Monday, December 08, 2008

"Tower of Strength"

I never really got the goth thing. I know that it sort of evolved out of the darker side of punk, a step-child of Siouxsie & the Banshees, and that it spawned all sorts of mini-tornadoes like shoe-gaze and grunge. I liked the fact that it spoke to poeple who were fundamentally out of kilter with the rest of the world, in exactly the way that punk emphatically did not.
One or two songs from that era penetrated my consciousness, but on the whole I was looking for a more sensitive, laid-back groove at the time and I had no time for the sheer ponderous weight that goth laid down.
But I remember *this* song very well. I think it was the not-terribly-discreet rip-off of "Kashmir" that did it for me, the fact that Wayne Hussey adopted a ridiculous gun-totin' Western image for the video (riding a horse through the city, wearing poncho and hat, for goodness sake), and that, really, it was a great song because it wasn't entirely original.
Yes, it's a tad ponderous; yes it looks like a Goth, feels like a Goth and sounds like a Goth; yes, it's derivative and therefore utterly predictable, and yes, the video is ridiculous.
But it's a GREAT song!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Jesus Says"

I'm fooling myself, I know. But I don't care.
I came across this song not long ago and as soon as I heard it I knew it was a SongWithoutWhich. It just ticked so many boxes, lifted me up and got me going, that it's muscled its way into my heart and my list.
As I hinted at with the Jesus and Mary Chain, there actually do exist some bands that I haven't researched to death, and of whose existence I am still not aware. Ash is just one of those: I mean, I knew the name, I knew there was a band named Ash, but beyond that they had not impacted me.
I forget where I actually did hear this for the first time, but I do remember downloading it immediately and bouncing along to it for much of the following day. It's yet another in a long and honoured line of perfect teenage songs. It's simple, it's fast, it just doesn't stop, like a teenager who can't stop his leg from twitching while he's inhaling his supper.
If I were to be facetious I'd say this song was half-way between Motorhead and the Archies. It's got hints of bubblegum, yet the guitars are nice and crunchy. The intro is Sex PIstols-lite, and you can actually *hear* the sneer in the vocals, so it checks out for attitude, too.
Dammit, this song makes *me* feel like a teenager. And that's where I'm sadly deluding myself. But don't you think that any song that takes 20 years off your age in an glorious instant must be worth holding onto?

"I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)"

Have you ever stopped and thought about movie soundtracks, about how difficult it must be to find the slam-dunk, 100% perfect song for a particular scene? I'm not talking about movie scores which are by definition perfect for their moment, since they've been composed specifically.
No, I'm talking about choosing a song that's been written by someone totally unconnected with the film, probably written in a completely different context. Something like the Chuck Berry tune, "You Never Can Tell", that John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to in "Pulp Fiction", for example, or The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey" from the closing moments of "Lost in Translation".
When it works, it really works, and you can imagine the relief, the triumph that whoever selected that song feels; you can almost picture them laughing with pleasure and saying "Well, who knew?"
Well, imagine a whole damn film where every single song is one of those "who knew" moments. Imagine a movie based on a book which manages to find the perfect song for every kind of emotion, every kind of accident of everyday life. Imagine "High Fidelity."
If you're a rock snob, then this is for you. If you're a thirty-something slacker who's working his way through the music business by running a record store, then this *is* you.
And, like any good rock snob with an extensive collection, you yourself have the perfect soundtrack to your life. There's never a moment that can't be summed up in a ten-second clip from a dusty 45, a slightly mangled cassette or even a coffee-stained CD. "High Fidelity" proves beyond doubt that if you leave a man alone in a room with a pile of records and a stereo he can make his own entertainment for... oh, a month or two.
I pick this song because it's the greatest song of a collection of great songs from the film, because it's the final track, the resolution, the happy ending; and because any song that can gather in and encapsulate a truly happy ending deserves to be recognised.
But most of all it's a SongWithoutWhich because of the genius of Stevie Wonder.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Time"

It's easy to lose track of time. This life that we lead, this world we inhabit, are like centrifuges. If you don't put your hand out and STOP things, everything just speeds up until you're hanging on for dear life. You find your overdraft is so big that you can only live off your credit card, and when you max out your credit card, you pay the monthly instalment by taking out a second credit card and robbing Peter to pay Paul. The noose tightens around you tighter and tighter until you become this black hole of debt, regret, time and confusion.

I recently bought a DVD from the "Classic Albums" series, and settled back to watch Messrs Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright explain "The Dark Side of the Moon."
At one point, Roger Waters discusses writing the song "Time." He describes it as "very lower-sixth" (high school) and marvels that he got away with what he clearly thinks is facile, teenage stuff.

"Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain;
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today;
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but its sinking,
And racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you're older:
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death."

Later on, he remembers how his mother believed that childhood and adolescence were all about preparing for a life that was going to start later. And, as he says, "I suddenly realised that life wasn't going to start later, it starts at dot, and happens all the time. At any point you can grasp the reins and start guiding your own destiny."

