Cavalier and Roundhead

Is it just me or can all music be divided into two categories – Roundhead and Cavalier? This dichotomy comes from the English Civil War, where Roundheads were Parliamentary/Puritan soldiers who wore tight fitting un-ornamented metal helmets, while Cavaliers were Kings men who wore large ornate hats with feathers. Cavaliers were renowned for their expensive clothing while Roundheads cared more about fighting (and winning). So essentially, it’s the difference between florid/excessive and spare/vital.

The Beatles (yes, them again) became increasingly cavalier from 1965 to 1967, peaking in the almost absurdly florid excesses of “All You Need Is Love”. Flowers, kaftans, excessive orchestra, massed everyone-together-man hippies, yada yada.

Just a year later, Lennon has massively reacted against this cavalier excess and gone for roundhead fundamentalism, with gritty blues, plain proletarian denim, and howling disaffection (“In the eeeeevening…. wanna die!”).

Punk, essentially, was a roundhead reaction to the perceived cavalier excesses of prog rock. Though many punk bands in their own experimentations (and well-hidden love for a good pop melody) became more cavalier as time went by. The Clash’s first album is of almost Stalinist breezeblock brutality – as seen in album tracks like “What’s My Name”. (Just 1.41, too!)

By their third (and best) album, London Calling, The Clash had incorporated influence like rockabilly, reggae, rn’b, and old time rock n’ roll. “Revolution Rock” has some nice parping brass and a reggaeish beat. Its lengthy outro makes it quite the counterpoint to the severe simplicity and brevity of their first album.

Their next album is the triple LP (!) Sandinista!, which pretty much speaks for itself, while their fifth, Combat Rock, would be a back-to-basics with enormously successful singles “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” and “Rock The Casbah”.

Even The Damned, whose first album is a speed-fulled adrenalized delight without an ounce of fat, got all cavalier – see their Beatles take-off The Black Album. By the time they invented goth rock, they were in full cavalier mode.

Blame Captain Sensible and his love of showtunes!

Prog rock, obviously, is cavalier. But while Pink Floyd were no strangers to excess (the “birds in a cave” section of “Echoes” lasts from nearly three full minutes!), I would suggest that Roger Waters was more of a roundhead than cavalier. The Wall, surely, is an album of full roundhead aggression, disdain, and musical severity. No more florid colourful Rick Wright keyboards!

Dance music, being rhythmic in inspiration, is mostly cavalier. But surely The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation is a roundheaded exercise in gritty beats, and cause-driven rage. “Their Law” has some of the best guitar riffs I’ve ever heard in any music.

Primal Scream have alternated throughout their career between cavalier lovey-dovey (Screamadelica)and roundhead anger. XTRMNTR is a hell of an album, with Stooges-inspired overblown guitars and an overwhelming rage at the state of the nation. “Kill All Hippies” couldn’t be any clearer about its anti-cavalier intent!

Most bands, of course, stick to one side or other. Joy Division were relentlessly roundhead. Animal Collective are gleefully cavalier. Elton John a helpless cavalier, David Bowie a reluctant one. Nick Drake was a roundhead working in the cavalier medium of folk. The Incredible String Band perhaps the most cavalier group of them all. But then, many of the greats oscillate: The Beatles, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones.

What do you think?

The Best Paul McCartney Bass Lines

EDIT

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

*

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

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

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

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

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

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

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

Taxman

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

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

Sun King

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

Two Of Us

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

Drive My Car

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

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

I’ve Got A Feeling

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

Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

Crap booksI really should focus on books a bit more. I guess it’s because there’s very few authors who I like throughout their entire oeuvre, unlike with bands where you can relatively easily compare and contrast across albums. Take two of my favourite authors, George Orwell and EM Forster – both of them were pretty so-so until their final two novels, but then both pairs (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Howards End and A Passage To India, of course) are some of the finest in the twentieth century. I’m excluding Orwell’s non-fiction here, of course. Where bands can reproduce essentially the same album over and over again (I’m looking at you, AC/DC), writers can get stale very quickly (I’m looking at you, Irvine Welsh) and attempts to branch out can be bewilder their audience (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). It rather depends on their style, of course. Character-based writers like Irvine Welsh use up their share of meaningful stories early on, and then have to fall back on increasingly-hackneyed plots and melodrama; whereas plot-driven writers, such as those working in crime or mysteries, or genre fiction, where you work within set parameters (such as horror, fantasy or westerns).

