Friday, June 23, 2006

"10538 Overture"

In brief: This song is the bastard child of the Beatles' White Album and Sergeant Pepper, with a guitar riff so good that Paul Weller stole it.
Less brief: It's no secret that Jeff Lynne was the mystery musical heir to the Beatles, and there can't have been many songs that were more obviously hommages to John Lennon than this one. The closing coda, with its French horns and deep scrapes from the cello, is straight out of "I Am the Walrus", while the vocals have been thinned out to resemble Lennon's voice.
The guitar riff is almost like something Radiohead might have cooked up, but this song is 35 years old and just adds to the theory that all the best songs have already been written - though we know that isn't true, don't we? But Paul Weller must have thought so, because he lifted the riff straight off this record and made it the core of his terrific single "The Changingman." This song is like a borrowers' daisy-chain.
10538 was the first, and probably the best, example of the ELO experiment to marry strings and the more traditional rock ensemble. Before Lynne became a devotee of the producer-as-musician school, he laid down this plain, unvarnished gem, where the strings are front and centre rather than buried in the mix as they were to become.
Truly revolutionary.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

"The Great Gig in the Sky"

When I first blogged this song, I said it shows how sex and death are opposite sides of same coin - I might have been wrong.
This song is The Passion, like something the classical composers of old would write, where they'd detail their passion as a kind of ecstatic liturgical trance - I remember seeing once a painting of Johann Sebastian Bach, sitting back at his desk and laying down his pen, eyes closed as if savouring the last vestiges of the Passion as it ebbs away.
And like those Passions from centuries ago, this music emerges from the ether into some cavernous cathedral filled with all the longing humanity can muster, channeled through Clare Torry's other-worldly voice, from the whispering, faltering huskiness at its weakest moment through to its raw, bleeding climax when her instrument touches the very limit of expression as if it were being stretched and crucified.
At times she seems to be searching, feeling in the darkness, as if terrified of the animal she's unleashed. Her sobbing, faltering howl seems to repeat itself momentarily as she waits for the next jolt of celestial electricity to transport her.
What scares me about this song is what it creates, what it generates within me; a visceral reaction that not only raises the hairs on my neck, but that almost convinces me that I could transcend this earthly plane. Almost. You can hear the song take over Clare Torry like some swirling witch-doctor's spell, hear as it pulls her away from earth, and imagine it doing the same to you.
The best part? This song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. It's about everything and nothing at the same time - the all-consuming love of a parent for his or her child, a feeling of superhuman power that comes from fulfilment, a celebration of life after death, or merely an acknowledgement that Life, the Universe and Everything is just so massively huge and wonderful that sometimes our efforts to understand it crash all our circuits and turn us into drooling, raging nerve-endings. And when we can't form the words, we have to resort to forming the sounds, just as Clare Torry does so beautifully here.
There aren't many songs that take us outside ourselves, somewhere pure and powerful. Treasure them when you find them.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Here we go, sports fans. A month of football heaven, replete with "the joy of victory and the agony of defeat", to quote a famous American sportscaster. We're going nuts for the next four weeks. There'll be statistics, debate, complaints about referees and in-depth medical discussions about metatarsals, hamstrings and adductors.
The shame of it is, I've already blogged what I believe is the best football song yet written. I realize that worthy musicians from New Order to Rod Stewart have made their own contributions to this genre, but when it comes to a song that will lift the hairs on the back of your neck when it's sung by 50,000 fans I'm sorry, but Ian Broudie has already been there with "Three Lions."
So instead, I'm casting the net a bit wider today. Boxing, for example. Here we have two contenders: Bob Dylan's epic "The Hurricane" (which admittedly isn't totally about boxing) and Warren Zevon's "Boom Boom Mancini", where the chorus urges us to "Hurry home early/Hurry on home/Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon." It's also the only song I know of to deal with the risks that some sports entail: "When they asked him who was responsible/For the death of Du Koo Kim/He said, "Someone should have stopped the fight/And told me it was him."/They made hypocrite judgments after the fact/But the name of the game is be hit and hit back." No apologies, then.
There are no end of what our American cousins call "fight" songs: team- or college-oriented songs of encouragement, but these aren't necessarily about sports. Equally, there are no end of songs that have been appropriated by sports fans: Queen's "We Are the Champions" or "We Will Rock You" are just two.
But when it comes to songs about the love of sport, the fan's true dedication, there are only two that stand out: the aforementioned "Three Lions" and John Fogerty's "Centerfield".
"Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!/We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field/A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man/Anyone can understand the way I feel."
See? I bet you're already feeling that itch of anticipation, that first quickening of the heart as you settle down to live and breathe your team's agony and ecstasy. I'll just bet Wayne Rooney is humming the chorus: "Oh, put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today/Put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today/Look at me, I can be centerfield." Sshhhhh! Don't tell him it's a baseball song!
It needs a special song to be adopted by all fans of a sport, one that transcends the tribal associations or even national ones. You can bet you're bottom dollar that we'll hear more than one chorus from "Three Lions" in Germany this summer, just as right now, across the US, fans are raising their voices to sing Fogerty's song: "Got a beat-up glove, a homemade bat, and brand-new pair of shoes/You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride/Just to hit the ball and touch ’em all - a moment in the sun/It’s gone and you can tell that one goodbye!"