With all the bad news and apocalyptic headlines these days, guiding our own destiny seems a bit of a tall order. The last time there was a recession like this I was in high school, and being a typical teenager it didn't really affect me. My parents probably worried and fretted endlessly about keeping everything together and paying the bills, my father may have stressed out about keeping his job but me, all I worried about was the next weekend.

Well, twenty-something years later the shoes are very definitely on the other foot. And those of us who've spent the last two decades forging careers and climbing corporate ladders are probably thinking back to the last recession and saying, "well, it wasn't so bad, was it?" Well, maybe not, but we didn't have mortgages, careers, kids, bills and an uneasy feeling that perhaps we made some wrong decisions.

But the sort of troubles we face today can't be fixed by "guiding our destinies" or by "running to catch up with the sun". They just take strength and resolve. Neither of these things are time-sensitive, and neither of them require a particular degree of insight in a youthful mind. "Time" really isn't what it's all about. And while I may be stretching a point here trying to link this song with the sort of worries that we are dealing with today, the line "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" seems to me to send the wrong message - but then I'm a lot older than Roger Waters was when he wrote the song.

"Time" is, though, a miraculous song. A true SongWithoutWhich, even if I'm uncomfortable with its sentiment. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"You're All That I Have"

Being a music fan is, in a large part, about hero worship. Or an extreme kind of respect at the very least.
Musicians do what we, for the most part, can't. They gather and wrap up the enormity of our feelings, our excitements, our thoughts and desires and they package them such that we zero in and bounce alongside them in perfect synch.
Musicians' and songwriters' ability to do the seeming impossible, to hold up a mirror to ourselves, generates this visceral reaction, this quasi-adoration that takes us over and drives us straight to the local record store.
If you're overjoyed, excited because it's a hot summer and everyone's outdoors and having fun, what other song could there possibly be but "Dancing In The Streets"? If you're love-lorn, feeling as if your love has just torn apart the entire fabric og your life, you can turn to the hope that rests in anything from the Hothouse Flowers' first album. And if you're a confused and distressed teen who can't seem to find your place in the world, there are any number of songs out there who speak directly to your concerns too.
So our relationship with musicians andd writers starts with this wholesale, blind fan-dom - we paper the walls of our rooms with pictures, drawings, quotations, we dress like them, we cop their attitudes.
And when they do something that hits a wrong note with us, we feel a vague sense of betrayal. All that seeming faultless insight, all those moments when we curled into a tight ball and felt the swell of power, derived from someone else's empathy just evaporate. We reject them.
But what about when we screw up? Who writes the song for the mistakes we make, the regrets we pile up and stare at, stacked up against our bedroom wall? Hardly anyone. See, rock and roll isn't about self-awareness. It's not about maturity. It's more about feeling injustice, feeling hard done by, feeling rebellious: it's all focused outwardly. And it just doesn't include taking time out to look at yourself.
So for anyone out there who's made mistakes, recognised them and wanted to find the sort of song that maybe speaks to the bright light of self-awareness, I don't think there's one out there. Not lyrically, anyway.
But for mood, that's a whole other thing, and I think this song does carry that mood. There's a restless sense of desperation, the kind of feeling that you get when the ground opens up beneath your feet and you realise that the feet of clay you're suddenly sporting will drag you to the bottom of it, sure as eggs are eggs. There's panic, there's passion and sheer sweaty dread too. When we come face to face with our own failures and their consequences, that's what we feel, I think.
Listen to the song, watch the clip. Tell me if I'm wrong. And if there is another song out there that speaks of human weakness and failing, then let's hear it!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Man In the Corner Shop"

I'm not sure where this is going to go. But what the hell.
I was never a mod. Not in the 60s, you understand, since I'd have been the youngest mod in existence. No, I mean the mod revival in the 70s. Parkas, Vespas, purple hearts, you know the drill.... I didn't get it. And when The Jam surfed to the top of the musical agenda on the wave of this revival, I didn't buy into it, not one bit. Those skinny ties....yuk.
Having said that, I did enjoy their music. I thought "English Rose" was just about the finest love song ever written - and still do - while "That's Entertainment" and "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" brought living in London during that period so vividly to life. Between them, Paul Weller and Tom Robinson pretty much told you how it could be, living here.
I hadn't heard this song for a long, long time until this weekend, when something prompted me to buy it. And I remember now why I liked it so much. For a start, there's something very 60s about this: the guitar sound and the echoing chorus sound a little like something the Byrds might have toyed with.
But it's really the lyric that you're listening to here: "Puts up the closed sign, does the man in the corner shop/Serves his last then he says goodbye to him/He knows it is a hard life/But its nice to be your own boss really." Like Ray Davies, Paul Weller knows that the universal lies in the particular, and there's no better story to tell than all of our stories. And it's so English, the "does the man in the corner shop." No other English-speaking country does that, and that one phrase places the song and its story so specifically that you feel like you could be watching a film.
The other thing is Weller's voice - he's toned down the harsh, spitting aggression of the first four albums and he's concentrating on carrying the tune - the echo gives his voice a gentler feel and makes the story he's telling feel almost like a dream.
"Go to church, do the people from the area/All shapes and classes sit and pray together/For here they are all one/For God created all men equal." That's a hell of a way to end a lyric of a Jam song, when most of the material Weller wrote was so rooted in the real world and so in-your-face.
And I suppose that's the real reason that this is a SongWithoutWhich - that, and the wondrous events of last Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Just Like Honey"

