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.

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?

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?

Legends I Just Don’t Get

antimusic

I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

Lyricists

Funnily enough, for someone so bookish, words are about the last thing I pay attention to in a song. I love good lyrics, but somehow I often mishear them, and go for years with the mondegreen in my head. (I’m also occasionally prone to spoonerisms, and as my good chum Darren will chuckle to recall, once misspoke The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”: instead of “like a lizard on a window pane”, I said  “like a wizard on a lindow pane”. Easy mistake..! :-$ Similarly, for YEARS (decades!), I mistook “Bohemian Rhapsody”: I thought it went (well, I knew it didn’t really, but I got into the habit of just thinking of it as) “Spare him his life and his poor sausagie” rather than “… from this monstrosity!”

All the same, I do like a good lyric. I’m going to exclude Bob Dylan from the following examples, though, because 1. everyone knows he’s a great lyricist, and 2. Bob attracts a certain fanaticism, which I can do without. As I’ve said previously, the following are simply examples I like; I also like to cite from different areas of music, for the sake of glorious variety.

1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs”

Quite apart from the adolescent salaciousness often applied to “Venus In Furs”, the lyric is actually very technically accomplished. (I love Lou Reed’s interview in the BBC’s The Seven Ages Of Rock, where he says this kind of subject matter was often in Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., etc so using it in rock was “a big nothing”). Throughout, Reed uses sibilance to create a lisping, decadent effect:

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather

Whiplash girl-child in the dark

Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him

Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Also, there’s a killer instance of onomatopoeia, in the last syllable of the line “Kiss the boot” – as he says “boot”, Mo Tucker hits that kettle drum (which itself suggest a slaveship drum, beating rhythm for the groaning desperate rowers), and the boom and boot combine deliciously.

But perhaps what’s the most interesting aspect of the lyric is that it is so dramatised. This is not Reed saying “I dig S&M”; it’s not a simple statement like The Stooge’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Reed instead enacts the performance of S&M through the lyrics, and the music heightens this with the whip-lashes of the ostrich guitar and the slave-ship drums. It’s an extremely accomplished performance to be doing on your very first album, and helps explain the critical acclaim of Reed and the Velvet Underground.

2. Belle and Sebastian, “Sleep The Clock Around”

Sometimes dismissed as twee indie, Belle and Sebastian are in fact often home to sharp, stinging lyrics. The sweetness and delicacy of some of their music is an effective counterpoint to this – kinda like The Beautiful South, but less bland. Their breakthrough album The Boy With the Arab Strap is home to many fine and effective lyrics (the stinging portrayal of someone who “We all know you’re soft ‘cos we’ve all seen you dancing / We all know you’re hard ‘cos we’ve all seen you drinking / From noon until noon again” in the title track; the polite decline to fame of “Seymour Stein”; the schoolboy idyll of “A Spaceboy Dream”), but the finest to my ears is “Sleep The Clock Around”. The portrait of dreamers who could maybe be someone, it starts murmuringly, but builds in colour and charge to the final line of the third verse, where it bursts gloriously open with the word “shine”. I’ll just quote the whole thing here:

And the moment will come when composure returns
Put a face on the world, turn your back to the wall
And you walk twenty yards with your head in the air
Down the Liberty Hill, where the fashion brigade
Look with curious eyes on your raggedy way
And for once in your life you’ve got nothing to say
And could this be the time when somebody will come
To say, “Look at yourself, you’re not much use to anyone”

Take a walk in the park, take a valium pill
Read the letter you got from the memory girl
But it takes more than this to make sense of the day
Yeah it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste
And you trusted to this, and you trusted to that
And when you saw it all come, it was waving the flag
Of the United States of Calamity, hey!
After all that you’ve done, boy, I know you’re going to pay

In the morning you come to the ladies’ salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, you’re a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
“There’s a lot to be done while your head is still young”
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine

Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid
Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came
Then you go to the place where you’ve finally found
You can look at yourself sleep the clock around

This really is a lyric that stands up on its own. Just terrific.

3. The Clash, “Lost In The Supermarket”

Despite mostly being an issues band, lead by their towering sense of solidarity and social justice, The Clash occasionally did some songs with nice autobiographical vignettes. (I think these are mostly the Mick Jones songs). “Protex Blue”on The Clash is a funny tale of buying condoms in a pub toilet, long before AIDS made their purchase socially acceptable. “Lost In The Supermarket” from the peerless London Calling is a poignant tale of alienation and seeking some kind of affirmation through buying stuff. (In “Rudy Can’t Fail” from the same album, they have a similar line: “I went to the market / To realise my soul / But what I need / They just don’t have”. That’s just fucking immense, isn’t it?). “Lost In The Supermarket” starts with the chorus, as though setting out its themes right from the start:

[Chorus]
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see

I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how it’s been all around me

[Chorus]

I’m all tuned in, I see all the programmes
I save coupons from packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discoteque album
I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free

4. The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus”

Lots of people first encounter The Beatles through singing “Let It Be” or “Yesterday” in school music classes, and consequently think The Fabs were just a safe, twee pop group – like a band of Cliff Richards. Au contraire. Apart from the obvious LSD inspiration of this song, I love its linguistic deconstruction and sheer outright mischief. Some highlights:

Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

Expert textpert choking smokers,
Don’t you thing the joker laughs at you?
See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
See how they snied.
I’m crying.

Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.

5. Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”

Some autobiographica: after graduating in 2000, I moved back for a few months, planning to do a post-grad after the summer. Living back home felt rather bathetic, having to submerge the way you would like to live to the requirements of the parental home. You know what I mean? It’s a pisser, yet so hard to fight against.  I had recently bought a copy of the magnificent compilation album Way To Blue, and its gentle disaffection, summer melancholy and rural vibes suited my feeling (we lived right on the edge of town, looking onto farms and hills).  The most affecting song was “Hazey Jane I”, with its beautiful orchestration and searching lyric, framed as a series of questions, suiting my self-doubt:

Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?
Will it mean much to you
If I treat you right?
Do you like what you’re doing?
Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder
What you’re doing it for?
Hey slow Jane, make sense
Slow, slow, Jane, cross the fence.

Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of doing better than your worst?
Hey slow Jane, let me prove
Slow, slow Jane, we’re on the move.

6. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

I know I’ve already mentioned the Velvets, but it struck me that this would be a good time to unveil one of my theories: the lyric to “Heroin” is basically a modern-day retelling of the Keats poem Ode To A Nightingale. I’m not (you will doubtless be pleased to learn) going to quote the whole poem, but here’s a summary of it: the speaker is in a bad mood, but listens to a nightingale singing, and appreciates it as a symbol of transcendence, one whose song will live on even after it dies. This mood of transcendence encourages the speaker to enter a reverie, away from the world of here-and-now. But removed from the immediate world, there is little difference between life and death, between the self and other. The speaker then realises that this is not a place one can live in, and exits the world of imagination; the vision fades, but doubtfully: the last two lines are “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”

The parallels with “Heroin” are exact, and such that I believe Reed (who of course studied literature at Syracuse University) intentionally made “Heroin” a contemporary re-telling. At the start, the speaker is in a state of chronic self-doubt (“I don’t know / Just where I’m going”). He desires the extremity of heroin (“When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son”) to lift him out of his torpor. Taking it is a transcendent feeling, lifting out of the stresses and strains of everyday life, freeing him to another realm away from the dirt and squalor of the city (“I wish that I was born a thousand years ago / I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas / On a great big clipper ship / Going from this land here to that”). But of course removal from the everyday is a step towards death, to complete dissociation from life itself (“Because a mainer to my vein / Leads to a center in my head / And then I’m better off than dead / Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore”). And it leads to the final damning realisation that this is a living death – but still, at the end, the pain and self-doubt remain: his fate is not yet decided (“Ah, when the heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God that I’m as good as dead / Then thank your God that I’m not aware / And thank God that I just don’t care / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess I just don’t know”).

7. John Cage, “4’33”

It’s like a mirror: you get out of it what you put into it 😉

Vocal Performances

Though I’ve said several times previously that mere technical virtuosity means nothing to me in music, I thought good singers were worth looking at – a “good” singer being to me one who conveys emotion. I don’t care how many octaves they can reach, how fast they can rap, how inhumanely they can bellow (for death metal fans out there) or how poetic their lyrics: the feeling is the essential thing. Far better to listen to Johnny Rotten (or John Lydon: his early stuff with Public Image is still astonishing) than the competent mediocrities who plague talent shows like a tidal wave of blancmange.

Obviously.

There’s probably no point in trying to define a good vocal performance any further, because emotion and artistic aims are as varied as people. I’m just going to give a series of good examples.

Everyone knows Axl Rose is a bit of an arsehole. Keeping people waiting nearly twenty years between studio albums; walking off gigs and turning up late; breaking up the band of brothers that was the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. But all the same, he’s a bloody good singer and usually a good songwriter, able to dramatise his emotions and ideas into broader statements (see for example “Coma”, “Estranged”, “Locomotion” and “Right Next Door To Hell”). His singing in “One A Million” is absolutely blistering: the ferocious rage in the final verse (starting from “Just tryin’ to make ends meet” at 4.29) can strip the paint off walls and turn hippies into savage punks. (Savour, too, the guitar interplay: worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers). The way the tension rises up to this climax, then ebbs as the song fades to an end, is magnificent.

Mike Patton of Faith No More is often held up as one of the best vocalists in rock. No arguments here. Savour his singing in “Falling To Pieces”, from their breakthrough 1989 album, The Real Thing.

The video’s not quite as good as “Epic” but Patton’s delivery is just delicious.

Nick Drake’s voice is sensuous, smoky, subtle. (A review of Five Leaves Left pointed out the title is a pun: it’s not just an autumnal thing but a reference to cigarette papers running out). While “Cello Song” has many, many things to admire (Drake’s incredible guitar-playing, and the cello, which makes me think of a yew tree swaying in a dusk-lit meadow in October), the voice conveys this wonderful dusky emotion.

Michael Jackson didn’t have much of an ear for good songs (every album except Thriller contains substantial amounts of filler: “Speed Demon”, “Liberian Girl” and “Just Good Friends” in Bad, and most of Side 2 in Off The Wall – and those are his other good albums!). But, my god, the man could sing! I really enjoy the delicious delivery of “The Way You Make Me Feel” – the exuberance and delight of falling in love.

Normally, melisma (changing notes while on the same syllable) bugs the crap out of me. It’s been done to death by Rn’B types like Whitney Houston etc. Viz had a splendid piss-take where Whitney answered questions about car maintenance – “Ensure your craaa-eeee-aaank shift is properly aliii-eeee-iiii-eeee-iiii-gned and puuuuuu-oooo-uuuuuu-oooooo-uuuuuut fresh oil in”, etc. However, Bjork handles them beautifully, without it ever seeming forced or (worse) a transparent device. In “Like Someone In Love”, they seem like the spontaneous bursts of pure emotion. Really dazzling.

While I abhor rap and hip-hop that glorify the ghetto mentality of drugs, prostitution and violence, Public Enemy never seem to get old. Chuck D’s voice, its strength, power and certainty, perfectly suit a group with radical political intentions.

What do you think – any nominations?