Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I've come to love this song. Not because it says anything, but precisely because it doesn't say anything. Listen to it! It's swarming with frustration, bursting with unfulfilled eloquence. The music is perfect, an open-goal for someone with something serious to say, something that drills right down to the diamond-hard essence, the truth.... of something. But for all the wonderful hard work in setting up the song for a moment of lyrical clarity, the whole construct just falls short - its reach can't match its ambition. Perhaps the best line in the song is: "There are many things that I would like to say to you/But I don't know how." Exactly.
This is a song for the emotionally repressed. Every individual line is great - it's just that they don't make up a whole that's larger than the sum of their parts. Every line is leading somewhere, but the journey suddenly stops, cut off in its prime. It's as if we know what we feel but we can't find a way to express it. As if emotion and communication have become completely disconnected. The song, the melody speak of something intense, personal - right up there with "Unfinished Sympathy" - and just like The Verve, the lyric can't keep up. It promises so much more that it can deliver.
And perhaps that's why I like this song so much. It's forever reaching, striving for something that we have just lost the habit of accessing.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Held Up Without a Gun"

Once in a while Bruce Springsteen goes a little crazy. If you've ever seen him live, you'll know what I mean. He'll take one of his faster-paced songs and, to put it politely, he'll tear the living crap out of it.
But what happens when the default take of a song is already nuts-crazy-bastard out of control? Then you have this song. Originally recorded as part of the sessions for "The River", this song has been one of his live favorites and after one listen you're easily persuaded why. It starts at 100 miles an hour and never lets up for one second. You're thrown headlong into cacophony, the drums splashing joyfully alongside the guitars and brass, galloping breathlessly in every direction while Bruce shouts over the top in his best hog-caller's hoot. There's even a micro-instrumental break that must have taken about ten seconds to organise.
The whole thing sounds like a frat party, a night out on the town: "Now it's a sin and it oughta be a crime/You know it happens buddy all of the time/Try to make a living try to have a little fun/You get held up without a gun." At the end you're left exhausted, shaking, feeling the sweat prickle through your pores; and you've just been sitting down.

"Ebben, andro lontano"

I had the very great fortune to live in Paris for a year in 1984-5, when the second new wave of French cinema was going on. I spent a fair amount of time in darkened rooms watching "Subway", "Betty Blue", re-runs of "Diva", just drinking in the visual style and the matchless "cool".
I remember the first time I watched "Diva", and the first time I heard this aria. Now, when it comes to emotion and despair, I have always tended to believe that blues is the appropriate medium in which to express one's feelings. But watching and hearing Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez perform this not once, not twice, but at least five times throughout the film, I came away with renewed respect for opera, and indeed classical music.
I don't suppose I can discuss this aria in the same way I blog about popular songs, but, hell, it's all there in the voice. The sense of oblivion, emptiness, fear, and sheer pain. There's no out-of-control wailing; no raw, hoarse, rasping whisper of an utterly drained spirit. Instead, there's a pure, soaring voice that climbs further and further, as if making the desperate climb to the top of the mountain before hurling ones self off the edge of the precipice. The pain gathers momentum, the sadness encompasses all until with a final, incredible, defiant note, all turns to darkness. I defy you to hear this and not have to comb down the hairs on the back of your neck afterwards.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Hanging Around"

There was punk, and there was menace. On the one hand you had a bunch of snotty kids who'd flashed on an attitude, a wardrobe and three chords; and on the other, you had musicians who were already there, already making music with an edge and who really were punk. While the Sex Pistols threw out streams of word-association calculated to outrage (think "Holidays in the Sun"), the Stranglers were already knee-deep in the filth ("Down in the Sewer", "London Lady"), producing tales of real life, delivered without hyperbole or facial tics. Four guys who'd seen it all, thought it all and who really didn't have to make it up.
The gulf between snotty-kid punk and grown-up punk was never wider than when Dave Greenfield cranked up his keyboards and started throwing warp-speed arpeggios in our faces ("Grip"), or when Hugh Cornwell uncurled his lip and showed John Lydon, Joe Strummer et al what a real sneer sounded like.
The intro to this song must be one of the most thrilling ones in rock - a jittery scrape along the strings of a guitar, a nervous, speed-fuelled slash across the face of all the pretenders who were only throwing shapes. The Stranglers were the real street-fighting men.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"Ca Plane Pour Moi"

