Monday 30 January 2017

The Top Ten Songs I Hated When I Was A Kid... #1

...But Like Or Love Now.

As previously discussed, I didn't get into buying pop records until I was 15. Before then, my musical education was filtered through (much) older siblings and parents who were firm Radio 2 listeners. Growing up, I did encounter some of the more contemporary, chart-bound songs of the day that my friends were into... and I would often rebel against them. Actively dislike them, no, HATE them, just because everyone else was raving about them (or because CERTAIN people were).

Anyway, I thought I'd start a new (occasional) series featuring and trying to explain why I hated these songs back in the day. And why, in many cases, I came to love them.

There was only one song I could kick off with...

1. The Smiths - Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

(Oh yeah, I thought I'd count upwards, 1 - 10, for these posts. It made more sense.)

The Smiths' most famous song was released in 1984, when I was 12 years old, still in the first year of high school. I hadn't started retuning the dial to Radio 1 yet, and I certainly wasn't watching Top of the Pops regularly... still, I very much doubt many of my fellow First Years were aware of The Smiths at this point either. Let's fast forward a year or so to be on the safe side...

OK, now I've just started the Third Year. I'm definitely listening to Radio 1 now, because I remember being very fond of Janice Long's Selectadisc on a Friday tea time. I liked this show a lot because girls (and sometimes boys) would phone up and request songs for people they fancied and I was very much into the idea of fancying and being fancied (though there was far too much of the former and bugger all of the latter going on). I know it's 1985 when I was listening to this show because I remember hearing There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) getting requested a lot and I loved Annie Lennox's vocal gymnastics at the start of that song. I also remember that quite frequently someone would call up and request a song by THE MOST MISERABLE BAND ever, The Smiths. And often they would request the one song that proved this, without a shadow of a doubt: Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.

Now I was one of those annoying kids who liked to make people laugh. I didn't muck about in class, but I did do a half-decent line in celebrity / teacher impressions outside the classroom. I must have been half-decent as the drama teacher got me to introduce a school performance. I was the link man for this evening, coming on stage in between each little play and filling while they rearranged the sets behind me. I remember I did a Rod Serling Twilight Zone spoof as one of my intros, but I can't for the life of me remember what any of the others were. I'm sure they were excruciating for anyone over the age of 15 (and quite a few people under that age too) but I digress...

One of my favourite impressions soon became this MISERABLE BASTARD "POP" SINGER who kept getting played on Selectadisc.

"Moan moan moan, I hate my life, I'm so miserable, I wish I was dead, moan, moan, moan..."

My impression went something like that, and involved the sticking out of my bottom lip for added emphasis. I had friends - a couple of very good ones by this time (though there's a part of me that always feels I struggled to make friends in school: hence why I was so desperate to make people laugh) - who loved The Smiths, and kept trying to turn me on to them. It didn't work. I resisted their efforts well into the Sixth Form, and persisted with my Moz-mockery. (One of those friends went to a 6th Form Fancy Dress disco wearing National Health glasses and gladioli in his back pocket. I went as the Jack Nicholson Joker. All that face paint played havoc with my acne. No way I was going to pull that night.)

I mentioned on Facebook a couple of weeks back how I didn't get into The Smiths until I was 19 (there's a story behind that, John Peel is involved, another post for another day) and an old school acquaintance and longtime Smiths fan replied I "just wasn't ready for them" until then. There's a truth in that, but it's not the whole story. One of the reasons my friends kept trying to change my stubborn opinion is that in many ways The Smiths were made for me as a teenager. I had a dark sense of humour, a cynical outlook on the world, and was prone to bouts of morose depression. I was also incredibly lonely in that epically sad teenage way that stops you from enjoying the friends you do have and making the most of that most difficult time.
In my life
Why do I smile
At people who I'd much rather kick in the eye?
Morrissey was there for me throughout my 20s, when I really needed him. Ironically, I became one of those people who argued vociferously whenever anyone dared to call The Smiths "miserablists" and defended Morrissey through some of his dumbest attempts at verbal self destruction. (Nobody opens his mouth and inserts his foot like Moz.) But even after I'd learned the lyrics to every obscure Smiths b-side off by heart, there was still a part of me that refused to fully embrace Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. It would take a long time to lift that self-imposed stigma.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible...*

(*Yeah, I know that's a different song. It just seemed a very appropriate line to finish on.)

Sunday 29 January 2017

My Top Ten John Hurt Songs

I'm not going to go off on one about losing another hero of my youth. Last year was a bad one, but I think we all have to accept now, this is going to happen with greater frequency as we count down to our own departures. Facts of life, and all that.

Never mind, here's ten songs in tribute to The Elephant Man, Kane, Winston Smith and The War Doctor...

10. Johnny Cash - Hurt

Let's start with the best song on the list, though in some ways the least relevant. It's a John, and he's Hurt. It seemed to fit the mood too.

9. Biff Bang Pow! - Chocolate Elephant Man

There will be more references to The Elephant Man in this list than any of John Hurt's other films. I'll explain the main reason for that shortly, but there's another reason. The story of John Merrick touched a lot of songwriters and became a metaphor for loneliness, bravery and prejudice.

Released in 1985, Biff Bang Pow!'s song was obviously inspired by John Hurt's starring role in the 1980 film.

8. Todd Rundgren's Utopia - Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw

I read the other day that Amazon in the USA has currently sold out of George Orwell's 1984.

Todd Rundgren released this, as part of the Utopia album Oblivion back in the actual 1984. When we only had Ronald Reagan to worry about.

See also David Bowie's 1984 and 1984 (Sex Crime) by The Eurythmics, obviously.

7. Catatonia - Hooked

Very early Catatonia single which ends with the Elephant Man sleeping. Shush,

See also Rufus Wainwright's In My Arms for more Victorian hospital beds John Merrick might sleep in.

6. Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield - Nothing Has Been Proved

From the soundtrack of the movie Scandal, in which Hurt played Stephen Ward, the man who took the rap for the Profumo affair, and ended his own life as a consequence.

