News – Wye Oak, And Stuff

Well, after nearly five months of being out of work I started a new job last week. It came somewhat out of the blue, but is hugely welcome and has more than a touch of irony about it, given that I worked at the same firm until just over a year ago. Which means I’ll have much less time to write this blog, so there won’t be so many updates here as of now. I’ll be concentrating more on the Pitchfork stuff, and I’ll still do some reviews and news, but with less time to search the web for new and interesting music, I need to focus on what I can do, and what I enjoy doing.

One of the bands I only heard because I was doing this blog was Wye Oak. They’ve got a new album out in June and the first track to see the light of day is “Take It In”. Not quite as immediate as the best of their last album “If Children…”, it’s nevertheless a cracking song and I fully expect it to take on earworm status over the next week.

The other nice thing about being back in work is that I can buy CD’s more. I’ve already bought Bill Callahan’s new CD, along with Super Furry Animals, so hope to have reviews of them posted in the coming weeks. Oh, and the new Kingsbury Manx should be coming through the letterbox all the way from the States soon, which I am very much looking forward to. See, RIAA, people do still buy CD’s. Remember: treat your customers well and they will treat you well.

That’s that for today. Hopefully I’ll have the next Pitchfork 500 post done and dusted in the next couple of days. In the meantime enjoy the new Wye Oak track, below:

MP3: Take It In by Wye Oak

Buy Wye Oak’s “If Children” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 4 – New Order to The Beat

So, the last part of The Brits Are Coming starts with the 100th song on the list, and the most important band of the Brits series. Who they? New Order, of course.

New Order – Temptation
The Jam – Town Called Malice
Duran Duran – The Chauffeur
The English Beat – Save It for Later

What do you do when, on the eve of your first American tour that might well propel you to stardom1, your talismanic, troubled lead singer commits suicide? As the remaining members of Joy Division learned, you dust yourself off, change your name to New Order, take turns singing, bring in the drummer’s girlfriend on keyboards, and get on with merging rock and dance music like no-one has before (and arguably haven’t done as well since). A combination of visits to clubs in New York and Europe, a love of Kraftwerk, Barney Sumner and Steven Morris’s experiments with drum machines and sequencers, and an open-minded attitude saw them create a whole new sound. It’s a sound that would influence everyone from The Cure and U2 to Broken Social Scene.

“Temptation” was the first real fruit of this questing spirit (“Everything’s Gone Green”, released the previous year, certainly had the dancing beats but still sounded a bit like a Joy Division song that had taken speed and wasn’t sure what all this dancing thing was about). From this momentous single they would go on to the dizzy heights of “Blue Monday”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith”2.

Temptation 7" Cover

Temptation Cover

This is a personal favourite version, from a BBC Radio 1 recording filmed in 1984. I strongly advise you to watch the whole concert, too:

Loving those shorts, Barney.

As the song starts, the pulsing keyboards mesh with the mix of live drums and drum machine, and then the guitar kicks in. Suddenly, all the cares and troubles of New Order’s first couple of years disappear, like the sun bursting through the clouds after a thunderstorm. The effect is electrifying. And the lyrics offer something different to the gloom of Ian Curtis: “Heaven, a gateway, a hope”. Like many of Barney’s words, they can be impossible to decipher – “Oh, you’ve got green eyes\Oh, you’ve got blue eyes\Oh, you’ve got gray eyes”, yes, thanks for that Barney – but they work so beautifully in the song you just can’t help but forgive him.

So, redemption and hope after suffering and despair. What more can you ask for? It goes without saying that this isn’t the last of New Order on this list; and that even Pitchfork devote more than half a page to talking about them – more than any other band so far.

The Jam, hailing from Woking in Surrey, were formed by Paul Weller, a serious young chap with a huge thirst for the mod records of the sixties, along with soul, R&B, new wave and power-pop. This earnest fellow wanted to merge all those influences, mixing in the new punk sensibilities by telling stories of real life. “A Town Called Malice” is the fruit of that idea, and one of their best songs. Late 1970’s Britain being a grim kind of place was manna from heaven for a talent like Weller, and this song tells of “a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts” and “stop apologising for the things you’ve never done\Cos time is short and life is cruel”. The reality of unemployment hits the people hard: “To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear\It’s a big decision in a town called Malice”.

Stern stuff. Sung in his tense, angry voice, and pitted against Foxton and Buckler’s expert bass and drumming, with tinges of 60’s R&B, the song nearly explodes with tension and rage at the situation people were in. And like “Temptation”, it still sounds fresh nearly 30 years later. Two very different songs then; New Order’s looking solely to the future to try and forget the past, and The Jam’s using the music of the past to tell a tale of the present.

Next comes one of those periodic mis-steps on the list. Now it is safe to say that Duran Duran aren’t exactly the trendiest band from the early 80’s, though bands like The Killers are doing a job in reprising their sound. So to pick a song of theirs was quite brave. But a dodgy album track that sounds like The Cure with Simon Le Bon wailing over the top? Nah. Come on, it should have been “Rio”. Maybe “Save A Prayer”, at a push. Nah, listen to both “The Chauffeur” and “Rio” and tell me what you think:

Come on, if you’re going to do this English Invasion/New Pop thing, at least do it properly. As a bit of an aside, listen to how much is going on in “Rio”; the sequencers, the bass line, the guitar, the multi-tracked vocals, it takes a while to take it all in. There’s a richness and texture you just don’t get in modern pop music (with the exception of Girls Aloud).

