Kraftwerk: An Appreciation

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

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

Autobahn

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

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

Radio Activity

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

Trans Europe Express

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

The Man Machine

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

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

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

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

Computer World

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

I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator

 

By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody

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

 *

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

Top Ten Mega Favourite Music Acts In The World Of All Time Ever

  1. Beatles
  2. Pink Floyd
  3. Kraftwerk
  4. Miles Davis
  5. Velvet Underground
  6. Sex Pistols
  7. Guns N’ Roses
  8. Boards Of Canada
  9. Joy Division
  10. Nick Drake
  11. Metallica
  12. Rolling Stones
  13. John Coltrane
  14. Mike Oldfield
  15. Nirvana
  16. Queen
  17. Pubic Image Limited
  18. Spiritualized
  19. Talking Heads
  20. Aphex Twin

Edit – added an 11-20.

I guess it really comes down to albums – though Queen, for example, have an strong list of classic tunes, their albums are a bit hit-and-miss, with only A Night At The Opera and The Game really consistent, I’d say; and their 80s stuff is pretty banal, to my ears.

Albums Which Terrify Me

Some music is damn scary stuff. I’m not talking about the mostly juvenile Satanisms of Black Sabbath or Slayer or the “gargling vomit” histrionics of death metal. That kind of music is all about effect and atmosphere; it can be mighty enjoyable if you like that kind of thing, in the same way as a horror film or a good gothic novel, but I have the constant overriding feeling that it is all a performance. “Angel Of Death” is a brutally effective evocation of Auschwitz and the abominable deeds of Joseph Mengele, from the screaming insanity of the dueling guitar solos to the pummeling double bass drums, but it is essentially just that – a musical rendition of a terrible historical event. It is an act.

Nor I do not include distinctly sepulchral albums like Nirvana’s Unplugged, or aggressively bleak albums like The Wall or Lou Reed’s Berlin. In the former case, Unplugged, while funereal, is often elegiac, seeming to welcome death. A case can be made for In Utero being a more frightening album (the unraveling second half now feels to be more meaningful: at the time of release it felt lazy, now it feels like a metaphor for Kurt Cobain’s entire life), but it too has patches of warmth and heart, as in “Pennyroyal Tea” and the lovely “All Apologies”. The Wall seems to me to be almost autistically bitter, and unpleasant to listen to apart from the well-known highlights, while Berlin is Lou Reed’s chameleonic exploration of psychic areas: here he mines a grim and bitter seam, but his eye is dispassionate, not involved. No: for true fear, you’ve got to have a sense of artistic and personal involvement. Thomas Hardy said the role of the poet is to move the reader’s heart by showing his own: Reed, oddly enough for a poet of a rock n’ roller, rarely does this (except perhaps in “Street Hassle” and much of the New York album. Ellen Willis notes in her magnificent essay on the Velvet Underground how even standout tracks like “Venus In Furs” and “Sister Ray” are dramatisations rather than self-projections. Reed was always keen to let others sing his words: lyrics were not confessionals to him but literary creations).

The real horror, as good writers in the genre know, is within. The scariest music is that which evokes human feelings and situations. No supernatural bogeymen or monsters are necessary. While I have a vivid imagination and can get the fear like anyone else, the most terrible, scariest, times in my life have had little external cause – it’s all been internal. This is what truly frightening music evokes: mental landscapes of anguish, dread, angst, and even terror.

Joy Division Closer

While Unknown Pleasures often gets greater plaudits, this is the Joy Division album I find most unsettling. It is clearly the sound of a man (singer/lyricist Ian Curtis, of course) at the end of his tether. Unknown Pleasures is ferociously, even glossily, bleak – “Day Of Lords” is magnificent in its darkness (that staggering cry of “Where will it end?!”), while the increasing echo and reverb in “She’s Lost Control” give mind to being lost in a hall of mirrors– but Closer is the sound of painful acceptance.  There is no light; there never will be. Even the most uptempo tune in the album, “Isolation”, rings out with a glacial synthesizer, suggesting an utter cutting off of all social relations, all warmth, all humanity. Quieter, dragging tunes like “Passover”, “Decades” and “Heart And Soul” meanwhile evoke not the furious night of Unknown Pleasures but the bleak quiet dawn as suicide beckons. Perhaps the most affecting track is “The Eternal” which is clearly a funeral march. “Procession moves gone, the shouting is over”, as Curtis’ opening line has it. It’s all over; nothing more to fight for.

