Thursday, 31 July 2008


I'm just a bachelor! I'm looking for a partner!" exclaims Ginuwine at the beginning of "Pony" and in light of the subsequent Judge Dread level of subtlety of his modest proposals to his hoped-for Other, it seems unlikely that he will find his partner soon. But all the sensuality that his naively relentless double entendres lack ("Someone who knows how to ride without ever falling off" and later he even refers to "every single portion" as though she were a bag of chips), not to mention all of the genuine cheekiness to which he aspires, is encompassed in this startling early Timbaland production; I more than most have been guilty of undervaluing him in recent years but "Pony," now twelve years old, jerked me out of my seat at the time since its beats suggested that Ginuwine and/or Timbaland were wading through a squelchy swamp in Matalan economy wading boots at the time; or else you can see the splashes of contrabass vocoder undertow as a continual, frustrated burp.

Ginuwine sings it fervently, though, and without explicit sauce; he is desperate and hungry, probably hasn't even worked out the basics yet ("my saddle's waiting"), but he means no harm; he won't get anywhere but the lovely, dreamy floating-in-space interlude (brief but meaningful) which comes after his attempted crescendo of "you'll be on my jockey team OHHHHHHH!!!" indicates: just tighten DOWN a little (it's oxymoron time!), relax, put away the Kleenex and he'll be fair for a game. Oddly touching in delivery but dynamically pregnant with apocalypse musically; and the, er, juices which flowed from its youthful arteries proved particularly, um, fruitful (that's enough Carlin; much more of this and we'll be getting complaints from Robert Plant - Ed.).

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

KING CRIMSON: Matte Kudasai

Another memory of that watery, chimerical early winter of 1981, and this one I've always paired in my mind with Foreigner's "Waiting For A Girl Like You," mainly because key Crimson members are involved in both and there is clear evidence of the direct and indirect spread of Frippertronics in each. I can't really recall why Fripp felt it necessary to revive the Crimson name but seven or eight years after the unsparing prairies of Starless and Red he was wise to refocus on the song as small intelligent mobile thing in itself.

"Matte Kudasai" - phonetically it's Japanese for "Please Wait" - seems to have been Adrian Belew's baby; he writes and sings the song, though Fripp takes the instrumental lead, his guitar delay rendering his testimony hand-free; the Fripp drift is slightly too pronounced and carries a distinct air of sinister in the intro but soon glides and cries over the gentle landscape which might be the missing link between Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and Bill Frisell's Power Tools. A ballad in the line of "North Star," sung by Daryl Hall on Fripp's Exposure two years previously, Belew's lyric is a yearning haiku. Comparisons with Don McLean were made at the time in relation to Belew's vocals, though in reality - and with the benefit of jarring hindsight - they predict Rufus Wainwright, in both grain and subject matter, to a degree which goes slightly past uncanny. The pane in the window by which she's sitting, sleeping, mingling with the pain of the rain falling outside; "she waits in the air.../she sleeps in a chair/in her sad America."

More than that, though, we can easily also pair the performance off with another spectre of that November, "White Car In Germany" by the Associates, with its similarly guitar-less guitar lines and a similar craving sustenato to Billy's - "When was a night so long?" Belew sings for a very long time, "Long like the notes I'm sending?" She's waiting for a boy like him to come into her life. The two-way mirror must give way sooner or later.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

NEW ORDER: Turn The Heater On

A humid evening which had no need of additional heating, at least not in that sense; a bedroom in the growing but no less warm darkness. Unquiet student nights, nearly out of the first year, just about nearly, and New Pop at its Cortesian/Cartesian peak. The Peel show which some numbed skulls at the time felt was already slipping out of touch, but always the magic, always the essence of everything that mattered, including New Pop, and a magic song from nowhere, although I knew that really it came from everywhere.

I’ve been concernedly cagey about talking on the subject(s) of Joy Division and New Order on any of my blogs since together (and how could anyone think of their story as separate?) they are my favourite pop group and provoke thoughts and emotions too private for even (or especially) this privacy-shredding world. The Associates, yes, double ice cream cones yes, and their tragedy was to play out the Joy Division/New Order story in reverse, but New Order were the best; after all, were they not directly (if inadvertently) the cause of New Pop in the first place?

They were on the ascendant with “Temptation” in the charts of the time (and what better time for the charts?) and the Peel session received the first of its numerous airings on Tuesday 1 June 1982. We already knew that they had forced themselves past the grief barrier with “Everything’s Gone Green” – and I don’t think there will ever be a better example of that phenomenon, the pop single – and not only managed to extricate themselves from the quiet horror of mourning but also invented something new in the process.

Their version of “Turn The Heater On” helped complete the transition (and another of that evening’s session tracks, “4-8-6,” is a prototype for the definitive conclusion and beginning of “Blue Monday”). The original version appears on Torch Of Freedom, one of the less locatable of Keith Hudson albums which was probably far easier to find in seventies Manchester than it is in 2008 anywhere (a French CD issue briefly appeared in the mid-nineties and you had to be fleet and foxy to get a copy) and clearly its sentiments of “gonna beat them all, gonna beat them all” carried rather severer resonance in Jamaica. In that setting Hudson ’s pleas to “hold me” and “squeeze me” bear a literal life-and-death subtext.

