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.

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.

Cavalier and Roundhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blame Captain Sensible and his love of showtunes!

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

More Beatles Bests: Albums

So I looked at my fave top best all-time Beatles tunes a while ago. But what about the albums, asked no-one? Well, let it never be said I left an unasked question unanswered. The Beatles were one of the first pop/rock bands to embrace the album and then develop it into a coherent statement, though interestingly enough, jazzers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane had been doing much the same thing about five years earlier. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964) I see as the first non-classical concept album. (I really hate the phrase “concept album” – I just mean a longer piece of work that has a sustained meaning or atmosphere – the sort of thing you find in most classical symphonies, in other words). But when you compare the Beatles’ 12″ output to that of their forbears like Elvis and Chuck Berry, or even against rivals like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, you can see how they grabbed the medium and made it their own. So here are the Beatles studio albums ranked in reverse order.

Yellow Submarine

This is only half a Beatle album anyway, with the latter half consisting of George Martin’s film orchestration. The Beatle tunes vary from almost “hidden gem”, such as “It’s All Too Much” and “Hey Bulldog” to the trite “All Together Now” to the dismal “Only A Northern Song”. Previous releases “Yellow Submarine” (understandably) and “All You Need Is Love” (a horribly sickly-sweet cloying song) are there too.

A Hard Day’s Night

I suspect people will disagree with me here, but I really don’t think this album much cop. Okay, there are a sprinkling of utter classics (the indelible title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Things We Said Today”, and “And I Love Her”, but the rest are distinctly fillerish. I have a special disdain for “I Should’ve Known Better”, while “Tell Me Why” and “Any Time At All” coast by on the strength of Lennon’s outstanding vocals. This is the sole album comprising only Lennon/McCartney originals, with songs written in the frantic period following their first conquering of America. A little more time to up the invention would have helped, but in 1964 the Fabs made two albums, two singles (not on the albums) and a film, toured a great deal, while Lennon also released In His Own Write. Surely the most incredible calendar year of activity from any band ever.

Beatles For Sale

The Fabs’ Xmas ’64 album gets the odd slating – the reversion to covers indicated a lack of inspiration, or more likely time, this being released just five months after A Hard Day’s Night (!)but to me it has more characterful touches than the earlier album. The covers are a mixed bunch, to be sure, but revealing – “Mr Moonlight” shows their penchant for piss-taking, “Word Of Love” is a debt of honour to Buddy Holly, and “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey!” has Macca equalling Lennon’s “Twist And Shout” (both done in one take, too!). On the originals, “No Reply” is a bitter slice of Lennon which shows their increasing mastery of the studio, “Eight Days A Week” magnificent, “Every Little Thing” exceptional and underrated, and “I’m A Loser” perhaps the first to feature distinctly Lennonian wordplay. “Honey Don’t” and “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” are both pretty meh, though.

Please Please Me

The first album usually gets plaudits for being recorded in a 12 hour session, but that’s all you got for albums in those days. Even Miles Davis’ complex orchestral recordings like Sketches Of Spain (1960) and Porgy And Bess (1958) got a few takes at best. I remember reading an interview with Tony Iommi saying that Black Sabbath’s early albums were done in half a day too, and that was in 1970. But regardless of this eulogising, Please Please Me remains a dizzingly fresh and varied album, from the soaring title track to the emotional “Anna (Go To Him)” to the dancehall favourite “I Saw Her Standing There” to the harmony workout “Baby It’s You”, to the furious riproaring lust of “Twist And Shout”. It’s an awesome declaration of intent.

Help!

Like Beatles For Sale, Help! is not usually very highly regarded, but its unerring sense of songcraft and the increasingly superb arrangements make it one of perhaps more subtle pleasures, and definitely point the way to the subsequent inspiration in Rubber Soul. While no-one is really going to rhapsodise over “The Night Before”, “Another Girl” or “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, all three feature virtuoso backing vocals, breaking away from simple harmonising to increasingly complex and memorable patterns. Macca continues to broaden his range at an incredible rate, with the wonderfully breathless “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (with tremendous guitar) and “Yesterday”, about which nothing more need be said. Lennon meanwhile produces a string of classics, from the aching yet rocking “Help!” to “Ticket To Ride” (where The Beatles start to fully expand their music from what has gone on before) and the alpine accoustics of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. Weak points include “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much”, both from George; at least Ringo’s song, “Act Naturally”, is better than “Honey Don’t”.

Let It Be

The breakup clearly suffers from lost interest and inspiration. George’s “For You Blue” is a slide-guitar exercise and that’s about it, “Dig It” is nothing much, “Maggie May” is best forgotten as a joke, and “One After 909” is charming juvenalia. However, there are some monumentally good songs on it. “Two Of Us” is some of the best bass playing I’ve ever heard in any song ever (though it’s not actually played on a bass), and some totally winsome vocal melodies (Lennon and McCartney singing in unison throughout the verses). “I’ve Got A Feeling” is majestic, so rich with Beatle empathy and humanity; the music’s just as terrific. “Get Back” (not the single version) is fine and deft and enjoyably daft; the sense of rhythm is remarkable. Dig Ringo’s drumming in the keyboard solo (from 1.33), and how they subtly alter the rhythm, giving it more emphasis than on the guitar solo (from 0.59). “Across The Universe” sits awkwardly in its kaftan sounding all late-’67, and demonstrating how rapidly the Beatles developed (I mean this is less than 18 months later!), while I have never really enjoyed “Let It Be”, perhaps through too many school music lessons.

Magical Mystery Tour

This is really a double EP, but as a collection of the Beatles late 67 work, it works very well. It’s an amazing dazzleburst of hallucinogenic colour, from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the wonderful instrumental “Flying” to the murky “Blue Jay Way” to the exotic “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Macca delivers two nostalgic tunes with “Your Mother Should Know” and “The Fool On The Hill” (recorders, forsooth), but Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus” is one of the most tricksy, cunning, put-on songs ever – and that’s only to consider the music! As a double EP, MMT lacks the coherence and skilful sequencing of other albums, but it does contain some of the finest songs ever recorded by The Beatles and others mined from the same vein of inspiration.

With The Beatles

This album essentially refines the formula of Please Please Me, with its mix of R&B, girl pop, and rock and roll. The originals are sassier and better crafted  – “It Won’t Be Long” shamelessly milks the “Yeah!” of “She Loves You”, “All My Loving” is sheer fun, “Hold Me Tight” (a holdover from Please Please Me because they ran out of time) is a fine layering of sounds (though Macca’s vocal is unusually weak), Lennon’s “All I’ve Got To Do” is a soulful confessional, and George’s “Don’t Bother Me” is a nice, tart, piece of disdain. The covers are really exceptional, though: “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is wonderful, “Money” almost repeats the hysteria of “Twist And Shout”, and “Roll Over Beethoven” shows how George could rock and roll with the best of them. “Please Mister Postman” with its double-tracked vocal however is a bit overcooked. This is the best demonstration of The Beatles’ early influences and inspiration.

Rubber Soul

This was as usual rushed for the Xmas market (in 1965), but you’d never know it. Incredible considering that their workload in 1965 was as heavy as it was in 1964. This is where The Beatles start to make music in their own image, instead of improving on what had gone before. Creativity and articulation bursts out of (nearly) every song. “Drive My Car” sets out their stall, with its brilliant drum n’ bass rhythm, satirical lyric, exceptional singing (brilliant belting verses from Macca, and Lennon’s vinegary cynicism souring the mix). “Norwegian Wood” follows, with the tart twang of the sitar, the rich accoustic strumming and Lennon’s masterful, allusive lyric. The level is almost sustained throughout: “Nowhere Man” has a wonderful rich tapestry of sound (with exceptional bass from Macca), “If I Needed Someone” is a classic piece of jangle-pop, “Girl” is where John’s songs start to become ever more dense and allusive, even if on the surface it’s just a German two-step, “The Word” inaugurates the hippy vibe, and “In My Life” is magnificent, a sighing poignant reminder of times gone (from a man of twenty five!). The last song “Run For Your Life” is a baffling closer, with its vicious caveman misogyny a jarring contrast to a wry, knowing, (self)mocking album.

