Sunday, January 22, 2006

"Wild Side of Life"

'Cos I'm going to be away for a few days, and because I'm a generous soul, I thought I'd throw another log on the fire here and make sure things keep ticking over till I get back. Ahem. Scratch that. What I mean to say is that I've been short of boogie of late and this song came along to pick me out of the slump.
There's not a lot I can say about Status Quo to anyone from the UK that hasn't already been said, laughed at, dismissed out of hand and generally ignored. As of 2006 the Quo are half national institution, half national joke, four guys who wear denim 24/7, play battered old Fender Strats and, incredibly, haven't learned any new chords since 1971. They're a bit like the Queen Mother used to be; someone who you tend to forget about most of the time, but when the call goes out for a particular kind of atmosphere they're there, lending their own particular charm.
Status Quo songs aren't demanding, aren't new and they aren't necessarily clever, but they are good at what they do. Solid, driving rhythms, decent harmonies and some pretty decent guitar. A lot of people make the joke that their songs are repetitive, but they're missing the point. A lot of what Quo did was pretty damn solid. This particular song never appeared on a studio album, but I remember listening to it during the summer of 78 (or thereabouts) and enjoying its unapologetic 12-bar simplicity. This is a great song to drive to, sing along to, potter to, you name it. It fits in so neatly to the pattern of our lives. It doesn't demand the earth, but if you care to pay some attention, you can have a whale of a time with it.


Time for a cliche. Time for a visit to the Natural History Museum, to the dinosaur room. Look! There's the fossilised skeleton of Diplodocus. Huge, lumbering, slow, ponderous. What's that sign say? "Progressive rock musician. Believed to have roamed the surface of the earth in the late 20th century. This specimen has been dated to 1971."
If you ever feel the need to jump into the deep end of prog rock, you could do worse than start here. Focus was a Dutch band made up of some rather talented individuals with jazz and classical training: pretty much the starting point for all prog rock, as it happens. Before the genre became obsessed with classical scope, volume and scale (see Emerson Lake and Palmer), people were trying to cross-match rhythms and styles and see what they could cook up.
"Sylvia" is a triumph of good taste, utterly crammed with what later became cliches; gorgeous great washes of Hammond organ, jittery minor-chord riffs that sound like they could have been culled from later prog-pop epics like "Pinball Wizard", smooth guitar passages that rear up and shout "virtuoso" -- and this in the day before guitarists became stars in their own right -- neo-classical flourishes and vaguely insane operatic background vocals.
It's hard to dislike an innocent, involving and ambitious song like this, despite the self-indulgent bastard child it created. Be kind, be generous to this song, because it really did help to start a whole new sound.

"I'm Sorry"

Here's a lesson in how to make an apology. Doesn't matter what you may have done, who you did it to, why you did it, this song covers it all: "I didn't know when I hurt you/I didn't know when you cried/I didn't know when you screamed Lord/I didn't know when you stopped to cry/I didn't know when you called/I didn't know when you hurt/I didn't know sweet Mama/I didn't know I should." See? It's all there.
And what's better, it's a song that doesn't hunker down in a dark place or a crouch in a corner of the room and rock back and forth in misery. This is a song that takes it to the streets, that makes a joyous noise unto the Lord, that kicks butt from here till next Sunday. It's got great big ladle-fulls of gospel, a rakish charm that only an Irishman would know how to conjure. It's infectious, it's irresistible.
This song puts me in mind of "Try a Little Tenderness": the same sea of humanity surging back and forth, borne on a tide of utterly unstoppable rhythm, real, honest soul-baring emotion and sheer exuberance. You cannot ignore this song. And maybe that's the best way to make an apology.