New Order moved the realm of the song very naturally from the political to the personal; their take on reggae is so instinctively right in its lightness of touch that their “Turn The Heater On” glides effortlessly into their world; you notice Barney’s melodica (inspired by Augustus Pablo, that remarkable musician who turned what is generally regarded as an instrument for schoolchildren into as eloquent a vehicle for expression as Davis’ trumpet or Rollins’ tenor) tooting its islet of lament in the distance but also the very familiar rain of that string synthesiser – it’s not until several listens that you shiver at the eventual recognition that this song has the same chord sequence as “Decades.” Sumner sings without vibrato or noticeable straining; his plea for reassurance and salvation is immediately palpable, his “For I feel so cold at night” immediately striking (in slow motion) the post-Curtis ice. Around this spiritual – there truly is no other word for it – guitars cuddle up to each other from across the channel, Hook knows exactly when to arch his bass and bend it back down again, Morris’ drumming miraculous and enough for three “normal” drummers, simultaneously providing that seamless dub undertow and a straighter 4/4 rock overtone, but even “rock” seems such an intrusive word to use in this world; the detritus of the old world clanks around the corners of what New Order perceive to be their new world. “Blue Monday” would see them drive out the secondary demons for good but this told me at the aptest of times that the vital key was still in their possession.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

JOHN OTWAY: Bunsen Burner

America has Jonathan Richman; we got John Otway. A successful thirty-year career as an unsuccessful singer/songwriter; he's to be envied. He bounced out of Aylesbury and onto the top of his guitar speaker (which he promptly fell off) while bashing out "Cor Baby That's Really Free" with erstwhile partner Wild Willy Barrett and sneaked into the Top 30 (produced by Pete Townshend) as 1977 jerked to its end. And that was it as far as "hits" were concerned; he did masochistic electropunk ("Headbutts," 1981), pained five-and-a-half minute ballads backed by a 100-piece orchestra ("Geneve," 1978), undercut Tom Jones twice in the nineties with individualistic covers of "Delilah" and "Green Green Grass Of Home" and even nearly got a second Top 40 hit with "DK 50/80" - in collaboration with two-drummer Oxford punk band Ken Liversausage - which sounds like Julian Cope being run backwards through sand dunes in Dunwich.

But nothing hit as such, until he decided in 2002 that he'd quite like a second proper hit to mark his 50th birthday. How his fanbase put this into action is well documented in his Greatest Hits compilation of the same year (which characteristically has subsequently gone out of print) but it's worth noting that the notion of marrying his chemistry lesson as sexual metaphor poem "Bunsen Burner" to the tune and beat of "Disco Inferno" originated with one Barry Upton, formerly a member of a later edition of the Brotherhood of Man and later producer of Steps and also Otway's occasional keyboard player. It was maybe the most welcome and applauded of all British singles chart hypes and it got him back into the charts - all the way to number nine, some 18 places better than "Really Free" had managed - and back onto TOTP in time for his half century.

"Bunsen Burner" is utterly charming and easily one of the most good humoured of all British hit singles. "I'm an ALCHEMIST baby!" he groans excitedly in his Home Counties Gone West voice at the beginning and proceeds to do every chemistry double metaphor in the book (although the poem was originally written to help his daughter with her chemistry lessons at school) - "check out what's in the test tube baby," "feel the heat of the naked flame" etc. In the middle eight there's an exciting conjunction of electronic white noise and "BURNIIIIIIIIING!" female backing vocals and his increasingly febrile intonation of the hook "Science tells us love is just a chemical reaction in the brain" is delivered in tones of John Noakes eagerness. "I know what I'm doing, I am a chemist," he grins just before the record is curtailed by an explosion of covalent bonding. When's the third coming?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

BARRY ANDREWS: Win A Night Out With A Well Known Paranoiac

It's easy to forget what a creepy, crypto-apocalyptic time 1980 was in Britain - the beer breath whispers, the conspiracies, the slumbering rightward lurch - indeed it's almost as easy to forget as the same factors occurring in Britain in 2008 (and probably every year in between - see Iain Sinclair's London Orbital for the post-nuclear, stick-throwing shutdown) - but this song captures the butterfly-knife stomach feeling of that age more effectively than most. Andrews was XTC's Eno (and it's therefore apt that he should have turned up on Eno's recent Another Day On Earth); he left the group at an early stage, worked on Robert Fripp's Exposure (and was a member of Fripp's shortlived League of Gentlemen group) and eventually co-founded Shriekback. "Win A Night Out..." was the B-side of his solitary solo single (and presumably the sales figures precluded progression to a full album). The A-side "Rossmore Road" is a curious, quavery tribute to a dull rat run street the wrong side of Marylebone, down which the 139 (from West Hampstead to Waterloo) bus now runs; a "dolls' house shop" (i.e. DHSS office) at the junction with Lissom Grove, sundry Belisha beacons and traffic lights, public buildings, quasi-threatening references to Regent's Park, Baker Street and Balcombe Street, with the anti-matter refrain of "All humming now."

