The Decline of Irvine Welsh

I am currently reading Skagboys, the much-anticipated (in certain households at least) prequel to Trainspotting and the subsequent Porno. I am reading it in the same way that I read Porno – namely, knowing that it will have moments varying between decent, good and total crap. (With Welsh’s other books like Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and Glue, I didn’t have even such low expectations: Welsh’s trajectory and entire style has been agonisingly familiar after Filth). I contend that Trainspotting, The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares are all excellent books, but the decline in quality in Welsh’s subsequent work has been painful, similar to (and perhaps caused by the same factors as) the decline of bands like Guns N’ Roses, where an early energy and vitality is supplanted by a bloated pretension or grandiosity. (I still get violently angry when I think about GN’R’s fucking brass section).

The difference in quality is what I think demonstrates the difference between literature and popular fiction. Stephen King, in his excellent book on the horror genre Danse Macabre, denies the validity of this distinction, contending a snobbishness in literary critics causes them to occasionally appropriate books that had previously been thought simple popular fiction, such as… – I think he cited Richard Matheson for one. Bullshit. Literature is qualitatively different from fiction, in that fiction depends on the basic/elemental pleasures of storytelling (plot arc, characters, resolution), whereas literature depends on technique (metaphor (in the broadest sense), motifs, foreshadowing, irony, satire, framing devices etc). Fiction essentially is a great story, whereas literature tells you something about the condition of mankind. James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, a dazzling introduction to 17th century Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to land there (John Blackthorne, as based on the real-life William Adams), is a magnificent read but is essentially just a great story. On the other hand, James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners are magnificently rich in detail and symbolism, despite their surface realism. Consider the brilliance of this opening paragraph (I’ve highlighted in bold the words which are suggestive or allusive):

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

To be sure, some books are re-evaluated when, with the perspective of time, they come to take on greater significance. Charlotte Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” did not attract much attention upon publication in 1892, but subsequent readings demonstrate its subversion of patriarchal assumptions and its gothic power, and it’s now seen as an important early feminist text.

Anyway: back to Welsh. Anyone first reading Trainspotting in 1993 could not help being utterly impressed. It’s an enormously brave book, one which stood up and charged headfirst into any number of Scottish and British illusions and received opinions. It was the first novel I had ever read which faced up to Scotland’s endemic sectarianism, to the results of British military force (I hesitate to say colonialism: it’s such a loaded word; but it can certainly be viewed that way) on the people at the frontline, to the grim brutality of lives in the underclass, to the pervasive self-destructive escapism of drugs and alcohol, to the crisis of masculinity caused by the decline in heavy industries. These themes had of course been handled in some form before: William McIllvanney‘s books like Laidlaw and Docherty examine working-class masculinity, in what seems to me to be a hopelessly idealistic fashion; James Kelman, whom I discovered just after Welsh, has moderately similar subject matter but does something completely different with it, always insistent on the essential decency of his protagonists; Alexander Trocchi, naively held up as a father figure by some Scottish writers, wrote about the drug addict’s life from an explicitly intellectual-bohemian perspective, rather than from the working classes; Duncan Maclean, whose very fine collection of short stories Bucket of Tongues seemed something of a precursor to Welsh, perhaps came closest in challenging the problems of Scotland, but lacked a broader vision tying personal injustice with political . But it was Trainspotting in which these all first coalesced and exploded outwards, like nuclear fission of national rage. THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ORDINARY PEOPLE IN SCOTLAND, it screamed, AND NOBODY IN POWER GIVES A FUCK.

But this is not to say that Trainspotting is a formless rant: on the contrary, the novel is quite artful. There is a sustained philosophical subtext, whose existential implications are handled with some subtlety. While university-dropout Renton is prone to using more educated vocabulary (“on the subject of drugs, we wir classic liberals, vehemently opposed to state intervention in any form”), the subtext is made clear when he is ‘before the law’:

– Mr Renton, you did not intend to sell the books?

– Naw. Eh, no, your honour. They were for reading.

– So you read Kierkegaard. Tell us about him, Mr Renton, the patronising cunt sais.

– I’m interested in his concepts of subjectivity and truth, and particularly his ideas concerning choice; the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others. It could be argued, with some justification, that it’s primarily a bourgeois, existential philosophy and would therefore seek to undermine collective societal wisdom. However, it’s also a liberating philosophy, because when such societal wisdom is negated, the basis for social control over the individual becomes weakened and . . . but I’m rabbiting a bit here. Ah cut myself short. They hate a smart cunt.

Existentialism is essentially a denial of society, the belief that one is utterly alone in the universe. One is free from social control (in the form of advice, praise and condemnation, etc), for better or for worse. It seems to me a fundamentally adolescent state of mind – the disputation of the merit of one’s elders, as one strikes out in life. But as you get older you realise that you’re not unique and that many people have been through the same situations; also the inter-connectedness of society and the rhythms of the generations become more evident. (Or so it has been with me). Renton’s passage through Trainspotting thus exactly embodies his desire to escape the “collective societal wisdom” (such as it is) of his background, to abrogate the “social control over the individual”, liberating himself.

After overdosing, he says “Ah huv tae git oot ay Leith, oot ay Scotland. For good. Right away, no jist doon tae London fir six months. The limitations and ugliness ay this place hud been exposed tae us and ah could never see it in the same light again.” His subsequent time in London is a blackly hilarious demonstration of the temptations of the bigger city and the freedoms of a more atomised society. His return to Edinburgh shows the inevitable consequence of transgression, with his friends literally disintegrating: Johnny Swan has had a leg amputated, Tommy has HIV, and Matty died an appalling death. His final departure, having burned his bridges with his remaining friends, is a glorious hymn to freedom, and where plot and subtext finally meet:

He had done what he wanted to do. He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be. He’d stand or fall alone. This thought both terrified and excited him as he contemplated life in Amsterdam.

Clearly this is good stuff. The blistering talent demonstrated by Trainspotting was then consolidated by The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares. Collections of short stories tend to have a desk-clearing aspect to them and Acid House is no exception, with some stories which don’t come off at all (“The House of John Deaf”, “Wayne Foster”, “Vat ’96″). But in my experience there’s very few short story writers can sustain quality in diversity: not Chekov, not James Kelman, not Stephen King, not Katherine Mansfield. (Only  Dubliners is uniformly excellent, that I know of). Acid House does have moments of astounding inspiration: “The Two Philosophers” is probably the best shaggy-dog story I have ever heard, with an absolute killer punchline; “The Shooter” is Welsh at his most realistic, showing his incisive eye and skill at characterisation; “Eurotrash” is transgressive but humane and, at the end, deeply empathetic; “The Granton Star Cause” and “The Acid House” are both works of Rabelaisian imagination. The novella at the end, “A Smart Cunt”, I believe perhaps the finest thing Welsh has ever written. It is moderately similar to Trainspotting but is more tightly focused, following one character (in first-person only) through various scenes: alcohol/heroin/ecstasy, Edinburgh/London, gay/straight. In its more subtle way, it is as existential as Trainspotting: but rather than rejecting society, “A Smart Cunt” denies the essence of the self, showing the protagonist Euan becoming a different person as he adapts to the different scenes. The recurrent mise-en-scene opening to each chapter emphasises this, removing any transition and showing Euan knee-deep in whatever situation he is in.

Marabou Stork Nightmares, meanwhile, is similarly inventive. Using the multiple-narrative and [SPOILER ALERT] comatose protagonist structure of Iain Banks’ exceptional novel The Bridge (Banks’ personal favourite), Welsh examines the roots of violence and abuse through a realistic narrative and a Freudian/Boys Own Adventure/Jungian symbolic counterpoint. While the form of The Bridge and Marabou Stork might be similar, Welsh does something completely different with it, to his great credit. As with The Bridge, the narrative strands start to merge towards the end of the novel, making its symbolism apparent. (I’m afraid I don’t have a copy with me in China so you’ll just have to believe me). It is though a dense stew of sexual symbolism and working class demotic – see this essay for a more detailed (if sophomoric) analysis.