If all this is true, then why listen to it? What enjoyment can you derive from hearing a man prepare to kill himself? Tough question. Art to me is the conveying of feeling and emotion. Closer does that with unerring skill. To appreciate it, all you need is humanity and empathy. But that does not mean that the album grows any less somber a listen.

The scale of its achievement grows as the years roll by. Here is a literal musical suicide note. It is horrifying, bleak and grim. But it is brave, and true.

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

The Manics weren’t really taken seriously when they first popped up in the early 90s, with their heavy Clash borrowings, silly interview edginess, eyeliner and agitprop sloganeering. Their first album (a double, no less) is often transparently derivative, but has some nice hooks and big harmonies, even some sly humour. Their next, Gold Against The Soul, saw them chasing LA rock when it was obviously heading up the arse of Guns N’ Roses. (Still, “La Tristessa Durera” is a very good song). All of this led to guitarist Richey Edwards being asked if they were “for real”. In response, the self-cutting Edwards carved (not cut, but carved) “4 REAL” into his arm. Red flags and alarm bells aplenty there.

The Manics’ third album was perhaps even more shocking. The Holy Bible is a trawl through the charnel house of history and the screams of disturbed minds. It examines (with intense and apt musical accompaniment) the Holocaust, serial killers (imploring they be killed too – “Give them the respect they deserve!”), and the abuse of American imperial power (“Grenada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua”). But more disturbing are the songs on body horror, depression and self-destruction. Few albums can have opened with such disturbing song as “Yes”, with its bleak and bitter portrait of prostitution (“He’s a boy, you want a girl so cut off his cock”, “I hurt myself to get pain out”). There’s just an overwhelming feeling of disgust and despair. “Of Walking Abortion” is a stunning feral howl – not the poignant cry that “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, but a raging scream at the ugliness and bitterness of the world (“Everyone is guilty / Fucked up, don’t know why? You poor little boy”), and an violent recognition that we are all walking abortions. Grotesque cynicism like this had not been heard since maybe prime-era Throbbing Gristle. With its pounding rock beats and vicious intent, The Holy Bible is an exhausting, disgusted trawl through the ugly festering pile of humanity. It is a not so much a glimpse into the abyss, but a jump headfirst into it. Just six months after recording, its prime creative source and lyricist Richy Edwards’ car was found at the Severn service station, a popular suicide spot. He has not been seen since.

Nico The Marble Index

Nico’s first album was produced by Tom Wilson, who also “produced” the first Velvet Underground album (i.e. the one “& Nico”). Chelsea Girls is relatively melodic, matching Nico’s Germanic singing with folky, European arrangements. Only the atonal guitar/viola scrapings and melismatic caterwauling of central track “It Was A Pleasure Then” reminds the listener of the Velvets, being somewhere between “European Son” and “Heroin”. Nico wasn’t overly pleased by Wilson’s arrangements, saying:

I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! […] They added strings, and— I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.

Her second album, The Marble Index, does not feature any flute. Instead, pulsating harmonium and glacial strings are the order of the day. In “Lawns Of Dawn”, Nico’s vocals and the harmonium create a weird, incantatory atmosphere, which often recurs (as on “Facing The Wind” and “Frozen Warnings”). Soundscapes, rather than songs, evoke a grim, bleak, joyless emotional atmosphere. The skill is compelling (John Cale did much of the instrumentation) in precise evocation, though the audience must surely be limited (though Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith evidently had close listens).

In the album, Nico gives a sense of her being deeply emotionally damaged, and seeking the cold comfort of isolation. It is no surprise to learn that she was addicted to heroin for a long spell in the 1970s and 1980s.

(The funny thing is, as bleak as The Marble Index is, Nico’s cover of “The End” on a later album is even more unsettling).

