The Pitchfork 500 Goes RAWK! – Blue Oyster Cult to ELO

Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
AC/DC – Highway to Hell
Van Halen – Runnin’ with the Devil
Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
Electric Light Orchestra – Mr. Blue Sky

This section of the Pitchfork 500 is a blessed relief. I’ve rather had my fill of hedonistic Disco and miserable post-punk, clanging punk-funk and Italian prog-rock film soundtracks. This is pure drive-time music, for winding down the window of your ’66 Chevy and driving fast along a highway in, er, Milton Keynes.¹

So first off, Blue Öyster Cult. You have to respect a band who saddled themselves with such a bonkers name, to then add an umlaut, sparking off a great little chain of heavy metal umlauts from Motörhead through Mötley Crüe to Hüsker Dü. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was one of those songs that, when it came on the tedious late-night radio we were forced to listen to whilst doing nightshifts in a warehouse some years ago, was universally loved by everyone – from the housewives, the old guys to the young students. It’s just one of those songs. The warm, comforting blanket of sound is pierced by the insistent riff, restless drumming and the suicide pact lyrics, simultaneously romantic and deadly. The repeated rising motif keeps nagging at you until it’s finally resolved with the downward “Da da da”‘s.  The bonkers instrumental bit in the middle.

Until I listened to it for this I’d forgotten how great it is. I’ve listened to it three times already today. This is the sort of song that gives MOR a good name. Mind you, I never knew this was released in 1978; it has such a feel of early ’70’s paranoia that I thought it was from then.

As for AC/DC, there really is none more rock. Not even Van Halen, with Eddie Van Halen’s astonishing guitar playing can beat them in the RAWK stakes. AC/DC and Van Halen, though both heavy rockers, are really the opposite ends of the spectrum. AC/DC were dumb, basic fists-in-the-air RAWK! and frankly none the worse for it. Still are, I suppose. There’s little on “Highway To Hell” that can’t be played by your averagely talented pub-rock band, but that’s what makes them such an enduring band; Angus Young’s guitar playing is simplicity itself (at least on this song), and the band as a whole know exactly what needs to be done. There’s not an ounce of flab; the entire band concentrates on just rocking, rather than flashing technique. With a bloke screaming over the top.

Van Halen, however, were revolutionary. Or rather Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was. For those of you not versed in the intricacies of playing guitar, he popularised a technique called tapping (or fret-tapping). This involves tapping the string instead of strumming or picking it, and allows for very fast rhythmic note-changes. Whilst other guitarists had occasionally used the technique, EVH made it his own, and whilst the track on offer here doesn’t show masses of it, it’s still clear that the playing is extraordinary. There’s a bit about 2/3 way through where there’s a sudden arpeggio fill that just comes from nowhere.

Are You Sure You've Got Enough Guitars?

Just a shame that it’s otherwise dumbass metal though with Dave Lee Roth screeching like someone’s caught his bollocks in a drawer.

I approached the next two tracks by Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan hoping that I’d be amazed by the hidden intricacies of the music, the depths of the emotions involved, the craft and the songwriting skills used, but no. Middle of the road bollocks, I’m afraid. I’d rather listen to The Clash than these two songs again, frankly. It’s stuff like this that gives MOR a bad name. And the lesson of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is, if you’re going to be millionaire pop-rock stars, don’t go round shagging each other, it’ll only end in tears. And tedious albums about shagging each other. That make you even more money. So you can get depressed about shagging each other and having loads of money. It’s a tough life.

And yes, the awful 90’s band Deacon Blue did indeed name themselves after Steely Dan’s track, “Deacon Blues”. There should be a special circle of hell for people who name themselves after tedious soft-rock songs.

And finally, ELO. Now, ELO have had a bad name for many years. And frankly, given Jeff Lynne’s pomposity it’s not surprising. But then you listen to “Mr Blue Sky” and you marvel at what a great tune it is, and how much detail there is in the song.  Jeff Lynne had tried to mix The Beatles and Beethoven into one huge, mad, vocoder-and-string band, and sometimes it was a bit of a godawful mess. But sometimes it just clicked, and this is one of those times. Just listen to how beautifully it’s all done – whilst the Pitchfork writers say it’s dated, I don’t see that at all. This song is more than 30 years old now, and yet it fairly stomps along and sounds more modern than a whole load of people I could mention (er, The Killers?). You can see exactly why Super Furry Animals love them so much, there’s a psychedelic oddness mixed in with the pop nous, and the stomping Krautrock beat is just fantastic. Listen to how, as the first verse starts to build, they add strings, bells, multi-tracked vocals, and panting as Jeff sings “Running down the avenue”. The bizarre classical coda. And that guitar solo, simple, nicely complementing the song, rather than taking over and spoiling the tone.

As a brief aside, the song was used to great effect during the Dr Who episode “Love And Monsters”, to show the main character dancing around his bedroom because he’s happy, and he’s met a lovely girl, and life suddenly has meaning. Sure, it’s schmalz, but Russell T Davies knew he’d hit upon just the right note using this song. As did Michael Gondry, using it in “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”.

So, cast off your prejudices, and rejoice in a great song. Madly catchy, experimental, and a thumpingly good tune. Well done, Mr Lynne and co.

A right mixed back coming next…

¹Funnily enough, I’ve just finished “Rip It Up and Start Again” by Simon Reynolds, and he confessed to feeling the same at the end of the post-punk era back in 1984.  Nice to know it’s not just me, then.²

²Yes, I’ve worked out how to do Superscript.  Hurrah!

Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult

The whole list is available here.

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