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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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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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)

The Pitchfork 500 The Old Skool Revolution – Flash to Flash

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel
Funky 4+1 – That’s The Joint
Kraftwerk – Numbers/Computer World 2
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message

1981 saw the release of one of those landmark records, without which modern music could potentially have been very different. The idea was simple – use the cut-up techniques that had previously been explored by people such as Cabaret Voltaire and Buchanan and Goodman, and apply them to hip-hop. The result was mind-blowing.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (praise the Lord for copy & paste) was that record. Listen to it today, nearly 30 years after its release, and you’re first struck by how modern it sounds. Like some other revolutionary records (like “Marquee Moon” or “This Charming Man”), it hasn’t dated one little bit. It kicks off with a sample of Blondie’s “Rapture” – a song by a New York band released in 1980, which was influenced by the house parties and clubs in the Bronx in 1979. This record was released in 1981. That’s how fresh it was. Then the bassline from “Good Times” and “Another One Bites The Dust” kick in, alternately, and then the scratching starts.

I wonder how many people in 1981, when they first heard this played, thought the record was skipping. John Peel must have had a heart attack1. Nothing like it had really been heard before on a commercial record – you could argue that some of Throbbing Gristle’s music was pretty shocking, but it certainly wasn’t out there to be liked. The rest of the song continues in the same way; constantly shifting, cutting bits of records in and out, with samples of old radio and movies, and all sorts of bits and bobs, with each new part introduced with some furious scratching. Four minutes in, he even throws in Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder”.

Dear oh dear

Dear oh dear

That’s not to say that DJ’s at parties all over the Bronx hadn’t been scratching and mixing together records for years – they had. But none of them had used their prodigious skills to create a masterpiece, so Grandmaster Flash had the field to himself. Ironically, he wasn’t really a party DJ, more of a bedroom geek, by his own admission his friends thought he was a “dork”. And rather than spending hours on his own in his bedroom with his guitar, like so many other musically obsessed youngsters, he did it with some decks – the titular wheels of steel. Even now he’s obsessed with needles, the torque of the drive motor, and the weight of the platter. He was the inspiration for a whole new breed of musicians; those that instead of playing other people’s music and using them to build their own music, using guitar, or bass, or keyboards; no, they’d just take that music direct from the record and cut it together, sometimes using a rudimentary drum machine to provide the rhythm section. This record spoke to you, and it said, all you need are some decks, a good musical intuition and imagination. That’s it. Go and do it yourself.

It was a more revolutionary record than “God Save The Queen” 5 years earlier, and it changed music for ever. And what’s more, this was a big, shiny, pop song, and it was a massive hit. Hip-hop, and popular music, would never be the same again.

If you want to hear the sound of a Bronx party of the late ’70’s, then Funky 4+1’s “That’s The Joint” is the one. Unlike Grandmaster Flash or Sugarhill Gang, this lot were the real deal – proper party rappers, making a proper party hip-hop record. And as you’d expect, it’s a party tune, full of shout-outs and exhortations to just go and enjoy yourself. Made after their move to Sugar Hill Records, Funky 4+1 (the +1 being female rapper Sha Rock) never followed up their success with this record; amazing, given their obvious talent on this record.

Kraftwerk, meanwhile, were starting to sound dated. The initial shock of their astonishing ’70’s albums had given way to familiarity, and with it, a sense that they’d lost their edge. But they hit back with “Computer World”, which was about, er, computers. Home computers, pocket calculators, and how much fun it was to use computers. And pocket calculators. These crazy Germans, eh?

The two tracks on offer here2 both feature Kraftwerk intoning numbers 1 to 8 in a variety of foreign languages, over the classic Kraftwerk electronic beats and keyboards. As I’ve talked quite a bit about Kraftwerk before and their influence on modern music, so I won’t go on at length again. But I will share another funny story, after this fantastic live version:

Kraftwerk were, and still are for that matter, notoriously secretive. Their studio location in Dusseldorf was a closely guarded secret. They would not meet journalists in person, so getting an interview was very tough. One journo was given a phone number and an instruction to call at 10am, on the dot – not one minute later or earlier. He rang the number and it was answered after one ring by a member of the band, who then went on to explain that the phone did not have a ring tone, so the band would not be disturbed. If he’d called late they wouldn’t have known the phone was ringing.

Within a couple of seconds of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” you can hear Kraftwerk’s influence. The track kicks off after the initial (hugely-sampled) “Yeeeah!” with a sped-up, cut-up version of “Trans-Europe Express”, which underpins the whole track. Whilst “Adventures…” continually cut between songs, “Planet Rock” sticks to the same tune, adding layers on top, with rappers Soulsonic Force telling you to “Rock it, don’t stop it”. Again, it’s pure party music, but this time it’s reaching out to the whole wide world, and it’s using electronic beats to pass on its message. Another absolutely revolutionary song.

And finally, yet another revolution. Hip-hop, until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, had largely concerned itself with partying and saying how great they were, and nothing wrong with that. But Melle Mel wanted to tell the world about the real life they lived in – the deprivation, the violence, and the squalor. So he and Ed Fletcher (otherwise known as “Duke Bootee”) wrote “The Message”, which the rest of the band, Grandmaster Flash included, wanted nothing to do with3.

“The Message” is a sad, desperate social commentary. With its chorus of “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge\I’m trying not to loose my head\It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder\How I keep from goin’ under”, followed by a strange, mad grunting laugh, Melle Mel leaves you with no illusions about what party songs like “Planet Rock” and “That’s The Joint” were trying to make people forget. Over Fletcher’s slowly funky beats, with their incipient paranoia, he talks about “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back\Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat” and “People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care”. And that’s just the first verse. Cheery stuff.

This took urban American music back to the social commentary of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron, but with much of the soul replaced with a hard-edged anger, reflecting the violence and ugliness of everyday ghetto existence. Everything from Public Enemy and NWA, to 50 Cent would stem from here. Rap was now a force for reporting the bad times, not just selling the good times. It’s a battle that’s still going on today.

1 Yes, I know. But I’d bet you Peely would agree with me, and he probably did when he played it. I grew up with the sound of him putting records on at the wrong speed, or with fluff on the needle so the record skipped, or the time the needle slid all the way to the middle whilst he was in the loo, so we were treated to three minutes of a faint scuffling sound. I miss John Peel very, very much. *sniff*

2 And no, I don’t know why Pitchfork suddenly decided to allow two tracks on here and treat them as one. Yes, the seque into one another, but that doesn’t make them one track. They are two separate tracks on the album. But they’d often play them live together. Hmm. I’m confused.

3 Which does beg the question – why didn’t Melle Mel and Ed Fletcher just release it separately?

MP3: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels Of Steel by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

MP3: Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa

Buy “The Essential Grandmaster Flash” Here (CD)

Buy Funky 4+1’s “Back To The Old School 2 – That’s The Joint” (CD Box Set)

Buy Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (MP3)

Buy Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Noo Yawk – The Clash to ESG

The Clash – The Magnificent Seven
Talking Heads – Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice
Klein + MBO – Dirty Talk
ESG – Moody

This part of the Pitchfork 500 concentrates on New York bands, or bands who’d come to New York to record. And the sound of New York in 1980/81 was hip-hop and disco.

I’ll start off by saying that “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash still doesn’t change my mind about them. I really don’t see how them taking reggae and putting it into rock is still seen as somewhat revolutionary, when 10cc had done it two years early, to quite tooth-grindingly awful effect, on “Dreadlock Holiday”. Personally, I find Clash’s reggae just as bad. Maybe that’s just me. In any case, this track kicked off that quite terrifying sound of white English and American bands trying to rap. So there you go, The Clash are solely responsible for Limp Bizkit and Bloodhound Gang.