Most of us probably first met punk rock when the Sex Pistols and the Bromley Contingent were slouched all over a talk-show, casually outraging the bourgeoisie and causing high blood pressure in suburbia. Then we were aurally assaulted with "God Save the Queen" during the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and everything just grew from there.
For me, the fascination of punk stopped when this song came out. Oh yes, I was still a fan, bought countless records and rejoiced in the new freedom of expression and studied amateurism that punk ushered in. But when this song hit the charts I figured the party was over.
It's not that this is a bad song, but it's so clearly a cartoon, a Left Bank intellectual's attempt at being outrageous, that it fails to be "punk" by a margin as wide as the Channel. It's funny, for all that, to hear French street slang chanted over the top of a completely banal wall of guitars. And what self-respecting punk would ever have done that "oooo-weeeee-oooo" in the chorus?
The best part is that Plastic Bertrand isn't even French: like all the best things Francophone - Tintin, Maigret, Eddy Merckx, Front 242 - he's Belgian.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This is another blog about a moment, a precious instant when a song rises out of the category of "very special" and into something akin to "immortal". "Creep" is already a fantastic song; the jagged shards of guitar that lead into the chorus are just...perfect, while the lyrics are a painful trip back to the days of youth and awkwardness and self-loathing.
But when Thom Yorke's voice rises away from his falsetto "She's running out again" and grows, stretches and reaches into a gaping, howling scream of pain, the song has suddenly burst the banks of earthbound majesty and headed into the ethereal. That moment, that fraction of all the pain we're ever going to feel, is so perfectly-expressed that we're left open-mouthed, willing the moment to repeat itself.
I know it's a sin to try to boil down a band's entire work into one song, or even one moment of one song, but if Radiohead are ever remembered, then they'll surely be remembered for the moment Thom Yorke unzipped his innermost agony and scattered it over this song like solar dust.


I'm a fan of lists. You know, the kind of lists you read in music magazines, or watch on Channel 4: the Top Twenty Greatest whatevers... I enjoy the discussions these lists invariably provoke and the passionate advocacy they generate. And after all, this whole blog is my ultimate list.
I've already mentioned a couple of songs that I think have the greatest intros - Hendrix's "Ezy Ryder" and the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" - but I've so far steered clear of mentioning what I think are some of the great guitar solos. You could suggest Joe Walsh's epic solo on "Hotel California", Billy Gibbons' tear-stained wailing on "Rough Boy", Stevie Ray Vaughan's stupendous "Scuttlebuttin'" and probably any number of others, but I'm going to go for this one as a first entry.
Tears for Fears don't exactly say "guitar solo", do they? But if you happen across one of the many different remixes of this song, you'll come across one of the simplest, most elegant, yet powerful guitar solos it has been my pleasure to hear. It arrives out of nowhere, like the crack of a whip, and forces everything else to one side, insistent, very plain in sound, yet commanding your attention. It's vaguely martial, a stately-paced moment, like catching glimpse of a funeral procession from the window of a passing car, and then it's gone, overtaken by the chorus that marches back into view, a solid, angry block of stone.
You have to want to listen to this song, to feed from it, derive your strength to carry on. There's no bright-eyed impenetrable optimism here, yet it's a song of solidarity, of shared experience and understanding; a song that holds us all together for a moment.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

"City of New Orleans"

Believe it or not, America was once a place of romance, an endless horizon of hope, anticipation, dreams and fulfilment. Ronald Reagan understood this better than most people and his homely, down-to-earth charisma, his harking back to a simpler, happier age managed to lull the people of the US into a semi-coma of nostalgia while all around the wars, the corruption and lies tore the heart out of the 1980s and set the stage for all that has come since.
This song might as well have been used by Reagan as a sort of soundtrack to the kind of America he longed for and made people long for as well. A simple, rusty, rhythmic ode to the age of Kerouac, drifters and hobos: "All along the southbound odyssey/The train pulls out at Kankakee/Rolls along past houses, farms and fields/Passin' trains that have no names/Freight yards full of old black men/And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles."
The images come to life slowly, easily, powerfully and you feel the seductive pull of the simplicity of a life spent riding the rails, an age when the railway was the height of ambition, the most exciting thing to small-town American, with its long list of waypoints, destinations and simple pleasures: "And the sons of pullman porters/And the sons of engineers/Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel/
Mothers with their babes asleep/Are rockin' to the gentle beat/And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel."
Yet even then, the typhoon of progress was being felt even in the heart of the heartland: "And all the towns and people seem/To fade into a bad dream/And the steel rails still ain't heard the news/The conductor sings his song again/The passengers will please refrain/This train's got the disappearing railroad blues."
It's a simple celebration, this song; a modest elegy, tender and very rose-tinted. And sometimes those pleasures need to taste just a little bitter among the sweetness.