Sgt. Pepper

Where does Sgt Pepper fit in the Beatles canon? To some it’s the greatest album ever, to others it’s ludicrously overpraised. It is certainly the zenith of their pop-as-artifice period, with subsequent albums seeing resurgent interest in the perceived truthfulness of the blues and folk. Sgt. Pepper’s formal innovations similarly are the kind of thing which get critics all excited, unlike your average fan who remembers the tunes: the meta-awareness of the overture and outro, and the notion of playing at being another band would echo throughout the years (see: The Wall, Ziggy Stardust, 3 Feet High And Rising, etc). But what about the songs, eh? “Getting Better”, “With A Little Help”, “Lovely Rita”, and “Good Morning Good Morning” are all strong album tracks; “She’s Leaving Home” and “Fixing A Hole” are both florid pieces of McCartney which many love (I can live without them); “Within You Within You” is the ultimate expression of George’s mysticism (which, unlike many, I adore); and “Lucky In The Sky With Diamond” and “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” are dazzling examples both of the Lennon imagination and the Beatle/Martin studiocraft in creating soundworlds. “A Day In The Life” is stunning, with good claim to being the single finest Beatle moment. But to my ears, Sgt. Pepper is often too reliant on studiocraft rather than songcraft: the soundworlds it creates are astonishing, but I wonder if they would be anywhere near as memorable without such dressage. Also, Sgt. Pepper is perhaps the only album where Lennon is subdued, with only 3.5 songs out of 13: Macca’s art school leanings need some abrasive Lennon truth-telling amd cynicism to avoid getting florid or unreal, and occasionally Pepper does get that way. But as an expression of imagination and humanity, it’s hard to beat.

Abbey Road

The final three are really hard to separate. All are miracles of creativity and expression. I particularly find it nearly impossible to separate Abbey Road and the White Album. Though I think the side 2 (that’s the second half, kids) of Abbey Road the finest side of any album ever, I’m going to have to let it settle for third. Why? Though the album is a tremendous swansong, the first half is uneven: though several individual songs are magnificent (“Something”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Come Together”, “Here Comes The Sun”), several are weak (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden”), and worse, they don’t relate well to each other. This is not like the White Album, where though there’s an insane range of styles, the parodies and pastiches, and the frequency of the accoustic guitar, give it an overriding sensibility. On the Abbey Road opening side, Lennon’s songs are bluesy, almost elemental; Macca’s are dreadfully hokey; while George’s, now he’s finally getting his day in the sun, are marvellous. The arrangement of the tunes (Lennon – George – Macca – Macca – George – Lennon) speak more of Beatle politics than musical considerations.

The second half though is truly and utterly magnificent. Its symphonic linking of movements, and its variety of mood and atmosphere, are astonishing, while the warmth, humour and wit – while typical of The Beatles – remind you why they are the best-loved rock group ever. It starts with “Because”, where John, Paul and George sing in icy triple-tracked harmony like disembodied spirits above the clouds. “You Never Give Me Your Money”, a suite depicting Macca’s fracturing with the Beatles, follows; the key section is the lovely, poignant, “But, oh that magic feeling… nowhere to go”. But this melancholy is naturally undercut by the languid, sunlit warmth of “Sun King”, Macca’s bass so supple and fluid, the lyrics in joky cod-Italian (“Cake and eat it, parasol”). This is then followed by three quick-fire fragments, “Mean Mr Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, which evoke the simple pleasures of a rock band, and hark back to their apprenticeship in Hamburg and Liverpool dive bars and grotty clubs, showing how this basic rock and roll will always be part of them.

But, artfully, this is succeeded by McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”. It sounds like Macca’s farewell to The Beatles, and the emotion is high, as he strains his vocal chords, the orchestration so august and beautiful. But again, the progression is ideal, for we are lead straight into the rousing, cathartic rocker of “Carry That Weight”, with its group chorus – “Boy! You got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” A plangent horn sounds, reintroducing the motif from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, suggesting a further sadness – but no, as we’re thrown together for one last whirl: “Boy, you’ve got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” “The End” naturally follows, being a showcase of the main Beatles as guitar players, i.e as themselves, after a unique Ringo drum-solo. They rotate guitar solos three times, as they well evoke their respective personalities – Macca is mid-range and twangy, George higher and priapic, whilst John is a distorted shard of sound. A fluttering heart-beat of piano leads in the famous dictum that “The love you make is equal to the love you take”, ending on a glorious, august final orchestral chord. (Or so it would seem, until “Her Majesty” dashes in, laughingly curtsies and dashes out again).

I’ve laboured the point perhaps, but as I say, the “Long Medley” is incredible. But with the awkward first side, Abbey Road maybe isn’t as good as it could be.

White Album

With most of its songs written on retreat in Rishikesh, the Beatles seem to have been in a playful, send-up mood. Many of their songs were inspired this way (“I Am The Walrus” is linguistic pisstaking, “Paperback Writer” mocks the provincial creatives intent on making it big in London (i.e. people just like them), “Misery” is send-up of adolescent whining, “I’m Down” takes the mick out of Lennon’s self-pity tunes like “I’m A Loser”), but this period was a particularly rich seam. With Rubber Soul-Revolver-Sgt Pepper utilising ever more complex orchestration and arrangements, the Fabs had been creating ever more enveloping sound worlds – but clearly the time had come to cleanse the palette a bit, so the perceived forward momentum stopped. Instead, the Beatles offered song-based pastiches and parodies of both contemporaries (the blues boom (“Yer Blues”), the Beach Boys (“Back In The USSR”), heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), and ska (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”)), and from their past (30s sing-a-long (“Bungalow Bill”), 20s schmaltz (“Honey Pie”, “Good Night”), chamber music (“Piggies”), classic pop (“Martha My Dear”), and B&W Westerns (“Rocky Raccoon”). Meanwhile their “original” songs, you might say, also strain the boundaries: “Mother Nature’s Son” is pastoral, “Don’t Pass Me By” is country hoedown, “I Will” is fluffy but musically exacting, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is ponderous rock, with outstanding guitar from Eric Clapton, and “Revolution #9” is… different.

The other thing that’s noticeable is the lack of backing vocals from other Beatles; this is pretty much solo territory. Though the others loved “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, there’s no harmonies from Macca (the doo-wop vocals sound like Lennon multi-tracking himself), or on “Glass Onion” (though there is on the final lines of “I’m So Tired”). Not a peep from Lennon on “Helter Skelter” or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. This does not really detract from the album: the music though varied had solid anchors in rock (“I’m So Tired”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide”), folk (“Julia”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”) and even country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). This allows wacko outliers like “Revolution #9” and “Wild Honey Pie” into the broad church.

Because it’s all so varied, the other thing everyone points out is the variable quality. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear” are two of the best songs the Fabs ever did, but… well, personally I can’t really stand “Birthday”, while there are obvious fillers like “Savoy Truffle”, and “Helter Skelter” is certainly an acquired taste (I love the sinister outro, but the song itself doesn’t do that much for me). But somehow, the rich and varied cornucopia of the White Album hangs together, in a dense, allusive, jokey kind of way. Who else could put out an album with the bestial “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” followed by the doe-eyed “I Will”? The album sounds not so much a Beatle studio album where they sweated for perfection as an opening of their desk drawers, their home movies and private jokes. This is what the Beatles play for themselves. “Half of what I say is meaningless,” John sings in “Julia”, “but I say it just to reach you.” The Beatle delight in contrasts of theme, mood, tempo and atmosphere make the White Album an endlessly riveting listening experience: I just love the way the hysterical rock n’ roll of “Back In The USSR”, with the screeching jets, subsides into “Dear Prudence”; how the despairing need of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is succeeded by the effortless delight of “Martha My Dear”; how the sinister violence of “Helter Skelter” is followed by the weary surrender to God in “Long Long Long”.

