You might have expected another blog sooner. I am working on one about Irvine Welsh and his maddening decline, in the odd moment I can scrape to do so. It’s already at two thousand words – I think it’s going to be a long one. In the meantime, what do you think of him?
(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).
I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.
If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:
1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.
Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.
Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.
2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)
These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.
3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.
They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.
Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.
Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:
REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.
To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!
My constant ranting about bands that can’t put together a decent album made me think – well, which albums (qua albums) are really great? Which albums hang together in their entirety; which have that enormously satisfying quality of having no crap? Despite Paul’s belief that few bands manage to avoid filler, I think there are actually quite a few bands manage to do at least one really great album – though very few do more than two, I’d reckon, being unable to develop beyond their initial sound. So here are some of my own nominees for the “No Crap” club of great, consistent listens.
1. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized
A magnificent album which I think is in the top 3 for the 1990s. Building on the long dense grooves of Lazer Guided Melodies, LAGWAFIS adds a bucketload of heartbreak and a few thunderbolts of overblown Stooges-y guitar, making the album not dreamy but utterly pulsing in emotion. You’ve got the wry “Think I’m In Love” with its brilliant phon/antiphon couplets (“I think I can rock and roll – Probably just twisting / I think I wanna tell the world – Probably ain’t listening”), the surging “Electricity”, the revelatory “Cool Waves”, and the astonishing cacophonic vortex of “Cop Shoot Cop”, perhaps the nearest musical approximation of THE VOID I have ever encountered. Not a song is out of place, not a moment wasted, even in the seventeen (count ’em) minutes of “Cop Shoot Cop”. (Is it just me or is it no coincidence that this is the same length as “Sister Ray”?) LAGWAFIS is – and I really believe this – as good as Dark Side of The Moon, though it maybe doesn’t quite reach the same majestic heights as “Eclipse”.
2. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses
When they were big, in 1989-1990ish, I absolutely despised the Roses, just as I did The Happy Mondays, The Inspiral Carpets, and all the Madchester scene. Of course I did – I was a greaser and anything new and fashionable must therefore be liked by weak minded fools. Well, I’ve grown up (a bit) since then, and it seems to me now that Madchester and the contemporaneous “rave” scene were about the last organic musical revolution in the UK – at least to affect the whole of British pop culture. While The Soup Dragons and The Charlatans were really just ephemera, The Stones Roses is an album of the utmost quality, one which I really can’t praise enough. Quite apart from the classic songwriting, there are so many moments of absolute genius – the delicious vocal harmonies on “Waterfall”, that delirious surge into the chorus of “Made Of Stone”, the HOLY FUCK THIS IS INCREDIBLE psychedelic jam ending “I Am The Resurrection”, that wonderful instrumental section in “She Bangs The Drums”, where Mani plays Hall (from 1.40) a simple but tension-filled groove, over which Squire solos, the whole thing building and building until Reni thumps in on drums (2.19) to release the musical orgasm of the utterly joyful chorus. Genius. The sense of youthful delight and possibility coursing through the whole album is utterly infectious.
3. The Man Machine by Kraftwerk
Pop/rock has The Beatles. Alternative music has the Velvet Underground. Metal has Black Sabbath. The blues has Robert Johnson. And electronic music, almost in its entirety, is the progeny of Kraftwerk. Their great albums are stunningly consistent, and of their amazing run Radio Activity (1975) – Trans Europe Express (1977) – The Man Machine (1978) – Computer World (1981), only TEE stumbles with “Hall Of Mirrors”, which has not aged well. Still, with absolute landmarks like “Europe Endless” and “Trans Europe Express”, there’s not much to complain about. I would suggest though that of those four, The Man Machine is the one crammed with the most riches. The insistent robotic electronica and delicious dry wit of “We Are The Robots” (sample line: “We are programmed just to do / Anything you want us to”), the highflown indifference of “Spacelab”, the wry fuck-you of “The Model”, the sheer sonic brilliance of “Neon Lights”: here’s an entire album of incomparable musical vision and magnificent execution. If it was released today, it would sound fresh – it’s thirty-fucking-four years old!
