Examining the Pleasure principle – the enduring appeal of Girls at our Best!

‘We’re not looking forward and we are not looking back
We’ve lost the warranty, we’ll never get our money back
My baby’s buying me another life, getting nowhere fast.’

One of the most influential bands to emerge in the early 1980s, Girls at our Best! were part of that era’s fresh new wave of independent acts, and one championed by legendary BBC DJ John Peel … with good reason.

Yet this Leeds outfit very nearly parted company before even putting a record out, having felt over the course of their first year together they had come to a natural end. But then, self-styled James Alan – real name Jeremy ‘Jez’ Pritchatt – and Judy Evans – real name Jo Gaffney – decided to take advantage of a local recording studio’s cut-price session offer and leave some sort of legacy.

And what a legacy, the result a classic self-financed debut single, ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’, released on their own Record Records label, an indie chart hit covered by The Wedding Present seven years later, backed with ‘Warm Girls’, the Banshees-like B-side which gave them their name (originally the title of a number by pre-GAOB! outfit, The Butterflies).

In a 2013 interview with The Mouth Magazine, Jez said, ‘We knew it was a good song – and that ‘Warm Girls’ was as well. I think our expectations were just to get it out on a single and maybe sell a few copies. I don’t think we’d thought ahead much further than that. Our band had split up, so it was just Judy and I. We thought it’d be a waste not to leave behind some sort of legacy’.

‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ for me is a record that never seems to age. Those two killer layers of scratchy guitar, then that resonant, simple bassline and subtle but insistent, building tattoo-like drum pattern, before Judy’s rattled vocal arrives, characterised by her uncompromising hard northern ‘a’s. Coming in at less than two quality minutes, never showy, forthright post-punk angst, possessing a similar energy to that of Leeds neighbours and friends The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’, another song destined to drag you from the bar with every play. And from a West Yorkshire town that also gave us The Gang of Four, it’s no wonder The Wedding Present had the ground zero foundation needed when it came to their turn to shine a few years on.

As for the debut 45’s abrupt ending, Jez added, ‘It was a deliberate attempt to sound dramatic – like the end of ‘1977’ by The Clash – but more extreme! The sound engineer wanted to leave some room reverb after the cut-off – but we preferred it sounding like the tape ran out’.

It certainly worked, and they went on to make four great singles and one amazing LP, a Strange Fruit Peel Sessions 12-inch following in ’87, Peelie having played them many times down the years, their sole session for his show – like the one they did for fellow BBC night-time radio presenter Richard Skinner – first broadcast in February 1981.

I can’t say I recall those sessions first time around – I was 13, after all – but GAOB! came into my life not long after, this punter drawn in after a close friend (a big influence on my music taste down the years) taped the LP for my brother.

Seeing as it was all over by early ’82, barely two years after their first recordings, I never got to catch them live, but Pleasure soon had regular outings at mine, and by the time The Wedding Present recorded their version of ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’, I could nod knowingly at a fellow Leeds outfit’s inspired choice of cover. I guess I was puzzled in places by an LP that seemed to have no obvious signposts to influences for me back then, and Judy’s unique delivery – almost operatic at times – was enough to confuse me further. But perhaps it does you good to not quite place the lineage sometimes, instead going by your instincts, the LP’s opening number and title track ‘Pleasure’ another that never fails to grab and inspire.

‘This is heaven. We are good as gold,
We won’t grow old when we’re told.’

What the hell was in there across those 11 tracks and earlier singles? The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Shangri-Las meets the Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Undertones, Wilko Johnson, and … whoa, hang on, Hugo Montenegro? But above all else, this was Girls at our Best! They had political bite and nous, plenty of style, a pop sensibility and – I totally see it now – humour. I was hooked.

Their lone LP has hardly been short of reissues these past four decades, with my first CD version a 17-track Vinyl Japan pressing from 1994, while Cherry Red’s first CD reissue arrived in 2009, followed by Preston indie label Optic Nerve Recordings’ vinyl versions in 2014 and again in 2021 (the latter selling out in a matter of days, but with another pressing expected soon). What’s more, Optic Nerve also released their debut 45 last year as part of its Optic Sevens 3.0 series.

