Thursday, 30 July 2009

BABYLON'S BURNING (BABY, CAN'T YOU SEE..?)



For those who've found proceedings here to have been too proggy of late, here's a link to my review of Clinton Heylin's 'Babylon's Burning: From Punk To Grunge', as published on the recently refurbished Last Hours site.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

"SOME OF YOU ARE GOING TO DIE..."

As part of an occasional series of reviews of things for no better reason than they happen to be lying about- an appreciation (yes, really!) of Genesis’ ‘The Knife’



Absently thumbing through the shelf of old records left in our living room, the detritus of past tenants unknown, I realise I’ve never actually heard ‘The Knife’ by Genesis. I’ve not listened to anything off their second album Trespass for that matter, but it’s ‘The Knife’ which was supposedly their inaugural moment - the point where they threw a six to start and hit upon their classic sound. A story I’ve heard so many times, without ever actually hearing the track it centres round. So I take it for a spin and discover, over a quarter-century after I foreswore off all things prog, that it’s actually pretty good!

Perhaps that’s not quite as surprising as it sounds. Genesis had a plus point their contemporaries lacked – negativity. While ELP were the soundtrack of the techno-fix culture and Yes indulged in New Age platitudes, Genesis sought to disturb and unsettle. (Hence the famous story that William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, headhunted frontman Peter Gabriel to write for horror films.) And better still, they exuded English menace, homing in on pastoral garden suburbs until they revealed the snake in the grass.

But all of that starts here so part of ‘The Knife’s’ appeal inevitably becomes the contrast between it and the album it closes, like a switchblade suddenly pulled at the end of a dinner party. As Wikipedia put it, “The song was unusually aggressive for Genesis at the time, as most of their work consisted of soft, pastoral acoustic textures and poetic lyrics.” The album cover reflects this concept. (And if that’s all tantamount to saying it wakes you up after a dreary album, I have to admit to quite liking a couple of the earlier songs, such as ‘Visions of Angels’... I must be getting old!)

Ultimately, though, it’s the contrasts within ‘The Knife’ that truly make it work. For once the inevitable suite of parts really do fit together into a greater whole, and some of them are even (gasp!) catchy. Check out the segue from the flute-and-keyboard-wash sequence into the clashing guitars, a mighty riff that would have done credit to Black Sabbath.

But perhaps the classic contrast, the one which really sums up the song, is between the slow measured chant (“we are on-ly wan-ting free-dom”) and the more manic delivery of the verses. Satire will often ape the voice of its targets in order to ridicule them, but when delivered by a singer this age-old trick gains an extra resonance. The song draws much of its sinister feel from the way the malevolent, self-serving leader is speaking directly at us, as if hypnotising us – “some of you are going to die...” Oratory is raised to the level of a malevolent spell. (For a very different piece of music which pulls exactly the same trick, try The Dead Kennedys’ ‘California Uber Alles’. As singer Jello Biafra explained “I like to slip in behind villains and expose them that way.”

It’s notable that Gabriel would return to this character of the charismatic charlatan (albeit with more humour to alleviate the blackness) with ‘The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man’ from their later magnum opus ‘Supper’s Ready’. (“Look, look into my mouth he cries, I bet my life you’ll walk inside”.) An explanation for this fascination might lie buried in the bands’ history. Most school-based bands are formed out of a desire to grab attention, and scrabble a set together in order to justify getting up on stage. But with Genesis it was the reverse. They had set out as a team of songwriters, who first made recordings simply to demo their songs and only reluctantly took to performance. And as the front-man, Gabriel would have been thrust further into the limelight than the others.

Perhaps, given the task of working out quite consciously what a performer needs to do, he became aware of how manipulative the exercise can actually be. Perhaps in working out how to gain a crowd’s attention he also grew aware of how dangerous such a power could be in the wrong hands. Consequently he took on the persona of an anti-messiah who will whip up his followers, but lead them only from behind.

