Saturday, 25 January 2014

1977: Elvis Costello - My Aim is True

Elvis Costello: I own about 90 of his songs, five over full albums, 'My Aim is True', 'Imperial Bedroom', 'Blood and Chocolate', 'Painted from Memory', 'When I Was Cruel', and then various other songs from all over his career. I'm not what you'd call a big fan, but I know my stuff reasonably well.

If a big Elvis Costello fan should see my compilation at the end, they'll probably be able to suggest 15 songs just as good from other albums, because this is  a man whose career has been full of consistently good songs, and I'm not sure I don't know nearly all of them.

He's a great songwriter, surely one of Britain's best, but he seems to exist in a slightly peculiar space of not being loved that much but also not being unknown or passed over. People know who he is, they often know his stuff but, yes, he's somehow not on the highest level of anything, except perhaps pure accomplishment. What's going on there? The voice? Deffo. The face? Maybe. The name? Hmmm. The prickliness? Hard to say.
He's done fine, he even had a few top ten hits, though it's funny, considering just how much of a songwriter supreme he is, that many of his most "famous" songs are covers. Good Year for the Roses, She, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding.

Elvis Costello's a good one for 1977, because I don't really but the myth of Year Zero, that the Sex Pistols and the Clash came along and changed everything, that there was no connection between past and future. Elvis Costello was just a songwriter who'd have done well whatever, it just so happened his career coincided with punk/new wave, so that's what he gets labelled.

This is a debut and it's only a little bit punk. There are some short songs, some fast songs, some angry songs, but it's all very accomplished and varied.

I always loved the album title. Elvis Costello was one of the first people I got into when I got into music (16/17ish) and I listened to his Greatest Hits a lot, and loved 'Alison', which contains the line "My aim is true ..."sang sadly repeatedly and in that context it's obvious that it means he's a well-meaning fellow, he means the best even if he doesn't always show it. But "My Aim is True' out of that context also can mean "I'm a deadeye, I always hit my target", much cockier. I love the ambiguity of that lyric as album title.

'Alison' probably remains the stand-out of this album, a song of masterful misery. Maybe the reason Elvis has never been loved as such is that his love songs always come with a sneer. Paul Weller, for example, could just let it all hang out with something like 'English Rose'. I heard Ray Mears on Desert Island Discs a couple of weeks ago with 'English Rose' as one of his selections. I don't think there are any Elvis Costello songs you'd want at your wedding.

I love 'The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes', 'Pay it Back' and 'I'm Not Angry' too, that easy understanding of Americana and classic rock he has, and some of the neat couplets he comes up with. Probably the most famous song on my version is 'Watching the Detectives' although that was a single tacked on to the album later, apparently. I'd take this album over all the debut albums by the Clash, The Sex Pistols and the Jam, but I suppose it's not half as influential.

Writing about Elvis has caused me to listen to Oliver's Army for the first time in years - what an extraordinary song to be a Number 2 single! I mean, it's genuinely controversial, even shocking, in language and subject matter, far more so than something like God Save the Queen if you actually listen. It helped that it sounded like Dancing Queen, I suppose.

Anyway, he goes on, constructing superb songs. To be honest. I haven't paid that much attention recently. I think I found his voice on a duet with Jenny Lewis called 'Carpetbaggers' pretty hard to deal with. Still, I enjoyed his cameo on 'Treme'.

This is my compilation, actually missing a lot of his classic late 70s singles. Quite a few songs of considerable magnificence here. If I had to pick out four favourites, it would be Shipbuilding, New Lace Sleeves, I Want You and Alison.

Oliver's Army
All This Useless Beauty
New Lace Sleeves
... And In Every Home
Accidents Will Happen
Beyond Belief
New Amsterdam
I Want You
Tramp the Dirt Down
I Hope You're Happy Now
Man Out of Time
The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes
Pay it Back
I'm Not Angry

Sunday, 19 January 2014

1985: Dexys Midnight Runners - Don't Stand Me Down

It took a lot of jiggling about to put this list together, to fill one slightly desolate year while choosing the most suitable from a full year. So, sometimes, I may have ended up with albums I'm not necessarily as passionate about as others. This is one such occasion.

'Don't Stand Me Down' is an interesting album to write about but, to be honest, 1985 was a pretty shitty year and  needed a cool album to write about and this filled the breach. My heart lies far more with Dexys' debut from 1980, 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels'. So, if this post ends up being more about that album than 'Don't Stand Me Down', forgive me.

