Albums Which Terrify Me

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

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

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

Joy Division Closer

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

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

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

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

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

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

Nico The Marble Index

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

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

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

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

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

Radiohead Kid A

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

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

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

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).

Songs So Good They Make You Cry

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

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

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

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

The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”

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

Mike Oldfield – “Tubular Bells (Part 1)”

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

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

Nike Drake – “Cello Song”

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

Nirvana – Unplugged in New York

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

How about you?

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.

*

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?

BANGIN’

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly. Well, maybe so, but at the same time I really love a slamming track, the kind that gets the dance floor bouncing with manic FUCK IT LET’S GO CRAZY energy. With a raw punk edge or pounding four-to-the-floor beats (or ideally both!), there’s nothing like the mad rush and adrenaline thrill of a killer tune. Music in its ability to unite people emotionally and spiritually is an incredibly powerful force, able to generate immense resevoirs of emotion or energy. Here are some that get me out my seat and leaping about like a goon.

1. Leftfield – “Phat Planet”

AKA “the song from that Guinness advert”. Simple, and brutally effective. The image of vast banks of tribal drums being beaten by some immense jungle-dwelling African demigod is hard to resist. What’s great is that there’s no melody at all, just crushing rhythm, occasionally augmented by minor details (the mosquito buzz that starts at 2.36, for example). Similarly, the structure is bone-headedly simple. But hey, it takes great intelligence to create music this basic, this focused. I saw Leftfield do this at a festival and it was to my mind an absolutely epochal event, like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock.

2. Armand van Helden – “Koochy”

Obviously this just pinches the riff from Gary Numan’s “Cars”, with some stratching and a thumping beat. Got quite a kick, though, huh? I have a particularly fond memory of this song: I had gone to a party to celebrate my friend’s final undergraduate exam, and come 5am or so, we had ran out of music and were watching MTV’s late night selection, in a this-is-crap-but-can’t-be-bothered-changing-it kinda way. The video for “Koochy” came on, and I was blown away by its relentless simplicity, and the  genius of the video – all bad 70s style, explosions, car crashes and the “plot” sections from porn (so wooden and yet so ripe with tension, though not of the dramatic variety). “THAT’S IT!” I wanted to scream. That amazing stupidity, like The Ramones for the ’00s. But everyone else was falling alseep and nobody seemed to get it. Still, cracking song.

3. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Sprit”

Sorry if this song seems like a dead-dodo cliche to you, but I was 12 years old when it came out. Like so many people, it shifted me from being a full-on hair metaller (with all the gormless intolerance endemic in the caveman metalhead mentality) towards something a bit more open and less prejudiced (musically and otherwise). Nirvana’s role in freeing a generation from sexism and homophobia doesn’t get enough praise, it seems to me. But this is only to discuss the ideology (though it is important). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song powerful enough to get me to MOSH. I’d always wanted to go batshit to songs like it, but was always too shy. (I was quite the wallflower when at school). But eventually I discovered a nightclub where likeminded people went who liked the same music and did the same things and had the same frame of references. (It was here I developed my test for a good nightclub – “To what extent are people milling about outside talking after it closes?” – which I maintain is the key indicator). I’m sure I don’t need to explain the song. It remains a song of immense power and abandon – maybe the only time Kurt Cobain ever equalled John Lennon’s vocal in “Twist And Shout”.

4. The Prodigy – “Voodoo People”

Can I please correct a common misconception? The Fat Of The Land is not (by a fucking country mile!) The Prodigy’s best album. That title belongs, as any Prodigy fan will tell you, to Music For The Jilted Generation (though, okay, you might get some old school ravers going for Experience). It endlessly irritates me how FOTL gets cited as the key Prodigy album. It may have their three most famous singles, sure, but the rest of the album is mindless filler at best. (I don’t even think “Breathe” is all that). MFTJG on the other hand is crammed with killer tune after killer tune – “Their Law”, “Poison”, “Voodoo People”, “Break And Enter”, the genius gear-change that is “Three Kilos”, “No Good (Start The Dance)”… brillant, all. Combining punk attitude, techno beats, a fairly crusty philosophy and outlaw badass imagery, MFTJG is the only album I know where indie kids, technoheads, oldskool ravers, crusty hippies and rockers will all get up to dance. The one that endlessly does it for me is “Voodoo People”, with its opening riff taken from Nirvana’s “Very Ape“, its surging momentum and gleeful breakbeats. Everything you could ever want in a messy dancefloor moment.

5. Madness – “Baggy Trousers”

I could be cool and list a punch of brilliant raw punk obscurities like “Hong Kong Garden” or “I Found That Essence Rare” or “I Feel Alright” or “Dead Cities“. But fuck it – how brilliantly fun, how joyful, how utterly danceable, is “Baggy Trousers”?! ‘Nuff said, huh?

