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?


5 thoughts on “A Sense Of Structure

  1. Mike, while I’m again at odds with your content again, I couldn’t agree more about song continuity. Continuity by …… was often a part of the vinyl liner notes.
    I have a couple of fave albums for their continuity element.
    Cheap Thrills by Janis Joplin ends with the tour de force Ball and Chain and that last wrenching vocal note followed by a snippet of the american national anthem, that particular track being recorded live in San Francisco.
    Aslo Children of the Future Side One by the Steve Miller Band, his first and only decent LP. The hard rocking tracks run together and seamlessly unfold toward the final Living in the USA..
    First top acid trip = Leonard Cohen. Cloud nine on some tres serious black hash = imported copy of Black Sabbaths first LP.

    You can say it, Mike. That fat Tubby is a 60s retard.

    But thats okay, since as soon as I get my old pcs back in some sort of operational order, I have a guest music correspondents piece to put up, which I’m sure you’d enjoy.
    Can’t wait to get things sorted, having an additional three posts to add to the guest piece.
    Its great that a few folk as yourself take time to write about their great listens within a personal context. Sino stuff is just so predictable.
    I was a late discoverer of the Stooges first two LPs, but it was a case of manifest destiny, since I always wondered about this piece of grafitti – I wanna be your dog – scrawled on the local train station in 1969.
    Finally, a lifetime regret. I never caught Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in their prime, despite the fact that they often played 200 yards from my student digs in Melbourne, which incidentally was/is the most active and musically literate city in the world.
    Thnx for the platform and Cheers.

    • I’ve never seen a “continuity by…” sleeve note, and I have quite a collection of vinyl. The CD obviously fucked up all that, and the mp3 killed it off completely – though saying that making your own compilations has never been easier. I’ve never listened to Janis Joplin or Nick Cave – clearly, gaps in my collection. Any recommendations of albums?

  2. Can’t resist. I had a Patti Smith bootleg album live at CBGBs which had the perfect endnote. Pale Blue Eyes sequed into a rap on Hank Williams and finaled with Louie Louie. And then Iggy who was in the audience collapsed in a noisy heap to loud applause. Better than anything officially released.

  3. Pingback: Musical Pet Hates | booksandmusicandstuff

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