Favourite Albums

The Guardian has been doing a nice series on writers’ favourite albums – see here. With some nice left-field choices (it was pleasantly surprising to see Alex Petridis choose “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” as his favourite – it’s not often you see disco treated in the music press without sniggering), it’s been a fun new feature. There are albums which are the greatest – and these the classic rock mags endlessly pontificate on, with endless lists – but your favourite is something more personal, more meaningful, more autobiographical. The grandma with a taste for T. Rex and Alice Cooper, the aging fish factory worker with a passion for Charlie Parker, the oil engineer whose liking for The Blues Brothers led him to Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, the prog-rocker turned onto The Orb… I have known all these people, and it’s sometimes wonderful how unexpectedly musical passion will hit.

But for me it was all quite simple. The first album I ever bought remains my favourite unto this day, after some 23 years and unending musical exploration. Let me give some context: at the time I was nine years old and was really just getting into music, via my mum’s copy of Queen’s Greatest Flix, their videos from “Killer Queen” to “Flash” (a-ah). From the off, I liked the heavier, guitary parts – the heavy section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the faster version of “We Will Rock You”, the killer riff to “Tie Your Mother Down”. But I didn’t encounter much rock music in those days – as a family we used to watch Top Of The Pops every week (how we laughed over the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” video, and how baffled we were at Black Box’s “Ride On High”!) and my dad and uncles were massively into Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, etc, but I almost never heard any real hard rock. My mum preferred Simply Red and Bob Marley, and my older sister liked Radio 1 stuff, especially Michael Jackson.

So then one day a music shop opened up in my one-horse home town – or should I say, another one opened up, for there was already one, which sold musical instruments, a wide variety of music, music stands, amplifiers, guitar strings and plectrums, violin cases and the like. The new shop had one killer feature, though: they had a TV in the shop, and on this they would play MTV. I had never even seen MTV before but knew what it was thanks to Dire Straits, and like all British kids’ idea of America, it summoned images of unimaginable delight and pleasure, of unguessed-at consumer possibilities and a heightened glamour of life. Here was the world of youth, of freedom, of desire. So I used to hang about the shop and browse through their cassettes while listening/watching the videos. This being early in 1988, Guns N’ Roses were then riding high, with “Paradise City”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” on pretty heavy rotation. These songs excited me beyond words. Their power and visceral hunger were enthralling, and their look was equally as appealing – the intoxicating sense of bad boys, living fast and living hard, in the big city lights. For a small town boy like me, who could resist?

My brother and I went halfs on the album, Appetite For Destruction, a reasonable 6.75 as I recall, and played it to death. Song after song was just fantastic. The overture of “Welcome To The Jungle”, half an incantation and half a shriek from hell, set the tone right away: here was something gritty, almost overwhelming and above all alive. “It’s So Easy” postured and preened with astonishing yet believable arrogance, the ultimate expression of young-man narcissism, with Axl singing at the bottom of his range and the riff exploding out at you like a Molotov Cocktail of belligerent intent. “Nighttrain”. an ode to cheap tonic wine and seat-of-your-pants living (“I never learn”) was mighty fine, almost fun, while the duelling guitars at the start of “Out Ta Get Me” were magnificent. “Mr Brownstone” had this bad-ass funk and a subtext I would only later pick up (hey, I was only 9). The major statement, though, was “Paradise City”: oh dude, that amazing cavernous drum sound at the beginning, as confident as America in the Reaganite 80s, and that amazing boogie-stomp of the crushing riff, and the urban nightmare lyrics of the verses (“Captain America’s torn apart / Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart/ He said turn me around / And take me back to the start / I must be losing my mind / “Are you blind?!” / I’ve seen it all a million times”) with the open yearning and desire of the chorus (I’ll assume everyone knows it by now). And that was just side 1!

This led me down the track of late-80s hard rock and heavy metal, with bands like Poison, Motley Crue, WASP, and the like, while I also much admired Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Faith No More’s The Real Thing. I grew my hair into a ridiculous mullet, I got an electric guitar I never could get the hang of, I made friends (well, a friend) who was into much the same stuff, I read Kerrang! and RAW magazines, I stayed up until 4.30am on Saturday mornings to watch Raw Power, the only place to watch heavy metal videos on British TV (we still didn’t have MTV), and generally was quite the greaser. I lived and breathed the album, reading the lyrics and credits obsessively, watching the tape I had of GN’R at the New York Ritz on countless occasions, and counting the days for a full successor. Guns N’ Roses subsequent career, of course, was something of a joke – has there ever been a band with such a bad trajectory? But the fact that I stayed on this path for something like five years is testament to the endless thrilling power of Appetite For Destruction, its sheer quality and unforgettable hunger and desire. I have never bored of it, and it remains my favourite album ever.

