Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Walk Away Renee"

I was reminded of this song when trawling through a selection of music performed by Linda Ronstadt, and it's taken me off on a tangent. So much so that my Ronstadt post will have to wait.

For as long as I can remember, I have been utterly convinced that nobody, no, not even the original writer, has recorded "Walk Away Renee" completely correctly. Every version I've heard falls short in some small but important way that fails to do justice to what I think is a monumental piece of music.

The original recording by the Left Banke, including the 16 year-old writer, is just a little too jaunty, and the lead vocal isn't up to the task of conveying the sheer emptiness and desolation the song requires.

The Four Tops were better in that they had the vocal part down but again, the arrangement was just too upbeat. Southside Johnny, Herman's Hermits, Cyndi Lauper, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Carmen and a whole host of others have recorded versions of this, none of which really encompasses what the song is about. Ronstadt's probably comes closest of all these, and there's a good version by - wait for it - John Bon Jovi.

But my favourite version is by a Northern Irish group called The Adventures, who came and went in the mid-1980s. Their take on "Renee" was on a 4-track EP given away with the weekly Record Mirror magazine, and I played it to death within a year. Happily, someone else out there kept their copy in better condition. There's also a version The Adventures did for a BBC Peel session, but it's the muffled, slightly echoey arrangement on the EP that seems to work best.

I can't think of any other song where I've been left unsatisfied by the interpretations of even the writers. I'm reminded of Warren Zevon's "Hasten Down the Wind" which, while good, is not nearly as heartbreaking as Linda Ronstadt's version, but a cover version surpassing the original is not as rare in my experience!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Doot Doot"

Back in 1983 we had pretty much fully digested the corpse of punk rock and had more or less put to bed the real, proper, experimental first flush of the New Romantics. It felt like music was at a loss for direction.

To put things into perspective, punk rock as a genre really started when the Sex Pistols played their first gig in November 1975; the Clash released "Should I Stay or Should I Go"in 1982. Pretty much everything "punk" happened in between those dates. "New Wave" came very quickly on the heels of punk, a more acceptable label for bands who were just that little bit more together, consumer-friendly or ambitious.

By 1983 though, punk and new wave had both been overtaken by the New Romantics, who kicked off around 1979 and had their commercial heyday from about 1981 to 1985. Tubeway Army's "Are Friends Electric?" was the first New Romantic hit, quickly followed by the likes of Visage, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Before long, any of the novelty we might have associated with eyeliner, lipgloss or unabashed indulgence had gone and New Romantics had become more or less mainstream.

Later of course would come the guitar backlash of Britpop, but for a brief while in the early to mid 1980s we really didn't have a great deal of direction.

I remember 1983 principally for the Tears for Fears debut album "The Hurting", which I found confusing and entrancing in equal measure, and for the final descent of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd into the abyss of middle-class irrelevance with "The Final Cut" (though much of that album is close to my heart for strange, unaccountable reasons).

And I remember 1983 for this little treasure. I think I may have heard it first on the same West London pirate station that had first introduced me to The Normal's "Warm Leatherette" and industrial music. I had no idea who Freur were, and I had no idea why they'd think to title a song "Doot Doot". I loved the gentle rhythmic intro, the fantastic orchestra of synthesizers and the wondrous overlaid vocals. And I still do.

But best of all, I discovered not long ago that in 1987 Freur became Underworld, who gave the world the terrific Born Slippy in 1996 as well as the utterly mesmerising music for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. It makes perfect, logical sense that a whimsical song that so ensnared me in 1983 should be the grandfather of the music that gripped me so tightly in 2012.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Information"

There are many ways to measure progress. A lot of people would point to tangible signs of mankind's advances: the internet, travel, post-industrialisation, you name it.

But how have we as little insignificant humans moved on? From the group of hirsute neanderthals huddled around a fire, to the rag-clad plague-infested hominids of the middle ages, to the sharp-suited masters of all we survey of the 21st century. Is that progress too?

I don't buy any of that. That's merely circumstance, and not particularly insightful into the way we live, interact, love, associate and grow.

I like to think that our development as a race and as a society can be measured in the way we nurture our young. How we prepare them, teach them and equip them for their own adulthood.

Back in the day, children were brought up to respect, revere and in some cases fear their elders. Father's word was law and that was that. Mother dried the tears and bandaged the scars when we decided to learn the hard way.