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Prostitution isn't an easy subject to discuss at the best of times, much less write a song about. Let's stand as far away from the subject as possible, and sidestep for a moment the argument that it exploits and objectifies woman. Wearing our most rose-tinted glasses and with our romantic hearts pinned firmly to our sleeves, there is something about the lonely, shamefaced man and the beautiful, remote woman that stirs the soul. Yes, the man can be an object of pity, disgust or censure. Yes, the woman can be an object of pity, disgust or censure as well. But for every encounter there's a back-story, and I ask you to suspend your cynicism for just four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Why can't a man fall for a prostitute? Why can't he see in her something akin to fulfilment, happiness or even pride? And anyway, how many men do in the real world? Ask yourself: how did they meet? How did they manage to transcend the dark shadows of the netherworld in which prostitution is forced to exist?
Maybe they listened to this song. "Roberta, you say you know me/But I see only what you're paid to show me," sings Billy Joel. "Roberta, how I've adored you/I'd ask you over but I can't afford you/It's tough for me/It's tough for you."
Maybe Joel believes in something that's so powerful, so ultimately redeeming, that the circumstances in which it flourishes aren't relevant. But maybe he also believes in the Real World, the one that comes crashing through the door at the end of the night. How else could he have written a love song so tender, so confused but still so doomed? "Roberta, I really need you/But I suppose that my small change won't see you through."
The wretchedness of a man trapped by his own heart to follow a path that leads only to disappointment was never captured so sweetly as here. In between the verses, Joel conjures a requiem, a lament for something damned to fail, and as his desperation and disappointment grow the song gently sheds some of the sweetness so that by the end, you're almost tasting the bitterness of loss. Sheer magic in the real world.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


It's hard to think of reggae as being a form of music that either rouses passionate emotions, or one that can serve up apocalyptic visions in the same way that, say, the Stones did on "Sympathy for the Devil". Think of reggae and you can't help but be seduced by that sexual, insistent beat that suggests a humid midday spent in the shade with something to drink and of course something to smoke too. And there's plenty of reggae that fills that stereotype. Just not this one.
"Exodus" winds itself up into a tight ball before it sets off for the promised land. From its delicate, dangerous opening as the various components take their place, to its steady, marching fade, this is a campaigning song, a determined vision set to music that brooks no opposition, that insists and demands, just like the urgent shouts of "Move!" that recur throughout.
Of course it helps that you can dance just about any way you like to this song. It's tailor-made for anything from waving your arms like a spastic scarecrow to the tightest dance-floor choreography. You don't even notice that the song never breaks step - not once. The rhythm is set in stone, the beat never lets up for a second.
What this song has that so few other songs do is inclusiveness. You can't resist it and hell, you don't even want to.

"Mr. Blue Sky"

Hey, check out that weather today! While I was away getting rained on in foreign parts, it looks like someone had a word with the people in charge of these things, and now that I'm back, all is brightness and warmth. So, time for something upbeat and meteorological, methinks.
I can think of a hundred people I know who'd scoff and snicker, saying how immensely naff and wrong this song is, but when you get up and pull those curtains back to reveal a clear blue sky and the first inklings of that warmth that will go right through to your bones, then there is No Finer Song to play while you're scrubbing and exfoliating in the shower.
Yes, this is pop. It doesn't have any pretensions to street credibility, to hipness or even to pushing the boundaries of popular music. It's also ab-so-bloody-lutely perfect. I challenge anyone to find any note out of place, any piece of production that isn't utterly essential to the whole song.
I love the luxurious layers of voices soaring and dipping all around the lead vocal, the slightly preposterous operatic harmonies towards the end, and the fact that this song never, ever ends.... each time you think it's winding towards a big finish, it just sits back, lays the ball off to the winger who's storming up the sideline on the overlap (gratuitous World Cup reference there, folks) and then watches as the song lopes along another fifty yards or so.
It doesn't even matter that the words are pretty lame: this is a song about mood and feeling. It's the first ray of sun peeking out from behind the clouds, the shaft of light that touches you on the shoulder as you're walking your own particular line. In fact, it's like a dog shaking itself free of the accumulated drizzle and scampering off to set about the neighbourhood cats.

Monday, June 05, 2006

"The Best of Everything"

Growing up, even for old crusties like me, isn't always fun or even desirable. There's a degree of "tempus fugit", the nasty whizzing sound that time makes as it rushes past, and it's not always in the faces of other people that we see it. Bonnie Raitt describes the sensation beautifully here, but today I'm talking about the feeling that comes from within, the realisation that today is a day that you won't ever recapture, the people you met one shining will never be the same as they were for those few moments that you were together. "Yeah it's over before you know it/It all goes by so fast/The bad times take forever and the good times/Don't ever seem to last."
And it's hard to say goodbye to places, to people or even to the old self as we knew it. This weekend I've said goodbye to one close, loved relative, I've celebrated my daughter's birthday and I've started coming to terms that people I've known and been close to - dare I say, even loved in my effervescent youth - have moved on. That hissing sound, that kiss of rubber on tarmac, it can be a little unsettling at times.
This is a handy song for moments like the last weekend. Tom Petty has written and performed so many songs that speak to the passionate, youthful nature that to come across a song of gentle acceptance, of grateful valediction comes as a real, warm treat.
"So listen honey, Wherever you are tonight/I wish you the best of everything, in the world/And honey I hope you found/Whatever you were looking for."