5. Sparks - I Wish I Looked A Little Better

Another Elephant Man reference, though Ron and Russell turn it into an ode to teenage insecurity...
Turn out the light, yeah, the light
And I might have a chance
I guess I look slightly worse
Than the Elephant Man
Whoa, oh, oh, I wish I looked a little better
4. The Beautiful South - I May Be Ugly

Paul Heaton does the same, for a slightly older man. Full of cruel jokes, masking a much deeper sadness. Which is a great metaphor for the pain we cause when we judge others by their outward deformities.
When you feel like London
And you look like Hull
You think Travolta pulled Newton-John
Who did John Hurt pull?
3. Alt-J - The Gospel of John Hurt

Sigourney Weaver recalls, "All it said in the script was, 'This thing emerges.'"
No space
Tile seeking
Oh somewhere
To fit in
Oh, coming out of the woodwork
Chest bursts like John Hurt
Coming out of the woods
2. The Pogues - Sally Maclennane

As you might have guessed, The Elephant Man is my favourite John Hurt performance, and not just because it's directed by David Lynch. A lot of actors would have turned this role into caricature; he found real pathos. I cry every time I watch it.

I already did My Top Ten Elephant Songs though, which included two songs called Elephant Man. I skipped those this time for deeper lyrical references,
But Jimmy didn't like his place in this world of ours
Where the elephant man broke strong men's necks when he'd had too many pours
So sad to see the grieving and the people that I'm leaving
And he took the road for god knows in the morning
1. Art Garfunkel - Bright Eyes

And if you don't fill up every time you hear this, you didn't grow up in the 70s.
There's a high wind in the trees
A cold sound in the air
And nobody ever knows when you go
And where do you start?
Oh, into the dark
Rest in peace, Hazel.

Friday 27 January 2017

My Top Ten Songs About What Men Are...

Some time ago, I put together a Top Ten Songs About Bad Women. It's been awhile coming, but here's ten about bad blokes... or what makes us bad.

10. Curve - Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus

And we won't be happy till we kill each other, apparently. Always good to start cheerfully...

9. Rosemary Clooney & Marlene Dietrich - (Men Are) Good For Nothing

Rosemary and Marlene haven't met a good man yet...
He will swear he's seeking
Your love for ever more
And then he comes home reeking
Of perfume you never wore
You'll maybe wanna shoot him
But he isn't worth the shot
And you can bet the other woman
Has found out he's not so hot
8. Jefferson Airplane - Milk Train

You know that old "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" guff? Here's what Grace Slick makes of that...
Some men just talk me dry
Some men are just liquid in the mind.
Some men are absolutely rigid
Some men are easy feeling but they're hard to find.
7. Babybird - All Men Are Evil

Not really sure what Stephen Jones is getting at it, but it's typically bitter.

6. Neil Diamond - Men Are So Easy

When Neil Diamond speaks, I listen...
A boy becomes a man
And in the time he learns to stand
He finds a way to build a wall
To hide behind if he should fall
He grows to be a man
And show the world that he can stand
Not knowing fear
Or even pain while
Underneath when you look deep
A boy remains
5. Beulah - A Good Man Is Easy To Kill

Yeah, we've all met a few blokes like this...
When they drilled holes in your skull
And screwed that halo to your head
Did you think you could fly?
4. Aztec Camera - How Men Are

Why should it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?


3. Nick Lowe - All Men Are Liars

Nick is of the opinion that our words are worth no more than worn out tyres. Furthermore, he has something to add about Rick Astley...
Well, do you remember Rick Astley?
He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly.
He said I'm never gonna give you up or let you down.
Well I'm here to tell ya that Dick's a clown.
Though he was just a boy when he made that vow,
I'd bet it all that he knows by now:

All men are liars...
Dar Williams does a great of this too, but I couldn't find it on youtube.

2. Jimmy Webb - What Does A Woman See In A Man?

So what does the godlike genius of Jimmy Webb reckon about men...?
He stinks to high heaven, half covered with hair
And grunts just like some old orang-utan
While she smells of clean skin and a trace of jasmine
And speaks like a first rate librarian

His stomach hangs out, there's a hump on his back
He eats like Conan the Barbarian
While she keeps herself trim, and her posture is prim
Her manners are quite cosmopolitan

He laughs like a donkey and farts in the bed
And flips cigarettes in the can
But she always acts nice, with no visible vice
Tell me, what does a woman see in a man?
And that's just the beginning!

1. Grand Popo FC - Men Are Not Nice Guys

Leave it to those crazy French to sum up the biggest problems with blokes...
Drinks, finks, football and drugs,Business suits and newspapers, arguments, work, cable TV.Laziness, cars, lungs, size... don't you know what girls say sometimes?Men are not nice guys
...although we can probably think of a few bigger ones, if we try.

Then again, nice guys finish last, don't they? And all the good girls love a bad boy. Really, none of us can win...

Wednesday 25 January 2017

January #1: Is There Really Such A Thing As A Good Rat?

1. The Good Rats - Advertisement In The Voice

I've been wanting to feature this track for a while now but I kept holding off because I have half an idea I'll feature it at some point in a Top Ten Lonely Hearts Column Songs. To be honest though, I'm struggling a bit with that one, so any suggestions beyond this and Escape (The Pina Colada Song) would be gratefully appropriated.

Anyway, The Good Rats. This is one of those songs that I fell in love with the second I first heard it. It was in the middle of the night and insomnia had struck, so I was listening to Huey Morgan's show on Radio 2. I love Huey's selection of music: although he does like a lot of cool stuff as all 6Music DJs do, he doesn't shy away from the uncool and, being American, he has a different perspective on a lot of tracks the NME would have frowned upon back in the day... because, unlike most other 6Music jocks, he didn't grow up reading the NME. But much as I enjoy his 6Music show whenever I catch it, his ridiculously timed Radio 2 show (3 - 6am on Saturday morning) is where the Fun Lovin' Criminal really lets the eclecticism fly. Rock, blues, salsa, indie, dustbowl folk, rap, disco, show tunes... he genuinely knows no limits. And yet he somehow keeps it all passably Radio 2, which is probably why I dig it more than his 6Music show... because he's far less likely to play Supertramp on there.

Oh, sorry, I was supposed to be talking about The Good Rats, wasn't I? They had me with that piano intro... but then the story kicked in and: Oh my god! What is this? I actually sat up in bed, flipped open the tablet and turned to Huey's playlist to find out...
I teach a class of forty principles of mathematics
In a fine Northeastern school
I've read the great philosophies of Plato, Christ and Socrates
And I live by most their rules

But at three o'clock I start to get the blues

I read your advertisement in the Voice
Seeking some companionship to pass the lonely days
You made no stipulations, and only signed it "Friend"
Oh it's three o'clock, and I'm alone again

I love to listen to the melodies of Bach and Beethoven
And I think Bowie's a gas.
In '68 I worked for Gene and helped bring down the big machine
And I prayed that it would last

But at three o'clock I start to get the blues

I read your advertisement in the Voice
Seeking some companionship to pass the lonely days
You made no stipulations, and only signed it "Friend"
Oh it's three o'clock, and I'm alone again

I have a nine room house completely furnished in the best of taste
And I drive a brand new Porsche
I have a Quadraphonic system with complete access to tapes
And I could be a Santa Claus

But at three o'clock I start to get these blues

I read your advertisement in the Voice
Seeking some companionship to pass the lonely days
You made no stipulations, and only signed it "Friend"
Oh it's three o'clock, and I'm alone again...

Look, I don't often quote the whole song, do I? And it's really OK, because I know you haven't read all the lyrics anyway. But maybe you will if you listen to the track. Here is the perfect lyrical balance: minutiae of detail suggestive of a much bigger story. It creates a character, essays loneliness incredibly well, and makes me grin whenever I hear that line about his music system. Seriously, what else do you want from a song?

The Good Rats were from Long Island, and have been in the go since 1969 (they still are, though lead singer Peppi Marchello passed away in 2013). They were a local band to New Yorker Huey and he probably heard this particular track a lot when he was a kid. It's from their third album, 1976's Ratcity In Blue, which I recently downloaded in full from emusic. It's a varied batch of songs, many quite a bit rockier than Advertisement... but there's not a bad track on there and I'll be investigating some of their other records soon. I really don't know why I love it as much as I do, but it's just one of those songs that as soon as it ends, I have to skip back to the beginning and listen to it all over again...

Tuesday 24 January 2017

January #2 - He's Not Bob Dylan, But He Never Misses A Beat

2. Nils Lofgren - I Came To Dance
Well, my manager kept tellin' me
If I wanna be great
I'd better wise up
And sing my songs straight

I said, "Listen here, fool,
In order to survive
I've gotta be my dirty self
I won't play no jive!"
Another Springsteen-connected song today, from the man who replaced Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band... and then stuck around when Little Stevie came back. This is the title track of an album from 1977 which the critics hated because it was seen at the time as Nils-Goes-Pop. Patti Austin's on backing vocals and the vocal arrangements for the whole album were done by Luther Vandross.

My first exposure to Nils as a solo artist was through his "greatest hits" collection Don't Walk, Rock. I was prbably drawn there by his one "big" hit, Shine Silently - and the fact that he was an E Streeter obviously helped. I loved every track on the collection, but found myself particularly drawn to the tracks from this album (the ones the critics loathed), so much so that it was my next purchase (download only because Nils CDs are hard to come by at a decent price in this country). It's polished guitar pop with a lot of soul and a great feel good record. Nils even seems to be spelling it out to the critics in this song...
I'm not Bob Dylan,
But I never miss a beat.
I ain't no philosopher.
I dance in the street!
As for Bruce... reading his autobiography, he cites Nils' early solo records as a big inspiration for the sound of Born To Run. You don't get bigger accolades than that.

Today's lesson? Never trust the reviewers...

Sunday 22 January 2017

My Top Ten (Late) Albums of 2016: Number 9

9. Rumer - This Girl's In Love

I know a lot of people (even cool bloggers and muso critics) praise Adele for her undeniably excellent achievements in the field of current chart pop (i.e. not being unlistenable when so many of her peers are). However, whenever anyone starts banging on about what a great voice she has, I always want to shout back: what about Rumer? Truly the most beautiful voice of her generation; it's a voice which echoes back to the golden age of pop (hence the frequent Karen Carpenter comparisons) and is more at home singing classics from that era than on more modern compositions (although occasionally, as on her debut hit Aretha, she somehow manages to do both).

To date, Rumer's greatest achievement was her stunning 2012 collection Boys Don't Cry, featuring reinterpretations of lost classics by the cream of male singer songwriters from the 60s and 70s, including Jimmy Webb, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Clifford T. Ward, Stephen Bishop, Hall & Oates, even Neil Young. Most were as good, if not better than the original recordings. When I heard that her new record returned to that era, but focused on two composers only (the untouchable kings of easy listening: Bacharach & David), I wasn't sure what to think. It seemed almost too obvious: yes, Rumer's voice was made to sing these songs, and the fact that her producer-husband Rob Shirakbari had worked with Bacharach many times seemed like a match made in heaven. I knew the songs would sound great, but I worried I'd miss the variety that Boys Don't Cry offered... that it'd all end up sounding a bit samey.

After a few listens, those fears were put to rest. The selection is impeccable, as is the ordering of the tracks. Rumer switches effortlessly from the obvious classics like the title track, The Look of Love and You'll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) to less well-known Bacharach & David compositions such as the 5th Dimension's One Less Bell To Answer and Luther Vandross's A House Is Not A Home. Along the way she takes on Dionne, Dusty, and, yes, Karen Carpenter, and gives as good as they deserve. Her cover of (They Long To Be) Close To You is equal to the Carpenters version yet not identical. Rumer's phrasing is different in places, turning the song from a bittersweet love song into something else. She made me hear the lyrics in a slightly different way. When I do my Top Ten Songs For Conceited Oafs, this will now be a strong contender.

