Thursday, November 16, 2006

Songs To Learn And Sing #16

If you've lost track of all this at any point, by the way, there's a full set of links over there top right. Meanwhile, guest number fifteen (we did the first one, remember) stepping up to the plate is about as close as we've come so far to making this a celebrity feature - games journalist of specialist infamy, Plan B contributor and currently putting words to paper in the form of the acclaimed Phonogram comic, Kieron Gillen:

Rhoda & The Special AKA - The Boiler

The Boiler is a song that everyone really needs to hear at least once.

After that, it’s your call.

Things to note about the Boiler before you listen. This was released by the Specials at the height of their powers. It received - unsurprisingly - no airplay. It was still a Top 40 hit. I’ll repeat the last one, as it floors me almost as much as the record: this was a hit single.

With those facts in mind, go listen to it. I’ll wait here.


Yeah, I know.

You’ve listened to it once. As I said, now it’s your call. It’s not exactly one which lives on anyone’s ITunes playlist. It’s not one someone’s gone down the aisle too. It doesn’t get dropped at five to two for the hands-in the-air crowd-pleaser. It’s an unforgettable record, and as a pop artefact, unique.

The Boiler’s a difficult record to write about, because it says just about all that needs to be said. A confessional first-person narrative from the eponymous Boiler over an obviously jolly little ska-lounge beat.

Musically and lyrically, it’s phenomenally clever and phenomenally obvious. Put simply, it fucks with you. Juxtaposing that beat with the portrait of this downbeat woman you may think it’s another one of the Specials' quasi-misogynist pieces a la Too Much Too Young. You think that maybe you’re meant to find her stupid, funny, laughable.

Yeah. You unspeakable shit.

The morphing of the music from this initial start into something more macabre, a sort of lounge-goth, while the narrative is going increasingly to a bad place is expertly done. I first heard the Boiler about a decade before it came out, but writing now I can almost twin it with the Miike Takeshi film Audition. You know that something is wrong, and the sense of dread accumulates until it’s impossible to breath. And then it releases.

While a 'favourite' bit isn’t really the right words, the section I think about is when the potential is thickest. Rhoda’s monologue’s been keeping a similar vocabulary throughout, and it’s here where it twists. "There were all this little alleyways and... railway bridges." A gap as isolated as the pair of them before the payoff. "Stink of piss." And from there on, it’s no longer the question of whether it’s actually going to happen. Our Boiler’s too far down that alleyway.

And over the screams, the beat races away, the arpeggiated keyboards blurring like someone making its escape.

It’s one of the bravest pop records ever released by a major British band. Next time someone talks about how challenging their new direction is going to be, compare and contrast whatever they’ve done to this. I suspect it’ll be lacking.


mike said...

I first heard it on a John Peel session... bought it on 7" when it came out... and probably haven't listened to it again in the past 24 years. Because I just couldn't face it. Until now.


If anything, it sounds more powerful now than it did then.

Colonel Knowledge said...

This song has got to be a shoo-in for "Best song about being raped up a piss-stinking back alley, ever!".

swisslet said...

bloody hell. they aren't pissing about, are they? I'd never heard that before now, and that's a *powerful* record.

Good choice. Not sure how well it works on my playlist, but it's going to stay there.


Simon said...

Turns out both Kieron and ourselves may have heard this for the first time on the same Best Of 2-Tone compilation. Certainly we're not sure we ever got through it without fast-forwarding again.

(Hello, Mike, by the way. Love your work.)

Anonymous said...

Sheesh. Good song but I don't think I ever want to hear it again. Can't recall another time that's happened.

Anonymous said...

Uneasy listening, definitely. On the other hand, the instrumental B-side is a thing of spooky beauty. (Don't suppose you'd know where it could be obtained?)

-Robin (

Anonymous said...

I was filmed dancing with Rhoda for the Video of this record. It was in a nightclub in Coventry called 'Busters'and it was just her and me.
I don't know if it ever got made, or if it did whether it was ever shown anywhere, but if it does I would love to see it now.

flip said...

The Onion AVClub's "26 Songs that are just as good as short stories." made me dig up this song and in turn your post. Thanks for writing about it -- it's a really powerful song and you characterized its artistry well.

Chris Brown said...

Sorry I never commented on this at the time, but it's an interesting article.
And 'Theme From The Boiler' is on Stereo-Typical (As, Bs & Rareties).

shrimplate said...

I never heard it back in the day when we were all doing college radio, so I first got hold of it on the 2-Tone compilation.

I played it once and was stunned. I played it for my spouse and they vowed never to listen to it again.

Since then I've given it another listen, years ago.

It's a great song, but... not easy listening, as was said.

shrimplate said...

I never heard it back in the day when we were all doing college radio, so I first got hold of it on the 2-Tone compilation.

I played it once and was stunned. I played it for my spouse and they vowed never to listen to it again.

Since then I've given it another listen, years ago.

It's a great song, but... not easy listening, as was said.

Anonymous said...

I was just casually listening through The Two Tone Compilation while messing about with some custom game mapping when I got to The Boiler.

Sweet Jesus.

Had to stop what I was doing and google it to find out the context and reception of the song etc.

Amazing song, but not sure what kind of mood I'd have to be to ever want to listen to it again.

BTW on first listen I think you're mistaken to think that you're initially meant to laugh at or mock the narrator. She sounds so despondent and down on herself that it quickly got me into a very reflective mood and I realised it was going to be a very "different" kind of song regardless of the upbeat backgound music.

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