4. Closer by Joy Division
Let us not worship at the altar of the doomed young man. It’s juvenile to glorify unfulfilled promise untempered by the trials and compromises of life – which is precisely why such figures are so popular with adolescents (see also Richey Edwards; Sylvia Plath; Kurt Cobain). Quite apart from that, Joy Division were a stunningly talented band, with complementary talents: Peter Hook’s prominent bass, Bernard Sumner’s dissonant shards of guitar and glacial synths, Stephen Morris’ highly kinetic drumming, and Ian Curtis’ sonorous vocals and haunting, literary lyrics. Closer has more variety and breaks more ground than Unknown Pleasures: the shambling rhythms of “Atrocity Exhibition”, the icy synths of “Isolation”, the haunting funeral procession of “The Eternal”, the sotte voce heartbreak of “Heart And Soul”… not a dud moment.
5. Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses
6. Animals by Pink Floyd
Animals seems to be the great forgotten Floyd album, the lonely child in their incredible Dark Side of the Moon-The Wall hot streak. Everyone knows Dark Side spend a gazillion years on the charts and everyone knows “Another Brick In The Wall II”; likewise Wish You Were Here is most often cited as the best Floyd album.
While Dark Side is definitely a leap on from Meddle and a massive soar from Atom Heart Mother, there are a couple of things that bug me about it. (“How iconoclastic!”) First, the production – OK, in numerous points it’s absolute fucking genius – see “On The Run”, and also the excellent Classic Albums program on Dark Side, where Gilmour takes the viewer through all the (8) tracks in the song and how it was mixed in real time. But there’s something about “Money” which I find irritating: it seems stiff and jerky. It would have been better perhaps to keep it in the deep blues arrangement in which it was first essayed. Also “Time” – the vocal in the first verse annoys me – too dry, or something. Also, “Us And Them” seems a bit wishy-washy. This is not to say I dislike these songs, as these are really just minor quibbles, but when you’re talking about genius it’s the minor things that differentiate them. And WYWH – while “Shine On” is majestic and “Wish You Were Here” one of the finest articulations of empathy and humanity in rock music, “Have A Cigar” seems like a long sneer and “Welcome To The Machine” a bunch of sound effects over self-pitying lyrics.
Oh, but Animals! Perhaps it requires a certain openness to or appreciation of the longer song – certainly Animals can appear as three unapproachable slabs of +10 minute songs (“Dogs”: 17.08, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”: 11.33, “Sheep”: 10.21). But being one who has always enjoyed long multi-sectioned songs, Animals hits the spot every time. Consider “Dogs”: it’s the longest of the lot, true, but it has four distinct sections. First, there’s the second-person description of the businessman (“You gotta be crazy / Gotta have a real need”) ready “to put the knife in”, and a fierce howl of a solo from David Gilmour (the one starting from 5.31), a masterful example of space and economy. (The entire song is probably his best Pink Floyd work). Then there’s the drifting, shadowy, echoing section, the word “stone” repeating like a tolling bell. Then there’s the section sung by Waters, the lyrics shifting to first person (“Gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused / Sometimes it seems to me like I’m just being used”), giving the character’s thoughts and reflections at the end of it all. Finally, there’s the final summation of the worthlessness of this form of life, each line beginning “Who was”, rather like the first section of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl – “Who was broken by trained personnel”, “Who was fitted with collar and chain”, “Who was dragged down by the stone”. With razor-sharp musicianship (each member of the Floyd has a moment in the spotlight), incisive social commentary, keen sense of sonic possibility and intelligent structure, “Dogs” exemplifies the best of Waters-era Floyd. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” are almost as good. The caustic gloom and enormous tension of “Pigs” is terrific, and where else can you find a line as good as “You radiate cold shard of broken glass”? The pastoral revolt of “Sheep” is brilliant, especially in the final verse: “Have you heard the news? The dogs are dead!” The structure, with the introduction and coda of “Pigs On The Wing” is smart, too, giving a human touch to an album of some considerable anger and belligerence.
Some others: Burnin’, Catch A Fire and Exodus by Bob Marley; Revolver by The Beatles (I’m tempted to say the White Album too, but we all know this isn’t really true); Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; The Specials; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine; Automatic For The People by REM; The Velvet Underground (i.e. without Nico); The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths; London Calling by The Clash; Dolittle by The Pixies.
Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.
Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)
Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.
You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.
This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.
Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.
For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist. But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.
I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly. Well, maybe so, but at the same time I really love a slamming track, the kind that gets the dance floor bouncing with manic FUCK IT LET’S GO CRAZY energy. With a raw punk edge or pounding four-to-the-floor beats (or ideally both!), there’s nothing like the mad rush and adrenaline thrill of a killer tune. Music in its ability to unite people emotionally and spiritually is an incredibly powerful force, able to generate immense resevoirs of emotion or energy. Here are some that get me out my seat and leaping about like a goon.
