Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"(I Never Loved) Eva Braun"

Do we like Geldof?

It seems a million years ago Bob Geldof was a new wave singer, another snotty streak of piss with an attitude, a mouth and a truckload of ambition. All of that seems to have been overrun by his involvement with famine relief, third world development, peace, butter mountains, and for a while by his personal life.
These days, the Geldof brand is being marketed by his daughters, who certainly seem a chip off the old block in some respects.
Back in the day though Geldof the singer (the real one, not the daughter) was the real "enfant terrible" of the new wave. When Johnny Rotten retired to become John Lydon and work at being taken as a serious musician, Geldof was right there, stage left, waiting to take over.
But where Johnny Rotten was all about outrage for outrage's sake, Geldof was always more thoughtful, if sometimes a little clumsy. Like Sinead O'Connor, Geldof had issues with some of the hard-dying traditions in Irish society, the influence of the Church, and he used his position as a pulpit from which to attack.
Even his music reflected more thought. While the Pistols were throwing as much manure at the wall to stink up the place, The Boomtown Rats picked their subjects with a little more care, even if shock was still on the agenda. "I Don't Like Mondays" got itself banned in the US for dealing with a schoolyard shooting (20 years before Columbine), and "Mary of the Fourth Form" and "She's So Modern" skewered the rapidly-unwinding tradition of schoolroom innocence, like The Police would do later.
But one song, to me, stands head and shoulders above the rest of their material.
if you're setting out to shock and undermine you can do it, as the Pistols did, with a blunt instrument. Or you can subvert the process and have a little fun. I have no doubt that, as unpalatable as the subject matter is, Geldof had a lot of fun writing this song.
"I never loved Eva Braun/Though a thousand people say I did/She was just some girl who was on the make/Boy she wanted to be so big."
Okay, so we're already coming at the subject sideways. Listen to song! Not only are the Rats twisting our tail, they're taking the mickey by hauling in ancient references (the "Are you really going out with Adolf?", the "oh no?"/"oh yeah?"/"yes we see" are pulled straight from the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack?").
I never heard all the screams (oh no?)/I never saw the blood and dirt and gore (oh yeah?)/That wasn't part of the dream, (yes, we see)/Of maps and generals and uniforms."
To be honest, it's a sick, twisted song, but from the safe distance of thirty-plus years, we can see that it's entirely in keeping with the Geldof way: be outrageous, be subversive, take the accepted truth and play with it.
And it's helped by a truly great chant-along chorus that spins faster and faster, right to the final ringing chord, and the whispered, awed, "Gee!".
Maybe it's not songwriting on a par with the Neil Youngs of this world, but it's as in-your-face and provocative as Geldof ever was.

Apologies for the video... minimize the window if you must.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Ezy Ryder"

