Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Carry On Wayward Son"

It's guilty pleasures time here at SongsWithoutWhich Towers.

Everyone, and I mean *everyone*, no matter how peerless their taste, has locked away in their collection a small, shiny cadre of songs that their self-aware selves really would prefer not to like, but which they cannot help but adore.

I'm sure the same goes for films, books, even clothes perhaps but we're not going to open those cans of worms here. What I am going to question though, is why such songs are deemed to be "guilty" pleasures. What is it about these songs that make us furtive, embarrassed and keen to keep them hidden away?

When you hear a song, you're listening to a three-minute *universe* - the writer(s) have tried to create an aural keystone, a sort of complete statement. The lyric may not say it, the chorus may not be a distilled wisdom of the ages, but the sound, the words, the production, the instrumentation, the atmosphere, everything about the song is conveying *something*.

And while in the case of a song like "I'm in Love With A German Film Star", for example, the entirety of the song is about being "cool", most songs don't try to be quite so didactic. For the most part, the subject of your guilty enjoyment is something that most of your contemporaries will dismiss as being "bad", and that's where I run into difficulties.

For me, music has always been something I react instinctively to, and I couldn't explain to you why my heart beats faster when I listen to one song and remains resolutely unmoved by another. I'll try and analyse the hell out of it afterwards of course, but by that time the horse has already bolted and I couldn't unlike the song if you paid me.

In any case, a guilty pleasure doesn't have to be the whole song. For example, I confess to having a soft spot for the rhythm section in Wham's "Everything She Wants" even if the rest of the song leaves me tepid at best. I'll very happily listen to the opening two minutes before the song sort of gives up on the groove and I lose interest.

My guilty pleasure is, or rather has become pretty much the whole AOR catalogue. From Alice Cooper through Kansas and on to Journey and Toto, I have an irresistible attraction to the monstrous calculation that is the US FM format. I watched a documentary recently that attempted to explain how AOR was "invented" in the 1970s as a response to the British invasion of the preceding decade and I can totally understand how the American instinct to build things bigger, better, shinier and louder couldn't resist taking back the blues format and industrialising it. This makes perfect sense when you consider how punk rock harked back to the Kinks and Small Faces while at the same time deriding what the Americans had done to "their" music.

If you think back to the songs that came across the Atlantic in the 60s - by the Kinks, the Stones, Yardbirds as well as the Fab Four - their format seems to be *small* in relation to the version that came back the other way ten years later. Where songs like "Sha La La La Lee" or "You Really Got Me" are scrappy, tinny, tight and so stripped-down that you can count the instruments, "Don't Stop Believing" and "Carry On Wayward Son" are orchestrated, bathed in echo, reverb and have more components that you can count. The harmonies are still there but they're sugary and gentle, where ten years before voices tended to conflict to produce the harmony. Listen to the Kinks almost forcing the harmonies and compare that to how the voices seem to be gently layered in "Carry On".

And that's perfectly fine with me. Hearing Brad Delp's overdubbed voice climb its way to heaven on "More Than a Feeling" was one of the most important moments in my musical life, and the sugared-up harmony became like musical catnip to me. I don't often fall for the over-elaborate guitar solos, mind: I still find musical nirvana in a simple, stately solo such as the one in Tears for Fears' "Shout" rather than in anything Eddie van Halen cooked up.

I guess it's something to do with luxury. A well-constructed AOR tune feels to me like a large and comfortable car, with a soft suspension, classy-looking dials on the dashboard, hand-stitched leather seats and a great big throbbing V8 under the hood. When you floor the pedal, not only does the car leap forward like a scalded impala, but it makes a sound like Mother Earth being put through a blender. It has both power *and* grace.

There may be some element of cynicism in all this - you often hear musicians talk of their search for the perfect hook, the "killer riff", and you do wonder what the motivation is. I would have thought that a musician would be more interested in doing justice to their muse, to writing as a "complete" a song as they can. But I may be doing musicians a disservice.

On another note it's illuminating to see a group of portly gentlemen farmers - watch the video and tell me that I wasn't dreaming when I thought I was watching a bunch of rebel Amish elders - recreating their youth. I recently trawled through clips of the Cream reunion at the Albert Hall in 2005 and felt the same emotions: sadness that time has taken its toll on these brilliant musicians, and admiration that even in their 60s and in some case 70s, these guys can still hack it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"A Day In The Life"

I read somewhere on this here internet how it's a shame and a crime that the Beatles are still widely regarded as the best/greatest/most influential popular music group of all time, and how they don't deserve the accolades any more.