Lastly, one of the pleasure of doing this list is hearing songs that have been so obviously influenced by ones that came a few years before. This one, The Beat’s “Save It For Later”, is like an unholy mix of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, with some ska thrown in for good measure (and indeed, you can hear this song influencing bands like The Go-Betweens):

The Beat (or The English Beat for the Americans amongst you) were one of the Two-Tone Ska bands, who along with The Specials, Madness and The Selecter, turned the Sixties Ska sound into a particularly English phenomenon. More famous for “Mirror In The Bathroom” and their later cover of “Can’t Get Used To Losing You”, this song is more poppy and even has a string section poking into the song about halfway through. I was wondering why this didn’t seem at all familiar; it only got to number 47 in the UK charts (this is when any song in the Top 20 of any given week you’d be able to hum). I even doubt it was anything to do with the double entendre in the title, as Radio 1 didn’t even pick up on “Relax” for about a month. Anyway, I must say I rather enjoyed its power pop energy.

So that’s that; 12 songs that would come storming out of small towns and the largest cities of the UK, some fantastic, others less so. Some of these songs would change the world by showing what could be done with new technology, including making use of videos before any band in the US caught on; others would link back to the past of soul, R&B and Rock and Roll and twist them for the early ’80’s; and some were so shocking to US audiences that they would fuel the boom in guitar driven rock like Bruce Springsteen in response. And some would just quietly go about their own way, waiting for the world to catch up with them.

1 Or at least get you out of Macclesfield.
2 Funnily enough, “True Faith”, probably their best song, isn’t on the Pitchfork list but the other two are. I can kind of see why, but won’t go into it now.

MP3: Temptation (7″ mix) By New Order

MP3: Save It For Later by The Beat

Buy “The Best of New Order” (CD) (And You Really Should)

Buy “The Very Best Of The Jam” (CD)

Buy Duran Duran’s “Greatest” (MP3/CD)

Buy “You Just Can’t Beat It: The Best of the Beat” (CD)

The whole list is available here.

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The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 3 – Human League to ABC

The early 80’s saw an explosion in electronic pop music from the UK. All around the UK, bands were messing around with primitive synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. With a good ear for a tune and the ability to fiddle around with these new bits of technology, you could create something unique. These bands, along with others like Duran Duran and The Eurythmics, are often called “New Pop” for their marriage of pop sensibilites to the new sounds being made available through technology. The next four songs are:

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Associates – Party Fears Two
ABC – All of My Heart

The Human League were at the forefront of the New Pop explosion, and their 1981 album “Dare” was the first huge release. “Don’t You Want Me” was a huge international hit, though funnily enough the band considered it one of the weaker songs off Dare. Which, in some ways, was right – it didn’t have the same depth musically, or the same pioneering attitude, as other songs such as “Love Action” or “The Sound Of The Crowd”. But what it had in spades was emotion. Love, jealously, ambition, revenge, laid open for everyone to see.

And as the British bands showed, image was as important as the song itself:

Hilarious now to look at this video, using a Rover and a Volvo to demonstrate how chic and rich the characters are meant to be. Ah, early ’80’s England. Still, it’s got it’s glamour and Trauffaut references.

The song, with its classic major verse/minor chorus motif, looks both to the future with its use of technology (trying playing this on a guitar, it just doesn’t work), yet it also harks back to old-style duets. Make something old and classic sound brand spanking new, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Thankfully Pitchfork didn’t try to be all clever (like they did with Adam Ant) and pick another song. This one is just perfect.

Unlike the next one. Now I’ve got nothing against “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. It’s a fine record, if rather over-exposed. But it’s a cover version, which is something I’ve complained about before – why list a cover when the same band have an original, much better composition? This is a time that Pitchfork should have been clever, and gone for “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Now that’s a song. See if you agree1:

Soft Cell – Tainted Love from ddeubel on Vimeo.

Go on, tell me from the depths of your soul, you know I’m right. “Tainted Love”, for all its slinky eroticism, just isn’t in the same league.

When I was reading through the list, The Associates song “Party Fears Two” made me think “Now, I’m sure I know that song, but I can’t quite place it”. Then I heard the first minute and thought “Hey, I remember trying to play that on my parents piano!”. Then Billy McKenzie started singing. By jove, I’d forgotten how bonkers he was. And what a mover:

(sorry, that’s the best quality version I could find).

Billy McKenzie was a famously dramatic fellow, hailing from Dundee, a city not famed for its welcoming attitude toward theatrical gentleman with multi-octave voices and a huge thirst for drugs and glamour. Teaming up with Alan Rankine, the pair of them formed The Associates, who (and this is a very brief history, you understand) managed to get a £60,000 advance to record their first album and spent it on:

1x 1962 Mercedes convertible
2x chocolate guitars for a ToTP performance
Board and lodging at the Swiss Cottage Holiday Inn (including an additional room for Billy’s pet whippets
Smoked salmon for Billy’s pet whippets
16 cashmere jumpers
Huge quantities of cocaine and speed (who’da thought it?)

Needless to say, they also worked very hard on their album, but it all went quite horribly wrong and Rankine left the band at the end of 1982. The days of being able to be completely bonkers and extort piles of cash out of gullible record labels were coming to an end.

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Oh, the song? Great piano line, mad vocal histrionics, and quite unique. You wonder what else they could have come up with if they’d had a decent manager to rein them in. And laid off the drugs a bit.

And last of all, ABC. Now I must say I’ve never really got into ABC. They always seemed too cold and calculating, wearing their ambition on their sleeves. Can’t say that Trevor Horn’s clinical production helps their case either. So forgive me if I don’t really talk much about “All of My Heart”, with its Fairlight stabs and huge strings, as it just doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart.

Next up, the final part of The Brits Are Coming, featuring New Order, The Jam and some more New Pop.

1 Sorry, but Soft Cell are one of the bands who have had their videos removed by YouTube, and Vimeo doesn’t embed properly in WordPress.

MP3: 96-dont-you-want-me

MP3: 98-party-fears-two

The whole list is available here.