Ok, that’s being a little harsh. The Clash did at least really try to get involved in the genres of music that influenced them. This track, from 1980, was recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s old studio in Greenwich Village, where the band had decamped to record the sprawling 3xLP Sandinista. Mick Jones had been turned on by the rap music that had exploded onto the New York scene in the previous year (as I talked about in my last Pitchfork post)and wanted to incorporate elements of it into their new songs.

“The Magnificent Seven” is The Clash doing hip-hop, kind of. Rapping in an English voice just sounds wrong1 and posh-boy Strummers’ monotone delivery sounds stilted. The music itself isn’t too bad, I suppose. That’s me being nice.

I really still don’t know what gets my goat about The Clash though. Partly it’s that they just make huge pronouncements yet don’t follow them up. Like not using songs for advertising then selling themselves to Levis, or not wanting to sound like “The Beatles or Rolling Stones”, yet sounding like a not particularly competant version of the Stones on some songs. But, many, many bands I like adore The Clash – from Manic Street Preachers to The Hold Steady – so maybe I’m just odd.

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is Talking Heads’ third appearance in the Pitchfork 500 (out of four!)2. The song is a deeply odd mix of a kind of warped Afrobeat and uptight New Wave, with David Byrne doing his strange half singing/half talking thang over the top. Just as it can’t get any odder, there’s quite possibly the strangest guitar solo in history, from Adrian Belew (who’d later go on to play with King Crimson). Only Talking Heads could make dance music as uncomfortable as this:

Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” came as a real shock to me. For years, like most people, I only know Yoko Ono for her marriage to John Lennon3, with all the attendant baggage that holds, including her, errr, experimental music. And frankly I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of Yoko Ono now without thinking of this:

But this is a great track. Over a funky bass, noisy guitars (played by Lennon himself) and non-more-Italo Disco piano chords, Yoko sings about having to suffer the pains of life, and how we forget what has been said and done. And then she sings that “I may cry some day\But the tears will dry whichever way\And when our hearts return to ashes\It’ll be just a story”.

After mixing this track with her husband, they left the studio with the final mix in John’s hands. It was then that they met Mark Chapman, who shot John dead.

Klien + MBO’s “Dirty Talk” is one of those influential tracks you may never have heard before. Along with ESG, they made proto-electro, heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, mixed with the disco- and funk-based rap then exploding out of the Bronx. And it was this music heard by visiting Mancunians New Order and A Certain Ratio, who saw the beauty in interlocking bass and lead lines on the synthesiser mixed with dance beats. New Order took it back to Manchester and made Blue Monday.

“Dirty Talk” itself is an early example of the mix of disco and electro that would become House music. It can best be described as the Kraftwerk you can actually dance to, with some additional smuttiness on top that would later be built on by the likes of Lil Louis’s “French Kiss”. Let’s face it – if you can get glum Mancunians dancing, then you’re really onto something.

ESG are one of music’s great enigmas. Massively influential, they have been sampled by everyone from TLC, through Tricky to the Wu Tang Clan – so much so that they released an EP in 1995 called “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills”. Pitchfork themselves reckon that “If you like hip-hop…you have a 95% chance of owning a track that samples their 1981 song “UFO””.

Yet, if you went up to a man in the street, I’d bet you £1000 you’d need to speak to 100 people before you found one who’d heard of them. I only heard of them a few years back when my brother – who loves anything produced by Martin Hannett and living in New York at the time – played me some of their songs off Soul Jazz’s marvellous compilation “A South Bronx Story”. Right eye-opener it was too – ESG have that unusual ability to sound like loads of other people, yet totally unique. And of course, that familiarity is down to having their sound stolen/borrowed (delete as applicable depending on your moral stance toward sampling) by Man & Dog.