So: three fine books within three years (1993-1995). Welsh then followed them up with Ecstasy (1996), Filth (1998), Glue (2001) , Porno (2002) and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006) – after which I lost patience and hadn’t read anything else until Skagboys (2012).  (Welsh is a man for the one-word titles, huh? Just like Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle). While Ecstasy was a hurriedly tossed-off piece of crap, the others are broadly similar, utilising the “trajectory” narrative inspired by American Pyscho, where events are less important than the trajectory they demonstrate the protagonist(s) to be on – usually working towards some kind of breakdown. Glue is the exception, being I think mostly in third person; but all tend to downplay character at the expense of plotting. I use plotting in the loose sense, for Welsh is hardly a detective-writer style tight-plotter. Nonetheless, in all these later novels, Welsh moves from the seedy psychodrama of his initial work to uninspired melodrama. He continually uses inane plot devices to keep things moving along: the chance encounter, the near-miss, the ridiculous scene of unnecessary but grotesque sex or violence (the one in Porno involving Spud and Chizzie is unbelievably grim but essentially redundant; the one in Filth is so over-the-top as to be cartoonish), the rush towards the melodramatic conclusion, the fatuous symbolic realisation. This last is most egregiously seen in Porno and in Masters Chefs. Porno‘s Nikki Fuller-Smith somehow shoehorns her betrayal by Sickboy into a allegory for the lazy irony of post-2000s culture, while in Master Chefs, as the Guardian review has it, “an intermittent attempt to elevate Skinner’s abuse-by-proxy into a symbol for Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq – ‘they get other people to deal with the shit they make through their own twisted vanity’ – seems especially forced”. And the endings! My god, what a farrago of cheap melodrama, naff symbolic resolutions and lazy cliches. Porno is the worst of all – I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but it is a shockingly cheap way to handle the Begbie-Renton confrontation to which practically the entire fucking novel had been building up. It might be a naff joke for a book whose narrative engine is the production of a skin flick to have a terrible faked climax; but then, it might just be bad writing. My money is on the latter.

Throughout all of these later novels, there are to be sure good moments. Welsh’s eye never deserts him; his insights into Scottish/British politics and culture are often thought-provoking; and his handling of character is generally (though certainly not always) superb. But with his occasionally pretentious prose, weak plotting, use of shabby narrative devices and ham-fisted thematic MEANINGFUL SECTIONS, the decline has been all too apparent. Considering the magnificent achievement of Trainspotting, his career has been a visceral disappointment.

Skagboys however still held out some hope. (I didn’t even bother reading Crime or If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, such has been my exasperation with Welsh). His love for those original characters is patent; while Porno was weak in many ways, the voicing of Sick Boy, Renton, Spud, Begbie et al in their 40s was a consistent strength, even a delight. (Begbie’s first-person narratives in particular are frequently hilariously ironic, while Spud’s are grievously touching). The premise of Skagboys, in taking Renton and Sickboy from the punk scene into heroin addiction, also augured well. I will examine the novel in detail next week.

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Films Which Are Better Than Their Books

As you might guess I in general vastly prefer most books to their films, but there are a few great exceptions. I am only going to comment when I have actually read the book. There are some that I suspect are better films, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but I have not read the full novel.

The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel is pulpy, a bit of a potboiler of a crime novel. It relentlessly focuses on conflict to the detriment of all other aspects, such as characterisation (rudimentary but solid enough), setting (rarely elucidated) and prose style (functional at best). The film on the other hand is marvellously elegant, almost elegaic. The cast is magnificent, bringing depths to characters barely more than stock cliches, such as the mean and moody Sonny and the ruthless maverick Sollozzo. I actually have a theory about why The Godfather resonates so: on the one hand, it is a Stockholm-syndrome elegy for the days when crime was owned by the (white) mafioso, who like the Krays might have had moments of excess but were felt to keep things in order – in contrast to black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods who were coming to control the drug trade in particular. The grand high meeting where the heads of the family agree to the drug trade, therefore, is where they sign their death warrant, leaving them helpless  before more ruthless gangs who will sell around schools etc. On the other hand, Michael’s claim of moral equivalence between Don Corleone and any Senator is absolutely pertinent for the times of Richard Nixon. Similarly, Puzo’s citation of the Balzac idea that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime” seems to express the mood of the 1974 electorate, who at last knew that they had been taken for a ride. (Rosemary’s Baby seems to express a similar theme, albeit paranoically: they really are in league against you). These themes are at best latent in the novel, and are signified in the film by the direction, which is stately and elegant. The cast too are outstanding, and the sets/design, with their dark wood and sartorial style, are pure eye-candy. Many people say that The Godfather II is the better – not sure I’d agree there: the original film with its narrative arc of Michael becoming drawn in and then taking over is one hell of a ride.

