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.

 *

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.

Dance Albums

I’m really the wrong person to write about dance albums. My exposure to them began and pretty much ended when I was in my nightclubbing phase, in my late teens-early 20s. There was then a big amorphous group of us (as happens when you’re drawn together by hedonism, rather than similarity in outlook or experiences) and most of that crowd were substantially more danceheads than me, in their music taste I mean. We all liked going to jungle, drum n’ bass and pounding techno nights, but for music at home, my chums favoured electronica more than I would have. So although I had some background here, through Kraftwerk mostly, dance albums were new to me and it was all interesting and new, etc. No doubt my choices will appear ridiculously mainstream and pedestrian to those in the know. Well, fine. Your taste in 80s thrash might seem banal to my ears 🙂

All that self-justification having been said, it does seem to me that there was something of a rich seam of dance/electronica albums around the turn of the millennium, with a convergence of “dance” and the indie/lo-fi aesthetic. Dance no longer meant just nightclub preening or disco frivolity, expanding its emotional and textural palette to something more recognisable to rock fans. Fusion, as Miles Davis might have said.

Daft Punk Homework

The mid-late 90s seemed to blossom some outstanding French electronica, with Air’s Moon Safari and the brilliant Super Discount compilations, not to mention the wonderful Stardust single “Music Sounds Better With You”. Daft Punk’s Homework was the best of them, a thumping concoction of abrasive textures over slyly melodic riffs. Probably the most famous is “Da Funk“, with that memorable “NAAAOOOWWW DA-DA-NAAAOOOWWW” hook and the weird, memorable and affecting story of the dog new to the big city, and “Around The World”, with its circular, almost undulating elements coalescing into one of the smartest dance tracks I’ve ever heard. (The video is also brilliantly enjoyable).

But the album is strong throughout, from lead-in track “Daftendirekt” to “Revolution 909” (a Beatles tribute there?) to the brutal stomper “Rollin’ And Scratchin‘” to the very fine “Alive“.

After Homework, Daft Punk went off the lo-fi techno approach and went all house music, shimmery and glossy. The tension and gritty textures of Homework disappeared entirely, and I’ve never thought much of Discovery or subsequent work – not even the recent much-hyped single “Get Lucky”. Never mind – Homework is a fantastic work of imagination, skill, style and flair.

Leftfield Leftism

Hands down, the best dance album ever, in my opinion. All killer, no filler. (Well, maybe “Storm 3000” isn’t all that, but it does provide a welcome lull midway through the second side before the John Lydon-sung stomper “Open Up“). The sense of rhythm and texture are endlessly superb: the bouncy toy piano of opener “Release The Pressure“, the tribal rhythms of “Afro-Left” (a style later refined to the ferocious rhythmic assault of “Phat Planet“), the cool liquid textures of “Melt” which leads gracefully to the slow-build of “Song Of Life“, with its glorious beats opening up halfway through. Similarly, the tender ballad “Original” leads to the sinister dark charge of “Black Flute” which then yields to the glorious adrenaline-rush of “Space Shanty“.

With dance music based on rhythm, tracks can just go on based on their 4/4 beat. What’s terrific about Leftism is that while the songs have definite propulsive beats, this is never for the sake of it: you feel the intelligent craft of what the song is about and what it’s doing all the time, and the sense of narrative works well not just within each song but on the broader structure of the entire album. Leftism remains the single best example of a dance album.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation

The Prodigy were a cartoonish rave band to start with, breaking through with “Charly Says” (did you know Kenny Everett voiced the cat?). Their second album was a much darker and more aggressive affair, with substantial grit added to the texture, while retaining the breakbeats and high tempo energy. This is best seen on “Their Law” (with guitars by Pop Will Eat Itself), which is a furious snarling punk song within the structure of a dance track. Vital, adrenalizing, life-affirming stuff. Some of the tracks are more traditional dance, like “No Good (Start The Dance)” (how cool is the video?!)

and “Voodoo People” (taking its riff from Nirvana’s “Very Ape”) but even then there a rockier, guitar tinge to the music.