And now comes Cherry Red’s impressive triple-CD deluxe edition of Pleasure, the original album – which reached No.2 in the indie chart – joined by the singles (A and B-sides), those influential BBC radio sessions, a couple of demos (including a previously-unavailable Butterflies track), and Edinburgh and New York City live recordings from November ’81, the latter Peppermint Lounge bootleg from the ill-fated US tour that led to the band splitting. There’s also an NYC radio interview from between their Queens College and Peppermint Lounge dates, the presenter unwrapping his copy of the LP on air.

Jez was fully involved in the latest reissue project, stalwart fan Steve Flanagan – who calls him ‘one of the nicest and funniest blokes you could wish to meet’ – writing the sleeve-notes for a comprehensive booklet also including copies of the single sleeves, photographs and memorabilia.

Jez’s own story in music going back to 1977 and Leeds punk band, SOS! Yes, he clearly loved those exclamation marks. Yet with the proto-indie band they formed next they were keen to move away from traditional three-chord punk progressions, adding a little pop sweetness and much more. And what did Jez tell us about the origins of this three-quarters male outfit for whom ‘the exclamation mark was as integral as the origin of the name was puzzling’? ‘Bands like Gang of Four influenced us … to go in the opposite direction.’

He explained more to David Eastaugh in February 2019’s online interview for The C86 Show, telling the presenter, ‘I really liked punk, but what I liked about the Pistols, the Ramones and that was the humour in it, and the fun. That was one of the not so good thinks about the post-punk scene – the fun really went out of it. It was very serious. It was musically interesting, lots of good stuff happening, but it was a bit po-faced and miserable’.

They certainly seemed to swim against a darker tide favoured by some of the more prominent post-punk bands of the time. As for that first band, SOS!, Steve Flanaghan nostalgically recalls they were, ‘all scuffed DM AirWairs, torn jeans, garden shears DIY haircuts and slogan lyrics, but impossibly exciting to those of us in their growing fan club … affordable firepower, playing local venues for a next-to-nothing entrance fee, which was a good job because even in those 20p-a-pint days next-to-nothing was about all we had’.

He reckons they got better with every gig, but ‘one day while we weren’t looking, they were gone’, Jez disillusioned with the scene and calling a halt, telling the New Pose fanzine, ‘Johnny Rotten said he wanted 300 bands all going in different directions, but now there’s 300 all the same – it’s shit’.

Jez took his artistic frustrations to art college in Leeds (now restyled Leeds Arts University, past alumni also including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Frankie Vaughan), where he met Jo on the same one-year foundation course, this ‘pre-Raphaelite artist’s muse level beauty with a cigarette dangling from her Baby Pink lipstick’ soon joining his latest band. He retrospectively told the Leeds Arts University alumni magazine, ‘I was a punk, and she didn’t really seem bothered about music … but she was really interesting, and she had attitude’. Meanwhile, Jo remembered Jez as ‘looking like an orphan’, this ‘convent schoolgirl from posh Wetherby’ also having told Smash Hits’ Mick Stand in October ’81, ‘I went to college to work hard and become a serious artist – until I met this punk rocker with a nervous rash’.

The streets are very bright
And it’s such a pretty sight.
I would love to live here all the time
The place where day is always night
.’

With the old group disbanded, they recruited non-playing fellow student Patrick Ford on bass guitar, and persuaded SOS! drummer Chris Oldroyd to join, The Butterflies out ‘to make some atonal noise in the name of art’, Jez hoping ‘such a soppy name’ would fly in the face of previous punk aggression. They went on to support, among others, John Foxx, Ludus, and afore-mentioned fellow townsfolk The Gang of Four.

Less than polished in the early days, Jez and Jo got the impression their gigs (mostly local, but also including Eric’s in Liverpool and London’s Nashville Rooms) attracted some people ‘just because they wanted to see if the band were as bad as they had been told’. In time, they became more cohesive though, especially when another SOS! old boy, Gerard Swift – or Terry Lean as he was in his punk days – took over on bass.

Then came that threatened finish, around a year in, before they decided to record that debut single on a whim and a shoestring, Jez and Jo consequently heading south for a day-trip with the finished product, taking a tape round various labels in London – Beggars Banquet among them – and refusing to leave it, feeling ‘if somebody had no time to listen in their presence, they had no time for that label’. As Jez told The Mouth Magazine 33 years later, ‘The arrogance of youth!’. Thankfully, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis liked what he heard and offered a vinyl pressing service and distribution deal, the pair choosing the name Record Records for their label, a nod to The Clash’s Rehearsal Rehearsals’ practise space.

As it was, early supporter Adrian Thrills made ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ the NME’ssingle of the week, going on to write a feature on them that October in which he reckoned their ‘tremendous range’ stretched ‘from the bubblegum swing of The Undertones to the structure of Magazine, taking in the raunch of the Au Pairs and the quirkiness of XTC’, while also citing Jez’s love of Sparks. As for John Peel, he told listeners, ‘I’m wildly enthusiastic for that … I know I don’t sound it, but I am’, a No.9 indie hit following in April 1980.

Chris having already departed, a certain Paul Simon joined on drums after a recommendation from Glen Matlock, Jez bumping into the ex-Sex Pistol at a Generation X gig in a Leeds pub. The similarly wonderful ‘Politics!’ single, backed with ‘It’s Fashion’, followed, recorded at Cargo Studios, Rochdale and released that November, reaching No.12 in the indie charts. Paul then made way for Carl ‘Titch’ Harper, the band by then practising on non-club nights at Leeds disco/gig venue The Warehouse, where Jo and Jez worked, ‘Politics!’ – inspired by the Reagan vs Carter US presidential election – getting regular spins on weekly Digital Disco electronic music nights, instigated by Marc Almond.

Those Peel and Skinner sessions followed, including (in the former case) an inspired cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel standard, ‘This Train’, one they made their own, and the ‘Getting Beautiful Warm Gold Fast From Nowhere’ medley in that Stars on 45 era.

At that point they hadn’t even played live as Girls at our Best!, but their debut followed in York, the four-piece decked out in ‘a sort of Clash in the Orient stencil-fest’ uniform, leaving a big impression on those who were there for that and every subsequent outing this side of the Atlantic.

A deal followed via Happy Birthday Records, the proposed album set to be the label’s long-play debut, third single ‘Go for Gold’, backed with ‘I’m Beautiful Now’, released that May, helped along by further Peel praise, albeit more for the flipside, telling listeners, ‘I feel that’s destined to become one of my life’s favourites’.

This time they reached No.4 in the indie chart, the LP reaching No.2 on release in November, even gate-crashing the top 60 national chart, mostly recorded with drummer Rod Johnson as Titch’s arm had ‘either come off second-best in a confrontation with a plate-glass window, or been broken in a drunken fall from a water tower, depending on whose memory of the time is to be trusted’.

‘We don’t ever look the same,
Gotta keep up playing games,
It’s the only way we’re gonna make our names.’

Personnel along the way also included Alan Wakeman on clarinet, cousin of Yes legend Rick Wakeman, and Thomas Dolby on synthesisers, Jez and Jo going on to feature on his The Golden Age of Wireless LP after the band split.

A fourth single followed, ‘Fast Boyfriends’ coupled with a studio version of ‘This Train’, the non-album collectability of the latter helping it into the indie top-20 (respectable given that the A-side was on the LP), while the live dates continued, across the UK and Amsterdam too.

But it all fell apart on a winter 1981 US East Coast mini-tour of ‘sparsely attended but largely well-received’ gigs and ‘even more dishearteningly quiet record store appearances, where the sound of any tumbleweeds drifting by outside would have drowned out the clamour inside’.

Jez told The Mouth Magazine, ‘There was an in-store record signing session like the one in Spinal Tap. No-one knew or cared who we were. We didn’t get on with each other very well, it was a bit tense. I think we just needed a break from it. I think I became a bit of a tosser. Some people probably think I still am’.

Those divisions within – with Jez and Jo ‘an item’ at the time – didn’t help, what started as the band poking fun at music press obsession with Judy becoming ‘reasons to question how and why they found themselves not having much fun, thousands of miles from home’. It was hardly encouraged by the band – who refused to use images of themselves on the records – but somewhat inevitably, a music press keen to find another Debbie Harry or fellow contemporary Clare Grogan looked to Judy. However, Jez played that and (conversely) any pro-feminist agenda (despite the lyrical content of tracks like ‘Warm Girls’) down.

Talking about a perceived right-on nature of GAOB! and any pretensions regarding intelligence of so many bands on that scene to David Eastaugh for The C86 Show, he added, ‘We didn’t want to make a point out of the fact that we had a girl singer. That makes the statement itself. And we weren’t at all reading Nietzsche, or any of those things’.

Furthermore, he felt the main problem within the unit was merely that they were ‘not remotely ready’ for this part of their big adventure, telling The Mouth Magazine it was ‘too much, too soon’ and there was ‘confusion over what we were doing and why we were doing it’. So, instead of a ‘recoverable stumble while trying to run before they could walk, it signalled the start of a terminal fall’.

Accordingly, after barely eight months as a live concern – from the University of York’s Vanbrugh College in mid-May ’81 to The Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan, NYC, that mid-November – it was all over. Jez reflected on all that in his David Eastaugh interview, playing down the drama, feeling the band somewhat ‘fizzled out’ in the end, adding, ‘it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. There was no big row or argument or anything. Either Titch or Terry said, ‘I think I’ve had enough now’, the other one agreed, and we were like, ‘Yeah, okay then’. It was like pulling in different directions’.

‘We will all applaud when the final curtain falls,
Wave our little flags.
Standing up to pray to the soup of the day,
I say goodbye to that jazz.’

Post-GAOB!, Jez moved to London and was briefly in Bat Cave goth group Sexbeat, then ’60s garage rock/punk/rock’n’roll’ outfit The Tall Boys (including two members of The Meteors), while serving as booking manager at legendary Soho club, The Marquee. Later came SaDoDAda! (yep, another exclamation mark), a ‘techno-punk-glam-experience, complete with transvestite backing singers and a real Dalek’, Jez told The Mouth Magazine, ‘Boy George was a fan, which was cool’. Beyond that, The Tall Boys reconvened, returning to the European circuit. There was also talk of a solo LP, working title Grievous Bodily Charm, described to The Mouth Magazine as ‘classic glam-punk-rock’n’roll’.

He’s long since been back in Yorkshire, going back to college and working in a bar part-time to make ends meet around the time he heard The Wedding Present’s ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ cover, chuffed but soon chasing his publishers for royalties, as he told David Eastaugh. And these days, Jez is on the staff at Leeds Conservatoire, running foundation degree courses of his own, in music production.

As for Jo, she left the music business in 1982 to work for a Leeds advertising agency, going on to be an ICA exhibitions administrator. The trail is a little unclear from there, and it seems she’s kept her distance from involvement with any of the reissues, adding a little mystery to the whole story. That’s rather refreshing in these days of instant click-of-a-mouse updates, more akin to the days when esteemed music journalists like the late Fred Dellar were tasked with digging around for ‘where are they now?’ features. I could have tried harder to find out more, but a mix-up in us getting in touch ruled out any input from the man himself this time, and I decided there was enough out there to tell the story alongside my appreciation of the band’s music, which is really where I’m coming from on all this.

And while their reign was short, they certainly left a big impression. As Steve Flanagan put it, ‘Beneath the icing sugar coating of their music there was a dark intelligence layered with a skewed view and modus operandi, but not in a studied way. There is little worse in pop or rock than bands who set out to be quirky … Girls at our Best! didn’t, they were just genuinely a bit odd, really’.

Jez told Smash Hits when Pleasure came out that the band had created a ‘collection of greatest hits which aren’t greatest hits yet’. I can’t disagree with that, and Happy Birthday Records were of the opinion they’d signed a potential chart outfit, although GAOB! were always going to be a spanner in the works on that front. Jez reflected to The Mouth Magazine, ‘we were very pleased with the amount of success we did have’, but also wondered if they might have been better served regarding their own ambitions if they’d stayed with Rough Trade.

The splendid fan-site dedicated to the band (linked below) called them ‘possibly the finest early ‘80s band never to have a chart single’ and felt their LP ‘was an album so different from the rest of the post-punk indie pack that you can still play it now and completely baffle new listeners’. Again, there’s something in that. And Pleasure is all ours.

For more details about the latest Cherry Red triple-CD package, head here. For the Optic Nerve Recordings website, head here. For the fan-site dedicated to the band, its comprehensive content including music press from the day, a full discography and gigography, and a GAOB! family tree, try here. As for The Mouth Magazine’s online content, try here, and for David Eastaugh’s C86 Show website and its vast archive of past interviews, including the one with Jez, try here.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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