Buy Human League’s “Dare!” (MP3) (Essential Purchase)

Buy Soft Cell’s “The Very Best Of” (MP3/CD)

Buy The Associates “Singles” (CD)

Buy “The Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 2 – Wyatt to Scritti Politti

Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding
Bauhaus – Third Uncle
Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier
Scritti Politti – The ‘Sweetest Girl’

Robert Wyatt’s one of Britain’s great cult musicians, having influenced everyone from Billy Bragg to Bjork. But till now I don’t think I’ve ever really sat down and properly listened to anything of his. Sure, I’ve heard him on the radio and all, but I’ve never properly listened to him. And what a fine experience it is. For a start, he really doesn’t sound like he looks:

God, If He Was From Bristol

God, If He Was From Bristol

Instead of sounding like a gruff blues or folk singer, he has a high, almost keening voice, suiting perfectly the song presented here, “Shipbuilding”. Written by Elvis Costello and Madness producer Clive Langer, the song tells of how the Falklands war both rejuvenated downtrodden shipbuilding towns, which built new ships to replace the ones lost in the war, and simultaneously sent the young men of those towns off to war to be killed:

“Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyard\And notifying the next of kin once again”

Well worth three minutes of your time.

Ah, Bauhaus. Now this takes me back to my teenage semi-goth years (I always liked bands like A Certain Ratio, New Order and Cabaret Voltaire to ever go Full Goth) listening to the likes of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Listening to it now on Spotify, I’d forgotten quite how dubby the opening few minutes are. Maybe there’s a bit more to these Goth folks than met the eye.

“Third Uncle” is much less dubby than their most famous track, and much more the rocky post-punk band they really were. Lots of phaser on Daniel Ash’s messed-up guitar sound. Pete Murphy’s multi-tracked, desperate, angry vocals. But what’s noticable now is how many of their most famous songs are cover versions, this being a Brian Eno tune. And frankly, his version is that bit better. Sorry chaps. And I do have to wonder why a cover version’s on here again (and this is a theme I shall return to next article).

Adam and the Ants still can’t be treated seriously by most people. But, alongside all the Antmusic stuff, he was a pretty shrewd operator, and by singing “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” in his biggest hit, he was able to clearly define himself as a combination of absurd and vital.

Ant had been around for a couple of years until he hooked up with dodgy impresario Malcolm McLaren1, who threw him a bone with the idea of using African tribal rhythms to underpin his sound, and then nicked his whole band. Undeterred – indeed, driven by this treachery – he hired a new set of musicians and had 6 hits in the UK in two years. Pitchfork have chosen “Kings Of The Wild Frontier” as their pick of his records, but it’s just got to be Stand And Deliver. Or Ant Music. Or Prince Charming. Oh, I don’t know.

But this song is probably the best to demonstrate the whole Burundi drumming thang:

He was dreadfully handsome, wasn’t he? Anyway, for that whole period, he showed how you could mix an absurd image, strong tunes, and more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek showmanship, into a huge pop monster.

Green Gartside, main man of Scritti Politti, never painted a stripe across his face and pranced round dressed up as a dandy highwayman. He was far too arty for such japes. Originally a knotty, angular post-punk band, heavily influenced by The Pop Group and Gang Of Four and huge piles of speed and alcohol, Green totally changed his sound after a night out following a show ended up with a stay in hospital. Whilst recuperating at his parents cottage in Wales (rock and roll, dude!) he decided to move the band in a pop direction, fusing soul, funk and lover’s rock with traditional English pop music. And what’s more, he wanted hits, lots of them.

The first song released on the new direction was “The ‘Sweetest Girl'”. So sweet that it could send a diabetic into a hyperglycemic coma from 10 paces, and featuring Robert Wyatt on piano, it wasn’t a hit (it only got to number 64 in the UK chart), but it did demonstrate what Green could do once he threw off his self-imposed Marxist shackles. And the hits would come, eventually.

Not sure it’s really my thing though. It makes my teeth ache.

That’s the second part of the four part The Brits Are Coming series, and it has to be said, the weakest by far. There’s some right crackers coming up, I can tell you.

1 Read the section on Bow Wow Wow in Simon Reynolds’ excellent “Rip it Up and Start Again if you want to find out just how dodgy. If he did that sort of thing these days, he’d be put in prison, and rightfully so.

MP3: 92-shipbuilding

MP3: 94-kings-of-the-wild-frontier

The whole list is available here.

Buy Robert Wyatt’s “His Greatest Misses” (CD)

Buy “Bauhaus – 1979-1983 Volume One” (CD/MP3)

Buy Adam Ant’s “Hits” (MP3) (And A Right Bargain!)

Buy Scritti Politti’s “Early” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Missing List – Part One

When anyone looks through the Pitchfork 500 list, they are bound to go “Yeah, but what about xxx?”, where xxx = the name of favourite band, song, or horrible personal favourite.

Of course, choosing 500 songs and calling them the “best 500 songs” is bound to cause trouble. Of course, people are going to disagree. There’s some personal favourites of mine missing from the list, but I’m not going to start complaining that The Kingsbury Manx’s “Piss Diaries” is missing, because it’s quite obscure, and I’m not really sure that it’s everyone’s cup of tea. So I’m fine with that. But what this series of articles will do is highlight certain songs and artists that I think really should have been on there, because they really are something special, and (importantly) are more influential than certain songs that do appear on the list. I’ll be doing one of these every few months, usually just after I’ve completed a chapter of the Pitchfork 500. By the way, instances where the right artist is in the list with the wrong song are covered in the normal articles.

Today’s list features three bands, all from the UK; two from Manchester, on Factory Records, and one from the London. Those bands are A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

Durutti Column – Sketch For Summer (1977)
A Certain Ratio – Flight (1979)
Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (1979)

First off, from 1977, is Durutti Column’s “Sketch For Summer”. Durutti Column was Vini Reilly’s band, hailing from Manchester. A painfully thin, fairly reclusive chap, Vini learnt electric guitar at the age of 10 and played with masses of delay, to produce a chiming sound that would go on to influence people as diverse as U2’s The Edge and Cocteau Twins Robin Guthrie. His songs were characterised by his trademark echoey, hollowed-out Strat sound, backed up with a drum machine on his earlier songs, and jazz drumming in his later work, and occasional vocals (he sampled Otis Redding to marvellous effect on the song “Otis”).