Carrie

Again, the good thing about this film is the way it expresses the novel’s themes more forcefully. The novel is a bit of a weird stramash, drawing it out with various “quotations” from textbooks, news reports, police tickers and letters, and the trick of conveying Carrie’s telekinesis/telepathy through the incessant (interludes) gets very tiresome. The central idea, of the girl discovering her powers and pulling down the temple upon everyone, is a great, ferocious one, though, and the savagery and ruthlessness of high school social stratification had rarely (if ever?) been seen before.

What distinguishes the film is its slyness – it brings the social manipulation out front. The “good guy” is in the book is shown to be as egregious as the rest, and a catspaw of his girlfriend, while Billy (John Travolta’s first film role) does some unspeakable things after his girlfriend, the vile Chris, gives him a blowjob. (Didya know the actor who plays her, Nancy Allen, is the police sidekick in Robocop?). The direction has its now-ridiculous campy 1970s moments – particularly the guys getting their prom tuxedos – but numerous moments linger in the memory – the look of Chris as she prepares to tip the bucket of blood, the shower scene, the idealistic gym teacher encouraging Carrie (superbly played by Sissie Spacek) to make herself up a bit, Carrie arriving home to “Momma”, and of course that shit-your-pants ending.

The Exorcist

Most people won’t have read William Peter Blatty’s book – I have, and it’s really quite dull. But oh my god, the film – it’s not just a horror film aiming to scare you. It’s an examination of the limits of science, of rationality, as shown by the flailing efforts of the medical profession. The flat, neutral tone of the direction is great as a counterpoint to the demonic forces – no need for histrionics, fast cuts and snappy camera angles. Then of course there’s the numerous unsettling half-images which unnerve you – a trick redoubled in the Director’s Cut, which really is half as scary again. That bloody spider walk is spooky as fuck too. This isn’t just a Good vs Evil film, or the typical Big Monster – Kill Monster setup of most horrors. This is one of the times when you look at the abyss. It remains absolutely terrifying. Kudos to everyone involved, from Friedkin’s extreme direction (randomly shooting guns, slapping someone in the face before doing a take, really hurting actor’s in the special effects setups), the cast (Ellen Burstyn delivers a magnificent performance), and the special effects, most of which remains effective. (Apart from when Regan’s head does the 360 spin – looks naff now). I don’t watch this film alone.

The Shining

I’m actually quite a Stephen King fan, but I think he rather dried up about twenty-five years ago, or after Misery. The books of his I’ve read since then – Cell, Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Dolores Claibourne – have varied between decent (Dolores Claibourne) to adequate (Needful Things) to tedious (the rest). And what is it with so many of his protagonists being goddamn writers? Even on his hot early streak he was a bit hit and miss – I never liked The Tommyknockers, or Cujo, or Salem’s Lot. But The Shining does seem to me to be one of his best books – not as good as IT or The Stand, say, but better than Pet Semetary or Christine. Its examination of the character of Jack  Torrance is excellent – the poor bastard is a real tragic hero, blindly staggering his way to his inevitable doom – and the background on the Torrance’s marriage and life together is insightful and moving. Still, like most Stephen King’s, it moves towards melodrama: the ending is really hackneyed. He also loves to bludgeon his SYMBOLISM to death, huh?