How about you – what gets your motor running?

Guitar Solos

Listening to my iPod on the way to work every day, I tend to go for more energetic music: mostly hard rock and metal. And consequently, I have been considering what makes a great guitar solo. (This is the kind of thing that goes through my head, I’m afraid – it’s a burden). Structurally, the solo in rock music is different from that in jazz. In rock, the solo often goes after the bridge, before the final chorus, or verse/chorus. (Not always, of course – it used to irritate me, for example, that Oasis’ “Live Forever” has the solo after the first verse, but now I see the point of setting out a bold statement so early in the song), while in jazz the solos are what is being “sung” in each “verse” (or in jazz terms the chorus).

The trouble I often find with guitar solos is that too many of them are generic, perhaps astonishing you with their vigour and intensity, but rarely do they add to the narrative of the song.  A good solo is usually a restatement of the themes or ideas of the song in “pure”, unrestrained fashion, outside the confines of the riff and chorus, but the truly great ones add to the meaning of the overall song. So, then, let’s look at examples of all three.

Generic Solos

I think Lou Reed is the most important American rock musician ever. Really! Trouble is, as good a guitarist as he is, he’s often a poor soloist. They meander here and there without making much of a statement, or, indeed, impression. Check out the solo in “Run Run Run”… great riff, crap solo.  He would go on and get better – the soloing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” is just demented (though still quite directionless), but he’s essentially a rhythm guitar player. (It’s notable that his best work has been with great guitar players like Robert Quine and Mick Ronson, as well as Sterling Morrison, of course).

Punk was so aggressively back-to-basics, reacting against the wanky instrumental pyrotechnics of “dinosaur rock” that being “flash” with guitar solos was actively discouraged. (See the essential anti-solo in The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” and the self-mocking “GUITAR HERO” on Steve Jones’ amp). Punk is therefore filled with example of merely adequate solos, and songs without solos at all. Brian James of The Damned (well, their first two albums) repeatedly riffs where the solo would normally be on Damned! Damned! Damned!here’s a good example.  The Adicts, in their fun song “Chinese Takeaway” show how a basic riff can make a good song, if performed with irrepressible relish, but there’s nothing to the solo at all. Steve Jones has excellent delivery (he must have incredibly strong fingers), but solos in “God Save The Queen” and “Satellite”, for example, are nothing special in comparison to his great riffs and Rotten’s electrifying voice.

Good Solos

As I said above, I think good solos restates themes or ideas of the song. The best example of this is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where instead of shredding the fretboard, Kurt Cobain simply plays the melody. This isn’t just laziness: it’s lean and concise, increasing the intensity of the song. Similarly, here’s AC/DC with the live version of “Whole Lotta Rosie”: god, that riff is fantastic, but while the solo brilliantly gives the feel of the song, it doesn’t add to its meaning. You see what I mean? Metal bands often feature riff-shredding solos, and while these can be enjoyed for themselves – if you like that sort of thing; I personally think they’re fairly self-indulgent: virtuosity means nothing to me. For great guitar solos, you need something more.

Great Solos

As said above, I believe that great solos add to the meaning of the song; they add to the overall narrative of the piece. Perhaps the best metal solos come in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” – the first solo (starting at 3.35) gives a sense of the bliss and peace of the drug addict. Beautifully and skillfully, this modulates to an ominous, immensely powerful central section (“Master, master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), with the bass-heavy, dark riffing giving the sense of abasement to some almost-Lovecraftian greater power . This clearly suggests drug bliss and drug withdrawal. Another brilliant example is in the Velvet Underground’s incomparable “Sister Ray”, the most ferociously dissonant song ever recorded. John Cale’s keyboard solo (starting from 3.53), where he takes on Lou Reed’s guitar and wins in an exultant example of pure volume and power (at 6.24), is just astonishing. Joy Division, no strangers to dissonance or atonality themselves, could not capture half of this power in their cover of the song. Slayer’s screamingly-intense solos (performed both by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) in “Angel Of Death” capture the insanity of Auschwitz in a way that no riff ever could.

Good soloing is not exclusive to metal, of course: Johnny Marr was probably the most influential British guitarist of the 1980s, with good reason. Check out the beautiful gossamer shimmer of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”: not only does it create a vivid atmosphere, they give a sense of yearning beauty that Morrissey’s tongue-in-cheek lyric fails to capture. The vibrato-rich, glossy black solo by Bernard Butler in Suede’s “The Asphalt World” similarly creates a world of epic longing and tortured poetry which redouble the effect of verses, which verge on the absurd. (Butler wanted the song (and solo) to be longer – I often think he was right. Structurally, the song is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” – itself over 17 minutes). And how about the solo in Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Just savour the guitar interplay.

These are, of course, just a few examples of songs which I think have great guitar solos. What about you, what would you nominate?

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc