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.

 

Awesome Intros

There’s nothing like a good intro which grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gets your heart-a-tingling with the its awesomeness. Vast vistas can be summoned, entire moods established; the whole song summarised in essence. Here’s a fandabydozy selection.

Gimme Shelter

Oh god, that tremolo, that unsettling “Oooooh”… and the way Charlie Watts kicks in with the drums as the harmonica wails. Spine-tingling.

Out Ta Get Me

Guns at their best, with two fucking incredible guitarists. It’s interesting how though Izzy and Slash have pretty similar guitar sounds (not sure what guitars they used to record the album), they don’t really get in each other’s way, there’s a degree of space between them that lets the sound breathe. And goddamn, the tension they raise, over the straight beats by Steven Adler… fuck yeah!

She Loves You

I described this elsewhere:

The tom-tom roll sets it careening, but the first two declarations of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” are jerked back, heightening to an impossible tension (right from the very start!!), while the third iteration releases it into the first verse with superb momentum. The verses, sung jointly by Lennon and McCartney, just sizzles with their harmonised vocals, and in the chorus, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” absolutely soars.

Incident after incident after incident, all getting you to prick up your ears right from the off. The Fabs knew every trick in the damn book.

Eton Rifles

Another intro rich with drama and anticipation – you just have to listen on. It’s just so dramatic, the guitar drenching electricity over the bass’s rhythmic figure. Superb. (The verses don’t maintain this level, but the chorus is outstanding).

Firestarter

Nothing, but NOTHING, has a more dramatic, danger-filled intro.

Face The Slayer

I love the way that the tension rises and rise, the feeling of rising tide of evil just ready to burst loose. Slayer were the masters at that (see also: “Evil Has no Boundaries”, “Angel Of Death” and “South of Heaven”). The twin guitars are straight out of Iron Maiden/Judas Priest, but Slayer make them their own.

Higher Ground

What the fuck is that insanely funky thing at the very start? Whatever it is, its inflexions just get your hips grooving. (“Permit me to demonstrate”).

Wish Fulfilment

If you want some out-there distortion or weirdness, you need a steady figure to play off of, and to centre the listener. Thurston Moore’s overcharged distorted geetar, an almost melodic otherworldly yowling, plays over a simple figure by Lee Ronaldo, then… BAM!

Music I’ve Gone Off

Oddly enough, there isn’t a great deal of music I’ve gone off over time. I tend to remain loyal to stuff I liked when young, even if I objectively know it’s dreadful now (i.e. hair metal); or just not really like it much to begin with. Still, some music just doesn’t hit me as it once did. Here’s a few examples.

Tricky

Tricky I suppose is a relic from my pot-smoking days. When a student, I took to hash like a duck to water; it enhanced my imagination, made studying more interesting (if far from efficient – I would wonder down mental tangents for minutes at a time then have to backtrack) and made music more sensual, colourful, and vivid. Studying an arts/humanities course is very agreeable to pot, too, in that your class time will probably be no more than a few hours a day, leaving plenty time for “self study”. It took some time to find the right musical accompaniment, as I’d been too much of a goody-goody to indulge whilst at school (too chicken, also), so it was a case of suck-it-and-see. I first thought the dazzling technicolour of the Beatles’ psychedelic period would suit; but no. It was too bright, too pretty. Once I tried Pink Floyd’s sonorous early rhythms, I was on the right track, and hearing Tricky one day at a friend’s room, I was all over it like white on rice.

Tricky’s first album Maxinequaye is a masterpiece of deep lush rhythms, sensuous atmospheres and understated melodies, with occasional floaters of anxiety and paranoia darkening the emotional palette. Songs like “Abbaon Fat Tracks” are almost preposterously sensual, without being explicitly, juvenilely sexual – this is 4am hash-smoking session getting it on: no rampant animals spirits, but a heightened sensory experience with a languid physical response. “Hell Is Round The Corner”, with its Portishead sample, is similarly languid (with the nice touch of vinyl crackles), but counterpointed by a lyric of ghetto darkness and social breakdown. There are up-tempo songs – “Brand New You’re Retro” takes the riff from “Bad” over which Tricky and Martina both perform great raps, but still sounds deep and fluid in its rhythms; while “Black Steel” is a thrash metal version of a Public Enemy song which left critics non-plussed (they rarely know how to interpret the more aggressive strains of rock), but which effectively breaks up the homogeneity of atmosphere and tempo. The album is not consistent – it declines quite markedly after “Brand New You’re Retro” – but it hits numerous enormous bulls-eyes, and deserved its nomination in numerous “Best of 1995” lists.