Various Essential Skint

This was really the first dance-oriented electronica album I listened to a lot. The CD was a freebie from the defunct but much-missed Select magazine, being a sampler from Skint Records, a hot-house for bigbeat and non-cheesy electronica. It starts with the sublime “Santa Cruz” by Fatboy Slim: rather than his cheesy, pop-friendly bigbeat aspect, it’s an almost dreamy but insistently rhythmic prog-dance track. Ideal for spliffing to 🙂 It’s followed by two class tracks, Bentley Rhythm Ace’s “Why Is A Frog Too?”, which is upbeat without being (as BRA sometimes verged into) silly or losing the point, and Lo-Fidelity Allstars’ “Many Tentacles Pimping On The Keys”, which is a terrifically colourful and imaginative bass-led beat masterpiece. (I can’t describe these tracks well at all, can I?!).

The quality declines as it goes on (no surprise, this was a freebie), but that 1-2-3 opener was vastly influential to me. It showed that dance music can be as articulate and imaginative as rock music. Dance music need not be callisthenics, mindlessly pumping beat after beat, like the absurd hard house stuff I’d heard a few years earlier. While Kraftwerk obviously broke the ground here (for me I mean), their rhythms were never aggressive, their tone usually wry and ironic. Essential Skint showed that big beats could be big fun.

Chemical Brothers Surrender

This is something of a left-turn from their first two albums (Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole). Rather than the bigbeat extravaganzas of their first pair, the Chems (to coin a phrase) turn psychedelic, reducing the rhythmic emphasis in favour of increased textural and timbre experimentation. This is best seen in tracks like “Sunshine Overground“, with its acid-sensitized opener and slowburn increase in tempo, building to a cathartic (though not orgasmic) peak at 6.24. “Let Forever Be”, with its Noel Gallagher vocal and Beatley bassline, is delightfully colourful:

less of a pounding bigbeat stomper than the previous Gallagher collaboration “Setting Sun” (with rhythm stolen directly from The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows“), and more of a psychedelic groove, man. There’s also the hit single “Hey Girl Hey Boy“, which was the soundtrack to one of those brilliant nightclub moments where everything just clicked and you feel you can touch nirvana (damn, drugs can be good). On the other hand, “Out Of Control” sung by Bernard Sumner does go on a bit.

Thee Madkatt Courtship I Know Electrikboy

Although I’ve extolled indie/bigbeat dance albums thus far, let me flip that on its head with the most sleekly house album I own. Thing is, as with every art form, it’s not the form you choose, it’s what you do with it. Thee Madkatt Courtship (better known as Felix Da Housecat, Chicago house DJ extraordinaire) thus have used the tools of house music to create an album that’s a love letter to dance music and nightclubbing, a concept album of a glorious night out. It opens with the opening statement of intent, “My Life Muzik” and gathers pace, getting into a good deep groove by “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers“, and it builds to an immense glorious peak at “Cosmic Pop“, perhaps the most authentic recreation of an ecstasy rush I’ve ever heard. “Strobe” and “Kitty Lounge” continue the dancefloor mania, before the album settles into a mellower, post-club come-down with “Open Air” and the confusion and longing of “Soulmate #1”. Though I say this is house music, there is considerable variety, from the acid house of “Zone” to the breakbeats of “Jetsetta” and the discordant trance (could almost be a Daft Punk track) of “Strobe”.

For the longest time I had no idea what this album was called or who it was by, having copied it from a friend without noting the name. But whenever I wanted to show off some proper dance music to anyone, I’d slip this on, quietly, smirkingly confident they’d be blown away. It always worked 🙂

Music I’ve Gone Off

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

Tricky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cypress Hill

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

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

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

The Smiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit – added an 11-20.

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

Guilty Pleasures

I’ve previously mentioned some unfashionable music I like. But now let me wade through the darkest recesses of my music collection and give a taste of the tunes there are not only unfashionable, but which would get me laughed out of town. Something strange seemed to happen to my music taste around 2005: somehow, what I had previously disdained as cheesy naff pop/rock seemed to make sense. Its exuberance and upbeat feel connected in a way that it never had before. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was something of a Serious Young Man prior to that: everything I listened to was “seminal”, from the Velvet Underground to Miles Davis to Joy Division to Kraftwerk to early Metallica to Radiohead to Sonic Youth. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when you’ve only got art to cling to, it seems to me now. When you’ve got your hands full with life, sometimes you need baser pleasures. There is no qualitative difference in effective music – it either articulates an emotion or atmosphere, or it doesn’t. (There’s also the question of whether you empathise with the feeling conveyed – this is why I despise Coldplay, Keane and Travis, who have the emotional range of the mollycoddled suburban middle-classes). There’s also the simple fact that my mood in 2004/5 rose up from the miserable post-adolescent depression I’d endured for the past 5 years, so upbeat songs would naturally resonate with me more.

