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.

 

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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.

Guilty Pleasures

I’ve previously mentioned some unfashionable music I like. But now let me wade through the darkest recesses of my music collection and give a taste of the tunes there are not only unfashionable, but which would get me laughed out of town. Something strange seemed to happen to my music taste around 2005: somehow, what I had previously disdained as cheesy naff pop/rock seemed to make sense. Its exuberance and upbeat feel connected in a way that it never had before. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was something of a Serious Young Man prior to that: everything I listened to was “seminal”, from the Velvet Underground to Miles Davis to Joy Division to Kraftwerk to early Metallica to Radiohead to Sonic Youth. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when you’ve only got art to cling to, it seems to me now. When you’ve got your hands full with life, sometimes you need baser pleasures. There is no qualitative difference in effective music – it either articulates an emotion or atmosphere, or it doesn’t. (There’s also the question of whether you empathise with the feeling conveyed – this is why I despise Coldplay, Keane and Travis, who have the emotional range of the mollycoddled suburban middle-classes). There’s also the simple fact that my mood in 2004/5 rose up from the miserable post-adolescent depression I’d endured for the past 5 years, so upbeat songs would naturally resonate with me more.

I feel that getting rid of my former snobberies is an entirely positive thing. Now I can unashamedly appreciate dumb fun, whether it be Top Gun or Betty Boo. Kenneth Williams once noted in his Diaries Noel Coward saying, “Strange how potent cheap music is”. This was to disdain “cheap” music, but to me it validates it. To be powerful and memorable, music does not have to be clever or complex. That’s what is so fucking great about it!

1. Betty Boo, “Where Are You Baby?”

Toy piano, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus- verse-chorus-outro structure, the upbeat, plaintive desire that’s the hallmark of so much great pop, sassily sung by the Boo – it’s just great pop.

2. John Farnham, “The Voice Of Understanding”

Now we’re getting into murky waters… I mean this song has cod-synth bagpipes! There’s a red alert of naffness right there. But the epic intent, the soaring “Aaaah-oooh-oooh-oooh-woo-whoa!” hook, the delicious chorus, the rising-and-rising verses which are simply and obviously there to get to the chorus as quickly as possible – yeah, they’re all cheap tricks, but they work, dammit! (Not too sure about the synth bagpipe solo, though).

3. Wilson Philips, “Impulsive”

My sister is five years older and so I was subjected to her choices when her seniority let her rule the living room music options. She has a mainstream pop taste, particularly Michael Jackson, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and the “Leather and Lace” soft rock like Heart, Meatloaf, REO Speedwagon and such. Nothing rock – not even, say, Bon Jovi – but close enough that there was some that I didn’t mind too much. But funnily enough that only one whose album I like in its entirety is the girliest – Wilson Philips by the eponymous girlgroup. Formed by the daughters of Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas, the group not surprisingly had access to some of the best writers and session musician in 1990-era Los Angeles. Glen Ballard, who had written some tracks for Michael Jackson’s Bad and later went on to write the tunes for Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, has a substantial hand in the album, co-writing six of the ten tracks. (It would go quintuple platinum). The usually insightful Allmusic.com dismisses the album as “lightweight and sophomoric” and “homogenized, mundane fluff” – which might be fair if all you listen to is Black Sabbath. To anyone with an open pair of ears, though, the album is a quality confection of professional hooks, high-values production, gentle but sweet harmonies, and fine songwriting. This song, “Impulsive”, is I think the best, with an insistent chorus and all the virtues I mentioned above, though the album is remarkably consistent.

4. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

This song reminds me of youth club discos and late summer nights when I was eleven, between primary school and high school. Somehow I remember it as one of those golden summers, old enough to be free to roam about, young enough to think this meant anything. We used to go “camping” in the back garden, then “sneak” (I assume now my mum knew exactly what was happening) out the tent and roam the streets all night. We’d sit in the town square and watch people spill out of the pubs, and gawp in frank admiration at the people milling round cars with boots open for the sound systems to blare out old-skool rave. It was when I first “smoked” cigarettes (like Clinton, not inhaling) and discovered the joys of “porn in the bushes“. This song from the former Go-Go’s singer is pure 1980s power-pop heaven, the sort that will be on VH1 unto infinity. Just love the way the chorus resounds to those massive multi-tracked vocals. The soundtrack to one of those (“oh”) summer nights – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have one yourself!