Produced by legendary genius, and total nutcase Martin Hannett, the song mixes jittery Post-punk with hip-hop and electro, with a fluid fretless bass making things funky at the bottom end. It’s a heady mix, and just as it’s building through the layers of echo that Hannett put everything through, it…..stops. You kind of expect it to restart, but you realise that’s it. It’s an audacious end to a stunning track.

So, go and enjoy ESG’s “Moody” and Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice”.

1 And indeed has only recently been rescued by the likes of Roots Manuva and various Grime folk; sadly the great MC Buzz B appears to have been completely lost to music historians.

2 Four Talking Heads tracks but no room for Grandaddy? Say it ain’t so.

3 It won’t come as much of a shock to you to discover I’m not a big fan of The Beatles either.

MP3: Walking on Thin Ice by Yoko Ono

MP3: Moody by ESG

The whole list is available here.

Buy “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash (MP3)

Buy Talking Heads “Remain in Light” (CD)

Buy Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” (MP3)

Buy Klien and MBO’s “Dirty Talk” (12″ Vinyl Is The Only Version I Found!)

Buy ESG’s “A South Bronx Story” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Old Skool – Blow to Three

The first section of The Pitchfork 500 was entitled “Year Zero”, as this was time when rock music effectively started again, as punk exploded into a million shards which spread through the music world. But the next section starts with another almost entirely new musical form – hip-hop (or rap, if you prefer. I’m not even sure what the distinction is myself, frankly). Whilst the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets had made spoken-word soul back in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, the impact had been limited. This is the music that would mutate from the funk-based rap on show here, to the world-encompassing monster of Gangsta rap and the commercial, more tuneful music of Kanye West and Jay-Z.

1980 saw hip-hop explode out of the Bronx onto an unsuspecting world. Whilst parties north of 135th Street had for a number of years been livened up with rapping, shout-outs, and general good-natured mayhem, record companies didn’t catch on until signing Kurtis Blow in ’79, and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit in the same year.

These four tracks all share the same traits, in that first and foremost, they were songs to make you dance. Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”, his second single, spells it out clearly enough – the IRS can be chasing you, your woman’s run off to Japan with another man, your mum is nagging you about the phone bill, and the Mafia are on your case about some money you owe them, but he’s got the breaks to make you dance your cares away. Whilst thankfully I haven’t had to deal with most of those problems – if Kurtis rapped about trying to get a 3-year-old to eo to bed, that might be more appropriate to my life right now – this is party rap in excelsis. He’s not called the “Father of Hip-Hop” for nothing, you know.

The Father Of Hip Hop

The Father Of Hip Hop

And the tune is so funky that even nearly 30 years later, it has the power to make Germans dance:

“Monster Jam” by Spoonie Gee Meets The Sequence is a top example of how early hip-hop was a much jollier place than the later gangsta rap. Featuring the all-girl trio The Sequence, the rappers do their stuff over the house band playing funky beats, not too dissimilar to “Good Times” by Chic. When you think of old skool, this is one of those tunes you think of.

The Sugarhill Gang gang’s “Rappers Delight” was the first true rap hit. It was hit around the world, and rightfully so, thanks to its deft mix of disco and hip-hop. So, a great tune, and genuinely ground-breaking – a bit of history. Which makes it rather odd that Pitchfork chose “Eighth Wonder” as their representative tune on this list. Even the article in the book spends far more time talking about “Rappers Delight” than it does about the tune they actually chose. Odd. That’s not to say “Eighth Wonder” isn’t a great track – it is – but it’s like picking “Friction” instead of “Marquee Moon”. Or “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” instead of “Wuthering Heights”. Or “Hand In Glove” instead of “This Charming Man”. You get the idea. Great songs, yes, but not the ones that should be on this list.

So anyway, “Eighth Wonder” featured the new Sugar Hill Records house band, comprising none other than Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc, who later went on to make records with Mark Stewart (of The Pop Group) as Mark Stewart and the Maffia. What a great musical connection – that a lanky bloke from Bristol and one of the leading lights of post-punk met up with the guys who played the music on some of the earliest rap hits1. Isn’t music grand?

