Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The long and usually glorious history of "Hey" in popular song

Hey hey! Why on Hey, you might ask?

I'll tell you for why. I was planning to reboot the blog theme of just taking a particular song and writing an extended piece on it; I fixed on a couple of recent songs to write about, songs at different ends of the American indie-rock scale united by unforgettable and gleeful choruses. One is called 'Hey Lover', it's by beardy Californians Dawes, one is called 'Hey Darling', it's by recently reformed Washington (state) powerpoppunk trio Sleater-Kinney. Gosh darn, I love both these songs.

I probably will get to writing about them. But first.

You might have noticed they both begin with 'Hey'. Hey, how about that, I thought. Hey's a lovely modern transatlantic word, drawing attention, admonishing, greeting, celebrating, consoling, warning. There's a disproportionate number of great songs by great artists which feature the word in their title. Those in the know know the value of a good "Hey" from Happy Mondays to The Ramones to Madonna to Ben Hey-Now (X-Factor joke, sorry).

This is my 30-song double album compilation. This might be the most valuable contribution I've ever made to humanity:

  1. Hey Good Lookin' - Hank Williams
  2. Hey Schoolgirl - Tom and Jerry (Simon and Garfunkel)
  3. Hey Baby - Bruce Channel
  4. Hey Grandma - Moby Grape
  5. Hey Bulldog - The Beatles
  6. Hey Jude - Beatles
  7. Hey Joe - Jimi Hendrix
  8. Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye - Leonard Cohen
  9. Hey Girl Don't Bother Me - The Tams
  10. Hey You - Pink Floyd
  11. Hey Hey My My (Into the Black) - Neil Young
  12. My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) - Neil Young
  13. Hey - Pixies
  14. Hey DJ I Can't Dance to the Music You're Playing - Beatmasters ft Betty Boo
  15. Hey Ladies - Beastie Boys 
  1. Hey Jealousy - Gin Blossoms
  2. Hey God - Bon Jovi
  3. Hey There Delilah - Plain White Ts
  4. Hey Now - Oasis
  5. Hey Dude - Kula Shaker
  6. Hey Boy Hey Girl - Chemical Brothers
  7. Hey Scenesters - The Cribs 
  8. Hey Self-Defeater - Mark Mulcahy
  9. Hey You Bastards I'm Still Here - Mark Kozelek
  10. Hey Porcupine - Josh Rouse
  11. Ho Hey - The Lumineers
  12. Hey Ya! - OutKast
  13. Ya Hey - Vampire Weekend
  14. Hey Lover - Dawes
  15. Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Oscar Time

It's the Oscars today. I quite like them. To me, they are the award ceremony, across media, with the most genuine prestige, indeed almost the only awards ceremony with any genuine prestige. They've received a bit of damage this year because of the race controversy, but I think, generally, they get quite close to a decent selection of what is best is American/British films in the year. To win one means something. All the arguments about what the Oscars get wrong year on year mean something- arguments about other award ceremonies getting things wrong tend to simply be, say with the Brits, "the Brits are just stupid lame bullshit. Who gives a fuck?", likewise with the Grammys etc. With the Oscars, people argue and disagree because they care.

I've watched a lot of films at the cinema this year, pushing 40, which is pretty good going. I've seen all the major contenders I could have done. 'Still Alice' hasn't come out yet in the UK, slightly unfairly on discerning UK film fans, so we won't have the opportunity to be complain with justification about Julianne Moore's being a "reward" award (it probably isn't -  there aren't necessarily outstanding other contenders for Best Actress, apart from Marion Cotillard  in '2 Days 1 Night' so good she gets nominated or wins even speaking French - how dare they say the Oscars don't embrace diversity?).

There are three main ones this year, and it's more in doubt than usual - Birdman, Boyhood, Budapest. Though it's my favourite, I can't really see The Grand Budapest Hotel winning Best Picture, but I think it'll win 3 or 4 auxiliary awards.
I've come round to thinking Birdman will be the big winner, maybe getting the big film awards and Best Actor for Keaton - none of which I'd agree with. I can't judge, I can't say what's better or worse. but going on what my heart tells me, triumph for Birdman, though I did enjoy and admire it greatly, would disappoint. Though it's not a safe film, it would feel like the safe choice.

There was a controversy about David Oyelowo missing out on Best Actor and Ava DuVernay for Best Director for Selma - I would agree his performance is really tremendous and i'd have had him above a couple of contenders, but, you know, there are only five slots, it must have been tough. It looks bad, I'm sure the Oscars would have rather avoided the controversy and got him into the list in retrospect, but I genuinely don't think it works like that.

There is a controversy with Selma and with the director though, it seems. She seems to have slagged off the writer and the script, and taken all the credit for formulating the film, mainly to the extent of lifting Luther King as a force above LB Johnson, indeed to the extent of implicating Johnson in racism/being against civil rights movement etc (she was determined it should not be a "kindly white gives black a helping hand up" film ...) having seen the film, which is excellent, I'm not sure on either side of that argument. Most in the know say LBJ is harshly dealt with in the film - I think it's quite clear he's an exasperated but ultimately well-meaning pragmatist.

Anyway, Selma is a strong,  powerful film. So, actually, is the maligned American Sniper, a nuanced film about a not particularly nuanced man. Cooper is good.

There are other films that haven't had all the nominations they deserve - Foxcatcher and Wild were both as good as anything else for me, the latter to my great surprise, Pride was lush, Under the Skin was unique, Nightcrawler and A Most Violent Year are tight, gripping and brilliant.

Still, I care. It matters, albeit just a little. The Oscars get vaguely close to highlighting the actual strongest, most lasting English language films of the year. That can't be said for most award shows.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

First of the Short Cuts

Since this blog's most loyal follower has suggested  more regular journeys into film, I can only oblige. Not that I'll stop writing about music, but I think I'll just return to the practice of writing about works of art that mean something to me, but with no particular pattern - maybe films, maybe songs, maybe albums, maybe even TV shows.

Now's the time of  year for judgement of film of all sorts, and I saw a list recently of the 1000 Greatest Films of All Time, which was that predictable film buff's mixture of wide range of nationalities, general low position for anything too successful and general absence of much from the last 25 years. I'm not going to criticize that, as I said before, I don't know enough about film to - I had only seen about a quarter of the films on the list - there are so many films considered great works of art I haven't seen and really should make more of an effort with.

It just got me thinking about films that really took my breath away, surely one of the main things a film should do. The top film on the list, 'Citizen Kane', didn't take my breath away. I liked it, but if I hadn't been told it was the greatest film of all time, I'm not totally sure how I'd have reacted. It's rather like the idea that WG Grace is the Greatest Cricketer of All Time or that Sgt Pepper's The Greatest Album of All Time.

With film, I manage to avoid, in a way I can't avoid when it comes to music and sport, the canonical approach - the films that have blown me away won't necessarily find their place near that many "Greatest of All Time" lists.

I'm not saying I like Norbit, mind ... it's more that I enjoy the "now" of the film, I like the cinema, and I don't always have to see a film twice - if i loved it once, that's usually enough for me.

I will start, though, with a film I've seen three or four times all the way through (and caught up with bits of it a few other times), which is pretty good going, as it's 188 minutes of solid content - Short Cuts.

This is a film that took my breath away, slowly but surely. It came out in 1993, and I probably watched it for the first time in 1995. I know this because it was an 18, and there was a point where the man at the video store asked my sister how old I was and she told him, so I couldn't get 18s any more on my own, goddammit (he was very nice, I just think there'd been some kind of word from head office to crack down on youngsters).

Now, I was the kind of youngster trying to get 18s like 'Short Cuts' rather than 'Gruesome Zombie Aporncalypse Part 3', but it's all the same in the eyes of the law.

So I watched it first  before my 18th birthday because my sister got it out, then loved it so much I tried to get it out again (as I recall, it when I was about 17 and 10 months) and was cruelly denied, so had to wait a few months till late 1996 to take it in again.

I don't think it was vastly acclaimed - it's reputation has gradually grown over time but it's not a ... canonical, there's that word ... classic.

But it's definitely one of my favourite films, and one of the greatest, most unique and meaningful, I've seen. I'm not aware of too many like it beforehand. I mean, there's Robert Altman's own Nashville, which I saw years later, which is an acknowledged classic, with its interlocking narratives, gallery of "main" characters, its sense of a particular place and time. Perhaps it was film critics' awareness of Nashville which kept Short Cuts from being fully embraced.

Anyway, there've been quite a few similar films since, all of them inferior in my view - Magnolia, Crash, Traffic, Lantana, Babel, not counting Pulp Fiction, which though it interweaves can hardly be seen to be much influenced by Short Cuts.

Short Cuts is, to me, the masterpiece of this epic form, the one that doesn't feel forced and strive for meaning (oh, the ugly, dumb striving for meaning that ruins the decent films Magnolia and Crash might have been).

It's effortlessly engaging and funny and true and shocking and sad. It doesn't hurry, it just builds story on story -  some of the stories build then fizzle, some build then explode. The acting is fabulous, introducing me and familiarising me, a 16/17 year old with fairly limited knowledge but growing interest, to some of the finest of the era - Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, McDormand, Downey Jr, etc. Looking at it now, the film contains an awful lot of actors who were in Brat Packy films grown up and playing adults. And there's Jack fucking Lemmon. And Tom bleeding Waits. And Huey sodding Lewis. Minus the stinking News.