Vini With His Strat

Vini With His Strat

If you only ever hear one Durutti Column song, it really should be “Sketch For Summer”. Opening his first LP, “The Return Of The Durutti Column”, it kicks off with synthesised birdsong and a doleful drum machine, before starting on the trademark delayed guitar lines. What makes the song such a thing of sheer beauty is the way the arpeggios create a gorgeous choral noise, which disappear almost before you register them, overlain by syncopated, almost harp-like chords.

A Sandpaper Cassette Box

A Sandpaper Cassette Box

One of Factory Record’s earliest releases, it featured a sandpaper sleeve, to scratch the records next to them in the shelves of the record store. Lovely. If you’ve seen the Michael Winterbottom film, “24 Hour Party People”, Durutti Column are the band that always play to about 3 people in the Hacienda.

So why should this be on the list? Because it’s influential. Because it sounded like nothing else at the time. Because it showed that punk meant you could do what you damn well pleased, be it three-chord thrashes or creating a huge orchestral sound from the six strings of your Strat. But most of all, because it’s one of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear. Words, who needs them?

Another Factory band, A Certain Ratio were the second to release a record on that label, after the Factory Sampler (featuring Durutti Column). Funny now to think that everyone’s heard of Joy Division now and ACR are largely unknown, but at the time, ACR were just as big1, and tipped by some to be huge. Whilst Joy Division were four skinny white guys from Manchester (or thereabouts) who took the music of Iggy Pop, Television and the Velvet Underground and gave it a special Northern twist, A Certain Ratio were four skinny white guys from Manchester (or thereabouts) who took the music of Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, and Northern Soul and gave it a special Northern twist.

The 1979 Abercrombie And Fitch Catalogue Was Not A Success

The 1979 Abercrombie And Fitch Catalogue Was Not A Success

Joining up with superb drummer Donald Johnson made them. Forcing them to actually learn their instruments properly, they mixed jazz, funk, soul, and Latin with a dour Northern sensibility and created something quite unique. “Flight” is an early example of this. At first, you might almost be mistaken into thinking it’s an odd Joy Division offcut, but then you notice the drumming. Then the fact that the bassline is far too slinky for Peter Hook. The harsh guitar chords have something of disco about them. And the falsetto singing. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

A Certain Ratio showed that with the right attitude, and a seriously talented drummer, you really could mix dark Northern rock up with Salsoul, and Disco, and whatever you fancied. After some early success with “Shack Up”, the band decamped to New York to record the album “To Each”, whereupon they went clubbing and expanded their horizons further. Indeed, they were instrumental in getting ESG to record the classic “Moody” (amongst other tracks) when they found they still had three days of studio time remaining after they’d finished recording.

So, A Certain Ratio deserve to be on here for fully integrating dance sounds into a post-rock framework, far more effectively than the punk-funk by the likes of James Chance and The Pop Group. And being scrawny white-boy funksters, well ahead of the likes of Spandau Ballet. They also feature in 24 Hour Party People, memorably being covered in fake tan by Anthony Wilson. Oh, and Donald Johnson was the drummer famously told by Martin Hannett to “Play that drum bit again, faster but slower”.

Ian Dury was an old hand on the London pub-rock scene, first with his band Kilburn and the High Roads, and then with The Blockheads. They were one of the bands for whom punk was an opportunity to reach audiences that wouldn’t previously have heard them. They, and their record label, Stiff, grabbed it with both hands.

Dury himself was a product of the grammar school system, with something of a mixed upbringing, crippled on one side of his body from childhood polio2. He was a devastatingly good lyricist, as you can tell just from his song titles: “Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll” (“\are very good indeed”, goes the song), “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards”, with the immortal couplet: “Einstein can’t be classed as witless\He claimed atoms were the littlest\When you did a bit of splitt-li-ness\Frightened everybody shitless”. He spoke, rather than sang, the lines, in a droll, broad Cockney accent, with his band playing mean pub-rock, influenced by ska and everything else going on at the time. Plus, having been around for a while, they could actually play, which usually helps.

“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” was their first number one, and manages to be rather naughty without being absolutely clear about it. And it simultaneously teaches us about the commonality of humanity – that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, we all want the same thing. “Je t’adore, ich liebe dich”, indeed. Plus, the backing is just great, from Norman Watt-Roy’s liquid, dextrous bass, to Davey Paynes two-sax onslaught.

All in all a worthy UK number 1, and a song that’ll still get Brits of a certain age cackling with laughter. And, as well as being a great song, it showed that whilst you might be an old geezer playing pub-rock, you could still have a hit. Punk wiped away the old snobbery and let some real talent through. Ian, we miss you.

So that’s three songs. I can’t explain why Pitchfork missed them – though in the case of Ian Dury, I can imagine that not many Americans have ever heard of them. For Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio, who knows? Maybe they’d already filled their quota of Factory acts. Still, three out of 50 or so isn’t bad, I suppose.

1 Admittedly, neither band were actually that successful in any way, shape, or form, at the time.

2 If anyone’s ever in doubt about the efficacy of vaccinations, they really should speak to anyone aged 35 or above – I’ll bet you they know someone who suffered from polio. It’s difficult for people to realise now just how prevalent it was.

MP3: Sketch For Summer by Durutti Column

MP3: Flight by A Certain Ratio

Buy “The Best of the Durutti Column” (CD)

Buy A Certain Ratio’s “Early” (CD)

Buy “Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Very Best of Ian Dury & the Blockheads” (CD)

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News – An Evening with Lanegan and Dulli, The Twilight Sad

Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, who recently recorded as The Gutter Twins, are doing another one-off show in London at the South Bank Centre. Having managed to miss the show at the Union Chapel, I must say I’m rather thrilled at this. I’ve seen Mark Lanegan play live many times, mostly with Queens Of The Stone Age, but also on his “Bubblegum” tour, and if you haven’t seen this man’s stage technique, you haven’t lived. Fundamentally it consists of leaning on his microphone stand glaring ominously at the crowd, whilst singing in the most nicotine- and whisky-stained voice you could possibly imagine.

Put it this way, if you’ve lived a bad life, and you’re lying on your deathbed, this is the voice of Death as he comes to take you down to the bowels of Hell. He’s a scary, scary man. Greg Dulli, he of the drugs and sex obsessions, is a primary school teacher in comparison. Saying that, they’re both, in real life, lovely fellas (I have it on good authority), but they don’t exactly suffer fools gladly.

So, live show at London’s South Bank Centre (Royal Festival Hall) on 19th July. Book tickets here, and many thanks for Andy for the tip. What a gent!

Courtesy of Mundo Eleven, I’ve posted a couple of live tracks from a show in Milan back in 2003 (look down). Both are from his covers LP, “I’ll Take Care Of You”, which is absolutely marvellous (and I promise to review properly at some point in the future).

As for the Gutter Twins themselves:

Now, if you said that they sound like a mix of prime Afghan Whigs with Mark Lanegan singing, I’d say, yeah, damn right, and what the hell is wrong with that, fool?

Excellent Artwork...

Excellent Artwork...

Book those tickets. You know you want to. Funnily enough, Emmy The Great are playing the same night in another of the halls. That should make for an interesting crossover of fans.

Another tune that’s been on my mind recently is The Twilight Sad’s “Cold Days From The Birdhouse”. I recently described it to someone as The Proclaimers meets Mogwai, which is possibly a bit unfair, but this is a cracking number. There’s something about that talking slowly over a barrage of noise that’s very appealing, shared by both Lanegan and Twilight Sad.

More Excellent Artwork...

More Excellent Artwork...

The Twilight Sad are currently on tour with Mogwai in the US with a new album lined up some time later this year. If they’ve built on 2007’s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, we’re in for a treat.

That’s that for a few days, as we’re off to the West Country to drink scrumpy and wander round disused railway lines. Ok, possibly not the scrumpy bit. Enjoy your Easter.

MP3: On Jesus Program (Live In Milan 2003) by Mark Lanegan

MP3: I’ll Take Care Of You (Live Milan 2003) by Mark Lanegan

MP3: Idle Hands by The Gutter Twins

MP3: Cold Days From The Birdhouse by The Twilight Sad

Buy The Gutter Twins “Saturnalia” (MP3)

Buy Mark Lanegan’s “I’ll Take Care of You” (CD)

Buy The Twilight Sad’s “Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 1 – Dexys to Specials

Dexys Midnight Runners – There There My Dear
Young Marble Giants – Final Day
Altered Images – Happy Birthday
The Specials – Ghost Town

This is the first of a four-part series of Pitchfork 500 posts, as the next 16 tracks are all from Great Britain. This was thanks to an amazing outpouring of pop and rock from the British Isles in the early ’80’s – bands that had taken the call to arms of punk and post-punk, and used the attitude of experimentation to make some rather startling new music. Some, like Dexys Midnight Runners and The Jam, would look to the past for inspiration; others, like Human League and New Order, would create something quite new. On a personal note, this period was when I really started to listen to music loads, recording stuff from my brother and sisters and taping tracks off the radio, kicking off a love that is still strong today (obviously, as I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise!).

Kevin Rowland was a charismatic Brummie with an ear for a good tune, and an eye for trouble. Passionate about soul music, driven by massive ambition, he wanted to recreate the music of black R&B artists like James Brown and Geno Washington, but twisting it in his own inimitable fashion. The track on offer here, “There There My Dear” was their second single (after the far better “Geno”, which for some reason misses out on the list), but gives you a good idea of where the famously puritan and driven Rowland was aiming for.

Get those horns! After another couple of singles, he decided he didn’t want to talk to the press any more, instead communicating to his fans by means of adverts taken out in the weekly music press. Let’s just say it didn’t make him a popular man. And after the hit singles “Come On Eileen” and “Jocky Wilson Said”, he famously went so far off the rails that by the time he came back in the 90’s, wearing women’s clothing, it didn’t even seem that much out of character:

Run away!  Run away!

Run away! Run away!

Anyway, “Geno” is much better:

Young Marble Giants made one LP, one single and one EP1 before breaking up. And much of what they did record was hardly there, so sparse was their sound. To be honest, Young Marble Giants have almost completely passed me by. Hard to remember now, but back in the day you only had the music papers like NME, Sounds and Melody Maker to read, and radio shows like John Peel to listen to, and things passed by very quickly. There was little or no looking back; so much music was coming out that anything over a year old tended to get lost. So this is the first time that I’ve knowingly listened to “Final Day”, and what a pleasure it’s been.

A song about nuclear holocaust, “Final Day” is less than two minutes long – one of the shortest tracks on the Pitchfork list – and to the sound of odd fretless bass and muted guitar chords, singer Alison Statton sings of “Put a blanket up on the window pane” and “There is so much noise\There is too much heat”. It captures that sense of final days beautifully. Really, teenagers are lucky now – all they get to worry about is chlamydia and the occasional suicide bomber; we had the entire nuclear arsenal of a spectacularly grumpy superpower pointed in our general direction for much of the 80’s. Sure does tend to piss you off a bit, that.