This is basically what I think about Dexys/Dexys Midnight Runners/Kevin Rowland - it's been downhill all the way ... which is not a slur on anything they've done, believe me. There are five recordings I know (there is another Kevin Rowland solo album from the late 80s, 'The Wanderer', which I've never braved) - 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels', Too-Rye-Aye', 'Don't Stand Me Down, the notorious solo album 'My Beauty', then the 2012 Dexys (without Midnight Runners) comeback 'One Day I'm Going to Soar'. Slightly bizarrely, I find 'My Beauty' a more enjoyable listen in all its mentalness than 'One Day I'm Going to Soar', so yes, for me, it's Best to Worst, Start to Finish.

In their own way, all of these albums are things of wonder. I'll touch briefly on 'My Beauty' and 'One Day I'm Going to Soar' which aren't really in the same league as the "classic" Dexys albums. 'My Beauty' which famously sold 175 copies in its first week (bit of an urban myth, probably) and features Kev in a dress on the cover, is a collection of covers like 'You'll Never Walk Alone', 'The Greatest Love of All' and 'Daydream Believer'. It's often close to laughable, but I think has some fabulous moments, like his cover of The Hollies' 'I Can't Tell the Bottom from the Top', so I place it marginally above 'One Day I'm Going to Soar'. Don't get me wrong, it was a great attempt at a comeback, it was wonderful to hear new Dexys stuff and I do enjoy it, but perhaps it was too knowing, too stagey, perhaps it just didn't take the elements of original Dexys I wish it had.

In that sense, its closest forebear is 'Don't Stand Me Down', all theatricality, wry spoken word, storytelling. If that's some people's favourite Dexys, that's fine with me, but it's not quite mine.

For quite a while, I placed the underrated 'Too-Rye-Aye' as my favourite Dexys album, dwarfed as it is by finishing with one of the most recognised/reviled songs in the Western (wedding) world.
Closing that album, 'Come On Eileen' remains a great song. Anywhere else, I'm as sick of it as everyone else.
But what other wonders that album possesses! Three of their greatest songs - 'Let's Make It Precious', 'Plan B' and 'Until I Believe In My Soul' which is frankly one of the maddest, most moving, most powerful songs I've ever known. I'll touch on it more later in comparison to a song on 'Don't Stand Me Down'.

And the rest of the album's real good too, but I do now bow entirely to the mastery of 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels'. It's one of my favourite albums ever, it's one of the greatest albums ever. If you don't know it, if you only know Dexys from 'Come On Eileen', you will not believe how good it is.

It's perfect in concept, in style, in packaging, in myth, in sound, in song. Look, I'm going to say it, I think it's one of the three best British albums of all time, along with 'Revolver' and 'London Calling' (released six months earlier). Perhaps it's more perfect than both those albums, perhaps more influential (or at least on the zeitgeist) than 'London Calling'.

It outpunked punk, it stomped on his weakass contemporaries, it pre-empted the soul(ish) music that was all over British music in the early 80s, it mocked, it worshipped, and it is, all the way through, really and truly about something.

It is a Celtic soul album, not quite in the same way as 'Too Rye Aye' which bravely tries to incorporate Irish sounds with soul sounds, while 'Searching ...' is musically much more of a straight soul sound, full of moody or triumphant brass.

And the songs, the songs are faultless, from 'Burn it Down' (I've already written a lot of what I'd like to say in the post I wrote on that) through 'Tell Me When My Light Turns Green', 'Keep It', 'I Couldn't Help It If I Tried' the marvellous 'Geno' to 'There There My Dear'.

It's unified in sound, it does not let up in its excellence, it ends with Kevin quietly singing 'Everything I do will be funky from now on' ...

Not quite true, there's not much funky in 'Don't Stand Me Down'. There's a whole lot more waltz.

It was a commercial failure on release and has since been reclaimed as a lost classic. Maybe. Kind of.

First of all, the cover I've put for it is for the version I own, the 2001 remastered version - besides any sonic differences, there are two other main differences which make the remastered version better than the original.

1. There's an extra song, indeed, an album opener, called 'Kevin Rowland's 13th time', which I think does a great job of setting up the album.
2. The song 'Knowledge of Beauty' has the new title 'My National Pride'. Rowland explains in the sleevenotes how much he wishes he's given the album that title originally, but he was afraid to be so nakedly patriotic.

'My National Pride' is probably my favourite song on the album. It's a song that consistently gives me the real physical goosebumps as it builds to that final 'My national pride is a personal pride, where I come from ...". It's one for the Irish diaspora and no mistake.

Really, for me, 'Don't Stand Me Down' is an album of great moments, without being a great album. The great moments are dotted all the way through, but I do think the it's top heavy and the second half is a let-down.

'One of Those Things' and 'Reminisce Part 2' feel a bit lightweight to me, 'I Love You (Listen To This)' is great but not quite the monstrous hit one would hope, and 'The Waltz' is fine but goes on a bit.

Talking of going on a bit, perhaps the album's greatness stands or falls by how much you rate the album's centrepiece, 'This is What She's Like', all 12 mins 23 seconds of it.

I've seen Dexys twice (in their 2003 and 2012 comebacks) and to me, 'This is What She's Like' is rather like when Dylan plays 'Desolation Row' ... well, ok, but this is 12 minutes of good gig time you're taking up with this when you could be playing three songs I really really love instead.

'Until I Believe in My Soul' is an epic half the length from the previous album, but twice the song for me, more moving, funnier, more definitive, more everything.

'This is What She's Like' is funny, yes, very funny. How tremendous that deadpan preamble with Billy Adams is, and the digs at the dull hipsters of the day. That bit about the Italian for thunderbolt (fulmine, by the way), absolutely awesome. And when he sings, just sings, wordlessly, it's almost as great as he hopes it might be. But not quite. Not quite.

So there, I don't think 'Don't Stand Me Down' is a classic album because I don't think 'This is What She's Like' or 'I Love you (Listen to This)' are quite as good as Kevin Rowland thinks they are.

I admire the uniqueness of the preppy style but I'll take the New York docker look of 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels' every time. I wish there were more songs, and at least two of them weren't throwaway. I like the theatricality but I prefer great song after great song.

It's a wonderful oddity but I think people are kidding themselves if they think its Dexys' best album. Which doesn't mean it's not one of the best albums of 1985.

Here's my Dexys/Kevin compilation. Really, they're not a Greatest Hits band though. They're an albums band. There are four and they're all unique and best listened to as a whole and marvellous in their own way. Especially 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels'. Own it.

Burn it Down
Let's Make This Precious
I Love You (Listen To This)
I Couldn't Help It If I Tried
My National Pride
I'm Always Going to Love You
Plan B
Come on Eileen
Until I Believe In My Soul
This is What She's Like
The Occasional Flicker
Love Part One/Love Part Two
Tell Me When My Light Turns Green
There There My Dear

Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision, welcome the new soul vision, welcome the new soul vision ...

Friday, 17 January 2014

2011: The Decemberists -The King is Dead

I love the Americana, of course, whatever that is. That's my favourite. Alt-country, Beyond Nashville, whatever you call it, the guitar music of usually non-urban America which was clever and crossed over and beloved of Uncut magazine and usually stayed on the margins of success.

Mercury Rev, Wilco, The Shins, The National, Midlake, Wilco, Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, Lambchop et cetera et cetera all the way to beardy, worthy heaven. And so, within this large family is a band called the Decemberists.

I first heard them in 2005, via their song 'The Engine Driver', told they were a little bit like the Shins, which back then had an element of truth. Tuneful, whiny, slightly camp, erudite vocals. More folky, more rustic than many, also notably impersonal, steeped in Anglicisms and lore and tall tales.

To be honest, of all the Americanians, it's not really them I'd have picked for the big time, a cult concern if ever there was one. And so they probably remain, but it's a pretty big cult, which propelled this, their last album, to Number 1 in the US album chart.

Perhaps I dwell on charts a bit too much, but they do help to establish context sometimes, and ... well I just like numbers and competitions and all that.

The biggest crossover "indie" band of recent times is Vampire Weekend, who likewise I might not have initially picked for the big time but have a fair bit in common with the Decemberists.

Both bands seem like an almost academic study of another culture's music, both write clever, as well as clever-clever songs, both are tight, and rarely get stuck in a downbeat rut, and both put on a damn good show. They seem like they're having fun and treat their audiences with respect, encourage participation, make it all seem a hoot. Makes me realise where so many of those meaningful bands I love so much go wrong.

This album is a bit sniffed at by Decemberists devotees - it's a straight collection of 10 normal-sized songs rather than an epic concept album based around a Japanese folk tale or a song suite full of different characters and leitmotif. Perhaps it was a calculated attempt to hit the big time, perhaps band leader Colin Meloy tired of too much artifice.

Also, I don't think their previous work, 'The Hazards of Love' (epic song cycle) quite worked. It lacked variety. It seemed to have only one tune which ran all the way through it.

'The King is Dead' has more tunes. Not that they're necessarily the Decemberists' best tunes. I'm a little bit with the doubters on this one. It's a good album but not a great one. It stomps along pleasingly enough, but there are a few standout moments.

The main one for me is perhaps the Decemberists' most personal ever song, 'Rise to Me', an ode to Meloy's autistic son. It's real pretty, and up there with my favourite songs by the band.

There probably isn't a dud on the album, but not really anything else of that power - 'Down by the Water' is a straight-up stomp, while 'This is Why We Fight' is perhaps the closest to an epic, but not epic like they have been epic.

Truthfully, I'm not sure the Decemberists have done a great album, perhaps they've always been a little bit too far one way or the other, perhaps it does sound a little bit too much like a lesson, albeit a very fun lesson.

Their two best are probably the third and fourth, 'Picaresque' and 'The Crane Wife' - my guess is that the latter will be the one most likely to go down as a classic (its being based on a Japanese folk tale does not get in the way of many cracking tunes).

So, I suppose this album represents my non-stop Americana phase, my heavy gig-going phase, it represents how much better the American music scene is than the British. This is the Decemberists' sixth album, the first to reach the US Top 10. Would such a slow-burning success be possible for a Brits? Our good bands need to succeed in the first two and then get slowly forgotten then are utterly on the heap by the time they are the Decemberists' age.

Here would be my compilation

The Engine Driver
Billy Liar
O Valencia
We Both Go Down Together
This Sporting Life
The Crane Life 1 and 2
The Rake's Song
Rise to Me
Yankee Bayonet
This is Why We Fight
January Hymn
16 Military Wives
The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid
Sons and Daughters

Sunday, 12 January 2014

1973: David Bowie - Aladdin Sane

Listening to 'Aladdin Sane' now, I'm struck by how glam it is. It's a real glam stomp of an album. In that sense it's more of-its-time than a lot of other Bowie albums. In the history of Bowie, though it has its supporters, it's a bit of an in-between album, following two classics, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, and before his critically acclaimed Berlinny late 70s.

It's something of a sequel to Ziggy, and certainly not dissimilar in sound. It's saved from blandness by a couple of very pretty songs and some fabulous piano by Mike Garson. It's actually a pretty tremendous collection of songs and he couldn't really have done much better in terms of a follow-up to Ziggy. It's neither alienating nor entirely aping.

Really I've never thought all that much of it and chose to write about it almost to damn it with faint praise and perhaps to suggest that Bowie, for all his legend and greatness, never actually came up with better songs than on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. But now, studying it more closely, I'm really impressed. It's kind of a really great album. Or just one song away from it.

What I've always thought, in particular, about David Bowie and Bob Dylan above pretty much all the other legends of rock, is how exceptionally learned, articulate and smart they are, which seems a bit obvious, but I feel like they could have been university professors if they'd gone down that route, which is not something I necessarily feel about say, McCartney, Ray Davies, Neil Young. Bowie's brilliance can almost be a problem sometimes. Perhaps he really hasn't done that many basic, simple, beautiful songs that aren't in inverted commas. Maybe that's why I enjoyed 'Where Are We Now' so much.

Still, this album has one. 'The Prettiest Star' is really a lovely little song, heartfelt and romantic. 'Lady Grinning Soul' is also a pretty song, though more dramatically so, though I think my favourite now, as it's pretty much always been (indeed I think it was my favourite Bowie song in my teens) is 'Drive-In Saturday', which combines great melody and style with keen Americana and a sci-fi element. It's really all there and such an epic. Why it's not considered one of his greatest ever songs I'm not too sure.

'Time' and the title track are the kooky ones, with avant-garde piano, the memorable lyrics and the sense of menace. As for the rest, yes, there's a fair bit of glam stomping, including Jean Genie and a cover of Let's Spend the Night Together which I do think the album could do without.

It's a pretty great album really. I wonder how many people have it as their favourite Bowie album but it's probably quite a few people's second or third favourite. For me, the early 70s is my favourite Bowie time, however influential and brilliant he may have remained later.

Consequently, this is my Bowie compilation:

Life on Mars?
Drive-in Saturday
Oh, You Pretty Things
Fill your Heart
Young Americans
Young Beginners
Where Are We Now?
Ziggy Stardust
All the Young Dudes
The Prettiest Star
Ashes to Ashes
Modern Love
Absolute Beginners
Moonage Daydream
Five Years
Sound and Vision
Space Oddity
Can't Help Thinking About Me
Rock'n'Roll Suicide

Oh yes, I like the hits basically!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - Déjà Vu

They weren't the first supergroup, CSNY, but they're probably the definitive American supergroup. Massively successful over there in a way that they weren't quite over here, it's a long and chequered history of egos and excess.

Despite that long history, there's really only acclaimed album released by the foursome - this one. The previous album is also acclaimed, but that was only by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a name that trips off the tongue a lot better, and fittingly so.

Although the name suggests a collection of individuals rather than a group entity, Crosby, Stills and Nash were very much a unity in terms of the beautiful noise they created - arguably, CSN are up with the Beach Boys in terms of great American harmonisers.

Stills had come from Buffalo Springfield (Young was also in that band), Crosby from the Byrds and Nash from our very own Hollies. All were songwriters, all were great singers.

Generally, the personalities are established thus - Stills, leader, doer, great instrumentalist, straight man. Crosby, loon, hippy, drugs and harems. Nash, pop, keeper of peace, sweet. And then, for the second album, Young, dominant, driven, single-minded, songwriter supreme.

There's truth in that. It's easy to dismiss all of them against Young, with Nash often seen as "hey guys, groovy", some kind of transatlantic simpleton and a lightweight compared to the others. Maybe it's just me, but it's often his songs that really hold up, though, poppy as they may be, they're often memorable and beautiful.

For me, Crosby is the least songwriter - some of his schtick is overwrought and weak, like 'Almost Cut My Hair' it's beyond parody and his wailed "Why did they die?" at the end of Neil Young's Ohio ruins a fine song for me

Stills always seems to me the leader, playing most of the instruments, holding it together. I don't have any of his solo stuff, perhaps he's too closely associated with the group.

Anyway, their first album as CSN is really nice - Stills' 'Suite:Judy Blue Eyes' probably the standout, but other great numbers like Marrakesh Express and Wooden Ships. It's a very influential album, defining and setting up that Laurel Canyon hippy vibe for years to come.

Of which, taking a short detour: the end result of that scene was The Eagles. As the Dude so wisely says in The Big Lebowski, "I hate the fucking Eagles, man". That distinction between what's cool and what's not is an interesting one. I could think that I think the Eagles are shitty next to the likes of CSN, Jackson Browne etc, because I've been told so, but actually, I always thought the Eagles were shit, back then they were Number 44 in the Capital Radio Hall of Fame, it's Desperado, Number 12 in the Capital Radio Hall of Fame it's Hotel California.
It makes you realise that some bands are just cheesy and lame where others aren't, and somehow folk can just tell that. They're a bit like the Maroon 5 or Killers of their day - the "indie-rock" band, superficially operating in a style similar to cool, good bands, who have a massive ego and a plan at the centre which you can just HEAR in every note.

Anyway, detour over. Arguably, 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' is a better album than 'Deja Vu;. It's certainly more of a unity, by more of a group. Because Deja Vu to me still sounds like one band and one Neil Young. He doesn't always play, he doesn't always harmonise, he's just there brooding, trying to take over (which, of course, he eventually did).

His songs on the album are great, particularly 'Helpless', one of his all time classics, though I probably prefer the opening number 'Carry On' which really has some of the most wonderful singing you'll ever hear. And i'm a sucker for Nash's 'Our House'.

Without the egos, this could have been one of the greatest bands in history, as it's a phenomenal collection of talent. I suppose Young's talent does dwarf the others, though as I said in a previous blog, I've completely loved Nash's solo album 'Songs for Beginners', written in the wake of his break-up with Joni Mitchell, so some kind of mirror to 'Blue' and it holds its end up.

They all released successful solo albums after 'Deja Vu' - Young's was his big breakthrough 'After the Goldrush' and he hasn't really looked back since, Stills' was self-titled and I confess I haven't listened to it (I should), Crosby's was 'If I Could Only Remember My Name'. Somewhat bizarrely, when I bought a '1000 Greatest Albums of All Time' book compiled by someone called Colin Larkin, in about 1996, he declared that in his own humble opinion (not the listing of the book, which was more scientific) this was the finest album ever.
Baffling, and I was always doubly against it as a result of that over-estimation. Still, listening to it again recently, it certainly sounds beautiful. Perhaps I've been harsh on Crosby down the years, who I've always dismissed as the Alex James figure, the hedonist who overestimates his own talent and wisdom.
Like Nash and a few others, Crosby had a relationship with Joni Mitchell, far be it from me to be reductive about the great talent who dwarfs them all. Many great songs came out of her couplings, anyhow.

So this would be my compilation from all their many incarnations. There's no Hollies, no Buffalo Springfield and no Byrds - there would have been if I'd really loved anything from them enough and I'd known they'd been composed by any of these members.

Still, this is plenty good enough. Young dominates. Just because he does.

Carry On - CSNY
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes - CSN
Simple Man - Graham Nash
Traction in the Rain - David Crosby
Helpless - CSNY
Our House - CSNY
Only Love Can Break Your Heart - Neil Young
Borrowed Tune - Neil Young
Old Man - Neil Young
After the Goldrush - Neil Young
Heart of Gold - Neil Young
The Needle and the Damage Done - Neil Young
Don't Let it Bring You Down -Neil Young
Better Days - Graham Nash
Philadelphia - Neil Young
Wounded Bird - Graham Nash
Rockin' in the Free World - Neil Young
Music is Love - David Crosby
Love the One You're With - Stephen Stills
Like a Hurricane - Neil Young

Saturday, 4 January 2014

1979: The Clash - London Calling

Here's an interesting thing about 'London Calling' - it was a 70s album in Britain and an 80s album in the USA, indeed it was Rolling Stone's Greatest Album of the 80s. There really can't have been many great American 80s albums, if their best album of the 80s was a British album of the 70s.

One thing it's not is a punk album, though The Clash were a punk band. The only punk song on it is 'Brand New Cadillac' which is a cover of an early rock'n'roll song.

It's a double album, maybe the very best double album, certainly better than 'Blonde on Blonde', better than 'The White Album' for me. It's more like the Clash's 'Revolver', the apotheosis of their talent, the point where the three strong talents/personalities within the band all had their moment, and the drummer did a decent job too!

Now, The Clash weren't the Beatles, despite certain similarities. Indeed, I think The Clash stand and fall by 'London Calling'. Without it, they're not a great band, with it, they are. This is their glory.

It's a great, great album, because it's an album you can listen to all the way through over and over again. It perhaps flags ever so slightly towards the end, but then comes up trumps with "hidden track" 'Train in Vain'. Like I said, it's anything but punk, it's rock, it's pop, it's reggae, it's comedy, it's Spector, it's powerpop, it's got great song after great song, great sound after great sound, idea after idea.

The Clash's legend has grown to the extent one can overstimate how successful they were. In their lifetime, there were no Top 10 singles, unlike the Jam's four Number 1s, and, yes, they kind of broke America, but not like, you know, Mumford and Sons or One Direction. They've sold a few million records.

Yet, they're utterly beloved, and they're such a good tale. Why are they so loved? Because they stood for something, last gang in town, yadeya, but it's because Strummer was so lovable, really. His voice is so warm and welcoming, sharing his  in-jokes with you, laughing his way through it, he was always like a fun uncle.

One of many reasons why the Libertines, despite doing their best to invite similarities, couldn't touch the Clash in a mllion years is that both their vocalists are weak and dull as dishwater. Strummer's voice was constantly alive, constantly making up for its technical shortcomings.

And it never had a finer vehicle than 'London Calling'. The Libertines tried to get a bit of Clash magic by using Mick Jones as producer - Jones shared production duties on 'London Calling' with a famous mod loon called Guy Stevens, and everyone involved in the album has always been unstinting in stating the importance of Stevens in the magic.

And you can hear it somehow, the glorious mayhem, the endless ideas sticking, the different personalities coming through. How wonderful is 'The Card Cheat', the 14th song on the album, where suddenly they sum up the best of Spector and Springsteen. Where did that come from?

Perhaps this album was The Clash's undoing, as it made them think they could do anything - 'Sandinista' was a triple to follow, and it was just a bit rubbish. Really, this album is a glorious happy accident.