Normally this sort of statement would generate some sort of polemic response. But I got to thinking about context (which is everything, as we know), and tried to put myself in the shoes of the popular music-consuming public of the era in which the Beatles plied their trade.

There was no internet. There was hardly any television (compared to today), and certainly no MTV. Popular music radio was either illegal, off-shore or just plain non-existent. Music was still consumed in analogue, vinyl-based format; it was bulky, somewhat fragile and you needed great big hulking pieces of machinery to enjoy it. In other words, the distribution of music then compared to now was as Native American smoke-signals are to wifi.

And when your distribution channels are so narrow and so slow, there is only so much material that can be delivered at any one time. It's a question of bandwidth. Nowadays, we have a million and one different channels through which music can be delivered, shared, enjoyed and even written about.

I could also go on at length about contracting attention spans, the increasingly restless search for the next new thing and the ease with which we can now hop from one song to another on a personal device. If I'm listening to my iPod and I'm not in the mood for a particular song, all it takes is a quick click and I'm on to the next one.

And equally, the ease with which we can access new music means that artists have a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity in which to attract our attention. Paul Simon wrote in Boy in the Bubble how "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts", but it looks nowadays as if every YEAR does that. Where's Kate Nash gone? Where's Adele? Etcetera. By the time an artist gets around to making a second album, the train's already left the station.

Imagine a world where you get your fix of pop music perhaps once a week on grainy TV. You listen to Radio Luxembourg on a tinny transistor radio under the covers in bed. And one of your friends has a Dansette on which you play the one or two 45s you can buy each month. That's it. No iPod on the bus home from school, no iTunes, no downloading, no digital, no nothing. Even CDs and cassettes haven't arrived yet.

So in this environment, when a band comes along that really shakes things up, sets a new direction, writes catchy songs and looks good, the limited bandwidth that's available to distribute musical content gets completely clogged up with this one band. They become the dominant source, the leading influence and the act that every other musician looks to as the formula for success.

So it may be that on a purely theoretical, academic basis, on a objective level that we aren't capable of reaching, the Beatles weren't the greatest/best band of all time. There may be someone out there who was even greater (according to a completely impartial observer from another planet), but who just didn't manage to occupy enough of the limited bandwidth at the time.

If you're under 30, you don't even know what life was like without the internet, without digitisation, without MTV. But if you are, you may well be one of those who thinks the Beatles were "it", and who's a bit bewildered by the rapid-fire procession of latest, greatest artists we get each year.

And that's fine. As someone who's watched at least three generations grow up in my wake, each one has had to take the world as they found it, and their assumptions, decisions and judgements are as valid as they can be. You can't ask someone who's 18 today to put themselves in the shoes of someone who was 18 in 1965.

So that leaves us asking the question: given all the above, why are the Beatles *still* being put forward as the best ever?

This list on Wikipedia might go some way to providing the answer. If artists such as 10cc, Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Little Richard and Pearl Jam feel the desire to perform Lennon/McCartney songs, then the songs themselves must be worth it. I read somewhere that the three most-covered artists are Dylan, Beatles and Neil Young. And you know, that makes sense; as artists that are known for the quality of their songwriting (apart from the quality of their performances), these three *do*, to me at least, seem to be important artists.

There may well be individual songs written by other artists that may be more influential than any single song written by the Beatles (or Dylan or Young for that matter), but when you put the entire body of work together, well.....

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Winter of '79"

There's only really one topic to write about at the moment over here in the U. of K.

Next week the nation (those of them who are interested) buries an old lady who ran things back in the 1980s. She's divided opinion sharply (and I mean sharply) pretty much since the day she came to power, and in death she seems to have lost none of her polarising fascination.

The media is awash with encomia and hatchet jobs in pretty much equal measure; social media is engaged in vast contest to see who can be most pleased at her demise; such was her stature (if that's the right word) that Parliament reassembled for a day this week, at vast expense, to perform a seven-hour panegyric in which one side lauded her to the heavens and half-seriously wished she was still in charge, and the other danced an intricate waltz in which it criticised her record without actually ever appearing to do so. Thirty years ago the very same party was calling for her head on a pike, and not entirely figuratively, either.

