Wednesday, 27 February 2013

American Pie

American Pie - Madonna

Yes, the Madonna version. So here goes.

This is obviously terrible. A weird, annoying video and a version that sucks all the life out of an overplayed but still striking classic song. So there wouldn't be too many debates on its awfulness, would there?

And I think it marks the point at which Madonna, in my head, went from being someone that just existed in a neutral way to one of the great enemies, someone whose every move I decided to abhor.

It was probably a combination of this song and reading some article which contained a quote by Canadian thinker Michael Ignatieff which went

"I don't mind that I see her face on every magazine cover; I certainly don't mind that she is obscene; I don't even mind that she can't sing, can't dance, can't act and is nonetheless the most famous person on the planet. What I can't stand about Madonna is that she thinks she's an artist"

Yes, that's it, I thought. That's it. Brilliant. That's exactly what one shouldn't stand about Madonna. So, fine, I can't stand Madonna. Except, I wonder now, is Ignatieff's comment just overbearing, moderately misogynistic, clottish snobbery? Has he, like I, been far too harsh on Madonna? Actually, is Madonna an artist, just as much as I think Bob Dylan? Surely I've indulged a thousand more aberrations by Dylan than anyone has of Madonna? So he, they say, can't sing, play harmonica, can't act though he's tried to, can't paint though he's exhibited, surely can't direct films though he's tried to, can't write novels though he's tried to.
And does he think he's an artist? Well, no, he says he's a song and dance man. And perhaps therein lies the difference. Yes, that and the fact that I think Bob Dylan can sing, can play harmonica, can act, can write anything he wants, can even paint.

And Madonna CAN'T act. Again, that is fair comment, isn't it? It's unusual to see someone on screen who does not possess the bare capabilites to perform a roled (which makes you think more highly of actors in general) but Madonna has killed everything i've ever seen her in stone dead, perhaps apart from Desperately Seeking Susan, but i haven't seen that since I was a kid, so perhaps my memory is being generous.

And she does take herself seriously. Her "political" stageshows of recent times indicate that she still holds her ability to change the world in high regard. So, sure, that's annoying. It's annoying when Bono does it, it's annoying when pretty much anyone does it.

But, her version of 'American Pie' notwithstanding, is Madonna rubbish? Well, not 'Like a Prayer' obviously. That's fine. I used to allow myself quite liking Like a Prayer by noting one of the golden rules of pop that every single person or band, however generally rubbish, has at least one accidental classic in them.
But then, Hung Up's good too, isn't it? And I suppose Into the Groove. So I'd allow for Madonna having more than one decent pop song by saying that well, with all the money in the world and all the best writers and producers, it's not surprisingly that a turd gets well polished every now and then.

But then I remember that in Madonna's supposedly quiet and fallow mid-90s period, I actually liked quite a few of her songs - the likes of Deeper and Deeper, Take a Bow, Rain, I remember rather liking them.

Hmm, puzzling.

And is Madonna a rubbish singer? Well, she's no Maria Callas and she's no Mariah Carey, but thank goodness. I mean, she's no Joni Mitchell or Debbie Harry either, don't get me wrong. Perhaps it's my love for those two which really set me against Madonna a) the fact that Madonna seemed to define and narrow down what a female star should be post-mid80s, as if all the brilliance of the likes of Mitchell and Aretha Franklin was forgotten, and b) the fact that she seemed to have stolen everything from Debbie Harry, except without the charm, wit, personality and randomness.

But so what? She's not as good as my favourites. Is that reason enough to hate her? Has she been bad for pop music in general? I don't really know. She has kind of defined what it takes to be a megastar these days, but perhaps she deserves respect for staying intact the way she has done.

If I dwell on aberrations like her Bond theme, her acting, that song 'American Life' and this horrendous version of American Pie, then sure, I might go on being anti-Madonna, but there's plenty of good to counterbalance that.

How attached am I to the original American Pie, anyway? Is this really that much worse? Yes, yes it is. While I don't agree with the assessment of the normally unimpeachable Richard Osman from Pointless that this is the best pop song of all, it's certainly a song which deserved better than this.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

I Want to be a Christian

I Want to be a Christian - The Proclaimers

Sometimes it's all about the singing. These two bespectacled twins from Leith via Auchtermuchtie, an ever-present oddity on the UK music scene, sing with their whole beings, sing in the most stirring, unadorned way, combining the roots of their homeland with American county and soul, that it gives you a pride in something you may not have any part of.

And this is, just about, my favourite piece of Proclaimers singing. And that's saying something, as you'll know if you've ever heard Sunshine on Leith or 'Act of Remembrance' or 'Letter from America' or, of course, '500 Miles'. Those are their own songs, which display great songwriting skills, while 'I Want to be a Christian' is an old gospel song, a song which was later sampled by Moby for his 2002 single 'In My Heart', which is ok.

I actually love the lyric of the song, which is only one line; "Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart" - that's it. I love it because it's ambiguous. "I want to be a Christian - but I'm not one. I wish I could be one. I'd like to believe, it seems great, but I just don't. I'd like to live a good life, but I'm a terrible arsehole, to be honest." What's stopping our hero from being a Christian? Another song with a similarly double-edged lyrics, I always think, is 'I Believe When I Fall In Love With You It Will Be Forever', that beautiful Stevie Wonder song. But, again, why has he not fallen in love with her already? Does he want to, but he's just not able to?

Anyway, the Proclaimers heard something in that lyric they thought they could give some oomph too, and they do. How many people really sing like this, really lay it on the line with every note like this? I'm sure The Proclaimers don't mind too much that people know them as those funny looking chaps in glasses, nor that they're mainly know for "du-du-la-duh" being sung at weddings up and down the country - not just in Scotland [incidentally, it's no wonder it was Little Britain that made '500 Miles' a massive Comic Relief hit in 2007 - Matt Lucas is the world's biggest Proclaimers fan, and wrote the sleevenotes to their Greatest Hits]. Having toured with Dexys back in the 80s, they share a similar fate of being remembered for a very odd hit and one singalong wedding hit.
I don't think it's one of the great injustices - I mean, these are the bands who earned enough to still be performing and making music to this day. I suppose in the music industry you take what you can get.

Anyway, listen to this, it's spine-tingling. As is 'Sunshine on Leith' every time. It strikes me that the reason something like Celtic soul exists is that somehow it's more acceptable for Scottish and Irish acts to have a naked religiosity in their music than English acts, from U2 to Belle and Sebastian. One of the few English acts who I've heard using God and Jesus effectively in their music is Spiritualized, and there it is as an artistic device, rather than a genuine statement of faith (albeit it's just as moving). A nice companion piece to 'I Want to be a Christian', where it is not the voice but the noise that takes centre-stage, is Spiritualized's version of 'Oh Happy Day'. Rapture.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Great British Band (it's official ...)

I couldn't resist, of course.

I've really enjoyed using spurious rating systems to make spurious lists, having already applied that to Great Albums and Great Number 1 singles.

Having already written a post where I talk in detail about what I think makes a Great British Band, I put my money where my mouth was, and used the criteria I outlined (or quite close to them) to try to judge who the best British bands of all time were.

A little reminder of the key section from that post

I suppose most of my favourite music is American, but I think there is a great concept of a great British band out there, and these are those who I believe fall under that banner, and why.

[Right from the start, I'll say this is kind of a  alternative to the Manchester scene in terms of timeline and so I'm keeping it post-1977. It's obvious that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks are great British bands, they influence most of these, sometimes pretty directly, I don't think there's much point in including them. But I think the Beatles and the Kinks, in particular, do embody what I'm talking about]

The Clash
Manic Street Preachers
Dexys Midnight Runners
Belle and Sebastian
Super Furry Animals

I have something very specific in my head I probably won't be able to nail down - there are plenty of other Britsh bands from this period i love or really like - The Jam, Teenage Fanclub, Ash, Spiritualized, countless solo artists, and i'm not dismissing more poppy bands who other people find great, Pet Shop Boys, even Take That, it's just I have come to group these bands together in a way and see them as the definition as what I love in British music:

So what are the factors?

-A consistent and strong back catalogue
-A sense of anger
-The feeling that they come from a particular time and place
-Creating their own little world
-Being unambiguously British, not quasi-American
-A sense of being a gang
-Not being in thrall to the past, but being hugely learned in rock and pop history
-The ability to reinvent
-Being a cult
-Not being what they initially appear to be
-Having the ability to cross into the mainstream but not staying there
-Having a visual style all their own which feeds back into the music
-The fact that their fans will actually argue about what their best album/albums are
-Actually writing about something real
-Being unafraid of ridiculousness

So, like I say, I tried to use those criteria as well as I could, though I mixed them up a bit and refined them. And you can see above where my sympathies lie. So don't be surprised to see some of them near the top of the list.

Then again, I knew that my criteria would be faulty if the Beatles did not top the list. That's obvious. So, thankfully, they did, easily.

I tried to consider every possible contender from every possible genre - this was mainly possible but there were a few bands like, say OMD and Jethro Tull, who I felt unfair assessing, as I'm largely unfamiliar with the bulk of their work. So be it. I did the best I could.

There is a shocking bias towards male white bands. That says more about the UK music scene, i think, than it does about me (though of course it says a fair bit about me) because if it were American bands, that would be very different, in terms of both massively successful, influential bands and my own tastes.

I was pretty strict in terms of what constituted a British band - so, I didn't allow solo artists with backing bands, like Elvis Costello and the Attractions and the Spiders from Mars. Bands had to be properly British, rather than just having the odd British member, like, say Crosby, Stills and Nash. Fleetwood Mac only just qualified.

Anyway, I feel like I've got it wrong, that there are a few bands in there that shouldn't be and some not that should be. Who have I missed totally? Who's in totally the wrong place?

1 The Beatles
2 The Rolling Stones
3 Blur
4 Madness
5 The Clash
6 Radiohead
7 Super Furry Animals
8 Led Zeppelin
9 Manic Street Preachers
10 Queen
11 Belle and Sebastian
12 The Jam
13 Pet Shop Boys
14 The Kinks
15 The Cure
16 The Smiths
17 The Who
18 Dexys
19 The Small Faces
20 Pink Floyd
21 Primal Scream
22 Massive Attack
23 Arctic Monkeys
24 Take That
25 Fairport Convention
26 Stone Roses
27 The Proclaimers
28 Oasis
29 New Order/ Joy Division
30 The Pogues
31 Elbow 
32 The Human League
33 Fleetwood Mac
34 Squeeze
35 Charlatans
36 The Bee Gees
37 Adam and the Ants
38 Eurythmics
39 The Specials 
40 Portishead
41 Jamiroquai
42 Girls Aloud
43 Supergrass
44 Slade
45 Iron Maiden
46 Chemical Brothers
47 Tindersticks
48 Pulp
49 OMD
50 Bloc Party
51 Franz Ferdinand
52 T.Rex
53 Soul 2 Soul
54 Jethro Tull
55 Jesus and Mary Chain
56 Mogwai
57 Gorillaz
58 Depeche Mode
59 The Prodigy
60 Kasabian
61 McFly
62 Dr Feelgood
63 Embrace
64 Snow Patrol
65 The Sex Pistols
66 Black Sabbath
67 Cream
68 The Bluetones
69 Wings
70 Doves
71 Idlewild
72 The Zombies
73 Genesis
74 Spiritualized
75 Muse
76 Ash
77 Faithless
78 The Style Council
79 Delgados
80 The Verve
81 The Shadows
82 Frankie Goes to Hollywood
83 Cocteau Twins
84 James
85 The Beautiful South
86 Tears for Fears
87 Scritti Politti
88 The Spice Girls
89 Simple Minds
90 UB40
91 The Stranglers
92 Bananarama
93 Underworld
94 The Hollies
95 Simply Red
96 Incredible String Band
97 Teenage Fanclub
98 Duran Duran
99 Divine Comedy
100 Suede

Coming Up

Coming Up - Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn, Gruff Rhys, Africa Express

This is an extremely ropey clip of a song I don't know all that well, as part of what appears to have been a rather fun escapade last summer called 'Africa Express' where a whole troupe of musicians from all paarts of Africa and around the world travelled by train round Britain playing music and generally spreading the love.

Apologies for not writing too much about that - it might seem a little perverse and narrow-minded to concentrate on the three Brits on stage as part of something called 'Africa Express', but this clip does represent to me the greatest coming together of creative talent in the history of British music. And I do mean that.

And while popular acclaim would pretty comfortably put them in the order 1. McCartney 2. Albarn 3. Rhys, my own preference, with due respect to the magnificence of Sir Paul, would reverse the order. For me, not only is Gruff Rhys the slowest talker in the world, he is the most wonderful frontman/creator of songs/general person in the history of British music. But that's just me.

What I particularly appreciate about this triumvirate is that Albarn and Rhys are truly the natural heirs to McCartney, the most musical, melodic, humane, experimental, eclectic Beatle (if one wishes to see the likes of Oasis and the Verve as heirs to Lennon that's all very good) and it's very gratifying for me to see the frontmen of Blur and the Super Furry Animals as collaborators, to know there is mutual respect there (I think their only collaboration on record is 'Superfast Jellyfish').

Damon Albarn is a phenomenon, someone who can be one moment the show-off frontman, the next moment the enabler, the conductor, whose recognised his own limitations and used them to his advantage, who seems to have no limits to his interests or potential genres. I'm sure I will devote an entry to a Blur song at one point and I think I know which one. Likewise, I'm sure I'll write more at length about a Furries song and why I love that band so much.