But "Win A Night Out" is extraordinary. Across a fractured quasi-jazz background (both Fripp and Patti Palladin seem to have been involved, amongst many others) Andrews' craven narrowed wideboy Cockney narrative runs down the hinge of the rusted spine of real Britain; he meets up with her in a country pub ("where the landlord sports moustaches, just like Jimmy Edwards, and the crisps and pickled onions on the bar are numberless as the stars at night") but his reverie is interrupted by "two neckless men in blazers and cravats" who inform them, in about 200 words, that this is not the place for them (general summing up: you are inferior, bend your head "and furthermore, you worm, there is mud on your plimsolls"). He tries to convince them of his Cuban Royal Family ancestry but they intone "in this life, it's either U or non-U and if I were you I'd make myself BLOODY SCARCE!" Just as they are on the verge of duffing him up he swings into the damaged Dixieland of the song's chorus.

The next verse finds them in "an Iberian eatery in the West End." His stifled scream of "we could have so much fun" suggests imminent electric chair status. He talks about wanting to discuss Communism and chart positions but ends up telling a dodgy joke in a very loud voice; the child at the next table cries and her dad promises her that her crypto-Fascist Uncle Roger is on his way to "make quite sure he doesn't upset any little girls...little GIRLS?...any more..." and again it's back to the chorus.

Even the Sunday morning bed is no refuge; they are intruded upon by her mum and dad, who have been secretly taping their doings ("he's looking DAAAAAAAAAAANGEROUSLY pale!"), and moreover her mum is wielding an Army surplus bush knife ("All," observes Andrews soberly, "is not too groovy"). Then his partner starts laughing at him as her mum is about to "get stuck in...just below the navel." As the music hurtles dangerously towards freeform chaos it suddenly recedes..."I wake up...and was all a dream."

But he has woken up to something worse. "I'm really in a hospital bed...there is a smell of formaldehyde in the air..." Swastika-clad doctors fiddling with the brain of a sheep, and then he realises with obliterating dread that "I can't feel me legs! And the shape of the bed isn't my shape at all! And I wanna cry out but I can only bleat!" Which takes us into the final chorus and fadeout; a jolly romp (as with so much in this period, definitely post-Dury) about the unutterable. Its six minutes and 19 seconds seriously scared me at the time and still sound uncomfortably contemporary.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


My wife has suggested an unlikely but I think viable comparison point for skiffle; the frantic but near weightless rhythm, the rhetorical/ritual repetition of phrases and gestures until fascination hypnotically takes precedence over meaning – it’s the unacknowledged grandparent of House music! In that context, Cort’s original recording of “Six-Five Special” – as opposed to the tidied up version by Don Lang and his Frantic Five used as the theme tune for the similarly named BBC “pop” show – is the D-Mob/”We Call It Acieed” of its day; a transcription of essentially American gestures (though with common British roots; New Pop in the case of House, Scottish folk and dance music in the case of skiffle) into contemporary British terminologies and tropes.

This didn’t always work as well as skiffle’s practitioners might have hoped; hear, for instance, Cort’s recasting of Chuck Berry’s “School Day” in an effort to make it into a tea chest manifesto (“Hail, hail, skiffle and roll!” doesn’t quite carry the same resonance). But his “Six Five Special” works because of assured control of the song and style’s motors; the Home Counties “over the points” leitmotif in a Britain where travel, regardless of distance or destination, was considered nonpareil exoticism (and still was three decades later; see It’s Immaterial’s “Driving Away From Home” with its melancholy refrain of “Thirty miles or more.” Thirty miles? Gentlemen, Edwin Starr WALKED 25 of them!). Cort, meanwhile, is bursting with purple wax darts of expectation; he needs her to get to the station, and everything and everyone is working to speed its flow, including Cort himself, with his teeteringly near-sensual “wah wah”s (echoed by strident whistleblowing lead guitar George van Eps block chords), his capturing and chewing of the word “bright” and his astonishing growl of “HARRRRRRRD!!” as the brakes come down (we sense EXACTLY what he means).

The ritual story is that the make do and mend/air raid shelter worthiness of skiffle was eventually leapfrogged by the feral fuckability of rock ‘n’ roll, though in reality both happily co-existed in the charts until young Cliff and the Parnes stable decided to increase the post-Elvis stakes for a Britain no longer reliant on ration books and pressingly preserved lines of string. And, in truth, whatever one’s perspective on the Colyer/Donegan chicken/egg story, Lonnie (with the inescapable aid of his nominal engineer but actual producer Joe Meek) was able to push it forward into a quasi-surreal future; put his “Gamblin’ Man” or “Cumberland Gap” (both number ones in 1957) next to the affable growls of Wally Whyton and the Vipers and it’s clear that, as good as the latter are, the former constitute something beyond “good” (though the lineages are still profuse; the lonesome, isolated wail of Nancy Whiskey amidst the goods trains of Chas McDevitt’s Skiffle Group predate the lonesome diva wails which would characterise post-House dance and rave). Still, “Six Five Special” represents a decisive and rather merry turning down of the coin with “pay for the war” inscribed on both sides.

Friday, 18 July 2008

THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: Strawberry Letter 23

Another 1977 which I’m not sure has still been properly understood; another hot summer, NME front covers about punk but also about Zen and sunglasses, my dad yelling at me to get the hell out into the street and the sunshine - in both situations, you learn to keep yourself to yourself – wandering circuitously around the village as though it were the world, searching in vain for familiar faces from school, realising they were absent, off into their own, or their families’, world, unresolvable crushes. Dreams of hearing a kiss from a lover…was this really 1977?