I'm taking a night class in creative writing - sort of scratching an ancient itch of you like. While I write for a living, journalism isn't exactly creative: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, it's all laid out there for you and all you need to do is arrange it so that it makes sense. Creative writing is conjuring something out of thin air, something that didn't necessarily happen to people that don't necessarily exist.
And as any teacher will tell you, a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And as I'm finding out, a good beginning is a real challenge.
Which brings me to songs, and how a great song begins. The only problem here is that there are so many great intros to choose from.
I've already listed more than a few songs that have magnificent intros: the Stones' apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter", Hendrix's unstoppable "Ezy Ryder", the Allman Brothers' spic "Whipping Post", CSN&Y's gentle, perfect "Find the Cost of Freedom", Arlo Guthrie's gorgeous "Gabriel's Mother's Hiway Ballad No. 16 Blues", the list goes on....
But then, it's not necessarily *what* you start a song with, but *how* you start it that matters. So a song with no intro at all can be great - the Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict" kicks off with lyrics before the music starts, while Catatonia's "Road Rage" puts Cerys Mathews' voice well to the fore, so you've heard two lines of lyric before you've even worked out what the tune is.
At the other extreme you can spend one and a half minutes listening to Traffic get their so-laid-back-it's-horizontal groove on before Stevie Winwood starts singing in "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys". And Pink Floyd were never ones to mess up a perfectly good piece of ambient soundscape with nasty, human lyrics until it was absolutely necessary (usually around ten minutes into the piece). Besides, you had to let the sustain on Dave Gilmour's guitar fade away before there was room for a vocal...
So what this is all gathering itself to say is that there probably is no perfect, or even right way to start a song.
Great. Now, how about ending a song?
I mean, do you let it gently fade away into nothingness, like the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus"? The Fabs irritatingly stuck so many bits and clips onto the fade-out, forcing me to spend many long evenings gradually turning the volume higher and higher in an effort to work out what was being said (as I recall the final sentence is "Sit you down, father; rest you").
A side question here - how long do you think Cream extended the thrash-out at the end of "Sunshine of Your Love" *after* the recording fades out? I bet that was fun. And who left the tapes running on "Helter Skelter"?
Alternately, you can run a song into a brick wall to end it, like Blur do on "Song 2", or Roxy Music on "Do the Strand", or Faith No More on "We Care a Lot!".
Most songs, if they don't fade out, just bring everything to a neat and tidy end, so tidy in fact that it's almost unsatisfying. It takes a particular kind of cussed nature to cut a song off in its prime and leave the listener wondering what the hell happened to the neat ending.
So, picking my favourite intro hasn't been easy - it's taken many weeks in fact. But I come back, time and again, to Hendrix's Ezy Ryder. It's not delicate or sensitive: Jimi's hammering hard on the strings to get those choked chords out, but nonetheless they flow, they grow, they swirl until the intro's built up such an immense head of steam that you cannot resist or obstruct the launch of the song proper.
The rest of the song ain't so damn bad, either.

For my favourite ending, I'm reaching way, way back to the 70s to the chaotic implosion at the end of "White Punks on Dope": the chorale fades, drunk/stoned musicians ask "as that alright?" and then cackle with maniacal laughter, a toilet flushes, and finally a voice intones something Spanish. More Dada than Dada.

There's no video of the full version of the song sadly. The single was chopped and edited to bits, faded out and generally sanitised. But grab a copy of the Tubes' first album and don't ever let it go. Totally fab.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"The Older We Get"

Do we get harder as we get older?
I mean, do we grow a tougher skin, do we become more uncompromising, more.... for want of a better word, ruthless?
Think back to teenage years, when everything matters, where every sense, every sensation is magnified by our unfamiliarity with it; where everything we feel, from the unutterable joy of a favourite song to the intense disorientation of the afterglow of a romance, is just so damn big. Does that magnification fade, dwindle, as we grow into adulthood or do we simply develop better ways to deal with it?
I suppose what I mean is how we as humans, both young and old, deal with stresses in our lives. From the shock of realising that we are entering "The World" after the cotton-wool basket of infancy and childhood, to the vast untested horizon of independence and responsibility, these are massive stresses that we face as children and teenagers and even into our twenties.
Later, as fully paid-up adults, we face essentially the same dilemmas but because we have told ourselves there is more at stake, or because in fact there *is* more at stake, we feel that the potential costs are so much greater.
Do we find our strength and resilience in simply growing tougher and more ruthless in handling our errors, our choices, or do we try to absorb them, feel them to their fullest potential and absorb the lessons so that next time we will confront them with the same optimism but just make the right decision first time?
It's an often-repeated piece of conventional wisdom that the three most stressful events we face in our lives are marriage/divorce, moving home and changing work. These are all adult events, but just rearrange those events into a teenage context and the stress is just the same.
So it's how we handle these events that must change. In our youth we dive in head-first, experience everything to its fullest and emerge on the other side bruised but still whole.
It's as adults that we are more prone to breaking rather than bending, I think. We are more set in our ways, less willing to make the adjustments, the compromises that we once believed were the better approach.
"As a child touching age, we think that it's so:/That life, love and everything is easy to know./The old, they can't reach us/Their ways are not ours/Though they furrowed our futures/Our freedom they bore."
I'm not sure how to wrap this up, except to say that when we take the luxurious moment to stop the clock and look backwards in generous spirit, I think it's important that we try to remember how much more *life* we can experience if we open ourselves to the possibility that imperfect is the natural state of things, and that stress and disappointment is normal. To allow ourselves to dry out, to stiffen and to be prone to breaking rather than bending is to remove ourselves from this world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Stay With Me"

