The Blues and Jungle

When I trained as a teacher, I made some good friends amongst the classmates, particularly a trio of fellow musical obsessives. (No surprise, I know). The four of us would argue about musical trivia, like whether Paul McCartney or John Entwhistle was the superior bass player, which Pink Floyd lineup was the best (Barret or Waters?), whether rock music died in 1980 or 1992, which Led Zeppelin album was the best, and all that tedious/joyous music buff trivia. We’d savour minutiae like the first bass note in Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes”, the backing vocals in “A Quick One While He’s Away”, the syncopation in Slash’s magnificent guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” , Gilmour’s epic singing in “A Saucerful Of Secrets” (the live version, of course).

Though we tended to converge on classic rock, none of us were stale Mojo-reading types. Greg was more into the savagery of death, industrial and thrash; Andres, from Madrid, knew a great deal of Spanish music; Matt, the youngest of us, was the most interested in new music (somehow he was a big fan of The Libertines); and some of my own musical interests they despised,  such as jazz, electronica, and much of punk. Classic rock was the arena we all agreed on, loving (for example) The Who, Led Zep, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Captain Beefheart, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Clash, Public Image Limited, and so on. You know the kind of stuff.

So, anyway, the four of us would entertain ourselves arguing ferociously about music: the argument about whether The Who or The Beatles were the greatest was endless, while we would amuse ourselves by saying, “If we were [band name], who would we be?” For example, if we were Queen, I would be John Deacon (a severely under-rated bass player), Andres would be Roger Taylor, Greg Brian May and Matthew Freddy Mercury. Fun times.

One evening, though, Andres put on a DVD of Cream, them live at the Albert Hall. The others expected me to lap it up, but I hated it. The music Cream were playing was so fucking stale, it was like listening to a fossil. Cream could sure play (like that means anything!), the songs were well-crafted, the sound quality was superb for a live show, and it was all well and good… but the blues’ primal howl  had been utterly emasculated. All the rough edges had been sanded away; the pain and discord soothed. And while the Albert Hall may be a jolly nice venue, it is hardly conducive to rock n’ roll. The music, the whole fucking thing, seemed like a museum piece, a butterfly in glass, with a beautifully-maintained structure and absolutely zero life.

Afterwards, the others went someplace, and I went to Jungle Nation. I don’t know much about jungle music, couldn’t tell you any DJs or anything, but Jungle Nation is (was, more likely) a really popular and long-running club night which I always enjoyed going to. There, amidst the pounding rhythms, aggressive breakbeats and raw vocalising (can’t really call it “singing”) were all the qualities that Cream had lost: primal, dirty, instinctive, immediate, enthralling and utterly alive. The contrast was immediately obvious. Never mind all the classics – music, like any art form, only exists in the present tense. When it’s a museum piece, as sadly happened to jazz and is becoming the case with rock music (having bifurcated into banal mortgage rock/landfill indie and the still-thriving metal scene), it’s dead. Dead.

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Vocal Performances

Though I’ve said several times previously that mere technical virtuosity means nothing to me in music, I thought good singers were worth looking at – a “good” singer being to me one who conveys emotion. I don’t care how many octaves they can reach, how fast they can rap, how inhumanely they can bellow (for death metal fans out there) or how poetic their lyrics: the feeling is the essential thing. Far better to listen to Johnny Rotten (or John Lydon: his early stuff with Public Image is still astonishing) than the competent mediocrities who plague talent shows like a tidal wave of blancmange.

Obviously.

There’s probably no point in trying to define a good vocal performance any further, because emotion and artistic aims are as varied as people. I’m just going to give a series of good examples.

Everyone knows Axl Rose is a bit of an arsehole. Keeping people waiting nearly twenty years between studio albums; walking off gigs and turning up late; breaking up the band of brothers that was the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. But all the same, he’s a bloody good singer and usually a good songwriter, able to dramatise his emotions and ideas into broader statements (see for example “Coma”, “Estranged”, “Locomotion” and “Right Next Door To Hell”). His singing in “One A Million” is absolutely blistering: the ferocious rage in the final verse (starting from “Just tryin’ to make ends meet” at 4.29) can strip the paint off walls and turn hippies into savage punks. (Savour, too, the guitar interplay: worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers). The way the tension rises up to this climax, then ebbs as the song fades to an end, is magnificent.