Not too many years ago I was given a copy of "The Rock Snob's Dictionary" by someone who knows me far too well. It's a very funny, uncomfortably accurate collection of the sort of esoteric one-upmanship that music nerds can be guilty of.
Or, as the blurb puts it: "At last! An A-to-Z reference guide for readers who want to learn the cryptic language of Rock Snobs, those arcana-obsessed people who speak of "Rickenbacker guitars" and "Gram Parsons."
I'll put my hand up now, if I haven't before at some stage of this blog, and admit that yes, I'm a Rock Snob. I can argue at LENGTH about whether the Stones were better with Brian or without, about the classical references strewn all about the Beatles' work, or about how Jackson Browne is more important than the Eagles.
And if you want to pick up these or any other topics with me, you can do it in the comments section.
But I'm going to go all wobbly and sad and admit that my Rock Snobbery has blinded me to a great number of treasures. Back in the mid-1980s, when I was still struggling to deal with punk in an adult fashion, I was unable -- or unwilling -- to process much in the way of what was going on at that time. I turned my back on gems like Los Lobos, Nick Cave, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen. Oh, sure, the odd piece of magic would break through the murk -- Killing Joke's "Love Like Blood" was one that really got to me -- but in general I was too busy still trying to process the 1970s.
Here's one song, and a band, I very definitely did miss out on.
And because I never exercised my Rock Snobbery on the Jesus & Mary Chain, they remain an intriguing mystery: I don't know the minutiae of their early days scratching around the club circuit, nor the details of their struggle to remain relevant in the face of increased popularity and major-label backing, their various drug-induced flame-outs and their triumphant renewal at a now-legendary gig in Budapest back in 1995. (I'm joking: this bit of Spinal-Tappery is meant to illustrate a point, ok?)
See? Because I can't contextualise the JAMC in any sort of stereotypical rock 'n roll storyline, I lose the ability to pontificate at length about just how great they are, and I can't whip out factoids and "in" references to show what a discerning fan I am. In short, "music fan digs great music for what it is shocker"!
Anyway, this is just terrific and needs to be listened to by everyone.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Cut My Wings"

I am so steamed.
As a cast-iron, certified 100% "rock snob", I get severely irritated and uppity whenever some no-neck fool displays their ignorance. And reading through the British press over the weekend, I ran into a doozy. Now you shouldn't go looking in the mainstream press for much in the way of informed criticism of anything, much less music, but still, it's the casual flaunting of utter idiocy that got my goat, particularly when it concerns someone as good as this guy.
Like pretty much anyone who believes that great music is not something that comes along every day, I have only a passing interest in what gets broadcast on music TV, but I happened to be watching the estimable Jools Holland's New Year show a couple of years back, and was flat-out knocked out by Seasick Steve.
Basically Steve's a life-long drifter with a guitar, who as far as I can tell is channeling Robert Johnson. On the show, he played amplified Delta blues on a three-stringed guitar, whacking a wooden box (the "Mississippi drum machine") with his shoe for a beat. And he didn't just play. He tore that guitar up, bent those three strings to within an inch of breaking, and generally hollered his way through some great music.
I mean, check this out!

In an age where, as I've complained before, rock bands and artists have to be airbrushed and image-consulted to kingdom come before they get loosed onto an unsuspecting public, an artist like Seasick Steve Wold is a breath of fresh air. There's no pretension at hipness, no punky attitude-by-numbers, as you'd expect from a guy who's spent his life on the margins. What you see is (apparently) what you get. If anyone remembers Ted Hawkins (Wikipedia is your friend, folks) then Steve is cut from the same cloth.
Steve's second album is out now, and it's just as good as the first one. An airheaded know-nothing of a columnist referred to him as a "glorified busker" and in so doing revealed his own utter ignorance of the traditions, the heritage of the blues. Seasick Steve is the blues.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Silver Machine"