I feel that getting rid of my former snobberies is an entirely positive thing. Now I can unashamedly appreciate dumb fun, whether it be Top Gun or Betty Boo. Kenneth Williams once noted in his Diaries Noel Coward saying, “Strange how potent cheap music is”. This was to disdain “cheap” music, but to me it validates it. To be powerful and memorable, music does not have to be clever or complex. That’s what is so fucking great about it!

1. Betty Boo, “Where Are You Baby?”

Toy piano, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus- verse-chorus-outro structure, the upbeat, plaintive desire that’s the hallmark of so much great pop, sassily sung by the Boo – it’s just great pop.

2. John Farnham, “The Voice Of Understanding”

Now we’re getting into murky waters… I mean this song has cod-synth bagpipes! There’s a red alert of naffness right there. But the epic intent, the soaring “Aaaah-oooh-oooh-oooh-woo-whoa!” hook, the delicious chorus, the rising-and-rising verses which are simply and obviously there to get to the chorus as quickly as possible – yeah, they’re all cheap tricks, but they work, dammit! (Not too sure about the synth bagpipe solo, though).

3. Wilson Philips, “Impulsive”

My sister is five years older and so I was subjected to her choices when her seniority let her rule the living room music options. She has a mainstream pop taste, particularly Michael Jackson, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and the “Leather and Lace” soft rock like Heart, Meatloaf, REO Speedwagon and such. Nothing rock – not even, say, Bon Jovi – but close enough that there was some that I didn’t mind too much. But funnily enough that only one whose album I like in its entirety is the girliest – Wilson Philips by the eponymous girlgroup. Formed by the daughters of Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas, the group not surprisingly had access to some of the best writers and session musician in 1990-era Los Angeles. Glen Ballard, who had written some tracks for Michael Jackson’s Bad and later went on to write the tunes for Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, has a substantial hand in the album, co-writing six of the ten tracks. (It would go quintuple platinum). The usually insightful Allmusic.com dismisses the album as “lightweight and sophomoric” and “homogenized, mundane fluff” – which might be fair if all you listen to is Black Sabbath. To anyone with an open pair of ears, though, the album is a quality confection of professional hooks, high-values production, gentle but sweet harmonies, and fine songwriting. This song, “Impulsive”, is I think the best, with an insistent chorus and all the virtues I mentioned above, though the album is remarkably consistent.

4. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

This song reminds me of youth club discos and late summer nights when I was eleven, between primary school and high school. Somehow I remember it as one of those golden summers, old enough to be free to roam about, young enough to think this meant anything. We used to go “camping” in the back garden, then “sneak” (I assume now my mum knew exactly what was happening) out the tent and roam the streets all night. We’d sit in the town square and watch people spill out of the pubs, and gawp in frank admiration at the people milling round cars with boots open for the sound systems to blare out old-skool rave. It was when I first “smoked” cigarettes (like Clinton, not inhaling) and discovered the joys of “porn in the bushes“. This song from the former Go-Go’s singer is pure 1980s power-pop heaven, the sort that will be on VH1 unto infinity. Just love the way the chorus resounds to those massive multi-tracked vocals. The soundtrack to one of those (“oh”) summer nights – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have one yourself!

5.  Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

You know Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? His story of life on no money in both cities never gets old, I’d imagine because although few people have had to experience that level of poverty, many have glimpsed it. I went through that kind of scene when living in Edinburgh just after graduating. I had a job and a roof over my head, but that was about as far as my connection with the contented middle-classes went – I had barely enough money for food, lived in a manky bedsitter, and so on. Funnily enough, one of the fellow bedsitter inhabitants played this song incessantly, and it firmly stuck in my head. I hadn’t heard the song before, didn’t know about Limahl’s hairstyle or the band’s ridiculous name, so it just came to me with a clean cultural slate. (I also really like A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had A Photograph)“, which cover vaguely similar new romantic ground and has ever worse hairdos). It’s not really an electro/New Romantic song, of course, being more of a white soul/cod funk exercise, but hey, whatever you have to do to get noticed, lads)

6. Ratt, “Round And Round”

Ah, hair metal. The story of Ratt is actually pretty grim – the usual fable of excess and ego, burning glory and death. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, they were up there with Motley Crue as kings of the LA rock firmament. They played the Donington Monster of Rock festival in 1985, ahead of Bon Jovi and Metallica (but behind Marillion and ZZ Top), while John Hughes, that avatar of 80s culture, used “Wanted Man” in Weird Science, the same year. That was about as good as it got for Ratt – they lost momentum, had a Desmond Child co-written album Detonator try to pick up the pieces, but then Nirvana came along, and the LA rock party was well and over. Addictions and AIDS then took their toll, as the hangover kicked in with a vengeance. This song is probably the hookiest of their brief period of glory – a good thing given that they are not a riff-driven band and the guitar sound is surprisingly bland – with nice build up of tension at the end of the verse and a fine chorus.

