originally produced by Calum Malcolm, then completed by the band decades later for inclusion on the House For Sale album. I love this earlier version.
3) In The Neighbourhood (Song, 1990)
It’s just like living each day in the music hall
The jokes are on you until the curtain falls
There are a number of downtempo tunes on the second album, but this closes side 1 of the vinyl version in rousing style, with a sorry tale of suburban hell.
4) Just North Of Here (Album Version) (House For Sale, 2020)
Well, it’s a funny kind of question to come straight out and ask
But that’s exactly what he did
“Where’s heaven?”, just like that, “Where’s heaven?”
A chance encounter with an agitated stranger in a chop house prompts a reverie about a fishing trip and possibly the happiest time in the narrator’s life.
5) The Sweet Life (Life’s Hard And Then You Die, 1986)
I hear it’s love that turns the whole world round
As day drifts tonight and youth grows old
The seeds of doubt begin to grow…
Side 2’s opening song on the original album is flipped to close Side 1 here, an energetic, impassioned ditty entreating the listener to “enjoy your life while you can”. Deciding which songs not to include from Life’s Hard And Then You Die was a challenge, as all 10 were contenders.
6) House For Sale (Start Over) (‘Lost’ Version) (Lost Album #2, 1992 / Record promo CD, 2001)
So pack your favourite song
The one that keeps you strong
And begin again
As the story goes, “whilst moving studios, Jarvis Whitehead and John Campbell discovered a neat cardboard box containing the original multi-track Tascam DA-88 tapes from [the 1992] sessions and decided to complete the project”. Despite giving the third album its name, this song didn’t make it unscathed, although musical elements were incorporated in the song Tell Me Why on the finally released version.
7) How Can I Tell You (Album Version) (House For Sale, 2020)
If that’s the crime I can’t repent
If that’s the sin, I’m innocent
It’s intentionally unclear what said crime is, as a female persistently asks “What exactly did you see?” in French, before the narrator belatedly claims, “I only ever did it once”.
8) Life On The Hill (Song, 1990)
I know it’s late but we could pass the time
I could tell you a story
Mine isn’t your common or garden life
The episode of Long Lost Family that you will never get to see, another It’s Immaterial contender for the Some Songs Make Great Short Stories series.
9) A Crooked Tune (Re-Recorded & Remixed) (Driving Away From Home B-side, 1986)
It sounds like something, something like a song
The part where everyone has gone, but you
This gem was tucked away as the bonus track on a 12” single, though at least it happened to be on the B-side to their one big hit in the UK. The song has a lovely little in-joke coda.
10) Festival Time (Rope B-side / Life’s Hard And Then You Die, 1986)
And I watch as they sway, clowns drinking their cares away
Is it fun? Is it joy? Are the grown-ups only boys?
I’ve missed off a number of personal favourites but if I could only pick one It’s Immaterial song, it would probably be this one. The first song of theirs that I heard and, whilst not the deepest or most evocative of their lyrics, the song’s just so much bloody fun. The memory of that video on The Tube (was it really only ever a minute and a half?) stuck with me and I love the sampled fade out, after John Campbell’s final words. Their craziest song and an absolute blast.
The good news is that It’s Immaterial announced in March that they were planning to write songs for a fourth album this year. Here’s hoping luck’s on their side and the album is completed and released before 2050. I don’t think I’ll make it otherwise…