Kubrick’s film is, unusually, far more literary than the novel. It has a wealth of symbolism and signifiers, the meaning of which are still being discussed and fought over. (There are absurd conspiracy theories about The Shining, saying it’s an apologia for Kubrick’s part in the faked moon landings (!) – see here). This simply suggests that the film is rich in meaning and connotation, and is open-ended. For example – what’s with the ending? Why has Jack always been the caretaker? Why do conversations often seem staged? And of course it is a deeply unsettling film, one which perhaps is more an examination of madness/psychosis than evil. Is it the hotel, or is it Jack? Who knows?

Goodfellas

The book by Nicholas Pileggi is called “Wiseguy” and is a tell-all of the ins-and-outs of the smalltime gangster life. The book is of course highly informative, but it’s functional. About the most interesting fact is that several details later pop up in Casino – for example the talking with hands over their mouths, or the bets which Ace places (bribing college basketball players, etc). The book is definitely one of the time when you realise the merit and artistic benefit of the direction – Scorsese’s highly kinetic camera movement, and numerous artful touches (the reflected red lights from the back of the car, suggestive of blood, death and hell; the incredible tracking shot through the restaurant interior conveying Karen’s disorientation; the knocking on the door for “Stacks” Edwards reminiscent of the knocking on the gate in Macbeth – a detail which gave De Quinceya peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity“) are all outstanding. The performance, too, are uniformly outstanding, from Ray Liotta all the way down to minor characters, like Samuel L Jackson (!). All of which elevate it far beyond the book.

Musical Orgasms

Excuse the gap. I’ve been in a bit of an epistolary and blogging desert of late. Maybe it was the winter. But now it’s warming up and I felt that sense of rising energy and possibility that you do in spring. Ah, glorious seasonal renewal, and all that Wordsworth bit. I also broke my bloody iPod a few months ago, and my phone can only (“only”, he says! It wasn’t so long I had a 256MB mp3 player which I thought was the shit) hold about 20 albums. Thus the choice on the daily grind commute is restricted. (I know, I could change the albums around a lot more, but…)

So recent listening has been trimmed down to my absolute utter favourites. And what I’ve found, or been reminded, is that there are still lots of songs – well, brief intense moments – which are just absolute musical orgasms for me. The kind of thing where I go “Oh yes! FUCK YEAH! OOOOHHH MY GOOOOOOD!!” as I listen – inside at least; externally I probably have my usual gormless nose-in-a-book look. These bits are from songs I’ve been listening to for 10, 20, even 25 years, and their power to captivate and enthrall remain.

So what are some of them?

1. John Cale’s organ solo in “Sister Ray” (Velvet Underground)

In which John Cale on the organ takes on Sterling Morrison AND Lou Reed, both on electric guitars, and thrashes them. Cale is playing an organ through a guitar speaker, and by sheer gleeful noise-loving beat-the-fucker-til-it-breaks energy, brings the song to a tumultuous mid-point climax. It’s the opposite of the precise malevolence of so many death metal bands: “Sister Ray” is instead immensely abrasive and dissonant. Man, I love it!

I find “Sister Ray” an utterly fascinating song, structurally: there’s a terrific analysis of it by Jeff Schwartz in The Velvet Underground Companion (a very good book). It’s built on a simple three-chord riff (G-F-C, apparently) by Reed and Morrison, but against which Cale and then shortly Reed swiftly depart. By moving against the simple riff, they introduce abrasion and distortion – if you have a regular rhythmic figure, that’s when you can play off of it, as all metal guitarists will know. Reed and Cale get more and more in-your-face, soloing over Morrison who keeps the rhythm going, but by 3.57 it heads off into uncharted improvisational territory, speeding up at 5.30 (with some incredibly deft drumming from Mo Tucker, who somehow keeps pace), and Cale overpowering everyone else with a screeching exultant solo from 6.26 which even muffles Reed’s vocal. It really is incredible stuff.

(I haven’t even mentioned the climax, which is a incredible outpouring of energies, going beyond form into a supersonic slipstream… amazing).