Many, many years ago, I got to live a dream. Through my brother, I met a guy that ran a pirate radio station - no, perhaps *the* pirate radio station - and he asked me to work as a DJ for this station.
Understand, this was in the mid to late 1980s, before the wholesale liberalisation of the airwaves, when pirates still contributed something to the agenda (perhaps they still could today).
Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and one Valentine's Day I found myself shivering on the deck of a tiny fishing boat as it ploughed its way offshore. I landed, seasick and disoriented, on a 200 foot ship parked in the middle of the English Channel, and three hours later, I was doing my first show.
At this distance of years, it is a fond, warm memory, a consolation even; and I classify as one of my more "rebellious" acts. As a non-Britisher, I risked being tossed out of the UK for good if the authorities came after me. So I lived those few months extra-hard. I drank in every moment, even when the weather chased me into the darkest bowels of the rusting, tired old ship. I watched St Elmo's Fire dance around the aerial masts, I learned to drink coffee and tea with salt as well as sugar, I even got to taste horseflesh.
And I spent hours, days, listening to music. A kid in his early 20s, a music nut, let loose among 15,000 or so records, with copious facilities to play, record, mix and enjoy.
I got to know real strangers, the motley assortment of characters who were drawn on board simply to play the music they loved for hundreds of thousands of people they'd never meet. Some of us were serial offenders, jumping from pirate station to pirate station, others were kids with the DJ bug who just had to get into "the business" and for all I know, still are in the business.
We'd watch for supply boats when the beer and cigarettes ran out, we'd wave at the ferries passing every day, we'd even flick a finger at the Air Force jets that once in a while would buzz the ship.
But most of all, we sat together and each of us chortled inside at cocking a snook at The Man, at our daring and naughtiness, reveling in the companionship that comes from a shared risk. And when my time was up, I left without a backward glance.
Last week, I went to see "The Boat That Rocked", Richard Curtis' film based on the pirate station that I once worked on. It wasn't the ship, the time, the atmosphere that I remembered - it was long before, in the station's heyday, but the ethos, the feeling was the same.
Yes, there was nostalgia, some sadness that the era has passed, but most of all, a warmth in remembering the oh-so simple act of rebellion that took me out to sea.
I still have about ten cassette mix tapes that I made on the boat, songs that I discovered for the first breathless, delicious time in the warm cabin that served as the record library. Many of them are SongsWithoutWhich and are chronicled here.
But this one isn't. It's actually a song from the film I saw last week, and so I can't claim it was a selection based on my impeccable taste, nor a song that resonates with personal meaning. It's just a wonderful song, whose chorus I recall dimply from some radio show many years ago and which, when it cropped up in the film, gave me one of those "ahhh" moments when a long-forgotten memory comes streaking to the front of your mind.
I won't ever associate this song with my time on the radio station, but I do now associate it with my act of remembrance of that time and so it is, tangentially on one level at least, a SongWithoutWhich.
It doesn't hurt that Lorraine Ellison has a voice that does both the caressing and the paint-stripping in equal measures, and that it is a simply fantastic song. 'nuff said.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Downtown Train"

