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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The Pitchfork 500 Shambles – Orange Juice To The Clean

This post is all about the jangly, amateur sounds of shambolic Indie-Pop. It’s a sound that would go on to heavily influence everyone from REM and The Smiths, the C86 movement, Pavement to Brit Pop and beyond. Not that they realised it at the time of course. This lot were just wanting to make a sound their own on often rather limited funds. $60 in one case.

Orange Juice – Blue Boy
The Television Personalities – This Angry Silence
The Fall – The Classical
The Clean – Tally Ho!

Orange Juice, led by the talented Edwyn Collins, can be considered a prim, Scottish version of hardcore’s Straight Edge movement. Fey middle-class kids like shaven headed, angry punks, I hear you say? Hear me out. These Scots popsters weren’t so keen on the macho drinking culture of Glasgow and wanted to go a clean route, eschewing the drink and drugs prevalent in the local music scene, and replacing them with, well, orange juice. And some amphetamines. And Alan McGee’s organ.

As for “Blue Boy”, it’s got the feel of a band who hadn’t really learned to play (yet) but were trying to copy Television’s chops. Get that guitar solo! For a band that influenced a number of musicians I’m a big fan of (step forward, The Go-Betweens), I’m amazed this period of Orange Juice’s history slipped me by. I’ve already been onto Amazon to buy the compilation released a few years ago, The Glasgow School. What a great song. Sometimes, I’m really glad I’m doing the Pitchfork 500 when I find songs like this on it.

Can’t really say the same for Television Personalities though. Whilst “This Angry Silence” has got that post-Jam, earnest young working-clarse Home Counties boy ranting about his unfair life feel to it, it’s not a patch on the real Jammy thing. Another token entry for the Pitchfork crew.

The Fall’s “The Classical” marks their transition from noisy, shambolic rockabilly post-punkers to something far more interesting. The Fall of the mid-1980’s was one of the shining stars of British music; continually evolving, always sounding different yet intrinsically The Fall, caustic, excoriating, mystical lyrics from their leader Mark E Smith barked over shifting, restless, inventive backing.

“The Classical” is a torrid, yelping affair, with Smith at his angry best. Even better, there’s actually a proper tune and some semblance of songwriting skill rather than the “play one riff and keep it going” methodology of “Live At The Witch Trials” and the like.

It’s also the tune that allegedly scuppered a deal with Motown, with the label’s managers none to happy with the line “Where are the obligatory niggers?”. Mark E Smith, never one to back down from a fight, ended up getting punched in the face in a hotel bar in the US. Sadly I can’t remember who. And what were Motown doing signing The Fall anyway? All sounds a bit odd to me.

Personally, whilst it’s a great song, it’s still not a patch on the work from their true golden age – from Perverted by Language to Bend Sinister – during which there are about 20 tracks that are superior to this. So I’m not sure quite why Pitchfork have chosen this one; the write-up in the book pretty much says the same. So, for you unfamiliar with The Fall, have a listen to this then go and buy some of their classic albums1. Or go on Spotify or Whatever. Just make sure you listen to them.

Lastly, and not leastly, is The Clean. Now this lot really passed me by. Whilst I might have heard Orange Juice’s more famous songs (ok, “Rip It Up”), The Clean made no impact whatsoever in the UK – a point recently (and serendipitously) made in this article in The Guardian just last week 2. “Tally Ho!” reminds me of early Go-Betweens – there obviously being something in the Antipodean water to make pasty white boys play awkward, gangly pop music – and also Pavement, who admit to being heavily influenced by these chaps.

Recorded for, yes, $60, it’s got that pure shambolic feel of a band bursting with tunes and energy but without the financial means to go into a nice, big posh studio. Back in 1981, there was no Garageband, no cheap knockoff copies of Cubase or ProTools, so you had to get a decent reel-to-reel recorder worth thousands to get your song released. Unless you borrowed a mate’s cheapo recorder and just did it all yourself with some friends. The organ riff has been playing in my head fairly constantly for the past few days, which is pretty much a good sign.

