Sorry to be appearing incommunicado (ten points if anyone gets the music reference – c’mon, surprise me!), but I’ve had my hands full this week, with our ayi on holiday for Spring Festival and my wife still at work. It’s been like Kramer vs. Kramer, without the divorce bit! I’ll get replying and posting again next week: numerous ideas for new posts.
(N.B. I have often wanted to write a biography of John Lennon during his Beatles years, but living in China don’t have all the necessary books to hand. Nonetheless, I’ve written the introduction and first chapter of it, and thought I’d share the intro.)
The writer who ventures onto the trail of John Lennon, especially on his time as a Beatle, may be somewhat foolhardy. Lennon, as a Beatle and afterwards, has already been well covered, with numerous biographies, as well as memoirs by his first wife Cynthia, his second wife Yoko, his half-sister Julia, his PR man and even his driver. He has been analysed intensively – musicologically and psychologically, from the perspectives of feminism, Maoism, and “primally”. He is one of the most well known people of the twentieth century, with accolades varying from “Man of the Decade” [the 1960s, of course] according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, being voted eighth in a BBC “100 Greatest Britons” poll, to the naming of the airport in Liverpool after him, in 2002. A “John Lennon” Google search brings up almost 112 million pages. Beatles memorabilia remains highly sought after: a very rare copy of The Beatles (more commonly known, of course, as the White Album) sold for £20,000 on e-Bay in 2008, while the drum skin which featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper sold for $1.1m and the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace A Chance” for over $800,000. And of course there is always the music, with reputedly more than one billion albums and singles sold worldwide. (Take a moment to digest that: over a billion records, from only seven years worth of recordings. Elvis Presley took over twenty years to be the nearest numerical rival, and Frank Sinatra over forty. Lennon of course had ten more years as a solo artist in addition to that). As part of pop culture, Lennon has never left us; his life and work have been pored over, analysed and examined, exalted and decried for almost fifty years now.
So what is there still to say?
First, since 1994, a great deal of Beatles material previously heard only on bootlegs or live has been officially released . Starting with Live At The BBC, a double CD of live performances from 1962 to 1965, Apple Corps then released three Anthology double CD albums of out-takes, demos and alternate versions, the seven DVD Anthology TV series, the 1 album of No. 1 singles, Let It Be… Naked, a version of the last-released studio album without the overdubs added by Phil Spector, and even a mash-up of sorts called Love, as produced by long-time producer George Martin and his son Giles. They are now available on iTunes and in the Rock Band computer game. All of these have sold well, showing that The Beatles remain as “toppermost of the poppermost” as ever. If art always exists in the present tense (which is to say, in the mind of the person experiencing it), then John Lennon and The Beatles are as relevant, as now, as they ever were.
Second, with the advent of the internet and particularly peer-to-peer file-sharing, the ordinary fan has access to far more Beatles music and film than ever before. While Beatles bootlegs have always circulated for those interested, few people might have seen the canned Let It Be film, or the famous rooftop gig which ends it, or seen more than a snippet of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Performance of 1964, at Shea Stadium in 1965, or the Budokan in 1966. Considering that there is no official live album or film in the official catalogue and that they were great performers in that area (at least to begin with), this is a considerable gap. The Beatles were after all a band built on their live performances – first in the searing boiler room of Hamburg in 1961-1962 and later in Liverpool and then across the UK in 1962-1963. So to actually see and hear The Beatles perform live is a fascinating exercise. (And few who saw them after 1963 actually heard them). Lennon in particular is enthralling in Beatlemania-era footage: his raw charisma almost, but not quite, smothered by his suit, his feet spread apart and his knees bending to keep time, his crotch rising and falling in a vivid suggestion of sex. Finally, you can really feel the mania in the air as the four young men from Liverpool stride through a earth-shattering din to a small stage in a baseball field in New York, or observe how they interacted on stage – the end-of-show bows like something from another era, which to all intents and purposes they were – or with what sharp wit and pointed humour they conducted themselves in press conferences. Finally you can see them performing on the Apple rooftop in that cold blustery January of 1969, rusty, nostalgic and sentimental, like a couple near the end of their relationship having one last physical fling, aware that it makes no difference and that the end is not averted.
Third, several previous Lennon biographies have tended to portray him at either end of the human spectrum, with Albert Goldman seeing him as a weak, manipulated fool dominated by Yoko Ono and hopelessly addicted to drugs, and Ray Coleman’s near-hagiography seeing Lennon as a “poet and philosopher”. Both seem to focus on the extremes of Lennon’s personality – of which there is admittedly ample evidence – and miss out the middle ground. To take the first example: it’s difficult to believe that Lennon could be so subjugated by Yoko Ono, when he had an immensely forceful personality himself and a short-leash temper. (He might, of course, want to be to some extent dominated by a strong woman, and Coleman rightly observes that while Ono was Lennon’s intellectual superior, he was the superior artist). Similarly, while many of Lennon’s songs have philosophical implications, by no stretch could he be called a philosopher. He was a voracious but unsystematic reader, and his thoughts and ideas were similarly moment-to-moment; he was always capable of changing his truths to suit his current artistic endeavours. His 1970 Rolling Stone interviews are justly famous, but the reader must always be aware that Lennon was speaking with the acrid bitterness of the Beatles’ recent breakup still smoking, and his disillusion with the 1960s from this perspective must be tempered with an awareness of what he said and did at the time, rather than retrospective rationales.
For me, I see Lennon as an artist, above and beyond everything else. His activism, his experimentation with drugs, even his relationships were all secondary to or even motivated by his constant need to express himself in some new way. Few musical artists can have striven so continuously to find new means of expression as Lennon whilst a Beatle. What’s astonishing is that for all the success The Beatles achieved, it never satisfied them just for its own sake: their pace of their musical development was incredible, unprecedented and never since equalled. Starting with the inspirations of early rock and roll, Lennon moved on through Dylan, cannabis, LSD and the Chelsea/bohemian set, transcendental meditation, conceptual art, Yoko, the Fluxus art group, and radical 60s figures like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman amongst others, all of which percolated their way in some shape or form into his music. It’s in this sense that Lennon was, as he later remarked to May Pang (his partner during his 1974-5 estrangement from Ono), “a chameleon”. A recurring characteristic of Lennon was that he would discover some new thing, become obsessed by it, have it colour or shape his art and his life, discover its limitations, and then move on to something fresh. This more than anything explains the multiplicity and heterogeneousness of the portraits of Lennon. Few people can have changed their appearance so consistently in such a short period of time, every change signifying his ongoing musical, artistic and personal development. Rocker John, in leathers and a quiff, was replaced by the suited, Epstein-influenced, professional Lennon. 1965 saw Lennon in his self-indulgent “Fat Elvis” period, hair and chin growing rapidly. Psychedelia brought great changes, face greatly thinned, a walrus moustache, the famous Lennon granny glasses, and colourful archaic clothing. India begat a beard, long hair (and a messiah complex). The beginning of his solo career, when he consciously turned his back on the dreams of the 1960s, was intimated by a no-nonsense crew-cut and proletarian dungarees.
Lennon was, as critic Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to a documentary on the making of Imagine, a “man of infinite contradictions”. Time and further revelations only bring these contradictions into sharper relief. He always professed to have disliked his school days , and his school record gives no reason to doubt this, for he was no success and left with no qualifications at all. Yet he named his first band after his secondary school and even corresponded with a pupil during the peak of Beatlemania, when his time must have been at its most circumscribed. This suggests a certain nostalgia, if nothing else. He was capable of the most extreme misogyny (as seen on 1965’s “Run For Your Life”, filled with murderous jealousy), and the most devastating introspection (the solo “Jealous Guy” being Lennon’s archetypal song in this vein, though it was written in India in 1968 with a lyric of even greater self-negation titled “Child Of Nature”). He was terse and did not suffer fools gladly, yet he was occasionally suckered through his generosity of spirit and finances. A wealthy man who in his early twenties voted Conservative “because they look after your money better”, he had “no desire to join the fucking aristocracy”. A kind and loving father who rarely saw his first son, he was also a man’s man who always needed a strong woman in his life.
His contradictions ran as deep within his music as in his personal life. He was a remarkable vocalist who hated the sound of his own singing, insisting that George Martin “do something with my voice”. He was a traditionalist, insisting that no song ever bettered “Whole Lotta Shakin”, who, with the other Beatles, instigated more developments in studio techniques than any other artist before or since. He knew and could play scores upon scores of songs, as a result of playing endless sets in Hamburg, yet he couldn’t tell apart on-beats and off-beats. He produced some of the most colourful pop music ever created, yet his chord choices were extremely frugal. He stopped composing on guitar when he had become too proficient upon it. His imagination and invention were astonishing, even though he later professed to always prefer first-person songs, “cos I know me”. The emotional range of his songs runs from exhilarating and joyous to painful melancholia to desperate, agonising need to sinister shadowiness to caustic mockery to gentle lullaby. He wrote a magnificently articulate song about being the difficulties in communication and a starkly affecting song about concealing emotion.
For all these paradoxes and incongruities, however, Lennon was not one of rock’s madmen. He was not like Keith Moon, destroying hotel rooms and adopting poses and acts so often and convincingly that it was hard to tell who the ‘real’ Keith was, or if there was one. He was not like Syd Barret, fragmenting under a tide of psychedelic drugs (although he came perilously close to it in 1967). He was not like Axl Rose or Michael Jackson, megalomaniacal egos paranoically alienating fans, friends and musicians. Nor was he like Kurt Cobain or Radiohead, responding to massive success with deliberate obscurity and sour contempt. Lennon, of all the Beatles, always gave the impression of being both thoroughly unimpressed by the tawdry trappings of fame and determined to prove his talent to the most important judge of all – himself. A bedrock of cool, dispassionate scepticism about Lennon prevented him from letting fame go to his head under Beatlemania (though having the rest of The Beatles there would have helped greatly), or from floating away in a psychedelic bubble later on. But when possessed by an idea, he would go all the way with it. Timidity, artistic or personal, was never one of his problems.
Modern writers about Lennon face the charge of never having met him. To this I would say that having met someone does not necessarily make for a good book about them – there are too many bad memoirs and biographies to suggest otherwise – though their information and insights may be valuable, or not. Similarly, given Lennon’s extreme fame, almost everyone connected with him has written, or had something written, on their time with him, which gives the biographer particularly rich sources. The Beatles recording sessions have been magnificently dissected by Mark Lewisohn, their music analysed in hundreds of different ways, their lives documented to the day and often to the hour. But what Lennon oddly lacks, to my mind, is a synthesis of all these sources, a biography of his time as a Beatle which encompasses his daily activities as well as his musical accomplishments within the context of the 1960s and broader western culture. This is what this book aims to do.
Rock music is often a mythic activity, where tales grow with every re-telling and the main actors are encouraged to live “larger than life”, perhaps to please those who would live vicariously , perhaps to embody characteristic which others fear to or cannot. “Legendary” acts such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are often only mythic in this shallower sense. The Beatles however are truly mythic in the sense that their lives and work form enormous archetypes which are part of the “myth-pool”, as Carl Jung would say, of popular culture. The LP as a coherent symphonic statement, the recording studio as instrument, the beard as symbol of maturity , the secret song at the end of the LP, the “outside projects” as harbinger of splitting up, problems with wives, the desire to “get back”, the sprawling double LP , the spiritual impulse (usually meaning India or Buddhism) – all originated from The Beatles, in one shape or another. A program as contemporary as The Simpsons could do a Beatles spoof without mentioning the band and have everyone understand who they were talking about. They made the transition from disposable teen idols, the likes of which the world had seen before, to founding blocks of western culture alongside Mark Twain and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kraftwerk, with remarkable aplomb. Timothy Leary, that avatar of the 1960s, called them “[p]rototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” Which might seem silly now, but it is easy to forget that the 1960s were a time when popular culture pointed the way to a brilliant new world, and that The Beatles were at the forefront of this.
But of course they lived in the here-and-now and the day-to-day like everyone else. There are signs that they occasionally forgot this, especially during the high psychedelic summer of 1967, but such moments are surprisingly few for a band long surrounded by chronic hysteria and pandemonium. (Lennon often oscillated between acknowledging that The Beatles were the greatest and dismissively insisting that anyone could do what they did, if they put in the hours). Lennon in particular was an abrasive, often caustic, observer of what was going on around him. He was to later comment bitterly on what indignities The Beatles suffered in their quest to get to the top, and what absurdities and lunacies the Beatlemania period had engendered (though at the time he acquiesced in them willingly; their collective drive to get to the top and consequent work ethic were astonishing). He was also to fulminate at the failures of the 1960s generation in 1970, though he was and still is one of those most identified with the decade. Throughout his life Lennon was a fascinating interviewee, provided he was treated with respect and offered questions which valued and provoked his intelligence. (But woe betide the interviewer who asked a stupid question. When asked if he wrote “those kicky words” in In His Own Write “like an author?”, he sneeringly replied, “Just like an author”.) Lennon’s acerbic and compulsive truth-telling was another remarkable trait for a man who was a young pop-star. (And of course stands in desperate opposition to the docile sterility of today’s pop starlets). Rather than be content with his lot, with achieving his ambition of being “rich and famous”, there was always something greater, something further (not merely more, as with Queen: he was never one for excess for its own sake – in both his art and his personal life he could be somewhat ascetic). Lennon was the epitome of the restless soul.
Lennon formed The Quarrymen as a skiffle band with school friends in March 1957, inspired by Lonnie Donegan and his “Rock Island Line”. He was joined by Paul McCartney in July and (against Lennon’s resistance) a fourteen year-old George Harrison the following February. Performing at odd occasions and later mostly at the Casbah Coffee Club owned by Mona Best, mother of future drummer Pete, the Quarrymen cut their performing teeth slowly and painfully during the remainder of the 1950s. Come 1960, their name changing from the Beatals to the Silver Beetles to the Silver Beatles to The Beatles, the group would acquire the charismatic, artistically talented but incapable bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, though no regular drummer. In this guise Lennon led the group through the first incarnation of The Beatles, and it is to this we turn now.
Funnily enough, for someone so bookish, words are about the last thing I pay attention to in a song. I love good lyrics, but somehow I often mishear them, and go for years with the mondegreen in my head. (I’m also occasionally prone to spoonerisms, and as my good chum Darren will chuckle to recall, once misspoke The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”: instead of “like a lizard on a window pane”, I said “like a wizard on a lindow pane”. Easy mistake..! :-$ Similarly, for YEARS (decades!), I mistook “Bohemian Rhapsody”: I thought it went (well, I knew it didn’t really, but I got into the habit of just thinking of it as) “Spare him his life and his poor sausagie” rather than “… from this monstrosity!”
All the same, I do like a good lyric. I’m going to exclude Bob Dylan from the following examples, though, because 1. everyone knows he’s a great lyricist, and 2. Bob attracts a certain fanaticism, which I can do without. As I’ve said previously, the following are simply examples I like; I also like to cite from different areas of music, for the sake of glorious variety.
1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs”
Quite apart from the adolescent salaciousness often applied to “Venus In Furs”, the lyric is actually very technically accomplished. (I love Lou Reed’s interview in the BBC’s The Seven Ages Of Rock, where he says this kind of subject matter was often in Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., etc so using it in rock was “a big nothing”). Throughout, Reed uses sibilance to create a lisping, decadent effect:
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girl-child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart
Also, there’s a killer instance of onomatopoeia, in the last syllable of the line “Kiss the boot” – as he says “boot”, Mo Tucker hits that kettle drum (which itself suggest a slaveship drum, beating rhythm for the groaning desperate rowers), and the boom and boot combine deliciously.