However, before we start calling the song’s distrust-your-leaders message ‘proto-punk’ or some such, it could easily be argued that it is in many ways quite a reactionary song. The masses are a bewildered herd, hoodwinked by a few fine-sounding phrases. (Gabriel had something of a predilection for comic commoners, not the nicest notion for a public schoolboy to adopt.) The claim that an event like the Russian Revolution was derailed by sanctimonious but self-serving leaders seems less than controversial. But to go on to claim that they were able to cause such an event by sheer skill in rhetoric seems absurd. It could also be argued that the true horror of messianic leaders is their ability to convince even themselves of the rightness of their cause, something missing from the song. But one song can only tell us so much, and its effectiveness should above all be judged as a piece of music. And not for little reason did this rattling number remain a live favourite for years...

And before I’m accused of going soft, I also tried to listen to the final offering from classic-era Genesis, the double concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Which I found to be pretty much the way you expect double concept albums to sound, overheated, babblingly incoherent and ultimately unendurable. Most likely, what makes ‘The Knife’ palatable now isn’t that it was forward-looking but precisely the opposite. It was created when prog was still nascent, when lots of funny time changes weren’t supposed to rend killer riffs redundant. So perhaps the prog revival doesn’t start here after all...

NB The video clip below starts part-way through the song, but you can hear the whole thing via the ever-reliable Spotify.



Coming soon! More records from that old shelf...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

SEVEN (MORE) SONGS: Part Two

These three songs complete my description of “seven songs which have been shaping my spirit lately." Part One here.

Spotify Playlist here


‘AIRSCAPE’ by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

Inevitably for me, I tend to prefer the darker more menacing side to psychedelia. The softer stuff tends to the fey and twee, rich kids prancing about in parks and frilly shirts whilst rejoicing under names liked the Crocheted Donut Holes. Perhaps we more readily recognise the existence of bad drugs nowadays, but my favourite Hitchcock tends to be from his early, punk-era outfit The Soft Boys. But as his later work often demonstrates there is an upside, a light psychedelia that isn’t just psychedelia-lite. In fact ‘Airscape’ would be a strong contender for my favourite Hitchcock track of all. (And, according to Wikipedia, Hitchcock himself concurs.)

This song isn’t named for nothing. It infuses the sound of psychedelia with the feeling of weightlessness, for the pealing guitar and wind-chimes don’t sound like they possibly could have come from any earth-bound instruments. (The album was titled after the line “element of light.”) Hitchcock uses this sense to conjure up the perfect summer song. (“And in the element of summer/ The cliffs suspended in the heat/ The air in columns.”)

It’s the observation that in the haze of summer objects seem to lose their substance and become nothing but forms of light, then fed into the poetic fancy that an eternal summer would bring with it the end of all physical separation –we’d become just floating elements of light. (“Where angels hover, I’ll hover too.”)

(For the importance of those psychedelic sounds in conveying this sense, check out this live version from YouTube. Without them the song keeps something of it’s beauty, but more narrowly escapes being another post-Byrds jangle. With them comes the lift-off.)

And like much psychedelic music, there’s something indefinably English about the whole thing. “The tiny figures of the world are walking/ Underneath your feet” makes me think of another supernatural world, existing in parallel to our own yet passing us by. In today’s bid for Pseud’s Corner, it could be said to be reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.”


Of course such conceits have a purpose beyond mere fancy. The supernatural world is really nothing but the natural world, ceaselessly trodden by us but in our daily bustle never noticed. The music’s a means to reacquaint us with it. In fact, in the finest tradition of romantic poetry, the song was written about Hitchcock’s favourite beach, as featured on the cover art.

’RISE ABOVE’ by Black Flag

In in an e-mail group to which I belong, a recent exchange awarded Black Flag’s ‘Police Story’ the coveted prize for dumbest punk lyrics of all time. (With special points awarded for the opening: “This fucking city/ Is run by pigs/ They take the rights away/ From all the kids.”) But a close contender might be ‘Rise Above’, also from their debut album 'Damaged' (released in 1981).

In fact this virtually became their signature song, normally opening their notoriously confrontational live shows. Lyrically its a debunking anaylsis of the capitalist mode of accumulation... no of course it isn’t. It’s a great two-and-a-half-minute fuck-you to the in-crowd kids who disdained them. ”We are tired of your abuse/ Try to stop us, its no use!” is made into a band chant. (There’s even the line “think they’re smart”!) As original singer Keith Morris (gone by this recording) put it: “We were going to make as large a racket, piss as many people off, go apeshit as we could, and we had no choice but to play to please ourselves and a handful of friends.” (Quote from Clinton Heylin’s 'Babylon’s Burning'.)

