Sunday, 27 October 2013

He's set free

So Lou Reed's died. When I was told, my initial reaction was strangely, a bit like "Well, that's sad, but that means more to other people than me". True to an extent, I wasn't part of the Lou Reed cult, and I haven't bought any recent solo records of his.

But ... I do love a lot of Lou Reed songs. Love them, not just like them. And it's never been any question that he holds an unimpeachable place in modern history, that he was cool beyond cool. The Velvet Underground & Nico, almost uniquely among all the great music of the 60s, is utterly modern. It's also a perfect album, like only a handful of albums in music history are.

It's possible you'd get as many great rock'n'roll musicians who'd say Lou Reed was their biggest influence as Bob Dylan.

There's very little doubt he was, for whatever reason deep in his psyche, a pretty impossible human being (having said that, if journalists find you impossible, sometimes the opposite is true. It's funny how journalists can't stand Sir Alex Ferguson but everybody else speaks about him in glowing terms. Perhaps Reed was a secret softie who just wouldn't put up with bullshit. Perhaps).

I'm not going to write much more. I wasn't an in-depth Lou Reed fan and I'm not grieving and I wasn't one of the people that listened to that album and formed a band. So I'll leave the real eulogies to more deserving folk.

But I love a lot of Lou Reed songs. And these are they.

Sweet Jane - The Velvet Underground
Rock'n'Roll Heart - Lou Reed
Oh Sweet Nuthin' - The Velvet Underground
Pale Blue Eyes - The Velvet Underground
Coney Island Baby - Lou Reed
I'm Set Free - Lou Reed
I Found a Reason - The Velvet Underground
All Tomorrow's Parties - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Perfect Day - Lou Reed
Rock and Roll - The Velvet Underground
Fistful of Love - Antony and the Johnsons with Lou Reed
Waiting for the Man - The Velvet Underground & Nico
There She Goes Again - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Satellite of Love- Lou Reed
Femme Fatale - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed
Tranquilize - The Killers with Lou Reed
Vicious - Lou Reed

Those are the ones I honestly love. See, I'm not a deep Lou Reed fan. But, that's a pretty great bunch of songs, ain't it?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Dangerous minds etc

I'm going to take a brief detour from music (though the subject does relate to music) to something which I've been thinking about a fair bit lately. I'm going to keep it as short as possible because the more I go on the more I'll expose myself as out of my depth.

But there have been various stories lately about inner city schools banning various urban slang terms, and there has been this guy saying this (do read it, it's the first and only time I'll link to the Daily Mail).
Needless to say, being one of those metropolitan liberals he mentions (as opposed to a metropolitan egomaniac, which he clearly is), it made my skin crawl on a number of levels, but I'll try to keep it to just one of those levels.
[Initially, it got me thinking a lot about Shakespeare, and how important Shakespeare actually is, and whether actually it is possible to enjoy it initially without various forms of sweetening the pill. But that's for another time]

But there's a line in his speech which really stands out for me: "with, what's more, I'll wager, absolutely no hip-hop whatsoever". And that's where he loses entirely.

Because that's impossible. Because "hip-hop" is everywhere now.

The argument that the kids need to be kept from using their own language reminds me of when doctors and lawmakers and politicians and, dare I say it, parents pontificate on the dangers and social ills of alcohol. The classic Chris Morris line "Alcohol's not a drug, it's a drink" comes to mind. People seem not to accept that booze is everywhere, intrinsic to all our lives in an overwhelmingly good way. To me, it is wilful hypocrisy to talk about the downside of alcohol without fully explaining and accepting all the manifold positives for everyone. Who are people trying to kid?

I feel rather that way about hip-hop culture. It has so infused into every part of our culture, not just youth culture, that it is wild hypocrisy to try and hold back the tide. You think I'm exaggerating?
I was a posh white teenager 20 years ago with no great love for hip-hop music, but the slang, the language, the clothes, the style, was in everything. And I'm sick of people being negative about that, to talk about silly white kids ironically taking up black culture or trying to be cool etc's not a bad thing, it's awesome. It's because, languagewise,  it is rich. It's fun. It's imaginative. Hip-hop leads and the rest of culture follows.

And it is a true global phenomenon and a force for good. Don't take my word for it. Take another West London early middle aged white boy's word for it Where You're At - Patrick Neate.

Or just watch fucking Made in Chelsea, where their speech is covered in "bro" and "wassup" and "wack". Yes, it can sound ridiculous, but it's become intrinsic rather than affected. So they're allowed to use it but not the poor black kids?

Yes, the old argument that people won't get jobs if they don't know how to write formal English. Well, durrr. Twas always thus and always thus will be. Kids from Inverness to Sheerness need to be able to distinguish between their spoken and informal language and their written language. I did. You did. If you're smart enough to do that well, good on you. It's got nothing to do with slang.

I haven't made this point well. I know I haven't. I've got too involved. But really, all I'm saying is look around. Wherever you are. I'm in Sevenoaks, for goodness sake, the least hip-hop town in Christendom. But you'll see it, you'll hear it everywhere. Doesn't matter if you think that's good or bad (it's good!). It's just where it's at.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What does the NME say?

Good old NME. They've relaunched with the DEFINITIVE Top 500 albums of all time. Good on them. And they've revealed the methodology, which seems very fair and well-rounded (ask loads of NME journalists young and old to give their Top 50 and then score accordingly), though if i'm not mistaken there is a flaw (including NME's Official Top 50 Albums of the Year list on top) which weights the list towards more recent albums.

Still, I come to praise the NME, which served me so well as I was growing up, and, though I hardly get it anymore, strikes me as, on reflection, one of the fairest, purest, most honest and unpseudy music publications out there.

So, sure, the Queen is Dead by the Smiths came Number 1. That's the NME. No problem.

You may recall I did my own list a few months ago 51 Albums, which in my arrogance was an attempt to come up with a DEFINITIVE list of my own rather than just my favourites.

So hopefully the lists stack up pretty well. Do they? I employed various factors which occasionally produced slightly surprising results in my list. Funnily enough, one of those was how low the NME's top album The Queen is Dead came in my list, in the 70s. I'm surprised at that looking back. It's an album I love and it's certainly been a favourite at times. However I stand by it having 2 or 3 total dud tracks which seriously counts against it. Come on, Vicar in a Tutu and Some Girls are Bigger than Others are not even filler, they're active horror.

In terms of the NME's 500, I own or have owned in their entirety almost exactly half and own some part via downloads of another 130, so I think I'm pretty well placed to compare.

Anyway, let's look at my Top 50 and the NME's Top 50 and see where they fell in the other list.


1 The Queen is Dead (David's list 77)
2 Revolver (1, hurrah!)
3 Hunky Dory (68)
4 Is This It (13)
5 The Velvet Underground and Nico (8)
6 Different Class (unplaced, oops)
7 The Stone Roses (27)
8 Doolittle (unplaced, to be fair, i mainly came at the Pixies via Greatest Hits and never have been able to quite get into their albums)
9 The White Album (35)
10 Definitely Maybe (26)
11 Nevermind (32)
12 Horses (unplaced, never dug this album)
13 Funeral (47)
14 Low (unplaced)
15 Let England Shake (34)
16 Closer (unplaced, will never get this band's status)
17 It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (31)
18 Loveless (unplaced, sorry, never got this)
19 Whatever People Say I am that's What I'm Not (102)
20 OK Computer (4)
21 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (unplaced, and I've never heard it all the way through)
22 Parklife (37)
23 Ziggy Stardust (5)
24 Exile on Main Street (90)
25 What's Going On (112, this album is OVER RATED!)
26 Pet Sounds (23)
27 Screamadelica (unplaced, I hate this band, but I'm clearly wrong, i do know this is a great album)
28 Back to Black (unplaced)
29 Marquee Moon (unplaced)
30 Enter the Wu-Tang (60)
31 Dog Man Star (unplaced)
32 Paul's Boutique (unplaced, and, as with Kanye, haven't listened to)
33 Modern Life is Rubbish (75)
34 Abbey Road (50)
35 In Utero (unplaced)
36 Blood on the Tracks (45)
37 Forever Changes (28)
38 Never Mind the Bollocks (unplaced)
39 London Calling (15)
40 Unknown Pleasures (unplaced)
41 Daydream Nation (unplaced, and have never listened to all the way through)
42 Innervisions (79)
43 Rubber Soul (10)
44 The Holy Bible (91)
45 Parallel Lines (58)
46 Debut (unplaced, again, an artist I haven't really experienced via album)
47 Strangeways Here We Come (unplaced)
48 Hounds of Love (unplaced, i do like it though)
49 Sound of Silver (36)
50 Dusty in Memphis (142)

Not bad

Here's my Top 50 and where the NME put them

1 Revolver - The Beatles (NME 2)

2 Automatic for the people - REM (65)

3 Blue - Joni Mitchell (63)

4 OK Computer - Radiohead (20)

5 Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie (23)

6 Grace - Jeff Buckley (86)

7 Come on Feel the Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens (138)

8 The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground (5)

9 Tapestry - Carole King (82)

10 Rubber Soul - The Beatles (10)

11 Searching for the Young Soul Rebels - Dexys Midnight Runners (118)

12 Have one on Me - Joanna Newsom (unplaced)

13 Is This It - The Strokes (4)

14 Astral Weeks - Van Morrison (68)

15 London Calling - The Clash (39)

16 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco (458)

17 The ArchAndroid - Janelle Monae (unplaced)

18 Songs in the Key of life - Stevie Wonder (172)

19 Ys - Joanna Newsom (unplaced)

20 If You're feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian (113)

21 Talking Book - Stevie Wonder (unplaced, bafflingly)

22 Times they are a Changin - Bob Dylan (likewise)

23 Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys (26)

24 Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan (62)

25 Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy (unplaced)

26 Definitely Maybe - Oasis (10)

The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses (7)

28 Forever Changes - Love (37)

29 Freewheelin Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan (306)

30 Fuzzy Logic - Super Furry Animals ( 245)

31 It takes a nation of millions to Hold Us Back - Public Enemy (17)

32 Nevermind - Nirvana (11)

33 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (unplaced)

34 Let England Shake - PJ Harvey (15)

35 The White Album - The Beatles (9)

36 Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem (49)

37 Parklife - Blur (22)

38 Songs of Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen (232)

39 The Boatman's Call - Nick Cave (257)

40 Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers (182)

41 A Ghost is Born - Wilco (unplaced)

42 22 Dreams - Paul Weller (unplaced)

43 Moondance - Van Morrison (unplaced)

44 What's the Story, Morning Glory? - Oasis (67)

45 Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan (36)

46 Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space - Spiritualized (156)

47 Funeral - Arcade Fire (13)

48 Thriller - Michael Jackson (131)

49 Bringing it all Back home - Bob Dylan (73)

50 Abbey Road - The Beatles (34)

 So not bad, eh? A few misses on both side, but I can't squabble too much with the NME. They're more Anglocentric than me, but why shouldn't they be?
My list is better though, isn't it? And certainly more DEFINITIVE!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cut Your Hair

Cut Your Hair - Pavement

I went to All Tomorrow's Parties in 2010, curated by Pavement. My friends were going and asked me if I fancied it. I'd been to ATP before, in 2007, and really enjoyed ever aspect of it (the music and the fact you can watch the music in relative comfort, and go bowling, and sleep in a bed etc) so I said yes, though not a fan of Pavement.

I expected lots of bands I loved to be added to the line-up, but it didn't really happen. In the end, that was a good thing. I was in the rare (for me) position of checking out lots of bands I didn't know that well, and there was some real treats - Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Mark Eitzel, Blitzen Trapper, Avi Buffalo, all very pleasant surprises, and that was the first time I saw The Walkmen properly.

And as for the headliners? Yeah, they were good. I'd actually done my preparation, buying lots of Pavement songs and giving it a good listen in advance, so, since it was a crowd-pleasing reunion tour, I already knew a lot of what they played.

And, as you'd expect, the crowd went nuts. The indiest of indie fans loving the indiest of indie bands. I thought it was alright.

Good little song after good little song. Bit boring after a while.

Pavement are good. But do they pass my "Yeah, but are they as good as the Bluetones?" test? No, they don't. No one thinks the Bluetones are the greatest band in the world, not even the Bluetones. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but the best bit of frontman chat I ever heard was by Mark Morriss at the Bluetones' farewell gigs "It's time to go out and tell the world that they missed a really quite good band ..."

But some people seem to think that Pavement are the greatest band in the world. Including some reasonably influential American rock critics. They seem to be the very definition of a great band for Pitchfork people, just like the Smiths are the definition of a great band for NME people, and the Beatles are for everyone else..

I really like Pitchfork. Its reviews are often very well written, and get to the bottom of what is or isn't great about an album. They've done some really good hatchet jobs on shoddy albums, and they have an amusing contempt for the more lumpen elements of British rock. All good. But just like the man called Toby in a tweed suit who took apart my taste in films saying, good-naturedly, things like "that's just the kind of thing someone with your level of film scholarship would say", before revealing that his favourite film of all time was 'Pineapple Express', an indie fan's devotion to Pavement might lead to the question "Is that all you got?"