But perhaps what’s the most interesting aspect of the lyric is that it is so dramatised. This is not Reed saying “I dig S&M”; it’s not a simple statement like The Stooge’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Reed instead enacts the performance of S&M through the lyrics, and the music heightens this with the whip-lashes of the ostrich guitar and the slave-ship drums. It’s an extremely accomplished performance to be doing on your very first album, and helps explain the critical acclaim of Reed and the Velvet Underground.
2. Belle and Sebastian, “Sleep The Clock Around”
Sometimes dismissed as twee indie, Belle and Sebastian are in fact often home to sharp, stinging lyrics. The sweetness and delicacy of some of their music is an effective counterpoint to this – kinda like The Beautiful South, but less bland. Their breakthrough album The Boy With the Arab Strap is home to many fine and effective lyrics (the stinging portrayal of someone who “We all know you’re soft ‘cos we’ve all seen you dancing / We all know you’re hard ‘cos we’ve all seen you drinking / From noon until noon again” in the title track; the polite decline to fame of “Seymour Stein”; the schoolboy idyll of “A Spaceboy Dream”), but the finest to my ears is “Sleep The Clock Around”. The portrait of dreamers who could maybe be someone, it starts murmuringly, but builds in colour and charge to the final line of the third verse, where it bursts gloriously open with the word “shine”. I’ll just quote the whole thing here:
And the moment will come when composure returns
Put a face on the world, turn your back to the wall
And you walk twenty yards with your head in the air
Down the Liberty Hill, where the fashion brigade
Look with curious eyes on your raggedy way
And for once in your life you’ve got nothing to say
And could this be the time when somebody will come
To say, “Look at yourself, you’re not much use to anyone”
Take a walk in the park, take a valium pill
Read the letter you got from the memory girl
But it takes more than this to make sense of the day
Yeah it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste
And you trusted to this, and you trusted to that
And when you saw it all come, it was waving the flag
Of the United States of Calamity, hey!
After all that you’ve done, boy, I know you’re going to pay
In the morning you come to the ladies’ salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, you’re a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
“There’s a lot to be done while your head is still young”
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine
Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid
Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came
Then you go to the place where you’ve finally found
You can look at yourself sleep the clock around
This really is a lyric that stands up on its own. Just terrific.
3. The Clash, “Lost In The Supermarket”
Despite mostly being an issues band, lead by their towering sense of solidarity and social justice, The Clash occasionally did some songs with nice autobiographical vignettes. (I think these are mostly the Mick Jones songs). “Protex Blue”on The Clash is a funny tale of buying condoms in a pub toilet, long before AIDS made their purchase socially acceptable. “Lost In The Supermarket” from the peerless London Calling is a poignant tale of alienation and seeking some kind of affirmation through buying stuff. (In “Rudy Can’t Fail” from the same album, they have a similar line: “I went to the market / To realise my soul / But what I need / They just don’t have”. That’s just fucking immense, isn’t it?). “Lost In The Supermarket” starts with the chorus, as though setting out its themes right from the start:
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see
I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how it’s been all around me
I’m all tuned in, I see all the programmes
I save coupons from packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discoteque album
I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free
4. The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus”
Lots of people first encounter The Beatles through singing “Let It Be” or “Yesterday” in school music classes, and consequently think The Fabs were just a safe, twee pop group – like a band of Cliff Richards. Au contraire. Apart from the obvious LSD inspiration of this song, I love its linguistic deconstruction and sheer outright mischief. Some highlights:
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.
Expert textpert choking smokers,
Don’t you thing the joker laughs at you?
See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
See how they snied.
Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.
5. Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”
Some autobiographica: after graduating in 2000, I moved back for a few months, planning to do a post-grad after the summer. Living back home felt rather bathetic, having to submerge the way you would like to live to the requirements of the parental home. You know what I mean? It’s a pisser, yet so hard to fight against. I had recently bought a copy of the magnificent compilation album Way To Blue, and its gentle disaffection, summer melancholy and rural vibes suited my feeling (we lived right on the edge of town, looking onto farms and hills). The most affecting song was “Hazey Jane I”, with its beautiful orchestration and searching lyric, framed as a series of questions, suiting my self-doubt:
Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?
Will it mean much to you
If I treat you right?
Do you like what you’re doing?
Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder
What you’re doing it for?
Hey slow Jane, make sense
Slow, slow, Jane, cross the fence.
Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of doing better than your worst?
Hey slow Jane, let me prove
Slow, slow Jane, we’re on the move.
6. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”
I know I’ve already mentioned the Velvets, but it struck me that this would be a good time to unveil one of my theories: the lyric to “Heroin” is basically a modern-day retelling of the Keats poem Ode To A Nightingale. I’m not (you will doubtless be pleased to learn) going to quote the whole poem, but here’s a summary of it: the speaker is in a bad mood, but listens to a nightingale singing, and appreciates it as a symbol of transcendence, one whose song will live on even after it dies. This mood of transcendence encourages the speaker to enter a reverie, away from the world of here-and-now. But removed from the immediate world, there is little difference between life and death, between the self and other. The speaker then realises that this is not a place one can live in, and exits the world of imagination; the vision fades, but doubtfully: the last two lines are “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”
The parallels with “Heroin” are exact, and such that I believe Reed (who of course studied literature at Syracuse University) intentionally made “Heroin” a contemporary re-telling. At the start, the speaker is in a state of chronic self-doubt (“I don’t know / Just where I’m going”). He desires the extremity of heroin (“When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son”) to lift him out of his torpor. Taking it is a transcendent feeling, lifting out of the stresses and strains of everyday life, freeing him to another realm away from the dirt and squalor of the city (“I wish that I was born a thousand years ago / I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas / On a great big clipper ship / Going from this land here to that”). But of course removal from the everyday is a step towards death, to complete dissociation from life itself (“Because a mainer to my vein / Leads to a center in my head / And then I’m better off than dead / Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore”). And it leads to the final damning realisation that this is a living death – but still, at the end, the pain and self-doubt remain: his fate is not yet decided (“Ah, when the heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God that I’m as good as dead / Then thank your God that I’m not aware / And thank God that I just don’t care / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess I just don’t know”).
7. John Cage, “4’33”
It’s like a mirror: you get out of it what you put into it 😉
This blog has recently had a big surge in its traffic, so I’d just like to say thanks to those who have been swinging by, in particular Kingtubby and Froog for being such generous commenters. Thanks, all! It’s a bit of a cliche to say a blog is a collaborative effort but when there’s good stuff happening in the comments, it really is true.
Keep on diggin’ what you dig.
Some favourite albums I have picked up over the years have been fairly random – acquired through a friend’s influence, an article I might have read somewhere, or random browsing through a shop like Fopp. In my teens in particular I was very magpie-ish about music, trying to get a hold of as many albums as I could. (I was one of those guys who when visiting friends for a weekend would come armed with a six-pack of blank C90 tapes, ready for copying anything good). As I was saying earlier, younger readers might not be familiar with a world where music wasn’t available at the push of some buttons! Back then, even the biggest collections I knew were only of a few hundred albums, and so acquiring more obscure stuff was a sometimes difficult task. (The music folder on my hard drive by comparison now comprises 132GB with 2722 albums – or as iTunes tells me, 306 artists, and 54.7 days of listening.) It took me months of searching before I found a copy of The Damned’s first album for example: my sister’s friend’s boyfriend have given me a copy on cassette which I adored, but it had broken. (He was quite the punk, and also gave me copies of In The City by The Jam and Rattus Norvegicus by The Stranglers – good guy!).
In those days, as I was saying, finding more obscure stuff was always difficult. I always read music magazines and wanted to find stuff that sounded good, but where the hell could you find The Melvins, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, Pantera, Kraftwerk or Primus? (I was born and bred a small-town lad, obviously). But fortunately the social network of pirated tapes was rich with many good albums quite beyond what you’d find in WH Smith or John fucking Menzies. Thus, some less well-known albums I’d like to recommend are:
1. Hate Songs in E-Minor by Fudge Tunnel
Awful band name, but this gem from a Nottingham band is one of the lost classics of British metal from the early 1990s. Massive, grinding guitars; huge, resounding drums; indistinct, shouted vocals: it’s kinda like “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath but MUCH ANGRIER. The two stand-out tracks are the title track, which has an outstanding sense of the old quiet/loud dynamic, and the alternate version of that song: it’s like an death-ambient track, the like of which I have never heard anywhere else. Both are utterly outstanding.
2. I Know Electrikboy by Thee Maddkatt Courtship
When I first went to university, I felt incredibly gauche and uncultured. (I expect everybody felt the same, but were better at hiding it than me). It’s not like I went to Oxbridge or, indeed, any of the Russell Group; it was just that I was young (only just 17), naive, a smalltown boy. One of the friends I made, though, seemed dazzlingly cultured in comparison: he was marvellously stylish, while I wore simple checked shirts, jeans and the fleece I’d bought for camping. Anyhoo, we got on well despite all that, and one evening he came by with a new album which he insisted I listen to. I liked it straight away, and popped in a C90 to copy it. I forgot to ask him who it was before he left, and so just wrote “FUCK KNOWS” on the tape. Though not generally a house music fan, I loved I Know Electrikboy, which to be fair is beatier than your average house track. Songs like “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers” just resounded with a deliciously fat bass, while the middle track, the apex of the album, “Cosmic Pop” was just the sound of a euphoric ecstasy rush. The structure of it, rising from the overture “My Life Muzik” to “Cosmic Pop” then declining to more ambient textures was so clever, mirroring the ideal night clubbing and house-partying afterwards.
Later on, I found that two of the songs are on the film Human Traffic, during the clubbing scene; and some internet sleuthery eventually showed me who it was by: he’s better known as Felix Da Housecat.
3. Skylarking by XTC
One of those unfortunate groups more critically esteemed than popular, XTC are one of the great 80s pop groups; in the sense that The Beatles are a pop group, with intelligence, style and flair, not like Wham! or Bucks Fizz. Doomed to be one of the finest exponents of classic pop in an era when everyone else seemed to be trying to run away from it, XTC are unfortunately a bit hit-and-miss over the course of an album, but many of their individual songs are just blinding classics. Listen to “Senses Working Over Time” and try to tell me it’s not one of the best fucking songs ever! It’s just absolutely joyous. One album, though, does stand above others in XTC’s canon, and that’s Skylarking. Produced as a song-cycle even though there’s no thematic link, it’s simply a collection of killer pop songs in the best tradition of the word. Their b-side “Dear God” (an apposite exploration of disillusion with religion) was a surprise hit in the US, but my favourite tune on Skylarking is the wonderful “Earn Enough For Us”, a great song about work, love and maturity.
