Friday, September 05, 2014

Caliban's Dream

For most of my life I've been a foreigner. That is to say, I wasn't born in the country that I now call home. I came to Britain as a child of 8, and was brought up - with short gaps - here. While I can't necessarily say my home life was particularly British, my education, both in and out of school, was fairly average for a middle-class kid going to a private school. Privileged, yes. But foreign, no.

Despite the solid grounding in Being British, from my late teens and continuing well into my thirties I felt a strong urge to return to the country of my birth. I started to go back to visit family, I worked there through my college summer holidays and for a short period in my thirties I entertained job offers that would take my young family and I back there. But the plans never worked out, and little by little the tug from "home" faded.

And now, many years on, I find that Britain is really, fully, my home. Both of the head and the heart. Not in the sense that I will defend it, or indeed any country, right or wrong. After a life where I've been neither fish nor fowl wherever I was, I don't have the ability to dye myself in the wool like that and overlook its mistakes. But it is my home for better or worse, I've come to love it very much indeed and I'm finally taking steps to make myself British in the eyes of the law as well. Once I'm a citizen, I'll cut the frayed, withered cord to the land of my birth.

All of which is a roundabout way to lead to this very belated SongWithoutWhich. I read somewhere that Clare Balding, who presented the 2012 Olympics for the BBC, chose this as one of her eight Desert Island Discs, and I can only say I probably would too.

London 2012 was probably the watershed in my steady progression to the point where I have accepted my home and hope to be accepted by it in return. The process of osmosis has been long and occasionally rancorous, as for many years I rejected the notion of being a native. But watching the opening ceremony recently on YouTube and unashamedly bawling my eyes out made me realise that I've been privileged to come and live here, in a nation that has achieved so very, very much and continues to do so. I walked into Britain through the front door, whereas hundreds and thousands have died trying to get here by any means possible. The least I can do is show my appreciation and start belonging.

So to this song. Obviously it's not easy to separate the music from the occasion, in particular because it was written for the Games. But put aside the emotions that it gave rise to, and with little effort, this stands alongside The Jam's "English Rose", The Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town" or anything by Edward Elgar as completely, essentially British. It manages to be as gentle as a century-old lullaby and yet something so new you'd probably hear it in a chillout lounge.

"And the rain tossed about us, in the garden of the world/
But a flame arrives to guide us, cast in gold between the anvils of the stars/
Watch you over all your children in the rain, and the streets where I remember/
Where the fire lights are candle souls again."

The voices, the children's chorus and Alex Trimble's plaintive, breathy lilt lift above the hypnotic pattern of bells, like a hymn sung in a cavernous cathedral while the soft shuffle of a drumbeat propels the lovely, simple bassline upward, ever upward, like wisps of candle smoke curling into the chancel of a church. It's of its time and yet timeless which, if you think about it, is a pretty British quality.

For some reason, whenever I'm thinking of music that represents this country in all its ways, I'm drawn to music that seems more pastoral than urban. Elgar's Nimrod variation, for example. While I'll agree wholeheartedly that rock and roll can be equally representative, for some reason when I'm thinking of Britain it just isn't. While I think "Down In the Tube Station at Midnight" or "Winter of '79" are just as much songs About Britain, they don't come racing to mind when I'm daydreaming about my home. They're About Britain, but not necessarily Of Britain, to my mind. This is.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Carry On Wayward Son"

It's guilty pleasures time here at SongsWithoutWhich Towers.

Everyone, and I mean *everyone*, no matter how peerless their taste, has locked away in their collection a small, shiny cadre of songs that their self-aware selves really would prefer not to like, but which they cannot help but adore.

I'm sure the same goes for films, books, even clothes perhaps but we're not going to open those cans of worms here. What I am going to question though, is why such songs are deemed to be "guilty" pleasures. What is it about these songs that make us furtive, embarrassed and keen to keep them hidden away?