Newspapers have been filling pages with pictures of kids gleefully burning photos of her, in much the same way Middle Eastern folks occasionally torch an American flag. Now, most of the people in these pictures are clearly twenty-somethings, which means they were either not even born when she left office, or at the very most were still wearing onesies and clutching soft toys. By the time they became intellectually aware of the world around them they were at the fag-end of the Blair years.

So why are so many kids dancing on Thatcher's grave? Have they been sitting at their grandparents' knees, absorbing folkloric tales of one woman's malevolence towards an entire nation? Or are they just a bunch of try-hard hipsters getting in nice and early on the latest social trend?

And, to be honest, why is Margaret Thatcher being singled out for this treatment? Is it the sudden prevalence of social media? (If so, what's going to happen when George W Bush kicks on?) Or is there really something deep-rooted in the national psyche that continues to hold her in contempt for some dimly-recalled offences?

I hasten to add that there are entire swathes of British society that felt her lash good and proper: communities flattened by mass unemployment, entire sectors of the economy torched. But what slightly puzzles me is why everyone seems to believe that Thatcher emerged fully-formed, foaming of mouth and blazing of eye, to lay waste a Britain that was, at the very moment of her election, a paradise of plenty where everyone worked and everyone was adequately provided for. In other words, they seem to think she single-handedly demolished the country.

And that just isn't true. Britain was already in a bad way.

In 1976, Britain had to go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a loan after inflation hit 27%. Unemployment was at a then-record; there were strikes in 1978-1979 that left uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets and fuel shortages; the Labour government even considered passing laws to restrict trade union influence.

And most of this before Thatcher even became leader of her party.

I make these points not from any love for radical right-wing policies, but from the suspicion that Margaret Thatcher, to a limited extent, has had a raw deal. She came to power and dealt with the existing conditions according to her convictions. The situation was already the situation. I don't care to speculate as to where we would be now if thing had turned out differently, but I think anyone who's passing judgement on her reign as Prime Minister should have a care and take into consideration the conditions that formed the context to her convictions and policies.

And, moving on belatedly to the music, here's another misconception. Most of the late-70s/early 80s politically-oriented musicians - your Billy Braggs, your Clash, your Paul Wellers and your Tom Robinsons, are all lumped together and considered to be musicians who came to prominence when they harnessed their muse in protest at the devastation that Thatcher's policies wrought.

But that's simply wrong. They were well on their journey before she even arrived. The Clash's "White Riot" was released in 1977, almost two years before Thatcher was elected. It was only the Jam's two last albums that coincided with Maggie's reign. Only Billy Bragg could reasonably be said to have made his reputation through his opposition to the Iron Lady.

Even Tom Robinson, who wrote a fair few inflammatory songs in his time, was largely done and dusted as a top-selling musician when the Conservative revolution began. And while I've always admired his music and particularly his lyrics, his convictions, none of Robinson's best-known songs can ever be attributed to a reaction to Thatcherism.

"Winter of '79" I particularly love because it's rooted in daily experience, in events and pastimes that everyone knows. Like the Jam's "That's Entertainment" or "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" it's a slice of real life from an industry that very rarely peddled reality. Like most of Robinson's work it's shot through with the sort of paranoia that agitators and activists all felt at the time, the nagging feeling that you were being watched, being tracked. In many cases, even today, it really isn't all that paranoid a notion, but nonetheless, with the distance of time and age, I sometimes find myself chortling and thinking to myself that he can't be serious.

The problem is, he was, and there are people who'll attest to the fact that it still happens today. Ask anyone who's protested against the extension of Heathrow Airport in London, or who have protested in the financial district, or during a G8 meeting. It doesn't require a swivel-eyed radical right-winger at the helm of the country to have surveillance squads checking on the activities of protesters. Maybe our experiences since 9/11 have made these activities more expedient, but they're not new and it's not just the conservatives that deploy them.

