The Firing Room

I had been working for The Company for over eighteen months. I had fallen into the job as something to do after leaving the Stats Office, The Company provided Directory Enquiries services to a number of other companies, most of which no longer exist or are totally different. Telewest. Cellnet. People rang up, asked for a number, I found it and either read it out or asked if they wanted to be connected “at only 49 pence per minute”. Of course they didn’t, they were paying through the nose to get the number in the first place, but I had to ask the question on every call and I was targeted to transfer a certain number of calls – what was I supposed to do, persuade them with my voice? Stupid targets… But I liked the job, the teams I worked with were good, I didn’t have to think too much about it, I certainly didn’t think about work outside of the office.

These were the early days of deregulation of Directory Enquiries, the end of BT’s monopoly, the end of 192, the start of 118 numbers. Of course 118118 were first on the market, had a catchy name – sorry – number and two bearded runners in their adverts, and cornered the market. BT were a little late but got going eventually. The Company had their own catchy number and the entire company were ferried to a room in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the grand launch of our advertising campaign. It looked good, the graphics were great, the tune was memorable, as was the tag line. The only problem was that the advert compared “our” price to BT’s price. Knowing a little bit about advertising and law, I knew you could not compare prices on British TV adverts (at the time anyway, it’s changed now). I told our managing director this and he brushed it aside. “Let them sue us, we’ll be well established by then.”

The Company launched their service with a huge fanfare in August 2003, the ads were on the TV and radio, print ads in the papers, people dressed up as the numbers, lots of publicity. Personally I had customers ringing up just to ask me to sing our jingle. Our managers had told us to expect this and said we could do it – “They’re paying for it, sing the song”. A load of new starters were recruited to take the anticipated hordes of incoming calls and a few long standing regulars were promoted, including myself. I was taken off the phones and moved to the Quality department who assessed the quality of our call handlers, were they knowledgeable, friendly, following procedure and scripting and most importantly was the customer getting the right number? We could record calls to listen back to them and also use some clever software where we could view what was on the operator’s screen while listening in to live calls, so we could see how they were using the search engine to obtain numbers. Yes it was spying. Yes it was fun. There were rules and regulations that call handlers had to adhere to and it was our job in Quality to make sure they followed them. Sometimes the rules could cause a few hiccups though. One rule stated that whatever the customer said was how it was searched. Let me give you an example of how this worked against everyone, this was an actual call that I watched and marked.

Caller: I’d like the Chanel clothes shop in Bond Street, London please
Handler: (being Welsh, has clearly never heard of Chanel) How do you spell Chanel, please?
Caller: Oh I don’t know.. C – H – A – N – N – E – L
Handler : thank you (types in spelling as provided by caller, searches on London, including Bond Street, sees nothing). Sorry there’s nothing listed on Bond Street, I’ll extend the search over London
Caller: Ok, it might not be Bond Street
Handler: I’ve got a Chanel clothing store in Fulham, on Fulham Broadway
Caller: Chanel isn’t on Fulham Broadway!
Handler: This is the only Chanel clothing listed for London, do you want this number?
Caller: (clearly exasperated) yes, but I know it’s not right

And so on. But I had to mark this call as correct because we only take information provided by the caller, he spelt Chanel as Channel, he gets the number for Channel Clothing in Fulham. Of course most sensible call handlers would have said “Oh, I think the spelling is wrong, let me try it with one N…” Sigh.

So there was about eight of us in the Quality Assessment department all working in a corner of the open plan office, with our manager Faye encouraging us to do our best. She was lovely, a bright young thing obviously heading for better things than The Company could offer her. But she had good people skills, got on well with senior management and frequently wangled us time out – like one sticky hot sunny Summer’s day when the air conditioning broke down, so she sent all the QA team across Cardiff to Iceland where we bought every ice lolly we could carry then ferried them back to the office where we then distributed them across all three floors used by The Company.

That Summer was fantastic, the Company was going from strength to strength, the call volumes were increasing all the time, more staff were recruited and everyone was happy. Then BT sued at the end of September and had the advert taken off the air. The Company insisted that the campaign was over anyway. No worries, we were told, we have a follow up which is even better. It was shown on a loop on a TV in our break room and the whispers on  the call centre floor were that it was dreadful. When I saw it I was horrified – the three characters from the first advert were on a stage singing our number to the football chant “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” It was shown a few times on TV then removed, and later that year won an award as The Worst Advert Of The Year.

By October the portents were bad. The call volumes had dropped, it was getting harder to find a time to catch the call handlers taking calls as they were so few and far between. The golden days were over. The first rule of Directory Enquires was being learnt – as soon as you stop advertising, customers forget you exist. (Jumping ahead, I would learn this at both Yell – 118247 – and BT – 118500 – who both employed me and many other agency staff during advertising campaigns, then let go all the agency staff once the campaign stopped and call volumes dropped). The whispers on the call centre floor were of cutting back and everyone waited for the day.

It happened on the 3rd November. It was a Monday and as is the way of Mondays it was new release day for records, and quite a big was the day that “Slow” was released. This was Kylie Minogue’s first new material since 2001’s “Fever” LP, which only had songs like “Can’t get you out of my head” and “Love at first sight” and “In your eyes” and “Come into my world”. So we’re talking pretty much imperial phase. And “Slow” was much anticipated yet I hadn’t heard it until that Monday when Faye turned up late smiling with the new Kylie single on CD, “Look what I’ve got!” And proceeds to put the CD in her computer and starts playing it to the office.

“Slow” is slinky, minimal, synthetic and quite lovely. Kylie sighs and coos, nothing breaks into much of a sweat, it sounds like the kind of electropop I used to listen to as a teenager, only with a 21st Century sheen. Was this electroclash? Maybe, i wasn’t taking much notice. Highly syncopated, lots of little sequences all playing against each other, drops of reverb and delay, even the way it drops down for a non-existent middle eight reminded me of “Pocket Calculator”. If the song had an antecedent it would be the minimal electro of “Junk the morgue” by St Etienne, which has a similar sound set and tempo. But “Slow” is sexier too and is defiantly 21st Century. That long sustained bass note wouldn’t have happened in the nineties. And is Kylie swearing? The way she sings “Pull focus” in the first verse – cheeky. “Keep the record playin'” she urges coyly, and Faye did.

So “Slow” is playing over and over in the Quality office and seeping into the teams’ world. Then from 10 o’clock staff start appearing in groups of ten, then disappear into an adjacent room, then leave the room after five minutes looking glum. This carries on every quarter of an hour – a dozen employees go into the room, a dozen employees leave the room looking glum. It soon becomes clear they are glum because they are now ex-employees. The call centre whispers start again – who is going, why so many going, when will it stop, who will be next?

By 2pm the company has lost a third of its employees, a black cloud hung over the three floors of the building we used, one of which was now almost completely empty. Everyone was taken off the phones and an emergency meeting was held in a cramped break room, the management made assurances that all our jobs were safe, that we would be a more efficient company without the deadweight (nice!) and we would be back on top in the Directory Enquiries war very soon. Now get back to work and do us proud. There’s nothing like sacking a third of the workforce to concentrate the minds of those remaining. The black cloud remained hung over The Company, and it never recovered.

The journey home from Cardiff to Newport that night was soundtracked by “Goodbye California”, the debut mini album by East River Pipe, issued by Sarah Records in 1993. I had picked the cd at random from my collection that morning, not even thinking about what the day may bring, just thinking that the 28 minute length was perfect for the walk to the station, the train and the walk home. But as I plugged the headphones into the Discman and pressed play, the opener struck an chord. I had owned this record since the day it was issued but never really understood the first song called “The Firing Room”. Over a light drum machine beat, guitars spark and chime, but there is tension in the chord changes and bass part…F.M. Cornog (for he is East River Pipe) sings “I don’t want to tell you, I don’t want to tell you right now…” Something is afoot, the change on “right now” is uncomfortable. “I’ll go soon to your firing room”… Ouch!. The music hushes as multiple Cornogs whisper “I think we’re up for sale”, like the whispers on the call centre floor that day. As the song progresses the guitars get more agitated and louder, Cornog singing the same lines over and over in a more desperate higher register, and the music falls apart at the end, like The Company. For all I know Cornog could be extending a metaphor of a failing relationship as a company going bust, it may be that way. But on that day when The Firing Room was next to where I was sat, trying to work, it felt uncomfortably close to the truth.

