Tuesday 30 September 2014

My Top Ten Invisible Songs

After flight, invisibility would be my super power of choice. Still, while I may never soar like a bird... lately there are times I do feel extremely invisible.

When I started planning this post, I felt sure there'd be space for Genesis - Invisible Touch and The Police - Invisible Sun. And you know me, usually I'd have no shame about such inclusions. However, neither really made the grade this time round. Apologies to Sting and Phil Collins fans. You must feel just awful.(Heh.)

10. Bruce Springsteen - Hunter of Invisible Game

This year's "new" Bruce album turned out to be a bit of a contract filler, containing a bunch of songs left over from his last LP and some re-recordings of earlier stuff (the new, rockier version of The Ghost of Tom Joad was arguably better than the original).

Therefore, because Bruce didn't have to spend any time writing new material, he chose instead to become an actor and filmmaker. The internet seems divided on whether that was a sensible move or not. For all its fancy filmmaking, this feels like a Bon Jovi video. And hey, I have nothing against Jon Bon... but Bruce has always been a step above.

Still, at least it's better than Courtney Cox.

9. Primal Scream - Invisible City

Bobby Gillespie goes for a wander round town and chronicles the charming inhabitants he encounters along the way...

Flashing lights, police cars
Polysexual gutter stars
Brutal stares, skinhead crops
The corner boys look like their dogs
Kebab shops, pubs and mosques
Lapdancing clubs, synagogues
Police stations, crack house zombies
Readers' wives, suburban orgies

Pissed up girls, Kia-Ora tans
Mini skirts, one night stands
Up the duff, sun bed thighs
Missing father all their lives
Rain wet streets
Hallucination, stretched faces
Like a Bacon painting...

8. Kate Bush - How to Be Invisible

Kate finds a book of spells, the best one promising invisibility...

Eye of Braille
Hem of anorak
Stem of wallflower
Hair of doormat

Yeah, like Kate Bush could ever be invisible!

7. Paul Weller - Invisible

Another song about growing old. I've been listening to a lot of these lately, for some reason...

There was a time
I though every hair on my body was alive
Yes it was
Now you can't even see
The grey and the dye
I'm not one to give up

But I feel I'm at a loss

No Grecian 2000 here... just in case you were wondering.

6. Alison Moyet - Invisible

There are a lot of crass numpties comparing Alison Moyet to Adele purely because both have enjoyed huge success despite not being stick insect thin... or taking their clothes off all the time in their videos. There's even a ridiculous internet rumour going around that Alison is Adele's mum. Sometimes, people are just too stupid to be allowed to draw breath.

Anyway, Alison Moyet - what a voice! It's a shame that the 80s production makes some of her best records sound a little tinny to modern ears, but Invisible is still a classic.

5. Modest Mouse - Invisible

Not sure what this impassioned Waits-ian rant from Modest Mouse is all about, but there's one line I do get:

No, you're not invisible inside your car...

How many drivers do you see every day that actually think they are?

4. Queen - The Invisible Man

Remembered fondly from the height of my Queen-addicted adolescence, this one owes much to John Deacon's throbbing bassline... ironic as, in many ways, Deacon was (and remains) the Invisible Man of the group. Also featuring an amazingly tacky computer-game influenced video that could only have been made in the 80s. Amazingly, Freddie makes those sub-Max Headroom shades look cool.

3. Aimee Mann - Invisible Ink

Aimee Mann's voice pours through my ears like world-weary honey. And that songwriting...!
But nobody wants to hear this tale
The plot is clich├ęd, the jokes are stale
And baby we've all heard it all before
Oh I could get specific but
Nobody needs a catalogue
With details of love I can't sell anymore
2. The Twilight Sad - That Summer, At Home, Had Become The Invisible Boy

The title comes from Stephen King's The Stand. The song: an epic, building behemoth of jangling guitars and angry lyrics that express teenage frustration and alienation perfectly.

1. Elvis Costello - The Invisible Man

One of my all-time favourite Costello songs, from his finest album (imho). Not being one to include lyric sheets with his earlier records, I spent a fair amount of my teenage years with headphones glued on, puzzling over the playful intricacies of Elvis's songwriting. The Invisible Man is a pretty straightforward idea in which Mr. C is cast as The Invisible Man because, as the fade out lyric explains "Now you won't see me..." It's the lyrics prior to this that gave me the most joy though, particularly the glorious chorus...