I'm a confirmed and faithful car-driver. I love being behind the wheel, particularly if I'm beetling along some gorgeous rural landscape. I've driven through the lakes and passes of backwater Switzerland, along the dusty, deserted B roads in Italy, along the stark industrial nihi-scapes of eastern Europe and across the vast vacuum of the midwest US. And loved every damn second of each and every trip.
And when I'm driving, I'm listening to music. Over the past hundred or so years I've gone through countless cassette tapes, I've warped CDs in the heat of Arizona and hunted down 500,000-watt Mexican AM stations in the middle of the night. All in search of that moment when you recognise the song, you wriggle in the driver's seat to reach a more comfortable driving position, and let out a long, satisfied sigh of pleasure.
Nowadays, I'm told I don't have to do all this. Instead, I could saunter into my local music emporium and purchase any number of "Driving" compilations which have been lovingly assembled to enhance my motoring pleasure.
I can see what they're trying to do here, and you can but applaud the intention, but my God, the selections! Since when was the Waterboys' "The Whole of the Moon" a driving song? Or Prince's "Purple Rain"? Check out the compilation I've hotlinked above. How many of those songs would you actually like to drive to?
Who makes these compilations? Cyclists? Pedestrians? Certainly not drivers. I mean, who in their right mind is going to enjoy listening to Chris Rea siinging about the "Road to Hell" when they're loafing along the motorway at 80-something mph on their way to the Continent for their summer holiday?
Which brings me to today's song. Many, many moons ago I blogged "Silver Machine" in the tersest of terms, saying only that it was one of two heavy rock songs that everyone needs to own. But having thought it through over the last couple of years and having driven many miles with it, I'm here today to state, categorically, that this is the ONLY driving song with which every car should be equipped as standard.
Firstly, the title alone says "car." Well, purists could argue it says "spaceship", but I'm not here to quibble. The Silver Machine we drive every day is as close as most of us will get to a spaceship.
Secondly, the song drives. And when I say "drives" I mean it's un-bloody-stoppable. It's like being at the controls of some piece of heavy industrial machinery without any idea of how to turn the damn thing off.
Thirdly, it's not a "fast" song. It cruises, arms resting on the open windowsill, shifting up a gear every four bars and to hell with the mileage and when the next rest stop is. It makes a pleasing hissing noise as it zips along, like big trucks on a wet road.
Last of all, if you play it really LOUD, it slowly dulls your senses in the same way that your brain goes fuzzy after 400 miles at the wheel. The guitar, the frantic drums, the effects all blend together into some weird sound-scape that whisks past you like a blurred service station at 3 a.m.
What other song can lift you off your sofa and into the fast lane of Interstate 60 like that?

Friday, July 25, 2008

"The First Cut Is The Deepest"

One of the things I've always had a problem with as a music lover is the idea that we should be faithful to artists rather than to songs. Now, no matter how blinkered your attitude is to your favourite artist, you've got to admit that he/she/they have on occasion produced a real clunker.
So for every "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil" in the Stones' catalogue, there's a "Under Cover of the Night" lurking at the back of the pile.
I've got no problem with that. In fact, I can't put my hand on my heart and say that I have the complete works of any of my very favourite artists. There's always something you wish they hadn't committed to record.
Which is why I prefer to concentrate on individual works rather than entire albums. I don't think there's anything like a single, complete album on my MP3 player - there's always one or two songs that you can do without.
I may be lying. I think I have the whole of "Dark Side of the Moon".
In any case, I think this is all just a way of justifying why I have so many single tracks by particular artists in my collection. And here's another example.
I know full well that P.P. Arnold was perhaps the best of Ike & Tina's Ikettes, and that she performed many wonderful songs in the 60s. But, for the most part, they're not SongsWithoutWhich.
This one is, however.
Cat Stevens wrote it and around a hundred different artists have covered it, but nobody has come close to this performance. Arnold's voice is a husky, swooping, pained and wavering miracle, cut open to the bone and revelling in its sheer brutal honesty.
There's a great video here that was shot on Camber Sands with the Small Faces, but the video below show Arnold in all her glory. Enjoy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Bodies"

Punk.

Remember punk?

As I recall, punk arrived in a storm of outrage, a hail of spit and a wave of enthusiasm as we kids rejoiced in the slaughter of sacred cows, the formerly irreproachable titans who held sway throughout the world of music.

Where there had been prog rock's endless noodlings, now there was three-chord bashing. Where we had the airbrushed perfection of disco, we now had the scratchy Mohican "fuck you" of the street-level DIY ethic.

It was supposed to be the great musical democratic revolution, where everyone discovered that you didn't have to have an art school degree or a childhood's misery of music lessons to become a rock star. Anyone could do it.

And for a while, we believed it. Stars like Sid Vicious, Rat Scabies, Hugh Cornwell, Gaye Advert, Poly Styrene all seemed to be telling us that we, too could be up there.

But you know, I'm not so sure punk really was the blast of fresh air it was supposed to have been.

For a start, most of these people were pretty damn good musicians. Listen to Laura Logic's saxophone on "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" Or pretty much everything by The Stranglers. The Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes", on of the first supposedly "punk" hits, features some pretty un-punk harmony singing. The Clash.... well, the Clash came in with reggae.