"Half Full Glass of Wine"

It's quite a pleasant surprise to learn, or realise, that one's journey of discovery in music never really ends. I often worry that my interest in learning more about the subject didn't just freeze one day in the late 1980s and enter some sort of statis. But looking back through the entries here I note more than a few songs that are the result of serendipitous encounters, be it through Jools Holland's impeccably-curated late night shows, the ever-inventive advertising industry or a chance encounter with a teenager's iPod. Some of what I've come across for the first time can be qualified as my going back through time to years when I should have been more aware of what was going on around me (viz. Jesus & Mary Chain). Some more recent SongsWithoutWhich are pieces that I've known for years, but which my mind, heart, taste and maturity have only just caught up with, if you see what I mean. This song, too, when I first heard it, sounded like something I'd missed from a Cream album (though Lord knows there weren't many of those). Half-speed guitar built to sound like Clapton's "woman tone" on "Sunshine of Your Love", a vocal that isn't a million miles away from Jack Bruce's on the same song. Even the drumming seems like it's been to Ginger Baker school. And then there's the glorious sudden shift in tempo at the end of the intro: confident, cheeky, as if they'd been listening to the Faces' "Stay With Me". And that's before the song takes off into its own little world of doubt, faithlessness and uncertainty. "Said you wouldn't be home late tonight. I gave up waiting at seventeen past midnight. Now my only company's a half full glass of wine." Everything about this feels 1960s; the slightly lazy groove of the riff, the falsetto vocal, the harmonies, all of it. If Jellyfish can be said to have channeled the 70s and 80s, then on this track Tame Impala is caught somewhere between 1968 and 1975.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Gold On The Ceiling"

Another day, another mash-up. Or in this case, a mishmash of styles that combines just about the best of everything it references. A just-this-side-of-lazy groove, fuzzed guitars and keyboards that sound like a fully-digitized Jack White decided to update the buzz of glam rock, all rounded off with an intro that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a Black Crowes album.

In fact, there's more than a little Southern rock in there as well. It's an effortless accumulation of the best of everything that can only come from the minds of someone who's sat down and listened to a whole lot of records. Signs of a youth profitably spent, right?

And I like, like, love that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney look like music nerds. Finally, a band that pushes the music to the front, and has the chops, the appreciation for their antecedents, to let it do the talking. Who cares if the drummer looks like he writes code for a living? He knows from his drums.

I mean, listen to this song! Count off the influences: T Rex, the Sweet, southern rock, even some raga in there, Norman Greenbaum, White Stripes, you name it. And it's all good. All good.

I like the fact that the Black Keys are, at heart, a duo. They're the latest in a long and noble tradition of two friends that just *work* together, without the need for an entourage of expensive sidemen or all the grief of building a four- or five-piece that would implode after two albums. Lean, efficient, and staying true to the vision. If you wanted to convey the merits of this in business terms, you might say they were running a low-cost, high-margin operation selling a unique product that we never knew we needed until we heard it.

The one thing I can't nail down is Dan Auerbach's voice. It reminds me so strongly of another singer from another time. It's been on the tip of my tongue for months and it infuriates me that I, a certified Rock Snob who likes to think he knows a thing or two, can't effortlessly drop in the reference. It's an American MOR voice, I think.

In any case, this just blows me away. I defy you to not shake a hip or two.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Lilac Wine"

This is a post about two versions of the same song. Both are truly special in their different ways, but only one slays.

Back in the late 1970s, I was introduced to this song when Elkie Brooks' version made the charts. I loved, and still do, the measured, restrained buildup that ends in Elkie letting that gorgeous voice loose for the final line. You can barely trace her origins in jazz and blues, but you can certainly hear some rock, deep down, held firmly in check. When you learn that she was an early booster of the Small Faces, it seems a natural fit, and yet a crime that they never recorded together.

So. Brooks' version I love, and this video sadly doesn't go halfway to doing her recorded performance justice, and the arrangement is truly awful, but I'll stick it up here as a taster for what's coming.

Fifteen years later, the same song cropped up on a small record that's gone on to become one of those influential modern classics. I can't lay claim to having bought it on day one, or even in year one, but once I heard Jeff Buckley's version of the same song, I was hooked.

Now I don't completely understand why everyone goes apeshit for his version of "Hallelujah" at the expense of this song. I understand the wonder of "Hallelujah", yes, and I love his almost conversational tone, the casual brilliance of his voice. But still..... to me it doesn't speak as loudly or as clearly as this song does.

Lilac Wine is about drinking to forget. It's tipsy, regretful, wise after the event and yet, in some indefinable way, helpless. You know you shouldn't dwell, but you

Jeff Buckley "gets" it. He gets the song, he gets the whole back story, he probably lived it. His gentle, wavering, looping voice, bridging to falsetto and back with nary a break, is tired, hungover and full of pain in a way that only more wine will cure. It's a miracle of a performance. And what's better, it doesn't build towards any crescendo as Brooks' version does, it just meanders beautifully, tipsily, to a tired and even ecstatic close.