Maxinequaye however got Tricky rather pigeon-holed into “dinner party music”, nice “trip-hop” categories. And he didn’t seem to like that at all. But rather than outgrow this with quality output, he reacted in an I’ll-show-them way. His next three or four albums become increasingly dark, sinister and paranoiac. Check “Vent” as an opener to third album Pre Millennium Tension: the thundering drums, the ominous feedback loops, Tricky’s rasping vocal (“can’t hardly breathe!”), sharp guitar attack, and lack of melody or rich bass tones make it a marked development, and a skillfully developed atmosphere, but you have to be enormously creative to sustain people’s interest in such a dark, oppressive ambiance. (C.f. Joy Division). And Tricky just isn’t good enough as a musician. Pre Millennium Tension does start well, with “Vent”, then the understated menace of “Christiansands”, while “Makes Me Wanna Die” is stark and affecting. But tracks like “Tricky Kid” are boring hip-hop braggadocio, and “Ghetto Youth” a long boring raga, while “Bad Things”, “My Evil Is Strong” and “Piano” evoke an atmosphere (yup, a dark, oppressive one), but do nothing with it – Tricky just rasps his familiar lyrical motifs, and that’s it. It’s boring.

Next album Angels With Dirty Faces is a further progression along this route. Dispensing with melody almost entirely, the album comprises tracks of skittering beats and breakbeats, over which Tricky and Martina (there’s rather less or Martina on this album) mumble or wail their problems. When it works, as with “Singing The Blues” or “Broken Homes”, it’s very good – both creative and effective. But usually, unfortunately, it’s just boring. “Carriage For Two” does nothing much, nor do “Tear Out My Eyes” and “Analyze Me”, and… well, the whole second half of the album, frankly.

After this Tricky had clearly backed himself into a corner and took three years to release his next album (and re-think his entire approach). Comeback album (I feel that should be in neon: COMEBACK ALBUM!) Blowback saw Tricky with about a dozen guest performers, from the Chilli Peppers to Alanis Morrissette to Cyndi Lauper. (Yes, really). And while the album is more varied and melodious, it’s really just sad and embarrassing, feeling and sounding like famous wellwishers grafted on at record company behest to help pull Tricky out of his hole. Some of the effects are diabolical – the Nirvana cover “Something In The Way” features perhaps the worst raga you’ll ever hear. It’s atrocious. And that was where my patience snapped and I gave up.

I’ve perhaps laboured the point, but there was a time when I felt Tricky was outstanding, and Maxinequaye was a very fine album (up until track nine). But he’s a clear example of someone with a very clear musical vision which was all used up after two albums.

Cypress Hill

There was a time when I was interested in rap and hiphop. This was the early 90s, so it would be oldskool stuff, I guess, like Ice T, Public Enemy and NWA. The progression is pretty natural for rock fans who like anger and dissent in their music; and with the injustices featuring in Public Enemy etc both genuine and demonstrating the ugly face of the ruling class and culture, some felt even more into it. While I liked Public Enemy, whose skewering of American institutions, myths and culture was both brave and immensely skilful, the others I went off of very rapidly. Tales of ghetto histrionics and bravado are just fucking tedious to me, and symptomatic of a sterile destructive culture. Subsequent artists in this vein, from Snoop Dog onwards, I just despise.

There was a time that’s embarrassing to recall though, when I thought Cypress Hill were good. Simple funky rhythms and “fuck-the-law” lyrics and all that. I liked it for about a month when I was thirteen, then the repetition of the beats became glaringly obvious, and their appeal wore out like cheap chewing gum. Fin.

