Since music began, lyricists have been trying to write words about subjects that touch everybody, love, life, loss. The Clockworks have hit upon the one truly universal theme of our time, one that we can all relate to – the angst brought about by trying to get anywhere with a major company’s customer helpline (and much more).
The Clockworks are a four-piece post-punk band originally from Galway and Limerick. They were signed by Alan McGee for his record label Creation23, on the strength of the him watching them rehearse. McGee himself has said that, ‘The Clockworks are the best band to come out of Ireland since My Bloody Valentine‘. Their previous releases Bills and Pills and Stranded in Stansted were energetic, sharp, tight post-punk songs spiked with attitude. Can I Speak To A Manager? is a song in the same vein, but much darker.
The theme of the song is dissatisfaction and the search for unresolved gratification, and in singer James McGregor’s own words it ‘Dares to point out the failings of an ailing society’. The song starts with percussion pounding like your heart, and a rising jolting bass-line, that reflects the anxiety you feel before you pick up that phone to a firm to complain. You’ve got a knot in your stomach before the lyrics kick-in.
The first verse of the song is about McGregor’s trials when trying to get a refund for a dodgy laptop using a customer helpline. After spending half his credit and listening to an automated instrumental of Careless Whisper, and then getting no satisfaction from ‘Tina…a jobsworth’, McGregor has had enough – ‘Can I speak to a manager please’. It’s the lack of real anger in McGregor’s delivery that is most telling. The angst is there, bubbling below, but under control, for now.
The second verse expands the theme of dissatisfaction. Having got no joy with Tina or her boss, McGregor evaluates his own situation and finds it lacking. There’s nothing on TV, he finds ‘The fridge is desolate’, he burns his toast, until he finds some slight solace ‘when a shower’s entertainment’.
Up to this point in the song the tension ridden bass of Tom Freeman and the pounding percussion have been working as a counterpoint to the lead guitar, almost like they are in heated discussion. As the song reaches its climax, they combine in a crescendo of exasperation as McGregor realises that it is not his PC, or him, that is failing, but society – ‘All the faces are plastic, All the bands are elastic, All the smiles are crooked.’ Finally McGregor erupts, and with venom and anguish wails – ‘Can I speak to a manager, please!’
I love this song. It’s one of my songs of 2020. The subject matter couldn’t be more appropriate, and the delivery ticks all my early post-punk boxes. Musically, there are traces of The Fall and The Wedding Present, in McGregor’s vocal delivery there’s the menace that Elvis Costello could occasionally produce, the climax of the song even reminds me of the end of Eton Rifles by The Jam. If you’re looking for more recent touchstones, then Fontaines D.C. and Idles angrily spring to mind.