Nonetheless, there have been a number of books which been intensely disappointing, whether following an outstanding precedent or which fail to capture their potential.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was the first of hers I’d read. It’s a homage to Howards End, set in a New England campus, so it has the traditional campus comedy (of manners) in the mix too: departmental politics, the clash of ego and political correctness, the hilarity of smart people having oh-so-human weaknesses. It’s really pretty damn good, even if the media epithet of “prose wizard” overcooks Smith’s talent: she is deft, for sure, but too much in love with writing and novelising to prevent a certain obtrusiveness. Still, it was one of the best novels I’d read for some time, certainly for¬† new writer. I was in China at the time, so I could only find The Autograph Man, rather than her much-lauded debut White Teeth. But my, how completely boring was The Autograph Man! It completely failed as both fiction and as literature. It was awful fiction because there was no compelling plot or characters (protagonist Alex-Li Tandem (gettit?) only seems to be mixed race Chinese-Jewish, but have no other traits worth notice or mention: his career of autograph hunting is only because it’s easy), nor are there memorable character arcs. There was, most damningly, no sense of pattern: there was some events you didn’t care for, then another event, then… dribbling pointlessness. It failed too as literature because the symbols and themes were either not brought out (the emptiness of fame and celebrity is a decent idea, but it was never really elucidated) or obvious: yes, autograph hunters are parasites, etc etc. No doubt Smith had a publisher clamouring for product to keep the public and media interest high – collections of short stories are often good holding-manouveres – but The Autograph Man will have to go down as “the difficult second novel”. If Smith can grow out of the precious “I’m a writer” attitude and stick to her craft, I’ve no doubt she will produce compelling work.

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

Much though I love The Lord of the Rings, I simply cannot make any headway on The Silmarillion. All those bloody elves! I find them the least interesting of the races and forms in LOTR, with their righteousness and effeteness. Boring! I far far prefer the homeliness of the hobbits, and much enjoy the opening and closing chapters set in the Shire. The rustic humour and essentially suburban concerns of the Shirefolk make a terrific contrast to the awesome devilry of Mordor and the pride and majesty of Minas Tirith. Remove this, and an essential antithesis is removed. The Silmarillion even takes away men and and dwarves,: it may be mythic and majestic, but its poetic frame of mind is not congenial to me.

Post-Misery Stephen King

Writers, like musicians, dry up. Their inspiration declines, their vision expires. Creativity, in composing something entirely new, is brain-busting, intense, utterly demanding work. After a time, most artists stick to the parameters they have set out in their early work. With Stephen King, though he was always quite hit and miss (I don’t care for early books like The Tommyknockers or Salem’s Lot), he seems to me to have dried up almost entirely after Misery, or after about 1992, or after (though this is an uncomfortable thought), since he kicked drugs and alcohol. Since then, several characteristics seem to have set in: his protagonists are far too often writers and the setting is generally upper-middle class north-east USA. In other words, his experience of life has become too thin to sustain sustained creativity; he has come too far from his period of struggle to remember the broader range of emotional experience and of humanity. His earlier works (particularly some of the short stories) were enlivened by thoroughly nasty situations and people: “Night Shift” remains one of the best horror stories I have ever read, while the demented black humour of “Survivor Type” is very much to my taste. (I did write a gruesomely vivid zombie novel as a joke, you know). But since 1992 or so, King’s fictional world has been repetitive and boring. Bag Of Bones, The Ghost Of Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Cell – every single one of them has been ultimately tedious. That’s five for five out of his post-1992 work. He can still create character effectively, but his weaknesses – the insane overwriting, the melodramatic ending, the thinness of the conception – are no longer concealed by his strengths.

Still, an eighteen year (1974-1992) period of creativity is a good one for any artist – especially a writer who produces two novels a year.

John Lennon Letters

I thought Lennon’s letters would be quite literary, in the same style as those of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin: lengthy, revelatory, funny, insightful. But the “letters” are in fact often postcards and notes – one of them is even a shopping list! There is only one letter to Cynthia whilst the Beatles are in Hamburg, none to Yoko (allegedly because when apart they were on the phone “twenty times a day” – I call bullshit), none to friends like Shotton. Only the ones to Derek Taylor sustain the interest; the rest seem to be scribbled notes to fans, postcards to family and colleagues, and the odd half-page letter, to Julian or musicians. The legend of Lennon the literary intellectual gets shot in flames by this book; though it’s my guess that Yoko Ono has a cache of correspondence which she refuses to release.

While Lennon’s style is of course distinctive, with his puns and neologisms and Joycean coinings, it will be familiar to anyone who has read In His Own Write or A Spaniard In The Works. In the end, the sole interest of the Lennon letters is for biographical revelation, and on that count it is remarkably thin. Lennon was never one to examine himself and his methodology, or rather to verbalise this: he preferred to keep it instinctive, visceral, natural. This is probably of benefit to his creativity, but it makes the book a weak, insubstantial, unsatisfying book.

Musical Orgasms

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

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

So what are some of them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DUH DUH РDUH DUH  (pause) Р(percussion).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

Beatle Books

In my vainglorious attempt to write a biography of John Lennon, I have of course accumulated a substantial of books on the Beatles, and the man himself. I must have a pile of about twenty sitting on my desk directly concerning Lennon and the Fabs; other general related books – for example on the 1960s, on the development of the album, on Timothy Leary and his psilocybin experiments, are plentiful, but no need to rope them in – too many! The books I divide, as any historian would, into primary and secondary sources. Unfortunately the former aren’t as substantial as one would have hoped. This is often the trouble with writing about the pop star or celebrity, compared with, say, the politician or writer, where letters and written documents are ample. But anyway, here’s what I’ve got, and a brief rating (out of 5 stars).

Primary Sources

  1. Allan Williams, The Man Who Gave Away The Beatles     ****
  2. Cynthia Lennon, John    ***
  3. Pete Best, Beatle! The Pete Best Story    ****
  4. Pauline Sutcliffe, The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club¬†¬†¬† ***
  5. George Martin, All You Need Is Ears    ****
  6. Julia Baird, Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon    ***
  7. Pete Shotton, John Lennon In My Life    *****
  8. George Harrison, I Me Mine    ***
  9. Mark Lewisohn, Complete Beatles Chronicle    *****
  10. Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions    *****
  11. Peter Brown, The Love You Make    ***

I am still looking for A Cellarful of Noise and It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. (If you’ve got a copy to spare… you know what to do :-D).

Secondary Sources

  1. Tim Riley, John Lennon: The Definitive Biography    **
  2. Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now    ****
  3. Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life    ****
  4. Philip Norman, Shout! The Story of The Beatles    ****
  5. Albert Goldman, The Lives of John Lennon    **
  6. Ray Coleman, Lennon: The Definitive Biography    ***
  7. Iain MacDonald, Revolution In The Head    *****
  8. Tim Riley, Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album By Album, Song By Song, The Sixties And After    ***
  9. Pete Dogget, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul of The Beatles    ***
  10. Ken McNab, The Beatles In Scotland    **
  11. Mike Evans, The Beatles Literary Anthology    ***
  12. Jon Weiner, Come Together: John Lennon In His Time    **
  13. Paul Trynka (ed.), The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook The World    *****

I really better write this fucking book! Am at 20,000 words, and have only got to August 1960 (the book will cover Jan 1960-Dec 1970). Think it’s gonna be a big one, if I ever get it done.

Beatle Bests

I just put together an iTunes playlist of my favourite Beatles songs.¬† I thought the list might be of interest. I arranged it in order of the recording date, and have put its source next to the title. Here’s the list, with some observations at the bottom:

Please Please Me (single)
There’s A Place (Please Please Me)
I Saw Her Standing There (Please Please Me)
Twist and Shout (Please Please Me)
She Loves You (single)
You Really Got A Hold On Me (With The Beatles)
It Won’t Be Long (With The Beatles)
All My Loving (With The Beatles)
This Boy (b/side to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”)
Can’t Buy Me Love (single)
And I Love Her (A Hard Day’s Night)
A Hard Day’s Night (A Hard Day’s Night)
Things We Said Today (A Hard Day’s Night)
Every Little Thing (Beatles For Sale)
No Reply (Beatles For Sale)
Eight Days A Week (Beatles For Sale)
Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey (Beatles For Sale)
I Feel Fine (single)
I’ll Follow the Sun (Beatles For Sale)
Ticket To Ride (single)
The Night Before Help! (Help!)
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!)
Help! (Help!)
I’ve Just Seen A Face (Help!)
Yesterday (Help!)
Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown) (Rubber Soul)
Drive My Car (Rubber Soul)
Day Tripper (single)
In My Life (Rubber Soul)
We Can Work It Out (single)
The Word (Rubber Soul)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver)
Love You To (Revolver)
Rain (b/side to “Paperback Writer”)
Taxman (Revolver)
I’m Only Sleeping (Revolver)
Eleanor Rigby (Revolver)
For No One (Revolver)
Good Day Sunshine (Revolver)
She Said She Said (Revolver)
Strawberry Fields Forever (single)
When I’m Sixty-Four (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Penny Lane (single)
A Day In The Life (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Getting Better (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Within You Without You (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
With A Little Help From My Friends (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
I Am the Walrus (b/side to “Hello Goodbye”)
Flying (Magical Mystery Tour)
The Inner Light (b/side to “Lady Madonna”)
Revolution 1 (The Beatles)
Don’t Pass Me By (The Beatles)
Revolution 9 (The Beatles)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
Good Night (The Beatles)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles)
Cry Baby Cry (The Beatles)
Hey Jude (single)
Dear Prudence (The Beatles)
I Will (The Beatles)
Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles)
Martha My Dear (The Beatles)
Long, Long, Long (The Beatles)
I’m So Tired (The Beatles)
I’ve Got A Feeling (Let It Be… Naked)
Don’t Let Me Down (Let It Be… Naked)
Get Back (Let It Be… Naked)
Two of Us (Let It Be… Naked)
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Abbey Road)
Something (Abbey Road)
Here Comes the Sun (Abbey Road)
Come Together (Abbey Road)
Because (Abbey Road)
You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road)
Sun King (Abbey Road)
Mean Mr. Mustard (Abbey Road)
Polythene Pam (Abbey Road)
She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Abbey Road)
Golden Slumbers  (Abbey Road)
Carry That Weight (Abbey Road)
The End (Abbey Road)
Her Majesty (Abbey Road)

A couple of points and observations:

  • I went with Let It Be… Naked rather than Let It Be, as I prefer the production on that (no Spector mush!). Also, for Abbey Road, I kept the Long Medley together – it would be a wrench to split all those songs up, as I feel that side 2 is the greatest side of any album ever recorded.
  • Abbey Road is the most featured album, with 14/17. (The White Album is close at thirteen, but is only 13/30).
  • My “favourites” consist of 85 out of a total of 186 recorded songs. That’s an astonishing consistency!
  • Even within what is obviously a cream-of-the-crop selection, there are some incredible hot streaks and leaps in development. Consider the leap from “The Word” to “Tomorrow Never Knows”, or “I’ll Follow The Sun” to “Ticket To Ride”.
  • A few times I prefer the b/side to the a/side: I’d take George’s gorgeous “The Inner Light” over “Lady Madonna” any day, and “Rain” over “Paperback Writer” too.
  • Not one tune from Yellow Submarine. Yeah. Just the one from Magical Mystery Tour, too, if you exclude singles like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus”.
  • If I was to include songs from the Anthologies and Live At The BBC, about the only thing I’d add is Take 1 of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. But if I included bootlegs, I’d probably have a bunch from the White Albums demos – several of which are quite different. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except For Me And My Monkey)” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” both seem to me better in their original accoustic versions.
  • Early albums have a lower proportion of great songs – then after Revolver, say, they were an album band.
  • Hard to say who of Lennon or Macca gets most. Pretty even. George gets a good representation (as a proportion of his total Beatle songs). I’m not that keen on that Joe Schmuck early tunes they padded out for Ringo (e.g. “Act Naturally”), but I do like “Don’t Pass Me By” a lot.
  • Any you feel I’m crazy to have missed? “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Paperback Writer” or “Back In The USSR”?

