Pitchfork 500 Electro Part 1 – Art to Liquid

The mid-’80’s were a haven of experimentation. New technology – sampling and sequencing – had appeared, which threw open the doors of possibility to those with the imagination to use them to their full potential. Oh, and had a spare £10,000 knocking about for a Fairlight. Here’s the first three of a selection of six Electro-ish tunes. Well, sort of Electro.

Art of Noise – Beat Box (Diversion One)
Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax
Liquid Liquid – Optimo

The Art Of Noise were an electro-pop quartet from London, with Trevor Horn producing and Paul Morley talking bollocks about them. Which meant that, even at the time, they were supremely irritating. After listening to them again, they are still supremely irritating.

Without meaning to turn this into a rant about how Art of Noise were supremely irritating, they really were. I’ve got a low tolerance threshold for pretentious bollocks – or at least, pretentious bollocks that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is – and Art Of Noise’s “Beat Box” seems to me like a bunch of art students mucking about with a Fairlight. Considering Cabaret Voltaire were sampling using tape loops in the mid-‘70’s, I don’t see how this can be seen as being a whole new way of making music, as its fans have done. Still, people sampled it, people like it. Your mileage may vary.

The Art Of Bollocks, More Like

Oh, and their “Best Of” is called “Influence: Hits, Singles, Moments, Treasures”. See? Supremely irritating.

With nearly thirty years distance, it is hard to imagine what a massive storm Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” caused in the UK. As a 12-year old, the fact that there was a record at number 1 in the chart that was blatantly sexual was shocking. Especially as I didn’t really know what the song was going on about. Oh come on, I bet you didn’t either. What was even more hilarious was that the song itself had been pootling around the chart for weeks until Mike Read started reading the lyrics whilst playing it on his radio show. Realising belatedly that the content may not be happily termed “family friendly”, he ripped the record off the turntable, called it “obscene”. As a result, the song was banned by the BBC.

And You Thought Chris Moyles Was Bad

For those younger readers, you have to remember that this was a world in which pretty much all the music you heard broadcast, whether on TV or radio, came from either the BBC or ITV. There were few, if any, independent stations and those that existed were blander than bland. There was no internet, of course. You might share music with your mates, and there were some great music magazines around, but to hear something yourself it generally came from the BBC. So for them to openly ban something – what drama! You just had to hear it!

“Relax” stayed at number one for five weeks, and did end up teaching some people a lesson. If you want to stop people hearing something, don’t tell them about it. What you don’t do is tell people you’re not playing something, because they will go “Ooh, bet it’s something naughty!” and go out and buy it in droves.

That’s not to say that “Relax” is just a naughty record. It’s far more than that. It’s a very, very good record that is also quite naughty. That squelchy sound is still remarkably icky.

Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” was one of those songs that I used to hear in fabulous late-80’s/early-90’s Newcastle nitespot Rockshots. Perfectly pleasant dance music, and charming to think that it’s now 18 years old. Aaah, they grow up so fast! But not entirely sure what it’s doing here. One of the top 500 tracks in the past 30 years? Nah. Oh, and it’s in GTA IV too. Woo.

Next up, some more Electro-ey goodness with Shannon and Section 25. If you liked this, read the other posts in the series here.

MP3: Relax (Come Fighting) by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

MP3: Optimo by Liquid Liquid

Buy “Influence: Hits, Singles, Moments, Treasures (Best Of)”

Buy “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome: 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Buy “Liquid Liquid”

The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 1 – Mekons to The Smiths

The mid-’80’s saw the UK Independent music scene reach another of its many high points. For a couple of years, the scene had been characterised by ramshackle amateurism, post-punk dourness and not a small amount of glumness (following on from the late ’70’s glories). But as always in the ever-changing UK scene, like mushrooms growing from manure, some of the finest pop music known to man sprung from all over the UK. Others, like The Jesus And Mary Chain, found new ways to be angry and noisy and blew apart the hitherto moribund scene.

The Mekons – Last Dance
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

The Mekons were a punk collective, formed in Leeds in the furnace of the punk years. Then they did the usual thing, and broke up. Then, being a forward-looking bunch, decided to not bother reforming in the mid Naughties like compatriots Gang Of Four and got back together in 1984 to do some gigs supporting the Miner’s Strike. Taking the opportunity to experiment, they added a violinist, an accordionist, and sundry other members and set about making a kind of ramshackle folk sound, using their curiosity and a certain amount of musical talent to make charmingly tuneful, if somewhat disorganised music.

Charmingly Ramshackle

“Last Dance” tells the tale of being drunk in a nightclub, watching some lovely lady dancing away on her own. Sure, there’s quite a few examples of this genre in everything from Country to Hip-Hop, but few have put it quite as charmingly as this:

“So beautiful, you were waltzing\Little frozen rivers all covered with snow”

You don’t get that from 50 Cent. There’s more to the song than just drunken letching though; the line “as if seeing you for the first time” points out that he’s not just randomly ogling, there’s a depth to this apparently one-sided relationship, adding a certain poignancy. The Mekons never really got any kind of mainstream success or recognition, but have continued releasing records to a small, loyal and fervent fanbase. And who can blame them? This is exactly the kind of largely unknown gem that the Pitchfork 500 does such a good job in digging up, and one of those songs that makes you glad to trawl through the whole load. Lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were anything but lovely. Loveliness was not their thing. Their thing was noise, great big globbets of it. Noisy guitars, noisy drums belted out by a lank-haired goon standing up1, cooler-than-thou vocals from a man who looked like he hadn’t eaten in about 12 years. I cannot understate the shock value of this band in 1985. Hailing from Glum City Central, Glasgow, they exploded onto the scene, did 20 minute gigs which usually ended up in a fight, and wrote one of the best2 debut albums around (that’ll be Psychocandy). I actually got this as a Xmas present that year, which still fills me with pride.

Cheer Up, Lads, One Of You Will Have It Off With Hope Sandoval

But you know what, this is the wrong song. Frankly, “Just Like Honey” doesn’t have any of the buzzsaw impact of “Never Understand”, their first single. This is just a bit, well, girly. Worse, even at the time, it was shamefully derivative. Trust me, if a spotty-faced oikish 14 year old could spot that this was hardly original, then your number is up. Sure, the song is a good ‘un, but as far as the impact of the JAMC goes, the likes of “In a Hole” and “You Trip Me Up” had far more of an impact, at least in the UK. But as a demonstration of how you can take The Velvet Underground, mix in some Phil Spector drums, and fuzz it all up a bit, I suppose it’s got its merits.

As for The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?”, what can I say? If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and taking any kind of notice), you’ll be thinking “Oh God, not another 1,000 word post on how great The Smiths are and if you don’t like them, you’re wrong, you hate music and you probably eat kittens with dormouse sauce for dinner”.

Well, I don’t really like this song very much. There, I said it. Look, I know it’s sonically adventurous, I know it’s the single that broke them in the US3, I know it’s got some marvellously glum lyrics that encapsulate everything about Morrissey in one, nearly-rhyming couple (“I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”), but, but, but….I just don’t like it. There’s no little glistening glimmer of light in amongst the glumness, unlike in their finest hours. So for that, “How Soon Is Now?”, you’re fired.

Next up is the second part of this series, with the likes of New Order and Cocteau Twins. Sweet. By the way, long-term readers might notice the lack of YouTube videos; this is due to a lack of access to YouTube at the moment. Should be fixed soon, my friends.

1 Who later went onto fame as the lead singer of a twee indie-pop group called Primal Scream, who shamefacedly reinvented themselves as a hard-rocking, hard-drugging band, to much laughter from those in the know and much love from those not. I’m not a fan. Though I do like “Velocity Girl”, but let’s not get into that now.

2 Ok, maybe not “best”, but at least “most recognisable” and “strongly defined” and “better than anything they did in the future”. File under “Definitely Maybe”.

3 Like that counts for anything.

MP3: Last Dance by The Mekons

MP3: Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain

MP3: How Soon Is Now by The Smiths

Buy “Heaven and Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons” (CD)

Buy JAMC’s “Psychocandy: Remastered” (CD)

Buy “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths (CD) (What, you don’t have this already? Shame on you).

The Pitchfork 500 Great American Noise – Replacement Acid

Noise. Anger. Rage. Being a bit drunk. Big dollops of “fuck you” attitude. All this, and more, feature in this instalment of The Pitchfork 5001. Cue guitar intro.

The Replacements – Bastards of Young
Big Black – Kerosene
Scratch Acid – The Greatest Gift

We last saw The Replacements singing about trying to hook up with some poor, unsuspecting lady in “I Will Dare” (off an album that also featured the charmingly titled “Gary’s Got A Boner”). The Replacements ouevre generally centred around beer, drinking beer, trying to get more beer, trying to hook up whilst on beer, feeling terrible because of all that beer they were drinking, and the band themselves were clearly fans of, err, beer. However, the Reagan administration was clearly playing on Paul Westerberg’s mind, and “Bastards of Young” was their anthem to the lost generation – the proto Gen-X’ers – of the mid ’80’s. The lyrics are a resigned paean to youth that had little hope and even lesser chances of breaking out into the sunny world promised to them by Reagonomics:

The ones that love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest/And visit their graves on holidays at best/The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please

The band, normally mucking around drunk in the background, provide sterling backing to Westerberg’s heartfelt lyrics. The video was great too. I dimly recall seeing this on Beavis and Butthead (“Smash it! SMASH IT!”), but as all the copies I could find had embedding disabled, you’ll just have to look yourself. In the meantime, enjoy this live version:

The song became a minor hit, though in true Replacements style, even when they got onto “Saturday Night Live”, they still ballsed it up by turning up drunk and then compounded the issue by swearing on-air. This was to be their fate; a great, ramshackle band hampered by their own inability to knuckle down and stop using being in a band as an excuse to get drunk.

Big Black were another thing entirely. When I was a teenager, Big Black were the nasty, screwed-up band from the mid-West who hated you personally and wanted you to know it. Big Black were the one-stop shop for songs about all the unpleasant things in life. Mainman Steve Albini in particular had a particularly gnarly reputation; he deliberated set out to antagonise the liberal media and boy, did he succeed (to the extent that he went on to form the even more charmingly titled Rapeman). But, for one reason or another, I never really listened to any of their stuff.

One Of These Men Is Now A Lawyer

So, during the opening bars of “Kerosene” I thought “Hey, what’s with the scratchy, funk-punk guitars? Maybe everyone was just getting their knickers in a twist and this lot were just a bunch of pussycats”. Then the churning drum machine kicked in, and the full horror of The World Of Big Black came into terrible view. Boy, is this one fucked up song. I’ve listened to Shellac, some of those hundreds of albums he’s produced, and even some Rapeman stuff, but nothing quite prepared me for how beautifully deranged this band were in their prime.

The lyrics start off with a fairly bog-standard moan about how life in a small town sucks, dude. But slowly the protagonist starts to unravel, starts going on about arson, and then goes downhill from there. As Albini said, there’s nothing much to do in small Mid-Western towns aside from sex and arson, so why not mix the two? The backing, a carefully calibrated and uncompromisingly nasty noise, thunders away quite unpleasantly, and much higher in the mix than on normal records. This is an Albini trademark, making you aurally squint to hear the words properly, sucking you into the dark world he’s created.

The guitars are all angular and scratchy, a sound made by using serrated metal picks for that fingernails-on-the-blackboard vibe. “Kerosene” is widely regarded as their finest moment; I’m not sure whether it’s going to make me explore more of their back catalogue or if I should just enjoy this track on its own and leave the rest of their material in the seething pit of hell it inhabits. Listening to this is like eating a very, very hot curry – a wonderful combination of pain, terror and a strange kind of pleasure.

Another point that’s worth making in these days of confusion is how Big Black ran themselves. No contracts, no managers, no rider on tour, not even a drumkit (their drummer “Roland” being a Roland TR-606 drum machine), so they could just drive round in a normal car to gigs. The idea behind all this was to make themselves as profitable as possible, and to not get involved in any kind of record label control:

We were committed to to a few basic principles: Treat everyone with as much respect as he deserves (and no more), Avoid people who appeal to our vanity or ambition (they always have an angle), Operate as much as possible apart from the “music scene” (which was never our stomping ground), and Take no shit from anyone in the process (Steve Albini)

Might be useful to keep that in mind. On the eve of releasing their second album (“Songs About Fucking”), the band started to break; mounting pressures within the band, partly caused by bassist Dave Riley’s heavy drinking, and with Albini deciding that he’d done all he could do with the music, he broke them up. Guitarist Santiago Durango went on to be a lawyer. As you do2. As for Albini himself, well, he’s gone onto become possibly the most idiosyncratic producer since Martin Hannett.

Now, Scratch Acid I’d never heard of before. When I first listened to “The Greatest Gift”, I thought that it sounded remarkably like Jesus Lizard and the likes of Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. The former is no shock; two of the band went on to form Jesus Lizard in 1989. As for the Blues Explosion, they dealt in the same kind of crazy, bluesy punk; lots of fun. At first I wondered why the hell this was here; after all, loads of other bands have dealt in the same kind of fucked-up noisy punk, and surely being one of Kurt Cobain’s wouldn’t be enough to include them. Then I realised – this lot were pioneers. Taking the psychobilly of The Cramps, mixing a good helping of Iggy and the Stooges and 13th Floor Elevators, their sound, ably demonstrated on “The Greatest Gift”, is one of delightedly screwed up noise.

Sometimes, even by being drunk and all messed up, you can be an original. The band split up, as bands do, and various members went on to form Rapeman with Steve Albini, Jesus Lizard, and all sorts of other bands, like some kind of mutating amoeba, spreading noise and weirdness wherever it went.

Next up, we’re back to the British Isles for a two-parter of some of the finest music on the whole list.

The rest of the Pitchfork articles are here.

1 For some reason, Pitchfork chose to chuck The Mekons in the middle of this sequence, followed by a bunch of British Indie Bands. To make for a more consistent set of articles, I’ve moved The Mekons to sit with JAMC, The Smiths etc in the next article.

2 Which is good, but still doesn’t beat James Williamson of The Stooges becoming a VP at Sony.

MP3: Bastards Of Young by The Replacements

MP3: Kerosene by Big Black

Buy “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was: the Best of the Replacements” (CD/MP3)

Amazon’s Big Black Store (yes, such a thing exists!)

The Pitchfork 500 Old Skool Evolution – Run DMC to BDP

Authenticity is a funny old thing. In most musical genres you care to mention, there’s always a die-hard bunch of fans who complain that these new artists aren’t as good as the old ones, things were much better in the old days, blah de blah de blah. Of course, they are missing the whole point that the artists they so venerate were in fact reacting to the status quo of their own time, and were trying something new and revolutionary. Wanting new music to be like the old is just hypocrisy.

Run-D.M.C. – It’s Like That
Crash Crew – On the Radio
Rammelzee vs. K-Rob – Beat Bop
Boogie Down Productions – South Bronx

In that respect, hip hop is exactly the same. Even today, you still get people harping back to the old days of these artists, with Run DMC often spoken of in revered tones. Yet these acts – Run DMC in particular – were trying something new in a genre that had only really started to get mainstream attention. With Run DMC, it was mixing hard, tough beats a million miles away from the jauntiness of earlier hip-hop, mixed with some of the best rapping ever committed to vinyl.

Listening afresh to “It’s Like That”, you’re struck by how little fat there is on the record. It’s totally stripped to the bone (unlike the superfluous and pointless Jason Nevins remix). You could drive an Escalade through the gaps between the beats. You really don’t need me to tell you this is a great record, do you?

Crash Crew’s “On The Radio”, by comparison, is much more like the hip-hop that preceded it. You know the drill, a bunch of rappers, a funky backing track, and lots of bragging. Perfectly nice in its own way, and the record cover is frankly superb. There aren’t enough scrambling bikes in music these days, you know.

I Like The Bikes

As for Rammelzee vs. K-Rob’s “Beat Bop” – blimey, it doesn’t half go on. A bit like a cross between Rappers Delight and the The Message, it’s entertaining enough, and certainly forward-looking, but sheesh, 10 minutes?

Boogie Down Productions “South Bronx” is notable for KRS-One’s fantastic rapping style. Rather than going 10 to the dozen, trying to get as many words out as possible, he makes a statement.

Then pauses.

Then makes another statement.

Then pauses.

In the 300mph world of rapping, he was a revolutionary; by being that bit more thoughtful, he gives you space to consider every word he says. And he had a lot to say; this track is a furious denouncement of MC Shan and his track “The Bridge”. Poor Shan had the temerity to state that the Queensbridge Projects was the birthplace of rap. Bad move, Shan. Backed by Ced Gee (of the Ultramagnetic MC’s), KRS-One goes off on one, and after an opening tirade (“So you think that hip-hop had it’s start out in Queensbridge\If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live”), he goes on to explain how hip-hop really got started in New York. It’s a direct forerunner of the East Coast/West Coast beefs of the 90’s.

I called this article “Evolution”. And what I mean is that these tracks are a bit like the first fish that crawled out on land – a bit ungainly and caught between the simple elegance of what preceded them and the huge diversity that would follow them (I’m really not sure that the Crash Crew would want to be likened to a lungfish, but I’ll bet they’ve never been called that before.)

Because next up it’s the fury and rage and power of Public Enemy, then the polar opposites of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and with them, the realisation that there’s rather a lot more to this music than bragging and slagging. These acts showed the way, with small and big changes here and there that started to turn rap into a huge global megaforce.

MP3: It’s Like That by Run DMC

MP3: On The Radio by Crash Crew

MP3: Beat Bop by Rammellzee and K-Rob

MP3: South Bronx by Boogie Down Productions

Buy Run DMC’s “It’s Like This – The Best Of” (CD/MP3)

Buy Crash Crew’s “Back To The Old School 2 – We Are Emcees” (CD)

Buy “Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee” (CD)

Buy BDP’s “Criminal Minded” (CD/MP3)

The Pitchfork 500 Missing List Part Two

For all the great songs on the Pitchfork 500 list, there are some right duffers. And there’s some great, well-known, hugely loved songs missing. Following on from Part One, this covers the years 1980 to 1982. These are, of course, my own personal choice. If you can think of a band that the Pitchfork writers have missed, let me know by commenting or emailing me.

Willie Nelson – On The Road Again (1980)
The Stranglers – Golden Brown (1981)

Of all the mainstream genres in the Pitchfork 500, country is probably the worst served (we’ll leave the whole World music argument for another day). Yes, there’s a few cursory nods in the direction of alt-country – Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Palace Music, Low and Wilco, and even those last two are pushing the definition somewhat – but there’s no out-and-out country music on here at all. For a self proclaimed list of the “Best 500 songs from 1976 to 2006”, that’s a pretty big miss, especially when there’s everything else from thrash metal (Napalm Death) to MOR (Fleetwood Bloody Mac). No Johnny Cash, no Loretta Lynn or kd lang, and no Willie Nelson.

It’s even stranger that a great tune like Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” is missing. This is a song that’s beloved by all and sundry, from Bonnie “Prince” Billy himself (who plays it at live shows) to Hannah Montana (who named an episode of her show after the song) It isn’t in the list when horrible AOR dross like Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That” and Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” are. If you don’t know it, watch this:

Brilliant, isn’t it? A rollicking love song about the joys of the road, being with your friends, seeing new places, and being so utterly lucky to be able to make a living doing the things you love, it should be played to every single rubbish band that complain about having to tour. This is one of the purest songs out there about being a musician and the sheer fun it brings. The fact that it’s also a massive earworm helps too, as well as not having an inch of fat on it. Wonderful song and a baffling omission.

The Stranglers were a pub-rock band, who found punk rock and reinvented themselves. Notorious for their violence, both on- and off-stage – threatening journalists was one of their favourite activites – they released “Golden Brown” in 1981. About as far from their earlier punk numbers as was possible, it was a harpsichord-driven song in 13/4 time, sung in a terribly posh voice by Hugh Cornwell1. Now, that’s the way to get rid of your old fans.

I remember as a 10-year old, still young enough to be scared by punks, so it was weird to love this strange turn by one of the biggest punk bands of the day. The Englishmen abroad video merely added to the mystery of the song: Naive me (and many other people, in fairness) thought it was about a laydee of the foreign extraction. But of course, the lyrics are deliberately ambiguous, with one clear stand-out line “Through the ages she’s heading west” spelling out reality.

Yep, of course, it’s about drucks. That most feted, most dangerous, most revered and hated of all drugs, Vicks Vapour Rub heroin. It’s a bit bloody obvious when you listen to the first verse again:

Golden brown texture like sun
Lays me down with my mind she runs
Throughout the night
No need to fight
Never a frown with golden brown

See? I mean, why would a laydee be running with your mind? Why would you need to fight with a purdy laydee? So yes, drucks it is. And it’s a fantastic record – and tons better than, say, “Happy Birthday” by bloody Altered Images.

Two top songs, which would have quite happily sat in the list. Next time, we’re back with the list proper, and the flowerings of some serious hip-hop.

1 Surely the only punk rock vocalist to have a BA in Biochemistry.

The whole list is available here.

MP3: On The Road Again by Willie Nelson

MP3: Golden Brown by The Stranglers

Buy Willie Nelson’s “One Hell of a Ride” (CD Box Set)

Buy The Stranglers “Greatest Hits 1977-1990” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Goes Goth – Echo to the Banshees

Goths! Black. Patchouli oil. Hair crimpers. More black. Dry ice. Being miserable. Yet more black. Ah, it was fun being a goth.

Echo and the Bunnymen – The Killing Moon
The Cure – Close to Me
Siouxsie and the Banshees – Cities in Dust

I was a teenage goth, you know. Well, more like a half-goth. A demi-goth. A part-time goth. I was far too much into The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire and New Order to ever really go down the road of become a full Balaam and the Angel fan – but there was a definite gothic tendency in my mid-80’s listening. Yes, I had a Bauhaus record. And Sisters of Mercy too. More than one, in fact.



Anyway, this bit of the Pitchfork 500 veers from the jangly alt-rock, the goodtime rock, the hardcore-gone-catchy of the last bunch of songs. Whilst the US indie scene vied for a combination of reality and harping back to a mystical past, UK music veered off into strange new places.

First off, Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”. 25-odd years after first hearing this, I still find it inestimably creepy. There’s a weird oppressive atmosphere over the whole thing, from Ian McCulloch’s just on the edge of hysteria singing to Will Sargeant’s Television-on-bad-acid guitar. It’s also, after 25-odd years, utterly fantastic.

“The Killing Moon” is a desperate wail of a song, underpinned by a sharp sense of drama and a cracking tune. And there’s not many pop songs that go on about the battle between fate and free will, though I’m hoping that The Saturdays will soon release a song about Cartesian duality to even up the mix a bit. Goes on for about a minute too long though, no matter what it says in the book.

Next up, it’s The Cure with “Close to Me”. Again, like Echo, there’s an odd atmosphere, but this time it’s more like the warm fug of a student bedsit with the windows shut against the cold, gas fire on full. The video is also one of the best suited to the song in history:

Isn’t that just great?

Robert Smith always had a way of writing a catchy pop tune which harboured dark, nasty thoughts underneath, and this is no exception. “I’ve waited hours for this/I’ve made myself so sick” isn’t exactly an ideal opening couplet for a sweet and gentle love song really, is it? Whilst I find The Cure’s records more than faintly embarrassing in the cold light of not being a teenager, there’s no denying this song’s haunting catchiness.

Finally, along comes Siouxsie Sioux wailing along with her Banshees. You know what, I don’t think I’ve willingly chosen to listen to a Banshees song for about 20 years. But you know what else? I really quite like “Cities In Dust”. I’d forgotten how modern and shiny the mid-80’s Banshees sounded (you can see exactly where Garbage got all their ideas from), and how striking a singer Siouxsie was.

There aren’t many rocks songs about the destruction of Pompeii in AD79, you know. Being inspired by a visit there, and no doubt with the fear of imminent nuclear destruction1 in the back of her mind, Siouxsie sings portentously about “Hot and burning in your nostrils/
Pouring down your gaping mouth”

Ok, so the video hasn’t aged quite as well as The Cure’s, but few videos from the early-80’s have, frankly. Still, Siouxsie is on imperious form and the video doesn’t leave you in any doubt about the subject matter. Which is nice.

So there we go, three songs from the UK Goth Explosion. Well, a bunch of black-clad miserablists couldn’t ever really cause an explosion, and Echo and the Bunnymen aren’t exactly goths, but you know what I mean. For songs that are, on the surface, really a bit miserable, I’ve rather enjoyed listening to all of them again. I wasn’t expecting that, I can tell you.

Back over the Atlantic for the next Pitchfork, to see what’s been happening in the strange and exciting world of hip-hop and rap.

MP3: The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen

MP3: Close to Me by The Cure

MP3: Cities In Dust by Siouxsie and the Banshees

1 You really had to be there, you know. The early ’80’s were great fun for nuclear paranoia. Honestly, you kids these days with your dirty bombs and bio-weapons; we had 10,000 Russian warheads pointing in our general direction, and an ex-B movie actor in the White House. Much more fearsome, frankly.

The whole Pitchfork 500 series of articles can be found here.

Buy “Killing Moon: the Best of Echo & the Bunnymen” (CD)

Buy The Cure’s “Greatest Hits” (CD)

Buy Siouxsie and the Banshees “The Best Of” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 2 – Replacements to REM

So here’s the second part of the Alt-Rock 101 article I started last week. We’ve had Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and The Meat Puppets, now it’s time for these three:

The Replacements – I Will Dare
Minutemen – History Lesson (Part II)
R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)

The Replacements, like Hüsker Dü before them and The Hold Steady after them, hail from Minneapolis. There’s a reason I mention The Hold Steady. In this great article, Craig Finn talks of how they saved his life. As an awkward, slightly geeky teenager, he found The Replacements and they set him onto the path he’s still on today. There’s a great story in which his dad takes him to the local record store to buy “Let It Be”, from which this song stems, and the guy behind the counter turns down the sound on the stereo, points at his dad and him in turn, and says “Cool dad. Cool kid”. You know what? You don’t get that kind of thing downloading MP3’s from iTunes or BitTorrent.

So, after hearing so much about them from bands like The Hold Steady, would the real thing stand up to scrutiny? To repeat a phrase I used in part One, hell yes. It’s not quite as bad as the feeling you get when you read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and realise that Salman Rushdie and Louis De Bernieres are plagiaristic hacks, but this more than stands up to some of the best bands around today. And it kicks the ass of the landfill indie currently clogging up the airwaves in the UK.

This is one great, great song. It fairly grooves along, mixing Squeeze and Bruce Springsteen, with a devastatingly catchy chorus in which the singer appears to be trying to get a younger lady to do something inadvisable. Better still, it features a fantastic guitar solo before going off onto a REM-esque jangly bit. No shock there, given that the band’s Peter Buck plays it.

I like it so much I’ve played it about 25 times in the past few weeks. It’s fantastic. It’s power-pop heaven. It’s the best bar-room rock you’ve ever heard. Listen to it now and see if you disagree; I’m sure you won’t. And it’s the same with this next song, by The Minutemen.

Now, I always assumed The Minutemen were a bunch of shouty shouty earnest US hardcore punks, but this came as a massive shock. Over a lovely, jazzy guitar line, singer D. Boon chats laconically about the history of the band, starting with the immortal line “Our band can be your life”. Indeed, for many people they were; part of the hardcore scene that exploded in the early ’80’s, The Minutemen would show up in your town, play, drink and sleep on your floor. Understanding that there was a huge number of disaffected teens in an uncountable number of towns round the US, The Minutemen spoke directly to them, and went out of their way to reach out to them.

And even with 25 years between recording and now, it’s fresh as a daisy. Like all great songs it speaks directly to you, and even though my “fucking corndog” pogoing days are long, long gone, I’m taken straight back to jumping around like a fool to the bands of my teenage years1, and the friends I had then. Tragically, D. Boon would be killed in a van crash a year after recording this. What a waste of a great talent.

And going back to The Hold Steady, here’s their own tribute:

Up against these two songs, REM’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” really doesn’t stand up well. It’s that mid-tempo jangly alt-rock with opaque lyrics sung in a slightly irritating way that REM would release from 1983’s Murmur, right through to the present day. Whilst you simply can’t argue with the presence of “Radio Free Europe” on the list, I can’t think of a decent reason why this is on here. Maybe American alt-rock fans of a certain age look back on this song fondly, but for me, a number of their later songs would fit far more comfortably on this list than this song. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good song, but one of the top 500? Nah.

That’s the Alt-Rock 101. These bands are influential beyond measure and there’s not a guitar band around today who doesn’t owe something to at least one of them.

On a personal level, I’ve gone from not knowing three of these songs, and not knowing anything by two of the bands, to absolutely loving the three songs I didn’t know. If I could go back in time, a thirteen year-old me would get a visit from a taller, slightly overweight, and rather older version of me, clutching vinyl copies of “Let It Be”, “Double Nickels on the Dime”, and “Zen Arcade”, along with a note reading “Play these. Play them every day, get a better guitar and practice it every day, and start that band.”. I dearly hope the thirteen year old would listen. This is music that can change your life, as the song says.

And now I’m off to Amazon to buy the CD’s for the adult me. I suggest you do too.

1 Dinosaur Jnr and The Pixies, since you ask. “Freak Scene” would get me out of a coma.

MP3: I Will Dare by The Replacements

MP3: History Lesson – Part II by The Minutemen

MP3: So. Central Rain by REM

The whole Pitchfork 500 series of articles can be found here.

Buy The Replacements “Let It Be” (CD)

Buy Minutemen “Double Nickels on the Dime” (CD)

Buy REM’s “Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 1 – Sonic Youth to Meat Puppets

The next two Pitchfork articles feature the flowering of US Alt-Rock; these are the bands that your favourite bands love. From early ’90’s staples like The Pixies and Nirvana, to more recent bands like The Hold Steady and even the likes of Fleet Foxes, they were hugely influenced by the next six bands. I’ve split this article in two, so that you don’t have a 2,000 word behemoth to trawl through1.

Sonic Youth – Death Valley ‘69
Hüsker Dü – Pink Turns to Blue
Meat Puppets – Plateau

Of the next six bands, I only own records by three of them, and had hardly heard any songs by the rest. Which, funnily enough, was one of the reasons why I started off doing this whole Pitchfork 500 thing. I remember looking through the list, and when I got to this bit, thought “Hey, I don’t know any Replacements or Minutemen songs but I’ve always wanted to, so this is my chance”. And whilst both REM and Sonic Youth’s later records (Out Of Time/Automatic For The People and Sister/Daydream Nation respectively) were staples of my teenage years, I didn’t know much about their earlier songs, making it doubly worthwhile.

Would it be a disappointing experience, discovering that these bands really aren’t all that? Hell no. Would I wish I’d bought the likes of “Let It Be” and “Zen Arcade” 25 years ago? Hell yes.

First off are Sonic Youth. I’ve not heard “Death Valley ‘69” in years. I mean, years and years and years. From one of their earliest records, it’s got that whole chaotic Sonic Youth vibe but doesn’t quite have the pop sharpness of later classics like “White Kross” or the evergreen “Teenage Riot”. Noisy, yes, groundbreaking, to a point, but do I like it more than their later stuff? Nope, sorry.

Hüsker Dü (love the umlauts) were one of the most influential rock bands of the ’80’s. Taking hardcore punk and adding a huge slab of melody, they turned it into something approaching a angst-ridden version of power-pop. Whilst I loved Sugar and some of Bob Mould’s solo stuff, I never got any of the Hüsker Dü back catalogue. I guess it’s all about worrying that the record I get will be the wrong one and I’ll end up disappointed. Yeah, it’s daft.

This is one of those tunes I didn’t know and it’s been stuck in my head for the last few weeks. One of Grant Hart’s songs, it’s a swirling maelstrom of a song about a drug overdose, and has a nauseous, nightmarish feel to it. It’s also hopelessly catchy in a way that hardcore hadn’t been before. If anything it’s got as much “Don’t Fear The Reaper” as it does “Minor Threat”. Which was exactly what the band intended, having never wanted to be put in a straightjacket and told what to play. That bloodymindedness would end up tearing the band apart acrimoniously. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Meat Puppets came to most people’s attention thanks to Nirvana playing three of their songs in MTV’s Unplugged. Yeah, I know some of you hipsters had heard of them before, but the rest of us hadn’t, so ner. Anyway, anyone buying their “Classic Puppets” compilation expecting some lonesome country-rock might have got a right shock for the first few songs. I certainly did. But then “Plateau” comes along, with its weird country-acid-punk, and Kurt Cobain’s love for the band suddenly starts to make sense. It really doesn’t sound like anything else, except maybe Gun Club, and is quite marvellous.

The song has a woozy, half-awake quality, like one of those dreams you have that when you drift back into conciousness, you’re not quite sure if you actually experienced it in real life, or whether it was just a bit of your imagination going bonkers again. It also sounds better than the Nirvana cover, funnily enough. And I just love the beautifully restrained guitar solo – a lesser band would have gone haywire at that point, but Curt Kirkwood, with his hardcore punk background, understood exactly how much noise you need to make the maximum impact.

Sadly, Meat Puppet’s obstreperousness took them to recording entire albums with the singing out of key, and despite the fame brought to them by that Unplugged show, they ended up breaking up. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Don’t do drugs, mmmkay? 2

Three down, three to go. Next time it’s The Replacements, The Minutemen, and REM.

1 And I haven’t written the second half yet. Ahem.

2 Please see the below video for more information on the subject. Any implication that I may agree with Mr Hicks is purely coincidental, and stating this would make you a liar and a communist.

MP3: Pink Turns To Blue by Husker Du

MP3: Plateau by The Meat Puppets

Buy “Death Valley ’69” (MP3)

Buy Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” (MP3)

Buy “Classic Puppets” (MP3)

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The Charming Pitchfork 500 – The Smiths

Some bands take a few years to really get their sound right. Listen to early Joy Division or The Pixies and you’ll hear hints of what they’d become, but it’s rare for a truly revolutionary band to appear pretty much fully formed.

But The Smiths weren’t like other bands. In Morrissey, they had a stunning lyricist and a frontman who understood exactly what the point of a frontman was. In Marr, they had the best guitar player of his generation, stunningly accomplished, always willing to experiment, with a fantastic ear for a melody. His playing is still unparalleled today. In Rourke and Joyce, these two mercurial talents were backed up with a bassist and drummer able to take Marr’s ideas and put them in practice, be they jangly indie-rock or funked-up post-punk.

And it’s their second single, “This Charming Man”, where they show all this skill, this knowledge, this vitality, and put it into one three-minute pop wonder. From the first jangle 1, which almost crashes into chaos before righting itself and kicking into the lead line, you know there’s something special happening. There’s the interlocking guitar and basslines, there’s the way the lead guitar line skitters and jumps around; there’s the complex yet understated production – just listen to this from Johnny Marr (from Guitar Player magazine via Wikipedia):

“I’ll try any trick. With the Smiths, I’d take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I’d drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on “This Charming Man”, buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar … [it] was the first record where I used those highlife-sounding runs in 3rds. I’m tuned up to F# and I finger it in G, so it comes out in A. There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.”

No wonder I can’t bloody play it.

Funny thing is, it’s all done so well that you hardly notice, yet Marr’s guitar playing was absolutely revolutionary. Everyone from Blur to Noel Gallagher, from Jeff Buckley to Radiohead, cite Marr as their greatest influence. Marr himself, in the great “Guitar Man” by Will Hodgkinson, says there isn’t much to his playing other than imagination and a quest to make interesting music. Oh, and lots, and lots, and lots of practice. I think he’s being too modest, to be honest.

The structure of the song is fascinating too. There’s not really a chorus to speak of; instead, the song features three main motifs, which each repeat a couple of times. It’s not the only time they’d do this, but it works beautifully here.

And on top of all this jangling, the astonishing musicality of the band, is Morrissey. People almost always focus on him, rather than the music. An obscenely gifted lyricist, hugely well-read, he understood utterly what a frontman was there to do – be watched, be copied, be loved or hated, but never, ever ignored. Most people first saw him on Top Of The Pops, singing this very song, wearing a scruffy shirt open down to here, Elvis-quiffed and waving around a bunch of gladioli:

That performance just shouted “I am different, and if you are like me, follow me”. And many did, in their droves. Even someone usually considered somewhat thuggish by indie music fans, Noel Gallaher, said of this performance that it spoke to him. Jeff Buckley, at a live show, when heckled by a member of the crowd to play “Freebird”2, he retorted “60’s? Bullshit. 70’s? Bullshit. 80’s? Big, big bullshit. Except for The Smiths”.

The lyrics themselves are amazing. It takes many listens to really get the message of the song (man gets picked up by another man and, well, one thing leads to another), but what’s utterly striking is the deliberately archaic language – “gruesome”, “handsome”, “a stich to wear”, “pantry boy”. And then there’s the fantastic rhyming couplets:

“Why pamper life’s complexity\When the leather runs smooth\On the passenger seat?”

“I would go out tonight\But I haven’t got a stitch to wear\This man said “It’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care””

Heady, clever stuff. There’s even a quote from an obscure early ’70’s homoerotic movie featuring Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence “Larry” Olivier, “”A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place” (the latter talking about the former).

With this song, The Smiths showed that it was possible to be literate and tuneful, intelligent and poppy, and most of all different in a way that the likes of Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, REM, The Go-Betweens and The Associates (and many more) had tried, but not quite got right. The Smiths got it right on their second single, and here I am, 26 years on, writing about a song that sounds like it was recorded yesterday and I’m hearing it for the first time. I can’t say enough just how much I love this song. I’ve known it since the week it was first released (thanks to my brother and John Peel) and I still haven’t got bored of it.

I’ve already written over 1000 words about this song, so I really should stop now. All I have to say is, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like The Smiths because of Morrissey (and it’s always because of Morrissey), just listen to this one song, with your preconceptions gone and your ears open, and you’ll hear one of the finest records that was ever made.

And what’s more, most of those bands you love know it too.

1 Which I’m still trying to learn to play 26 years after first hearing it. My fingers just won’t do it.

2 Don’t knock it. I once shouted that at a Silver Mt Zion concert to laughs from most of the band. Not sure that Efrim Menuck found it that funny, but you can’t please everyone.

MP3: This Charming Man by The Smiths

Buy “The Smiths”. Buy it, buy it, buy it. (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Geek Rock – The Feelies to Mission Of Burma

The last set of songs on the Pitchfork 500 list for 1980-1982 takes us back to the States, with music that was in many ways similar to that discussed in my last couple of posts. Shambolic, rumbunctuous, with a definite amateur feel to them, and three of these four bands won’t be known to your average man on the street1. The other would go on to be one of the biggest bands in the world, selling some 35 million records. Not The Feelies, obviously.

The Feelies – The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness
R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
Mission of Burma – That’s When I Reach for My Revolver

The Feelies are another of those somewhat obscure US bands that obviously some Pitchfork writers are fond of, leaving the rest of us going, “Er, who?” and “What’s so special about this then?”. There’s a definite Joy Division meets Television thang going on (that drumbeat is taken straight from “Interzone”), with a bit of added jangle, not unlike Orange Juice. But unlike Orange Juice there isn’t that special buzz, or tune, or charm, that sucks you in. Can’t say this has grown on me much. If at all.

REM were once described as a art-rock band with a bar-room rhythm section. Certainly that’s partly in evidence in “Radio Free Europe” 2. There’s the combination of that lovely Byrdsian jangle mixed with some slashing chords; Michael Stipe’s opaque lyrics (“Calling on in transit, calling on in transit/Radio Free Europe” – you what, Mikey?); underneath it all is the thumping drums and a nicely flowing bassline.

REM pretty much defined “College Rock”, in the same way that The Smiths would do a year later in the UK to define “Indie Rock”. Cerebral, not scared of a good tune, with enough character and mystery in the lyrics to keep it all interesting. And in this song, REM showed exactly how to do it right.

Many people would have first heard Violent Femmes “Blister In The Sun” as the theme tune to the movie Grosse Point Blank (and Reality Bites, too). And what a great little tune it is too, perfect for a movie about a neurotic hitman. Even if it is about what might be termed “Gentleman’s Pursuits”. “Blister In The Sun” was recently used in the UK, after being changed just enough to remove the meaning of the song, to advertise Fosters beer. Really, I ask you, Fosters. In the US, it’s been used to sell hamburgers.

For all its commercial uses let’s not ignore the fact that it’s a fantastic song, with a hint of the unexpected, the whispered middle eight boiling back into the chorus, making it a great way to pass a few minutes of your time. And to live out your fantasies of being a hitman driving round in an open-top car.

And last in the list is Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”. Mission of Burma can be described as grumpy blokes yelling at no-one; they’re the archetypal unknown band who do their thing in obscurity, and are only discovered after they stop doing what they do so well. Look at the covers of this song you can find on YouTube: Graham Coxon and Moby. How much more diverse do you want to get?

To me, it sounds like REM fronted by Henry Rollins listening to early Joy Division. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. I actually rather like this song, you know, though I’m not entirely clear what exactly they are so grumpy about, as the lyrics are somewhat abstract. Not selling it very well, am I? Go on, go and buy it and make some now middle-aged chaps happy. Or very slightly less miserable, at the least.

So, there we go, a few songs of shambolic US rock and the beginnings of the rather more professional college music scene. It’s been a fun couple of years; somewhat less thrilling than the post-punk years, but with some real gems all the same. Like Orange Juice. And The Beat, Motorhead, Human League and Dead Kennedys. And The Pretenders. It’s been fun.

Next time, it’s just one song. But what a very special song it is.

MP3: Radio Free Europe by REM

MP3: Blister In The Sun by Violent Femmes

MP3: That’s When I Reach For My Revolver by Mission of Burma

Buy The Feelies “Crazy Rhythms” (Ok, it’s not currently available)

Buy REM’s “Murmur” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Permanent Record – The Very Best of The Violent Femmes” (CD)

Buy Mission Of Burma’s “Signals, Calls and Marches: Definitive Edition” (CD)

See the whole list Pitchfork 500 here.

1 I refer you to my earlier John Lydon quote (right at the bottom).

2 First of two entries in the P500, though “Losing My Religion” is bafflingly absent. Cliche? Yep, but it’s their best song, along with “Man On The Moon”. You know I’m right.

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