In Praise Of… Live At The Ritz

One of the things that most fascinates me about gig-watching is seeing the band dynamics right up there in front of you. You see all types: from the nervous, egg-shell anxiety of the other Nirvana members towards Kurt Cobain at Unplugged In New York; the primus inter pares status of Thom Yorke to Radiohead (I saw them during their tour for Amnesiac); the pseudo-democracy of Belle and Sebastian (with leader Stuart Murdoch as a self-effacing dictator); Paul Di’anno-era Iron Maiden very clearly has Steve Harris as the front man (bass guitar thrust at the audience like a machine gun) rather than the singer; Queen’s Olympian Live Aid performance draws not just on Freddy Mercury’s huge charisma, but also the band’s exceptional stage-craft honed across over fifteen years of intensive gigging; The Beatles’ famous rooftop gig is a dream for any student of body language, as Lennon and McCartney constantly turn to each other to sing (Macca being a southpaw, of course) while poor George looks on and Ringo hopes to keep up; hell, even with the League Of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton comes across as very much the man in charge – no mean feat considering his colleagues are the sublime Mark Gattis (on whom I have rather a man-crush) and the spiky Reece Shearsmith. Closer to home, I once saw a very much beginner band with a talented guitarist with a cheeky smile that girls found intensely fuckable; the singer was much weaker, and it was odd but very obvious how much he draw confidence and strength from the guitarist. You could see him literally extracting it from the guitarist.

The most enthralling live performance I’ve ever seen is and remains Guns N’ Roses’ Live At The New York Ritz. Recorded in February 1988, it was performed eight months after the release of Appetite For Destruction but before it had set the world alight – it’s sometimes forgotten that it took a year to catch fire, with early single ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ not attracting much attention and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ being released twice when its first release was similarly lackluster. Guns at this stage were therefore still “hungry tigers” – a phrase from my wife when I showed her the DVD of this gig, which I think was brilliantly apposite. They were lean, ferociously hungry for success and absolutely on fire.

The stage chemistry and presence of the band is magnificent. Axl naturally dominates, but without overshadowing the others: his raw charisma is utterly compelling, his red hair, sharp cheek bones and not-an-ounce-of-fat frame mean you can’t take your eyes off him; there’s something smoldering, some risk, always possible. (Like when he falls/jumps off the stage – I’ve never quite figured out which it is). At the start of the show, in his snakeskin jacket, swaying hips and mirrored-sunglasses, he is the very definition of young male arrogance. Slash, by contrast, is the faceless demon, the dark monster of rock. His face is concealed by his hair but somehow a cigarette still props out of his mouth, and he doesn’t just play that guitar (naturally a Les Paul Gibson), it’s like he is hard rock itself. Steven Adler on drums beats the skins and cymbals with glorious emphasis, pounding them like his life depends on it (and to time!). And when Guns are rocking hard, as in the end of “Paradise City” or when the verse kicks in on “Welcome To The Jungle”, he’s a pulsating blizzard of hair, drumsticks, arms and leather. Izzy interestingly eschews the leather look of the others for a white shirt and waistcoat, and he’s also the least active member on stage. His riffs propel the whole gig, though: when Slash is soloing you realize how essential Izzy is to the Guns sound. (His departure in 1991 was the end of Guns as a great band: Slash might be more exotic and is a stunning soloist, but Izzy was the heart and soul of the band, the riff, the Keith Richards). And in Duff, tall and lean and blonde, with that Sid Vicious-style chokechain-and-padlock, there was the punk presence in GN’R. But as a bassist he is terrific, constantly outlining the melody (as in the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or to the riff of “My Michelle”): he’s no dum-dum-dum-dum average punk bassist. (Can you think of a memorable bass line on a great punk tune? Nope, me either. I’m not including Public Image or later Clash albums in that, to clarify!). Every band member feels essential: there’s no Dave Rowantree (the Blur drummer) or Jason Newsted slightly left out, feeling inessential. It helps that the Ritz is fairly small: I think it held (holds?) about 2000 people, so it has that small club intensity of atmosphere I have always preferred to communal festivals, which I find slightly Nuremberg. The band get in each other’s space, have to work with each other: the stage can only be about fifteen foot wide for all five of them. They are close, and tight.

