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


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.