'Cut Your Hair' is Pavement's best known, and, arguably, best song, a real first among equals, and it's pretty great. I get pretty excited when it comes on the radio and I love the "oh-o-oh-oh-oh-oh" bit, but you know, I kind of wish it was a bit better after that. Just a bit.

Here's the thing, I've never heard a Pavement song that has broken my heart, and I can't conceive of a Pavement song that could even touch anyone's heart. In that sense, they're a very pure band, you might say, but surely sardonic and witty (but, you know, hardly laugh out loud funny) and slightly off-key can't be the only shade of a great band.

There are plenty of clever-clever bands, from Blur to The Strokes to the New Pornographers, whose greatest gift is that they can suddenly floor you with something sad and beautiful. Can Pavement do that? Really?

I've got a foot in both camps, really, the clever, lo-fi, pure indie, no bullshit camp, and the manipulative heartstrings man-rock side, but I kind of thing the best bands should have a foot in both camps too. We don't want everyone to be Keane but we don't want everyone to be Pavement either.

Monday, 21 October 2013

St. Patrick

St Patrick - James Yorkston

I never really got Elliott Smith. He seemed to fit perfectly into my realm, that kind of articulate, sad Americana which was my taste then and still is now.

But he just didn't really work for me. As if I was some kind of Take That fan or something, I found his songs boring. Didn't go anywhere. Ambled along.

It's only in recent years I've opened myself a bit more to his songs, still not in great breadth, but whenever one of the few Elliott Smith songs I own comes up, I listen closely and appreciate what I hear.

I suppose I "get" Elliot Smith now. I hear the hushed beauty, the melodies, the charm and sadness. The ... some other word. Some other word which is something I love, not all the time but when I love it I love it a lot.

What's the word? I still can't find it. If I tell you it can be found in Elliott Smith, Kurt Wagner from Lambchop, Leonard Cohen, Paul Buchanan and, high above all in my favour , in James Yorkston, does that help?

It's a kind of dignity, of calm and poise, a lack of desire to please or excite, but extraordinary mastery of the craft. Or, prosaically, perhaps, it's a limited, but perfectly honed, vocal range and a way with words.

What greater compliment have I received than when a brusque and knowledgeable friend of a friend said to that friend suddenly "I've got it! McGaughey IS Yorkston"? Sadly, he was not referring to my songwriting skills, magnificent folk guitar playing, rich, sad voice and quiet charisma, but, I presume, to the big Irish forehead (yes, I know he's Scottish and I'm English) and hairlessness I share with the man. And even that comparison does me some favours ...

But I do feel a certain kinship, I imagine as many as his fans do - there's something recognisable and applicable in his lyrics, something, as the cliche has it, which makes you think it's written especially for you.

This, the first song I heard of his, more than any others. Oh, dear St Patrick. Or, as we say as we watch countless goons in black and white hats roaming the cities in packs, Oh dear, St Patrick's ...

It was a double a-side with a song (I can't even remember which one) by the Lone Pigeon, which I was actually more interested in, and I remember hearing it on Radio 1 late at night, shortly before I was due to go to a little Fence show in London town.

I went to the show with a friend who left fairly early, but it went on and on and I stayed on alone getting more and more entranced and more and more pished. Various highlights from the evening - I walked in on the Lone Pigeon (Gordon Anderson) saying to himself in the mirror in the loos "You're a funny wee man with a funny wee beard", I offered to buy Lou Barlow from Sebadoh a drink (declined gracefully) and I heard Yorkston sing this song - at least, I think I did. Maybe he wasn't even there. I've certainly heard him sing it at least once.

It actually makes me feel rather emotional, this little song, and there's no harm in that. It's nice to imagine one has a patron saint.

It's a song with a certain hopefulness which emerges from a perfectly rendered solitary despair. It has a rich maritime feel, evokes the waves lapping on the shores of the Fife we all know and love. It's effortlessly poised, like everything of Yorkston's really.

This is a man who doesn't leave the stage for the bit between the end of his show and the encore. What's the point?

Perhaps an even greater achievement from this quietly magnificent artist is 'When the Haar Rolls In' from the album of the same name, another seaside song with several lines which you'd give £1000 to have written.

But it's St Patrick which is my favourite.

These aren't always the types of song you want to listen to. Sometimes you want something louder, more vibrant, less delicate, but when the mood to listen to a song like this does take me, I never regret it. Quiet is the new quiet.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Songs to listen more to ...