Mike Patton of Faith No More is often held up as one of the best vocalists in rock. No arguments here. Savour his singing in “Falling To Pieces”, from their breakthrough 1989 album, The Real Thing.

The video’s not quite as good as “Epic” but Patton’s delivery is just delicious.

Nick Drake’s voice is sensuous, smoky, subtle. (A review of Five Leaves Left pointed out the title is a pun: it’s not just an autumnal thing but a reference to cigarette papers running out). While “Cello Song” has many, many things to admire (Drake’s incredible guitar-playing, and the cello, which makes me think of a yew tree swaying in a dusk-lit meadow in October), the voice conveys this wonderful dusky emotion.

Michael Jackson didn’t have much of an ear for good songs (every album except Thriller contains substantial amounts of filler: “Speed Demon”, “Liberian Girl” and “Just Good Friends” in Bad, and most of Side 2 in Off The Wall – and those are his other good albums!). But, my god, the man could sing! I really enjoy the delicious delivery of “The Way You Make Me Feel” – the exuberance and delight of falling in love.

Normally, melisma (changing notes while on the same syllable) bugs the crap out of me. It’s been done to death by Rn’B types like Whitney Houston etc. Viz had a splendid piss-take where Whitney answered questions about car maintenance – “Ensure your craaa-eeee-aaank shift is properly aliii-eeee-iiii-eeee-iiii-gned and puuuuuu-oooo-uuuuuu-oooooo-uuuuuut fresh oil in”, etc. However, Bjork handles them beautifully, without it ever seeming forced or (worse) a transparent device. In “Like Someone In Love”, they seem like the spontaneous bursts of pure emotion. Really dazzling.

While I abhor rap and hip-hop that glorify the ghetto mentality of drugs, prostitution and violence, Public Enemy never seem to get old. Chuck D’s voice, its strength, power and certainty, perfectly suit a group with radical political intentions.

What do you think – any nominations?

A Sense Of Structure

I particularly like artists who understand pacing in an album. These days, indeed, the entire concept of the album is disappearing, as people buy individual tracks off iTunes rather than complete albums. It’s just too easy to skip over tracks which aren’t as interesting, and the same for tracks which take longer to assimilate, are less immediate: how could you appreciate a song like “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, with its several sections and range of emotions, on the first go? Or even something with multiple layers of sound like techno or “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”?

So albums which are well-paced are doubly precious. Artists who can do this have an understanding of the symphonic, structural possibilities of music: not to get too wanky about it, but acts like Mike Oldfield (in his earlier days: his vision gradually disappeared entirely), Kraftwerk, and The Stones Roses (to take three disparate examples) all knew how to structure an album well. It really is phenomenal, and endlessly irritating, the amount of albums which simply stick most of the good songs in the first half, or have end with filler crap: to take some random examples of otherwise good albums, Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys (have they ever done a consistently good album?), Maxinequaye by Tricky, Fat Of The Land by The Prodigy (absurdly over-rated in comparison to Jilted Generation), even Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, both of which have awful pairs of closing songs.

No. A great album should have a sense of mounting momentum, or failing that just have a great ending. The Beatles, of course, were masters of this. While the middle period albums Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul all mysteriously have shoddy endings, Please Please Me, With The Beatles, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, the White Album, and (especially!) Abbey Road (the Fabs’ most symphonic album) all have outstanding closers. (I realise that this is highly debatable in the case of the White Album – but I love the way the babbling stream-of-consciousness “Revolution #9” is followed by the lush dreaminess of  “Good Night”. Much of sides 3 and 4 are, as Ian MacDonald says, distinctly “crepuscular”, occupying an eery twilit halfworld).

