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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