4. Copper Blue by Sugar
When Nirvana’s Nervermind went batshit crazy and the Seattle “sound” was everywhere, the music press was full of articles about their forebears such as The Pixies and Hüsker Dü. Bob Mould, the Hüsker’s lead guitarist and main source of poppy tunefulness and aggressive guitar, was held up as the John The Baptist to Nirvana’s Jesus H. Christ. He’d by then had a few minor solo albums, but in 1992 came out with Sugar, the ultimate power-pop trio. Their first album Copper Blue was (I think) voted Album Of The Year by NME (not worth noting now, but NME back then was worth paying attention to), though it does suffer from a poor side 2. All the same, the first five songs are all stone cold classics. The opener, “The Way We Act”, has this amazing buzzsaw guitar, over which Mould repeatedly sings and solos in a dense brew of heady alternative rock. Just fucking brilliant.
5. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band
As you may have gathered, I am a huge Beatles fan, and consequently have read Revolution In The Head, an exegesis of their songs, god knows how many times – probably at least twenty. The author, Ian MacDonald, several times compares later-era Beatles to ISB, with their “exotic sweetness” and similar childhood ambivalence. Intrigued, I bought a copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as it as the only one I could find: I would have preferred The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, just for its remarkable cover.
But it turned out that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was actually the better album, one of the most psychedelic and dazzlingly inventive collections of music I have ever heard. From the child’s-eye reminisce “Koeeoaddi There” (“Hullo to the postman’s stubbly skin / Hullo to the baker’s stubbly grin”) to the poetic/nonsensical “Witches Hat” (“If I were a witches hat / Sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”) to the hippy-dippy-trippy “Three Is A Green Crown” – I defy you to find a song more 60s, more psychedelic, more trippy, than that!
I could go on, but I’ll leave it up to you to offer up some of your own favourite obscurities!
Thus far in the blog I’ve tended to talk about my enthusiasms and passions – there’s so much music and books and films etc that I totally admire. However the flip-side is that some aspects of music just drive me up the wall. I’m not referring to bands etc which I hate *cough*Coldplay*cough*, but general aspects of the music listening experience. In some ways this has changed a great deal as music has gone digital: the physical thrill of holding a new album is now over, while music’s scarcity value (and thus the valuation of the music one does have) have also dramatically declined. Until 2006, every album I had I bought or spent time taping (yes, I taped a lot of albums – so sue me); now, frequently, I read about a band who sounds interesting then often download substantial sections of their discography, via a torrent. (Again, yes, I realise this isn’t morally virtuous – so sue me). Getting such a whacking great slab of music all at once is unfortunately also rather a disincentive to listen to it all with the patience and keenness that good music demands. Older readers may remember the overwhelming urge to devour a new album you had saved up for, savouring those first listens, studying the artwork and liner notes, delighting in the overall experience.
It’s a bit different now, but then on the other hand, the essential musical listening experience doesn’t change: speakers produce vibrations that are picked up by the ear. That’s it.
But, ah, anyway: let me, dear reader, take you through some of the aspects of music which bug me, some a constant in music, and some which are particular to your mode of listening.
1. Best-Of Albums with Crappy Remixes
God, this BUGS THE FUCKING SHIT OUT OF ME. I’m sure it seems like a good idea, in that it provides an incentive to purchase for those who already own most of the albums. But invariably, the remix is crap. This is most often found in electronica artists, where their music is already prone to remixing anyway. (See, for example, Moby: his Collected B-Sides album contains FOURTEEN remixes of “Go”). So, for example, The Prodigy: their best-of Their Law: Singles 1990-2005 contains crappy remixes of both “Poison” and “Voodoo People”: yes, that’s right, the songs from their best album. (It also gormlessly places their most famous singles, “Firestarter” and “Breathe” as tracks 1 and 3, in case anyone is afraid of having to listen to their “other” songs). U2’s compilation The Best Of 1990-2000 offers paltry remixes of their more electronica/experimental tracks (such as “Numb” and “Discotheque”): every single one is significantly WORSE than the original. That’s five songs out of sixteen: you do the math. Leftfield, The Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim… all have similar tripe in their best-of albums. It’s just senseless.
But what really angers me is when it’s completely unnecessary. The Stone Roses’ Complete Stone Roses (i.e. the best of their stuff at Silvertone: their first album and singles prior to Second Coming) suffers from terrible remixes or remasterings of songs that sounded brilliant, for no purpose whatsoever: it’s not a remix, in the sense of an altering or reimagining, it’s just really bad producing. “I Am Resurrection” for example is completely butchered: the insistent opening drum beat is clunky, Brown’s vocals are clumsily double-tracked and too prominent, and the magnificent instrumental coda is simply deleted. “Waterfall” is subdued rather than letting its divine harmonies resonate. I am sure the Roses had no input on this shoddy work, but whatever bastard at Silvertone is behind this wants their ears cleaned out. Preferably with dynamite.