Similarly, Pink Floyd. With Roger Waters and Nick Mason coming from an architectural background, their initial post-Barrett works are naturally sound-structures more than hooky songs. “A Saucerful Of Secrets” was famously sketched out using architectural symbols, for example. Later on, during their astounding Dark Side Of The MoonThe Wall hot streak, the Floyd had an orchestral understanding of the pacing of an album: for example, ending DSOTM with the utterly majestic “Eclipse”; bookending Wish You Were Here with the stately “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, and with “In The Flesh” acting as an overture and the various versions of “Another Brick In The Wall” being repeating leitmotifs in The Wall, aspects more commonly found in Wagner or Beethoven.

I’m not trying to say that a well-paced album need have symphonic pretensions, but simply point out that good bands understand that the framing of a song, its relations to its neighbours, is important to the enjoyment of an album. Take The Damned: I would argue that their first album, Damned! Damned! Damned!, is the best punk album ever. It’s just so well paced: it opens brilliantly with the nervy “Neat Neat Neat”, side 1 ends with the cheap cider and black lipstick gothica of “Feel The Pain”, while Side 2 opens with the delirious, delicious “New Rose”, goes by in a speed-induced flash, then ends with the magnificent cover “I Feel Alright” (aka “1970” by The Stooges), which about the closest any English band came to matching the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” (still the most savagely dissonant song known to mankind).

Or take The Stone Roses: it begins mysteriously, with the dark, reverb-heavy “I Wanna Be Adored”, follows this with the euphoric “She Bangs The Drums” and the beautifully chiming “Waterfall”, and ends the side with the sugar-rush of “Bye Bye Badman”. Side 2 opens with the gentle-yet-biting “Elizabeth My Dear”, dispels the cynicism with the glorious ringing chords of “Sugar Spun Sister”, which then yields to the impossible magnificence of “Made Of Stone”. Wisely, the next song is the slower “Shoot You Down” (anything else would be anticlimactic), but restores momentum with the vast resonating chords of “This Is The One” and then end with the surging psychedelic space jam of “I Am The Resurrection” – that incredible coda, like you’re flying through heaven towards some Garden of Eden, urged on by everyone you have ever loved beckoning you in. (Or is it just me?). Really fucking amazing.

The Doors and L.A. Woman; The Queen Is Dead; Trans Europe Express; Reign In Blood; Automatic for The People; Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space; The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion; Dirt; The Boy With The Arab Strap: those are others off the top of my head which organise their songs really well.

A Vulgar Display Of Power; Copper Blue; Zooropa; The Velvet Underground And Nico (though it pains me to say it); Use Your Illusion (I and II); every Michael Jackson album that isn’t Thriller; every XTC album that isn’t Skylarking: all of them suffer from bad pacing that would obscure weaker  songs, usually by stuffing all the good songs on the first side.

Any more suggestions in either category?

Albums and What They Mean to Me #3

Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam stirred memories of discovering The Beatles’ 67-70, aka the Blue Album, for they share the same colourful joyfulness. As an intellectual type, most of my most interesting experiences have been internal, as my various discoveries have brought new visions of life. The period when I discovered The Beatles was perhaps the most important transitory period in my life. In my second year of high school I had not had a good time; some of my friendships had ended, and those with future friends had not yet ‘set’. School was little better; I lacked the confidence to hang about with the ‘cool guys’ in my class, and despaired of the immaturity and stupidity of those I was lumped in with. The schoolwork itself had been fairly boring; nothing struck me the way that future things did, whether Educating Rita or trigonometry and calculus.

For my own entertainment I was in a rut. I had read innumerable books about Nazis and WWII (biographies of Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich; the Battle of Berlin) and the Lord of the Rings, but I never got into the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, and the non-Stephen King horrors I tried were bland and simple, even to my juvenile taste: stuff like The Slugs by Shaun Hutson. Musically I was still in my greaser period, but needing to progress (an urge I had not then fully comprehended) I had wound up in a dead-end listening to the heaviest stuff possible (Obituary, Brutal Truth), while the newer metal coming out was really boring (The Almighty). Something had to change.