But if stars are only painted on the ceiling above
Then who can you turn to and who do you love?
I want to get out while I still can
I want to be like Harry Houdini
Now I'm the invisible man

And then there's the backing - thundering piano rolls from Steve Nieve and the powerfully uplifting sound of the TKO Horns who backed much of this record and made it the brightest and most life-affirming in the Costello canon...

Can you see me? Do you hear me? Will you leave a comment so I don't feel quite so invisible today...

Tuesday 23 September 2014

My Top Ten Sad Street Songs

Busy week as the new college term gets into full swing. With five classes a day some days, I certainly have no time for blogging. Fortunately, this is how I spent my summer vacation... here's one I prepared earlier. This week: unhappy roads.

And you think it's depressing where you live!

10. The Maisonettes - Heartache Avenue

The only good thing about moving onto Heartache Avenue is that you can live there rent-free.

9. Magnetic Fields - Lonely Highway

An alcoholic hits the road and leaves his abusive past behind him in Jackson. Stephin Merritt = songwriting genius.

8. Elvis Presley - (It's A) Long, Lonely Highway

Classic Pomus/Schuman number, used in the soundtrack of the movie Tickle Me. 'Nuff said.

See also Heartbreak Hotel, of course, which is located "down at the end of Lonely Street"...

7. The Pogues - Rain Street

A pretty bleak place to live, according to Shane, and not just because of the weather...
Down the alley the icewagon flew
Picked up a stiff that was turning blue
The local kids were sniffin' glue
Not much else for a kid to do
Down Rain Street
My favourite verse introduces us to the local supermarket...
There's a Tesco on the sacred ground
Where I pulled her knickers down
While Judas took his measly price
And St Anthony gazed in awe at Christ
Down on Rain Street

See also Lonesome Highway, in which Shane props up the bar with another tale of whiskey-tinged woe.

6. Lemonheads - The Turnpike Down

Although Evan Dando's certainly feeling down on the turnpike, he's at least cheered by the butterscotch streetlamps.

5. Ray Charles - Lonely Avenue

More Doc Pomus. Ray's girl's up and left town and he's too skint to follow her.

4. Bill Withers - Lonely Town, Lonely Street

Although he's best known for the sunshiney pop of Lovely Day, much of Bill Withers' material is dark and sorrowful. This is the man who wrote Ain't No Sunshine, of course, but also the singer who shoots himself at the end of the classic Better Off Dead. Lonely Town, Lonely Street is a song about lacking self-confidence... and failing because of that. Maybe that's why I love it?
And if you are shy, just not much of a talker
Don't impress the people that you meet
You might as well be a lonely walker in a lonely town, on a lonely street
3. The Kinks - Dead End Street

The one that Oasis pilfered shamelessly for The Importance Of Being Idle...
There's a crack up in the ceiling,
And the kitchen sink is leaking.
Out of work and got no money,
A Sunday joint of bread and honey.

What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No money coming in,
The rent collector's knocking, trying to get in.
2. Morrissey - Late Night, Maudlin Street

Just about every Morrissey album has to half a 7-minute plus "epic", and this is the original, from Viva Hate, by which all others are measured. With its plodding beat and mournful vocals, it's the kind of song that naturally tags Moz with the miserablist label. But the lyrics are often hilarious, in a self-deprecating Alan Bennett kind of way.
Came home late one night
Everyone had gone to bed
But you know, no one stays up for you
I had sixteen stitches all around my head
The last bus I missed to Maudlin Street
So, he drove me home in the van
complaining: "Women only like me for my mind.."

1. Green Day - Boulevard of Broken Dreams

I've been a fan of Green Day ever since I saw them set fire to the stage at Leeds Festival in the late 90s. I even use this track in my teaching to explain the concept of personfication to my students ("when the city sleeps") although if Billy Joe Armstrong ever walked into one of my classes with his surly sneer, folded arms and general air of stroppiness, I'd show him the door immediately.

Broken dreams, though. I know a few of those...