But for now, I just want to draw people's attention to this brief collaboration, to think how wonderful it is that these pop geniuses who just love hearing and making new sounds got together in such an odd context, and I want to continue to beat the drum for the wonderful genius of Gruff Rhys.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Race for the Prize

Race for the Prize - The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips was the first gig I went to. Well, no, not the first. I went to see Slushfund, a band a boy from school was in (who were actually pretty good, and offered a record contract which they turned down) five times, in various classic north London venues.

But the Flaming Lips was the first gig I went to out of something other than friendship (I am not friends with Wayne Coyne). I was already 20 or 21 so quite a late starter really. From that point there was no stopping me - literally 100s since then. Which is slightly surprising, as I'm not entirely sure I enjoyed it all that much. I certainly said I enjoyed it, and I know Alex and John, who I went with, enjoyed it, but I think I remember vague discomfort more than sheer bliss.

It was at the Garage in Glasgow, a venue I remember only slightly, and the support band was Wheat, who had an extremely large drummer, while the Flaming Lips, bizarrely, had no drummer at all, and relied on a drum machine (though they made up for that with some rather excellent video displays).

Wayne Coyne was, of course, extremely engaging, and they played various of the songs I very much enjoyed from their album 'The Soft Bulletin', which I'd been enjoying all year [produced, like The Delgados' 'Hate' by Dave Fridmann], and I remember my surprise that they played some song about tangerines as if it was their well known hit (I later found out that 'She Don't Use Jelly' was a rather a significant radio hit of the mid-90s).

The one moment I do remember unambiguously enjoying was 'Race for the Prize' the first song and first single from 'The Soft Bulletin', in which Coyne enthusiastically banged a gong, an action myself and Alex would feign whenever we heard that song in the following year.

It's a thrilling song, woozy but exhilarating, smart but anthemic. Along with the very sad 'Waiting for a Superman' it lifted 'The Soft Bulletin' to classic status and made them, for a while, one of my favourite bands. But they have become one of those bands I loved long since and lost awhile.

I now have only moderate interest in any news of them, and don't hold out high hopes for my enjoying it. Rather as I described with Animal Collective's 'My Girls', Flaming Lips are one of those bands who seem to have briefly chosen to coincide with relatively straightforward, popular music, before drifting back into weirdness.

I mean, they like weirdness. Most of their early back catalogue is a mystery to me, and famously, 'Zaireeka', the album that went before 'The Soft Bulletin' was four different CDs which had to be played simultaneously to get the full effect. Well, ok. I haven't thanks.

After 'The Soft Bulletin' came 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' which was similarly acclaimed, and certainly has its moments, the most obvious being 'Do You Realize?' which has deservedly become something of a modern classic (and is, I think, the official Oklahoma state song), but also includes 'Fight Test' and the title track. Overall, though, I found the album hard work. My bad.

And by the next album 'At War With the Mystics' the deal was done. I could no longer abide Wayne Coyne's reedy voice where once I found it delightful, I could no longer abide song titles like 'Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading With a Suicide Bomber' and, most of all, I could no longer abide the fact that the band were still capable of producing beautiful little ditties like 'Goin' On' but only put one on the album.

I suppose the Flaming Lips make me realise that my tastes are actually quite generic and conservative - I like tuneful, beautiful Flaming Lips, not acid-fried experimental Flaming Lips, and, well, 'Race for the Prize' is the very best of that tuneful, beautiful side.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Wake Up

Wake Up - Arcade Fire

I took a pretty long time getting into Arcade Fire, was into them for a while, and then have spent a fairly long time getting out of them. It's a shame, really.

I resolved to write about this song before I'd seen this particular clip, but it's pretty fitting and fortuitous, really. This is Arcade Fire singing 'Wake Up' with David Bowie, and it rather exemplifies why I won't quite be able to put up with as much Arcade Fire as I should. Cos it's a lot better when David Bowie's singing it, isn't it?

Don't get me wrong, this is a tremendous performance of a song I love, I'm not writing about it for any other reason that than I love it (though the cameraman seems overly fixated with Heather Graham's attendance), and I loved this song before I'd heard Bowie performing it with them, but in Win Butler's manic, hectoring yelp lies a lot of the problem. A bit like Jack White, he seems a very talented, right-on, likeable band leader but I'm always a little blocked from taking the work too seriously by the hystronics coming out of his mouth.

Arcade Fire have two lead vocalists - Win Butler handles about 80% of it, and his wife Regine Chassaigne about 20% and I nearly always prefer her songs - their last album 'The Suburbs', though widely acclaimed, was a real repetitive drag for me, and the only relief was Chassaigne's wonderful 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' and I also love 'In the Backseat' from their brilliant debut 'Funeral'.

So is it just a mild aversion to Win Butler's voice that prevents me loving Arcade Fire? Perhaps it is, perhaps without it the other reasons I might give, which have turned into little irritations, would be forgiven and forgotten.

Are they a little self-righteous, repetive and hectoring? Maybe. Do they perform with a kind of deranged intensity which is at first wonderful and charming but then becomes a little offputting (check out young Michael Crawford lookalike Richard Reed Parry on the big drum in this clip)? Maybe. Are their second and third albums really just pale retreads of their masterpiece of a first? Almost certainly. But that's just me. Their fanbase and their acclaim is growing all the time, and gosh, their music has given me plenty of joy, so I'm going to stop talking about what's wrong with the Arcade Fire and get back to what's great about them.

Funeral. There's one great song with that name (by Band of Horses) and one great album. It's an album full of heart and soul and passion and great great tunes. As I said at the start, it took me a fair while to really get into it, though I bought it on day of release (it was just Win Butler's voice being offputting, I suppose, combined with the fact that the album's best songs are not at the start). It was 'Rebellion (Lies)' which got to me first, naturally enough, with its definitive pounding indie anthem beat (also see 'Chocolate' by Snow Patrol and 'Pounding' by Doves, which came first) and I remember listening to the whole album on my discman on the way back from Benicassim in 2006 and being entirely sold on it.

I was pretty ambivalent about the follow up 'Neon Bible' but still looking forward to seeing them headlining Latitude in the summer of 2007, and they didn't disappoint. 'Rebellion' was a particular highlight as was 'No Cars Go' but it was only then that I got to understand the true majesty of 'Wake Up'. When 30,000 without microphones bellow along in unison to 10 people on stage with microphones bellowing in unison, it really is a wonderful thing. I've rarely, if ever, felt so much part of the crowd, lost in the music, as in 'Wake Up' - it's a song with a pure anthemic majesty to it which all manner of misgivings about the band in general have failed to subdue. I finished that gig in love with the Arcade Fire.

I saw them again, a little later, and it was a really good gig, in Alexandra Palace, but for whatever reason, the magic wasn't quite there. It was a bit clumsy, the sound wasn't so great, it's quite a cavernous venue and seeing these songs for the second time couldn't quite repeat the trick. So i have scepticism about this band I'd usually have surrendered by now. They're tremendously talented and intelligent and likeable but I really hope they try something pretty different next, quieten it down, give a few more numbers to Regine Chassaigne, pound it a little less, stop trying to tell me something important they think I really need to know.

Thursday, 7 February 2013


Moulty -The Barbarians
It was a chap called Dennis Johnson who introduced me to 'Nuggets', a legendary compilation of 60s garage-rock minor hits. Dennis was one of the older guys in our Hall of Residence, captain of the football team, and a sharply dressed music nut. It was this kind of psychedelia and hard take-no-prisoners guitar music he particularly loved.

Then it was my friend John who gave me the treasured gift of the full 4 CD Nuggets compilation one summer, and as I look through it now, I'm amazed by how many of the tracks have seeped into my consciousness, from 'Psycho' by The Sonics, 'Lies' by the Knickerbockers, 'Can't Seem to Make You Mine' by the Seeds, to the deeply distasteful 'Spazz' by The Elastik Band (don't listen to it if you're easily offended).

You might think you don't know these songs, but you'll have heard them somewhere. They're always popping up on film soundtracks and being played by DJs at cool bars.

I was reminded of Nuggets by hearing a garage rock version of 'Like a Rolling Stone' on the radio yesterday, which reminded me of one of my favourite cuts, a spot-on Dylan pastiche called 'A Public Execution' by a band called Mouse. But my absolute favourite was 'Moulty' a very minor novelty record, but in its own way a little heartwarmer.

Victor 'Moulty' Moulton was the drummer with The Barbarians, who were a real band, but on this song, which he sings, he is backed by Levon and the Hawks, jobbing musicians at that point, who would become The Band, and they were one of the greatest bands of all time, so that's another reason to love this song.

What makes 'Moulty' so special - well, it's just one of those glorious 60s spoken word novelty songs - Moulty is a one-handed drummer, you see, who lost his hand in an explosion when he was a kid. He recounts his tale of how music saved him and how all he wants now to complete the picture is "a girl, a real girl" (brilliant) all with a rousing chanted chorus of his name. It's extremely silly, empowering and delightful.

Another classic 60s novelty hit, which we had as a record when we were kids, was 'I Want My Baby Back' by one Jimmy Cross. Slightly less heartwarming in his tale of lost body parts than 'Moulty' it nevertheless reminds me what a glorious and odd decade the 60s must have been.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that there is far greater breadth in modern culture than there used to be, but things like Nuggets are a reminder of just how much cool stuff there always has been bubbling under the surface which has been lost, or would have been lost but for certain diligent archivists and enthusiasts.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

La Tristesse Durere/Life Becoming a Landslide

Another cryptic band name - Oh go on then

La Tristesse Durere (Scream to a Sigh) - Manic Street Preachers

Life Becoming a Landslide - Manic Street Preachers

I'm putting these two songs together because I just couldn't decide which one of these two Manics songs to highlight, and feel justified in pairing them, as they are on the same side of the same album - Track 3 and Track 5 of the Manics' second album, 'Gold Against the Soul', one of their least critically lauded long players.

'Gold Against the Soul' was/is seen as a bit corporate, a bit over-produced, a bit unfocused. The band themselves feel that a little themselves, I think. Their next album, 'The Holy Bible' is by and large seen as their masterpiece, one of the most brutal and visceral expositions of the human condition ever recorded.

I prefer 'Gold Against the Soul', or rather I love it more. Or rather, I love a few of the songs on it more. Mainly these two - 'La Tristesse' is, in 2013, my favourite Manics song, 'Life Becoming a Landslide' was the Manics song that moved me most.

Now, what's the white elephant? There could be a few, but I'm going to guess it's that I'm talking with love and admiration about a band some of you readers might loathe. I've met plenty of music lovers, with whom I've otherwise been reasonably like-minded, who loathe the Manics, or the Ma-ha-nic Stre-e-et Pre-eache-hers as they call them (in imitation of the sometimes tortured attempts by singer James Dean Bradfield to fit the words written by either Nicky Wire or Richey Edwards into his tune). People who prefer their music more artful, less shouty, more exquisite, less Manicky. And it's true that the Manics' hits have been generally pretty bombastic, pretty preachy - well, you love it or hate it. If you love it, like I do, you love it in a personal, affectionate, protective way. You put up with the shit, you really really care. So, sorry if you hate the Manics. I think it's your loss, but I do understand.

'La Tristesse Durere' takes its title from the last words of Vincent Van Gogh, but otherwise doesn't have anything to do with him. It was my first significant encounter with the Manics, seeing them perform it on a late night Channel 4 show called 'Naked City' (whose hosts, bizarrely, were Caitlin Moran and Johnny Vaughan), and I loved this song instantly. 20 years on, I still do. It rocks, has a great riff, wonderful sloganeering lyrics "I sold my medal, it pays a bill, it sells at market stalls, parades Milan catwalks" and introduced me to the voice of James Dean Bradfield. Back then, to my chagrin, I still loved Queen, so I'd like to think James was one of the factors that moved me on from Queen - controversial, but to me, he's the singer Freddie Mercury could have been if he'd really given it a bit of welly! And he's rarely better than on 'La Tristesse Durere' - I will never get enough of him singing "I see liberals. I am just a fashion accessory".

James Dean Bradfield (his real name, it was either that or Clint Eastwood Bradfield apparently) is my favourite Manic by far. Indeed he's one of my favourite people in all rock'n'roll. A genuine hero in an unheroic age. He's the singer but not the lyricist, he's the guy that had to fit words that were sometimes clunky, sometimes pompous, sometimes verbose, sometimes utterly horribly harrowing, to his tunes and his musical pallette. Sure, he didn't always do it successfully, but believe me, the Manics have a lot of brilliant, beautiful songs and a wide frame of musical references, through punk and glam and post-rock, powerpop, stadium rock and even Bacharachy chamber-pop.

He's just, on the one hand,  a pleasant little fellow from Wales who talks too fast and says "kind of" a lot, but has had to be the tragic rock god mouthpiece for his bandmates Nicky Wire, sloganeering and political, and, until 1995, Richey Edwards, who I'm not going to write about*, because what's the point, but suffice to say he wrote a lot of words that came from a dark place.
* except if you happen not to know, here you go with the basic info on Richey James Edwards.

Of the Manics, James Dean Bradfield is the one you feel would be the gritty midfielder tracking back, would save innocent people's lives in a warzone, would cover for you and take the rap, would let you copy his homework, would forgive you any discretion with barely a harsh word. He's probably the third most famous member of the Manics (the fourth is the drummer, his cousin Sean Moore), which is probably exactly how he likes it. But without him, they'd have been absolutely nothing.