For the most part, that's old school. I caught the tail-end of that in the 60s, and now that my kids are teenagers, I'm only rarely interested in that kind of autocracy. I say only rarely because there are times, you know, times when our children just want a little too much leeway, don't you find?

And when things get to that level, what are the options? Well, back in the Beatles' heyday, you just left home. You packed a bag and climbed out the window or tiptoed downstairs in the wee small hours, like the girl in that song.

Forty years on, it's more likely that teenagers or young adults don't have to push all that hard to get themselves a little extra leeway. Parenting has moved on from simple autocracy to a more consultative democracy. Privileges and permissions are negotiated, or in some cases annexed.

So when the Rainmakers sing "Do you know your daughter well, and do you know she's dreaming? You know as well as I she stays higher than the moon" they're reminding us that in this age of parenting-as-partnership we still have a duty to curb excesses, point out the straight road and sometimes even pick up the pieces. Which lately it seems we're in danger of forgetting.

When a father kills his daughter because she consorted with the wrong kind of boy, what message is he sending? Is he saying that she should never be allowed to make her own mind upSeriously? In this day and age?

The Beatles seem to hark back to a time when parenting was a pretty inflexible thing, and that there was no wiggle room, no leeway and certainly no room for negotiation. The Rainmakers seem to be telling us that there's no point bolting the stable door after the 60s.

But look all around, and you'll see that accepted norms have shifted in almost every facet of our lives. What was seen as harmless fun 40 years ago is now pounced upon as racism, sexism, homophobia, harassment or abuse. And expectations have shifted too. Our children demanded it once, and now they expect it. If we don't listen and consult we're sidelined, and that's perhaps even worse.

So we walk an ever-tightening line of consent and goodwill, and we rely increasingly on innate good sense combined with whatever lessons we can pass on at an ever-earlier age. Parenthood becomes a higher-stakes game than it has ever been.



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Personal Jesus"

I found this moody wonder hidden away in a dark corner of my iPod last week, and it's been on repeat a fair amount ever since. I'd forgotten what a shock this was when I first came across it around 1990, how different it was to everything else I'd heard from Depeche Mode, and just how good they'd suddenly become.

It's about relationships, about dependency of a sort, and how we look for redemption in a partner. Maybe it comes from a nagging worry that we, I, you, aren't worthy unless we're saved by a relationship that consecrates us, validates us.

And that's slightly worrying, in a sense. I'm sure we've all been told that relationships are supposed to be a meeting of equals, where strengths and weaknesses are complemented, and where neither partner holds the upper hand, the moral advantage. So it must be a shock when some of us reach adulthood and realise that we're not necessarily strong, or brave, or whatever the adjective is, to approach a relationship without uncertainty, a lack of self-confidence and the resulting feeling of inadequacy and dependence.

As if by magic, I'd just written the paragraph above when the relationship between Pierre and Marie Curie popped into my head. Both were scientists in the 19th century - he worked on the properties of magnetism, while she pioneered the study of radioactivity. Together they won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 (she won a second, in chemistry, in 1911).

They came together through their studies and recognised in each other an equal - no "Personal Jesus" there, rather a corresponding pair of intellects and interests. But are they the exception rather than the rule?

Look around at the never-ending parade of public marriages (for they're the ones we get to observe on a daily basis), and they're often out of balance; one partner is more prominent, successful, fulfilled. The other tends to be a background figure - the power behind the throne? - or a happy soul that feels no need to find balance in superficial things. Look around at your friends. We're more likely to be equals - we find a balance in the things that each partner does well.

All of which is to say that while Depeche Mode obviously saw the dependence and imbalance in Elvis and Priscilla Presley's marriage, it may not be something we all feel.

Doesn't stop this being a cracking song, though. For a start, it's a Depeche Mode song with real guitars, a simple, powerful riff backed by a stamping beat that kicks off with real intent. Slide guitar and synthesiser filigree decorate the simple marching rhythm, and the whole song is wrapped up in a sense of menace that's hard to place and hard to describe. It's menacing like the Polyphonic Spree's version of "Lithium" but without the added diabolical glee. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Sunset Grill"

I'm looking forward to leaving the city.

I'm probably wrong, and someone out there will wheel out some statistics to prove it, but I'd say very few of the changes that I've witnessed in this city over the last 25 years have been for the better.