When you hear a song, you're listening to a three-minute *universe* - the writer(s) have tried to create an aural keystone, a sort of complete statement. The lyric may not say it, the chorus may not be a distilled wisdom of the ages, but the sound, the words, the production, the instrumentation, the atmosphere, everything about the song is conveying *something*.

And while in the case of a song like "I'm in Love With A German Film Star", for example, the entirety of the song is about being "cool", most songs don't try to be quite so didactic. For the most part, the subject of your guilty enjoyment is something that most of your contemporaries will dismiss as being "bad", and that's where I run into difficulties.

For me, music has always been something I react instinctively to, and I couldn't explain to you why my heart beats faster when I listen to one song and remains resolutely unmoved by another. I'll try and analyse the hell out of it afterwards of course, but by that time the horse has already bolted and I couldn't unlike the song if you paid me.

In any case, a guilty pleasure doesn't have to be the whole song. For example, I confess to having a soft spot for the rhythm section in Wham's "Everything She Wants" even if the rest of the song leaves me tepid at best. I'll very happily listen to the opening two minutes before the song sort of gives up on the groove and I lose interest.

My guilty pleasure is, or rather has become pretty much the whole AOR catalogue. From Alice Cooper through Kansas and on to Journey and Toto, I have an irresistible attraction to the monstrous calculation that is the US FM format. I watched a documentary recently that attempted to explain how AOR was "invented" in the 1970s as a response to the British invasion of the preceding decade and I can totally understand how the American instinct to build things bigger, better, shinier and louder couldn't resist taking back the blues format and industrialising it. This makes perfect sense when you consider how punk rock harked back to the Kinks and Small Faces while at the same time deriding what the Americans had done to "their" music.

If you think back to the songs that came across the Atlantic in the 60s - by the Kinks, the Stones, Yardbirds as well as the Fab Four - their format seems to be *small* in relation to the version that came back the other way ten years later. Where songs like "Sha La La La Lee" or "You Really Got Me" are scrappy, tinny, tight and so stripped-down that you can count the instruments, "Don't Stop Believing" and "Carry On Wayward Son" are orchestrated, bathed in echo, reverb and have more components that you can count. The harmonies are still there but they're sugary and gentle, where ten years before voices tended to conflict to produce the harmony. Listen to the Kinks almost forcing the harmonies and compare that to how the voices seem to be gently layered in "Carry On".

And that's perfectly fine with me. Hearing Brad Delp's overdubbed voice climb its way to heaven on "More Than a Feeling" was one of the most important moments in my musical life, and the sugared-up harmony became like musical catnip to me. I don't often fall for the over-elaborate guitar solos, mind: I still find musical nirvana in a simple, stately solo such as the one in Tears for Fears' "Shout" rather than in anything Eddie van Halen cooked up.

I guess it's something to do with luxury. A well-constructed AOR tune feels to me like a large and comfortable car, with a soft suspension, classy-looking dials on the dashboard, hand-stitched leather seats and a great big throbbing V8 under the hood. When you floor the pedal, not only does the car leap forward like a scalded impala, but it makes a sound like Mother Earth being put through a blender. It has both power *and* grace.

There may be some element of cynicism in all this - you often hear musicians talk of their search for the perfect hook, the "killer riff", and you do wonder what the motivation is. I would have thought that a musician would be more interested in doing justice to their muse, to writing as a "complete" a song as they can. But I may be doing musicians a disservice.

On another note it's illuminating to see a group of portly gentlemen farmers - watch the video and tell me that I wasn't dreaming when I thought I was watching a bunch of rebel Amish elders - recreating their youth. I recently trawled through clips of the Cream reunion at the Albert Hall in 2005 and felt the same emotions: sadness that time has taken its toll on these brilliant musicians, and admiration that even in their 60s and in some case 70s, these guys can still hack it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"A Day In The Life"

I read somewhere on this here internet how it's a shame and a crime that the Beatles are still widely regarded as the best/greatest/most influential popular music group of all time, and how they don't deserve the accolades any more.