I even love “Revolution #9”. You might think it a piece of stitched-together chaos, but in its fragmentary arbitrariness, there is in fact a great deal of craft. It seems like a direct connection with the subconscious if you took off the helmet of your ego and let the world inject itself into your awareness, direct and undiluted. The sort of total awareness and marginal understanding a baby has.

There’s a lot to say about the White Album, but it is the sort of album that rewards repeated listening, as meanings and allusions unfold themselves in your mind. Cryptic puzzle or glass onion?

Revolver

This is simply the strongest single release by The Beatles. Creativity, imagination, wit, empathy, pathos, grief, cosmic mysticism, nostalgia, frivolity, insouciance, irony, cynicism, joy… they’re all there. It’s not just the emotional range: every track is an entire new soundworld in itself, but married with the strongest songcraft the Beatles ever brought to the table: no song is longer than 3.00 (oddly, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are all 3.00 exactly, or so iTunes tells me), and they cram so much into each track. There’s none of the “I’ll just throw this one out here” mood of the White Album, nor the “Let’s see what happens” vibe of Sgt. Pepper. Revolver is the Fabs at their most precise, their most concentrated. When combined with a stunning leap in imagination, that makes for the best album they would ever make.

“Taxman” kicks it off: the distorted intro, the bluesy guitar riff, the brilliant bass playing from Macca, that scorching guitar solo (apparently also by McCartney rather than Harrison), and that daring condemnation of both political party leaders. It is typically sour, but it teems with invention, down to the way Ringo’s cowbell suggests falling pennies.

“Eleanor Rigby” follows, with an equally saturnine view of the world, of the lonely spinsters in a fragmented community where religion cannot salve nor save. Stark, with a string octet and staccato chords, it is a sharp clear view of isolation in the modern world. The lyric, with lines as good as “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” is exceptional, especially considering that it was put together at a social gathering.

“I’m Only Sleeping”, with Lennon’s vocal sped up to give a nasal, old-man’s voice (it reminds me of Steptoe Senior – they would be familiar with Wilfred Brambell from the Hard Day’s Night film), the sibilant halo of the slowed cymbals and the deep-pile cushion of the bass, is dreamy and otherworldly. The reversed guitar solo by George is amazing.

“Love You Too” is (alongside the lovely “The Inner Light”) the best of George’s Indian excursions, with its energy, caustic vocal and fast moving melody making it quite the contrast to “Within You Without You”.

“Here, There And Everywhere” is probably the lushest of all Macca’s love songs, with superb block harmony from John and George, and a smart lyric from Macca – the first verse they’re here, the second they’re there, etc. Paul apparently rates this as his favourite of his own songs, which seems a bit odd to me (not “Hey Jude”?).

“Yellow Submarine” is delightful children’s play, with Lennon giving a great, funny antiphon response in the final verse, and so many terrific atmospheric sound effects. It’s amazing how many Beatle songs are standards: they are in the bones of Western culture, just like how many of Shakespeare’s phrases pop up in everyday conversation.

“She Said She Said” is I think the essential John song of this period: on the surface it’s a terrific jangling pop song, but the metre is so contorted and convoluted, and it hits at so many emotional areas (nostalgia, madness, death, yearning, confusion, seeking), and the playing so terrific (Ringo’s drumming is amazing – check how easily he handles all the changes in time), that it towers far above anything The Byrds could ever do.