Even the Sex Pistols, that untouchable lodestone of the whole punk and new wave ethos, were a pretty tight unit - at least Cook & Jones were.

What probably set punk apart, more than anything, was the look. I mean, hearing the Damned singing "New Rose" for the first time wouldn't have had anything like the same impact if Dave Vanian hadn't looked like Bela Lugosi's understudy and Rat Scabies hadn't looked like Fozzie Bear on day-release.

So, if the very first flush of punk wasn't even "punk" enough, what hope did those who followed have?

Siouxsie & the Banshees, Blondie, Adam & the Ants and before you know it, punk was left far behind and we were knee-deep in art-school new wave.

Which is a roundabout way of working up to this song.

"Bodies" was probably an experiment in seeing how tasteless one song could be. It was probably one of those dares that guys will come up with in the pub, to see how many utterly foul things they can put together. Either that, or Malcom McLaren had a deal going with the Daily Mail.

"She was a girl from Birmingham;
She just had an abortion.
She was a case of insanity;
Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree.
She was a no-one who killed her baby.
She sent her letters from the country.
She was an animal, she was a bloody disgrace."

The intro is utterly fantastic, more menacing even than the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", the guitar is a wall of sheer sweaty fuzzbox, and Paul Cook never drummed better in his life.

But even though it's a terrific tune, it's songs like this that make me wonder whether there really was any purpose to, or result of, the whole punk genre.

Was punk meant to be nothing more than a wrecking ball? What was it supposed to actually build?

As the video below shows, the Pistols live were fucking awful. It's obvious that the only musicians in that band were Cook & Jones, and it's equally clear that producer Chris Thomas had to do a lot of work to make the Pistols' only album presentable. The only real saving grace is Johnny Rotten's stage presence.

I suppose all of this is nit-picking. The Pistols were one of a handful (and I mean handful) of bands that changed music. In this case, they ripped up the convention that said "thou shalt not speak of the ugly realities." Johnny Rotten was the perfect personality to drive a stake through the heart of the complacent dinosaur that music had become - in the video below he's utterly magnetic: Fagin the AntiChrist, if you like.

It's more a case of BandWithoutWhich than a SongWithoutWhich....

Friday, March 14, 2008

"If You Won't Leave Me I'll Find Somebody Who Will"

TV theme tunes.

It's a tough job, picking or writing a theme tune for a TV show. You've got to make it readily identifiable, for a start. By now, I imagine that anyone who hears the opening bars of The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You" is immediately transferred to a sanitised, family-values-friendly simulacrum of New York and the daily goings-on of the Friends. So, mission accomplished on that particular front.

Secondly, it's got to be hummable. John Sebastian's cheery, beery "Welcome Back" ("Welcome Back, Kotter") is a perfect example, though the trend for macho rock-oriented themes, or digital, futuristic themes ("Knight Rider", anyone?) sort of threw us all off track.

And ideally, it's got to give you a hint about the show itself, and here the genius of the TV executives who chose the Rembrandts song for "Friends" shines through. The show itself may be questionable, and the song itself may be a bit bland, but as a TV theme it leaves no room for misinterpretation.

So what do we make of this?:

"Ever look out your window, babe,
And wonder what was going down in the street below?
Out where the four winds blow?
Ever stand in the crossroads, babe,
And know it didn't really matter which road you chose?
Heaven knows...
I'm a refugee from the mansion on the hill
And if you won't leave me, I'll find somebody who will."

Forty-three seconds. Restless rock beat.

There's alienation, confusion, even a hint of desperation in there. Not what we'd call prime-time television. Which is what makes this so great, and makes me wonder what the hell kind of TV show this was meant to be the theme for.

Because it never got made.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Machine Gun"

