Monday, November 28, 2011

"Wichita Lineman"

One of the questionable benefits of 24-hour mass media (of all kinds) is that we are never more than a keystroke or away from our heroes. We can watch them, *consume* them if you like, whenever the spirit moves us. Want to know where Rihanna left her clothes last night? Look! Here's a picture of her dressing room floor. Was that one of Dire Straits I walked past on Dulwich High Street last night? Oh here, yes it was, here he is on Facebook (some details have been changed to protect the innocent).

As this new age of connectivity spreads far and wide, it will absorb ever more details, it will log more "appearances" and "sightings", and it will store ever more photographic evidence. Hurried phone camera pictures, fragments of German supermarket tabloid reports, gossip website entries.

Face it, we're going to grow up right next to our heroes, online. We'll be able to check ourselves out in the mirror every morning as we grow up and older, and then check *them* out to compare. We'll be able to pick up anti-ageing tips, fashion ideas, all perfectly appropriate for our age group. We already follow blogs, tweets and Facebook updates: we're living their lives too! At some point we'll have to draw the line. Somewhere around Tommy Lee, I hope.

One of the sadder parts of being so well-connected is that we learn many things that we wish we hadn't. I read a feature about Glen Campbell not long ago, in which he talked about the onset of Alzheimer's Disease and how he has made one more album as his farewell to the business.

It made me think of Brian Wilson and Johnny Cash: the first because he's been a wounded songbird for so very long; the latter because he decided not to "go gently into that good night." These are, were, old men, old in precisely the way Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger aren't, or at least, don't appear to be. Does that make sense? We're not conditioned to think of Paul McCartney as "old". He still *looks* young, dammit. Mick Jagger may have a couple hundred more lines on his face now, but we still think of him as the prancing, preening live-wire.

The difference is, I think, that we haven't been treated to the sort of performances from Jagger and McCartney that suggest their age. We've seen Brian Wilson looking vaguely vacant at the keyboard while performing the "Smile" album, and we've squirmed in our seat, maybe. We've seen the video for Johnny Cash's electric version of "Hurt" and it's as plain as day that he was an old, ill man when he made that last clip.

Cash excepted, who grows old gracefully in musical terms? Bluesmen, maybe. B.B. King may be ancient, but he still looks as merry and full of life at 86 as he did thirty years ago. He may not move much, but he can still wring that guitar's neck. Jazz musicians can grow old gracefully too; look at Herbie Hancock.

But these artists choose to continue performing - they feel they can still hack it and often, they can. But does an artist really ever "retire"? Usually they're "retired" and when I say "retired" I mean Joplin/Hendrix/Morrison "retired". Or Buddy Holly/Stevie Ray Vaughan/Duane Allman "retired".

Maybe retirement from the music business is reserved for those that could walk away, for whom it wasn't enough, for whom it was too much, or who found it wasn't worth it any more. For every artist who's been performing in their 60s and later, there must be several hundred who left in their 30s.

None of this has anything to do with why "Wichita Lineman" is in my list of SongsWithoutWhich. It's here because of the ineffable romance of long straight roads that go nowhere for ever. It's here for the casual, absurdly conversational line "I know I need a small vacation/But it don't look like rain", and for the shattering, pained, utterly gorgeous line "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time."

But most of all, it's for the almost unnoticeable vocal trill that can just about be heard when Campbell sings "is still on the line" in the chorus. It's little things like that which make a sing perfect.

"I'm In Love With a German Film Star"

I make no apologies for repeating some of the songs that were first featured, oh, a lifetime ago. When I started out doing SongsWithoutWhich, I was more interested in creating lists, in just getting through my collection of songs as fast as possible, adding only the briefest of comments. In the intervening seven years (sevenfuckingyears? holycow) as you might observe, the style has loosened up a little, and the content wanders all over the place, which is, of course, just fine. But many of the first hundred or so songs I blogged are deserving of more... consideration. Or at least a longer ramble.

Since this blog started we've had Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Blogger vs Wordpress debate, several wars, a few hundred natural disasters and two (or is it three?) recessions. Since this blog started, we've had some good music created. And some really, really bad music. I suppose it's customary for every generation to discuss the Infinite Monkeys Theory and try to establish whether we have, in fact, experienced all the good tunes. Of course, that's a preposterous suggestion. I mean, there are notes out there that nobody (with the possible exception of Hendrix) has even tried to play yet. So we're good for another fifty-odd years, right?

Most of the songs I've put up here are in my list because they're great tunes, wonderful lyrical confections, or because they just make me Feel Something. They're outside time, if you like. But others are here, in part, because they are intimately connected with a particular place, a particular time. I can't listen to "Electricity" by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark without being transported back to a dark, chrome-and-plastic emporium near Leicester Square where, with a couple of friends from school, I would spend hours Trying To Be Cool. Failed dismally, of course, but that song seems to chronicle the depths of adolescent insecurity for me.

