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.

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In Praise Of… Live At The Ritz

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dance Albums

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

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

Daft Punk Homework

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

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

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

Leftfield Leftism

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

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

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation

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

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

Various Essential Skint

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

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

Chemical Brothers Surrender

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

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

Thee Madkatt Courtship I Know Electrikboy

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

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

Awesome Intros

There’s nothing like a good intro which grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gets your heart-a-tingling with the its awesomeness. Vast vistas can be summoned, entire moods established; the whole song summarised in essence. Here’s a fandabydozy selection.

Gimme Shelter

Oh god, that tremolo, that unsettling “Oooooh”… and the way Charlie Watts kicks in with the drums as the harmonica wails. Spine-tingling.

Out Ta Get Me

Guns at their best, with two fucking incredible guitarists. It’s interesting how though Izzy and Slash have pretty similar guitar sounds (not sure what guitars they used to record the album), they don’t really get in each other’s way, there’s a degree of space between them that lets the sound breathe. And goddamn, the tension they raise, over the straight beats by Steven Adler… fuck yeah!

She Loves You

I described this elsewhere:

The tom-tom roll sets it careening, but the first two declarations of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” are jerked back, heightening to an impossible tension (right from the very start!!), while the third iteration releases it into the first verse with superb momentum. The verses, sung jointly by Lennon and McCartney, just sizzles with their harmonised vocals, and in the chorus, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” absolutely soars.

Incident after incident after incident, all getting you to prick up your ears right from the off. The Fabs knew every trick in the damn book.

Eton Rifles

Another intro rich with drama and anticipation – you just have to listen on. It’s just so dramatic, the guitar drenching electricity over the bass’s rhythmic figure. Superb. (The verses don’t maintain this level, but the chorus is outstanding).

Firestarter

Nothing, but NOTHING, has a more dramatic, danger-filled intro.

Face The Slayer

I love the way that the tension rises and rise, the feeling of rising tide of evil just ready to burst loose. Slayer were the masters at that (see also: “Evil Has no Boundaries”, “Angel Of Death” and “South of Heaven”). The twin guitars are straight out of Iron Maiden/Judas Priest, but Slayer make them their own.

Higher Ground

What the fuck is that insanely funky thing at the very start? Whatever it is, its inflexions just get your hips grooving. (“Permit me to demonstrate”).

Wish Fulfilment

If you want some out-there distortion or weirdness, you need a steady figure to play off of, and to centre the listener. Thurston Moore’s overcharged distorted geetar, an almost melodic otherworldly yowling, plays over a simple figure by Lee Ronaldo, then… BAM!

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.

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?

The Best Paul McCartney Bass Lines

EDIT

Ahem. I’ve been informed that both “Drive My Car” and “Two Of Us” have bass played by George. My bad; should’ve checked. But then both do sound very like McCartney, so I imagine he told George what to play.

*

I haven’t written about the Beatles for a while, have I? 🙂 Must be time for another worship at the glorious temple that is the Beatle canon. Man, the Fabs are just endlessly playable, aren’t they? If you get a bit tired of one period, another will sound fresh and revitalising. And there’s always something new to savour and relish.

I’ve eulogised Macca in various pieces (like here and here), but let’s take a closer look at precisely why I rate him so highly as a bass player. (His song writing, arrangements and singing will have to wait for another day…)

(This list is by no means complete, nor is it in order!)

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

When you’re young, you usually hear about the Beatles because of Sgt Pepper, and the notoriety of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (“it’s about drugs, innit?”). I’m not so sure – while “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus” are clearly acid-inspired, there seems less direct drug inspiration in prime psychedelic-era Beatles than, say, an album like Incredible String Band’s contemporaneous The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. (Just check out a song like “Three Is A Green Crown“, which is incantatory). “Lucy” seems to me to be more about creating a sound world than re-creating the psychedelic experience. While it’s by no means one of the great songs, the bass-playing shows Macca’s exceptional creativity, and how much thought went into every part of every song. Musicologist Alan Pollack has helpfully annotated the sections:

  • First verse: downbeats only;
  • First bridge: every beat, largely with repeated notes;
  • First refrain: running eighth notes in Baroque fashion;
  • Second verse: downbeats only, again;
  • Second bridge: every beat, with more in the way of arpeggio outlines;
  • Second refrain: running eighth notes, again;
  • Third verse: more active and in a less regimented manner than previously;
  • Outro: more running eighth notes, this time with arpeggios as well as melodic runs.

What this means for the song is that McCartney’s bass provides an amazing complement to the tune: the refrain (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds! / Ah…“) in particular finds Macca running up and down the fretboard in excited (and exciting) freedom, as the song exults in glorious colour. The arpeggios in the outro (most easily heard at 3.08) similarly add to the sense of overwhelming colour and creativity. (That, and everything being put through a Leslie).