Since that day, the song – in fact both songs – remind me of the mass culling of staff. It’s odd how “Slow” doesn’t get played much these days, even though Kylie herself claims it is one of her favourites, and did a nice version on her “Abbey Road” album, and has performed it live. Maybe it’s the lack of “la la la”s. As for “The Firing Room”, well FM Cornog is still out there, still making records which are as wonderful as the ones he issued on Sarah Records all those years ago. As for The Company, they are still going, they gave up Directory Enquiries in 2004, sold their number to 118118 and are just another outsourced call centre now, handling all kinds of calls. Faye left The Company for Aviva around the same time the Quality team was shrunk from ten to three members at the end of 2003, and she is now some kind of management guru according to her website and LinkedIn profile. Good for her.

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Late Night, Maudlin Street

As regular readers of my main blog will know (A Goldfish Called Regret, viewable on most web browsers, other better music blogs are available) I have moved house a few times in my forty five years. Admittedly the early moves were beyond my control and all my parents’ doing, but I have moved twice in the last twenty one years, into Newport in 1994 and across to a larger family home in 1998. I have a tradition that the last album played in the old house is the first album played in the new house, which is the debut Spoonfed Hybrid album. None of this will come as a surprise to most Goldfish readers.

As I mentioned in my last post over there, I am in the process of moving house again at the moment. Hopefully this post will go live by the time I move on the 27th March.   We are moving to a new build so we have some say in what carpets are going in and what colour doors go on the kitchen cabinets. Trivial perhaps but important. So we’ve been going over to the house quite often to check progress and see what has changed. And finally I have returned home to the old house and wished I was in the new house. The carpets are down, almost all the house is ready, just a few little niggles to get sorted and we’ll be there. And as I write it’s less than two weeks until we move in, so I’m frantically packing and sorting, sifting out the useless detritus that has accumulated over the last fifteen years of residing here.

Those lucky people who follow me on Twitter will have become quickly bored by “Going in the attic today”. It has been partly a voyage of rediscovery (ooh look my Casio VL-tone! Hurrah, it’s all my diaries) and partly a chance to determine what each item actually mean to me. My wife has also looked at the endless boxes of records emerging from the attic with amazement. “I didn’t know you had so many” she said. “That’s because they’ve been banished to the attic for ten years” I replied. Also showing my son some records has been interesting. His current favourite music is “Trans Europe Express”, he has heard it from my ipod, seen the video on YouTube, but he had never seen the actual album. I showed him the pictures on the sleeve, he studied the inner sleeve notes and credits and was fascinated by the twelve inch vinyl. Also as my “Trans Europe Express” was a French copy (you have read “Computer Love”, haven’t you?) so he heard “Showroom Dummies” as “Les Mannequin” for the first time.

So I’m wading in an sea of melancholy, looking back at the relics of my life, paging through diaries and unused song lyrics, remembering good and bad times. I’m also looking forward, happy to be moving into a better house, a new start (not that there’s anything to run away from), a new beginning.

And the only song that is repeating in my mind is “Late Night, Maudlin Street” by Morrissey.

I shall be dealing with the whole “Viva Hate” album at some point in the future over at Goldfish, but as the centre piece of the album, the longest song there, the best song there, I thought I could extrapolate my feelings about moving through somebody else’s song about moving.

Quick background paragraph. Moz splits the Smiths, starts writing songs with Stephen Street who brings in Vini Reilly (Durutti Column) as guitarist on the project, which becomes Moz’ debut solo album “Viva Hate”.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But on “Late night Maudlin Street” it works beautifully.

The song starts with a lumpen drum machine loop, not unlike those used by Tears For Fears – I’m sure this is because both recorded at the Wool Hall studio in Box. Reilly starts with some simple jangling guitar chords, while Morrissey mutters “Winter for sure”, “Snow”… Setting the scene. Then the song truly starts. It’s Morrissey’s last night at Maudlin Street (the address a reference to the school in “Carry On Teacher”) and he’s saying goodbye to everything. He’s spent his life there – born, raised and battered. Then the first verse. “Love at first sight may sound trite but it’s true” Morrissey sings, adding such an off hand “You know” that I’m not sure I believe him. But my God he remembers everything, the words, the clothes, every second of existence with this beloved is burned into his memory banks. So it must be important. I know that feeling… His Other is there saying goodbye to the house too. Then bass guitar drops in as Morrissey bitterly complains about ugliness, but his love remains devout. Reilly adds little piano figures as Morrissey talks of pictures and imagining it’s the real person there. Not that I would have done that, oh no, it’s quite clear I never had any photos ever. I’ve looked… No, nothing. Photos of me perhaps, looking thin and geeky then, rather than plump and geeky now… Yes I told you it was silly. And Morrissey took ‘strange pills’… Shall we not go there?… But he never meant to hurt anyone. Really? There’s violence too – stitches, missed buses and more complaints… All the while, between lines Morrissey is sighing and breathing heavily, like he’s trying desperately to get these thoughts out of his system.

At four minutes Reilly is finally allowed to add his characteristic guitar echoes and Morrissey delves further into his past at Maudlin Street, the power cuts – “1972, you know” he adds as an aside, and a quick look reveals that he would’ve been 13 in 1972 which makes sense. It’s a very 13 year old song… He makes light of his body, and wishes himself gone. Reilly’s guitar soars beautifully here, playing against the echoes like his best work, what did Wilson say? “The harmonic sex between guitar and delay units”? The tiny bridge as he repeats “But I will be soon” is a very Durutti chord change and quite gorgeous. At this point, real drums are added, not a conventional drum pattern either, rolls of tom toms and snares and cymbals – Andrew Paresi clearly channelling Bruce Mitchell, adding another layer of Durutti-ness to the song.

Bad times? Oh yes, and as Morrissey sings “They took you away in a police car” Reilly adds a beautiful whammy bar dropped note. Pleas to the police bring nothing, and family pass away, and Morrissey never says anything special to them anyway. He doesn’t mention his family much at all in the song. But at the end he steals the keys from Maudlin Street – “Well it’s only bricks and mortar”. Again he implores “Truly I love you “, adding “Wherever you are”… So his Other isn’t there? Taken away by the police? Or dead? Was there an Other at all? “Wherever you are, I hope you’re singing now”. And he shuts up and Reilly breaks free, staccato shots of guitar and chords as the song fades.

(It’s worth pointing out that the 2011 remaster of “Viva Hate” loses about a minute from the end of the song, fading as Morrissey sings the first “Wherever you are”, therefore denying modern listeners the full song, and Reilly’s final flourish. Cantankerous old sod that he is)

So… Moving house, disposing of memories along with the waste of a life, digging through worthless junk and looking back, but really I should be looking forward. The past is fine, but you can’t live in it.

Here’s to the future.

Reaching Out From Here

Thursday 23rd March 1995

I’m in the main hall of Cardiff University waiting to see one of my favourite bands being supporting by a band of local heroes, and the whole shebang is being broadcast live by Radio One on their Evening Session On Campus slot. Obviously someone is taping this for me cos I want to listen back to it. Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley are presenting the show and keep popping up on stage to say hello to us all and cheer us on. In the meantime we see a succession of videos projected onto the back screen – the only two I remember are “Park life” and “Ping Pong”.

The local heroes are on first. 60ft Dolls are from Newport, where I have been living for the past year or so. I’ve seen them before, they played a support slot to a secret gig that Elastica played in the Kings Hotel in Newport in 94 and I was well impressed by their energy and songs, I especially love their encore – a frantic version of “Everybodys got something to hide except for me and my monkey”, taken at breakneck speed. So the Dolls appear in Cardiff and get a great reception from the local crowd. Tightly coiled and passionate, they are on the verge of a breakthrough that never quite happens. They announce they are playing their last number and that it is dedicated to Michael Jackson and his monkey. Twigging what will happen next I let out an exuberant scream, loud enough to be picked up by the radio mics on the show. They tear into “Everybody’s got something to hide” and blast the place apart, leaving the stage to a wall of feedback and noise.

