Keep Swinging

Slowly coming to conciousness to the news that David Bowie has passed away is definitely not the best way to start the day. In a day and age that everyone and their pet shagapoo gets called a genius, Bowie was a reminder that in the great, nearly empty safari park of old rockers there still lived some true, genuine, proper 100% geniuses1.

Bowie was one of those stars who was just there when I was growing up. A strange, alien presence in and amongst the white sliced loaf of mainstream music. The first time he really struck me was in the video for “Ashes To Ashes” – the padded cell, the procession in front of the bulldozer, his “mother” talking to him on the beach. For an eight year old, it was frankly quite creepy. But it most definitely was not what normal rock stars did, more than a decade into their careers.

For whatever reason though, I never went out of my way to listen to his music. Sure, it was always around; always a welcome presence on late-night radio during one dead-end warehouse nightshift job2. It’s only recently that I’ve started to listen to his old albums properly (the Five Years Boxset being key here) with Blackstar next on the list.

Musicians today could do with taking a leaf, or a thousand, from his book. Be different. Be ambiguous. Re-invent yourself. Look to the margins. Don’t do what everyone tells you to do. Be who you want to be.

And you can’t ever forget what impact he had on culture as a whole. His ethos of reinvention, of difference, of ambiguity, spoke to millions of people growing up in villages, towns and cities, who themselves felt different; who wanted to reinvent, who wanted to be ambiguous. After Bowie, it was ok to be who you wanted to be, not what people said you were. That changed people’s lives, much for the better. The world would be a much worse place without him.

Cheerio, mate.

1 I’m looking at you, Bob.

2 Roy Orbison being another.

Pitchfork 500 – Bowie to Smith

So, here goes, the first proper part of me listening to The Pitchfork 500 so hardly anyone can read it.

As a quick precis, Pitchfork (highly regarded and influential yet somewhat snobby music website), released a book toward the end of last year, detailing the greatest 500 songs from 1977 to 2007. And I’m going to listen to them all and comment on some of them.

This is also a rather long post – over 1200 words. Sorry. But there are some gags at the bottom.

First off, David Bowie’s Heroes. When I was a kid, David Bowie was a hugely popular yet deeply odd pop star. The “Ashes To Ashes” video is still burned into my retina, especially the bit where they walk in front of the digger:

And so, first track in, I’ve got two points to make. Firstly, Heroes is the wrong song. Yes, it’s good and everything; I can understand that’s a link between the Beach Boys and Krautrock; the production is amazing – with so much happening at once it’s impossible to take in for the first, ooh, ten listens – but it’s the wrong song. Ashes To Ashes is a far finer song, infinitely creepy, lyrically superb, marvellously evocative of a man on the edge, and I’ll bet if you walked up to the man in the street* and asked him to sing a Bowie song, it’d be Ashes To Ashes. I’ll be coming back to this point throughout the list.

Which leads me onto the second point. Whilst I can’t argue with the list as a whole – there will always be omissions, changes, etc – I’ll bet you that anyone can hum the tune to at least two or three of the first five songs on the list:

David Bowie – Heroes
Iggy Pop – The Passenger
Lou Reed – Street Hassle
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
Brian Eno – 1/1

But I’ll bet you $10m that hardly anyone, even someone working in Rough Trade, wouldn’t be able to hum two or three out of five of the last songs on the list:

Hot Chip – Boy from School
Animal Collective – Grass
Black Dice – Cone Toaster
Liars – The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack
Panda Bear – Bros

I mean, I’ve got a pretty reasonable grasp of modern alternative music (or I wouldn’t be doing this) but I haven’t got a clue how two of these songs go. I doubt I’ve even heard them.

Now maybe this is thanks to the atomisation, Balkanisation, whatever of modern music. There are so few shared experiences in music any more – just about the last UK No. 1 that everyone can sing along to was a charity song by Peter Kay (“Show Me The Way To Amarillo”). And that’s going back a couple of years. But ask anyone in their mid-30’s or above to sing David Bowie, or Iggy Pop, or Lou Reed, or Talking Heads, and you’ll get a pretty decent response. And these, even thirty years later, are challenging, brave, fascinating songs. And they all seriously bothered the charts. Now? Nada. Ok, so Girls Aloud do some bonkers things in their songs – how many songs in one? – but they are the exception in modern, pop, high-selling music.

