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.
The whole list is available here.
(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)