The Guitar

I’ve recently made an iTunes playlist called “The Guitar” which, funnily enough, features songs which have great guitar. Here it is, with some comments. I restricted myself to one song per artist.

“The Act We Act”, Sugar Copper Blue
Bob Mould has surely got one of the best guitar sounds in rock. Played loud front and centre, the guitar here is so deep and loud, yet melodic – it’s rock for sure, but nothing like metal. I imagine he (as former Husker Du frontman) was pissed off that Nevermind was so successful, and wanted to really show off his chops. Great job, Bob.

“Columbia”, Oasis Definitely Maybe
This is an amazing song, easily my favourite by Oasis. (There’s not really much competition). The snarling guitar sound is terrific, and the pulsing riff and circular guitar lead could just go on forever.

“Only Shallow”, My Bloody Valentine Loveless
An utterly explosive opener to MBV’s magnum opus. The contrast between the overdriven guitar and the trancey, dreamy verses is delicious.

“One”, Metallica …And Justice For All 
That machine gun bit is still fucking incredible.

“Bron-Yr-Aur”, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
Jimmy Page didn’t just do crushing riffs (see: “Immigrant Song”, “Heartbreaker”, “The Rover”), he is an amazing strummer. This accoustic worlout is from my favourite Zep album, Physical Graffiti, though Disc 2 (odds and ends) rather than Disc 1 (classics like “Custard Pie”, “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying”).

“Keep It In The Family”,  Anthrax Persistence of Time
Seven minutes of pure, focused, channelled aggression. The tightness of the riffing is amazing.

“Protest And Survive”, Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing 
I deliberately put this after Anthrax because I first heard of Discharge through Anthrax’s b-sides compilation Attack Of The Killer B’s, where they covered this song. I found this album at a record sale (just check the back cover!) and was blown away. The guitar sound is incredibly powerful, hugely overcharged without distorting.

“Wah-Wah”, George Harrison All Things Must Pass
In which George gets out his anger at The Beatles.

“Three Days”, Jane’s Addiction Ritual de lo Habitual 
I love multi-section epic type songs, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Paranoid Android”. This is a killer example, with outstanding guitar from Dave Navarro in numerous points – the guitar solo which brings in the instrumental section (from 4.43), the static riff generating enormous electric power and tension (from 7.08), the sitting-on-the-brink-of-nirvana chords (9.24)… One of the best rock songs ever.

“Friction”, Television Marquee Moon
Like all songs on Marquee Moon, this features exceptional interplay on the guitar.

“I Heard Her Call My Name”, The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat
Though Lou Reed invented lots of different aspects of punk/alternative guitar (static riffing, feedback, massive distortion), this is an example of his lead work. Overblown to the max!

“Satellite”, Sex Pistols Kiss This
Steve Jones is one fine rhythm guitarist. This was only a b-side (to “Holidays In The Sun”), but with its massive overdubbed guitars and Johnny Rotten throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, it is a fan favourite.

“One In A Million”, Guns N’ Roses G N’ R Lies
GN’R at the Stones-iest. The fuzzy lead (by Izzy Stradlin) over accoustics is very reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Stones. Fucking brilliant. Ah, what could have been…

“I Found That Essence Rare”, Gang Of Four Entertainment!
Punk you don’t associate with rhythm, but Gang Of Four manage to be funky and punky. I don’t see that much of them in Franz Ferdinand, but they’re supposed to be a major influence. Gang Of Four stomp on them.

“Bed Crumbs”, Fudge Tunnel Hate Songs in E Minor
A forgotten gem of British metal, Hate Songs in E Minor has some massive, distorted, echoing guitars. “Bed Crumbs” has this, and a crushing riff… wow.

“Hangar 18”, Megadeth Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine took great pride in being named the best metal guitarist in some book – it can appear odd to people outside the magic circle just how sensitive to critical attention artists can be. He found particular pride/glee in being named ahead of Kirk Hammet: I guess the scars remain. Anyway, the technical level on Megadeth’s best album Rust In Peace is astonishing. The best song “Hangar 18” showcases this: the shifts in time, the fury, the solos, the slashing riffs, the mounting climax… yup, Mustaine could play.

“Porch”, Pearl Jam Ten
Pearl Jam were a bit earnest and right-on in comparison to Nirvana’s headlong dive into the chaos of punk. They were the affirmative Clash to Nirvana’s nihilistic Sex Pistols. This song is one of the punkier in their debut, Ten (which is reverb-rich and soft-edged), and has this wonderful sense of mounting excitement

“Black Math”, White Stripes Elephant
See, I do like some music after 2000…! Jack White is obviously a great guitar player, with a primal, bluesy sound. I love the careening, free-wheeling vibe to this song.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”, The Who Live At Leeds 
Goddamn. Just… goddamn.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Is it just me or were the Stones only really good when Mick Taylor was in the band? Well, that and Beggars Banquet. This song has a ferocious fuzz guitar intro (by Keith Richards) and an outstanding solo by Taylor.

“Painkiller”, Judas Priest Painkiller
I can see the evolutionary importance of Judas Priest, in their twin-lead guitars and stripping-out of any blues influences (whereas Black Sabbath used to, you know, be a blues band). But apart from Stained Class, I don’t think their albums really that much cop. Painkiller was a roaring return to form after a pretty indifferent decade in the 1980s, featuring magnificently over-driven guitars and a solo that threatens to burst out through the musical score.

“Symptom Of The Universe”,  Black Sabbath Sabotage
In which Tony Iommi invents thrash metal, eight years before Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All.

“Atrocity Exhibition”, Joy Division Closer
Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), like other guitarists in bands with stand-out bass players, often used his for texture and commentary rather than melody. Here, he make teeth-grindlingly abrasive shards and yowls, over a lop-sided rhythm and bass played as lead. It’s a fascinating step-change from previous album Unknown Pleasures.

“Theresa’s Sound World”, Sonic Youth Dirty
I love how this modulates from arpeggios to a beautifully controlled rising-tension section, ebbing and flowing several times, before building to an ambiguous climax. Compared to the simple telelogical pleasures of rock music, with its massive resounding resolutions, this is pleasingly open-ended and enigmatic.

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come
What I’ve previously called “the beautiful gossamer shimmer” of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Magnificent.

The Best Paul McCartney Bass Lines

EDIT

Ahem. I’ve been informed that both “Drive My Car” and “Two Of Us” have bass played by George. My bad; should’ve checked. But then both do sound very like McCartney, so I imagine he told George what to play.

*

I haven’t written about the Beatles for a while, have I? 🙂 Must be time for another worship at the glorious temple that is the Beatle canon. Man, the Fabs are just endlessly playable, aren’t they? If you get a bit tired of one period, another will sound fresh and revitalising. And there’s always something new to savour and relish.

I’ve eulogised Macca in various pieces (like here and here), but let’s take a closer look at precisely why I rate him so highly as a bass player. (His song writing, arrangements and singing will have to wait for another day…)

(This list is by no means complete, nor is it in order!)

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

When you’re young, you usually hear about the Beatles because of Sgt Pepper, and the notoriety of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (“it’s about drugs, innit?”). I’m not so sure – while “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus” are clearly acid-inspired, there seems less direct drug inspiration in prime psychedelic-era Beatles than, say, an album like Incredible String Band’s contemporaneous The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. (Just check out a song like “Three Is A Green Crown“, which is incantatory). “Lucy” seems to me to be more about creating a sound world than re-creating the psychedelic experience. While it’s by no means one of the great songs, the bass-playing shows Macca’s exceptional creativity, and how much thought went into every part of every song. Musicologist Alan Pollack has helpfully annotated the sections:

  • First verse: downbeats only;
  • First bridge: every beat, largely with repeated notes;
  • First refrain: running eighth notes in Baroque fashion;
  • Second verse: downbeats only, again;
  • Second bridge: every beat, with more in the way of arpeggio outlines;
  • Second refrain: running eighth notes, again;
  • Third verse: more active and in a less regimented manner than previously;
  • Outro: more running eighth notes, this time with arpeggios as well as melodic runs.

What this means for the song is that McCartney’s bass provides an amazing complement to the tune: the refrain (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds! / Ah…“) in particular finds Macca running up and down the fretboard in excited (and exciting) freedom, as the song exults in glorious colour. The arpeggios in the outro (most easily heard at 3.08) similarly add to the sense of overwhelming colour and creativity. (That, and everything being put through a Leslie).

Taxman

With its distorted (by George) count-in intro (though you can hear the real in-time one from Macca), “Taxman” was taken to inaugurate The Beatles 2.0. While Rubber Soul was an enriching and a broadening, Revolver is an astonishing expansion of the imagination, a spiritual and moral enlightening. Yes, really. With its songs going from death and taxes to a shattering encounter with the mystical, Revolver‘s trajectory is a stunning example of transcendence beyond the earthly. (Yes, really).

“Taxman” opens the album in monochrome. (It will end in dazzling colour). Macca’s bass line drives the song, its thick, thudding sound remaining more active than the guitars, which slash across it. Played prominent (bum-de-bum-bum-bum) in a well-mixed broth (guitars, drums and bass all have room to be heard separately), it is the first second Beatle song to have the bass as lead instrument (“Rain” was released two months prior, as the b-side to “Paperback Writer”). It is both almost funkily rhythmical and melodically captivating – so much so that The Jam could steal it for their song “Start” and get to #1…  fourteen years later!

Sun King

This is all about bass tone and sound. Though some bass players have a distinctive style (such as Lemmy, Peter Hook or Kim Gordon), in general I prefer the warm, supple, resonant bass sound. It’s just delicious. “Sun King”, though essentially just a mood/atmosphere piece, is a masterclass of bass tone – just admire how warm and rich that sound is. (Though Macca is known for his Hofner “violin” bass, in the recording studio he generally used a Rickenbacker as it allowed greater fluidity). Notable, too, that the bass leads the initial melody: though it’s a Lennon song, Macca frequently embellished Lennon’s sparse tunes with remarkable invention. “Sun King” is a wonderful example of the endless pleasure of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.