What's happened to the love song over the years is a pretty exact mirror of what's happened to society at the same time. Everything becomes more explicit, more obsessive, more dysfunctional. And so have the songs.
Let's review somoe evidence. In 1950, Nat King Cole sang "Mona Lisa" which went a little like this:
"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you/You're so like the lady with the mystic smile/Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you/For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?"
Beautiful, isn't it? Elegant, restrained, and with a hint of sadness beneath. Textured and literate too.
So now we fast forward a decade, and here are the Beatles:
"Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover/Something in the way she woos me/I don't want to leave her now/You know I believe in how."
Equally elegant, equally beautiful and George Harrison's little guitar break is gorgeous.
But then, later in the song comoes this:
"You're asking me will my love grow/I don't know, I don't know/Stick around, and it may show/But I don't know, I don't know."
Suddenly love, commitment and the desire to cleave to one another became conditional, or at least uncertain, as the changes wrought in the 1960s filtered through into our very simple view of ourselves and our emotional relationships. Suddenly the world eas more of a playground and we didn't need to cleave to our partner quite as much as our parents did.
Now we hit the 1970s. For the purposes of demonstration, I'll take Billy Joel:
"Don't go changing, to try and please me/You never let me down before/Don't imagine you're too familiar/And I don't see you anymore."
Lordy! Suddenly the love song has admitted to the possibility of codependency, and that we have to really, really work at being just right for our partner. Why? Because they have an alternative now. Anyone who's read Tim Harford's "The Logic of Life" should understand: relationships have become a bargain struck in the market place. We take someone on because we calculate the costs and the benefits of being with them and for a while at least, the costs outweigh the benefits. For a while.
Still with me? On to the 1980s, then:
"I wanna know what love is/I want you to show me/I wanna feel what love is/I know you can show me."
Geez, talk about projection. So now we've all become emotional illiterates who can't identify our own feelings?
"If I should stay/I would only be in your way/So I'll go, but I know/I'll think of you ev'ry step of the way."
What, so now we didn't know we loved someone until we split up? Big oops. (And yeah, I know it was written a lot earlier.)
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that the love song has mirrored our own emotional decay, to the point where love songs these days are more about obsessive codependency than soulful paeans to the one we purely, simply, love.
And I will now present to you what is, to me, the ultimate love song.

It's simple, it's real. The characters and the situations may not be pretty, but they're real. Honest. "Downtown Train" is a story rather than a shopping list of one person's lusts and insecurities. The line "Will I see you tonight/On a downtown train" could have come from a black & white film, a bygone era.
There's desire, sure, but it's emotional desire and not physical. The song aspires to something better, greater than so much of what we are forced to listen to these days. And it gives not a fig for codependency, obsession, need. It's generous, open, properly loving. And in a day, a time like this, it's a consolation to know that there are people who still love like that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"In Every Dream Home a Heartache"