Radiohead Kid A

I guess Radiohead have the mantle of the modern kings of gloom. (To be fair, later albums like In Rainbows do seem to admit a little tenderness). While The Bends married tales of loss and woe to anthemic (god, how I hate the word “anthems”!) indie rock, and OK Computer went further into alt rock and condemnation of modern life, Kid A was a revelation (to me at least). Marrying an overwhelming sense of despair at not just modern life but existence itself to cold electronics and the discordances of post-Coltrane jazz, Kid A is an album of overwhelming can’t-take-more-of-this anguish. This is best seen in the song “The National Anthem”. I described it in another blogpost (I don’t think I can convey it any better) as:

unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord.

“Everything In Its Right Place” is a ominous opener – is it just me or does the album cover suggest it? – with its bleak, icy atmosphere and cutting winds. It’s not all great – “Optimistic” is essentially Radiohead by numbers, and “Idioteque” is a leaden, boring pastiche of drum and bass and an easy lyrical target. But songs like “National Anthem”, “Morning Bell”, “Kid A”, How To Disappear Completely” and “Everything” add up to one of the most viscerally bleak and musically astute albums I’ve ever heard.

Musical Orgasms

Excuse the gap. I’ve been in a bit of an epistolary and blogging desert of late. Maybe it was the winter. But now it’s warming up and I felt that sense of rising energy and possibility that you do in spring. Ah, glorious seasonal renewal, and all that Wordsworth bit. I also broke my bloody iPod a few months ago, and my phone can only (“only”, he says! It wasn’t so long I had a 256MB mp3 player which I thought was the shit) hold about 20 albums. Thus the choice on the daily grind commute is restricted. (I know, I could change the albums around a lot more, but…)

So recent listening has been trimmed down to my absolute utter favourites. And what I’ve found, or been reminded, is that there are still lots of songs – well, brief intense moments – which are just absolute musical orgasms for me. The kind of thing where I go “Oh yes! FUCK YEAH! OOOOHHH MY GOOOOOOD!!” as I listen – inside at least; externally I probably have my usual gormless nose-in-a-book look. These bits are from songs I’ve been listening to for 10, 20, even 25 years, and their power to captivate and enthrall remain.

So what are some of them?

1. John Cale’s organ solo in “Sister Ray” (Velvet Underground)

In which John Cale on the organ takes on Sterling Morrison AND Lou Reed, both on electric guitars, and thrashes them. Cale is playing an organ through a guitar speaker, and by sheer gleeful noise-loving beat-the-fucker-til-it-breaks energy, brings the song to a tumultuous mid-point climax. It’s the opposite of the precise malevolence of so many death metal bands: “Sister Ray” is instead immensely abrasive and dissonant. Man, I love it!

I find “Sister Ray” an utterly fascinating song, structurally: there’s a terrific analysis of it by Jeff Schwartz in The Velvet Underground Companion (a very good book). It’s built on a simple three-chord riff (G-F-C, apparently) by Reed and Morrison, but against which Cale and then shortly Reed swiftly depart. By moving against the simple riff, they introduce abrasion and distortion – if you have a regular rhythmic figure, that’s when you can play off of it, as all metal guitarists will know. Reed and Cale get more and more in-your-face, soloing over Morrison who keeps the rhythm going, but by 3.57 it heads off into uncharted improvisational territory, speeding up at 5.30 (with some incredibly deft drumming from Mo Tucker, who somehow keeps pace), and Cale overpowering everyone else with a screeching exultant solo from 6.26 which even muffles Reed’s vocal. It really is incredible stuff.

(I haven’t even mentioned the climax, which is a incredible outpouring of energies, going beyond form into a supersonic slipstream… amazing).

Fact: the Buzzcocks got together after Howard Devoto placed an ad seeking to do a version of it. Another fact: Lou Reed cites “Sister Ray” as their version of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp freeform jazz kinda stuff. That was powerful stuff (like ramming themselves up against the very barriers of existence), but imagine that with the exponential power of massively redlining electric guitars and top-o’-the-line Vox amps. Final fact: consider the fact that the Velvet’s did this, and then on their next album did songs like “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free”, full of quiet nobility.