The contrasting “Good Day Sunshine”, with its effortless ease and sheer delight, is essential McCartney, with terrific piano (the way it leaps about is superb – filled with constant surprises), and excellent backing (Ringo is just right on the rhythm). The contrast with “She Said She Said” is of course intentional, and anticipates another Lennon/McCartney pairing in the White Album: “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear”.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” is Lennon at his hipper-than-thou – “You don’t get me” – with terrific parallel guitar playing and excellent work on the top-hat from Ringo. (Seriously, the man was an amazing drummer).

“For No One” is what Macca has called “a 4/4 waltz”, and as a formal experiment it is masterful: the pauses and shifts in the piano suggesting the doubts and hesitations in the relationship, the sad little French horn suggestive of decaying middle-class adult relationships, rather than the teeny love of “She Loves You”, and his emotionless vocal suggesting the end of love as a drying rather than a disaster. Poignant and affecting, musically superb, it shows Macca at his best.

“Doctor Robert” is the one relatively weak point – I find the chorus off-putting, with its children’s choir effect in the multitracked “Well well well, you’re feeling fine…” line. Its jangling guitars make it quite similar to “She Said She Said”, and the lyric (an ode to the dentist who first spiked Lennon with LSD) a bit juvenile.

“I Want To Tell You” is an unprecedented third George song on a Beatle album, and the first regarding his spiritual concerns. Rather than preaching, he wisely sticks to discussing the moment when you realise you can’t articulate what you feel, when words become a barrier rather than delivering. This is dramatised through the repeated use of the sudden discordant shift – “My head is filled with things to say“, “The games begin to drag me down“, “I feel hung up but I don’t know why“. Here is where the Beatles first begin to explore beyond Western ideas into Eastern concepts, acknowledging the limits of knowledge and articulation.

“Got To Get You Into My Life” is Macca’s ode to pot (he really digs the reefer), but with its tension and full bodied brass, it feels rich with sexual desire, only relieved in the final chorus. The choruses before that he only allows one line of the title, and then Ringo resumes the beat, keeping the tension rising deliciously. If “I Want To Tell You” was the opening to alternative approaches, perhaps “Got To Get You Into My Life” is the full delighted embrace of (ahem) alternative methods.

“Tomorrow Never Knows”… wow. Just fucking wow. Immense. Majestic. Stunning. Revelatory.

With precise attention to detail, soaring imagination, endless craft, humane empathy and awakening spiritual consciousness, Revolver is to me the best Beatle album.

*

Sorry this is such a long piece! but what a body of work the Beatles produced in seven years. The funny thing is, much though I have rhapsodised over the albums, this isn’t even their best work – most of that was reserved for the singles! “She Loves You”, “I Feel Fine”, “Strawberry Field Forever”, “Hey Jude”… oh my.

Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

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.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Overrated Albums

Knobheads

I can’t be bothered reading the music press any more. Partly this is an age thing: the new music magazines tend to cleave either to the kids, who are looking for something to call their own, or hipsters who seek out the obscure, while the “classicists”, like Q and Mojo etc, endlessly venerate the middle of the rock, the tried and true. This is all very well when it comes to the Classic Rock Canon. The trouble is when they prattle on about tepid shite like David Grey or Springsteen or Coldplay or the endless would-be Joni Mitchells: derivative nothingness that ekes out a living in the slipstream of really creative musicians. How I utterly loathe and detest lack of imagination in music! And how common it is. So easy to follow whatever trend, whatever genre, whatever production formulas and fads.

Both types of writing, more specifically, endlessly irritate with their attempts to hitch whatever releases to the zeitgeist. It must be every music journalists’ dream to the next Geoff Barton, he of Sounds who popularised the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (aka the NWOBHM, which so inspired Metallica). This leads to absurd drivel trying to read more into music than is there. I remember some ridiculous twat saying how Bloc Party were “scarily prescient” with an album or single called Tsunami, just before the 2004 disaster. I mean, that is low. Or how The Strokes apparently inaugurated a CBGBs/lower-East Side revival, when they really were nothing like punk forebears like Television or The Ramones or Blondie etc, and were actually embarrassed by such comparisons.

