Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"New Sensation"

We're all watching the Winter Olympics at ChateauWithoutWhich, marveling at the tiny fractions of seconds that separate the greats from the also-rans, the feats of derring-do by those certified lunatics on the luge/skeleton/bob run and the unfeasible aerodynamic properties of Finnish ski jumpers.
What is also evident from these and all other Olympic games is how important it is to peak at just the right time, to ensure that you're working at your maximum output at exactly the right time. And this is equally true of music.
For example, how else would music writers talk about "the difficult second album" syndrome, and how do some musicians escape it? My theory is that inevitably, a band's first album will include songs that have grown over time, matured, been honed, while a second album will be rushed out in time to cash in on the exposure.
But over time, bands do learn how to manage the process, and here's an utterly fantastic tune to demonstrate. INXS spent years slogging around Australia, building a solid fanbase at home and refining their unique brand of danceable rock. By the time they got to "Listen Like Thieves", you can hear the sound is almost perfected. But then came "Kick" and the roof blew off.
This is probably INXS' finest moment - the performances are tight, the blasts of synth as good as any Memphis brass section, and the drums drive the song along as surely as a V8. Michael Hutchence tones down the fey heterosexuality of some earlier performances and instead concentrates on giving the lyric a proper, red-blooded kick in the pants. Everything just clicks into place, as if years of training and practicing have suddenly paid off in the Olympic final. This is the sound of a band that are at the very top of their game, and they know it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

"Tubular Bells Part 1"

Occasionally, in my moments of weakness and nostalgia, I revisit my teenage ambitions and dredge up what little musical talent I have. A tinkle of piano, a strum or two on the guitar, even - hey! rock and roll! - a toot on the flute. I play a pretty convincing air-piano and I've been known to knock out a mean drum solo on my desk.
But despite teenage dreams of stardom, chicks and gold discs, I ran up against my lack of talent, of ambition in that particular direction, and the of confidence to put it all on show. But I also blame people like Mike Oldfield.
I mean, listen to this record! No content with having talent for one particular instrument, Mike had to go and be a whiz at something like 30 different ones. And what's worse, he had to write an intriguing, beguiling mix of folk and rock, in a classical format; and in doing so, created two of the more memorable tunes of the last 30 years. You could quite reasonably give Mike credit for writing the first ambient album.
Another thought: this is the record that launched (Sir) Richard Branson's career.
Seriously, though, this is amazing stuff. It ebbs, it flows, it grows and develops, pulls you in different directions and makes you actually think about what you're hearing. From the menacing opening -- maybe it's menacing only because it was picked up and used as the theme for "The Exorcist" -- through the pastoral middle section, all mandolins and flowing keyboards, and onto the majestic, titanic finale, listening to this is like being put through a wringer. Again I say that just because a piece of music has no lyrics, doesn't mean that it can't be involving.
Having said that, the punk generation had no time for this kind of music. Intellectual, they called it, which I think was some sort of code for "boring". But listen to the last eight minutes of this and there's no way on earth you can call it boring. A simple theme, played first on one guitar; then, one by one, more instruments are piled on top, each one introduced by the late, great Vivian Stanshall, until the whole juddering, top-heavy construction casts loose and floats away into the ether.
It's not often that you have to consciously separate a piece of music from the effort involved in making it: music should be easy, we think. But when the music is as inspiring as this, then the effort, however much it was, was clearly worthwhile.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"Run Baby Run"

There's something so ineffably romantic, so attractive, seductive and yet so utterly heartbreaking about the image of a child of the 60s left to its own devices in the harsh, neon unforgiving reality of the 90s and 00s. That naive idealism that came to the fore on the road to Birmingham, Alabama, at the Reflecting Pool in Washington DC where Martin Luther King had his dream and at Woodstock just seems so expensive, so indulgent and so misplaced in this age of go-faster, market-driven entrepreneurship. Sometimes it's almost as if the 60s were a confession and an apology for what went before and what was to come.
Here's a song with a back-story, a timeline born in 1963, "the day Aldous Huxley died." It's a memorial, an elegy that lives on in every child who's turned 45 and who can't reconcile their 21st century struggle with the values their 60s parents brought them up with.
"And her mama believed/That every man could be free/So her mama got high, high, high/And her daddy marched on Birmingham/Singing mighty protest songs/And he pictured all the places/That he knew that she belonged/But he failed and taught her young/The only thing she's need to carry on/He taught her how to/Run baby, run baby, run baby, run."
How many are out there still, holding desperately onto the belief in the essential goodness of man despite reams and reams of evidence to the contrary, hoping against hope that one day we'll all realize that all we need, as the Beatles sang, is love. Not romantic love, but respect, kindness, trust.
"She counts out all her money/In the taxi on the way to meet her plane/Stares hopeful out the window/At the workers fighting/Through the pouring rain/She's searching through the stations/For an unfamiliar song/And she pictures all the places/Where she knows she still belongs/And she smiles the secret smile/Because she knows exactly how/To carry on."
Where is that place she's picturing? How can she hold onto that hope? And why does she keep running? Just how much pain and heartbreak does it take for an entire generation to realise it's been chasing a dream that we're not smart enough to earn?

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Beautiful Love"

Sometimes I have to spend a long time flipping through my music collection before some song jumps out at me and demands to know why it hasn't been written up. Days, weeks sometimes... either I've been too distracted to really listen to whatever is playing, or I simply can't harness the feeling and wrestle it onto the keyboard. Hence the last two weeks or so. But never fear, Julian's here.
I've got absolutely no idea what to make of Julian Cope. He's a genius, a madman, a child, a wispy cosmic flower child and a frothing anarchist all at once. I get the idea that he lives life on his terms, or rather, on Nature's terms, and from that life come occasional statements from the margins, records that have only a passing acquaintance with the rest of the music business.
What I can't for the life of me understand is how such a gentle, happy, optimistic and generous song as this could ever have got lost in the shuffle of radio executive playlists and marketing departments' brainstorming sessions. It's so simple, so elegant and yet so fresh at the same time. It's the song you'd sing halfway through a rustic getaway holiday, bounding out of bed into the fresh air, leaping into the clear river at the bottom of the garden, hearing the laughter of children and the whisper of a warm breeze through the trees. This is a song for that moment when you say to yourself "Life just doesn't get any better." And, for most of us, even three minutes of feeling like that is going to do us a power of good.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Saying goodbye is one of those things that we have to do. All of us. Whether we get to say it in person or not really doesn't matter: we either say it in person or in spirit.
What's hard to do is to prepare yourself to say goodbye. No matter how you try to steel yourself, it's impossible to come to that moment and remember what you promised yourself you'd do or say.
And so it all comes out wrong, or inappropriate, or you break down when you swore you'd stay strong.
Ray Davies clearly kept his promise to himself at some point, if this song is anything to go by: "Thank you for the days/Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me/I’m thinking of the days/I won’t forget a single day, believe me/I bless the light/I bless the light that lights on you, believe me/And though you’re gone/You’re with me every single day, believe me."
It's graceful, loving, calm and celebratory, a sort of "Perfect Day" for the departed; a song that pushes us gently towards reflecting on the good times, the happiness, rather than dwell on anything negative.
But sadly it still doesn't stop you breaking down at the key moment....