Fact: the Buzzcocks got together after Howard Devoto placed an ad seeking to do a version of it. Another fact: Lou Reed cites “Sister Ray” as their version of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp freeform jazz kinda stuff. That was powerful stuff (like ramming themselves up against the very barriers of existence), but imagine that with the exponential power of massively redlining electric guitars and top-o’-the-line Vox amps. Final fact: consider the fact that the Velvet’s did this, and then on their next album did songs like “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free”, full of quiet nobility.

2. The relentless riff after the last “Battery” (Metallica)

Master Of Puppets was the first Metallica album I got, I think in about 1989 or 1990. I think it’s the best metal album ever and the title track I’ve eulogized several times before. The opening track “Battery” is an absolute stormer, though. It may the lack the ferocity of “Fight Fire With Fire”, the opener to predecessor Ride The Lightning, but it is perhaps more artful and more interesting – while no less intense. My favourite bit is after the final chorus, with the definitive shout of “BA-TTER-AY!” (4.45), how the riff kicks back in with an inexorable relentlessness. It sounded like nothing in the world could stop Metallica – their power, imagination, and indomitable anger would crush all before them. It was true, they conquered the world, but they never regained the heights of Puppets – the loss of Cliff Burton robbing Metallica of the one person who could stand up to both Ulrich and Hetfield. (Anyone who tries to argue that the Black Album is their best album will be laughed at, severely).

3. The instrumental/shift in “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)

There’s a nice line in Bad Wisdom about The Doors – how “you wanna hate them, but they keep popping up in your list of Top Ten All Time Bands In The World Ever”. I really only think they have two good albums, but then they are great albums at that, and The Doors is one of the best I’ve ever heard. L.A. Woman has a few more dips (“Crawling King Snake” is a bit of a snooze), but its peaks are amazing: not just the famous tunes like “Riders In The Storm”, but strong album tracks like “Hyacinth House”, “Love Her Madly” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”. “L.A. Woman”, though, starts up with this great careening rhythm (aptly enough), with Morrison gruffly crooning about “another lost angel in the city at night”. The terrific honkytonk solo from Manzarek goes from the second verse to a peak at 3.01 – at which point the band suddenly turns on a sixpence. Now it’s quieter, meditative, Big Jim saying “I see your hair is burnin’ / Hills are filled with fire”.

The contrast is utterly delicious, the skill incredible – if you ever thought The Doors were one drunken would-be Rimbaud and a backing band, check your head, dude – Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger were an extremely tight group who could go from barroom raucousness (“Roadhouse Blues“) to far-out meditative trippy Oedipal weirdness (“The End“). It’s a great moment from a band who (in)consistently hit my musical g-spot.

4. The opening riff in “Get Up Stand Up” (Bob Marley)

I am not really overly familiar with reggae: I’ve got a bunch of stuff by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh but neither of them hold a candle, in my humble opinion, to the great Bob Marley. In reggae terms this is a bit like saying Queen is your favourite rock band – but then I don’t smoke hash so I might be missing a vital ingredient. All the same, I think it’s undeniable how fantastic Bob Marley is, and I don’t care how much of a studenty stoner cliche it is. His range is incredible – from flinty and impassioned to slinky and sensual to angry protest to dark smoky dub to carefree to wry confession. The Wailers, of course, are an amazing backing band, but Marley’s songwriting craft is consistently strong, and his singing always passionate and soulful.

For a microcosm of how good they were, check the opening riff to “Get Up, Stand Up”. It’s a famous tune, an angry protest song perhaps more typical of Peter Tosh (who co-writes and shares vocals). After an opening roll around the tom-toms, the riff rolls in – tar-thick, dark, but goddamn groovy – for two beats, pauses for one, repeats for one and half, pauses for two beats with percussion, repeats for two, pauses for one then goes into the verse – like so:

DUH DUH – DUH DUH (pause) DUH UH (percussion)

DUH DUH – DUH DUH  (pause) – (percussion).

It’s incredibly deft and skilful, almost mathematically precise and both funky and muscular. Fucking awesome.

5. The instrumental break in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles)

If you only know The Beatles from school music lessons singing “Yesterday” or “Let It Be”, it might surprise you to learn that the Fabs were actually pretty radical. Sure, they processed everything into a audience-friendly package most of the time (with the exception of “Revolution #9”, perhaps, but surely I’m not the only one who actually really enjoys it?), but within the constraints of two or three minutes, they did so much. “Tomorrow Never Knows” might well be their most radical song, in terms of studio innovation and departure from traditional forms, but holy fuck, it delivers such a megaton blast of musical delight. The rhythmic texture (Ringo on huge fat tom-toms with that famous syncopation  (ONE and TWO and THREE AND FOUR) and a sizzling halo of cymbals, Macca accompanying on bass with a typically melodic line) is stable, but there’s no verse-chorus-verse: instead Lennon repeats his schema: “Something something something… It is something, it is something“, while five samples like nothing you’ve ever heard criss-cross with ever greater frequency. Whoa! That’s some dense and heady brew!

The instrumental break (starting at 0.56) tops all that though, totally overwhelming you and making you lose your sense of time and place. It consists of two of the loops brought more fully to the centre, and then Macca’s solo from “Taxman” (yes, him and not Harrison) slowed down and played backwards. Pollack tells me that the break is 16 bars, as you’d expect, but they’re divided into 6+10 (the loops being 4+2) instead of the standard 8+8, further throwing you off your balance. All of this makes the “instrumental” section a terrific sensory overload, and an example of the transfiguration which I believe Lennon the acid-muncher, Lennon the Lewis Carrol fan, Lennon the Joycean word-player, often sought.

6. The whole damn instrumental section of “Three Days” (Jane’s Addiction)

I can’t be bothered describing this precisely – but just listen to the way it builds up (starting from 4.43) via the great guitar solo by Dave Navarro to that amazing pedal point of immense tension and electric charge. It sounds like a gargantuan wall of static electricity, a vast forcefield of implacable and unmovable power. Amazing.

7. The arpeggio’s in “William, It Was Really Nothing” (The Smiths)

Morrissey some dismiss as a whining yelper – well, maybe. I hate the singer from Tool, Maynard James Keenan, though several metalheads assure me they are an awesome band. Johnny Marr, though, is without doubt an awesome guitar player – he has so many remarkable guitar riffs and leads from The Smiths that he’s often considered the best, or certainly the most influential, UK guitar player of the 1980s. Him and Peter Buck certainly reinvigorated the arpeggio, it having lain fallow since, oooh, maybe The Byrds. This is a dazzling example of his repertoire (note how many layers of guitar there are, particularly in the verse) – the sparkling, dazzling arpeggios after each verse (first seen at 0.41-0.48)… they just evoke the 1980s, or what they meant to me. Which means, I guess (how does one explain your own dreamscapes and evocations?) they give this romantic vibe of tender, yearning beauty. Yeah, really. (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” gives off the same feeling, to me anyways, as I’ve probably said). It just makes me almost shiver, as at some almost glimpsed isle of limitless delight.

8. Slash’s second guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)

This literally makes the hair on my arms stand up. Slash is surely the first since Hendrix to adopt the same kind of electric fluidity in his guitar sound, and he makes awesome use of it in this solo. (Compare, also, with the bone-head hair metallers of the time – CC Deville, Mick Mars, Warren DeMartini, Chris Holmes, etc – their sound tends to be very dry and lack Slash’s bluesiness). In comparison to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired fretboard wankers of the day, Slash doesn’t go overboard with hammer-ons, fretboard picking and all the miscellanea of lead guitar tosspots. He starts out at 3.35 playing simple notes, bending them for sustain, sure, but nothing too frilly – until the song hits a pedal point at 4.02, which rises the temperature and tension, Slash likewise increasing the speed of his picking. Once released from this into a more aggressive riff, Slash (again, complementing the song) goes higher up the fretboard, bending notes more, making the guitar wail, all rich with passion and conflict. It’s just stunning, and I’ve never bored of it in the 25 years I’ve had a copy of Appetite For Destruction.

How about you?