The Boo Radleys follow half an hour later.  They are triumphant, their new single “Wake Up Boo” is the soundtrack of Spring, utterly unavoidable from the breakfast show to the evening session and all over TV too. I am pleased for them, I’ve followed them since I heard Peel play songs from “Icabhod and I” five years back, loved their progression as their songcraft improved and their ambitions get higher. I remember hearing “Buffalo Bill” on the “Does this hurt?” EP and thinking it was a breakthrough, only for “Lazarus” to appear a few months later as the real breakthrough. “Giant steps” was marvellous and strange and now they were riding the crest of a wave. “Wake up” the album was due for release the following week so this live set included songs from it plus highlights of (heir career. It was an absolute stormer of a night.

The next day I returned to work and wrote up a rave review for the ONS’ Bulletin Board, a primitive conferncing system where Paul K and I had already gained a reputation as music buffs. After my review one of the SysOps commented that she kind of knew the drummer from the Dolls and liked “Wake up Boo”. We sort of communicated a bit about music but we seemed to have quite different tastes. We kept on talking online and sending emails to each other and a few weeks later, once “Wake Up” had been issued, I finally bumped into her on the stairs. She knew me from working in another area, and we hit it off so started going to walks at lunchtime. I made her a mix tape of “Wake up” plus other Boos songs and Dolls songs on the other side, and managed to find time for “Mineral” by Pacific on the end of side two, a song she’d never heard but she told me it reminded her of being on holiday in Ibiza.

Slowly over the next few weeks going into April, we would walk and talk about life and music. She was a Christian and knew the Dolls as their drummer’s father ran the church she attended. We would frequently fall out – usually over email – and Paul K would end up refereeing between us and knocking our heads together. (I recently read through some of these emails, they’re hilarious). I went to church with her and reacted so badly I wrote “Mad and ill” about it immediately, the title taken from one of her emails – “You make me mad and ill”.

And in all this time, “Wake Up” was playing. There were poppy elements like “It’s Lulu” and “Find the answer within” but there were experimental parts too which showed they still could be strange. My favourite songs were “Stuck on amber”, “Wilder” and especially “Reaching out from here”. That song struck me as very close to how I felt – the references in the second verse to not feeling comfortable there, all his friends lived elsewhere, that was how I felt about Newport, having moved there from the other side of Cardiff the year before. And yet there was comfort too – “To have you whisper in my ear that it’s gonna be alright, and you’re gonna be alright so I can be alright too”. It was the most straightforward song, no sideways swerves, no waves of distortion, just a clarity of purpose.

And we fell in love. She’d told me not to, but we did anyway. By May we were going out, ever so tentatively. And all my friends from Penarth came over with champagne cos I’d not had a girlfriend before and had wanted one for so long. And there were troubles along the way and difficulties we overcame but we have been married for fifteen years now and on May 1st 2015 it will be our 20th anniversairy of being a couple. And I still love “Reaching out from here”, because that comfort in love is still there.

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One Hundred Goldfish

Well hello there. I’m Rob. You may know me from my blog A Goldfish Called Regret or posts I have written at Toppermost. Well this blog is a sideline to the main blog because… Because I can do it this way.

A few weeks back I asked for suggestions about what I could write for the hundredth post at Goldfish and out of the hundreds of suggestions (oh ok there was only one suggestion) the idea of a Top 100 songs came up. Now any regular Goldfish reader will know a lot of my favourite songs because I write about them and the circumstances around them and the associated memories. So I would be repeating myself by writing about them again. What I intend to create here is a series of 100 posts where I look at one song and what it means to me. I’m not sure when it will actually start, but at least by publicly stating the existence of the blog and my intentions then perhaps I’ll write the pieces.

So that’s somewhere out in the future…