Shōgun: A Love Letter

It’s been a while since I blogged. Shit happens and your days get filled with things you hadn’t anticipated. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” as the divine St John of Lennon says.

Anyway. I have just been re-re-re-re-reading (I normally read it once a year, and first read it in 1990 – you do the math(s)) Shōgun, the incredible novel by James Clavell, and thought I should due obeisance to its wonders. (I also must give my appreciation to my dad, who gave it to me when I was but 11. He was in many ways a fuck-up, but he was a pathfinder, the one amongst his peers who discovered and passed on Tolkien and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Orb and all that good stuff).

In brief, Shōgun is a story of the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in the year 1600. Piloting a Dutch ship from Amsterdam which was the first ship outside the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly on the Cape of Good Hope and Magellan’s Strait, he lands with around ten men remaining from the three hundred who first sailed, all weakened with scurvy and a year-long voyage. Japan had then had Portuguese in it for around forty years, though in a far more controlled way than the Conquistadores and priests who had plundered and destroyed the civilisations of South America. Trading was restricted to one port, Nagasaki, though the priests were free to move where they would if they were decorous. Japan then was still largely a feudal society, its lands controlled by around two hundred warlords (daimyos), its people divided into castes with the warrior caste of samurai at the top, then peasants, then merchants (as commerce is widely despised) and then the despised eta, who butcher and handle the dead. What’s great is how Clavell immediately sets up these oppositions and conflicts: the immaculate and decorous Japanese landfall village of Anjiro compared to the cockroach-ridden, death-rich ship Erasmus; the polite Japanese villagers as against the foul-mouthed and unrestrained rabble of the remaining sailors; the arrogant samurai and the deferential and silent-hating villagers; the Portuguese desperate to retain their toe-hold on Japan and the English and Dutch aching to dislodge them; the Catholic and Protestant schism; the New World and Old; East and West… Clavell invests much of these in his characters and sparks fly right from the off. But these aren’t one-dimensional characters who only speak according to their types (if you’ve seen Wall Street you’ll know what I mean). The first daimyo we meet, Kasigi Yabu, has a torture fetish and the morality of a shark; the village head man is a Christian (and, as we later learn, a lot more besides); Blackthorne is an intelligent sea-faring man with five languages, a family he misses, a fondness for Shakespeare (a late scene with men digging for earthquake-lost swords is straight out of Hamlet and the gravediggers) and a temper; and Toranaga, perhaps the most complex and great man I’ve ever read of. (Well, maybe excluding Gandalf, if you count him as a man).

So immediately the setting is vivid, despite its complexity to someone four hundred years distant. What’s even better than that though is they way Clavell guides you, the reader, through the gradations of Japanese society, all the way to the highest daimyo, and to the intricacies of Japanese politics. Like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars, Blackthorne is our guide, the outsider in the midst of great events. After twenty years of Japanese unity under the dictatorship of the Taiko, he had died leaving only a seven year-old son and an appointed Council of Regents to rule until his heir comes of age at fifteen. When Blackthorne lands the Taiko had been dead a year and the Council split between Toranaga, the greatest general of the age, and Ishido, the Guard to the Heir and protector of Osaka Castle, the strongest military and political stronghold (where the Heir resides) in Japan. Clavell makes Japanese politics – its regard for “face”, the self-control, the concealment of one’s inner desires, the manipulation, the outer courtesies and protocol – wonderfully vivid. One way he repeatedly does so is to contrast what characters are saying in a dialogue, and what they are actually feeling. (You might say Shōgun predates Peep Show by thirty years in this technique, though obviously Peep Show does it for comedic effect and Shōgun more for dramatic purposes). This also heightens conflict, so that any conversation (with useful plot-moving properties) can have double the impact, or even more, if the character’s true feelings illuminate helpful backstory. For example, at one point Kiri (the chief consort of Toranaga) and Mariko (the daughter-in-law of Hiro-Matsu, Toranaga’s chief general, and one of the book’s leading characters) talk. Clavell fills us in about Kiri’s feelings about Buntaro, Mariko’s husband; about Mariko’s father, who is important to her psychologically and thus to the outcome of the whole book; and about the backstory of the Taiko and Toranaga, how they had battled together and won Japan). But on the outside the conversation is polite and little more than formal.

(The veneration for face and self-control, in fact, makes you see politics in a different, less emotional light. I do sometimes despair of people who say they just want politicians to be honest, not seeming to realize that politicians reflect the hypocrisies of the electorate, not from any natural or developed drive. Drugs and tax policies are two of the best examples. This is not to say that I welcome the grotesque cynicism of Karl Rove or the pseudo-wonkery of Paul Ryan, but to say that you see political moves more analytically. Someone fucked you over? Well, are you going to need them tomorrow? Better stay on good terms. Rivals with someone? Better to conceal your disdain until ready to strike. And so on.)

Another marvellous aspect of the novel is the range of characters and the humanity Clavell displays in evoking them. It goes from pit-digging villagers (Uo, the fisherman, once won the inter-village farting competition) who bawdily lust after the beautiful geisha Kiku to the inscrutable grand vizier Jesuit Martin Alvito, thirty years in Japan and official translator to the leading daimyos, from the ferocious guileless aged general Hiro-Matsu to the plump primped pimp mama-san Gyoko, holder of secrets and threats. Toranaga stands supreme amongst them all, the spider at the center of an incredible web. His humanity too shines through: here is a man of majesty and power, with more men under arms than the King of Spain, but who prefers low-born consorts (always zesty and grateful) and simple peasant dishes and enjoys a piss and a fart. Then again he is no vulgarian: he is a man who enjoys poetry and expanding his mind. The scene where he encounters Blackthorne dancing a hornpipe and insists on learning the steps is indicative of Toranaga’s lack of ego, his hunger to learn, his openness to new influences. (No mean feat for a man in his fifties: already, in my thirties, I find it hard to keep my mind open to new music and books etc).

Shōgun is obviously a novel to savour, and it bears repeated re-readings. Despite the complexity (for newcomers) of its setting, the prose style is functional, and the story-telling always focusing on character. There are immense amounts of dialogue and surprisingly little amounts of physical description. The characterization, as I’ve suggested, is supreme: Clavell’s humanity and instinct for the desires of all sections of society are miraculous. This above all is what makes Shogun one of the best novels I have ever read, a trait he shares with other supreme writers like Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Dickens. (Clavell wrote a series of other Asian novels, with dates ranging from the 1960s (Nobel House) to the 1800s (Tai Pan). His novel King Rat has a very good film version, with a bunch of actors you’ll definitely recognise. But Shōgun is at the apex of them all, in its range, drama and exotic setting. Go read!

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Kraftwerk: An Appreciation

What The Beatles are to pop/rock and the Velvet Underground are to alternative, Kraftwerk are to electronic music. They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the goddamn motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-The Wall sequence, or, say, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Exile On Main Street series of triumphs. Starting with Autobahn (1974), each album defines and refines their inspiration: from the long form elementary synthesized excursion of Autobahn‘s epic title track (cos ambitious bands had to have side-long epic tracks back then) to Radio Activity (1975) with its shorter thematically-linked pieces to the electro-funk of Trans Europe Express (1977) to the multiple digitized rhythms of the magnificent The Man Machine (1978) and then the warmth, sass and wit of Computer World (1981). (Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971) and Kraftwerk II (1972) are embryonic to say the least, stuck in the Krautrock milieu whence they sprang, while later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics).

Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. For all albums, I recommend the German language versions as being more… Kraftwerkian, if you will; but I will refer to the English track names for ease of comprehension.

Autobahn

I’ve included this album as one of the greats purely on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren“, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and (I think) guitar arpeggios, with ancillary flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they signing about, with horns and passing cars and all being evoked.

The rest of the album rather pales in comparison, not being thematically linked (the next two tracks being “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2”, which suggests their place as mood pieces rather than extensions of the theme – though the latter does suggest later glories) or having the same daring celebration of the joys of present. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs of the studio disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Rather like, say, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, and overshadowed by later glories.

Radio Activity

This is where the real Kraftwerk comes together. The album is linked via two interconnected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice Of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radiowave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), and yet thematically and conceptually they are perfect. In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album, and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these tunes, while they link the album, are significantly in the majority; most of the album is short thematic ideas-driven pieces, like “News” (a bunch of newsreaders), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blipblipblip.. blipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblip), “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which I think the Chemical Brothers samples for the opening track to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.

Trans Europe Express

It irritates me that this album is the one always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever”. I guess this is because of two things: the sheer bloody goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the fact that it was heavily sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock“, thus inventing hiphop or something. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are to my ears the two weakest tracks in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds like something from a Commodore 64 tape (check this as a C64 version of Tubular Bells – if you grew up in the 80s or had a Commy, you might well enjoy it), while the latter is a dry self-parody but little more. All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the rhythm (it’s really just part two of a side-long suite), and “Europe Endless” a stunning evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous (German cars, Concorde, etc). But with two tracks to which I’m highly indifferent, Trans Europe Express just isn’t all that.

The Man Machine

To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s (which, given the competition, is really saying something). Here, the pulsing rhythms of Trans Europe Express develop to an exciting polyrhythmic approach which, given how white Kraftwerk sound, is almost African in origin and would inspire a lot of electro music in the future, from hiphop to techno. Also, the digitisation of Kraftwerk’s sound takes a great leap here; while substantial parts of Radio Activity is live and unprocessed, and while the synthesizer beats of Trans Europe Express chug along nicely, almost every part of The Man Machine is digitised, processed. (Only the vocals to “Neon Lights” and “The Model” are unaltered, I think). And while the early albums were obviously Moog-synthy, analogue machines creating digital sounds, the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is modern and synthetic. Take the opening to opening track (Kraftwerk always paid attention to album flow, with opening and closing tracks of significance in the whole piece), “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:

We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy

We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots

(Damn, it’s so much harder to convey the minutiae of electronica compared to rock music!) The whole thing is so robotik, so alien, so unhumanly funky… fucking magnificent. I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”. It often reminds me of my firs semester at uni, when I had really just discovered Kraftwerk thanks to one of my uncles, and listening to this tune as I smoked my first joints. That defamiliarisation and sense of disconnect suited my initial loneliness and homesickness. But this is mere anecdote: what I really like about “Spacelab” is that sense of highflown indifference, as emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. The best track of all, in my opinion (which is all you get around here) is “Neon Lights”, which is a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. Which is a nice change from the posturing rural sympathies of so much rock music. (I’ll exclude Nick Drake from this, as his music does convey so much countryside scenes, from the swaying yew trees in “Cello Song” to the mysteries of “River Man”). What astonishes me about this album is that even today is sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.

Computer World

Building on the polyrhythms of The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, less distant and far wittier. On occasions it’s actually very funny. It is odd that so few artists celebrate modernity, or what I suppose we should call postmodernity. Most times the past is viewed nostalgically, the present with regret (of love lost, possibilities missed etc etc etc) and the future with trepidation. This, I guess, is what happens when the vast proportion of rock music is made by men in their 20s. But then the same is true of so many writers: the pose of the sophisticated poet despairing of the cheap tawdry urban crowd perhaps began with TS Eliot and continues today, with gimps who don’t have a solitary percentage of Eliot’s learning affecting a disdainful superiority to the masses. As you can guess, I loathe this fuck-knuckle smart-ass disdain. Far better, I reckon, to have the relish and abandon of the Beats, that celebratory joyful vision of Ginsberg and Kerouac.  With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” must take the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with Radio Activity‘s “Air Waves” in second), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (maybe a Fisher Price calculator?) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:

I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator

 

By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody

Glorious. Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts in the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”). Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolated individuals keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”, like tunes played in empty shopping malls. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, it does not sound dated: of its time, yes, but with Kraftwerk’s keen intelligence, and humane empathy, their disquisitions on modernity, computers and disconnect are timeless.

 *

As I’ve mentioned before, I rate Kraftwerk very highly: basically as one of the best bands of all time, and as the originators of so much of modern music. We are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, as perhaps Louis Armstrong (well, maybe Jelly Roll Morton) is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release, and whose, imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed these thirty-odd years.

Music I’ve Gone Off

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

Tricky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cypress Hill

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

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

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

The Smiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink Floyd Albums – A Rating

Animals (1977)
I guess why this is top of the list is that it has zero fat or flab; no duff bits. Though essentially comprising three long songs, all over ten minutes, it is dense with invention and fantastic playing. The lyrical and tonal cynicism introduced in Wish You Were Here dominate, but where WYWH‘s negativity comes over as adolescent sulking, on Animals it is skilfully articulated into a broader worldview. That literary flavour is, of course, derived from Orwell, but while on some bands this might have seemed pretentious, the numerous lyrical bullseyes help the Floyd carry it off. “You radiate cold shards of broken glass”, “A certain look in the eyes with easy smiles”, “This creeping malaise”, “Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air”… brilliant. (I’ve written more on the qualities of Animals here).

The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Like Animals, this album absolutely teems with invention, densely packed with sound effects and the broadest musical palette the Floyd had ever dared to use. Synthesizers, female vocalists, jazzy chords, looped tapes, saxophones; the whole damn kitchen sink, man. I guess I don’t need to rhapsodise about what a terrific album this is – you know this already, I am sure. I do have a few quibbles about it, though, which prevent it being top of the list (while still being miles ahead of anything else most bands could ever hope to achieve). FIRST: it’s a bit uneven, with the middle a bit soggy, though the start and finish are amazing. SECOND: there’s a certain irritating dryness to the production during the verses of “Time”. THIRD: I don’t like how they produced “Money” much at all, either. It doesn’t really bring out that brilliant lolloping 7/8 rhythm. Check the demo by Roger Waters seen in the Classic Albums episode about Dark Side: it’s got this almost funky deep-blues rhythm. FOURTH: I am all for longish intros, but two and a half fucking minutes for “Time” to kick in? Still, “Any Colour You Like”, “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” finish up the album magnificently.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The sole Barret-era album is a bit of a Marmite album amongst Floyd fans, I think. I’m on the “love it” side. Its whimsicality, teeming invention, lyrical cuteness, pastoral playfulness, and full-fledged psychedelic explorations (“Interstellar Overdrive” literally sounding like galaxies ebbing and flowing, born and reborn) and achingly groovy 1967 vibe, man, make it an utter delight. You really wonder what would have been.

Meddle (1971)
Any album with “Echoes” has to be high on a list of the best. It is a stunning piece of work, stately and unhurried yet filed with drama and incident; vivid and theatrical, but running a gamut of emotions; brooding, mysterious and like, totally deep, man, but instantly comprehensible and recognisable (none of the unnecessary wanky musicfests as you get with King Crimson or early Genesis). Amongst the short tracks, “A Pillow Of Winds” is touching and heartfelt; “Fearless” highly atmospheric, and “One Of These Days” a brilliant pulsating bass-line workout. On the other hand, “San Tropez” is a dryly humourous throwaway, and “Seamus” is easily the Floyd’s least popular song, with good reason.

Wish You Were Here (1975)
I am one of those (relatively few?) who do not rate this album as amongst the Floyd’s very very best. Sure, “Shine On” (both parts) is utterly magnificent, stately and yet pulsing with emotion, and “Wish You Were Here” is such a very fine example of humanity, empathy and loss. However, I really am not a fan of “Have A Cigar”, with its easy targets and sneering, and its jarring keyboards, nor do I much like “Welcome To The Machine”, which is a bunch of sound effects of some more dismal and bitter lyrics (“You bought a guitar to punish your ma”).

The Wall (1979)
I’ve already explained my conflicted feelings about The Wall. Suffice it to say – brave, clever, profound, provocative, skilful, artful; but at the same time, in its bitterness and angst, it’s just a bit much. These days, I have a young family and I need the art I consume to sustain me. In its unremitting negativity, The Wall does not do that. It has its moments of utter greatness, of course; it is one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever encountered. But… I am not sure whether it bears sustained listening, in the same way that Animals or Dark Side do.

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
The first post-Barret album retains his influence, though only one song bears his writing credits, “Jugband Blues”. The other tracks keep it relatively conventional, with Richard Wright’s “Jigsaw” and “Remember A Day” achingly English, and not so far from the tone of Piper, if lacking their madcap invention. The seeds of the new Pink Floyd are there, but mutedly: the title track does have several great ideas in it, with the shift to the sombre organ after the madness of the syncopated drums perhaps the finest transition in the whole album; yet the live version on Umma Gumma blasts it out of the fucking water. “Set The Controls” – frankly, this songs stumps me a bit.

Ummagumma (1969)
This double album is half live, half studio. Unusually, it’s the live section which is the more interesting: instead of being filler, it shows the Floyd working on their arrangements and improving their delivery of existing tunes. Both “Set The Controls” and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” are more full-bodied, and the Floyd’s handling of dynamics in both songs is masterful. Their version of “Saucerful Of Secrets” is even more noteworthy – Gilmour’s overblown guitar in the “Something Else” and “Syncopated Pandemonium” sections is outstanding, but his wordless singing in the concluding section, “Celestial Voices” is mind-blowing, majestic, magnificent. This was where he went from new-boy in the band to essential member, and his contributions in succeeding albums became increasingly remarkable.

However, the studio disc is… crap. OK, it’s not all bad – “Grantchester Meadows” is very nice, and Gilmour’s “The Lonely Way III” is very good, creating a weary, desolate atmosphere. But holy fuck, all four parts of “Sysyphus” and all three parts of “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” are utter gash.

The Division Bell (1994)
I think this is a fine album. It’s not great – it’ll never win any prizes for originality or invention. But within its modest aims, it has perfectly crafted mature pieces of rock. The sound on it is also terrific, with lovely clean guitar (no fuzzy psychedelic noodling) and fine singing from Gilmour. (Too much from the female backing singers though, especially in “What Do You Want From Me?”). I love moments like the way the song kicks back into gear in “Poles Apart” (around 4.13), Gilmour’s emotion-soaked singing at the start of “Coming Back To Life” (“Where were you…?“), and the very fine “High Hopes”. It’s a dignified ending to their studio career.

Atom Heart Mother (1970)
If Piper is a Marmite album, then the title track on Atom Heart Mother is a Marmite song. And here I come down on the other side – it just seems like a bunch of stitched-together pointlessness to me. It has moments of colour and drama, but it just does not sustain your interest. It’s good, I suppose, that the Floyd were ambitious and took risks – their approach paid major dividends later in their career. But not here. “Fat Old Sun” is a nice piece of English nostalgia, as is “Summer ’68”, but “If” is a bit of an oddity, and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” like an underpowered self-rip-off.

The Final Cut (1983)
This album doesn’t do much for me. Some people whose opinion I respect tell me it’s a good one; but it seems to progress the formula of The Wall about being about concept and lyrics rather than music or even tune. Now it seems a dated series of diatribes. Waters’ lyrical facility never wavers, but the increased topicality and personal nature of the songs make all seem a bit forced, like he is writing as a Very Important Lyricist, rather than doing honest heartfelt stuff like in Animals or Dark Side.

More (1969)
A soundtrack album, with a few memorable songs like the minor-key “Cirrus Minor”, the roaring “Nile Song” and “Cymbeline”.

Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Less memorable tunes than More. The soundtrack albums stand a little apart from the rest of the Floyd body of work, I think, unlike, say, Dylan’s Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, but similar to Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
Apart from “Learning To Fly” (which I was a bit disappointed to learn was actually about Gilmour getting his pilots licence – I had always taken it to be metaphorical…), this really is a duff album, bland commercial late-80s rock. The production is sterile (unlike the organic, band-in-a-room feel of much of Division Bell), and there’s very little Floydian about it. It’s really a Gilmour solo album of course, and I suppose it’s good he kept the show on the road, but I really feel this is the weakest album in their catalogue.

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?

Harmonies

I was listening to “She Bangs The Drums” yesterday, and as always was captivated by the  divine vocal harmonies of the Stone Roses. You can easily argue that Ian Brown isn’t a good singer – you might find the “GEEEEE-GEEEEE-GIVE- OVER!”  in “Begging You” like nails up a blackboard, and his famous evisceration of the Roses’ legend in their final (pre-reformation) performance was excruciating – yet the fact remains that the harmonies in much of the first album are superb. (No doubt much of the credit goes to John Leckie). “Waterfall”, “Sally Cinnamon”, “This Is The One” and “Elephant Stone” all just have glorious harmonies, but the best really is “She Bangs The Drums” – oh, that chorus!

Have you seen her, have you heard?
The way she plays there are no words
To describe the way I feel

How could it ever come to pass?
She’ll be the first, she’ll be the last
To describe the way I feel
The way I feel


Glorious, just dripping with vitality and life and joy. With the guitar understated, the vocals take centre stage, though they too are not overemphasised. Compare with the kack-handed remastering on The Complete Stone Roses to see what I mean – the vocals are pushed higher and the sound is considerably compressed, making it tighter and more energetic, yes, but killing the song’s ability to breathe. In the original version they have room to reverberate:

As I’ve said previously, I haven’t really had any new major music obsessions since about 2004, preferring (or condemned) to explore the nooks and crannies of music’s past. One of the great things about the internet is its ability to facilitate precisely this tangential investigative meandering. An uncle gave me a copy of every UK #1 single from 1956 to 2004, and it’s nice to get a feel for past times through their pop and musical culture. Also, to check on the influences of one’s own heroes! For example, The Beatles (or more precisely John and Paul) learned harmony through covering the Everly Brother’s “Cathy’s Clown”. The Fabs obviously were awesome harmonizers (see: “Two Of Us”, “She Loves You”, and “Because”) so let’s tip the hat to their  forbears. This song is a pretty cutesy, countryish tune enlivened by the terrific (if somewhat sugary) vocals – hardly a hook anywhere! It just shows in comparison how the Beatles used every tool they could to cram in as much listening pleasure as possible. The video below is a nice life performance showing how the brothers could cut it in real time.

Another pair of brothers  – the Finn brothers from Crowded House. Not a band I have listened to much at all, but the harmonies here can’t be denied!

Quite apart from the majesty – there’s no other word for it – of the music, the Gilmour/Wright harmonies on the verses in “Echoes” are sublime. Rick Wright later got brutalised by Roger Waters, but his contributions to early Floyd are greater than David Gilmour’s, until Meddle at least. (Mind you, the second LP/CD of Umma Gumma is complete gash, APART from Roger Waters’ “If” and Gilmour’s “The Narrow Way III”, which has a mournful weeping quality). Here’s the lads at Pompeii.

One of the good things about David Bowie has been his keenness to help acts that he likes. (Apart from Tin Machine, of course). His (and Mick Ronson’s) work on Lou Reed’s second and maybe best solo album Transformer is fantastic. Reed being essentially a rhythm guitar player and lyricist, he’s not so hot on things like solos and harmonies. (Even melodies, sometimes – his work is mostly riff-driven, when not based on a lyric). See New York or The Blue Mask to see what I mean – solid albums, lots of good guitar work and brilliant lyrics, but how they cry out for a bit of orchestration and colour! Bowie’s vocal harmonies at the coda of “Satellite of Love” (see 2.43 onwards) and the “Aaaaah!” during the verse of “Andy’s Chest” (from 1.00) really light up the songs.

Dave Grohl I don’t really rate as a songwriter, but the guy sure can sing, and his harmonies in conjunction with Kurt Cobain are always terrific. They are most noticeable of course, on the bare-bones Unplugged In New York, with songs like “Come As You Are”, “Polly”, “All Apologies”, “Dumb”, “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” and “Oh Me” (so, yeah, like the whole fucking album), but also on Nevermind‘s “On A Plain” and “In Bloom”. Here’s probably the best example of the two combining – the chorus is wonderful. (If, you know, a bit bleak).