Songs Which Mean Something (To Me)

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There are just some songs which stick in your head and in your heart. Sometimes it is simple nostalgia (as I’ve said about my youthful infatuation with hair metal), but sometimes – who knows why? – a song just clicks with something going on your life. This is something utterly magical, and something I don’t really think happens, or certainly not to such a strong extent, with other art forms. I’ve never looked at Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: No 1, 1950 and thought, “Holy shit, that reminds me of when I was doing an IT postgrad.” Or rather, it does – but entirely without the piquancy and vividity of a musical association. I still remember the song playing during my first youth club disco kiss (“Eternal Flame” by The Bangles – not too bad), the one going through my head when my daughter was born, and so on. But then there are songs which just feel richly symbolic to me, which seem to mean or allude to something…

So then here are some songs which just MEAN something to me, for whatever reason.

1. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

I had this particular adolescent period I find unusually memorable but find to hard to convey why. Maybe it happens to everyone, but there was a time when everything was keenly felt and rich with poetry. Yeah, I was in love. It hit me like a megaton bomb, radically affecting every part of my life. It was at this time that my writing took off – I had done some furtive scribbling previously, but during this love-lorn year it exploded, and I wrote ceaselessly. Fortunately by this time I had massively broadened my musical taste via The Beatles and the nascent Britpop scene, so the sense of new music suited my feeling of delicate tender exposure. This song is by no means The Smiths’ best, but there’s just something about it – the drama and urgency of the introduction, the restrained (by Morrissey’s standards) vocal but that breathlessness passion, the tight structure, the simple but effective solo (Marr is remarkably lacking in ego for being such an amazingly talented guitar player, more into serving the song than wanky pyrotechnics). In my occasional synaesthetic moments, I get strong vibes of purple and grey off this song – a pinkish purple, not a blueberry/Ribena shade. It constantly brings me back to those mooncalf days of insomnia in warm summer nights, discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster, long walks through nearby countryside (I used to leave about 9pm and get back about 3 or 4am), and the constant tantalising sense of possible rapture. Aaaah, being fifteen.

2. Sex Pistols, “Submission”

There was something about the Sex Pistols that just resonated with me. It wasn’t just Rotten’s outraged nasal sneer, or Jones’ powerful riffing, or the gleeful pissing on so many national monuments. The Sex Pistols just sounded like the late 1970s to me. I have no idea why this association should exist, given that I was born in 1979, and I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the (now many) documentaries which use punk as an aural signifier of UK political/economic decline, when I first got into the Pistols. The association was so strong that I used to wander round parts of town which seemed similarly “seventies” – there was a closed factory near the centre which strongly gave off that vibe, for me at least. It’s weird because I was only about 13 at the time and so didn’t really know about the Winter of Discontent or the IMF bailout etc. But somehow this vibe communicated itself to me…

This song was written at the instigation of Malcolm McLaren who wanted the band to write a song about “submission” and bondage. Rotten both took the piss and showed his wit saying “How about a submarine mission?” The song is really more about the submission (in the dissolution of the self sense, rather than naff S/M wank fantasies)  to the mother-ocean-goddess figure of male archetype.  This, funnily enough, didn’t strike me at the time: the song then suggested to me something about someone not wanting to work offshore (which in those days meant fishing, not oil – I come from a long line of mariners) but giving in and winding up in that backbreaking industry. Kind of like Kes and the kid ending up working down t’pit. (Those were the days when industry meant the destruction of potential and talent, rather than being venerated for economic generation). Though that impression has declined as I veer to the other reading of the song, it’s one of those examples where a song creates all these emotions, atmospheres and impressions on me.

3.  XTC, “Ball and Chain”

One of the happiest times in my life was in the latter half of my first year in China. Teaching was fun (and easy), the students were lovely, I had some good friends, no bills to worry about, and my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) was going great. Ah, happy days!  And this was when I got into XTC, through their several mentions in the inestimable Bad Wisdom, the greatest novel ever written. My god, but listening to that song brings back such vivid memories! Just chilling out in my teacher apartment, drinking a not-really-earned G&T with the Bombay Sapphire I bought in Nanjing. (The local supermarket only sold Gordons). Spending 10 hours playing pool on my days off (I got REALLY good that year). Visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi for the first time. Inviting all my chums round for a big dinner and introducing them to the shower scene from Porkies. The huge party I threw for my girlfriend on her birthday (the kind of party where language no longer mattered, all that existed was hilarity and goodwill and epic drunkenness). Starting to discover the Chinese internet and blogging scene. My sweet, kind, optimistic, industrious, students. Good times.