2. The relentless riff after the last “Battery” (Metallica)

Master Of Puppets was the first Metallica album I got, I think in about 1989 or 1990. I think it’s the best metal album ever and the title track I’ve eulogized several times before. The opening track “Battery” is an absolute stormer, though. It may the lack the ferocity of “Fight Fire With Fire”, the opener to predecessor Ride The Lightning, but it is perhaps more artful and more interesting – while no less intense. My favourite bit is after the final chorus, with the definitive shout of “BA-TTER-AY!” (4.45), how the riff kicks back in with an inexorable relentlessness. It sounded like nothing in the world could stop Metallica – their power, imagination, and indomitable anger would crush all before them. It was true, they conquered the world, but they never regained the heights of Puppets – the loss of Cliff Burton robbing Metallica of the one person who could stand up to both Ulrich and Hetfield. (Anyone who tries to argue that the Black Album is their best album will be laughed at, severely).

3. The instrumental/shift in “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)

There’s a nice line in Bad Wisdom about The Doors – how “you wanna hate them, but they keep popping up in your list of Top Ten All Time Bands In The World Ever”. I really only think they have two good albums, but then they are great albums at that, and The Doors is one of the best I’ve ever heard. L.A. Woman has a few more dips (“Crawling King Snake” is a bit of a snooze), but its peaks are amazing: not just the famous tunes like “Riders In The Storm”, but strong album tracks like “Hyacinth House”, “Love Her Madly” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”. “L.A. Woman”, though, starts up with this great careening rhythm (aptly enough), with Morrison gruffly crooning about “another lost angel in the city at night”. The terrific honkytonk solo from Manzarek goes from the second verse to a peak at 3.01 – at which point the band suddenly turns on a sixpence. Now it’s quieter, meditative, Big Jim saying “I see your hair is burnin’ / Hills are filled with fire”.

The contrast is utterly delicious, the skill incredible – if you ever thought The Doors were one drunken would-be Rimbaud and a backing band, check your head, dude – Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger were an extremely tight group who could go from barroom raucousness (“Roadhouse Blues“) to far-out meditative trippy Oedipal weirdness (“The End“). It’s a great moment from a band who (in)consistently hit my musical g-spot.

4. The opening riff in “Get Up Stand Up” (Bob Marley)

I am not really overly familiar with reggae: I’ve got a bunch of stuff by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh but neither of them hold a candle, in my humble opinion, to the great Bob Marley. In reggae terms this is a bit like saying Queen is your favourite rock band – but then I don’t smoke hash so I might be missing a vital ingredient. All the same, I think it’s undeniable how fantastic Bob Marley is, and I don’t care how much of a studenty stoner cliche it is. His range is incredible – from flinty and impassioned to slinky and sensual to angry protest to dark smoky dub to carefree to wry confession. The Wailers, of course, are an amazing backing band, but Marley’s songwriting craft is consistently strong, and his singing always passionate and soulful.

For a microcosm of how good they were, check the opening riff to “Get Up, Stand Up”. It’s a famous tune, an angry protest song perhaps more typical of Peter Tosh (who co-writes and shares vocals). After an opening roll around the tom-toms, the riff rolls in – tar-thick, dark, but goddamn groovy – for two beats, pauses for one, repeats for one and half, pauses for two beats with percussion, repeats for two, pauses for one then goes into the verse – like so:

DUH DUH – DUH DUH (pause) DUH UH (percussion)

DUH DUH – DUH DUH  (pause) – (percussion).

It’s incredibly deft and skilful, almost mathematically precise and both funky and muscular. Fucking awesome.

5. The instrumental break in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles)

If you only know The Beatles from school music lessons singing “Yesterday” or “Let It Be”, it might surprise you to learn that the Fabs were actually pretty radical. Sure, they processed everything into a audience-friendly package most of the time (with the exception of “Revolution #9”, perhaps, but surely I’m not the only one who actually really enjoys it?), but within the constraints of two or three minutes, they did so much. “Tomorrow Never Knows” might well be their most radical song, in terms of studio innovation and departure from traditional forms, but holy fuck, it delivers such a megaton blast of musical delight. The rhythmic texture (Ringo on huge fat tom-toms with that famous syncopation  (ONE and TWO and THREE AND FOUR) and a sizzling halo of cymbals, Macca accompanying on bass with a typically melodic line) is stable, but there’s no verse-chorus-verse: instead Lennon repeats his schema: “Something something something… It is something, it is something“, while five samples like nothing you’ve ever heard criss-cross with ever greater frequency. Whoa! That’s some dense and heady brew!

