Kraftwerk: An Appreciation

What The Beatles are to pop/rock and the Velvet Underground are to alternative, Kraftwerk are to electronic music. They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the goddamn motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-The Wall sequence, or, say, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Exile On Main Street series of triumphs. Starting with Autobahn (1974), each album defines and refines their inspiration: from the long form elementary synthesized excursion of Autobahn‘s epic title track (cos ambitious bands had to have side-long epic tracks back then) to Radio Activity (1975) with its shorter thematically-linked pieces to the electro-funk of Trans Europe Express (1977) to the multiple digitized rhythms of the magnificent The Man Machine (1978) and then the warmth, sass and wit of Computer World (1981). (Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971) and Kraftwerk II (1972) are embryonic to say the least, stuck in the Krautrock milieu whence they sprang, while later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics).

Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. For all albums, I recommend the German language versions as being more… Kraftwerkian, if you will; but I will refer to the English track names for ease of comprehension.

Autobahn

I’ve included this album as one of the greats purely on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren“, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and (I think) guitar arpeggios, with ancillary flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they signing about, with horns and passing cars and all being evoked.

The rest of the album rather pales in comparison, not being thematically linked (the next two tracks being “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2”, which suggests their place as mood pieces rather than extensions of the theme – though the latter does suggest later glories) or having the same daring celebration of the joys of present. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs of the studio disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Rather like, say, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, and overshadowed by later glories.

Radio Activity

This is where the real Kraftwerk comes together. The album is linked via two interconnected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice Of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radiowave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), and yet thematically and conceptually they are perfect. In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album, and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these tunes, while they link the album, are significantly in the majority; most of the album is short thematic ideas-driven pieces, like “News” (a bunch of newsreaders), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blipblipblip.. blipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblip), “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which I think the Chemical Brothers samples for the opening track to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.

Trans Europe Express

It irritates me that this album is the one always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever”. I guess this is because of two things: the sheer bloody goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the fact that it was heavily sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock“, thus inventing hiphop or something. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are to my ears the two weakest tracks in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds like something from a Commodore 64 tape (check this as a C64 version of Tubular Bells – if you grew up in the 80s or had a Commy, you might well enjoy it), while the latter is a dry self-parody but little more. All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the rhythm (it’s really just part two of a side-long suite), and “Europe Endless” a stunning evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous (German cars, Concorde, etc). But with two tracks to which I’m highly indifferent, Trans Europe Express just isn’t all that.

The Man Machine

To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s (which, given the competition, is really saying something). Here, the pulsing rhythms of Trans Europe Express develop to an exciting polyrhythmic approach which, given how white Kraftwerk sound, is almost African in origin and would inspire a lot of electro music in the future, from hiphop to techno. Also, the digitisation of Kraftwerk’s sound takes a great leap here; while substantial parts of Radio Activity is live and unprocessed, and while the synthesizer beats of Trans Europe Express chug along nicely, almost every part of The Man Machine is digitised, processed. (Only the vocals to “Neon Lights” and “The Model” are unaltered, I think). And while the early albums were obviously Moog-synthy, analogue machines creating digital sounds, the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is modern and synthetic. Take the opening to opening track (Kraftwerk always paid attention to album flow, with opening and closing tracks of significance in the whole piece), “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:

We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy

We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots

(Damn, it’s so much harder to convey the minutiae of electronica compared to rock music!) The whole thing is so robotik, so alien, so unhumanly funky… fucking magnificent. I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”. It often reminds me of my firs semester at uni, when I had really just discovered Kraftwerk thanks to one of my uncles, and listening to this tune as I smoked my first joints. That defamiliarisation and sense of disconnect suited my initial loneliness and homesickness. But this is mere anecdote: what I really like about “Spacelab” is that sense of highflown indifference, as emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. The best track of all, in my opinion (which is all you get around here) is “Neon Lights”, which is a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. Which is a nice change from the posturing rural sympathies of so much rock music. (I’ll exclude Nick Drake from this, as his music does convey so much countryside scenes, from the swaying yew trees in “Cello Song” to the mysteries of “River Man”). What astonishes me about this album is that even today is sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.

Computer World

Building on the polyrhythms of The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, less distant and far wittier. On occasions it’s actually very funny. It is odd that so few artists celebrate modernity, or what I suppose we should call postmodernity. Most times the past is viewed nostalgically, the present with regret (of love lost, possibilities missed etc etc etc) and the future with trepidation. This, I guess, is what happens when the vast proportion of rock music is made by men in their 20s. But then the same is true of so many writers: the pose of the sophisticated poet despairing of the cheap tawdry urban crowd perhaps began with TS Eliot and continues today, with gimps who don’t have a solitary percentage of Eliot’s learning affecting a disdainful superiority to the masses. As you can guess, I loathe this fuck-knuckle smart-ass disdain. Far better, I reckon, to have the relish and abandon of the Beats, that celebratory joyful vision of Ginsberg and Kerouac.  With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” must take the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with Radio Activity‘s “Air Waves” in second), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (maybe a Fisher Price calculator?) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:

I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator

 

By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody

Glorious. Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts in the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”). Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolated individuals keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”, like tunes played in empty shopping malls. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, it does not sound dated: of its time, yes, but with Kraftwerk’s keen intelligence, and humane empathy, their disquisitions on modernity, computers and disconnect are timeless.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I rate Kraftwerk very highly: basically as one of the best bands of all time, and as the originators of so much of modern music. We are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, as perhaps Louis Armstrong (well, maybe Jelly Roll Morton) is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release, and whose, imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed these thirty-odd years.