Was it really 1977 (that knowing chuckle of “is it cool? Is it cool?”), with the carousel gliding from channel to channel, fading out, and then…harpsichords and words which sounded ten years old but also an endless spaciousness of rhythm, bass, drums and guitar all playing distant triple ping pong on the planet Venus, and then a Rundgren “Hello, my love” with references to red magic satin, west purple shower bells and tea in the garden – but, as in “Flowers In The Rain” by the Move, the real rain is endless. Not that this lover cares; orange birds, green-clad river cousins, blue flowers and cherry clouds, and always the music you’ll never be able to hear on an iPod; the world as it thrives and breathes despite everything we throw at it.

Because he’s with his Other, he’s empathically free, as the curtains of the song slowly draw even more open to reveal the drift of the glide, over the sea (even then I was dubious that I’d find salvation in my home village); he has this letter scented with strawberries (“Strawberry letter 22” to which letter 23 is a euphorically pink reply), and after every fancied colour imagery of 1967 has decorated his path he abandons the need for words altogether, the harpsichord tinkling the main melody and deep but lush “oooooooohhhhhhh”s speakers of kite drifting happily around the lover’s mauve field with a sudden burst of floridity as guitar erupts from the sea in a kettle of idealised ecstasy, echoing its external rotation into and of itself before drums signal a return to the placidly plaid dream.

As the song itself advises, playgrounds will laugh, and no doubt they would have done if I’d tried to explain this unforeseen magic in any “realistic” consideration of 1977’s music – you learn to keep such things to yourself – and Quincy ’s expert deployment of echo and space was a path he’d been patiently pursuing for at least the previous fifteen years. Only later, in a different century and nearing the end of a different life, did I hear the original on Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, recorded in 1971; an extraordinary bedroom tape of an indie-soul-God knows what fusion album which would long since have been worshipped had it been early Beck or Ariel Pink (and without the advantage of subsequent technology), and its procedurals are different (beyond rudimentary drum machines – but then, 1971!) but its aims the same. And now I’m able to talk about the magic and the associated pattern. I no longer need to keep anything to myself.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

SUPERCHUNK: Skip Steps 1 & 3

A boom and a curtain of swooping blades unveil this example of a strain of indie guitar rock that seems to have become lost to pop follow-up. No Pocky For Kitty was Superchunk's second album, and the North Carolina four dipped back into contented obscurity after briefly being a music press future in the very early nineties, but "Skip Steps 1 & 3" has a three-dimensional attack to its brushes - together with its similarly sliding vocals - which fix it in the firm, immediate post-Daydream Nation "tradition." Albini recorded it, but production "credits" on the sleeve were given to bassist Laura Ballance, who "sat in the right chair" albeit with "eyes closed."

With its increasingly frantic, popping cries of "Why don't you move?" and climactic refrain of "you've been sucking wind so long," the song is an impassioned cry to action and decision - remember that this just about preceded Nevermind and everything that allowed and condemned - from bop-boggling Mac McCaughan tearing at the cocktails of if only and yes but. "Well it's your free time in the back of your skull," he observes, "and that's fine for now, but what comes after?" The propulsion is pop but the threat or promise of immolating noise is always in the middleground, even though it is forever on poise and never forces itself forward. The overall feeling is not one of frustration but of overdue joy, and Sloan, among others, took up some of this slack from thereonin.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

GEORGE JONES: These Days (I Barely Get By)

If Deep Soul is a state of mind then it can be found anywhere and in anyone, even though some are better at articulating it than others. Like sportsmen, the best - or at least, the most "soulful" - of singers frequently turn out to be those who don't appear to be trying or sweating as hard as others; it's the old faithful of matches or races being won by those who try less, or seem to need the victory less.

Listening to George Jones it's hard to pinpoint exactly where his magic occurs, although it is obviously present. He never seems to do much except sing in what is more or less his normal, used-for-speaking voice. There are no vibratos, no acrobatic grandstanding, and yet, through its slow, painful patience, his voice punctumises you dead centre.

"These Days" is a tacit case in point. Recorded towards the end of 1974, two weeks before Christmas Day and two days before he walked out on Tammy "for good," it presents us with a picture of Jones seemingly willing his own premature and ruinous end. It is, essentially, the same old same old, except that his woes methodically stack up like an especially shaky house of bamboo cards. And he of course has his unobtrusive techniques for communicating this to us; the extended "aching" in the first line illustrates both his early frustration and the hint of Lear-esque descent to come. The last thing he feels like doing is working, but he'll give it a try, even if he has to thumb all the way - his car's in the shop, but by the glassy stress he puts on the word "shop" the implication is that it's there to stay because he can't afford to pay the labour costs. No clearcut city like London or Toronto, this, with its convenient buses and tubes.

The music is standard Sherrill-issue C&W waltz grief; a choir of angels even materialises at the start of the second verse in expectation as Jones experiences further microhumiliations - he has to walk all the way home from work and it rains all the way. So sodden with self-pity is he that he doesn't even realise that he's answered his own question: "My wife left and didn't say why," he says, before immediately noting "She laid all our bills on the desk in the hall."

The sorrow grows more constant and gruelling. He puts his last two dollars on his favourite horse; it loses by a nose and he cries, but puts all the crying weight through the word "nose." Then his boss comes and talks to him; we fear a fiery firing, but he's as mournful as George and suggests that "come winter we'll all be laid off."

It is at this point that he collapses, weeping on high on the extended "wanna" of "I wanna give up, lay down and die." He makes it clear that his wife's departure is the main source of his pain, but at the end turns to the fourth wall and proclaims in a curious Sandringham Palace-via-Nashville tone that "oh, these days, one barely gets by," fully aware that he has worked hard at building one's own crucifix.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

ORNETTE COLEMAN: Beauty Is A Rare Thing

I’ve been bombarded with emails (OK, I had one email) asking me why I haven’t “done” Pacific Ocean Blue yet and the simple answer is that I’m not sure I’m qualified to write about it; as magnificent as it is (and the extra tracks, including all the surviving material, complete and incomplete, from the Bambu sessions, make it even more magnificent than the humble, Walkman-friendly cassette reissue I bought out of Virgin in 1992 and luckily kept – younger readers may wish to consult their grandparents for full explanation of what a “Walkman” was), I feel that proper understanding of its spaces, its long, measured (or immeasurable) silences, its sudden Neptunian eruptions, can only really be gained by full immersion in its Californianess; i.e. you have to have lived in California to appreciate its sense of isolation, benign or otherwise, breathed the same atoms (or versions of them), appreciate the vastness. I think this may be one for my (Californian) wife to tackle.

Likewise, although the four members of Ornette’s 1961 quartet all arrived from different places, they were all more or less raised in Los Angeles , and “Beauty Is A Rare Thing” is a glassy pearl of sparkling hugeness which I think could only have been conceived in L.A. With Coleman’s music, but especially with his ballads, you have to think of his songs – and true songs they all are – as gently unwinding stories rather than squared-off declarations of schematic intent. Perhaps this more than anything was what warned off all the jazz boys back in that particular day; barlines occurring as naturally and unforcedly as commas or semi-colons might appear in a long, meditative piece of literature. So the top line melody of “Beauty” is a declaration – although there are no words as such, Coleman’s pauses while playing the tune suggest that, like Lester Young, he’s working very hard to remember the lyrics – which takes as long to state as nature and life require. Behind – no, around – him, Haden and Blackwell stay on bowed bass and (mostly) tuned tom toms throughout the performance, their waves quietly but intently lapping at the feet of Coleman’s soul.

There is a climactic squeak from the alto, but as this returns at reasonably regular intervals throughout Coleman’s subsequent solo we can delineate this as an aural comma or barline, punctuation to help determine the part of the exposition that we have reached. Cherry nudges in like rusty marmalade; picking up immediately on Blackwell’s New Orleans subdivisions he seems on the verge of turning the performance into calypso (and as Kevin LeGendre’s sleevenote to the CD reissue of This Is Our Music attests, I’m not the only one who spots prototype rude boy in those shades Cherry’s wearing on the cover) but catches himself and drifts between warm extended tones and quick but not frantic flurries of notes. Periodically he and Coleman lock blessings of horns and squeal, fulfilled, towards the sun.

Then Coleman re-enters, methodically unpicking and expanding the central song; Haden’s continuo suddenly responds with an impromptu, upwardly scuttling figure and he becomes more active, Blackwell always alternating between solemn tom tom circularities and gauze mists of cymbals. The music absorbs, contracts and expands with a solitary sense of community, priceless, exotic, tender, stroking, endless, green, turquoise and then aquatic blue and they combine for a sated sigh of an ending and it is, as simply as anyone could phrase or frame it, love.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


Happy Hardcore, the people's music that never really went away, much as other people would have liked it to; first Scooter get a number one album, then Darren Styles' double CD package Skydiving goes straight into the top five and stays there. Formerly half of the duo Breeze and Styles - much played on Peel's show, lest any of us forget, and a few of their greatest hits are dusted down here, most noticeably the magical "You're Shining" lent immense extra poignancy by Lisa Abbott's cracked, straining voice - he has proved very astute; as with Jumping All Over The World, Skydiving is a double, one CD "hardcore" and the second "commercial," and 2008 pop is unlikely to get perkier.

As I say, the music has both survived and thrived despite blanket ignorance on the part of radio and TV, the true soundtrack of the British working class, the thrust you hear leaking out of every headphone on a council estate bus, music by and for The People; it would seem that, just as the Beatles are unlikely to vanish as a talisman for some demographics, equal numbers (and in 2008 Britain it's very likely to be equal) have never forgotten rave and what it once promised and what it can yet promise, to the splendidly great inconvenience of those who would presume to run our affairs.

The remarkable thing about Skydiving is that its Stylistic division appears both schizophrenic and entirely symbiotic; several tunes appear in different versions or mixes on both CDs and each version complements the other as naturally as the two versions of "Hey Hey, My My" which bracket Rust Never Sleeps. Listen to the "commercial" "Save Me" for instance and you might wish to shake yourself from the dream of a lost Howard Jones album, only much, much better; Styles seeks not to proclaim his changing of your world but sings in a pinched, enthusiastic, vibrato-free high voice, direct and truthful. Much of the "commercial" CD pitches itself in a late eighties recreation scenario far more securely than hamfisted revivalists like Neon Neon; again, the lightness is crucial to help see the light.