I have written about cover versions before, and depending on the material at hand, I've veered between the "how-dare-you" school purists that says only the songwriter is truly able to give a song what it deserves, and the more lasser-faire notion that interpretation is as valid a form as creation. And in this case, the latter is gloriously, transcendently proved.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I've decided growing old as gracefully as possible isn't as hard as all that, as long as you don't fight it. The trouble starts when you deny it, try to hold it back or plain just ignore it. You'd have thought ignoring the creep of time would be the easiest way to remain young, but looking past it, pretending it's not there, is just recipe for almighty fallout later on.

When bending down to tie your shoelaces isn't as easy as it once was, when getting out of a car produces a groan, when running for the bus suddenly becomes something you don't automatically *do*, there's no point trying to reprogram your mind. Yes, you can jog or cycle daily, go to the gym every lunchtime, cut down on the late night drinking sessions, but you're Still. Getting. Old. Your body will be healthier but you'll still be older.

The same thing goes for music. I know more than a few contemporaries who immerse themselves religiously in bang-up-to-date music, who check out new bands as a matter of course and who wouldn't dream of listening to any radio station that played anything more than three years old. Wonderful. But they still groan when they get out of a comfy chair and they still complain about "kids" and reminisce about how things were different when they were young.

So I'm embracing age. I'm embracing my limitations, my evolving attitudes towards pretty much everything, and in particular music. I don't go out and actively pursue new stuff, mostly because I just don't have the time, but I'm open to it when I come across it.

Hence this song. As with so many other new (to me) artists, I first came across Lianne La Havas when she appeared on Jools Holland's show, and immediately fell in love with her voice. It's a million miles away from pretty much anyone else I've heard lately. You can tell me Adele has a better voice, but I don't believe it would stand up to the close-up examination that this song provides. Just a guitar, fingerpicking, and her crystal voice. For all her talent, and I'm a fan, I can't see Adele mastering this.

Listen to the production: it's so close-up that the mike might as well be halfway down her throat. It's so clear that it mercilessly picks up every every little foible, every tiny sibilant 's'. Listen to the second verse: when Lianne sings "I'm at a loss", the word "loss" dies away into nothingness until it's revived by the tiny, bell-like 's'. Such joy in that one little sound.

But woah, you're saying. Stand back. Where's the rock, man? Where's the killer drums?

And here I shrug the age issue aside. Those of us of a certain age will admit to having appreciated Carole King's "Tapestry", or Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark", or Kate Bush, or whoever. It's not an age thing, it's a TASTE thing.

Instead, let's just enjoy a wondrous voice, and a terrific song.

Friday, February 08, 2013


Those of us who came of age in the 1980s will get this song.

Remember the clothes? Remember the hair? Most of all, remember the raw, untrammelled consumerism? Everyone had a shiny new stereo that played those new-fangled Compact Discs, proudly displayed on a chrome and glass table at one end of the room. At parties, we'd stand exactly half-way between the speakers and listen to the awesome sound quality. No hisses, no crackles, no hums or loss of tone. Just pure sound. It was like a living breathing advertisement for Maxell cassette tapes, except that the technology had moved on and cassettes were, like, ancient.

The 1980s were all about technology and economies of scale, about the triumph of science and design over the natural chaos of life and bringing it within the reach of the majority of the population. Not only did the boffins start churning out pieces of kit that made life easier, cleaner, more convenient and portable, but we all suddenly had enough money to buy the stuff.

The Blue Nile were the perfect 80s group. Obsessively clean sound, perfectly separated instruments, a triumph of the mechanistic New Age over the organic messiness of the analogue era. They could be "consumed" without getting dirty, and they could be admired in an objective, scientific kind of way. It's no accident that they got their start when a hi-fi manufacturer was looking for a sound that would show off their high-end stereo systems.

