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.

lesson

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.

The Pitchfork 500 Power Pop! – The Only Ones to The Cars

The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet
The Undertones – Teenage Kicks
Plastic Bertrand – Ca Plane Pour Moi
The Records – Starry Eyes
Cheap Trick – Surrender
The Cars – Just What I Needed

Power pop, first originated by bands like The Who and Big Star, was given a huge shot in the arm by punk in the late ’70’s. Power pop is catchy, guitar-driven, just the kind of thing you can sing along to loudly in a convertible on a sunny day.

The Only Ones were one of the sad casualties of late 70’s music. They were power-pop in excelsis, with great tunes, clever songs, with enough bite to keep them interesting. But rampant drug abuse tore the band apart and they were never able to capitalise on their obvious talent in songs like “Another Girl, Another Planet”. They reformed a couple of years back, so best of luck to them.

The Undertones, however, at least made something of their talents. A bunch of young lads from London/Derry¹, which was a pretty grim place in those days, they made pithy numbers about teenage life and its various pitfalls. Mostly girls, of course, but also familial expectations (“My Perfect Cousin”) and suicide (“Jimmy Jimmy”). But this track keeps to the unrequited love template. “Teenage Kicks” is all about that simplest thing, seeing a girl in your neighbourhood and wishing she was yours. Let’s face it, about 75% of music is about this, but few songs have expressed it in such a charming yet direct way. Maybe it’s the twin guitar assault of the O’Neill brothers, maybe it’s Feargal Sharkey’s voice, maybe it’s the simple yearning of the words, but everything comes together to make a three-minute hormonal rush.

John Peel famously cited it as his favourite ever song, and it was played at his funeral and memorial service (and is played every time there’s a programme on the TV or radio about him²).  It’s a song that brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.  At one of The Pixies reunion concerts at Brixton Academy, it was put on the PA before they came on, and I swear most of the crowd were singing it (in fairness, most of us remember it the first time round, it being full of 30-40 somethings).  Arsenal have taken to playing it too, partly because half the team are teenagers, and also because the person responsible for match-day music has a sly sense of humour³.  Brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. Great song.

As an aside, the O’Neill brothers went on to form the fantastic That Petrol Emotion and a chain of Oirish pubs in the UK4. And Feargal Sharkey used his squeaky voice to start a successful solo career. He really must have one of the oddest voices ever in popular music. Still, I guess its stops people trying to copy you.

Belgians, eh? Responsible for such fine cultural exports as Tintin and, er, someone else, and getting annoyed because everyone thinks they are French, Plastic Bertrand cunningly stole a little bit of a song from another band he’d been in, and re-used it in this little bit of chirpy fluff. Ok, he nicked the whole tune. But who cares when it’s this catchy? Ah-whoo-eee-woo! The lyrics concern, well, no-one is 100% sure, but what comes through is that he’s as happy as a three year old stuffed to the gills with sugar, and he wants to tell everyone about it. Bless.

You've Got To Love Belgians

You've Got To Love Belgians

The Records sound like they’ve been listening to a whole load of The Who and Big Star, to fine effect, on thier first single “Starry Eyes”. At first glance it sounds like he’s having a pop at a girlfriend who’s let him down, but closer listening reveals a three-minute rant against a useless manager. “While you were in the pool, we were meeting with the boys upstairs\Talking to the money men, and carrying out affairs.”. Ooh, get her. Top song, with Who-like toughness counteracting the Byrdsian jangle. Here’s a poor quality video of them performing the song in a shop window.

To me, Cheap Trick have more than a bit of a whiff of the pub rocker about them. “Surrender” sounds like an Alarm off-cut. Or one of Steve Harley’s weaker moments. Ah well. Can’t like all the songs on this list, I suppose.

The Cars’s “Just What I Needed” finds them before they finally sank into the AM MOR drive-time radio abyss of “Drive”. Saying that, whilst there is a certain New Wave poise to it, the song definitely rests within the MOR world. And for that, I’m afraid I can’t say I care much for it.

So, one nailed-on absolute classic, one frothy bit of Belgian pop-punk, two slices of fine power-pop, and two MOR hits. More power-pop next time, folks.

Ca Plane Pour Moi by Plastic Bertrand

Starry Eyes by The Records

¹ I’m not even going to start on that one.
² Whilst I absolutely adore this song, I wish Peely had named a song by The Fall, or better, Extreme Noise Terror, just so program makers would have to use them instead of a charming power-pop ditty like this.
³ Such as playing “Grounds for Divorce” by Elbow recently – yeah, there’s a hole in my neighbourhood I’d like to drop Eboue in.
4 Not strictly speaking true.

The whole list is available here.

The Pitchfork 500 Goes RAWK! – Blue Oyster Cult to ELO

Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
AC/DC – Highway to Hell
Van Halen – Runnin’ with the Devil
Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
Electric Light Orchestra – Mr. Blue Sky

This section of the Pitchfork 500 is a blessed relief. I’ve rather had my fill of hedonistic Disco and miserable post-punk, clanging punk-funk and Italian prog-rock film soundtracks. This is pure drive-time music, for winding down the window of your ’66 Chevy and driving fast along a highway in, er, Milton Keynes.¹

So first off, Blue Öyster Cult. You have to respect a band who saddled themselves with such a bonkers name, to then add an umlaut, sparking off a great little chain of heavy metal umlauts from Motörhead through Mötley Crüe to Hüsker Dü. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was one of those songs that, when it came on the tedious late-night radio we were forced to listen to whilst doing nightshifts in a warehouse some years ago, was universally loved by everyone – from the housewives, the old guys to the young students. It’s just one of those songs. The warm, comforting blanket of sound is pierced by the insistent riff, restless drumming and the suicide pact lyrics, simultaneously romantic and deadly. The repeated rising motif keeps nagging at you until it’s finally resolved with the downward “Da da da”‘s.  The bonkers instrumental bit in the middle.

Until I listened to it for this I’d forgotten how great it is. I’ve listened to it three times already today. This is the sort of song that gives MOR a good name. Mind you, I never knew this was released in 1978; it has such a feel of early ’70’s paranoia that I thought it was from then.

As for AC/DC, there really is none more rock. Not even Van Halen, with Eddie Van Halen’s astonishing guitar playing can beat them in the RAWK stakes. AC/DC and Van Halen, though both heavy rockers, are really the opposite ends of the spectrum. AC/DC were dumb, basic fists-in-the-air RAWK! and frankly none the worse for it. Still are, I suppose. There’s little on “Highway To Hell” that can’t be played by your averagely talented pub-rock band, but that’s what makes them such an enduring band; Angus Young’s guitar playing is simplicity itself (at least on this song), and the band as a whole know exactly what needs to be done. There’s not an ounce of flab; the entire band concentrates on just rocking, rather than flashing technique. With a bloke screaming over the top.

Van Halen, however, were revolutionary. Or rather Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was. For those of you not versed in the intricacies of playing guitar, he popularised a technique called tapping (or fret-tapping). This involves tapping the string instead of strumming or picking it, and allows for very fast rhythmic note-changes. Whilst other guitarists had occasionally used the technique, EVH made it his own, and whilst the track on offer here doesn’t show masses of it, it’s still clear that the playing is extraordinary. There’s a bit about 2/3 way through where there’s a sudden arpeggio fill that just comes from nowhere.

Are You Sure You've Got Enough Guitars?

Just a shame that it’s otherwise dumbass metal though with Dave Lee Roth screeching like someone’s caught his bollocks in a drawer.

I approached the next two tracks by Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan hoping that I’d be amazed by the hidden intricacies of the music, the depths of the emotions involved, the craft and the songwriting skills used, but no. Middle of the road bollocks, I’m afraid. I’d rather listen to The Clash than these two songs again, frankly. It’s stuff like this that gives MOR a bad name. And the lesson of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is, if you’re going to be millionaire pop-rock stars, don’t go round shagging each other, it’ll only end in tears. And tedious albums about shagging each other. That make you even more money. So you can get depressed about shagging each other and having loads of money. It’s a tough life.

And yes, the awful 90’s band Deacon Blue did indeed name themselves after Steely Dan’s track, “Deacon Blues”. There should be a special circle of hell for people who name themselves after tedious soft-rock songs.

And finally, ELO. Now, ELO have had a bad name for many years. And frankly, given Jeff Lynne’s pomposity it’s not surprising. But then you listen to “Mr Blue Sky” and you marvel at what a great tune it is, and how much detail there is in the song.  Jeff Lynne had tried to mix The Beatles and Beethoven into one huge, mad, vocoder-and-string band, and sometimes it was a bit of a godawful mess. But sometimes it just clicked, and this is one of those times. Just listen to how beautifully it’s all done – whilst the Pitchfork writers say it’s dated, I don’t see that at all. This song is more than 30 years old now, and yet it fairly stomps along and sounds more modern than a whole load of people I could mention (er, The Killers?). You can see exactly why Super Furry Animals love them so much, there’s a psychedelic oddness mixed in with the pop nous, and the stomping Krautrock beat is just fantastic. Listen to how, as the first verse starts to build, they add strings, bells, multi-tracked vocals, and panting as Jeff sings “Running down the avenue”. The bizarre classical coda. And that guitar solo, simple, nicely complementing the song, rather than taking over and spoiling the tone.

As a brief aside, the song was used to great effect during the Dr Who episode “Love And Monsters”, to show the main character dancing around his bedroom because he’s happy, and he’s met a lovely girl, and life suddenly has meaning. Sure, it’s schmalz, but Russell T Davies knew he’d hit upon just the right note using this song. As did Michael Gondry, using it in “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”.

So, cast off your prejudices, and rejoice in a great song. Madly catchy, experimental, and a thumpingly good tune. Well done, Mr Lynne and co.

A right mixed back coming next…

¹Funnily enough, I’ve just finished “Rip It Up and Start Again” by Simon Reynolds, and he confessed to feeling the same at the end of the post-punk era back in 1984.  Nice to know it’s not just me, then.²

²Yes, I’ve worked out how to do Superscript.  Hurrah!

Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult

The whole list is available here.

The Pitchfork 500 – Candido To Goblin

After my last post, the epic Post Punk Part 2, it’s a much shorter one this time. Partly because there’s only five songs, and also because I don’t know too much about four of them, so I’m not going to talk much about them. Except for Kate Bush, obviously.

Now, you’ll know Candido’s “Jingo” even if you don’t recognise the name. It’s a classic slab of Salsoul from late ’70’s New York and mixes disco thump with jazz-inflected keyboards and funk guitar. And you’ll know that “HUNH!” from being sampled by everyone.

Dinosaur was a band put together by cellist Arthur Russell and DJ Nicky Siano, and featured the likes of David Byrne on guitar. Russell was classically trained, and played cello alongside writing disco tunes and pop songs; he was also unable to ever finish what he was doing. At his tragically early death (in 1992), he left behind 1000 tapes of music, including 40 tapes full of different mixes of a single song. In this song, “Kiss Me Again”, he brings a certain organic, live feel to disco. One can only wonder what he could have become if he could have concentrated on just one style, and focused on it. (Oh, and Dinosaur Jr were originally called “Dinosaur” until the legal folks stepped in)

When I first heard Monster’s “There But For The Grace Of God Go I” I thought “This sounds a bit like Kid Creole and The Coconuts”, and then went “Doh!” when I realised it was indeed written by Kid Creole himself, August Darnell. It’s a good little cut of what he does best – funky, tropical beats with a great singalong chorus. Shoddily remixed by Heller and Farley a few years ago, too. Perfectly nice tune, but can’t say it’s my cup of tea. But don’t forget kids, “Too much love is worse than none at all”.

Kate Bush appeared out of nowhere in January 1978 and made us all look at her video on Top Of The Pops and go “What the bloody hell?”. Well, I didn’t quite say that, I was only six, but the thought was definitely there. It’s an incredible song, and she looks absolutely possessed by her character. Funny thing is, Word Magazine recently did a set of articles about her, mainly by journalists who had met her over the years, and they all to a man (for they were all men) said she was totally normal and down to earth, a little shy and reluctant to discuss her private life, but utterly lovely. She’s one of those rare cases of a fantastic, hugely successful musician who doesn’t combine it with being a total show-off. Oh yes, the video:

See? Obviously bonkers. Totally, utterly, uniquely bonkers song, and even more amazing that it was written by an 18-year old, who had to fight with her record label to release it was her first single (they wanted it to be a B-side, but she eventually won. The single hit Number 1 in the UK). This says a lot for how the music industry used to be run. Singles weren’t checked by loads of focus groups and the marketeers, and PR’d to within an inch of their life. It was just up to a few people to make the decision, and occasionally something deeply odd like this would be released, and become a massive hit.

As I said in the first part of the Pitchfork 500 review, much of the early tracks on the list are mainstream songs, but just as odd (if not odder) as the last tracks on the list, who wouldn’t be recognised by the man on the street. So, these days, it’s probably easier to be unusual – with the Internet, blogging, MySpace etc you’ll hopefully find like-minded people, but you won’t get a major label deal and you certainly won’t appear on The X Factor or Amerikkka’s Got Talent. Can you imagine a 19-year old Kate Bush in front of Simon Cowell et al? She’d have been laughed out of the audition room (if she had even got that far). But the major labels, for all their massive faults, did sometimes tell us about truly remarkable talents, and give them the chance to develop how they wanted.

We won’t ever see the likes of Kate Bush become national treasures again.

And so, what more can I say about the song? Based on the last 10 minutes of Emily Bronte’s book (you don’t need me to tell you it’s called Wuthering Heights do you?), it features Catherine Earnshaw’s words. Bush’s vocal gymnastics are challenging and brave, the music is delightful, segueing gently from the minor verse into the major key chorus of “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, come home\I’m so cold, let me into your window”. Now, frankly, it’s not a song to ever try at karaoke. Even the Bryan May-esque guitar solo at the end is nicely understated.

Goblin. Aaargh! Prog Rock! Worse, Italian Prog Rock! But it’s actually a pretty decent tune and, being the theme tune for the horror flick “Suspiria”, is also creepy. Full of squelchy synths, bells, ominous tom-toms, and what sounds to me like a gamelan. The song has also aged remarkably well. Reminds me a bit of the Halloween theme tune, which is an odd coincidence given that the next tune on the list featured in that film. ‘Till next time.

Suspiria by Goblin

The whole list is available here.

The Pitchfork 500 Post Punk (2) – This Heat to Devo

Post punk became such a powerful musical force thanks to its combination of the original punk ethos – to just do it, goddammit – and adding a sense that music had to be rewritten and experimented with. And from that combination came some startlingly original music. From the strange noise of This Heat to the squawking punk-funk of James Chance and the Contortions, these nine tracks take the startling originality of early post-punk and added all sorts of gubbins (Trust me. I’m typing this whilst listening to the James Chance track and “gubbins” is the only word I can think of).

I’d never heard of This Heat before, so when I first played “24 Track Loop”, I thought, hold on, someone’s just copying Aphex Twin and “Red Mecca” period Cabaret Voltaire. Until I realised that this came three years before that Cabaret Voltaire record and, ooh, 14-odd years before Jolly Mr Aphex’s first release. Quite frankly, it’s bonkers. Clanging metallic drums, odd noises coming out of the mix, echoing hand-claps, it sounds utterly extraordinary and quite unlike anything of the time. The claustrophobia envelops you turning you into a paranoid wreck. And it hasn’t aged one bit. I know bugger all about them, by the way, and for once I’m going to keep it that way. Keep a bit of mystery, you know.

This is the value of a list like the Pitchfork 500 – even if you know your modern music pretty well, there’s still plenty in there to surprise you. This is one of those tracks for me, and I hope you enjoy it too. Well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word for it.

From bonkers clanging electronic noise to the joyful, dub-tinged tunes of The Slits. Seemingly more famous now for that album cover, The Slits’ music was a frothy mix of punk, ska, with a bit of funk thrown in. “Typical Girls” was their first single and a great example of what they did; sarky lyrics with far more imagination than you’d have expected from a punk band. Which is why they are called post-punk, I suppose. The song rails against the marketing of an idealised teenage girl, who “Don’t create\Don’t rebel” and the girls who go along with the plan. You can hear The Slits in all those Riot Grrrl bands of the 90’s, but as is so often the case, the original is by far the best.

Cut Album Cover

Next up, The Pop Group. Ah, punk-funk! Gotta love it. Mark Stewart, the man who tried to do for Bristolian what Mark E Smith did for Mancunian. Squawk! Honk! Crash! Ooo-aar! Both The Slits and The Pop Group had the tribal thing going on, clearly audible in this track “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”; though The Pop Group are nowhere near as easy to listen to as The Slits. Anyway, not my (Pig) bag, but fun anyway. A prize to the first person to comment on why I just said that*.

The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” is another of their “working class heroes” tunes, though thankfully this time sung by someone not privately educated in the colonies. Helps a bit, that.

Speaking of posh people making loud music, James Chance was a conservatory-trained musician who surrounded himself with people who couldn’t play instruments, as it made them easier to boss around. He was a legendary nutter and a compelling front man – tiny, dressed in a suit, always willing to pick a fight with the crowd. The track “Contort Yourself” bears more than a passing resemblance to a punch up in a musical instrument shop, in a ska-punk-funk-jazz style, and is all the better for it. Squawk! Honk! Crash! A bit like a New Yawk No-Wave version of The Pop Group, really.

Suicide, another bunch of New York No Wave art-rockers, made this unexpectedly lovely song in 1979 and accidentally invented U2. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s great. Suicide were seen as the godfathers of the No Wave movement, not surprising given that they were about 87 at the time. Again, they rather enjoyed a good punch-up with the audience and positively courted violence, revelling in having stuff thrown at them. “I got hit one time in the eye with a wrench!” says Alan Vega, proudly.

It goes almost without saying that drugs were heavily utilised by the No Wavers.

Ah, Cabaret Voltaire. I was an enormous Cabs (see?) fan in the 80’s. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they actually wanted to try and make you dance, if in a somewhat geeky way. Part of the Sheffield scene that also spawned The Human League, they never quite hit the mainstream in the same way but were hugely influential. Cabaret Voltaire assembled their own bits of technology, and put them together in new ways (like putting drums and keyboards through fuzz pedals), to make a unique sound. “Nag Nag Nag” isn’t really representative of their ouvre (heh), as they refined themselves quite quickly after this, for example on 1984’s “Sensoria”, with its freaky video, and on 1981’s “Yashar”, with its middle-Eastern beats. Saying that, this track is a reasonable place to start. And it used to be on Boy George’s answerphone, fact fans.

And next….Throbbing Gristle. From their name (can you guess what it’s slang for?), to their background in performance art which involved some really quite disturbing acts, Genesis P-Orridge’s collection of bizarre individuals (including an ex-porn star and a man who specialised in sexual extremism) were possibly the most shocking band of their era. Their music frankly sucked. Saying that, Peter Christopherson and John Balance did make some good (if also rather disturbing) music as Coil, including some jingles for commercials. No, I didn’t quite believe that either.

And finally, Devo. When I was growing up, Devo were one of those annoying, geeky, whimsical US bands who seemed to exist to solely get on everyone’s nerves. Yes, look, you’re all dressed the same! And geekily! Or like robots! At the time, they just looked and sounded like annoying college boys. But listening to this track “Mongoloid” I went and did some research (yes, I do research these articles, you know), and found that their history was somewhat darker. For one, two of the founder members were involved in the Kent State University shootings, and indeed one of them was close friends of two of the dead students. So their take on it was to either join an armed militia gang or to form a band. Again, they used the new technology of the day to make genuinely odd, new music.

I still don’t think they are very good, though. Oh, and what can I say about this:

(Whilst the “story” part of B&B was always a little lame, some of the comments about the videos were, frankly, genius. This stream of conciousness rant from Beavis ranks amongst the best, over Devo’s biggest hit.)

So, punk-funk, ska-funk-punk, electronica, geek-punk, noise, general oddness, what unites these bands? Well, most of them couldn’t play their instruments that well, so they experimented with sounds, with the instruments, with what constituted music. They removed vital elements (drums, guitars, melody itself) and shaped it into something new. They united completely disparate genres into new, funky, bloody messes. Instead of just picking up a guitar and hitting a couple of chords and shouting, they tried to be totally different to what came before, especially if being different involved shouting. And in some of these songs there are genuinely new, startling ideas. For some of these bands (This Heat, Devo) this would pretty much be their high point; for others (Cabaret Voltaire) would go onto much better things, and for others still (Throbbing Gristle) the music was secondary to being shocking. But, The Clash aside, nothing on here sounds much like anything else.

*There isn’t really a prize.

24 Track Loop by This Heat

Nag Nag Nag by Cabaret Voltaire

The whole list is available here.