Its dedication to defiance is juvenile but awe-inspiring, risible but brilliant, cheesy but coruscating, petty but life-changing. All of which is completely punk. Punk’s blanket insistence that “you can do it” led to some pretty terrible efforts, if also some good stuff. But the truly great punk is good and terrible simultaneously. I laugh whenever I hear it, both at it and with it, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. “We are born with a chance/ I am going to have my chance.” What better messaged could you hope to hear in your teens?

MEMO FROM TURNER by Mick Jagger



I normally dislike posting a video link when the subject of enquiry is actually the song (remember them?), but this time there’s a method to my madness. Before music video was established, this song was stuck surrealistically in the middle of the cult film 'Performance' (in which Jagger starred). It fits the film so well it’s astonishing to hear it was an old demo, only utililised by Jagger after he failed to come up with anything new. Both compare and contrast the world of the rock star with the gangster in myriad ways, but let’s home in here on one more specific to the song.

It’s a sleazy blues number, typically sneered through and smeared with slide guitar. (Courtesy of Ry Cooder, this isn’t a Stones song.) Richie Unterberger describes it accurately enough as “spinning bizarre mini-snapshots of decadent, cruel gangster behavior...” However it also sets up a chronology, beginning with lowlife tussles “eating eggs in Sammy's... on a hot and dusty night” before leading up to grey executives “at the Coke convention, back in nineteen sixty-five.” (Then just three years ago.) Moreover, the personalised and conversationally familiar speech (“Didn't I see you down in San Antone..?”) is also juxtaposed with the more formal choruses (the repeated “Come now gentlemen...”).

Rock stars had once been outsiders, doing little more than providing a soundtrack to delinquency. No-one had been a better poster boy for bad-guy status than the young Stones. But by ’68 (when the first demo version of this song was laid down), the Beatles’ 'Sergeant Pepper' had happened and rock music was now relabelled Art. (It was reviewed in the Village Voice under the header ‘The Album As Art Form’.) Perhaps consequently, the Stones remained keen to play Altamont against the Beatles’ Woodstock.

Hence Jagger delivers the song suited from behind a desk, reminding his contemporaries (and quite likely himself) their roots lay in dives like Sammys rather than Coke conventions.

”Come now, gentlemen,
I know there's some mistake.
How forgetful I'm becoming,
now you fixed your business...
...straight.”


Less-than-PC lines like “you drowned that Jew in Rampton” would be the equivalent of reminding the Beatles of when, broke in Hamburg, they attempted to mug a sailor. There’s even a coded reference to the idea they might all be getting on a little - “When the old men do the fighting/ And the young men all look on”. (Which compounds with James Fox’s line to him in the film, “You’ll look funny when you’re forty.”)

Of course these days that’s hard to remember. There’s (to put it mildly) something of an irony in hearing Jagger warn about the corporatisation of rock music. (Or for that matter the redefining of rock music as art whilst starring in an art movie.) But perhaps we should treat it less as warning and more prediction.

"So, remember who you say you are,
and keep your noses clean...
"The baby's dead," my lady said.
You gentlemen, why, you all work for...
...me!"



Admission: With the above write-ups I seem to have taken the term ‘song’ quite prescriptively. Descriptions either don’t mention the music much at all, or explain how it illustrates the lyrics – like it lacked its own motivation. Its analogous to the way criticism about comics homes in on the writing, with the art just some kind of side-order. Like goes to like, and words go to words. Ah well...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

SEVEN (MORE) SONGS: Part One



Following a previous experiment, here’s seven more songs that have been “shaping my spirit” lately. (Or at least four of them, Part Two will follow... um... sometime.) You can listen to them via the Spotify link below. (If you don’t already have Spotify, you’ll have to download the player from here - don’t worry, it’s free!)

Lucid Frenzy Playlist



‘SURROUNDED BY THE STARS’ by Amon Düül II

I sometimes think there must have been something in the water in Seventies Germany, enabling the bands to take the standard American rock influences and make them their own. Take for example this track by the kozmische (don’t call them krautrock!) outfit Amon Duul II, opening their 1972 album Wolf City. In terms of lyrics and tone it’s clearly stealing a page from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, throwing a ‘straight’ into a world of weirdness then poking a stick at his struggling with some second-person denunciation. Like Jospeh K, you’re not quite sure what you’ve done to incite such disdain - which somehow makes it all the worse. It has both Dylan’s Carnivalesque Medievalism and his fixation with encountering archetypal figures (a streetsweeper, a clown, a cop, even his patented Napoleon)!

However, Dylan’s song harangued the unhip. (“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?”) AD II (as their fans call them) up the stakes by upping the scale, contrasting the puny human ego against the immensity of the universe. The song warrants its ‘kosmische’ tag, building things up with a cosmic sweep and majesty - dwarfing sunrises and unheeding “gates of night”. The title itself is a perfect reversal of the standard Science Fiction fixation with escape; here an unfamiliar universe is pressing in upon you.

As much as anything from American rock music, I associate it’s imagery with the new-look comics of this era, such as Metal Hurlant - with it’s “complex graphics, cinematic imagery and surreal storylines.” Though, typically, this comic magazine was French it may well have been available in neighbouring Germany. Both use science fiction as a springboard to the cosmic, with a hefty side-order of surrealism. (The song provides only one actual SF device, the ‘are-you-tired machine.’)

Renate Knaup-Krötenschwanz’s cold-as-Nico vocals are the icing on this grandest of gateaux; while Dylan still sounds part-combative there’s not a trace of antagonism in her serene and lofty disdain. She’s as aloof as the stars themselves, peering pitilessly down on our petty hubris. In particular, the musical surges around her declammatory cries of “sunrise” have an exquisitely epic feel.

This marks the band in their classic era, advancing from their original free-form jams (check out the title track of their first album Phallus Dei) to something more closely resembling structured songs. In his Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope called this a “transitional group, but somehow in a state of very inspiring flux.” Not that such a free-form spirit had departed, for instrumental breaks continually thrust themselves into proceedings as if vying with the vocals. But, rather than disrupt the song, the tension between the two actually makes it. The sudden leaping from one to the other not only adds to the disorienting unpredictability, the instrumentals erupting also creates a cosmic soundscape. (Singing about “the gates of night” is fairly ineffective if you don’t feel it from the music. Here I’m driven to imagine gargantuan King Kong doors, big enough to hold back the sun.)

Later, and sadly, this unhinged element would disappear and the perfect balance would be lost. You can see it even on the covers, which would abandon psychedelic freakshows for (yes really) airbrushed cars.

This review describes it well, as “Amon Düül II's tightest, most economical performance yet... For the first time, ADII seemed to base the songs around the vocal melodies instead of just working the vocals into instrumental passages... later albums would have slicker, more modern production values and the music itself would be more easily traceable to its influences.” (Let’s not get factional that those words come from a prog site!)

Finally, wasn’t that guitar opening ripped off for Here & Now’s ‘This Time’?

‘THE BALLAD OF THE SOLDIER’S WIFE’ by PJ Harvey

Songs aren’t heirlooms; you’re not obliged to sing them in the style they were recorded. To do a Brecht and Weill number, for example, you don’t need to put on a dodgy German accent or duplicate the original cabaret-style instrumentation. In fact a cover should always strike off in a new direction, or else it’s just a pale photocopy. But what you do need is to understand the spirit of the original, know where the song was in order to take it somewhere else where it’ll fit in.

Maria Friedman’s version for The Proms (back in September ’98) was jaunty & celebratory, the soldier’s wife receiving gift after gift as her husband travels and despoils Europe. Only in the last verse do things take a desultory tone, as the song draws towards its weighty conclusion. Conversely, Harvey sings the song almost emotionlessly, reciting the words in a near-monotone with the remorselessness of a ticking clock, against the sparest of backings.

Though the pared-down sound fits well after the grandeur of the AD II track, there’s more to it than segueing. The simple truth is that Harvey has it right and Friedman wrong. It’s not that the ‘twist’ is really quite obvious, that the final ‘gift’ is going to be the soldier’s body delivered back from the Russian front. It’s that the ‘twist’ is intended to be obvious, a conclusion foregone from the start. Like a public information film about playing with matches, there is no other way the song could possibly end. The point of the song is that it has a point, with everything else clearly designed around expressing that function. (At times Brecht even took this so far as to tell audiences the end of his plays at the very beginning, feeling anything else might lead to distraction.) Luvvie frills do not add, they distract from such a purpose.

Harvey’s version is from a tribute album to Weill. Like most of these things, its pretty patchy and uncohesive overall but has its highpoints. (William Burroughs’ closer is a joy!)

‘TIMES SQUARE’ by Marianne Faithfull

Of course this is one of those alcohol songs that isn’t actually about alcohol. However, how much it is about Faithfull’s own years as a heroin addict is at most marginally important. For one thing, she spent those years in London and addiction doesn’t lend itself to jet-setting. For another, the song’s not written by her but guitarist (and long-time collaborator) Barry Reynolds. At the most, it gives things an extra piquancy.

“Take a walk around Times Square
With a pistol in my suitcase
And my eyes on the TV.”


The song sums up a junkie’s life with successions of juxtaposed images - combining the constant feeling of danger with the perpetual sense of being on the periphery of things (“in a car taking a back seat”). Removed from society, at the mercy of both habit and dealer, you’re never actually in charge of your life. Times Square is both the notorious lowlife hangout in New York and a metaphor for the repetitiveness of the addict lifestyle – “take a walk around Times Square”, “standing in a circle”, reinforced by the repeated references to minutes and hours.

Yet unlike the Velvets’ ‘Heroin’, the circle may be unbroken in ways other than death. Like many songs the end is actually found in the beginning, for “watch 'Don't Walk' to 'Walk'” prefigures the detoxing. The last line, “staring at the ceiling” contrasts with the movie screen and the car window. This time you are share the space with what you see. But instead of the chorus returning the song ends suddenly and openly, less a triumph than an ellipse...

The ambiguity of this un-Hollywood non-ending is something of a masterstroke. Addictions are commonly described as never beaten, at most contained. Indeed, though we shouldn’t read the song too much as biography, Wikipedia suggests that her addiction hadn’t been entirely contained even at this point in her comeback.

This song first appeared on Faithfull’s 1983 album A Child’s Adventure, but this is a live version from the 1990 Blazing Away.

‘POOR OLD TOM’ by Richard Buckner

As I’ve argued before, the purpose of country music isn’t to galvanise you against the injustices of the world. It’s to induce in you the requisite resignation until you’re able endure this world as it is. Its like the slug of whiskey before the kitchen-table amputation.

Peter Case’s ‘Poor Old Tom’ would be a good case in point. Tom’s predicament is presented as a fait accompli; he’s broken before the song begins, the song’s built around learning how he got that way. One line mentions “typhoons and calms on the great Pacific”. I can’t help but think of the typhoons as Tom’s fractured fallibility (“at the drop of a coin he starts to ramble/ and the whole damn thing becomes a mystery”) and the calms as the points where the clouds start to part and we get to see what’s been going on. Some lines are so flatly descriptive they become almost comic – “he worked hard on board and got promoted/ he got VD but it went away.” The oft-repeated “poor old’ title becomes a perfect microcosm of this, in every instance hinting at a terrible problem yet at the same time reinforcing the diminutive term.

However, while not changing a word of this, Richard Buckner’s cover adds a whole new dimension. His delivery is the very opposite of insistent, each couplet closing with a descending tempo, like the song’s perpetually on the edge of ending. This is a tale that’s already done.

At the same time, to pursue the song’s nautical metaphor, the arrangement carries something of an undertow, swelling back up whenever the couplet seems closed. The song’s bookended with an agitated guitar sound, which would seem to suggest something far more expressive without it ever actually appearing. Buckner’s voice is also befitting – weary and mumbling, but with a touch of tremulousness. Between them these suggest an inchoate rage lurking under the surface of the song, threatening to break the surface but never quite coming forward.

Both versions deny this rage expression. But while Case demonstrates a rage-shaped hole which he defies us to fill, Buckner allows us to glimpse its shadow. Ironically this suggestion of rage makes it linger in the mind more than its actual expression would, we can’t help but wonder what have happened if it had reared itself above the waterline. (Case’s own version is on Spotify too, if you want to check this comparison out.)

“Poor old Tom, his story’s true
He’s got nothing to show
No-one to show it to
The word for him is nevertheless
He fought for freedom
Never took a free breath.”


Coming Up Next!: Something completely different. (Well three somethings, to be precise...)