The divergence and convergence are best demonstrated by the two versions of the title track. The "commercial" "Skydiving" is fairly straightforward post-eighties pop of the quality to which the likes of McFly aspire, bouncing, bounteous and always with the hint of the rave lurking behind its aquamarine corridors of life, as well as the lyrics; most of Styles' lyrics repeatedly hark back (and forward) to the credos of rave, lots of skies and heavens ("I feel like I'm drifting through the sky/Through the heavens I can hear your voice"). But, and again crucially, Styles' outlook is always optimistic and filled with renewed awe; "Skydiving" is far from the only track where he emphasises the liberation of "feeling alive"; "Take me to a place where I can dream/So we can climb up above the clouds and feel/So free" - we are on very familiar territory here.

But also: "And as we fall I'll take your hand." On the "hardcore" versions the anticipatory beats are radiantly itching to go and the song kicks into fulsome, hands up, klaxons at the ready, stadium Happy Hardcore wherein Styles sounds even freer - the great axial lurch of his warped synth bass as he steps up the power is akin to the thumb of God pressing the remote control of eternity - and it's simple to understand why this represents freedom, rather than escapism, in the turgid, pitiless Britain of these times; here's a way out, here's a laugh and a smiley face in defiance of grey compromise, here's some of the finest pop music of current times. Like New Pop, no one can truly kill this floating but rock solid spirit.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

SUPERSISTER: Dona Nobis Pacem

Strange, or not, how I've recently been veering back to the curvatures of Canterbury Rock, the coils of organ awaiting encasement in fuzz bass with flyswatter drumming and the occasional winsome vocal. It all seems agreeably perpendicular and light with the continued (if seldom fulfilled; tension band wiring was the glue that held Canterbury Rock together) promise of explosions. Supersister were Canterbury Rock as viewed through a North Sea telescope; they were from the Hague, teenagers or thereabouts (but mostly, or totally, child prodigies, particularly keyboard man Robert-Jan Stips), and their non-Kentness created an airvent of new inspiration down which new breaths of retrospective influence could flow, not that they've been revived as such until very recently.

Present From Nancy, their debut album, is from 1970, and a remarkable 47 minutes' worth of homework; it essentially takes its lead from Wyatt-led song form Soft Machine, yet although there are "songs," they are liable to swerve into fuzzier, extended waters, hence "Memories Are New," a generation ahead of Stereolab, begins by swooning over spent tropes ("Forever try to live in the past" as bassist/singer Rob Van Eck sighs) before driving into 11/8 cataclysms, Stips thrashing his organ as much like a guitar as he can get away with, always stepping halfway over the tonality brink, or fussing at one wah-wah note until it curls up into a soup, balanced out by the contemplative flute of the late Sacha Van Geest, until finally organ and flute unite for a slow ice lake dance of Lytton Strachey damaged elegance. They tried singles as well; the first, "She Was Naked," essentially is the album in precis (with the calamitously brilliant line "Reveal philosophies like instant pudding"), cantering from moody musing to near-freeform detonations (and it still nearly made the Dutch top ten).

But "Dona Nobis Pacem" is perhaps the record's simplest track as well as its deepest. A semi-solemn Gregorian procedural (also bearing hints of Beaver and Krause's Gandharva in places), it steps along in ominously beautiful manner, a pacing four-note bass line providing the margin for flute and keyboards to breathe in, and out, and slower, and more regularly; a huge hug of grace to conclude the album's scattering adventures, and then, after seven or eight minutes, the tempo gradually quickens and the pitch systematically heightens as though the musicians are negotiating their way across the narrowest of drawbridges to reach a pinched, nearly airless apex. As the journey converges Stips abruptly (but logically) converts into a bouncy Blackpool Tower Ballroom/Organist Entertains melody (fooled you! Or have we?) but then persists with his extended, terminal, deep, key-ambiguous sustenato; after one final, minute scatter for seeds, a giant, stereophonic gong crash wakes us all up. Custard pie as salvation?

Monday, 7 July 2008

THE FOUR SEASONS: Look Up, Look Down

Like SMiLE, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was the sound of a band bursting its skin; the difference being that where Brian and Van Dyke sought to burst the Beach Boys from the outside, the Four Seasons were keen to break out of what they perceived to be a teenbeat straitjacket. One difference, anyway; another important one being that, with sometime folkie Jake Holmes as the Parks to Bob Gaudio's Wilson, there was no dildo-requesting Mike Love to query procedure - all of the Four Seasons, and especially Frankie Valli, were up for the adventure.

Does it stand up? Even with the Jersey Boys-sparked interest revival I'm not sure there's yet much room for GILG to stand; currently only available as half of a rather expensive twofer (the other half being their 1966 Working My Way Back To You set), it needs proper resuscitation (as does its undervalued 1975 bookend Who Loves You? which despite three top ten singles, one of which was their only UK number one, remains out of print) and I think I may have heard "Soul Of A Woman" creeping out of an obscure nocturnal radio dial at the turn of the nineties; certainly something about this album haunted me then and continues to do so, even now that I've finally found a stand-alone CD copy (complete with minute, Jodrell Bank Grade A telescope-required-to-read reproduction of the original foldout newspaper sleeve format).

It was out of place when it came out and it still hasn't found a new place; it was released on the last day of 1968 and did as well as could be expected (i.e. completely flopped) for even then the attempted avant-garding of MoR was fighting a losing battle - Scott slowly withdrawing into himself, Jimmy Webb gamely carrying on with Richard Harris but doing rather better with Glen Campbell, the Ryan twins huge in Europe but hardly likely to fill Serious Stadia since this was of course the fork in the road; either go down the Zep road of LOUD AND HEAVY or the bedsit acoustic singer/songwriter path - even though it stands up as well as, say, the Fifth Dimension's contemporaneous The Magic Garden (another extended Webb concept) or anything by the Association (but even they were beginning to slip off the charts by the end of '68). Furthermore, it eventually turned out to be just half the story, since the chronicles of Watertown, complete with cross-lyrical references, were continued on Sinatra's Watertown album, also written and produced by Gaudio and Holmes.

The Sinatra reference sums it up; Watertown, a place which the aesthetic boom, if not surface prosperity, has passed by. Here are all the lumbered souls who would have understood "Let The Heartaches Begin" in an instant, never fashionable, striving, or is that struggling, to keep afloat, keep whatever they can of themselves before it all collapses; meanwhile, on their tinted semicircular mirror floating out upon the world, they see change and blood and it confuses them; the album's bookend setpieces, "American Crucifixion Resurrection" and "Soul Of A Woman," look alternately outward and inward, the former commencing with sombrely brash orchestrations and the chant of "the King is dead, long live the (Martin Luther) King," the latter moving from courtly baroque to "Beggin'" teen swerve via Song Cycle hanging question marks ("and so you give yourself to him...forever...") before, as a precedent to the Beach Boys' "When Girls Get Together," ushering in the symbolic mortality, the life now merging with Charles Callelo's high, quiet Unanswered Question begins with Barack and ends with Hillary?

Sometimes it strives a little too mechanically - the title track with its "Hey Jude" extended outro and anticipated battery of backwards drums, guitars etc., for instance - but it works most warmly when it aims at the microscope of everyday minutiae; the ice cream melt of tears that is "Saturday's Father" and especially "Look Up, Look Down," simultaneously the album's most conventional and radical track - sprites of memory hovering greyly around the dying home as Valli's lead, as tender and dread-filled as it has ever been, sings with calm franticity about the living death that the song's central relationship has become; she smiles at his kiss, but in truth she's gone - he's betrayed her, and he knows it, and the pull of the sliver of grievous guilt will summon the cobwebs before any rainbows have a chance to grow. Which is how a lot of people felt about things generally as 1968 solidified into 1969. At least, that's what I'm told.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

THE WEB: Like The Man Said

It's ripe for revival, you know - big brassy soulful bands, without having to go down the BS&T route. Personally I can't get enough of them and wish there were more of them now. The Web? Six jazzers from Bournemouth who certainly weren't slumming but somehow managed temporary stardom on the Continent - the Hollies and the Nice supported them - and had a sizeable following over here. Listening to the extraordinary strains of their second album, 1970's Theraphosa Blondi (it's the species of spider you see on the cover), is enough to make one wonder whether we really lost something substantial when we jettisoned the chops in '76; a group both fluent enough and imaginative enough to venture into early World Music waters ("Kilimanjaro" is what ELP might have sounded like had they paid more attention to Les Baxter) as well as the more familiar soul-jazz waters and even the occasional flicker at pop stardom - see the string-laden ballad "'Til I Come Home Again Once More," written by the young Gilbert O'Sullivan.

Bands with vibes, sax and double drums - you really are not going to get fluid (in ANY sense) with Elbow or the Zutons - we need more of them, and the Web demonstrated just how much need they could inspire. Their "Sunshine Of Your Love" is dazzled into difference by Tom Harris' rollercoaster Rollins sax work (and he's not bad on flute, either, if not quite Harold McNair in overblowing terms). The absence of a keyboardist, and the general back seat reticence of the guitars, means that there's much more space in which the musicians may breathe.

There is the feeling of Lighthouse (though this horn section is simply a multitracked Harris) about their faster work, and "Like The Man Said" shows them at their best, as well as showcasing the remarkable voice of black American lead singer John L Watson, then recently demobbed from the US Air Force. "Like The Man Said"'s intro comes on like a 1964 Gerry Anderson theme tune, squared guitars and determined drums, but Watson's bizarre and unstable cabaret croon is seriously disarming and disorientating. pulling out of the hat tricks and stances which the likes of Combustible Edison would discover a quarter of a century later, the drums slowing down emphatically to echo Watson's carefully delirious joy to "be...back...home again" before a ballad tempo ensues with muted flutes and bass clarinet, Watson sounding like a baffled Engelbert newly kidnapped by Joe Meek as he ponders his uncertain future, released from the pressure of a girl every night, number one hits and so forth (after this album he went solo and the trail goes cold), before the heat incenses again and the stage is cleared for Harris' tenor to soliloquise and interact with Dick Lee-Smith's bass and Ken Beveridge's kit drums, first in a buoyant if slightly stiff swing, then into tentative bebop, followed by moves into "Fables Of Faubus" territory, but just before Harris breaks free of structure the band reach a suitable climax and reassemble for the final verse and chorus, as well as a dizzying seesaw ride of a question mark finale which then canters straight into "Sunshine Of Your Love." More of this sort of thing in 2008 would be exceptionally welcome.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


The knowledge of connection, yet the feeling that you've been cocooned in a separate but not displeasing world; "Disconnected" is ideal Sunday morning Walkman (or, if you must - I don't have to - iPod) listening for wandering around Chelsea Harbour. Four slabs of Faust sound undergoing manipulation under Stapleton anaesthetic, and where, say, "Lass Mich" is a thirteen-minute spring of custard pie devant-rock (a Hendrix to the Monkees of the Stereolab/NWW collaboration "Simple Headphone Mind" - is it really a dozen years old? Or more? - as Stapleton dreams his own ideal radio station amidst the jangle and the throb), the title track hovers, not necessarily threateningly but unsettlingly enough to keep you on your guard through unfamiliar terrain; the broadswards of planted grass which stretch out towards the river, the ghosts of Apprentice never-will-bes proceeding through the various gated towers of residence, Battersea's new eulogy of St Mary beaming or scowling directly at me from across the water.