This song is typically upbeat XTC (they surely are the most Beatley band of the 80s) with a typically XTC under-cutting-the-happiness lyrics, though actually on the subject of urban “regeneration” rather than bemoaning marriage or relationships. The album English Settlement was much played by me at that period – though, again typically for XTC, it is uneven, in this instance having a classic side 1 and “meh” side 2. (I think only their masterpiece Skylarking is consistently strong – though I realise this is a bit of a circular argument). Still, with songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason And The Argonauts”, who’s complaining?

4.  Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Though an eighties child, being born in 1979 means that while I was exposed to the pop culture of the day, I missed out on the meaning or context of most of it. (My sister was the true eighties child, the one who was a Duran Duran, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Five Star fan). There are some songs though which just connect me to that decade, and this is one. Although I obviously never went to a wine bar then (the idea of even going to a bar and ordering wine was miles off my radar until I was over 30), this song just makes me think of 1980s wine bars and the pseudo-sophistication, the kind of thing absolutely slaughtered in American Psycho, the tasteful jazz, the absurd way that the upper-middle classes disguise getting pished with notions of taste and discrimination etc! Not that I think this is a bad song: on the contrary, I am a big fan of Diamond Life. It’s just so evocative of a particular time and place, one that is now rather despised for its gaucheness. The same dynamic occurs in cultural as in one’s own life: so easy to despise what you once were, even though it made you what you are now.

5. Bjork, “Venus As A Boy”

What was it Garth from Wayne’s World said about “Dream Woman”? “She makes me feel funny, like when we had to climb the rope in gym class.” The first time I saw Bjork was on – The Late Show? Later With Jools Holland? Something Friday night BBC2 anyway. I just remember feeling… enthralled yet mystified. This is when she had those cute ringlets (as in the video here) and whooo, I just felt something I’d never felt for a woman I’d seen on TV before. This was when “sexy” women were presented as dolly birds, the time of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies and ludicrous nonsense like that. The idea that women could be creative and cool and sexy and funny and smart was new to me. Stupid of me, but it’s true. Anybody who tells you about how feminists want everything and it’s not fair and poor men boo-hoo-hoo – slap them.

Bjork’s delicious melismatic singing, the sheer joy in her face, the understated sensuality of the music…whoa. Really takes me back. You remember how Friday nights used to be absolutely fucking awesome for TV? (Sorry, this is for Brits). Both BBC2 and Channel 4 had terrific shows, from Red Dwarf to The Word to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Naked City to Later to Passengers to Crapston Villas to Jam.

6. Happy Mondays, “Step On”

This one isn’t such a personal connection, but a cultural/national one. I was in Sanlitun one night with my good lady wife, and in whatever bar we were in, “Step On” came on. I really like the song and started semi-drunkenly grooving along with it (that’s the only kind of grooving I do, I’m afraid). This piqued her interest, and I wanted to explain the whats and whys and wherefores of the song. But, really, how can you hope to do that to someone Chinese? How can you explain “rave” culture, the late 80s ecstasy explosion, the remaking of Ibiza into some kind of sun-kissed drug haven (though long since, of course, degenerated into a tourist ripoff attended by the UK’s Darrens and Sharons), the conversion of the football casual hardcases into beaming euphoric whistle-blowing goons, and the “Summer of Love II”? (Most Western musical revolutions, it seems to me, are drug-led and the rave thing seems to be about the last organic bottom-up pop culture boom – just as hippy was led by acid, mods and punk  by speed and folkrock, to some extent, by grass). You can’t, of course. So I probably just mumbled something about it being a cool song.

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Legends I Just Don’t Get

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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?

Obscure Gems

Some favourite albums I have picked up over the years have been fairly random – acquired through a friend’s influence, an article I might have read somewhere, or random browsing through a shop like Fopp. In my teens in particular I was very magpie-ish about music, trying to get a hold of as many albums as I could. (I was one of those guys who when visiting  friends for a weekend would come armed with a six-pack of blank C90 tapes, ready for copying anything good).  As I was saying earlier, younger readers might not be familiar with a world where music wasn’t available at the push of some buttons! Back then, even the biggest collections I knew were only of  a few hundred albums, and so acquiring more obscure stuff was a sometimes difficult task. (The music folder on my hard drive by comparison now comprises 132GB with 2722 albums – or as iTunes tells me, 306 artists, and 54.7 days of listening.) It took me months of searching before I found a copy of The Damned’s first album for example: my sister’s friend’s boyfriend have given me a copy on cassette which I adored, but it had broken. (He was quite the punk, and also gave me copies of In The City by The Jam and Rattus Norvegicus by The Stranglers – good guy!).

In those days, as I was saying, finding more obscure stuff was always difficult. I always read music magazines and wanted to find stuff that sounded good, but where the hell could you find The Melvins, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, Pantera, Kraftwerk or Primus? (I was born and bred a small-town lad, obviously). But fortunately the social network of pirated tapes was rich with many good albums quite beyond what you’d find in WH Smith or John fucking Menzies. Thus, some less well-known albums I’d like to recommend are:

1. Hate Songs in E-Minor by Fudge Tunnel

Awful band name, but this gem from a Nottingham band is one of the lost classics of British metal from the early 1990s. Massive, grinding guitars; huge, resounding drums; indistinct, shouted vocals: it’s kinda like “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath but MUCH ANGRIER. The two stand-out tracks are the title track, which has an outstanding sense of the old quiet/loud dynamic, and the alternate version of that song: it’s like an death-ambient track, the like of which I have never heard anywhere else. Both are utterly outstanding.

2. I Know Electrikboy by Thee Maddkatt Courtship

When I first went to university, I felt incredibly gauche and uncultured. (I expect everybody felt the same, but were better at hiding it than me). It’s not like I went to Oxbridge or, indeed, any of the Russell Group; it was just that I was young (only just 17), naive, a smalltown boy. One of the friends I made, though, seemed dazzlingly cultured in comparison: he was marvellously stylish, while I wore simple checked shirts, jeans and the fleece I’d bought for camping. Anyhoo, we got on well despite all that, and one evening he came by with a new album which he insisted I listen to. I liked it straight away, and popped in a C90 to copy it. I forgot to ask him who it was before he left, and so just wrote “FUCK KNOWS” on the tape. Though not generally a house music fan, I loved I Know Electrikboy, which to be fair is beatier than your average house track. Songs like “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers” just resounded with a deliciously fat bass, while the middle track, the apex of the album, “Cosmic Pop” was just the sound of a euphoric ecstasy rush. The structure of it, rising from the overture “My Life Muzik” to “Cosmic Pop” then declining to more ambient textures was so clever, mirroring the ideal night clubbing and house-partying afterwards.

Later on, I found that two of the songs are on the film Human Traffic, during the clubbing scene; and some internet sleuthery eventually showed me who it was by: he’s better known as Felix Da Housecat.

3. Skylarking by XTC

One of those unfortunate groups more critically esteemed than popular, XTC are one of the great 80s pop groups; in the sense that The Beatles are a pop group, with intelligence, style and flair, not like Wham! or Bucks Fizz. Doomed to be one of the finest exponents of classic pop in an era when everyone else seemed to be trying to run away from it, XTC are unfortunately a bit hit-and-miss over the course of an album, but many of their individual songs are just blinding classics. Listen to “Senses Working Over Time” and try to tell me it’s not one of the best fucking songs ever! It’s just absolutely joyous. One album, though, does stand above others in XTC’s canon, and that’s Skylarking. Produced as a song-cycle even though there’s no thematic link, it’s simply a collection of killer pop songs in the best tradition of the word. Their b-side “Dear God” (an apposite exploration of disillusion with religion) was a surprise hit in the US, but my favourite tune on Skylarking is the wonderful “Earn Enough For Us”, a great song about work, love and maturity.

4. Copper Blue by Sugar

When Nirvana’s Nervermind went batshit crazy and the Seattle “sound” was everywhere, the music press was full of articles about their forebears such as The Pixies and Hüsker Dü. Bob Mould, the Hüsker’s lead guitarist and main source of poppy tunefulness and aggressive guitar, was held up as the John The Baptist to Nirvana’s Jesus H. Christ. He’d by then had a few minor solo albums, but in 1992 came out with Sugar, the ultimate power-pop trio.  Their first album Copper Blue was (I think) voted Album Of The Year by NME (not worth noting now, but NME back then was worth paying attention to), though it does suffer from a poor side 2. All the same, the first five songs are all stone cold classics. The opener, “The Way We Act”, has this amazing buzzsaw guitar, over which Mould repeatedly sings and solos in a dense brew of heady alternative rock. Just fucking brilliant.

5. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band

As you may have gathered, I am a huge Beatles fan, and consequently have read Revolution In The Head, an exegesis of their songs, god knows how many times – probably at least twenty. The author, Ian MacDonald, several times compares later-era Beatles to ISB, with their “exotic sweetness” and similar childhood ambivalence. Intrigued, I bought a copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as it as the only one I could find: I would have preferred The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, just for its remarkable cover.

But it turned out that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was actually the better album, one of the most psychedelic and dazzlingly inventive collections of music I have ever heard. From the child’s-eye reminisce “Koeeoaddi There” (“Hullo to the postman’s stubbly skin / Hullo to the  baker’s stubbly grin”) to the poetic/nonsensical “Witches Hat” (“If I were a witches hat / Sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”) to the hippy-dippy-trippy “Three Is A Green Crown” – I defy you to find a song more 60s, more psychedelic, more trippy, than that!

I could go on, but I’ll leave it up to you to offer up some of your own favourite obscurities!

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?