If you've ever been a fan of the Bacharach & David songbook, I urge you to seek this one out. It's as sumptuous and perfect as these compositions deserve. It could have been released any time between 1965 and 1975... but it certainly doesn't sound like 2016. That's probably why it appealed to an old fart like me right now. I'm just so sick of the present. I wish I could go back and live in the past...

That said, there's one song in the collection which is as timely now as when Jackie DeShannon recorded it back in 1965. If not more so.

Friday 20 January 2017

My Top Ten Songs Called America

I imagine quite a lot of people will be heading down into their cellars, bunkers or fall-out shelters today. I'm not sure how good your internet connection is down there, so if this is the last post you read of mine... let's remember, it's not America's fault. Well, not all of them. And we Brits can hardly criticise them, given the extreme idiocy we voted for last year too. Anyway, since I already did My Top Ten Trump Victory Songs, here's ten songs just called America. Sadly that meant that Kids In America, Living In America and Breakfast In America weren't allowed. We must follow the rules while we still can...

10. Killing Joke - America

Never really known for their subtlety, the Jokers...
West is best and might is right
And with our allies - fight the good fight
A first class, five star enterprise
Now everybody's got to compromise
My moral code's on overload
Liberty still takes its toll
Take a look at the losers wasting in the bars
Where they cut their losses!
9. Imagine Dragons - America

I've no idea how I ended up with an Imagine Dragons album in my record collection. I have more of an idea how I ended up with an Imagine Dragons record I've never listened to. (Sad fact: there are many, many songs in my digital record collection that I have never listened to. Many of them, I even paid money for!) I understand Imagine Dragons are quite popular with The Young People (or some of them: The Young People rarely agree on anything like we did when we were The Young People).
From farmers in the fields
To the tallest of the towers that fall and rise
The names upon the list
For all the ones that gave until they died
Don't you hold back
I can see in your mind, and your mind will set you free
8. The Vapors - America

The Vapors are torn between going to America and staying with you.

They could have taken you with them... cheapskates.

7. Razorlight - America

This is a great song. Like the best stuff Razorlight did, it sounds like the Boomtown Rats. If only it was the Boomtown Rats instead of Razorlight.

6. Waylon Jennings - America

Here's one that won't play well with the Trump voters...
And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too
And the red man is right, to expect a little from you
Promise and then follow through, America
Good on you, Waylon.

5. Prince - America
Aristocrats on a mountain climb
Making money, losing time
Communism is just a word
But if the government turn over
It'll be the only word that's heard
Hmm. Seems pretty apt this week...
Boom, boom, boom, boom
The bomb go
Boom, boom, boom, boom
The bomb go boom.
Teacher, why won't Jimmy pledge allegiance? 
4. James - America

The b-side to my second favourite James song (which I'll feature here soon), the lyrics to this are a bit... well, rude. Not rude in the sense of being insulting, but rude in the sense of being X-rated. Or maybe, 12A rated nowadays. They would have been X when I was a kid, but, y'know, kids these days...

I've no idea about what Tim Booth's on about here. Then again, I rarely do. 

3. Neil Diamond - America

OK, first things first: this song from The Jazz Singer soundtrack features one of the greatest intros in the history of recorded music. Put that in your mental microwave and wait for it to ping.

On the surface, this is the most patriotic song on the list... but with it's pro-immigration stance, I doubt it's one Donald will be retweeting any time soon.

2. The Indelicates - America

Ah, The Indelicates: still my favourite new band of the 21st Century, largely on the basis of their debut album from 2008 (though they've done some excellent things since). I've tried explaining their appeal before: in short, it's a combination of Simon's gruff and Julia's angelic vocals, the Steinman-esque bluster, and irony-laced lyrics such as these...
This little England, it's dingy and it's mean
I've flirted with her mewling gods and petty jealousies
These edited-reader rebels with their simulated causes
Their weak-chinned snarls and red guitars, I disregard them all

When they pin me to the wall I'll say:
I'm with America
With godless America, I'll stand and I'll fall
Though it cuts me to my soul that
It must be America
It must be America
Or nothing at all!
1. Simon & Garfunkel - America

I may do a Top Ten Greyhound Bus Songs one day, and this would probably come top in that too. If anyone ever challenges me on Paul Simon's genius as a lyricist, this would be exhibit #1 in the case for the defence. On the surface it's a road trip love song, but as is so often the case, the devil is in the little conversational details...
Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, "be careful - his bowtie is really a camera!"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Oh, say, can you see anymore...?

Wednesday 18 January 2017

January #3 - 2017 Claims Its First Casualty?

The other day I put the cloud on random and up came an old album track by Peter Sarstedt. I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd write a post about it. One quick google search later and I discovered something the news had failed to inform me (and by the news, I guess I mean facebook and the blogosphere, since that's where I get most of my news these days, distrusting many of the conventional media outlets): Peter Sarstedt passed away on January 8th 2017.

Sarstedt is most remembered for his classic 1969 Number One, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? with its hilariously bohemian lyrics and faux-European accent.
Your name it is heard in high places
You know the Aga Khan
He sent you a racehorse for Chistmas
And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh haha

They say that when you get married
It'll be to a millionaire
But they don't realize where you came from
And I wonder if they really care, or give a damn
I always loved this song, despite or more likely because of it's rather pretentious lyrical wordplay, though it's been much parodied over the years, most notably by Flight of the Conchords on the hilarious Rambling Through The Avenues of Time. Although it was Sarstedt's biggest hit, the follow-up, Frozen Orange Juice also went Top Ten. He released 15 albums in total in a career spanning more than 50 years, and though I only own a couple of his records, I'd say there's much to appreciate beyond the two famous songs. The track that popped up on my cloud, for example, from his 1975 album Tall Tree is definitely worth 3 minutes of your time...
I belong to this society
I'm an employee
No one knows my name
I am called consumer and concern*
I am 23
And I'm an employee
No video on youtube, so here's the link: Peter Sarstedt - Employee.

(I transcribed the lyrics myself as they don't exist online. Not sure about the word "concern"... but I can't make out what else it might be.)

After writing this post, I made the mistake of google-searching PS obits. The first I came across described Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? as the worst pop song ever written. And this is why I write this blog, to fly in the face of fashion, as Julian Cope once sang. To irk the musos. Because musos and critics often refuse to allow humour any place in pop music. They think it should be deathly serious and that anything even remotely fun or funny destroys the art. Well, you know what? I think pop music should be fun. That's not to say it can't tackle serious issues too, but I often go to music as an escape from real world horrors. I go to pop when I want to smile. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? always puts a smile on my face. Thanks for that, Mr. Sarstedt. Great 'tache too.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

January #4 - Kicking Up Gravel

4. Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

When I do get around to do a Top Ten Songs Featuring Slamming Screen Doors, I'm going to have a hell of a time cutting it down to just ten. No prizes for guessing what the Number One will be, but Bruce gets more than his fair share of attention round these parts so here's Lucinda from the 1998 album which really put her on the map. Curiously, I was reminded of this song recently while reading Bruce's recent autobiography (my thoughts on that will follow at some point, I'm sure). There's something about the tone of Car Wheels that reminds me very much of the way Bruce describes his youth and the relationship with his father...
Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
You better do what you're told
When I get back this room better be picked-up
Car wheels on a gravel road
I bought this album when it came out in 1998 on the back of glowing reviews. Beyond the title track which hammers its way into your memory through its powerful imagery and the repetition of that one line chorus, it didn't make a whole lot of impact at the time. I sold my copy in one of my great "I'm really skint" music purges and was horrified to discover a few years later I hadn't even burned a copy to my pc. So I had to go out and buy it all over again... at which point, I think I was properly ready for the riches it holds. Story of my life though: many of my favourites songs / artists / records are ones that I was initially ambivalent to... some of them I even outright hated. Actually, I think that may well lead to another Top Ten. But doesn't everything?

Sunday 15 January 2017

January #5 - Joy (x4) To The World

5. The Housemartins - Joy Joy Joy Joy

So, here comes the second in a new feature I'll call "Songs My 3 Year Old Son Can Sing". I've been listening to this old Housemartins b-side a couple of times in the car last week. Imagine my surprise when, after putting Sam to bed on Friday night, we heard him singing over the baby monitor...
I know the devil doesn't like it 
But it's down in my heart 
Down in my heart
Down in my heart!
Joy Joy Joy (Joy) - the fourth Joy was left off the track listing, poor thing - was one of a few a cappella gospel covers the Housemartins recorded back in the day. It was originally released on the Think For A Minute EP, but more recently reissued on the deluxe edition of their debut album London 0 Hull 4. There's another cracking (yet VERY different) track from that EP I may well feature here soon...

It's hard to think of any other "indie" band - then, or now - who would or could record such a thing, but that's what made the Housemartins so unique. And great singers all: listen to those harmonies!

Surely you can spare one minute and forty three seconds to let a little Joy into your heart?

Don't Paul, Stan, Norman and Dave look so young in that photo? Remember when we were all that young?

Oops, sorry. this post was supposed to bring you Joy...

Friday 13 January 2017

My Top Ten Inspirational Songs (Volume 1)

In my continued effort to begin 2017 with a little positivity, here's ten of the most inspirational songs I could think of off the top of my head. The usual in-depth planning, research and deep thought (ha!) didn't go into this one. I just closed my eyes and used the Force...

It is, however, one of those lists where every track could have been a Number One. At times like these, ranking becomes arbitrarily impossible.

10. Billy Idol - Rebel Yell

A shot of pure 80s adrenaline to get us going. Billy may have been considered a cartoon punk by the purists... but I always loved cartoons.

9. Barry Manilow - I Made It Through The Rain

And if I didn't drive the musos screaming from town with Billy, I can only try a pitchfork of Barry.

This is a song which has followed me around all my life and often sprung, uninvited, into my head when times got tough. I don't know who programmes the radio station in my mind, but good on them.
When friends are hard to find
And life seems so unkind
Sometimes you feel so afraid

Just aim beyond the clouds
And rise above the crowds
And start your own parade

'Cause when I chased my fears away
That's when I knew that I could finally say

I made it through the rain...
If you don't feel the teeniest bit better after that: I can't help you.

8. Eminem - Lose Yourself

Interestingly, after compiling this list, I put "Inspirational Songs" into google and the first link was to another Top Ten which had this at Number One. The rest of the list was pretty dire though. R. Kelly was in there.

I don't automatically think of Eminem as an inspirational figure. He can take the piss pretty well and throw tantrums like a petulant 3 year old, but inspire? Yet this is the theme song to his oddly inspirational and amazingly un-egotistical fictionalised biopic, 8 Mile. It's kind of like Gonna Fly Now (the Rocky theme, but you knew that) for the hip hop generation.

7. Gene - We Could Be Kings

I'll save "We could be heroes" for another volume. It was too obvious. (Plus, I thought of this one first.) Come on, Martin, it's time for that second solo album, surely?
Believe me
It's time to tell my friends I love them
They deserve more
Than hasty delivered words of kindness
I'm sure you know that
We could be kings
This planet is ours
With luck on our side
The keys to my car
We'll storm through the city
Let's drive
Did I hear you cry?
6. Billy Bragg- Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

My favourite T-shirt is a Billy Bragg T-shirt. I've had it years but I still wear it a lot because it's so comforting: physically and mentally. On the front, it reads simply:
The revolution is just a T-shirt away
You have to know this song well to understand that.

5. The Beautiful South - Good As Gold

On the surface, this starts out as quite a cynical, downbeat song about fighting against the tide and never getting anywhere. But its "don't give up" message soon sweeps in, making it a genuine underdog anthem. I'm not sure if Paul Heaton meant it that way; I'm never really sure how serious he is about such things. Live, this was always the highlight of a Beautiful South set which brought the band and the audience together in a big euphoric hug.

And who wouldn't want a sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss?

4. Elbow - One Day Like This

Guy Garvey's lyrics nail it every time for me, finding beauty in the everyday and shunning cliché in favour of everyday expressions and finely tuned imagery. Random examples just from this song...
When my face is chamois-creased

Laugh politely at repeats

Cause holy cow, I love your eyes
One Day Like This is about waking up with a hangover and realising maybe you said too much to that certain person the night before... with a better result than you could ever have expected.
One day like this would see me right...
3. The Smiths - Ask

Whenever I see The Smiths dismissed as miserablists, I have to Ask the following...

What about all those generations of teenagers and 20-somethings who have been inspired and - let's face it - saved by their songs?

Can't you see that what they were really saying was: there's a hell of a lot of darkness in the world... sometimes, we have to embrace that to reach happiness?

What about the profound romanticism and HOPE conveyed by many of their most famous tunes?

Have you ever even heard Ask?
Shyness is nice
And shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to
I think the above three lines sum up many of my greatest regrets. (You could substitute "lack of confidence" for shyness or coyness, but it wouldn't scan as well.)

Remember: if it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together.

2. James - Tomorrow

There were a number of James songs in contention for this post. There'll definitely be another one in Volume 2. James had some pretty big hits in their day. I can never understand why this wasn't their biggest. It certainly helped me through a few rough nights...
Now your grip's too strong
You can't catch love with a net or a gun
Gotta keep faith that your path will change
Gotta keep faith that your luck will change

1. Ian McNabb - You Must Be Prepared To Dream

Like I said, these songs were impossible to rank, but I put this one at Number One because it's by far the least well known... and yet it was the first I thought of. It's also the one with the most traditionally inspirational lyrics. In fact, many of the lines sound like they come from those naff posters they put up in offices and educational institutions which are supposed to drive you towards greatness (or greater productivity) but often just lead to derision and demotivation. In the hands of Ian McNabb (and Crazy Horse, on loan from Mr. Young), these trite platitudes become transcendent.

We must all be prepared to dream...

What's the most inspirational song you know? Suggestions for Volume 2 will be greatly appreciated...

Thursday 12 January 2017

January #6 - Pledging Allegiance To The Hag

6. Eric Church (featuring Merle Haggard) - Pledge Allegiance To The Hag

There is a great tradition in contemporary country music of songs about how no one understands us, everybody looks down on us, how we have to stick together to protect country from those who look down their noses on it, how we must stay unashamedly, resolutely COUNTRY! Seriously, I can't think of any other genre of music with more songs expressing a communal chip on the shoulder: goth, emo, indie, rap... country beats them all. Being a little bit country myself (hey, I grew up on a farm!) AND from the half of my country which is traditionally looked down on by the other half (in America, it's the South, in Britain it's the North), I can understand this. But I can also understand how it might be a little off-putting to country newbies to keep coming up against songs which won't let you embrace them unless your neck is red.

On first listen, Eric Church's Pledge Allegiance To The Hag sounds like just another celebration of all things provincial. But Church is smarter than that and uses the template to say much bigger things about belonging, mortality and his hero... Merle Haggard.

Haggard was yet another of 2016's legendary music business losses. His death probably went unnoticed by most people in the UK where he's hardly a household name, but in large parts of America he'll have been mourned more than Bowie, Prince and George put together. Church's song was recorded ten years before Merle's death, but the verse Merle sings hits a lot harder now...

One of these days when my time has come
You can take me back to where I'm from
Put me on a westbound train
An' ship me off in the pourin' rain
Don't cry for me when I'm gone
Just put a quarter in the jukebox an' sing me back home

If you were never into country music, this isn't the one to convert you, but it's one of the songs I'm listening to this month, and that's why it's here...

Tuesday 10 January 2017

January #7 - Another Smash From Luke?

7. Luke Haines - Smash The System

Smash The System is Luke Haines's first "proper album" in ten years, although he's released a number of bizarre concept albums in that time. Some of these I have adored (9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early '80s; New York In The 70's; and his astounding 2012 collaboration with Cathal Coughlan and Andrew Meuller, an alternate history of the British Isles titled The North Sea Scrolls). Others, though, have passed my by very quickly (Rock 'n' Roll Animals) or left me completely cold (British Nuclear Bunkers).

I was very excited by the promise of a non-concept album from him after all this time: probably too excited. Although there are a number of good songs here (notably Cosmic Man, Marc Bolan Blues and Haines's apt tribute to The Incredible String Band), ironically, this record's downfall appears to be a lack of coherence.

The title track is a cracker though. The catchy chorus even had my three year old boy singing, "Smash The System!" at the top of his voice in the car... and later, in the supermarket. This drew some funny looks from the Daily Mail readers in Morrison's already disturbed by the Mexican couscous in my trolley... but sod 'em.

Sunday 8 January 2017

January #8 - The Best Summer's Over Song In The World Ever*

(*It's all subjective, of course. I'm sure you can think of a better one.)

8. Rialto - Summer's Over

One post leads to another. That Tindersticks song couldn't help but remind me of this, Rialto's finest hour, from the post-Britpop wasteland that produced some gloriously under-appreciated pop songs. There's obviously a touch of Jarvis Cocker to Louis Eliot's songwriting, but also a big, sweeping Scott Walker melancholia, perfect for this wonderfully evocative track.

When I was a kid, we often didn't have a "summer" holiday. My parents weren't big on crowds (neither am I). We'd go away once in maybe late March or April, then again in early October. This explains why, in the photo below, I'm the only one on the beach at Reighton Gap (between Filey and Scarborough). I also think I had a pebble in my shoe.

Anyway, my experience of seaside towns was either in the pre-Summer season or after the end of the season, and so even then, in the late 70s and early 80s, these places felt like they were way past their prime. Faded Seaside Glamour... remind me of another song for another time.
Kamikaze seagull planes
Fighting over chip shop take-away remains
When you're walking on the cliffs
You can't help thinking of how far down the sea is
And what if it should give...

I didn't mean to bring you down
Summer's over, seaside town
She says we shouldn't have come so far
This seaside town, summer's over
True melancholy can be a weirdly happy thing, I've always found. Sometimes it's nice to feel a wisftul sadness over something that's passed, that never really achieved its true potential, or that you'll never feel again. I look back on those non-summer holidays with great fondness, thinking of my parents when they were younger people (weirdly, only a few years older than I am now), wondering if they had the same hopes and fears I'm experiencing about aging, and the state of the world. Wow, this is getting deep. You only came here for a song. Better play it and bugger off...

Friday 6 January 2017

My Top Ten Better Days Songs

There's been a lot of doom and gloom and pessimism around these parts lately. So here's ten songs wishing us all better days in the future...

10. Madness - One Better Day

One of the less successful Madness singles, perhaps because it lacks a killer chorus. (Although that never stopped Squeeze's Up The Junction.)

9. Guy Clark - Better Days

One of my favourite discoveries of the last 12 months: Guy Clark. Even though we lost him last year, there's much more where this came from...
See the wings unfolding that weren't there just before
On a ray of sunshine she dances out the door
Out into the morning light where the sky is all ablaze
This looks like the first of better days
8. The Bees - (This Is For The) Better Days

Always good to hear a song that references Jack & The Beanstalk. (The curse of writing this blog is that I now want to go find another nine.)

The Bees are from The Isle of Wight and have to be called The Band of Bees in America because, presumably, there's already an American band of Bees.

7. George Jones & Tammy Wynette - I've Seen Better Days

Of course, this being a George Jones song, you can pretty much guarantee the better days are in the rear view mirror, disappearing into a blip at a hundred miles an hour. 

6. Public Image Ltd. - Home

I don't hold John Lydon in the same esteem that many of my blogging buddies do. Nothing against him, but I was a bit too young to appreciate punk at the time and by the time I did get to know him, he'd become something of a figure of fun. That said, I like that side of him, the buttery part which seems completely unashamed to make a tit of himself in the service of popular music, and Home is a great example of that. The only song in this list not to feature a "Better Day" in the title: but that phrase is all over the chorus. Plus, you get to see Sideshow Bob trash a house in the video, and that's always worth the price of admission.

5. Citizen King- Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)

One of the best things about writing this blog is when I trip over songs in my record collection that I'd forgotten all about. This is from 1999, and I might not have heard it for 18 years. Brings back some fun memories of my time in radio though...
One foot in the hole
One foot gettin' deeper crank it to eleven
Blow another speaker
And I ain't got, I ain't got much to lose

Cuz I've seen better days
Been the star of many plays
I've seen better days
And the bottom drops out
4. Ocean Colour Scene - Better Day

Ocean Colour Scene were the first band I ever saw live. (Yes, as with buying records, I was a VERY later starter when it came to live gigs!) They had a very retro sound which worked perfectly in the Britpop era but obviously couldn't last. Massively uplifting guitars and choruses: we could use some of that right now.

The thing about that retro sound is: that's what a lot of present day indie bands are missing, in my humble opinion. I picked up the debut album by The Blossoms the other day and there are some decent indie pop songs on there but they're so glossily produced, there's just no edge to them. It's like they've been created using CGI rather than real actors... like (SPOILER) in that new Star Wars flick everyone is raving about but me. And don't even start me on The 1975! As I get older, I realise I prefer new records that sound old... which I guess is the end of days for me ever being a hipster. Not that I ever was. At least we still have Jack White doing stuff the old way...

3. The Jayhawks - Better Days

One from the charity shop pile. The Jayhawks are a band I've been meaning to check out for awhile. This is from their 2001 album Smile, which I'm guessing is the one on which they filed off most of their folky, Americana edges and made a play for the mainstream. As a result, it's a bit bland in places, but there are some outstanding pop songs here too. Better Days (after a few listens) has a very powerful hook and some great harmonies. Further investigation required.

2. Bruce Springsteen - Better Days

Back in the early 90s, Bruce lost his mojo a little. I think it was that classic thing of being a bit too happy. Having gone through a turbulent divorce (resulting in the classic Tunnel of Love), he'd found the woman he needed, Patti Scialfa, and they settled down to make a life together. The world seemed bright and so he pottered about in the studio making two records about how happy he was, then released them both on the same day. This was an odd thing a couple of big name artists did in the 90s. Guns 'n' Roses did it too, although - controversially - I think Use Your Illusion Volumes 1 & 2 were far better records than Bruce's Lucky Town and Human Touch. The weird thing is, Bruce has spent his whole career choosing only the very best songs to make up classic albums, then leaving hundreds of still-great tracks to gather dust (or eventually be reissued in collections like Tracks and The Promise). The one time he did a Prince and released virtually everything he'd recorded that week, he really should have used the same restraint. There are enough strong tracks on Lucky Town and Human Touch to make one classic album... not two.

Still, it's good to see him so happy. The video makes that abundantly clear. Watch it, and maybe some of that early 90s optimism will rub off on you too. 

1. Billy Bragg - Tomorrow's Gonna Be A Better Day

Come on Billy, make us all feel better...
To the misanthropic misbegotten merchants of gloom
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesied our doom:
“Let the death knell chime, its the end of time”
Let the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline.
Don't become demoralized by scurrilous complaint,
Its a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint.
And tomorrow’s gonna be a better day,
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow’s gonna be a better day,
We’re going to make it that way.

Which one made your day a little better?

Thursday 5 January 2017

January #9 - The Summer's Almost Gone...

9. Tindersticks - Hey Lucinda

Probably not the best time to be posting an end-of-summer tune, but I can't resist this one from the latest Tindersticks album, a duet between Stuart Staples and the late Lhasa de Sela, who sadly died in 2010 shortly after the vocal was recorded. Haunting is one of those adjectives I overuse on this blog... but damn it, you come up with a better one...
Hey Lucinda, you come out drinking with me tonight
Yeah, we could face and dance

I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel
And I wake up every morning to find you waiting for me

Tuesday 3 January 2017

January #10 - Everybody Loves Billy Now

10. Billy Joel - Everybody Loves You Now

I took piano lessons every week from about age 7 to 16. My piano teacher, Mrs. Farrell, was a very patient lady. I was never going to be a natural pianist even though I worked hard in the early years and passed quite a few exams. The older I got though, the less I practised. Whole weeks would go by when I didn't even lift the piano lid at home, then Monday night I'd be back in Mrs. Farrell's drawing room, fumbling through a piece I hadn't even looked at since she'd set it for me to practise during the previous lesson. It became embarrassing, to be honest, but there were too many other things to distract my attention at home and my parents never really forced the issue, even though they were having to fork out every week to pay for the lessons. The thing that frustrated me about playing the piano was that it just never clicked. If I practised and practised and practised, I could learn to play a piece pretty well, but I could never just sit down and vamp. Or ad lib. Or play from the heart. And I always needed the music in front of me. I was never going to be Billy Joel.

But I still loved the piano. I loved the sound it made. I loved the drama of it. The excitement. I think, if I'm brutally honest, I like the sound of a piano more than I like the guitar... and I have swooned before some great guitar solos in my time. But I always love a good piano-based rock song, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ben Folds (even Elton!), and especially Billy Joel. Once I started buying records, I soon found myself drawn to his albums and by the time I was in my late teens, I had them all. Sadly he gave up writing new music in the early 90s, and hasn't released a new record in nearly 25 years, even though he still tours regularly. (I saw him once in Manchester about 5 or 6 years ago. It was amazing.)

Everybody Loves You Now comes from his very first record, Cold Spring Harbour, although it was one of the last I ever bought. Partly this is because it wasn't available on CD for many years because the original LP had been mixed at the wrong speed, making Billy's voice sound slightly higher than it actually is. Although the master was remixed and re-released on CD in the 80s, Billy's still not too fond of the way the album sounds, even though he regularly plays songs from it live, even today.

There was a two-part special on Radio 2 just before Christmas in which Billy was interviewed by Jamie Cullum. (I realise such a show would be considered anathema to a lot of muso bloggers out there, but if you've read this far, I'm assuming you won't be irked too much.) Because Cullum is both a Joel fan and a musician / pianist himself, he didn't just focus on the big hits, but asked Billy about some of his lesser known tracks too, including Everybody Loves You Now. Billy explained how it's a really difficult piece to play because of its speed, and that he was trying to capture a scratchy guitar sound on the piano, making it a true piano rock song. If I'd ever thought I could have played the piano like this, I'd have practised a lot more. Sorry, Mrs. Farrell.

Anyway. Everybody Loves You Now is an incredible piece of music and I've listened to it a lot again over the last few weeks. I love the break about one minute in, with the Staten Island Ferry.
This is what you wanted; ain't you proud?
Cause everybody loves you now

Monday 2 January 2017

My Top Ten (Late) Albums of 2016 - Number 10

Every year it happens. As soon as I've decided on my Top Ten albums of the year, I start listening to something else that should have been in consideration. And then the new year stars and I start catching up on some of the records I've discovered in other people's year end lists, and damn, if a bunch of them aren't a whole lot better than the ones I had in mine. And every year, I wish I could roll back the clock and do my list over.

This year, I finally came up with an idea of how to deal with that: a second Top Ten, which will run throughout the next few months, wherein I can give some credit to the latecomers. They won't be featured in order of merit, just in order of discovery, and we may never know where they'd have ended up in the real countdown had I heard them sooner... but really, does it matter? All that really matters is I get to share some more cool tunes...

10. Kevin Devine - Instigator

I have featured Kevin Devine here before, but I only really knew one song by him (Guys With Record Collections) and I'll be honest, I'd pigeonholed him as a somewhat earnest, acoustic singer-songwritery type on the basis of that... so I really wasn't ready for the sound of his latest album. A younger, hipper work colleague kept banging on about him, saying how Instigator was his record of the year, so I thought I'd give it a go. I certainly didn't expect an album of pure, perfect power-pop that might even give Weezer a run for their money...

Magic Magnet gives you an idea of what to expect: guitars so chunky they could have elbowed their way out of a Silver Sun record, and singalong ba-ba-baaa choruses. Elsewhere, on Before You're Here, Devine fills the gap in my heart Fountains of Wayne left when they split up with some great storytelling and lyrical heft that goes way beyond the usual bubblegum thrills associated with power pop. Take No History as another example as New Yorker Devine describes the after effects of 9/11 more directly than I've heard before in a song...
The future was a plane through a skylight, over Tribeca at eight forty-five, 
My brother at a conference room table, watched the future rearrange all our lives, 
I was sleeping in her bed for the future, first in twenty and five miles away.
Her roommate knocked, he was a relative stranger,
'Kev, I need you to come out here, okay?' " Okay." 

The future was me drunk at my desk job, update the database to reflect the deceased, 
And if it's channeled as a digital graveyard, next to each name I typed a lowercase 'd'.
I was frightened by the face of the future, with habits of perpetual war. 
I called my father he said 'I know, I see it, I thought it made sense, I don't anymore.' 

The mosque on my corner, the firetrucks everywhere, 
The anger, the mourners, 
No history, it's dead in the air.
Best of all is Freddie Gray Blues, one of a seemingly endless number of songs I've heard recently tackling the issue of American cops killing young black men, but once again finding a new way to come at that subject...
When I’m talking these killer cop blues
I’m kinda talking my family to you
See, my dad was a cop
And his dad was a cop
And my uncles were cops
And my cousins were cops
I’m partly here because of cops
And I love all those cops
And I know not every cop
Is a racist, murdering cop
But this is bigger than the people I love
The system’s broken
Not breaking
It’s done

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