Friday, December 30, 2005

"Pretty in Pink"

When the film "Pretty in Pink" came out I thought it was just about the coolest thing going - to see kids my age or so having the confidence to follow their own muse, listen to their own music and not follow the fashions. Having endured the fairly rapid succession of fashion fads that swept through the country in the 70s and 80s, I took from the film a sense of validation that it was OK to be somewhat off-beat and have one's own personal style... which has stood me in pretty good stead ever since, right down to the motley collection of songs on this here blog.
For some reason I tend to think of this song as a pair to "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" which appears elsewhere here -- and which, by the way, is probably the most-searched song that leads to SongsWithoutWhich. There's the same sense of vague ennui, aching hipness and worldly unconcern: "All of her lovers all talk of her notes/And the flowers that they never sent/And wasn't she easy/And isn't she pretty in pink/The one who insists he was first in the line/Is the last to remember her name."
It's about posing, about fastening onto an image that you want to project and working towards it, just like the line in "German Film Star" - "sitting in a corner in a perfect pose/Trying not to pose". I like the idea that we all, as kids, had to work so hard to achieve the appearance of what we all come to have naturally much later. I'm not for a moment suggesting we're cooler now than we were back then - most of us probably were cool at some point... but that air of ennui, of world-weariness that we wanted so much back then, comes so easily to us now. And with that, Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"The Green Manalishi"

Before the days of "Rumours" and Stevie Nicks' witchy-woman fetish, Fleetwood Mac was a sharp, sharp blues group with just the faintest trace of psychedelia going on, Peter Green was a thinking fan's guitar hero on a par with Syd Barrett, and songs like "Albatross" were a million miles away from "Don't Stop" or "Go Your Own Way".
I love the barely-contained menace and unsettling paranoid feel of this song. The riff is crunchy, steady, plodding even, like an unstoppable force stalking you up the blind alley of a waking nightmare, there's a cackling echo to add to the Halloween vibe, and an otherworldly howling ever so far down in the mix to make you feel just that little bit more unsettled.
It's a song for obsessives, for depressives, for repressives - chock-full of dysfunction: "Cause you're the Green Manalishi with the two-pronged crown/All my trying is up - all your bringing is down/Just taking my love then slipping away/Leaving me here just trying to keep from following you."
And it's a song that isn't afraid to take on those devils - the extended, spooked instrumental at the end just eats itself up in a frenzy of slow-burning mania, revels in its evils, if you like. You say you've had a bad day? You don't need Daniel Powter, you need this.

"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End"

There's not nearly enough Beatles in this blog.

If you have a spare afternoon, write a list down of those artists that have substantially, irrevocably and completely changed the nature of popular music. I can come up with about five: Robert Johnson - the touchstone and the source, Elvis - the first taste of the social impact of music and its performers, Hendrix - for bringing the counter-culture into the fold, Eminem - for making music that cut across all manner of social divides, and the Beatles - the ultimate marriage of songwriting and musicianship.
I'm sure that most of us of a certain age can name more Beatles songs than we can songs by any other artist. Most of us can hum or sing along to each one of those songs as well. And for the generation that grew up in the 60s and 70s I don't think you really need to say much more than that. The Beatles redefined songwriting, stretched the boundaries of what was possible more than anyone else. If you think Pink Floyd's tape loops were something new, listen to Revolution No 9. If you think heavy metal was Hendrix's love-child, listen to Helter Skelter. Etc etc.
I'm blogging this suite of songs off the Abbey Road album because it has just about everything in five short minutes. Golden Slumbers is as gorgeous a melody as you could hope to find, a lullaby to moisten the eye and bring a lump to the throat. Carry That Weight is a curious two-part invention that starts off as a football chant, morphs back into Golden Slumbers for a moment and then -- I think -- rocks out before it turns into The End. I say "I think" because I've never owned the CD and so can't tell when one track ends and the other starts...
I'm constantly amazed by the inventiveness, the sheer other-worldiness of the talent involved here. To be able to turn from heart-melting sweetness into downright funk and then, as if it were a throwaway moment, to write one of the greatest lyrics ever: "And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love/You make," just takes the breath away.
I know it's not an obvious choice for a Beatles blog, but it's the one that always sits at the back of my mind. Comforting, really.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"I Believe in Father Christmas"