But it wasn't as if we hadn't had this kind of music before. After all, Kraftwerk had been calling to us from across the digital divide for some years already, but maybe we didn't trust something that was quite so devoid of emotion. Pink Floyd and the Beatles had already toyed with various proto-gizmos that produced beeps and burbles. The Blue Nile's success was to marry real feelings to their transistors and their sampling. Paul Buchanan's voice manages to convey pain, suffering and hope, all in a slightly fey, whimsical croon that calls to mind Belle & Sebastian and the Dream Academy. (Side-note: why is it that the British do fey and whimsy better than anyone else? And, more to the point, does anyone else actually *do* fey and whimsy?)

What I enjoy almost as much as the song, and especially the voice, is the cringe-worthy video which really epitomises 1980s ambition and aspiration. The baggy trousers and shirts, the clean-cut look... all that's missing is a VW Golf Mark I and an early mobile phone.

For all that, it's a wonderful song. Can you imagine how good it would sound, played on real instruments?

"5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)"

To paraphrase "The Sound of Music," how do you solve a problem like Roger Waters?

I realise that there are all sorts of witty, facile responses that may very well come rushing to mind. Bear with me, though, because this comes from someone who has nothing but respect for his work -- all of it -- but who sometimes struggles to make sense of the man.

For a start, you might say, he's staggeringly self-indulgent. Look at "The Wall" or "The Final Cut", you might say. These are more or less autobiographical "statements", you might say. They're just the result of one man's overweening ego and his conviction that he has Something Important to Say, you might scoff.

Or, if you don't hold particularly strong opinions on the man, you might listen to them and say that they are just chamber pieces manqué, lengthy song cycles or even bombastic noodling. They're often lifted above the ordinary by the quality of the musicians he works with. When you think of "Comfortably Numb", do you remember the lyric, or is the first thing that comes to mind that wonderful guitar solo by David Gilmour? When you hear "The Great Gig in the Sky", are you noting that this was a Richard Wright song, not a Roger Waters composition?

I can't argue that he's a great musician, and there are moments when I'm not convinced he's as great a songwriter as many say he is. I have found myself form time to time listening to Pink Floyd (The Roger Waters Years) or even a solo album and rolling my eyes at the sheer pretentiousness or ponderousness of it all.

And yet. And yet.

"A place to stay, enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control."
(The Gunner's Dream from "The Final Cut".)

or even:
"In truck stops and hamburger joints
In Cadillac limousines
In the company of has-beens
And bent backs
And sleeping forms on pavement steps
In libraries and railway stations
In books and banks
In the pages of history
In suicidal cavalry attacks
I recognize
Myself in every stranger's eyes."
("5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)" from "The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking")

These aren't lyrics, not in the classic "moon-and-June" sense. They're a series of word pictures, like a slideshow of black and white photographs by Sebastiao Salgado. They're carefully-crafted, these list songs. You're meant to see the images in sharp, high resolution relief, and to understand almost instinctively what he's trying to say, what images he wants you to bond with.

They're not comfortable images, either. For a popular songwriter that's probably a kiss of death. This isn't hum-along stuff, and the lyrics aren't something you'll yowl along to while you're on the highway doing 80. But can you think of any Pink Floyd song that you felt comfortable with? "Arnold Layne"? "Have a Cigar"? "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"? We're not talking anything that would ever be sung on X Factor, for sure.

That's both Waters' great gift, and his great loss. Strip away his painful evolution from six-form poet into grumpy-old-man, politely ignore his frothing anger at Thatcherism (he always seemed to me to be angrier at the Falklands war then he was at the industrial hollowing out that went on in Britain in the 1980s. I mean, the Final Cut was basically about the Falklands, but where was his double-album about the miners?) He knows how to conceive and write absorbing lyric-driven songs, about Serious Matters. They're not pop, for sure, but he never was pop. You need to pay a little attention.

And it helps that Waters knows his limitations well enough to ask really talented people to play with him. He does the singing because it's his party, though again, there are better vocalists too. On general though, Waters seems willing to sit back and orchestrate, conceive and produce the end-result. Or rather, he did once he'd quit Pink Floyd and didn't have to argue over creative direction.

Most of us have two or three transcendent moments of Pink Floydery in our collections. It's sad to admit that they're probably not moments when Roger Waters was to the fore, but some of his solo songs, like "The Gunner's Dream and this one are powerful enough to stand in the company of the others, if we're prepared to think and, well, to be lectured a little.