The instrumental break (starting at 0.56) tops all that though, totally overwhelming you and making you lose your sense of time and place. It consists of two of the loops brought more fully to the centre, and then Macca’s solo from “Taxman” (yes, him and not Harrison) slowed down and played backwards. Pollack tells me that the break is 16 bars, as you’d expect, but they’re divided into 6+10 (the loops being 4+2) instead of the standard 8+8, further throwing you off your balance. All of this makes the “instrumental” section a terrific sensory overload, and an example of the transfiguration which I believe Lennon the acid-muncher, Lennon the Lewis Carrol fan, Lennon the Joycean word-player, often sought.

6. The whole damn instrumental section of “Three Days” (Jane’s Addiction)

I can’t be bothered describing this precisely – but just listen to the way it builds up (starting from 4.43) via the great guitar solo by Dave Navarro to that amazing pedal point of immense tension and electric charge. It sounds like a gargantuan wall of static electricity, a vast forcefield of implacable and unmovable power. Amazing.

7. The arpeggio’s in “William, It Was Really Nothing” (The Smiths)

Morrissey some dismiss as a whining yelper – well, maybe. I hate the singer from Tool, Maynard James Keenan, though several metalheads assure me they are an awesome band. Johnny Marr, though, is without doubt an awesome guitar player – he has so many remarkable guitar riffs and leads from The Smiths that he’s often considered the best, or certainly the most influential, UK guitar player of the 1980s. Him and Peter Buck certainly reinvigorated the arpeggio, it having lain fallow since, oooh, maybe The Byrds. This is a dazzling example of his repertoire (note how many layers of guitar there are, particularly in the verse) – the sparkling, dazzling arpeggios after each verse (first seen at 0.41-0.48)… they just evoke the 1980s, or what they meant to me. Which means, I guess (how does one explain your own dreamscapes and evocations?) they give this romantic vibe of tender, yearning beauty. Yeah, really. (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” gives off the same feeling, to me anyways, as I’ve probably said). It just makes me almost shiver, as at some almost glimpsed isle of limitless delight.

8. Slash’s second guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)

This literally makes the hair on my arms stand up. Slash is surely the first since Hendrix to adopt the same kind of electric fluidity in his guitar sound, and he makes awesome use of it in this solo. (Compare, also, with the bone-head hair metallers of the time – CC Deville, Mick Mars, Warren DeMartini, Chris Holmes, etc – their sound tends to be very dry and lack Slash’s bluesiness). In comparison to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired fretboard wankers of the day, Slash doesn’t go overboard with hammer-ons, fretboard picking and all the miscellanea of lead guitar tosspots. He starts out at 3.35 playing simple notes, bending them for sustain, sure, but nothing too frilly – until the song hits a pedal point at 4.02, which rises the temperature and tension, Slash likewise increasing the speed of his picking. Once released from this into a more aggressive riff, Slash (again, complementing the song) goes higher up the fretboard, bending notes more, making the guitar wail, all rich with passion and conflict. It’s just stunning, and I’ve never bored of it in the 25 years I’ve had a copy of Appetite For Destruction.

How about you?

Guilty Pleasures

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

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

1. Betty Boo, “Where Are You Baby?”

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

2. John Farnham, “The Voice Of Understanding”

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

3. Wilson Philips, “Impulsive”

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

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

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

5.  Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

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

6. Ratt, “Round And Round”

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

Albums And What They Mean To Me #6

As might be obvious from my list of favourite bands through time, I have quite an eclectic taste. More than this, as I made my way through adolescence  and young-adulthood, my entire self-conception shifted a few times. This is awkward and annoying, especially when people still regard you as you were, but never mind: the main thing is to grow. For example, at school I was a nerdy good-boy (in Scouts, going to the chess club, having rapt discussions about A Brief History of Time); but I had a few years after graduating where I ran a bit wild. Underground nightclubs, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, drinking like a bloody fish, smoking pot like it was going out of fashion, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, all that. Fun, though very very easy to burn yourself out on it.