Normally this sort of statement would generate some sort of polemic response. But I got to thinking about context (which is everything, as we know), and tried to put myself in the shoes of the popular music-consuming public of the era in which the Beatles plied their trade.

There was no internet. There was hardly any television (compared to today), and certainly no MTV. Popular music radio was either illegal, off-shore or just plain non-existent. Music was still consumed in analogue, vinyl-based format; it was bulky, somewhat fragile and you needed great big hulking pieces of machinery to enjoy it. In other words, the distribution of music then compared to now was as Native American smoke-signals are to wifi.

And when your distribution channels are so narrow and so slow, there is only so much material that can be delivered at any one time. It's a question of bandwidth. Nowadays, we have a million and one different channels through which music can be delivered, shared, enjoyed and even written about.

I could also go on at length about contracting attention spans, the increasingly restless search for the next new thing and the ease with which we can now hop from one song to another on a personal device. If I'm listening to my iPod and I'm not in the mood for a particular song, all it takes is a quick click and I'm on to the next one.

And equally, the ease with which we can access new music means that artists have a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity in which to attract our attention. Paul Simon wrote in Boy in the Bubble how "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts", but it looks nowadays as if every YEAR does that. Where's Kate Nash gone? Where's Adele? Etcetera. By the time an artist gets around to making a second album, the train's already left the station.

Imagine a world where you get your fix of pop music perhaps once a week on grainy TV. You listen to Radio Luxembourg on a tinny transistor radio under the covers in bed. And one of your friends has a Dansette on which you play the one or two 45s you can buy each month. That's it. No iPod on the bus home from school, no iTunes, no downloading, no digital, no nothing. Even CDs and cassettes haven't arrived yet.

So in this environment, when a band comes along that really shakes things up, sets a new direction, writes catchy songs and looks good, the limited bandwidth that's available to distribute musical content gets completely clogged up with this one band. They become the dominant source, the leading influence and the act that every other musician looks to as the formula for success.

So it may be that on a purely theoretical, academic basis, on a objective level that we aren't capable of reaching, the Beatles weren't the greatest/best band of all time. There may be someone out there who was even greater (according to a completely impartial observer from another planet), but who just didn't manage to occupy enough of the limited bandwidth at the time.

If you're under 30, you don't even know what life was like without the internet, without digitisation, without MTV. But if you are, you may well be one of those who thinks the Beatles were "it", and who's a bit bewildered by the rapid-fire procession of latest, greatest artists we get each year.

And that's fine. As someone who's watched at least three generations grow up in my wake, each one has had to take the world as they found it, and their assumptions, decisions and judgements are as valid as they can be. You can't ask someone who's 18 today to put themselves in the shoes of someone who was 18 in 1965.

So that leaves us asking the question: given all the above, why are the Beatles *still* being put forward as the best ever?

This list on Wikipedia might go some way to providing the answer. If artists such as 10cc, Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Little Richard and Pearl Jam feel the desire to perform Lennon/McCartney songs, then the songs themselves must be worth it. I read somewhere that the three most-covered artists are Dylan, Beatles and Neil Young. And you know, that makes sense; as artists that are known for the quality of their songwriting (apart from the quality of their performances), these three *do*, to me at least, seem to be important artists.

There may well be individual songs written by other artists that may be more influential than any single song written by the Beatles (or Dylan or Young for that matter), but when you put the entire body of work together, well.....

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Winter of '79"

There's only really one topic to write about at the moment over here in the U. of K.

Next week the nation (those of them who are interested) buries an old lady who ran things back in the 1980s. She's divided opinion sharply (and I mean sharply) pretty much since the day she came to power, and in death she seems to have lost none of her polarising fascination.