Monday, February 04, 2013

"Tick Tick Boom"

Once in a while I sit at my laptop (for I'm fully digitised, portable and mobile) and look through the several thousand songs at my disposal. Sometimes I'm in search of inspiration, sometimes it's merely a lazy trawl looking for something I may not have heard for a while, and sometimes I'm in one of those obsessive nerd moods where I need to make a list: my eight Desert Island Discs, for example, is a list that has undergone so many revisions that I can't for the life of me remember what I chose a year ago.
How do you sum up your life in music? What criteria are the best for selecting the eight pieces? Are you creating a list of waypoints, milestones that you commemorate with tunes? Or should the pieces represent important moments or phases of life? Either way, my list never stays the same for more than a week.
I'm fascinated by the processes guests on the programme have used to select their favourite songs. For many it seems the songs are little more than conversational props, a song that prompts a particularly good piece of interviewing. For others the music is clearly much more important or meaningful, and they wax lyrical about the piece: for a few, the memories are pin-sharp and even painful.
If ever there was a radio programme that testified to the power of music, this is the one.
And because the choice is limited to just eight songs, it's a nerd's nightmare. How can a music obsessive even hope to encompass a love of popular (and not so popular) music in such a small number? And if you're trying to stake out as much territory as possible, how are you going to cover all the genres you want to? Will one song from Led Zeppelin adequately convey a love of out-and-out rock, from the farthest reaches of metal to the power-pop of the 1970s and 1980s?
It's a minefield.
So maybe the thing to do is not to get all righteous, scientific and snobbish about it. Maybe as human beings we should focus on the moods and feelings that music can convey. Euphoria, despair, rage, lassitude, stress, love, irrepressible happiness, the whole nine yards.
The one small cavil that I have with Desert Island Discs is that it almost always features personalities who, how shall I put it, have led a full life. By which I mean long. As in, *older* people. Which means that their choices are often tempered by experience. The various knocks and bumps of life that smooth off the rough edges are reflected in songs that are often more thoughtful, sometimes sadder and wiser.
In short, there seems to be little room for the kind of innocent energy that dominates our world when we're younger. Not necessarily the politicised rage or the chemically-fuelled thrash that we can often get drawn into, but just the pure expression of youthful adrenalin. Something like Blur's "Song 2", if you like.
But I'm not doing "Song 2" here. I'm doing Swedish.
The Hives look and act like a live band really should. They have fun, they drag you into their fun, and they don't care if they look stupid along the way. It's completely, absolutely about the energy of the moment. They're not trying to *say* anything, and if you bother to look up the lyrics you'll see what I mean. It's not a message, it's a mood. It's about speed, noise, rhythm and mostly fun.
They're not handicapped by the fact that Howlin Pelle Almqvist is channeling equally Mick Jagger and David Johansen as he struts around, or by the fact that they are not a fashionable-looking collection of lads. They're giving their all, they're doing it low-fi, and they're doing it loud.
I can't wait to hear this on Desert Island Discs, but I suspect I may have to wait a long time.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

"Right Here, Right Now"

Nostalgia is - mostly - an exclusive and compartmentalised pleasure. What is a treasured relic of your own past will often mean little or nothing to anyone else who doesn't share a particular memory or history.

This isn't to say that there can't be a broad common memory of certain times, or in the case of this blog, certain songs or artists. Why else would there be a fairly lucrative sector of the entertainment industry devoted to musicals based on the careers of specific artists or about specific times?

But more generally, it's rare that commonality of experience stretches across generations: what my parents recall from their youth bears little to no resemblance to anything I've ever experienced. That sounds obvious, but we tend to downplay the personal relevance and importance of events we didn't witness. We're all products of entire history, not just our own.

"A woman on the radio talked about revolution/ When it's already passed her by./ Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about/ You know it feels good to be alive."

When I first heard Jesus Jones sing those lines I assumed, and the video made pretty clear, that they were writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it made me angry that they felt it necessary to host a pissing contest between the massive social changes of the 1960s and the fall of the Soviet bloc. Why should we have to choose which of these periods of history is more important to the world as a whole? They both informed and impacted the course of events in their own discrete way.

But then I've thought back to my own youth, remembering how contemporary events always seemed to hold greater weight than "ancient" history, and I've sort of forgiven Jesus Jones their arrogance and solipsism: it's what we all do. And as the writer Frederic Raphael said, you should only write about what you know.

And completing this internal debate freed me to enjoy the song, which when you think about it is a pretty silly way of appreciating good music.