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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.

Radiohead: An Evaluation

Radiohead

Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.

Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)

Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.

GENIUS

You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.

GOOD

This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.

MEH

Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.

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For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist.  But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.

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?

Albums and What They Mean To Me #5

I haven’t talked much about jazz yet. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got into it via the Velvet Underground, reading the Rolling Stone interview with Lou Reed in the superb Velvet Underground Companion, where he says that “Sister Ray” was their attempt to do something like Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor but with a rock feel. At the time, the Velvets were probably my favourite band (excepting of course The Beatles who always tower far beyond everyone and everything else), and “Sister Ray” my favourite song of theirs, so I was interested. I started in the time-honoured fashion of Kind Of Blue and swiftly became a rabid Miles Davis fan, devouring every album I could find – everything from Birth Of The Cool to Milestones to Agharta to Jack Johnson to Bitches Brew, while not forgetting Miles Smiles and In A Silent Way. This naturally lead to Coltrane, with Blue Train, Impressions, Ascension, My Favourite Things and A Love Supreme just some of my favourites. (Wasn’t so keen on his screeching atonal free jazz stuff like Live at the Village Vanguard… Again!, where he takes “My Favourite Things” and makes a monster of it.) Also the free jazz stuff – of course, Ornette Coleman’s pivotal Free Jazz (which is actually quite fun, though the bass and drum solos are tedious), Archie Shepp’s The Way Ahead and Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Advance.

But Kind Of Blue, that was the one was I played most often. Some jazz is very academic and you can appreciate it intellectually but it lacks emotion. (For instance, Giant Steps by Coltrane). Kind Of Blue on the other hand is all emotion and lyricism: the sophisticated melancholy of “Blues In Green” and “Flamenco Sketches”, the rich rhythmical backdrop of “All Blues”, my favourite track on the album, with Davis on the harmon mute trumpet reedy, pensive and haunting. Davis, Coltrane and then “Cannonball” Adderley solo in superb fashion, with Coltrane’s solo particularly memorable: searching, restless, the sound of a city. “Freddie Freeloader” on the other hand is relatively upbeat, with Wynton Kelly’s sparkling piano solo and Cannonball’s on the alto sax, starting caperingly and ending almost raunchy. (Coltrane’s is magnificent, a dazzling starburst of sound).

What I find enduring about Kind Of Blue is what you might call its spiritual quality. It is the sound of creativity and technical mastery. What is most interesting is that although there’s little interplay as such (the horns only play together on the choruses, if there are any, which in the case of “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” are simple phrases), the solos comment upon and follow from each other with great empathy: they’re all obviously listening intently to what’s being played. Thus, Davis takes the first solo in “So What”, leaving lots of space (as is his wont); Coltrane follows, modifying his typical “sheets of sound” approach to one more akin to Davis’ (ample spacing); then Adderley, more playful than the other two.Similarly, the opening phrases to “Freddie Freeloader” are as sardonic and simple as the opening to “So What”, but Wynton Kelley’s wonderful solo gives it an exuberant kick, leading to Davis’ trumpet exclaiming “Freddie Freeloader!” (at  4.07), then followed by Coltrane and Adderley in the fashion I’ve mentioned above. Thus, despite the melancholic and sardonic atmospheres, repeated listenings to Kind of Blue reveal it as sublime.

Why is this important to me? Well, after graduating I had a shitty old time. Most of this was self-inflicted, but still, despite doing well at university I couldn’t find any kind of decent job; and having imagined the kind of luminous future you see and read in all the “working class lad done well” kind of books and films, I felt bitter and miserable. As well as this, I was an uppity know-it-all: not an appealing combination. And the thing with know-it-alls is that they are not open to other perspectives, to anything outside their box, which is what makes them so chronically fucking stupid. Eventually, several things combined to make me realise my utter asswipe behaviour, and I gained a little humility. I opened the doors and started trying to stretch myself: new music, new books, new hobbies (learning the piano, cycling), hell, I even tried a little painting (Jackson Pollock-style, heh-heh). I became a youth group leader, went new places, met new people – anything to get out my rut. The openness, empathy and appetite for new perspectives I relate to and even trace back to Kind of Blue, which during this period I played daily.

Cliche it might be, it really is a magnificent album.

See also:

Albums and What They Mean To Me #4

Albums and What They Mean To Me #3

Albums and What They Mean To Me #2

Albums and What They Mean To Me #1

On Being Cheesy

When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.

Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.

But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”

There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.

Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.