Several things seemed to come about at the same time. Towards the end of S2 (I think – this is almost 20 years later!) I stopped going to the Boys Brigade and went instead to Scouts, prompted by some friends, Stuart and Kenneth (never “Ken” or “Kenny”). We had agreed to give each other’s group a go; for a time I went to both; then I dropped BBs altogether, as the games were less fun, Scouts had no Bible stuff, and the Scout leader seemed much better. I also at this time got to know Darren, who was in a number of my S2 classes once they were streamed. I’d never really known anyone who had a living mental interior like I had before him – someone who wrote lists of his favourite things, who was a devoted and passionate fan of things like I was, who read, who when I talked with him was so bright and quick on the uptake, and very funny with it. Initially, though, I was slightly uncertain, as his evident enthusiasms were entirely different form mine. I was never into sci-fi, or Douglas Adams, and he seemed only to know Queen musically.

As soon as we entered S3 things seemed to cohere into a distinct pattern. I was in the same class as Darren in numerous subjects so we spent much class time together. We were in the same Physics class as Bill, another Scout. My friendships with Stuart and Kenneth had also become extremely strong, too, because we had attended the Scout summer camp and had an amazing time. (And Darren, perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, soon joined Scouts too).

So I was forming a group of friends that I was finally happy with. Academically I was happier, as I no longer had subjects like Technical or Music or Modern Studies for which I had no interest. The classes were more mature, from better backgrounds (I don’t mean financially – some absolute wankers had dads who were skippers or oil bigwigs), and more willing to engage with ideas etc. I was exposed to and, more importantly, open to new influences.

I then used to go to second-hand record sales in the lounge of a local hotel, held every month or so. There I had found The Clash, an album by the ferocious Discharge, a Sex Pistols bootleg rarity: I was massive on punk at the time. But when I went there (in October 93 I think) I saw 67-70,the Blue Album by The Beatles. I’d heard some of it before – a friend’s older brother had it – and rather liked it, so I spent 5 quid from my babysitting money on it. (More than I’d usually spend – The Clash was only 2 pounds! – but it was a double album).

It was an absolute revelation. An utter revolution in the head. Nothing, musically was ever the same again. Suddenly the sounds I heard were technicolour, three-dimensional; every feeling, every emotion, could be articulated, not just metal’s angst, anger and depression. Imagination was harnessed to create astonishing, vivid sound-pictures. Not only that: the spirit and camaraderie I had found at Scouts (especially at summer camp – previously my friends and I had always argued and insulted each other to form a pecking order) were there too.

A good album will have periods where different songs are your favourite, as they unveil their secrets over time. First it was the incredible “Strawberry Fields Forever”, its vivid colours leaping at me through the speakers – the purple Mellotron, the mellow, slowed-brass tones, the cinematic dissolve of the zither, the surging mahogany of the cellos. Then the infinite coda-choruses of “Hey Jude”, suggestive of humanity singing and swaying as one, in heart-felt harmony. Then the tender, cheering consolation of “Here Comes The Sun”. Then the remarkable – no the jaw-dropping! – linguistic deconstruction of “I Am The Walrus”, with its orchestration winding ornately around the room like acid-trip flowers climbing the walls. Then “Penny Lane” and its thrilling exuberance and illustrative instrumentation. Then “Don’t Let Me Down”, at first seemingly a little depressing in comparison, revealed its warmth and tenderness and vulnerability. “Come Together”; “Get Back”; “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”; hey, the unforgettable “A Day In The Life”, with Ringo’s unsurpassable drumming, Lennon’s magnificent singing in the bridge and the space-age mind-fuck of the enormous orchestral crescendo – the magnificence of The Beatles, their imagination, feeling and virtuosity (who else could do “I Am The Walrus” and “Revolution”?) impressed me like nothing before or since.

