In Praise Of… Live At The Ritz

One of the things that most fascinates me about gig-watching is seeing the band dynamics right up there in front of you. You see all types: from the nervous, egg-shell anxiety of the other Nirvana members towards Kurt Cobain at Unplugged In New York; the primus inter pares status of Thom Yorke to Radiohead (I saw them during their tour for Amnesiac); the pseudo-democracy of Belle and Sebastian (with leader Stuart Murdoch as a self-effacing dictator); Paul Di’anno-era Iron Maiden very clearly has Steve Harris as the front man (bass guitar thrust at the audience like a machine gun) rather than the singer; Queen’s Olympian Live Aid performance draws not just on Freddy Mercury’s huge charisma, but also the band’s exceptional stage-craft honed across over fifteen years of intensive gigging; The Beatles’ famous rooftop gig is a dream for any student of body language, as Lennon and McCartney constantly turn to each other to sing (Macca being a southpaw, of course) while poor George looks on and Ringo hopes to keep up; hell, even with the League Of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton comes across as very much the man in charge – no mean feat considering his colleagues are the sublime Mark Gattis (on whom I have rather a man-crush) and the spiky Reece Shearsmith. Closer to home, I once saw a very much beginner band with a talented guitarist with a cheeky smile that girls found intensely fuckable; the singer was much weaker, and it was odd but very obvious how much he draw confidence and strength from the guitarist. You could see him literally extracting it from the guitarist.

The most enthralling live performance I’ve ever seen is and remains Guns N’ Roses’ Live At The New York Ritz. Recorded in February 1988, it was performed eight months after the release of Appetite For Destruction but before it had set the world alight – it’s sometimes forgotten that it took a year to catch fire, with early single ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ not attracting much attention and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ being released twice when its first release was similarly lackluster. Guns at this stage were therefore still “hungry tigers” – a phrase from my wife when I showed her the DVD of this gig, which I think was brilliantly apposite. They were lean, ferociously hungry for success and absolutely on fire.

The stage chemistry and presence of the band is magnificent. Axl naturally dominates, but without overshadowing the others: his raw charisma is utterly compelling, his red hair, sharp cheek bones and not-an-ounce-of-fat frame mean you can’t take your eyes off him; there’s something smoldering, some risk, always possible. (Like when he falls/jumps off the stage – I’ve never quite figured out which it is). At the start of the show, in his snakeskin jacket, swaying hips and mirrored-sunglasses, he is the very definition of young male arrogance. Slash, by contrast, is the faceless demon, the dark monster of rock. His face is concealed by his hair but somehow a cigarette still props out of his mouth, and he doesn’t just play that guitar (naturally a Les Paul Gibson), it’s like he is hard rock itself. Steven Adler on drums beats the skins and cymbals with glorious emphasis, pounding them like his life depends on it (and to time!). And when Guns are rocking hard, as in the end of “Paradise City” or when the verse kicks in on “Welcome To The Jungle”, he’s a pulsating blizzard of hair, drumsticks, arms and leather. Izzy interestingly eschews the leather look of the others for a white shirt and waistcoat, and he’s also the least active member on stage. His riffs propel the whole gig, though: when Slash is soloing you realize how essential Izzy is to the Guns sound. (His departure in 1991 was the end of Guns as a great band: Slash might be more exotic and is a stunning soloist, but Izzy was the heart and soul of the band, the riff, the Keith Richards). And in Duff, tall and lean and blonde, with that Sid Vicious-style chokechain-and-padlock, there was the punk presence in GN’R. But as a bassist he is terrific, constantly outlining the melody (as in the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or to the riff of “My Michelle”): he’s no dum-dum-dum-dum average punk bassist. (Can you think of a memorable bass line on a great punk tune? Nope, me either. I’m not including Public Image or later Clash albums in that, to clarify!). Every band member feels essential: there’s no Dave Rowantree (the Blur drummer) or Jason Newsted slightly left out, feeling inessential. It helps that the Ritz is fairly small: I think it held (holds?) about 2000 people, so it has that small club intensity of atmosphere I have always preferred to communal festivals, which I find slightly Nuremberg. The band get in each other’s space, have to work with each other: the stage can only be about fifteen foot wide for all five of them. They are close, and tight.

As for the performance, it’s stunning. Energy doesn’t just flow from Guns, it blazes from them, like the heat from a desert sun. This is partly from the music of course: the surging power of the electric guitars is undeniable. (Those Les Pauls and Marhsall stacks!) But the band put in a tremendous shift, headbanging, stomping, pounding, thumping the air – all conveying the power and force of their songs. When the main riff begins on “Nighttrain”, Slash blasts the riff to the audience as he runs the length of the stage. As “Out Ta Get Me” starts, Axl does these quite odd high kicks, while during “It’s So Easy” he does those great hipswaying movements. And during the climax to “Paradise City” they all rock like a bunch of demented bastards. (Except Izzy). It’s fucking brilliant.

There is always something special when chemistry and talent lock in: the power of a group of people multiplies exponentially. Here, for this hour-long video, you can feel the unquestionable force of this, when GN’R were the best band in the world.

 

Dance Albums

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

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

Daft Punk Homework

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

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

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

Leftfield Leftism

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

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

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation

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

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

Various Essential Skint

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

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

Chemical Brothers Surrender

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

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

Thee Madkatt Courtship I Know Electrikboy

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

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

Music I’ve Gone Off

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

Tricky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cypress Hill

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

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

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

The Smiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albums Which Terrify Me

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

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

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

Joy Division Closer

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

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

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

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

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

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

Nico The Marble Index

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

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

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

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

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

Radiohead Kid A

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

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

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

Song Oddity

Earlier I took a look at some albums which represented a curveball for the artists involved. But what about individual songs which vary from a customary repertoire? These are maybe more often found on b-sides or when a band does the “let it all hang out double album” (copyright: The Beatles). It must be odd being a musician when you get known for being a particular style and sound: if your fanbase does not want you to develop beyond that, it must be insanely frustrating. Rock and metal are particularly bad for this, having the most aggressively self-righteous of fans, but I’m sure it happens in other genres too.

1. Fatboy Slim, “Santa Cruz”

Though primarily known for his chirpy beaty tunes under the Fatboy Slim brand, Norman Cook’s music taste is enormously eclectic – he did after all go from The Housemartins to Beats International. This song was before the Fatboy Slim style set hard with his (enormously successful) second album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – the first, Better Living Through Chemistry is a more of a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds, from the funky “Everybody Needs A 303” through to the breakbeat workout “Punk To Funk“. My favourite, though, is “Santa Cruz”, which manages to be spacey and dreamy, and yet somehow mechanical and insistently rhythmical. It doesn’t so much conjure images of a physical location as make me think of loving machines, imaginative robots… nice!

2. Sonic Youth, “Nic Fit”

Sonic Youth were one of the John the Baptists to Nirvana’s Jesus H Christ. It must be odd, and kinda embarrassing, to have one of your juniors in a scene make it big with such cataclysmic success. Particularly if you are aching hipsters like Sonic Youth. The trouble with Sonic Youth (and bands like Mudhoney etc) was that to them (and to Nirvana to a large extent) punk was an elite thing, not the enraged voice of the kids, but a sneering at the populisms and massed exaltations of the music scene. Thus, things like melody and song structure were seen as being beneath them, as insufferable bones tossed to ravenous lowest-common-denominator audiences; thus, the contempt towards popular Seattle bands like Pearl Jam. This attitude is preposterous of course. What of a song like the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant“? Isn’t that pop?

Sonic Youth never could put together an album with catchy tunes: their astonishing sound and hipper-than-thou attitudes got them so far, but even their bold efforts like Daydream Nation and Goo lack hooks and, ultimately, memorability. Their post-Nevermind effort, Dirty, is a far more full-bodied effort (producer: Butch Vig) but while it has greater dynamics it still lacks decent riffs and hooks, the sort of thing Kurt Cobain could so easily turn out (if not without embarrassment). Dirty has one real oddity though, a cover of The Untouchables tune “Nic Fit”. It is the ultimate low-fi song I’ve ever heard, guitars sounding like the stings are so loose they are splayed all over the fretboard, and no discernible lyrics whatsoever. It makes such a great contrast to the guitary pyrotechnics of “Wish Fulfilment” and “100%” (not to mention the preachy “Youth Against Fascism” and “Swimsuit Issue“) that I absolutely love it.

3. Iron Maiden, “Strange World”

I prefer Maiden’s albums with Paul Di’Anno to the Bruce Dickinson glory years for a couple of reasons: they were punkier, more street-savage, and capture the excitement of a band discovering its potential, rather than the full muscle of a band in a successful groove. The epics, tedious Satanism and occasional proggy excesses of the Dickinson years were yet to come: this was Maiden, lean and fierce: a “prowler”, “running free”, a “drifter”, in “purgatory”.

“Strange World” is one their eponymous first album, and is one of two ballads (the other, “Remember Tomorrow” is also excellent). It sounds like a jam session going utterly right, and shows how exciting Maiden were in their early days, before they set like concrete.

4. Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed practically invented alt-rock and punk rock , particularly on the guitar. His work throughout The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground bristles with invention and intelligence: from the static urban riffing of “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the chugga-chugga “Run Run Run” to the demonic “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the tender nobility of “I’m Set Free“. So it’s kinda funny that Reed’s greatest solo achievement, “Street Hassle”, features very little guitar. A dramatic poem in three parts, set over 1. an repeating string octet figure 2. gentle guitar interplay, then a fine bass solo  3. more strings, bass, guitars, and keyboard. Unusually, the guitars aren’t the focus of the song; it’s the lyrics and the voice (Bruce Springsteen gives a great spoken word piece – “tramps like us were born to pay” – in a nice meeting of the artistic patrons of New York and New Jersey). With its tender humanity, grief and sense of loss, “Street Hassle” is a million miles from the cartoonish image Reed presented in Transformer and Rock And Roll Animal. It is also a devastatingly effective piece of music.

5. Oasis, “Whatever”

God, I had such hope for Oasis in their early days. Definitely Maybe was a fine, punky, raw-edged album, with a terrific sense of melody. Songs like “Columbia” were a great reminder of the merits of the electric guitar. When “Whatever” came out, I thought, Wow! Here’s a band discovering colour and timbre and texture! The comparison with prime psychedelic-era Beatles was so obvious. I really thought Oasis were going to go on and produce something new and innovative. Then they came out with the “Roll With It” single, which was crushingly awful, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which had none of the excitement or adventure of its predecessor. And then they got even worse after that, atrophying into the most lumpen council estate plodding rock. This is a coruscating reminder of a time when they seemed like they were going to be one of the best bands ever. Shame they were just content to be the biggest band in the world, for a moment.

6. Beastie Boys, “Song For Junior”

As the Beastie’s songs are a dense stew of styles, sounds and influences, (“a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk”, as the Allmusic review of Check Your Head memorably puts it), it is a little surprising to hear a whole song done straight up in bossa nova. The rhythm and style of this song is just great, a loving tribute. (They released another straight-up bossa nova tune on the Sounds Of Science compilation, “Twenty Questions” which is touching but less rhythmically pleasing).

Hair Metal… Dude!

I like hair metal. It is simply mainstream rock from the 1980s. Much of what has remained in the critical memory from that decade, like Metallica, wasn’t that successful at the time, while bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were selling zillions of records. If you’ve ever seen The Decline of Western Civilisation II: The Metal Years (and if you haven’t I recommend you do so), you get a sense of the whole ecosystem of LA rock bands, from the bottom feeders to the aspirants to the kings of the jungle. What I like about hair metal (the name is of course derogatory, but it’s a useful tag) is that it’s fun. It’s celebratory, emboldening, empowering. Nirvana came along and destroyed all that, making rocking an embarrassment; thereafter wiping out the joyous, hedonistic aspect of rock, leaving nihilism, (self)loathing or pure aggression. Bands like The Darkness who wanted to return to the fun of rock had to do so semi-ironically, with a wink and a nudge to say “We know it’s ridiculous…”

Still, there’s a lot worthwhile from the decade that taste forgot, where women were women and the men were women too. Here’s a few of my favourites.

Alice Cooper, “Poison”

After spending the early 80s in a drug funk, Alice cleaned up and needed to earn some serious $. Teaming up with songwriter Desmond Child, he made a successful comeback, showing Aerosmith the way to do it (they followed the exact same route about a year later). “Poison” cops the intro from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and uses the “bad drug” metaphor earlier seen in Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”.

Poison, “Ride The Wind”

Never critical favourites (hey, but then neither were Black Sabbath), Poison were always derided for being too poppy, too popular, too fun. There’s little more self-righteous than the rock fan. In their third album Flesh And Blood, Poison added muscle to their guitar sound and wrote about topics more varied that sex, partying, rock and more sex. This ode to motorbiking is undeniable.

Quireboys, “Hey You”

Rock in Britain in the late 80s was in a poor way. Iron Maiden were the kings of the jungle, but had obviously fossilised, churning out the same album time after time. The NWOBHM similarly had faded, and nothing had managed to hook audiences in the same way – with LA rock consuming American interest, most British bands tried to follow suit into sleaze rock, often appallingly. The Quireboys wisely ploughed the Rolling Stones/Small Faces influences. Shame that the Black Crowes took the same idea but being American got the big audiences. Still, this is a classic song with a wonderful chorus. I hope it still gets played in biker bars in the sketchier parts of the UK.

Motley Crue, “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)”

Before Guns N’ Roses blew them out the water, the Crue were the kings of the LA rock jungle. Their albums were the precise embodiment of the hair metal thing, with tales of hedonism and cheap regret, rocking but melodic riff-monsters and sing-together power ballads. Dr Feelgood remains their best album, in part down the production, which brings out the arrangements and song craft better than any other. (Metallica liked the production so much that they hired producer Bob Rock to do their fifth album). “Same Ol’ Situation” is a case in point – stomping intro (thumping snare from Tommy Lee), catchy verse (sassy vocal from Vince Neil) and great singalong chorus (terrific massed backing vocals makes it massive). So much FUN.

KISS, “Crazy Crazy Nights”

I never knew KISS as the masked demons of pop-rock fantasy, just as their 80s rock incarnation. I love how much they celebrate the joys of life, of Friday nights and blue-collar thrills with such relish. Nothing snobby here! Funny how this attitude is celebrated in Jack Kerouac (for example) but despised in music. I have no idea why that is, but it’s to the impoverishment of those who feel that way.

Mr. Big, “To Be With You”

The ballad was of course a big part of the hair metal armory. It was usually a power ballad with a slow intro and rousing ending (with shredding guitar solo): simple but endlessly effective. This isn’t one, being an accoustic singalong, but it’s notable for the excellent vocal harmonies in the chorus. This song is still very popular in China!

Ugly Kid Joe, “Everything About You”
Juvenile, adolescent, childish… yup. That’s not to be derogatory, but just to point out its qualities. Still great fun.

Aerosmith, “Love in an Elevator”

After losing their way in the 80s (no real surprise when every album title was a reference to cocaine: Rocks, Draw The Line, Done With Mirrors), Aerosmith followed the Alice Cooper template, cleaning up and getting together with outside writers to get back in the charts. This is not to say their comeback albums, Pump and Permanent Vacation, are vacuous sellouts. The guitar interplay and the exceptional vocal harmonies in the outstanding song from Pump, “Love In An Elevator”, show that form might be temporary but class is permanent.

Out The Ordinary

It’s often nice when a band does an album out of left-field. I seem to be in the minority in believing this, as these albums tend to get fans up in arms about “selling out” or some such fucking nonsense. This is especially true in metal, but generally observable throughout rock – rock fans being the most inanely conservative and tediously unadventurous of any genre (perhaps excepting the selfrighteous folkies screaming “Judas!” when Dylan went electric in 1965). I don’t, of course, mean when a band loses it and goes all crap – as can be seen when they only have one good album in them (Tricky, Oasis, The Cranberries). I mean when they are good and try something different, take some risks, branch out, have a bit of fun, stretch themselves. Here’s some examples of when artists try something different and pull it off.

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline

Though I am not really a big Dylan fan (I mean, really, where’s the beef?), this is a beautifully done album. That near-yodel of a singing voice, coming from his normal acerbic nasal register, must have knocked lots of his fans for six. Then too, the lyrical content, far from the early political protest songs or the hipster-period cryptic allusions and wordplay (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, indeed) is quiet, meditative tales of love and loss. The music of course is country, but in the folky, rural sense, not the absurd cheesy gash beloved of white trash around the world. (Trust me, I know). Though Dylan had to some extent prepared the ground with John Wesley Harding, that retained his familiar voice and harmonica. Nashville Skyline, with its steel guitars and cornpone twang, is something else altogether. I really like it.

U2, Achtung Baby/Zooropa

These albums have to be considered companion pieces, and were of course unified by the Zoo TV tour. There’s also the fact that both are only half-good, with noticeable declines in quality on side 2 in both. Achtung Baby is where U2 dropped the earnestness and the bombast and went post-modern: with magnificent Brian Eno production, it shakes their sound out from top to bottom, reconfiguring and reimagining it completely. (Remember, they had been critically slaughtered for the rootsy Rattle And Hum three years earlier). Opening with “Zoo Station” and its direct lift from Bowie’s Low tune “Sound and Vision”, it leads directly into the cool, hip “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the (now cliched, but still majestic) “One”. Superb triptych! With fluid rhythms and swirling neo-psychedlic guitars, the whole album mostly keeps to rock structures but is endlessly inventive with the sound. Zooropa on the other hand delves even further into dance music (“Lemon”, maybe my favourite U2 song ever), electronica (“Numb”, which is a kind of counterpoint to Tubular Bells, but contrasting the mush of modern consumerism where Oldfield found affirmation in musical layering), found sounds (the opening half of “Zooropa”, for which the album credits thank “the wold of advertising”, and the innocence of “Babyface”, four full years before Radiohead’s “No Surprises” – honestly, compare the two) and tops off the opening half with the heartbreaking “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”. Shame, then, that the second half is turgid. Apparently Zooropa was going to be an EP made during the Zoo TV tour: if they’d only taken the time to write a few more songs to knock off filler like “Some Days Are Better Than Other” and “Dirty Day”, it might have been an absolute monster of an album. The post-modernism of Achtung Baby is refined even further: where that album is most about relationships and loss, Zooropa is about the human condition in the late twentieth century. It’s a staggering achievement… for five songs out of ten. Still, at the time, I found it one of the most intellectually exciting albums I had ever heard.

REM – Monster

So the plan was REM were going to do a proper rock album and Nirvana, following up from Unplugged, were going to do something a bit more pastoral, like Automatic For The People. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Great idea though. REM still made their rock album in Monster, which comes across as a cathartic blurt after the pastoral Out Of Time and the sombre Automatic For The People. But rather than rock, REM “rock”. It always seems like a genre exercise, a self-conscious effort which never escapes inverted commas. This can best be seen in songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” (great video, too) and “Star 69”, which is about the first time the REM have done a song about sex and getting some. Self-conscious hipsters that REM are, they can’t really rock out like Nirvana would, or even as Pearl Jam did in their wilder moments like “Porch” or “Leash”. Monster therefore comes across as tongue in cheek, as a glam rock album akin to Mud or The Sweet rather than the alt rock sincerity of Seattle bands. But given REM’s need to catharsize and to slough off their earnest image, it all works rather well, if one-dimensionally. Still, the guitar sound in “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Let Me In”, and the tickled eroticism of “Tongue” and “Strange Currencies” are fine additions to REM’s palette.

Slayer, South of Heaven

Slayer’s early albums focus on speed and aggressive attack, like being slashed with a stanley knife. The ferocious riff that tears open the first track on their first album (“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy) shows this perfectly. Insanely fast, like Iron Maiden on demonic amphetamines, the riff explodes into the first verse with a shrieking scream from Tom Araya, before storming into the unsurpassable couplet “Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell / No-one can stop us tonight!” Hell yes! The second album Hell Awaits mixes it up a bit but the short savage blast of Reign In Blood cannot be beaten for speed and intensity. It’s insanely, demonically ferocious. Fortunately Slayer realised this and switched tack for the subsequent South of Heaven. With slower tempos, the music is now more full bodied, thicker, beefier. (This was three years before Metallica did something similar with Metalllica, AKA the Black Album). It was then a side of Slayer no-one had really heard before, but they do it really well, and in fact South of Heaven is my favourite Slayer album. The opening title track has a spooky, haunting opener and builds and builds in intensity; “Silent Scream” has terrific breakbeats from Dave Lombardo; “Behind The Crooked Cross” is a fascinating tale of a Nazi trapped “by a cause I once understood”; the ending of “Mandatory Suicide” is horrifying; the crunching ending of “Ghosts Of War” is fantastic; and the cold sparkling arpeggios which open “Spill The Blood” show the way to the next album’s “Seasons In The Abyss”, which would actually be an MTV hit (!). Far too few metal bands have a good grasp of dynamics, and are content to pound away without variation in tempo or intensity, making it far too homogenous. In South of Heaven, Slayer show their master of both.

Talking Heads, Remain In Light

Starting out as a nervy CBGBs/new wave band, Remain In Light is a real leap. It showcases the band trying out polyrhythms and jungle funk, and is marvellously produced with liquid fluidity by Brian Eno. The centrepiece is “Once In A Lifetime”, which everyone should know by now, but there’s lots of killer tunes, such as “Born Under Punches”, “The Great Curve” and (my favourite) “Seen And Not Seen”. David Byrne, man, is a goddamn genius. This is a terrific example of a band developing their sound while staying true to their aesthetic. Some bands change their approach and with it what seems to be their entire guiding principles – for example Suede after the aching romantic heartache of Dogmanstar shed the angst to become upbeat glamsters on Coming Up and subsequent albums. Which might be alright as an album, but like… what happened to the band I used to like? (See also Poison, chasing their tales in an attempt to gain critical favour with posturing bluesy albums like Native Tongue). Talking Heads here show how to do it, with this exceptional album.