Two Of Us

It’s fascinating that most of the best McCartney bass lines are for Lennon songs. Here, though, is one of Macca’s own, a song about his random driving trips with Linda but seems to also act as a lament for a simpler time with Lennon . The song is played with lovely accoustics (though you can hear it emerge through different versions in the Let It Be film – one is a fast, electric version with Lennon and McCartney up close and sharing one microphone – magnetism and sparks fly off them), with numerous exceptional bass parts. During the verse Macca plays a chunky, inflexive line, which is terrific, but he also adds numerous leading moments. Check out the rising scale (at 1.24, the start of the chorus: “You and I have memories…“). Bloody terrific. Note, too, how at the start of each verse (0.04-0.08, 0.43-0.48 for example), the bass line splays all over the guitar, lilting up and down. These kinds of loving detail is precisely what elevates a decent song to a great one. (The vocal melodies are also magnificent).

Drive My Car

The early Beatle songs, like all records of their time, lacked much bass timbre: engineers and producers feared making the needle skip across the record if there was too much vibration. McCartney, perhaps through ego (the kind of thing that made Metallica fuck up the production of …And Justice For All) but hopefully through an awareness that an increased frequency reproduction enriched the listening experience, strove to increase the prominence of his bass on Beatle recordings. We can thank him and the always experimenting George Martin for inaugurating the richer sounds found from the mid-1960s. The Xmas 1965 LP Rubber Soul was the first to demonstrate the Beatles’ broader sound world. Taking their cue from the soul and Rn’B world of James Brown, Stax, Ray Charles, yet filtering it through their own pop sensibility and ironic, Liverpudlian take on the outside world, Rubber Soul was perhaps the first outstanding leap of their musical career. (Incredible that there would be numerous others!)

While the guitars that open the first song “Drive My Car” are trebly and twangy, the bass is suddenly front and centre, and coalesces into a marvellous drum n’ bass arrangement with Ringo. For the first time I think, the rhythm is driving (as it were) the tune. Dig how it ends each line in the verse with the “dun-de-de-de-dun” bit, and how this pops up at the end of the chorus. From now on, Macca’s bass would be one of the most prominent weapons in the Beatle arsenal.

I’ve Got A Feeling

This is a fine example of where Let It Be… Naked is preferable to the Spectorised Let It Be. It’s not just that the orchestration which Spector trowelled on is absent: the individual instruments stand out in stark clarity, as can be immediately heard on the introductory electric piano, while the first harmonised “Oh yeah!” has so much more punch and colour. But what is most memorable here is the sound of Macca’s bass throughout the verses – it’s practically hypnotic, it’s so rich with that fizzy, fuzzy, warm, electric bass sound. You can just about feel the thick bass strings vibrating, the electrons getting tickled and buzzing though the amp. The instrumental break, too, is an utter delight, as Macca plays off the beat (from 2.34, and repeated at 3.08). It is simply magnificent.

Song Oddity

Earlier I took a look at some albums which represented a curveball for the artists involved. But what about individual songs which vary from a customary repertoire? These are maybe more often found on b-sides or when a band does the “let it all hang out double album” (copyright: The Beatles). It must be odd being a musician when you get known for being a particular style and sound: if your fanbase does not want you to develop beyond that, it must be insanely frustrating. Rock and metal are particularly bad for this, having the most aggressively self-righteous of fans, but I’m sure it happens in other genres too.

1. Fatboy Slim, “Santa Cruz”

Though primarily known for his chirpy beaty tunes under the Fatboy Slim brand, Norman Cook’s music taste is enormously eclectic – he did after all go from The Housemartins to Beats International. This song was before the Fatboy Slim style set hard with his (enormously successful) second album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – the first, Better Living Through Chemistry is a more of a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds, from the funky “Everybody Needs A 303” through to the breakbeat workout “Punk To Funk“. My favourite, though, is “Santa Cruz”, which manages to be spacey and dreamy, and yet somehow mechanical and insistently rhythmical. It doesn’t so much conjure images of a physical location as make me think of loving machines, imaginative robots… nice!

2. Sonic Youth, “Nic Fit”

Sonic Youth were one of the John the Baptists to Nirvana’s Jesus H Christ. It must be odd, and kinda embarrassing, to have one of your juniors in a scene make it big with such cataclysmic success. Particularly if you are aching hipsters like Sonic Youth. The trouble with Sonic Youth (and bands like Mudhoney etc) was that to them (and to Nirvana to a large extent) punk was an elite thing, not the enraged voice of the kids, but a sneering at the populisms and massed exaltations of the music scene. Thus, things like melody and song structure were seen as being beneath them, as insufferable bones tossed to ravenous lowest-common-denominator audiences; thus, the contempt towards popular Seattle bands like Pearl Jam. This attitude is preposterous of course. What of a song like the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant“? Isn’t that pop?

Sonic Youth never could put together an album with catchy tunes: their astonishing sound and hipper-than-thou attitudes got them so far, but even their bold efforts like Daydream Nation and Goo lack hooks and, ultimately, memorability. Their post-Nevermind effort, Dirty, is a far more full-bodied effort (producer: Butch Vig) but while it has greater dynamics it still lacks decent riffs and hooks, the sort of thing Kurt Cobain could so easily turn out (if not without embarrassment). Dirty has one real oddity though, a cover of The Untouchables tune “Nic Fit”. It is the ultimate low-fi song I’ve ever heard, guitars sounding like the stings are so loose they are splayed all over the fretboard, and no discernible lyrics whatsoever. It makes such a great contrast to the guitary pyrotechnics of “Wish Fulfilment” and “100%” (not to mention the preachy “Youth Against Fascism” and “Swimsuit Issue“) that I absolutely love it.