Until their sixth album, 'Know Your Enemy' (a generally terrible album) he never contributed a lyric. He sang the words of his bandmates which were dramatic, detailed, made tragedy from the everyday, must have ripped his head to pieces (try, for example, 'Yes'). And he wrote the lyrics to a song called 'Ocean Spray' for that album, which is about the great grief that any human being could go through, namely watching his mother die of cancer. And he was able to gently reduce this to a bathetic, banal line "Oh, please stay awake and we can drink some Ocean Spray" [Cranberry juice was apparently good for his mother so they used to drink it together in hospital] - it's not a great lyric, but it's beautiful in its own way in saying everything needed about the disparate personalities in the Manics, the sheer heaviness of touch they traded in, which was entirely at odds with what his own lyrical style would have been, which was to make light of tragedy.

Anyway, enough JDB-love. Though he's also to the fore on 'Life Becoming a Landslide' which is, as a song, what the title suggests it is. It's a very pretty tune, with some heavy rock and also some strings, with some fairly devastating lyrics, which exemplify Richey Edwards' state of mind at that time. And I loved it particularly because I suppose my hearing it coincided with a time when I felt my life was becoming a bit of a landslide. Which, thankfully, it never did, but, for me, listening to the Manics is a very helpful reminder to me of the reality of teen angst, that when you felt your life was really bad, even though you might look back on it with perspective and laugh, your feelings were real, and although it never got really bad for you, you were lucky to escape. I know I'm reducing the depth of the human experience to truisms right now, and I apologise for that, but I expect we've all had periods of life when we've listened to really doomy music of various sorts and it's really struck a chord with us and spoken to us. Music which is open-hearted and desperate can speak to anyone at some point.

For me, these are two beautiful songs - La Tristesse Durere stands the test of time in a way that Life Becoming a Landslide doesn't quite, but I'm not going to be ashamed of loving the Manics. They've done some crap albums, some crap songs, laughable even, but they have been '4 Real' and they make their fans really feel something. They're still going and still popular and they deserve to be.

I look back at this post and see that I've ranted on in unusually long paragraphs of dense text, which is fitting really for the Manics, bless'em.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Shake - Otis Redding

This post has rather taken me by surprise. There are a few others songs I had lined up to write about, but 'Shake' came up on my iPod today and it made me happy - indeed, it made me subconsciously dance a little in the aisle of Waitrose, Sevenoaks - not something that often happens or is likely to be approved of in Waitrose, Sevenoaks, but there we go.

Well, and that's what music's all about, isn't it? Being taken aback by the joy of it all. So I started thinking about Otis Redding. Born in 1941, died in 1967. Like Buddy Holly, died in a plane crash, having barely lived. And the sheer brilliance of Otis Redding singing, the way he pronounces "early in the morning" as "err-lirr-in-tha-monnin-aa".

It suddenly struck me that part of my subconscious keeps telling me that I love Otis Redding without measure and that there's another part that keeps resisting. He never really makes it on to my lists and playlists (apart from if I'm ever making a list people might dance to), but I always love it when one of his songs come up, I don't think I put him in my list of Greatest Singers, yet when I heard him this afternoon I remembered that I've quite often thought his voice was my favourite thing in the world. I forget that Otis Redding's Greatest Hits was one of the very first CDs I ever bought when I transferred from tape to CD, I also forget that 'Dock of the Bay' was, as you'll find if you go back to the very beginning of this blog, which was almost exactly four years ago, the starting point of it all.

Have I taken Otis Redding for granted? Yes, I've taken Otis Redding for granted. Pop music has had a lot of early casualties, but I think there is a strong, strong case for saying the premature departure of Otis Redding was the greatest loss of all.

You know he recorded 'Dock of the Bay' three days before his death. Inspired by The Beatles, he and Steve Cropper tried to create a new sound, a new kind of crossover. And succeeded. What else from the 60s so easily married the soul sound with the west coast sound. What more would he have been capable of? He'd already written 'Hard to Handle', 'Respect', 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'. 'Dock of the Bay' showed there was no end to his talent. Apart from Ray Charles, Steve Wonder later, not that may soul artists incorporated that kind of singer/songwriter rock music into their sound. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's still pretty possible Otis Redding was on the point of taking soul music somewhere it had never been before.

It is that certainty that his very best work was still ahead of him, which you really can't say about Hendrix, Morrison, Presley, Cobain, Jackson, Nick Drake even (though perhaps you can about Buddy Holly) which makes the death of Otis Redding such a sad milestone.

Anyway, 'Shake', not even one of the great Redding songs, but utterly uplifting and glorious. His sound is very different from Motown, less formulaic, often slower and deeper, less poppy. Hopefully, from now on, I'll give in more regularly to that part of my gut that tells me that Otis Redding was an unparalleled genius.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Don't Wanna Let You Go

Don't Wanna Let You Go - 5ive

There was an awful lot to love and admire about turn-of-the-millennium boy band 5ive, not least the boldness of the name, which refused to allow for any mishaps or fallings out. We are 5ive, there are 5ive of us, it said. Keeping those kind of numbers together can be a hard task even for a band who doesn't, in an interview with 'The O-Zone' talking about their debut single 'Slam Dunk (Da Funk)', claim proudly that "slam dunk" is a boxing term.

But they managed it for a considerable time, until, for both their recent comebacks (neither of which has been successful enough to get a record company interested) 5ive became four, though they were still 5ive rather than 4our.

The first 5iver to be a skiver was one Sean Conlon, undoubtedly my favourite boybander in history. Lovely, lovely Sean, the man who wasn't there. Do you remember 5ive at all? Do you remember their appearances on CDUK and TOTP and the O-Zone and all the shows we used to love? If you do, you may recall that one of them quite often seemed barely to be dancing, or singing, or involved at all, except to look like a thorougly miserable rabbit in the headlights. That was Sean. I noted his unease early on, and it turned out my suspicions were right - Sean hated 5ive, hated being in 5ive, got out as soon as he possibly could, it was no act.

He was actually quite a talented young musician with a nice, unexceptional voice who probably thought he was signing up for a whole different kind of boy band, only to discover 5ive were to be a "bad boy" band and he had the bandmates from hell - Scott, who looked like nothing but a bloated extra in The Only Way is Essex, Abs, the one who was best at the street hand moves that Sean just couldn't muster, Richie, who was the "H from Steps" of the band, who seemed like he was permanently on cocaine and who was "going out" with Billie Piper in the same way that his colleague J Brown was "going out" with Mel C, just like stars used to "go out" with each other in 50s Hollywood. J was the adult of the band, the one who looked like he spent his weekends in the Territorial Army and whose hilarious Warrington-via-Brooklyn raps really have 5ive such a spiffing urban edge.

J is the one who is giving the latest reunion a miss. Indeed he seems a little miffed about it
J is now 73, so fair enough.
But you'll have picked up that, tragically, Sean has not been able to hold out and seems to have got himself in the latest farrago. He's been trying to make it in his own right for a decade, and this culminated in an appearance on BBC show 'The Voice' where he sang Coldplay's 'Trouble' nicely but blandly (is there any other way to sing it) and didn't make it to the next round. So back to 5ive and his three hellspawn former nemeses it is for Sean. Oh Sean.