Taxman

With its distorted (by George) count-in intro (though you can hear the real in-time one from Macca), “Taxman” was taken to inaugurate The Beatles 2.0. While Rubber Soul was an enriching and a broadening, Revolver is an astonishing expansion of the imagination, a spiritual and moral enlightening. Yes, really. With its songs going from death and taxes to a shattering encounter with the mystical, Revolver‘s trajectory is a stunning example of transcendence beyond the earthly. (Yes, really).

“Taxman” opens the album in monochrome. (It will end in dazzling colour). Macca’s bass line drives the song, its thick, thudding sound remaining more active than the guitars, which slash across it. Played prominent (bum-de-bum-bum-bum) in a well-mixed broth (guitars, drums and bass all have room to be heard separately), it is the first second Beatle song to have the bass as lead instrument (“Rain” was released two months prior, as the b-side to “Paperback Writer”). It is both almost funkily rhythmical and melodically captivating – so much so that The Jam could steal it for their song “Start” and get to #1…  fourteen years later!

Sun King

This is all about bass tone and sound. Though some bass players have a distinctive style (such as Lemmy, Peter Hook or Kim Gordon), in general I prefer the warm, supple, resonant bass sound. It’s just delicious. “Sun King”, though essentially just a mood/atmosphere piece, is a masterclass of bass tone – just admire how warm and rich that sound is. (Though Macca is known for his Hofner “violin” bass, in the recording studio he generally used a Rickenbacker as it allowed greater fluidity). Notable, too, that the bass leads the initial melody: though it’s a Lennon song, Macca frequently embellished Lennon’s sparse tunes with remarkable invention. “Sun King” is a wonderful example of the endless pleasure of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.

Two Of Us

It’s fascinating that most of the best McCartney bass lines are for Lennon songs. Here, though, is one of Macca’s own, a song about his random driving trips with Linda but seems to also act as a lament for a simpler time with Lennon . The song is played with lovely accoustics (though you can hear it emerge through different versions in the Let It Be film – one is a fast, electric version with Lennon and McCartney up close and sharing one microphone – magnetism and sparks fly off them), with numerous exceptional bass parts. During the verse Macca plays a chunky, inflexive line, which is terrific, but he also adds numerous leading moments. Check out the rising scale (at 1.24, the start of the chorus: “You and I have memories…“). Bloody terrific. Note, too, how at the start of each verse (0.04-0.08, 0.43-0.48 for example), the bass line splays all over the guitar, lilting up and down. These kinds of loving detail is precisely what elevates a decent song to a great one. (The vocal melodies are also magnificent).

Drive My Car

The early Beatle songs, like all records of their time, lacked much bass timbre: engineers and producers feared making the needle skip across the record if there was too much vibration. McCartney, perhaps through ego (the kind of thing that made Metallica fuck up the production of …And Justice For All) but hopefully through an awareness that an increased frequency reproduction enriched the listening experience, strove to increase the prominence of his bass on Beatle recordings. We can thank him and the always experimenting George Martin for inaugurating the richer sounds found from the mid-1960s. The Xmas 1965 LP Rubber Soul was the first to demonstrate the Beatles’ broader sound world. Taking their cue from the soul and Rn’B world of James Brown, Stax, Ray Charles, yet filtering it through their own pop sensibility and ironic, Liverpudlian take on the outside world, Rubber Soul was perhaps the first outstanding leap of their musical career. (Incredible that there would be numerous others!)

While the guitars that open the first song “Drive My Car” are trebly and twangy, the bass is suddenly front and centre, and coalesces into a marvellous drum n’ bass arrangement with Ringo. For the first time I think, the rhythm is driving (as it were) the tune. Dig how it ends each line in the verse with the “dun-de-de-de-dun” bit, and how this pops up at the end of the chorus. From now on, Macca’s bass would be one of the most prominent weapons in the Beatle arsenal.

I’ve Got A Feeling

This is a fine example of where Let It Be… Naked is preferable to the Spectorised Let It Be. It’s not just that the orchestration which Spector trowelled on is absent: the individual instruments stand out in stark clarity, as can be immediately heard on the introductory electric piano, while the first harmonised “Oh yeah!” has so much more punch and colour. But what is most memorable here is the sound of Macca’s bass throughout the verses – it’s practically hypnotic, it’s so rich with that fizzy, fuzzy, warm, electric bass sound. You can just about feel the thick bass strings vibrating, the electrons getting tickled and buzzing though the amp. The instrumental break, too, is an utter delight, as Macca plays off the beat (from 2.34, and repeated at 3.08). It is simply magnificent.