3. Iron Maiden, “Strange World”

I prefer Maiden’s albums with Paul Di’Anno to the Bruce Dickinson glory years for a couple of reasons: they were punkier, more street-savage, and capture the excitement of a band discovering its potential, rather than the full muscle of a band in a successful groove. The epics, tedious Satanism and occasional proggy excesses of the Dickinson years were yet to come: this was Maiden, lean and fierce: a “prowler”, “running free”, a “drifter”, in “purgatory”.

“Strange World” is one their eponymous first album, and is one of two ballads (the other, “Remember Tomorrow” is also excellent). It sounds like a jam session going utterly right, and shows how exciting Maiden were in their early days, before they set like concrete.

4. Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed practically invented alt-rock and punk rock , particularly on the guitar. His work throughout The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground bristles with invention and intelligence: from the static urban riffing of “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the chugga-chugga “Run Run Run” to the demonic “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the tender nobility of “I’m Set Free“. So it’s kinda funny that Reed’s greatest solo achievement, “Street Hassle”, features very little guitar. A dramatic poem in three parts, set over 1. an repeating string octet figure 2. gentle guitar interplay, then a fine bass solo  3. more strings, bass, guitars, and keyboard. Unusually, the guitars aren’t the focus of the song; it’s the lyrics and the voice (Bruce Springsteen gives a great spoken word piece – “tramps like us were born to pay” – in a nice meeting of the artistic patrons of New York and New Jersey). With its tender humanity, grief and sense of loss, “Street Hassle” is a million miles from the cartoonish image Reed presented in Transformer and Rock And Roll Animal. It is also a devastatingly effective piece of music.

5. Oasis, “Whatever”

God, I had such hope for Oasis in their early days. Definitely Maybe was a fine, punky, raw-edged album, with a terrific sense of melody. Songs like “Columbia” were a great reminder of the merits of the electric guitar. When “Whatever” came out, I thought, Wow! Here’s a band discovering colour and timbre and texture! The comparison with prime psychedelic-era Beatles was so obvious. I really thought Oasis were going to go on and produce something new and innovative. Then they came out with the “Roll With It” single, which was crushingly awful, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which had none of the excitement or adventure of its predecessor. And then they got even worse after that, atrophying into the most lumpen council estate plodding rock. This is a coruscating reminder of a time when they seemed like they were going to be one of the best bands ever. Shame they were just content to be the biggest band in the world, for a moment.

6. Beastie Boys, “Song For Junior”

As the Beastie’s songs are a dense stew of styles, sounds and influences, (“a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk”, as the Allmusic review of Check Your Head memorably puts it), it is a little surprising to hear a whole song done straight up in bossa nova. The rhythm and style of this song is just great, a loving tribute. (They released another straight-up bossa nova tune on the Sounds Of Science compilation, “Twenty Questions” which is touching but less rhythmically pleasing).

The Death Of Inspiration: Stephen King

Much though I like Stephen King’s earlier works (well, much but not all), he has a maddening habit of making his protagonists writers, and then imbuing that with some especial moral significance. This trait has grown more pronounced as time has gone by, to the point where you wonder why he doesn’t notice what a cliché it has become. In The Shining, Jack Torrance being a writer has some thematic/symbolic significance (in the way that The Overlook Hotel captures and then consumes his imagination); while Paul Sheldon in Misery demonstrates the endurance and comfort of fiction. (King’s original plan was that Sheldon’s skin would end up the cover for a single-edition of his next book, heh-heh-heh). But most of the time, the adoration of the writer figure is a tiresome, simple, self-projection. (See here for a schematic of fictional writers and books in King’s fiction). “Whoo, Steve,” we’re evidently supposed to cheer. “You’re a writer – isn’t that amazing!?”

Bollocks, of course. Such a strategy is adolescent and transparently self-serving. No doubt King is sometimes staggered by the success of his own life and career – who would ever think they would be the world’s biggest selling author? But as with many who achieve staggering popularity, the slings and arrows of critics seem to take particular sting, and King seems to want to imbue his craft with moral significance, as though writing is not just a job, but a quest. (Note King’s fondness for The Lord Of The Rings and his take on it, the Dark Tower series). Now, I don’t doubt there is great virtue in creating: but no more than there is in pregnancy, teaching, making a new dish or writing a song. To think otherwise reminds me of Larkin’s poem “A Study Of Reading Habits”, and the adolescent hero-identification:

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Larkin then goes on to show how we then tend to identify with the anti-hero, then in adulthood realise that we are really the minor, unimpressive characters:

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

“Yellow” meaning cowardly, of course. But for King, this realisation, this typically Larkinesque undeception, seems never to have happened. The worst of this (of the books I’ve read: it takes a particularly devoted fan to have read all King’s books) is in Bag Of Bones, where (of course) writer Mike Noonan is (of course) successful, owning (of course) several houses and (of course) having the intelligence, bravery and empathy worthy of any author-as-protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with the bildungsroman, of course; it’s a worthy literary genre. But the best examples are where the author/protagonist is fully aware of their weaknesses and is able to dramatise these: for example, Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist and Edmund White’s A Beautiful Room Is Empty (though it has a happy ending, it’s rather more bracing and piercing than the preceding A Boy’s Own Story).