Round about the time I began to spend more time traveling to, in and through the city of London, Margaret Thatcher unleashed the earthquake - deregulation of banking - that brought forth a tsunami of crass wealth that plagues us to this day. This had happened long before in the United States,

Full disclosure: I'm a beneficiary to some extent of that earthquake, since I make my living writing about things like "markets" and "trading".

Markets and trading. Two words that you couldn't better to describe what started to happen in the 1980s. Banks, no longer forced to operate like comfortable old gentlemens' clubs, no longer required to behave sensibly and prudently, suddenly developed a bad case of chrome and glass, hiring young, ambitious kids who didn't give a fig for convention or "the way we do things". Quickly finding that the long-established "markets" were booooring, the kids started coming up with new and fun ways to buy and sell stuff. Salaries and commissions soared as everyone started to clock on to the fact that the lunatics had been given the keys to the asylum.

"I can see a lot more meanness in the city;
It's the kind that eats you up inside.
Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity,
Hard to get home with any pride."

Any sort of sense of "noblesse oblige", if it had survived the death throes of the Empire, was washed aside by Golf GTis, padded shoulders, mobile phones and conspicuous consumption. The 1980s were a truly awful decade in many ways, but their offence was mild compared to what followed. What the 80s encouraged in terms of greed and naked, grasping cupidity was as nothing compared to what we have today.

If London is the alpha city of the U.K., then the City is the alpha district. Competition is that much fiercer, the rewards are that much greater and the temptations are huge. The news headlines are full of scandals where City traders work around the rules to bend the percentages in their favour. And it's almost as if the keys to the jewellery box were lobbed into their lap!

"Respectable little murders pay;
They get more respectable every day."

Certain vital parts of the global financial mechanism, which operated Just Fine back in the day when gentlemens' agreements had some value, were hijacked by a troupe of wised-up kids who calculated that they could pretend to be the same gentlemen, while acting very much unlike the same gentlemen, and pocket large gobs of cash in the process. Hey presto, LIBOR fixing scandal.

And this sickness, this financial cancer, spreads far and wide. A whole multitude of millions now exist to service the needs of these wealthy few. They're forced to compete with each other, to lower their prices and wages in order to get each precious contract. The rules of retail are rewritten to include contracting workers on an hourly wage but not guaranteeing them any hours. Why? Because profit is all.

"These days a man makes you something
And you never see his face.
There is no hiding place."

On my increasingly frequent trips out of the city, I find it's easier to catch one's breath, to pause and think, and to drink in a sunset or two with real appreciation. Here in London, the best sunsets I've seen have been from the train as I head home, and that can't be right.

It can't be right that I hear students, kids, talking about how they're going to leave London as soon as they can, looking for something that improves on the life they have in the city.

"Maybe we'll leave come springtime.
Meanwhile, have another beer.
What would we do without all these jerks anyway?
Besides, all our friends are here."

But, as the song says, what would we do without our friends? Those friends that we grew up with, partied with, watched getting married and now hardly ever see, because we're all in the grip of the same faceless, insatiable need to keep the wolf from the door. Are we thriving or are we surviving?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Sacrificial Lambs"

"We're having a party, we're burning it down,
We're building an idol; he's sad but he don't frown.
He's the cream of the crop
So we're making him God.
Start writing this down
When I give you the nod."

David Letterman once introduced Warren Zevon on his TV show by describing him as the only man who'd put the word "brucellosis" into a song. This song contains about 4 more words that you'd be very hard pressed to find in any popular-music context, and that factoid partly explains why I like this song so much.

"Them Coptic monks knew how to keep it real:
That Zoroastrian thing,
That Rosicrucian deal.
Well they might be wrong
But they don't give a damn;
Long as they don't run out
Of sacrificial lambs."

The fact that Zevon threw these concepts casually together suggests at least he knew what he was talking about. And it fires up the academic in me. I want to know what he was thinking when he wrote this. Was he having a pop at mystics and shamans, wise men and women? Anyway, the mystery puts it at the top of my list of songs in which the music, the tune, the rhythm, plays only a secondary role. That's not to say the music is bad, but just that this time, *this* time, it's not what drew me in.

"Madame Blavansky and her friends
Changed lead into gold, and back again.
Krishnamurti said 
`I'll set you free';
Write out a check 
And make it out to me."