I've been dropping references to art-school rock from time to time, usually to point out how punk and new wave really weren't the snotty, street-level phenomenon that we all thought they were at the time, but instead a fairly carefully choreographed effort at testing the collective boundaries of post-permissive society. Ten years after "free love", LSD and all that jazz, it seemed the only way to outrage the bourgeoisie was to swear at them. Even the hippies didn't do that...
Anyhow, I didn't really think much of the references to art schools until I rocked through the Rs on my collection and came slap bang up against these guys.
I suppose if you were looking for an exemplar of the whole idea of art students as rock musicians, you could do a whole lot worse than Roxy Music's first two albums (yes, the ones with Brian Eno).
They made a visual as well as aural statement - Bryan Ferry had his immaculate coiffure and louche elegance, Eno looked like Riff-Raff's mild cousin, Phil Manzanera like a biker who'd just had his annual shower, all very eclectic - just like art school.
And so with the sound. From the frantic joyous romp that is "Virginia Plain", the out-to-lunch weirdness of "Ladytron", on through the lively chaos of "Do the Strand" and then...this.
It's a masterpiece in two halves. The first is all menace, sullen glitter and empty wealth: "Open-plan living/Bungalow ranch-style/All of its comforts/Seem so essential." A dangerously seductive mood, half-despairing, half-drunk at the pleasures of excess, quiet and menacing. The story evolves, spins slowly in from its wide-screen view to the story of a man and his inflatable doll. And by the time anger begins to flare ("Inflatable doll/Lover ungrateful/I blew up your body/But you blew my mind"), the song has seemingly built up unsustainable pressure and all hell breaks loose.
Sheer genius. A decade before Adam Ant was pulling the whip out of his valise and getting so physical, Roxy Music had already mapped out the territory.
But because art students back then didn't swear on TV, the bourgeois didn't make a fuss. And by the time Adam Ant was a memory, Roxy were still in business.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Whenever a musical genre is born its leaders proclaim loudly how their sound is like nothing else we've heard, that they've broken the mould, that they're fresh, new and unique. And while that may be true on some level, invariably these pioneers owe their place to someone who came before, who pointed them in the right direction.
The Beatles were fans of rhythm & blues; the Byrds created a delicate fusion of folk and rock; the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones developed the blues; and Led Zeppelin took the whole damn shooting match and turned the volume up to 11.
Later on, things got a little more confused as communication developed closer to the pan-global instant access that we enjoy today, and New York and London fed off each other. Punk, though many think of it as a British phenomenon, was really a transatlantic joint venture: punk bands would later namecheck key influences such as the New York Dolls or the Small Faces.
So it is sometimes an interesting exercise to look through the last decade or so and wonder what bands the Next New Wave will be claiming as a key influence. Maybe the whole arena of popular music has become so well-connected through MySpace, YouTube and the like that influences will become more immediate, and we won't have to wait almost a generation until the next set of snotty rebellious Bash Street Kids come swaggering out of nowhere and drop names like Happy Mondays or The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
But I'd very much like to know what bands have or will cite this band, and this song as a seminal moment. I suppose it may be too soon to say what Nirvana's long-lasting impact will have been. They certainly managed to cover a lot of territory in their short time, gathering a lot of what was called "indie" and bringing it to the attention of the masses. They made it hard for kids to try to be cool by liking obscure bands, by shining a million-watt bulb on the scene that spawned them. Nirvana almost made the mainstream look indie.
They may also have been the last truly rebellious rock group. For the last fifty years, rock music has tapped into teenage alienation...
"What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" "Whaddaya got?" gather the kids and their admiration and worship. Rock music offered those kids at the margins - the disaffected, the marginalised - a chance to be cool.
But Nirvana did this on a scale that meant that pretty much any uncool kid suddenly became part of something widespread, something almost comfortable. Nirvana didn't express the politicised rage of punk, the ambitions of the art-schooled, but rather the wailing confusion of a generation that had nothing left to rebel against. Increasingly permissive parenthood has meant that there's less for teenagers to rebel against, and this lack of focus, this lack of a target results in the passive rage that we see around us. There's no "Man" to stick it to these days, just gnawing boredom to lament:
"With the lights out its less dangerous/Here we are now/Entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now/Entertain us."
And that may be Nirvana's great dollop of genius: to have managed to tap into that early-21st century rootlessness and give the latest generation an anthem for their own time.

Friday, January 02, 2009

"Sunshine of Your Love"

In the film "Wayne's World" (or it may be the sequel, I can't be sure), there's a moment when Wayne sees a particularly beautiful guitar. He turns to camera and says "It will be mine. Oh yes."
Well, you get the same sort of feeling from this song. As love songs go, this isn't so much a hearts-and-flowers "moon-and-June" type of song, more a "You're mine. Get used to it" song. Which is fine with me.
The intro is just about the most recognisable opening 16 bars in rock anywhere, a spare riff on bass, echoed by the guitar with a muffled jungle throb in the background. Dark, brooding, a little mysterious. Hardly what you'd expect to hear, given the song's title.
"It's getting near dawn/When lights close their tired eyes./I'll soon be with you my love,/To give you my dawn surprise./I'll be with you darling soon,/I'll be with you when the stars start falling."
And right from the start, I'm wondering to myself how Jack Bruce can have been overlooked as one of the very greatest singers of his eras. It's not a blues growl, nor is it a rock shout: it's crystal clear, hinting at a deep wellspring of emotion beneath, rising to hit the higher notes with barely a trace of effort. Just fantastic.
Eric Clapton's guitar playing is perfect for the song: understated, happy to sit in the background until his solo, when he steps up and delivers - just right. Bluesy, but not drawn-out, clear, almost an academic solo, as if he's trying to understand what he's playing and why.
Ginger Baker sounds like he's not using his sticks but is just striking the skins with the flat of his hand, so muffled is the sound. It's exact, precise drumming, holding the song together with bonds of steel, hitting the off-beat with such relish that you can almost see him laughing with glee.
"I've been waiting so long/To be where I'm going;/In the sunshine of your love."
As a New Year's bonus, here are two different takes on the song. Firstly, the "farewell" version:

And secondly the reunion version: