Thursday, 17 September 2009

SHIT ROBOT: Simple Things (Work It Out)

It’s the same old story; he woke up this morning and his baby was gone. The opening descending cascade of whole tone cloudy synths depicts him struggling out of his dream. But this is a loneliness far more acute; unlike the Jagger of “Miss You,” this guy can’t even make it out of his house to strut down the street in assumed grief. A Mr Fingers weightless bass; memories of a lifetime passed, mendaciously ticking away his remaining minutes.

This guy is Ian Svenonious, once the mainstay of Nation of Ulysses, then of The Make-Up, and his is one of the most exceptional vocal performances of this decade. This isn’t simply a weary, bluesy loneliness, but something far more acute, and a feeling sinisterly recognisable. He can barely function. The 1987/9 beats (“Aspirin Trax”?) continue to count him down but he is stumbling. The vocal owes a good deal to Alan Vega and rather more to the Presley of “Heartbreak Hotel,” that original widowed sprite that just won’t go away from pop, has been sentenced to live forever. At regular periods he issues a ghastly, multiphonic shriek, which sounds like breath being reversed back into his lungs at double speed, but more often than not he quivers, shivers in Marcus Lambkin’s echoes. There may be simple things, but without “you” he can’t do them. The occasional quadruple smash of Roland snare drum and cymbal fails to propel him out into the air.

He thinks awhile about where technology has brought us, about machines which can sing, and all he has to do is open his eyes – but even that is fraught with impossibility. His teeth chatters, his nose groans in a way seldom seen since the Lennon of “Cold Turkey.” The requisite House piano enters, less regally than the Lincoln Mayorga of “Big Man” or Andy Williams’ version of “God Only Knows,” and the track is cooking as well as ticking but his internal absence of fire is unquenchable.

Eventually, the bassline reveals itself as “The Sun Rising” – or should that be “Can You Feel It?” (the Larry Heard one, not the Jacksons – but then again, MJ could and should have sung this) – and the singer’s distress multiples upon itself; he is reduced to Gene Vincent hiccups, Phil Minton avant-scatting, anything to emphasise his WISH for someone just to “come to my house” and “help me out.” But the only answer he gets is from Lambkin’s impersonal spellcheck robot intoning “Work it out! Work, work it out!” like a cross fitness instructor. His blood and spleen decorate the track like buckshot ballast, still freezing in that padded corner, wondering if his hand can ever reach the door. I’ve been there, he is clearly still there, the son of House in a mess of wired-up blues. The best DFA record since “Yeah.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Listen to words like “She looks so cold and splendid” and look at that cover and then talk about attendant irony. I knew the second half of 1982 wasn’t quite going as it should have done when Leisure Process failed to conquer the charts (at least the national ones; all four of their singles did pretty good business back home in Scotland). If “Love Cascade” from the beginning of that year suggested a Human League with Howard Devoto as lead singer, then their second single took the funk from the Ultratheque and transformed it into rolling, petulant waves of water.

Much of the success of “A Way You’ll Never Me” can be ascribed to the friendly tug of war which persists throughout the record – and the 12” version is absolutely vital to find – between singer Ross Middleton’s imperiously detached lectern and the juice into which the rest of the musicians are squashing his pronouncements. Middleton sounds aggrieved, more than mildly excited, during the verses (“B-b-baby’s got a brrrrrrrand new toy/She’s-a-cracracracracrackin’ up theeggshell boys”), before switching to solemn, Sunlight washing up liquid hymnals for the slowly mounting chorus. “Just contemplate her beauty/She sees through you and me.” He could be singing about a Green Gartside comma-inverted Ideal Girl, or about Thatcher, or about New York, but it is the disparity between his soaring ambition and the rambling ramraid of the music behind and beside him that makes this song work so well.

Middleton raps midway through and sounds like a 14-year-old (as he should, and as the song demands). “Someone young just gave to me/The gift of synchronicity” he announces, a year ahead of Sting, before Gary Barnacle – the other half of LP – breaks in with a moderately inflamed Davey Payne-esque R&B/skronk alto solo. After a final, frantic octave leap on “SPLENDID!” Middleton settles into a long, grumbling fade – why CAN’T you be like her/it/them? Producer Martin Rushent does his characteristic stereoscopic 1964 Linn drumkit thing and keeps the song’s spaces as wide open as the Hudson.

But the medals here go to the guest rhythm section, Mark King and Phil Gould, on loan from Level 42, then not quite having broken through to the mainstream and still being described by Morley as “pop ECM” (hear 1981’s “Turn It On” and argue otherwise), but with experience under their belts with “M” man Robin Scott, so they were quite accustomed and attuned to New Pop tactics. Gould’s drums throb throughout like a patient migraine while King gives one of his finest recorded performances, his bass banding rubbers around the track like an exploding Durex machine, the song’s tricky 11/8 rhythm admirably steered. Just four nigh-perfect singles – “Cashflow” and “Anxiety” followed in 1983 – and that was it; no album, no CD compilation (as yet – hint hint), and the enterprise petered out. Barnacle has continued to blow sax for just about everyone in British pop over the subsequent quarter century, and I’m not too sure what happened to Ross Middleton – there was a bit of “where has he gone?” hopeful enigma in the music press at the time but my guess is he went off and got a Proper Job – but this vivid quatrain is as valid and great a New Pop quartet as the Dollar/Horn tetraology.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Vera LYNN: Whose Garden Was This?

She is now number one, of course, and has beaten the entire Beatles back catalogue in doing so. I note that on Then Play Long I am currently heading towards an ending which will take me back to a time before the story even started; but this is not the time to speak of Moebius strips. Nor of “My Son, My Son,” her only UK number one single, which does not appear on her current UK number one album.