This song is like a treasure hunt through Wikipedia. Was he having a snark at TV evangelists? And why does he call her Blavansky? Is he referring to Helena Blavatsky? I've lost count of the hours I've spent researching every reference in this song.

"Smokey and the Bandit and Saddam Hussein
Were staying up late and acting insane.
Along with Russell Crowe
And Hafez Assad;
Start taking this down
When I give you the nod."

At this point I just throw my hands up in the air. What do these guys have in common? Some of them are real people, but how do they fit this narrative? This seems to have no meaning at all, either within the song or even outside. But I don't *trust* Zevon not to have made a connection.

The last verse goes:

"The boys are all ready, they've laid out the plans.
They're setting the stage for the man-made man.
We've worked out the kinks
In your DNA;
Sayonara, kid
Have a nice day."

I don't think this song is even *about* taking a pop at mysticism. Instead, it's probably poking fun at `spiritual' beliefs that push a scientific route to understanding and growth; the idea that humans can better themselves, lift themselves up, through the appliance of reason. Better Living Through Science? He doesn't think so.

And given that the album this comes from was called "My Ride's Here", and it was issued just before Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, it just makes you wonder.....

I understand and agree that lyricists like Dylan and Neil Young should be regarded as being the Gold Standard in popular music, but Zevon was certainly standing on the shoulders of giants for much of his career. It's a rare moment when you have to actually do some research to understand a song. Not something that I'd care to have to do a lot of, but it's a pleasure *because* it's so rare.

"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)"

This is the first of two blogs, that have been percolating in my head for quite a time, that appreciate songs for pretty much diametrically opposite reasons. 

Music engages our heads, our hips and our hearts; often more than one of those receptors at the same time, which is a bonus.

Sometimes, the song provides an aural blanket, a fuzzy sense of warmth that you wrap around yourself for comfort or reassurance. Sometimes it's a call to arms, or a hand that reaches out to let you know you're not alone. And some other times it's a regimental sergeant-major howling at you to get up and dance.

And often the song has a message. Sometimes it's an easy message to understand, and other times it's buried in the chorus, or even in half a line. I've lost count of the times that I've *thought* I understood a song, only to find that I've completely missed the point. It's totally understandable, of course: a songwriter has one thing in his or her head when they're putting pen to paper, and we quite often have another when the finished product is wafting into our ears. 

I *think* this song is a case in point. Most people I've spoken to think it's a song about marital abuse, and the lines
"You say when he hits you, you don't mind
Because when he hurts you, you feel alive."
are pretty incontrovertible. But to me, that angle sort of starts and stops there.

So what else could it be about? For a start, the song was written for the soundtrack to "Wings of Desire", a Wim Wenders film about an angel who wants to become mortal. And the lyrics make a lot more sense when viewed through *that* prism. The song seems to play up why being human can, on occasion, be even more rewarding than being an angel.

"Red lights, gray morning,
You stumble out of a hole in the ground;
A vampire or a victim;
It depends on who's around"

and

"With satellite television
You can go anywhere:
Miami, New Orleans
London, Belfast and Berlin"

We humans have choice! We can play different roles as the mood takes us; we're not hemmed in by an unwieldy pair of wings and a job description that means we can only ever be Good. And while we don't have superpowers (or whatever it is angels possess), we can pretty much be omnipresent thanks to technology.

And yes, there are moments when being human isn't pleasant, but I think the word here is "choice".

My ten cents, for what it's worth....

The whole song, the tune, the arrangement, is a revelation. For a start, it's so *intimate*, which is not an adjective I usually connect with U2. It's sensuous, and in fact almost sensual: the repetitive guitar figure coils and rises like smoke, caresses your ears almost playfully. Whereas U2 songs can sometimes be a little didactic, where the sentiment or even the argument is rammed home with zero subtlety, this is hypnotic, and all the more persuasive for it.

Lyrically, there are some utterly beautiful moments; "You can lip-synch to the talk shows" is so satisfying. The chorus is wondrous as well, but I reserve my admiration and amazement for the final, almost throwaway lines that resolve the story:
"Three o'clock in the morning
It's quiet and there's no-one round
Just the bang
And the clatter
As an angel 
Hits the ground"

I don't know why, but the word "clatter" is so..... perfect that I couldn't imagine any other being used to describe the noise an angel might make when it traded in its day job for being mortal.



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.