How about you? What’s your favourite? And what do you think of Appetite For Destruction?

I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings”

(N.B. this was previously published on my old Bucket of Tongues blog, but I think the post bears repeating. I have also added some pictures and further comments).

I have a confession to make – lean close and I’ll whisper it in your ear… I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd. Only the novel mind you (not a trilogy!! It is a novel which was published in three parts due to the postwar paper shortage); I’ve never managed to get into The Silmarillion, despite numerous attempts. I first read it in 1990, and have read it at least once a year since then; it’s one of the staples of my reading life, along with Shogun, Bad Wisdom, and Howards End.

So when the film trilogy came out  I was pleased. I saw them all at the cinema and was astounded at numerous scenes – jumping the falling bridge in Moria, the battle of Helms Deep, the magnificent part played by Andy Serkis. I devoured the extended versions and savoured the success of the films, financially and critically. (Especially when Return of the King was awarded so many Oscars – it almost made up for the monstrosity that is Titanic being so grossly overrewarded).

However, as time has gone on, the weaknesses of the films have become ever more apparent. They are not films which age well, films which merit repeated viewings (like Chinatown or Pulp Fiction or Groundhog Day). I can imagine them in ten or twenty years time being viewed as historical curiosities, like epics such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, rather than living parts of cinema which are vital parts of beloved film collections. I’d go so far as to say that the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi is a superior cinematic experience which is far closer to the spirit of the novel, although it’s not by any means perfect.

Peter Jackson took a lot of credit for the success of the films. He must take the blame for their failings. (There is a story that he only read the book once – whether it’s true or not I don’t know. But it would explain a lot, especially his superficial treatment of the whole concept).

So what are the failings? Let’s go through them. (I have a feeling I might be some time on this…)

Characterisation. This is frequently completely off, to such a degree that it must be deliberate. While some modifications and condensations are to be expected (especially in such a large novel), why Jackson felt the need to change numerous characters for the worse I’ll never know. Gimli for example – reduced from a representative of the noble dwarf race to a Snarf (from Thundercats), a figure of fun for cheap laughs. Frodo loses all his nobility and “stature”, becoming a tepid victim. Merry and Pippin are reduced in a similar way to Gimli, becoming joke-figures – and without their apotheosis in “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s not enough development. For Gandalf, the difference between him pre- and post-Moria is too great; it’s like he’s a different character, rather than revealing different aspects of the same person. In Fellowship, he’s a kindly old man, with a bit of a temper; in Return he’s a  a philosopher-warrior-king: there’s little connection between the two. Sauron – apparently this source of all evil, this destroyer of worlds, this ancient power and unholy dread, is a glorified lighthouse. What a fucking joke! Denethor should be stern, cold and proud – introducing him as broken by the death of Boromir removes all the dramatic tension from his escalating hopelessness, and reduces the impact of the palantir. And what they hell is with his eating scene? What a waste of time!