Those were my favourite sad streets. Which one cheers you up?

Monday 15 September 2014

My Top Ten Cow Songs

Last week, my dad sold his cows. Although being a farmer was never his main form of income (he was a joiner first, then a car auctioneer, then a joiner again), he'd kept cows as a sideline / hobby for over 60 years. But at 84, he's finally had to face up to the fact that he can't be out there chucking hay bales around or chasing the bloody things down the road when they break through the fence... so they've gone off to live out their days on another farm. There were only seven left at the end, but it was sad to see them go. I have to admit, I still choke up when I think about him calling them in for the last time. (He'd had those cows so long, they came when he called.)

Growing old really is rubbish, you just say goodbye to one thing after another.

10. Tanita Tikaram - Poor Cow

Tanita's lyrics always suggested interesting stories, but left the listener to fill in the gaps. This one has a dark sting in its tail though.

9. Sonic Youth - Bull In The Heather

Actually, this one is about a racehorse. But we'll ignore that because it's Kim Gordon and the video is... nice.

8. Hoyt Axton - Wild Bull Rider

As well as being a big-hearted country singer who always brings a smile to my face, Hoyt Axton was also the dad in Gremlins. What else do you want from him?

7. The Hold Steady - Cattle & The Creeping Things

Craig Finn is an excellent storyteller. This is like listening in on a bar room conversation... an interesting one.

She said I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again
It felt strange but it was nice and peaceful
It really pleased me to be around so many people
Of course half of them visions
Half of them were friends from going through the program with me
Later on we did some sexy things
Took a couple photographs and carved them into wood reliefs
Hey, but that's enough about me
Tell me how you got down here into Ybor City
6. Steely Dan - Black Cow

It's a root beer float, apparently. Classic Dan, from Aja.

5. Morrissey - The Bullfighter Dies

The shortest song on the new Moz album will surprise no one with its exultation of "hooray hooray" as the bullfighter dies. With cheery mariachi horns and cheesy Spanish puns, it's a more enjoyable listen than Mozzer's more famous cow song, Meat Is Murder, which I always felt went a little too far (and way too long) with its hectoring soapboxing. (Sacrilege, I know.) Besides, the cows win in this one.

4. Aerosmith - Milk Cow Blues

Originally recorded by Sleepy John Estes in 1930, this has been covered by everyone from Robert Johnson to Elvis, Eddie Cochran to Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. The Kinks adapted the song quite a bit and it's their version that Aerosmith pay homage to here.

Leave this song in Elvis Costello's fridge too long and this is what you get: Sour Milk Cow Blues.

3. Prefab Sprout - Golden Calf

Blissful romanticism, as always, from Mr. McAloon.

Once upon a time I stalked the
Streets on raining evenings when the
Distant sea blended with the sky
My mouth was full of cigarettes
My hair is full of long-term bets
But you would always make me see the day

2. The Go-Betweens - Cattle & Cane

My favourite Go-Betweens track. Great guitar work and very evocative lyrics.

1. The Wonder Stuff - The Size Of A Cow

I always thought Miles Hunt sang "I'm gonna halve my problems to the size of a cow"... and that this was a positive song. Turns out it's a much more depressing: "I'm building up my problems to the size of a cow". Damn, blast!

Those were my sacred cows... which one moooooves you?

Monday 8 September 2014

My Top Ten 'The Ballad of...' Songs

I was astounded by how many songs in my record collection are Ballads of... somebody or other. I reckon I could have stretched this to a Top 50 if I'd had the time. These were the best ballads of the bunch...

10. Georgie Fame - The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde

One day, I might get around to compiling a Top Ten Bonnie & Clyde Songs... amazingly, this 1967 Georgie Fame Number One might not make it to the top of that list.

9. Frank Turner - The Ballad of Me and My Friends

Friendship is a recurring theme in Frank Turner's work and he writes about it in a very open, honest and emotional way. It seems most of Frank's friends are tortured artists...
Everybody's got themselves a plan,
Everybody thinks they'll be the man, including the girls.
The musicians who lack the friends to form a band are singer-songwriters,
The rest of us are DJs or official club photographers.
And tonight I'm playing another Nambucca show,
So I'm going through my phonebook, texting everyone I know,
And I quite a few I don't, whose numbers found their way into my phone,
But they might come along anyway, you never really know.
However, while most of them might never reach their intended destination... they're definitely enjoying the journey.
We're going nowhere slowly, but we're seeing all the sights.
And we're definitely going to hell,
But we'll have all the best stories to tell.
8. The Mystery Jets - The Ballad of Emmerson Lonestar

From my favourite album of 2012... we must be about ready for a new Mystery Jets record now. Come on, lads, don't keep us waiting much longer.

7. Dr. Hook  - The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan

Or ...Lucy Jordon, as the record was originally released. This week's song about growing old... as I've said previously, I listen to a lot of those these days.
At the age of thirty-seven she realised she'd never
Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.
So she let the phone keep ringing and she sat there softly singing
Little nursery rhymes she'd memorised in her daddy's easy chair.
There's a splendid cover version by Marianne Faithfull, but I still prefer Dennis Locorriere's vocals on the original.

6. Bloodhound Gang - The Ballad of Chasey Lain

I'll let you google Chasey Lain if you're unfamiliar with her ouvre... but perhaps don't do that at work. 

Juvenile in the extreme, as all the best Bloodhound Gang records are. If you're easily offended or don't have the mind of a puerile 14 year old boy, skip along to the next song.

5. The Beatles - The Ballad of John and Yoko

One of the first John Lennon solo records, in all but name. George and Ringo were both absent from the session and although Macca filled in for them on bass, drums and piano, and shared the songwriting credit with John as always, he had little else to do with the song's creation.

Denied as much airplay as other Beatles records due to its references to Jesus and crucifixion (Lennon further developing his earlier "more popular than Jesus" comparison) it still made the top spot on the UK charts, although it did prove to be their final Number One, and marked the beginning of the end for the group.

4. XTC - The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead

Andy Partridge's infamous JFK/Malcolm X/Jesus allegory about a man just too damned virtuous to survive in high office.

But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees

3. Jim's Big Ego - The Ballad Of Barry Allen

One for the geek vote, this obscure American indie song is a tribute to the DC Comics hero The Flash (soon to star in his own TV show... I hope it's better than Arrow). Gets to the targic heart of the character in a way the comics long since stopped bothering.

2. Space & Cerys Matthews - The Ballad of Tom Jones

It's a credit to 1998 that a creepy, John Barry-esque tribute to the Welsh crooner, a bizarre anti-love song duet with a chorus like this...

You stopped us from killing each other
Tom Jones, Tom Jones
You'll never know but you saved our lives

Tom Jones, Tom Jones
I've never thrown my knickers at you
And I don't come from Wales

...could make number 4 in the charts. It's been years since I listened to this - blimey, I'd forgotten how good it was.

1. Todd Snider - The Ballad Of The Kingsmen

Todd Snider tells the true story of The Kingsmen, the 60s garage band responsible for the huge one hit wonder 'Louie Louie', a record that ended up being investigated by the FBI for its supposedly obscene (but really just plain unintelligible) lyrics. From there he goes on to wonder whether Marilyn Manson records were really responsible for the Columbine massacre... and why we keep blaming our failings as a society on dumb (yet ultimately harmless) pop songs. Brilliant stuff.

Those were my best ballads... but which one makes you go Aye-yi-yi-yi?

Monday 1 September 2014

My Top Ten Suburban Songs

Let's all move out to the suburbs!

This week's special mention goes to Suburban Kids With Biblical Names.

10. Manfred Mann - Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James

When Paul Jones left Manfred Mann, Mike d'Abo jumped in to replace him. This was the first single he wrote / sang for the group... the title was originally "...Mr. Jones" until the Manfreds realised that might be seen as a dig at their previous lead man.

Listening to this again for the first time in years, it occurs to me that Damon Albarn might have had it on in the Blur tour bus while he was writing The Great Escape.

