The last set of songs on the Pitchfork 500 list for 1980-1982 takes us back to the States, with music that was in many ways similar to that discussed in my last couple of posts. Shambolic, rumbunctuous, with a definite amateur feel to them, and three of these four bands won’t be known to your average man on the street1. The other would go on to be one of the biggest bands in the world, selling some 35 million records. Not The Feelies, obviously.
The Feelies – The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness
R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
Mission of Burma – That’s When I Reach for My Revolver
The Feelies are another of those somewhat obscure US bands that obviously some Pitchfork writers are fond of, leaving the rest of us going, “Er, who?” and “What’s so special about this then?”. There’s a definite Joy Division meets Television thang going on (that drumbeat is taken straight from “Interzone”), with a bit of added jangle, not unlike Orange Juice. But unlike Orange Juice there isn’t that special buzz, or tune, or charm, that sucks you in. Can’t say this has grown on me much. If at all.
REM were once described as a art-rock band with a bar-room rhythm section. Certainly that’s partly in evidence in “Radio Free Europe” 2. There’s the combination of that lovely Byrdsian jangle mixed with some slashing chords; Michael Stipe’s opaque lyrics (“Calling on in transit, calling on in transit/Radio Free Europe” – you what, Mikey?); underneath it all is the thumping drums and a nicely flowing bassline.
REM pretty much defined “College Rock”, in the same way that The Smiths would do a year later in the UK to define “Indie Rock”. Cerebral, not scared of a good tune, with enough character and mystery in the lyrics to keep it all interesting. And in this song, REM showed exactly how to do it right.
Many people would have first heard Violent Femmes “Blister In The Sun” as the theme tune to the movie Grosse Point Blank (and Reality Bites, too). And what a great little tune it is too, perfect for a movie about a neurotic hitman. Even if it is about what might be termed “Gentleman’s Pursuits”. “Blister In The Sun” was recently used in the UK, after being changed just enough to remove the meaning of the song, to advertise Fosters beer. Really, I ask you, Fosters. In the US, it’s been used to sell hamburgers.
For all its commercial uses let’s not ignore the fact that it’s a fantastic song, with a hint of the unexpected, the whispered middle eight boiling back into the chorus, making it a great way to pass a few minutes of your time. And to live out your fantasies of being a hitman driving round in an open-top car.
And last in the list is Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”. Mission of Burma can be described as grumpy blokes yelling at no-one; they’re the archetypal unknown band who do their thing in obscurity, and are only discovered after they stop doing what they do so well. Look at the covers of this song you can find on YouTube: Graham Coxon and Moby. How much more diverse do you want to get?
To me, it sounds like REM fronted by Henry Rollins listening to early Joy Division. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. I actually rather like this song, you know, though I’m not entirely clear what exactly they are so grumpy about, as the lyrics are somewhat abstract. Not selling it very well, am I? Go on, go and buy it and make some now middle-aged chaps happy. Or very slightly less miserable, at the least.
So, there we go, a few songs of shambolic US rock and the beginnings of the rather more professional college music scene. It’s been a fun couple of years; somewhat less thrilling than the post-punk years, but with some real gems all the same. Like Orange Juice. And The Beat, Motorhead, Human League and Dead Kennedys. And The Pretenders. It’s been fun.
Next time, it’s just one song. But what a very special song it is.
See the whole list Pitchfork 500 here.
1 I refer you to my earlier John Lydon quote (right at the bottom).
2 First of two entries in the P500, though “Losing My Religion” is bafflingly absent. Cliche? Yep, but it’s their best song, along with “Man On The Moon”. You know I’m right.