Friday, January 20, 2006

"I Wanna be a Boss"

So another working week comes to an end and we drag our tired asses back home to start the process of intensive recovery. I've been very lucky in that the jobs I've had have all been really enjoyable, challenging and almost well-paid. Yet that in itself doesn't always take care of the nagging feeling that someone, somewhere is having an even better time than I am. And more often than not, it's the boss who's in clover: "Well, I've been doodling on this notepad/And I've been taking telephone calls/I can tell that this job's at the end of line/And I'm ready for the fall/But I've been watching the boss carefully/And he always seems to be having a ball/Then I scratch my head and wonder why I'm down here and he's up the hall."
And so we all develop the focus of our discontent (real or perceived) on the poor sap who happened to float to the top. We can construct lazy daydreams about being a world dominating uber-boss, a magnate, a Master of the Universe, where we can live out the dream of perfection and power.
Thank you to Stan Ridgway for crystallizing the whole thing in one neat song... this is a fairly straightforward bit of wish-fulfilment, but it covers EVERYTHING, dammit. From riding in a limo with tinted windows, to handing out thousand-dollar bills, to building executive amusement parks, to watching "Ice Station Zebra" in the nude (a big shout-out to Howard Hughes there), to buying the planet's all here. Thanks, Stan: I don't think you missed anything off MY list, anyway.
Happily though, he remembers the little folks too, and urges us to follow our own ambitions: "I want to take a two-week vacation/26 times a year."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Wear It Like a Cape"

I've waited a long time to blog this song.

Back at the tail-end of the sixties, Country Joe MacDonald claimed to have invented something he called "rock and soul music" which was, to be frank, an amalgam of rock and soul. All well and good, and a fine sub-sub-sub-genre it was too. However, one day, while trawling through the radio station's record library during a stint as a DJ, I happened upon an album by the Del Fuegos called "Stand Up", and pretty much there and then the genre was completed re-invented for me.
This is proper soul music. In fact, you wouldn't credit four ugly white guys from Boston with coming up with a sound as downright soulful and funky as this. Nasty blasts of brass, one of those weird keyboards that sounds like it's being played underwater, a slow, sensual rhythm and a very dirty vocal. People called them garage rock, but they're about a million miles wide of the mark. There's real grass-roots soul at work here, a proper guitar- and bass-based groove but it's not quite rock either.
In fact, it's another one of those songs about sex, I suspect. I've already been through that here and here, and this is another take on the same thing, only ... only different. And maybe better: "Everybody needs someone/To help them get in the groove/Yes and I believe I found the one/Honey when I found you/Seems to be a reason why we try so hard/Try to keep it showing/In between the sheets we keep the heat/We keep it going." Like Aerosmith's "Pink", there's a salacious element and like the Eurythmics' "Regrets" there's the hint of something kinky going on, but unlike both of those, there's an emotion here too.
And as the song winds up, there's some utterly fantastic backing harmonies, a deep, deep baritone and some sharp female cat-calls from the back of the studio, just to bring Detroit a little closer to your bedroom. This is a song for a lazy Sunday in bed and out, a day when there's nothing more to do than get lost in each other.

"Life's What You Make It"

Inspiration can be hard to find in daily life. The paradigm in the western world seems to be to flatten out the curves, to smooth those sharp edges and file down the interesting little imperfections that make our individual lives so unique. Which is why the blog world is often so attractive: we can all peek through each others' curtains and find solace, take joy in, and inspiration from the fact that there really are a lot of folks out there who are bucking against the deadening weight of 21st century culture and society. We all want to be treated as individuals, as someone special in our own right, and if we can't force the institutions out there to do so, well, we'll just have to make it so in our own lives. Blogs are our way of proving to ourselves and to the world that we really are more than just a set of demographic data on some corporation's database.
Somehow, this is meant to bring me to Talk Talk and "Life's What You Make It." I'm sure you follow the connection. It's a simple enough song: a lovely stop-start beat, mechanical almost, like an industrial process, over which Mark Hollis sings in the sort of voice that suggests he's got a lump in his throat. "Baby, life's what you make it/Can't escape it/Baby, yesterday's favorite/Don't you hate it/Baby, life's what you make it/Don't backdate it/Baby, life's what you make it/Beauty is naked." The background refrain of "Everything's alright" soothes and calms, while the guitar makes liquid, oval shapes, like comforting pillows. It's OK to be yourself, the song seems to be saying, it's OK to forge your own path.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

"Tenderness on the Block"

Throughout my single life I really, really had no idea what having a child was going to be like. Yeah, yeah, I know none of us really do, but I'm talking with the benefit of hindsight here. So take it from me: I knew nothing.
So when my daughter arrived I did that goofy thing that guys do when a daughter comes along - I fell totally, irretrievably and utterly in love with her. Now I can speak with authority on the reasons why girls are always Daddy's Little Princess, believe me.
When my son came along, I did exactly the same thing -- sheesh, you'd have thought I'd have learnt by then. And don't let anyone try and convince you that guys can't love their sons with the same fierce, angry passion that they do their daughters. Bullshit.
But I digress.
Soon after my daughter came along, I listened to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, and found myself in tears after hearing "She's Leaving Home"... I still find it hard to listen to that song today, ten years later. Because, as any fool knows, our children are only loaned to us: we'll have to watch them go one day.
Later still, I heard Shawn Colvin sing this old Warren Zevon song and, dammit, it did the same thing to me: "Mama, where's your pretty little girl tonight/Trying to run before she can walk - that's right/She's growing up/She has a young man waiting/She's growing up/She has a young man waiting/Wide eyes/She'll be street-wise/To the lies/And the jive talk/She'll find true love/And tenderness on the block."
There's something optimistic in the whole idea of having children that this song manages to express in exactly the way that "She's Leaving Home" doesn't. And for that we parents can be grateful.

"Paris, Texas"

One of the miracles about music is how a single sound from an instrument can evoke such powerful responses in us. For example, I happen to think the drum sound in Alanis Morrisette's "Head Over Heels" is perfect, a dry, flat "pow" that gets me right in the pit of my stomach. If I could make my heart beat with that sort of sound, I'd be a lot more sporty....
For evocative sounds though, I suspect there's nothing quite like a steel guitar, played with a slide by Mr Ryland Cooder. No matter how you slice it, slide guitar conveys America. A flat, tinny sound will speak of bleached wooden shacks in Mississippi, thick undergrowth and rusting cars by the side of the road.
But hit the "echo" button and all of a sudden the sound opens up, the vegetation vanishes and you're trying to thumb a lift on a single lane of blacktop somewhere in northern Texas. The blaring sky reaches down to slowly draw the strength out of you, a puff of wind bowls tumbleweed across the parched ground and you're not sure if that shimmering blob of darkness on the horizon is a car or a cow.
Ry Cooder's instrumental music is for closing your eyes and taking a trip. Let the walking-pace melody lead you, let each mournful yet menacing note build you a character from a John Ford western or a Jim Jarmusch fable. Whatever happens in your daydream, you'll not be wanting for atmosphere.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Shameless Plug

It's not often that we all, as individuals, hold firmly in our hands the reins of democracy.

Equally, it's even less often that when we do hold those reins, we feel the temptation to crack the whip a little and gee those horses up to gallop a little faster than they otherwise would do.

So look upon this post as an anabolic steroid in the body of democracy.

You may or may not know that SongsWithoutWhich has been nominated -- and shortlisted for -- an award at The Best of Blogs!! Yes!

So that I can add a cute little icon to this page that says "Award-Winning Content" or some such thing, I'm encouraging you to vote for this li'l ol' website in the category "Best Music Blog." Vote once a day!

I urge you to look at the other excellent nominees for the various awards on offer (at least three of which are linked from here) and see if, indeed, my site is worthy of being in their august company. You may eventually decide to vote for someone else; I'm sure I don't mind.

But I'm trusting to the inherent goodness, generosity and -- let's face it -- downright corruptibility of man in hoping you'll vote for this site.

Why? Because I need to get a life, and if I win this award, I promise to get one.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Heartattack and Vine"

There are only a few voices that can be considered to be really unique. That's unique: u·nique (adj.) (1) Being the only one of its kind. (2) Without an equal or equivalent; unparalleled. And perhaps the most idiosyncratic (that's idiosyncratic: idi·o·syn·cratic (adj.) peculiar to the individual.) voice out there must be Tom Waits'.
Most of the time it's not so much a voice as a gargling, scraping, sandpapered howl. It sounds like a 4 a.m. bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, the 400th cigarette of the day, Rod Stewart's worst nightmare and the gurgle of sewers all rolled into one. If Charles Bukowski wrote the book on the underbelly of the American Dream, then Tom Waits was meant to read it.
Just sample some of the lyrics: "See that little Jersey girl in the see-through top/With the pedal-pushers sucking on a soda pop/Well I bet she's still a virgin/But it's only twenty-five 'til nine." Or: "Better off in Iowa against your scrambled eggs/Than crawling down Cahuenga on a broken pair of legs/You'll find your ignorance is blissful/Every goddamn time." And the king-daddy line of all: "Don't you know there ain't no devil/There's just God when he's drunk." Priceless.... it's like watching the staging shots in an urban police drama but not catching the main storyline: the camera pans swiftly over a tramp here, a domestic argument there, a break-in at the end of an alley and a knifing in a dark doorway.
The tune is every bit as off-the-wall as the lyric: a narcoleptic strolling blues that operates like a broken-down old merry-go-round, coming around again just in time to catch the next set of jaundiced observations. You can almost imagine this song being performed on stage by a pick-up band of tramps and hobos - rarely has a song inhabited a world as completely as this one does.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


I've just finished reading Nick Mason's entertaining history of Pink Floyd. Despite being an international rock superstar, he's so quintessentially English in his modesty, his brushing aside of any plaudits for what he has achieved.
And reading his account of the creation of the "Dark Side of the Moon" album, I hope I began to understand a little about the dynamics of this most unusual group: the Floyd was always a one-man show, whether it was Syd Barrett in the early days, or Roger Waters latterly. Their respective creative visions, be they lyrical or musical or both, really drove the group.
After Syd was sacked, Roger Waters' concerns and visions began to take over -- culminating eventually in the pseudo-solo album "The Final Cut" -- and the first sign that he really had assumed control was the "Dark Side" album, where the entire work has the sort of wholeness that can only be achieved when one person's thought processes are determining the content.
What this album achieved, however, was a perfect balance between Waters' lyrical thrust and the brilliant musicianship of David Gilmour and Richard Wright. I've already written about what is to me the finest track on this record, but "Time" comes a close second.
The simplicity of the opening minutes -- a wonderful combination of clock and heartbeat as a drumbeat, simple guitar notes and Mason's clear, spare drums -- takes some beating, but the lyric is what matters here. It's simple, almost schoolboyish in fact, but it's inescapable and that's what I like: "And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking/Racing around to come up behind you again/The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older/Shorter of breath and one day closer to death."
Sometimes it's the simple things that make the biggest noise. This song's one of them.

"Slave to the Rhythm"

It's not often a song appears that just reeks of money. You know, the song that wears a big neon sign above its head that says: "no expense was spared in the making of this record." The kind of song written by the most A-List writers, performed by the most in-demand hired guns in session-land, produced by the most talented bods ever to sit behind the console and drenched in effects, orchestration and an enormous blizzard of top-quality cocaine.
When Grace Jones made the transition from model to singer, I'm pretty sure the conversations between her manager and the record company bosses involved the words "money", "no" and "object". This record is utterly loaded, obscenely wealthy. Even the echo chamber sounds like it was coated in some rare metal in order to achieve exactly that effect.
But hell, it's a terrific tune, comparable in some ways to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" - the slow-burning groove, the luxurious effects and well-dressed synth effects and the crystal-clear voice, enunciated to the last degree. Jones' voice is quite something - it occupies some no-man's-land between male and female, yet here it's as pure, clear and unsexy as can be. Maybe all that money couldn't buy her soul.

"The Promised Land"

Looking back through the 300-odd SongsWithoutWhich I've amassed here so far, I'm amazed I didn't get around to Chuck Berry two years ago. Similarly, I wrote just a couple of days ago about the Beatles and was trying to list five bands who've changed music forever. I'm going to have to revisit that list and expand it, oh, just a little.
Every time I hear Chuck Berry I'm reminded of the scene in "Back to the Future" where Michael J. Fox plays "Johnny B Goode" to a stunned high-school 1950s audience and Chuck Berry's cousin has an idea.... Perhaps Chuck had that sort of impact when he first arrived on the radio; I guess you had to be there. But he's a hugely under-appreciated influence on rock and roll music these days.
I could blog any one of twenty of his songs, but I like this the best - it's the alternative version of "Route 66", a road-song in which the names come thick and fast and conjure up images of silver Greyhound buses, propeller-driven airplanes and men who wore hats and dressed sharp: "We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle/Half way 'cross Alabam'/And that hound broke down and left us all stranded/In downtown Birmingham/Right away I bought me a through train ticket/Right cross Mississippi clean/And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham/Smoking into New Orleans."
The sound is sheer nostalgia as well: the opening riff is the entire history of rock and roll in three seconds, the honky-tonk piano pounds the chords with sheer abandon, and the guitar sounds just like guitars used to sound before the technicians discovered bass and sustain - tinny, twangy and infinitely precious.
Bear in mind this is a guy who was one of the very first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who's had Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller play for him and who was voted 6th best guitarist of all time in 2003. Not bad for a guy who'd written his best stuff before 1959. Respect is due.

"Planet Claire"

I love this. It's as if Kraftwerk had discovered guitars and cheap science-fiction novels while watching a crime series on American TV. As I've described elsewhere, there are two different groups called the B 52s: this is from their first incarnation as a trashy, beehived suburban punk dance band. It's a stripped-down, bare sound that suggests jerky, geeky dancing at a frat party. As with most of the B 52s' early stuff, it's got this fixation with outer space: "Planet Claire has pink air/All the trees are red/No one ever dies there/No one has a head." Clearly we're not talking Neil Young here, but it's got bags of atmosphere and it just sounds so damn good - it's like you've wandered into the sound effects studio while they're putting the final touches to a Hammer horror film.


Ain't love grand? You're in a permanent state of nerves, you're paranoid-obsessive, your moods shift wildly, in short, you're unstable. And that's what this song is all about: "You always keep me guessing/And I never seem to know what you are thinking/And if some fella looks at you/It's for sure your little eye will be a-winking/I get confused cause I don't know where I stand/But then you smile, and hold my hand/Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you."
What I enjoy most is the laid-back groove that accompanies the plaintive, disturbed yet uncomplaining lyric. It's as if the guy doesn't mind his torment, and to prove it, he lays down a jazzy, easy-listening, West Coast tune, the sort of song you might see folks dancing to, but in a very relaxed, swaying sort of way, rather than a dedicated, concentrated frugging.
To be sure, this song is California writ large: it's gently waving palm trees, the scent of sensimilla in the air and a rum punch in your hand. Even the instrumental solo wears dark glasses and too laid-back to hog the spotlight - this is a mood song, pure and simple. I'm not sure it's a love song, though...I'm not sure there's room for that in a song like this.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"Two Princes"

New Year, new crisp, clean sheet to write on. There has been the odd moment when I wonder when I'll run out of SongsWithoutWhich - after all, they do say that all the great tunes have already been written and what's going on now is merely re-arranging the order in which the notes are played.
But having been away for a swift break in Uncle Sam's backyard, I've returned with a head full of songs culled from the hours spent listening to the radio while tooling along President Eisenhower's fine interstate highway system. Let me tell you, sitting in a well-upholstered car while letting I-95 unroll beneath you is a great way to unwind. Kudos to the guy that invented cruise control.
To kick off the year, this is an irrepressible piece of swagger and rhythm that's guaranteed to get your heartrate boosted. The Spin Doctors have sort of come and gone, sadly, but they were a sort of bluesy, rootsy version of the Hothouse Flowers - the same abandoned, freestyle, raucous vocal, the same excellent musicianship and the same heart on the sleeve. You can't help but dance to this song: it's got a serious backbeat, a terrific stop-start rhythm that sucks you right in, and the lyric is all about laying your worldly goods to one side and just opening your heart. The fun part about the lyric is that the alternate lines are just plain old scat, just throwaway lines to emphasize the previous one: "Said one, two princes kneel before you/That what I said now/Princes, princes who adore you/Just go ahead now/One has diamonds in his pockets/That's some bread, now/This one said he wants to buy you rockets/Ain't in his head, now." They kick the song along, give it some weight and give it all its attitude. Happy New Year, y'all.