9. The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

I'll admit it, I never really clicked with The Arcade Fire. I feel they're a band I should spend more time with... but there are so many other shiny things out there that keep stealing my attention. Still, I like this one. I think it's about growing up and watching the world fall apart around you. Which we all know too well these days...
So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I'm still young?
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before this damage is done
8. The Kinks - Shangri-La

Ray Davies quietly mocks his hero Arthur, a man who's worked his way up from the back-to-back with an outside privy to all the mod cons of the suburbs where life is perfect.... isn't it?
And all the houses in the street have got a name
'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same
Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes
The neighbors call to tell you things that you should know
They say their lines, they drink their tea, and then they go
They tell your business in another Shangri-la
The gas bills and the water rates, and payments on the car
Too scared to think about how insecure you are
Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-la
7. Billy Joel - The Great Suburban Showdown

A song about going home to visit your parents when you've left home as a young adult... and being rather judgmental about how their life hasn't changed at all. With added backyard barbecue.
I've been gone for a while, made some changes in my style
And they say you can't go home anymore
Well the streets all look the same, and I'll have to play the game
We'll all sit around in the kitchen chairs
With the TV on with the neighbors there
6. Pulp - Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

Jarvis stumbles across a strange and exotic form of life in the suburbs that he's never encountered before... and soon he becomes one of them.
We drank strange brown liquids, 
And our stomachs swelled up like balloons. 
A thousand fake orgasms every night 
behind thick draylon curtains.
They go on and on and on and on. Oh! 

We sank back into long PVC sofas. 
Outside dogs roamed the streets and the roof-tops, plus it would rain. 
But now we've grown so fat we can no longer pass through the door. 
Stay we must, sprouting black hair beneath bry-nylon underwear.
5. The Monkees - Pleasant Valley Sunday

It's hard to believe it now, but the Monkees were a boyband. They were Take That, the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and One Direction before any of those kids were even a twinkle in their daddy's winkle. I don't know, maybe in about thirty years there'll be a middle-aged music blogger writing a Top Ten that sneaks one of their classic hits in amongst the Pulps, Arcade Fires and Half Men Half Biscuits.  

Anyway, Pleasant Valley Sunday hardly needs any further introduction. Classic Goffin & King song that will never grow old.

4. The Members - The Sound Of The Suburbs

Pleasant Valley Sunday reinvented for the punk generation by Nicky Tesco and the lads. Glorious stuff.
Youth Club group used to want to be free
Now they want Anarchy
They play too fast, they play out of tune
Practice in the singer's bedroom
Drum's quite good, the bass is too loud
And I… can't hear the words
3. Pet Shop Boys - Suburbia

There's a creepiness to the early Pet Shop Boys records the band were never able to recapture once Neil revealed his true colours as a disco Noel Coward. This feels like a distant cousin to Ghost Town by The Specials... the suburbs gone bad.
I only wanted something else to do but hang around
2.Half Man Half Biscuit - For What Is Chatteris...

Most Half Man Half Biscuit records are about the little frustrations of (sub)urban living (or occasionally, getting lost in the countryside), but this is my absolute favourite. Plus, it's a sweet little love song to boot. Every line's a gem!
Car crime’s low, the gun crime’s lower
The town hall band CD, it’s a grower
You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce
Although there was a drive-by shouting once
1. Ben Folds - Rockin' the Suburbs

Ben Folds' storming anthem to middle class angst and first world problems is also a tongue-in-cheek wink at the overwrought suburban seriousness of bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit (and their fans).
Y'all don't know what it's like
Being male, middle-class and white
Y'all don't know what it's like
Being male, middle-class and white
Y'all don't know what it's like
Being male, middle class and white
It gets me real pissed off, it makes me wanna say.............................................
Just like Jon Bon Jovi did
I'm rockin' the suburbs
Except that he was talented
I'm rockin' the suburbs
I take the cheques and face the facts
That some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks
These days...
This debut solo single (after jettisoning the Five) proved a huge hit for Ben. Unfortunately, the album was released on the 11th of September 2001... it did OK despite that.

And if that's not enough to get Ben a well-deserved Number One this week... a few years later he recorded an entirely different version of the song for the soundtrack to the DreamWorks animated movie Over The Hedge... WITH WILLIAM FRICKIN' SHATNER GUEST STARRING AS AN ANGRY NEIGHBOUR. What else do you want? Blood?

I have quite a few suburban songs left over in the garage... did I forget your favourite?
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