1. Leftfield – “Phat Planet”
AKA “the song from that Guinness advert”. Simple, and brutally effective. The image of vast banks of tribal drums being beaten by some immense jungle-dwelling African demigod is hard to resist. What’s great is that there’s no melody at all, just crushing rhythm, occasionally augmented by minor details (the mosquito buzz that starts at 2.36, for example). Similarly, the structure is bone-headedly simple. But hey, it takes great intelligence to create music this basic, this focused. I saw Leftfield do this at a festival and it was to my mind an absolutely epochal event, like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock.
2. Armand van Helden – “Koochy”
Obviously this just pinches the riff from Gary Numan’s “Cars”, with some stratching and a thumping beat. Got quite a kick, though, huh? I have a particularly fond memory of this song: I had gone to a party to celebrate my friend’s final undergraduate exam, and come 5am or so, we had ran out of music and were watching MTV’s late night selection, in a this-is-crap-but-can’t-be-bothered-changing-it kinda way. The video for “Koochy” came on, and I was blown away by its relentless simplicity, and the genius of the video – all bad 70s style, explosions, car crashes and the “plot” sections from porn (so wooden and yet so ripe with tension, though not of the dramatic variety). “THAT’S IT!” I wanted to scream. That amazing stupidity, like The Ramones for the ’00s. But everyone else was falling alseep and nobody seemed to get it. Still, cracking song.
3. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Sprit”
Sorry if this song seems like a dead-dodo cliche to you, but I was 12 years old when it came out. Like so many people, it shifted me from being a full-on hair metaller (with all the gormless intolerance endemic in the caveman metalhead mentality) towards something a bit more open and less prejudiced (musically and otherwise). Nirvana’s role in freeing a generation from sexism and homophobia doesn’t get enough praise, it seems to me. But this is only to discuss the ideology (though it is important). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song powerful enough to get me to MOSH. I’d always wanted to go batshit to songs like it, but was always too shy. (I was quite the wallflower when at school). But eventually I discovered a nightclub where likeminded people went who liked the same music and did the same things and had the same frame of references. (It was here I developed my test for a good nightclub – “To what extent are people milling about outside talking after it closes?” – which I maintain is the key indicator). I’m sure I don’t need to explain the song. It remains a song of immense power and abandon – maybe the only time Kurt Cobain ever equalled John Lennon’s vocal in “Twist And Shout”.
4. The Prodigy – “Voodoo People”
Can I please correct a common misconception? The Fat Of The Land is not (by a fucking country mile!) The Prodigy’s best album. That title belongs, as any Prodigy fan will tell you, to Music For The Jilted Generation (though, okay, you might get some old school ravers going for Experience). It endlessly irritates me how FOTL gets cited as the key Prodigy album. It may have their three most famous singles, sure, but the rest of the album is mindless filler at best. (I don’t even think “Breathe” is all that). MFTJG on the other hand is crammed with killer tune after killer tune – “Their Law”, “Poison”, “Voodoo People”, “Break And Enter”, the genius gear-change that is “Three Kilos”, “No Good (Start The Dance)”… brillant, all. Combining punk attitude, techno beats, a fairly crusty philosophy and outlaw badass imagery, MFTJG is the only album I know where indie kids, technoheads, oldskool ravers, crusty hippies and rockers will all get up to dance. The one that endlessly does it for me is “Voodoo People”, with its opening riff taken from Nirvana’s “Very Ape“, its surging momentum and gleeful breakbeats. Everything you could ever want in a messy dancefloor moment.
5. Madness – “Baggy Trousers”
I could be cool and list a punch of brilliant raw punk obscurities like “Hong Kong Garden” or “I Found That Essence Rare” or “I Feel Alright” or “Dead Cities“. But fuck it – how brilliantly fun, how joyful, how utterly danceable, is “Baggy Trousers”?! ‘Nuff said, huh?
How about you – what gets your motor running?
I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).
It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…
1. Bob Dylan
According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).
2. Bruce Springsteen
To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!
Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.
4. The Police
Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.
5. David Bowie
I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.
6. Deep Purple/Rainbow
My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.
How about you?
I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.
Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.
England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage
Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.
Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald
None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).
Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher
As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.
Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr
I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.
How about you?