Harmonies

I was listening to “She Bangs The Drums” yesterday, and as always was captivated by the¬† divine vocal harmonies of the Stone Roses. You can easily argue that Ian Brown isn’t a good singer – you might find the “GEEEEE-GEEEEE-GIVE- OVER!”¬† in “Begging You” like nails up a blackboard, and his famous evisceration of the Roses’ legend in their final (pre-reformation) performance was excruciating – yet the fact remains that the harmonies in much of the first album are superb. (No doubt much of the credit goes to John Leckie). “Waterfall”, “Sally Cinnamon”, “This Is The One” and “Elephant Stone” all just have glorious harmonies, but the best really is “She Bangs The Drums” – oh, that chorus!

Have you seen her, have you heard?
The way she plays there are no words
To describe the way I feel

How could it ever come to pass?
She’ll be the first, she’ll be the last
To describe the way I feel
The way I feel


Glorious, just dripping with vitality and life and joy. With the guitar understated, the vocals take centre stage, though they too are not overemphasised. Compare with the kack-handed remastering on The Complete Stone Roses to see what I mean – the vocals are pushed higher and the sound is considerably compressed, making it tighter and more energetic, yes, but killing the song’s ability to breathe. In the original version they have room to reverberate:

As I’ve said previously, I haven’t really had any new major music obsessions since about 2004, preferring (or condemned) to explore the nooks and crannies of music’s past. One of the great things about the internet is its ability to facilitate precisely this tangential investigative meandering. An uncle gave me a copy of every UK #1 single from 1956 to 2004, and it’s nice to get a feel for past times through their pop and musical culture. Also, to check on the influences of one’s own heroes! For example, The Beatles (or more precisely John and Paul) learned harmony through covering the Everly Brother’s “Cathy’s Clown”. The Fabs obviously were awesome harmonizers (see: “Two Of Us”, “She Loves You”, and “Because”) so let’s tip the hat to their¬† forbears. This song is a pretty cutesy, countryish tune enlivened by the terrific (if somewhat sugary) vocals – hardly a hook anywhere! It just shows in comparison how the Beatles used every tool they could to cram in as much listening pleasure as possible. The video below is a nice life performance showing how the brothers could cut it in real time.

Another pair of brothers¬† – the Finn brothers from Crowded House. Not a band I have listened to much at all, but the harmonies here can’t be denied!

Quite apart from the majesty – there’s no other word for it – of the music, the Gilmour/Wright harmonies on the verses in “Echoes” are sublime. Rick Wright later got brutalised by Roger Waters, but his contributions to early Floyd are greater than David Gilmour’s, until Meddle at least. (Mind you, the second LP/CD of Umma Gumma is complete gash, APART from Roger Waters’ “If” and Gilmour’s “The Narrow Way III”, which has a mournful weeping quality). Here’s the lads at Pompeii.

One of the good things about David Bowie has been his keenness to help acts that he likes. (Apart from Tin Machine, of course). His (and Mick Ronson’s) work on Lou Reed’s second and maybe best solo album Transformer is fantastic. Reed being essentially a rhythm guitar player and lyricist, he’s not so hot on things like solos and harmonies. (Even melodies, sometimes – his work is mostly riff-driven, when not based on a lyric). See New York or The Blue Mask to see what I mean – solid albums, lots of good guitar work and brilliant lyrics, but how they cry out for a bit of orchestration and colour! Bowie’s vocal harmonies at the coda of “Satellite of Love” (see 2.43 onwards) and the “Aaaaah!” during the verse of “Andy’s Chest” (from 1.00) really light up the songs.

Dave Grohl I don’t really rate as a songwriter, but the guy sure can sing, and his harmonies in conjunction with Kurt Cobain are always terrific. They are most noticeable of course, on the bare-bones Unplugged In New York, with songs like “Come As You Are”, “Polly”, “All Apologies”, “Dumb”, “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” and “Oh Me” (so, yeah, like the whole fucking album), but also on Nevermind‘s “On A Plain” and “In Bloom”. Here’s probably the best example of the two combining – the chorus is wonderful. (If, you know, a bit bleak).