It's sequenced superbly, it bounces off the walls, the six songs from 'Rudie Can't Fail' through 'Spanish Bombs' 'Right Profile' 'Lost in the Supermarket', Clampdown' and 'Guns of Brixton' it just doesn't get much better than that.

And not long till 'Death or Glory', one of their most quotable songs, but how many great Strummer quotes are there?

It's a funny, probably wrong-headed way to look at rock'n'roll but The Clash managed to create something of historical importance here, an artefact for its era to be proud of.

I happen to place it on a high pedestal above the rest of their stuff, so my Clash (et cetera) compilation is pretty dominated by it.

London Calling
I'm So Bored With the USA
I Fought the Law
White Riot
Spanish Bombs
Coma Girl (Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros)
Lost in the Supermarket
Tommy Gun
E=MC2 (Big Audio Dynamite)
The Card Cheat
Rudie Can't Fail
Train in Vain
Safe European Home
The Right Profile
Death or Glory
Redemption Song (Joe Strummer)

Thursday, 2 January 2014

1975: Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run

Perhaps I allow myself too many "seminal moments" in my musical life, too many awakenings and turning points. But here's another one, this one not so much about a musical moment, but the awakening of this person, this one right here, who judges and assesses and pores over the history of music, who is obsessed by lists and lineage and grand statements.

I think it was 1994, maybe '93, and the Times (rock'n'roll!!) supplement was running a weekly countdown of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time. And I'm pretty sure this was the first such list I'd seen, and it was really nicely put together.

At that point, my knowledge was pretty basic, so there were a few I knew mixed in with a lot I didn't. Van Halen's 'Jump' was a surprising entry (damn, they were right about that, though!) and when it came to the top, 2 was 'Like a Rolling Stone' (which I'd never heard) and 1 was 'Born to Run', which I had.

I think I thought, until that point, it was OK, a bit like 'Runaway Train' by Soul Asylum or something but a bit all over the place. But, instantly, enlightened by context and its placing in posterity, I learned to see it as great, I swallowed whole the grand statements of rock criticism. I've found nothing truer that if someone who I think knows more than me tells me something's good, I'm likely to find the good in it. [Of course, it's equally true that I'm very determined that no one should know more than me].

So, that was 'Born to Run'. It's not my favourite song, it's not now even among my favourite songs, but it was the the start of this particular journey in a way.

There is a greater song on the album, of course. Oh, and, goddammit, another seminal moment in this blog. 'Thunder Road' is one of Nick Hornby's '31 Songs' [31 Songs being the trigger for the second major section of this monstrous splurge], and of all of those that he wrote about (and he writes beautifully about it), it's the one I'd most like to write about myself. But, I couldn't really. That would be cheating.

So, this post gives me the opportunity to write about 'Thunder Road' the Greatest Track 1, Side 1 of ... oh I bore myself.
But what a magical song it is. I had a Springsteen compilation tape made for me shortly after that Times list, and it was 'Thunder Road' more than 'Born to Run' that thrilled me.

It's a beautiful, romantic song, which kind of establishes the Springsteen milieu of escape on the open road, of a better life somewhere else, (with the other major milieu being, I suppose, the struggles of staying in the same small town). It's also maybe the most quotable song in the history of rock'n'roll. How many lines leap out from it?

"Roy Orbison's singing for the lonely, hey that's me and I want you only"
"So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore"
"You ain't a beauty but hey you're alright, and that's alright with me"
"Waste your summers praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets"
"Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my cars out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat"
"They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out chevrolets"
and my favourite closing statement
"Its a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."

Pretty pointless really, picking out individual lines, the whole song seems to pass in one desperate breath. Wonderful.

I don't necessarily have that much else to say about the album 'Born to Run'. I wouldn't say it quite lives up to 'Thunder Road', but it's a grand, influential album, and it was the first major hit for the ageless wonder of rock'n'roll. Truly Springsteen is the hardest working man in showbusiness. Has he ever stopped?

I don't have much time for any sniffiness directed towards him. He's balanced so many different elements so well throughout his career, he can go big or small with equal skill, America is very lucky to have him.

This would be my Springsteen compilation

Thunder Road
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Highway Patrolman
Born to Run
Better Days
No Surrender
Candy's Room
The Wrestler
Blinded by the Light
Waitin' On a Sunny Day
Hungry Heart
For You
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Because the Night
Born in the USA

Pretty good.