5.  Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

You know Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? His story of life on no money in both cities never gets old, I’d imagine because although few people have had to experience that level of poverty, many have glimpsed it. I went through that kind of scene when living in Edinburgh just after graduating. I had a job and a roof over my head, but that was about as far as my connection with the contented middle-classes went – I had barely enough money for food, lived in a manky bedsitter, and so on. Funnily enough, one of the fellow bedsitter inhabitants played this song incessantly, and it firmly stuck in my head. I hadn’t heard the song before, didn’t know about Limahl’s hairstyle or the band’s ridiculous name, so it just came to me with a clean cultural slate. (I also really like A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had A Photograph)“, which cover vaguely similar new romantic ground and has ever worse hairdos). It’s not really an electro/New Romantic song, of course, being more of a white soul/cod funk exercise, but hey, whatever you have to do to get noticed, lads)

6. Ratt, “Round And Round”

Ah, hair metal. The story of Ratt is actually pretty grim – the usual fable of excess and ego, burning glory and death. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, they were up there with Motley Crue as kings of the LA rock firmament. They played the Donington Monster of Rock festival in 1985, ahead of Bon Jovi and Metallica (but behind Marillion and ZZ Top), while John Hughes, that avatar of 80s culture, used “Wanted Man” in Weird Science, the same year. That was about as good as it got for Ratt – they lost momentum, had a Desmond Child co-written album Detonator try to pick up the pieces, but then Nirvana came along, and the LA rock party was well and over. Addictions and AIDS then took their toll, as the hangover kicked in with a vengeance. This song is probably the hookiest of their brief period of glory – a good thing given that they are not a riff-driven band and the guitar sound is surprisingly bland – with nice build up of tension at the end of the verse and a fine chorus.

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

Radiohead: An Evaluation

Radiohead

Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.

Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)

Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.

GENIUS

You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is 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… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.

GOOD

This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.

MEH

Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.

*

For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist.  But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.

Musical Pet Hates

Thus far in the blog I’ve tended to talk about my enthusiasms and passions – there’s so much music and books and films etc that I totally admire. However the flip-side is that some aspects of music just drive me up the wall. I’m not referring to bands etc which I hate *cough*Coldplay*cough*, but general aspects of the music listening experience. In some ways this has changed a great deal as music has gone digital: the physical thrill of holding a new album is now over, while music’s scarcity value (and thus the valuation of the music one does have) have also dramatically declined. Until 2006, every album I had I bought or spent time taping (yes, I taped a lot of albums – so sue me); now, frequently, I read about a band who sounds interesting then often download substantial sections of their discography, via a torrent. (Again, yes, I realise this isn’t morally virtuous – so sue me). Getting such a whacking great slab of music all at once is unfortunately also rather a disincentive to listen to it all with the patience and keenness that good music demands. Older readers may remember the overwhelming urge to devour a new album you had saved up for, savouring those first listens, studying the artwork and liner notes, delighting in the overall experience.

It’s a bit different now, but then on the other hand, the essential musical listening experience doesn’t change: speakers produce vibrations that are picked up by the ear. That’s it.

But, ah, anyway: let me, dear reader, take you through some of the aspects of music which bug me, some a constant in music, and some which are particular to your mode of listening.

1. Best-Of Albums with Crappy Remixes

God, this BUGS THE FUCKING SHIT OUT OF ME. I’m sure it seems like a good idea, in that it provides an incentive to purchase for those who already own most of the albums. But invariably, the remix is crap. This is most often found in electronica artists, where their music is already prone to remixing anyway. (See, for example, Moby: his Collected B-Sides album contains FOURTEEN remixes of “Go”). So, for example, The Prodigy: their best-of Their Law: Singles 1990-2005 contains crappy remixes of both “Poison” and “Voodoo People”: yes, that’s right, the songs from their best album. (It also gormlessly places their most famous singles, “Firestarter” and “Breathe” as tracks 1 and 3, in case anyone is afraid of having to listen to their “other” songs). U2’s compilation The Best Of 1990-2000 offers paltry remixes of their more electronica/experimental tracks (such as “Numb” and “Discotheque”): every single one is significantly WORSE than the original. That’s five songs out of sixteen: you do the math. Leftfield, The Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim… all have similar tripe in their best-of albums. It’s just senseless.