The media is awash with encomia and hatchet jobs in pretty much equal measure; social media is engaged in vast contest to see who can be most pleased at her demise; such was her stature (if that's the right word) that Parliament reassembled for a day this week, at vast expense, to perform a seven-hour panegyric in which one side lauded her to the heavens and half-seriously wished she was still in charge, and the other danced an intricate waltz in which it criticised her record without actually ever appearing to do so. Thirty years ago the very same party was calling for her head on a pike, and not entirely figuratively, either.

Newspapers have been filling pages with pictures of kids gleefully burning photos of her, in much the same way Middle Eastern folks occasionally torch an American flag. Now, most of the people in these pictures are clearly twenty-somethings, which means they were either not even born when she left office, or at the very most were still wearing onesies and clutching soft toys. By the time they became intellectually aware of the world around them they were at the fag-end of the Blair years.

So why are so many kids dancing on Thatcher's grave? Have they been sitting at their grandparents' knees, absorbing folkloric tales of one woman's malevolence towards an entire nation? Or are they just a bunch of try-hard hipsters getting in nice and early on the latest social trend?

And, to be honest, why is Margaret Thatcher being singled out for this treatment? Is it the sudden prevalence of social media? (If so, what's going to happen when George W Bush kicks on?) Or is there really something deep-rooted in the national psyche that continues to hold her in contempt for some dimly-recalled offences?

I hasten to add that there are entire swathes of British society that felt her lash good and proper: communities flattened by mass unemployment, entire sectors of the economy torched. But what slightly puzzles me is why everyone seems to believe that Thatcher emerged fully-formed, foaming of mouth and blazing of eye, to lay waste a Britain that was, at the very moment of her election, a paradise of plenty where everyone worked and everyone was adequately provided for. In other words, they seem to think she single-handedly demolished the country.

And that just isn't true. Britain was already in a bad way.

In 1976, Britain had to go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a loan after inflation hit 27%. Unemployment was at a then-record; there were strikes in 1978-1979 that left uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets and fuel shortages; the Labour government even considered passing laws to restrict trade union influence.

And most of this before Thatcher even became leader of her party.

I make these points not from any love for radical right-wing policies, but from the suspicion that Margaret Thatcher, to a limited extent, has had a raw deal. She came to power and dealt with the existing conditions according to her convictions. The situation was already the situation. I don't care to speculate as to where we would be now if thing had turned out differently, but I think anyone who's passing judgement on her reign as Prime Minister should have a care and take into consideration the conditions that formed the context to her convictions and policies.

And, moving on belatedly to the music, here's another misconception. Most of the late-70s/early 80s politically-oriented musicians - your Billy Braggs, your Clash, your Paul Wellers and your Tom Robinsons, are all lumped together and considered to be musicians who came to prominence when they harnessed their muse in protest at the devastation that Thatcher's policies wrought.

But that's simply wrong. They were well on their journey before she even arrived. The Clash's "White Riot" was released in 1977, almost two years before Thatcher was elected. It was only the Jam's two last albums that coincided with Maggie's reign. Only Billy Bragg could reasonably be said to have made his reputation through his opposition to the Iron Lady.

Even Tom Robinson, who wrote a fair few inflammatory songs in his time, was largely done and dusted as a top-selling musician when the Conservative revolution began. And while I've always admired his music and particularly his lyrics, his convictions, none of Robinson's best-known songs can ever be attributed to a reaction to Thatcherism.

"Winter of '79" I particularly love because it's rooted in daily experience, in events and pastimes that everyone knows. Like the Jam's "That's Entertainment" or "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" it's a slice of real life from an industry that very rarely peddled reality. Like most of Robinson's work it's shot through with the sort of paranoia that agitators and activists all felt at the time, the nagging feeling that you were being watched, being tracked. In many cases, even today, it really isn't all that paranoid a notion, but nonetheless, with the distance of time and age, I sometimes find myself chortling and thinking to myself that he can't be serious.

The problem is, he was, and there are people who'll attest to the fact that it still happens today. Ask anyone who's protested against the extension of Heathrow Airport in London, or who have protested in the financial district, or during a G8 meeting. It doesn't require a swivel-eyed radical right-winger at the helm of the country to have surveillance squads checking on the activities of protesters. Maybe our experiences since 9/11 have made these activities more expedient, but they're not new and it's not just the conservatives that deploy them.

"Half Full Glass of Wine"

It's quite a pleasant surprise to learn, or realise, that one's journey of discovery in music never really ends. I often worry that my interest in learning more about the subject didn't just freeze one day in the late 1980s and enter some sort of statis. But looking back through the entries here I note more than a few songs that are the result of serendipitous encounters, be it through Jools Holland's impeccably-curated late night shows, the ever-inventive advertising industry or a chance encounter with a teenager's iPod. Some of what I've come across for the first time can be qualified as my going back through time to years when I should have been more aware of what was going on around me (viz. Jesus & Mary Chain). Some more recent SongsWithoutWhich are pieces that I've known for years, but which my mind, heart, taste and maturity have only just caught up with, if you see what I mean. This song, too, when I first heard it, sounded like something I'd missed from a Cream album (though Lord knows there weren't many of those). Half-speed guitar built to sound like Clapton's "woman tone" on "Sunshine of Your Love", a vocal that isn't a million miles away from Jack Bruce's on the same song. Even the drumming seems like it's been to Ginger Baker school. And then there's the glorious sudden shift in tempo at the end of the intro: confident, cheeky, as if they'd been listening to the Faces' "Stay With Me". And that's before the song takes off into its own little world of doubt, faithlessness and uncertainty. "Said you wouldn't be home late tonight. I gave up waiting at seventeen past midnight. Now my only company's a half full glass of wine." Everything about this feels 1960s; the slightly lazy groove of the riff, the falsetto vocal, the harmonies, all of it. If Jellyfish can be said to have channeled the 70s and 80s, then on this track Tame Impala is caught somewhere between 1968 and 1975.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Gold On The Ceiling"


Another day, another mash-up. Or in this case, a mishmash of styles that combines just about the best of everything it references. A just-this-side-of-lazy groove, fuzzed guitars and keyboards that sound like a fully-digitized Jack White decided to update the buzz of glam rock, all rounded off with an intro that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a Black Crowes album.

In fact, there's more than a little Southern rock in there as well. It's an effortless accumulation of the best of everything that can only come from the minds of someone who's sat down and listened to a whole lot of records. Signs of a youth profitably spent, right?

And I like, like, love that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney look like music nerds. Finally, a band that pushes the music to the front, and has the chops, the appreciation for their antecedents, to let it do the talking. Who cares if the drummer looks like he writes code for a living? He knows from his drums.

I mean, listen to this song! Count off the influences: T Rex, the Sweet, southern rock, even some raga in there, Norman Greenbaum, White Stripes, you name it. And it's all good. All good.

I like the fact that the Black Keys are, at heart, a duo. They're the latest in a long and noble tradition of two friends that just *work* together, without the need for an entourage of expensive sidemen or all the grief of building a four- or five-piece that would implode after two albums. Lean, efficient, and staying true to the vision. If you wanted to convey the merits of this in business terms, you might say they were running a low-cost, high-margin operation selling a unique product that we never knew we needed until we heard it.

The one thing I can't nail down is Dan Auerbach's voice. It reminds me so strongly of another singer from another time. It's been on the tip of my tongue for months and it infuriates me that I, a certified Rock Snob who likes to think he knows a thing or two, can't effortlessly drop in the reference. It's an American MOR voice, I think.

In any case, this just blows me away. I defy you to not shake a hip or two.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Lilac Wine"


This is a post about two versions of the same song. Both are truly special in their different ways, but only one slays.

Back in the late 1970s, I was introduced to this song when Elkie Brooks' version made the charts. I loved, and still do, the measured, restrained buildup that ends in Elkie letting that gorgeous voice loose for the final line. You can barely trace her origins in jazz and blues, but you can certainly hear some rock, deep down, held firmly in check. When you learn that she was an early booster of the Small Faces, it seems a natural fit, and yet a crime that they never recorded together.