Mishandling Scenes. Several scenes are understandably telescoped or skipped altogether (we’re dealing with a novel that’s over one thousand pages long and whose principal action takes place over one calender year). I doubt many would complain about the loss of Tom Bombadil or Ghan Buri Ghan. Nonetheless, there are several examples of Jackson getting scenes completely wrong, to such an extent that you wonder if he understood the book at all! The Council of Elrond for example – Jackson usefully gives some backstory at the start of each part of the trilogy, which reduces the need for such a lengthy, unwieldy scene. So what does he do with it instead? He has the various characters squabbling and then Frodo pipes up with “I will take the ring!” and all fall silent. This is just utterly ridiculous. Arwen making the river rise up is foolish, suggesting that any old elf can do “magic”, whereas it is Elrond does it, as he possesses one of the Three Rings. The fight between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc is just absurd – why the hell would two wizards have a glorified stick fight?! The scene between Theoden, Gandalf and Saruman in the ruins of Isengard is also handled appallingly, with all tension removed, and a complete lack of subtlety. Jackson, as always, goes for the conflict without considering what it might mean symbolically or thematically: it’s just good people against bad people, i.e. simplistic, reductionist nonsense. In Moria, we see the skulls of dead dwarves right away, rather than an rising feel of dread through the emptiness and darkness, and the battle in the Chamber of Records is much longer than it should be, and the troll unnecessary, reducing the impact of the later climactic scene with the Balrog. And what the hell is with that scene with Aragorn being nearly drowned in The Two Towers? With so much choice material being cut, why add more? We know he loves Arwen already, for christ’s sake! I also hate the entire section with Faramir – gone is Frodo’s nobility, gone is Faramir’s ability to resist the temptation of the Ring. It’s his ability to withstand the temptations of power which make him worthy of it – just as Aragorn announces that he will never set foot in the Shire. But such subtleties seem beyond Jackson, who seems more concerned with action and fighting than with conveying Tolkien’s thematic points.

Directorial Tics. There are several terrible examples of these littered throughout the films, things which become increasingly grating. The habit of showing the Ring in Frodo’s hand, the camera zooming in on the hand and Ring is one. The ridiculous elven music which comes out of nowhere at especially vital moments (Gandalf riding out to rescue Faramir, for example) is unwarranted by any dramatic necessity, and just seems absurd. And worst of all, the Hulk Hogan-esque displays performed by Gandalf and Galadriel when they display their hidden powers – these are frankly embarrassing. Tolkien was a man of great sensibility and subtlety – there is not the slightest chance he would have them rampaging in such an absurd fashion. And when Frodo is variously injured, the camera lingers on his pained expression far too long, emphasising his victimhood at the expense of his other qualities (which are never really shown).

The Scouring of the Shire. This chapter may have added little to the overall plot and action of the film, but it is absolutely fundamental in terms of theme, atmosphere and dramatic synchronicity. Tolkien himself said “it is an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. The chapter shows not only how much the hobbits have grown, but that after wars, the Shirefolk choose to revert to their prior mode of life. Wars traditionally bring mechanisation, regimentation and industrialisation, all of which Tolkien deeply opposed. The Lord of the Rings is not (let me emphasis this a million times over) a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is a deeply-felt parable on the hidden powers of the “little people” based on the heroism of ordinary men Tolkien saw during the First World War, and is based on Tolkien’s anarchism and opposition to government. That the hobbits come back and reclaim their land from the usurpers and despoilers is a metaphor for what Tolkien wished, after the war brought increasing regimentation and government control. In this sense, it is similar to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, where the First World War is won at the cost of the freedom of the small farmers amongst whom Gibbon sets his novel.

Frodo and Sam. Frodo (still less Gandalf or Aragorn) is not the hero of the book, Sam is. It’s that simple, and Tolkien himself acknowledged as much. Although Frodo gets top billing, this just goes to show Tolkien’s ultimate sympathy is with the underdog. To be fair, Jackson does acknowledge this to some extent by showing Sam and Rose’s wedding near the end, but because Jackson omits the Scouring of the Shire chapter, there’s nowhere to show Sam’s real growth, his leading role in the restoration of the Shire,  his planting of the mallorn tree (trees being a symbol of lineage, as Tolkien well knew); nor do we see Frodo’s pacifism, illness and withdrawal from Shire life, which lead to his desire to leave for the Grey Havens. Given the addition of some pointless if not absurd scenes (Gimli getting drunk, Aragorn revealing his real age), it is endlessly irritating that vital sections were chopped.

Religious subtext. Though not religious myself, I think it is fatal to Lord of the Rings if the religious aspect is not conveyed. By “religious”, I mean the sense of perhaps mystical power some characters and indeed some places demonstrate. The wizards, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly angel-like, while Sauron is a Satanic figure – their powers are obviously hard to demonstrate, but Jackson never seems to bother his arse in even attempting to do so, with little revealed about Elrond, his lineage and his importance. The Old Forest, Rivendell, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, and the Shire meanwhile all have a power of their own, something beyond an atmosphere, a power that’s not quite sentient or tangible but can be felt in the soil, whether for good or ill. Little of this is ever conveyed, yet one does get a sense of the bucolic richness of the Shire, the horror and damnation of Mordor, and the timelessness of Rivendell (albeit in a kinda hippyish way) in the Bakshi film. Jackson’s vision of Mordor seems to be a place where your face gets dirty.