But what really angers me is when it’s completely unnecessary. The Stone Roses’ Complete Stone Roses (i.e. the best of their stuff at Silvertone: their first album and singles prior to Second Coming) suffers from terrible remixes or remasterings of songs that sounded brilliant, for no purpose whatsoever: it’s not a remix, in the sense of an altering or reimagining, it’s just really bad producing. “I Am Resurrection” for example is completely butchered: the insistent opening drum beat is clunky, Brown’s vocals are clumsily double-tracked and too prominent, and the magnificent instrumental coda is simply deleted. “Waterfall” is subdued rather than letting its divine harmonies resonate. I am sure the Roses had no input on this shoddy work, but whatever bastard at Silvertone is behind this wants their ears cleaned out. Preferably with dynamite.

2. Overly Long Albums

Maybe it’s because I always liked being able to fit albums onto one side of a C90 tape, but I tend to think that albums should be around 45 minutes. Any longer and my attention starts to wonder. I tend to feel centrifugal forces take over beyond 60 minutes and albums no longer hang together, compact and united. Obviously, the impact of the compact disc is an issue here: once tapes and LPs became obsolete, bands started filling up the 72 minutes running time, simply because they could. But few bands can make a gripping, compelling listening experience over 60 minutes. The White Album, Exile On Main Street, Physical Graffiti, …And Justice For All, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, The Wall, Zen Arcade, Music Has The Right To Children, – yes. Oh god, yes! But the 2000s and beyond are littered with many album which are simply TOO FUCKING LONG.

Maybe Guns N’ Roses started this trend with their preposterous Use Your Illusion albums. If you read their interviews prior their release, they intended to release one album and leave the rest for b-sides etc. Sadly, grandiosity inflated their intentions, leaving two records with maybe 3/4 an album of good songs. REM: their albums after the under-rated Monster are generally overlong, overproduced and underwritten. While Play by Moby is praiseworthy in its scope and range (18 songs from the slamming “Honey” to the delicate “Crystal” to the punky “Bodyrock” to the thoughtful “Guitars, Flute and Strings”), his later albums are lengthy without variety. Any album which takes on the ennui of touring and travelling isn’t likely to be good, and Hotel sure ain’t: including its bonus CD, it’s TWO HOURS LONG. Metallica, once so precise, let their albums after the Black Album bloat ridiculously: where was the producer telling them where to cut, huh, Bob Rock? (Death Magnetic might have “only” ten songs, but only one is under 6.25!). Tricky, on the other hand, hasn’t really expanded the running time of his albums: it just feels like it. (How incredible, and how depressing, to have a continual downward trajectory with every album!).

3. Bad Pacing

I’ve gone into this in more detail here, but suffice it to say, I hate hate HATE albums which put all their good songs on the first half. Shoddy endings show the band doesn’t care about the album as a whole, and just hope listeners dig the hits at the start. Even good bands do this sometimes. Although  Radiohead close The Bends with the wonderful “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, they precede this with the two worst songs on the album, “Black Star” and “Sulk”. OK Computer, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a good closer, leaving the dismal “Lucky” and “The Tourist” to close an otherwise excellent album.

4. Lack Of Information

This isn’t an issue these days, now most people get their music digitally, and there’s sources like the inestimable Allmusic.com and Wikipedia where you can get all you might need. But back in the day of LPs, cassettes and CDs, I used to scour album covers for information: lyrics, songwriters, producers, recording details, images, additional musicians (always revealing), etc. It was part of the whole experience of the album, to sit with your headphones on and to read the lyrics and liner notes as the band played on. But some lazy bastards never bothered with this, giving the cover, track listing, and nothing else. Iron Maiden for example always did this; cunts.

Some people complain about iTunes but personally I think it’s terrific. I love how it organises your music, and lets you see the albums with a choice of the information: I go for Name, Time, Album by Artist, Genre, Plays (i.e. number of times you’ve played it), Last Played, and Year (i.e. of release).I don’t know if it’s because I’m just anal retentive about music or if all this data helps organise a large collection, but I really like it.

5. Crap Speakers

I’m partly guilty of this one myself: too often, I just fire up iTunes on my laptop and listen through its speakers, rather than bothering to plug my iPod into the speakers. (I do have a proper sound system “back home” in the UK but haven’t bothered getting one while in China). Music to be properly appreciated needs the full spectrum of frequencies, in particular the bass tones which small tinny speakers (such as from a laptop or  mobile phone)  cannot reproduce. While laptop speakers have been improving (I recall seeing an Acer laptop which had a small subwoofer), they  still produce only a pale shadow of the full audio spectrum. (And that’s before we even get into discussing the advantages of FLAC files over crappy MP3s).

How about you?