(If you’re wondering why I’m embarrassed to recall a musical passion at age 13, well consider that at that age I had already discovered Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Slayer, etc, who in their various ways I still love).

The Smiths

It’s not so much I’ve gone off The Smiths, maybe, as that my adolescent infatuation with them wore off. When I was in the grip of it, I listened to them daily, religiously; now, I put on The Queen Is Dead, Hatfull of Hollow or Best of Vol 1 occasionally, but that’s about it. With the best will in the world, they are something of an teenager’s band – their lyrical preoccupations particularly. The music is dazzlingly lyrical, running the gamut of emotions, but with a few mordant slabs of sadness, gloom and even downright self-pity, they were easy to dismiss as miserabilists. As I’ve aged, what’s become more important to me in music is lack of affectation, a reality, the conveying of true emotions passionately felt. You get this in abundance throughout the greats, from Miles Davis to Bob Marley to Kraftwerk (once they’d hit their stride). With Morrissey’s lyrics, one sometimes feels a distancing, so that his word-play and allusions become not verbal pleasures but self-protection from revelation. There have even been books about the interpretations people place on his lyrics, such are their opacity/allusiveness. Take “What Difference Does It Make?”:

All men have secrets and here is mine,
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I think I can rely on you
And yet you start to recoil,
Heavy words are lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you

I’ve always thought this was about someone telling a friend (or desired lover?) that they were gay. But equally it could be an argument, a confession about anything, etc.  Allusion and resonance are nice, but there comes a time when you ask “Where’s the beef?”

Other things that irritate about Morrissey’s lyrics are their preciousness, and the preening intellectual pretension. Again, fine when you’re fifteen, and you’re just discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster and Martin Amis. But when you get to 30+ and you’ve read a book or two and aren’t afraid of using, you know, big long type words, it gets a bit tedious.

What does remain about The Smiths are Marr’s unerringly fantastic guitar playing – which is yet never wankily flashy, which makes for a great relief in the 1980s – and when Morrissey’s lyrics are genuine and heartfelt. “How Soon Is Now?” (despite the dreadful pretension of the opening lines) remains painfully true:

I am the son
and the heir
of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
just like everybody else does

“Back To The Old House” creates a brooding, desolate atmosphere, heightened by a stark Marr accoustic finger-picked piece:

I would rather not go
Back to the old house
I would rather not go
Back to the old house
There’s too many
Bad memories
Too many memories

When you cycled by
Here began all my dreams
The saddest thing I’ve ever seen
And you never knew
How much I really liked you
Because I never even told you
Oh, and I meant to
Are you still there ?
Or … have you moved away ?
Or have you moved away ?

While the sharp observation of “Girl Afraid” is rich with biting humour and pathos:

Girl afraid
Where do his intentions lay ?
Or does he even have any ?
She says :
“He never really looks at me!
I give him every opportunity!
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
In the room downstairs
He sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

Boy afraid
Prudence never pays
And everything she wants costs money
“But she doesn’t even LIKE me !
And I know because she said so!
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
In the room downstairs
She sat and stared
I’ll never make that mistake again !”

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, “Never Had No One Ever” and “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” are in the same direct, emotional, vein. But notably, of course, all focus on doomed romance and loss, the typical narcissistic adolescent complaints. The emotional resonance of this is somewhere around zero for me, and so despite The Smith’s numerous great gifts of expression, I’ve just don’t listen to them much these days.

Top Ten Mega Favourite Music Acts In The World Of All Time Ever

  1. Beatles
  2. Pink Floyd
  3. Kraftwerk
  4. Miles Davis
  5. Velvet Underground
  6. Sex Pistols
  7. Guns N’ Roses
  8. Boards Of Canada
  9. Joy Division
  10. Nick Drake
  11. Metallica
  12. Rolling Stones
  13. John Coltrane
  14. Mike Oldfield
  15. Nirvana
  16. Queen
  17. Pubic Image Limited
  18. Spiritualized
  19. Talking Heads
  20. Aphex Twin

Edit – added an 11-20.