In any case, Sugarhill Gang – the rappers Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee – weren’t really from the Bronx rap scene. Indeed, Big Bank Hank stole his lyrics for “Rappers Delight” from Cold Crush Brothers, who really were from the Bronx scene, and these two facts caused the Sugarhill Gang to be treated with disdain by the original rappers. This was the first major beef in a genre that’s been plagued by them, to the extent that people have been killed over slanging matches. You don’t get that sort of passion in shoegaze, you know.

And finally, The Treacherous Three’s thing was quick-step wordplay, and “The New Rap Language”, which featured the aforementioned Spoonie Gee, was an early classic. This was the music that influenced the likes of Eric B and Rakim, Run DMC and Beastie Boys – basic, fluid beats, with some astonishingly dextrous rapping on top. Yep, they really do say “Supercagifragilisticefpialidocious” in the opening sentence – and that sets the scene. And yep, the rapping is largely about how bad they are, how they please the ladies, and how great they are at rapping. But who cares when it’s as dazzling as this?

To someone who’s never been a big fan of either Gangsta Rap, with its bitches, guns and ho’s, or the autotuned poppery of Kanye (I was always much more a fan of Public Enemy, the Daisy Age tunes of De La Soul et al, and more recent stuff like The Roots and Common), these tunes are a breath of fresh air. They remind you what rap started off as, and before it got waylaid into violence and drugs, what life-affirming, joyful music it was. I feel quite cheered up now. Oh, here comes The Clash to annoy me again…

1 But not “Rappers Delight”, incidentally.

MP3: The New Rap Language by The Treacherous Three

Buy Kurtis Blow’s “Best Of…Rappin'” (CD)
Buy The Sugarhill Gang’s “The Greatest Hits” (CD)
Buy The Treacherous Three’s “The New Rap Language” (MP3)

The whole list is available here.

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The Pitchfork 500 The End Of Year Zero – Costello to Talking Heads

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Radio Radio
The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry
XTC – Making Plans for Nigel
Blondie – Atomic
Talking Heads – Memories Can’t Wait

Here we are at the final five songs of the first chapter of the Pitchfork 500, 1977-1979. Three bands from England and two from the US; both US bands are from the edgy, glamorous, centre-of-the-universe city that was New York in the late ’70’s, and the English bands are from Crawley, Twickenham and Swindon. Swindon, I ask you.

But they had lots in common; they could look back at the past, taking disparate influences and turn them into something new but still familiar. All had great pop nous and the ability to make chart-topping tunes that sound great now, thirty years later.

Elvis Costello was a scrawny, geeky, angry type from west London with a history in music long before punk came along. His father wrote, sang and starred in this classic advert from the early ’70’s, with Elvis singing the backing vocals:

You can see the similarity, can’t you?

After forming a number of bands, he finally settled on The Attractions and with them, he cracked the mix of New Wave with Soul that would characterise his music for years to come (just think of the covers of “Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”). “Radio Radio” wasn’t as well known to me as some of his bigger hits, but it’s a spiky little slice of pure EC, down to the sardonic lyrics: “And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools\Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel”. Yep, that’ll get your song played on the radio. And that was in the late ’70’s; imagine how he’d feel now, in this Clear Channeled world, where every radio station in the whole of the US plays the same songs day in, day out?

The Cure have two types of songs. The miserable, hair-covering-your-eyes-boo-hoo-hoo-I’m-so-unhappy-even-though-I’m-a-really-rich-rock-star songs1, and the chirpy, happy songs with a dark undertow. This is one of the latter, and indeed, probably the first sighting. The song reeks of the student disco and fey skinny types jumping around with their arms in the air, bless ’em.