Maybe it’s just that the Pitchfork team have got more and more snooty over time, and aren’t viewing the present with the same populist spectacles as they view the past. I mean, there’s no Girls Aloud.

Anyway, that’s Bowie over and done with.

Before we go any further, I’ll just say that I won’t talk that much about every single song, or I may as well start a book myself.

So the next few, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, yep, great songs, though I always thought Lou Reed was a bit of a cock. Then Kraftwerk. Fuck me, total genius. What more is there to say? Actually, quite a bit more, but I’ll come back to this later.

Brian Eno – baldy slaphead invents Ambient music and does it better than 99% of the people that follow him. Actually make that 99.9%.

The Ramones – wonderful. But possibly the wrong song. Beat on the Brat?

Talking Heads – wonderful, again. Big suit! Loon! Their best song (along with Once In A Lifetime)! Far too clever for pop music! What do you mean, there’s three more of their songs on this list? Jebus.

And then, it’s Television’s Marquee Moon.

Where to start? Well, I’ve no idea what it’s about (and it seems like no-one does). It goes on for 10 minutes, of which about five are a guitar solo, which to a child of the punk wars like me, is heresy. The song is sneered rather than sung. It’s bonkers. But I still can’t stop listening to it. Put simply, it’s fucking genius. Everyone from New Order, The Fall, Sonic Youth, The Smiths (you can really pick up Verlaine’s blend of precision and emotion in Johnny Marr’s playing), through to Radiohead and, well, any half-decent band of the last five years, has got this in their DNA.

Why? I told you, it’s fucking genius.

It mixes simplicity and complexity. It sounds fresh every time you hear it. The guitar lines interweave like the finest Persian carpet. There’s not an ounce of fat on it. The lyrics are bizarre, enigmatic, and draw you in, trying to decipher them (“Life in the hive puckered up my night/The kiss of death, the embrace of life/There I stand ‘neath the Marquee Moon” – dude, WTF?). The deftness of both Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitar playing – listen to the lead line between the verse and chorus, there’s a tiny bit of vibrato on the first ascending line then it’s played totally straight on the repeat, each time; a wonderful bit of texture, and exactly the kind of thing that makes me keep listening, and I can point out all sorts of bits like this, all the way through. Yes, it goes on, but it never once feels like it’s 10 minutes long. And it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

For me, and I strongly suspect the bands above, this is our Beatles, our Stones, our Dylan, our Led Zep. Much of the music you’ll find posted on the infinite set of music blogs stems from this one song, and Kraftwerk, and possibly a bit of Velvet Underground. Like Kraftwerk, it owes next to nothing from what preceded it. I once read somewhere that Marquee Moon was the first rock song that had nothing to do with the blues tradition and I think that’s nearly right (not that I’ve got anything against the blues tradition); in many ways it’s comes more from jazz and even classical music. It’s just bizarre. As are Kraftwerk. Speaking of whom, they once told an interviewer that they in fact were huge fans of Iggy Pop and were simply trying to make music, using electronics, that sounded like him. I suspect that’s an example of the famous German sense of humour**. In any case, like Marquee Moon, Trans Europe Express still sounds fresh and alive. Wonderful stuff.

And for both bands, probably their best song (though Venus and The Model respectively are very close).

As for Patti Smith, cor, she doesn’t half sound like that PJ Harvey.

Phew. I’ll try to keep the next one shorter. Which will be PUNK! And why I hate The Clash.

*I do rather like that John Lydon quote “I’ve met the man in the street and he’s a cunt”

**My favourite joke I heard in Germany was “What’s the definition of an Austrian? A German with no sense of humour”. It’s funny on so many levels.

Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk

Marquee Moon by Television

The whole list is available here.