Speaking of a cloying sense of dread hanging over you constantly, here’s Altered Images, with their poppy, chirpy brand of Scottish whimsy. Boy, is it annoying. I’ve listened to “Happy Birthday” three times now and I still can’t understand why it’s on this list. To be on here, a track needs to be (on average) one of the best 15 songs released that year. This wasn’t even the 15th best song released that week. I can only think that the writer responsible had a teenage crush on Claire Grogan which hasn’t quite worn off yet. What does the book say? “You can practically hear Grogan pout her lips, stick out her tongue…”. Yep, that’ll be it. Does also say something about them practically inventing twee pop like Belle and Sebastian. Sweet Jebus. Now that’s something we could do without.

There’s probably never been a song to hit number 1 at exactly the right time as “Ghost Town” by The Specials. The UK at the time was a paranoid, desperate, angry place. Simmering resentment in many inner cities boiled over into some of the worst rioting the country had ever seen just as this song, detailing the misery of inner-city life in Coventry (a grim Midlands town with high unemployment and disaffected youth living in run-down concrete high-rise flats), flew to the top of the charts.

I was 10 when the song came out, and I still remember the fear in the air. We grew up near Bristol, one of the cities plagued by the social and racial tensions at the time, and there was a palpable fear that events were spinning out of control. Then out of nowhere came this song, written by Jerry Dammers for a band that weren’t even speaking to each other. Somehow it captured everything that was wrong with the country at the time, from there being too much violence in the clubs that they were getting closed down, to the final verse which said everything:

“This place, is coming like a ghost town\No job to be found in this country\Can’t go on no more\The people getting angry”

Followed by that odd, ghostly laughing chorus. What makes the song so great is the atmosphere of dread, the contrasting voices of Terry Hall’s white boy singing and Neville Staple’s ominous baritone and the mournful trumpet and organ sounds, underlain by none-more-dub drum, bass and reggae guitar stabs. Fantastic song.

I can still remember a family trip somewhere at that time, listening to Radio 4 news telling us, in sombre tones, about the previous night’s rioting in St Pauls (inner-city Bristol), with this song going round and round in my head. No-one of my age, who grew up in Britain, can think of the song without thinking of the riots too.

The Specials broke up pretty much straight after this song was released; Jerry Dammers keeping the Special AKA name, and Hall, Staples and Lynval Golding going on to form Fun Boy Three. Of which, a little more later.

That’s the first four of The Brits Are Coming; the next four coming soon.

1 Extended Play, for you youngsters out there. Like a long single. Or a short album.

MP3: Final Day by Young Marble Giants

MP3: Ghost Town by The Specials

Buy Dexys Midnight Runners “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” (CD)

Buy Young Marble Giants “Colossal Youth & Collected Works” (CD)

Buy Altered Images “Happy Birthday” (MP3)

Buy The Specials “The Singles” (MP3)

The whole list is available here.

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The Pitchfork 500 Odds and Ends – Costello to B52’s

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Beyond Belief
The Pretenders – Back on the Chain Gang
The B-52’s – Private Idaho

Elvis Costello’s “Beyond Belief” was the opening song of his 1982 album “Imperial Bedroom”. The Pitchfork book discussed how he was feeling too old for rock, and tired of the scene he was in. You can tell – this really isn’t one of his best songs. I’m really not sure why it’s in the list, especially when there’s some great music that didn’t make it (like Grandaddy. Or something by A Certain Ratio, which would at least fit into the time period covered here. Or Durutti Column. Sigh). So let’s move swiftly on.

On “Back on the Chain Gang”, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders shows how you write a song about lost love and lost friends without being maudlin, or miserable. See, Morrissey? Initially written about her relationship with Ray Davies, it was rewritten immediately after the death of guitarist James Honeyman Scott, and the sacking of Hynde’s ex-lover Peter Farndon from the band. It’s a song about remembrance, and survival, and picking yourself up and carrying on. The chorus echoes Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang”, and mixes some beautiful country-inspired guitar lines with Hynde’s innate pop nous. In particular, the gorgeous lead line, expertly mixing country with a Hispanic tinge1, jangles alongside Hynde’s expert rhythm guitar. Gotta love those twin Tele’s:

The lyrics themselves are heartbreaking: “I found a picture of you\Those were the happiest days of my life”, but the feel of the song is more resignation that what’s done is done, and that it’s time to move on and get on with life. And do it singing, probably. Chrissie Hynde suffered from personal tragedy in those few years more than many do in a lifetime, yet she never let it grind her down; she always had her head held high. A tough lady, and no mistake2.

One of the real pleasures of going through the Pitchfork list has been listening again to some of the songs that were big hits when I was a kid, but since seem to have dropped off the radar. Along with ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, this is one of them. This song has been happily playing in my head for the past few days.

B52’s are mostly known in this country for “Love Shack”, and for the more adventurous of us, “Rock Lobster”. But you wouldn’t think from these frothy hits what a rough time they went through to be in a band. Hailing from the Athens, Georgia, being openly gay (and flamboyant with it too), they had to make their own entertainment in their own houses to avoid harassment in the bars and clubs of town. So, they formed a dance band and started their own scene, eventually decamping to New York.

“Private Idaho” shows this early side of the B52’s. It’s a bit less glam than their later work, but everything is in place – hectoring, odd vocals from Fred Schneider, the two ladies belting out harmonies, jumpy guitar, with the whole thing pulsing with a restless geeky energy. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of B52’s but this is quite good, you know.

And watching this performance from 1980, you can just see why they got on so well with John Waters:

So that’s it for the shortest Pitchfork 500 post I’ve yet done. Coming up next, part 1 of the four-part The Brits Are Coming series.

1 So much so that a cover version, sung in Spanish, became a big hit on the Latino charts.

2 Interestingly, she, along with two members of Devo, were at Kent State University at the time of the infamous shootings.

MP3: Back On The Chain Gang by The Pretenders

The whole list is available here.

