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.

Advertisements

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?

Punk-Rock-O-Rama

In my post about “Favourite Bands Through Time” I mentioned how I’d discovered the Sex Pistols then had lots of fun raking through the punk compilations albums (which are ten-a-penny, of course, but then most punk bands only had one or two good songs, so most of the music lives on through these hodge-podge collections). I thought then I’d give a flavour of these songs. Everyone still remembers the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and to a lesser extent The Damned, The Jam, and The Stranglers, but are Discharge, Sham 69 and The Adicts as much in the public consciousness? I doubt it. Here, then, are twenty punk songs which I think are tremendous.

1. The Damned – “I Feel Alright”

A cover of The Stooge’s “1970”, this version is swampier and has a far, far more intense outro, the only time a UK punk band ever approximated the Velvet Underground. It simply KICKS ASS.

2. The Adicts – “Chinese Takeaway”

For me punk means total unabashed relish, not cynical negativity. The song exemplifies that!

3. Jilted John – “Jilted John”

Similarly, there are lots of humourous punk songs: “Maniac” by Peter and The Testtube Babies, “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps” by Splodgenessabounds, hell even the Buzzcock’s “Orgasm Addict” is great fun. But this novelty hit is all-out wally-ish pisstaking.

4. Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”

The adrenaline and energy of punk is rarely better captured than on this.

5. Public Image Limited – “Public Image”

Though PIL quickly became a post-punk band (best achieved on their second album Metal Box, which I think one of the best albums of the 1980s), this is a genius blast: Keith Levein’s aluminium guitar (to deeply influence The Edge), Jah Wobble’s ocean-deep bass, and Lydon’s outraged nasal shriek.

6. Discharge – “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing”

HEAVY. AS. FUCK.

7. The Boys – “First Time”

I keep having to explain to people that pop-punk was NOT invented by Avril Lavigne or Sum 41 or whatever kiddy music they think it was. From the off, punk had some bands with a melodic aspect to them – the Buzzcocks, for example, Talking Heads, and obviously Blondie. This British group are one of the great lost pop-punk bands.

8. Manic Street Preachers – “It’s So Easy”

This version is actually punkier than the Guns N’ Roses original, and all the better for it. (Not saying it’s better, but amplifying the punky aspect gives it its own character).

9. 999 – “Feelin’ Alright With The Crew”

Don’t know much about them. Love the song though. Punk wasn’t all ra-ra-ra Ramones-on-speed riffing, yer know.

10. Bow Wow Wow – “C30, C60 C90, Go!”

Same with this – tribal drums yeah! It was so depressing to see Malcolm McLaren’s funeral hearse surrounded by rent-a-punk twats in mohawks and leathers. The man was far more diverse than that, as seen by this, his (as it were) comeback band.

11. Talking Heads – “Love –> Building On Fire”

This song could hardly be less punk, which somehow makes it all the more punk. With David Byrne’s falsetto, the fey tone and the absence of CHUGGA-CHUGGA riffs, it somehow still encapsulates the otherness of punk.

12. Big Black – “The Model”

Covering Kraftwerk’s wry tale, Big Black turn the treble up to 11 and everything to 0. True dissonant abrasion. You won’t be surprised that Big Black’s main man, Steve Albini, later produced Nirvana’s In Utero.

13. Sham 69 – “If The Kids Are United”

This song just about exemplifies punk – the military beat, the rousing riff, the veneration of “the kids”, the football-crowd chorus, the raw zest.

14. Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden

Though Siouxsie quickly shifted to a Ballardian examination of the English (sub)urban darkness, this early classic is just all that’s right about punk.

15. Vice Squad – “Stand Strong, Stand Proud”

Dunno much about this band either, but this is a killer song.

16. X-Ray Spex – “Art-I-Ficial”

Dear Poly Styrene! Her take on consumerism and capitalism crucially expanded the vocabulary of punk – there’s still lots of that stuff in the crusty/grebo subgenres. Adding a saxophone is a bloody simply but killer move too.

17. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – “I Love Rock And Roll”

I’m sure some smart-arse will comment how JJ isn’t really punk, etc etc. Meh. Punk certainly did encourage a whole lot of women to get up on stage, which (given the homogeneity and blandness of post-millennial rock) can only have been a good thing.

18. The Saints – “Stranded”

Australia produced some pretty kickin’ punk bands, and this song is one of the best to come from there.

19. The Exploited – “Dead Cities”

I’m not keen on hardcore (for which read: simplify to absurd levels) punk, but this song has got an amazing riff which just never stops driving. Can you believe this was actually on Top Of The Pops? Different days!

20. Undertones – “Teenage Kicks”

OK, everyone knows (or SHOULD know) this one, but it can’t be denied! 2.27 of perfection.

Great Albums

My constant ranting about bands that can’t put together a decent album made me think – well, which albums (qua albums) are really great? Which albums hang together in their entirety; which have that enormously satisfying quality of having no crap? Despite Paul’s belief that few bands manage to avoid filler, I think there are actually quite a few bands manage to do at least one really great album – though very few do more than two, I’d reckon, being unable to develop beyond their initial sound. So here are some of my own nominees for the “No Crap” club of great, consistent listens.

1. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized

A magnificent album which I think is in the top 3 for the 1990s. Building on the long dense grooves of Lazer Guided Melodies, LAGWAFIS adds a bucketload of heartbreak and a few thunderbolts of overblown Stooges-y guitar, making the album not dreamy but utterly pulsing in emotion. You’ve got the wry “Think I’m In Love” with its brilliant phon/antiphon couplets (“I think I can rock and roll – Probably just twisting / I think I wanna tell the world – Probably ain’t listening”), the surging “Electricity”, the revelatory “Cool Waves”, and the astonishing cacophonic vortex of “Cop Shoot Cop”, perhaps the nearest musical approximation of THE VOID I have ever encountered. Not a song is out of place, not a moment wasted, even in the seventeen (count ’em) minutes of “Cop Shoot Cop”. (Is it just me or is it no coincidence that this is the same length as “Sister Ray”?) LAGWAFIS is – and I really believe this – as good as Dark Side of The Moon, though it maybe doesn’t quite reach the same majestic heights as “Eclipse”.

2. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses

When they were big, in 1989-1990ish, I absolutely despised the Roses, just as I did The Happy Mondays, The Inspiral Carpets, and all the Madchester scene. Of course I did – I was a greaser and anything new and fashionable must therefore be liked by weak minded fools. Well, I’ve grown up (a bit) since then, and it seems to me now that Madchester and the contemporaneous “rave” scene were about the last organic musical revolution in the UK – at least to affect the whole of British pop culture. While The Soup Dragons and The Charlatans were really just ephemera, The Stones Roses is an album of the utmost quality, one which I really can’t praise enough. Quite apart from the classic songwriting, there are so many moments of absolute genius – the delicious vocal harmonies on “Waterfall”, that delirious surge into the chorus of “Made Of Stone”, the HOLY FUCK THIS IS INCREDIBLE psychedelic jam ending “I Am The Resurrection”, that wonderful instrumental section in “She Bangs The Drums”, where Mani plays Hall (from 1.40) a simple but tension-filled groove, over which Squire solos, the whole thing building and building until Reni thumps in on drums (2.19) to release the musical orgasm of the utterly joyful chorus. Genius. The sense of youthful delight and possibility coursing through the whole album is utterly infectious.

3. The Man Machine by Kraftwerk

Pop/rock has The Beatles. Alternative music has the Velvet Underground. Metal has Black Sabbath. The blues has Robert Johnson. And electronic music, almost in its entirety, is the progeny of Kraftwerk. Their great albums are stunningly consistent, and of their amazing run Radio Activity (1975) – Trans Europe Express (1977) – The Man Machine (1978) Computer World (1981), only TEE  stumbles with “Hall Of Mirrors”, which has not aged well. Still, with absolute landmarks like “Europe Endless” and “Trans Europe Express”, there’s not much to complain about. I would suggest though that of those four, The Man Machine is the one crammed with the most riches. The insistent robotic electronica and delicious dry wit of “We Are The Robots” (sample line: “We are programmed just to do / Anything you want us to”), the highflown indifference of “Spacelab”, the wry fuck-you of “The Model”, the sheer sonic brilliance of “Neon Lights”: here’s an entire album of incomparable musical vision and magnificent execution. If it was released today, it would sound fresh – it’s thirty-fucking-four years old!

4. Closer by Joy Division

Let us not worship  at the altar of the doomed young man. It’s juvenile to glorify unfulfilled promise untempered by the trials and compromises of life – which is precisely why such figures are so popular with adolescents (see also Richey Edwards; Sylvia Plath; Kurt Cobain). Quite apart from that, Joy Division were a stunningly talented band, with complementary talents: Peter Hook’s prominent bass, Bernard Sumner’s dissonant shards of guitar and glacial synths, Stephen Morris’ highly kinetic drumming, and Ian Curtis’ sonorous vocals and haunting, literary lyrics. Closer has more variety and breaks more ground than Unknown Pleasures: the shambling rhythms of “Atrocity Exhibition”, the icy synths of “Isolation”, the haunting funeral procession of “The Eternal”, the sotte voce heartbreak of “Heart And Soul”… not a dud moment.

5. Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

Insanely brilliant.

6. Animals by Pink Floyd

Animals seems to be the great forgotten Floyd album, the lonely child in their incredible Dark Side of the Moon-The Wall hot streak. Everyone knows Dark Side spend a gazillion years on the charts and everyone knows “Another Brick In The Wall II”; likewise Wish You Were Here is most often cited as the best Floyd album.

Bollocks.

While Dark Side is definitely a leap on from Meddle and a massive soar from Atom Heart Mother, there are a couple of things that bug me about it. (“How iconoclastic!”) First, the production – OK, in numerous points it’s absolute fucking genius – see “On The Run”, and also the excellent Classic Albums program on Dark Side, where Gilmour takes the viewer through all the (8) tracks in the song and how it was mixed in real time. But there’s something about “Money” which I find irritating: it seems stiff and jerky. It would have been better perhaps to keep it in the deep blues arrangement in which it was first essayed. Also “Time” – the vocal in the first verse annoys me – too dry, or something. Also, “Us And Them” seems a bit wishy-washy. This is not to say I dislike these songs, as these are really just minor quibbles, but when you’re talking about genius it’s the minor things that differentiate them. And WYWH – while “Shine On” is majestic and “Wish You Were Here” one of the finest articulations of empathy and humanity in rock music, “Have A Cigar” seems like a long sneer and “Welcome To The Machine” a bunch of sound effects over self-pitying lyrics.

Oh, but Animals! Perhaps it requires a certain openness to or appreciation of the longer song – certainly Animals can appear as three unapproachable slabs of +10 minute songs (“Dogs”: 17.08, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”: 11.33, “Sheep”: 10.21). But being one who has always enjoyed long multi-sectioned songs, Animals hits the spot every time. Consider “Dogs”: it’s the longest of the lot, true, but it has four distinct sections. First, there’s the second-person description of the businessman (“You gotta be crazy / Gotta have a real need”) ready “to put the knife in”, and a fierce howl of a solo from David Gilmour (the one starting from 5.31), a masterful example of space and economy. (The entire song is probably his best Pink Floyd work). Then there’s the drifting, shadowy, echoing section, the word “stone” repeating like a tolling bell. Then there’s the section sung by Waters, the lyrics shifting to first person (“Gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused / Sometimes it seems to me like I’m just being used”), giving the character’s thoughts and reflections at the end of it all. Finally, there’s the final summation of the worthlessness of this form of life, each line beginning “Who was”, rather like the first section of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl – “Who was broken by trained personnel”, “Who was fitted with collar and chain”, “Who was dragged down by the stone”. With razor-sharp musicianship (each member of the Floyd has a moment in the spotlight), incisive social commentary, keen sense of sonic possibility and intelligent structure, “Dogs” exemplifies the best of Waters-era Floyd. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” are almost as good. The caustic gloom and enormous tension of “Pigs” is terrific, and where else can you find a line as good as “You radiate cold shard of broken glass”? The pastoral revolt of “Sheep” is brilliant, especially in the final verse: “Have you heard the news? The dogs are dead!” The structure, with the introduction and coda of “Pigs On The Wing” is smart, too, giving a human touch to an album of some considerable anger and belligerence.

Class.

*

Some others: Burnin’, Catch A Fire and Exodus by Bob Marley; Revolver by The Beatles (I’m tempted to say the White Album too, but we all know this isn’t really true); Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; The Specials; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine; Automatic For The People by REM; The Velvet Underground (i.e. without Nico); The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths; London Calling by The Clash; Dolittle by The Pixies.

Yeah?

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?

Lyricists

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

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

1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs”

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

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather

Whiplash girl-child in the dark

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

Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Clash, “Lost In The Supermarket”

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

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

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

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

[Chorus]

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

4. The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus”

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

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

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

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

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

5. Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”

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

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

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

6. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

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

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

7. John Cage, “4’33”

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