I made a playlist, a really long one to listen to while working. It's proved a spectacular hit with me and is really too good not to share.
It's not my favourite songs, it's just the songs I went through and just really fancied listening to, or thought I ought to give more of a listen to.
Unusually for me, it's entirely devoid of self-consciousness. This is proved by the fact its 495 songs rather than 500. I struggle when things are not round or notable numbers.

I ought to make more of an effort to make the songs possible for you to listen to, but you wouldn't anyway, would you?

The only self-conscious act now is deciding how I filter my iTunes to produce the order in which you see the songs. This is important to me. Reverse alphabetical bands? Alphabetical songs? I've gone for Reverse Order of How Much They've Been Played in my iTunes History, so I suppose the least obvious ones are at the top, and my standards at the bottom.

I know no one will get even halfway through reading it, but still, it's a great list ...

Songs to Listen More To

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

This is for Leonard, if he's still here

Have you heard that line? It's from a live recording of Bob Dylan doing 'Isis' on the Rolling Thunder Revue, which is one of the greatest versions of a Dylan song you'll ever here.

As detailed in Larry Sloman's 'On the Road with Bob Dylan' (a great read) it's Dylan calling out to Cohen, who was in the audience that night, and who he'd tried, without success, to get to join him on stage.

Cohen and Dylan. Those are my gigs this autumn. Not bad, eh? I used to go to about 7 gigs by 20+ year olds a season, now it's 2 gigs by 70+ year olds.

Cohen was a couple of weeks ago. Pretty amazing. How about a gig where someone plays for 3 hours, has a perfect band, plays every song by him that you love (yes, there was Suzanne, Famous Blue Raincoat, So Long Marianne, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will, Going Home, Bird on a Wire, Tower of Song, Chelsea Hotel etc), gives tremendous banter AND you get to pay £8 for a spongy hot dog.

Perfect gig. Is it the best I've ever been to? What are the factors that make a great gig?

I love factors.

But, you know what, fuck factors. More than most things in music, the best gigs are the ones that feel the best, the ones you enjoy the most. Simple as that. How, really, can it be anything else?

You experience it once and once only. It's not like an album or even a song where there's context and the opportunity to think about it and listen to it again and again.

A gig's a gig. It's a happening. I've been to 100s, seen even more bands if you count all the festivals too.

Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're ok, they're rarely awful these days. Well, not the ones I go to. I once watched Editors from a distance at Benicassim. They were awful.

What are the best I've been to, besides Leonard (if he's still here).

Blur. Blur at Hyde Park, 2009. That was probably the best. That was every 90s boy's dream come true and more.

These are the others, the ones that really stand out. Some of them are at festivals, some at small venues, some were folk, some were bands who aren't even that great but know how to put on a show. Some are about great singers, some are about rock'n'roll, some about drunken dancing, some about euphoria, some singing along, some hushed reverence, some were evocative, some were gone in an instant.

Band of Horses at Brixton Academy.
The Walkmen, mid-afternoon, at Latitude.
Ash at Somerset House.
Franz Ferdinand at Benicassim.
Joanna Newsom at ATP.
Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall.
Embrace at Glasgow Barrowlands.
Belle and Sebastian at the Roundhouse.
Super Furry Animals at Brixton Academy.
Iron and Wine at Green Man.
Arcade Fire, headlining Latitude.
Mark Eitzel, an unexpected pleasure in a bingo hall at ATP.
Nick Cave at ATP.
Adam Ant, for goodness sake.
James Yorkston, Scala, I think, one of those London venues which is usually a bit rubbish.
The National, Latitude.
Bob Dylan tribute concert at the Barbican. How wonderful that was. Liam Clancy and Odetta.
The Bluetones farewell concert at Shepherds Bush.
Polyphonic Spree, an unexpected feelgood hit in Spain.
Sufjan Stevens, with all his finery, Royal Festival Hall.
Josh Rouse, Union Chapel.
Madness in the blaring sun at Benicassim.
Badly Drawn Boy being mental in Glasgow.
And the best band I've seen (officially, technically, taking in all factors!), the one who've come up trumps the most, Wilco.

I've left out a few other crackers. I've even left out Bob Dylan, maybe in the hope that the next Bob gig will be the best of them all, or maybe in the hope that I'll magically be transported back to 1963 or 1974, when I really wish I'd seen him ....

But I've seen some good ones, that's for sure.