This is the trouble: at times, media and fashion trends will dictate the “need” for a certain type of band, and if there isn’t one to hand, well, they’ll try to shoehorn one in. Thus, Suede “inaugurated” Britpop, despite Brett Anderson’s contempt for its parochiality and jingoism. The Almighty, older metalheads may remember, were to be the Great British Metal Hope of the early 1990s, were it not for the fact that they sucked ass, and were really a punk band in it for the money. Iron Maiden, going even further back, originally had a distinctly punky edge and had to turn down record label request to cut their hair to fit in with the by-then goonish punk style. (Their first album, with its street-level aggression, budding ambition (see “Phantom of The Opera” – check this video of Paul Dianno-era Maiden live at the Rainbow – thought its telling that the best part is the instrumental section) raw charm, and lack of filler (always a Maiden problem) remains my favourite). This kind of fashion-led music journalism is a joke, never conveying the merits of an album nor contextualising what the artist(s) are doing musically. It leads to albums which might be flavour of the month but which is actually vastly overpraised. Here’s some I think never lived up to the hype.

Blur – Parklife

It is a clever album, sure. At a time when British music was looking westwards to grunge, dance or hip-hop, this was a bold proclamation of British cultural tropes and memes. The trouble was, it was so fucking arch, so sneeringly ironic, that a good half of the album comes over as callow posturing. Case in point: “Parklife”, a song I have always detested. Song for song, it starts very well – “Girls And Boys”, “Tracy Jacks” and “End Of Century” are a fine 1-2-3 (though not as good as “Tender”, “Bugman” and “Coffee and TV” from 13), but gor blimely guvnor, if the second half ain’t filled with oh-so-satirical portraits of working class life and Londonisms and all that guff.

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

OK, this will be controversial. Trans Europe Express is a mighty fucking fine album, and songs like “Europe Endless”, “Metal On Metal” and the title track are indisputable classics. Trouble is… “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Show Room Dummies” both leave me cold. When you compare that to their other great albums, that’s an unusually high dud ratio (The Man Machine: no duds; Computer World: no duds; Radio Activity: no duds). I just find it a bit weird that TEE is always cited as the Kraftwerk album to listen to, the one that makes all the Best Of polls. I’d put The Man Machine first as their best, most consistent, most Kraftwerkian – and then Computer World.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

I don’t quite get why this one is so critically lauded. It seems to me like a bunch of samples of good songs thrown together. Might have been a relatively new idea at the time, but hey, if you sample a lot of good songs, you can’t really go wrong. The range is nice, but… unless you’re really doing something new and imaginative with them, not just rapping over them, it’s not much of a stretch. I FAR prefer the subsequent Check Your Head, which is an even denser stew of samples and excellent rootsy live instrumentation. I love that warm fuzzy bass sound they have, and the richness and range of the styles of music. In comparison Paul’s Boutique is a series of clever backdrops to the Beasties’ rhyming – alright, but not, I’d say, what they do best. (The Check Your Head follow-up and partner-piece Ill Communication is perhaps even better, if less original).

Daft Punk – Discovery

As much as I loved Homework, I loathed Discovery. “One More Time” – what an appalling song! When I briefly worked in Edinburgh, it was on high-rotation on Radio 1 – must have been something like once an hour. No wonder songs no longer rise on the charts when they get flogged to death like that. This is not to say I dislike house-style electronica – I like the stuff the DP duo did in between Homework and Discovery, especially “Music Sounds Better With You” (lovely video) but also (even!) “Gym Tonic“. It’s just that the housey/R&B stylee of Discovery discards everything I’d liked about Daft Punk – the abrasive rhythms, the abandon, the intensity – in exchange for pretty mediocre pop/disco tunes. Meh.

Others:

Definitely Maybe is infinitely superior to What’s The Story Morning Glory?, even considering Wonderwall.

Music For the Jilted Generation is faaaar better than The Fat Of The Land.

Animals is better than both Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of The Moon.

Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All are ALL greatly superior to the Black Album.

Miles Smiles, In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson are all better than Bitches Brew.