*
More could easily be said. But my fundamental faulting of Jackson’s films are that they are action films, sword-and-sorcery epics. They fundamentally miss the archaic tone and atmosphere of the book, the freedom, the sense of maps with areas not yet explored. The films do the action sequences remarkably well; the scene at Helm’s Deep is astonishing, and the race through Moria, and the collapsing bridge, a remarkable piece of cinema. But I expect more than that from any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, of which Jackson only ever captures the surface. For such a thorough, all-encompassing, deep book, that has to count as an failure.

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc

Albums and What They Mean To Me #1

Neuroscientists may be able to explain why particular sounds or smells link so strongly to certain memories. I’m sure we all have scents that bring back huge waves of childhood nostalgia: some for me are kippers frying on hotplates at a harbourside fete (an immensely salty tang); ginger beer (I was very fond of this as a wee lad) and Fisherman’s Friends (ditto). Music is obviously immensely powerful in this area, so much so that trashy albums remain popular through the power of association rather than any musical qualities. Why else would I remain fond of Skid Row‘s Slave To The Grind and Motley Crue‘s Girls Girls Girls?

One album with particular memory-associative powers for me is Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized. Perhaps less well-known and under-rated in comparison to their masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, it’s an album arranged in four suites or movements, each of several separate sections.  Musically, it is exemplary early-Spiritualized, with floaty, dreamy, shimmering textures, droning, repetitious melodies, implied rhythms, soft understated vocals, and a processed and digitised production taking off the rough edges even on the strongest-hitting of sections. The druggy implications are pretty obvious, though there’s nothing overtly psychedelic, no talk of “gnomes” or “witches hat sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”. Rather, it’s dreamy, spacy, blissed out.

You can hear a fine example of all this here:

A sparkling arpeggio intro leading to a repetitive guitar-shard, under which a mobile bass-guitar melody suggests deep, anxious feelings hidden by an unchanging exterior – with releases of tension dramatised by the horns, though the underlying anxiety of the bass and guitar continue on. The build-up and release of tension, of course, are key aspects of sex, music and drugs (especially opiates); though there’s nothing overtly sexual here, there’s a sensuality to some of the music, while the druggy aspects are more pronounced, with some of the music verging on the unsettling. While Ladies and Gentlemen would make the painkilling, soothing aspect of the drug experience explicit, there’s surely an aspect of that here already – a recurring feeling of strife and discomfort soothed over, or an unsuccessful attempt to soothe over pain and anguish.

This all seemed fairly resonant with me at the time. In the summer of 2000, I had just graduated and had to face the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Although I had been moderately successful as a student, gaining a 2:1, I hadn’t succeeded in getting what I thought was a “good job” after rebuffs following final interviews with the Big 5 consultancies, the civil service etc. I’d been close, but not good enough: I had vainly imagined that I would swan into a good job and live happily ever after in some nebulous future, in the same way as I’d been successful all the way through my educational career. But it seemed the real world was a rather tougher place, and this unnerved me. Similarly, I’d moved into an apartment with a friend, anticipating finding a job of at least some kind soon enough – again, erroneously, and bills soon began to pile up. I signed on with a mixture of weary resignation and sneering superiority from wounded pride. I was lovelorn and single, but also depressed and poor; numerous romantic rebuffs also took their toll, stripping my confidence and souring my attitude. I had ambitions to write, but had no idea of any way to use this productively; I even, in an attempt to stop being so over-analytical and self-conscious, gave up my habit of keeping a journal. At the time it seemed like a good idea; in retrospect it seems like I was running away from myself, trying to escape from a present around which ominous clouds were gathering.

This all seemed perfectly suited by Lazer Guided Melodies. It soothed, but was foreboding; it was dreamy and captivating; it was intense yet oddly relaxing. There was none of the surface agony of Ladies and Gentlemen, but it was just as emotional. And it seemed to capture my mood perfectly.

(Other key albums of that moment were Rhythm and Stealth by Leftfield and The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas – both equally dark and foreboding. The road I was on seems pretty clear, in retrospect).