Power Pop Goodness With Brendan Benson

By jove, that Brendan Benson’s got a way with a tune. You get it with the first minute of the first song off his new album. Starts off a bit like something off a Raconteurs record, then it’s as though Brendan suddenly goes “Hold on, I don’t need to do dreary mid-tempo rock with that red and white muppet any more! Let’s get pop!”1, and the shackles of the last few years come flying off with an explosion of pure delight. Featuring about three different choruses, some nicely contradictory lyrics (“I feel a whole lot better when you’re not around” to “I feel a whole lot better when you come around”), and the confusion of love: “I fell in love with you, and out of love with you, and back in love with you, all in the same day”.

You can’t help but love it. It’s up there with “Tiny Spark” and “Spit It Out”, the openers from his last two albums. And it shows just what we’ve been missing whilst he’s been fannying about with The Raconteurs. He sure knows how to make some great power-pop, does young Brendan, and he really should do it more often. I’ve not had enough time with the new album to write more about it yet, but if you’re lucky/unlucky enough (delete as appropriate), I’ll put up a review at some point.

Anyway, off to watch the Formula 1 from Monza. I do like Monza – it’s one of the very few circuits that still have some of the old magic (Spa and Suzuka being the others). I forsee a 26-car pile-up going into the first chicane.

1 I really quite like Jack White, you know. It’s just that the Raconteurs were far less than the sum of their parts. Shame, really.

MP3: A Whole Lot Better by Brendan Benson

MP3: Tiny Spark by Brendan Benson

Buy Brendan Benson’s “My Old, Familiar Friend” (CD)

Buy Brendan Benson’s “Lapalco” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 The Brits Are Coming Part 4 – New Order to The Beat

So, the last part of The Brits Are Coming starts with the 100th song on the list, and the most important band of the Brits series. Who they? New Order, of course.

New Order – Temptation
The Jam – Town Called Malice
Duran Duran – The Chauffeur
The English Beat – Save It for Later

What do you do when, on the eve of your first American tour that might well propel you to stardom1, your talismanic, troubled lead singer commits suicide? As the remaining members of Joy Division learned, you dust yourself off, change your name to New Order, take turns singing, bring in the drummer’s girlfriend on keyboards, and get on with merging rock and dance music like no-one has before (and arguably haven’t done as well since). A combination of visits to clubs in New York and Europe, a love of Kraftwerk, Barney Sumner and Steven Morris’s experiments with drum machines and sequencers, and an open-minded attitude saw them create a whole new sound. It’s a sound that would influence everyone from The Cure and U2 to Broken Social Scene.

“Temptation” was the first real fruit of this questing spirit (“Everything’s Gone Green”, released the previous year, certainly had the dancing beats but still sounded a bit like a Joy Division song that had taken speed and wasn’t sure what all this dancing thing was about). From this momentous single they would go on to the dizzy heights of “Blue Monday”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith”2.

Temptation 7" Cover

Temptation Cover

This is a personal favourite version, from a BBC Radio 1 recording filmed in 1984. I strongly advise you to watch the whole concert, too:

Loving those shorts, Barney.

As the song starts, the pulsing keyboards mesh with the mix of live drums and drum machine, and then the guitar kicks in. Suddenly, all the cares and troubles of New Order’s first couple of years disappear, like the sun bursting through the clouds after a thunderstorm. The effect is electrifying. And the lyrics offer something different to the gloom of Ian Curtis: “Heaven, a gateway, a hope”. Like many of Barney’s words, they can be impossible to decipher – “Oh, you’ve got green eyes\Oh, you’ve got blue eyes\Oh, you’ve got gray eyes”, yes, thanks for that Barney – but they work so beautifully in the song you just can’t help but forgive him.

So, redemption and hope after suffering and despair. What more can you ask for? It goes without saying that this isn’t the last of New Order on this list; and that even Pitchfork devote more than half a page to talking about them – more than any other band so far.

The Jam, hailing from Woking in Surrey, were formed by Paul Weller, a serious young chap with a huge thirst for the mod records of the sixties, along with soul, R&B, new wave and power-pop. This earnest fellow wanted to merge all those influences, mixing in the new punk sensibilities by telling stories of real life. “A Town Called Malice” is the fruit of that idea, and one of their best songs. Late 1970’s Britain being a grim kind of place was manna from heaven for a talent like Weller, and this song tells of “a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts” and “stop apologising for the things you’ve never done\Cos time is short and life is cruel”. The reality of unemployment hits the people hard: “To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear\It’s a big decision in a town called Malice”.

Stern stuff. Sung in his tense, angry voice, and pitted against Foxton and Buckler’s expert bass and drumming, with tinges of 60’s R&B, the song nearly explodes with tension and rage at the situation people were in. And like “Temptation”, it still sounds fresh nearly 30 years later. Two very different songs then; New Order’s looking solely to the future to try and forget the past, and The Jam’s using the music of the past to tell a tale of the present.

Next comes one of those periodic mis-steps on the list. Now it is safe to say that Duran Duran aren’t exactly the trendiest band from the early 80’s, though bands like The Killers are doing a job in reprising their sound. So to pick a song of theirs was quite brave. But a dodgy album track that sounds like The Cure with Simon Le Bon wailing over the top? Nah. Come on, it should have been “Rio”. Maybe “Save A Prayer”, at a push. Nah, listen to both “The Chauffeur” and “Rio” and tell me what you think:

Come on, if you’re going to do this English Invasion/New Pop thing, at least do it properly. As a bit of an aside, listen to how much is going on in “Rio”; the sequencers, the bass line, the guitar, the multi-tracked vocals, it takes a while to take it all in. There’s a richness and texture you just don’t get in modern pop music (with the exception of Girls Aloud).

Lastly, one of the pleasure of doing this list is hearing songs that have been so obviously influenced by ones that came a few years before. This one, The Beat’s “Save It For Later”, is like an unholy mix of Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, with some ska thrown in for good measure (and indeed, you can hear this song influencing bands like The Go-Betweens):

The Beat (or The English Beat for the Americans amongst you) were one of the Two-Tone Ska bands, who along with The Specials, Madness and The Selecter, turned the Sixties Ska sound into a particularly English phenomenon. More famous for “Mirror In The Bathroom” and their later cover of “Can’t Get Used To Losing You”, this song is more poppy and even has a string section poking into the song about halfway through. I was wondering why this didn’t seem at all familiar; it only got to number 47 in the UK charts (this is when any song in the Top 20 of any given week you’d be able to hum). I even doubt it was anything to do with the double entendre in the title, as Radio 1 didn’t even pick up on “Relax” for about a month. Anyway, I must say I rather enjoyed its power pop energy.

So that’s that; 12 songs that would come storming out of small towns and the largest cities of the UK, some fantastic, others less so. Some of these songs would change the world by showing what could be done with new technology, including making use of videos before any band in the US caught on; others would link back to the past of soul, R&B and Rock and Roll and twist them for the early ’80’s; and some were so shocking to US audiences that they would fuel the boom in guitar driven rock like Bruce Springsteen in response. And some would just quietly go about their own way, waiting for the world to catch up with them.

1 Or at least get you out of Macclesfield.
2 Funnily enough, “True Faith”, probably their best song, isn’t on the Pitchfork list but the other two are. I can kind of see why, but won’t go into it now.

MP3: Temptation (7″ mix) By New Order

MP3: Save It For Later by The Beat

Buy “The Best of New Order” (CD) (And You Really Should)

Buy “The Very Best Of The Jam” (CD)

Buy Duran Duran’s “Greatest” (MP3/CD)

Buy “You Just Can’t Beat It: The Best of the Beat” (CD)

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.