At every Scout camp, at every time ‘we’ gathered, I took my tape of the Blue album, and played it. The others were soon as captivated by it. We now had our soundtrack. Consequently, when I think of this time, I think of the Scout things we did – and since all my friends were Scouts we had a ravenous appetite for every Scout activity. I remember cycling in the woods in autumn, starting with the late dawn, finishing tired but exalted with the setting sun. I remember the camps, singing along to “Hey Jude” with four of us squeezed into one hike tent. I remember cycling over the nearby hills  during the Xmas holidays with Stuart, the trees, shrubs and vegetation glistening with chill frost. I remember visiting our Venture Scout leader’s being-decorated flat and espying, thrillingly, vinyl copies of Rarities and Revolver.

Rarely, over the long field of your life, can you point to a period and say that it was one that changed you decidedly for the better. This was one.

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Albums and What They Mean to Me #1

Albums and What They Mean to Me #2

Albums And What They Mean To Me #2

I haven’t really liked too many bands since 2000 or so. I think there’s three reasons for this. In part it’s because I’m happier delving through the past and rooting through the greats, rather than keeping up with what’s new. Another reason is because I’m no longer a youngster and, as wise old E.M. Forster said, there’s a narrowing of the gates necessary after 30 if the mind is to stay creative.  But probably the main reason is that I find a lot of the music unambitious and insipid – suited for these wan unimaginative days. (Let’s face it, we’ll probably never get bands like Throbbing Gristle, MC5, The Stranglers or The Smiths again). I mean, when The Strokes came out with the single “Hard To Explain” I was genuinely excited, but the album contained precisely 1.5 good songs: yet they were absurdly overhyped as somehow restoring the glories of CBGBs and the pre/post-punk New York thing. Anyone who had ever heard The Ramones or Television or Blondie knew what a pale imitation The Strokes were! Same with Interpol – an inferior imitation of Joy Division. Same with stuff like Editors, Spoon, British Seapower, Franz Ferdinand etc: just nothing special. And then there’s music that’s just utterly lacking in testicles, like The xx: weak, pallid, insipid, and utterly lacking in ambition. (I’m not even going to go into bedwetting mortgage rock like Coldplay).

However, one album that really grabbed me was Animal Collective‘s Strawberry Jam. Sometime in 2007, the Guardian did a feature on best albums of the 00s, with commenters adding their own favourites. I downloaded ones which sounded good, with Strawberry Jam swiftly becoming by far my favourite. As often happens when a good album strikes you with some force, it complemented my own mood and circumstances. I had recently arrived in China, teaching English in a small university. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control of and directing my life, rather than letting things happen: I had taken things by the scruff of the neck and it was fun. China was fascinating, my students were lovely, and I was really enjoying being there, learning so much every day. I loaded the album onto my MP3 player when I first headed to Shanghai for the weekend and savoured it.

While most electronica albums are based on beats and rhythms which sometimes criss-cross but usually cohere, Strawberry Jam is more joyfully psychedelic, based on the idea that more is more. It starts off relatively conventionally with “Peacebone”, where a propulsive rhythm and shimmering blips keep the numerous seemingly-random samples and effects from becoming shapeless, while a lyric of fantastical images (“A jugular vein of a juggler’s girl”) goes nowhere but is striking. “Unsolved Mystery” starts off with a simple repeating two-chord accoustic riff (sampled, to cut out the decay), but discards this metronome as the song proceeds, overtaken by repeated colourful samples and vocal effects. The apotheosis of this approach is the next song, “Chores”. This is just a wonderful gleeful psychedelic maelstrom that is utterly infectious in its deep sense of wonder and joy. It’s kind of like “Tomorrow Never Knows” but REALLY REALLY HAPPY. I love the looped sample (0.56-1.10) – repeated thirty-three times! (I counted). The latter half of the album (after the remarkable “For Reverend Green”) is less euphoric and almost reflective, but follows the same musical approach, as with “Winter Wonderland”, a song which captures a sense of Yuletide magic.

It’s an album which perfectly complements a period of new experiences and heightened vision. It’s also adventurous, colourful and joyous. A wonderful album.

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