Buy Elvis Costello’s “The Best Of The First 10 Years” (MP3)

Buy The Pretenders (The Singles) (MP3)

Buy B52’s “Wild Planet” (MP3)

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Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog), A Quick Retrospective

Bill Callahan’s got a new album out today. As the man behind Smog, and (Smog), he’s been one of my favourite musicians for over a decade now, since the release of “Knock Knock” got my attention back in 1998. Thanks to my (hopefully) temporarily straightened circumstances, I haven’t pre-ordered the new one, but I spent last night listening to some of his older stuff. Just for old times sake, you know.

Bill Looking Happy

Bill Looking Happy

For me, Bill Callahan has been one of the best lyricists around for some years. He has a disturbing ability to be able to say just enough to discombobulate you. Sometimes, it’s just with a few well-placed words that, on their own, don’t seem to mean much, but as he builds a song to its climax, he says something that makes you stop in your tracks.

One of the great early examples of this is the song “All Your Women Things” off The Doctor Came At Dawn. In it, he describes how a woman that is no longer with him (and whether she actually left him of her own volition, or whether he got rid of her in some way is tantalisingly, and typically, left unsaid) left all her clothes and other items in his room. All fine and creepy, but then he sings (and look away now if you want to hear it for yourself before going on further):

“Oh all of these things\I gathered them\And I made a dolly”

You what?

“I made a dolly\A spread-eagle dolly\Out of your frilly things”

Oh Lordy. It was bad enough saying he’d made a dolly out of them, but then saying “A spread-eagle dolly” makes you really, really scared.

It gets worse:

“Why couldn’t I have loved you\This tenderly\When you were here?”

I really hope he means “love” in the cerebral, pure sense, rather than the “make love” sense. Or that would be….eeeeugh. And all this is gently intoned, in almost a monotone, over plucked repetative guitar lines and mournful cello. It’s seriously creepy.

Next up was “I Break Horses”. I was first turned onto this song by the music journalist Ben Thompson, who in the great Seven Years of Plenty: Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-98, described this song as “One that can reduce strong people…to heaps of quivering gelatin”. He’s not wrong. Again, Smog uses his deadpan voice, with just a hint of emotion, to describe how he breaks horses – “Just a few well placed words/And their wandering hearts are gone”.

But it’s clear that it isn’t horses he’s talking about. His horribly detailed eye for human failings has come to the fore again, and he ends the song with the unpleasantness of “Tonight I’m swimming to my favorite island\And I don’t want to see you swimming behind\I break horses\I don’t tend to them”. Again, it’s about saying just enough to tell you how truly horrible the subject of the song is, without any histrionics.

Early Smog was generally pretty lo-fi, usually just scratchy guitar and drums, with the occasional cello. But 1997’s LP “Red Apple Falls” was a shock, as the opener started with French horns, of all things. He’d gone through a major change in the way he used instrumentation, and with producer Jim O’Rourke, really opened up the sound. All the better to scare you with, my dear.

And scariness was still there, to devastating effect, on that album’s “I Was A Stranger”. Still a huge fan favourite, it tells the tale of a new man in town. When my wife (then a new girlfriend) heard it, as we sped through German forests on a weekend trip, she got rather worried that I was actually some kind of serial killer. Listen to it now then carry on reading:

(Yes, I know it’s rather odd to video yourself miming a song then post it on YouTube, but if the Internet has done one thing, it’s showed the astonishing diversity of humanity)

Right, got that last line? I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It’s one of the best ending lines of any song – and again, done by just saying the absolute minimum to get his message across. And what’s more, you’re still unclear as to what he’d actually done in the last town. In all the best horror movies, the mind fills in what you’re not shown, and the human brain is really rather good at scaring itself. He doesn’t need to say what he’s done – just say that he was “well known”, and criticises the locals: “And why do you women in this town\Let me look at you so bold?”. Classic.

Last in this short little retrospective is a rather gentler song, from his last album as (Smog). Now, I wouldn’t want you to think all Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog) songs are about sociopaths and worse; this song is about how your family can help drag you back from whatever depths you’ve sunk to. To do this, he tells a tale of seeing a gold ring at the bottom of a river, and dives in to take it. But when he’s in the water, he can’t swim back from the bottom and is pulled out by his mother, father, and sisters. Yet again, in simplicity lies beauty. This time, there’s no punchline, just a repetition of the chorus – but now you have the understanding of what he’s gone through to sing those lines.

I first heard him play this live well before the album came out, and along with “The Well” (sample line: “I guess everybody has their own thing\That they yell into a well”), it got the biggest cheer of the night. By the way, he’s also the only musician I’ve ever seen who does his set-list, then says “Ok, that’s my list – what do you want to hear?” and then takes requests. Having seen him do four live shows now, he does this every time – and he doesn’t appear to be cherry-picking the songs that he’d already decided to play. For a man who really doesn’t seem at all comfortable playing in front of an audience (Ben Thompson described him as “calling into question the whole meaning of the word ‘live'”), it’s an amazing thing to do.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t scared you off with those songs. There’s loads more I could talk about – even the song titles alone give you some sense of how good he is, from “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” to “Prince Alone In A Studio”. He’s an amazing artist; I just hope that he manages to get the recognition he deserves. And look, no mention of either Cat Power or Joanna Newsom.


MP3: All Your Women Things by Smog

MP3: I Break Horses (Peel Session) by Smog

MP3: I Was A Stranger by Smog

MP3: Rock Bottom Riser by Smog

MP3: Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan (from Bill’s new album, Sometime I Wish We Were An Eagle)

Buy Smog’s “Doctor Came at Dawn” (CD)

Buy Smog’s “Accumulation:None” (CD)

Buy Smog’s “Red Apple Falls” (CD)

Buy Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” (CD)

Buy Bill Callahan’s “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Oddness Hour – Branca to The Fall

Glenn Branca – Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar
Laurie Anderson – O Superman (For Massenet)
Joy Division – Atmosphere
The Fall – Totally Wired

A veteran of New York No Wave band Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca wanted to merge classical music with rock. Rather than taking the ELO route and laying strings over Beethoven-inspired prog rock, he took ten guitarists, including Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore (who’d go on to form Sonic Youth) plus assorted other musicians, and formed a kind of orchestra. “Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar” was the first song he released with this new band.


Starting simply, layer upon layer of guitar gradually build up until it becomes an epic sound, withouth ever descending into sheer noise (as Sonic Youth have a tendency to do). The control used by the players adds to the beauty of the song; there’s no huge wig-out at the end, just a natural climax. You can hear Sonic Youth and Swans, Slint and Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Russian Circles. Considering I love all those bands, this is the first time I’ve ever really heard this track properly. What a great track it is too.

Funnily enough, you can pretty much do the same thing yourself, in the comfort of your own home, using something like this1. I did see someone supporting Smog back in 2003, in Strasbourg2, who did something along those lines all by himself, but can’t for the life of me remember his name.

The first time I heard Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)”, I was watching Top of the Pops with my brother. It’s fair to say we burst out laughing. Ok, so I was only 10, but the sight of Laurie dressed in a white gown intoning “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” robotically was, to my pre-teen sensibilities, pretty damn funny. For weeks after we’d go up to each other and start going “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” then roll around on the floor laughing like idiots. It was very, very funny.

Of course, it’s a bit more of a serious record than that. Laurie Anderson was a New York performance artist and musician, and this track was a meditation on America’s military-industrial complex. Possibly. Possibly not.

But frankly, it sounds like a batty lady with a vocoder going “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”. How on earth did this get to No.2 in the UK charts? Annoyingly, I can’t find the original ToTP performance (if indeed it was a performance, rather than a video – I was only 10 you know), but did find this:

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Very odd to listen to it again, nearly thirty years later. I still find it stupidly funny though.

Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” was recorded only a few months before Ian Curtis’ suicide. With Martin Hannett playing keyboards as well as producing (by this point, he was pretty much the fifth member of the band), the song is soaked in synthetic strings cut through with Barnie Albrecht’s acidic guitar chords, and underpinned by Peter “Hooky” Hook’s doleful bass lines. Not really my favorite Joy Division song, it veers a little bit too far onto the mopy teenager side of the street for my liking. It’s no “Dead Souls”. Or “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. But it’s still a grand old song and well worth listening to again.

Alongside the obvious tragedy of Curtis’s death, there’s the other tragedy of what Joy Division could have become if he’d had better treatment for his depression (and a resolution to his dreadful, if self-made, personal situation). This lot could have filled stadiums. Mind you, they did turn into New Order and become the first band to successfully marry dance and rock (frankly, one of the few bands who’ve done that). And if I was stuck in a lift I’d much rather have New Order piped in than Joy Division, wouldn’t you?

The Fall were the other great Manchester band coming to the fore at the start of the ’80’s (The Smiths were a few years away yet). “Totally Wired”, released in 1980, is a paean to speed (amphetamines), which Mark E Smith was consuming at a quite heroic rate, along with magic mushrooms. And lots of alcohol. Guitar was, in part, provided by Marc “Lard” Riley, he of the genius DJ twosome Mark and Lard. In fact, when I first heard them on the radio I thought “Surely not *that* Marc Riley?”, but yes, it was him. Let’s just say he’s a much better at DJ-ing than playing guitar. Mind you, I think he’s a great DJ and a lovely bloke as well. Their morning shows were superb – there’s nothing better for your morning commute than listening to two pissed off Mancunians struggling to string coherent sentences together, with the occasional great record. After they moved to their afternoon show, they started really getting on the nerves of their bosses at Radio 1, especially after making comments like this:
“That was the new single by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And here’s an old record by The Pastels. We play some good stuff on here sometimes, don’t we?” The record started, before being stopped about ten seconds later with a contrite “We’ve been told to say that all the records we play are good”.

Anyway, back to The Fall. Now, The Fall have been around for longer than the Bible, and have had about as many people in. So picking only one or two songs (“The Classical” is coming up later) for this list must have been a nightmare. Because each album from “Grotesque” onwards, right through to “Bend Sinister”, is full of cracking tunes. Me, I’d have picked “Spoilt Victorian Child”, just because it’s the pure distillation of The Fall, in a nice, easily digestible 4 minutes. But then, “Totally Wired” gives you a good, early example of what The Fall are. Jumpy, shambolic rockabilly-lite guitars, thumping drums, with enough catchiness in the tune to keep you coming back for more, all with Mark E Smith’s irascible yelping of stream-of-conciousness, often indistinct lyrics.

And for once, “Totally Wired” is actually about something fairly simple – taking drugs. And though while MES would bring in (slightly) more competant musicians for later records, this has got a simple. poppy charm which most of his other songs lack. My aunt and I agree, indeed.

So that’s that for this post, next up a short post covering Elvis Costello and a couple of US bands you won’t have heard of.

1 I’m actually trying it, in a slightly more folky and less post-rocky way. If I manage anything listenable, I’ll post it on here.

2 I am probably the only person in history to have arranged a business trip to Luxembourg so I could then drive to Strasburg later in the day to watch Smog live. He was very grumpy, I’d like to add.

MP3: Lesson No 1 For Electric Guitar by Glenn Branca

MP3: Totally Wired by The Fall

Buy Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No. 1” (CD)

Buy Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” (MP3)

Buy “The Best Of Joy Division” (CD)

Buy The Fall’s “Grotesque (After The Gramme)” (CD or MP3) (And a right bargain too)

The whole list is available here.

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(Note: sorry for anyone using the buttons above in the last two days, they didn’t work properly. They are now fixed, on 6/4/09)