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

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

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

Great Albums

My constant ranting about bands that can’t put together a decent album made me think – well, which albums (qua albums) are really great? Which albums hang together in their entirety; which have that enormously satisfying quality of having no crap? Despite Paul’s belief that few bands manage to avoid filler, I think there are actually quite a few bands manage to do at least one really great album – though very few do more than two, I’d reckon, being unable to develop beyond their initial sound. So here are some of my own nominees for the “No Crap” club of great, consistent listens.

1. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized

A magnificent album which I think is in the top 3 for the 1990s. Building on the long dense grooves of Lazer Guided Melodies, LAGWAFIS adds a bucketload of heartbreak and a few thunderbolts of overblown Stooges-y guitar, making the album not dreamy but utterly pulsing in emotion. You’ve got the wry “Think I’m In Love” with its brilliant phon/antiphon couplets (“I think I can rock and roll – Probably just twisting / I think I wanna tell the world – Probably ain’t listening”), the surging “Electricity”, the revelatory “Cool Waves”, and the astonishing cacophonic vortex of “Cop Shoot Cop”, perhaps the nearest musical approximation of THE VOID I have ever encountered. Not a song is out of place, not a moment wasted, even in the seventeen (count ’em) minutes of “Cop Shoot Cop”. (Is it just me or is it no coincidence that this is the same length as “Sister Ray”?) LAGWAFIS is – and I really believe this – as good as Dark Side of The Moon, though it maybe doesn’t quite reach the same majestic heights as “Eclipse”.

2. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses

When they were big, in 1989-1990ish, I absolutely despised the Roses, just as I did The Happy Mondays, The Inspiral Carpets, and all the Madchester scene. Of course I did – I was a greaser and anything new and fashionable must therefore be liked by weak minded fools. Well, I’ve grown up (a bit) since then, and it seems to me now that Madchester and the contemporaneous “rave” scene were about the last organic musical revolution in the UK – at least to affect the whole of British pop culture. While The Soup Dragons and The Charlatans were really just ephemera, The Stones Roses is an album of the utmost quality, one which I really can’t praise enough. Quite apart from the classic songwriting, there are so many moments of absolute genius – the delicious vocal harmonies on “Waterfall”, that delirious surge into the chorus of “Made Of Stone”, the HOLY FUCK THIS IS INCREDIBLE psychedelic jam ending “I Am The Resurrection”, that wonderful instrumental section in “She Bangs The Drums”, where Mani plays Hall (from 1.40) a simple but tension-filled groove, over which Squire solos, the whole thing building and building until Reni thumps in on drums (2.19) to release the musical orgasm of the utterly joyful chorus. Genius. The sense of youthful delight and possibility coursing through the whole album is utterly infectious.

3. The Man Machine by Kraftwerk

Pop/rock has The Beatles. Alternative music has the Velvet Underground. Metal has Black Sabbath. The blues has Robert Johnson. And electronic music, almost in its entirety, is the progeny of Kraftwerk. Their great albums are stunningly consistent, and of their amazing run Radio Activity (1975) – Trans Europe Express (1977) – The Man Machine (1978) Computer World (1981), only TEE  stumbles with “Hall Of Mirrors”, which has not aged well. Still, with absolute landmarks like “Europe Endless” and “Trans Europe Express”, there’s not much to complain about. I would suggest though that of those four, The Man Machine is the one crammed with the most riches. The insistent robotic electronica and delicious dry wit of “We Are The Robots” (sample line: “We are programmed just to do / Anything you want us to”), the highflown indifference of “Spacelab”, the wry fuck-you of “The Model”, the sheer sonic brilliance of “Neon Lights”: here’s an entire album of incomparable musical vision and magnificent execution. If it was released today, it would sound fresh – it’s thirty-fucking-four years old!