As for the performance, it’s stunning. Energy doesn’t just flow from Guns, it blazes from them, like the heat from a desert sun. This is partly from the music of course: the surging power of the electric guitars is undeniable. (Those Les Pauls and Marhsall stacks!) But the band put in a tremendous shift, headbanging, stomping, pounding, thumping the air – all conveying the power and force of their songs. When the main riff begins on “Nighttrain”, Slash blasts the riff to the audience as he runs the length of the stage. As “Out Ta Get Me” starts, Axl does these quite odd high kicks, while during “It’s So Easy” he does those great hipswaying movements. And during the climax to “Paradise City” they all rock like a bunch of demented bastards. (Except Izzy). It’s fucking brilliant.

There is always something special when chemistry and talent lock in: the power of a group of people multiplies exponentially. Here, for this hour-long video, you can feel the unquestionable force of this, when GN’R were the best band in the world.

 

Songs So Good They Make You Cry

There’s nothing more boring than reading a blogpost where the writer apologises for not posting more. Well – sorry, but I have been really busy. As some of you may know, I’m a magazine editor, and I’m in the process of revamping the magazine a bit, adding columnists, changing layout and all that jazz. I really do love my job – it’s the first one where I feel totally suited to what I’m doing – but the hours are long.

But enough of my complaining. The other weekend, I was at ‘dazefeast with my wife and daughter. Between sets, the DJ was spinning a few tracks, and one came up out of blindside and righthooked me. It was an utter surprise, and I couldn’t even speak, just had to listen in dumbstruck admiration as my eyes moistened at the brilliance of it. The degree of articulation is phenomenal; it seemed to encompass everything I’d ever felt in my life. The encapsulation of the literary frame in the mind and the climactic advice “If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind / Then the moment will come and the memory will SHINE” is so wise, and the musical frame of the quiet murmured opening which builds in colour and potency towards a glorious outro of hope, defiance, and humanity is just so right.

The song was Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep The Clock Around”.

And, as Robert Plant said, it made me wonder: what other songs are so good, so great, that they bring a tear to the eye? I don’t mean just emotional, ballad-type songs, but ones which fill you with amazement and wonder at the degree of their achievement. You’ll have to forgive me if I retread some familiar ground, but hey.

The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”

“I knew you were going to say that, Mike!” Well, indeed. But what can I say? This song constantly astonishes me with how good it is. From the dreamy Mellotron opening, to the miraculous splice of TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE SONG (at 1.00, when the cellos enter), to Lennon’s slowed-down vocal (a radical reimagining of one of the best rock n’ roll vocalists ever – to think that just three years earlier he had been roaring through “Twist And Shout”!) to the drooping trumpets to the magnificent cellos (thank you, George Martin!) to the glorious climax – “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a song of dazzling imagination, articulation and artistry.

Mike Oldfield – “Tubular Bells (Part 1)”

The trouble, or difficulty, with the long song is that you must have either a vision or narrative. Without either, you end up with stitched together piece of waffle (see later Oldfield long tracks like “Crises“) or blancmangey piles of steaming nothingness (see the Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over“). Shorter songs can always get by on the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo-chorus-outro structure (as memorably demonstrated by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in their brilliant The Manual: How To Have A Number 1 The Easy Way) but long songs need to either tell a story or take you someplace. (Examples of story: The Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away”, Guns N’ Roses “Estranged”, Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” (probably his finest solo moment). Examples of vision and taking you someplace: “Echoes” by Pink Floyd, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”, “Cop Shoot Cop” by Spiritualized (the only song I have ever heard which approximates the sound of a vortex)).

Anyroads. While Mike Oldfield’s later lengthy pieces were just crafted, stitched-together patchworks of nothing much, his early albums had an obvious sense of vision. He really saw what he was creating; they are so visual, so literate. Tubular Bells remains by far the most famous, but I also highly recommend Ommadawn, Hergest Ridge and Incantations. Take Part 1 of Tubular Bells as an example: section by section, it is some of the most emotionally resonant music I have ever heard. And the glorious build up of instrument after instrument seems like a glowing, rich metaphor for and testament to life itself. Amazing.

Nike Drake – “Cello Song”

Compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, this song is almost sparse – Drake’s accoustic guitar and voice, bongos, and cello. But my god! What stunning riches within. Drake’s guitar-picking is astonishing, almost mesmeric, and the cello deliciously melancholy. I don’t want to waffle on too much – just listen to the song.