King’s later books seem to me to lack vision. I don’t mean his ability to visualise the events: he has a great gift for this, so that it’s no wonder so many of his books have been turned into films (well, apart from their regular successes). I mean in his ability to imagine a wide range of humanity. I particularly like early stories like “Grey Matter” and “Night Shift” because of their low, mean, settings, and their nasty, low, mean, characters. The prose is tight and economical, the characterisation deft, and the horror fierce and noxious. In larger works, King had a problem in conjuring endings to fit the size of the canvas: the conclusion of novels like The Shining and The Stand suffer from a cheesy melodrama. But in these books you can forgive that, because the characters are so memorable, the setting well evoked, the story gripping, the tension rich. However, in Bag Of Bones and Cell and Lisey’s Story and The Regulators and Desperation.… man, I just don’t care about these rich successful writers, and their prosperous American backgrounds, and their pleasant lives. I really don’t give two flying fucks about Mike Noonan’s literary career, so it’s hard to care about his reaction to the death of his wife. I only care about Bill Denbrough (the writer in IT) because I like the boy he was. As a man, Bill is a bit of a tedious prick. (Ritchie in the other hand is always glorious to read about, man and boy).

King’s self-eulogizing takes off in IT, discussing Bill Denbrough’s time in a writing class. How’s this for a wanky, self-indulgent piece of self-mythologization?

Bill Denbrough, meanwhile, has written one locked-room mystery tale, three science-fiction stories, and several horror tales which owe a great deal to Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson – in later years he will say those stories resembled a mid-1800s funeral hack equipped with a supercharger and painted Day-Glo red.

One of the sf tales earns him a B.

This is better,’ the instructor writes on the title page. ‘In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence. I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio0-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.’

All the others do no better than a C.

Finally he stands up in class one day, after a discussion of a sallow young woman’s vignette about a cow’s examination of a discarded engine block in a deserted field (this may or may not be after a nuclear war) has gone on for seventy minutes or so… When Bill stands up, the class looks at him. He is tall, and has a certain presence.

Speaking carefully… he says, “I don’t understand this at all. I don’t understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics… culture… history… aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? I mean… ‘ He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realized dimly that they see this as some sort of attack. Maybe it even is…. ‘I mean… can’t you guys just let a story be a story?’

So brave Bill goes and writes the kind of thing he likes:

Bill leaves… but returns the next week, determined to stick with it. In the time between he has written a story called ‘The Dark’, a tale about a small boy who discovers a monster in the cellar of his house. The little boy faces it, battles it, finally kills it. He feels a kind holy exaltation as he goes about the business of writing this story; he even feels that he is not so much telling the story as he is allowing the story to flow through him. At one point he puts his pen down and takes his hot and aching hand out into ten-defree December cold whewre it nearly smokes from the temperature change. He walks around, green cut-off boots squeaking in the snow like tiny shutter-hinges which need oil, and his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary the way it seems to need to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete. ‘Going to knock the shit out of it,’ he confides to the blowing winter dark, and laughs a little – a shaky laugh. He is aware that is has finally discovered how to do just that – after years of trying he has finally found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.

Oh dear. This kind of thing is almost like the author glorification which Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace so brilliantly mocked:

From then on, the role of the writer gets increasingly venerated in King’s fiction, and the range of King’s fiction thins, in character particularly, but also in setting, as King gets smug about his own life and fails to expand his experience (and therefore vision), and keeps to the same nice, upper middle-class American setting. This disconnection from real life is death to a writer. While IT is to me the greatest book in King’s canon, it also heralds his demise as a creative author.

The Best Years For #1s?

I was talking earlier about the #1 single culture in the UK. Quite apart from the breadth of the British music taste, it is often pretty decent quality. Most years, around half of the #1 singles will be good: given the quality of the rest of the top 40, that’s a good batting average! I would like to go through the three years I think the best for number ones. (Data courtesy of onlineweb.com/theones).

1982

Date Artist Single Weeks at #1 Comments
16 Jan 1982 Bucks Fizz Land Of Make Believe 2 I… I kinda like this one.
30 Jan 1982 Shakin’ Stevens Oh Julie 1 This as well.
6 Feb 1982 Kraftwerk The Model 1 An album track from 1978 hits #1 in 1982. That’s how ahead of their time Kraftwerk were.
13 Feb 1982 Jam A Town Called Malice 3 I quite like the shift from the new wave-style Jam.
6 Mar 1982 Tight Fit The Lion Sleeps Tonight 3 This just makes me think of “The Lion King”!
27 Mar 1982 Goombay Dance Band Seven Tears 3 Don’t know this one.
17 Apr 1982 Bucks Fizz My Camera Never Lies 1 Or this.
24 Apr 1982 Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder Ebony And Ivory 3 Not one of their best, from either of them!
15 May 1982 Nicole A Little Peace 2 A Eurovision winner, in a less cynical age.
29 May 1982 Madness House Of Fun 2 Class!
12 June 1982 Adam Ant Goody Two Shoes 2 His schtick was starting to wear thin.
26 June 1982 Charlene I’ve Never Been To Me 1 Don’t know this one either.
3 July 1982 Captain Sensible Happy Talk 2 WTF was Captain Sensible doing? The Damned’s hidden pop sensibility did emerge – they covered “Help!” for example.
17 Jul 1982 Irene Cara Fame 3 This just makes me think of naff gay bars and women dancing round the handbag.
7 Aug 1982 Dexy’s Midnight Runners Come On Eileen 4 Love this!
4 Sep 1982 Survivor Eye Of The Tiger 4 Where the “Rocky” films become ridiculous – and therefore need a ROCK soundtrack.
2 Oct 1982 Musical Youth Pass The Dutchie 3 Great one hit wonder!
23 Oct 1982 Culture Club Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? 3 Can’t fault this, but what a dreadful man Boy George seems nowadays.
13 Nov 1982 Eddy Grant I Don’t Wanna Dance 3 One of the first songs I remember! Great.
4 Dec 1982 Jam Beat Surrender 2 Nice to hear a new-waver pushing their boundaries. So few did.
18 Dec 1982 Renée & Renato Save Your Love 4 Don’t know this one either.

1979

6 Jan 1979 Village People Y.M.C.A. 3 Still a great song, if totally hackneyed.
27 Jan 1979 Ian Dury & The Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick 1 Brilliant. The sort of song, and the sort of act, you never get in the Top Ten these days.
3 Feb 1979 Blondie Heart Of Glass 4 PHWOAH. Brilliant song too!
3 Mar 1979 Bee Gees Tragedy 2 A group whose reputation was destroyed by those covering them – like Abba.
17 Mar 1979 Gloria Gaynor I Will Survive 4 Yawn. Well, it’s still a good song.
14 Apr 1979 Art Garfunkel Bright Eyes 6 Don’t know this one.
26 May 1979 Blondie Sunday Girl 3 One of the many rough-edged bands to go pop.
16 Jun 1979 Anita Ward Ring My Bell 2 Don’t know this one.
30 Jun 1979 Tubeway Army (Gary Numan) Are ‘Friends’ Electric 4 Still a brilliant song. The Sugagbabes cover “Freak Like Me” is also very good.
28 Jul 1979 Boomtown Rats I Don’t Like Mondays 4 #1 when I was born! Great song.
25 Aug 1979 Cliff Richard We Don’t Talk Anymore 4 One of Cliff’s better tunes.
22 Sep 1979 Gary Numan Cars 1 Utter classic. (The Fear Factory cover is also terrific).
29 Sep 1979 Police Message In A Bottle 3 Never been a fan of The Police, or Sting.
20 Oct 1979 Buggles Video killed The Radio Star 1 Fine pop song.
27 Oct 1979 Lena Martell One Day At A Time 3 Don’t know this one.
17 Nov 1979 Dr Hook When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman 3 Not one of theirs that I know. “Mum rock”.
8 Dec 1979 Police Walking On The moon 1 Yaaaaawn.
15 Dec 1979 Pink Floyd Another Brick In The Wall 5 You could look at “The Wall” as a rant against UK institutions: in that sense, it’s almost Thatcherite. (Roger would hate me for saying that…)

1991.

5 Jan 1991 Iron Maiden Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter 2 Many people think this is their worst song, but I like it!
19 Jan 1991 Enigma Sadness Part 1 1 Lovely song.
26 Jan 1991 Queen Innuendo 1 Queen’s finest song in years.
2 Feb 1991 KLF 3 AM Eternal 2 Briefly the best band in the world.
16 Feb 1991 Simpsons Do The Bartman 3 The novelty song is still alive and well. This is maybe one of the better ones.
9 Mar 1991 Clash Should I Go Or Should I Stay 2 One of the Levis #1s. Awesome song.
23 Mar 1991 Hale & Pace The Stonk 1 You can taste the 1991 in this.
30 Mar 1991 Chesney Hawkes The One And Only 5 Ouch.
4 May 1991 Cher Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss) 5 My mum and sister liked this A LOT.
8 Jun 1991 Color Me Badd I Wanna Sex You Up 3 Crap
29 Jun 1991 Jason Donovan Any Dream Will Do 2 Sickly crap.
13 Jul 1991 Bryan Adams (Everything I Do) I Do It For You 16 Decent song, but damn, those 16 weeks were agony!
2 Nov 1991 U2 The Fly 1 In  retrospect, an odd choice for the first single from “Achtung Baby”. I would’ve gone for “(Ever Better Than) The Real Thing”. They clearly wanted to shake up their image.
9 Nov 1991 Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff Dizzy 2 Love this.
23 Nov 1991 Michael Jackson Black Or White 2 Jackson’s videos were often better than his songs by now.
7 Dec 1991 George Michael & Elton John Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me 2 Bit pointless.
21 Dec 1991 Queen Bohemian Rhapsody 5 Still an legendary, genius song. (But note how similar it is to “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”).