Mocking though I've been, 5ive actually had a decent streak of hellishly catchy pop songs [they were kind of the missing link between East 17 and Blue, but without the standout mentalists those two bands had] at the turn of the century, like 'Got the Feeling' and 'Keep on Movin''.

But 'Don't Wanna Let You Go' was something else. It is in the great tradition of utterly mental, disturbing, stalkerish, pop music being sold to our kids as good clean fun. Lines like "we're coming after you so don't make a sound" and "you'll see our faces everytime you turn your head around" really didn't go down so well with their teenage girls fans, and the single stalled at Number 9.

Still, I've never forgotten it. Sometimes all pop is dismissed as bland, bowdlerised nonsense, but there are often oddities and mentalness bubbling underneath, 5ive won't go down in the history books, but they certainly brought a little bit of amusement to my life.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


Clocks - Coldplay
So it seems i'm not the only one round here making lists, goddammit! BBC Radio 6 Music have just counted down the Top 100 Tracks of their 10 year lifetime - they came up with th 100 themselves and then asked people to cast their votes from the selection.

Now, until the last couple of months, when we put a digital radio in the bathroom, I've never really listened to 6 Music, but this list of 100 coincided so closely with my own tastes I might as well have been the station's head of programming. That's either depressing or gratifying. I could look at it and accept I'm just a focus group stat, or I could say, since i've come at my own taste independently, it's merely a sign of my instinctively good judgement. I lean to the former.

Anyway, there has been some minor controversy (perhaps mainly in my own head) as the Number 1 of the Top 100 was the given Coldplay track, 'Clocks'. Predictably enough, really. They were the biggest band in the list by far and they asked their millions of Twitter followers to vote for them - apparently, you could just click to vote, so easy-peasy. Probably not the result 6 Music were hoping for, so there we go. 'Clocks' is the best ... .indie ... song ... of ... the ... last ... ten ... years. Oh yes it is.

Now look, don't get me wrong, I come neither to condemn nor praise Coldplay, nor indeed 'Clocks'. 'Clocks' is just another Coldplay song. And Coldplay are just another band, not the great enemy.

I have history with them, I admit, I'm not oblivious to them. I've even been fiercely accused of liking them at some points. But there's a difference between liking a band and not disliking them.

Back in 99, they, along with a band called Terris, were touted by NME as the future of British music. Exciting. To add to the excitement, one of my friends at uni knew them a bit, and so possessed rare (probably very valuable now) early singles and EPs and that. Even more exciting, before I'd heard them, they were being compared to Jeff Buckley, who was the very apple of my eye at that time.

I've written about this before, but when I first heard their single 'Shiver' I did not hear Jeff Buckley, I heard Shed Seven. But, saying that, I really warmed to 'Yellow'. I thought it was a sweet, classy song. 'Parachutes', the debut album, got great reviews, I bought it, was bored and disappointing.  I really liked 'In My Place' the first single from the massive 'A Rush of Blood to the Head', so I bought the album, only to be bored and disappointed. I quite liked the single ... so I bought the album ... only to be bored and disappointed ... you get the picture ... thank goodness for downloading, so I've finally managed to kick the Coldplay album-buying habit.

I have given Coldplay a chance, just like I gave Jesus a chance. That juxtaposition, o reader, is not an accident. Like me, Chris Martin loved Jesus when he was a teenager. He also studied Classics. He is in my Venn Diagram. I am in his. I feel like he could be doing an awful lot better. I understand how much of his lyricism flows from Hymns Ancient and Modern and extempore prayer sessions. I understand that his vocal stylings reflect a repressed man suddenly finding a way to express himself, begging to be loved. It's ok. But he should be doing an awful lot better.

Chris Martin always seems very nice in interviews, and not nice in a boring way, he seems edgy and witty and odd. He's a clever man who has thought about every bit of this. He is not shy about proclaiming the band's ambition and how much work they put into it. He does, however, admit, that his lyrics aren't the best. So maybe that's all there is to it.  But he's an intelligent man, who puts endless effort into his band. That's not good enough. One has to think he does it on purpose. None of those words give the slightest bit away about him as person, none of them are really clever or sharp or unusual, they're just not. He does it on purpose, he does it because he isn't daring enough to test or shock his audience. and that's what's a little disappointing.

Some critics of "the new boring" sometimes unfairly say Snow Patrol and Elbow and a few others are Coldplay copyists. Which I think is wrong on a number of levels, firstly because both those bands have been going longer than Coldplay, secondly because they've never been afraid of unusual noises and revelatory lyricism - Snow Patrol have suffered for their rather naked ambition and skill with a rock ballad, but a proper rock band still beats in there - Elbow, well Elbow, are in a different league really, (though they share the ambition and skill with an epic ballad, so sue them).

So, Coldplay, on they go. I hope I haven't fallen into the trap of just dismissing them as bland. They are what they are, I've given them some thought, I imagine watching them live would be very enjoyable, I can imagine being moved by a song like 'Fix You' if I was in the mood to be moved by it - but they disappoint me.

Maybe I feel like the one ex-Christian public school boy Classicist who gets a proper shot at rock'n'roll superstardom should really do it with a little more panache, I don't know. Write a fucking song, dude, a real one. Write like Nick Cave. Write like Stuart Murdoch. Like Gruff Rhys. Like Stevie Wonder. Like Joni Mitchell.

'Clocks' is, of course, the best song of the last 10 years. It's actually pretty good, It's got that famous cyclical riff, it's super catchy, kind of timeless, it slightly overrides cynicism. I hope I haven't seemed cynical.


Eventually - Brendan Benson

Just before I commenced this prolific splurge of writing about my experiences of specific songs, I wrote a pretty carefully considered piece called 'The Alt-Country Middleweights', about my love for a certain strand of underachieving Americana. Fittingly, considering the subject matter, that post has had fewer pageviews than almost any other on this blog.

There is just something distinctly uninviting about the term alt-country middleweight, so I expect this post to be equally as unviewed, as it's about one of the kings of the breed, Brendan Benson.

It's a little bit of a stretch to call Brendan Benson alt-country - I'll get to that in more detail, but powerpop is generally a better description of his songwriting style. Particularly on 'Lapalco', the album from which the song 'Eventually' comes.

When I was compiling my list of The Greatest Albums of All Time, you may remember I admitted the one thing I hadn't given enough weight to was simply the most important thing of all i.e. how good all the songs are.

So, by that token, notwithstanding success, impact, emotional resonance, influence etc, I think 'Lapalco' might be one of the greatest albums ever made. Because all the songs on it are really really good.