Nirvana – Unplugged in New York

Hard to pick out just one song here. For some reason, and this is a feeling that hasn’t subsided as time has gone by, I feel more empathy with Kurt Cobain than any other musician I can think of. While obviously I hugely admire people like Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and John Lydon, with Cobain I somehow feel a connection beyond how I feel with the others. Maybe it’s the raw honesty of his music and interviews, maybe it’s his unfortunate crown as King of the Doomed Young Men (taken over from Ian Curtis), maybe it’s his role in tearing rock music away from the dreadful (if fun) posturing of hair metal, maybe it’s his pro-gay rights, pro-feminist, pro-choice, liberal politics. I dunno. But maybe it’s down to the aching grandeur of Unplugged in New York, an album which pulses with emotion. This is Nirvana stripped of all amplified rock ballast, baring their souls. Utterly affecting, it is a tragic hint of what could have been.

How about you?

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(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!

Favourite Bands Through Time

The Beatles

Sorry about that inordinately long break – the new job has been taking up so much of my time, and I was also on holiday in Scotland for two weeks, celebrating my daughter’s first birthday. But things feel a bit more settled now, and I’ve passed my probation at work :-), so hopefully I can get back to prattling on about my musical and cultural hobbyhorses (hey, that’s what you folks seem to like!).

I’ve previously written about books which were “life changers“, which altered the shape and colour of my mind. In a similar vein, I thought I would go through my favourite bands as time has gone by, and look at how they comment on what  was doing at the time.

1. Queen – 1986-1988

Like many British people born between 1960 and 1990, I became aware of chart music through Top of the Pops, my family regularly watching the show. (I still have a fondness for songs from 1986-7, as those were some of the first which permeated my consciousness: songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, “Caravan Of Love” and “Pump Up The Jam”). But the first group that really connected with me were Queen, as a result of us having the Queen: Greatest Flix video, which went from “Killer Queen” to “Flash”. There is something so timeless about Queen, about how many of their songs have become not just standards but embedded into the very soul of the British population. Just start singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a bar and see how everybody joins in! Also, it was my first real introduction to the power of the electric guitar, and also to the rather more subtle pleasures of fine bass playing – I esteem John Deacon very highly.

2. Guns N’ Roses – 1988-1992

Yes, I was a greasy little metaller. A smalltown boy with a bad ginger mullet, some truly epic metal tshirts, an electric guitar I couldn’t begin to get the hang of (dexterity is not my strong point), and a detestation of anything pink and fluffy. Oh me! All the same, Appetite For Destruction is an absolute monster of an album, and one whose power and authority have if anything increased as time has gone by; and the guitar playing on the second half of GN’R Lies is remarkable, worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers. I just wish I hadn’t looked like such an absolute tool in those days. Ah well.

3. Sex Pistols – 1992-1993

While a metaller, I didn’t really know much about punk except through its hardcore subvariant (I still have a vinyl copy of the peerless Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing by Discharge). Then one day I on TV an advert for the Sex Pistols compilation Kiss This, and the rawness of the guitar shocked and delighted me. I got a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, and was blown away! Holy fuck! The sheer raw exuberance, the thrilling noise, the outraged sneer of Lydon and the thick power of Jones’ guitar… an intoxicating mix. fortunately, in those days you could pick up punk compilation CDs for buttons, and so I spent many happy hours discovering great songs like the Undertones “Teenage Kicks”, Ian Dury’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock N’ Roll”, Sham 69’s “If The Kids Are United”, and the brilliant “Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please” by Splodgenessabounds. Punk/post-punk is probably still my favourite genre of music. Teenage kicks, indeed.

4. The Beatles – 1993-1995

Guess I’ve said all I need to say about The Beatles. But, oh boy, what a discovery! What colour, wit, variety and grace! They remain my No. 1 All Time Favourite Best Band In The World Ever (man), but of course other groups have periodically taken their place.