The Evisceration of the Media

I’ve recently come back to the UK after six years in China. I never watched Chinese TV news, it being transparently propaganda (they call it “correct guidance of public opinion“). The English-language news channel CCTV9 was mostly lightweight content-free bullshit, but occasionally you got a glimpse of the iron fist behind the velvet glove – usually in relation to Japan, as mentions of Tibet, Taiwan and the Dalai Lama were verboten. I kept up on UK and Western news via the Guardian, people posting on Twitter, and blogs like Mike Tomasky. But I didn’t see TV news at all unless I was staying in a hotel. Now I’ve come back and occasionally watch TV here (mostly the BBC and ITV: I’ve never liked Sky News), and I find the standard of journalism dreadful.

Maybe this is because in China I edited a magazine in which we regularly interviewed six, seven eight people per issue. So I got a lot of practise in. With the magazine targeted at managers, execs and professionals, I had to make sure I was interesting and pertinent, to avoid leading questions and to encourage the interviewee to open up. I would normally start by asking some background questions and then move onto aspects of their current post and the broader industry. This wasn’t always successful (hotel general managers were generally the least forthcoming, for some reason), but I did some good pieces. I was the first editor to feature “the China-watcher’s China-watcher” Bill Bishop (of Sinocism and the NYT) for example, while I’m quite proud of the one I did with economist Patrick Chovanec, to take two examples. In all cases, a good interview takes time and research.

These qualities seem to be completely lacking in the interviews I have seen recently. The most egregious are in the sports media. (Check this article for a good analysis of the reasons for this). Football hacks seem completely unaware of what a question actually is. Time and time again, they ask something to which the athlete or manager can only answer “Yes”. (And that’s before we get to Alan Partridge-level stupid sexism from John Inverdale, or the grotesque racial slur of Don Imus calling a women’s basketball team nappy headed hos“!) For example, I was listening to the Celtic vs Ross County game on the radio just yesterday, and in the pre-match interview manager Neil Lennon was asked if he hoped the new signing Derk Boerrigter “could provide a bit of excitement for the Celtic fans?” HOW COULD HE SAY ANYTHING BUT YES?

Most footballers go along with this shit-for-brains charade, but a glorious few cannot be bothered. Sir Alex Ferguson had little but contempt for most football journalists. Gordon Strachan has a classic array of sarcastic retorts to moronic questions:

Reporter: There goes your unbeaten run. Can you take it?
Strachan: No, I’m just going to crumble like a wreck. I’ll go home, become an alcoholic and maybe jump off a bridge.

Reporter: There’s no negative vibes or negative feelings here?
Strachan: Apart from yourself, we’re all quite positive round here. I’m going to whack you over the head with a big stick, down negative man, down.

Reporter: Welcome to Southampton Football Club. Do you think you are the right man to turn things around?
Strachan: No, I think they should have got George Graham because I’m useless.

Reporter: What is your impression of Jermaine Pennant?
Strachan: I don’t do impressions.

Reporter: So Gordon, any changes then ?
Strachan: Naw, still 5ft 6, ginger and a big nose!

Gary Lineker: So Gordon, if you were English, what formation would you play?
Strachan: If I was English I’d top myself!

It’s not just sport. Politics is a great example of where the facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story (“the narrative”), and interviewers will persist in a line of questioning to the point of absurdity. (Check out Max Atkinson’s blog, where he looks in depth at political interviews, speeches and communications). Fox News made an ass of itself (yeah, really) demanding to know why a Biblical scholar wanted to write a book about Jesus Christ, given that he is a Muslim! Andrew Marr’s asking whether Gordon Brown was on prescription drugs I found contemptible, like school bullies harassing an incompetent teacher. Paxman I admire, because he gets to the nub of an issue and goes after it with extreme tenacity; but gimps like Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson, and John Humphrys always seem to have an agenda (even if only their own self-promotion). On the other hand, I like Jon Snow, Ian Hislop, Eddie Mair, Khamel Amed, Michael White and Allegra Stratton, because you get the sense of them finding stuff out and thinking about things.

The sorry state of political discourse isn’t entirely the media’s fault: politicians often refuse to engage in debate if it’s unprofitable for them. (No matter that the public fucking hate this). Ed Milliband’s repetition of the same answer no matter what the question is sheer effrontery.

*

Simon Hoggart subjects political statements to what he calls “the law of the ridiculous reverse“. If the opposite of what you were saying is absurd, there is no point saying it. Any politician saying “I want the best for British people” (you mean, you don’t want them to be tortured?) should be laughed at. Henry McLeish tried to define himself as a “progressive pragmatist”, but given that few would identify as ideological reactionaries (except maybe Nicholas Fairbairn), it just means nothing. Similarly, if a question is asked in which one answer would be absurd, it should not be asked.

Editors – get your thumb out, check what questions your journalists are asking and provide some rigour. Your laziness impoverishes the dialogue of the whole country.

Charlie Brooker, RedLetterMedia and the Critical Stance

There have always been critics in society, those who explicate, analyse and comment upon other people’s creative efforts.  They first went professional, I suppose, in the era of the first daily newspapers in the early 1800s: people like William Hazlitt (Michael Foot’s favourite essayist), and so on. The previous generation of critics had generally been published in pamphlets; writing for an intellectual audience, they included writers and thinkers from Adam Smith to Jonathan Swift. Further back, the critic can be seen in religious enquiry such as by St Thomas Aquinas, and all the way back to the philosophical debates of the Ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the critic has been a figure of intellectual authority, bringing deep knowledge of his or her field and authoritative judgement to the edification of their readers (or listeners, in the case of Plato and chums). This tradition worked across fields from film and music to politics to, I don’t know, queer studies and post-gender body dismorphia. (Completely off-topic: I once read a queer-studies analysis of William S Burroughs that is probably the best book on him out there – it totally makes his works comprehensible, if not, you know, that much better). Famous critics include Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Noam Chomsky, to take three disparate examples. You’ll doubtless have a few favourites of your own: mine include George Orwell (90% of the time, a better essayist than novelist), Stephen Thomas Erlewine (of Allmusic fame – surely the best music review website on the internet), Jon Savage, Michael White and Paul Krugman.

With the internet making everyone a critic nowadays, it has thereby necessitated a change in the stance in the critic. While their essential function is still the same – they look at what other people have done and make observations, hopefully in an entertaining way – the way they present themselves and their information has shifted dramatically. This can be seen in two of the most popular critics to come from the post-2000s, namely Charlie Brooker (of Screen Wipe and the Guardian) and “Mr Plinkett” of the RedLetterMedia Star Wars prequels analyses fame. (See: The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith; each one is about 70 minutes long).

With Charlie Brooker I actually wasn’t overly aware of his broader work until recently. Though I am a pretty devoted “Guardianista” (I curdle with shame at how I used to read the Independent, because I thought it actually was  independent – it became intensely “Blair-lite” in the mid-90s, probably chasing market share), I only read Brooker’s columns and no more. I was in China when Screen Wipe was on, so missed it completely. I did see Dead Set, the zombie show he wrote, and Nathan Barley, a satire of the “Shoreditch Twat“, but found both far too heavy-handed to be genuinely enjoyable. The targets were too obvious, the humour too self-satisfied. But recently, freshly back in the UK, I watched several episodes of Screen Wipe, and found them to be extremely good. Their dissection of TV, media and popular culture is blisteringly funny, fiercely acute and scatologically profane – so the three things I enjoy most, then.

I can’t remember how I encountered the RedLetterMedia analyses – probably just through YouTube’s “Suggested Videos” sidebar. Their flaying of George Lucas and the prequels were just so absolutely dead on-the-money, though, that I recommend them to any fan of cinema, not just Star Wars fanboys. Laced with comic surreality and intense black humour, the reviews are some of the most intelligent takes on film I’ve read in a long time, when sadly the media has abdicated its critical faculties in the pursuit of advertising and movie star (imagine as a blinking gif – MoViE StAr!!!!!1!) access. This is even true of supposed “film journals” like Total Film and Empire. (This is even more observable in music media, from NME to Q to Mojo, where sycophancy runs desperate riot).

What do Charlie Brooker and Mr Plinkett have in common that I’ve lumped then together? They both take the traditional role of the critic, true – they analyse, dissect, observe, and pass judgement in an entertaining and enlightening way – but that’s not their USP. Both of them make repeated efforts to present themselves as idiots, even as deeply unlikeable. The stance of the critic, urbane, sophisticated and effortlessly knowledgeable (think Roger Ebert, Barry Norman, Frank (or indeed Mark) Kermode and Lord Kenneth Clark), is unsustainable in a world where any idiot with a computer can pass judgement. (Just look at me, heh-heh-heh). Those critics were better than us. Instead, Brooker and Mr Plinkett acknowledge the impossibility of being this kind of critic any more and – to show they aren’t superior to us – present themselves as deviants and plain misanthropes. Mr Plinkett has his voice slowed, making him sound almost like Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, while his creepily tongue-in-cheek asides present him as a abductor of women, murderer, and rapist. Brooker meanwhile contents himself with visceral hatred (of himself and all others), leering, profanity, and mimed (I hope) masturbation.

The democratisation of knowledge the internet brings has not, of course, led to a democratisation of insight, wit, or learning, yet the opening of access (to content) makes it harder to present yourself as an expert when there’s been no equal opening of access (to media opportunity). It’s not harder to be an expert these days, but it is harder to present yourself as one, when there are thousands of others out there who can claim to have better knowledge of your field. So if the social value of the critic is devalued by its inflation (just look at how many crappy blogs there are out there), best to satirise yourself first. The criticism of the critic extends first of all to themselves. There is, too, a touch of “get your retaliation first” about their stances – call yourself a sad, ludicrous prick before anyone else does, and you seem less aloof, and less vulnerable if anyone else does it. Brooker and Mr Plinkett therefore adopt the ironic stance of seeming as grimly pathetic as the rest of us – “sitting next to Mr. Waddilove, stinking of shit!” as Pauline from The League of Gentlemen says – to head off criticism, ingratiate themselves with the masses, and attest to the absurdity of their position in society.

So is the critic dead? No, he’s merely in his basement, cutting off someone’s head, or wanking off to low grade Albanian porn. Just like the rest of us, so we feel less patronised. But what does that say about us?