So, other than the Television Personalities tune, what a great selection of music. Shambolic, yes, but full of energy, tunes and sheer bravado. Off to the States for the last four songs of this part of the Pitchfork 500.

You can find the full list here.

1 Though quite why the CD reissues have been fiddled with, putting singles and B-sides slap bang in the middle of the album, is beyond me. Ok, in this day and age it’s not too hard to edit, but still, one shouldn’t have to do this. Next time they are reissued, please sort out the track listing. Thank you.

2 And weirdly enough, I was listening to The Clean whilst reading the article in the paper, not knowing the article was in there, and not knowing I’d be listening to The Clean that morning on the way to work. How odd is that?

MP3: Blue Boy by Orange Juice

MP3: Tally Ho! By The Clean

Buy Orange Juice’s “The Glasgow School” (CD)

By “Part Time Punks: The Very Best of Television Personalities” (CD/MP3)

Buy The Fall’s “Hex Enduction Hour”

Buy The Clean’s “Anthology” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Goes METAL! – Flipper to Iron Maiden

METAL! Skulls. Cider. Screaming. Donington. Long hair. Longer guitar solos. Ludicrous lyrics. Bottles of piss. Dungeons and Dragons. Right, that’s the clichés out of the way.

Flipper – Sex Bomb
Motorhead – Ace of Spades
Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills

First off, it’s Flipper with “Sex Bomb”. Who, I hear you ask? I dunno, I reply. After listening to this a few times, reading the book, doing a bit of background work, I still have no idea. One of those bizarre, random entries that really don’t make any sense. It’s not like it was massively influential, or even that good. Listen for yourself:

Hmm. Any ideas? Anyone? Well, I suppose it’s got a certain chaotic charm to it, rather like James Chance playing something from the “Nuggets” compilation, but that’s no reason to put it on the list. Goes without saying that Kurt Cobain was a huge fan. Oh, and I hasten to say, it’s not metal, I’ve just lumped it in here for convenience.

Back to some normality with Motörhead’s“Ace Of Spades”. I remember watching this on The Young Ones and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. And it was. Still is. This song rocks. It rocks with a studded belt, a dirty t-shirt, oil-stained jeans, long manky hair, and an array of facial hair, metal adornments, and tattoos, possibly about your mother. Just look at them:

None More Rock

None More Rock

They rock. Lemmy rocks even when selling pensions, and manages to be even more rock by being rather more erudite and intelligent than most indie-schmindie kids (although the Nazi memorabilia thing is somewhat disturbing). Drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor looks like he’s spent his entire life mainlining meths and puts speed on his cornflakes, which, in fairness, he probably has. This is the man who continued to play after breaking his neck, and in a separate incident, gaffer-taped a drumstick to his hand after breaking it in a fight. See, Metallica? THAT is rock, not your pussy-assed whining about your therapist.

If an alien came up to you and said “So, Earthling, what’s this heavy metal all about then?” you’d just play them this. And they would agree, and spread the word of rock to the galaxy. This is rock. Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, death, gambling, umlauts, what more can a man ask for?

Have I said it rocks yet?

Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills” rocks too, only not quite so much, and in a much more ludicrous way. Whilst “Ace Of Spades” is out drinking cider and shagging your girlfriend, “Run To The Hills” is throwing an 18-sided dice and wondering when it will finally get to feel a lady’s front bumps. Featuring more drums and guitars than you should shake a Staff of Nightbane (+10HP, +3 INT, -1 AGL) at, it also features Bruce Dickinson’s patented “Sing Like You’ve Caught Your Bollocks In A Door” singing style. Mind you, when you’re singing about the destruction of Native American civilisation and the murders of thousands, nothing less will do, I suppose.

Goes without saying that, just like “Ace Of Spades”, the drumming and guitar is phenomenal. This song defines that certain brand of Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)1 so beloved of spotty teenage herberts, much maligned and patronised, but also has a certain ludicrous beauty to it. I’d much rather listen to this than bloody Hall and Oates any day.

Next up, more Heavy Metal with Orange Juice.

1 New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, since you’re asking

MP3: Ace Of Spades by Motorhead

MP3: Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden

The whole list is here.

Buy “Generic Flipper”

Buy Motorhead’s “The Best Of” (CD)

Buy Iron Maiden’s “Somewhere Back In Time: The Best Of: 1980-1989” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Mosh Pit – Bad Brains to Wipers

These songs remind me of dark, hot sweaty underground clubs, filled with teenage men, hot sweaty and lithe, writhing against each other, limbs flailing, reaching a state of ecstasy. Ah, the mosh pit. What the hell did you think I was talking about?

Bad Brains – Pay to Cum
Minor Threat – Minor Threat
Dead Kennedys – Holiday in Cambodia
Black Flag – Rise Above
Wipers – Youth of America

Bad Brains started off as a jazz fusion act, until deciding to become a hardcore punk band. And that’s not a sentence I think I’ll ever write again. Wonder what prompted their change of heart? “Hey, Darryl, I’m tired of all these diminished 3rds and 7/8 time signatures, let’s just be punk, dammit!” So, anyway, there sure knew how to play, as “Pay To Cum” demonstrates – fast as hell, but beautifully timed with some serious chops on show.

Being so good at what they did kind of spoil the field for everyone who followed them – after all, part of the fun of punk was that it wasn’t full of excellent musicians, so up-and-coming acts had to work rather hard to follow Bad Brains – but they then decided they’d had enough of hardcore and morphed into a reggae band.

As you do. Anyway, great song.

Minor Threat defined the hardcore punk movement “Straight Edge”. Teenagers love to rebel. It’s what they do. It’s their raison d’etre. So what do you do when your parents don’t mind you drinking, smoking, doing drugs, and sleeping around? In fact, they actually promote it? You don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex. That’ll teach ‘em! Seriously though, it’s a funny thing to do as a teenager. As anyone approaching middle-age will be happy to tell you, one’s later years are spent not being able to do all those things, partly due to work and family commitments, and partly because you’re just too tired. Have one big night out and you’re still paying for it three days later. So not doing this as a teenager seems a bit off to me. Youth of today – eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you’ll have kids and a mortgage and a strange desire to watch “Railway Walks” (I speak from personal experience).

The song? Oh yes, it’s not half bad, you know. But really, kids, don’t listen to them – drinking is fun. Oh yes.

Out of all these bands, I’ve actually regularly listened to, and owned records by, only this one band – Dead Kennedys. I had “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” as an innocent 15-year-old and once delighted my friends by trying to play “Kill The Poor” on the guitar, alongside my redoubtable repertoire of “1969”, “No Fun” and a couple of Velvet Underground songs. Formed in late 1978 in San Francisco, singer Jello Biafra (not his real name) wrote lyrics of fearsome intensity and intelligence, backed with deranged, frightening guitar:

Mind you, my personal favourite has always been “California Uber Alles”:

But I can see why the Pitchfork writers went for “Holiday In Cambodia”. Both still make your hairs stand on end and fill you with righteous anger. They just don’t make ’em like this any more. Interestingly enough, both songs featured in John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1980, and were the only entries by non-British or Irish acts (they both appeared in the following year’s chart, joined by Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”).

(This leads me onto a brief digression. As I mentioned, I had Dead Kennedys records, but the rest of these bands stayed pretty obscure in the UK at the time. I guess it was largely due to the fact that, since punk hit in 1976, people were rather tired of this sort of thing by the early 80’s. And there was rather alot going on, so music seen as just harping back to what had happened five years before kind of got ignored. After all, we had New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen, who needed angry young men shouting at you?)

Black Flag had been doing the rounds for a couple of years, with a fairly rapid turnover of members thanks to leader Greg Ginn’s insistence on a hardcore (boom tish) work ethic of daily practice sessions and constant touring. Henry Rollins, the band’s fourth (!) vocalist, described him as “Patton on steroids”. Fun guy. Also forming SST, the influential record label, Black Flag spread their word to the suburban kids by getting in a van, playing wherever they could, and selling records as they went. They were the evangelical preachers of hardcore, telling the kids they could rise above the expectations of their suburban parents:

Terrible sound quality, sure, but just look at those teenage Philadelpians yelling along to a topless Rollins (just started on his road to muscle-bound fury). Ah, the mosh pit. I’m getting nostalgic again.

