Tuesday, 17 November 2009

6. Knock 'Em Out, Lily Allen (2006)

"Alright so this is a song about anyone, it could be anyone." That's what it said, that's how it went, the rolling Professor Longhair piano sample bouncing along behind her – a girl with a ponytail who'd eaten glottal stops for breakfast and swear words for tea. This was the first time I heard Lily Allen, and the day that pop, for me, burst into technicolour again.

It was a gloomy day in early spring, I remember, and I was sat behind my desk, buggering about on the internet, trying to find something to make the grey clouds turn pink. I'd heard about this young singer, and how her dad was Keith Allen, a man that I'd interviewed many years previously when I was a Saturday girl at the Llanelli Star newspaper, filing photographs and receipts, trying to jump on any stories that weren't about old people's memories, or the latest GBH incident in Felinfoel. Keith had been born in Llanelli, and had recently directed a Blur video – this was 1995, the video for The Universal – so I spotted the chance for a story to impress my friends down the Coach House as we giggled over our watered-down lagers. A few weeks later he was on the phone, hamming up his lost vowels, not listening to my questions, and saying "look you" a lot. Eleven years on, I'll admit that I did not have high hopes for his daughter.

I remember clicking onto her MySpace page as it used to be, all fizzing rainbow colours like a sherbert fountain. It looked fantastic. Then, I heard LDN – its horns ushering that summer's girl in so playfully and perkily, while saying so much about the city I lived in and loved, despite its grit and its grimness. But Knock Me Out was the song that got me totally gaga. It was a succession of daft put-downs to dodgy geezer chat-up lines, full of silly voices and interjections ("Oh yeah, actually, yeah, I'm pregnant, having a baby in like 6 months so no, yeah, yeah"), set to a brilliantly bouncy New Orleans ramalama. It made me laugh as much as it made my limbs wriggle. Lily was light, fresh and funny, sometimes mercilessly so, and even now I can't hear Knock 'Em Out without its wicked final line ("I've got herpes, err, no, I've got syphilis, AIDS, AIDS, I've got AIDS"), faded out for the LP for obvious reasons. I liked Lily because she spoke like young girls did - rudely, crudely, and creatively. In the midst of the glossy-haired fembots that slicked their shiny way around the charts, she was wonderfully real. She was one of us.

A few months later, I interviewed her for The Word. She sat in a room in a Soho hotel in her big dress and bulky trainers, ranting about why cellulite didn't matter, the shallowness of celebrity culture and why she didn't want to write songs when Eastenders was on. She was a breath of fresh air. As she spoke, I mourned the fact that she had popped up on the pop scene just too late for Smash Hits, which had folded that February and taken my generation's shiny childhoods with it. She would have fitted in brilliantly beside Bananarama and Altered Images. She would have been its perfect girl.

On my way out, I also told Lily about the silly conversation I'd had with her father eleven years earlier. She cackled out loud and called him an arsehole. A few months later, I saw her in a Camden bar, a few days before Smile entered the charts at no. 1. She recognised me, came over, thanked me brightly for our interview, before dashing off into the street, and into the pop world proper. You and I know the rest. To my mind, her songs would get bigger and better, but this is the song I still hold the closest, the one that holds the most rebellious promise, dancing around to its own cheeky beat.


  1. Oh Lord, this is wondair. And it is *this* song that I sung out loud on the way home from my mondo-stressful telly job (with not one, tiny care for how mental I might appear.) What I remember most from her early years was seeing her do a My Favourite & Best Songs telly thing with Jayne Middlemiss. And she very definitely said she would not get her bazooms out because she was not That Sort of Popstar. So I too would like to think of her in trainaz & ball gown telling boys to hop it - rather than them photos in i:D where she had forgotten her top. :(

  2. Gloriously evocative writing, Jude. I'm old enough to be Lily's dad myself, but I remember hearing Knock 'Em Out for the first time and thinking I'd be glad to have a daughter that smart and so in control of her place in the world. Can't wait for the rest of this series of blogs, and I may well read the lot in one sitting come January, my iPod suitably programmed to play the very music that so very passionately shaped and shone light on the last ten years or your life. I'm fired up to attempt something similar myself, more randomly perhaps, but I relish the personal challenge of 'fessing up in written word about how hearing The Promise by Girls Aloud sparked flints in my soul akin to my first exposure to Be Bop A Lula, REM's debut album, Otis Redding's Try A Little Tenderness, or (specifically from my immediate pre-teen years) Wizzard's See My Baby Jive. Music that assaults, attacks, seduces or even tattoos itself on one's very being ought to be celebrated with the candour, colour and atmosphere you so readily convey with ease. More power to your pen and an extraordinarily receptive pair of ears. Big love, T. xx

  3. She has character (unlike most of her peers). And that character shines through in her songs (unlike most of her peers). She really is a national treasure!