2. Overly Long Albums
Maybe it’s because I always liked being able to fit albums onto one side of a C90 tape, but I tend to think that albums should be around 45 minutes. Any longer and my attention starts to wonder. I tend to feel centrifugal forces take over beyond 60 minutes and albums no longer hang together, compact and united. Obviously, the impact of the compact disc is an issue here: once tapes and LPs became obsolete, bands started filling up the 72 minutes running time, simply because they could. But few bands can make a gripping, compelling listening experience over 60 minutes. The White Album, Exile On Main Street, Physical Graffiti, …And Justice For All, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, The Wall, Zen Arcade, Music Has The Right To Children, – yes. Oh god, yes! But the 2000s and beyond are littered with many album which are simply TOO FUCKING LONG.
Maybe Guns N’ Roses started this trend with their preposterous Use Your Illusion albums. If you read their interviews prior their release, they intended to release one album and leave the rest for b-sides etc. Sadly, grandiosity inflated their intentions, leaving two records with maybe 3/4 an album of good songs. REM: their albums after the under-rated Monster are generally overlong, overproduced and underwritten. While Play by Moby is praiseworthy in its scope and range (18 songs from the slamming “Honey” to the delicate “Crystal” to the punky “Bodyrock” to the thoughtful “Guitars, Flute and Strings”), his later albums are lengthy without variety. Any album which takes on the ennui of touring and travelling isn’t likely to be good, and Hotel sure ain’t: including its bonus CD, it’s TWO HOURS LONG. Metallica, once so precise, let their albums after the Black Album bloat ridiculously: where was the producer telling them where to cut, huh, Bob Rock? (Death Magnetic might have “only” ten songs, but only one is under 6.25!). Tricky, on the other hand, hasn’t really expanded the running time of his albums: it just feels like it. (How incredible, and how depressing, to have a continual downward trajectory with every album!).
3. Bad Pacing
I’ve gone into this in more detail here, but suffice it to say, I hate hate HATE albums which put all their good songs on the first half. Shoddy endings show the band doesn’t care about the album as a whole, and just hope listeners dig the hits at the start. Even good bands do this sometimes. Although Radiohead close The Bends with the wonderful “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, they precede this with the two worst songs on the album, “Black Star” and “Sulk”. OK Computer, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a good closer, leaving the dismal “Lucky” and “The Tourist” to close an otherwise excellent album.
4. Lack Of Information
This isn’t an issue these days, now most people get their music digitally, and there’s sources like the inestimable Allmusic.com and Wikipedia where you can get all you might need. But back in the day of LPs, cassettes and CDs, I used to scour album covers for information: lyrics, songwriters, producers, recording details, images, additional musicians (always revealing), etc. It was part of the whole experience of the album, to sit with your headphones on and to read the lyrics and liner notes as the band played on. But some lazy bastards never bothered with this, giving the cover, track listing, and nothing else. Iron Maiden for example always did this; cunts.
Some people complain about iTunes but personally I think it’s terrific. I love how it organises your music, and lets you see the albums with a choice of the information: I go for Name, Time, Album by Artist, Genre, Plays (i.e. number of times you’ve played it), Last Played, and Year (i.e. of release).I don’t know if it’s because I’m just anal retentive about music or if all this data helps organise a large collection, but I really like it.
5. Crap Speakers
I’m partly guilty of this one myself: too often, I just fire up iTunes on my laptop and listen through its speakers, rather than bothering to plug my iPod into the speakers. (I do have a proper sound system “back home” in the UK but haven’t bothered getting one while in China). Music to be properly appreciated needs the full spectrum of frequencies, in particular the bass tones which small tinny speakers (such as from a laptop or mobile phone) cannot reproduce. While laptop speakers have been improving (I recall seeing an Acer laptop which had a small subwoofer), they still produce only a pale shadow of the full audio spectrum. (And that’s before we even get into discussing the advantages of FLAC files over crappy MP3s).
How about you?
I guess I’m pretty proud of my taste in music, am vain enough to think I’ve got excellent taste. The good side of this is that I’m always keen to pass on discoveries I have made, to share good music I know; the negative obviously is a pride, a quickness to mock the taste of others. There are worse vices, I’m sure, but this isn’t pretty. A good friend of mine (whom I’ll call Stuart, as that’s his name) was always into what you might call soft rock when we were growing up: the kind of stuff you see in adverts for compilations called LEATHER AND LACE or DRIVETIME CLASSICS: stuff like Whitesnake, Meatloaf, Kiss, Heart, and Roxette: power ballads and melodic rock. Well, for ages I ripped the shit out of him for this, though quite rightly he never paid the slightest bit of attention to my bitching. And now I find I, um, kinda like that kind of music after all. It’s mindless fun, maybe, but it’s fun.
So I think it only right to ‘fess up and make a list of the chronically unfashionable albums I like. In the end, of course, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest whether an album is fashionable; but taste is often influenced by your friends and the broader concensus on what’s good and what’s not. So let’s start 2012 with a look at albums which may have a bad reputation or not be cool, but which I think are actually very good.
1. George Michael, Older
Not many artists get out of being a pop starlet when they were younger, so George Michael went for the explicit “maturity” angle with Older. Of course, he’s really a pop and soul guy, and by refining his music to smooth rhythms, he started appealling to housewives, while his outing didn’t really endear him to the gay audience (since it was dragged out of him) or to the straights (cottaging not being very hip). No matter. I think Older is a very good album, smooth perhaps, but heartfelt, and never bland or boring (Michael’s pop hookery never really deserts him). The atmosphere is dusky or downright late-night, as in the title track (with it’s jazz-clubby trumpet) and “Move On”. The atmosphere of the whole album is quite similar to Sade’s Diamond Life, which is high praise.
2. Marillion, Misplaced Childhood
Prog rock nowadays gets a bad press, what with it being ambitious and having (oh lordy!) pretensions. I think this is more down to the insipid unimaginative dross that seems to go for mainstream rock (never mind the pop, which seems to be gormless twats off talent shows who actually ache to be puppets in the machine). Marillion, being second wave prog, don’t even have the excuse of being the first to do it all – no, they were inspired by Genesis, particularly Peter Gabriel (Fish’s voice is very similar, and both are guilty of double-tracking their voice when it sounds better unadorned). No matter. Misplaced Childhood is a lush confection of chiming guitars, overblown keyboards and Fish’s sometimes affecting and sometime absurd poetics. While the famous hits “Kayleigh” and “Lavender” should be well known, the focal point of the album are the suites “Heart of Lothian” and “Blind Curve” which dominate sides 1 and 2 respectively. Colourful, imaginative, technically superb, touching, occasionally a bit much (“drenched with napalm / this is no Vietnam” – oh come now, Fish!), Misplaced Childhood is an album from when bands weren’t afraid to make bold statements.
3. Poison, Flesh And Blood
Hair metal, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is a deregatory term for what was then just mainstream L.A. rock. Bands like Ratt, WASP, Motley Crue, Poison, Faster Pussycat, even Guns N’ Roses. While Motley Crue have made a bit of a comeback with a book retelling their anecdotes of depravity and debauchery, most of the rest languish in the bargain basement of nostaligia tours and reality TV. This is perhaps unfair: some of the music remains worth listening to, as with Poison’s third album. While Poison had really broken through with their second album Open Up And Say Aaargh!, for Flesh And Blood they made an attempt for credibility. The guitars are far more muscular than the predocessor , the lyrics less sex-and-party and more “the-trials-of-a-young-man”. “Valley Of Lost Souls” in many ways is their “Welcome To The Jungle”, a reflection of the dark side of LA life, whereas the similar “Fallen Angel” on the previous album had more of a sing-along chorus. CC Deville shows his guitar chops on the excellent (and somewhat bluesy) instrumental “Swampjuice (Soul-O)”, which leads into the hit single, the fun-but-adolescent “Unskinny Bop”.
It’s surprising how much successful rock band’s self-esteem depend on critical esteem. Poison never had any, and ended up chasing their tails in an attempt to seem real or authentic. But here, they combine strong musical talents, a sense of fun, and an awareness that often there’s a price to paid. A good album which has aged far better than others from the 1980s LA rock bubble.
4. Pet Shop Boys, Alternative
The Pet Shop Boys often don’t get the acclaim they deserve, or so it seems to me, being considered a bit of a gay electronica band. (Shane Macgowan, beaten to Xmas #1 with his immortal “Fairytale of New York” by their cover of “Always On My Mind”, called them “two queens and a drum machine”). Their understated irony (Allmusic actually calls “Opportunities”, their scathing indictment of 80s materialism, “crass” – talk about missing the point!), postmodern understanding of performance, packaging and pop itself, and their sharp intelligence and social observations make them a great pop band (In the Warholian sense, you might say). I don’t like all their stuff, but I do really like their B-sides collection, Alternative.
The PSBs always pay close attention to their album titles, and Alternative is an apt descriptor. It’s less a “pop” experience than their singles collection, Discography (note the word “disco” in there). If Discography is them scrubbing well and showing their best face to the world, then Alternative is them as they are, for good or for bad. Thus the lyrics, atmosphere and themes are highly personal. Some are straightforwardly autobiographical, as in “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend”, which has a nice send-up of the young Neil Tennant as “shy and dry and verging on ugly”, and “A Man Could Get Arrested”, about a scene of violence they witnessed. There’s a fascination with subcultures (appropriate for a former Smash Hits editor), signalled with “Paninaro” (an Italian equivalent of Mods), and the (gay) clubbing tracks “Music For Boys” and “Euroboy”. Relationships, especially the gay variety, also feature. These often have very dark sinister atmosphere, suited to soundtracking the downside to a hedonistic lifestyle – “Some Speculation” is a masterpiece of paranoia, whereas “Do I Have To?” is yearning and idealistic. The overall weakness of the album is inevitably that the quality is variable. Some tracks are strong enough to be excellent singles, especially “Do I Have To?” and “A Man Could Get Arrested”. But some are decidedly ropy, especially on disk 2 – “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is dreadful, and I never really like their outre gay moments like “Shameless”. All the same, I find this a fascinating and highly revealing album – the PSBs without their pants on, as it were.
So never mind what anyone else says about what you listen to, just follow your ears! Unless, that is, you like Coldplay. In which case I will viciously bitchslap you.
(N.B. if you by some unlikely miracle experience a certain deja vu in some of these write-ups, let me confess that I have taken some of the text from my reviews of these albums on Amazon. If you can’t get to sleep, you can find the full series of reviews here).