Lastly, it’s Wipers “Youth Of America”. Don’t remember hearing this tune before, though I do remember hearing a very long hardcore punk song in a club I used to visit in Frankfurt (The Cave). So maybe that was it. Certainly more ambitious than your run of the mill hardcore tune, singer Greg Sage rails against both the left and the right beating down teenagers, saying wisely “They’ll try to put you 6 feet under the ground”. And at ten minutes long – shocking enough for a hardcore tune – he certainly has the time to drill the message home. Big influence on Nirvana, apparently (though let’s face it, so was every band you’ve never heard of).

Goes on a bit though.

Anyway, that’s it with this hardcore lark. Enough sweaty bodies and shouting. Next time it’s Motorhead (yay!) and Iron Maiden (boo!).

MP3: Pay to Cum by Bad Brains

MP3: Holiday in Cambodia by Dead Kennedys

The whole list is here.

Buy “Banned in DC: Bad Brains’ Greatest Riffs” (CD)

Buy Minor Threat “Complete Discography” (CD)

Buy “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” (CD)

Buy Black Flag’s “Damaged” (CD)

Buy “Best Of The Wipers And Greg Sage” (MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Drivetime – Abba to Journey

These five songs on the Pitchfork 500 are the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on drivetime radio anywhere from California to Krakow. Mixing both European and American bands, all of these bands (aside one) were enormous in the 1970’s, making their fortunes in the great commercial explosion of popular music. Fascinating people too, from Abba’s intertwined romances, through Roxy Music’s son-of-a-coal-miner glamour, Queen’s flamboyant Zanzibari singer, to Bruce Springsteen’s Noo Joisey working class boy made good from hard, hard work.

Oh, and Journey. You just had to go and spoil it, didn’t you, Pitchfork?

ABBA – The Day Before You Came
Roxy Music – More Than This
Queen (With David Bowie) – Under Pressure
Bruce Springsteen – Atlantic City
Journey – Don’t Stop Believing

Abba had reached the end of their stunning musical career in 1982. They’d had hits all over the globe, sold an eye-watering 370 million records, were feted as musical geniuses, and with their deft mix of modern pop with traditional folk and a serious ear for a tune, had brought untold happiness to millions. As their magical chemistry faded away to rancour and bitterness, they released their last single, “The Day Before You Came”. The song, a tale of the mundanity of a young woman’s life before she met her lover, has all the faded glamour and chill of Stockholm in mid-December1. The last song they ever recorded, with Agnetha recording her vocals in the dark, “The Day Before You Came” is lovely, hopeful, and sad, in equal measure. A truly unique band.

I would have picked “Does Your Mother Know” though.

Roxy Music, formed by a bunch of art students from Newcastle Upon Tyne, brought futuristic glamour to mid-’70’s England. But after losing Brian Eno to a battle of egos with singer Brian Ferry, the arty edge that had made their music so fascinating was replaced by a smoothness and opulence, mirroring their now rich lifestyles (not bad for a band led by a man whose father made his living down a coal mine).

The song itself tells the tale of ships that pass in the night, one night stands, and being carefree. Nice to know that sleeping with all those models didn’t go to Brian Ferry’s head, eh? But you can hear the loneliness in Ferry’s voice, that he’s pining for more but can’t quite express what it is.

As for interesting backgrounds, how about a man from a small island off the coast of East Africa sporting a mustache that marked him out as very, very gay (this being back in the days when this sort of thing simply didn’t exist)2, with an opera-singer voice and a sense of drama unparalleled in modern music; mixed with a guitarist who’d built his guitar out of the wood from his fireplace and a dull but worthy rhythm section. Already massive stars, they recorded this in 1982 with David Bowie, who added his usual panache and dexterity to an often overwrought band. But all you hear when you play this record is some stupid dumbass rapping over the top of it.

Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby on MUZU.

Ok, it’s a great song, forever ruined by Vanilla Effin’ Ice. Git. Bowie and Mercury dance round each other, complementing rather than competing, and make the sort of record you’d be happy to listen to whilst sitting in a traffic jam on the M42.

It was not cool to like Bruce Springsteen in the ’80’s in Britain. He epitomised everything that was uncool about America, with his check shirts, plain Telecaster, and big muscles, grunting away about the working man and how great America was. Hey, we had synthesisers you know! What we’d missed was how he was a genuine successor to Dylan (not that he was liked much either), and was championing the common man rather than being a patriotic Reaganite – anything but, in fact.

“Atlantic City”, lead single from his gloomy album “Nebraska”, wasn’t exactly a hit. Many people were turned off by Bruce’s refusal to churn out hits like “Born To Run” and “Hungry Heart”, but now, nearly thirty years on, you can appreciate how he was trying to dig out songs from the depths of his soul, rather than just repeating himself.

Coming to Brucey late, I must admit I didn’t quite warm to this (I’d still have chosen “Hungry Heart”), but it does show off his superb skills, both as a musician, lyricist and a singer. How about “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact\But maybe everything that dies some day comes back” for starters? And you just know it’s all going to go horribly wrong for the subject of the song. Don’t meet the man! It’ll end in tears!

My golly, is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” bad. It’s Ace Of Base bad. It’s so bad I had to listen to it twice to make sure. Holy sweet Jebus, mother of Mary, but it’s awful. It’s the song that will be playing over the PA system at the gates of Hell. Really, those hipsters at Pitchfork must be chortling over this one. “So, let’s not put “Been Caught Stealing” in the list, even though it’s a modern classic with a superb video to boot, no, let’s replace it with a bit of godawful MOR that right this very minute, is playing on a Clear Channel radio station somewhere in this great country of ours”.

Bastards. Of course, being the hipster douchebags they are3, the book states that people who don’t like this record don’t exist. Wanna bet? Ok, so it’s got a certain earworm quality to it, but the awful instrumentation and clammy feel to it just turns me off. I’d rather listen to a selection of contemporary Christian Country music than this. Or maybe Jonas Brothers.

Ok, maybe not. Still, at least the next set of songs will soothe my furrowed brow.



1 Trust me, I’ve been there, I know what I’m talking about. The sun comes up at about 11am, then pootles around on the horizon before buggering off again some time after 1pm. No wonder they drink like crazy. Nice place, though.

2 Amazingly, there were people who didn’t realise that Freddie Mercury was actually gay, just that he was a touch flamboyant. I mean, Rock Hudson, yeah, that was a bit of a surprise, but Mercury? The tache? The leather? The calling your band “Queen”? What planet are you on? And don’t even get me started on George Michael.

3 I don’t really think that Pitchfork writers are hipster douchebags – they have introduced me to some fantastic music over the years and for that they earn my undying respect.

MP3: The Day Before You Came by ABBA

MP3: Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen

Buy “Abba Gold Greatest Hits” (MP3)

Buy “The Best Of Roxy Music” (MP3)

Buy Queen’s “Greatest Hits” (CD)

Buy Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” (MP3)

Buy “Don’t Stop Believin'” (MP3)

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

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

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

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

See? Fun Boy Three is definitely the superior.

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

Mariah Carey TV on MUZU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole list is available here.

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

MP3: Genius Of Love by Tom Tom Club

Buy “Go Gos Greatest Hits” (CD)

Buy “Tom Tom Club” (CD)

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

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

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

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The 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 Brits Are Coming Part 3 – Human League to ABC

The early 80’s saw an explosion in electronic pop music from the UK. All around the UK, bands were messing around with primitive synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. With a good ear for a tune and the ability to fiddle around with these new bits of technology, you could create something unique. These bands, along with others like Duran Duran and The Eurythmics, are often called “New Pop” for their marriage of pop sensibilites to the new sounds being made available through technology. The next four songs are:

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Associates – Party Fears Two
ABC – All of My Heart

The Human League were at the forefront of the New Pop explosion, and their 1981 album “Dare” was the first huge release. “Don’t You Want Me” was a huge international hit, though funnily enough the band considered it one of the weaker songs off Dare. Which, in some ways, was right – it didn’t have the same depth musically, or the same pioneering attitude, as other songs such as “Love Action” or “The Sound Of The Crowd”. But what it had in spades was emotion. Love, jealously, ambition, revenge, laid open for everyone to see.

And as the British bands showed, image was as important as the song itself:

Hilarious now to look at this video, using a Rover and a Volvo to demonstrate how chic and rich the characters are meant to be. Ah, early ’80’s England. Still, it’s got it’s glamour and Trauffaut references.

The song, with its classic major verse/minor chorus motif, looks both to the future with its use of technology (trying playing this on a guitar, it just doesn’t work), yet it also harks back to old-style duets. Make something old and classic sound brand spanking new, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Thankfully Pitchfork didn’t try to be all clever (like they did with Adam Ant) and pick another song. This one is just perfect.

Unlike the next one. Now I’ve got nothing against “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. It’s a fine record, if rather over-exposed. But it’s a cover version, which is something I’ve complained about before – why list a cover when the same band have an original, much better composition? This is a time that Pitchfork should have been clever, and gone for “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Now that’s a song. See if you agree1:

Soft Cell – Tainted Love from ddeubel on Vimeo.

Go on, tell me from the depths of your soul, you know I’m right. “Tainted Love”, for all its slinky eroticism, just isn’t in the same league.

When I was reading through the list, The Associates song “Party Fears Two” made me think “Now, I’m sure I know that song, but I can’t quite place it”. Then I heard the first minute and thought “Hey, I remember trying to play that on my parents piano!”. Then Billy McKenzie started singing. By jove, I’d forgotten how bonkers he was. And what a mover:

(sorry, that’s the best quality version I could find).

Billy McKenzie was a famously dramatic fellow, hailing from Dundee, a city not famed for its welcoming attitude toward theatrical gentleman with multi-octave voices and a huge thirst for drugs and glamour. Teaming up with Alan Rankine, the pair of them formed The Associates, who (and this is a very brief history, you understand) managed to get a £60,000 advance to record their first album and spent it on:

1x 1962 Mercedes convertible
2x chocolate guitars for a ToTP performance
Board and lodging at the Swiss Cottage Holiday Inn (including an additional room for Billy’s pet whippets
Smoked salmon for Billy’s pet whippets
16 cashmere jumpers
Huge quantities of cocaine and speed (who’da thought it?)

Needless to say, they also worked very hard on their album, but it all went quite horribly wrong and Rankine left the band at the end of 1982. The days of being able to be completely bonkers and extort piles of cash out of gullible record labels were coming to an end.

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Smoked Salmon makes for shiny coats

Oh, the song? Great piano line, mad vocal histrionics, and quite unique. You wonder what else they could have come up with if they’d had a decent manager to rein them in. And laid off the drugs a bit.

And last of all, ABC. Now I must say I’ve never really got into ABC. They always seemed too cold and calculating, wearing their ambition on their sleeves. Can’t say that Trevor Horn’s clinical production helps their case either. So forgive me if I don’t really talk much about “All of My Heart”, with its Fairlight stabs and huge strings, as it just doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart.

Next up, the final part of The Brits Are Coming, featuring New Order, The Jam and some more New Pop.

1 Sorry, but Soft Cell are one of the bands who have had their videos removed by YouTube, and Vimeo doesn’t embed properly in WordPress.

MP3: 96-dont-you-want-me

MP3: 98-party-fears-two

The whole list is available here.

Buy Human League’s “Dare!” (MP3) (Essential Purchase)

Buy Soft Cell’s “The Very Best Of” (MP3/CD)

Buy The Associates “Singles” (CD)

Buy “The Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC” (CD)

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