4. Closer by Joy Division

Let us not worship  at the altar of the doomed young man. It’s juvenile to glorify unfulfilled promise untempered by the trials and compromises of life – which is precisely why such figures are so popular with adolescents (see also Richey Edwards; Sylvia Plath; Kurt Cobain). Quite apart from that, Joy Division were a stunningly talented band, with complementary talents: Peter Hook’s prominent bass, Bernard Sumner’s dissonant shards of guitar and glacial synths, Stephen Morris’ highly kinetic drumming, and Ian Curtis’ sonorous vocals and haunting, literary lyrics. Closer has more variety and breaks more ground than Unknown Pleasures: the shambling rhythms of “Atrocity Exhibition”, the icy synths of “Isolation”, the haunting funeral procession of “The Eternal”, the sotte voce heartbreak of “Heart And Soul”… not a dud moment.

5. Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

Insanely brilliant.

6. Animals by Pink Floyd

Animals seems to be the great forgotten Floyd album, the lonely child in their incredible Dark Side of the Moon-The Wall hot streak. Everyone knows Dark Side spend a gazillion years on the charts and everyone knows “Another Brick In The Wall II”; likewise Wish You Were Here is most often cited as the best Floyd album.

Bollocks.

While Dark Side is definitely a leap on from Meddle and a massive soar from Atom Heart Mother, there are a couple of things that bug me about it. (“How iconoclastic!”) First, the production – OK, in numerous points it’s absolute fucking genius – see “On The Run”, and also the excellent Classic Albums program on Dark Side, where Gilmour takes the viewer through all the (8) tracks in the song and how it was mixed in real time. But there’s something about “Money” which I find irritating: it seems stiff and jerky. It would have been better perhaps to keep it in the deep blues arrangement in which it was first essayed. Also “Time” – the vocal in the first verse annoys me – too dry, or something. Also, “Us And Them” seems a bit wishy-washy. This is not to say I dislike these songs, as these are really just minor quibbles, but when you’re talking about genius it’s the minor things that differentiate them. And WYWH – while “Shine On” is majestic and “Wish You Were Here” one of the finest articulations of empathy and humanity in rock music, “Have A Cigar” seems like a long sneer and “Welcome To The Machine” a bunch of sound effects over self-pitying lyrics.

Oh, but Animals! Perhaps it requires a certain openness to or appreciation of the longer song – certainly Animals can appear as three unapproachable slabs of +10 minute songs (“Dogs”: 17.08, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”: 11.33, “Sheep”: 10.21). But being one who has always enjoyed long multi-sectioned songs, Animals hits the spot every time. Consider “Dogs”: it’s the longest of the lot, true, but it has four distinct sections. First, there’s the second-person description of the businessman (“You gotta be crazy / Gotta have a real need”) ready “to put the knife in”, and a fierce howl of a solo from David Gilmour (the one starting from 5.31), a masterful example of space and economy. (The entire song is probably his best Pink Floyd work). Then there’s the drifting, shadowy, echoing section, the word “stone” repeating like a tolling bell. Then there’s the section sung by Waters, the lyrics shifting to first person (“Gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused / Sometimes it seems to me like I’m just being used”), giving the character’s thoughts and reflections at the end of it all. Finally, there’s the final summation of the worthlessness of this form of life, each line beginning “Who was”, rather like the first section of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl – “Who was broken by trained personnel”, “Who was fitted with collar and chain”, “Who was dragged down by the stone”. With razor-sharp musicianship (each member of the Floyd has a moment in the spotlight), incisive social commentary, keen sense of sonic possibility and intelligent structure, “Dogs” exemplifies the best of Waters-era Floyd. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” are almost as good. The caustic gloom and enormous tension of “Pigs” is terrific, and where else can you find a line as good as “You radiate cold shard of broken glass”? The pastoral revolt of “Sheep” is brilliant, especially in the final verse: “Have you heard the news? The dogs are dead!” The structure, with the introduction and coda of “Pigs On The Wing” is smart, too, giving a human touch to an album of some considerable anger and belligerence.

Class.

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Some others: Burnin’, Catch A Fire and Exodus by Bob Marley; Revolver by The Beatles (I’m tempted to say the White Album too, but we all know this isn’t really true); Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; The Specials; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine; Automatic For The People by REM; The Velvet Underground (i.e. without Nico); The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths; London Calling by The Clash; Dolittle by The Pixies.

Yeah?