Out The Ordinary

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

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline

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

U2, Achtung Baby/Zooropa

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

REM – Monster

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

Slayer, South of Heaven

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

Talking Heads, Remain In Light

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

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Live! Tonight! Sold Out!

(To borrow a phrase from Nirvana)

I’m not, to be honest, much of a gig-goer. I’ve worked in bars and nightclubs which had live performances, and seen the whole gamut of quality. The nightclub was an underground/alternative kinda place, and often had excellent DJs (Grandmaster Flash, one of the guys from Orbital, brilliant jungle and drum and bass nights), and bands from Napalm Death to local pop-punk that was lapped up by the kids (band sets were open to those 14 and over; staff called it “the paedo shift”). The bar was a bog standard chain lager-burgers-sports venue, and had bands every Friday: even now, eight years later, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Brown Eyed Girl”, I get violent. Also, I like to listen to music whilst reading or writing: when you’re at a gig, you’re compelled to seem like your enjoying yourself, rather than being able to discuss what you find interesting or striking about the performance. Yeah, I’m a real chattering classes type (how I hate that derisory phrase, so typical of Britain). The main exception to this is jazz: maybe it’s because the first time I encountered jazz was at a gig when  I just utterly got it immediately: one of those brilliant “Eureka!” moments. But then jazz, even when recorded, is about the performance and enactment of creativity, so there’s less of a dichotomy between records and gigs as there is in rock, say.

While the live video is nowadays mostly filler (compare with the 70s, when bands often made their big breakthroughs on live albums – such as Kiss Alive! or Frampton Comes Alive!), there’s still plenty good ones out there, especially with DVDs capturing the sound better than ever.

1. Guns N’ Roses, New York Ritz, 1988

I struggle to comprehend that this was 24 years ago. I’d only recently bought Appetite For Destruction, and by coincidence BBC2 was having a “Heavy Metal Heaven” season, as presented by Elvira. I dimly remember watching stuff like Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, and (by the same director) the shockingly raw and disturbing film Suburbia. But they were also kind enough to show this: Guns N’ Roses when they were lean, ferociously hungry and incredibly good. They looked amazing, they were tight as fuck (I always say that Izzy was the best guitarist – Slash is great at soloing, but the riffs are all Izzy’s), and the performance rocked. I must have watched this every day for about a year, and seen it hundreds of times. GNR’s later televised gigs – one in Paris, and the double Live in Japan set – are utterly dreadful. They never really mastered stadium shows, being catapulted from clubs to arenas within one year. This gig is when they were setting the world on fire, and it’s a glorious reminder of how absolutely fucking awesome they were for that brief period.

2. U2, Zoo TV, Sydney 1994

Yeah, yeah, Bono is a wanker. We know… I’m not massive on U2 either: I find their albums pretty hit and miss, with lots of empty emotional posturing, like on “In God’s Country”, or simple banality (pretty much everything after Pop). The albums I do really like are their mid-period postmodernist pieces, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are colourful, imaginative, and superbly produced by Brian Eno. Their Zoo TV tour is probably the most jaw-dropping stadium spectacle this side of The Wall: both are ironic meditations of their particular form of performance, too. Zoo TV’s media overload hyper-babble was very prescient, considering it was pre-internet, but the main thing is the spectacle, with video screens, lights, and stage design combining to create a terrific sensory overload.The “unplugged” set practically in the middle of the audience is a terrific counterpoint.

3. Nirvana Unplugged, 1994

On the other hand, simple stark performances are equally effective. With  lilies and candles giving a funereal, sepulchral atmosphere, and the awkward intra-band chat revealing the huge tensions between them, Nirvana somehow manage to give the performance of a lifetime. They’d until then been known for the enormous energy and charisma of their stage shows. This Unplugged took away all that and let the performance speak for itself: rescuing “About A Girl” as the great pop song it is, letting the great Cobain-Grohl harmonies in “All Apologies” and “On A Plain” come to the fore. The six covers are brilliantly chosen, from the unwinding, enigmatic “Plateau” to the bone-chilling primal blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?“. It’s heart-rending stuff.

4. Beatles Rooftop Gig, 1969

Nowadays easily downloadable, this is absurdly hard to get a hold of legally. Of course, Let It Be hardly shows the Fabs at their best, but the Rooftop gig is still bloody great. Part of it is the band interaction: with Lennon centre and Macca to his right, they often turn to face each other when harmonising, creating a fascinating mirror image (Macca being a southpaw, of course). George, left of Lennon, doesn’t get much of a look-in, steadfastly keeping an eye on them as he hops from foot to foot to keep rhythm. Lennon’s spindly guitarists’ fingers are noticeable, while Ringo looks happy just to be there. But then of course the music is glorious: “Don’t Let Me Down” has better, more vibrant, harmonies than in the recorded version; “One After 909” is better as a live throwaway than on record; “I’ve Got A Feeling” just pulses with emotion; and “Get Back” shows how well they synch with each other, so long after that Candlestick Park gig.

5. Queen, Live Aid, 1985

Guess I really have to have this here. Freddy Mercury grabs 80,000 people by the scruff of the neck and completely owns them. A performance that is utterly Olympian. Music’s none too shabby either.

6. Michael Jackson doing “Billy Jean”, Motown 25, 1983

With Thriller not long out, this is the moment when Jackson seizes the mantle of the World’s Best Pop Star. Having first performed a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, Jacko goes on to show why he is indeed the King of Pop. With dance moves beamed in from some futuristic parallel dimension, he does things with his ankles that defy the laws of physiognomy, before clinching it with the unveiling of the moonwalk. I love the way that he was such an aggressive, angry dancer.

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Legends I Just Don’t Get

antimusic

I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

Musical Pet Hates

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

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

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

1. Best-Of Albums with Crappy Remixes

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

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

2. Overly Long Albums

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

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

3. Bad Pacing

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

4. Lack Of Information

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

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

5. Crap Speakers

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

How about you?

A Sense Of Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any more suggestions in either category?

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc