Monday, 31 December 2012

Burn it Down

Burn it Down - Dexys Midnight Runners
"Hey Jimmy!" "Yeah!" "Al!" "Yeah!" "For God's sake, burn it down!"

This is a fucking incredible song from a fucking incredible album and if you don't think so you're a f...  no, hold on a second, that's not how I talk, that's not how I think, you're perfectly entitled to think whatever you like, but THIS, this right here, is the kind of music which almost, almost, gives me the boldness to say such things.

This is the first song from Dexys' first album 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels' and I want to give you some idea of how bold and spectacular it is.

'Burn it Down' was originally released as a single called Dance Stance which is thoroughly inferior, I think, in particular because it doesn't contain the same coruscating intro as the album version.

So it begins: a radio changing stations - Deep Purple 'Smoke on the Water', Sex Pistols 'Holidays in the Sun', The Specials 'Rat Race', then the music abruptly stops and the exchange above (Hey Jimmy etc ..) takes place. A rejection, a scornful rejection of everything that has gone before. The choice of rejectees is particular striking and brilliant - ok, Deep Purple, that's to be expected, old hairy rock dinosaurs, but then, what's this, The Sex Pistols!?

They're the ones who are meant to do the the kicking out, not be kicked out themselves. As it turns out, Dexys frontman Kevon Rowland and John Lydon had a bit of personal history, and I know whose side I'd be on. Lydon always strikes me as a spectacular bore and I think the Sex Pistols were bettered by pretty much everything they inspired (I can't deny that they did indeed inspire a few great artists). I also like the fact that it's 'Holidays in the Sun' that Kevin Rowland picks on, as that song was such a shameless rip-off of The Jam's 'In the City' that it apparently prompted a fight between Weller and Lydon too.

The final song, 'Rat Race', rejected is perhaps even more wilful and spiky - The Sex Pistols were three years ago, they were the past, that's fine, but the Specials were a beloved, right-on band of the here and now, who Dexys had recently been on tour with. Talk about not trying to keep your friends.

Perhaps it was personal in this case, perhaps it wasn't. Either way, there is a serious point being made. We're on our own, the rest is worth nothing, and then as indicated by the blast of horns which begins the song for real, this is about soul.

And what a song! 'Burn it Down' took hold of me as soon as I heard it. It is an Irish song, a London Irishman's song of pride in his parents' native land. If I can paraphrase what Kevin is trying to say, it's a little along the lines of "You don't know anything, your time has passed, you think us Irish people are stupid bogtrotters, and yet you have no idea about the rich cultural heritage of the land. Get an education, you idiot!" Something a little like that ...

And the way he does it is to have the band chant the names of various Irish authors "So what do you think about ... Oscar Wilde ... Brendan Behan ... Sean O'Casey ... George Bernard Shaw ... Samuel Beckett ... Eugene O'Neill ... Edna O'Brien ... Lawrence Stern."

And those are only the ones that would scan!

And is if all that weren't enough belligerence, the song ends with a curt and delightful "Shut your fucking mouth till you know the truth!" Well, ok, then, that's me told.

And so what? After all that preamble. Well, first of all, they've got the album to back up such an explosive opening. 'Searching For the Young Soul Rebels' is a masterpiece, an unimpeachable masterpiece from start to finish, as close as it gets to a perfect record, which finishes even better than it starts, with the extraordinary companion piece 'There There My Dear' which I could write just as much about. It's soulful, joyful, mad, tight, sensational music, the likes of which had not been heard before and would not be heard again [not even by Dexys, who have determinedly gone a different path with every new album].

And what else? Well, Irishness matters. It mattered to me then and it matters to me now. And the particular kind of Irishness which I share with Kevin Rowland. The distant pride of the Irish emigrant, or the son of the Irish emigrant. There are countless millions of Irish descendants around the world, it's a proper sub-category, and, you know what, it's not fake or self-indulgent. I'm not Irish, I was born and brought up in London, but i've got an Irish name and an Irish face and I got called a potato-eater and a bogtrotter and an IRA member when I was at school - not viciously, but it happened. And I have heard an awful, awful lot of Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes, thanks.

And it's annoying. I imagine it was a lot worse for Kevin Rowland than for me and, well, it fired him up. Throughout his career, from the glorious 'My National Pride' on 'Don't Stand Me Down' to a more considered and ambivalent take on it on 2012's comeback album 'One Day I'm Going To Soar' where he quietly and reflectively rejects the cliches of Irishness and ersatz patriotism to proclaim his own freedom and individuality above all.

But, let me tell you, this song, this album and Dexys' subesquent work made Irishness matter to me, it made me read Brendan Behan [in fact, I bought a 3 for 2 Irish offer at Blackwell's, where I worked, which contained 'Borstal Boy', 'A Star Called Henry' by Roddy Doyle and, hilariously, 'Full Time', the autobiography of Irish striker Tony Cascarino, who, as the book reveals as not a jot of Irish blood in him and only got to play 92 games for the Republic because of a clerical error. The book is at least Irish in that it was scintillatingly ghost-written by Paul Kimmage, who has his own fascinating story. A former tour cyclist, who left the sport in disgust at the doping practices he saw were widespread and has since then crusaded against it, to the extent of consistently, boldly calling out Lance Armstrong when Armstrong was the good guy and the hero] and WB Yeats, it made me listen to The Clancy Brothers, hell, it even made me think about reading James Joyce. Not quite, though.

And yes, it made me think about the Irish soul, this dangerous Behan cliche. My dad, educated in Cork, could recite the poems of Yeats, had learnt at school to translate into Latin verse [this is a level above me with my classics degree] and was still polishing off the Times crossword until the week he died. Somehow, this song gives me all that, this pride, this fury, this natural erudition, this understanding of the dangers and particularities of being a little bit Irish.

Kevin Rowland is a true, bizarre, inspiring, one-off - he kicked off his career like this and he has never taken the tiniest step back. He'd probably reject my reading of the song now. He'll be on Jools Holland tonight, apparently and i'm sure there'll be no 'Burn it Down', but I'll be happy if there's a 'Geno' or 'Til I Believe in My Soul', even a 'Come on Eileen'.

I'm searching for the young soul rebels, I can't find them anywhere, where have you hidden them. Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision, welcome the new soul vision, welcome the new soul vision ...

My Name Is

My Name Is - Eminem
Pop quiz, kids. Who said this about whom?

"He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also through his verbal energy".

Well, you'd have to be a little off the pace not to surmise that the subject is Marshall Mathers himself, but perhaps you'd be a little impressed/perplexed to know that it was Nobel Laureate and Greatest Living Poet Seamus Heaney who said it. Seamus Heaney thought Eminem was good. That's worth something. I thought Eminem was good too. So did quite a few people.

It's easy to forget now how monumentally massive and potentially iconic Eminem was for a wee while. I mean, obviously, he's still a huge star, he's sold 100 million records, he's still instantly recognisable, but he has now become just another famous rapper, not the new Elvis and Bob Dylan and Anti-Christ rolled into one, which he really was touted as for a while.

It seems that is his own doing more than anything else - he retreated, became a recluse, took a big old break from everything, and came back in 2009 to significant success but a whole different level of renown. Now, those five years were, by all accounts, a pretty dark time, involving addiction, depression, tragedy and what not, but nevertheless, fair play to him for escaping the madness in the way that forebears such as Elvis, Michael Jackson etc were never able to do.

Elvis? Michael Jackson? Eminem? Really? Well, yes, again, I don't think it's an unreasonable comparison.  He was that big. He is that significant.

'My Name Is' was the first I heard of Eminem, as it probably was for most people, certainly in the UK. I heard it while in my bedroom in St Andrews in second year, on a weekday winter afternoon being played by Kevin Greening, who I remember talking it up and preparing listeners for something a bit special [the late Kevin Greening was, of course, gay, which is of a little significance bearing in mind both the provenance of the song and the controversy which would dog Eminem's career].

The main thing I noticed, the first time I heard it, was the self-mockery, the humour, the pop-culture references, which were so striking and endearing I failed to notice that it was still, by most standards, pretty offensive filth! And it could, of course, have been even worse. It was originally far more offensive but when Eminem and Dr Dre approached Labi Siffre to clear the key sample from his 'I Got The' (I talked about this a little in a previous post 'Magic moments' - keep up pop fans), the black, gay Siffre responded "attacking two of the usual suspects, women and gays, is lazy writing.If you want to do battle, attack the aggressors, not the victims" so Eminem went away and rewrote the verses and Siffre cleared it.

Now, I make no excuses, in these posts, for making the stories about me as much as about the songs (I can sustain a reasonable amount of wordage with my geeky quizzy "connections" thing, but not being musical enough or really confident in my literary criticism, I daren't go too far into unpicking the bones of these songs), so I'll mention again that Labi Siffre, as well as writing 'It Must Be Love', went to the same school I did from the age of 4 to 8, St Benedict's Ealing, which i have hinted at darkly a couple of times. I had a lucky escape from there, as I hope Mr Siffre did - as reported in the national press, while I was there and before and after, it was not a place for women, gay people, boys, or anyone else, it was a place for some very bad monks who did some very bad things. Now, I don't know all that much about Labi Siffre and I don't know what St Benedict's was like when was there, but if school experience turned him, in any way, into the crusading figure he clearly is who stood up against bullies and bigotry, then rather remarkable to think it might have had an effect on one of the biggest rap songs of all time.

I suspect little Marshall Mathers stood up against a fair bit of bullying and bigotry himself in his time. I confess I was shocked and disappointed when I first saw the Eminem who was behind this little masterpiece [rather as I had been when I'd first seen the Steve Miller who was behind a song I'd briefly thought the coolest thing of all time 'The Joker', expecting some elegant black dude rather than some hairy, middle-aged white fellow]. I was as bigoted, in that moment, as anyone else. White men can't jump. White men can't rap.

Turns out he could. Now, my interest in hip-hop has always been moderate compared to some things, I own a fair bit but I'll always hold it at arm's length, but i will say that, though some might say Rakim or Chuck D, Ghostface Killah or Tupac, Jay-Z or Nas, Eminem is the best rapper I've ever heard, both in terms of content or style. It's only occasional in popular music that you hear" something which you think is utterly incredible, have a genuine sense of "How the hell did they do that?", especially one now knows the full extent of studio wizardry, but along with Jeff Buckley and Marvin Gaye singing, Mark Knopfler playing guitar (I know, embarrassing, but really, I was dazzled by his headbandy skills when i was younger), 60s Dylan, Eminem's wordsmithery on the likes of 'The Way I Am' and 'Lose Yourself' really did blow my mind.

I remember speaking to an actual 60s Bob Dylan fan and he said their reaction at the time was exactly the same - "How did he learn to do that?" "Where did he get so wise?" which I entirely understand about Bob though lose a little all these years later. Bob, for all his wisdom, could be a prize offensive prick at times and really not give a shit about it, and so, of course, could Eminem.

Not too sure how I feel about that. As far as I know, Eminem's supposed misogyny and homophobia is entirely contained within his music, within Marshall Mathers' two alter egos , Eminem and Slim Shady, just as Ricky Gervais's is contained within his alter ego, Ricky Gervais. It is a tightrope, and I rather admire the bravery of living there in a way that I never could - art and public figures do have consequences and responsibilites, but I have no idea if Eminem is a horrible person who thinks horrible things and is a bully. I suspect not. Therefore, if you're offended by it, you have the right to be, but he has the right to create what is offensive to you.

I love Quentin Tarantino and his work has never, as such, offended me, but I did feel, towards the end of 'Inglourious Basterds', a sense of wilful misanthropy and hopelessness, glorification of the horribleness of it all, which i think he could have lightened with a little more humanity. While the humanity's there, the sense of real person who's given their art some thought, I think anything is fair game.

Honestly, I really do get offended by the likes of Amanda Platell, Nigel Farage, Kelvin McKenzie, Bill O'Reilly, to the extent I have to turn off and quench my rage and disgust - that happens to me all the time, yet apart from when a certain storm blows up (like the Jan Moir Steven Gately thing) these arseholes get away with it in the way that the likes of Gervais, Tarantino and Eminem never do.

I would very happily listen to a grossly offensive song about what Slim Shady would like to do to Kelvin McKenzie. Can this be arranged?

Another song: The Way We Were

The Way We Were - Barbra Streisand
There comes a time in every young man's life where he has to bow before the majesty of Streisand. Whether it's 'Hello, Dolly'. her version of 'Send in the Clowns', hell, it could even be 'Meet the Fockers', but even the most churlish need to accept at some point that this behemoth of American culture is actually rather good.

My full revelation Streisand moment came from watching 'The Way We Were' - it's a pretty imperfect film which could do with being shorter or longer, but it's given considerable power by three things 1. Streisand's excellent performance 2. the extensive use of this title track 3. the very subject matter being the passing of time, nostalgia, disappointment, unrealised dreams, endurance etc. At the end, it feels like a bigger, more important film than it is.

The song is, I think, an extremely pretty song, written by Marvin Hamlisch, who died this year [incidentally, there's a joke in the film 'Role Models' about one of the main characters looking like Marvin Hamlisch - an extremely obscure joke. 'Role Models' is a way way better film than you think it's going to be. Trust me] with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. It's become a standard, I was aware of its existence throughout my life, I think, without really knowing much about it. It's the kind of think that soundtracks BBC golf montages and retrospectives of dead sitcom stars.

It is referenced in a couple of unlikely places - very briefly, implicitly, on the Paul Weller song 'Shadow of the Sun' where he sings "or has time rewritten everything like we never dreamt that it could?" and, more thoroughly on the Wu-Tang Clan "Can It Be All So Simple" from their classic debut album, though the sample is actually from the Gladys Knight version of the song.

The lyrics are, I think, beautiful, and extremely (excuse me ...) memorable. There are various phrases that leap out at you, "the way we were", "has time rewritten everything", "can it be that it was all so simple then", "what's too painful to remember we simply choose to forget" and, most simply, and famously "Memories ...".

Here is where my confusion starts and where, if I could, I would turn this blog entry into an impressionistic waltz through the multi-layered associative traps laid by nostalgia. For it can't be just me who, in their life, heavily associated (if not confused) this song with another monster power ballad, also sung by Streisand, by the name, of course, of 'Memory' - the Andrew Lloyd Webber one with lyrics by Trevor Nunn. [not surprising it's confusing - the two songs bookend a 1981 album by Streisand called 'Memories'].

Now, this was a song I knew well from a very young age - it was the signature track from 'Cats', which I was taken to twice by my father (the second time kicking and screaming, I think, only to be persuaded by tone-deaf Paddy's hilarious rendition of 'Macavity' and then to have a whale of a time). I think it's the only song from the show where the lyrics aren't from TS Eliot and, I must admit, it was my least favourite song in the show, even though I knew it was the one I was supposed to like the best. It made me feel sad, and creeped out, and was no 'Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat'.

And as years passed and I heard about a song called 'Memory' and it went next to Barbra Streisand, you can forgive my confusion. I have always stuck to my original feelings about the Lloyd Webber song - I didn't really like it, it was a far inferior companion piece to the stunning Marvin Hamlisch song, it demanded and screamed for attention, it warbled, it was melodrama, rather than dreamy reverie which lures you in.

Nevertheless, when I saw someone singing 'Memory' in the truly ridiculous Lloyd Webber reality show 'Superstar', it certainly did set off in me a version of the feelings that both songs attempt to get to grips with - a pain and sadness for my childhood, for my father and his good intentions, for all kinds of innocence.

I am reminded again of the blog post I wrote a couple of years ago about Possibilities and how 'The Sound of Music' set off in me an impossibly and indescribably dense melancholy and feeling of constriction and here was another musical, intrinsic to my childhood, having the same effect.

Also, I felt a little more well inclined to the song, began to see it in a new light, that it was meant to be mawkish and grotesque and self-pitying, it was about Faded Glamour  (something I also wrote a little about previously) rather than the gentles sadness of recollection.

Still, 'The Way We Were' is still just a far better song, isn't it? It's just lush. And, thankfully, I can enjoy it on its own terms and, rather than delve deep into my own personal memory bank. associate it with a 40ish year old Robert Redford pretending to be a college student and Barbra Streisand talking far too fast and a general sense of a film trying to be too big and serious for its own good. Which is fine with me.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Another song: Wonderwall

Wonderwall - Oasis

Really? Oasis? Wonderwall? And i've even posted a link to it in case you can't remember what it sounds like ... how helpful of me.
But don't run a mile. If I can recapture a little of the impact this song had when it came out and what it has turned into, then it'll be worth writing, if not reading.
This is a big song. A tipping point. A game changer. An epic win. A shot heard around the world. After all.

I was 4 Blur. Of course I was. My big musical awakening came in 1994/5 and it was The Jam first but very closely followed by 'End of a Century' and hearing Blur liked the Jam and Madness and seeing Damon on The O-Zone talking about books and thinking it was unfair that people were pillorying him for being posh - hell, I was posh and he didn't sound anything like me.
So, I was for Blur, hence anti-Oasis, and Blur won the Battle of Britpop of course, in the summer of 1995, and Oasis has been shown up, cos they'd released Some Might Say (deeply average) then Roll With It (appalling) and they were a busted flush. [Why Oasis did release Roll With It is one of the great mysteries of the 90s - surely they weren't that tactically aware that they knew they were keeping their powder dry and that victory would inevitably be there in the long haul].

Autumn 1995 then: specifically the half term of the first term of my last year at school. Two week half term. Two weeks, ridiculous. And a seminal two weeks for your young writer. First week - the Greek trip. A group of young classicists descend on the ancient and historic land, given licence by our two teachers to drink beer (how bold) and generally be "adults". It was a memorable trip, though rather spiky and bad-tempered - it proved to be, I'd say in retrospect, the death knell for my long held friendship with a boy called Mark Hudson, sadly (entirely due to my general prickishness) but also solidified two very important friendships of mine, with Wieland Hoban and Alex Frith. It was also, dammit, the first time I smoked a cigarette, on a beach, with Wieland and Max Baird-Smith (another close friendship of the time which sadly has not been maintained). And what did we talk about ... above all? Sophocles vs Aeschylus? Plato vs Aristotle? Greeks vs Trojans? Delphi vs Mycenae? Souvlaki vs Tsatsiki? Blur vs Oasis of course.

Even the teachers got involved. 'The Great Escape' had come out to great acclaim a month before, but 'What's the Story' was only a week or two old, and there were Blur camps and Oasis camps arguing their point (education, background, aspiration, geography, hair, everything came into play), but i think the Oasis album began to gain more prominence and dominance of the coach's airwaves as the week progressed. And I fought it, really I did, but gradually it began to nag at me. This ain't bad. Nor this one. Really not bad. Better than 'Roll With It' anyway.

Then we came home, frazzled and a little bit grown up. But the second week of that half-term for me was even more important. It was university-picking time and I can't remember the exact order things went in, whether I'd already dismissed the idea of Oxbridge (out of laziness and fear of unjust rejection - which i felt had dogged my school career, ha! - more than anything), I think so, and I was basically down to two options, Edinburgh (a place I already knew well) and St Andrews (where I'd never been before).

I travelled up to St Andrews with my friend Stephen Bovey to have a look at the faculties and get a feel for the town [At that stage Stephen, not expecting to get into Cambridge, thought he'd go to St Andrews too]. As luck would have it, a fine coterie of older friends were already there, and we had a rare old time in that bizarre, magical, windy old town, which convinced me that this was the place for me to spend four years of my life.

Besides McEwans 80/ and a curry waiter in a cassock, my main memory of those few days in St Andrews was that 'Wonderwall' was everywhere - on the radio, in the pubs, hell, people were even singing it to each other in the streets. And it was special. It seemed to mean something.

And I remember my excitement whenever I heard its opening bars on the radio (which, you could pretty much guarantee, would be every hour) and then it was released as a single. At which point one realised that the so-called Battle of Britpop had been a phony war. Here now were both teams bringing out their big guns.

Blur's next gambit was 'The Universal' - a glorious song with a glorious video, a graceful tour de force. And it flopped. Well, Number 5 then out of the Top 10. Whereas Wonderwall went Number 2 - for weeks and weeks, denied the top spot by Simply Red and then Coolio, but it didn't really matter. 'What's the Story' massively outsold 'The Great Escape', massively outsold everything. And it was 'Wonderwall' that did it.

I thoroughly gave in come Christmas time, asking to be given 'What's the Story' and 'Pet Sounds' for Christmas, which I spent in a snowy Edinburgh. And it was Oasis rather than the Beach Boys I demanded my family endure on the car stereo, and my mother, insightful as ever, though not knowing her Pulp from her Elbow, instantly said "Well, it does just sound like an exact copy of the Beatles, doesn't it?"

And do you remember The Mike Flowers Pop cover of Wonderwall, which also went to Number 2 that Christmas? It somehow confirmed the majesty of the song, that some people really did think the Oasis version was a cover of an old classic. It took less than a few weeks for a song to become a standard. And then (much later) there's the Ryan Adams cover, which Noel Gallagher himself loves. I love Ryan Adams, I love Wonderwall, put the two together and I'm a little bit ... meh, not quite, to be honest.

'Wonderwall' was the song that united everybody, from the indie kid to the rugby boy to the Spanish hippy to the middle-aged couple who hate modern music grudgingly getting up onto the floor at the student disco to hobble along out of time. I know that cos I saw it. And so did you.

The alpha males loved it - as i finally began to emerge from social purgatory and got invites to 18th birthday parties of the nicer "jocks" of my school year, and sat in agony as they danced to Take That and East 17 and R Kelly's 'She Got That Vibe' - is there a worse song in the world? * - and said to myself if they only played Wonderwall, then I'd dance, and then they did play Wonderwall, and of course I didn't dance, but the lads did, and they put their arms around each other and sang along, and I asked myself "What, what, can be mine, just mine, in this world?".

* and yet, postscript, there was I, 15 years later, at the indier than indie All Tomorrow's Parties, throwing all my best shapes on a packed dancefloor to Kelly's 'Ignition (Remix)' only for the DJ to then spoil it by following that with 'Bump'n'Grind' - there are limits to the r'n'b us indie folk can love "ironically"]

Everyone heard something different in it - their wedding song, their last chance, their imaginary friend, their boozy chorus, a song like songs used to be, a beautiful chord progression, a threat. Even years later, Matt Ross, one of the nicer of those alpha males, used it nvery adroitly in a facebook status when facebook statuses still had to follow "is". ... He wrote ... "is, after all, your wonderwall." [my first year on facebook statuses was all about trying to incorporate song lyrics as neatly as that]. Rory Kinnear said people loved it cos of the way Liam sang the words "WIEENDING" and "BLIEENDING". For me, though, it was all about the way he sang the first word "Today" and then the way he sang "Maybe".

This was, of course, the second time Oasis had put "Maybe" at the centre of a heart-tugging song. Somehow or other I'd missed 'Live Forever' the previous year and didn't realise that Oasis were already capable of such straightforward beauty as 'Wonderwall' contained. Sadly, after those two, they became a band which were no longer "maybe" and very much "definitely" and that's rather been their downfall.

But, right at that moment, Noel and Liam Gallagher put all their eggs in one basket, released all the quality they has stored up inside them in their bid for world domination - the B-sides were, of course, outstanding too [Round Are Way, The Masterplan, such a hot streak, just think if they'd stored some of these songs up], and the "battle" of the next singles after those two, well that was a write-off. Oasis further upped the epic quotient with 'Don't Look Back in Anger' and Blur released the horrible 'Stereotypes', the very worst example of their art, and it was Oasis now that seemed to have the strength in depth. True, to an extent. 'What's the Story' still had 'Cast No Shadow', it had the title track, 'She's Electric' and 'Champagne Supernova', 'The Great Escape' was overlong and had a few stinkers (though there are three more Blur crackers on it, I'd say, namely 'He Thought of Cars', 'Yuko and Hiro', and my very favourite, 'Best Days').

And what since? Well, Oasis were never that good again, there's no denying. A few decent singles, but the chemistry between the two brothers became corrosive and obstructive and I think they're better off apart for now. And Blur - well, they've all gone on to a variety of delights and also put a few more excellent albums and ultimately, perhaps, the triumph is Damon Albarn's - the full range of what he's achieved since then beggars belief, and he can look at it all and say, you know what, Wonderwall may have kicked The Universal out of the park back in 1995, but on a glorious August evening in 2012, they were both being sung back by 60,000 people in separate locations in London town. And Blur were the chosen band of the people, playing the Olympics closing concert across the city in Hyde Park. And there was Liam Gallagher in the Olympic Stadium, not a fearsome firebrand but just another 40-plus establishment celebrity, without his brother, the song's creator (who'd turned the gig down), starting out rather nervous and a little bit flat, before turning it around and getting the singalong the song deserved.

Because, after all, what is a Wonderwall, except a 1968 film soundtracked by George Harrison?

Well, it's a beautiful song in a minor key which actually has excellent lyrics and lovely strings, and it's one of the few songs which has had that effect on me in my life, and yes, it's a little embarrassing to say that now, because it's such a cliche, and it's Oasis, and they were lumpy and got dull quickly, but hey, it still stops me in my tracks if it catches me in the right mood now.

One song: The State I Am In

The State I Am In - Belle and Sebastian

Yes, I am a child of Britpop, yes, I am an indie kid, but I'd be lying if I said I came to it by the conventional super-cool routes. I was still listening to Capital Radio, or at best Virgin Radio, in 1996, and still buying my tapes (not even CDs yet) at Our Price (or at best HMV) Ealing Broadway.  Thus it was unusually serendipitous that I found myself listening to a Radio 1 session (John Peel or Steve Lamacq or Mark Radcliffe, can't quite recall) on a summer evening in 1996 and it was a performance by a band called Belle and Sebastian of a song called 'The State I Am In'.

Now, whatever else I'd learnt about indie musicians in my 2 years of reading NME at that point, they were definitely cool, impenetrable, took drugs and didn't go to church or talk about children's TV.
So, when the band in session was announced as Belle and Sebastian, my ears perked up. But is it an ironic, mean use of the lovable cartoon about a boy and his dog in the Pyrenees, i wondered?

"I was surprised; I was happy for a day in 1975, and I was puzzled by a dream that stayed with me all day in 1995".

So far so good! And that voice ... so fragile, so teenagery, so smart, so indie, but not indie like Oasis, thank goodness. Back then, B and S really were lo-fi and incapable, I remember lots of bum notes but I remember the song developing, and thinking I liked the way it was going. It was easy to follow the story, it was funny and then it started to talk about priests and churches and sins and providence, and these were the subjects that had been bothering me for these last six years, not drugs and Camden, not even clumsy politics (not yet!) and he actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

So that was the start of Belle and Sebastian for me. Being as how I was still a bit useless then and how Tigermilk was very limited edition and how they weren't really in NME, that was it for a while. Something I'd heard, that I'd warmed to, but I went on listening to Bob Dylan and Blur and  the Manic Street Preachers and The Jam and Spiritualized and Van Morrison and they had quite enough for me for the time being.

But I was lucky to go to university in Scotland and to have pretty cool Scottish friends, so, for my first couple of years there, B and S began to filter into my consciousness as real cult concern, till finally in 2000, I dived fully in (my first B and S purchase was actually the reissued 'Tigermilk' - still on tape though, blimey! - beginning with 'The State I Am In') and haven't looked back since.

So what are Belle and Sebastian and what is The State I Am In?  I'll answer the first question.

They are The Smiths of my generation. Yes, indeed. It wasn't me that first proffered that theory (it was an article I read suggesting that there wasn't actually a Smiths of my generation but that B and S were as close as it got) but I wholeheartedly espouse it.

It's easy to forget how much of an odd little self-contained cult B and S were until 2001. They hardly ever played live, didn't give interviews, they had a name which implied they were a double act and they sang songs about themselves. I didn't even know what Stuart Murdoch looked like. I just remember hearing that he was older than he ought to be.

The NME, as epitomised by powerhouse journalist Steven Wells - the kind of writer 50% of whose stuff you love with a passion, 50% of which you loath and want to send him death threats, the best kind really - hated them, hated them with fervour. I remember him writing about how he'd found himseld playing football with Stuart Murdoch and he was, inexplicably, brilliant and an extremely nice man and that made the weedy wetness of the music all the more unforgivable. It's true that Stuart Murdoch's voice and songwriting does not scream of a brilliant footballer, but he's always been an odd bean, and as the band became more open, more understanding grew.

He was a perennial student who'd lost a huge chunk of his 20s to M.E., a dreamer, a fantasist, an actual Christian, a long distance runner, a real human being, not a rock star.

And being a B and S fan defined who you were in a way that no other band of that era did. Twee, proper, sensitive indie is defined by B and S. No one told you to like them, you heard them and felt here was a band created just for you. There was no Sebastian but there was actually a Bel, but God know what order it all came in.

Extraordinarily, they won a Brit award in 1999, the first sign that they weren't content to stay on the margins forever.

And so began their coming out party, interviews, Top of the Pops, Jools Holland, star producers, it all followed (as, sadly, did the departure of two founding members, first Stuart David who went on to be Looper and also a novelist, and also, of course, said Bel, Isobel Campbell, who has been very successful in her own right, and whose departure, though it denied the band a bit of its cultish magic, certainly seems to have reduced the tension and made band politics a bit easier). And references (as a cultural signifier) in Hollywood films. They haven't become a MASSIVE band but they have become a big band on both sides of the Atlantic (Top 20 albums in the US, live at the Hollywood Bowl, headlining festivals, even creating their own festival).

They really learnt how to play - I've seen them several times since 2001 and the quality and sheer muscularity has got better and better - and Stuart Murdoch's voice got stronger and stronger. Their albums aren't really quite as good as they used to be, but they're still giving it a very good shot and keeping a high standard, they're certainly more eclectic (a little less funkin might be preferred).

And yet, even after all this time, for me, 'The State I Am In' IS Belle Sebastian. Well, strictly speaking, 'Belle and Sebastian', another song on the Dog on Wheels EP, IS Belle and Sebastian, but I'd have to be a smug, witless fool to point that out.

'The State I Am In' is a glorious, wonderful, song which i'm not sure they've ever bettered. It's a builder, a grower, a lyrical tour de force which tells you everything you need to know about its writer. It's vulnerable but sly and daring, it's intricate yet ends up being anthemic.

On 'Tigermilk's second track 'Expectations', Murdoch sings about "making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay". Well, I'm going to add to my previous bold pronouncement. B and S are not just the Smiths of my generation, they're also the Velvet Underground of my generation. Only a few thousand people bought that debut album but how many of them were inspired to form a band? How much music on both sides of the Atlantic has sounded like B and S since, tuneful, literate, yes, fey, girl/boy, jangly. I've had countless new bands described to me as Belle and Sebastian-y. Of course, they didn't arise in a vacuum - Love, The Velvets, Felt, Orange Juice etc, went before, but I do believe Belle and Sebastian and The State I Am In were something new, unique, influential and priceless.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

31 Songs

So my sister's given me Nick Hornby's '31 Songs' for Christmas, which is a lovely present and I'm very much enjoying working my way through it. I've owned some similar books but not owned this one myself - my former flatmate Michael owned it and I certainly browsed it from time to time, but to actually read it properly is a treat, as Nick Hornby is, of course, a proper skilled writer, not just a pop archivist, and he has crafted it just so, while seeming not to be crafting it at all.

And you may have noticed - '31 Songs' has a certain similarity to the title of this blog, and it was quite conceivably on my mind when I came up with the title. Which made me think a few things.
Firstly, I remembered how few people have I ever really made aware of the blog (which began, gosh, almost four years ago), including my family. When I got the book, I wanted to say "aah, good thinking, this fits in well with my blog" but then held back.

Come to think of it, I do now remember directing my sister to the very first post, the list of 101 Songs, but not to all the nonsense that followed. Really, I've only ever let about 8 people know this blog exists, perhaps understandably, and not really with any discretionary process. For example, the above former flatmate Michael has I think never read it, though I imagine it would be of some interest to him, and I hope would not be put out to discover it had been going all this time without his knowledge, but the truth is what happened is, when I started it out, and was a little embarrassed about the whole thing, I vaguely mentioned it, and if someone followed up on that, that was fine, but I didn't want to push anyone to read it. How frightful. Anyway, Michael, if this is you reading this now, you've got a lot ot catch up on!

Blogger now has precise stats so I know how many people ever look at it - not many but always a steady few, and not just my friends. Ironically, the entry through which most people come to it (one presumes through google search terms) is "10 Songs about Embarrassment, Shame ...", which is slightly delicious, as what we have is a man deeply prone to embarrassment having his deeply embarrassing words being read by people who themselves are pretty prone to embarrassment, otherwise why would they have searched for songs about embarassment? How embarrassing! And the most embarrassing thing is that that is, in my opinion, a pretty undistinguished entry, and i'd much rather they'd found the blog through, I don't know, 'Songs about The End of the World' or something. I nailed that one ...

Anyway, back to '31 Songs', wherein Nick Hornby actually does something different from what i've done in this blog - he literally just writes about his love for 31 individual songs, a lovely simple idea, which you'd have to be an extremely popular and skilled writer to get away with publishing and people actually buying, reading and enjoying. Cos, really, anyone could do that. If I could walk into a publisher and go "I want to wrote a bit about 31 songs I like" and that would eventually end up with the The Spectator saying it was "as good a book about pop music as I have read in many years" I'd be a very lucky man.

But I'm not Nick Hornby. Though in a way I am. And that's the genius of Nick Hornby. I've very much enjoyed 4 (or maybe 5) of his books but never once thought that's something I couldn't do. But I couldn't. And he does write about people you think are you. Even if they are him.

Probably his most nailed-on up-my-street book is 'High Fidelity', the book about music obsession. [Incidentally, I don't quite buy his "I'm not a total and utter music geek" shtick he's putting across in '31 Songs'. No one who writes about full-on music geekdom like he does in 'High Fidelity' could not be a full-on music geek. They just couldn't].
Goodness, it's a long old time since I read it, as it helped me through my first few weeks in Kenya in early 1997. The album I was mainly listening to then was 'Blood on the Tracks', of which the first track is 'Tangled Up in Blue', which contains the lyric "And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like they were written on my soul" which is a little how I felt about parts of 'High Fidelity', though I was a callow 18 year old gap year student, rather than a 30 something independent record store owner. Of course, the film is cracking too, part of the Cusack hot streak, full of lovely music - the first time I attempted to see it at the cinema in Kensington, with Stephen, a migraine took hold of me, and, reader, let's work through this embarrassment together, I had to throw up in the loos and scuttle home. Aah, memories, misty, watercolour memories of the way we were ...

But, anyway, so, anyway, ok, all I'm actually saying is, how's about I do a little of that for a while, steal Nick Hornby's idea and just write a section on an individual song and its place in the world, whether my own world or the world as a whole. Although in my final list of 101 songs (keep up, there have been lots of lists of 101 songs!) I did write a few lines on each of those beloved songs, i've rarely (as I recently did with Going Underground) delved deep into an individual song, like Hornby does so skilfully.
Probably better if some of the songs are pretty well-known, I've already had a little think, and here are some songs I might write about

Dry the Rain
Killing Me Softly
The State I Am In
One Day Like This

Am I being too obvious? These might be songs you hate. They might be songs I hate. But better, I think, to give readers a chance of knowing what i'm talking about. Anyway, that is very much subject to change, and it won't necessarily stop the flow of writing on other subjects.
I'm really beginning to get into the second incarnation of this blog, after a stuttering start. I feel the writing's been quite poor so far,  but hopefully it can get better again with more practice.

Friday, 28 December 2012

2012 was undoubtedly a year

 ... for sport not music?
Am I wrong?
Sometimes one just has to tick one off like that.
The sport of 2012, the TV of 2012, the films of (late) 2012 will, I think, go down as glorious and memorable and wonderful. The music? Will it? You tell me.

It could be my passion and interest is waning, but i'm still buying lots of stuff and giving it at least one or two listens, still getting music magazines, checking pitchfork and NME websites daily, I still WANT to hear the best stuff and love the best stuff and feel cool and sound cool.

It could be i'm at that awkward age, neither one thing nor the other. The hip youngsters at NME and Pitchfork have their own lists of the best stuff of the year and it's all Grimes and Alt-J and Kendrick Lamar and Chromatics and Palma Violets and what's all the shooting aboot ... and Uncut has their list and it's all Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Bill Fay and Bruce Springsteen and Dexys, and I've got a foot in both camps I suppose, but what's happened is that the folk who were cool 40 and writing for Uncut 15 years ago have kept their jobs and got old and just love the old folk now, and the people who run NME and Pitchfork have kept replacing their hip young writers with new hip young writers and they're genuinely young and, well, like ever so slightly different music than me.
And the album with a foot in every camp is the Frank Ocean album 'Channel Orange', which I've heard bits of throughout the year and just bought and listened to in its entirety and I don't think it's going to change my life though I may come to like it but I don't really "get" it yet.

But that represents how I feel about almost everything this year. Bands of my era, the kind that were acclaimed a few years ago but are now considered a bit middle-aged, released albums I thought were pretty good but I can admit were not magnificent (Shins, Walkmen, Regina Spektor, Spiritualized, Rufus Wainwright etc), various old folk released albums which Uncut and old rock critics wet themselves over but weren't really that amazing (Dylan, Cohen, Dexys, Weller etc, though hats off for Paul Buchanan and Bill Fay for genuinely unexpected minor triumphs) and I've tried to get down with the kids, really I have, and I'm enjoying various things, but things need a little more time.

I nearly always do an end-of-year list but I'm not sure I can muster that this time.

I like the sound of the new Nick Cave song 'We No Who 'U' R', I like 'Bad for Me' by Brendan Benson, 'How' by Regina Spektor', love 'Losing You' by Solange', 'Heaven' by the Walkmen, 'Mid-Air' by Paul Buchanan and 'So Long you Pretty Thing' by Spiritualized, 'Under the Westway' by Blur, 'Feels Like We Only Go Backwards' by Tame Impala and 'It's Only Life' by The Shins. Aah, that appears to be 10 songs, so perhaps those are my BEST 10 SONGS OF THE YEAR! after all.

But I ought to be able to do better than that, and I'm not sure I've even got a favourite album of 2012 yet. I'll let you know halfway through 2013.
The end-of-year lists are a handy way to catch up on the consensus and does usually produce some big winners, so I've got a few things cued up for further attention.
Although we decry the pop charts and how it's all ghastly ShitBag feat TossFace these days, though I don't follow it that closely, Carly Rae Jepsen's song and Gotye's song were perfectly appealing and unusual chart-toppers, Emeli Sande is not an abominable breakout star of the year, and Robbie Williams did the first song by him I haven't absolutely loathed ever, so it can't be all bad.
But I'll tell you what was. all. bad. The Band of Horses album. What went wrong, Band of Horses? One of my favourite live shows ever, less than two years ago, with several songs which have ripped my soul clean off its hinges, but they have lost their mojo entirely, and represent all the bad cliches of the beardy Americana which is so close to my heart.
So come on 2013, Let's have a few classics. Newsom? National? Cave? Janelle Monae? Midlake? Heaven forfend, the Furries? Or let's hope that it's someone entirely unexpected who appeals to NME youngsters, Uncut beardies and disgruntled 34 year old sports fans alike.

The Alt-Country Middleweights

Right then, The Alt-Country Middleweights! A blazing pronouncement of intent. How many millions of google searches must there be each day under the term "alt-country middleweights". And what the fuck am I talking about?

I'll tell you. I'll tell you the one and only time I've seen this wonderful expression used and how it's become, for me, a definitive descriptive term.

It was in Q magazine (or maybe Uncut, sheeete) and it was the little tag line at the top of a little review of the 2006 Josh Rouse album 'Subtitulo' - his 6th full length solo album - and I'm pretty certain it said something like "Another solid effort by persevering alt-country middleweight" before awarding said album 3 stars. Solid, consistent, skilled, all together middleweight, that's Josh Rouse and his Josh Rouse albums. A view, I think, shared by Mr Josh Rouse himself, it seems ... one of the two times I saw him live, he said "Friday night in London, and here you are, at a Josh Rouse concert" in evident bemusement that anyone should be paying good money to see him sing his little songs when they ought to be painting the city red at the weekend.

And yet I happen to think Josh Rouse is one of the greatest songwriters on God's earth, and that his run of albums from 'Under Cold Blue Stars' through '1972' and 'Nashville' to 'Subtitulo' (in particular the middle two) is perhaps the most consistent streak of elegant and heart-tugging songcraft of this century.

But that does not necessarily mean that the description of him as a middleweight, however it was meant, is entirely unfair. He's probably not sold 100,000 records in his life. He IS a middleweight, if that. Maybe more of a welter. He doesn't aim to fill out stadiums, he doesn't bring regimes crashing down, he's no Muse, or U2, or even Arcade Fire. He's no heavyweight. Equally, these are lovely songs with pop melodies, he's not wilfully obscure, not anti-pop or anti-folk or post-rock or punk or lo-fi or anything like that. Nor is he a fragile desperado, no Elliott Smith or Daniel Johnston. He's no bantamweight.

His album '1972' pays tribute to the MOR glory of the early 70s, Carole King, James Taylor etc. He's "middle" in that sense too. His music's not going to scare anybody. But actual MOR got massive, got heavyweight. And generally, got a bit shit.

The alt-county middleweights, the Marvin Haglers and Sergio Martinezes of the music world, who stayed just where they were, knew their natural weight and didn't try to bulk up and take on the Klitschkos, those are the music stars who float my little boat. Yes, that was a boxing reference, and, like Mark Kozelek (alt-country middleweight of some renown), I'm going to stay on the boxing theme for a short while.

The heavyweight division is no longer where it's at and hasn't been for some time. Dull and lifeless, full of bloated flabbies (though perhaps slowly on its way back). The real action is in the middle divisions - the four kings of the 80s were Hearns, Hagler, Leonard and Duran and since then we've had the like of Toney, McCallum, Jones, Benn, Eubank, Martinez, Hopkins, even Mayweather and Pacquiao at light-middleweight and the likes of Calzaghe and Froch at super-middle.

This is where the really great fights featuring the best athletes happen. And what happens if they bulk up and try to take on the big guns, like Jones and Toney - generally undignified disaster strikes. Lean, taut and savvy, middleweight and proud.

Of course, one can only take the boxing analogy so far. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with grandeur in music, or in really good little bands getting really, surprisingly, successful. In fact it's rather super. The Decemberists, for example, are no longer alt-country middleweights. They've had a Number 1 album in the States. Nor is Ryan Adams. He was always aiming for the stars, however much he might try to deny it (indeed, one might say he's a little of a Roy Jones - he bulked up to take on the big guns, it didn't work out, he tried to slim down again, and was never quite the same). Or Wilco, or The National, or Bright Eyes, or Fleet Foxes. Those are the alt-rock heavyweights, and they're superduper too.

But here's a little playlist of alt-country middleweights - song-crafters, all. Really, for certain people like me, this uninspiring band of also-rans who've probably not sold 1 million records between them are better and more important not just than Elvis Presley and U2, but also than Mozart and Shakespeare and Picasso and Kubrick and Virgil, and, shucks, even Dan Brown.

All hail the alt-country middleweights

Josh Rouse - Slaveship
The Jayhawks - Blue
The Pernice Brothers - Bryte Side
Midlake - Van Occupanther
Lucinda Williams - Blue
Lambchop - Up With People
Josh Ritter - Kathleen
Iron and Wine - Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Ron Sexsmith - Not About to Lose
Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love

* I realise I haven't written anything about the "alt-country" side of the phrase ... well, if you don't know about that ... well, I suppose Alt-country has a resaonably broad description of American guitar music of the last 25 years which is not, as such, urban. They say it started with Uncle Tupelo, or maybe Gram Parsons, and it's a lot better than, and sells a fraction of the amount of, mainstream country. It is what grown-up British music fans love.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Magic moments ...

Just a brief post, as I can't get round to writing my next full-length missive, which, thrill to end all thrills, will be called 'The Alt-Country Middleweights' ... oh, what a tease I am.

This is just a little note about how the music world is full of glorious little footnotes and coincidences - three of which I'll bring to your attention now.

1. Eminem's 'My Name Is' takes its main sample from 'I Got The' (from about 2.20)
, a song by black, gay singer-songwriter Labi Siffre, most famous for writing 'It Must Be Love' and 'Something Inside So Strong'. Labi Siffre was born in Queen Charlotte's, Hammersmith, like yours truly, and also attended St Benedict's, Ealing, as I did, but the least said about that place the better. But the best bit, who were the session musicians on 'I Got The' so with their fingerprints all over one of the biggest hip-hop hits of the 90s - none other than Chas and Dave.

2. After Nick Drake's debut album 'Five Leaves Left' his producer Joe Boyd, (who wrote a tremeondous memoir called 'White Bicycles'), looked into exploring the commercial potential of Drake's superb material, so set up a session with an up-and-coming young pianist called Elton John (this is late 60s) where he covered various of Drake's songs, including this one
Not bad at all, actually. And one further little titbit, the guitarist is Caleb Quaye, Finley Quaye's much older half-brother.

3. I had a long held fascination with the great American singer Paul Robeson, most famous for 'Ol Man River' - Robeson was one of the most famous men in the world in the early 1900s, a star of stage, screen and record, a great athlete before that, and even in 1948 mooted as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Imagine that, 60 years before Obama, 15 years before 'I Have a Dream', a black vice-presidential candidate. But Robeson has mainly been expunged from American history, because he was a communist, who made various trips to the Soviet Union. He was victimised, punished and died a broken and forgotten man.
The Manic Street Preachershad a song called 'Let Robeson Sing' on their otherwise highly disappointing 'Know Your Enemy' album. You may remember, 'Know Your Enemy' was the one where they played a concert for Fidel Castro in Cuba. 'Let Robeson Sing' is all about Paul Robeson, it's actually musically lovely, one of the few high points of the album, though lyrically it's a spectacularly clunky treatment of the subject (I'll write in full about the shaky greatness of the Manics in a later post).
I only found out yesterday that the idea originally was that Gruff Rhys (who as you all know is a man higher in my estimation than Paul Robeson, Nick Drake, even Ryan Giggs) was originally intended to sing this number with the Manics for Castro in Cuba. In  the end, he sang it with them at the 02 in 2011
and then in a solo gig he did later that week
Beautiful! Who couldn't listen to Gruff talking for hours and hours ....

Anyway, hope those are reasonably enlightening, interesting and entertaining. Back to the alt-country middleweights soon ...