A Sense Of Structure

I particularly like artists who understand pacing in an album. These days, indeed, the entire concept of the album is disappearing, as people buy individual tracks off iTunes rather than complete albums. It’s just too easy to skip over tracks which aren’t as interesting, and the same for tracks which take longer to assimilate, are less immediate: how could you appreciate a song like “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, with its several sections and range of emotions, on the first go? Or even something with multiple layers of sound like techno or “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”?

So albums which are well-paced are doubly precious. Artists who can do this have an understanding of the symphonic, structural possibilities of music: not to get too wanky about it, but acts like Mike Oldfield (in his earlier days: his vision gradually disappeared entirely), Kraftwerk, and The Stones Roses (to take three disparate examples) all knew how to structure an album well. It really is phenomenal, and endlessly irritating, the amount of albums which simply stick most of the good songs in the first half, or have end with filler crap: to take some random examples of otherwise good albums, Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys (have they ever done a consistently good album?), Maxinequaye by Tricky, Fat Of The Land by The Prodigy (absurdly over-rated in comparison to Jilted Generation), even Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, both of which have awful pairs of closing songs.

No. A great album should have a sense of mounting momentum, or failing that just have a great ending. The Beatles, of course, were masters of this. While the middle period albums Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul all mysteriously have shoddy endings, Please Please Me, With The Beatles, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, the White Album, and (especially!) Abbey Road (the Fabs’ most symphonic album) all have outstanding closers. (I realise that this is highly debatable in the case of the White Album – but I love the way the babbling stream-of-consciousness “Revolution #9” is followed by the lush dreaminess of  “Good Night”. Much of sides 3 and 4 are, as Ian MacDonald says, distinctly “crepuscular”, occupying an eery twilit halfworld).

Similarly, Pink Floyd. With Roger Waters and Nick Mason coming from an architectural background, their initial post-Barrett works are naturally sound-structures more than hooky songs. “A Saucerful Of Secrets” was famously sketched out using architectural symbols, for example. Later on, during their astounding Dark Side Of The MoonThe Wall hot streak, the Floyd had an orchestral understanding of the pacing of an album: for example, ending DSOTM with the utterly majestic “Eclipse”; bookending Wish You Were Here with the stately “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, and with “In The Flesh” acting as an overture and the various versions of “Another Brick In The Wall” being repeating leitmotifs in The Wall, aspects more commonly found in Wagner or Beethoven.

I’m not trying to say that a well-paced album need have symphonic pretensions, but simply point out that good bands understand that the framing of a song, its relations to its neighbours, is important to the enjoyment of an album. Take The Damned: I would argue that their first album, Damned! Damned! Damned!, is the best punk album ever. It’s just so well paced: it opens brilliantly with the nervy “Neat Neat Neat”, side 1 ends with the cheap cider and black lipstick gothica of “Feel The Pain”, while Side 2 opens with the delirious, delicious “New Rose”, goes by in a speed-induced flash, then ends with the magnificent cover “I Feel Alright” (aka “1970” by The Stooges), which about the closest any English band came to matching the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” (still the most savagely dissonant song known to mankind).

Or take The Stone Roses: it begins mysteriously, with the dark, reverb-heavy “I Wanna Be Adored”, follows this with the euphoric “She Bangs The Drums” and the beautifully chiming “Waterfall”, and ends the side with the sugar-rush of “Bye Bye Badman”. Side 2 opens with the gentle-yet-biting “Elizabeth My Dear”, dispels the cynicism with the glorious ringing chords of “Sugar Spun Sister”, which then yields to the impossible magnificence of “Made Of Stone”. Wisely, the next song is the slower “Shoot You Down” (anything else would be anticlimactic), but restores momentum with the vast resonating chords of “This Is The One” and then end with the surging psychedelic space jam of “I Am The Resurrection” – that incredible coda, like you’re flying through heaven towards some Garden of Eden, urged on by everyone you have ever loved beckoning you in. (Or is it just me?). Really fucking amazing.

The Doors and L.A. Woman; The Queen Is Dead; Trans Europe Express; Reign In Blood; Automatic for The People; Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space; The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion; Dirt; The Boy With The Arab Strap: those are others off the top of my head which organise their songs really well.

A Vulgar Display Of Power; Copper Blue; Zooropa; The Velvet Underground And Nico (though it pains me to say it); Use Your Illusion (I and II); every Michael Jackson album that isn’t Thriller; every XTC album that isn’t Skylarking: all of them suffer from bad pacing that would obscure weaker  songs, usually by stuffing all the good songs on the first side.

Any more suggestions in either category?