It's based on short stories by Raymond Carver (Carver, of course, is the joke at the heart of this year's Birdman), but it was Altman himself, I believe, who really knocked it into narrative shape.

I'm trying to remember the feeling I had when I first watched it, of how very long it was going to be and the fact I'd probably need two or three sittings to get through it, but just stayed with it, of the point where it was probably about 1 hr 50 through and I kind of realised this was the point most films end but knew this film had a whole extra act, then the quiet, powerful devastation of that last act - the truths of the characters revealed. I pretty much knew what kind of people they all were by the end.

So many disconcerting and memorable characters - Lyle Lovett's baker, Tim Robbins' reprehensible prick of a cop. Many actors put in (as far as I'm aware) career high performances - Andie McDowell and Peter Gallagher, Lori Singer and Chris Penn.

Where Nashville's soundtrack was, naturally, country, Short Cuts is a jazz film (like Birdman again!). It's the most vivid portrait of Los Angeles I've ever seen too. It being LA, of course, the film end with an earthquake. That's the one "meaning".

I watched it again fairly recently - I think I'd forgotten large parts of it, and had forgotten some of the more bizarre behaviours, they are presented in such a low key fashion, they could easily slip by.

So, this film might well have been the first film I recognised as a burgeoning adult as an adult masterpiece - that may be why it means so much to me. I wouldn't say it defined my taste in film - like I've said, I've struggled with a lot of those interweaving films since. I do, funnily enough, love novels with interweaving narratives, so perhaps it set a template for my taste in storytelling.

It's not a film which won any Oscars, that was the year of Schindler's List, but it's certainly my idea of a great film.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Live ...

Probably the aspect of music I've neglected the most in this blog is the live stuff. I did one post a year or two ago about seeing Leonard Cohen and gave a few thoughts about what makes a great gig, and certainly mentioned various shows I've been to along the way, but considering the huge number of words and lists I've devoted to artists, albums, songs, charts, etc, I don't think I've written that much about gigs.

Perhaps it's because I don't get to as many as I used to, perhaps because I think it's harder to quantify/review than other things. You experience a show, from one narrow perspective, then it's gone. I've read reviews of shows i've been to which were nothing, absolutely nothing, like the show I experienced. I think I can tell a good gig from a bad gig, but perhaps not if I get too drunk!

Anyway, I've been to loads of gigs and plenty of festivals. My tastes have become more sedate as the years have gone by. Never much of a mosher, but now i'm happiest sitting comfortably!

We're rather lucky in our little commuter town as we appear to have a rather super little music scene - at the local church, in the last few months, we've seen Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys, Martha Wainwright and, last week, King Creosote. It's as if I'm sending them a list of my favourite artists and they're putting them on especially for me. Actually, I might try that.

So I still do gigs to an extent, though it's been a few years since I went to one I had to stand up at! You know me, if I do a post, I take it seriously, so i've tried to get to the bottom of every single act I've ever seen, from headliners to support act to afternoon festivals to free shows - I've managed to list about 300 now. There may be a few more not even my memory can access but I think most is covered. Puggy? Slovo? Scatter? Remember them?

Who have I not seen?

Bruce Springsteen
Martha and the Vandellas
Paul Weller (goodness knows how not)
Public Enemy
Stevie Wonder
David Bowie (too late for that probably)
PJ Harvey
Janelle Monae

There aren't that many others I should really make damn sure I see if I want the key to the kingdom of heaven.

There really aren't hard and fast rules for what makes a great gig - sometimes I think bands who've only done a couple of albums have a real advantage as the fans are likely to know and like and hence greet rapturously pretty much song. People complain about Bob Dylan "not playing the hits". What hits exactly? When someone's got 200 songs that might be considered classics, everyone's going  to be disappointed some way or another.

The best thing I can say about Wilco at their peak was that, at some of their gigs, they didn't play any of my personal favourite Wilco songs and yet the gigs were still magnificent. The same is true of Gruff Rhys who now has so much solo material which is completely alive and up to scratch that no one minds him discarding the whole back catalogue of one of the great bands of all time.

Some bands are very good live, to the extent that you think they'll be better than they are on record - Embrace are a good example of that, the Polyphonic Spree, the Hold Steady etc Belle and Sebastian are now a better live band than they are on record, whereas they used to be the other way around.

My favourite venue was probably the Brixton Academy back in the day - big enough and small enough, grand enough and shabby enough, boisterous but not unsafe, well laid out but still heaving. My favourite festival ... hmm ... tricky one ... I think in terms of lasting memories, it would be Benicassim, but in terms of one I might go to again, it would be ATP.

See, i'm still finding it hard to write about gigs. Frankly, I'm amazed that I let 1000s of people invade my personal space quite so often!