It's the rarest and most gratifying thing with an album, when you first listen to it track by track and you go "oh, that one's good, oh, so's that one, this one too, it'll peter out soon, oh no, this one's better, this is the best, this one too etc etc all the way to the end". So it is with Lapalco - all killer, no filler.

'Eventually' is one of the songs from the relentlessly enjoyable middle section, not even necessarily my favourite, that might be 'What' - crunching and simple and deceptively affecting every single one.

Some critics of the likes of Benson and Josh Rouse say their lyrics are banal and boring, but I really don't find that - to me, they're simple, well-crafted and deft. I'm thinking of doing a post on what makes great lyricism but it can be the least obvious thing sometimes.

In this song, the way Brendan Benson sings "Oh girl, you've got to stay with me, things are going to get better eventually" is one of my favourite lyrics of all time - I can't really explain why, it's just the way he plays around with the phrasing, the self-mockery, the silliness, but also desperation. It's just perfect.

'Lapalco' is Benson's finest hour, which is not to say he has not maintained a very good standard - indeed my single favourite song of his is 'The Alternative to Love' (in this concert footage, his band appears to consist of other legends of US power-pop The Posies, which is fun) - and, happily, he has not entirely wallowed in obscurity.

Thanks to Benson's friendship with the considerably more famous and charismatic Jack White, The Raconteurs came into being and did really rather well - funnily enough, one of the few times I've ever written to a music magazine was a rather grumpy disparagement of Jack White's dominance of Uncut's Best of Decade 2000-2010 List, wherein I described White as nothing but the second most talented songwriter in The Raconteurs. To me, that's true, but I get that it's a fatuous and cock-eyed thing to say.

He's still going strong (for a middleweight) - indeed there was a single this week and a song a year or two ago called 'Last Night in Detroit' - up until that point he'd been a resident in that city, but he's relocated to Nashville, and it's just possible his taking a little more of a country-ish direction, which is all to the good.

I've tried to keep some variety in the kind of songs I write about in this blog, their genre, their success, how much I like them, but if it should just turn into me banging the drum for underrated songwriters I think people should pay heed to, well, there's nothing wrong with that.

Barcode Bypass

Barcode Bypass - Mull Historical Society

Aah, Scottish pop, that's what it's all about. I forget sometimes just how much magical Scottish music there is. Mull Historical Society have got even less far in the music business than The Delgados but the fact that Colin McIntyre (for he is the sum of the MHS) is still making records indicates that there are people out there that still want to hear them.

He is a richly melodic songwriter - perhaps his life would have been better spent co-writing hits for a clever girl band like Girls Aloud. He is also, arguably, one of those acts like Belle and Sebastian and the Beta Band who, perhaps, though they have an enjoyable body of work, never quite topped their first salvo.

Again, I have John Osborne to thank for introducing me to 'Barcode Bypass' - late 2000, I think, and I think it did cause a bit of a stir in the music press.

It's such an unusual song - an epic about an old man who runs a shop which is being put out of business by a supermarket. There's a sense of gentleness and nostalgia to the song, an ease and confidence to the songwriting but its subject matter is actually pretty much on the button.

It reflects the artist's own journey a little, I think. He is actually from Mull (though the actual Mull Historical Society got a bit disgruntled with him and have changed their name to the Mull Historical and Archaelogical Society) in the Hebrides, but went to work in some kind of IT job in Glasgow before returning to his home island to pursue songwrting greatness.

When I was actually living (at university) in Scotland and even in the years directly afterwards, I do feel I had even more of a connection to what Scottish music was about than I do now - perhaps I've become a little urbanised and re-Anglified since then - back then the stream of greatness from Scotland seemed relentless.

There's a lot of Mull Historical Society I like (they have four albums and McIntyre has two under his own name). Perhaps it was all a bit of a sugar rush, but their music was capable of being entertaining and then moving in very quick succession. The first album, 'Loss' had this and the first track 'Public Service Announcer' as well as the eponymous 'Mull Historical Society' and a few others. Then, on the next album 'Us', songs such as 'The Final Arrears', 'Five More Minutes', 'Asylum' and a sequel to 'Barcode Bypass' called 'The Supermarket Strikes Back' from the alternative point of view.

To me, the next album was their best - I loved the lead single 'How 'bout I love you More', 'Peculiar' and 'This is the Hebrides' and there was another extraordinary epic called 'Death of a Scientist' about David Kelly (about whom Thom Yorke also wrote the excellent 'Harrowdown Hill').

Even last year's album 'City Awakenings' had plenty of moments. Basically, this is a guy who knows how to write tunes. If you like your pop quirksome, naive, warm and Scottish (who doesn't) this could be the band for you.

Looking at wikipedia, I'm pleased to see that I'd underestimated Mull Historical Society's success a little - in fact the albums and singles generally did push into the Top 40 - these days, that would be seen as an unabashed triumph for a guitar band.

I remember saying how Ooberman (who dealt in a similar oeuvre) got it all wrong with their name, and the same may be true of Mull Historical Society - you can't imagine it as a Top 10 name, can you, but it's actually rather a splendid name, quaint and meaningful, rather than ugly and ill-fitting.

Anyway, this is a beautiful song - I can't believe it's over 12 years old, I still remember looking out over St Andrews from my flat on South Street listening to it, getting all misty-eyed. Getting nostalgic for a song which deals in nostalgia is a headfuck too many, so bye for now, that'll probably be all on Scottish pop for a while.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

American Trilogy

American Trilogy - The Delgados

This is, before we start, not the same American Trilogy made famous by Elvis - I've never known why this song is called American Trilogy, but having just looked it up, it was apparently a working title because one of the band thought the melody was a little like the Elvis song - so there we go.

I do know why The Delgados are called The Delgados, and that's much more fun. They're named after 1990 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado. One can tell from the fact that their first two albums were called 'Domestiques' and 'Peloton' that they were cycling fans.

I remember Pedro Delgado - he was a main rival to Stephen Roche and he helped disabuse me of the notion that schoolteachers were thorough or knew everything, as I remember doing a project on France and saying Pedro Delgado was one of France's greatest sportsmen, only to realise to my horror that Delgado was Spanish. I thought I'd get in mega trouble, but no approbation was forthcoming. Phonies.

Anyway, Delgado won the Tour in 1990, thanks largely to his domestique Miguel Indurain, who was way better and went on to win the next five Tours himself, and is one of only three Tour winners of the last 20 years to have no official drug taint on him - I always viewed Mig as a superman but I'm not so hypocritical as to be surprised if taint should come his way.

Anyway, I'm rambling, so back to Scottish pop. The Delgados split up in 2005 when their bass player Stewart Henderson left the band saying he found it difficult "to pour so much energy and time into something that never quite seemed to get the attention or respect he felt it deserved". Which just about sums the Delgados up. Because they were a brilliant band who did not get their just desserts but, realistically, were never going to.

For me, their high watermark was the album from which the song comes, 'The Great Eastern' and its even better follow up 'Hate'. Others might disagree, but this was when they came closest to universal acclaim and even a bit of commercial success. 'American Trilogy' is one of many beautiful, catchy songs across those two albums. However, one of the issues which prevented the band "making it" is highlighted by a the song titles of a couple of the prettier songs on the album 'Hate', namely 'Child Killers' and 'All You Need Is Hate' - the world is a strange place. In an alternative universe, 'All You Need is Hate' a catchier, cleverer, finer song than 'All You Need is Love' is one of the defining songs in the western world. Perhaps its best that this alternative universe doesn't exist.

I experienced first hand another big issue in the band's failure to ascend to the highest heights, when I went with Michael Brown in about 2002 to watch them play a seated show at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Now, it was an enjoyable show, and a seated show in a West London theatre is hardly a fair test of a band's rock star credentials, but the Delgados were, that night, four of the most unassuming, unglamorous rock-starish people I've ever seen on stage.

Some indie bands like say Elbow or Snow Patrol (bear with me and don't be too sneering) are good enough to get to the point where the big time is within their grasp - they get the award nominations and the radio play, they get the whisper, and then it's not down to the music, it's down to the ambition, the x-factor, the whatever. Both the above bands grabbed their moment when it came to them - The Delgados wouldn't have had a cat in hell's chance.

Perhaps you haven't had time to listen to them and you want an idea of what they sound like - well, there are two sides to it - on the one hand, they were a classic scottish indie band, on the other, The Great Eastern and Hate were produced by Dave Fridmann, the American genius who has produced an awful lot of the great albums of the last 20 years - Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips being his most regular clients, though he's still right at the forefront with one of the albums of last year, by Tame Impala.

His sound is orchestral and symphonic yet dreamy and tripped out - on those two albums he definitely took the Delgados to the next level. I first heard American Trilogy on Radio 1, in the daytime. They weren't THAT obscure. It could have been a pop hit.  It's first line (indeed the whole lyric) is one of the most striking I've ever heard.

"I became accustomed to a kind of social servitude meaning no one, I mean no one, could accept what I had become - selfish, bitter, weak, enough to make you sick and lately I've been feeling there are bits of life i'm stealing. Get me home"

And it doesn't actually cheer up after that ...

It's a beautiful, widescreen soulful song, but the Delgados lyrics are constantly littered with real darkness, cynicism and misanthropy. Take the second single from 'The Great Eastern' the equally catchy 'No Danger' (this is an edited single version), which has lyrics like "by the marks upon their arm there was nothing that they lacked in charm" and "come on, babies, find a vein" and the aforementioned 'Child Killers' which says "How can i find what's right, the truth is our lives were shite, what's the point to you? Come down, down, down, we have the only gak in town". It's as far from the glamourisation of drugs as it's possible to get.

Scotland has, particularly, in the last 20 years, punched far far above its weight in musical terms, but i sometimes think you have to be in Scotland to appreciate that, as I do think the national music press is very London-centric. The Delgados are part of a long line of magnificent Scottish pop bands.

They have also been responsible for fostering a great deal of that great music, as they started their own label Chemikal Underground (which they continue to run) - Mogwai, Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton, The Phantom Band just a few of their bands. So perhaps that's the key to the Delgados unfortunately calling it a day as band - they actually knew and understood the music business - they knew that, brilliant though their music was, it cost too much for too little reward to go om as a band.

I don't think I've expressed thus far just how much I personally love the song 'American Trilogy' - how much it is, sonically, structurally, lyrically and melodically almost the perfect song for me. So thank goodness for the world we live in, that somehow or other, the Delgados' music will survive. Because if we lived in ancient times, it would not be deemed important enough, it would not have figured significantly enough in our culture and would be quickly forgotten. But it's an awful lot better than that.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen - ABBA

My last post was rather lacklustre, I feel, and failed to do justice to The Carpenters and the song, but I'm rather making myself a hostage to fortune by again writing about a 70s MOR band. And I'm going to be a little mean, because I'm going to use writing about 'Dancing Queen', which I do like, to talk about why I don't really like ABBA.

It's quite hard to slot ABBA into my musical chronology - they're one of the most successful bands of all time, of course, and their music was certainly "always there". I remember my sisters and my sisters' friends liking them and also their songs, like 'Super Trouper' being in our Learn to Play the Piano book. But they'd split up by the time I was aware of anything, so might as well have been The Beatles or Elvis.

They seemed intrinsically tied up with Eurovision, which I was of course a big fan of, and then they got a bit of a lift from Erasure and then Alan Partridge. I think I always knew they were naff. I don't think anyone could fail to know that.

But there seemed to be consistent efforts to justify them, to say that they weren't naff, that they were songwriting geniuses for one thing, that there was also real poignancy and power in some of their lyrics. Which I was never persuaded by.

Perhaps it was watching some TV show about them which showed Benny and Bjorn at work, but I hear the formula in almost every song they write. No doubt all the great writers use formulas and standard tricks, but to me with ABBA it's so transparent. And though they might have written great English lyrics for Swedish people, I don't think they were lyrically that hot - again, the rhyming dictionary is right there.

But the main thing  is exactly what I did find in the Carpenters, this richly humane, affecting voice, which I just never got from ABBA's two lead vocalists - all too perfect, too flawless, almost harsh. Whether that was a production choice or just what they sound like I don't know.

Do Benny and Bjorn deserve to be seen as a great songwriting team like Bacharach and David or even (and this is not a band I'm a fan of) the Gibbs? Well, I don't hear the emotional or musical range, I don't hear daring or imagination, sorry.

But I do love 'Dancing Queen'. I think I always have. I don't necessarily think it steps outside the ABBA formula, perhaps it's the apotheosis of what they do and a guy like me can only really love one ABBA song, so I went for the best.

I think I've encountered it in a pleasing way at various times - i have the dimmest memory of dancing madly to it as a kid, then a dim memory of it soundtracking a TV drama I liked, and a dim (in a different way) memory of myself and Alexander Key dancing to it free from inhibition in the front hall of our Hall of Residence ball at 3 in the morning. Perhaps it is its link to that unusual moment of freedom (back then I was pertrified of dancing or making a show of myself in any way) that makes me think so fondly of it, but also I'm pretty confident it is the best tune ABBA have, the most exciting, gleeful track in their armoury.

I feel a bit bad really - what have ABBA ever done to me, but I'm just a little cold on their genius. You can't deny all the joy they've brought people. I even made a bit of an effort once, bought ABBA Gold, but it's gone largely unplayed. It strikes me, looking at it now, that it's the song titles above all that bother me - they're so hooky, with silly little rhymes and repetitions, you know what you're going to get before you hear it. I do think I've hit on something there - I think I like the ABBA songs which don't have silly names - The Winner Takes it All and I Have a Dream and, above all, Dancing Queen.