Steven Wells was one of the voices of my teenage years. A frustrating, infuriating, cajoling voice maybe, but also a fiercely intelligent one, never afraid to speak out against anything or anyone. Swells, as everyone called him, was openly gay in a world still not comfortable with homosexuality, and he never failed to let you know about it. In fact he never failed to raise his voice about anything. And whilst that could sometimes make him rather irritating, it also meant he said things that no-one else was saying – and often he was right.

Cheer up mate.

Cheer up mate.

What you got with Swells was honesty and integrity. You didn’t necessarily agree with everything he said – and you knew he was sometimes saying things just to wind people up (usually he’d say so) – but you knew it was coming from a real person, with real thoughts inside his rather mad head. I’ll miss him. I’m posting Husker Du’s “New Day Rising” in his honour, because I think it would annoy and enthral him in equal measure. I can see him up in the clouds, little angel wings on his back, shouting “PROPER ROCK made by A PROPER GAY MAN!”.

(Steven Wells died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday 23rd June 2009).

Oh aye, and some other fella passed away too.

The world’s awash with tributes right now. All I’ll say is what I said a few months back – he was hugely talented, and hugely wasted. Rest in peace, old chap.

And Farrah Fawcett too? Bloody hell.

MP3: New Day Rising by Husker Du

MP3: Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough by Michael Jackson

Buy “Thriller” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Mixed Bag – The Go-Go’s to Jackson

So far, listening to the Pitchfork 500 list has been great fun. In each group of four to eight songs, there have always been personal favourites that I love to talk about, or songs I’ve never heard before and loved, and some songs that I’d forgotten were so good. Sure, there’s been some duffers, but that’s in the nature of a list like this. But this next part, I’ve got to say, was something of a chore.

The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Tom Tom Club – Genius of Love
Prince – Dirty Mind
Daryl Hall & John Oates – I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean

First off is The Go-Go’s. This is the band that brought Belinda Carlisle her first taste of success, and for the most part, you can see why with this song. Funnily enough, I think it’s the first time I’d heard the original rather than the Fun Boy Three version. Mind you, as Terry Hall co-wrote the song and was a founding member of Fun Boy Three, does that still make it a cover?

See? Fun Boy Three is definitely the superior.

Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love” will be familiar to the younger readers amongst you as being heavily copied by Mariah Carey’s “Boyfriend”. See if you can see the resemblance:

Mariah Carey TV on MUZU.

(sorry, can’t find it on YouTube thanks to the ridiculous PRS in the UK)

Written by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads whilst David Byrne was off with Brian Eno, it managed to be a bigger hit than anything Talking Heads had so far released, showing Byrne that he wasn’t the only influential songwriter who liked exploring the boundaries of modern pop. Hugely influential, it’s been sampled by world + dog. And Mariah Carey.

I’m now feeling guilty that I prefer the Mariah Carey version. What I am becoming?

We all know Prince is a genius. A superb musician, blessed with stamina, finesse, and more funk in his little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies, he’s also guilty of churning out album after album of tedious funk-pop, when he could be writing more songs like “Alphabet Street” and “1999”. “Dirty Mind” is a bit of a funny choice, as it showcases his tedious funk-pop rather than the pop genius that has made him such a huge success. And I’ve tried it a few times but it just ain’t got that swing.

I can’t even find a YouTube video of it. Not going to be one of those days, is it?

And the less I say about Daryl Hall & John Oates’s “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” the better, I suspect. This sort of song makes me wish bad things on everyone involved. It’s a horrid, vapid, pointless waste of time. Why is it on this list? Why? WHY???

Just listening to it again. And read what Pitchfork had to say. Somehow I doubt it really influenced the next song that much. As Wilco once said, I can’t stand it. Ok, the middle eight bit is passable, I suppose.

(edit: I don’t know why I posted the video twice in the original article. All I can say is sorry for inflicting it on you twice)

Thank God for Michael Jackson for having the only sure-fire absolute classic of the five. As I mentioned on the first Jackson song on the list (Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough), when you forget about all his later troubles, you remember what a fantastic musician he was, and how well he worked with Quincy Jones.

What struck me, listening to this again, was the sense of space in the song. There’s nothing extra, no slack, and the ambiguous sense of both disbelief at the situation, and the underlying guilt, hardly hidden from view, adds to the palpable tension. It’s just a fantastic record, and nothing more needs to be said about it. If you don’t like “Billie Jean”, you don’t like music.

That’s all for this, rather short and inconclusive Pitchfork post. It gets better next time, honest.

The whole list is available here.

MP3: Our Lips Are Sealed by The Go-Go’s

MP3: Genius Of Love by Tom Tom Club

Buy “Go Gos Greatest Hits” (CD)

Buy “Tom Tom Club” (CD)

Buy Prince’s “Ultimate” (MP3) (Doesn’t have “Dirty Mind”, But you’re better off with this)

Buy “Looking Back: The Best of Hall & Oates” (CD) (If You Don’t Like Your Ears)

Buy Michael Jackson’s “Thriller [25th Anniversary Edition CD + DVD]”

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The Disco Pitchfork 500 – Summer to Gaye

Back the late 80’s and early 90’s, when acid house and its predecessor Balearic beats were starting to pulsate through nightclubs and warehouses up and down the country, there used to be a little club in Newcastle called Rockshots. It was primarily a gay club, but on Thursday nights it ran a kind-of straight night in collaboration with The Trent House, thanks to local impressario Tommy Caulker. Now, the Trent House was one of the finest pubs in the city*, and had the best jukebox I’ve ever seen, filled with classic soul and reggae, with a smattering of top indie tunes (back in the day when indie really was indie, ooh, it were all fields round ‘ere when I were a lad), along with the Barley Mow and the Egypt Cottage, As a quick aside, the Egypt Cottage was next to Tyne Tees TV, and the inspiration for Viz’s classic strip Roger Mellie, came when a local TV presenter wandered in, obviously half-cut, asked for a pint with a whisky chaser, and when asked sarcastically “Shouldn’t you be on the telly?” by the barman, replied “Yes, so fucking hurry up”. The TV presenter downed them both, left, and minutes later was seen on the TV reading the news. Roger Mellie was born.

Anyway, Thursday nights at Rockshots were legendary. They played a mix of soul, acid house, disco, and anything else that took the DJ’s fancy. The clientele was a mix of locals and clued-up students, the air was filled with the heady scent of poppers (I told you it was a gay club, you know) and there was rarely any bother from anyone, a pleasant change from some of the more, errrr, unreconstructed places like Masters or Macy’s**. And so, this was the first place I ever really got to hear disco music in its pure, unadulterated, hedonistic form – and the uber-Disco song has just got to be “I Feel Love”.

Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte took the electronic savvy of Kraftwerk and mixed it with the Donna Summer’s soulful vocals, creating a song designed soley to keep you on the dancefloor. And listening to it nearly 20 years after I first properly heard it (and by properly, I mean happily off my nuts on whatever drink and drug combo we were doing at the time, with the occasional shot of poppers for that nicely chemical high, as opposed to watching Top Of The Pops with my family whilst I was six), I’m amazed at how it moves. It’s constantly shifting, changing, and whilst the bassbeat stays the same, everything on top of it is evolving and developing. It’s an astonishing piece of music.

Moroder’s own “The Chase”, whilst using the same tricks, just doesn’t sound quite as breathtakingly alive as “I Feel Love”, and suffers rather more from dated keyboard sounds. But you can tell how people like Moroder moved in lockstep with Kraftwerk, and how later bands like Cabaret Voltaire and New Order would take this template and build on it.

Chic’s “Good Times” is less revolutionary than either of the preceding tunes, but as good music goes, it’s up there with the best of them. Funky, slinky, desperately danceable, it’s been one of the most influential records of the last thirty years. You just know that bassline. And the handclaps. The careful use of strings. And that funky guitar – from one of the guitar world’s finest ever players, Nile Rodgers (who, fact fans, used to play in the Sesame Street band. Now, that must have been one of the best jobs in the world). Just like Television’s Marquee Moon, it’s long, but never outstays its welcome. All in all, it’s funky as funky can be and no record collection is complete without it.

Now, whilst I can’t really say that Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is a bad song (it’s not, it’s great), but it’s a cover version, and not exactly a dramatic re-working. And the original, from 1975, is better. It feels a bit like the authors of the list wanted this song in by hook or by crook. Hmmm.

“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor just about survives the fact that you can’t drink in any city centre in the UK on a Saturday night these days without coming across a bunch of drunken women, usually a hen night, yelling it out at the top of their lungs at about midnight. As the book itself states, it became an anthem for the generation of gay men tragically cut down by AIDS in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Ah, Michael Jackson. It’s tough now to remember why he was so loved, what with the plastic face, the exceedingly dodgy friendships with children, the whole Neverland and monkeys thing, oh, and the hanging babies out of windows, but once upon a time, back in the Neolithic period, he was rather talented. I mean, really, really talented. Together with Quincy Jones, they created some mind-bogglingly good pop music (and Billie Jean’s coming later, so I won’t go on too much about him now). This was the start of it, and the template is in place. Effortlessly catchy, expertly put together, mixing horns, strings, funk guitar, handclaps, hey, the whole kitchen sink is in there, but it just sounds so right.

Doesn't He Look Young?

Doesn't He Look Young?

Parliament’s “Flash Light”…well, what can I say? It’s funky. Funkier than a funkier thing that’s got the funk-da-funk on its funky ass. But it’s not as funky as “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”, which was released in 1975, so misses out on the list. But watching the live version below, it’s amazing how much funkier it is live, in full funky effect.

I think I’ve said funky enough times now.

To the last song on the list. Marvin Gaye was one of music’s most tragic losses. I mean, you expect, when you’re a world famous musician with one of the best voices you’ll ever hear, honey-sweet yet chilli-hot and with just enough grizzled edge to keep you interested, to get into the usual drugs/alcohol/unsuitable women/traumatic divorce/depression/living in Ostend thing, but being shot and killed by your own dad is just off the bad shit scale. Poor souls. As for “Got To Give It Up”, it’s a surefire dancefloor winner and all, but I have to put my hand on heart and say it’s not a patch on “What’s Going On”, surely one of the finest four minutes ever recorded.

Of these tunes, it’s “I Feel Love” and “Good Times” that last the best. They are songs of excitement, of the heady rush of love and drugs, of thrilling nights out filled with joy. The Pitchfork 500 is full of songs of love, anger, betrayal, yearning, hatred, stupidity, masturbation, being a human fly, and thousands of other emotions and experiences, but few capture them as well as these two. And isn’t that what great music is about?

* And indeed was, last time I went up there about three years ago. The jukebox was still great, the upstairs pool tables still there and playable, and the beers still good. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change.

**One friend did have a particularly nasty experience in Rockshots around 1992, by which time the club had been discovered by a rather unpleasant drug-dealing meathead contingent, and the magic left.

I Feel Love by Donna Summer

Good Times by Chic

The whole list is available here.