Monday, 14 January 2008

ELECTRONIC: Forbidden City


There has rarely been a more assertive start to any Joy Division or New Order record than the "There's not a hope" with which Bernard Sumner commences "Forbidden City." In light of their increasingly rock(ist) exploits as the nineties wore on the consensus on Electronic is currently undecided, although both Sumner and Marr have treated it exactly how it was intended; as light (or heavy) relief from their primary day jobs. Admittedly I do miss Neil Tennant's regular input in their early days; "Getting Away With It" would have been the perfect 1989 Christmas number one since it effortlessly sums up much of what was indispensable from its parent decade with the input of three of its most crucial musicians (five if you count the two Lexicon Of Love refugees, drummer David Palmer and arranger Anne Dudley; the latter's closing string coda smartly bookends Lexicon's prelude).

Nevertheless, post-1992 Electronic does have its merits, and "Forbidden City" is pre-eminent amongst that list; it sounds like their most hopeful song yet harbours one of their least hopeful lyrics. Certainly Sumner's voice has scarcely sounded more actively enraged; the song concerns itself with a particularly messy break-up, and not necessarily one involving romantic partners, snipes being fired bilaterally ("I wish I'd been around when you started this," "You're in a trance/And I'm not so fond of you"). The song eventually arrives at a resigned conclusion: "And it's too late to wash my hands/We're caught in a trap set for a man."

Marr's guitar lines are bold and blue though dip for the ineffable melancholy of the B flat-C-D "chorus" - and the anticipated sadness is cleverly built up by withholding the chorus until after the second verse; the first leads you to the edge before bouncing back with deliberate frustration into the second, delaying its release. Then Marr's guitar peals out fortissimo McGuinn lead notes for the third verse ("There is a wind that blows in the Northern sky") though again Sumner defers any implication of joy by a barely suppressed feeling of resentment at Manchester, or Tony Wilson, or other such adored points of reference: "If I had the sense/I'd leave here tomorrow"). With every chorus the bass (also played by Marr) arches up an ominous octave and back under "caught in a trap." Then the intensity becomes even harder to touch without burning; Marr's guitar break is more of an elongated feedback howl than a solo. Thereafter Sumner returns to double the anticipatory pace of the song ("Would you lie to me?"); again there is a misleading build-up before he repeats the sequence and then sinking back into elegant despair with the final round of choruses. Behind him Marr's guitars subtly but naturally expand and sigh into full post-Cocteaus lamenting and provide a natural and logical (and restrained) beauty to Sumner's grief (echoed by his own, slightly bitonal responses of "Would you lie to me?"); the elegance quietly bolstered by Karl Bartos' slowly modulating synths, the suppressed brutality underlined by the final and (again) delayed drum sign-off from Black Grape's Jed Lynch. Structurally a perfectly imperfect pop/rock song, its patient build-up was largely lost on all bar the loyal, and it stopped at number 14 on our 1996 charts, but it remains one of Sumner and Marr's most secret triumphs.

1 comment:

sbmx said...

I must have been following your blogs for around two or three years, since a bitterly cold and wet day in the winter of 2005 as I recall. In that time I've bought armfuls of records on your recommendation and bored the life out of most of my friends doing inept cover versions of your writing about music. So it's a real delight to read your appraisal of a song I had started to think everyone had forgotten.

I was fifteen when this single was released, and as a fat, scared and not especially confident gay teenager, I was enduring a particularly fraught relationship with my father. He isn't an especially prejudiced man, but he is hard to please, and since I managed to routinely disappoint him in plenty of other ways, and knew that I had the Big Terrible Secret to divulge one day, there was a whole dreadful story of rejection and loss that played out in my head on a day-to-day basis.

Things on the whole weren't made a hell of a lot easier by the fact that I was working in the family business at the time. I was running (mostly) machinery, lathes and drills and presses. Hard, grim work, especially in the hot summers of the mid-nineties.

So I can vividly recall the two of us riding back to the factory in his van, stony silence between us, and Jimmy Young of all people playing this record, right the way to the closing thunderclap. For me, working through the rest of the summer with a radio chattering at one end of the factory floor, that opening rush of synth just sounded like an escape from all of it: the oily steam and swarf, and the grease on everything and the powdery, waxy tea. Funny how time caught in memory has a way of expanding: they can't have played it for much more than a fortnight, I suppose.

I was fifteen and knew nothing: I knew and loved this song before I had any idea who The Smiths or Joy Division, New Order, who they were or had been. But I knew that I loved how tired and upstanding the singer sounded, I loved the sugar-rush of string synthesizers, and I loved the shuddering-tambourine, Joe South backbeat.

I could tell the lyrics were all there: even today, I have problems interpreting this song as being about anything but a father and son, and my God, it gets all the details. And then that guitar break: where the whole song seems to rear upright for a moment and ... plunge.

As a tragically keen guitarist, I recognised at once how that blistering squall of feedback had been wrenched sideways through filters or flanging or something, synthetic harmonics grinding and jostling against one another. It sounds remarkably a lathe cutting through metal bar, which naturally enough was what I spent most of my summer doing.

There are just certain points in life, I think, where you find music that fits so tightly, that is so perfectly appropriate to your situation, where you can reach out and say "If you're wondering what it was like, listen to that...", that it's a little hard to believe you haven't dreamt it.

(Thank you for reading.)