What makes the song, if not quite great, then at least interesting, is the air of ambiguity. You’re not sure what exactly he’s done to deserve it, other than “But I know that this time\I have said too much\Been too unkind” and that he’s “misjudged your limit”. Oh dear, Robert, you nasty fellow. Still, could be worse, eh? You could be living in Swindon.

Swindon, for those who don’t know it, is a little like post-Apocalyptic Washington in Fallout 3, except the locals have a West Country accent and there’s slightly less shooting (the Super Mutants are firmly in place, though admittedly drinking cider and wearing short skirts). And from there hail XTC, some sensible cars, Mark Lamarr, and a not very good football team. Of them, XTC are probably the most remarkable. This song, “Making Plans For Nigel”, was one of their biggest hits. It tells the tale of a young man being forced into taking a menial job at British Steel, and his lack of resistance to a life of drudgery. Foreshadowing the destruction of working class ambition to come during the Thatcher years, it’s a tale of inertia and tedium. Andy Partridge would later be crippled by epic stage fright, and after his girlfriend threw away the Valium he took to overcome anxiety, wouldn’t perform live again. Studio-bound, XTC never got the critical mass of a fanbase behind them to really push onto the success their talents could have got them.

Unlike Blondie. Ah, Debbie Harry. Men of a certain age will remember her appearance on ToTP in the last ’70’s wistfully well into their dotage. She was classy, droll and so, so, cool. Men wanted to be with her and women wanted to be her. Injecting glamour and sex appeal into New Wave was her game, and boy, did she succeed. So utterly confident she’d dance round in a swimsuit and a jacket for the video to Denis:

That’s not to say that Debbie was the only thing that made Blondie special. Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri were excellent songwriters, and the band had a superb magpie element, taking songs from other bands, such as power-pop band The Nerves’ “Hanging On The Telephone” and The Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” and making them their own2. They could mix the dance and hip-hop they heard on the streets and clubs of Manhattan, with power-pop and pure, balls out rock-and-roll learned from years of playing alongside Television and The Ramones at CBGB’s, with such finesse and style that at their best, they are gobsmacking. Give Parallel Lines, or better still The Best Of Blondie, to your nearest teenager and bet them to find anything released in the last year or so that comes even close to it. Or find me someone in their 30’s or 40’s who doesn’t like them, and I’ll show you a liar.

Saying that, I really don’t think “Atomic” is their best number. Whilst it’s got the futuristic sheen to it, and the sheer nerve of the lyrics (only 11 words used, fact fans!), to me it’s just not got the out-and-out pop brilliance of “Picture This”, “Denis”3 or “Sunday Girl”, or the proto-hip-hop of “Rapture”, or the sheen of “Heart Of Glass”. Still, Blondie beat up many of the bands on this list.

After that, “Memories Can’t Wait” comes as something of a shock. One of Talking Heads’ more paranoid moments, it sounds like the party that’s going on in David Byrne’s head is a particularly unpleasant one. Listening to this is a reasonable approximation of being in a noisy bar after someone’s spiked your drink with Ketamine. Uneasy listening, I suppose you could call it. It’s rather addictive.

66 down, 434 to go. We’ve had everything from the dark noise of This Heat and Throbbing Gristle to the pop nous of Blondie and The Buzzcocks, via Disco, Funk, Reggae, Power-Pop, the first beginnings of Electronica, Punk, Post-Punk, Punk-Funk, Funky-Punk, Clanky-Drummy-Shouty-Punk and Pop-Punk. I’ve rather enjoyed it so far. Hope you have too. There’s loads more to come, you know.

1 Ok, so he wasn’t a rich rock star when he started writing those songs, but doing it when you’re 50 and rich enough to buy a small African countries is stretching the bounds of credibility.

2 So much so I didn’t even realise “Hanging On The Telephone” was a cover until I researched this article.

3 Yep, I know “Denis” is a cover too, but they messed around with it enough to call it their own, French-singing and all.

Atomic by Blondie

Memories Can’t Wait by Talking Heads

The whole list is available here.