The melting of assertive neo-modernity against terraced streets from 1971 Blackpool; peaceful, red, talkative, communal. The lovely clash with elements which will never quite, or quietly, fit; the exceptionally reluctant mechanical arm which has to raise, grudgingly, in order for the bus to pass through the outskirts of Chelsea Harbour, a prematurely resigned village; secretaries with enterprising boyfriends lug shopping bags through the less than gloomy dawn. Steep-ish streets which lead to Lots Road or to...Lots Road (it divides in two halfway uphill, one half veering off to the right to crawl behind the World's End Estate like a snail's telescope, the other half, over a pacific canal, towards the familiar King's Road though in truth you could wander in this beige and green jungle for months; the Lots Road Power Station, Battersea's younger and smarter cousin, blinks warily as you turn the corner, brick red against ski-slip blue - a little further uproad, demolition/reconstruction work, as yet unspecified, and you can't be sure what's being knocked down and what's being built up...

There's no hum in the air (plenty of blue, though) but "Disconnected" supplies it with nosy ease; it starts off sounding like the end of "A Day In The Life" slowly regurgitating and regrouping its particles into a solid, if subdued, whole - some muttered utterances from Jean-Herve Peron about disconnection, mostly in German - and then Fennesz drone meets disqualified gable ends, disturbed ex-docklands, vaguely queasy but not quite acidic - synths give way to eternal fleet flows of hymnal organ, a drum track far off in the distance which may be a ticking ghost; and so it continues to ebb and crescent, though is in no hurry to reach a climax - a heartbreakingly semi-dissonant five-chord guitar motif (four connected, then a pause and a final full stop) floats in and out of its steely skies like an elusive kiss, now the sound fulsome and alive (where's that muted bugle coming from and does it even exist?), now transient and maybe also transparent beyond the realms of tactility; a depeopled wharf teeming with hidden life. Peron returns at the end for an observational bookend, and then and only then do the clanking shards of former industry take Christmas tree precedence, a heartbeat restored, a life renewed, and as I fade into roads King's and Fulham - and towards the long-undervisited Earl's Court, a place to which I'm habitually drawn when life looks set to start again - I once more realise that this city I've known and breathed for fully 23 years has tricked me, as always; and that I still don't really know it, but only for the purpose of the fun and joy we will have in learning, as we have to keep on doing.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


The talk has all been about the disorientated ecstasy, the giddily weightless unreality which trickles through one's body and mind like microcurrents of non-static euphoria when one is in love and is loved back - the dizzy flotations of MBV, the symbiosis between fulfilled voice and relentless, unchanging machine cogs which powers "I Feel Love." And maybe this sneaks in too, even though I can already visualise Mark curling his Sykes nose in professed affront at the mere thought of his singing "love songs."

But this "I Want You" is about the urge, the rush and the secondary and tertiary urges which dazzle one into pursuance and acceptance. I never really shared a pop bunk with the Inspiral Carpets; I liked the slogans and the cows and the coolers and the washing powder briskness of their liveliness but their music rarely seemed to get elevated beyond the level of merely acceptable. Granted, "This Is How It Feels" was an important reminder that the "Mad" in Madchester could stand for worse things as well as better, but elsewhere it was largely efficient early 1966 beat group stuff, too easily what people thought the Teardrop Explodes sounded like (especially with Tom Hingley's more stentorian Julian Cope of a vocal style).

Yet "I Want You" is a pursuit of lasting ecstasy (that is, without a capital "E"), ribbing and speeding like no Inspirals song did before or afterwards; the broken barriers, the white knuckle ride, a chase perhaps a little too hard set to be comfortable ("The chance of defeat is not in my nature"), but the band is all fused into one rush tour steam train of activity; guitars and organs indistinguishable, drums skidding like toothbrushes on ice.

Over this we get the megaphoned punctum of Mark E Smith, finally getting a Top 20 hit and a TOTP appearance, crinkling his throat up, almost playing the part of an older and wiser Madchester veteran commenting like a grumpy dad or a renewed youth on what he's hearing and seeing, diving in or out of the song like a jagged angelfish, frequently crashing into Hingley's vocal and especially into the choruses, drawling icicle whimsy about rumours of illness circulating, "singing" or at least chanting along with the verses without recourse to adherence of bar lines, mumbling about "a course" and "of course," proclaiming his disgust at the supposedly sincere usury of the Dutch East India Company, reminding us whose side "we" should be on, at one point giggling, at the key point (viz. the end) barking "Shut up!" and it's more than enough to turn white knuckles into blackcurrants; a phenomenal classic of bipolar pop, the graceful collapse into the back garden of chaos, the Carpets' greatest moment, shouting and speeding into the best possible 1994.