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”).
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.
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.
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.