With the music channels all showing variants on the theme of "The Best Christmas Album....Ever!" I've had a good opportunity to review the evidence - from David Bowie and Bing Crosby's "Little Drummer Boy" right through to The Darkness' bit of seasonal Queen-U-Like. And I was right - there is such a tidal wave of tosh released each year. Which means my other top Christmas tune is still this wonderful piece of overblown hymnery by Greg Lake.
I've blogged Emerson, Lake and Palmer already. And this isn't a whole lot different, except that this time the music doesn't drown the vocals. The lyric is what really grabs me.... "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the virgin's birth." As the song progresses, the pomposity gets ratcheted up until there are two or three full choirs, a phalanx of percussionists, a few orchestras. But at the start, it's a delicate, very seasonal tune.
I like the idea of a song that questions our motives, our cultural habits and our ability to gloss over the unpleasantness that pervades life. I don't always mind being reminded that things aren't wonderful, especially at a time like Christmas, when we're all suddenly bathed in a family-values golden glow. "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on earth/Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell/The Christmas you get you deserve."

Monday, December 19, 2005

"A Fairytale of New York"

It's that time of year. The TV advertisements are reaching deep into our pockets, shaking loose our spare change and selling us images of happiness and enjoyment. We're encouraged to overreach ourselves when it comes to hospitality, generosity and credit, we're subtly told that if we don't indulge ourselves and others to the utmost, we're somehow not taking part in this carnival.
Even the music tries to boost our morale. This is the time of year when the record companies traditionally reach to the very bottom of the barrel for that lowest common denominator that's going to connect with teens and grannies alike. Everything is presented as crisp, clean, shiny and somehow new, as if we hadn't come across this or that particular collection of songs before. I mean, just how many times is Island Records going to repackage Bob Marley's greatest hits?
Christmas songs, too, are insufferable in the main. Each year, we're guaranteed to get any combination of: a pink-cheeked choirboy singing something traditional in an impossibly high, pure voice; a hoary old rock group reaching into their back catalogue; a boy-band or five with something vaguely festive; some teenage apprentice diva; and Cliff Richard.
But once every decade comes along a song that subverts the genre, that transcends the immense pile of crap we have to wade through in search of a decent tune. For me, there are two Christmas songs that rise head, shoulders and torso above the rest. Here's the first.
Who would have thought it? Shane McGowan, a shambling hangover of a man, blessed with the ability to write immense, rabble-rousing yet sweet music; Kirsty MacColl, the unheralded first voice of British song; and the only song that McGowan could have written for Christmas. It's a bitter, bitter sweet argument of a song, remembered through the soft-focus of nostalgia. McGowan's sodden, wandering mumbling contrasts with MacColl's sweet, pure folk tones, like peanut butter with mayonnaise, but together they conjure up romance, sadness, fleeting moments of joy. The lyric time-travels through a doomed relationship: from "When you first took my hand on the cold Christmas Eve/You promised me Broadway was waiting for me" through "You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last" to "You took my dreams from me/When I first found you/I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can't make it all alone/I built my dreams around you."
Why does this song lift us? The sweet, sweet music, MacColl's wondrous voice, the rambling, helpless and romantic lyric, they all come together for one eternal moment of sadness that smiles through the pain, the heartbreak, and finds something good to hold onto. And it's the kind of performance that could, in another world, have gone so horribly wrong but here, it simply, beautifully soars.
No bah, no humbug. Just perfect.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Born in the U.S.A."

I've mentioned this song elsewhere as the great example of how misunderstood a song can be. But for anyone who doesn't remember or wasn't there, this song came out in the middle of the Reagan presidency in the US and was immediately co-opted by all sorts of companies, causes and interests. Even a large part of the general public in America took this song to their hearts as some sort of statement that "We're Number One" - you know, the my-country-right-or-wrong crowd, who stick the finger up to the rest of the world and continue to confuse France with Australia on world maps.
This song is as angry as any I can remember hearing. It was the first really sharp look at the downside of life in the Promised Land: "I got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hands/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man." So far, this is a story that's been told many times before, but the next verse goes somewhere totally new: "Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says "Son, if it was up to me"/I go down to see the VA man/He said "Son, don't you understand?" To anyone who remembers how America reacted to Vietnam, there's confusion, pain, heartache, rejection, anger and bewilderment in them there words.
Right there, Springsteen draws a knife along the scar that split America for so many years, and draws a picture of the abandonment of an entire generation. His chorus of "Born in the USA" is ironic, sure, but it's also a cry of pain from the men and women who came home and were rejected by their country: "Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm ten years down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go." We were born here, they're saying, we were just doing our duty. To this day, some Vietnam veterans have never been able to come to terms with being insulted, spat on and abandoned.
And the wicked cynicism of the political class that tried to adopt this song as a statement of pride, as a badge of values, should never be forgotten. Nor, for that matter, should the blind ignorance of those individuals who did the same.

"Walk the Dinosaur"

OK, this is ridiculous. From the very first "Boom, boom, acka-lacka-lacka boom", through the idea of watching cars drive by while on a prehistoric date, right through to the chorus "Open the door/Get on the floor/Everybody walk the dinosaur", this is just plain silly.
But the beat is completely addictive, the song is as tight as a drum, the band are playing their asses off, and it's a total joy to throw yourself around the dancefloor to this song. But I've never managed to reach the same heights of abandon with anything else by Was (Not Was)....
Why is it that you can take two songs with almost identical beats, the same tight musicianship, the same sense of joy and silliness, and one will lift you up to a better place while the other will just leave you cold and flat? Makes no sense.


Back when rock music was still finding itself, when artists were still stretching their arms and not yet touching the walls of limitation, Pete Townshend dreamed up "Tommy", a rock opera that touched on all manner of subjects but seemed most at home when it was dealing with fame, fortune, acclaim and the isolation that comes with it. Call it the original text for Pink Floyd's "The Wall", if you like.
This is an instrumental track from the album, something that sounds so unlike The Who that when you first hear it you spend an age racking your brains to work out who it could be. After a while, though, it becomes very familiar, that Who guitar sound coming to the fore and Keith Moon's loose, circular drumming driving it all along.
The opening minute, the intro, though, is where this track really does it for me - simple chords, with an echo of screeching feedback in the background: as if someone's just opened a door into a parallel universe and you can't quite take in the magnificence of what's laid before you. Anyone who remembers their first discovery of rock and roll will remember the slightly breathless feeling, the churning in the stomach and the instinctive rsponse to a new rhythm.
And that's the joy of rock's huge history - there's always a new discovery around the corner.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Find the Cost of Freedom"

Sometimes it's good to strip away the layers of production that go into the making of a song and see what lies beneath - what the components are. Take away the echo, the EQ, the strings, the various washy keyboards that make sure you're not listening to anything like dead air, and what do you have left?
Voices. Maybe a guitar or two as well, to add some counterpoint. But really, there doesn't have to be a lot more.
Here, for example, we have a two-minute song, the first of which is a delicate, intricate dance between two acoustic guitars, two hands picking their way across a bed of thorny roses, the melodies winding in and out of each other.
The second minute is a quite fantastic piece of harmony singing by three guys who probably define close-harmony singing. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash bring three separate instruments together, lay them one next to the other and create an other-worldly blanket of comfort and strength such that all that you're left with after their voices fade is an aching, echoing silence.
"Find the cost of freedom/Buried in the ground/Mother Earth will swallow you/Lay your body down."
This is the song to play at the end of along day, your personal valediction to the trials and tribulations of the last 24 hours, your shrugging off of the cloak of care.