5. The Smiths – 1995-1997

It’s sometimes ridiculous how apt music can be – or maybe it just finds you at the right time. Anyway, in those days Britpop was jst getting going, and I used to read the magazine Select. In the small ads section at the back, there was an entire category called “Stuff About Morrissey”, such was the devotion of his fans. I knew he’d been in the band The Smiths, so one day I borrowed their Best Of Vol. 1 from the library, and… ZANG! Often dismissed as miserablists or because of Morrissey’s patent narcissism, The Smiths considered just for their music are a band of high lyricism, from the gloomy foot-stomper “How Soon Is Now?” to the fierce indictment “The Queen Is Dead” to the outrageously pert “This Charming Man” (still a dancefloor filler) to the achingly selfpitying “I Know It’s Over”. This was just as I was becoming a literary-obsessed love-bereft aesthete; in other words, a real prat. Still, I can’t deny the force of The Smiths’ impact, nor how incredibly pertinent it all seemed.

6. Tricky – 1997-1999

During my time as a student, I developed an inordinate pot-smoking habit. (There was about a three-month period when I was never not stoned). Tricky’s remarkable Maxinequaye was an ideal accompaniment, being sensuous, slinky, and itself obviously a devotee of the herb. His subsequent albums Pre-Millenium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces were ever more dark, brooding, disjointed and dismissive of simple pleasures like melody and structure, and his entire career has been a continual downward trajectory (how galling to have so many “special guests” on his comeback album Blowback, and how badly they were used!), but there was a time when Tricky seemed like a genius. How swiftly times change. (I haven’t smoked pot in almost 12 years now.)

7. Belle and Sebastian – 1999-2000

Like many people, I suspect, I bought this album by mistake. Intending to buy an album by Arab Strap, I instead bought The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian’s third. But even on its first play, I found it to be a striking listen – quiet and underplayed, to be sure, but poetic, folky yet rich with orchestral colour, and with lyrics to die for. Apart from The Beatles and Kraftwerk, 99% of my music was dark, gloomy, or angry – I had also been going through a Joy Division phase earlier (great band, but not one which illuminates your life). But Belle and Sebastian’s ironic gentleness, their soft lilting melodies set to hushed, biting portraits and evocations came at a completely different angle, and set the pace for what was a hazy, crazy, lazy summer, the likes of which you can only have as a student.

8. Leftfield – 2000-2001

After a few years smoking pot, other drugs began appearing. The most revelatory was ecstasy, which as the cliché goes, gave me a whole new outlook on life. (The most important, ironically enough, was that the joy was within us all, and that we didn’t need drugs or anything to access it. Just knowing it was there was enough). So of course you need a soundtrack, and though their first magnificent album Leftism was already five years old by then, Leftfield fit the bill splendidly. It was unusual to get dance/electronica that worked well across an album, which had such a range of emotions and textures and which was paced so well. Starting with the bouncing toy-piano-y “Release The Pressure”, modulating through the gears in “Melt” and “Song Of Life”, and building to a peak through the sinister charged force of “Black Flute” and the exhilarating dancefloor release of “Space Shanty”, Leftism was a remarkable feat. I also saw Leftfield in summer 2000’s T In The Park festival, and was blown away by the sheer intensity of their attack – it beat any rock band I’d ever seen. (Moby, whose album Play was taking off after being out for a year, also did a really good headlining set).

9. The Velvet Underground – 2001-2003

While I’d been a fan of the Velvets since discovering them in 1995, they were never quite my favourite band; I admired them, but maybe I had to get through some living first. I also wasn’t keen on their third or fourth albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, which I considered weak pop sellouts. Anyway, eventually it started to dawn on me just how impressive they were, particularly The Velvet Underground. Ditching the extreme amplification and distortion which made White Light/White Heat such a glorious failure (in recording terms, at least – song-wise, there’s not a thing to complain about), the Velvets instead revealed their vulnerable, open, fragile side; not in a weak way (as perhaps with Nirvana’s Unplugged) but with a sense of strength and nobility. Being able to dig this, and continuing to worship at the altar of the ferociously distorted “Sister Ray”, finally made me fully appreciate the Velvets. I mean, a band with Lou Reed, John Cale and the incredible Sterling Morrison? Whoa!

10. Miles Davis – 2003-2005

As I said before, I got into jazz via the Velvets, and started with Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. I then spend about six months buying a jazz album every week, mostly Miles Davis, but also John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. (Though I am a big Philip Larkin fan, I seem to disgree with him on every aspect of jazz). What’s so admirable about Miles Davis? At his best, he integrates vision and method with astonishing success, as seen in the out-there horns of “Orbits”, the candlelit dusky dreaminess of “Shhh/Peaceful”, the aching melancholy of “Blues In Green”, the sinister foreboding of “Pharaoh’s Dance”. But more than that, his ever-changing approach is magnificently inspiring. His willingness to constantly challenge himself, to leave his comfort zone and seek new musical territories is an object lesson in how to create. (Somebody once asked him why he didn’t play ballads any more. “Because I like playing them so much,” he replied). Similarly, his work with younger musicians is incredible – this is the man who recognised the talent in musicians of the calibre of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams (if you don’t know who Tony Williams is, listen to his top-hat work on “Shhh/Peaceful” – he plays it like a lead instrument!), and Joe Zawinul.

Since about 2005, I haven’t really had any new favourites; I seem happier exploring the byways of musical history than seeking out the latest sounds. But how about you?

Lyricists

Funnily enough, for someone so bookish, words are about the last thing I pay attention to in a song. I love good lyrics, but somehow I often mishear them, and go for years with the mondegreen in my head. (I’m also occasionally prone to spoonerisms, and as my good chum Darren will chuckle to recall, once misspoke The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”: instead of “like a lizard on a window pane”, I said  “like a wizard on a lindow pane”. Easy mistake..! :-$ Similarly, for YEARS (decades!), I mistook “Bohemian Rhapsody”: I thought it went (well, I knew it didn’t really, but I got into the habit of just thinking of it as) “Spare him his life and his poor sausagie” rather than “… from this monstrosity!”

All the same, I do like a good lyric. I’m going to exclude Bob Dylan from the following examples, though, because 1. everyone knows he’s a great lyricist, and 2. Bob attracts a certain fanaticism, which I can do without. As I’ve said previously, the following are simply examples I like; I also like to cite from different areas of music, for the sake of glorious variety.

1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs”

Quite apart from the adolescent salaciousness often applied to “Venus In Furs”, the lyric is actually very technically accomplished. (I love Lou Reed’s interview in the BBC’s The Seven Ages Of Rock, where he says this kind of subject matter was often in Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., etc so using it in rock was “a big nothing”). Throughout, Reed uses sibilance to create a lisping, decadent effect:

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather

Whiplash girl-child in the dark

Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him

Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Also, there’s a killer instance of onomatopoeia, in the last syllable of the line “Kiss the boot” – as he says “boot”, Mo Tucker hits that kettle drum (which itself suggest a slaveship drum, beating rhythm for the groaning desperate rowers), and the boom and boot combine deliciously.

But perhaps what’s the most interesting aspect of the lyric is that it is so dramatised. This is not Reed saying “I dig S&M”; it’s not a simple statement like The Stooge’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Reed instead enacts the performance of S&M through the lyrics, and the music heightens this with the whip-lashes of the ostrich guitar and the slave-ship drums. It’s an extremely accomplished performance to be doing on your very first album, and helps explain the critical acclaim of Reed and the Velvet Underground.

2. Belle and Sebastian, “Sleep The Clock Around”

Sometimes dismissed as twee indie, Belle and Sebastian are in fact often home to sharp, stinging lyrics. The sweetness and delicacy of some of their music is an effective counterpoint to this – kinda like The Beautiful South, but less bland. Their breakthrough album The Boy With the Arab Strap is home to many fine and effective lyrics (the stinging portrayal of someone who “We all know you’re soft ‘cos we’ve all seen you dancing / We all know you’re hard ‘cos we’ve all seen you drinking / From noon until noon again” in the title track; the polite decline to fame of “Seymour Stein”; the schoolboy idyll of “A Spaceboy Dream”), but the finest to my ears is “Sleep The Clock Around”. The portrait of dreamers who could maybe be someone, it starts murmuringly, but builds in colour and charge to the final line of the third verse, where it bursts gloriously open with the word “shine”. I’ll just quote the whole thing here:

And the moment will come when composure returns
Put a face on the world, turn your back to the wall
And you walk twenty yards with your head in the air
Down the Liberty Hill, where the fashion brigade
Look with curious eyes on your raggedy way
And for once in your life you’ve got nothing to say
And could this be the time when somebody will come
To say, “Look at yourself, you’re not much use to anyone”

Take a walk in the park, take a valium pill
Read the letter you got from the memory girl
But it takes more than this to make sense of the day
Yeah it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste
And you trusted to this, and you trusted to that
And when you saw it all come, it was waving the flag
Of the United States of Calamity, hey!
After all that you’ve done, boy, I know you’re going to pay

In the morning you come to the ladies’ salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, you’re a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
“There’s a lot to be done while your head is still young”
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine

Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid
Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came
Then you go to the place where you’ve finally found
You can look at yourself sleep the clock around

This really is a lyric that stands up on its own. Just terrific.

3. The Clash, “Lost In The Supermarket”

Despite mostly being an issues band, lead by their towering sense of solidarity and social justice, The Clash occasionally did some songs with nice autobiographical vignettes. (I think these are mostly the Mick Jones songs). “Protex Blue”on The Clash is a funny tale of buying condoms in a pub toilet, long before AIDS made their purchase socially acceptable. “Lost In The Supermarket” from the peerless London Calling is a poignant tale of alienation and seeking some kind of affirmation through buying stuff. (In “Rudy Can’t Fail” from the same album, they have a similar line: “I went to the market / To realise my soul / But what I need / They just don’t have”. That’s just fucking immense, isn’t it?). “Lost In The Supermarket” starts with the chorus, as though setting out its themes right from the start:

[Chorus]
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see

I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how it’s been all around me

[Chorus]

I’m all tuned in, I see all the programmes
I save coupons from packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discoteque album
I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free

4. The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus”

Lots of people first encounter The Beatles through singing “Let It Be” or “Yesterday” in school music classes, and consequently think The Fabs were just a safe, twee pop group – like a band of Cliff Richards. Au contraire. Apart from the obvious LSD inspiration of this song, I love its linguistic deconstruction and sheer outright mischief. Some highlights:

Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

Expert textpert choking smokers,
Don’t you thing the joker laughs at you?
See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
See how they snied.
I’m crying.

Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.

5. Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”

Some autobiographica: after graduating in 2000, I moved back for a few months, planning to do a post-grad after the summer. Living back home felt rather bathetic, having to submerge the way you would like to live to the requirements of the parental home. You know what I mean? It’s a pisser, yet so hard to fight against.  I had recently bought a copy of the magnificent compilation album Way To Blue, and its gentle disaffection, summer melancholy and rural vibes suited my feeling (we lived right on the edge of town, looking onto farms and hills).  The most affecting song was “Hazey Jane I”, with its beautiful orchestration and searching lyric, framed as a series of questions, suiting my self-doubt:

Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?
Will it mean much to you
If I treat you right?
Do you like what you’re doing?
Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder
What you’re doing it for?
Hey slow Jane, make sense
Slow, slow, Jane, cross the fence.

Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of doing better than your worst?
Hey slow Jane, let me prove
Slow, slow Jane, we’re on the move.

6. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

I know I’ve already mentioned the Velvets, but it struck me that this would be a good time to unveil one of my theories: the lyric to “Heroin” is basically a modern-day retelling of the Keats poem Ode To A Nightingale. I’m not (you will doubtless be pleased to learn) going to quote the whole poem, but here’s a summary of it: the speaker is in a bad mood, but listens to a nightingale singing, and appreciates it as a symbol of transcendence, one whose song will live on even after it dies. This mood of transcendence encourages the speaker to enter a reverie, away from the world of here-and-now. But removed from the immediate world, there is little difference between life and death, between the self and other. The speaker then realises that this is not a place one can live in, and exits the world of imagination; the vision fades, but doubtfully: the last two lines are “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”

The parallels with “Heroin” are exact, and such that I believe Reed (who of course studied literature at Syracuse University) intentionally made “Heroin” a contemporary re-telling. At the start, the speaker is in a state of chronic self-doubt (“I don’t know / Just where I’m going”). He desires the extremity of heroin (“When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son”) to lift him out of his torpor. Taking it is a transcendent feeling, lifting out of the stresses and strains of everyday life, freeing him to another realm away from the dirt and squalor of the city (“I wish that I was born a thousand years ago / I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas / On a great big clipper ship / Going from this land here to that”). But of course removal from the everyday is a step towards death, to complete dissociation from life itself (“Because a mainer to my vein / Leads to a center in my head / And then I’m better off than dead / Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore”). And it leads to the final damning realisation that this is a living death – but still, at the end, the pain and self-doubt remain: his fate is not yet decided (“Ah, when the heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God that I’m as good as dead / Then thank your God that I’m not aware / And thank God that I just don’t care / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess I just don’t know”).

7. John Cage, “4’33”

It’s like a mirror: you get out of it what you put into it 😉