So. Brooks' version I love, and this video sadly doesn't go halfway to doing her recorded performance justice, and the arrangement is truly awful, but I'll stick it up here as a taster for what's coming.





Fifteen years later, the same song cropped up on a small record that's gone on to become one of those influential modern classics. I can't lay claim to having bought it on day one, or even in year one, but once I heard Jeff Buckley's version of the same song, I was hooked.

Now I don't completely understand why everyone goes apeshit for his version of "Hallelujah" at the expense of this song. I understand the wonder of "Hallelujah", yes, and I love his almost conversational tone, the casual brilliance of his voice. But still..... to me it doesn't speak as loudly or as clearly as this song does.

Lilac Wine is about drinking to forget. It's tipsy, regretful, wise after the event and yet, in some indefinable way, helpless. You know you shouldn't dwell, but you just....do.

Jeff Buckley "gets" it. He gets the song, he gets the whole back story, he probably lived it. His gentle, wavering, looping voice, bridging to falsetto and back with nary a break, is tired, hungover and full of pain in a way that only more wine will cure. It's a miracle of a performance. And what's better, it doesn't build towards any crescendo as Brooks' version does, it just meanders beautifully, tipsily, to a tired and even ecstatic close.

I have written about cover versions before, and depending on the material at hand, I've veered between the "how-dare-you" school purists that says only the songwriter is truly able to give a song what it deserves, and the more lasser-faire notion that interpretation is as valid a form as creation. And in this case, the latter is gloriously, transcendently proved.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Age"


I've decided growing old as gracefully as possible isn't as hard as all that, as long as you don't fight it. The trouble starts when you deny it, try to hold it back or plain just ignore it. You'd have thought ignoring the creep of time would be the easiest way to remain young, but looking past it, pretending it's not there, is just recipe for almighty fallout later on.

When bending down to tie your shoelaces isn't as easy as it once was, when getting out of a car produces a groan, when running for the bus suddenly becomes something you don't automatically *do*, there's no point trying to reprogram your mind. Yes, you can jog or cycle daily, go to the gym every lunchtime, cut down on the late night drinking sessions, but you're Still. Getting. Old. Your body will be healthier but you'll still be older.

The same thing goes for music. I know more than a few contemporaries who immerse themselves religiously in bang-up-to-date music, who check out new bands as a matter of course and who wouldn't dream of listening to any radio station that played anything more than three years old. Wonderful. But they still groan when they get out of a comfy chair and they still complain about "kids" and reminisce about how things were different when they were young.

So I'm embracing age. I'm embracing my limitations, my evolving attitudes towards pretty much everything, and in particular music. I don't go out and actively pursue new stuff, mostly because I just don't have the time, but I'm open to it when I come across it.

Hence this song. As with so many other new (to me) artists, I first came across Lianne La Havas when she appeared on Jools Holland's show, and immediately fell in love with her voice. It's a million miles away from pretty much anyone else I've heard lately. You can tell me Adele has a better voice, but I don't believe it would stand up to the close-up examination that this song provides. Just a guitar, fingerpicking, and her crystal voice. For all her talent, and I'm a fan, I can't see Adele mastering this.

Listen to the production: it's so close-up that the mike might as well be halfway down her throat. It's so clear that it mercilessly picks up every every little foible, every tiny sibilant 's'. Listen to the second verse: when Lianne sings "I'm at a loss", the word "loss" dies away into nothingness until it's revived by the tiny, bell-like 's'. Such joy in that one little sound.

But woah, you're saying. Stand back. Where's the rock, man? Where's the killer drums?

And here I shrug the age issue aside. Those of us of a certain age will admit to having appreciated Carole King's "Tapestry", or Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark", or Kate Bush, or whoever. It's not an age thing, it's a TASTE thing.

Instead, let's just enjoy a wondrous voice, and a terrific song.