I did. Big time. Towards the end of 2000 I had an almost catastrophic event – nothing life-threatening, but totally head-frying. It fucked me up so bad that for a few months afterwards I felt like I was always mildly tripping, and the general after-effects of  defamiliarisation (everything appeared strange and unfamiliar), depersonalisation (like I was watching myself from within) and what I later found was called “Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder” (half-seeing things out of the corner of my eye, and visual snow) lasted about a year. Longer, in fact, in times of stress or hangover-dom. Obviously this was a enormous kick up the arse, and I haven’t really touched drugs since.

This happened when I was working in some tedious and temporary office job in Edinburgh. There’s a nice bit in the “A Smart Cunt” novella in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House, where the protagonist Euan talks about his girlfriend’s friends – they were always talking about what they wanted to be (painters, writers, actors, etc), obscuring the fact that they were office workers, local government officials, sales staff, etc. That was us, alright: everybody used to talk about the postgrads they were going to study, the bands they were in, the books they were wanting to write (though were never writing), the hip Edinburgh bars they were going to go to (though never did), the goals for the future. There is something awesomely depressing about being a new graduate, especially if you’ve studied the Arts or Humanities. Your knowledge of 19th century socialist parties or French existentialist novels isn’t worth donkey shit. The entire merit system to which you are accustomed and in which you have succeeded is replaced by the imperatives of business. No wonder so many wanted to go to graduate school. I, of course, was totally into getting a Masters in English. Then a PhD! I was so worth it! No matter that I was earning 5 quid an hour and barely had enough money to buy food.

Anyways. Naturally this was all rather depressing. I felt cheated out of the grand future I had so blithely imagined for myself. This fuelled my self-destruction, and I had a bit of a mad weekend etc: cut to the chase, head got fried and I was all fucked up. Worse thing was, the temporary job which we’d been told would last until March turned out to be coming to an end in December. The job agency which had recruited us all pretended that they’d “place” us all in new posts: I got offered two not-even-full weeks either side of Xmas. I conceded defeat at this point and moved back to the parental home.

You can imagine my mood. “Bleak” just don’t capture it. Monsters seemed to lurk under the stairs, ready to pounce. Day-to-day functioning was difficult: I kept thinking I was seeing things, and people looking into my eyes gave me the fear. I was as always listening to music, as I had no job and playing Championship Manager was the only other thing occupying my time. The key album (if you’ll forgive so much back story) was Death In Vegas’ Contino Sessions.

The second album by the Glaswegian electronica band, Contino Sessions was a considerable leap from their first, Dead Elvis. It combined the abrasive guitar and drones of Banana Album-era Velvet Underground with the rumbling beats of Rhythm and Stealth-era Leftfield. Which is to say that it was rocky, had dark rhythms, prominent bass, and this crippling sense of foreboding. The best song, “Death Threat”, encapsulates this: an enormous grinding of vast black thunder clouds producing bolts of sheet lightning, it is brooding, portentous and magnificently atmospheric. The electricity is so rich, you can almost smell the ozone.

The Velvet Underground inspiration is obvious in their recurrent use of drones and repetition. (This obviously is a recurrent technique in electronica, too). This often works well – as with “Dirge”, which creates a powerful tension between the repeated vocal line (and, only ever saying “La, la, la”, its implied dispassion), and the surging, powerful, alternative rock.

Sometimes, though, it just gets dreary and monotonous. “Broken Little Sister” is unrelieved by varieties in texture and tone: and the dirgey, grim atmosphere gets tedious without the creativity to illuminate it (this is why Radiohead’s “The National Anthem“, which is even more bleak, is a fucking masterpiece).

It’s not all bleakness, fortunately. There are some nice changes of atmosphere (if not pace – it’s nearly all mid-paced, gradual-accumulation-of-tension frameworks), such as the instrumental tour-de-force “Flying”. Inspired by The Beatles’ instrumental of the same name? Dunno, but both are atmospheric, visual instrumentals.

The Stooges-y “Aisha”, snarled by The Ig himself, is a setpiece in malevolence, though it always seems like a genre exercise. The postmodern video makes this obvious. It’s pretty juvenile, really.

This was obviously a low point for me, and Contino Sessions fit my mood perfectly. It is a great album, one I really believe is one of the best of the 1990s. But it isn’t something I return to often, now. The atmospheres are too evocative.

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!