I guess it really comes down to albums – though Queen, for example, have an strong list of classic tunes, their albums are a bit hit-and-miss, with only A Night At The Opera and The Game really consistent, I’d say; and their 80s stuff is pretty banal, to my ears.

Albums Which Terrify Me

Some music is damn scary stuff. I’m not talking about the mostly juvenile Satanisms of Black Sabbath or Slayer or the “gargling vomit” histrionics of death metal. That kind of music is all about effect and atmosphere; it can be mighty enjoyable if you like that kind of thing, in the same way as a horror film or a good gothic novel, but I have the constant overriding feeling that it is all a performance. “Angel Of Death” is a brutally effective evocation of Auschwitz and the abominable deeds of Joseph Mengele, from the screaming insanity of the dueling guitar solos to the pummeling double bass drums, but it is essentially just that – a musical rendition of a terrible historical event. It is an act.

Nor I do not include distinctly sepulchral albums like Nirvana’s Unplugged, or aggressively bleak albums like The Wall or Lou Reed’s Berlin. In the former case, Unplugged, while funereal, is often elegiac, seeming to welcome death. A case can be made for In Utero being a more frightening album (the unraveling second half now feels to be more meaningful: at the time of release it felt lazy, now it feels like a metaphor for Kurt Cobain’s entire life), but it too has patches of warmth and heart, as in “Pennyroyal Tea” and the lovely “All Apologies”. The Wall seems to me to be almost autistically bitter, and unpleasant to listen to apart from the well-known highlights, while Berlin is Lou Reed’s chameleonic exploration of psychic areas: here he mines a grim and bitter seam, but his eye is dispassionate, not involved. No: for true fear, you’ve got to have a sense of artistic and personal involvement. Thomas Hardy said the role of the poet is to move the reader’s heart by showing his own: Reed, oddly enough for a poet of a rock n’ roller, rarely does this (except perhaps in “Street Hassle” and much of the New York album. Ellen Willis notes in her magnificent essay on the Velvet Underground how even standout tracks like “Venus In Furs” and “Sister Ray” are dramatisations rather than self-projections. Reed was always keen to let others sing his words: lyrics were not confessionals to him but literary creations).

The real horror, as good writers in the genre know, is within. The scariest music is that which evokes human feelings and situations. No supernatural bogeymen or monsters are necessary. While I have a vivid imagination and can get the fear like anyone else, the most terrible, scariest, times in my life have had little external cause – it’s all been internal. This is what truly frightening music evokes: mental landscapes of anguish, dread, angst, and even terror.

Joy Division Closer

While Unknown Pleasures often gets greater plaudits, this is the Joy Division album I find most unsettling. It is clearly the sound of a man (singer/lyricist Ian Curtis, of course) at the end of his tether. Unknown Pleasures is ferociously, even glossily, bleak – “Day Of Lords” is magnificent in its darkness (that staggering cry of “Where will it end?!”), while the increasing echo and reverb in “She’s Lost Control” give mind to being lost in a hall of mirrors– but Closer is the sound of painful acceptance.  There is no light; there never will be. Even the most uptempo tune in the album, “Isolation”, rings out with a glacial synthesizer, suggesting an utter cutting off of all social relations, all warmth, all humanity. Quieter, dragging tunes like “Passover”, “Decades” and “Heart And Soul” meanwhile evoke not the furious night of Unknown Pleasures but the bleak quiet dawn as suicide beckons. Perhaps the most affecting track is “The Eternal” which is clearly a funeral march. “Procession moves gone, the shouting is over”, as Curtis’ opening line has it. It’s all over; nothing more to fight for.

If all this is true, then why listen to it? What enjoyment can you derive from hearing a man prepare to kill himself? Tough question. Art to me is the conveying of feeling and emotion. Closer does that with unerring skill. To appreciate it, all you need is humanity and empathy. But that does not mean that the album grows any less somber a listen.

The scale of its achievement grows as the years roll by. Here is a literal musical suicide note. It is horrifying, bleak and grim. But it is brave, and true.

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

The Manics weren’t really taken seriously when they first popped up in the early 90s, with their heavy Clash borrowings, silly interview edginess, eyeliner and agitprop sloganeering. Their first album (a double, no less) is often transparently derivative, but has some nice hooks and big harmonies, even some sly humour. Their next, Gold Against The Soul, saw them chasing LA rock when it was obviously heading up the arse of Guns N’ Roses. (Still, “La Tristessa Durera” is a very good song). All of this led to guitarist Richey Edwards being asked if they were “for real”. In response, the self-cutting Edwards carved (not cut, but carved) “4 REAL” into his arm. Red flags and alarm bells aplenty there.

The Manics’ third album was perhaps even more shocking. The Holy Bible is a trawl through the charnel house of history and the screams of disturbed minds. It examines (with intense and apt musical accompaniment) the Holocaust, serial killers (imploring they be killed too – “Give them the respect they deserve!”), and the abuse of American imperial power (“Grenada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua”). But more disturbing are the songs on body horror, depression and self-destruction. Few albums can have opened with such disturbing song as “Yes”, with its bleak and bitter portrait of prostitution (“He’s a boy, you want a girl so cut off his cock”, “I hurt myself to get pain out”). There’s just an overwhelming feeling of disgust and despair. “Of Walking Abortion” is a stunning feral howl – not the poignant cry that “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, but a raging scream at the ugliness and bitterness of the world (“Everyone is guilty / Fucked up, don’t know why? You poor little boy”), and an violent recognition that we are all walking abortions. Grotesque cynicism like this had not been heard since maybe prime-era Throbbing Gristle. With its pounding rock beats and vicious intent, The Holy Bible is an exhausting, disgusted trawl through the ugly festering pile of humanity. It is a not so much a glimpse into the abyss, but a jump headfirst into it. Just six months after recording, its prime creative source and lyricist Richy Edwards’ car was found at the Severn service station, a popular suicide spot. He has not been seen since.

Nico The Marble Index

Nico’s first album was produced by Tom Wilson, who also “produced” the first Velvet Underground album (i.e. the one “& Nico”). Chelsea Girls is relatively melodic, matching Nico’s Germanic singing with folky, European arrangements. Only the atonal guitar/viola scrapings and melismatic caterwauling of central track “It Was A Pleasure Then” reminds the listener of the Velvets, being somewhere between “European Son” and “Heroin”. Nico wasn’t overly pleased by Wilson’s arrangements, saying:

I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! […] They added strings, and— I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.

Her second album, The Marble Index, does not feature any flute. Instead, pulsating harmonium and glacial strings are the order of the day. In “Lawns Of Dawn”, Nico’s vocals and the harmonium create a weird, incantatory atmosphere, which often recurs (as on “Facing The Wind” and “Frozen Warnings”). Soundscapes, rather than songs, evoke a grim, bleak, joyless emotional atmosphere. The skill is compelling (John Cale did much of the instrumentation) in precise evocation, though the audience must surely be limited (though Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith evidently had close listens).

In the album, Nico gives a sense of her being deeply emotionally damaged, and seeking the cold comfort of isolation. It is no surprise to learn that she was addicted to heroin for a long spell in the 1970s and 1980s.

(The funny thing is, as bleak as The Marble Index is, Nico’s cover of “The End” on a later album is even more unsettling).

Radiohead Kid A

I guess Radiohead have the mantle of the modern kings of gloom. (To be fair, later albums like In Rainbows do seem to admit a little tenderness). While The Bends married tales of loss and woe to anthemic (god, how I hate the word “anthems”!) indie rock, and OK Computer went further into alt rock and condemnation of modern life, Kid A was a revelation (to me at least). Marrying an overwhelming sense of despair at not just modern life but existence itself to cold electronics and the discordances of post-Coltrane jazz, Kid A is an album of overwhelming can’t-take-more-of-this anguish. This is best seen in the song “The National Anthem”. I described it in another blogpost (I don’t think I can convey it any better) as:

unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord.

“Everything In Its Right Place” is a ominous opener – is it just me or does the album cover suggest it? – with its bleak, icy atmosphere and cutting winds. It’s not all great – “Optimistic” is essentially Radiohead by numbers, and “Idioteque” is a leaden, boring pastiche of drum and bass and an easy lyrical target. But songs like “National Anthem”, “Morning Bell”, “Kid A”, How To Disappear Completely” and “Everything” add up to one of the most viscerally bleak and musically astute albums I’ve ever heard.

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 Great British Music Taste

One of the numerous things that enrage me about the Simon Cowell-isation of popular music is how narrow and limiting it is. Getting TV stars to front catchy but forgettable froth might be something straight out of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman playbook, but it omits 1. the songwriting acumen of the SAW assembly line 2. the skill in starlets like Kylie Minogue in moving on from SAW to different markets. The Simon Cowell handbook might get passing #1s, but the whole singles market changed about 1997, or when MTV became a serious player in the UK pop market – singles would be played for weeks on the radio/MTV before they were released, so catchy things would go to #1 straight off then instantly fade away. A telling metric is that the year 2000 saw forty-three different #1s, compared to around fifteen to twenty from 1960-1998. No longer was there the slow build as people heard songs, got to like it then bought them – instead there was massive churnover. No sense of the 7″ single capturing the national mood; rather, it was just what the teen market was itching to buy.

If you actually look through the #1 singles over the past fifty years, you get a sense of the breadth of the British music taste. It is often cloyingly sentimental, but it is far more interesting than that fucking tool Cowell gives people credit for, and even occasionally daring. Here’s some of the best – unlikely under the Cowell stranglehold, but brilliant songs which show the good taste of the Great British public!

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax”

A song about gay sex with a video filmed in what looks like the ultimate debauched gay bar, with a simulated golden shower scene? Well, if that ain’t #1 material, I don’t know what is!

2. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume”

Love this – one of the first samples-only tunes, proving that innovation is no hindrance to chart success – not when it’s got a beat as irresistible as this!

3. The Specials, “Ghost Town”

Ska (through the inestimable 2 Tone record label) was popular, but this track from The Specials was hardly bouncy “Baggy Trousers” or “On My Radio” sorta stuff. Having sharpened his rapier upon Thatcher with a cover of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, lead songwriter Jerry Dammers followed up with this gloomy, even apocalyptic view of urban Britain. The song retains the reggae beat, but the vocals are sombre, while the scatting is like ghoulish voices gloating over wrack, ruin and decay.

5. Enigma, “Sadness Part 1”

Gregorian Chant? Well, why not? Works beautifully within the context of this song.

6. The Prodigy, “Firestarter”

The Prodigy evolved rapidly over their first three albums (and the fact that all three remain listenable is itself highly unusual within the dance/electronica scene, where things move really fast). They started out as XL raveheads, with breakbeats, novelty tunes (“Charley Says“) and a bouncy, fun feel. Their second, and best, is more aggressive and grimmer, yet somehow brings together ravers, crusties, indie kids, and hash-heads as it mixed big beats, big riffs and big attitude in a fantastic, creative, dense brew. The third, The Fat Of The Land, was where they broke into worldwide fame with insanely popular singles like “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, which married punk attitude and anger with electronic beats and samples. “Breathe” hasn’t aged well (the video is horribly MTV, these days), nor has The Fat Of The Land on the whole: only “Smack My Bitch Up” maintains the level of “Firestarter”. It’s one of those great singles vs consistent albums debates.

But perhaps that’s testament to the adrenaline thrill of “Firestarter”, that nothing compares: that level of sneering attitude, magnificent beats and near tangible danger hadn’t been heard since prime-era Guns N’ Roses. The public like a bit of nastiness from time to time, when it seems real and not contrived – and for the first time in nearly ten years here it was, grinning like a death’s head skull. Fucking magnificent.

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Of course, there is a substantial amount of dross in the pop charts. I’m not going to argue for the merits of Bucks Fizz or Boyz II Men. But I think if you look at any year’s #1s (before 1999 at least), at least half of them will be good, and there will several fucking great ones. You can hear the soul of Britain as you go through them, in all its sentimental, occasionally tasteless, novelty-seeking, fun-seeking, tender, thrilled-to-be-here, raggedy charm.