There's a long and in most cases honourable tradition in popular music of artists exercising their rights as human beings to comment on the world around them and, where appropriate, to protest at what they perceive to be wrong.
Every so often someone writes a learned article on the dearth of protest songs today, and casts back nostalgically to the 1960s for examples of a time when popular music wholeheartedly embraced its role in contemporary society and threw up a legion of committed, intelligent songwriters.
Since that period we've not exactly been over-endowed with protest writers, and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" andd Peter Gabriel's "Biko" stand out a mile among fairly innocuous tunes like "Sun City" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
What's even more interesting is that musicians - real, honest-to-God players of instruments - don't seem to have bestowed protest songs with their very best work. I mean, while we can all agree with the sentiments expressed, most of these tunes are not what you'd call classic.
Take "Do They Know It's Christmas?" We remember it for what, exactly? Mostly the images associated with the song, and the fact that the song itself, and the Live Aid concert, were major events. Midge Ure's melody is fairly pedestrian and the lyrics...well, don't get me started.
As I said, there are songs and artists out there which "did the job" far, far better than anything we've seen in the last 30 years: Country Joe McDonald's "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag", Edwin Starr's "War", Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son", Arlo Guthrie's hysterically funny "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", and Neil Young's savage "Ohio" are just a few.
But this one stands head, shoulders and body above the rest. Not because it's lyrically very clever or says something new, but because this song, more than any one other song, represents the revolution that Jimi Hendrix wrought on the electric guitar as an instrument. If all you ever wanted to hear was how a musical instrument and the sounds it makes can call up the images of something, then this is your song.
Here, Hendrix hoists the guitar out of the rhythm-and-blues trenches and lets rip, almost literally. He drags feedback, white noise and soaring, screeching horror from a simple piece of wood and wire and lets them play about our heads.
The song bleeds as if its life was seeping out through hastily-applied bandages, breaking out into occasional screams of pain. The chaos of hurt, the trembling unstoppable trainwreck of war is brought to life through ten fingers, some wires and transistors and one unholy battle of a song.
I'm sure I've bored on this topic before, but nobody, NOBODY had ever made music like this, or has since. Nobody has been able to lasso the unpredictable whiplash of feedback or white noise and make it do their will like Hendrix did. And to tame it, organise it into such a hard, powerful statement like this.....
Billy Cox and Buddy Miles provide a steady background of bass and wailing harmonies, while Hendrix's vision of hell shape-shifts and crawls around your head like a particularly vivid nightmare. Towards the end, Billy and Buddy harmonize behind Hendrix's singing, uttering a ghostly, other-worldly howl that matches the mood to perfection.
The lyrics aren't anything special, but they don't need to be. The music's doing all the talking here, and it's saying a ton.
Check out the film of this performance below. Hendrix built his early reputation as a showman, a show-off, playing the guitar with his teeth or behind his head but here, it's all about the music, the sounds. He stands still for much of the song, moving only to adjust the effects pedals or crank up the speakers. It's as if he doesn't want to be noticed, but prefers to let the music have its say.
THAT'S a protest song, dammit.

Friday, February 01, 2008

"Sweetheart of the Rodeo"

Back in the day, music was simple to understand. Your grandparents simply had "music," which usually referred to Brylcreemed crooners singing the sort of song that brought to mind cardigans, hot chocolate and a crackling fire.
After Bill Haley there was "music" and there was "rock 'n roll."
Bob Dylan popped up and we had to add "folk."
Someone paid attention to what was going on in the US and reluctantly, we opened a new file called "country and western."
From there, it went downhill. Acid rock, folk-rock, glitter rock, prog rock, disco, punk, new wave, ambient, house, trance, garage, you get the picture.
Proper music nerds like nothing more than to spend hours categorising bands. And it's got to the stage now where pretty much every band has its own sub-sub-sub-sub genre. Just to prove that they aren't like anyone else you've ever heard.
And of course you can't have any two genres actually merge - it has to be a 50:50 joint-venture, with an option to withdraw on grounds of music and aesthetic incompatibility.
Where is all this taking us tonight?
To the site of a deep-space impact, to be precise. The kind of impact where a solid, meaty planet busy on its own orbit meets a feisty asteroid that just won't take no for an answer.
Imagine you're in The Byrds, a solid, respected band touted for a while as the US' answer to The Beatles. You're all fantastic musicians, you sing glorious harmonies and you've managed to drag folk influences into the electronic rock age more convincingly than Dylan ever did.
You've had some seriously big hits: "Mr Tambourine Man", "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "Eight Miles High", "My Back Pages."
Unfortunately, your band is falling down around your ears. Either you don't get on with them, or they don't get on with you, or they have better things to do, and eventually you're left as just Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. What to do?
Well, what they *did* was draft in Gram Parsons.
Gram was a fairly low-profile guy at this time: no track record to speak of, but it didn't stop him from shoving The Byrds off the folk-rock highway and onto a new, dusty, unimproved road - country-rock.
"Sweetheart of the Rodeo" was the only Byrds album with Parsons on board, but it's a million miles away from the trippy "Eight Miles High," or the chiming "Mr Tambourine Man."
Where before there were 12-string Rickenbacker guitars, here were country twangs. Where before was the nervous, jittery rhythm of "Eight Miles High", here was a laid-back cross-country groove.
Today, this sound is so all-pervasive that we take it for granted. Sheryl Crow, the Eagles, Neil Young wouldn't have been able to do half the things they did without the car-crash that created country-rock. Pretty much the entire mid-80s "Americana" movement - Jason & the Scorchers, the Rainmakers, the Jayhawks, Long Ryders - owe their existence to this album and to the new genre it created.
And that's one for the nerds.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"I'm Free"

A long time ago, a friend and I were in an art gallery, staring at a work by David Hockney (if I remember rightly). My friend muttered something to the effect that this art business didn't seem like a lot of hard work. Splash a bit of paint here and there and bingo.

But is anything as easy as it looks to others? I've had heated debates with people who've doubted the amount of real work that goes into all sorts of skills. Take motor racing. "It's just going round and round in circles," someone scoffed in the pub a few years back.

Right, I said. It's as easy as that. You just push the "go" pedal all the way down and turn the wheel when you get to a corner.

Ask Martin Brundle, Peter Dumbreck, Yannick Dalmas - all guys who have shown, graphically, that it isn't as easy as all that.

If it were that easy, we'd all be Ayrton Senna or Jackson Pollock, right?

Which is where this song comes in. Now, when I started this post, I was looking for a way to celebrate this fantastic news. And, oddly enough, this song was playing in my ears on the way home and I thought, "Yeah! Let's do it."

On the surface, the title, the lyric and even the film from which it comes (which is, spookily enough, on TV later tonight) all look positive and upbeat enough:

"I'm free, I'm free...
And freedom tastes of reality,
I'm free, I'm free...
And I'm waiting for you to follow me."

But then I started to mistrust Pete Townsend. I listened to the song again, and wondered who is really speaking here. Is the character of Tommy spouting populist cod-psychology because Townsend believes it, or because he wants to poke fun at it because it's ridiculous? I mean, this *is* the sixties we're talking about, folks. Nothing's as simple as it looks (again).

So it looks like I'll have to find a more appropriate song for you, Min. Cheers!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Elusive"

Human memory is a frail, rickety, idiosyncratic affair. We're not always in charge of what, or more importantly, how we remember things. For example, if someone hands me a home-made BLT sandwich, I'm instantly transported to my childhood, to my grandparents' kitchen and the big pile of BLTs that my aunts and uncle would make, in a production line, for lunch on the front porch.

Taste, smell, touch, these are senses that can raise a more powerful reaction than a proper, retained memory.

I've spent the last two days commuting to and from work with this song on repeat, listening to it over and over again, trying to get my head around it, to find a way to explain what this song does.

I think it's like a sensory trip-wire; the scent, taste or sound that drives flat-out to the very core of your being and sets off every alarm bell. It's like (guys, pay attention), sitting in a crowded train and suddenly smelling the perfume that a long-lost, long-missed girlfriend used to wear.

Being a guy, of course, you can't remember the name of the scent, but oh boy, do you ever remember the old girlfriend, the happy times, the longing that you're shocked to realise you still feel, and above all the emptiness that you briefly believe has been your fate ever since you dumped her.

Or rather, you *think* you remember. Only the picture isn't quite clear. Her face is blurred because, at this distance of time, you really can't exactly remember the shape of her nose or the curve of her chin.

You remember what it being with her was like, how she felt to hold. Or rather, you remember what being with her felt like to *you*, how holding her made you *feel*, because you really can't remember how, when you held her, your arms would rest on her narrow waist, and how you used to lock your fingers together behind her back.

That's what this song is like. It's the bare bones of a memory, something that feels so wispy and insubstantial, and yet is crammed chock-full of atmosphere and pin-sharp sensory memory.

It starts with the briefest hint of menace, fingers gently dragged over guitar strings with a hint of echo, before, with a slightly weary sigh, Matthews launches into the mystery.

"She's elusive and I'm awake,
You're finally real, there's nothing fake.
A mystery now to me and you,
Open my eyes and I'm next to you.
She said my destiny lies in the hands that set me free."

Even as he wakes up next to her, it's clear that she's not there to stay. She's always just out of reach, eluding our need to capture, pin down and pigeon-hole. She's like a memory that won't go away, yet won't come into focus.

"If it's true, then I am doomed,
What more is there to hold on to?
A strand of her hair is all I own;
A gift to me, this sorry soul."

You can almost sense the despair that's wrapped up in those words. Matthews' voice is worn, tired, his falsetto a wondrous combination of soaring hope and resignation.

I remember one of Sting's first singles after he left The Police was called "If You Love Someone, Set Them Free."

Well, what he didn't bargain for was that if we do let someone go, we can be imprisoned by a memory that fades and can never be fully recaptured, but that never fully disappears either.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"White Punks on Dope"

"Teenage, had a race for the night time;
Spent my cash on every high I could find;
Wasted time in every school in L.A.:
Getting loose, I didn’t care what the kids say."

A long time ago, I blogged Warren Zevon's "Detox Mansion," in which he sang:

"Left my home in Music City in the back of a limousine
Now I'm doing my own laundry, and I'm getting those clothes clean.
Growing fond of Detox Mansion, and this quiet life I lead,
But I'm just dying to tell my story, for all my friends to read."

The whole point about that blog was that, back when rock still had hair and all its own teeth, rock stars didn't want you to know about their drug problems. When Famous Singer A had to have his stomach pumped, or Guitar Hero B needed a shot of adrenaline when his heart stopped in the shower, the record company executives closed ranks to make sure the story didn't find its way to the papers.

These days, when Lily or Amy teeter blindly out of a nightclub and into the arms of the Priory, the record company execs, the publicists, the stylists, voice coaches and hairdressers all parrot exactly the same line. They all talk about "exhaustion."

Now, to you or me, that means we've been sitting up all night with a kid who's been throwing up, or we've just pulled a 48-hour stint at work to get the presentation done in time.

When *they* use that word, *their* concept of exhaustion is about as alien to real life as possible. What *they* mean is that poor Amy has been digging around in her arm looking for a vein for the last 48 hours. How fatiguing. What *they* mean is that Lily has been pouring so much alcohol down her neck that her she could fit an optic to her bladder. How desperately tiring.

What's even more distasteful is the conspiracy that the media and these hangers-on engage in. The papers want to sell more stories, while the hangers-on have careers to think about. So the hangers-on can put their hands on their hearts and parrot the officially-sanctioned "exhaustion" line, while the papers just wink and look for new ways to say "dope-addled twat."

I don't want to pick out any particular performers -- though I have taken two names in vain -- because frankly they're all just as bad as each other.

"I go crazy ’cause my folks are so fucking rich;
Have to score when I get that rich white punk itch.
Sounds real classy, living in a chateau:
So lonely, all the other kids will never know."

Fee Waybill (I think) once explained that White Punks on Dope was about all those teenage kids living in California, waiting around in a drugged stupor until they were 18 to get their hands on their trust fund.

It kind of fits today's rant. We've hot-housed a generation of under-cooked little pop tartlets who've been handed the keys to the world after one appearance on MySpace, and most of them have taken the inch they've been given, and run a mile.

Ask twenty kids what they want to be when they grow up, and they'll say "famous." Ask them "famous for what?" and they'll probably shrug and say "whatever."

Let's look back at some other famous drug users

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Lewis Carroll
Thomas Edison
Charles Dickens
Salvador Dali
Marcus Aurelius
Benjamin Franklin
Sigmund Freud
Cardinal Richelieu
William Wilberforce
Paracelcus
Thomas Jefferson

Not exactly a bunch of "whatever," are they?

But until our current crop of drug-users starts producing the goods on a par with the folks above, they're really just a bunch of white punks on dope.

"Born on the Bayou"

I have an affinity for what Americans call "Southern rock" - a friend of mine calls it "rock with more than a pinch of soul added," and that's a fair a description as I've heard. All the way from Creedence Clearwater Revival right through the the Black Crowes, there's a great fat seam of soul-tinged rock that moves you just a little more persuasively than, say, Boston or Aerosmith does - though to be honest Aerosmith have picked up more than a little southern influence along their way.
I don't know how it's done, and frankly I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, but there are times when rock needs to be a little more...re-fried. And if there was ever a piece of music that conjured up a place, a day, a feeling, this must be one such tune.

"I can remember the fourth of July,
Runnin' through the backwood, bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin',
Chasin' down a hoodoo there."

John Fogerty's voice has got to be one of the most recognisable larynxes around. Nobody else quite has that ability to sound like he's gargling with crude oil while trying to scream.
At the same time, the band's sound shimmers as though you were viewing it through an oppressive heat haze, brushing aside fat, dripping leaves hanging over the water as you try to get closer.
There's a lazy, insistent rhythm too, like organic machinery at the point of collapse, that just wills you to move. I don't know if Fogerty invented the word "choogling," but that just about sums up the rhythm of this song.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Birdhouse In Your Soul"

Oh, it's been a long time. And if anyone thought I'd run out of songs, well...

When I first tried to put this baby to bed 18 months ago, I wrote that "anyone who can find more than 500 songs that they can't live without is probably spreading their jam a little too thinly on the toast."

Well, maybe.

On the other hand, I've tracked down and downloaded some 2,600 songs that accompany me pretty much everywhere I go, and while a few of them were downloaded for fun, or mischief, the vast majority are with me for a damn good reason.

Case in point:

Allegedly, this is a novelty song. Allegedly, They Might Be Giants is a novelty band. But anyone who can write, and sing a lyric like:

"There's a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry,
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck-free.
Though I respect that a lot
I'd be fired if that were my job,
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts."

..has got to have a little tiger in his tank.

This is a jaunty song. I can think of no other word that accurately describes it. It's got an annoying, catchy chorus -- yes, that's annoying AND catchy -- and lopes along with all the grace of a tweenie playing hopscotch on a cracked and uneven pavement.

What I like are the casual hints that beneath the surface of this song, there's a really intelligent mind at work. Someone who can dredge up old-world sayings like "bee in your bonnet" (I mean, who says that any more?), or who can imagine someone filibustering "vigilantly."

Hell, just putting "filibustering" in a song makes it something special. The video shows the band to be just what I always thought they were - college nerds, but what's the point of a college education if you can't use it?

Lastly, maybe someone could reassure me. This song is all about a night-light, right?