*This* song is another such. The moment the opening chords gently loom out of the speakers, I'm taken to a damp apartment in Paris, where I spent a year studying and pretending to be a writer. I remember this song being in heavy rotation on a local station (95.2 FM, it was) and I liked it so much I recorded it off the radio onto a flaky mix tape. I seem to remember this track segued into "Rock & Roll Girls" by John Fogerty. Hey, that's just the way it fell.

There are a whole slew of songs that I still enjoy from that year, most of them French: "Dans la Rue" by Polnareff, "Tombe Pour La France" by Etienne Daho, and in particular, "No Sell Out" by Malcolm X and Keith LeBlanc, and the French version which had old clips of Charles de Gaulle speeches over some fairly anonymous techno stuff. Les Patriotes, I think the group was.

But they all fade into relative obscurity next to this song. This is so studied, so rehearsed, so....artificial. And for all that it's perfect. The idea of feckless teenagers, or even disaffected 20-somethings, copping poses and attitudes is not new, but it's never been better expressed in a musical medium than this. The vocal is just this side of bored (check), the lyric admires a suitably exotic and foreign artist (check), the song is spare and laid-back (check), with plenty of moody echo (check). If you ever wanted a song that encompassed the whole concept of the teenage search for identity and peer group acceptance, then this is it.

The best part for me is that this song first came out in 1981, while I heard it repeatedly in Paris four years later. Which suggests that the French were not really all *that* when it comes to catching on to something good. Nor was I, for that matter.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Quark, Strangeness and Charm"

There are more than a few bands who have been fated to occupy the margins for their entire careers. The ones that persevere on the pub and club circuit for years on end, that perhaps accumulate what the music press are pleased to call "a devoted following", but which never quite translate their particular charm and quality into a record contract, widespread acclaim or fame.

Then there are bands who, either by chance, by design or by sheer bloody-mindedness, manage to carve out a successful career without ever troubling the sharp end of the music charts. Maybe they're not mainstream but in fact are very well-regarded in their particular niche, whatever that be. They make records without the aid of a major label, they work their socks off to distribute and promote their work, and they sell enough to make the whole business worthwhile.

i can't work out whether it's easier or more difficult to exist on the fringes of the "mainstream" music business these days. Back in the 1960s and 70s music was a simpler and dare I say it, cheaper business to be in. Bands formed, practiced, recorded a demo and booked themselves gigs in gradually larger and larger venues, until the "business" couldn't ignore them any more.

Nowadays all the work goes on even before a band's sung a note or made an appearance. (Notice I didn't say "played a gig" - nobody in the mainstream seems to "play gigs" any more, just as so few artists seem to be able to play instruments any more. But then I'm old, and I've earned the right to be grumpy.) The stylists are brought in, the publicists and songwriters are hired, the website's set up (or at the very least the URL is reserved), and all before anything like "music" has happened.

And when we *do* get to the music, it's clear 99% of the time that the song and the performer have only the tiniest relationship. It's hard to shake the impression that performers these days (those that don't write their own material, but occasionally even those that do) are merely viewing songs as a means to an end. There's nothing in the song that really needs to be *communicated*: no great idea, no intelligent information, no message.

Look at the top 40 this week. At least 30 songs are about relationships, physical attraction or just overweening egotism. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, even Billy Bragg might as well have never been born. Even so-called alternative artists are merely oddly-dressed - once they open their mouths you can't tell the difference.

So, in the spirit of grumpiness and with a healthy disregard for music-as-commodity, I offer today a song that comes from a band that for a heroic 42 years, has followed its very own individual path, has had moments of both notoriety and popularity, and has survived because it has always had the resources and the will to do things its way. And continues to this day to have a devoted following.

"Einstein was not a handsome fellow/Nobody ever called him Al/He had a long moustache to pull on, it was yellow/I don't believe he ever had a girl."

As soon as you hear this, you already know we've left the main road and we're out among the tumbleweed.

"Copernicus had those Renaissance ladies/Crazy about his telescope/And Galileo had a name that made his/Reputation higher than his hope/Did none of those astronomers discover/While they were staring out into the dark/That what a lady looks for in her lover/Is charm, strangeness and quark."

It's upbeat, clean-sounding, irrepressible. There's a lack of bass in the sound that suggests that these guys were making a conscious effort to tone it down. Maybe they left the bassist at home. There's no feedback, the drums are positively restrained, it's pop! Who'd have thought it?

And because the subject matter is treated with humour, with intelligence and with .... charm, the whole makes for a very satisfying listen. It's hard to say that about everyone you hear these days.