Taking the long view on popular music

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My secret affair

Why '70s power pop is unfashionably cool again

Seventies men: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend (Getty Images)

 

A few weeks ago, I was at a party celebrating 60 years of Fred Perry. You got free drinks if you handed in four cardboard logos at the bar, and all the celebrities who usually turn up to such dos were there, like Mark Lamarr. The soundtrack was mod – The Jam, The Lambrettas, The Chords, Purple Hearts, all manner of things jerky, pulsating, pub-rocky, punky and cool. Then suddenly my ears were full of warm ’70s power pop. Why were they playing Boston? “What is this expertly-constructed, richly-melodic and appealingly-uncool material?” I asked the DJ, poised to write the name down. "This is My World by Secret Affair," he said. "I thought you were going to tell me to turn it off like the last three people."

In their little burst of fame between 1979 and 1982 Secret Affair were the great hope of the mod revival, got the cover of NME and Smash Hits and had a clutch of hit singles. But for everyone who counts them in the movement’s “top three” there’s someone who says they were faux mod – because they were a bit too soft, a bit too melodic.

For Secret Affair, the musicality was political. Frontman Ian Page disliked what he called the “punk elite” – middle-class people masquerading as working class, expressing their so-called rough edge in out-of-tune guitars and singers who couldn’t sing. Since when had the working classes played their music like that? Page, who played trumpet on stage, wanted a return to the ’60s with more than just the suits. In Pete Townshend’s new biography (Who I Am) there’s an early photo of Roger Daltrey in his first band, The Detours, playing the trombone – they did weddings and bar mitzvahs. That’s the kind of thing Page was thinking about. That’s where mod really began.

Perhaps the vision was too subtle? By the late ’70s slick music was firmly associated with mindless entertainment. Secret Affair saw Weller as a kindred spirit (they were adopted by The Jam’s fans) but they sound ebullient – almost evangelical – in comparison: while Weller sang about people getting jack-booted on the tube, Page hymned mod individuality in lines like "people stop and stare and I feel so proud!" Their first hit, "Time For Action", is basically a gospel song. They also wrote a tune called "Let Your Heart Dance". They could have been any kind of band, but they got swept up in a movement that both made and destroyed them – they quickly disappeared along with the mod revival.

Fast forward 30 years to their comeback gig last Saturday, in a student union on Great Portland Street. A mod comes flailing through the crowd like a Catherine Wheel with a spliff in his hand, trying to start a fight like he’s on the beach at Margate, and three security guys wrestle him to the floor. It’s strangely at odds with the scene on stage – a three-piece horn section, Hammond organ, Page sitting at a keyboard like Gary Brooker leading robust, jazz-infused rock reminiscent of Procol Harum, Steely Dan and Geno Washington. He’s been working in advertising for the past few years. You get the feeling this is the band Secret Affair wanted to be all along. The crowd in feathery haircuts and sharp suits stare through the long guitar solos, organ wig-outs and gospel-fills on a nostalgia trip that is very different from the one that the band are having. But it doesn’t really matter. Like the first time round, Secret Affair get their audience, regardless of whether or not it’s the right one.