But it may be a time to speak of “Whose Garden Is This?,” a 1972 B-side (to a surprisingly buoyant reading of Brel’s “If We Only Have Love”) which is also absent from the present compilation, and perhaps not without reason; we think of the nightingale singing the world back from the brink of extinction, but not of the nightingale crying for a world where nightingales, and everything else, have ceased to exist.

The song was written by Tom Paxton and is set in an undetermined post-apocalyptic world. The singer is the innocent but puzzled child addressing a survivor of the preceding horror, wanting to know what sort of world used to exist. Here, all that remains is the look of what used to be – “I’ve seen pictures of flowers/And I’d love to have smelled one,” “I’ve seen blue in some pictures,” “I’ve heard records of breezes.” But the secondary senses cannot compensate for the direct loss, and the singer has difficulty in comprehending all of this. “Can you swear that was true?” the singer asks, and in Dame Vera’s case almost demands. A subtle horror gently creeps upon her and shadows her brow.

Paxton undoubtedly wrote the song with environmental concerns in mind, but the Voice of the War renders it far more sinister. Alyn Ainsworth’s refractory strings and woodwind float like summery debris behind her, and her voice becomes steadily more distressed, its natural authority being slowly undermined. No more bluebirds or cliffs; she arrives at a ghastly dead end. “Whose forest is this?” she cries at the end, before uttering a terrible, stentorian, echoing roar: “Then why is it SILENT????!!!!!” – and the song vanishes into its own halls of mirrored dread. If you wonder whether the voice of “We’ll Meet Again” could ever terrify you, then look no further.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


They only came out yesterday but already the indications are that the mass Beatles re-indoctrination programme isn’t quite taking the grip on the public’s imagination that various vested interests would have liked. In the midweek album chart Abbey Road and Pepper are in the lower half of the top ten; Revolver, Rubber Soul and the catch-all box set are scattered between #11-15, the White Album is in the top 30 and the practical (and practically unheralded) 2CD remaster of the Past Masters compilation of non-album tracks has sneaked into the lower end of the Top 40. Hardly the monopoly that some were predicting, and there is a rich irony in the fact that all of the Beatles material is being comfortably outsold by Dame Vera Lynn (and only Jamie T currently stands between her and total chart conquest). Is this the final rebuke to fifty years of otherness or merely this decade’s Josef Locke?

I can’t say my heart was racing at the thought of yet another anniversarial/keep the cash registers tinkling repackaging of the Fab catalogue, and on fairly cursory inspection of the new issues cardiac arrhythmia was not achieved. Whether the aesthetic totality is actually heightened by the fact that you can now hear the sixteenth tambourine on “Hey Jude” I will leave for others to debate. The packaging is pretty reasonable and attractive in a standard Rhino reissue programme fashion, but it doesn’t exactly scream out “BUY ME!”

Worst of all is the complete non-taking of the opportunity to make these albums more complete by adding on any bonus tracks. So you still have to fork out eleven quid for half an hour of music (with the early albums) without anything extra other than a poky-looking DVD “mini-documentary” on the making of each of them. There doesn’t seem to have been much effort made to make these issues different. The Pepper cutouts appear on a page in the booklet but can’t actually be cut out. The photos are good but not mindblowing. Personally, with Pepper for instance I would have done a 2CD package with the original album on one disc and all the other 1967 sides (including the Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine tracks) on the other. Plus “Carnival Of Light.” I would have missed lunch for a week to get that! Who wouldn’t?

Nor do I approve of the belated kowtowing of the NME, a generation after they termed Pepper an “Exocet to the very heart of pop.” The current edition is fairly nauseating, full of “if you can’t be as good as Lennon and McCartney, FUCK OFF”-type corporate cheerleading. In other words, the usual admonitory cane which reappears to swish every successive and successful generation – no matter how good you think you are, you’ll NEVER be as good as this. That’s some encouragement to give today’s pop kids. Beat them over the head with a sharp, Fifty-Year-Old Fifty Quid Man stick.

The biggest irony of all this is that I myself have been “rediscovering” the Beatles through Then Play Long; without being told by any snake oil salesman to do so, I have found my own way back into them, and moreover done it the old way, through (largely) my ancient, battered vinyl originals. Sure, they may sound “cleaner” and “fuller” now, but their maximal impact came when they were blasted out on tinny Dansettes or prehistoric Bush radiograms; that’s how they were designed, and that’s still how they work best. Listen to That Opening Chord on the original A Hard Day’s Night album and I can still be blasted back into tomorrow; listening to it on the remaster suggests….the Twang! Or Kasabian! Surely that wasn’t what was intended.

My re-exploration of the Beatles’ work – at a time when lazy journalists still claim there’s Nothing New To Say About Pepper Etc. – has been a revelation and a self re-education; it’s clear how great they were and it’s fascinating to see how they fit in with their times, or made their times fit in with them, but it’s equally clear to me that they should stop being put in the path of today like a stern Customs officer. My stance was the hardest one; try listening to these albums as though I were listening to them for the first time. Maybe that will be the true legacy of the current reissue programme; that kids wondering what all the fuss was about will find out (and I do envy their genuine first time listens). But the evidence at the moment seems to be: people want to find their own paths to music, and the Beatles are good but they’ll find out for themselves, in their own good time.

(Envoi: Lena watched Help! on TV with me for the first time on Saturday and was astounded that it’s had so much bad press. It still looks as though it were made in 1995, not 1965!)